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.

Web Series: ‘Creatures of Yes’

There’s something about this series of short (2 t0 3 minutes) webisodes that keeps blowing all of us away. Watch the entire series below and see if you can keep yourself from wondering, “How the hell can these puppets be so cute and so sophisticated at the same time?”

See? This shit be funny.

The Creatures of Yes is a new experimental television show made by Jacob Graham and Co. in Brooklyn NY. It’s about people discovering the world around them and learning to appreciate each other’s differences. It addresses modern, relevant topics head-on with humor and sensitivity.

The Creatures of Yes website is HERE

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With Marc Zicree, Part 2

A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!

by Kelly Jo Brick

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part 1 is HERE

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.

From animation to science fiction, Marc Zicree has written hundreds of hours of TV for shows including SMURFS, SUPER FRIENDS, SLIDERS, STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION and BABYLON 5. His drive and desire to learn from the writers he most admired helped Marc develop his career in television. Currently, he is writing, directing and producing SPACE COMMAND, a series of science fiction features starring Doug Jones, Armin Shimerman and Mira Furlan.

WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED AS YOU WERE STARTING OUT?

When I was growing up, the three shows that made me want to be a writer were the original STAR TREK, the original TWILIGHT ZONE and the original OUTER LIMITS. My heroes weren’t the actors, they were the writers: Richard Matheson and Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, D.C. Fontana, Charles Beaumont, George Clayton Johnson, Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury. As soon as I was old enough, I started going to science fiction conventions and meeting a lot of these writers.

They became mentors, many of them. So the thing I think served me the best was recognizing who are the best people doing the work I wanted to do and then learning from them directly and learning from what they were doing. Really studying how they did these things. Reading their scripts, talking with them, finding out what the ins and outs were of both the art and the craft and the business too, because you need all three to have a career.

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WRITERS TAKING THEIR FIRST MEETINGS?

Be present. Many, many meetings you’re so in your head and you’re so thinking about the past, the future, you’re not present. There are many pitches I took as a producer where I would ask a question and the person would answer a different question because they weren’t present. So be present. Be friendly.

Be warm, be genuine. Authenticity is very important. Don’t flake. You’d be amazed at how many people flake. All you have to do is do what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it.

AND ONCE YOU GET ON A TV STAFF?

Have a work ethic. Work hard. I know some people who have done very well because when they got on staff they were the first person at the office and the last person to leave and that was noticed.

Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Be pleasant. Be positive. Be upbeat. Don’t complain. Don’t gossip. It’s pretty obvious stuff, but you’d be surprised by how many people fall into negativity, complaining, all that stuff.

ON GROWING YOUR CAREER ONCE YOU GET IN THE DOOR.

It’s not an easy road. You want things to go smoothly, but they don’t. People ask me how I broke into television and it’s more like a burglar working a neighborhood. It’s always about reinvention and I’ve always been extremely ambitious. My goal from when I was 10, 11, 12, 13 years old was to create and run my own science fiction series and now that’s what I’m doing with SPACE COMMAND.

You have to break in and break in and break in. It’s an ongoing process and I’m still doing that even now. You have to be endlessly inventive. You have to be driven and enthusiastic and surround yourself with people who will believe in you even when you falter.

WHAT’S THE MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU GET FROM ASPIRING WRITERS?

Often people want to know how to break in and what I say with that is right now the best way is to apply to the writing fellowships. The real question is how can people know you’re a good writer without reading you. Everyone hates to read and there’s not enough time in the day to read everybody’s scripts and so if it’s like, well, I’ve won this ABC Fellowship or I was in this Sundance Screenplay Lab or any of these things, then it’s like, well, OK, let’s check out this person’s writing.

Also with a lot of these studio and network writing fellowships, they’ll give you money and they’ll give you a career. So that’s one way, but the main thing is to not expect some agent is going to take you on board, wave a magic wand and make it happen.

You have to figure out how to kick the door down, how to get attention. It might be making a web series; it might be doing an indie film that wins at a festival. It might be writing a spec script that you get to some actor and he starts blogging and tweeting about it because he loves it and he has several million fans. It’s anything that’s going to get you attention. It always starts with the work.

THE IMPORTANCE OF FEEDBACK.

What I would urge writers to do is first of all, write well. Get feedback from professionals. Make sure that you’re getting feedback because most scripts aren’t strong enough. They’re not well written enough. Write and write and write and get feedback.

Ray Bradbury told me he wrote every day for 10 years before he wrote a single word that he thought was worth anything. So don’t just assume that because you’re working hard that you’re accomplishing what you’re setting out to do. Writing is a two way street. It’s what you intend to say and what the audience perceives, so you have to make sure what you intend to say is what they’re getting.

HOW CROWDFUNDING HAS BEEN A GAMECHANGER.

