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Sublime Primetime 2018: Writing Advice from Emmy-Nominated Writers

September 28, 2018
6 min read time
Photo credit: Michael Lynn Jones

Several of this year’s Emmy®-nominated writers gathered on September 12 for Sublime Primetime; an annual panel hosted by the Writers Guild of America, West, the Writers Guild Foundation and Variety. Moderator Lisa Joy (Westworld) led a stellar group of writers including Travon Free (Full Frontal with Samantha Bee); Bruce Miller (The Handmaid’s Tale), Lizzie and Wendy Molyneux (Bob’s Burgers), Brett Morgen (Jane), Stefani Robinson (Atlanta), Liz Sarnoff (Barry) and Tom Rob Smith (The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story). They discussed the blurring lines between comedy and drama; identity politics, maintaining a work/life balance, handling notes and the inspiration for their stories.

These Emmy-nominated writers visited with Final Draft contributing writer, Kelly Jo Brick to share their advice for writers at the start of their careers.

TRAVON FREE — (Full Frontal with Samantha Bee)

Write as much as humanly possible because eventually, one day someone’s gonna ask to read something of yours and they might have the keys to the kingdom in their hands. If you’re not ready for it, then somebody else is going to take that slot. I meet people all the time who are trying to advance their careers or get noticed and they don’t have scripts, they don’t have any type of real example of their work. You also don’t want to be in a position where you get an opportunity and you’ve written something six months or a year ago and it’s not an accurate reflection of where you may be in your writing.

BRUCE MILLER — (The Handmaid’s Tale)

Write a lot. Learning how to write is a lot harder than breaking into the industry and if you break in and you don’t know how to write, you break out really quickly. So I think the most important thing is write, write, write so that when the opportunity comes along you can actually capitalize on it. 

WENDY MOLYNEUX — (Bob’s Burgers)

I’d say find a day job where you can steal time and office supplies because let’s face it: You’re probably not going to win on your first one and it’s hard to work at night if you’re tired from your day job. I had a job in a basement where nobody was watching me so I’d just work on writing.

LIZZIE MOLYNEUX —  (Bob’s Burgers)

Write a lot of different things. Don’t be afraid to try a bunch of different genres and ideas. I think the more you write, the less pressure you put on yourself to get the perfect thing done. It sort of happens easier that way.

STEFANI ROBINSON — (Atlanta)

The best piece of advice I got was when people told me it was never going to be the same for me as it was for anyone else. This industry is so sporadic and so insane that sort of finding comfort within the chaos is really helpful because how you break in is so different from the next person. Also, all you have at the end of the day is yourself. If you honor yourself and your work, I feel like your work and your soul is at least intact, which is helpful when you break in.

TOM ROB SMITH — (The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story)

Be nimble-footed and take whatever opportunities come your way, even if they’re not exactly as you might have planned or expected.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE PANEL

 What to do for a day job when you’re trying to break in as a writer:

BRUCE MILLER — (The Handmaid’s Tale) Anything that gives you time and brain space to write. Being in the business, I think you feel like everybody’s running faster than you and it’s incredibly time consuming and doesn’t pay very well, but you’re in a writers’ room. Once you know generally how things work, just get a job that gives you as much time and as much brain space as possible.

LISA JOY — (Westworld) When you’re in a writers’ room, there are economic factors that come into play in a big way. I went to college and I accrued a lot of debt. I had a lot of financial obligations. That’s a real reality if you don’t have a family who has a lot of money. People have responsibilities. I couldn’t do the thing most people do where they go from assistant. It’s a very awesome path because you learn so much about the craft. I literally could not afford to do that. So I worked as a lawyer until literally I flew from one of my things and the next day started in a room. It’s a different path. It happened later for me. As long as you’re writing and showing people that you trust and trying to be better and not being complacent, your stuff just gets better and better. Then one day it will hit, no matter what you’re doing, if you stick with it and treat it like a craft.

LIZ SARNOFF — (Barry) I do think though, that those jobs are really important, the assistant jobs. I didn’t write until I was 31. I did every job in the world before that. I worked as a production assistant in movies forever. I was an assistant forever. I find today people don’t want to do those jobs. They just want to be the thing now and it’s really annoying because mentors and students is the basis of how people learn art. You watch people who are better than you. You observe and you get them coffee. That’s what it is and I did it for a long time. It was good for me. It changed who I was as a human being and it gave me respect for people doing those jobs.

Finding a work/life balance:

BRUCE MILLER — (The Handmaid’s Tale) When I first started to showrun, a friend of mine who was a showrunner said, “you just have to make a list of what your priorities are and be realistic about them and the first one has to be yourself and after that one you have to kind of figure out what’s next.” I go to work and we work 10 to six. Almost everybody on staff has kids littler than mine and I try to stay at work until I’m done with work and once I get home I don’t work at all. That changes when you’re in production, especially when we’re in production in Toronto. So with the time difference, it’s basically 24/7. When I’m home, I’m home. I’m not working when I’m there. I don’t multi-task ever. I’m terrible at it. If I watch dailies and read a script, I don’t pay attention to the dailies and I don’t remember the script, so it’s just like a total waste of time. Once I figured that out, everything became a ton easier.

BRETT MORGEN — (Jane) I’ve been trying to figure it out for forever. I try to be home for dinner and then I go back to work. I find it really hard though because to be successful in this business, you have to be totally committed to your work. To be a successful parent, to be a really great parent, it’s all about time investment. There’s no way to cheat it. I find trying to reconcile those two to be really, really difficult.

LIZ SARNOFF — (Barry) The great David Milch used to always say, “don’t think about writing when you’re not writing. Because anything you’re thinking about is going to be an ego-based thought, whereas when you’re actually writing, it’s a suppression of the ego and it’s creative flow.” During Deadwood he would always say, “just go home,” — because we worked so many ridiculous hours — “and don’t think about writing.” It was a habit that I started then and I’ve kept it up, because I found I was very fresh the next day. If I could push it and push it and just give myself that break at night, then in the morning I was raring to go again. But if I stayed up and obsessed and listened to those thoughts, then I was sunk, particularly in production where there’s just too much work. You have to grab the rest when you can get it.

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