by Kelly Jo Brick
The Writers Guild Foundation brought together participants from several prestigious writing programs including the Nicholl Fellowship, NBC’s Writers on the Verge, the Disney/ABC Writing Program, Humanitas New Voices and the CBS Writers Mentoring Program. Panelists including Brandon Easton (Disney/ABC Writing Program), Brian Anthony (Writers on the Verge), Greta Heinemann (CBS Writers Mentoring Program & Humanitas New Voices), Andrew Lanham (Nicholl Fellowship) and Michael Werwie (Nicholl Fellowship) shared highlights and tips from their experiences both applying to and participating in these fellowships.
1 – Fellowships are just the start.
It’s important to remember that if you place in one of the fellowships, it’s just the beginning of a really long road, not the end. It feels momentous when it happens because you’ve been working so hard for a number of years, but it’s just a step. Use it as that, because it’s really hard to find those when you’re trying to break in. It’s the beginning of a much longer road and the harder road in certain ways as far as this happened, but it’s really not a big thing in the context of the industry at large. People are patting you on the back and they’re giving you all these compliments, although really it doesn’t translate directly into a career. Even if you get a job or two out of it, that is not a career. It’s not time to take your foot off the gas, it’s time to step down on it.
2 – They are not a magic bullet.
Celebrate the moment, but realize it’s not a single day thing. What you put into it, is what you get out of it. You can get one moment where you get a big accolade or you get a lot of recognition from something, but ultimately it’s the talent of the writing that’s going to determine whether or not the next step happens. Some people do get representation or staffed on a show. Some get one and not the other, some get neither, but getting in one of these programs is a huge step forward. They open the doors and it’s your responsibility do the most you can with the opportunity.
3 – Have a wealth of experiences and knowledge that can inform your writing.
The fellowships are looking for someone who has a deep well to draw from, some other life that you’ve led before, and they’re looking for the ability to play nice with others.
4 – Make your script stand out to the reader.
The people who are reading your script have read so many scripts they get numb after they read like 5 or 6 of them and are looking for something that makes them feel. Make your script more emotional, something that’s going to elicit more of a feeling from a reader. If you write comedies, try to write a dramedy and if you write horror movies, try to write something a little more psychological or dark.
5 – Build a peer network.
It’s important when you’re going through this process to stick together with other people who are going through it with you, because those people are at the same level as you and are going through the same things. You need an outlet, someone who understands. If your close friends are struggling writers, there’s only so much they’d be willing to tolerate when you’re having what seems to them as champagne problems.
6 – Take advantage of all opportunities that come with these programs while you’re in them.
The TV game is so much about building relationships and getting to know people, so while you have access to executives and other creatives, make sure to reach out, grab coffee or lunch and get to know them.
7 – Don’t look at diversity programs as a trap.
Some people have concerns about the possibility of being categorized as a diverse writer. Look at these programs as an opportunity. It’s a foot in the door, then it’s up to you from there to you to present on the page and as a person.
8 – The notes process can be key to improving not only your script, but also yourself as a writer.
Giving good notes is just as important as receiving good notes, because it helps develop your own objectivity. The more objective you can be with your own work, the more honest you can be with yourself about whether or not something is working. When you start working professionally, being a diagnostician is half the job. If you’re going out on feature rewrites, you’re diagnosing what isn’t working, if you’re in the TV room it’s how can you make this better. Developing that muscle is really important too.
9 – Can other contests help your writing career?
If you have a feature, you should be submitting to the Austin Film Festival’s competition every year. Austin’s one of the best festivals for screenwriters. They’re all about the writer. You’ll get representation if you place there and you can send your script in by genre, so you can win for sci-fi or comedy or other categories. As for smaller contests, any kind of publicity is great, so if it gets you read, who knows where that could lead to, but keep your expectations realistic. There are no-name contests that have launched careers, but the benefits of those are mostly just getting read and practice.
10 – If you haven’t won a fellowship, there are other ways to leverage your writing.
Cold queries are an option. It’s not very efficient, but things can happen because of it. There are many resources online to figure out email structures, management companies and such. Let agents come to you, but query managers. Producers can be pretty approachable too. It’s all a long game of research to figure out who are the right people to target for your type of writing. Also, there are no small victories, hold on to the accolades you get along the way and make sure to keep them as part of your resume. It gives you validation and puts you ahead of the rest.
The Writers Guild Foundation regularly hosts events that celebrate the craft and voices of film and television writers. To find out more about upcoming events, go to wgfoundation.org.
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.