Jun 25

bad advice, part two.

A couple years back, I was asked for advice/thoughts on how I got started in the TV journalism business. 

Things have changed a lot for me, since then. Recently I’ve been getting a lot of emails asking for advice on how to get into the TV writing business, so I thought I’d write another post. Please keep in mind… I give bad advice. I hardly take responsibility for my own choices, much less your choices. But, that said… here’s what I’m thinking. 

1. Move to LA.

Sorry, in advance.

 I know that this was the number one thing in my previous post. I also know it’s a lot easier said than done. My first year here was pretty awful. Financially, emotionally… mostly financially.

Actually, it’s still sort of awful, even though the money situation has been handled. I am never going to love LA. When you live in LA you have to spend a lot of time listening to people talk about how much they looooove hiking up crowded, dog-poop-ridden hill paths into a smoggy cloud of sweaty people making their friends take Instagram photos of their backs. (You’ll understand once you’re here.)

But here’s the thing — I really, really love my job, and you have to be in LA to do this job, so it all balances out in the end. Are there ways to become a TV writer somewhere else? Sure… probably. But you’ll always end up here, so you might as well just get here and make it easier on yourself. Do whatever it takes. When I moved here, I had a job lined up that paid barely enough for me to cover my rent, I had two friends in the city (and one of them turned out to be nuts) and less than a thousand dollars in my pocket. I hated it. But I’d do it all again if I had to.

2. Write all the damn time.

Write screenplays. Write blogs. Write poems. WHATEVER. People frequently ask me what I do when I have writer’s block, and the answer is: I don’t get writer’s block, because writing is my job. If you work at Subway you don’t get to shrug and say, “Sorry, I didn’t work today; I had a bad case of sandwich-block.”

So, if you’re preparing to be a writer, the best way to exercise the muscle is: don’t stop writing. Power through it. Sometimes it sucks. (Frequently it sucks.) Change it up if you have to — over our summer hiatus I wrote half a book. A friend of mine has been learning to play guitar, so we’ve been writing country songs. I wrote a few letters to my grandmother in a notebook I found in her nightstand after she died. WHATEVER, just to get words on a page. Sometimes the idea of coming home after a long day of work and writing is absolutely exhausting, but just do it anyway.

3. Network. 

Here’s the truth: your talent does matter. But it doesn’t matter as much as who you know matters. Because if you don’t know anybody, nobody is going to know about your talent. I feel like there’s this idea that you can write a magnificent screenplay, send it to an agency, and it’ll get read and then someone will sign you and your big break is right around the corner — but I’ve never actually met anyone who got into the business that way. You need someone to put your script at the top of the pile. I could have been the most brilliant writer in the world (I’m not) but if Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson hadn’t been looking out for me, I’m pretty sure I’d have given up and become, like, an English teacher or something. And I hate children, so that would have been bad for the world.

Networking doesn’t have to mean going to schmoozy cocktail parties or whatever, by the way. Talk to the people sitting next to you at concerts. Engage intelligently with people you meet at bars. Don’t say no when someone offers to introduce you to their dog walker’s sister’s agent. Connect with people on social media (but for god’s sake please maintain your dignity, please please please). Follow up, follow up, follow up. 

And, most importantly, don’t ever look down your nose at someone. You are not better than anyone. If you meet someone and you act like you are better than them, they WILL end up with hiring power at your dream job and they WILL end up throwing your resume in the trash and you WILL deserve it because that’s how karma works. Just be nice to everyone that you meet until they do something terrible and they don’t deserve it anymore. 

4. Make real connections.

This probably sounds counterintuitive to “networking,” because it sort of is. Networking implies that you’re making superficial conversation and slipping people your business card in the hopes of moving up the ladder. Do that, yes, but don’t only do that. TV writing is a creative business and a social business. Chemistry matters. Real connection matters. Ask questions. Be interested in people. It’ll make your life better, it’ll make your writing better, and in the end, it’ll make your opportunities better. And one day, when you’ve written a script that you want someone to put on the top of their to-read pile, they’re more likely to do that if they actually like you. My boss is also my absolute favorite person to split a late-night bottle of wine with, and that makes my work life 1000 times better.

