Your Screenwriting Career Explained: A Conversation with Lee Jessup

leeby Angela Bourassa

For every aspiring screenwriter, it seems like there are a dozen script consultants and contests and coverage services. Don’t get me wrong – in the giant heap of script advisers, there are plenty of people who really can help you bring your writing up to a professional level.

But who can help you prepare for a career in screenwriting? The writing, after all, is just one part of the business. It’s the most important part, certainly, but networking and business savvy are also incredibly important.

That’s where Lee Jessup comes in.

I got the chance to speak with Lee last week and made the mistake of calling her a “screenwriting coach.” She politely corrected me, noting that she is a screenwriting career coach. As she puts it, “Screenwriting coaches tend to look at one screenplay at a time. I look at screenplays as building blocks for a career. Everything that I look at, everything that I do is looking at the writer through this prism of how do we get the writer going as a business?

Lee has written a great book called Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide To A Screenwriting Career. She also runs an online Screenwriters Support Group and offers career coaching services to writers at every stage in their career. Our conversation covered everything from the worst mistakes budding writers make to the problem with coverage services. An edited transcript follows:

LA Screenwriter (LA): What does a typical coaching session look like for you?

Lee Jessup (LJ): The beauty of my job is that every writer is different, and every writer is at a different moment in their career.

If I’m talking to a writer who is still figuring out their path, who they are as a writer, it’s first of all about figuring out their brand, figuring out where they are their best, and starting to build that body of work. Early on, the focus is solely on the body of work in order to get the writer to a place where they are industry viable. Then it will be pedigree building. That means getting the material out into contests and onto listing services in order to create an identity for the writer that is appealing to the marketplace.

typAnd then it evolves. As writers move on in their career, it becomes about getting the writer representation, managing the writer’s representation, determining if it’s time to switch representation, and helping them do that. I become a sounding board for ideas, for relationship-building questions, even for what to prepare if you’re pitching a specific studio executive.

So it really goes pretty far and wide. My role is to help writers – wherever they are in their career – to strategize and make choices that will help push them towards their goals.

LA: You’ve said that it takes three to ten years for a writer to make it as a screenwriter once they’ve found their voice. Could you explain what you mean by that?

LJ: A client of mine said to me recently, “I’ve been at this for five years now, and it’s kind of driving me nuts.” So I had to ask, “How many of those five years were you actually creating material that was viable for the industry?” I had to call her on the fact that, for the first two years, you were in school.

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Granted, you’re studying screenwriting and you’re working on your craft, but you’re not doing anything for your career, you’re just figuring out who you are as a writer. A lot of writers will try comedy, and they’ll try a thriller, and they’ll try a sci-fi… and that’s not a place where you’re ready for the industry yet. When you figure out what your strengths are and you figure out your methodology, that’s when the clock starts ticking.

LA: I think the challenge for a lot of writers, myself included, is that you get to a point where you think, “Wow, I’m a really great writer now,” and then a few years go by and you realize, “Man, I was shit back then!” So how do people really know when they’ve found their voice?

LJ: Writers know when they’ve found their voice when there is enough positive feedback coming back from people who are not invested in how their feedback will affect their relationship with you. You’ll start to see readers coming back to you with more positive responses, contests will start letting you through further, all of these strangers will start to commend the work. When people start to say, “This isn’t for me, but I’ll read the next thing from you…” Those are the markers that there is something there.

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LA: You were the head of Script Shark for six and a half years, but you advise writers not to use those sorts of services and to use individual readers instead. Why is that?

LJ: Honestly, when you have a stable of readers, no two readers are the same. You don’t know who the writers are in a stable, you don’t know why they’re in the stable. I had a particular reader at Script Shark that I inherited, and in my opinion, he wasn’t delivering coverage that was on the same level as a few of my other readers, but he was beloved by his clients, so there was no getting rid of him. He was way too easy on material. Material he gave “considers” to didn’t get any traction in the industry, but because these services have to rely on return business, oftentimes decisions are made that are not necessarily in the best interest of the writer.

I really do think that for the feedback to count, you should find individual readers whose sensibilities you understand, who understand you, who are demanding of you, and who you have direct communication with. I mean, I still send people to two of the readers that I had at Script Shark. It’s really about the individual opinion, not about the stable, and you do have to vet the individual.

[Read Lee Jessup’s 5 Steps Toward Your Big Break]

LA: What about coverage services that offer connections if you receive a “recommend”?

I do think they can be worthwhile, but those are submissions for different reasons. Looking at coverage for coverage’s sake, for the sake of improving your screenplay, then I don’t think coverage services are going to be as consistent and dependable as individual readers. If you’re looking for scouting opportunities, coverage services can offer that and be very successful with that, but the writers have to remember that those are one-time opportunities. It’s not as though one of these services is going to get your script out there again and again and again. They’re going to do one round of sends, they’re going to distribute the logline to a bunch of people and ask them if they want to read the script, they’ll say yes or no, and then the service moves on to the next script. Because that’s just how the business model works.

