Sunday, August 16, 2015

Not All Rollercoasters Are Fun

When I celebrated my birthday in May, it seemed my career was on the climb. I finished three prestigious TV writing programs, one of my scripts was a quarterfinalist in a writing competition, and so many people were cheering for me to succeed.

But what goes up must come down. I didn't get staffed, got dropped by my agent, and found myself facing the biggest crisis of faith of my entire creative career. My entire life, really. The self-doubt was painfully suffocating - You've wasted your life pursuing this dream that will never happen. If you were actually good enough, someone would have hired you by now. All the signs are telling you it's time to quit.

I've always said that not losing faith is the hardest part of being an artist. Because artists need faith to survive. We don't choose this path in life because it's lucrative or logical - we do it because we must. So to doubt our career is to doubt our very core being.

But my Taiwanese tiger parents raised me to work hard and be the best, so I've pressed on. June was not pretty. July wasn't any better. I felt blocked even though I knew I had to keep writing.

Thankfully, momentum is an integral component of all rollercoasters and the kinetic energy generated by the years I've invested in my writing life have propelled me through this low point. I'm working on a new pilot script, editing my second short story collection, and I'm almost back to writing every day.

And finally, some good news - I was just hired as a writers assistant/researcher for a new legal drama premiering on BET in 2016. I'm headed back to the writers room! A huge step in the right direction and the boost I needed to start my next climb.

Also, my short story collection HEARTBORN is finally available as a hard copy book. (Pictured here with my morning spinach smoothie...)

It's thin, but beautifully tangible. Order a copy before your Labor Day weekend getaways!

So the rollercoaster that is my creative life rolls on. Thanks for riding with me, everyone. Here's to more ups than downs in the future and the strength to know that no matter how big the dips, faith will always propel you forward.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Finding Your Creative Kindling

I've always had day jobs to support my creative life. Sometimes part-time, usually full-time - all desk jobs. Cubicle, computer, the works.

After a full day of staring at spreadsheets and analytics, my energy is often sapped, which is unfortunate because that's when I have to hunker down and write.

And it's always tough. I'll have a writing to-do list a mile long and very little energy left in my tank. My day job extinguishes my creative fire. It's up to me to get the fire started again.

Thankfully I've learned that just like when you're building an actual fire, you gotta start with kindling. Something to get the creativity flowing and ease into the real work.

Tackling my inbox or checking social media – that's not kindling.  Listening to podcasts, watching TV, or talking to friends – not kindling either.

In my experience, the best kindling for stoking my creative fire is writing and/or reading.  Writing this blog post in my journal - that's kindling.  Reading a few pages of a script or novel, brainstorming new ideas in my notebook, or even reading something I've written in the past – that's all kindling for me.  Meditation works too - or a good power nap.  (Power napping is one of my super powers.)

Creative kindling is anything that gets you disconnected from all the noise and distractions around you and connected to your inner voice.  It's the writing warm-up period.  And it's not optional - it's necessary.

Sometimes it takes me an hour to get the fire going. Other times, only 15 minutes.  It all depends - I just keep on feeding my fire with kindling until it sparks.

So the next time you're sitting down to write and you feel like you "just can't get into it," consider what your creative kindling might be.  And more importantly, learn to recognize what it's not.  Try and find a few things that work, so you can rotate if necessary.

Now start that fire and start writing! 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The 5 Stages of Staffing Season Grief

All experienced in the last 48 hours...

1. DENIAL - The jobs can't be all gone. Surely that NBC midseason whatsit needs a diversity staff writer.

2. ANGER - I didn't get hired because I suck! I should've worked harder to make my scripts better!

3. BARGAINING - I don't need 6 hours of sleep a night. I can write more if I only sleep 4.5 hours.

4. DEPRESSION - Now I'll never get to pitch my hostage situation bottle episode idea...or my Chinatown episode that's really about the Hispanic line cooks...

