Melvin Smith was in the Marines and has been a serious writer since 2001. I met Melvin through the online forum, DoneDealPro, which goes to show you all that what I am saying is true – get out there and meet people, whether it is in person or online, and you will meet some awesome folks willing to share their stories. Melvin has had successes in the writing world and has had representation, both of which are goals us writers should aim for.
Justin Sloan: I am glad to have you here with us, sharing your wisdom. To get us started, what did you do in the military and why did you join?
Melvin Smith: Thanks for inviting me. I went into the U.S Marines right out of high school. Age 17. My MOS was Security Forces on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower; an aircraft carrier stationed out of Norfolk Virginia. I originally had a scholarship offer to play basketball in the Midwest, but my father, a Vietnam Veteran, felt I was going to college for the wrong reasons. And partying until I puked my brains out wasn’t a good enough reason for him to sign off on. Lol! He suggested I grow up, follow into his footsteps, see the world and become a man… I really hate it when he’s right, but I think he gets a kick out of it.
JS: At what point did you get out, and what was the route that took you to screenwriting?
MS: I finally came home for good in 1996, I believe. I’ve always been fascinated with movies as a kid. Duh. But it was something special that peaked my interest I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Before the Marines I was a musician, like my dad, and I always wrote lyrics ever since junior high school. After my 6-year tour of duty my love of storytelling turned into the dream of writing that all-American novel. So I hung out in the writing section at Barnes and Noble every Sunday for a few months and quietly attempted to grasp a handle on the medium of writing then dove right in, but it wasn’t until I wrote my first spec that I was hooked. I’ve been infected with the bug ever since.
JS: You have been in the writing game now for over ten years. Have you learned any main lessons during that time? If you had thirty seconds to advise a new writer on where to get started, what would you say?
MS: Grab a pen and write what you love. What I’ve learned the most is that it just takes time to become the writer you want to be. I never had a problem staying motivated, I just needed time to fully recognize my own voice then employ that wisdom to my advantage. That’s what those first few scripts written were best at helping me to accomplish… becoming a writer. I have a couple of specs I will never show anyone, not even my wife when she asks me after twelve minutes of hard lovemaking, but I am still damn glad I wrote them.
JS: Now let’s say you met that same person five years later, they have a few scripts under their belt and want to go to the next level. What would you advise them then?
MS: There are as many ways in as there are writers. If you can move to L.A it might be a good idea. If you know a friend of a friend… make the call. If that long lost great uncle your mother swears stole the gravy bowl suddenly leaves you his lifetime of bingo winnings in his will think of putting together a creative, yet competent film crew and shooting a movie yourself. Maybe try your luck at one or two top tier screenplay competitions, and of course never be afraid to pitch yourself in an e-query, an elevator, or even at a massage parlor if your hands are free and you’re very animated. The truth is anything can have the potential to be the next awesome way in that other hungry writers will refer to. Just don’t be a dick… or a stalker… or a stalker dick.
JS: You must have interacted with some awesome writers in your time as a writer. Do you have a fun story you can share or any perfect piece of advice a mentor may have given you?
MS: I flew out to LALA Land a few years back and was blessed to meet Ed Solomon and even pick his brain a bit. Really nice guy. Very humble and talented. He had just written and directed the film, ‘Levity’, starring Billy Bob Thorton. I was so impressed that he still took the time to let me quiz him on the business. I was so gitty. This guy had written one of my favorite movies: Men In Black. I’ve met a couple of awesome writers since and every single one has always been gracious. I was told earlier: If you want more control in this business then be more than just a writer. Sorry. Not really funny… unless you chug a bottle of Tequila straight before my intro.
JS: To back up a step, have you found that being a Marine has helped you in the entertainment industry? Is there a network of any sort, or resources that you’ve come across?
MS: I’m sure there are plenty out there I’ve just been too busy to get off my butt and find them. Other than checking in on DoneDealPro.com regularly I’ve literally submerged myself into my work (wrote a YA fantasy trilogy and adaptations) for the last year and a half in fact. I’m finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel so that may become my next goal to achieve. But being a Marine has helped me handle the pressures of starting and completing new projects for sure. I feel I can do anything. Hoorah!
JS: Does your military experience ever influence your writing? Have you written a military specific story?
