I recently connected with Joel Silberman, creator of the Writers Assistant Network, after a panel at Comic-Con and he told me about a fantastically brilliant TV writer – Sabrina Sherif – who has written on shows in both the US and Canadian markets – many of which you’ve heard of 🙂 I knew I had to learn more, so I sat down with Sabrina and heard all about her journey thus far.
Hello, Sabrina! Thank you so much for chatting with me for Ms. in the Biz.
Oh man, of course! Thanks for chatting with me!
You wrote two articles for the site years ago, including one entitled What’s Your Story and Other Difficult Questions People Like to Ask – so let’s start there. What’s your story? 😉 How did you come to be a TV writer?
I guess my story starts on an airplane, which is where my parents met. My mom was a flight attendant for Air Algeria and my dad was a passenger. They both dreamed of seeing the world, and that’s how they raised us. The family has lived in Spain, Canada, the US, France… And as thankful as I am for this privileged upbringing, growing up between so many cultures as a kid made it hard for me to know where I belonged. You feel like a mishmash of identities. The way my parents remedied that was through stories: They would show us books, movies, TV shows from all our different cultures. So I built my identity through stories – and as soon as I was old enough to understand what a writer was, I decided I had to do it too.
Very cool. And how would you describe your writing style? What kinds of stories do you like to tell?
I’m all about YA! I think it’s a privilege to write for young people, because stories have such an impact on perspective and identity when you’re growing up. I love writing coming-of-age stories, stories of empowerment, romance (a must have for YA) and female friendships. We’re accustomed to seeing a certain type of person come of age on screen – but there’s so much more about young adulthood that’s been overlooked. The cool thing about coming of age stories is they can happen when you’re 15 or when you’re 30. They can happen right next door or in the 1700s or in a magical fantasy kingdom. If the heart of the story is growing up – the rest can be anything, and that gives so much freedom as a writer.
Oo, I love that perspective! That gives you so much freedom within the structure of “coming of age.” So say you have a project you’re working on – how do you like to write? In a noisy coffee shop? With peace and quiet at your desk at home? Paint us a picture of your typical day as a screenwriter.
Libraries, all the way! You get the liveliness of a coffee shop without having to spend $8 on a latte, the peace of home without being distracted by your TV, and there are books everywhere for inspiration. Depending on where I’m working, my day usually starts with a walk. I create playlists for every project I work on and try to Pavlov myself: Every time I hear it, it puts me in the mood to write. If I’m on staff, I’ll show up an hour or two before the room starts and write. If not, I’ll head to the library and write. I’m a creature of habit, so I try to always sit at the same spot, always leave at the same time. Routine helps me build discipline.
Fantastic advice. I know that you won the Writers Assistant Network contest a few years ago – what was that process like? How did winning that contest help/advance your career?
It was such a great experience!! I met amazing people, a lot of whom are working on kickass shows now. When you’re an assistant it can be hard to be seen as anything else, and this was the first time I got to 100% focus on my writing. I wrote a pilot that got me representation and I still use as a sample for staffing. WAN has awesome events that I’d been to for networking, and I’m thankful they let me be a part of their first workshop.
That’s great! Taking that time to write and make those connections is key. Now, you were recently the Junior Story Editor on Another Life, a sci-fi series starring Katee Sackhoff (of Battlestar Galactica fame). What led to you writing on that show? What are some of the joys and/or challenges of writing science fiction?
Aaron Martin, the creator of ANOTHER LIFE, was looking for people who had an interest in YA, since a lot of the characters were in their early twenties. I learned so much on the show, because the writers got to build an entire universe in the room. In sci-fi, you set the rules – which is both the coolest and the most challenging thing about it. You have to be original while towing the line of believability. You have to find the humanity in a galaxy far far away. And you have to be specific.
Haha, well said. And if I understand correctly, you’re currently writing for the Canadian television market, but you have previously worked in the American market. What are the differences you’ve observed between the two? Is there one that seems like a more natural fit for you?
I’ve been lucky enough to work on shows that have a YA bend here in Canada, but it’s not something that gets done as much as in the US. Usually, you have adult shows or kids’ shows… which was something I struggled with when I first moved to Toronto. But things are slowly changing, and there’s more of an attempt at creating content for millennials/Gen Z. I think there’s some great work coming out of Canada, like ORPHAN BLACK or SCHITT’S CREEK —
I love both of those shows!
Yeah, so ideally I’d keep a foot in both countries. Because of the nature of the industry, it’s harder to take big risks with content in Canada – so that aspect of the US industry is still very enticing.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to write for TV?
I feel like the #1 piece of advice given is: Write. Always, again and again, write and rewrite, as much as you can. And while that’s very true, I’ll try to offer up something new. I’ll say: Make contacts! Creating TV is a group activity, and the more people you know, the better. Reach out to anyone who has anything to do with the making of a TV show, and express your passion and curiosity. Try to meet as many people as you can and learn from them. My rule is: Never ask for a job or send a resume over email. See if you can take them out for coffee and ask them questions. Then, charm them with your personality and your passion – they’ll be more eager to keep you in mind when something comes up.
If you could remake any TV show, past or present, just to have the experience of writing it – what would you choose and why?
This is what every nerd says but BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER was everything for me. It made me want to be a TV writer, so seeing that room in action would be a dream. I wouldn’t wanna remake it per say, I’d wanna sit and watch them work and nerd out.
I hear you! I saw that you were the Story Coordinator on the short film Shevenge, which I was lucky enough to catch a screening of at the 7th Burbank International Film Festival several years ago. How did you get involved in that project?
I knew some of the producers, who are a group of amazing women. When Amber Benson came in to direct, I was so excited to be able to learn from her. Really, I just bounced ideas with them during the development process, as the short was being put together. They let me come on set afterwards, and see how they were building everything. I learned a lot from seeing them work, and how audiences responded to the fun, empowering narrative.
What is the best piece of writing advice that you have ever been given?
The best piece of advice I got wasn’t for writing, but for making it as a writer in a tough field. And it’s very simple: Do one thing every day towards making your dream come true. It can be tiny (send an email to a contact) or something big (spend 16 hours writing) – but every day (holidays and weekends excluded, depending on how you’re feeling) do one thing that moves you closer to your dream. It creates a routine but also helps you know you’ve done everything you can, every single day, to fight for what you believe in.
Perfect. It’s amazing how much gets done when you take consistent, small steps.
What’s next for you? What are some current or upcoming projects that you’re working on and what excites you about them?
I’m a story editor/writer on an upcoming YA show that’s a co-production between Hulu and Corus (in Canada). I can’t say a lot about it, but it’s based on a really cool property. I’m also in development with Entertainment One to adapt the Wattpad novel THE NUMBERED for TV. Wattpad is an online publishing site with 65 million users worldwide. The book is a heartfelt, empowering story about privilege and systemic oppression. It’s been such an amazing process, because we’ve been working directly with Wattpad and their users. We got to talk to fans, ask them questions, and communicate directly with the book’s followers. Having that kind of access has been a great help in adapting the story to a new medium.
Awesome, congratulations! Where can our readers find you and your work? Website, social media, etc.
I’m quite horrendous with social media. I use it mostly to see what others post. I keep promising myself I’ll be better at it, but then I get distracted. Still, my Instagram is @theficklefingeroffate