Ten Questions with Linda Seger
July 28th, 2021
Dr. Linda Seger is the original script consultant having literally inventing the job in 1981; before her it didn't exist. Since then she has consulted on over 2000 scripts and presented screenwriting seminars in over thirty countries around the world. Seger has written nine books on screenwriting making her the most prolific screenwriting author we have. Seger consulted for Peter Jackson’s break-through film, BRAIN DEAD and Roland Emmerich’s breakthrough film, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. She also has given seminars for studios, networks including ABC, NBC, CBS, production companies, television series (MacGyver, The Mary Show), film commissions, universities and film schools.
I am honored to offer the following "Ten Questions With..." series interview:
1. For those who may be new in the screenwriting game, tell us a little about yourself. I don’t think many people know that you were the first screenwriting consultant in Hollywood? I was the first script consultant. Before me, this particular job didn't exist. The closest anyone could come was a development executive at a studio or production company but the writer needed to have sold the script in order to get that kind of help. And my work was slightly different than theirs. I was not trying to change a writer's work but trying to better craft it. An executive once fed back to me what it was that I did. She said they had gotten several scripts where the level of craft was at such a high professional level but the level of art was not at the same level and they couldn't figure it out until they discovered each of these writers had come to me.
I saw my job a helping them craft what they brought to me and if it wasn't a great story, I could raise the level of the craft but I couldn't make it a great story. True, there were a lot of times in our discussion that creative brainstorming raise the level of the art as well. But it wasn't my job to change their story - it was my job to help them make their story the best possible.
I had an unusual background. After my BA in English, I went on for an MA in theater and during that time I became interested in drama and theology and religion and the arts. After I had taught for two years at college in the field of speech and theater, I ordinarily would have gone on for a PhD in drama but there were only three universities who had that degree in 1971 – Northwestern where I had already been for my MA, and Yale which I visited but I'm not in Easterner and I couldn't see me spending 3 to 5 years in Connecticut, and the University of Washington in Seattle which specialized in Children's Theater, and I had done that at Northwestern but did not want to make that the focus of my career. I discovered there was a program in Religion and the Arts at a seminary in Berkeley – Pacific School of Religion, so I did a little vacation there to meet the major professor, Dr. Wayne Rood, and I was very impressed and thought I would go for nine months and check it out and ended up getting another MA – in religion and the arts and then a THD in drama and theology. So I was there for five years.
I presumed I would teach college but nobody was interested because I had just gotten the least marketable degree that anyone could ever get. The religion people didn't want to hire me because they thought that drama people were outrageous and the drama people didn't want to hire me because they thought religious people were too uptight. It might have made sense for me to get a job at a Christian college but there weren't any available. I lived outside of Los Angeles so I tried to break into the film industry but no one was going to hire somebody with a doctorate because there is a kind of anti--education slant to Hollywood.
So I tried to figure out what I had to sell in order to get my toe in the door and I decided the one thing they might want is the fact I was a very fast typist. So I took all my degrees off of my resume except for the BA in English and sold myself on my typing ability as a substitute when other people at production companies were on vacation. I thought maybe I would move up the ladder once I got working in a company. I worked for Norman Lear's company for eight months and the writers strike hit in 1980 and they were no longer even hiring substitutes. So, again, I was not easily employable.
2. What made you decide to become a consultant and teacher? While I was at Norman Lear’s company, I was reading scripts and could see that there were many scripts with problems that were fixable if the writer knew what the problem was. So I worked on a few free scripts, and took my doctoral dissertation which was partly about what makes a great script, and I reversed it to use it to shed light on what is missing in scripts that are not yet great. After doing a few scripts for free, I then placed an ad in the Hollywood reporter on September 17, 1981 and started getting occasional clients. I kept my prices low and I moved into the back room of a friend's house so I would not have to pay much rent and kept my living expenses extremely low to get my business started. Then I went to a career consultant - and did a trade with her since she was also a writer – and started to figure out how to make this small tiny part time job into a full-time job because I really loved what I was doing and I got feedback that said I was very helpful.
3. You have worked with Academy Award winners; some might be surprised they would seek help. The assumption I guess is that they have reached the pinnacle why would they seek help? Without giving away a name of course, what was the most difficult situation you encountered? Many of the scripts I've worked on have won awards, and I have worked with Bill Kelley who wrote Witness after he won the Academy award. Even great writers get stuck or lose their objectivity or have a challenge or problem that is very difficult to solve. With Bill, it was a script with the spiritual slant and I think maybe that's another reason he hired me, but we had gotten to know each other since I had been doing some articles and then later my first book that included Witness.