5. ACCEPTANCE - I'm not the only writer who didn't get staffed. C'est la vie. Gotta keep moving forward. Keep the faith and keep writing. Never give up, never surrender!

Congrats to my friends who got staffed this year! To the rest of us, our breakthrough is just around the corner...

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

How I Became a Baby TV Writer & How You Can Too

I was blessed to be selected for two writing fellowship programs this year - the CBS Writers Mentoring Program and the CAPE New Writers Fellowship. I was also named an honoree in the WGA Writer Access Project.

My friends and colleagues have been thrilled for me. I'm incredibly grateful for these successes and have been working hard to take advantage of these programs to shift my career forward.

And of course, questions have been coming from all sides -

"How did you do it? How do I get into the programs too? What should I be doing in my career? Can I pick your brain about how I can be successful like YOU?"

My first response is always to smile graciously as the ever present self-doubting voice in my head screams "You're not successful! You're a fraud! A joke! What do YOU know?!"

It's not that I don't have confidence - I'm just a writer - ALL writers have this voice.

So I push the inner critic back and offer what advice I can, knowing it doesn't mean much. Because I'm still just a baby - I'm still trying to get my first staff writer position as a solo writer. I'm no further than anyone else in the grand scheme of things. An advanced beginner at best.

But I'm happy to share what little I know, which is how this post came to be. Hopefully the story of my journey so far will offer something to aspiring TV writers out there.

So here's my comprehensive answer to all the questions I've been getting - how I became an advanced baby TV writer and how you can too -

1) Write every day

My former writing partner once told me I wasn't a real writer because I didn't write every day. I'll never forget how that stung.

Because she was absolutely right - true writers write every day. Talking about something you're going to write or thinking about ideas doesn't make you a writer. Putting words onto a page is the job.

I wasn't a writer when I started. Now, I write every day. Sometimes it's 10 pages of a script, other times it's 2 hours of processing ideas in my brainstorming notebook, many days it's three sentences in my Evernote app on a new idea. I don't beat myself up about the length - it's all about getting into the practice of being in the flow of ideas and words every day.

So if you want to be a writer, start here. Write every day. If you're not cranking on a script, get a journal and start writing something - anything - on a daily basis. It's the best way to set yourself in the right direction.

2) Read and learn

You don't need to enroll in writing classes to get started. In fact, I don't recommend it. I'm a big advocate of starting with a DIY writing education - read some books and write your first scripts.

Because those first scripts are going to be crap - they just are. And that's normal. See Ira Glass' wise words on the creativity gap -

There are a plethora of books about television and the craft of television writing that can start closing your gap. Here are three books that helped get me started -
Also check out the suggested reading lists from CBS and Warner Bros.

3) Write your first round of scripts

Take everything you learned from reading those books along with your inspiration and excitement and write your first round of TV scripts - your first spec script and your first original pilot.

Cherish the agony of being a writer, because you are one - you're writing! And celebrate when you finish each script - you can officially enjoy the best feeling in the world - having written. Go you! You did it!

4) Start reading scripts like crazy

It's great that you watch hours and hours of television. You need to know TV in order to write for TV, so those Netflix bingefests are officially research for work.

Now it's time to spend hours and hours reading TV scripts It's not enough to be a viewer - you need to learn more about how television scripts are structured and crafted.

If you're in Los Angeles, you can read an endless amount of scripts at the Writers Guild Foundation Library. It's free and open to the public - just respect library rules. You can't copy or take scripts with you - only read them on site. Check their catalog before going to make a reading list, then go spend a day (or more) soaking in words.

If you're not in LA (which is totally fine at this stage of the game), you can find scripts online at Simply Scripts, Twiz TV, or The Script Source.

But know that you're looking for scripts, not transcripts. Seeing how writers craft their descriptions and action paragraphs is just as important as reading their dialogue.

You can also buy scripts from eBay if you're made of money...

5) Write your second round of scripts

After you've written your first spec script and your first original pilot, submit them to writing competitions and use them to apply to writing fellowships. I know I said your scripts are probably crap, but it's good practice and why not put yourself out there. You never know!