There are two things that really sabotage writers. It shouldn’t be this way and the other is, it used to be like this. It used to work, why doesn’t it work now? Those two things you have to totally let go of. Say to yourself, what’s the problem? What are some actions I can take? One of my bosses, it was Richard Manning, an executive producer on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, he said, “Sometimes it doesn’t matter which direction you choose as long as you choose a direction and march.” I believe in that. So you say, okay, let’s take an action, if that doesn’t work we take another action. If the old things don’t work, try something new.

I mentor a lot of people through my roundtable and through classes that I teach. I started hearing about Kickstarter and Indiegogo. So I looked into them and saw that things were getting financed and because it frustrated me that executives at the studios and the networks were gatekeepers, I turned toward crowdfunding. I thought let’s try something else. Let’s see if I can raise money on Kickstarter and then I sold investment shares. With that I was able to shoot the first SPACE COMMAND movie.

It’s inventing an entirely new way of doing things. I love the new methods, the new modalities because I can utilize them and don’t have to ask permission. The lovely part is that I wrote the script exactly the way I wanted to write it. I cast all the actors I wanted to cast. I shot it exactly the way I wanted to shoot it. I didn’t have to ask anybody’s permission and if I’d gone to the network with the cast that I wanted to cast, I probably couldn’t have gotten most of these people, because the networks wouldn’t have wanted them.


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.

Question for LB: OMG! Are Those My Words That Actor Just Said?

Glad You Asked Department 1/8/18
by Larry Brody

Last week we presented a guest article about what it’s like to see your first script produced, and over the weekend a similar question came in from a TVWriter™ reader about my own personal experience in that regard. So I thought I’d share my answer here and now:


Where are they now? No, seriously, if you know, please comment below!

Question from Armando:

Dear Larry,

My longest running recurring dream is that I’m sitting in an easy chair, iPad in hand, watching as an episode I’ve written as the newest staffer on THE GOOD PLACE begins, with all the actors delivering my lines. It’s the most exciting dream I’ve ever had, even better than the one about Gal Gadot, her golden lasso, a tub filled with Lucky Charms cereal, and me.

You’ve had hundreds of TV episodes on the air. How does it feel to hear actors saying something you’ve written? In particular, did it feel the first time?

Answer from Yours Truly:

First of all, congratulations, Armando, on proving yourself a real writer. How, you may be wondering, did you do that? Very simply: You asked me about My First Time and it was a writing question instead of a sex question. So smile, dood, this proves you’ve got what it takes to go far.

My first produced script was an episode of the long gone series HERE COME THE BRIDES. I don’t remember anything about the story other than it involved the heroes helping a group of immigrants trying to build a new life for themselves in the rugged 1870s Pacific Northwest, believe it or not. But I do remember sitting down to watch the show the night it was on, eager to hear the actors uttering my words.

Unfortunately, an hour later, after the episode was over, I was still waiting. Because the thrill of seeing absolute proof that I was a professional writer of television never materialized in terms of anything other than my writing credit. I never got to experience the “Oh wow, they’re saying that I wrote” moment for one not uncommon reason:

The cast wasn’t saying what I wrote. My recollection is that about two-thirds of the dialog had been rewritten by the story editor and the remaining third had been changed by the actors themselves during the shoot. And the way I felt about that was dumbfounded.

What had they paid me all that money for? Why had they hired me to write two more episodes if nobody liked my dialog? What the fuck was going on?

I got the answers as I continued to work on HERE COME THE BRIDES and then other shows over the next couple of millennia. My experiences and conversation with various executives, producers, other writers, directors, actors, and their friends and lovers and even spouses brought the truth home:

Like all television writers, I was being paid to do the hard job of facing the blank page. Of organizing the material. Of writing dialog that gave everyone else involved enough of an idea about what should be there – but to their minds wasn’t – to make it easier for them to adapt the words to their own needs.

This is one of those occasions where I could go on and on and on, but you probably get the point. On HERE COME THE BRIDES and all the shows that followed, I was hired and re-hired as writer and then producer and then showrunner (and occasionally even praised to the skies) because my words came closer to what everyone involved wanted, or thought they wanted, than those of most of the other writers they’d worked with.

In fact, very often the praise came out something like this:

“Larry, that script was awesome. You’re a really good writer. Rewriting you is a cinch.”

Now that may not sound like much to you, Armando, and when I was starting out I wasn’t exactly tripping on that particular accolade myself, but my time in the trenches has had its teaching effect, and I’ve learned to appreciate the comment above.

Because when you get down to it, and the various needs and desires of everyone involved in a Hollywood production are taken into account, if those in charge like your work enough to keep asking for more, you’ve done the job you were hired for and then some.

Which is what being a pro, a real pro, is all about.

Here’s hoping that you get to experience the same acceptance I have, and that you embrace the joy a lot more quickly than I did. Relax, let yourself grin, and enjoy your very real and exciting success along with everything that leads to and follows from it.

