How Do You Write for TV?

how hollywood works: TV

“How did this show get on the air?” I asked my roommate while watching CSI. “I can call every ‘twist’ they’ve written.”

“Why don’t you go write for them and see if you can do better?” she said.

A few months later I moved to Los Angeles, hoping to break into the TV industry. I was one among thousands — all equally clueless, wannabe TV writers. Which prompts the question: how did others make the switch from wannabe to working TV writer? What can writers do TODAY to get them started on their careers?

Damon Lindelof in his element

How do you become the next Damon Lindelof?

Well, turns out there are a LOT of things you can do to get on Hollywood’s radar and improve your chances of landing a paid TV writing gig. We’ve laid out some recurring strategies others have used, just for you.

Now, without further ado, let us count the ways you can become a working TV writer.

Submit to Contests and Fellowships

Back in 2004, Evan Daugherty thought he had it all figured out. He just graduated from NYU Film School. He had a few feature-length scripts under his belt, and a promising future in Hollywood…

Or so he thought.

“I hit brick wall after brick wall,” he told Huffington Post. “I failed miserably.” So miserably that he moved back to his parents’ basement in Dallas after a year.

Evan Daughtery

Evan Daugherty

Fast forward ten years and Daugherty is working for the upcoming TV series for ABC titled ESMERALDA. Along the way, he wrote scripts for a few tiny movies like SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMEN and DIVERGENT. So what happened?

He submitted to and won the Scripted Pipeline contest in 2008 with his screenplay SHRAPNEL (which was developed into the Robert De Niro/John Travolta thriller KILLING SEASON), putting him on the industry’s radar.

“Script Pipeline introduced me to a manager a few weeks after winning the contest, helping launch my career as a screenwriter.”

Winning convinced Daugherty to move back to LA. Two years later a script he’d written at NYU called SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMEN found itself in the center of a bidding war that wound up netting Daugherty $3.2 million.

Placing or winning a reputable writing contest is one way writers can open doors for themselves in the industry. Finalists and semifinalists typically win prizes like option or development deals, meetings with agents or industry insiders, and cash prizes.

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For example, the prize for the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting Competition (arguably the most prestigious of the bunch) is up to $35,000. This cash coupled with the industry prestige that comes with the award can make a writer’s career.

This was the case with Terri Edda Miller: she won in 1992 for her screenplay BEDWARMER and went on to become a writer-producer for ABC’s hit series CASTLE.

More important than any cash or development prize, winning or placing in a screenwriting contest means writers can add it to their cover letter or introduction when searching for representation. Even if it’s not a “top-shelf” contest, a writer is a more compelling client when he says:

“Hi, I’m John, I recently placed as a semifinalist in Scriptapalooza with my spec, THE WAVE. Would you be interested in reading it?”

Instead of:

“Hi, I’m John, I wrote this spec my Mom loved called THE WAVE. Would you be interested in reading it?”

The actual screenplay could be exactly the same! But attaching a contest name transfers legitimacy onto the writer.

It’s like a police officer putting on his uniform — the uniform transfers legitimacy onto him, transforming him from an everyday citizen into an officer of the law.

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Notice how I said the legitimacy is MORE important than a cash or development prize? Be wary — there are a number of less-than-legitimate contests that prey on the aspirations of young writers.

These contests offer meetings with “Hollywood insiders” as prizes in exchange for the entrance fee; in reality, these insiders bring little credibility to the project.

Some of the more reputable contests include the Nicholl Fellowship, Austin Film Festival Competition, and the PAGE International Screenwriting award.

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While not contests, per se, similar avenues include submitting your script to various “lists.” The Blacklist, for example, is a platform that rates scripts and promotes well-scored scripts to its list of industry members. This includes managers, agents, and executives (Evan Daughtery’s winning script SHRAPNEL was placed on the Blacklist.)

Similarly, the Blood List comes out every Halloween and “brings attention to unproduced horror screenplays in Hollywood.”

Check out Ellie Shoja’s site and Freelance Writing’s site for more extensive lists of the different contests as well as fellowships, workshops and programs, which will be discussed below.

