If you’ve been to a café in Los Angeles County, you’ve probably seen them: highly caffeinated individuals slumped over their laptops, intently gazing at oddly formatted paragraphs of text on their screens. Yes, they’re screenwriters. Are they working on the next big Hollywood blockbuster or Netflix series? Who knows. Perhaps writer’s block has set in and the café owner is the only one likely to get rich off this project.
Each year, tens of thousands of scripts are registered with the Writers Guild of America, a process that writers use to protect their work before sending it to agents, script contests, or producers. Out of all those scripts, a depressingly small number actually make it into production, making scriptwriting one of the most competitive art forms out there.
Still, the dream of hitting it big is so powerful that many writers are content to hammer away for years, subsisting only on the hope of one day seeing their name up in lights and the lines they’ve written spoken into cinema history by their favorite stars.
Whether you’re working on your first script or you’re a seasoned pro, spending your days alone at the local Starbucks isn’t always the best way to get things done.
According to Tawnya Bhattacharya, founder of Script Anatomy screenwriting school, writers of all levels are attracted to her classes for two reasons: One, having a deadline helps you focus on getting something finished, and two, workshopping your script with a group who is serious about the craft can be an invaluable experience.
Tawnya, who focuses on writing for television and whose students have gone on to work on productions including The Bold Type, Modern Family, The Handmaid’s Tale, Magnum P.I., Manifest, Silicon Valley, The Good Doctor, and many more says, “A lot of our writers that become successful […] have taken many different classes and really worked on their skills before they broke in. It just takes that kind of time. It’s super competitive and people in the industry are flooded with tons and tons and tons of scripts, so you’ve got to stand out.”
Tawnya started out as a theater actor and then moved into screenwriting, and chose to build her school around television when she saw the emerging popularity of platforms like Netflix. “I definitely didn’t want to be a school who did every kind of writing under the sun. Because to me, I would rather be like a brand that does one thing well like Gucci than a Walmart that sells everything under the sun.”
Tawnya took some time out from her busy schedule to tell us what it’s like to take a screenwriting class, and share some advice with aspiring screenwriters.
So you want to be a screenwriter …
When you’re starting out in Hollywood, it can be incredibly difficult and intimidating to navigate the system. Even if you have a finished script, how do you get it in front of the right people if you’re not well connected in the industry? And, if you do get a lucky break with a big-shot producer, how do you know whether your work is the type of thing they’re even looking for?
Aside from taking scriptwriting classes, Tawnya suggests that beginner writers should get as many people as possible to read their work and give them feedback. “Whether it’s an instructor or friends, writer friends, your mom, whoever, just writing and getting feedback and then fixing it, rewriting, and just going through that process is going to make you a better writer the more times you do it. And there’s no way around it.”
While many of us might see ourselves as geniuses of the narrative arts, it’s rare for someone to nail something as complex as a script on the first try. “If they do write something perfect the first go, we hate them!” says Tawnya, jokingly.
What to expect when you take a scriptwriting class
Script Anatomy’s classes and workshops are focused on writing for television, so they are very intensive and fast-paced, and tend to draw people who are serious about their craft. “We try to run a lot of our classes like a writers’ room,” says Tawnya. “And it is intensive. I mean, the pace is quick, which it is in television when you’re working as well, so I try to model the school with the goal of getting writers ready to be professionals in the industry.”
Age is no barrier when it comes to screenwriting, either, and Script Anatomy attracts people from their 20s all the way up to their 60s, with the bulk of students being in their 30s and 40s. Students come from a variety of career backgrounds as well. For older students, the idea of pursuing screenwriting as a second career is often appealing. They may have a number of scripts already written or be starting from scratch. Others already work in the industry and are simply looking to keep up their skills and network with other writers.
In terms of the content of the courses, don’t expect to coast. Tawnya emphasizes that it’s all about getting into the grind, with a substantial workload and strict deadlines for projects.
In many of the courses, you are expected to produce usable concepts, drafts, or outlines by the end of the semester. “I recommend if you take the class at Script Anatomy, you take the Televisionary Writers Workshop. You develop that script from concept to outline, we’ll see that all the way through, then jump into a draft intensive where you’re knocking out the draft and you’re getting notes on that,” says Tawnya.
Tips for getting into the industry
Taking a class and finishing a script draft is one thing, but getting agents and producers interested in your work is a whole new ball game. For people looking to become television writers, the first step, Tawnya suggests, is putting together a portfolio to try and get representation. “You’re going to want to have at least two pilot scripts minimum. More is better, and maybe you’ll also want to have a short story or a play or a short film or a feature film.”
The next thing is keeping up your writing, and networking with people in the industry, whether that be through additional classes or writers’ groups. “I think you should start with writers’ groups so that you can get the feedback from people who learn the same way you did,” says Tawnya. “And then, start entering contests and writing programs to try to help advance your career, because these contests will get you some interest if your script lands high enough percentage-wise or wins. And you’ll get people who are interested; actors, agents, and executives, reading your material.”
Although competitive, Tawnya also suggests that writers’ programs like NBC Writers on the Verge, Warner Brothers Writers’ Workshop, and Disney | ABC Writing Program can act as a type of “finishing school” for writers and help establish you in the industry. “They pick eight writers a year and they help groom you. They have instructors come in, they have executive meetings, like speed dating with executives, to help you get ready to get your first job, and a lot of those will actually help staff you.”
For those still laboring day in, day out, at the local Starbucks, Tawnya’s advice is to just stick with it: “Write, take classes, get into writers’ groups, start submitting your work to contests and writing programs, see if you can get some attention there. And just keep doing it until you get to where you want to be!”
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