A series of interviews with hard-working writers – by another hard-working writer!
by Kelly Jo Brick
Writer Liz Tigelaar (Life Unexpected, Bates Motel, The Astronaut Wives Club) rose through the television ranks, starting as an intern at the soap opera, General Hospital, then going on to work as a PA, a script coordinator, assistant to Winnie Holzman and a writers’ assistant before breaking in as a television writer. Continuing an interview that began last week, Liz shares the experiences and advice she’s learned along the way.
WHAT’S THE MOST COMMON QUESTION ASPIRING WRITERS ASK YOU?
People ask how to break in. I remember asking that when I was in college. I remember being on the cusp of graduating and being like, how do you get a writing job? You need an agent. Well, how do you get an agent? You need a writing job. And I’m like, I don’t understand. And it’s true, you kind of don’t understand. And in some ways there’s no rhyme or reason to.
I think a lot of people come out as an assistant. After being an assistant they might get an opportunity on a show, like a freelance. And then once they get put on staff, agents come out and will represent them because they already have a job. It’s proven that someone’s interested in them and their writing and in giving them this opportunity.
I think that now it’s so different because with technology and YouTube and with how easy it is to go out and shoot stuff, you can be Lena Dunham and shoot a web series and you can shoot a movie and suddenly you can change your own fate. You can make people aware of you and you can get your voice out there and so that’s something different than however many years ago when I came out here.
I also think that the other piece of advice I would have is if you want to be a writer, write. It sounds obvious, but a lot of people want to be writers, and who wouldn’t want to be a writer? It’s the same way people want to be actors.
Like, it’s amazing and it’s incredibly satisfying and what’s human about it is we all have a story to tell. We could all be writers. Every person on the planet has a story worth telling. Of course, how you tell it matters. And what the story is matters. There’s writer potential in all of us. The difference is some people do it, some people don’t. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Some people hate it and do it anyway. I think that becomes the difference. It’s like, if you want to write, write.
You have to keep writing. You have to be willing to dig in on something and get notes and keep the process of making it better. It’s like the difference between running one mile in of a bunch of different marathons and being like, “Hey, I ran one mile in 26 marathons.” That’s very different than running 26 miles in one marathon and being like, “Wow, I really went through it. I’ve experienced ups and downs.”
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WRITERS TAKING THEIR FIRST GENERAL OR STAFFING MEETINGS?
It’s a lot like dating. You want to be cool. I used to go in like really, really enthusiastic. A lot of energy. I think it was a little too much. I genuinely felt that way. I was so excited to be there. I had so many ideas.
I noticed once I kind of settled down, I started getting offers because I wasn’t putting so much pressure on myself. I was looking at it more like, okay, I’ll tell you why you should hire me and you tell me why I should choose you.
You don’t want to seem too desperate. People want what they can’t have and they want to know that they’re getting someone great, not like you’re totally desperate for a job.
For me, one of the big things that helped was being able to be myself. Like when I used to go into meetings in the beginning, I would always wear meeting outfits. My parents, when they would come out to LA, they would buy me nicer clothes to go to meetings. They were totally nice outfits but I felt like I was dressing up. When I started just wearing my normal clothes, I felt like I was more comfortable in meetings. I could be more myself. And I think that’s the biggest thing.
WHAT ABOUT PITCHING IN THESE MEETINGS?
Walking in, especially in general meetings, it’s less about the ideas you pitch or about selling yourself. It’s just about hitting it off with a person. It is like dating. It’s like making a person invested in you and want to kind of root for you and suggest you when there’s a job available and then when it’s a show meeting, you should always be prepared. You should know the show really well. You should have ideas.
How you pitch those ideas kind of matters. I think you should not come across as like, crazy pitching person. I think it’s more like finding a way to seamlessly show you have ideas without launching into pitching. And sometimes a good way to do that is to ask questions.
If I were going to meet on Bloodline, I would have very specific questions about what they’re going to do in season 2 that would show that I really watched season 1 and that I had a lot of thoughts about it.
I sometimes think asking in the form of questions can be good because then you don’t pitch and have something not land. You can say something like, “Where are you going with this character? I can see it going this way or this way, like what are you guys thinking?” And then once they say it, you can kind of riff on that. It can feel a little more natural like a conversation and less like I’m pitching to you right now.
WHAT OTHER ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR WRITERS LOOKING TO BREAK IN?
If you’ve gone to college, don’t be afraid to use your alumni connections or any connections in general. I went to Ithaca and I’m really involved with the Ithaca alumni program.
Asking people to read your stuff is a really big deal. People taking the time to read your work, that’s a big favor you’re asking of them. Save that for people who are really invested in you. And if you ask someone to read your stuff, be really specific about what you want, like think about why you are asking them.
Are you asking them just because you want them to think it’s terrific and pass it along to their agent, because if that’s so, you better be handing them something really, really, really good that doesn’t need any work. So it’s kind of like, know what your intention is. Be respectful of people’s time and what way they want to help.
I would say people should absolutely network and utilize your resources. Just be respectful of what people are offering. And approach in a way that feels doable, like you’re not asking too much so that people want to keep helping.
Kelly Jo Brick is a Contributing Editor at TVWriter™. 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.