A Writer’s Apprenticeship, Hollywood version

I had been in Los Angeles for about five years. I had written nine screenplays on spec (each taking about six months) and sold none. I had a terrific agent who was also a great friend, Mike Werner. 

Mike believed in me, but he was getting tired of taking my screenplays out to the town and having them sent back rejected. One day he took me out for coffee. “What would you think,” Mike said, “about me teaming you up with an older, established writer? You’d be the junior member of the team… you’d have to work your ass off. But you’d be working. You’d get jobs. You’d be bringing home checks.”

Mike teamed me with Ron Shusett, who had written the original Alien with his then-partner Dan O’Bannon, as well as Total Recall, that was making its way toward production at that time.

Ron Shusett … of “Alien,” “Total Recall,” “Minority Report” and many more

Ron was a brand. He had had hits. He got us into meetings. Scripts we wrote on spec were taken seriously because his name was on the title page. For the first time in my life, I could actually pay the rent.

But the best part was what I learned working with Ron. I would throw ten ideas at him. He would discard nine and pick one… and he’d be right. This is experience you don’t get at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Ron taught me how to evaluate original material—which ideas have potential and which don’t—and how to revise and rework your own material. He introduced me to the concept of acquiring and adapting. Not every idea has to come out of your own fevered brain. Watching him, I learned how to mine journals and collections of short stories, old movies and forgotten novels.

“We’re not looking for successful stories or movies. We’re looking for failed stories with great premises. We acquire them and we fix them.”

Ron opened my eyes to genres of film and literature—sci-fi, film noir, speculative fiction—that I had never even known about, let alone fallen in love with.

In Ron’s company, I met other filmmakers—producers, directors, editors, writers, financiers, studio people—from whom I learned even more and some of whom became real friends and allies that I still have today.

When I finally went out on my own, I felt like I’d acquired a PhD in film, just from the exposure working with Ron gave me.

The Big Takeaway from this experience (remember, we’re still on the theme of “Put your ass where your heart wants to be”) is that what made it all possible was packing up my Chevy van and moving from the East Coast to Tinseltown, i.e. to the epicenter of my dream of writing for the movies.

Would I have met Ron if I’d stayed in New York? Would I have met Mike? Would I have met anybody?

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

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NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

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"PUT YOUR ASS WHERE YOUR HEART WANTS TO BE"

Available for pre-order in paperback, ebook, and audiobook.

31 Comments

  1. Peter Brockwell on April 20, 2022 at 1:25 am

    What an interesting and warm-looking chap Ron seems. And a cat lover! At risk of being controversial, the latter says it all for me.

    Nice post Steve. Sometimes we need to physically relocate. But you make me wonder also about how much of the benefit/importance is about breaking ties or negative juju, reinventing and creating fresh expectations for yourself. The reasons to move AWAY from the old life, as well as the pull towards another place.

    Peter

  2. Ana Jiménez on April 20, 2022 at 2:47 am

    “Reality is not only there; it is dreamed, it is created”.
    Medardo Fraile – Spanish writer.

  3. Jackie on April 20, 2022 at 4:01 am

    Connections, networks, and physical meetings sure, I see the importance. I also see Peter’s point about breaking ties. Many times, we need to shed our perceptions of who we think we are to become who we truly are. Moving away from habits and learned behavior has its benefits. We can do that both physically and mentally. Missed you all last week.

  4. Kate Stanton on April 20, 2022 at 7:52 am

    There are two classically-trained pianists that I meet with bi-weekly via Zoom to expand my creative mind. They are skilled in ways I can never be with that instrument, but I am often surprised by my takeaways after meeting with them. It boils down to a growth mindset and knowing my weaknesses. I used to not trust others very well. I still struggle with that, but if you seek out the right people–the successful people that want to life you up and not bring you down–they genuinely find joy in helping you out! If you cannot physically put your ass where your heart wants to be, there are many online options I have found during the pandemic. I had to search, but resources are there! People are good at their core. This was the toughest lesson for me when I was searching for mentors. Trust.

