Kelly Jo Brick: The Write Path With BETTER CALL SAUL’s Gordon Smith

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

by Kelly Jo Brick

Photo by Arnold Wells

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.

Emmy-nominated writer Gordon Smith credits much of his career success to luck. A friend got his resume to BREAKING BAD just as they were looking for a PA. After landing that job, Gordon’s career grew from working as a writers’ PA and assistant to Vince Gilligan, to landing a position as a staff writer on BETTER CALL SAUL. Now a producer on BETTER CALL SAUL, Gordon signed an overall deal with Sony Pictures TV earlier this year.

WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?

I don’t often think of myself as a writer. I went to school for writing at Michigan and then I was in the production program at USC, but I primarily focused on writing and editing. It’s that weird thing in my head that I don’t necessarily think of myself that way, but it plays to my skills in the arts. I don’t think I would ever be particularly well suited for things outside of the arts. Within that discipline, I think writing suits me.

WHAT IS THE MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU GET FROM ASPIRING WRITERS?

Usually people want to know how I got my job, because everyone is wondering how you get your foot in the door. Unfortunately, my answer is usually luck, because it was luck. I started as a PA. I got my foot in the door. It’s luck, but I think it really can’t be overestimated how social the industry is, how many things happen because you know somebody and somebody else knows you and you can kinda say yeah, that person is okay, I know them and vice versa.

HOW DID YOU FIRST BREAK IN TO TV?

I was working at USC where I went to grad school. I wrote and edited a short film for a young woman, Nicole, who was a friend of mine and she went on and is very successful. Her first gig was as an intern, I think on MAD MEN, where Genny Hutchison was Matt Weiner’s assistant at the time. They became friends and I had been friends with her, so it happened that when I was looking for a job, she was J.J. Abrams assistant. So I was like, “Do you know of anything?” She told me, “No, but I know somebody on BREAKING BAD, maybe I can get your info there.”

My resume landed in their hands just at the right time when they happened to be looking for a PA. Towards that end, be somebody that other people are willing to say, I worked with this person, I like this person. I’m willing to recommend them. You want someone to be in your corner in that way. You can’t turn the switch, but it can happen if you’re ready and you’re in the right place for it.

WHAT TV SHOWS INSPIRED YOU WHEN YOU WERE YOUNGER?

In undergrad, I was mostly writing fiction and plays. Theater was especially something that I took seriously. It wasn’t until later that I started thinking about TV as a viable place to express myself. When I did, there were all these shows I loved or felt passionate about and followed. I was a huge X-FILES fan. I wrote a bunch of scalding papers about it at one point. I was and remain a TWIN PEAKS fan. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, I love that show.

My sister has a history of sitting me down and being like, “You have to watch blank.” BREAKING BAD was one of those shows. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was another one. She was like, “You have to watch this. You haven’t. You’re going to and you’ll like it.” She was right.

ANY ADVICE THAT YOU RECEIVED EARLY ON IN YOUR CAREER THAT REALLY STOOD OUT FOR YOU?

I think not being a jerk is a big piece of advice. Be somebody that other people want to be around for ten hours a day, every day for eight months, which seems intuitive, but I think people also learn a lesson that the thing to be is the person who fights for their vision, which is important, but you have to balance that against there’s a bunch of people around you who are also fighting for their vision and you’re all trying to be on the same team.

The other piece of advice that I’ve heard Genny Hutchison give many times, and she’s dead on, is to do the job you have. If you are an assistant, there’s a thinking that the way to go is to dress for the job that you want, not the job you have. You hear that, but there is something kind of misguided about it. It works for some, but you may also alienate some people. You’re likely to end up with people who are like, I needed you to do this job. I needed you to get coffee. I needed you to write the descriptions in a line that are going to go on VOD for the episodes, which are evocative enough that they tell you what the episode is, but they’re bland enough that they don’t have any spoilers in them.

Those kind of things, they can be boring or they can be tough. They are actually quite tough, which is why they are sometimes done badly, but doing them well makes people go, “Oh, you could handle that. Maybe you could handle more.”

AS A WRITER, WHO INSPIRES YOU?

Lots of people. I’m inspired by a lot of the people I work with. I’ve been lucky. They’re a great group of people, because they’re very giving with their time. Tom, Genny, Peter, Vince and the people I’ve worked with a long time now have been very supportive and good mentors. I think they’re all really great writers. So I’m very happy and proud to be part of the team.

WHAT OTHER ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WRITERS IN THE EARLY STAGES OF THEIR CAREERS?

Yes opens a lot of doors. It’s hard to sort of look and say, well, I don’t know if this is worth my time, because your time’s precious. But for a good while, saying yes is going to be way better than saying no. It’s going to open more doors.

I took gigs for a long time that I’m like well, I don’t really love this or don’t know about this. Some web writing gigs, even some projects that weren’t perfectly in tune with my sensibilities with BREAKING BAD or things that I wanted to do, but doing them opened up opportunities. That would be my advice. Say yes to opportunities when they come, because eventually you’ll be able to say no. You’ll get to that point.

