BEYOND WORDS – Celebrating Writers Guild Award-Nominated Writers

Photo Credit: Michael Jones/WGAW

by Kelly Jo Brick

The Writers Guild of America, West, the Writers Guild Foundation and Variety gathered together several of this year’s award-nominated writers to speak about their films. From craft to the business side of entertainment, nominees shared inspiring stories of the persistence and drive it took to get their movies made, the worst notes they ever received and that sometimes you need to break the rules.

TVWriter.com’s Contributing Editor, Kelly Jo Brick, talked with several of the writers to discover what’s the best advice they received early on in their writing careers.

ALLISON SCHROEDER – HIDDEN FIGURES

Some of the best advice I got was that it is a marathon, not a sprint. Which I think was really key, because there were definitely moments where I was like nothing is happening and I’m stalled. You have to remember that is part of the business and you have to keep going. There will be highs and lows.

ERIC HEISSERER – ARRIVAL

Build a community. Find a group of peers. Your way in is almost never going to be someone who is already established. It’s going to be someone who breaks in and takes you with them. That’s how I’ve seen it happen a lot. I think there are more opportunities for those kind of groups now than there were before. The internet is a big part of that. Also there’s a greater awareness about how movies get made.

TAYLOR SHERIDAN – HELL OR HIGH WATER

I got no advice when I started out, but I’ll give some advice that I told myself, which was write the movie you want to see and that’s what I did.

BARRY JENKINS – MOONLIGHT

When you’re starting out you want to write what you know. That is what was told to me and I think it was the best advice as far as trying to get images and characters on the page. I think the characters I knew were the best training for that. You have to read screenplays too. Most up and coming screenwriters watch a lot of movies, but they don’t read a lot of scripts. We all know what the great scripts are from the last thirty years and we should all be reading those when starting out.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE PANEL

WHAT THE WRITERS LEARNED FROM MAKING THEIR MOVIES:

THEODORE MELFI – HIDDEN FIGURES

The process of making HIDDEN FIGURES and working with a very diverse cast and a very diverse crew has shown me that I never want to make a movie with four white guys with wigs. I want to stay on that path and represent the world as we see it.

DAMIEN CHAZELLE – LA LA LAND

One thing I learned is to not get too disheartened when things in your career and the life of a project seem like a death knell. Disasters, I had a lot of those on this project specifically and I look back now and say, “Oh, I’m glad the movie didn’t get made at that moment because I wasn’t ready to make it. I’m glad it didn’t go down this path.” I hope to have that sort of Zen about things going forward.

KENNETH LONERGAN – MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

I think I learned along the way both internally, creatively with the film itself and also the experience of making the film and showing people the film, that often wherever there is this terrible adversity and people are getting pushed into painful situations, there seems to be somewhere in the equation an equal amount of love and effort to help each other through it.

RHETT REESE – DEADPOOL

I didn’t learn anything from DEADPOOL, but I do think that unfortunately Hollywood is trying to, like should they be making more R-rated movies or action movies or breaking the 4th wall and all these things. DEADPOOL existed because it wasn’t learning any lessons from any previous film. It was just on its own weird course. I feel like it’s really incumbent upon us on artists to not do what the studios do and analyze failures and successes and different elements inside them and start to either move away from those elements or use more of those elements because you’re chasing success or trying to avoid failure and just to chart your own path.

PAUL WERNICK – DEADPOOL

You need the passion to push that ball up the hill. Oftentimes it falls back on you and you have to have the fortitude and the passion and the love to keep pushing, because you will hear no a lot and it can crush you. But if you have that passion to not take no for an answer and to keep pushing, then somehow, someway you will get it done.

ERIC HEISSERER

Probably the biggest lesson I learned is that writing on spec can be really good therapy. It also encouraged me that I actually realized four of the last five specs I have written have female protagonists. It really is my sincere hope that at some time in the future the only way for me to get those kind of movies made is to write them on spec because I hope if they’re assignments, they go to women.

GETTING YOUR PROJECTS OUT THERE AND BREAKING IN:

KENNETH LONERGAN

I think just knowing what you want most out of a particular project and what you’re willing to give up for it, will equip you far better to field all the things that come at you while you try to get the movie made and when you’re tempted by someone saying, “Hey, we’ll make it for you and we love it,” and then after you sign the contract they say, “By the way, we want to change the ending,” which is what means most to you. If you know in advance that you’re not going to do that, that you’d rather not make the movie than change the ending, you’re in a much stronger position. You have negative power as a screenwriter. You have no positive power, but you can always say no, I don’t want to do it under these circumstances and knowing that can be really helpful.

