Once I put my credits on the net, I began to receive email asking many of the same questions. Here are answers to the Frequently Asked Questions. I'll be glad to expand and add questions to this FAQ.
How did you get started?
How do I sell a script?
How do I get an agent?
What did you study in school?
What books on writing would you recommend?
Will you read my script? Can I send you a story idea by email?
Do I have to live in L.A.?
Can I sell a script based on _______?
How do I become a game designer or write for games?
Can I get a signed photo of you?
How did you get started? What was your first job (or the first job that really started you on your career today?
The most frequently asked question of all, and what it really means is, "How do I break in?" There's no one answer to this underlying question. If you ask 50 different professionals, you'll get 50 different stories. So here's mine.
First, there was the job I took in order to learn about the business. I wrote up a letter about myself and mailed it out all over the place. I made a good impression on Tom Laughlin, who made the BILLY JACK movies. He interviewed me and gave me a job as a receptionist.
My first day on the job, I reorganized everything in my office area. My enthusiasm and efficiency impressed him enough to shortly after put me to work assisting his distribution person. Unfortunately, this didn't last long as Laughlin's company went under.
Next, I began making calls to production companies and sending out more resumes. This takes persistence, politeness, persistence, a positive attitude, and more persistence. I kept 3" x 5" index cards on which I made careful notes who I called, what date, who I talked to, what they said about calling back, and what his or her attitude was toward me.
The people who were hostile, I left alone. When I found someone friendly and helpful, I called every 2-3 weeks just to say hi and remind them I was still looking for work. Finally, this paid off. A production executive at Charles Fries Productions, a television production company, got me in the door and I worked there for the next 2 1/2 years. I worked in the legal department, in distribution, was a production secretary, and finally a liaison between the company and the producers they brought on board for various television projects.
I highly recommend working in production for a writer. It gave me an invaluable understanding of the production process that has been useful every day since. It also helped me establish a network of contacts and got me through a lot of studio doors.
As for my first scriptwriting job, it came about because of friends I'd made in the comic book field. I'll back up and talk about my first professional writing sale, which was a CONAN comic book story for SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN.
Roy Thomas, who brought Conan to the comics, was the writer and editor of the SAVAGE SWORD magazine. I learned he would be speaking to a group of fans, so I showed up, sat in the front and listened carefully. I avoided asking the fannish questions. Instead, I realized the one question no one was asking him is the one most writers want to be asked. I waited until the end of the evening and asked "What are your future projects?" He was tired of talking about the past; he wanted to talk about the future.
That made it easy for me to talk to him afterwards, as he was happy I asked the question, and I asked him to read a story idea. He bought it, used it, and bought several others from me. One of them was a FANTASTIC FOUR story for WHAT IF.
One day, a friend who wrote animation called and said the DePatie-Freleng Studio was making a FANTASTIC FOUR animation series and was looking for writers who knew the comic. I called and on the basis of the one comic book story, I got an interview with David DePatie.
It was a very funny interview because I knew nothing about writing animation and I was boxed in by these two enormous dogs he had, trying to make a good impression. At any rate, he gave me an assignment and handed me a sample of an animation script to use as a template. And that's how I came to write "The Diamond of Doom", the first of many animation shows.
My first live-action credit came years later. Once again, it happened by making contacts. In this case, I got to know J. Michael Straczynski through a private BBS. He gave me a chance to write for CAPTAIN POWER.
In short, a great deal of getting anywhere in this business is contacts, contacts, contacts.
How do I sell a script?
WRITE A SCRIPT THAT IS SO GOOD IT GLOWS IN THE DARK: Much of what happens in this business is luck (being in the right place at the right time), but more than that it's about who you know and how determined and persistent you are. Of course, one of the key elements is having scripts for people to read. So first and foremost, you have to write. You need to write screenplays, or you need to write spec scripts for tv shows, depending on what your goals are.
