The path to TV writing doesn’t always run smooth. I’ve been writing for sites other than my own blog since 2002. I’ve been getting paid for it since 2010. I’ve had both fiction and non-fiction published in print publications. I’ve had enough people enjoy my work to know that I’m good at what I do. But when I decided in 2011 that I loved the experience of writing a web series so much that I wanted to leave everything and everyone I knew in New York to make the move to L.A. to try my hand at writing for television, I was starting from scratch all over again.
I used to look down on TV writing. Growing up in the heyday of Miramax, it was all about film. I’d never been interested in dramatic writing, but I always thought that if I ever wanted to take a break from prose, I’d like to write a screenplay. TV seemed trivial by comparison.
All of that changed in the 2000s. Gradually, film felt like it was becoming less and less relevant while TV started to become the medium that took more chances. Shows started getting good…then amazing. Cable networks started creating shows that were competing with and then exceeding those on regular network television. Catching a Spaced marathon on cable got me started watching stuff from the UK, which added an awesome new perspective to what I thought was possible on television.
And then Doctor Who. *whelp*
Suddenly, television became this sandbox in which I couldn’t wait to play! So I sold/gave away most of my belongings, packed what little I had left into a couple of suitcases and flew to Los Angeles.
That’s not entirely true. I’d read some books on the mechanics and the business of television writing. I’d listened to interviews with favorite creators. And yes, I read Jane Espenson’s blog. But I just didn’t have any practical experience. I hadn’t taken any of the steps you’re supposed to take, and just sort of started learning on my own, on the fly.
When you’re playing catch-up with a career that you decided on after several life detours, seeking out mentors in your field is extremely important. Not only can they provide writing advice or career guidance, but they will be the ones to introduce you to the opportunities that are appropriate for you. They are your links to real-world, practical experience. The stuff you can’t learn by reading, or in school.
So, how do you find one? Well, if you don’t have the benefit of a university network from which to draw, you’ll have to do your own homework.
1) WHO’S LIKE YOU? – Don’t just go all over town willy-nilly looking to connect to any writer because they’re successful. Think about the kind of career you want and the kind of work you want to do. Think about the kinds of industry questions you have that speak specifically to your experience. Think about the shows you actually watch and why you watch them. Then, seek out writers that best fit you. All of the writers I’ve gotten to know in my time in Los Angeles have something in common with me. Either they’re female, or Brown, or write sci-fi and fantasy, or are close to my age and experience level, or any combination of those things. I wanted to surround myself with writers who’d “get me” in those important ways, because they’d be able to advise me best on a path that’s right for me.
2) WRITE – And not just scripts. Seek out any and all opportunities to write. Doing this will introduce you to a variety of editors and fellow writers. Any of these could be the person who changes your life. One of the TV writers I go to with my Stupid Newbie Writing Questions I met because I was a contributor to a pop culture, non-fiction anthology with which they were associated. I didn’t meet this person by showing them a script.
3) ASK – So many people let opportunities pass them by because they assume that something or someone is too Big Time. Obviously, you should never expect that a Big Timey writer is going to take time out for you, but if you approach them politely in a way that’s appropriate and being respectful of their time, it’s always OK. At best, they’ll be willing meet up with you to answer questions or correspond with you via email. At worst, they’ll ignore your contact, or tell you they don’t have the time. Either way, you have nothing to lose. Another writer I go to with my Stupid Newbie Writing Questions I met because I reached out to her on Twitter! She was familiar with my regular reviews of a show she was working on, so she knew I wasn’t a total crazy. When I DM’d her telIing her I thought she had a career that I’d like to emulate and I wanted to pick her brain because I was new to L.A, she happily agreed to meet with me for coffee! We had a great conversation about Writing Fellowships, getting on sets as a P.A, what it’s like to be a “diversity hire,” and chat that had nothing at all to do with writing, because she ended up being a genuinely cool person.
4) DIVERSIFY – You might think that the best way to learn about the Industry is to go to someone with TONS of experience, and you’d be partially right. Seeking out writers who have a long track record is great, as they have career longevity for a reason! They know what they’re doing and they do it well! But the industry changes really fast, and often the things that worked for them as far as “breaking in” simply don’t exist anymore. So, seek out writers at different experience levels; writers who are 4 or 5 steps ahead of you as well as those who are 50 steps ahead of you. Those are the people you’ll likely be working with throughout your career, so you want to get to know them anyway, but they also have the immediate experience of telling you what the climate is Right Now and how best to focus your efforts. They’ll also likely be the easiest to contact, as you might meet them at a friend’s party as easily as at a networking event.