BARRY JENKINS

I think the transition from student to professional has to be self-generated, especially in 2017. You just gotta write that amazing film. It’s better if you can go out and direct that amazing script as well, but it’s about self-generating. Take out a $100 or $1,000 and go make a film.

ALLISON SCHROEDER

I went to film school. When a lot of students got out, they just wanted to be a director. They wanted to be successful instantly. I don’t think that’s a reality. I was happy to learn and I was happy to write on that board in the writers’ room as a production assistant. I am proud I wrote MEAN GIRLS 2, because MEAN GIRLS 2 meant I could pay my rent. It was a wonderful experience. It’s okay to take some jobs to learn. They don’t have to all be prestigious. I just urge you to take the jobs. If you’re being hired to be a writer, that is one of the luckiest things in the world.

TODD BLACK, PRODUCER – FENCES

You gotta write. You have a computer, you have a yellow pad, go write and use your iPhone. Get some friends who are actors and go make a short film. You don’t need millions of dollars to do it. You just have to write something. Don’t wait for anybody. No one is going to offer it to you. I never understand when people say I’m waiting for the phone to ring. You’re going to be waiting a long time if you don’t generate it.


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.

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path with Rashad Raisani – Part Two

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.

An alum of NBC’s Writers on the Verge, Rashad Raisani got his first writing job on the USA Network show BURN NOTICE where he rose from staff writer to co-executive producer. He also wrote for WHITE COLLAR and was executive producer on the NBC spy drama ALLEGIANCE. Rashad is currently developing projects as part of an overall deal with Universal Television.

WHAT IS THE MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU GET ASKED BY ASPIRING WRITERS?

How to get an agent is probably the number one question. The big secret about agents is they’re always there when they need you; they’re not there for you. Great agents are great. They’re invaluable really, but when you’re starting out, an agent is not going to help you. Even when they sign you, it’s going to be so much on you to get those first meetings.

I always try to encourage that the best way to get an agent is don’t care about getting an agent. They’ll find you when you’re ready. When you write them query letters or chase them around, I just have found that it doesn’t do you any good.

The better thing to do it to get to know writers who work in the business and develop relationships with them, whether it be just email correspondence or cocktails or lunches or you can work as an assistant or script coordinator or an intern. You make those kind of relationships, they’re the people who will then call or email their agent and say, hey, I’ve got this untested, but really promising writer, you should read them. Me calling my agent and saying, “Listen, you have to check this person out,” carries more weight than you advocating for yourself to an agent.

WHEN STAFFING, WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A WRITER?

The first thing is the writing. The script has to in some way give me a pang of oh my goodness, I could never do that. There are so many scripts that do it, which is great.

The first bar is clearing that one. The second one, it really all boils down to preparation. Do people come into a meeting flatfooted? It’s a different version of Glen Mazzara’s advice to me, which was a lot of people come to a meeting and just wait for you to talk and say, “So, tell me about yourself.” They want you to drive it, but they don’t think about the fact that that showrunner has had to read 400 or 500 scripts, they’ve had to do 20 meetings.

They have so many pressures on them that the more you can alleviate it for them by subtly guiding the conversation, by having a great story about yourself that invites organic questions that they don’t have to think too hard about creating in their mind. They can say, “Oh, that’s cool, tell me about that.”

The other thing I try to recommend to people is, what they’re thinking about when they’re looking at you is: A) Is this someone I can sit in a room with for a long time and B) is this person going to be a font of ideas. The advice I give to people is prepare by reading non-fiction books about the subject that you’re going in on. Once you can show you have a little bit of mastery on the subject, it will instantly make them go, “Okay, good. This person knows more about it than I do. That’s a relief.”

WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR A NEW WRITER WHEN THEY FIRST GET IN THE WRITERS’ ROOM?

With staff writers, especially first time staff writers, there’s two different camps. Some people say you should come in with guns blazing. You shouldn’t defer to anybody creatively, you should speak for yourself and then there are other people who say staff writers should be seen and not heard. I tend to favor being an outspoken writer, because I think the titles are very artificial in terms of co-executive producer versus staff writer versus story editor, but that said, I do think that as a staff writer you really don’t know anything about how the machine works, so I always encourage writers to take two or three days to observe the flow of the room and see how people talk and who talks over who and what the etiquette is and when you can tell an idea has died or when you can see that there’s a sparkle in the showrunner’s eye and that’s something to try and build on. There’s nothing wrong with not talking too much the first two days, but then once you get a flow, you have to just jump in.