I also was hired by a producer to work on a script that was written by an Academy award-winning writer because the producer was trying to decide whether to invest in the script and in the film. The writer was very closed to any input and it was not a good script so as a result of my report, the producer decided not to invest and the other potential investors decided not to also. I don't know if the writer ever knew I had been brought in because it was very confidential. In the movie was not made and I can't see it could have been made without a lot of rewriting which he wasn't willing to do. I have discovered with award-winning writers that sometimes there ego gets the better of them and so they have one good hit but not a career.
Bill died some years ago and I don't think he would mind me using his name here but all my work is confidential until a movie is made or until the writer tells me it is fine to use his name.
4. You have authored so many excellent screenwriting books, which one is your personal favorite and why? I have a lot of affection for all my books, I guess like one has affection for their different children, but my first book, Making Good Script Great, has done very well and opened up the world for me. As a result of that book, I have consulted on 6 out of 7 continents and taught in 33 countries on six continents. So that book paved the way for an international career which was just wonderful.
Two of my spiritual books are particularly special to me. Spiritual Steps on the Road to Success was personal because it was about what I learned from becoming successful and the particular spiritual challenges that are part of success. So I felt it was quite an original approach to success and I felt there was much in that book that just had not been explored before.
I also have a very special personal feeling about my spiritual book, Reflections with God while Waiting to be Healed. In 2008, I had a very small automobile accident and developed cervical dytonia (a movement disorder) as a result. I am now about 95% better so anyone who sees me doesn't know there's any problem, but I have not totally cured and it is a very difficult and frustrating medical problem and I had to really think through my theology to find the spiritual strength to deal with it.
Every book has a challenge but I have a literary consultant, Dr. Lenny Felder, who taught me how to write proposals and then has helped me on a number of my books. On the first books, I hired him to read them and give me feedback in addition to friends who I asked for feedback. Lenny is very experienced, and an author himself, and he always got me unstuck. Many of my titles come from Lenny or are helped by him. I had learned early in my career to turn to other people for help and learned that there's a whole lot of people that know a whole lot more about certain things than I do which is kept me from being stuck.
5. You have authored books on spirituality and have talked about mindset, what things or aspects of mindset do you feel helps writers the most or what writers most suffer from and how can they address it? I am just completing a book on spirituality and creativity called God's Part in Our Art: Making Friends with the Creative Spirit. The book should be out by about September 1 and it's about expanding our creativity and helping our creative process go more smoothly by bringing our spiritual life more directly into our work. Since I have studied creativity and, of course, I have worked in the creative arts for over 40 years, this book is a kind of theology of creativity but is an extremely practical book. I always test my books with different readers and I have discovered that the Christian Creative, the Jewish Creative and the Spiritual Creative are responding to the book in many heartfelt ways. Just to give you one example of how I approach this material, if you look at Genesis 1:2, and in most translations you will see that the spirit of God hovered over the deep. So I have a whole chapter about hovering before you start writing so that you don't begin your work in a frenetic state of mind. So every chapter looks at a verse theologically and then what it means to us as spiritual people who are artists. I have learned to hover and the writing is going more smoothly. Of course I talk about hovering for whole chapter so there's a whole lot more there that expands on this idea.
6. Through all your years of consulting, what is the most difficult aspect of screenwriting for new writers? I think the most difficult aspect of any kind of writing is writing. It's important to have a discipline. You have to write and keep writing and write some more and rewrite and you have to have enough joy in the work to keep doing it. I have a saying that if I have not rewritten a chapter 10 times it is probably not good enough. I also have a saying that the difference between amateur and professional writers is that professional writers work harder. They know what it takes to do great work.
It's important to learn your craft which means reading screenplays and watching lots of movies and reading books on screenwriting and practicing and doing it and knowing that you will become better at it as you keep doing it. The myth of the first screenplay winning an Academy award is basically a myth. Even when somebody says their first screenplay won the award, that screenplay has been worked on for years and probably gone through 20 or 30 rewrites. But most of the time, when people have won awards, that has come after many years and many scripts.
