A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!
by Kelly Jo Brick
Aspiring writers often wonder how the pros got where they are. The truth is, everyone’s story is different, but there are some common elements: dedication, persistence and hard work.
A commitment to hard work combined with a desire to always become better at her craft, helped drive the success of television writer LaToya Morgan (TURN, SHAMELESS, COMPLICATIONS). She shares with TVWriter.com her advice about breaking in, taking meetings and always striving to learn and improve as a writer.
WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE IN BREAKING IN?
The biggest hurdle was getting that first shot, like getting someone to say yes. And so once that yes came from the Warner Bros. Workshop, I think that was what opened a lot of doors. So I’m always incredibly grateful to the Warner Bros. Workshop and Chris Mack especially, for seeing the potential I had as a writer and giving me the opportunity to show it.
WHAT WAS THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED AS YOU WERE STARTING OUT?
When I was in film school at AFI, one of my teachers was a man named Leonard Schrader, he wrote Kiss of the Spider Woman. His brother Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver. A great writer. Hardcore, I loved him. He would always say to me, “Why are you making me read this shit?” Literally that is what he would say. I’d be like, oh my God. But what the note behind the note was, was to get into the story faster. Grab you reader immediately. And that’s what I took away from that.
And I think all the teachers I had at AFI were really great at getting you to get to what the core and the heart of the story is. That’s probably the thing that I hear most often in the back of my head when I’m writing. Yeah, like why are you making me read this shit so stop meandering and talking about the flowers and all this other stuff, get to the core of it. It goes to this old quote from Billy Wilder that I love, which is, “Grab the reader by the throat and never let them go.”
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE ABOUT GENERAL OR STAFFING MEETINGS?
As far as prep, I always try to know who I’m meeting with. Especially in this day and age, there’s no excuse not to Google someone before you meet with them. If you’re meeting with a network executive, try to find out what shows that person covers and then also what shows for that network that you would be good for. Know that ahead of time. Don’t wait for them to tell you, you tell them.
And my best piece of advice for interviewing is really simple, which is to be yourself. I know that sounds sort of cliché, but to me, the only time I’ve ever truly been nervous in a meeting is when I was trying to guess what I thought that person wanted me to say instead of me just saying what I think and who I am.
It’s so much easier and it just cuts down on the anxiety. You’re always going to have butterflies before you go in, but just know that the person sitting across the desk from you, they want to have a good meeting too, so engage with them, talk to them.
I just spoke to someone the other day who asked a similar question because they were going to be up for the Warner Bros. Fellowship and I think it sounds really simple or like you should know this, but don’t be afraid to go with the flow of the conversation. So if you’re talking and you find out they like a show you also like, don’t be afraid to go on that tangent for a little bit before getting back to the business of whatever you are there to talk about.
AS A WRITER, WHO INSPIRES YOU?
My favorite writer is John Steinbeck. Grapes of Wrath is my favorite book, just because it’s a family story. It’s a journey. Tom Joad is one of my favorite characters. So I love that.
I am not a snob when it comes to storytelling, so whatever the genre or medium I love it. I love all kinds of sci-fi stuff like Battlestar, X-Files and then I love something gritty like Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, fantasy stuff. I’m a big comic book person so I read a lot of comics. Cross genres I have a lot of influences, so I would say drink it all in. All of it. Plays. All that good stuff.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MOST COMMON QUESTIONS THAT YOU GET ASKED BY ASPIRING WRITERS?
The most common question I get is how do you break in. And I can say as a person who has thought that myself, like when I was at AFI, people would come in and talk on a panel and I would be like, just tell me the secret of how you broke in. Just tell it to me. I know you’re keeping it from me somehow. Just tell me where the secret door is so that I can get in.
My breaking in story is so much different from the other person’s breaking in story. It’s just right place, right time. Luck. All that. I never really truly understood that until I was sitting on the opposite side of the table. I think that the answer for that particular person’s story will be different from mine, but what you can do is always be prepared for the moment.
So before I broke in, I was always writing a lot of material. I wrote several TV specs, a couple of features, plays. I wrote short stories. I just loved telling stories so it didn’t feel like work to me. It was so much fun. So when the time came for me to have that meeting with my manager, he was like you have all this material you haven’t shown anyone and I was like, yeah. And he was like; I love you, because I just had this arsenal of stuff. So I would recommend that you just write whatever strikes you, whatever interests you, in whatever medium that is. So if it’s a short story do that, if it’s a play, do that. Just keep writing.
You have to be prepared and it also helps you become better as a writer, so that was my obsession. I always want to be better as a writer. It’s like the 10,000 Hour Rule from Malcolm Gladwell. I felt like hopefully I’ve passed the 10,000 hours by now. Ever since I was a little kid, I was always writing. After AFI I continued to write more and more and more and just get better every time I wrote something.
ANY OTHER ADVICE FOR WRITERS TRYING TO BREAK IN?
Watch a lot of TV if you want to be in television. I’ve heard people say they want to write TV, but they don’t really watch it. It doesn’t make sense to me. So I think that immersing yourself in the shows that you love and then sometimes watching a show that you don’t love and trying figure out why you don’t like it is a good way just to prepare yourself.
Writers are always about output, output, output. You still also have to have some input. What books have you read? What movies have you seen? It’s important to write and continue to write. Always be writing, but you also have to be reading and you also have to be watching television and inputing as much as you output.
Kelly Jo Brick is a Contributing Editor at TVWriter™. She’s a television and documentary writer and producer, as well as a winner of Scriptapalooza TV and a Sundance Fellow. Read more about her HERE.