The other thing is there’s a tendency, especially among junior writers, when they pitch something it’s often met with silence. The feeling is that people aren’t getting it or they’re waiting for you to say more, but they’re not. Often people are just processing what you said and so by continuing to talk, if they like your idea, you can talk them out of it and if they hate your idea, you’re just pouring gasoline on the fire.

Be pithy and succinct when you pitch, then back up and let the room digest it. If they like it, that’s great. If they don’t, then no big deal. I think people also get so in their own head about pitching that they think, oh, they didn’t like my idea, I suck, but people don’t get how rare someone who’s pitching ideas is. An original idea being pitched, even if it doesn’t work, it’s often very illuminating to what the idea needs to be and if somebody’s not doing the heavy lifting of throwing ideas out, then the room stalls and ultimately fails.

ANY OTHER ADVICE FOR WRITERS AT THE EARLY STAGES OF THEIR CAREERS?

To cultivate their love for what they are doing, because it’s so easy to focus on the results of their writing, whether it be get an agent or get a job or finish my script so I can go do something else. There’s always these external goals, the more you can try and get rid of those motivations to write, the better you’ll write, because then you’ll be moe present in your own writing. It is its own reward.

I think part of cultivating that is to really take time to celebrate your own writing. Whether you finish an act or finish a script or whatever it is, it’s always a big deal to have completed something. So whether it’s going out to a restaurant with somebody you like or having a drink or dessert, whatever it is to just take time to savor it, because as happy as you are about writing right now, especially if you haven’t broken through yet, that’s as happy as you’ll ever be about it. You’ll just get paid more and the pressure will be higher. That’s the only thing that is going to change.


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.

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path with Rashad Raisani – Part One

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.

An alum of NBC’s Writers on the Verge, Rashad Raisani originally moved to Los Angeles with the goal of becoming a feature writer, but found television to be a much better fit. He got his first writing job on the USA Network show BURN NOTICE where he rose from staff writer to co-executive producer. He also wrote for WHITE COLLAR and was executive producer on the NBC drama ALLEGIANCE. Currently he is developing projects as part of an overall deal with Universal Television.

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

I think I have always known I wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. We moved around a lot because my dad was in the military. Between the ages of 3 and 10 we were living abroad, so the only connection I had to America, a place where I really didn’t have any memories of actually being, were the TV shows that were the same no matter which base we were living on.

When I’d move to a new place and feel really lonely or displaced because all my friends had changed over, I’d go back to movies and TV shows because they were the one source of comfort that stayed the same no matter where we lived.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY?

The first thing I did, because I had no other resources, was become an assistant to a literary manager. This guy had exceptional taste and had all these great writers. The first thing he said when I started working for him was, “I want you to read everything that all of my writers have written.”

He had this whole bookshelf full of scripts, so I just read all of them. I saved all the TV people for last because I had no interest in them or television, but the very last script in the entire bunch completely blew my mind and I can even remember where I was when I read it and screaming, “Holy shit,” on a plane when I read this moment. It was by this young story editor on a show called THE SHIELD and the guy’s name was Kurt Sutter. That’s when I started to say, “Wow, I’ve really been sucking it up in movies.” At that time I’d been out here for a about year and not only had I not gotten traction professionally, but artistically and creatively I was struggling with the form of features, specifically the second act of a movie. It was just eternally vexing to me.

When I read that SHIELD script, there was just something so intuitive about how they had broken the story. They had like four or five plots. When one of them started to peter out a little bit, they’d cut to another exciting one. I just thought this is a great way to tell stories. From that moment on I decided okay, I’m going to try TV.

WHERE DID THAT FIRST ASSISTANT JOB LEAD TO?

I kind of fell for all the trappings of the wrong things, meaning an expense account, an office and an assistant of my own. I started working as a literary manager/development executive for two years. On the positive side, I was working in television actively. We were trying to set up projects. We represented some real talent, but on the negative side for my own artistic development, I wasn’t writing. I didn’t write a word for about two years.

WHAT WAS A BIG TURNING POINT IN YOUR WRITING CAREER?

It was a confluence of a few things and kismet played a strange role. For example, when I was temping and unemployed, but was sending scripts out everywhere, I talked to my wife and I said, “Listen, I really think it would be worthwhile for me to be an assistant on a television show.” And she said, “Well, I get it, but you really need to now think about writing. You’ve done the assistant thing for years. It’s been four years and really I want you to rise on your own merits at this point with your own writing.”

