I Want to Be a Hollywood Screenwriter

Dear Ex-Bitter:

I’m a third-year at a big Chicago firm.  It’s okay; I don’t think I’m on the verge of getting fired.  But I really want to get into screenwriting.  I’ve read about lots of lawyers becoming TV writers (on this site and elsewhere).  But how do you do it?  What’s the first step?  Do you need to go back to school?  Do you need to live in LA?  Any help here would be appreciated? 

Cheers!

You want to be a writer, huh?  Well, the honest truth is: There’s no easy way to do it.  Unlike law, there’s no roadmap for success.  There’s no stable, risk-free path you can walk.  You just have to do it and see what the hell happens. 

Going back to school is a waste of time—unless you’re independently wealthy and can afford to screw around for a few years and covet another useless degree to talk about at cocktail parties.

The simple truth is that writers write.  That’s it.  That’s what they do.  So if you have a desire deep in your bones and want to be a screenwriter, do it.  Buy a book on screenwriting by Robert McKee or William Goldman and get after it. 

And yes, you have to live in LA.  If you actually want to work, that is.  Like it or not, that’s the hub of the entertainment business. 

But before you head west, read this poem by Bukowski.  No one has ever answered the question you just posed better than he.

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you

in spite of everything,

don’t do it.

unless it comes unasked out of your

heart and your mind and your mouth

and your gut,

don’t do it.

if you have to sit for hours

staring at your computer screen

or hunched over your

typewriter

searching for words,

don’t do it.

if you’re doing it for money or

fame,

don’t do it.

if you’re doing it because you want

women in your bed,

don’t do it.

if you have to sit there and

rewrite it again and again,

don’t do it.

if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,

don’t do it.

if you’re trying to write like somebody

else,

forget about it.

if you have to wait for it to roar out of

you,

then wait patiently.

if it never does roar out of you,

do something else.

if you first have to read it to your wife

or your girlfriend or your boyfriend

or your parents or to anybody at all,

you’re not ready.

don’t be like so many writers,

don’t be like so many thousands of

people who call themselves writers,

don’t be dull and boring and

pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-

love.

the libraries of the world have

yawned themselves to

sleep

over your kind.

don’t add to that.

don’t do it.

unless it comes out of

your soul like a rocket,

unless being still would

drive you to madness or

suicide or murder,

don’t do it.

unless the sun inside you is

burning your gut,

don’t do it.

when it is truly time,

and if you have been chosen,

it will do it by

itself and it will keep on doing it

until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.

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Ex-Bitter is a former big firm lawyer who now doles out advice to anyone who asks. Got a question? Email it to advice@bitterlawyer.com. Or read more Advice from an Ex-Bitter.

19 Comments

  1. Traveling xBL3Y

    March 5, 2010 at 3:20 am

    Great post, I really enjoyed that.

  2. Alma Federer

    March 5, 2010 at 3:38 am

    When I was in college, my English professor told me I could be in movies.  I didn’t think much about it because he was trying to hit on me.  But when I took Civil Procedure in Law School, the professor told me that I should look into being a legal commentator at the local tv station.  Again, I think he was trying to get me to sleep with him, and he was gross.  So now, the executive partner at my firm (about 70 years old I think) says he can get me in as a guest political commentator on cable news.  There are people I know who watch that and I am not that politically saavy, though I do read the NY Times every day.  He figures that I can have pre-canned questions thrown over to me and I could handle it.  From there, he says the sky is the limit.  I am seriously considering doing this because he says this would be great exposure for me.  I am afraid though that I will lose all of my legal skills that I have worked so hard to master in the last 7 years.  I do not think I want to do this, although I so much respect and would love to be the next Katie Couric.

  3. BL1Y

    March 5, 2010 at 6:27 am

    “Unlike law, there’s no roadmap for success.  There’s no stable, risk-free path you can walk.” As if law had a stable, risk-free path?  As for writing, an MFA actually can be useful, if you go to a program that has really good professors.  Unlike law school where you learn useless theory, in creative writing programs you do nothing but practice writing.  While you’re working on your script, start doing freelance writing anywhere you can (BitterLawyer takes submissions!) so that you can build up some credentials.  It doesn’t matter how great your script is if no one reads it.  The better your literary resume, the more likely you are to get a close read by someone who counts.  And, most importantly, write something you can sell.  A 75,000 word hard boil detective novel might be a good start.

  4. BL1Y

    March 5, 2010 at 6:36 am

    Also, read.  Read everything you can get your hands on that’s in the genre you want to write in.  Some writers claim they don’t want to be influenced by other writers, but really, the more you read, the more you learn about what works.  Also, if you spot a passage in a book you really like, open up MS word and retype it once or twice.  Writing it out yourself makes you thin differently about word choice, pacing, etc.  It helps you discover the mechanics that make that particular passage work.  Did I mention my undergrad had a fantastic creative writing program?

  5. Anon

    March 5, 2010 at 7:52 am

    Great post.  Cool poem too.  As for BL1Y… Dude, you miss the point once again.  In law, there’s a path–go to a great school, get great grades, you get a great job.  yoo might lose that great job if the economy sucks—or you suck.  but there’s a path.  in screenwriting, there really isn’t an equivalent path.  sure, an mfa is cool, but no one cares.  trust me, i’m an agent.  my job is to get screenwriters work.  no one asks where you went to school, what you’re grades are… they just want talent.