Earn Seats at Network Fellowships, Workshops and Programs

“By the end of the program,” Theo Travers said in an interview with Kiyong Kim about his experience in the CBS Writers Mentoring Program, “you come away with a new writing sample, a host of new contacts, and skills that will help you thrive for as long as you’re in the game of pimping yourself out as a writer.”

Most networks and studios sponsor a fellowship or program to develop writers for their shows. Fox, for example, hosts a Writers Intensive fellowship, in which 10 experienced writers are nurtured to create a strong pipeline for prospective staff writers (at the time of this writing, 9 fellows across 3 years have been staffed on 2014-2015 series). Other examples include the Disney/ABC Writing Program, the CBS Writers Mentoring Program, and NBC/Universal Writers on the Verge.

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In an interview with Afterellen, Tina Mabry said, “Fox works with us to build on both our general craft and the business of writing for television, feature films and digital content with the added goal of creating a viable resource of experienced staffing opportunities.”

The writers are also mentored by a number of writers, producers, and senior executives from the network. Programs typically run a few months (the Fox Writer’s Intensive, for instance, lasts 4 months).

The end goal is to be staffed on a show after finishing the program or fellowship. Even if a writer completes the program and isn’t staffed to a show, though, he/she still earns massive exposure by simply being part of the program.

Writers must complete a rigorous application process in order to apply for these programs. Along with their application materials, writers also submit one or two scripts — typically one original pilot script and a spec script for an existing show.

Check out Ellie Shoja’s site and Freelance Writing’s site for more extensive lists of the different contests as well as fellowships, workshops and programs.

Stand Out From the Crowd

The competition to break into Hollywood has never been fiercer, with more and more aspiring writers flooding L.A. every year. Clever writers have found alternative means to edge out their competitors in this modern Internet/social media age.

Twitter created a number of success stories in recent years. After Justin Halpern moved back in with his parents in 2009, he created a little Twitter feed called “Shit My Dad Says” to chronicle his father’s hilarious one-liners. The feed took off and led to first a book deal and then to CBS’ SH*T MY DAD SAYS, starring William Shatner. Halpern was a writer and co-executive producer on the show.

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Justin Halpern with William Shatner

SH*T MY DAD SAYS was cancelled after one season, but this failure didn’t stop Halpern from continuing his career in Hollywood. He has since gone on to be a writer-producer for TBS’ COUGAR TOWN, as well as the creator and showrunner for FOX’s now-cancelled SURVIVING JACK.

“After 18 episodes we were pulled off the schedule and canceled, but it was hard for me to be upset,” Halpern wrote in a piece for Grantland about SH*T MY DAD SAYS being cancelled.

I had just launched an entire career off a Twitter feed. It’d be like winning the lottery and getting pissed off because they only give you the money in increments of $50,000 a year.

Even though the show failed, I was in love with the job. I had spent the last 10 years trying to break into television writing while simultaneously waiting tables in Los Angeles. So even though I had far from ‘made it,’ the idea that I might never have to hear a restaurant manager tell me things like ‘Al from HOME IMPROVEMENT is very unhappy with your service,’ seemed miraculous.

Jack Moore is another hobby-turned-success story. A former Buzzfeed sports editor, Moore in his spare time created and ran a Twitter feed called Modern Seinfeld, which imagines that SEINFELD’s still on air and makes 140-character episode pitches.

modern seinfeld

It became an instant hit (even Jason Alexander is a follower!). After 6 months, Jack Moore found himself as a staff writer on Fox’s now-cancelled sitcom US & THEM.

“[Modern Seinfeld] definitely helped enhance my portfolio as I went out there,” Moore said in an interview with The Daily Beast when asked about his success,  “but it was still pretty strong reactions to scripts, just like anybody else.”

This leads to an important point: standing out from the crowd isn’t enough. That gets you attention — spec scripts and a network get you jobs.

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Lauren Bachellis

Lauren Bachellis is a great example of this. Bachellis’ career started promising but unremarkably: she interned on various shows, including JUDGE JUDY and HEROES, and worked as an assistant at CAA then later as NEW GIRL showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether’s assistant.