If you're looking to break into writing for television, you need a spec script for each type of show. An hour-long action spec for those types of shows, or a half-hour comedy script if you want to do sitcoms. It's generally agreed amongst pros that you should not write a script for the show you're submitting to. The reason is that people reading a script about their own show and their own characters will judge it much more harshly than a script about another show. Choose a well known show, but try to avoid shows that everybody else in the universe is writing spec scripts for (meaning the most popular shows).
Don't stop with one script either. Keep writing scripts. Keep writing them until one sells.
GET AN AGENT: Once you have spec scripts, you need to submit them to agents until an agent agrees to represent you. Then it's the agent's job to get your scripts out to the people who can hire you and get them to read you. For more on this, see the next question below.
CONTESTS: Although I didn't go this route, I've met a number of successful writers lately who got their breaks by submitting to scriptwriting contests and winning. There's one called the Nicholl Fellowship that has a lot of prestige. Max Adams won the Nicholl's with her script, EXCESS BAGGAGE, which became the Alicia Silverstone movie.
The yearly Austin film festival has a contest. There's one called the Breckinridge and many others. Do a search for screenwriting contests or writing contests to find sites with information.
How do I get an agent?
I wrote a screenplay, then sent it out to anybody that would agree to read it. I'd call a company, ask for permission to send it, sign their release form, and mail it off. I mailed that script off by the dozens. It got a good response (though it never did sell). One producer liked it enough to recommend it to an agent, and the agent liked it enough to represent me.
A word about release forms: Don't be paranoid about signing release forms. Companies must legally protect themselves, nowadays more than ever. Hundreds of people have the same ideas and write scripts about the same things. You can't own an idea. You can't copyright a concept. What you have to offer is your unique expression of that idea, in the form of a finished script. The odds of any reputable production company ripping off your script are very slim. They don't need to. Ideas are everywhere. Ideas are a dime a dozen. But if you have something to say and a clever, exciting way of saying it, they'll want to work with you, not rip you off.
Another thing you can do to find an agent is request the list of agents from the Writers Guild of America, then use that list to contact agents and ask them to read your script. And the WGA site has tons of other useful links and information. I used the WGA links to find the site that has the contest listings.Not every agent will read new and unknown people. You will first need to present yourself in a professional straightforward manner. If you live in L.A. or can afford the calls, try phoning the agencies and very politely inquiring whether they will read your sample material and what their submission requirements are.
Or write an inquiry letter to each agency. Again, keep it simple and professional (neat, clean, good grammer, good spelling, etc.) and BRIEF. Tell them you're looking for representation and would like to submit a screenplay or teleplay. Give a logline description of the script (1-3 short lines, no more). Ask if one of their agents will read it and indicate you're willing to sign a release form. If you have sold anything else at all, like a short story or newspaper article or you've won a contest, you should mention it.
Allow adequate time for an answer to a letter. If you don't hear anything, you might try following up with a POLITE phone call in a few weeks. If someone gives you permission to submit and sends a release form, SIGN THE BLASTED THING and return it with the script. Remember what I said about being paranoid. Paranoia is the fastest way to tell someone you're not a professional.
Be sure to send the script with a brief, professional letter indicating that this is the script they asked you to send. This is to remind them that they did ask for the script and it's not just showing up out of the blue. Make sure to include a self-addressed return envelope with adequate postage so that the script can be returned if they're not interested.
Allow plenty of time for a response. These are busy people with tons of scripts to read and it may take them awhile to get around to it.
What did you study in school?
I didn't. I went to the University of Illinois for only one year, at which time I intended to go into jewelry-making or glass-blowing or some other artistic endeavor.
After I moved to L.A. and decided to pursue writing, I took some courses at The Sherwood Oaks Experimental College in Hollywood. I recommend them because they bring in working professionals to do short, reasonably priced seminars. These are people who are actually working in the field and give down to earth, practical advice on how things really work. I made some good contacts that way. I avoid courses by people who haven't actually worked or are working in the business.
What books on writing would you recommend?
I rarely read books about writing, but there are a few I'd recommend beginning (rather obviously) with my own!
Writing for Animation, Comics and Games, by Christy Marx. This is a practical nuts & bolts craft manual to writing for these three forms of media.
Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting by William Goldman (which contains the script to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID).
