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!