After you do that, move on to your second spec script and your second original pilot.

Do not start trying to find an agent.

I repeat, do not go hunting for an agent after writing your first two crap scripts. Now is the time to focus on becoming a better writer, not freaking out because you don't have "access."

You want an agent or manager to read your best material and your first scripts will never be your best material. You may think they are brilliant and transcendent, but I guarantee that your next round of scripts will be better.

When I wrote my first scripts, I already had an agent from my former writing partnership and I absolutely cringe when I imagine what he must have thought reading them. Probably something along the lines of, "This is terrible. Does she think this script is good? She's delusional. The list of things she doesn't know could wrap around my Hollywood Hills home a hundred times!"

I really thought my first script was terrific - it came out so easily and organized itself on the page beautifully. Now I can't even get through the first three pages without wanting to vomit - it's that bad. But that's okay, because it will always have the honor of being my very first script. I thank it for everything it taught me and tuck it firmly into the drawer.

Read more books and write a second spec script and a second original pilot. Submit those to writing competitions and apply to the writing fellowships a second time.

What's next? Is it time to find an agent yet?


6) Find a writers group

If you haven't already, join a writing group with writers whose work you admire. If you can't find one, form one of your own.

There are many ways to run a writers group - reading pages out loud during group meetings, reading material beforehand and sharing notes at the group meeting, etc. Any format works as long as you're putting yourself on deadlines and learning to take feedback on your work.

I've been through many writers groups including one I tried to organize myself for a while. They're ephemeral things - not every group works and not every group is for you. Don't despair if you can't find a good one - keep looking - there are plenty of writers in the world. Even if it's just you and a friend committing to reading each other's stuff, that counts.

When you find a group, the important thing is that you give as much feedback to other people's material as you want to get back. Be critical, but not cruel. Generosity, positivity, and doing your homework are the most important traits of a good writing group member.

7) Take some classes

After you've written two rounds of scripts, then you can take a class if you want. Because you want to use a class to hone your craft rather than learn it from scratch.

I took TV writing classes online at UCLA Extension. They're expensive because they're taught by writers who have actually worked in TV and I found them totally worth it. You can take the classes on campus, though I took all of my classes online because that fit into my schedule better.

Classes give you an automatic writers group. You will learn so much from reading other people's material and seeing how they shape their work (or don't).

Get as much as you can from the instructor and fellow classmates as you write your third round of scripts - your third spec script and your third original pilot. Submit those to writing competitions and apply to the writing fellowships a third time.

8) Start looking for an agent

But don't obsess over it. Your goal should still be becoming a better writer and learning how to be a professional.

Start by asking writer friends if you can take them to lunch (not coffee) and ask them some questions. Ask how they got started with their careers and how they found their agents. Do not ask for a referral and ALWAYS PAY FOR LUNCH.

In other words, start by gathering information and building relationships. You're still learning - don't start asking everyone you know for a referral. Your friends with agents want to know first that you're ready, that you understand an agent can only do so much, that you're still prepared to do 90% of the work. Show them you're smart, have a good work ethic, and that you're not desperate. (If you're still feeling desperate, skip this step - you're not ready.)

I found my current agent by referral from a writer friend I'd known for years. We'd been doing writing dates at Starbucks where we'd read and give feedback on each other's material. We had a long relationship before I ever broached the subject of an agent referral.

Don't forget your writer friends also have to read your material first before even thinking of referring you, which is why I say focus on your writing first. Force people to read a bad script and that relationship is over. Only embark on this step if you feel your material is relatively suck-free.

9) Don't give up!

If you're lucky enough to have gotten into one of the programs or won a writing accolade with one of your scripts by now, that's fantastic - you're getting a big confidence boost and jump ahead.

But if you haven't, this is the moment where you test your mettle. You've written six scripts by now - SIX! When is your damn break coming?