5. Know your place, but try not to take too much shit.

 Working your way up the ladder in TV means a few years of paying your dues. Take whatever job you can get. Before I was actually staffed on “The Originals,” I worked as a personal assistant, a production assistant, a literary agent’s assistant. I also did a bunch of random TV-related temp work. Most of those jobs I found listed on craigslist or through USC’s job listings. I didn’t go to USC, but I had a friend who did, and she forwarded me the listings. (I also made ends meet by helping really wealthy high school kids write their college essays. And by “helping,” I mostly mean… doing the whole thing. I needed to keep the electricity on, yo.) I hated hated hated all of these jobs. But I did them. And I dealt with it.

I finally started to work as a TV journalist. That was important as far as getting to know the ins-and-outs, getting to know people, and getting to know rules. During that time I learned some hard lessons and had a lot of major blows to my ego. You just sort of have to take your knocks as they come and soldier on and remember that you’re paying dues because the end goal is worth it. Respect the people above you, always. Luckily, I had a few really great bosses, and it wasn’t hard to do that.

That said, try to have an awareness of when people are taking advantage of you, or just being dicks, and remember to respect yourself first. Here’s a story about something that happened to me when I was a journalist. I have only one career regret — and that’s that I didn’t leave a job when I was being bullied and tormented by two of my male coworkers, one of whom was actually one of my bosses. They decided they didn’t like how I worked (and they didn’t like me) and proceeded to treat me like crap for months… all the while carrying on a nasty email chain about me with a few other people in our industry, who worked for other outlets. When one of them accidentally CC’ed my entire office on that email chain, I was absolutely devastated, and there were no consequences for the men involved. I should’ve stood up for myself, because I was more valuable than that. I went through months of heartache and embarrassment for absolutely no good reason, because I thought I’d be fired if I protested, and I loved my job. This kind of thing happens FAR too often to women in this industry (and all industries). Protect yourself and surround yourself with people who will protect you. No job is worth more than your self-worth.

6. Be mindful of your social media presence.

This might be a “do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do” moment, because I’m not exactly known for being the most demure tweeter on earth. I’ve definitely been reprimanded for being a little too candid on social media — in fact, the first time I was ever on the Vampire Diaries set, I tweeted an unsanctioned photo of Ian Somerhalder that royally pissed him off. (When he realized I was 22 and had never been on a TV set and didn’t really know any better, we talked about it, went to dinner, and have been friends ever since.) Honestly, that bad move could’ve been the end for me, when I was just barely beginning.

On the other hand, social media was how I first connected with Julie, who has been responsible for literally every good thing that’s happened in my career. We bonded over Friday Night Lights while Ambien-tweeting, back when neither of us had many followers and Twitter was a much safer space for people to be honest and weird and silly. Social media is how I met a lot of my best friends. Social media is how I stay in touch with people who I might not see often, but who have been great influences on me and great supporters of my career. I can be really awkward the first time I meet people who make me nervous (the second time, I’m cool, but ohdeargod that first time) so social media has given me an opportunity for me to sort of… redeem myself for that and connect with people and make sure they don’t forget about me.

I tweet about everything from politics to hangovers to work to friends. I have a bad (BUT SO GOOD) habit of posting angsty song lyrics when I’m feeling wistful. But (I hate myself for saying this)… all of that has sort of become part of my “brand.” I’m always aware of how my presence on social media is going to look to other people. Even when I’m tweeting the MOST embarrassing shit, I’m aware that it’s embarrassing.