We made a deal that there was one script I had read by a guy named Rand Ravich on a show called LIFE. I said if anything opens up, I don’t care if it’s sweeping the floors, I want to work on that show. I think the world of Rand Ravich’s writing and also that script. Wouldn’t you know it that completely out of the blue I get a phone call from Glen Mazzara, who was in THE SHIELD DVD that we watched. He had gotten my resume through a friend of a friend and said he needed an assistant. So I started working for Glen.

That was a big break, just to be working for a bunch of incredible writers. I ended up working for 3 co-executive producers, there was Glen Mazzara, Jonathan Shapiro and Marjorie David, all of whom were exceptional talents and had very different approaches to writing, so I was able to not only make relationships with those incredibly talented and generous people, but also sponge up all their different approaches to the craft.

Within two months of that, I got my first agent. That was another big break. That was because I had sent scripts out, even some of them nine months before, and they just sort of worked their way up at agencies. Within just a few weeks of starting to work on LIFE, I started to meet agencies. Then within a week of that, I got my first showrunner meetings.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST WRITING JOB?

BURN NOTICE was my first staff job. I got the job 3 weeks before the writers’ strike. My first Writers Guild meeting was the president of the Guild announcing that we have decided to strike. It was a big bummer, but at the same time at least I felt like being on a young show that had some real promise and I was also a diversity hire to the show so I was free, so I felt like at some point entertainment would have to resume. The strike would have to end and I would have a job waiting for me.

I used the strike to read as many books about spy games and stuff like that that BURN NOTICE was about so that when the writers’ room resumed, I could hopefully have some things to contribute.

WHAT WAS THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED AS YOU WERE BREAKING IN?

One of the greatest pieces of advice was by Glen Mazzara after I came in from my first agency meeting. He said that every meeting you’ll step into, chances are they’ll ask you some version of tell me about yourself, but Glen said nobody wants the facts. They don’t want to know what year you graduated from college, what you majored in.

They want your story and they want to know that you’re the underdog in your own story and your story ideally answers all the factual questions that they need to know and it has some deep crisis/soul kind of moment to it and then it culminates with a triumph and ends up with you on their couch. You give somebody a story like that and you entertain them, you make them like you. They’re going to remember you, which will set you apart from the thousands of meetings they have that month to staff that show.

Coming soon – more from Rashad including what he looks for when hiring writers, advice on getting representation and tips on taking meetings.


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.

MAKING THE CUT: 10 TIPS FROM WRITING FELLOWSHIP WINNERS

Courtesy of the Writers Guild Foundation

Courtesy of the Writers Guild Foundation

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.

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL & SCREENWRITING CONFERENCE

2016 Awardees panel with Paul Feig, Nancy Meyers, Marta Kauffman during the Austin Film Festival. (Photo by Jack Plunkett)

2016 Awardees panel with Paul Feig, Nancy Meyers, Marta Kauffman during the Austin Film Festival. (Photo by Jack Plunkett)

by Kelly Jo Brick

The Annual Austin Film Festival and Screenwriting Conference gathers professional and aspiring writers together in the celebration of the contribution writers make to film and television.

Attendees had the opportunity to see a jam packed slate of films as well as choose from a variety of panels on the craft, art and business of writing for television and film. TVWriter.com’s own Contributing Editor Kelly Jo Brick, was in Austin as a panelist this year and she brings some top takeaways from the event.

BREAKING IN 

  • Breaking in through the assistant ranks is a great way to show your personality to the people who are making staffing decisions. Getting a writing job is 50% personality, 50% writing. – Raamla Mohamed, SCANDAL, STILL STAR-CROSSED
  • Whatever entry-level job you’re doing, show up with a smile every day. – Jono Matt, DOCTOR DOLITTLE
  • Age isn’t a big deal as long as you don’t make a big deal about it yourself. – VJ Boyd, JUSTIFIED, THE PLAYER
  • For features, the toe in the door assistant route doesn’t work as well. There’s not a natural path in film. It becomes a question of do you find a job in the industry. This avenue helps with meeting people and morale, but it’s often hard to find time to write. The other choice is to take a non-brain taxing job. You’ll have time to write, but it’s hard on your morale. Whatever you decide, the most important thing is that your work is good. – Michael H. Weber, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER
  • Embrace failure. It’s all part of the process. A great baseball batter fails two-thirds of the time. – Kent Alterman, President, Comedy Central
  • You just have to write. Don’t obsess over details, just keep writing. Get out, network, get to as many people as possible. – Mark Johnson, Executive Producer BETTER CALL SAUL, BREAKING BAD
  • Try to make something. Doing that can help you break through. – Pamela Ribon, MOANA, SMURFS: THE LOST VILLAGE
  • Leap frog forward with your peer group. Find yourself a writers’ group. Find a like-minded group so you’re not alone. Shane Black, LETHAL WEAPON, IRON MAN 3
  • If you’re aiming for features, look for a reading job or get a job that gives you regular hours so that you can leave work at work and have more time to work on your own writing. – Christina Hodson, SHUT IN, UNFORGETTABLE