But I don’t believe that you should submit for those recommends, because they are hard to get and it is opinion based. And if the script really is good enough, you’ll be able to do more with it and go further via other avenues.

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LA: Speaking of other avenues, there are obviously lots of different ways that writers can spend money while trying to pursue a writing career. How would you recommend that a budding screenwriter invest their limited financial resources?

LJ: I really am a huge fan of classes. I think that classes are incredibly important.

LA: Do you have any favorite classes?

LJ: Sure! I love Pilar Alessandra. She does some great classes here in LA. For TV writing, Script Anatomy just launched its first online class that will be starting next month. Corey Mandel teaches great classes.

Not only does a class provide the writer with toolsets and guidance, it also provides structure, which is incredibly important. You have to turn in the homework, you have to show up, you have to keep up with the class. And classes provide community. The ability to connect with other writers — that can become incredibly helpful, specifically to people who are not living their day-to-day life within the industry.

This whole screenwriting industry thing can be weird to outsiders. It works differently than any other industry, and connecting with other people that understand your journey and are going on the same journey — or who are may be a couple steps ahead on that journey — can be really constructive and supportive in a lot of ways. So always start with classes. That’s first and foremost, because if you don’t have your craft, you really don’t have anything.

Certainly read the books. If you’re not in LA, then you can decide to invest in coming out to LA, doing some networking trips around things that are happening in the city.

For better or for worse, there’s no shortage of things that writers can spend their money on. The challenge here is that the screenwriter support industry is a super, super saturated space. Writers have to be really discerning about what they’re spending their money on. What happened was, during the 2008 writer’s strike, a lot of development funds dried up and a lot of budding development executives found themselves out of a job, and a lot of them moved over to the coverage space. So it’s just been swamped with people coming in.

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Which is not to say that there aren’t some good consultants out there. I’m not saying don’t spend your money, I’m just saying do your investigation first. At the end of the day, this is a business of opinion, so you have to find people whose opinions jive with your point of view, but they also need to have some sort of reputation backing up what they have to offer.

LA: Aside from the basics, like sending out a first draft, what are some of the biggest mistakes that you see screenwriters make?

LJ: Sending out material and not following up on it. That’s huge. All the time I hear people say, “Oh, well, I sent this to a manager, you know, last August.” And I ask, “Have you followed up?” And they say, “Well, no…”

Professional behavior is following up. That’s what professionals do. You follow up on your work. I’m not saying follow up every day or every other day, but I’m a big believer that follow-up should occur over a ten-week period four times, usually through short, kind, generous emails. And if you don’t hear back after ten weeks, it’s done. But you do that follow-up. You treat your scripts with that kind of respect.

There are so many mistakes that happen out there. Some writers have a tendency to apologize for themselves before they’ve even shown up. I once got a letter from a writer that said, “Forgive my letter, I’m very uncomfortable expressing myself in words.” So I didn’t go on to read the script!

Let the work stand up for itself. Don’t assume that everyone’s going to read to page 110 because that’s where it gets good. Be great from page one. Really evaluate the concept behind what you’re writing. Really work on your relationships. Every relationship is a fleck of gold, and you have to continue to harvest them and stay in touch and to send those holiday cards and to update your contacts about what’s going on with you. A lot of writers tend to just throw something at the wall and hope that it’s going to stick, and it’s never going to happen that way.

ssgLA: Tell me about your screenwriter support group.

LJ: My screenwriter support group is an online group that I started in the beginning of 2015, because once again, I think community is incredibly important for writers, and I feel there’s not enough of it.

I’ve found that writers aren’t proactive about creating community for one another that exists for community’s sake, not for the sake of sharing pages or getting notes. I wanted to create a group where people can talk about the journey of being a writer — whether through our Facebook page or in our sessions — where writers could bring their questions to a centralized place and get those questions answered. It’s a place where writers can hear questions they never thought to ask, where there is constant regard to what’s happening in the industry, what’s happening on the front lines, so that writers stop feeling like they’re operating in a bubble and instead feel a bit more connected and a bit more informed about this space they’re trying to break into.

LA: And you have a book as well?

LJ: I do have a book. It came out in April 2014. It’s called Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide To A Screenwriting Career. I wrote this book because I felt like there were a lot of basic questions that I get asked over and over again that writers are not finding the answers to, and there’s just a general shortage of business-type information. So I wrote the book for writers who don’t necessarily want a coach but who just want information on how does it work, how does this industry work, what’s required of me, how do I get out there, how do I define myself as a writer, how do I make a go this thing… I wanted the book to give a primer so writers could start developing an understanding of what this space is that they are trying to penetrate.

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