I’m still sorting through emails from readers who wrote in offering up their experiences for the First Person series. The blessing and curse is that there are far too many to choose from. Over the next few weeks and months I’ll be featuring a variety of them, possibly bundled in theme weeks. (We have a lot of married writing teams and reality TV producers.)
The first article of this new batch comes from Allison Schroeder, a young-new-baby screenwriter who works in both features and television. She exemplifies something I’ve seen again and again: a career is shaped by talent, luck and very hard work. It’s like trying to start a campfire in a rainstorm. You can do it, but it takes persistence.
I don’t know Allison, but after reading her article, I realized how many friends and colleagues we had in common. When I asked about it, she wrote back:
Ironically, you’ve been there for a lot of my big moments probably without realizing it! That Career Fair where I met my mentor, you were one of the organizers. Al Gough’s birthday right before I was staffed on 90210. And Dara’s BBQ the week MG2 was greenlit. You’ve been good luck!
I don’t think it’s kismet or coincidence. She was putting herself in the right places for luck to happen. These were situations that wouldn’t have happened if she didn’t live in LA.
I’m a working writer in Los Angeles. Those are beautiful words to say. Now there’s a lot of doom and gloom rants, discouraging statistics and articles regarding women in the industry — if you want that, don’t look at me. I love being a female writer in Los Angeles!
Now like all love stories, there’s been some heartbreak and tears, some highs and lows, but rarely have I ever felt my gender was holding me back. In fact, at times, it’s helped me. Execs, producers, actors, and directors want to hear a unique voice that feels authentic. And I write quirky, strong female characters, often drawing from personal experience. One of my very first spec scripts Stickgirls — which I wrote as both a pilot and feature — followed two young teenagers, essentially a Stand By Me for girls. That sample led to my first staff writing position on the new 90210 and later to my first feature, Mean Girls 2. But before my big break, I worked, and worked hard as a PA, an assistant, and writer-for-free.
How it all started
I graduated from Stanford University for undergrad and after two years as a consultant, I returned to school at the University of Southern California for my MFA in the Film Production Program.
Everyone has a different opinion on film school; all of us who started together left USC with different impressions. Would I do it again? Yes. Why? First, I understand how a set works which helps a lot when I’m writing a screenplay as production nears. I know what the AD means when she asks for changes. Second, the alumni and my friends. I don’t have a manager, so my friends give me notes. I never turn in a script without someone reading it first. I call it the “stupid check” — as in, am I a talentless hack that will embarrass myself by turning in this draft? They say no, I breathe easier, and hit send.
After graduation, it took some time to find a job in the industry (I tutored during those months) but I finally landed as a PA on Pineapple Express. Everyone on the film was incredibly open to questions about the process, about writing. They honestly wanted to help me with my career – and I think this had a lot do with the fact I took pride in my job. I was the best damn grocery shopper they’d ever seen. Seriously.
I know writers who fear getting a job in the industry because they won’t have enough time to write. And I understand that, I do. But I feel that to work in the industry, you, well, need to work in the industry. Don’t be above getting people coffee!
My big break
During this time, I met a mentor at a USC Career Event. I started developing with him and his writing/producing partner. I wrote two pilots and a feature on spec, but the writer’s strike didn’t exactly help the odds of a sale.
I continued to work as an assistant, replying to a USC job posting and moving to Smallville as a Writers’s PA. Until one day, about a year later, I was manning my boss’ desk at Smallville and I got the call.
My mentor casually asked, “Hey, do you want to be a staff writer on 90210? We’re the new showrunners.”
Uh, yes please.
And that was it. I met with the network soon after; they read Stickgirls and approved me. I met with UTA that same day; they became my agents ten minutes after I walked out of the network meeting.
It happened “overnight.” Well, if “overnight” means after two years of hard work, building relationships, and endless writing.
People often want to know how much I wrote during my assistant years. In terms of time: many hours a week. In terms of material generated: two original pilots, one TV spec, two features, a novel, and a pile of tossed out pages. I meet many aspiring writers who haven’t finished a single script. That’s not going to be a path to success.
After that first job
I now work in both features and television.