CHOOSING WHAT TO WRITE 

  • Think about what’s not on. Where is there a void, then write an original with a clear vision that is clever, emotional and relatable. We look for specific shows with specific visions. – Jennifer Salke, President, NBC Entertainment
  • Your first script will be your calling card. Just write what you want, don’t restrict yourself to a budget, get a script that people want to read. – Shane Black
  • Find a story that says something to you and write it in a specific life-filled way. You should absolutely write what you want to write. You can only go where your heart goes. – Michelle Ashford, Creator/Executive Producer, MASTERS OF SEX
  • Your point of view is the most important thing you have. Don’t tell people what you think they want to hear. – Kent Alterman
  • Write that weird idea you have that’s unique to you. – Amy Talkington, THE ICE QUEENS

PITCHING

  • When pitching, start from a relatable human character dynamic, that is what will pull people in. Who is in this world? Why do I care? – Jennifer Salke
  • Love and know your pitch. Find a personal attachment to it and set the visual and world right away.
  • Pitch the show as if you’re describing your favorite show to a friend. – VJ Boyd
  • Be ready with an answer if they ask what else you’re working on. Have a few ideas in your pocket.
  • Go in with confidence. Pretend you already have the yes. Know your story throughout and have a clear vision for it.

WRITING GREAT BAD GUYS

  • When creating a strong villain, be thinking of what specifically does he or she want and why do they want it now.
  • Stress your bad guys out as much as your leads. Give them their own ticking clock.
  • Characters reveal themselves through the lies they tell and expose themselves through the things they keep secret.
  • Use your own fears as inspiration.
  • Villains should be delicious and fun to write. They are the heroes of their own stories.
  • Art should make you look at monsters and see the evil inside. – Tom Szentgyorgyi, Executive Producer, BATES MOTEL

GETTING NOTES

  • Be wary of any writer who accepts all the notes. – Mark Johnson
  • Be easy to work with during the notes process. Even a bad note can hit on an issue. Be ready to educate/inform others on the notes you didn’t take. – Christina Hodson
  • Bathe in the notes. Let them wash over you. Take them. Listen. Deal with most and pick your battles over the choices you made and why. – Amy Talkington
  • Look at notes as an opportunity to make your projects better. – Pamela Robin

WHAT DECISION MAKERS LOOK FOR WHEN HIRING WRITERS

  • A clear and interesting voice, hearing a particular kind of voice and way with language and understanding of characters, that stands out. – Michelle Ashford
  • A room filled with unique voices. People with facile brains who write well. – Stephen Falk, Creator/Executive Producer YOU’RE THE WORST
  • Complementary personalities and skills, making a good balance in the room. – Kent Alterman
  • Imagination and the ability to translate it. Sheer uncontained talent over process and discipline, that can be learned. – Mark Johnson

    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

SUBLIME PRIMETIME 2016 – Writing Advice From Emmy-Nominated Writers

Photo courtesy of Michael Jones/WGAW

Photo courtesy of Michael Jones/WGAW

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.

Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path with VJ Boyd

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

by Kelly Jo Brick

Photo courtesy of the Austin Film Festival

Photo courtesy of the Austin Film Festival

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 and hard work.

VJ Boyd came up through the assistant ranks before breaking in as staff writer on JUSTIFIED. He’s gone on to write for THE PLAYER and is producing his pilot THE JURY for ABC. He, along with writer Mark Bianculli and producer Carol Mendelsohn, recently sold the drama DOOMSDAY to ABC.