Off the top of my head, a few social media rules, if you’re trying to get into the TV biz: Don’t spam anyone, ever. Don’t be an aggressive shipper. It’s okay to be intelligently critical, but don’t shit on anyone’s writing — you never know who’s going to be hiring next. Spell things correctly. Engage constructively with people who have the job that you want. Contribute something to the conversation. Don’t ask people to follow you — if you’re interesting and not annoying, they eventually will. Use social media to casually stay in touch with people you’ve met who are solid career contacts. Be personable, be yourself, be honest, be funny, but don’t ever go looking for sympathy and don’t ever tweet about your sex life; literally no one cares. DON’T BE AN ASSHOLE.

7. Be ready.

 If tomorrow you’re at the Starbucks on Wilshire and Santa Monica (apparently they sell wine there, oh my god), and you’re following Rule #3 and chatting with strangers, and it turns out that the woman who asks to borrow your cell phone charger is actually some big deal TV agent who thinks you’re insanely charming and has an hour to kill and will totally read your pilot right now… do you have a pilot to send her? I mean, that probably won’t happen, but if it does, you should be ready. I have a friend who likes to say that luck is just the combination of preparation and opportunity. (My grandfather disagrees.) BE PREPARED.

Here’s where I’m starting to give you advice a little outside my purview. The truth is, I got hired on “The Originals” without anyone reading a pilot. I landed my team of agents without anyone reading a pilot. There are a lot of ways to get your foot in a door, my way was unconventional. But the truth is, right now, if “The Originals” suddenly got canceled, I’d be kinda screwed, because I don’t have a beautiful polished pilot to show anyone. So… again, do as I say, not as I do.

So here’s my advice to you, which I did not follow: If you want to be a TV writer, write an original TV pilot. Write something that aligns with what you want to do, whether that’s a one-hour teen genre drama or a dirty half-hour cable comedy. Read a lot of scripts first, and follow the rules for whatever your chosen format is. CW shows have six acts. HBO shows don’t have any commercial breaks. USA drama pilots can be an hour and a half, if that’s what it takes to tell the best story. So much of screenwriting involves working within specific parameters; if you can’t do that, it doesn’t matter how much of a genius you are. 

Except in very specific circumstances, you should not waste your time writing a spec script (a script for a show that’s already on the air). Hardly anyone hires off of them anymore, and most of the time people won’t even read them — this is different from how the world worked 5, 10 years ago, so just keep that in mind. As for the specific circumstances? Read on…

8. Enter contests.

There are either 3 or 4 people in “The Originals” writers’ room who got their foot in the door in TV writing through the Warner Bros TV Workshop. One of them is Mike Narducci, who is one of our show runners. The WBTV Workshop is basically a contest for TV writers who have never been staffed. It’s a rigorous process that involves writing a kickass spec script (specific circumstances, yo), then a kickass original pilot, and then devoting a lot of your free time to attending the workshop. But it is absolutely worth it — once you pass through that workshop, you are pretty much immediately seen as a valuable and sought-after writer during staffing season.

There are a lot of other contests like the WB one — that’s the one I’m most familiar with, but I know Fox has one that focuses on diversity writers, and HBO just started their HBOAccess TV Writing Fellowship. These are all very legit, and very good ways to get your stuff read and to get in the door. 

9. Don’t worry too much about following advice.

I mean, yeah, read “Save the Cat,” but don’t make it your bible, you know?

The truth is, people have different skills. Writing is about what makes you excited, so don’t let anybody’s advice stomp on your joy.

For example — when you’re a budding screenwriter, a piece of advice you’ll frequently hear is, “Don’t direct on the page.” (The idea being that you as a writer shouldn’t be too specific about images or blocking or angles or anything else that should technically be a director’s decision. Know your place.) But… I mean, if you’re really good at directing on the page, then that’s what you should do, because you’re going to evoke an emotion in the reader. A director will always have the power to do something different, but you only get one chance to impress the person reading your script. So do what you’re good at.

The number one piece of advice I got when I was getting into the TV writing world was “Don’t be friends with actors.” I failed miserably at following that advice. MISERABLY. But not only have my friendships made my life much more interesting, they’ve made me better at my job. I’m good at connecting with people — do what you’re good at.

10. No, for real, don’t be an asshole on social media.