The Complete Book of Scriptwriting by J. Michael Straczynski. JMS is the creator of BABYLON 5. In addition to live-action writing, he also has chapters covering other areas of writing such as animation and interactive.
The Screenwriter's Survival Guide : Or, Guerilla Meeting Tactics and Other Acts of War by Max Adams. An all-around practical guide to surviving in Hollywood.
Will you read my script? Can I send you my story idea by email?
No, I'm sorry, but I must decline to read unsolicited material. That includes email containing unsolicited ideas or attached files. The instant I detect that an email might contain someone's idea or a pitch, I DELETE IT WITHOUT READING IT.
There are two reasons. One is time. When I have spare time, there are a lot of other things I want to do with it. Some writers, agents and companies will read for a fee. I'm not interested in doing that, nor could I charge enough to make it worth my time. Be sure to carefully research anyone who wants you to pay a reading fee to make sure they are reputable and will give you your money's worth.
The second reason is legal. Because I develop a great deal of my own material, I'm not willing to risk a lawsuit just because I happened to look at other material that might be similar. This happens a lot more than you might want to believe.
Do I have to live in L.A. to be a scriptwriter?
You don't have to...but it sure helps. The few writers who live outside the L.A. area only do this after first living in L.A. and getting themselves established. Sure, there are always exceptions, but they're rare.
Basically, if all you want to do is sell screenplays, it's less vital to live in L.A., but you must be ready and willing to make the trip if someone wants a meeting with you.
If you want to do television, then I have to say living in L.A. is a necessity until you're extremely well established. It's absolutely a necessity if you want to be a staff writer working on a regular series.
Like it or not, L.A. is still the heart of the business...for the moment.
Unless you're Canadian. There's a lot of work to be had in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal if you're Canadian, or willing to become a landed immigrant.
Writing for videogames is a whole different issue. For that, I recommend getting my book which has a chapter on breaking in and location.
Can I sell a script based on _______?
Fill in the blank with whatever you want: a favorite comic, novel, toy, advertising slogan, whatever. The key to this question, which I've been asked more than once, is that someone is in love with somebody else's property and wants to write a script based on it. Then what?
You absolutely CANNOT go around pitching an idea or script based on someone else's property unless you have optioned or licensed the rights, or unless you're pitching directly to the copyright holder. Period. That's the cold, hard reality of it.
Yes, you could write a script based on, say, "Hopping Drongo", then file off the serial numbers and try to sell it. In other words, change the identifiable names and come up with your own new names. But if the story is that generic, what's the point? Besides which, if it's still too similar to the property, you will have legal problems.
Then how do movies or shows based on a property get made? There's more than one way these things can happen.
Most commonly, a studio or producer or director or actor or whoever will decide "I want to make a Hopping Drongo movie." They would then obtain the rights and attempt to get it made. This can be highly complicated process, depending on how much clout that person has.
Or maybe the studio already owns the rights (as is often the case). Some studio executive can then decide "Let's make a Hopping Drongo movie and cash in on the current popularity of this property." He would hire on the executive producer or producers to be in charge of the project, who would then hire the writer, director, etc.
On rare occasion, an individual might come to the copyright owner and pitch a new twist or take on the property and manage to get a deal. However, the bigger the property, the less chance there is of success unless you are already a well-established writer or producer with plenty of good credits under your belt. You must have credibility before they would likely bother with you.
To sum up, if you really want to write a script based on ______, it better be something affordable. Something where you can contact the owner of the copyright, offer money, have them accept the offer, have a lawyer draw up an agreement, get the agreement signed and pay them the option money. THEN you can write a script and try to sell it.
How do I become a game designer or write for videogames?
Firt, I recommend that you buy and read my book. I cover the issue in more detail there.
For a long time, I had was hard put to know how to answer this question. Now I've begun to see trends and a tendency for the field to become settled into niches. I don't necessarily think this is a good thing, but it is what it is.
Let me say up front, that I use the word "game" as shorthand for any form of interactive entertainment, but I would also like to see the field move way beyond the limitations of the word "game". There is a dire shortage of good storytelling in today's interactive offerings.
