10 Things I Hate About You. Legally Blonde. Ella Enchanted. She’s The Man. Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith and Karen McCullah have written into existence the genre of empowered women in romantic comedies.
Utterly quotable, pithy, and ahead of their time, their films have already become modern classics, and Kiwi and Karen’s successes keep coming. Kiwi’s YA novel Trinkets was recently adapted into a hit show for Netflix, and Karen was brought on to polish the break out hit Girls Trip. Needless to say, they are screenwriting queens.
At the first-ever Los Angeles RomCom Fest, over 200 romantic comedy fans laughed, cried, and burst into applause during a screening of 10 Things I Hate About You, after which, the dynamic writing duo offered up some top tips for writers pursuing their Hollywood dreams during a Q&A.
'10 Things I Hate About You' (1999)
The most important thing you can do as a screenwriter is know your craft. In order to do this, you must read screenplays. Here is a list of resources you can use to download screenplays for research and inspiration.
When reading scripts, take note of what works well and resonates with your own style: story structure, dialogue, pacing, tone. Then, even more importantly, notice what falls short, and unpack why it doesn’t work. This will only strengthen your own storytelling abilities.
Finish Your Scripts, and Keep Writing
When you are starting out as a screenwriter, a common problem is focusing on perfection over completion. When you are trying to make your first project perfect, it is easy to get stuck on page 25, too focused on getting it perfect to move forward. Don’t do this.
Karen urges writers to push through. She says, "Get to page 85 not 25. Move on, and then go back to the first one. You will have found all the ways to solve the problems in your first script by finishing the second.”
Finishing your scripts is part of the learning process. Keep writing.
'Legally Blonde' (2001)
Like their heroine Elle Woods, Kiwi and Karen have been “undauntedly persistent” throughout their careers. This tenacity has paid off ten-fold.
Kiwi remembers being “rejected a ton as a poet when I was submitting my work,” when she was first starting out, and she never let it deter her. In fact, the constant rejection fueled her to keep going. It “strengthened [her] resilience.”
Her secret is to not take it personally. Instead of letting “no’s” slow you down, use them to get more “excited about turning “no’s” into “yes’s.” Allow rejection to fuel you to keep going. Instead of knocking you down, Kiwi encourages you to use rejection to "make yourself stronger.”
Giving up was never an option for Karen. She reflects that, “Once I decided that screenwriting was the career I wanted, I just kept writing and writing…” You have to keep moving forward. Be persistent with your writing above all else.
“When you’re starting out, you have to be persistent if you want to make it.” - Karen McCullah
'Ella Enchanted' (2004)
Procrastination Is Okay
How many times have you wished you’d heard those words?
When you see finished films like Karen and Kiwi’s brimming with originality and quotable lines, it can feel like those writers are always at 100% overflowing with creativity. Procrastination gets a bad rap, but it happens to everyone. Both Kiwi and Karen accept procrastination as part of their writing process, but you can't procrastinate forever.
How do you fight this urge to avoid writing? Kiwi and Karen have some excellent advice.
Kiwi credits having a partner to be accountable to as one way to avoid procrastination. If you don't work with a writing partner, you can find an accountability buddy. Having another person working towards the same goals helps to overcome the urge to avoid writing.
Making your own deadlines, even if they are closing time at a restaurant where you’re currently writing, can work wonders for procrastination. Kiwi reflects on a recent outing that got her past a procrastination hump: “If I’m working on my own and need to motivate, recently I went to a really nice restaurant called Odys & Penelope and sat at the bar, ordered drinks and food, and wrote like 5 scenes. It was perfect because I was A) being served delicious things and B) they were closing, so I had to get those scenes done! One of the scenes was kind of emotional, so I think I scared the bartender a little bit, like, why is this lady crying into her laptop? No more mojitos for her.”
Creating rituals around your writing process can also help get into the writing flow. Make them your own. Maybe you light a candle, make a cup of tea, play a certain kind of music. Karen speaks to her particular writing rituals: Some days it flows slowly and on those occasions, I find that pumpkin seeds help. I have no idea why. Maybe I’ve just conditioned myself to believe they help at this point. I also find that patchouli oil helps, but sometimes the food delivery people will look at you oddly if you really douse yourself in it. I remember one Postmates guy looking at me in horror and saying “Are you wearing PATCHOULI???” The important thing is to create rituals that work for you. No matter what your Postmates guy thinks.
'She's the Man' (2006)
Believe in Yourself
Kiwi and Karen exude confidence in their presence and in their writing. Their passion for their craft is evident in their joyful movies, and in how they talk about their jobs. This conviction is contagious. Karen’s final piece of advice for aspiring screenwriters is to shut out negativity. She recommends: “Don’t let other people with negative opinions about the industry scare you off. New writers sell scripts and break in every year. Believe in yourself.”
"The wonderful thing about Hollywood is that even though it can be challenging to break in, people truly do want to help each other." - Kirsten "Kiwi" Smith
Kiwi encourages writers to have a learning mindset. She urges aspiring screenwriters to: “Become students of the industry and its citizens. We’re all here to be creative, so always be ready to receive and give help.” Writing is not just about honing your own craft but learning as much as you can about the business, and the people in it. Lift each other up.
'The House Bunny' (2008)
Here is Kiwi and Karen’s advice for aspiring screenwriters in summary:
Read screenplays, finish your scripts, be persistent, remember it’s okay to procrastinate, and above all, believe in yourself.
Now stop reading this article, and write your screenplay!
A warm thank you to Rom Com Fest, and Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith and Karen McCullah for contributing to this article.