What Screenwriters Should Look For In A Mentor
Very few screenwriters became successful on their own. Many sought the guidance and tutelage of more experienced working writers (mentors) to help them get their foot on the rung of the career ladder at some level. There are many reasons screenwriters seek out a mentor. They could range from actionable career advice to moral support.
Mentorships can be casual or more structured. Not all mentees require weekly career strategy meetings and not all mentors have that sort of free time. A mentor is not necessarily protégé, unless they aren’t. They could simply be allies or well-wishers. After all, they are working writers themselves and only have a limited time to devote to their mentees.
The first thing screenwriters should consider when seeking out a mentor is why they want one?
Are you seeking:
- screenwriting instruction
- career advice
- therapy, or
- positive reinforcement?
All of these questions are valid. Perhaps you have more than one answer, and that’s okay. Your answers help both your potential mentor and yourself better understand what a successful relationship might look like.
A mentor can simply allow their work to be studied by writers who like their style. Who knows, one day mentor and mentee might meet face to face by chance – or even collaborate on something new. This is totally plausible since both writing voices have time to synchronize.
Think of a mentor is more of a spirit guide, not your manager or career counselor. You still need to do the work to build and sustain your writing portfolio.
Where do you find a mentor?
It’s not as if you can easily google a list of screenwriting mentors in your zip code. But you can start by finding someone local(ish). This may be easier in film hubs like Los Angeles. However, living in the same city does not necessarily equate to mentor availability.
Start by making a list of the writers of your favorite films and TV shows. These screenwriters are your tribe – people you have something in common with – not just tastes in film and TV shows, but possibly life in general. You don’t always want to be talking about the industry especially if the relationship evolves into a more social one.
You can approach a potential mentor with a more generic invitation than, “Can I get you a coffee?” That’s worse than asking a potential date if you’ve seen them somewhere before. Reverse the tables. Be kind. Ask if they need help with anything. What would make their life easier now?
They may need someone fluent in Navajo or a cardiothoracic surgeon who can act as a consultant on their TV show. You can even offer to fetch their coffee if you don’t have access to something specific they’re looking for. Give first and ask for something in return later. It’s more likely to result in a positive response. Even if they decline your invitation, they will remember your approach and may even recommend someone more appropriate for your situation. Don’t be that person that takes more than they give.
The work can be your mentor
– Gloria Calderon
“It’s very natural and human to admire those who’ve come before us,” said TV writer Winnie Holzman (My So Called Life). “Writing is a craft that is molded by the generations before. Mentees might simply benefit from being in the presence of industry titans.”
Becoming a better writer via osmosis can be useful to a degree. Alternatively, you might want someone with a more tangible approach.
Depending on the type of mentor you need, you may want someone ruthless who always challenges you and pushes you to greater heights. The brutality of your mentor must come always from a place of love and not malice. Otherwise it becomes counter-productive. “Sometimes we lose our objectivity and can’t recognize when our work is good or our work is derivative or bad. A good mentor will point that out,” said Larry Andries (How To Get Away With Murder).
Being well-mentored means you can grow as a film and television writer on an accelerated path. This, in turn, means you’re more inclined to give back and pay it forward and mentor a junior writer in the future. That’s how the industry will grow by ensuring the next generation of writers can thrive in an encouraging environment. Despite their workloads, many professional writers consider mentoring less experienced screenwriters to be their professional duty. A mentor must see something in a mentee screenwriter in order for the relationship to be successful.
Notice how great filmmakers build their teams and work with them for most of their careers? Fresh out of film school, they are accountable to each other to elevate each other’s work before they’re jaded by the industry. Having supporting groups of writers helps you develop your voice.
Join a writers’ group and do table reads to get additional feedback. The workshopping and drafting may allow the work to rise to a level suitable for showing your mentor or industry folk who can move it forward. Your mentor most likely won’t be available to read your every draft and tell you how much progress you’ve made.
Mentorship builds a sense of community among a traditional isolated profession.
A mentor doesn’t always read a writer’s material – at least not initially. The desire to mentor might be in believing a younger writer has something to say about the world. They see talent and potential. A good mentor can determine when a screenwriter is ready to be read.
A good mentee needs to be persistent, determined, and hard-working. If a mentor asks to see completed pages, they should have them. One of the pleasures of being a mentor is watching your mentees blossom into working writers.
That said, writers need encouraging mentors to keep them from quitting. “My mentor told me the fact that I’m doing my own thing and not trying to fit in probably means you’ll succeed,” said Dustin Lance Black (Milk).
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