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Carl Sautter's Roundabout Route to Hollywood

`I CAN write that junk,'' Carl Sautter recalls thinking while watching ``a particularly mindless'' episode, as he describes it, of ``Three's Company,'' back in 1978. ``Why is someone else making all that money instead of me?'' An urban planner by day, Mr. Sautter spent a week of late nights writing his own episode. Encouraged by the comments of friends but in obvious need of technical assistance, he went to a local bookstore and emerged with a pile of books on screenwriting, character development, and basic plot ideas.

``I even learned to talk a little television - `act breaks,' `story beats,' `foreshadowing,' `voice-over,' `physical comedy,''' he recalls. Armed with his new knowledge, he went on the prowl at parties for producer types.

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The lawyer of a friend played tennis with one of the ``Three's Company'' producers. Mr. Sautter submitted his script by this roundabout route and waited three months. Nothing.

But he continued to write. Then, after four years of dissecting screenplays, taking writing seminars, attending conferences, and jumping into discussions at every opportunity with writers, producers, actors, and agents, Sautter sold his first script.

It was for the TV series ``Trapper John, M.D.,'' and it brought Sautter about $25,000.

``I felt like a jerk all those years, but I kept being egged on by the advice that you've got to really make that investment of time and not get discouraged by the closed doors,'' he recalls. ``Those who don't have the long-term commitment might as well not even get started,'' he says.

Sautter has since gone on to become story editor for ``Moonlighting'' on ABC-TV, and he has won several awards for ``Moonlighting'' scripts.

He has also become a frequent guest lecturer for the American Film Institute and has written his own book on screenwriting. Along the way, he has distilled his half-decade of hard knocks into advice for others about some myths surrounding his new profession:

Myth No. 1: The ability to write for the screen is a divine gift. ``Some writers seem to start their careers with certain instincts that give them an advantage,'' Sautter says. ``But for most of us, screenwriting is a learned skill that we've worked very hard to develop. The skills improve with each script.''

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Myth No. 2: Screenwriting is the perfect career for illiterates. ``It's true that film and television use a lot of slang, but the best writers know when they're breaking the rules,'' he says. ``Slang is limited to the dialogue and used sparingly, to define character. The story editor who reads, `Maddie and David ain't gittin' along today' ain't gonna read no further.''

Myth No. 3: The only way to get a break is to be related to a studio executive. ``Yes, it helps if Uncle Harry runs a studio, but the truth is that few of us are related to anybody who's even been on a sound stage. Most screenwriters work their way up.''

Myth No. 4: One script and I'm in. ``One sale does not a career make. Writers have to work just as hard on the 10th sale as they did on the first. Unfortunately, new writers tend to gravitate to projects that have no chance of selling, because of the market they've chosen or because they haven't studied the genre they're trying to write.''

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