The Bricks of Breaking in: Tips on Breaking in From Emmy-Nominated Writers
September 20, 2019
|Photo credit: Michaell Lynn Jones|
Just like there are so many directions you can take a story, there are also many different paths to take when breaking in as a writer. The one common theme, whatever road you go, is that developing a career as a television writer isn’t easy. Final Draft visited with several Emmy®-nominated writers to get their best tips and approaches to dealing with challenges that arise along the way.
When it comes to advice on breaking in, Better Call Saul writer Thomas Schnauz believes, “That’s one of the hardest questions because there’s just so many answers.”
His suggestion for aspiring scribes: “Work on film in some capacity. That’s what worked for me. I started off as a parking PA and worked my way up to PA.”
Just getting involved can make all the difference as Schnauz adds, “I came from a background where nobody in my family had anything to do with film or television production, so it’s just getting in at any level you can and getting to know people and if you want to be a writer of course you have to write. Keep writing even if what you’re writing is the worst thing in the world. You just have to keep producing pages until you feel satisfaction with what you’re doing.”
Michael Starrbury (When They See Us) encourages writers to empower themselves as creators and, “Make your own stuff. Take any little bit, even if it’s a one-page script, go out and shoot that. Then shoot something a little bit longer. Then shoot something that costs a little more money. Be writing your own stuff, but at the same time make your own stuff. These days people want to see something. I think that I could have made my career a lot faster if I would have.”
Escape at Dannemora’s Michael Tolkin found similar advice an influence when as a young reporter he heard Robert Towne (Chinatown) speak. Towne recommended, “Make movies with your friends.”
Emmy-winning writer Kelvin Yu of Bob’s Burgers shares the advice he found invaluable as he was beginning his career: “For me it was hurry up and be bad. I just think you’re going to be bad, so get it out of the way as soon as you can. Be bad a lot, as fast as you can and as much as you can. You’d rather be bad in front of five friends than 30 million people. God forbid you get a job and you’re still bad. So you’d rather get the job by the time you’ve worked all those kinks out.”
In their early days, other writers found some valuable insights on craft that helped them develop their voices.
Anna Konkle of PEN15 took an autobiographical writing class in college that laid the groundwork for her overall approach to writing. Her professor had students write 10 pages every week without stopping.
According to Konkle, “You couldn’t stop. You couldn’t go back and edit. At the end of those 10 weeks you looked at the hundred pages and it was like maybe you have a sentence in here you love. Maybe you love the whole thing, probably not. But isn’t that so worthwhile? So we do definitely come from that place a lot when we’re writing of just getting out ideas and feelings.”
She also offers a creative caution that she and fellow PEN15 writer Maya Erskine have learned while working on the show: “We’re very much perfectionists, which can kind of cut off creative stuff,” she said.
How do they combat that obstacle? For Konkle the answer is, “Being not afraid of failing and kind of trying to love what we’re making as we’re going.”
Co-writer Erskine builds on that approach when it comes to getting to the heart of your story.
“I feel like sometimes when you’re writing you’re like, ‘What’s the most creative way I can tell this story? What’s the most interesting thing I can think about?’ It’s always about going to the place that no one else has gone through and I must be the only one and this is the most shameful, embarrassing thing and starting from that place honestly, which can sometimes yield the best results,” she said.
Brett Johnson (Escape at Dannemora) has another creative tip that he learned when he worked with Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon): “If you can cut it, cut it.”
Challenges on the page and in the business are bound to pop up along the way.
Russian Doll’s Allison Silverman shares a technique that’s helped when she’s found herself pondering things too much as she’s writing: “I have a lot of problems getting out of my head so I have games I’ll play as I’m coming up with ideas. I’ll make myself come up with 20 different versions of how it could work in 20 minutes. Sometimes I’ll try to find the stupidest answer to a question or the least realistic answer. I’m always trying to get myself to see it as a game rather than as torture.”
While getting that big opportunity and signing on for your first gig can be a huge hurdle to get over, finding that second job can be nearly as hard, with many writers going months or even years before landing their second show.
It’s a struggle Kira Snyder (The Handmaid’s Tale) has gone through herself.
“I was on a season of a show called Moonlight right out of the Warner Bros. Drama Writers’ Workshop. That was one of CBS’s first forays into genre. It was also the year of the writers’ strike, so it was a bit of a bumpy year and the show did not get picked up for a second season. I had just transitioned from another career, so I was at this crossroads. Do I go and ask for my job back? Do I stick it out? I did stick it out. I took that time to work on my craft. I wrote another couple of scripts.”
Snyder adds that after self-examination and diving into her writing, she did end up getting hired on a sci-fi show called Eureka.
“It took some time, but I got staffed on my second job and I’ve been fortunate; it’s been much more smooth sailing since then,” she said.
Reflecting on the challenges faced during his career, Veep showrunner David Mandel recognizes that he sees things much more clearly as he’s gotten older and he provides this foresight to those just getting started out: “Early on, the desire to get the job or get your show made or all of those things makes you take a lot of terrible notes. You always have to take some notes, but as you’re older I look back and I do think to myself there are projects I have that never went anywhere because I didn’t cast that person who would have ruined it and therefore my script is still my script. I’m much happier with that than having made a bad pilot.”
Written by: Kelly Jo BrickKelly Jo Brick is a television and documentary writer and producer. She wrote the Telly Award-winning film PAUSE and the Frank Lloyd Wright documentary The Jewel In The Woods. A Sundance Fellow and winner of Scriptapalooza TV, Kelly Jo has been a panelist at the Austin Film Festival, Wisconsin Writers’ Institute and for Stage 32. Follow her on Twitter @KellyJoBrick.