Larry Brody on What to Expect in Your First TV Staff Writing Job

diamond-pressureby Larry Brody

Yes, it’s true, I’m actually answering a question right here, online, after way too long an absence. Yep, this one was just too important – too damn relevant to the condition of TV writers everywhere – for me to duck it.

Big thanks to D.P, for writing:

Hey, LB,

Having read your book a few times, I know you mention that when you first started, your outlines were looked over by the execs, who said something along the lines of “why didn’t you tell me you don’t know how to plot?” and then proceeded to rework your entire outline, and that it wasn’t until several years later that you really cracked the secret.

So my question is this: It’s hard enough to actually break into the industry, but once you finally make it, how much of a learning curve is there? How long do they give you to perfect your craft? Were you just lucky to have someone there that didn’t axe you right away, or is it pretty standard that you get a little leeway at first. My concern is that, sure, I can spend forever tweaking and polishing and perfecting my spec and pilot scripts until I (hopefully) get recognized and get a job, but once I’m a staff writer, now I’ve got to be able to pump out a polished scripts in just a few weeks, and there’s no opportunity to just sign up for your workshops to hammer out the problems.

So do you need to be able to consistently write a perfect script in a matter of weeks before you consider putting yourself out there?

Thanks!

And let’s hope D.P. thinks my response is worth another thanks:

Hey, D.P,

When I got my first TV writing assignment on an oldie (then a newbie) called HERE COME THE BRIDES I had literally never outlined anything before in my life. So, yeah, my outline sucked. It just didn’t go where it was supposed to. But the man in charge, Emmy winner Bill Blinn (for the original version of the TV movie BRIAN’S SONG) had read a feature script I’d written for MGM for a film to star The Doors’ Jim Morrison (and, before you ask, nope, sadly it never got made) and believed that if he stuck with me, eventually he’d get the kind of finished product he wanted.

But just to make sure, to give himself a little edge – and, as I look back at it, maybe not have to reveal to his corporate masters that he’d made a bad call in bringing me in – Bill rewrote the outline, handed it back to me and said, “Write the crap out of this, okay?”

In other words, the biz cuts nobody any slack. No matter how new you are. But if you put yourself out there and get a gig, odds are that you’ll be just as good as more experienced staff members because, believe me, it’s damn hard to break in unless your work gives a showrunner a very, very, very good reason to hire you. (Or unless you’re related to him, but even so….)

And even if you aren’t, the good news about writing staffs is that nothing is done alone. TV is the most collaborative of media. Most showrunners will neither expect nor want you to vanish somewhere and do a whole outline and then submit it to them. The writing will be preceded by hours of meetings, some of those hours exciting, others stultifyingly dull, during which the basic shape and beats of the plot will be discussed and re-discussed and pretty much thrashed almost to death by you and the staff, after which it’ll be your responsibility to flesh them out with the right details and deliver a solid story structure.

And if something that sounded great in the meeting suddenly bugs you when you have to actually incorporate it, you’ve got access to your boss and co-workers for further discussions about what to do. Just hope you don’t have to use that access, you know, too much.

It all boils down to believing in yourself and trusting those you work with…and for.

In other words, be brave, dood,

LB

About LB

Larry Brody has been profiled in such national magazines and websites as Esquire, Entertainment Weekly, Starlog, People, Electronic Media, IndieSlate, TechTV, io9, and of course TV Guide.

A legendary figure in the television writing and production world, with a career going back to the late ’60s, Brody has written and produced literally thousands of hours of network and syndicated television.

Brody has also been active in the TV animation world, writing, creating, consulting, and/or supervising the cult favorite STAR TREK animated TV series, the SILVER SURFER, SPAWN, SUPERMAN, SPIDERMAN, and SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED animated series, and was showrunner of the French animated series, DIABOLIK, as well as part of the team that developed and wrote the live-action/cgi animation sci-fi series Ace Lightning for the BBC.

Shows written or produced by Brody have won several awards including – yes, it’s true – Emmys.