Writing and the Creative Life: “Get a mentor”

I recently interviewed Jason Mark Hellerman, a young screenwriter who had a major breakthrough when his original screenplay “Shovel Buddies” placed high on the 2013 Black List. As a result of that, Jason has signed with a major agency and management company, and been busy with meetings across Hollywood.

My final question to Jason was this: What advice can you offer to aspiring screenwriters about learning the craft and breaking into Hollywood? Jason’s response was immediate. He said:

Get a mentor. Get someone who knows more than you and trust that person. If you can get that, you’re ahead of the game.

In Jason’s case, he found several mentors: teachers from his graduate film school education, movie producers in Hollywood, even a group of fellow writers who critique each others’ writing.

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However what if you can’t move to Los Angeles? What if you don’t have the means to go to film school? How do you go about finding mentors then, especially professionals who know the business and know the craft, and are willing to share their insights with aspiring writers?

Well, there’s this lil’ ol’ thing known as the Internet and that is a fine place to start. Consider some of these blogs:

John August: “A ton of useful information about screenwriting from screenwriter John August.” The granddaddy of screenwriting blogs by one of Hollywood’s top writers.

The Bitter Script Reader: “The advice and rantings of a Hollywood script reader tired of seeing screenwriters make the same mistakes, saving the world from bad writing one screenplay at a time. Learn what it takes to get your script past one of these mythical Gatekeepers.”

Ken Levine: “Named one of the BEST 25 BLOGS OF 2011 by TIME Magazine. Ken Levine is an Emmy winning writer/director/producer/major league baseball announcer. In a career that has spanned over 30 years Ken has worked on MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, THE SIMPSONS, WINGS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, BECKER, DHARMA & GREG, and has co-created his own series including ALMOST PERFECT starring Nancy Travis. He and his partner wrote the feature VOLUNTEERS.”

Steven Pressfield: “Steven Pressfield is a screenwriter who is also known as an author of fiction (Gates Of Fire, Legend of Bagger Vance, The Last Amazon, The Profession) and, most especially, as an author of books about writing (The War Of Art, Turning Pro, The Authentic Swing).”

Doug Richardson: “Doug Richardson (Die Harder, Bad Boys, Money Train, Welcome To Mooseport, Hostage) is a well-regarded studio screenwriter. His blog chronicles the screenwriting process in a way that’s both entertaining and educational — it’s a rare glimpse into the creative process and lifestyle of a top screenwriter. His movies have grossed more than $800M and he just published his third novel, Blood Money.”

WordPlay: Site started many years ago by prolific screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Shrek, Aladdin, Godzilla, The Mask Of Zorro, Antz, Pirates Of The Carribean). The columns archive is worth the price of admission by itself.

Then there are podcasts:

Nerdist Writer’s Panel: “I am Chris Hardwick. I am on TV a lot and have a blog at nerdist.com. This podcast is basically just me talking about stuff and things with my two nerdy friends Jonah Ray and Matt Mira, and usually someone more famous than all of us. Occasionally we swear because that is fun. I hope you like it, but if you don’t I’m sure you will not hesitate to unfurl your rage in the ‘reviews’ section because that’s how the Internet works.”

Scriptnotes: Hosted by John August and Craig Mazin.

The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith: For years, Jeff has interviewed screenwriters and filmmakers, and continues to do so today. He also is publisher of Backstory magazine for iPad.

Broken Projector: Hosted by movie journalist Scott Beggs and screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe.

Chicks Who Script: Hosted by Emily Blake, Maggie F. Levin, and Lauren Schecher.

Each of these offer wisdom on a weekly, even daily basis. Quality advice and insight from professional writers. For free.

If you want your wisdom in small sound bites, check out the series of Vines by screenwriter-director Brian Koppelman.

And that brings to mind perhaps the best resource of all: Twitter. There are so many screenwriters, TV writers and filmmakers who are active tweeters. The great thing is you can actually communicate with pro writers on this platform. Well, at least send tweets their way. They may or may not respond. But if you’ve given yourself enough time (several months) to discvern the ins and outs of what is proper Twitter etiquette and you show yourself to be smart, creative and — this is helpful — have a sense of humor in your 140 character tweets, you can actually interface with a pro. What’s more, it seems like every other day, one or more of them goes off on a rant about the craft or business. Who to follow? A good place to start is my follow list: @GoIntoTheStory. You can check it here. And if you aren’t following, do it now!

Finally, there’s Go Into The Story. In August, I’ll be doing a month-long daily series spotlighting 31 resources this blog has which you can use to find all sorts of wisdom about the craft. With 15K+ posts, there’s a lot here.

Moreover if you need advice, you can email me as I do my best to respond to everyone. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’ve never been more well-connected to Hollywood than I am now, even compared to when I was living in Los Angeles. Plus I do have the benefit of approaching three decades in the business.

Bottom line: If you’re looking for wisdom, go first to professional writers who have worked in Hollywood and know what they’re talking about. Beware of so-called experts and gurus who mainly shill books, seminars, DVDs, software programs, consulting services, and the like. Simple test: If they’ve never written and sold something to a notable Hollywood buyer or gotten a movie produced, why trust their judgment?

Besides with all of the legitimate professional writers and filmmakers interfacing with the public online offering all of that free wisdom, it just makes sense to go there first.

Who knows. You might find yourself a mentor.

Writing and the Creative Life is a series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

[Originally posted July 31, 2014]

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