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.
Hard work and persistence were key for writer Raamla Mohamed as she rose through the ranks from writers’ PA on GREY’S ANATOMY to researcher on OFF THE MAP and SCANDAL. Looking for a deadline to keep her writing on task, Raamla applied to and was accepted into the Disney-ABC Writing Program, which led to her becoming a staff writer on season two of SCANDAL. In addition to writing for SCANDAL, Raamla was a writer on the upcoming ShondaLand show STILL STAR-CROSSED.
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU FIRST KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?
I worked in Off-Broadway theater in New York. I was an assistant at a theater called 59E59 Theaters. It was a great experience because the theater had just opened and it had three stages, which meant there were a lot of plays coming in and out, so I met a lot of playwrights and actors. I got inspired. I wanted to write, but I didn’t really think that was a real thing a person could do to pay their student loans back.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN ENTERTAINMENT AND HOW DID YOU GET IT?
I went to grad school at USC for writing. It was a two-year program. I liked it because it was very specific to the industry I wanted to work in. You wrote, Writing the Drama Spec, Writing the Drama Pilot, Writing the Feature. That was a great experience. I learned a lot. The best thing I got out of that was that a classmate of mine worked at PRIVATE PRACTICE and heard about an opening for a PA at GREY’S ANATOMY, which I don’t think I would of heard of otherwise because a lot of times people hire people who know someone who know someone. That got me into ShondaLand, which was awesome.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE APPLYING FOR THE DISNEY-ABC WRITING PROGRAM.
On OFF THE MAP I was Jenna Bans’ assistant and she said she would be reading assistants’ materials to staff. I was stressed out about it because I realized I hadn’t written anything in so long. What happened is that she actually hired one of the assistants to be on staff. It was a great wake up call for me, because I had this opportunity that I just blew.
I started writing on the weekends and after work, just anytime I could so I could get some specs. I used the Disney program as a deadline. To be like okay, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’ll write these specs and I’ll know that at least I’ll have a chance for that.
I did a MAD MEN spec. I love MAD MEN. I got some MAD MEN scripts. I knew an assistant at one of the agencies who could send them to me. I read those. The other thing I did which I found really helpful, was to go online and look at YouTube clips. There are all these fans who make clips of like Betty and Don’s greatest scenes together. It reminds you of moments and gives you ideas of what to do for your spec.
I wrote a SHAMELESS as my second spec. I think it had only been on for a season, but I really liked that show. I felt that they were very different scripts. MAD MEN is written like Don and Betty enter and then the dialogue. SHAMELESS is more similar to the way we write our show. The action is fun. So I was trying to show a different thing. Then I had a pilot. I think you needed 3 samples. I honestly felt good that I did it, that I didn’t just talk about that I’m going to be a writer then not do anything about it.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BIG TAKEAWAYS FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH THE DISNEY-ABC FELLOWSHIP?
We had a guest speaker talk about what it’s like to be a staff writer and how hours could go by and you realize you haven’t said a word and then you’re in your head and you’re like I’m so stupid, they’re just staring at me, looking at me like why are you so dumb, you’re not saying anything. Then you finally say something and no one really responds. Then you think about okay, now I’m never talking. It was nice to hear that’s a common feeling, that you’re not alone and it’s to be expected.
I think she said, “The silence in your head is louder than it actually is.” That was very helpful to know or else I think in the first year I would have either talked way too much or not at all and just felt paralyzed by not wanting to share my ideas.
ADVICE ON FELLOWSHIP ESSAYS.
Get personal. Don’t write something generic. It’s hard to think about what is the most interesting thing about me. I don’t think people just walk around thinking about that. So I asked my roommate at the time. She was like your dad was from Somalia. I was like, oh, right. Then I just started slowly writing down funny stories that I remembered. Based on that, I crafted an essay around how I got into writing. It’s about me, but it’s about my dad, who spoke very broken English, but we shared a love for TV. There’s a thread in there that says something about me and why I’m here. These are things I don’t actually want to talk about, but I had to go to a place that was personal so they get to the heart of who I am.
WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST CHALLENGE BREAKING IN AS A WRITER?
It’s easier to become a writer if you’re an assistant somewhere, however there are some places that only see assistants as assistants. Luckily ShondaLand isn’t like that, because there are a lot of assistants who have become writers. It is hard for people to make that transition to see you as a writer. In some ways you just have to prove yourself and show them you’re a worthy person.
I like to study. I’d watch the episodes, the cuts, read the scripts. There’s talent and then there’s hard work. What you lack in immediate talent, you can supplement with hard work until the talent increases. I just worked really hard. Anything they’d want me to do. Anything I could help with in any way. We have these things called addendums that post-production needs to play, like the news clips that air underneath the scenes. No one hears them, but they need something and they need to be filmed, so I’d write those. It’s important and it’s something that no one else wants to do, so I would do that. Also, it was a way for them to see my writing. I always encourage other writers to look for places where you can make your showrunner’s life easier. The easier you can make your showrunner’s life, the more valuable you are.
Coming Soon: Part Two with SCANDAL’s Raamla Mohamed as she shares advice on taking meetings, working with agents and managers and finding your way as a writer.
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.