How to Become a Successful Writer: To Dream or Not to Dream?

Greta Heinemann, writer-producer on NCIS New Orleans, shares how she achieved her goal of moving from Germany to Los Angeles to become a successful writer. It all starts with a pen and paper.
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Greta Heinemann, writer-producer on NCIS New Orleans, shares how she achieved her goal of moving from Germany to Los Angeles to become a successful writer. It all starts with a pen and paper.

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A little while ago, a young aspiring writer asked me out for coffee and advice. Always having appreciated other writers taking the time to share their insight with me, I naturally agreed and soon found myself sitting at a café, waiting for the eager writer to be. I say waiting, because the literal personification of an Instagram and helicopter-parent raised, entitled millennial left me waiting for 20 minutes. The meeting initially inspired me to write about the obvious things NOT to do when trying to become a working writer, but I decided to shelve my opus of expletives and instead pontificate on a more constructive matter: What can we actually do to become working writers?

When asked why he wanted to be a writer, the kid (which is what I’ll call him despite the fact that we probably attended high school at roughly the same time) said: Because it is my dream.

And he is not alone... Most of us have an unexplained urge to become writers. Something magical, sometimes dark and pained, other times unbridled and joyous that lures us to pursue a life on the verge of fiction. We like to dream. And agree with me or not, I’d even go as far as to say that the ability to dream is one of the key ingredients that makes a writer. After all, it is our job to spend day after day dreaming up outlandish plot-twists, worlds and characters. But in the real world it is when we confuse dreams with goals that we find our careers stagnant like a flatlined EKG during a Grey’s Anatomy music montage.

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The thesis therefore becomes that the dream of becoming a working writer—while it is a concept so vivid in our imagination—is as fleeting a reality as a magical unicorn. The goal of becoming a working writer on the other hand suggests that there is a plan and a path in place that we can control and pursue to, step-by-step, achieve what we are longing for. No fairy dust, no fucking rocket-science: The simplest thing you can do to continuously advance your career as professional writer is to keep your dreams on the page and pursue real-life goals that are measurable, actually obtainable and, most importantly, within your control.

I say in our control because, as writers, we’re players in a highly taste-based business. Trends change at an hour’s notice and no two people read a script the same way. What one loves, the other hates and what’s more: Access, timing, and luck mean everything and all that is largely out of our control. If we aim at “winning an Oscar,” we’re setting ourselves up for failure. If we’re instead aiming at “writing a brilliant feature film that could attract pedigree talent”—at least the quest is 100% in our control. Now don’t get me wrong, even if your script really ends up being that brilliant (and let’s be real, I’m the first to admit that most of mine won’t be) you probably still won’t win that Oscar, but at the very least it will open next doors and get you one step closer.

For every story of overnight success, there are thousand success stories built on hard-work and the relentless continuous effort to build a career from the ground up. Good news for us, because it means that anyone who can be honest with themselves and disciplined enough to turn their dreams into goals and follow through with actionable steps, has a shot at making it.

Let’s take the example of a mediocrely talented, young writer from Germany. At 14-years-old, she dreams about moving to Hollywood to become a writer. Born and raised at the foot of the Bavarian alps, fantasies of a life in sunny California, driving a convertible up the PCH surely seem like wonderful escapes. Particularly during the bitter cold winter months, but without speaking a lick of English, and connections of any kind, the odds of those dreams actually becoming true are rather steep. Agreed? Cute transition aside, if you know me, you know that the writer in this example is none other than myself. When I started my journey, I was 14-years-old, in Germany, not even speaking the language I set out to become a professional writer in.

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Today, I’ve got roughly 100 episodes of television under my belt and continuously work to expand my professional writing career. What helped me along the way, was the simple principle of treating my writing career like any other: One that has clear, measurable goals that are within my control and can be conquered on a step by step basis. That, plus the concept of writing things down.

SIDENOTE: Did you know that science suggests people who physically write their goals down are 42% more likely to reach them? I’m a bit of a planning, productivity and efficiency nerd (have I mentioned that I am German?). So admittedly, I get great joy out of organizing and strategizing and for those who don’t naturally love it, I actually developed a journal/productivity coach that’s specifically designed to help writers strategize their careers and achieve more.

BUT BACK TO OUR REGULAR SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING:

In my case, my first step was taking pen to paper and writing down what it would take for me to achieve my goals. What could I do now, in my day-to-day life, that would set me on the path of becoming a working screenwriter? For me, the first obvious task was to learn English and save up enough money to come America. I wrote these goals down and in small controllable steps, focused on becoming fluent in English, while working three jobs to save my money.

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Seven-ish years later (yup, we’re talking about the long game here. If you’re looking for shortcuts, look for another field), I had lined up a flight and shady L.A. Craigslist pad, and was on my way to Los Angeles. With the first installment of my plan reached, it was now time to plot my next chapter. Again, I took pen to paper and started to analyze what needed to be accomplished before anything else could happen. If I wanted to be a writer, I now had to learn how to actually write. Meanwhile, being an immigrant, I also had to find a way to stay in the U.S. So, I spent the next couple of years working a completely writing un-related, work-visa job, while religiously taking UCLA extension classes at night.

Eventually, once my craft had reached a level of professionalism that was worth showing to others, I planned my next move: Getting my material read. I accomplished that by setting clear networking goals and submitting my scripts to writing competitions where they got attention and were put in front of managers and agents. Out of this, I got my first rep, my second rep, my third reps and ultimately the big shot to come aboard a show. In the interest of time, I’ll skip a whole series of blog-worthy steps that followed thereafter, but even today, as I am sitting at my desk typing up this post, I got my Writer’s Wright Journal lying next to me, to help me strategize my career in clear goals and to hold me accountable, when I—completely hypothetically, of course—spend more time writing guest blog posts than I spend outlining my next feature…

So, to bring it back to the young, wide-eyed aspiring writer with bad meeting habits: When he inevitably asked me what he could do to make his dreams of becoming a writer come true, I told him that every advice is different, but mine goes something like this:

Save your dreams for the page, take pen to paper, and write down a realistic, long-term plan built on incremental goals that are within your control and can be pursued on a daily basis.

You’ll never end up exactly where you think you will, but you’ll always make progress.

Learn more about Greta and her Writer's Wright Journal.

If you need help getting words on the page, check out Screenwriters University's online course, Fitting Writing Into Your Life: Becoming a Productive Screenwriter

REGISTER NOW! 

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