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