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

I started writing when I was eleven. I wrote a story that I thought was going to be a novel, but it ended up being 21 pages, which was a lot for me. It was basically just a rip-off of CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, but I thought from then on that I wanted to be some kind of writer and so I wrote a screenplay when I was 16. I started reading all the books at the library about how to write fiction, short fiction, how to write screenplays and kind of advanced from there.

EARLY ON, WERE THERE ANY TV SHOWS OR MOVIES THAT GOT YOU EXCITED ABOUT WRITING?

I can’t really remember what movies made me want to write movies when I was 16. I know there were a lot of movies I hadn’t seen, so I would read the screenplays, like I read the screenplay for THE USUAL SUSPECTS, PULP FICTION, RESERVOIR DOGS and also SHAWSHANK.

When I was much younger, STAR WARS was a huge thing for me. I knew I wanted to do something with movies and so for a long time I was like, “I’m going to do special effects.” Then what I realized was I just wanted to tell stories. In grad school, when I started leaning toward writing for movies and TV more heavily, THE SHIELD was a big inspiration. That’s probably the show that made me want to write for TV. Watching the behind the scenes stuff on their DVDs on how they broke story, I was like, “Oh, I can do that. I can write these kind of stories.”

WHAT ADVICE DID YOU GET ALONG THE WAY THAT REALLY HELPED YOU AS YOU WERE STARTING OUT?

Someone said, “If you can think of anything else you can do that you’d be happy doing other than writing, then you should go do that, because it’s so difficult to succeed at and there’s no guarantee you will succeed, even if you’re good and even if you do all the right things.” You may be a great writer and a great person, but you just don’t get the opportunity, so you have to really love it. I made the decision to move out to L.A. and do it and to stick with it because I couldn’t think of anything else that I’d be happy doing.

Also always be writing. If you’re a writer, you should be writing. If you haven’t written anything this year, maybe you’re not a writer or maybe you need to try to write something and see if you really love it as much as you thought you did.

When I was assistant for Graham Yost, season one of JUSTIFIED and then also on FALLING SKIES season one, when Graham had a script he needed to write, he went in his office and he wrote it and then he came out and it was done. It was a job. It’s important to remember to treat it like a job. It’s not always going to be perfect. You can’t sit around waiting for inspiration. You gotta set a timeframe and get it done.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST INDUSTRY JOB?

I was a writers’ P.A. on the show THE BEAST, the Patrick Swayze show. I got that about a month after moving to L.A., which is a pretty quick timeframe. I was very lucky. This doesn’t work for everybody; in fact I don’t know anybody else who it’s worked for. For me, I cold called production companies when I saw that shows were getting picked up to series and I asked, “Hey, I’m looking for an assistant job, can I send my resume?” I ended up being able to send my resume to THE BEAST and they interviewed me and hired me.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST OPPORTUNITY TO WRITE FOR A SHOW?

I was an assistant season one of JUSTIFIED. Then season two, one of the staff writers left to go work on another show and so I asked my boss if he’d read my stuff. I really wasn’t thinking he’d actually staff me, but I thought maybe I’d get a freelance, which is much more realistic. He did read a couple of my scripts. He liked one of them and he actually hired me as a staff writer. It was a huge opportunity. It was very good timing and again I was lucky, but I was also prepared for the opportunity.

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

I get a lot of questions about how important is it to have a manager. Getting a manager isn’t that important. I’ve never gotten jobs through my representation really. They’ve set up meetings for me, but I got my first job through coming up as an assistant. Networking and making contacts on your own is more important than desperately trying to get a manager.

WHAT OTHER ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR UP-AND-COMING WRITERS?

Keep writing. Write something new all the time. I would also say don’t be afraid of networking. There are a lot of people, especially if they’re not from New York or L.A., who see networking as this transactional thing, as being a fake friend. I’m pretending to be your friend so I can get something from you, but you know what it is, it’s mutually beneficial for both of you. Like you both are trying to do the same thing. We’re both trying to be TV writers. We’re both trying to get assistant jobs, whatever it is. We’re not pretending to be best friends, but we’re like, hey, we’ll keep in touch, maybe we’ll get drinks and keep up with each other’s career every month or so. If I’ve got a job and I hear about one, I’ll tell you and vice versa.

It’s not being fake. Networking is a thing and it’s okay. You kinda have to get over the fact that Hollywood is all about relationships and networking is a thing. Don’t take it personally when people want to give you their card for networking and you’re like, oh, I thought we were friends. You can still be friends, but everyone is trying to do the same thing and trying to get that advantage and if you have a problem with that you might want to write novels.


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.