5 Things Being a Hollywood Assistant Taught Me About Writing
*With the mysterious internet blackout last week, we weren't able to post. Apologies! We're back.
Most writers have day jobs, which feed into their writing. Every Friday I’ll be asking a writer what unexpected lessons their day job has taught them about the craft.
Today, friend/former classmate/awesome screenwriter Sophie Dab kindly agreed to share some lessons she's learned about writing while working for some of the biggest networks in the TV biz.
Sophie Dab is a Creative Executive by day and a screenwriter by night. She graduated from the Peter Stark Program at USC and worked as an assistant at a major TV network before being named as one of the country’s top screenwriters on the 2016 Young and Hungry List, compiled by the Tracking Board.
Lesson #1: Learn How to Hear/Receive Notes
I have been surprised at how argumentative some of the notes sessions have turned, with the writer actually giving notes on the notes received right on the spot. I understand you might not like what you're hearing, or that you disagree. However, the notes call (often with the Head of a Creative Department or even the Head of a Network) is not the time and place to do it. I've heard notes that I thought were not good but once I took time away from it and revisited a script, I realized the note was not wrong but actually helpful. I'm not saying all notes are good. It's never about actually making all the exact changes the producer, network, studio or manager is telling you. It's about this idea of "the note behind the note." If you don't agree with the note or the fix, try to think about what motivated the note, what's bumping for them and how to fix it. If after some time thinking about it you still disagree or have trouble with it, you have an executive dedicated to the project that you can call and talk to one on one.
Lesson #2: It's Not Just About Writing
It's also about understanding what needs to be achieved for your script to become a reality. There is something pure about writing a script, coming up with your own ideas and your story and characters and making the whole thing your own. But then inevitably, others have to be involved. And it's about not having the attitude of "all the people are ruining my script" but rather how to work together and compromise so that you can stay true to your story and what you're trying to say, while realistically getting it made. The best writers I've worked with have an understanding of how the business works and how production works. Because the whole process starts with a script and rests on it but depends on a lot of other things. Be savvy.
Lesson #3: Your Idea Is Probably Not As Original As You Think
One of the biggest surprises in my years here is how similar ideas tend to pop up around the same time from the general consciousness or the zeitgeist. If you think "Why hasn't a show been made about this," chances are many people tried but it never got far enough because people were facing a similar struggle. Border shows and Mega Church shows are only two examples from my first few years working. I always wondered why it had not been touched and then as I started working I realized it had been attempted a lot, and a couple were made but did not particularly succeed. I'm not saying abandon your idea. This should be freeing rather than limiting. It's all about execution. Yes, the idea is important but your way of executing it, the world you create, the characters you bring to life, the stakes that you make for them. That's what really makes your show good. Vince Gilligan didn't know what WEEDS was while he was developing BREAKING BAD and was horrified when it was brought up as he was pitching his show around. He says that he didn't think he would have gone ahead had he known, just based on the similarity of the ideas, but when you see the finished product they don’t have a whole lot in common.
Lesson #4: A TV Show Is Not One Long Film
I get a lot of submissions from film writers (or even producers) that are struggling in that space and want to move to TV. I hear you, TV is fantastic. However, they are not the same medium of storytelling. Don't be lazy. Don't send a feature script and say you have a great idea to adapt it into a TV show. Films tend to focus on a specific story with a beginning, middle and end. Televisions shows are about a world and characters in it that you want to follow for an undetermined number of episodes. I'm not saying you need to deliver an in-depth bible with five seasons laid out. But you need to see the potential of stories that could come up as you're reading the pilot. I'm not saying no film can be successfully adapted as a television show, just that they are not one and the same. You need to understand that in order to fully comprehend what it means to write for TV, and what it means to write for film. Miniseries are a different subject.
Lesson #5: Every Show That Gets Made Is A Miracle. No, Really
I feel like most writers know that. But it really is true, and the same goes for films. The difference between the number of projects in development and the projects that actually see the light of day is staggering. And most of it is out of the writer's hands. Don't be discouraged, don't give up. Just write the best version of what you want to say, put it out there, listen to people willing to help you along the way, collaborate, compromise, be nice. Learn that you can't control everything and let go of that while focusing on the things that you can do to help your projects (unfortunately there is no magic recipe for this one).