Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With Laurie Scheer Part 2

A series of interviews with hard working writers – by another hard-working writer!

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Aspiring writers often wonder how industry pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence and hard work.

Today we continue our visit with Laurie Scheer, a former VP of Programming for WE: Women’s Entertainment. She has worked as an assistant, d-girl, and producer for ABC, Viacom, Showtime, and AMC-Cablevision. Laurie has been an instructor at universities across the U.S. from UCLA to Yale and is currently part of the faculty at UW-Madison’s Continuing Studies Writing Department. As an advocate for writers, Laurie shares insights from her years of working with both professional and aspiring writers.

WHAT ARE THE BIG MISTAKES YOU SEE WRITERS MAKING?

The biggest mistake is the fear of success. I will see the talent in a script and this happened to me constantly at the network. This script is great. I can’t wait to get this thing made, however, we just need to change a slight subplot because we can’t shoot it in one place. It’s not going to change the story, we just need a couple of scenes changed.

It’s going to take the writer a couple of days, maybe an afternoon. And weeks will go by. “Hey did you get to that?” “No, I didn’t get to it.” And you realize that they know all they have to do is that very little thing and that script is going to go. But there’s this fear of success among professional writers and aspiring writers. I see it all the time and it’s just a shame.

And I can see the person’s talent is really, really good, but in their own minds, they’re so scared, they’re so afraid that it’s actually going to go to pilot. Then what? Their entire life changes. I think they have to be ready for success or ready to move to the next step.

WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A WRITER?

I know it’s so overused, but passion, genuine passion. There’s a difference. You can tell when someone is just trending, just looking at what might be happening and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, yeah I’ve got the next great whatever it is.”

I really think when someone has a combination of passion and intelligence about what the market is. It isn’t just a naive passion, there’s that level of authenticity that just shines through certain scripts and projects.

WHAT CAN WRITERS DO TO SET THEMSELVES APART?

They really have to have a brand. I know it’s sort of become a cliché and everybody says it, but we truly have to understand why your story about the Alaskan wilderness and a journey that was taking place there is better than, different than, more effective than, more compelling than the other 2 or 3 that I have on my desk at the same time. So the person who has their brand down, understands who they are, presents themself in that professional manner, is going to be more appealing and someone I want to work with than the person who’s just submitting another script on this topic.

Again it goes back to that passion, that you can tell if a person is really constructing this from that point of I want to resonate to the audience versus I want to write this to make a lot of money, and nothing wrong with that.  If it’s a commercial project, that sometimes is the project that goes. But a writer on their own can differentiate themselves from others by doing quality work, presenting the project with a brand that I’m going to remember.

You want to get to the point where, often we need writers to rewrite projects and so if you’ve presented that wildlife type of topic, the next time, 6 months down the road, two years, whatever that I get a project in, but it needs to be rewritten, I know I can call that person. It’s like oh, yeah, she’s the one who’s really good on this, I have to get her to do that rewrite. That’s the point you want to get to as a writer.

WHAT CAN WRITERS DO TO BE MORE PREPARED FOR THE DEVELOPMENT PROCESS?

I think going to conferences like the conferences at Screenwriters World Conference West, and listening to the panels and understanding what development people do, I think it’s really good for them to be exposed to why your script is being rejected. Why your characters aren’t working. And they start to understand the process, so they understand the person they’re pitching to hears 12 to 15 to 20 pitches a day. Put yourself on the other side of the table. I know writing scripts, it’s not easy, but it’s also not easy for the executive who has the pressure of the budget, of is it going to make money, are we gonna look like an idiot if we produce this idea.

They can only green light a certain amount of projects so your script really has to be ready to go or near to that. And if you’re exchanging even that pitch with them or a meeting, they’re going to remember you. It’s that 6 degrees of separation thing where all right, not now, but I remember this writer and she was really great and her project was good, but it wasn’t what we needed. I hope she comes back. I hope she queries again or calls or emails because I’d like to see whatever she has next and that really does happen.

WHAT OTHER ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING WRITERS

If you can find even on Craigslist where someone shooting a web series or they’re shooting an independent film, volunteering to help them rewrite their script or work with them if they’re open to that because then it’s produced. You can then use that as I helped to script doctor this project. You’re not going to get any money, but you’re going to get that opportunity to rewrite something.

I think reading scripts is a really good thing to do. It’s not writing, but you’re reading other people’s work and you can see and compare yourself.

And the formatting is really important. A lot of my students, a lot of young writers are just, “Oh, I don’t have to do that.” But it is so important that your format is exactly the way it should be, because it shows your level of professionalism. The minute you read something that doesn’t have that, you can tell.

ANY OTHER THOUGHTS?

The words that you have, the information, the scripts that you have, it’s going to help someone down the way.   Don’t give up.  Keep writing.

