AMA WITH A PRO: So, You Want to Be a Screenwriter

Sometimes, there’s nothing better than knowing you’re not alone. If you want to be a screenwriter, Paul Guyot, is giving every aspiring professional access to ask him anything! So ask!
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ASK ME ANYTHING want to be a screenwriter

Hello, AP’s. I don’t care for the term “aspiring writer.” I like “Aspiring Professional.” Because if you’re reading this, chances are you’re already a writer. You may suck, you may be learning, or you may already be brilliant, but make no mistake—if you put words to paper, you are a writer. Own it.

You are an aspiring professional—you aspire to write for a living. No more day or night jobs. Aspiring Professional. AP’s. That’s you.

That was me once. For a long time. I left college and attacked Hollywood with two scripts! Written in spiral notebooks… in addition to the fact agents and studios tend to frown on handwritten scripts even if the spiral notebook covers are really cool, I had much more to learn. How much? Read on.

When I was blessed with the good fortune of crossing paths with a famous professional my first week in town and he offered to answer any questions I had, here’s what I asked… “What’s the difference between a script and a screenplay?”

Yep. THAT’S the knowledge base I had when I rolled into town. I knew less than nothing. You all have such a better chance of making it than I did. There is so much more information available to you today, so much more access to the industry. But here’s the thing… Thank God all of what’s around now wasn’t around when I was starting out. Because of all the wonderful resources you have in 2020, a lot of it—let me use caps lock and bold for that—A LOT of it is not only bad information, but completely wrong. If all the online “screenwriting services” and all the cat saving, anatomical analysis books had existed back then, if all these pitchfests and contests and gurus and everything else that drowns our craft today in a sea of white noise was around back then, I absolutely would have never made it. I would’ve ended up cranking out homogenized scripts that sounded exactly like every other script that follows the same exhortation. I wasn’t smart enough to have been able to discern good advice from bad, or realize when someone isn’t what they claim to be and is just out to take my money.

[Script Extra: Dear New Screenwriter]

I’m here because I know what it’s like to be overwhelmed by the lottery ticket odds you’re up against. I’ll do my best to give you nothing but TRUTH—not regurgitated How-To blather, but real knowledge. You may not like it, you may not like me, but I’ll sleep well knowing I didn’t run a game on you.

For now, who is Paul Guyot? Other than a man with the incendiary opinion that if a taco isn’t crispy, it’s just a wrap. SIDE NOTE: As you read my column, you’ll notice I can’t help but mention food at least once… the struggle is real. But I digress. Me… I spent ten years working in Hollywood before my first paid writing gig—a freelance episode on the David E. Kelley series SNOOPS. My episode was so well received that one producer told me—without irony—“David loved your script! He only rewrote 90% of it!” He was serious. Even a couple of veteran writers on staff resented how well my script was received. I was offered a staff position on a Thursday… the show was canceled the following Monday. I went straight from there to an interview with this young, quirky cat named J.J. Abrams, who was starting up season two of FELICITY.

All I knew of Abrams at the time is he’d written a screenplay I loved called THE REST OF DANIEL. I met J.J. and his partner, Matt Reeves, at the Chateau Marmont in what was a completely surreal experience. He’d read a spec NYPD BLUE I’d written, and that along with hearing good things from SNOOPS, got me in the room where it happens.

I was not a fan of FELICITY. I thought she was whiny and annoyingly self-absorbed. When J.J. asked me what I thought of the show, I told him… in the most diplomatic way possible. The moment the words left my mouth I figured my years of self-loathing and manic depression had (again) resulted in self-sabotage, and I was about to be escorted out by security. But he loved it. He said every writer he interviewed had just kissed his ass. He hired me on the spot and get this—sent me straight to work. No joke. He gave me the address of the writers room and told me to go. Now.

[Script Extra: Writer's Room 101 by Eric Haywood]

I spent a year there, then worked on a couple other shows before spending three years on JUDGING AMY, where I truly learned to be a screenwriter and producer. While there, my then wife and I had our first two children and when my contract was up, “we” (note the quotes) decided to move to St. Louis to raise kids and be closer to her massive Irish-Catholic family. What we do for love…

I decided I’d write the great American novel, forgetting McMurtry had beaten me to it. But before we even closed on our house, I was hired to write a pilot for Fox. And then one of the best moments of my career happened—Stephen J. Cannell (one of my writing heroes) hired me to write a pilot. This led to another pilot, and soon I was “the pilot guy.” I was writing a pilot a year, which was plenty of dough to live on in St. Louis. But when the pilots you’re writing never get on the air, you suddenly become “the guy that can’t get a pilot ordered to series.” Oops.

I worked on various shows after that, spent a bizarre year writing a crazy, giant disaster epic feature, then sold my own show, only to have the development process kill it. Took me a minute to walk that one off. Then it was back to staffing. And writing on spec. I’ve had massive highs, and soul-crushing lows, personally and professionally—all which I’ll share with you because they’ve all made me better.

Why am I here? To help. No one told me the *truth* when I was starting out. I had to learn by trial and error. And there are so many people taking advantage of you all these days, spewing the same old tired advice on How-To do this and that, it makes my head explode. If you’re thinking, “I’ve read 1200 words and this dude hasn’t taught me a thing!” Well, you’re correct. Because here’s what I want to do…

Instead of this being yet another nuts & bolts advice column (the last thing you need), consider this a mentor-mentee relationship. I’m not going to give you worn-out examples from Raiders or tell you how important it is to have a good villain. I’m going to be open and honest; I’m going to give you the truth about the industry, the craft, the actual process of writing, and myself. Even when it’s ugly. Even when it’s dark. Because sometimes there’s nothing better than knowing you’re not alone. We’re all in this together. I want you to have access to a working professional screenwriter. One who’s in the midst of their career. One who can tell you how it truly is from the very perspective you’re aspiring to.

To that, here’s my email: scriptguyot AT gmail DOT com.

Send me your questions. I’ll go through them each month and pick out ones I think most folks would be interested in. 100% Anonymous. So, ask me anything. About craft, the business, the process, my experiences, my personal life, the wins, the losses, anything you want. No subject is off limits.

But please DO NOT send me loglines or ask me to read anything. And remember, engaging in this column means you agree to hear the truth, whether you like it or not. Whether it validates you or not. If you want a pat on the back and a participation ribbon, you’re reading the wrong contributor.

Is everything I’m going to say gospel? Nope. Do I have all the answers? No way. But I am a working professional. One who’s been through the wars, one who is still in the arena—face marred by dust and sweat and blood, still striving valiantly and daring greatly. I have made a mammoth, colossal, insert-adjective-here number of mistakes on my journey, and if I can help you make a few less, then I’ve done my job.

I want you all to succeed. It’s a great job. You’re gonna love it.

So, grab a coffee, pull up a chair, and let’s chat.

Welcome to ASK ME.

(Cue The Smiths)

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