Today in our "Getting Started" series, screenwriter / television writer Xandy Sussan stops by to talk to us about screenwriting. Whether you're looking for a way to freelance in fiction or you simply want to pursue a screenplay or teleplay as a creative side project, there are some things you should know before jumping in.
Here's what Sussan had to say:
On How She Started in Screenwriting / Writing for Television ...
"I had a day job working for the story editor / producer on an animated series as his writer’s assistant. As soon as I found out there were freelance slots open, I went in with 10 premises and pitched to him. I sold three in the room, wrote them, and got into the Writer’s Guild. It seems so simple when I read how it happened to me, but those three sentences took 5 years of plugging away, working for pennies on the dollar, skimping and starving to achieve my goal. But, ultimately, I did and when I saw my name up there, when I held my WGA card in my hand, it was all totally worth it. "
On Needing Specialized Education or Experience Before Starting...
"I went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts’ Dramatic Writing Program, and I graduated with a dual BFA in Television and Screenwriting. When I first graduated from NYU, it seemed like that was enough. “Oh, she must be great, she went to NYU…” but it turned out that where I went to school was really of little relevance. NYU had me believing that “they” (the producers of the world) were handing out sit-coms at LAX to every New York transplant. That just wasn’t true.
While being an NYU grad helped people recognize I had some worth and an excellent education, the only thing that really mattered, as far as my screenwriting was concerned, was what was on the page. And if my samples weren’t impressive, the door was closed to me.
The only education that really helped me progress was doing. By producing an indie film in 1999, I learned I knew nothing. I didn’t know my ass from my elbow, but when you’re in charge of a 20 person crew and they’re all looking to you for the answers, you learn on the job. Screenwriting is the same. You don’t get to be a better writer by only doing it once. It takes years to develop a voice, a style, a concise and inventive way to tell a story that is both marketable and innovative. That comes with practice."
On How Writers can get Started in Screenwriting & Writing for Television...
"How I started was a total accident and something that couldn’t be repeated again one in a thousand times in a lab. I moved to LA from NYC with $2500, a dog and two suitcases, and didn’t realize that my plan for Hollywood greatness was completely filled with flaws. I had no plan, which was the problem. I had three contacts, some basic street smarts and an NYU Screenwriting BFA. It didn’t occur to me I would need more, not being the progeny of a well-connected picture family. But I did.
I had many weird jobs; I sold shoes, was a phone psychic (I was actually pretty good), and then I got a production job as a receptionist on a television series. I met a writer’s assistant who told me that she temped when things were slow. She gave me the name of her temp lady. The show was cancelled two weeks later and three weeks after that I was temping at Saban Entertainment. I got my first “writing” job there, writing kids’ jokes for a game they were marketing. I was paid $500 for 1000 jokes, that plus my salary. I felt like a millionaire.
I went on to temp for a brief time at Universal in marketing, but they weren’t quite about me. I then went to Warner Bros. TV Animation to fill in because a writer’s assistant had become a writer and they needed someone who could “type under pressure.” My one week assignment turned into the start of my career. I got an agent while working at Warner Bros, I got a writing partner, I got many opportunities to pitch and be mentored, and when the time was right, I got my first job. But it was, what I like to call “a confluence of positivity;” a fancy way of saying “right place at the right time.”
But if I were to do it over again, I’d probably do it the same. I’m not a good planner. I’m sort of “It’ll work out” kind of gal, a fly by the seat of her pants life adventurer. If you are looking to not live every moment on the edge and want something more stable, then I would think things through. You have to make a living to support your writing habit. It’s going to take a while for you to break in and start making money, if you ever even get to. So, figure out what you can do and do it, all while plugging away to make sure you achieve your dream. Tenacity is the biggest hurdle for the new LA screenwriter. If you can keep going, even through the lean times, and still have to tell stories just to scratch that burning itch to communicate, then you’ll make it."
On Things Prospective Screenwriters & TV Writers Should Know...
"You are you and you’re not anyone else. I know that sounds like “high talk” but it’s serious. Wanting to be a Hollywood screenwriter means that you no longer can measure your life based on someone else’s yardstick. I don’t care about your mother’s friend’s daughter Susie who is a lawyer now, with 2.5 kids, a house with a yard and is making $150 K a year. Susie isn’t a screenwriter. Her life’s achievements are ticked off differently than ours. My parents can’t understand why it’s still so hard for me to get work, when I’ve already been produced. I explain to them, it’s not for lack of effort. I do something everyone in the world wants to do and thinks they can do better. If I had put this much effort into being a NASA scientist, I’d have colonized Mars by now. But there’s only so many shows, and there are so many writers, writers better than me, writers worse than me, writers better connected than me. You’re most likely not always going to get the job. When you get the job it’s great. You need to decide what matters to you, find your own path and get it done. It’s not a lifestyle for everyone, but if it’s for you, then you can’t care what other people think. Just do your best writing every day, strive to improve, never give up and you’ve already succeeded.
Also, I did learn that all the best networking in the world isn’t going to make money come through the door, if your script isn’t spectacular. I feel the work is the most important thing. Do no write checks your ass can’t cash. You can’t talk yourself up as the greatest screenwriting talent in the world and not have a single sample to show someone. You should have a sample in every genre, because people are weird and they might need to see something specific. For example, my portfolio has some multi-purpose specs, but I wrote one for almost every hit show (Entourage, Two and a Half Men, My Name is Earl, Drawn Together, The Office) my first sample was a Mad About You. I found it recently when I moved. I cringed fearing it was terrible, but it was typo free and showed promise! I was pleased. It read like them and that felt good. So, just keep in mind that while you might love Entourage and your Entourage spec, someone needing a sample might hate Entourage, but love Drawn Together, so best to be prepared. Oh, a little tip, a 22-minute adult animated spec can count for two, both a half hour sample and an animation sample. Getting double out of your spec buck, is a good thing. You only get one chance to make a good first impression, do that by actually having a script ready, better yet a library, so whomever you deal with knows you’re serious and have the capacity to churn out the pages. Make sure it’s not only excellent, but it’s polished, professional and as typo free as humanly possible."
On Xandy Sussan...
Xandy Sussan is a professional, produced screenwriter with a 10-year long track record of success. Xandy also runs a full service story analysis company. She provides services for screenwriters and novelists including standard coverage, editing, formatting, development services, ghostwriting, rewriting, novel adaptations, and basic consultations. She has read over 1500 scripts and 750 novels since opening her doors in 1999 and continues to be the most trusted voice in script development with a client list including Warner Bros., Miramax, Handprint Entertainment, and Jennifer Lopez, along with many independent writers who have gone on to win contests and sell their scripts successfully. You can learn more about Xandy at http://CoverMyScript.com or follow her on Twitter @CoverMyScript.