The path to success for writers varies. That also includes the obstacles that either stalled their career or completely killed it. For me, I had unique challenges when I first moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. I was a woman, a minority, and not well-connected. Ultimately, I did not reach my original goal of being a famous screenwriter, but I did end up with a thriving career as an author, journalist, and recently, a standup comedian.
But sometimes I do question, “Could I have done something differently to have stayed on my original course?” Woulda, coulda, shoulda …
But there are four glaring mistakes I made in the early stages of my writing career, and this is what I wish I would have done differently.
1. I wish that I hadn’t listened to people who didn’t get me.
External factors like the market can’t be controlled, but one thing I wish I had done differently was to not listen to people who didn’t get me. In film school, I had a professor who told me to make my characters white, not Asian, if I wanted to sell a script. I stupidly whitewashed most of my own work, also diluting my voice, only to find out in the next few years that Hollywood was looking for Chinese-American scripts because China was a big investor. I exploded with anger at this turn of events, but really, it was my fault. I wasn’t forced to listen to him, but my mindset back then was that since he was a teacher and I was a student then that meant he knew more than me.
I was so focused on selling and too green to know myself that I ended up losing myself in the process.
Finding the right mentor is incredibly rewarding to help your career, but it is just as important to know who to ignore. I’m actually glad that experience and similar ones happened early in my career because I made sure since then to be more selective with whom I took advice from.
I also learned to never follow trends when it comes to writing. If something has become a trend, then that means by the time you have heard about it, you are too late to ride the wave. Just continue doing what you do.
2. I wish I had not spent years working in toxic environments to “pay my dues.”
When I first tried working in the industry, I was constantly told, “You gotta pay your dues.” While I agree that you need to work on your craft, network, and be professional, I do believe that I wasted time in toxic environments or keeping in touch with abusive personalities because I believed this was just the way it was.
In my early twenties, I had worked multiple low or no-paying toxic entertainment jobs, and some of my friends were the assistants of bosses who threw staplers or made gross advances. Thankfully, some of those bad employers were exposed during and after the #MeToo movement, but in almost a decade since, those jobs showed no tangible benefit to my friends’ careers besides leaving with a dramatic story and credit card debt. The low and no-pay situations should have been red flags in themselves. It’s not like we were volunteering at a charity. We were getting coffees and managing schedules of people who ate at 5-star restaurants and drove BMWs.
They say hindsight is 20/20, and I have the years of hindsight to say without a doubt—abusive and predatory people will not help you in the long run. They’ll either string you along for years or if they do boost your career, you’ll be associated with someone who will eventually get outed. It’s just not worth it.
3. I wish I had cut out toxic creative partners quicker from my life.
The principle of not staying at a bad job also applies to staying in a bad relationship, in this case, creative relationship. I made the mistake of working with producers, fellow writers, directors and more who I got bad vibes from, and the working relationship was awful—and what we created was terrible, too.
In a previous article I described how gross producers tried to take advantage of me in a deal for the rights to my book The Sugar Baby Club. Evaluating that situation, there were plenty of red flags that I ignored before I was stuck in a year-long contract with them. Nothing positive arose from that experience except a cementing of the idea that if people give you the heebie-jeebies, it’s probably your intuition telling you to run.
4. I wish I had focused more on the craft of writing, not the external results.
As mentioned earlier, I listened to a teacher who told me to "write white" to succeed, and I was so focused on selling scripts that I completely sold out. Ironically, I didn’t even sell any scripts that focused on white people, so I sold out without even making money. What a loser, as Donald Trump would say.
My biggest takeaway from my years of writing is that when I focused more on selling, or getting recognition, or networking, then I was more susceptible to scammers and mistreatment. But when I changed my mindset to care about the quality of my work and the quality of my life (not letting haters into my world), my career took off.
I’m sure I will make numerous more mistakes in the next few years, but I’m also fortunate enough to spot the big problems early and to immediately do the smart thing—RUN!
*Feature image by Fran_kie (Adobe)