TV Writers: How To Navigate Staffing Season

Photo Courtesy of the Writers Guild Foundation

By Kelly Jo Brick

Television staffing has become a year round opportunity for writers, but how does a new writer maneuver his or her way through the process of getting hired on a show?

The Writers Guild Foundation brought together a group of TV writers including:

Elias Benavidez  (BEYOND)

Niceole Levy  (SHADES OF BLUE, THE MYSTERIES OF LAURA)

Joe Lawson  (THIS IS US, JANE THE VIRGIN)

Shernold Edwards (HAND OF GOD, SLEEPY HOLLOW)

Moises Zamora (AMERICAN CRIME)

And moderator Brandon Easton (MARVEL’S AGENT CARTER) to share their own struggles with breaking in, writing the scripts that got them hired, what to expect when meeting with executives and showrunners and how the staffing landscape has been changing.

GETTING STAFFED IF YOU DON’T HAVE REPRESENTATION.

  • Apply for the television fellowships. Those programs can get you meetings and help put you up for a show before you ever have representation.
  • Talk to everyone you possibly can in the industry, but don’t be annoying. If an executive or other writer offers to stay in touch, believe it.
  • Representation sometimes does find you. Take workshops like UCLA classes. Referrals are often what lead to getting someone to rep you. Agents generally come in after you have a job.
  • Always keep writing. That’s what’s going to get you in the room.

SHOULD YOU WRITE SPECS OF CURRENT SHOWS?

  • Writing a spec will help you build a muscle that you will need. Good writing is good writing and that will help you no matter what.
  • Some execs won’t submit a writer who doesn’t have a spec in their portfolio. Have at least one that you love, to show you can write in the voice of someone else, because that’s the job.
  • Original voice is very important. Have an original pilot and a spec. It has you prepared for whichever an executive or showrunner will want.
  • Reading and writing specs are a good way to train you mind to look beyond the pilot.

HOW MUCH DOES IT MATTER TO WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU KNOW?

  • Write what you are passionate about. If it’s interesting to you, it’s interesting to them.
  • Think about how you want to market yourself.
  • Have something you want to say, channel your experiences and feelings into your characters and story.
  • Agents and managers have a passion barometer. They can tell if you care about what you’re working on. When you put your whole being into a script, people can tell.

STAFFING IS ALL YEAR LONG. HOW HAS THAT CHANGED THE HIRING ENVIRONMENT FOR NEWER WRITERS?

  • There aren’t a lot of network, 20 plus episode a season jobs anymore.
  • Shows are top heavy, but there are a few lower level positions.
  • Executives change jobs all the time. They also share with other people when they meet a writer they like, so if that one job doesn’t hit, still keep that relationship going. You never know where it can lead.
  • Part of getting a lower level staff job is building a fan club of people who want to help you succeed. There’s nothing that will endear you more to someone than genuine enthusiasm.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN MEETINGS WITH EXECUTIVES AND SHOWRUNNERS.

  • Know your personal story and be ready to share it. Also be able to tell them what shows you’re watching.
  • Do your research on who you’re meeting with, but don’t get too personal.
  • Be able to talk about what you like from their pilots, what you’re excited to write about and don’t be afraid to be wrong. Just be passionate about what you love about the show.
  • Try to find a personal connection to a character in the showrunner’s script. That can build conversation.
  • Know what they read of yours so you’re prepared to answer any questions they have about it.
  • Sometimes people will ask what you don’t like about a show. Prep a positive way to talk about it.
  • Some executives bait you into crapping on other shows. Don’t do it.

TIPS ON SURVIVING UNTIL YOU GET THAT FIRST JOB.

  • If you’re worried about money, you can’t write. It’s too scary. Do whatever you need to in order to keep yourself alive and comfortable. If you have to, sacrifice sleep or other things, but keep writing.
  • Build a routine around your day job to make sure you’re still leaving time for writing and networking.
  • Don’t get tunnel vision. If you don’t live life, you won’t have anything to write about. Do other things.
  • Be prepared for a lot of uncertainty. Am I going to get the agent? Am I going to get the manager? Am I going to get this job? Am I going to keep this job? What if the show gets cancelled? It never ends. You have to find a way to manage it.
  • You have to ask for stuff, because nobody will offer to introduce you to his or her agent. You have that one shot you can ask. They’ll either say yes or no. You can’t be afraid to ask.

WHAT ARE THE EXPECTATIONS FOR A FIRST TIMER IN THE ROOM?

  • If you can say one thing of value before lunch and one in the afternoon, that’s good. Don’t force stuff out of your mouth because you want to be heard.
  • Read the room. See, hear, listen. See what the room needs. If everyone talks, you don’t need to. Build that skill of understanding for what the room does and doesn’t need.
  • Watch who is successful at pitching in the room and model their behavior.
  • It’s not your job to challenge the boss. Do whatever you can do to add to your showrunner’s idea.
  • Remember, just because you’re not talking, doesn’t mean you’re not working.