5) DON’T KEEP YOUR WRITERLINESS A SECRET! – I know. Telling people you’re a writer is hard. It seems like actors have it easy. What they do is so concrete – I’m an actor. I’m in rehearsals for this thing. You can see me perform here. – and people Get It. Writing often seems…ephemeral. I’m working on a script right now. (Uh, huh.) NO REALLY, it’s good! (Sure, it is) No one sits around applauding you as you write a script, and the solitude of it can make you feel like a charlatan every time you open your mouth and say what you do. Despite that, never be afraid to mention the fact that you’re a writer. People can’t offer you guidance or help (or jobs!) if they don’t know they’re supposed to.
6) BE THE KIND OF PERSON PEOPLE WANT TO HELP – In the entertainment industry, more than anywhere else, collaborations and successful partnerships often come about by chance, and they come about through relationships you nurture, sometimes over years. You never know when they’re going to happen, or when those relationships are going to “pay off.” So, don’t be the kind of person who’s only interested in the payoff. Be kind and respectful to everyone. Yes, everyone. Even the people you’re not too crazy about. Even the assistants and the receptionists. Even people who aren’t already Somebody. Because you just never know. Also, help others. Don’t expect to receive without giving. Don’t hoard all of your opportunities. If you hear about a cool writing group, or a job opportunity you know would be up someone’s alley, tell a writer friend about it. If you write for an outlet that can promote someone’s work, offer to interview them or to do an article about what they’re working on. Offer to be a reader of people’s work, and give them thoughtful, constructive criticism when you do. I mean, you should strive to be this kind of person anyway. You know, because it’s better to not be a douche than to be a douche. But also keep in mind that the best way to get what you want is to help others get what they want. Kindness begets kindness.
I’ve been very lucky in that since I moved to L.A. I’ve managed to meet some genuinely kind and talented TV writers that have allowed me to pick their brains when I need to. I told some of them that I was going to be doing a column here charting my journey as an aspiring television writer, and they agreed to allow me to pass their expertise on to you! So, every month The Writer’s Room will be joining me to answer a question about whatever topic I’m writing about that month. I won’t be using their names (in the interest of allowing them to be honest with their answers!), but they will be known here by nifty nicknames that they approved for themselves!
INTRODUCING THE WRITER’S ROOM…
The Fairy Godmother
She has over twenty years of experience in writing for television, and is known for both comedy and genre television. She has written for traditional broadcast and online television, and has a reputation for encouraging young talent.
This sci-fi/fantasy geek has three years of experience in writing for television, and was a graduate of both the WB Writer’s Workshop and the NAACP/CBS Master Writing Fellowship Program. She is currently a story editor for a show on a major network.
The Comics Geek
He has going on 20 years of experience in writing for TV, including a show he created about a milk-drinking super spy. He is also an accomplished comic creator with a graphic novel in the works.
This fan of all things action has about three years of writing experience in the TV industry, and is currently a writers’ assistant on a popular animated series. She also writes comics, having written for both major and indie comic publishers.
THIS MONTH’S QUESTION:
“Who was the first person you considered a mentor in this industry and how did you meet?”
The Comics Geek: I was lucky in that I got to work as an executive at NBC before my TV writing career got a start. Part of my job was to identify writers whom I thought would be good candidates for NBC shows. Once I knew I was going to be leaving the network for my first gig on staff, I found a writer senior to me who had written some of the best episodes of one of my favorite shows: I met him in my capacity as an executive and then put him on the network’s staffing short list for the show I was about to join. When he got hired and had his first day at work on the show, he was definitely surprised to see me in the office next door – and to find out that I was his subordinate! We have been friends and occasional collaborators ever since, and he has been an exceptional mentor for almost twenty years.
Clever Girl: My academic adviser in college was a working Prime Time Drama writer and my first mentor in TV. I’d never thought about writing TV before meeting him (was too gung-ho for film) and took my first class just to hear what he had to say. I was dumped on him purely by chance and he changed my entire life. That kind of random luck happens a lot more in your career than you’d ever expect.
The Fairy Godmother: I didn’t have a personal “mentor” until I was well into my career. I had, I guess you’d say, institutional mentors — a show that allowed outside submissions, a studio with a fellowship program, and a group for aspiring writers. You don’t necessarily need an older writer to take you by the hand.
KewlPanda: My very first mentor in this business was Carole Kirschner, who heads the CBS Writer’s Mentoring Program. I was the first recipient of the NAACP/CBS Writer’s Fellowship through USC. Because I hadn’t gone through the normal application process for the CBS WMP, I first met Carole at an introductory lunch so she could get to know me. Carole is an expert in this business; she’s written a book about her experiences with advice for those looking to break in (for those interested it’s called Hollywood Game Plan). Right off the bat she had great advice for me, and right off the bat I listened to her and I’ve been listening to her ever since. I trust her implicitly and to this day I’ll call or email her for advice when I need it. She’s always been there for me and I try to return the favor whenever I can.
As you can see, there’s a variety of ways to meet someone who can help you along your writing path if you decide you need them (and you might not)! The important thing is to stay on the path and keep writing!
See you next month!