Also, keep writing. Keep polishing your stuff. It’s hard to find the time. It’s nearly impossible sometimes, but the more you can keep your head in that, the more you can stay engaged with what you’re passionate about.


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 SCANDAL’s Raamla Mohamed – 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.

Writer Raamla Mohamed’s career is a prime example of what can happen when a person puts in the hard work to make the most of every opportunity. After attending grad school at USC, Raamla landed a job as a writers’ PA on GREY’S ANATOMY. She went on to become a researcher on OFF THE MAP and SCANDAL. Selection to the Disney-ABC Writing Program got her a writing position on SCANDAL where she has risen from staff writer to producer. She was also a writer on the upcoming ShondaLand show STILL STAR-CROSSED.

HOW DID YOU FIRST GET REPRESENTATION?

I had written the SHAMELESS spec and I asked one of the writers on GREY’S ANATOMY to read it. I just wanted to get notes, because I knew I’d be submitting it to Disney as my second sample if they needed it. I had heard that if they asked you for it, they wanted it immediately. I learned from my mistake before of not being prepared, so I asked if he’d give me some notes. He did and he really liked the script. He started telling other writers that I wrote a good script, so Jenna wanted to read it. She read it and then she passed it on to her agent who then became my agent. I was already working in ShondaLand. I had good referrals. I had gotten into the Disney Program by the time all that happened, so I think I was in a better place to choose the agency I wanted to go with. I love UTA. I’ve been with them since the beginning.

I don’t have a manager. I don’t have anything against managers in general. I believe you connect with people and my agents are great. I think you should have representation who believes in your writing, whether it’s an agent or manager, someone who is really going to fight for you.

WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED AS YOU WERE STARTING OUT?

There’s always a writer on set and sometimes you have to cover for other writers. I had to cover and I was very nervous, because it was the director, and directors have different personalities. You have to stand up for yourself. You have to talk to the actors and explain stuff if they don’t understand it.

Someone said to me, “I promise you, you’ll know when it’s wrong.” Like you don’t have to worry about is this okay. You’ll see it. As a writer, as someone who’s been in the room, as someone who knows how it should go, you will know. Obviously you don’t always get it right. There have been times where I have been wrong and I thought something was going to be horrible and it turned out fine or the other way around, but 95% of the time you’re watching it and you’re like, something’s weird. Sometimes you don’t really know exactly how to fix it, sometimes it’s about talking to the director and they can figure out okay, yeah, I think I can see that and get you what you want. But that was very helpful because it kind of is an instinct thing.

WHAT TIPS DO YOU HAVE FOR TAKING MEETINGS?

When I take any meeting, I watch the news that morning so that I know what’s happening that day. I watch MSNBC or GOOD MORNING AMERICA just to get highlights of what’s going on. A lot of times in the ten minutes or five minutes in the small talk portion of the meeting, it really helps out. It helps out either way. If they didn’t see something, and it’s not necessarily getting into politics or whatever, but it could be a YouTube or general thing. Either they don’t know about it or they didn’t see it and you’re informing them or they want your opinion on something. It eases the banter. Also it makes you seem like a well-informed human being.

The other thing is that when you have a meeting with anyone, being normal goes a long way. People like someone who feels comfortable. You can relax. It’s a long day to be in the same room with people. You want people who are fun and interesting. That’s kind of what they’re looking for. They’ve read your sample and you’re sitting down in a meeting, so obviously they like your writing enough to bring you in. So you’re good. You’re fine. They’re basically meeting to see if you are someone they want to be around for 8 hours.

AS A WRITER, WHO INSPIRES YOU?

People like Donald Glover, Issa Rae, Lena Dunham. People who have an idea, they act in it, they write, they have a vision. It’s not always perfect, but they go for it and they push the envelope. They have a clear point of view. I find that so cool.

I’m always impressed when I watch something and I’m like how did they come up with that. How did they think of that? There is a really cool new wave of people coming in who are in some ways like TV auteurs who are making such great TV. People are making these 8 to 10 episode stories about lives and characters that you love.

THE PATH TO BREAKING IN.

I would say there’s not one path, which can be comforting, but also scary. I wouldn’t be afraid to go to grad school, but I wouldn’t be afraid not to go to grad school. I was someone who needed the discipline of grad school to write, so I went to grad school. You should know yourself. What do you need? If you’re someone who can work at a coffee shop and write at night and submit to festivals or you want to do your own web series, that’s a path too.

Are you someone who’s good at desk work, then go work on a desk to prove yourself. Everyone should pick the path that they think is going to get them to where they need to be in the best way possible. I have no interest in acting, but if I did, then I’d write things to act in and put them up on something. There’s a lot of ways to do it, but you have to find your thing.


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 SCANDAL’s Raamla Mohamed – 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.

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.

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.