How To Break In As A Writer

Do you want to know how to break in to Hollywood screenwriting?

Ashleigh Powell made her first spec sale in October 2012 when Warner Bros. purchased her script, Somacell, with David S. Goyer attached to produce.

The short pitch for Somacell: a female prison guard in the near future discovers that the virtual reality process that rehabilitates convicts is not all it promises to be.

Ashleigh sat down with Script Mag, where she previously worked as a Screenplay Development Notes reader, and shared how her pragmatic approach to writing lead to her success.

“Break In” Principle #1: With Quantity Comes Quality

Ashleigh originally wanted to write novels, which can take several years and hundreds of pages to complete a single draft. Screenwriting meant an opportunity to finish more projects.

I knew from my novel-writing days that I couldn’t afford to spend months and years toiling away on a single project. Better to diversify [with screenplays] and improve my odds. That way, every time a project gets passed on (which is most of the time), I can say ‘That’s okay, on to the next thing’…. I must have written about a dozen scripts before I started to really hit my stride.

Write First

Despite a demanding job and surely other responsibilities, Ashleigh found a way to make time to meet her writing goals.

When I was working 80+ hours a week as an Executive Assistant, I would wake up extra early in the morning so I could get in some pages before I started my day. That way, no matter what else happened, I could feel accomplished because at least I got my writing in.

If you need to squeeze in some writing time each day, here’s a resource that I use and can recommend: Getting Things Done, by David Allen.

The Standard: “Slap Your Forehead” Great

Ashleigh has a high standard for what constitutes an idea worth working on:

One of the most difficult lessons to learn is knowing when you have an idea that is truly marketable and cinematic and has the potential to appeal to a wide audience. It’s not enough to come up with a good concept. The concept has to be great. Like slap-yourself-on-the-forehead, ‘of course that’s a movie, why hasn’t that been made yet?’ great.

Sift through your ideas and determine which concepts are strong enough to make you want to slap your forehead.

Develop The Pitch First

Ashleigh’s understanding of the importance of having a truly great concept was evident throughout her development of Somacell.

She started with the idea of an undercover cop going into a prison to get some information and then not being able to get out. But that wasn’t enough.

Then, she came up with the idea for a virtual reality prison system. She started pitching this concept in her general meetings and everyone she talked to was as excited about it as she was. Only then did she start writing.

If It’s Good, Ship It

It can be disappointing to write something that you don’t think you can sell because of changes in the marketplace. This happened to Ashleigh, but she still “shipped” the project and submitted to a contest—and as a result, got a manager.

I had written over a dozen feature and TV scripts when I got the idea for a pilot script that was a modern-day reimagining of Little Red Riding Hood… when the announcements came out that Once Upon A Time and Grimm were getting picked up… which pretty much killed my pilot.

I was just about to put it on a shelf and move on when, on a whim, I decided to submit it to a tracking board pilot contest (TrackingB.com). A few months later I got a call saying my script was a finalist, and one of the judges who read it (Daniel Vang at Benderspink) wanted to represent me.

Ashleigh understood one of the truths about Hollywood: the best way to get noticed is to write something great.

Read Screenplays

Ashleigh learned a lot from reading other screenplays as a script reader and from being in a writer’s group.

I’ve always found it helpful to belong to a writers group. That constant interaction with other writers and in-depth discussion of the craft – plus consistent deadlines for turning in pages – is a great motivation tool.”

There are many avenues to get your hands on scripts. Many studios and production companies, especially if their script is a best screenplay awards contender, make their scripts available to download for free on the internet.

The best way to get access to unproduced screenplays is to join a writer’s group. Immerse yourself in the craft of screenwriting by workshopping other people’s work and receiving feedback on your own projects.

It Takes Years To Be An Overnight Success

Ashleigh didn’t become an overnight success by sheer talent or luck. She worked hard at developing her craft over time and eventually her persistence paid off and she was able to break in.

What did you take away from Ashleigh’s insights? Let me know in the comments.

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Discussion About How To Break In As A Writer

  1. Will J Machin

    Hi Stephanie, Great info and insight here! I’ve been developing my craft as a screenwriter for 20 years, and at the risk of sounding immodest, my work is top-notch. The biggest obstacle is getting studio and producer contacts like those Ashleigh has.
    Any suggestions are truly appreciated.
    Keep up the good work, Will

  2. Bonnie Russell

    Dear Stephanie,

    Eagerly awaiting your column titled, “Jumbled Mess Picked Up for Millions.”

    🙂

  3. Dana Udall-Weiner

    Love the idea that it takes years to become an overnight success. That and a writers group.

  4. Rach

    Palmer you are always so helpful, so gracious and always making the right choices to help all of us. You hit a home run with me every time you post. THANK YOU!! You know I am one of your BIG fans. –Dorothy in Kansas

  5. Curt Wiser

    Well done, helpfull and concise. I fully agree that writers should make sure they have a marketable idea, that “it is a real Movie” before they start their script. Also liked hearing the idea of writing screenplays because it increases your odds of getting produced.

    I am happy to say that one of my specs was produced, Cam-Girl (aka) Web-Cam and will be distributed by Panorama Entertainment.

  6. tufan patra

    I want to discussion

  7. One Mann's Movies Film Review: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018). - One Mann's Movies

    […] The story is rather generic – child visits a magical other world – but the screenplay is impressive given its the first-feature screenplay for Ashleigh Powell: there is an article on her approach to screenwriting that you might find interesting here. […]