MS: Being a Marine has certainly changed my view of the world, both good and bad, as I’m sure it has for most vets. However, my life in the military always finds its way intruding into my works in some weird form or fashion. It’s usually inevitable. I don’t fight it. It’s just who I am now. I merely change the names and places to protect the innocent. I honestly thought I would write more military influenced stories than I have, though, but after I wrote one in particular, which was filtered with events that may or may not have been accurate I’ve never desired to write anymore… guess that’s all that I needed to say about it.
JS: Do you have a niche in your writing, and do you think that is necessary for Hollywood?
MS: I love writing thrillers. Hopefully, you can tell that I’m a bit of a smartass too so I tend to incorporate my twisted humor into most of my works as well. I think when you first try to make a name for yourself it’s best to focus on one niche to be taken seriously. I’m not sure why that it is though. This game is evolving, and just like in your new book there are mavericks out there and all of them have more than one niche in their repertoire. I’ve written a female fiction too. A drama. Some of my personal pain resembles that of my protagonist. Still, I have no plans to show that project until I’m given the benefit of the doubt that I can actually write a drama. Don’t tell anyone.
JS: You mentioned that you have done well in some of the contests. What are your thoughts on contests, and has doing well in them helped your career in any direct or indirect ways?
MS: Being that I knew virtually no one when I first started out, screenplay competitions were my only connection to Hollywood. Unfortunately, the ones that I placed in did no more than boost my confidence and help pad my query to make me look more seasoned, or less green than I really was. I’m not sure if they helped or not, as I never asked. But that being said, a few newer competitions have changed the game slightly; getting their winners repped, sold, and produced so hey, if you have no other way in I believe they can be helpful, if you place in the right one (Nichols, Trackingb, ScriptPipline, Page, etc…).
JS: For the work that you have done, how did you find it? Is it through the networks, or some other resource we should all know about?
MS: I found my first agent via e-querying a spec called, Flick: a hostage-thriller that took place at a movie complex. But life literally imitated art, and soon after my shiny gem turned into a worthless stone. Later, I pitched another spec to an independent producer and after reading it he offered me an assignment based off of his one-page summary. I was very excited. I wrote it. He liked it a lot. Then he fired me off the project, I think. I was never told. Oh, well. I’ve endured worse. Hoorah! Next, I met up with an actor who had a role in Abductions and an episode of CSI New York and he hired me to rewrite his passion project, a 170-Page Albanian mob project. I did so. Trimmed it to 121 pages of delectable broken English and gritty action… I wonder what ever happened with that? To be fair, my agent did get me through a few doors, plus took a pilot I wrote at his request just for HBO, but I’m still waiting to hear back… it’s been over two years.
JS: As Marines, we are all about structure and uniformity (maybe not anymore?), but what are your thoughts on structure and books on screenwriting?
MS: Marines and their structure: so so true. My complete screenwriting education came from reading books on screenplays at Barnes and Nobles. I literary read every single book they carried on the subject, some more than once, plus the Variety and The Hollywood Reporter from off the magazine rack for treats. I think it’s good to soak up as much wisdom as you can achieve from the path lying before you then allow your own voice to lead, but within some perimeters. I like structure because, well… I am Marine. But it can be a helpful ally when you’re writing. I like to keep my stories lean, structure helps me do that and stay extremely critical if I feel the creative need to do otherwise.
JS: Thank you for all of the awesome advice, Melvin. Before we sign off, is there one piece of advice you would like to leave us with?
MS: Always be writing something. Give yourself the best chance for success. Either working on your next hot script, pilot or manuscript, or rewriting that diamond in the rough you just finished last week that you’re so excited about. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned about myself, exposing those deepest fears and insecurities hiding in the shadows of my existence then incorporating them into my scripts in some unique way. Not only does it help with the authenticity of my stories it helps perfect my skills as a storyteller, plus its free therapy. Along the way I’ve heard a lot of ‘sorry, just not for me.’ But that one positive response that eventual comes always takes away the sting. If you don’t write with a passion then go do something else (make it easier for me J), but if you can’t go a day without writing, even if its just re-imagining ‘plot points’ inside your skull then never quit. You’ll get there in some capacity. I’ve written for free before and I’ve been hired to work. I’ve been repped and I’ve been unrepped, and although having representation is so much better for your ego (and your sex life) there is always one thing that stays constant: YOU MUST WRITE. Hoorah!
These interviews will appear in an upcoming book on military members and veterans in the world of entertainment. As you wait, please read my book Creative Writing Career, on Amazon.