by Allie Theiss
Time now for the second part of our conversation with writer-producer Daniel Thomsen of TIME AFTER TIME, WESTWORLD, ONCE UPON a TIME, and other fine TV shows. Making it in Hollywood is hard in itself but isn’t the end of the road. You have to keep your career going too! Danny tells us how he’s handling the challenge:
What path do you recommend a budding TV writer take to get hired onto a show?
I’ve worked in a lot of writers rooms over the years, and if you’re going by the numbers, the vast majority of first-time staff writers get their gigs in one of two ways: They’re promoted from an assistant desk, or they come through a studio program. (Most of the studios have great programs that are designed to help writers from underrepresented backgrounds.) I always recommend that people try to go through one of those doors because that’s the path of least resistance.
The exceptions to this rule are writers who have a creative accomplishment in another medium — novelists, journalists, etc. Or sometimes you’ll see someone get hired who has a specialty background, like a doctor getting hired on a medical show.
I know this can be a frustrating answer to people who can’t approach the business through apprenticeship or a program. To those people, I would recommend putting all their eggs in the basket of their own creativity. Don’t waste your time on staffing — try to be a creator. Write an undeniable story. Turn it into an ebook, or a graphic novel, or learn DIY filmmaking. If you can get enough people to love your story in one shape or another, eventually Hollywood will take notice.
What is it about the writing and the personality of a person that makes he or she a good candidate to be a TV writer?
The most successful TV writers I know share a few characteristics:
First and foremost, they all have very thick skin. This is a business where, in the best case scenario, every single idea, outline, and script you generate will be subjected to layer upon layer of notes and feedback. You will be told your writing isn’t good enough, and that your ideas aren’t fresh or interesting. You can’t ignore the feedback or fight it, so the most important thing is to figure out how to accept the feedback and come up with something different that you still feel good about.
They all have a friendly, collaborative personality — or at least the ability to fake that personality for long periods of time. Because in TV, you’re probably going to be working in a writers room for most of your days. That means sitting around a table with a large group of peers for hours at a time. If you’re a loner, or do your best work locked behind closed doors,that can be a challenge. I speak from painful experience on this one.
They all live vibrant, interesting lives. The best writers I’ve worked with all have great hobbies and intellectual pursuits. They’re curious about other people and the world at large. This curiosity serves as the foundation for their writing and gives it unique life.
They’re all passionate and analytical about the craft of communication. They’re always trying to get better at the various ways we try to take the ideas in our heads and communicate them to others. They understand that, while “writing” is something that we can do for ourselves, “TV writing” is something we do for the audience.
They’re all tremendous listeners. I mean that in every context, in every situation, in every moment. Listening is a very underrated skill.
What is your definition of good writing?
Hmm. I’ve never really tried to answer this before. I think good writing happens when you combine an IDEA with the exact right FORM of storytelling. Interesting ideas can be executed in boring or rote ways. Sometimes TV shows just throw plot on the screen and try to bowl audiences over with cinematic achievement or easter eggs or whatever. To me, that’s lazy writing.
But when a good idea is executed with a structure that lets you see the idea in a new way, or unlocks an unexpected emotional response, it becomes good writing. Finding a story, and then working to find the perfect way to tell that story, is the beauty of what writers do.
What other nuggets of wisdom do you have for TV writers early in their career?
If you truly care about the quality of your writing, resist the urge to spend money. Don’t upgrade to a giant apartment or house you can’t really afford just because you want to feel like a big shot. Don’t buy a Tesla because you think that’s what all the cool kids are doing. Live comfortably and enjoy Los Angeles, for sure, but always remember that financial freedom will give you a better shot at creative freedom.
As I answer this, I’m taking a year off from staffing so I can try developing my own TV series. It means I’m making less money, but I’m passionate about an idea and I want to roll the dice. If I had too many bills, I wouldn’t be able to do that. I’d always be forced to take whatever job was in front of me just to keep up.
Thank you, Danny, for your time and your expertise. We’re rooting for your dice to keep coming up seven!
If you missed Part 1, don’t worry. You can find it by clicking HERE