Along the way, though, she created the popular Hollywood insider blog, the Hollywood Assistants Tumblr, as well as wrote spec scripts. Bachellis then used her network to get the specs in front of Fred Savage.

“Fred ended up loving my script, so he and I decided to put our heads together and figure out a project we could sell to CBS (where he has an overall deal),” Bachellis told Co.Create.

I told him about the blog I had started a bit after all of this had happened, and that’s when it became clear: we should pitch a show based on my experiences as a Hollywood assistant.

The combination of her network and Internet fame led to Bachellis selling her comedy pilot 20-NOTHINGS to CBS, with Fred Savage attached to direct and executive produce, at the age of 23.

Work in the Industry

Chad Gervich estimates that 90% of all careers in television start like Lauren Bachellis’: at the assistant level. Why?

Because it’s one of the best ways to break into the industry.

There are two big perks to starting out in Hollywood as an intern or assistant.

1. Meet other people

The fastest way to meet new people in Hollywood is by working for and with people already ingrained in the industry. Many will be other assistants. Some will be agents, producers, other writers, and even showrunners.

2. Learn and earn experience from the ground up

Michelin-star chefs didn’t earn their star by watching the Food network — they worked the front lines, in someone else’s kitchen. The same is true in Hollywood.

Working in various aspects of the industry is an experience that can’t be replicated in an MFA program. Whether you’re working at an agency, at a casting office, or (fingers crossed) on a television show, you’re earning an education most aspiring writers will never get, no matter how much television they watch.

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There are several different types of assistant positions, each one dealing with a different part of the industry, and each one with its own benefits and downsides.

An agency assistant, for example, works at the center of the entertainment business, and serves as an information hub. Many of these assistants start in the mailroom, where they begin to build their network. Then they start working as “floaters,” filling in for assistants who’re out. Then, when a position opens up, they get hired to fill it.

“If an individual has agency experience,” Zig Gauthier, president of Red Varden Studios, says in SMALL SCREEN, BIG PICTURE, “he or she learned the basic skill set of being a good assistant: rolling calls, managing a phone log, setting meetings, etc.”

Matt Schuler, manager at Levity Entertainment Group, added,

An agent deals with everyone in town. And as an assistant, you listen to all the phone calls and learn how business is done. You hear [everything from] how a deal is done to how an agent sells a client to how projects are set up.

 

MONK's writers' room

MONK’s writers’ room

A writers’ assistant, on the other hand, works just for a show’s writing staff. Their duties vary, but their primary job is to take notes on everything that’s discussed inside the writers’ room.

“A great writers’ assistant kind of does the job of your ego,” John Rogers (co-creator of TNT’s LEVERAGE) told i09.

Writers are all id: they’re all storming out ideas, they’re all riffing off each other, they’re all puking out these random associations of facts.

A good writers’ assistant is getting all of that down, and when they do the summary notes, they often distill it down; they often prioritize based [on] what they know of the room what the real strong ideas are. A good writers’ assistant makes a world of difference. It is, possibly, behind the showrunner, the second most important person in a writers’ room.

Being a good writers’ assistant can be the difference between getting hired on as a staff writer… or going back to waiting tables.

For more details on the writers’ assistant position, click here.

Other assistants jobs include:

  • Executive assistants

  • Producers’ assistants

  • Directors’ assistants

  • Production assistants

  • Casting assistants

  • Personal assistants

Many industry staples started at the bottom and worked their way up. Damon Lindelof, co-creator of LOST, started as a writers’ assistant to Kevin Williamson (creator of DAWSON’S CREEK) on Williamson’s show WASTELAND.

Vanessa Taylor

Vanessa Taylor

Vanessa Taylor also had humble beginnings. She started out as VERONICA MARS creator Rob Thomas’ assistant after writing him a letter.

“Once I was in that writers’ office I made friends there and I was writing samples the whole time…” she told Jen Gristanti in a podcast.

 Finally I wrote one that people liked…and people read it and so one of the writers there, Hart Hanson [creator of BONES]… recommended me to his agent.

Taylor went on to become a co-producer for ALIAS and is now a co-executive producer for GAME OF THRONES.

Network

How do writers find out about a staff opening?

