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, hard work and not giving up.
An alum of NBC’s Writers on the Verge, Rashad Raisani got his first writing job on the USA Network show BURN NOTICE where he rose from staff writer to co-executive producer. He also wrote for WHITE COLLAR and was executive producer on the NBC spy drama ALLEGIANCE. Rashad is currently developing projects as part of an overall deal with Universal Television.
WHAT IS THE MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU GET ASKED BY ASPIRING WRITERS?
How to get an agent is probably the number one question. The big secret about agents is they’re always there when they need you; they’re not there for you. Great agents are great. They’re invaluable really, but when you’re starting out, an agent is not going to help you. Even when they sign you, it’s going to be so much on you to get those first meetings.
I always try to encourage that the best way to get an agent is don’t care about getting an agent. They’ll find you when you’re ready. When you write them query letters or chase them around, I just have found that it doesn’t do you any good.
The better thing to do it to get to know writers who work in the business and develop relationships with them, whether it be just email correspondence or cocktails or lunches or you can work as an assistant or script coordinator or an intern. You make those kind of relationships, they’re the people who will then call or email their agent and say, hey, I’ve got this untested, but really promising writer, you should read them. Me calling my agent and saying, “Listen, you have to check this person out,” carries more weight than you advocating for yourself to an agent.
WHEN STAFFING, WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A WRITER?
The first thing is the writing. The script has to in some way give me a pang of oh my goodness, I could never do that. There are so many scripts that do it, which is great.
The first bar is clearing that one. The second one, it really all boils down to preparation. Do people come into a meeting flatfooted? It’s a different version of Glen Mazzara’s advice to me, which was a lot of people come to a meeting and just wait for you to talk and say, “So, tell me about yourself.” They want you to drive it, but they don’t think about the fact that that showrunner has had to read 400 or 500 scripts, they’ve had to do 20 meetings.
They have so many pressures on them that the more you can alleviate it for them by subtly guiding the conversation, by having a great story about yourself that invites organic questions that they don’t have to think too hard about creating in their mind. They can say, “Oh, that’s cool, tell me about that.”
The other thing I try to recommend to people is, what they’re thinking about when they’re looking at you is: A) Is this someone I can sit in a room with for a long time and B) is this person going to be a font of ideas. The advice I give to people is prepare by reading non-fiction books about the subject that you’re going in on. Once you can show you have a little bit of mastery on the subject, it will instantly make them go, “Okay, good. This person knows more about it than I do. That’s a relief.”
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR A NEW WRITER WHEN THEY FIRST GET IN THE WRITERS’ ROOM?
With staff writers, especially first time staff writers, there’s two different camps. Some people say you should come in with guns blazing. You shouldn’t defer to anybody creatively, you should speak for yourself and then there are other people who say staff writers should be seen and not heard. I tend to favor being an outspoken writer, because I think the titles are very artificial in terms of co-executive producer versus staff writer versus story editor, but that said, I do think that as a staff writer you really don’t know anything about how the machine works, so I always encourage writers to take two or three days to observe the flow of the room and see how people talk and who talks over who and what the etiquette is and when you can tell an idea has died or when you can see that there’s a sparkle in the showrunner’s eye and that’s something to try and build on. There’s nothing wrong with not talking too much the first two days, but then once you get a flow, you have to just jump in.
The other thing is there’s a tendency, especially among junior writers, when they pitch something it’s often met with silence. The feeling is that people aren’t getting it or they’re waiting for you to say more, but they’re not. Often people are just processing what you said and so by continuing to talk, if they like your idea, you can talk them out of it and if they hate your idea, you’re just pouring gasoline on the fire.
Be pithy and succinct when you pitch, then back up and let the room digest it. If they like it, that’s great. If they don’t, then no big deal. I think people also get so in their own head about pitching that they think, oh, they didn’t like my idea, I suck, but people don’t get how rare someone who’s pitching ideas is. An original idea being pitched, even if it doesn’t work, it’s often very illuminating to what the idea needs to be and if somebody’s not doing the heavy lifting of throwing ideas out, then the room stalls and ultimately fails.
ANY OTHER ADVICE FOR WRITERS AT THE EARLY STAGES OF THEIR CAREERS?
To cultivate their love for what they are doing, because it’s so easy to focus on the results of their writing, whether it be get an agent or get a job or finish my script so I can go do something else. There’s always these external goals, the more you can try and get rid of those motivations to write, the better you’ll write, because then you’ll be moe present in your own writing. It is its own reward.
I think part of cultivating that is to really take time to celebrate your own writing. Whether you finish an act or finish a script or whatever it is, it’s always a big deal to have completed something. So whether it’s going out to a restaurant with somebody you like or having a drink or dessert, whatever it is to just take time to savor it, because as happy as you are about writing right now, especially if you haven’t broken through yet, that’s as happy as you’ll ever be about it. You’ll just get paid more and the pressure will be higher. That’s the only thing that is going to change.
Kelly Jo Brick is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. 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.