7. Can a writer be taught to be good enough to have a career or is there a point where natural ability must be there? You need to have a certain amount of natural ability but a lot of that is learned through year after year of writing and just capitalizing on your strengths. Obviously you are not going to turn to writing if you don't like to write and if you haven't read some great writing and have a feeling about the love of words and the love of character and stories that push at you. As in any discipline, there is so much to learn. A writer needs to be a sponge and keep taking it in and keep learning just like a dancer keeps working at it and artists in any to works hard in order to learn their field of discipline. Anyone who thinks that writing is easy hasn't done much writing. Of course sometimes writing just flows and that is wonderful but I even find that when my writing flows it still gets rewritten a lot. I change sentences around. I want to find a better word. I change the rhythm. The brain gets tired. But I do love writing.
8. What is the most common screenwriting mistake that you encounter regardless of the experience level of the writer and why do you think that is? I think the biggest mistake screenwriters make is to think that is going to be easy and they are going to sell their first script and that they know everything there is to know. I think the average for most writers is selling their 8th or 10th script. Some writers never sell anything. I think another mistake writers make is they sabotage themselves. They don't take opportunities because they don't think they pay enough or because they don't want to do the hard work or they don't think somebody is worth meeting because they're not important enough. It's true that this is a difficult field but I have watched so many people get their ego in the way. You have to look for every way to get your toe in the door and then you have to handle everything very diplomatically and professionally – there is so much to learn about writing and about marketing.
The people who have been the most helpful in my career have not been the famous people but the generous people. I've had a lot of breakthroughs because somebody helped me out who nobody will ever hear about, but that person was a connector. So don't ever underestimate somebody's worth, even when it comes to the person who will be most helpful in getting a breakthrough.
In terms of basic writing mistakes, a lot of writers don't know how to shape a story and how to keep going deeper and deeper into the story. That means they have to learn structure, and they have to be willing to keep peeling back the layers in themselves to find the freshness in depth and originality.
9.How do you go about helping the writer overcome that mistake or habit? I suppose the way I have most helped people overcome those problems comes from the pages and pages of notes that they have gotten from me as well as notes on the script. It becomes clear that there's a whole lot of work to do in writing. I always worked on their script with a lot of hope and gave them everything I possibly could to help them move to the next level. I also realize that not every story is a great story but it might be a story that gets them started and they learn a lot and then go to another script and perhaps go to a better idea.
10.Thank you for your time, what are you working on now or do you have something coming up/ or new books? I retired from consulting and seminars but not from writing books. After God's Part in Our Art comes out, I want to do some new editions of other books and I have ideas for two or three other books I would like to do.
I started my own publishing company, Red Typewriter Press (can you imagine the icon?) Because the whole process of getting an agent and submitting to publishers and then having a long timeline is not going to get the books out there that I want to get out. The publishing business has changed so much that it is now much easier to get books on Amazon, or most people buy the books, so I have created a little team around me of editors in somebody who knows how to get it on Amazon and I have a great cover designer that has done the covers for about five my previous books – which were with other companies but I have been able to hire him separately from those publishing companies.
I did want to add that I have been enjoying some other art forms. I color every morning for about 20 or 30 minutes and I have loved starting my day with doing something in the visual arts. I want to do some painting and maybe will get started on that at the end of this year.
I went back to piano four years ago after not taking a lesson for 50 years. And I have been focusing on two piano duets which includes two piano, four hands and a quartet of two piano eight hands. When I got a grand piano four years ago, I kept my old piano so we practice at my house but also my teachers have two pianos in their studios. I have a marvelous duet partner who's a beautiful pianist and we are having a great time. We entered an international two piano competition in March, and won in the adult category. I should add that we were the only people in that category but we played the Danse Macabre which you can listen to on YouTube which is a highly dramatic and difficult piece. I now have also formed a piano quartet (4 people, 8 hands). We are playing three recitals in August and both the quartet and the duo will be competing in a competition in Pueblo in November and then this international competition which will be held in January, 2022.
All the work in one art form translates wonderfully to another art form. Visit her site
You might also enjoy a previous interview with Linda Seger as well.
About the Author
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(Follow on Twitter) Christopher Wehner is a published author and produced screenwriter, EL CAMINO CHRISTMAS @Netflix and AMERICAN DREAMER (later this year); visit his IMDB page for future projects. Christopher has been a leading member of the online screenwriter's community going back to the 1990s. In 2001 he published the groundbreaking book Screenwriting on the Internet: Researching, Writing and Selling Your Script on the Web,.
To contact Chris visit his website: Warm Beer Productions.
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