  5. Sam Luna on April 20, 2022 at 8:01 am

    One of the first jobs I had when I moved to Los Angeles 20+ years ago was at New Line Cinema (aka “the House that Freddy (Krueger) Built.”) The big open bullpen was sectioned off into cubicles made by these big filing cabinets, and every drawer in every cabinet was filled with unproduced scripts they owned. So, thousands of them. And we would thumb through the drawers, all in alphabetical order by title. I doubt any of those scripts were ever made. It was kinda like the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ when they file the ark of the covenant away in a vast storage warehouse. A big reality/perspective check is also a side benefit of moving to the epicenter of your chosen profession.

  6. Dea on April 20, 2022 at 8:59 am

    In October, I took early retirement from a many years somewhat vocational, yet still “Shadow profession” and visited around the Santa Fe NM area shortly after. That month, I met the incredible horse whisperer/writer/poet/entrepreneur/mentor Kelly Wendorf. Through that serendipitous meeting, various doors began presenting themselves that I’m certain would not have otherwise done so. A closet writer and poet myself, I discovered you Steve through Kelly’s raves about the War of Art. Quickly after I kind of gobbled up Turning Pro and have only the last few pages left on Gates of Fire.
    I can honestly say that the right mentors began to appear with these moves (leaving the shadow pro., physically moving locations and – – – putting my a** where my heart wants to be). Thank you from the bottom of my heart for being so available to those of us unable to accept the status quo of consensus reality and for providing tools of support to help us through the sometimes rough and uncertain times associated with that kind of bold move. With lots of heart….Dea

  7. Michael Esser on April 20, 2022 at 11:30 am

    What a great lesson, thank you! This reminds me of the great renaissance painters who all started in the workshop of other great painters. As apprentices they had to do their best to imitate the Master’s style and stroke. Nobody wanted “originality” from them or “uniqueness” let alone that they developed their “own voice.” They just had to fill in the blanks while their boss went to town collecting commissions from dukes, princes and bishops to paint some scene from the bible for them or a portrait.
    Apprenticeship when it comes to writing is very underappreciated and underdeveloped. Students enter university courses at the age of twenty and the first thing they are asked it to develop their “voice.” Even if they were capable of doing this (which they are not), their voice wouldn’t serve to much more than telling the story of a Saturday night gone awry in Spring Falls, Iowa.

    • Brian Nelson on April 20, 2022 at 1:56 pm

      So what went awry in Spring Falls, Iowa Michael?
      bsn

  8. Jurgen Strack on April 20, 2022 at 1:29 pm

    Great post, direction giver.
    Thank you, Steve.

  9. Tim on April 20, 2022 at 1:57 pm

    I loved this, thanks for sharing!

  10. Linda Todd on April 20, 2022 at 3:27 pm

    Thank you, Steve.
    Even though we operate in different worlds, in many ways, I feel you are very much a kindred spirit.
    Thank you for this encouraging story from your life.
    I always look forward to your weekly Wednesday emails.
    I reread your books regularly for continued inspiration and I give copies to my (adult) kids for the same reason.

    Keep it coming. You are one of my greatest resources

  11. bekzclz11 bekzclz11 on April 22, 2022 at 6:40 am

    With separate introductory courses in poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction, you’ll build your unique approach to writing on a strong foundation. Add to this: the opportunity to take courses in performance and activist writing, graphic non-fiction, and screen-writing. You’ll also take intermediate and advanced creative writing courses along with literature courses that teach writers how to read for craft and technique.

    Writing is a skill valued around the world and in all professions. Our program lays the foundation for a lifelong career in fields like advertising, corporate communications, graphic design, editing, education, journalism, law, religious ministry or technical writing.

  12. Robert D vanderMark on April 22, 2022 at 9:03 am

    Also sounds like you are talking about mentorship. Any interest in doing a “Wednesday” on that?

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