They’re not logging onto their Monster.com or Job.com account. Even the lower-end positions in a writers’ room (writers’ PA, writers’ assistant, and script coordinator) rarely get listed on tracking websites. And if one does make it onto a job board, chances are the position’s already been snatched up before you’ve even attached your resume to your email.

Writers hear about openings through two avenues: their agents and their network connections.

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It’s easy to balk at the idea of networking, since the word often carries a negative connotation:

  • “Networking is sleazy”

  • “I don’t need to network… if I create good work, it’ll speak for itself”

  • “I don’t want to be fake”

However, as Chad Gervich says, networking “is a way for people of like minds and interests to find each other and work together.”

Networking is crucial at every stage of a writer’s career, whether you’re a showrunner now or just thinking about moving to Los Angeles. Every step of the way, your peers will help you advance to the next level.

The showrunners have the the final say on all hires, but they may not have time to vet every person who comes through. That’s when they reach out to their network for candidates and recommendations. If you’re at the right place at the right time, or make the right impression on someone, people remember you when they hear a staff position has opened up.

Then this happens: “If you’re looking for a new writer, I know someone who’d be amazing.”

Remember, showrunners aren’t just looking for people who write damn well. They’re also looking for people they like. Writers are stuck together in close quarters, sometimes pulling 14-hour days if they’re behind schedule. No one wants to be stuck in a room with someone they can’t stand for that long. Plus, if the writers’ personalities don’t mesh, the show suffers creatively, which could cost everyone their jobs.

So writers need to pass the “airport test” as well — would everyone get along with that person if they were all stranded in an airport together?

Clyde Phillips with John Lithgow

Clyde Phillips with John Lithgow

This is how Clyde Phillips, showrunner for the first four seasons of Showtime’s DEXTER as well as NURSE JACKIE, got his start in Hollywood. “I grew up in Dorchester, a poor part of Boston. Moved to L.A. when I was a teenager (tough to do),” he wrote in an AMA.

I was working on my masters when I met these two guys who were the kings of the TV movie world (remember TV movies?) Anyway I started reading scripts for them and doing notes. They offered me a job to be their second secretary. I had to choose between that and grad school. I chose them and they basically taught me the business.

For more tips on how to network in Hollywood, click here.

Write — A Lot

“What’s the best piece of advice you could give to an amateur screenwriter?” Reddit user Flaxom asked David Goyer (BLADE, MAN OF STEEL) during an AMA.

Write a TON. Don’t just do first drafts. Open yourself up to criticism. Keep writing — even if people initially discourage you. Chances are, your first few efforts won’t be that great… Treat writing like a job — try to write at the same time each day or days. Keep a schedule. Outline before you begin! And don’t give up during the middle of a script. Most beginning writers quit in the middle and never get through to the end. AND DON’T START REWRITING UNTIL YOU HAVE A FINISHED DRAFT!!!!

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Let’s expand on Goyer’s advice with a few key points:

1. TV Shows Fail

90% of all television shows fail. When working TV writers are contractually working on shows, yes, they’re laser-focused on one project. But if they’re on hiatus… or they don’t get staffed one season… then they’re working their own creative projects, sometimes several of them, all at various stages.

RIP FIREFLY

R.I.P. FIREFLY

With shows failing left and right at all different stages (whether it’s in the pilot script phase or during series production or after 10 aired episodes) working writers know the best way to stay employed is to be working on different projects at different stages whenever they can so that they can shop them around when the time is right.

2. Practice

Writing a lot keeps seasoned writers sharp and makes less experienced writers better.

Every writer, from TV writers to novelists to poets, can stand to be better at his or her craft, and the best way to get better is through practice.

Even Stephen King in his book ON WRITING wrote about how just after a few weeks of not writing, he could feel the difference in his ability to write. The words didn’t “connect right.” His writing muscles atrophied in a short time.

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Regular practicing keeps this from happening (maybe) 

We’ve covered many different avenues for a green, inexperienced writer to take the next step in the career, from entering contests and fellowships, to doing something unique to stand out, to working in the industry. Regardless of the route, these are the constant for a writer to make it to the next level: writing, producing, practicing.

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