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.

TV WRITING: Your First Years In The Writers Room

Photo Courtesy of the Writers Guild Foundation

by Kelly Jo Brick

From finding representation to landing the first staff writing gig and navigating the writers’ room, everyone’s path to breaking in is different. The Writers Guild Foundation brought together Polina Diaz (FULLER HOUSE), Kay Oyegun (THIS IS US, QUEEN SUGAR), Robert Padnick (THE OFFICE, MAN SEEKING WOMAN) and Britta Lundin (RIVERDALE) to talk about the highlights and challenges of their first years writing for television.

WRITING THE SCRIPT TO LAND YOUR FIRST JOB

Write the script you’re really scared to write, because it’s probably the one most personal to you and will resonate the most with other people. It doesn’t matter if nobody’s going to buy it or it’s too expensive. Just write what you want to for your sample.

BUILDING YOUR NETWORK

It’s totally fine if you move to Los Angeles without knowing anybody, you’re just going to meet those people naturally. Work backwards from what you have and build on that. Do you have friends who are in the entertainment business? Do you have friends who have friends in the industry? Just be really thoughtful.

Meet people who you maybe want to be friends with. It’s so not schmoozing people at a mixer and handing them your business card. It’s like going to a birthday party and talking to someone and learning about them and caring about them. Later maybe they’ll be like, oh, I like your project, maybe I want to read your script. That’s the kind of networking that’s going to be most helpful.

Go out to drinks once or twice a week just to chat with people and see what’s up with their lives and exchange scripts. You meet a lot of people through writing groups and reading their work. Doing that long enough, you build up a group of friends and people who care about you as a person and want to see you succeed.

If you’re a comedy writer, there are definitely comedy communities that you can be part of like Upright Citizens Brigade or Groundlings. While you’re doing that, do things to get noticed, Twitter feeds, web series. People notice funny people all the time. There are ways to stand out if you’re just really creative or working really hard at it.

MAKING THAT FIRST IMPRESSION WITH REPS – IS YOUR MATERIAL NOT GOOD OR ARE YOU SENDING IT TO THE WRONG PERSON?

The question of how good I am versus how people are receiving me is going to haunt us for all of our careers. One thing you should have in your life is really honest critique partners who will tell you the truth. Hopefully you have a writing group or a friend who will be like, this needs more work or this isn’t your script, you have to write something else. If you have people who seem really smart and know what they’re talking about and they say it’s good, then maybe it’s good and you’re just sending it to the wrong person. It’s important to do your research and know what kind of stuff that manager or agent represents or what their other clients are doing. If they only do genre stuff and you’re sending out a romantic comedy, it might not be the right match.

It’s really important to know your brand. Before you think of yourself as a brand or as a business, which you really are, you have to know what you love and what excites you. Hone in on your craft and make sure what you’re writing is solid. Send the best thing you have. You have to fight for it. If they’re not into you, they’re not into you. Move on to the next person.

THE CHALLENGES OF WRITING FOR A TV SHOW BASED ON A BOOK

You change so many things and you move things around. You apologize to the author constantly, because so much of the book is changed. We try to be truthful to the core essence of the book and also be respectful to the fans who read and loved the book. You do your best and try to be truthful to it, but you don’t have to be married to it.

HOW TO ACT IN THE ROOM AS A NEW WRITER

Read the room. Am I talking too much? Does anyone look annoyed by how much I’m talking? Do they look annoyed by how little I’m talking? Definitely when you’re a staff writer, it depends on the showrunner and the staff for how much you should speak.

Some people don’t really care about the politics, they say if you have a good idea, just say it. For some shows there definitely is a hierarchy and you have to read that out. When you’re a staff writer, you’re never going to go in the room and be like, I know what the A story is or this is what your show is. For comedy, you’re there to pitch jokes when they’re stuck on something or pitch ideas, but don’t command the room.

Be overly prepared. That is very helpful. You are a facilitator of someone else’s vision. Know the world, at least to an extent of what they’re planning on doing. If the show deals with a specific subject, research it. Nobody else, especially the higher ups, wants to do that work. Do it on your own without anyone asking. When it comes up in the conversation, you’re able to bring the world there.

Different shows have different processes. Some like story pitches that have a beginning, middle and end of a pitch. That can be overwhelming for certain people. It’s a skill you have to continue to develop. Sometimes your pitch doesn’t work, but at least there’s something in the space and world you did that allows for another idea to be generated off of that.

Find a senior writer in the room, be friends with that person and just check in off the record to ask for feedback. Different rooms have different vibes and landmines to watch out for. Have someone that seems sympathetic. Just pull them aside during coffee or lunch and be like, hey, how am I doing. Usually there’s a sympathetic soul that totally gets it, but they’re not going to give advice out of the blue if you don’t ask.

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.