Laurie’s book The Writer’s Advantage: A Toolkit for Mastering Your Genre explores ways to preserve good storytelling within the 21st century transmedia marketplace and helps writers to prepare and develop their projects.

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With Laurie Scheer

A series of interviews with hard working writers – by another hard-working writer!

IMG_3409

by Kelly Jo Brick

Aspiring writers often wonder how industry pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence and hard work.

Today we explore another aspect of the industry with a true advocate for writers, Laurie Scheer, a former vice president of programming for WE: Women’s Entertainment. She has worked as an assistant, d-girl, and producer for ABC, Viacom, Showtime, and AMC-Cablevision. Laurie has been an instructor at universities across the U.S. from UCLA to Yale and is currently part of the faculty at UW-Madison’s Continuing Studies Writing Department, Director of their annual Writer’s Institute and Managing Editor of the The Midwest Prairie Review Journal.

WHAT DREW YOU TO THIS INDUSTRY?

I grew up in the Midwest. It’s very cold there. There’s not a lot to do there in the winter. I’m an only child and I just had a lot of time to myself. I loved watching episodic television and listening to music. It just dawned on me, I want to work in this industry. I want to be behind the scenes of a television show or behind the scenes of a music group or something like that.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY?

My first entry-level job was as an assistant to the Manager of Dramatic Development at ABC Entertainment in Century City. It was a secretary job. I got the job because I knew how to type.

They had two jobs open, comedy development and dramatic development. I didn’t know what either one was. I just thought, you know, comedy that’s going to be really simple. Drama’s gonna be a lot more complicated. There’s going to be lots of character development. So I just went with drama. It didn’t pay much but it was absolutely wonderful and within 6 months on that job I learned more than I did in my 4 years of college.

WHAT CAME NEXT FOR YOU?

I stayed at ABC a couple years in that position and that sort of started that don’t stay at the same job for more than two years. You can move within a company, you can move to another company, but essentially the thought was don’t stay in the same job for two years. Start looking.

So ABC at the time was opening up a movie division, ABC Motion Pictures, and they needed someone. Again an assistant, but it was a higher assistant in Marketing. So I went then to Marketing and I learned a lot about marketing and marketing of films, not television series. So already within my first three or four years I was starting to span between television and film and I started to realize that I have to hone this down. What am I going to do? Do I like television? Do I like film?

That position lead then to a new pilot that was being made and I thought, “Oh I’ll try production.” And they gave me the job, which was very lovely because I had already proven myself. Many people wanted this job as a Production Assistant making next to nothing, 12 to 16 hour days, an unbelievable amount of work and I took it.

That was on a show called Moonlighting, which was Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd and I lasted for 6 episodes. I did not like production at all. That was not for me, but I’m glad I did it because I learned a lot.

Then I heard about a job at Viacom in story, back to development, story analyst. I was fortunate enough to get it and then that was 10 more years at Viacom.

At that time Sumner Redstone had purchased Viacom, so we had been developing shows for NBC, for ABC, for the networks, but then because MTV, Showtime, Nickelodeon and VH1 were under the umbrella of Viacom, they came to us because we had been developing shows traditionally and those networks were not developing first run shows yet.

So we started to look at a lot of content for those networks, in which I was so fortunate because I was developing things like Real World, Rugrats and Ren and Stimpy, just an amazing amount of stuff, a lot of Showtime shows and movies and also acquisitions. So that developed into learning a lot about cable and I moved up from story analyst to manager, Director of Development.

WHAT’S THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED?

One of the best pieces of advice was that I was feeling intimidated because I had come from the Midwest and here I was working in this Development Department with 4 or 5 extremely intelligent, at least to me they seemed very intelligent, very distinguished people. They had been already developing all these shows and here I am, I’m just sort of, I really don’t know what’s going on.

And I would often feel kind of intimidated and my boss at the time, a wonderful woman, said, “What do you think? What do you think about this particular pilot?”   And I’m like, “You’re asking me?” And she said, “Yes, I’m asking you because you have watched more television than anybody else in the department. You’re from the Midwest. You’ve probably watched television.”

And she was right. I had watched more television. I knew what was going on in the middle of the country. I knew how people really watched TV. They were in those offices already, sort of an ivory tower kind of thing where they had lost that reality.

So the best advice was for her to shift that, for her to make me realize that yeah, I did know. In an unusual way, I definitely did know more than they did. And that helped. That gave me confidence.

COMING FROM A BACKGROUND IN DEVELOPMENT, WHAT GENERAL ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING WRITERS?

If you’re a writer you’re going to keep writing and so I encourage everyone, don’t give up. Get your voice out there. You’re going to resonate to someone.

Coming Soon: Laurie shares insights from her years working with professional and aspiring writers.

Laurie’s book The Writer’s Advantage: A Toolkit for Mastering Your Genre explores ways to preserve good storytelling within the 21st century transmedia marketplace and helps writers to prepare and develop their projects.