It's right around the corner. So KEEP WRITING. Write your fourth round - your fourth spec script and your fourth original pilot. Don't give in to doubt or self-judgment. You're a writer. Your work will pay off. Keep going.

I finished my Certificate in TV Writing at UCLA Extension and was between writing groups when I wrote my fourth round. I was meeting that writer friend at Starbucks and pounding my head against my brainstorming notebook for three solid months as I formed my next pilot about a futuristic cult that trained orphans to be assassins.

And one day I mentioned this article I'd read in my Costco magazine and an idea for a pilot it gave me. She immediately said, "Why are you writing that dumb orphans thing? This sounds like a much better idea!"

So I dropped the orphans and wrote CHILDREN OF EDEN, my fourth original pilot and honestly the first readable script in my portfolio. This script turned out to be everything for me - it got me a terrific agent (the previous agent had dropped me after reading enough of my crappy scripts), it made me a finalist in the Script Pipeline TV writing competition, and got me real industry meetings for the first time.

Based on the strength of that script, I attracted the attention of a producer and we developed an idea together and sold it to CBS. My first income as a solo writer!

This was two years after I wrote my very first crappy script.

Everyone was thrilled for me when I sold that pitch. It was a wonderful experience and I learned so much. I hope all of you get to experience that too. But the journey is not over...

10) Keep writing

After selling the pitch and completing my first staffing season with my new agent, I wrote my fifth round of scripts. You'd think I was a ninja at the craft by now, but no - my writing in this round kind of sucked.

So I wrote my sixth round. And that's the round that got me into three TV writing fellowships this year.

What am I doing now? Writing my seventh round, of course. The writing will never end. Onward and upward. Never give up, never surrender!

So there you have it - how I got to where I am now. Writing, writing, writing. Never resting on my laurels. Always pushing forward, one word at a time.

And I'm just getting started. I'm still looking for my first job. Becoming a working TV writer is a marathon, not a sprint. I've just rounded my first corner - miles to go before I sleep.

Have follow-up questions? Ask them below!

Friday, January 30, 2015

Fictionless Friday: Morning Thoughts on Writing

I'm no good unless I write. The thoughts, emotions, and ideas crowding my brain can render me useless until I have to write. Writing lets everything out.

If I'm lucky, what flows from my brain takes some shape on the page that resembles a story. Other times, it just dumps out in a random collection of thoughts like this. Either way, I let it flow. Better out then in.

In the early days of my writing life, I needed to force myself to write every day. Now, I know that nothing in my life works unless I'm writing. It heals me and saves me at the same time it's stressing me out and making my life hell.

Why do it? Other writers will understand – I write because I must. It is how I breathe – my pen streaming along the page. It's where I rest, where I live.

Oh, to have enough money in the bank to just write, write, write. What worlds I could create, what stories I could tell. Room service and the housekeeper would be helpful, but I don't need much – just a comfortable chair, cozy socks, my notebook, and a pen. The rest is magic.

I love writing. It is my joy, my pain, my lifeline.

Here I go...

Friday, January 23, 2015

Fiction Friday: In Bed

(Because sometimes you just can't get out of bed. Sometimes you just open your notebook and start writing. That's what happened to me last week. Here's what I wrote...)

I could live my life in bed. Well, except for going to the bathroom. Bed pans are gross. Okay, so I’ll get up to do my business, but otherwise, I can do everything else I need to do in life from the warm comforts of my bed. Especially with this down comforter that Dad bought me from Costco. Fake down but so fluffy. It’s like Maria Von Trapp’s bed in the Sound of Music movie, but without all the jumping kids ruining the fluff. Just me, cushioned in pillowy warmth.

I never want to get out of bed anymore. Fuck all those people who get up at five AM to go for a run or whatever. Are their lives really better than mine? Sure they have less body fat, but they probably have fewer brain cells too. Sleep is important. 8 hours a night. Or is it 6? I got ‘em all beat at 10. Color me an overachiever.