  6. Hollywood Joe

    March 5, 2010 at 8:10 am

    I agree with Anon.  Terrific post.  Writers write.  Great line.  And it’s true.  And yes, the Bukowski poem is gold.  The thing about writing is… You have to do it because you can’t not do it.  It’s not about money or stability, it’s about writing.  That’s the point this writer ex-bitter was trying to make, i think.  Even if he wasn’t, the Bukowski poem says it all.  Anyway, that’s enough– Time to finish my screenplay!

  7. Cheryl

    March 5, 2010 at 9:50 am

    COme on, BL1Y.  There’s a road map in law.  It’s not risk-free, but you can see avenues and path in front of you and know what’s possible.  I think Mr. Bitter overlooked that yes, it’s all about talent #1.  But there’s a crapload of cosmic luck that goes into an entertainment career too.

  8. Traveling xBL3Y

    March 5, 2010 at 10:13 am

    by the way, i loved Throw Momma from the Train.  there, i said it.

  9. Jaded

    March 5, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Also, if you really want to be a screenwriter, pray for another WGA strike in Hollywood (maybe sacrifice a virgin while you’re at it).  There was a substantial amount of scab work to be had during the last one (all you had to do is look on Craigslist to see a number of ads looking for scabs to help finish scripts).
    Here’s a video from the strike for sh*** and giggles (and to give you an idea how many people really want to be a writer): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvAD9R0chjU
    P.S. Be prepared to be a cliché as you spend your days writing a screenplay in a Coffee Bean in LA.

  10. Craig

    March 5, 2010 at 10:25 am

    Excellent poem.

  11. BL1Y

    March 5, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    Anon, Hollywood Joe: Reading comprehension fail.  I never said there wasn’t a path.  I said it wasn’t stable and risk-free as the article implies.  Good luck on the LSAT.

  12. BL1Y

    March 5, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    Frack.  Fail on my part.  Meant Anon and Cheryl.  Sorry Joe.  Been out in the sun too long today.

  13. Hollywood Joe

    March 5, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    BL1Y: Thanks for being such a tool.  Re LSAT, no need.  Took it years ago– did really well too.

  14. Borsha8

    March 5, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    awesome post with some good advice. how does someone miss the point??

  15. Smurf

    March 5, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    If that’s a poem, I don’t know what a poem is.

  16. lawstud2

    March 5, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Poem = good advice

  17. Philadelphia Lawyer

    March 6, 2010 at 11:40 am

    Bukowski’s right.  It’s an addictive thing.  And I don’t think you can learn it.  I still don’t know how to do it, or where any of the shit I’ve written comes from.  Just kind of flows.
    Doing it for money’s madness. It’s not even close to lucrative. And doing it because you think it’ll be unlike a common, pedestrian trade like law is even bigger folly.  Bukowski never made much money, and he sold a whole lot of books. If you want to make money writing, you have to offer a product that appeals to the masses to make a name for yourself, and that requires a businessman’s analysis of the marketplace, and a cold decision to “dumb it down” and aim for the broadest market.  You can do all the Velvet Underground records you like… After you get famous putting out some Nickelback. 
    Or you can write it the way you want and let the chips fall as they will.  Just understand, that costs a lot of money.  I don’t even like to think how many sales we lost because of my decision to go with “Arrested Development” humor over “How I Met Your Mother” level stuff. 
    And if you write a book and they turn it into a TV script, Don’t Look at what they’ve done.  Don’t try to read it or understand.  Just know it’ll barely resemble what you did, and that they know better than you.  It’s a business, and your vision is probably not the average Joe Sixpack’s.

  18. Guano Dubango

    March 6, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    I wrote a screen play in my home country, but there was no interest in producing it.  Even my Aunt Ooona, who has plenty of money, did not want to lay out the cash to have someone in Accra recruit local talent to produce it.  As a result, I too, am a frustrated Stephen Speelburgh, and have to rely on my income from the law to support me.

  19. Philadelphia Lawyer

    March 6, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    I’d add this to Bukowski’s poem:
    If you write primarily in passive voice, don’t do it.

    If you have to use the Thesaurus once a paragraph, don’t do it.

    If you’re interested in writing accurately, Be Careful. 
    That last one sounds odd, right? It’s not. Writing’s putting things into narrative form, and narratives require you to create a design out of what we all know is largely a set of chaotic events.  The truth of reality is most of it’s random, or subjective near-flip-of-the-coin decisions. Humans, however, don’t like to read that.  They want writers to assemble and organize it for them, and if possible, at the end, offer them reinforcement, or at minimum, a tie-out of the “arc” of the story. And they also want judgment. Hell hath no fury like a reader looking for catharsis or “enlightenment” handed a narrative with a “Who knows why anything happens?” Seinfeld-like ending. One of the greatest prose stylists of the 20th Century elegantly noted, “the desperate assumption that somebody—or at least some force—is tending the Light at the end of the tunnel” is but an “old mystic fallacy.” It’s true, and the more you write, the more that will be apparent.  Problem is, few people want to read that… Most want Mitch Albom to tell them to “have a little faith.”

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