After 90210, I created a pilot for MTV with Wilmer Valderrama, called Brooklyn Sound. It didn’t get picked up but it was a great experience. They had absolute faith in my abilities regardless of my gender or experience, and I will forever be grateful for that.
Compliments are far more rare than criticism in this industry. One of my successful writing friends (who I met when she was an assistant, I her intern) told me silence means you’re doing a good job. When I have self-doubt, I remind myself of that. No news is good news.
A lot of my scripts will never see the light of day. So when one’s actually greenlit, the game changes.
Budget, logistics, stunts, company moves, clearances, censorship can rapidly change a script. Coming from film school, I knew all the steps involved to make a script come to life. I had built sets, hung lights, set-up craft service, held the boom mic, loaded film, managed budgets, rented costumes. When I showed up on the Mean Girls 2 set (directed by the fabulous Melanie Mayron) and saw the lead character’s house decorated for Halloween, the gravity of the moment hit me.
I had written the words almost too casually: FLASHBACK – HALLOWEEN.
Which meant a team of art department geniuses had transformed the exterior of the house into a Halloween fantasy. As a screenwriter, you’re writing the blueprint for hundreds of people. It’s made me consider my words far more carefully as I write now. Am I giving enough information for all the departments? Am I clearly stating the tone, mood, and action of the scene for the director? Am I filling the silence?
Juggling paid work and spec work
After Mean Girls 2, I was hired for Mean Girls 3 and an MTV television movie. Plus I was developing a pilot and finishing the first draft of my spec feature. Ah multi-tasking!
A lot of my friends work in teams or focus on either television or features. I work alone and like to do both. So I make sure to prioritize according to deadline. I don’t miss deadlines. I am not late.
Many writers miss deadlines. Yes, we’re creating “art.” But this is business, a job, and I don’t take that lightly.
But I will call and ask for a few more days if I need them. I called MTV yesterday and said, “I could turn this in today but I feel this first act isn’t working.” The executive and I brainstormed for an hour, and I’m taking the week to do an overhaul. You want everything to be the best it can be, but I’m also mindful of their production schedule.
I’m still very much starting out my career. Which means I have to constantly be working on spec scripts — both features and pilots — to make people see me differently, hire me for something besides teen comedies. I have to be strategic, balancing assignment work and my own projects.
For personal projects, I normally send my agents a handful of ideas and they point me at the ones that might work. Because I don’t have a studio hounding me, it’s all about discipline.
Paid projects always take precedence, followed by projects that I’m doing for a specific production company or a producer that showed interest, followed by passion projects. My specs are always personal in some regard. Write what you know has worked well for me.
Sometime, your brain hurts from all the juggling. Switching from teenage slang to old Southern rhythms in my pilot, from two teen stories — one all about guys, one all about girls — plotlines could get confusing. But you manage. I alternated weeks on the teen stories based on deadlines. I wrote the pilot when my mind needed to jump into an alternate world. And then I took a break. After a massive writing spree, I need at least a week to decompress.
Where I go from here
My writing teacher at USC said this profession is a marathon, not a sprint.
I’m always looking for the next job. Always. As I move forward, I’m pushing myself to take chances. I don’t feel pigeonholed as a woman or a teen writer. I feel it’s up to me to write what I want to be hired for.
Here’s a little secret. Female action writers, especially in television, are in hot demand. So to continue to expand my writing career, I need to step outside my comfort zone. That doesn’t mean I plan to turn my back on teen work. I love it. It comes naturally to me. But to move to the next level, to theater-released features, to television development, I must continue to write new samples.
Writing my own work often takes longer than when I’m on assignment. One of my feature specs, I’ve been stuck on for years. It’s personal, it’s autobiographical, it’s hard to write. Other specs are finished within weeks. I try not to beat myself up too much, but there are dark days where I sit in my pajamas, stare at my cats (no judgement please) and wallow.
I am only allowed to wallow for twenty-four hours. It’s a rule. Then I have to get back at it.
And no matter what the project, when I write, you can always hear my voice — maybe not literally in all cases, but my sarcasm here, my Southern roots there, even a line or moment of dream fulfillment.
My biggest obstacle to overcome as I move forward has less to do with outside forces, and more to do with me vs. the blank page. I have a poster that reads: “Type or Die.” That pretty much sums it up.