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 and hard work.
Originally intending to be a speechwriter, Mark Goffman’s career led him to writing for a magazine in Brussels before he eventually got into the Warner Bros. Writers’ Workshop as a comedy writer. Since transitioning to drama, Mark has written for THE WEST WING, LAW & ORDER: SVU, WHITE COLLAR, ELEMENTARY, LIMITLESS and SLEEPY HOLLOW. In 2014, The Hollywood Reporter named Goffman as one of the 50 most influential showrunners.
WHEN AND HOW DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A WRITER?
I’ve always written. I didn’t know I wanted to do it professionally for a long time. I wrote a book about a monkey that went into outer space when I was five. My step-grandmother used to tell me how wonderful that story was. She was a big fan. She really pushed me in the creative arts and encouraged it.
Three days after I graduated college I moved to Brussels and decided I was going to find a job there. Luckily I got this job working at the American Chamber of Commerce for their magazine. I really liked writing about international relations and politics and I was an Economics and Philosophy major, so I thought that you could make the world a better place by fostering greater relations and economies. From there I went to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. I intended to do speechwriting and I consulted for a while.
I wrote some non-fiction and short stories on the side. One of them I gave to my brother, who was the only person at the time reading my fiction. He happened to be living in New York and dating a woman who was an assistant at an agency. I think the material was left on his kitchen table and she happened to pick it up and read it, really liked it, gave it to an agent, who then gave it to an agent in LA, who gave it to a producer. I was still at the Kennedy School studying for finals and I got a call that this producer wanted to meet with me about turning this short story into a movie.
I flew out to LA and it was zero degrees when I left Boston and it was 75 when I met with this producer in Pacific Palisades. I thought wow, I can do this and the weather’s nice and I can actually make up the facts. That sounds pretty cool. So after I graduated, I worked on that script for a while. It never got made, but it got me out there and got an agent and then I got into the Warner Bros. Workshop. I was accepted into the workshop for comedy writing. I had this reaction, oh, I just came from government, I need to show that I can write anything and not just about politics, so I wrote a SEINFELD episode.
WERE THERE ANY TV SHOWS THAT INFLUENCED YOU?
There were a few. FAMILY TIES was one of the first I remember that I just loved. It was a fantastic show. There were a lot of movies that really influenced me. INDIANA JONES and STAR WARS were like magic and really fostered and inspired me to have a sense of adventure and wonder about the world. I tried to bring that to my writing.
On the non-fiction side, I’ve always been interested in politics and public policy and history and so one of the really fun things about working on SLEEPY HOLLOW, was getting to combine all of those in one show. It’s a real blend and it’s fun to rewrite history from the point of view of the supernatural.
WHAT’S THE MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU GET ASKED BY ASPIRING WRITERS?
The most common question that I get is about how to get their material into the right hands and ironically I think that’s the last thing that you need to worry about, especially when you’re first writing.
Typically great material finds its way out there. All of us from executive producers and writers to producers and development executives are starving for great material, so to find those really special scripts that move you, make you think, laugh, look at a character differently, those are the ones you remember and stay with you. You gotta be one of those scripts. Those scripts will end up in the hands of the people who need to get them, eventually.
It might take a lot longer than you think, but don’t worry as much about the process of where to get them to, because as you start to give your script out to people you trust and like, then you’ll know when the script is ready, because those people will suddenly start to offer to send it to other people.
WHAT WAS SOME OF THE BEST ADVICE YOU RECEIVED AS YOU WERE STARTING OUT YOUR CAREER?
Don’t get too precious about any one piece of material when you’re first starting out. Write lots of things and as soon as you finish a script, start the next one.
I think it’s also important to try different genres. I made a point early on to do at least one project a year that is well outside of my comfort zone. That resulted in a documentary about ventriloquists, a play, a novel and a short film. Each of those really helped me grow as a writer and creator of entertainment.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB AS A STAFF WRITER?
My first staff job was on a half-hour comedy called ODD MAN OUT. I got that job through the Warner Bros. Writing Program. It was fun because on the one hand I was terrified. It was my first real staff job and I’d been given every piece of advice from don’t say anything for the first two months, to jump in at any point and you’ve got to feel your way because every room is different.
The truth is there are rooms where they don’t want staff writers to speak until spoken to and others where they’re supposed to be story machines and others where they’re joke machines and you just have to feel it out.
The biggest surprise was, I’d prepared and had three really good stories I was really proud of on the first day that I was going to pitch because they said to come in with something you want to write about. I pitched all three on the first day and they’re like, “Great, we really like those.” Then day two they’re like, “Okay, what do you have?” I’m like, “Oh, I had ideas yesterday.” You realize you have to be very facile and you write every day. Learning to hone that is part of the fun and collaboration of being on staff.
ANY OTHER ADVICE FOR WRITERS AT THE EARLY STAGES OF THEIR CAREERS?
I would say change your idea or adjust your idea of what success looks like, because it doesn’t have to be getting a script made or sold. Every script I’ve written has gotten me to where I am today because I used pieces of what I’ve learned from that experience, or met people along the way who became great friends or mentors and people who I would bounce ideas off of and that’s as important as anything else.
There were a lot of smaller steps to getting to that one big break where I finally got on THE WEST WING. Every one of those had to happen in order to get me to the next step and so a lot of the experience that I got in writing many scripts that no one should ever read, are still a part of that process.
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.