by Kelly Jo Brick
Sublime Primetime, an annual event presented by the Writers Guild of America, West, the Writers Guild Foundation and Variety, hosted several of this year’s Emmy-nominated writers who discussed the inspirations for their nominated episodes, the importance of research and realism in the stories they tell, how they got their first breaks and the need for greater diversity both on the screen and behind the camera.
These Emmy-nominated writers shared with TVWriter.com their advice for writers who are just starting out in the business.
Joel Fields (THE AMERICANS) – Write a lot and read a lot. I remember once when I was having a moment in my career where I was struggling, I was talking to my agent about it and he gave me some great advice. He said, “Keep writing.” I think that’s what it’s all about. Find what you’re passionate about and the stories you want to tell and tell them.
Joe Weisberg (THE AMERICANS) – Something I observed is how important it is to not feel like you’ve got this one project and that’s the thing you’re doing. It’s great to focus on one project until you’re done. It’s not that you need to be writing three things simultaneously, but once you’re done writing something, usually you go on to something else right away. It’s not like you need to wait and see if that project is going to be made into a show in order to start writing something else. I used to write novels and sometimes you’d spend years on something and take a break for a couple years. It was just a different type of thing. The world of television is really great to just keep moving.
Scott Alexander (THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY) – My best advice is to write something that you want to see. Don’t write something that you think you can sell or something that you think will be popular in the marketplace. We wrote movies that we wanted to see. That’s sort of how we broke through.
Larry Karaszewski (THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY) – My advice to up-and-coming writers is to always write something that you want to see. That sounds silly to say, but a lot of people try to write to the marketplace, like that movie came out last Friday, I should write a movie like that. I’m a big believer in write the movie you want to see. Write the movie that if you opened a newspaper and saw the ad for it, you would be excited, you’d be the first person in line to see it. Hopefully if you do that, someone else is going to feel that way and if for some reason it doesn’t happen, at least you followed the thing that you really wanted to do.
Alex Gregory (VEEP) – I can’t even imagine how different it is for young writers now. When I started out it was very simple. You wrote sitcom specs, you got them to a friend who had an agent, the agent’s assistant would read them and pass them to the agent. If they liked it, then they’d bring you in and represent you. Now I don’t even know how it works. I would suspect the best thing you can do is make short internet films that show your voice, because that’s something that doesn’t take money. You don’t need to wait for people’s permission. You don’t need to have contacts. You don’t need to get it to a friend. Ultimately, television has now just become long form cinema. It used to be with a four camera comedy, there was a certain rhythm that you really needed to show you could mimic. Single camera comedies without laugh tracks are basically movies and so if you can write for a movie, you can essentially write for TV now. It’s a lot more fluid of a situation.
Peter Huyck (VEEP) – Move to Los Angeles. That’s the first step. You’d like to think a brilliant script from anywhere in the world can get you attention, but you probably need to be here. So many of my friends got their breaks because they were working in the industry at a very, very low level. So if you start as an intern, a dog walker, a nanny, whatever it is, once you get that foot in the door, a lot of people are very nice and will help you and support you and read your material. So don’t be afraid to take a job that you’re not particularly thrilled about if it’s for the right person.
Marti Noxon (UnREAL) – To me the best advice always is that plot should always serve character. Sometimes I think when you’re starting off, you get caught up in making a plot that’s really unique and creative, but unless the characters are really strong and you really care about them, it won’t have the same impact. So for me, when I started working on BUFFY, what was so great about that experience is that all those stories came from character and then the monsters and the big bads and all that, is what grew out of character-based story. I find the writers who really work from that place are a lot more interesting.
Sarah G. Shapiro (UnREAL) – I think it’s really good for everybody to take responsibility to educate themselves as much as possible. I know from a lot of other established writers that when younger or beginning people reach out asking for advice, it’s really hard if that advice is readily available. It’s really better if you come with specific questions. One thing that I always advise is there’s a podcast series called The Children of Tendu and I sort of say I’d be happy to have coffee with you, but listen to the whole series first, because there’s so much information available out there. Read the dramatic writing books, do everything you can, educate yourself as much as you can, so that when you come to ask for mentorship, it’s really specific, like I finished my hour pilot, I feel like it needs a trim, could you look at it. People who have created shows and such, we are so ungodly busy, that while we want to help people who are coming up, it’s a lot easier if it’s a bite size piece of help.
Alex Rubens (KEY & PEELE) – I’ve jokingly said that the best way to break in is to have your best friend from kindergarten be friends with someone who ends up getting his own show, which is how I broke in. More seriously, I think it’s a risky choice that you make because you have to make it, because it’s what you care about. It’s how you want to live your life. For those of us who do this, whether we have broken in or are trying to, the common ground is that we value this extremely highly in life. It’s some meaning of life stuff, just devoting yourself. If it’s something that you care about that much, then you care about it that much and you devote your life to it.
Carolyn Omine (THE SIMPSONS) – I really think the internet is the way to go these days. There’s so many different kinds of comedy and the best way to show your kind of comedy is to be able to produce your own things and put it up on the internet. It’s a great way now. Also, the best advice I ever got, I think is that no matter what you write, if you’re writing something as a job, never write down to it, always write the very best version of whatever of it. Always do the very best.
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.