Often I'm asked the "how do I...?" question from someone who wants to simply step in and design or write games from the start. It doesn't work that way. When I entered the field, it was a pure fluke that I had the chance to be the sole designer, writer, director and manager of my projects. I also entered as an established script writer with a lot of credits and experience behind me.
I do not see these types of opportunities occur any longer. I also see a shift in the way the word "designer" is being used. Be aware that a "level designer" is quite a different thing from a game designer, and a game designer may or may not be the person doing the writing for the game.
One prerequisite that always remains the same, no matter what you want to do in games, is that the companies want people who know the field. You must educate yourself and be able to convince a prospective employer that you know a lot about games, that you have a lot of experience playing games, and that you are highly enthusiastic about games.
The first thing you must decide is this: do I want to be a writer (working in more than one field) or do I want to be a game designer (working only in the field of computer games)?
If your primary goal is to be a writer who also happens to write for games, you need to choose some field of writing and become an established professional. It could be film, animation, comic books, novels or whatever. Then you would have the means to approach whatever game company interests you, present your resume and try to get writing work.
You should also consider joining the IGDA (International Game Developers Association) and join some of their forums. This is a valuable way to network.
If your primary interest is in becoming a game designer, you need to find an entry-level position and work your way up. This is nearly impossible to do as a writer. They simply don't have entry-level positions for writers, at least not that I tend to see. You might get really lucky and find a job writing technical manuals, but I don't see that as a good position to work up to game designer.
I've heard the opinion that breaking in as a QA tester (Quality Assurance -- play testers) and working up the ranks is a valid route. I can't comment on that, though it strikes me as a tough way to go and a big jump from heading a QA dept. to being a game designer. Still, it's a possibility, if not a strong one.
This leaves two major areas by which to work your way in -- programming and art. The game business is always hungry for programmers and artists. Level designers are essentially artists with some programming skill.
There is a long tradition in games for programmers to double as designers. What I find problematic about this is that programmers rarely have the skills to be good writers and game design suffers without a good writer involved. If you possess both talents, you're in a strong position to become a designer.
To get a good handle on what qualifications you need to have for any of these categories, visit some of the webpages where game jobs are listed. Research the jobs and the qualifications that the companies list for those jobs.Here are three good places to start:
gamasutra.com is the place to become familiar with the game industry. It is full of immensely useful articles, features, data, and includes job listings.
gamejobs.com is a page that features links to several dozen employment pages for game companies.
gignews.com is a website out of Britain, but it features a jobs section that includes the United States.
In addition to those three, you can decide which companies interest you the most and research their websites. Most companies include some sort of job or employment page somewhere on their sites.
There are management jobs also, of course, such as producers and project managers, but those are rarely creative jobs. You'll see for yourself what those entail by reading up on the job listings for those positions.
Once you feel you have the qualifications, it's a matter of applying for work at game companies just as you would anywhere else. Be prepared to live in one of the major metropolitan areas where game companies cluster. The four big areas for game companies are Seattle, the Bay Area, the Los Angeles area, and Austin, TX. There are many other locations, such as Chicago, Las Vegas, San Diego, North Carolina, Boston, etc. If you have a definite preference for where you want to live, concentrate on companies in that area. But if you're willing to be flexible, you might find you have a better chance breaking into companies located outside the four big regions.
Can I get a signed photo of you?I've only decided to add this question after getting a slew of such requests in my email. Some of these requests are clearly genuine, but many of them come across as strikingly phony. Either way, the unfortunate perception seems to be that I am lolling about in bins of money with tons of spare time and nothing else to do than send out free photos, books or whatever.
I'm sorry, that's not the case. I work hard all the time. That's the life of a freelance writer. Even having to stop and process a request, make out an envelope, get it in the mail, etc., eats away at my time which is very precious to me.
Neither do I like to ignore the genuine requests. So here's the policy I've come up with:
I'm sorry if this sounds hard-nosed, but I can't afford to do it any other way. I appreciate your understanding.
Computer Game Writing