Why is everyone so obsessed with people who climb mountains and shit? Is the metaphor on top of the physical achievement really that impressive? I’m going to start my own thrilling endeavor – living a full happy life in bed. I’ll do everything here – work, eat, rest. People can join me for breakfast in bed or a late night snack. This isn’t about being antisocial. It’s about me living my way. The way I want. The way I’m comfortable.

Because out there – that’s a doozy. The world is mean and demanding – there’s no respite for any of us. It’s relentless. There’s a whole industry devoted to getting people to relax – spa products, salad restaurants, getaways to Bali – but all that shit costs money, which adds to the stress. It’s a vicious cycle that we’re all buying into like fools. Lisa is so caught up in it, she doesn’t even realize she’s a hamster on a wheel. Destination: NOT relaxation.

I think I’m onto something here. The real secret to a happy life is to sleep in, stay in bed, and force the world to come to you. Because sometimes you hear your roommate banging around in the kitchen making coffee with her new Keurig machine, which she swears is saving her money, even though the whole thing cost almost a hundred bucks, and that’s before all the different flavored K-cups and the damn accessories. Can’t keep those K-cups in a drawer when you can have them on a spinning display!

Sometimes I hear Lisa doing her K-coffee routine and I think, I just can’t. Not today. I’d rather face plant into this pillow and rest for another hour than deal with Lisa’s judgment before she goes to work. She wouldn’t call it that, of course. She’s just “asking questions.” Like, “Are you going to do something today? Anything happening with the job search?” And my favorite on Saturdays, “Did you just wake up?” Of course I just woke up you bitch it’s Saturday if you can’t sleep in on the weekend then what’s the POINT? I dislike her.

Besides, I can look for a job right here in bed. app for the win. I applied to two jobs this morning before falling back asleep. I’ll look again in a minute.

A life lived in bed. That will be the title of my memoir. All about the life and times of Meriwether Washington. That’s my pen name, I’ve decided. Wait, can you write a memoir under a pen name? I’ll be the first. See, already a trailblazer and I haven’t opened my eyes in an hour.

People really underestimate the power of bed. In bed, everything is wonderful. You’re warm, you’re relaxed, and you’re safe. If I could just stay here, maybe I could stay safe. I could avoid people I hate and news that bums me out. I won’t have to see that doctor again. I should really sue him anyway. Doctors are supposed to follow some oath, right? Something that says they have to heal people and treat them well, not like damaged goods when they come to you for help. The problem was in my uterus, not in my head, you asshole. Such a dick. He’s probably one of those five AM runners. I hope he gets run over by a car sometime.

It would have been better if Damian had just come with me, but he’s the biggest dick of all. Fucker was actually relieved – RELIEVED – when I lost the baby. Like he was being dismissed from jury duty or something. “Oh thank God,” he said. I should have punched him in the face.

But I didn’t because he’s not worth it. That would have been more work and all I wanted was my bed. My comfy, cozy sanctuary covered in fake feathers that my dad gave me. Dad would have bought me a crib. Baby and I could have both stayed in bed all day, right next to each other. And dad could bring me breakfast and bring me the baby for his breakfast and Damian could just go fuck himself.

Oh Daddy, I miss you. Fuck cancer. That’s the other thing bed is good for – crying. You can literally curl into the fetus position and no one calls you melodramatic because they can’t see your body under the covers. Where else can you feel that free?

I need to pee. Could I rethink my stance on bed pans? Ew, no. Gross. Fuck. Maybe I’ll get up and then reward myself with a cup of coffee from Lisa’s Keurig. If I take a K-cup from the box in her cupboard instead of her spinning display, she’ll never know. I haven’t had coffee since...well, since before. That damn doctor told me not to have any because of some study on miscarriages so I didn’t but it happened anyway. Fucking quack. They should take his license. What does he know?

I still have that card he gave me. Bereavement counseling. Fuck him. He doesn’t know me. I don’t need to talk about it. I need to stay in my bed. The pain will go away eventually. My fake down comforter will soak it up. I’m sure it’s already done me good these last few months. It’s a very good comforter.