In other words, good luck, kid. Say hi to Gal and the tub for me.


My purpose here is to help as many undiscovered creative geniuses as possible. But I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!

LYMI, LB

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With Marc Zicree, Part 1

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.

Drive, focus and a desire to learn from those he admired led Marc Zicree on a journey that took him from animation to sci-fi and writing hundreds of hours of television for shows including STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, SLIDERS, BABYLON 5, HE-MAN and SMURFS. He’s also a TWILIGHT ZONE expert, writing The Twilight Zone Companion and is a bestselling novelist. He and his wife, Elaine, run The Table, a weekly gathering where they dedicate themselves to supporting and mentoring other industry professionals. He currently is writing, directing and producing the science fiction feature SPACE COMMAND starring Doug Jones, Armin Shimerman and Mira Furlan.

HOW AND WHEN DID YOU FIRST KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?

I started reading science fiction when I was very, very small. The first favorite book I remember was Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein when I was seven. I heard Ray Bradbury speak at a library when I was ten and I think that might have really planted the seed because at that talk Ray said, “Ideally your life and your work and your art should all come from the same place.” So that was very important to me.

STAR TREK debuted when I was around ten and really was it for me. I got to go on the set and watch them shoot the final episode, “Turnabout Intruder.” Then I read The Making of Star Trek when I was thirteen. That was the first book on how TV shows were made. I think that’s where I really started to think I wanted to be a writer/producer working in television.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN ENTERAINMENT?

The first short story I sold was when I was 19. I went to the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, which was the leading science fiction writing workshop in the country. It was put on at Michigan State University during the summer. Twenty-five students would live in the dorms and each week a famous science fiction writer would come and live with you.

We’d write like crazy and critique each other. It was a real pressure cooker. Two of the students from that year became major writers, Robert Crais, who became a mystery writer and Kim Stanley Robinson, who became a top science fiction writer.

The six science fiction writers brought in were Joe Haldeman, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, Kate Wilhelm, Damon Knight and Gene Wolfe. They were all very famous science fiction writers at that point.

Damon was editing an anthology and he said to us, “If you’ve got a story in your trunk that you brought with you, I’d like to read it.” So I had written a satire in the first English class I took at UCLA. That’s just when the President had given a talk at Disney World and I had this idea that if they swapped him out with the robot President they had there in the Hall of Presidents, Disney would be running the country. I was paid $50 for that short story.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB WRITING FOR TELEVISION?

Theodore Sturgeon, who was a very famous science fiction writer who had written for STAR TREK, taught an adult education class at UCLA and even though as an undergrad I was forbidden from taking adult education, I said well, screw that, I’m not going to miss this opportunity. He was one of my heroes. I took that class and he became one of my mentors and his teaching assistant was a young writer named Michael Reaves. Michael and I became friends.

Michael was writing animation and I had never really particularly wanted to write animation, but I wanted to get into television. Michael asked me if I’d like to write an animation script with him. He had already broken into television. He was writing all of the episodes of an animated series on NBC called SPACE STARS which starred Space Ghost and so I wrote an episode with him and it went well and then SMURFS was just starting up, so I wrote an episode of SMURFS with Michael. Then it was very clear I could write these on my own. So I started writing for SMURFS and HE-MAN and SUPER FRIENDS.

HOW DID YOU TRANSITION FROM ANIMATION TO LIVE ACTION?

I knew that I’d have to create a sample. An animation script would not serve me to get hired in live action, so I could earn enough in 3 months to make about $100,000 and that was enough for me to live on for a year. I told all my animation bosses that as of a certain date I would not be available to write on assignment, because I would be writing my live action spec. They said, fine, fine, fine. Of course that day came and they started offering me jobs and in two days I had to turn down $200,000 worth of work, which ruins your writing day.

I went to UCLA where they couldn’t reach me, because this was before cell phones and I would write all day and then call in for my messages. I wrote a spec live action feature called PIECE OF CAKE and that sold, although it never got made. Then that was a writing sample that NBC read. They liked it and hired me to write a pilot for a TV series based on Choose Your Own Adventure, which was a very successful series of books. They sent me to Thailand to research it and then we went to Thailand to shoot it and it aired. I was off and running, so then after that I got hired to story edit FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES.

WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE SHOW TO WORK ON?

I really liked writing SLIDERS because we were tasked with reinventing the show after Fox drove it into the ground and SYFY picked it up for a fourth season. It was very fun to take something that had a great concept and design a season where it would deliver on that concept. So I wrote an episode called “World Killer” that really demonstrated what I thought the show could be and it came out very, very well. I was really pleased with it.

Part 2, in which Marc Zicree shares advice on taking meetings, getting on a writing staff and how crowdfunding can allow you to take control of your career, is HERE. Squee!


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.