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The Bricks of Breaking in: Sal Calleros on Mentorship

January 30, 2019

Mentorship can be vital to a writer looking to break into the industry, but finding a mentor and building a relationship with that person can be challenging.

Sal Calleros, co-EP of The Good Doctor, credits mentorship for a big part of the growth and development of his career. From participating in the Disney-ABC Writing Program to writing for shows including Private Practice, Rizzoli & Isles, Killer Women, Sneaky Pete and Snowfall, Sal’s experiences inform how working with various mentors — and now mentoring others — plays a significant role in his success.

Final Draft: As you were starting out, how important was mentorship to the development of your writing career?

Sal Calleros: It was very important, but I didn’t realize how important it was at the time.

I got started through the Disney fellowship. While you’re in the fellowship, you go through a series of mentors; half the year you’re with a mentor from the network and they help you develop a script. The other half, they put you with a mentor from the production side, at that time it was Touchstone Television. They set you up with a producer on that side who also helps you develop a spec. That mentor was fantastic. A lot of the time what a mentor can do is just give you encouragement.

Even though I was in a fellowship — and this never stops — it always feels like oh, I’m here by accident; like, any minute they’re going to find out I’m a fraud and I’m going to get kicked out or I’m going to get fired … What [the mentor] did, when I turned in my first draft, he said something like, “Oh, yeah. You should be doing this. You can do this.” He shepherded me through the process. He would give me great advice as I was writing the script. That’s when I realized a mentor is super important. How big it can be.

FD: In that type of relationship, what do you feel like you give back to the mentor?

SC: Everybody loves discovering that writer, because there are a lot of people trying to break in. When you find that writer that it’s like, oh my God, this is somebody who actually can do this, it’s very encouraging because the one thing you want to do is pluck them and plug them into the process. That’s just one more person in the system that will help keep it going. Talent, that is what is going to create the next big show and that’s what’s going to keep the Writers Guild and the stuff that we do vibrant and new.

I love reading something and then being like, oh my God, this writer has it. This is somebody I can see working. It’s rare to find somebody who is really good at it. When you read a script and you’re like, this person’s got talent; they have a voice. They can tell a great story and then in the back of your head you’re like, if I ever have a show, this is somebody I would hire. It’s a treat to find somebody like that.

FD: What makes someone a good mentee?

SC: Somebody who will listen to you and not have the instinct to fight back at every turn. As writers, we take pride in what we crank out. And it’s not easy cranking it out. So once you hand over 60 pages that you worked on for months and months, draft after draft and then to get back a stack of notes on it, the first thing you want to do is [ask] what do you mean?

Sometimes you’ll get folks that are like, no, let me explain, you just didn’t get it, as opposed to cool, okay, let me go back and look at it. And they go back and look at it. Even when they don’t agree with the note, but you can honestly see that they will go back, ponder it and see if there’s something there. That’s somebody who’s a great mentee; somebody that actually allows you to mentor them as opposed to validate what they believe is their talent.

FD: How does someone find a mentor and build that relationship? How do you make that ask?

SC: If the mentee is smart about it, it doesn’t happen the first time they meet somebody. Establish a bit of a relationship. Even if it’s a few emails back and forth. Then at that point you just do the ask: Hey look, I’ve got something that I wrote. Would you mind just giving it a read? Most of the time, if you’ve already established some sort of relationship, they’ll be like sure, maybe not now, but send it to me. I’ll give it a read. If you want my thoughts, I’ll give you my thoughts.

FD: Any big dos or don’ts on both sides of the mentorship?

SC: For the mentee, don’t be overbearing. Be mindful of the other person’s time. You can check in if you haven’t heard, but don’t overdo it. Also, don’t expect them to develop your script with you. It’s about knowing when to ask and then once they start reading and giving notes, when to just be like, okay cool, I’ve pushed them as far as I can. I’ve gotten what I can from them. Then pull back as opposed to being like, I’m on my 10th draft. Will you read my 10th draft? Not really, because I’ve got other things to do.

For the mentor side, I think you might forget that person across from you is a younger writer. Don’t be mean. Give constructive notes and not in a way that’s going to deflate somebody. Early on when I would get scripts, that was my mistake, which was being very blunt about it and being like, this is not really working. This doesn’t work and that doesn’t work.

It’s important for the mentor to give honest notes, but hopefully also, because of your experience, give them a bit more. Put them on the path, whether they take it or not. Don’t just say this doesn’t work and then move on to the next thing. Give them what might be a solution, an idea they can then take and run with.

FD: What was some of the best advice you received during the early stages of your career?

SC: Don’t be precious with your words, because it’s never going to be perfect. Do the writing, but don’t get so hung up that it’s gotta be gold, because it’s never really going to be gold. It’s a script and a script is meant to be filmed. It’s not the final product.

Get it to a point where it works and then you can move on to the next thing. The problem is that some writers will work on one thing forever. Or two things, over and over and over again. Then they just never write anything else. So when they eventually get it in somebody else’s hands, and they’re like, well, what else you got? Well, I have these ideas. What do you have that’s written? Well, nothing, just this one. If you don’t hang yourself up, that allows you to just finish it.

FD: Any other advice on building a career as a writer?

SC: Everybody says network, which is of course the old advice you always get. You need to network, but it’s staying in touch with people that you meet along the way that can actually get you a job.

What you want to do is network with people who can pull you up, be that producers, network executives, agents. Establish a relationship with them along the way. Reach out once in a while. If you read they sold a project or a project got off the ground, send them an email congrats. Sounds like a cool project. Things like that.

I know it’s easier said than done, but because there are all these different programs out there, I think there are more opportunities than there were when I got into the fellowship. Try to start making those connections because you have no idea where they will end up down the road.

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