I’m not getting out of bed. The last time I got out of bed, it was a disaster. I opened the door thinking it was my Fuji Wok delivery and found Damian there instead. He drove all the way over but didn’t have anything to say except, “I wanted to see you.” What the hell is there to see, Damian? A broken girl with a broken uterus and a broken heart that you feel more guilty about than anything else. Well stop coming over if you don’t want to feel guilty. Just stay away – forever! At least he paid for the Fuji Wok on his way out.

Damn, now I really need to pee. Okay, here’s the plan. Bathroom, Lisa’s coffee, grab the Chinese leftovers, then back into bed. I can do that in 10 minutes tops.

I think a lot about my dad lately. What he would say if he saw me trapped in my bed. He never judged – not like Lisa. So what would he say? I can’t think of anything except that thing he always used to say on Sundays before getting me up for church. “Are you ready for a Sunday Fun Day?” It wasn’t that funny but I always laughed. He honestly thought going to church was fun. It wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t a party. Dad started wearing bow ties to church later in life – just another way to make Sunday a fun day. I miss his bow ties.

Maybe I’ll go to church today. There’s an evening service on Wednesdays. It is Wednesday, right? Damn, it’s already 12:30 PM. I’ve been in bed all morning. If I add a shower to the end of my game plan, I can be out the door by two at least. Then it’s just four hours to kill before church. I’ll go see a movie or something. All the good ones are long these days. I’ll go see the one about that boy who grows up on film. I heard that one’s long.

Okay, here we go. Off for my adventure. Bye, bye comforter. My bed experiment will continue tomorrow. I know I can make it work if I really apply myself. For now, I’ll make Wednesday my fun day. Dad would be proud.

Friday, January 9, 2015

#100in2015: My 2015 Resolution

Compiling my year-in-review blog posts "The Numbers" is always a sobering experience. Flipping back through my yearly planner and reviewing how I spent my time can be both enlightening and depressing.

Total glass half empty / glass half full mind stuff. While some might look at my 2014 calendar and see the jobs I booked and the meetings I had, I inevitably focus on all the empty space - the weeks, days, and hours spent developing a pilot that went nowhere, the auditions for roles I really wanted but didn't get, things I had to miss because of writing deadlines - and my God, I only went on ONE date?!

I even looked at all the social gatherings I attended - happy hours and dinner parties - and thought, "I should have been getting work done instead of having fun!" Such is the life of a stressball overachiever...

But as I compiled last year's post, one area did present itself as an opportunity for change in 2015 - my number of auditions. Sometimes I think I audition a lot, other times I feel like I don't. The numbers don't lie --
  • 2014 - 50 auditions
  • 2013 - 37 auditions
  • 2012 - 37 auditions
  • 2011 - 14 auditions
  • 2010 - 25 auditions
So I'm generally trending upward. Good - that's how it should be. But can I be doing better?

I've said it before - the job of an actor is looking for a job. And I believe all work is wonderful - paid or unpaid, TV or commercial, studio or indie, web series or industrial, etc. I'm an equal opportunity actor. I just want to work.

So I'm setting a radical, pie in the sky goal for myself in 2015 -- 100 auditions. That's right, twice the number from last year. Because increasing the odds can only work in my favor, right?

To reach this goal, I'm going to need to kick up my efforts - submit myself more, do better at the auditions I do get to impress the casting directors, and commit to going to every single audition, no matter what writing deadlines are hanging overhead. It will be an interesting experiment - likely stressful at times - but I'm up for the challenge. (I already wonder what percentage will be for nurse/doctor roles...)

So there's my 2015 resolution - 100 auditions! Follow my progress on Twitter or Instagram using hashtag #100in2015 as I update my total count throughout the year.

Why don't you join me? If not 100 auditions, then 100 of something else. How about 100 hours on a writing project? Or 100 trips to the gym? I know there's someone out there who's up for making 100 Pinterest recipes. Let's do this together!

Onward and upward in 2015!