The Bricks of Breaking In: TV writer Y. Shireen Razack on empowering yourself as a writer
October 6, 2021
All the way back to middle school, Y. Shireen Razack (New Amsterdam, and the upcoming Vampire Academy) found herself drawn to creative pursuits, although it wasn’t something she ever thought she was good enough to pursue until much later in her life.
“It’s one of those things that kinda crept up on me. I was always writing stories and stuff on the side, even though the school that I went to gave us lots and lots of homework.”
Post-college, and with a career in advertising underway, Razack still found the writing bug nagging at her.
“I was in media planning. It’s a lot of numbers, lots of spreadsheets. A lot of research, data analysis—all of that. I just got bored at a certain point.”
So, Razack ventured to take some TV writing classes to see if she was any good at the craft.
“I decided that I was going to let the teacher decide if I was any good, and he liked my stuff. He encouraged me to move out here.”
Once in Los Angeles, Razack worked part-time for an advertising agency while trying to break in. She landed a big breakthrough opportunity when she was chosen for the CBS Writers Mentoring Program. The timing though created another challenge for her getting that first writing gig.
“That was strike year. Because it was strike year, it was also a difficult year to be in a program in terms of getting a job afterward. So the following year, my mentor from that program recommended me to a showrunner on an NBC show.”
That show, Trauma, only lasted 18 episodes, so Razack was soon in search of her next writing job again.
“You know about the ‘diversity slot.’ NBC at the time had a cap on the number of episodes you could do and still be a ‘diversity staff writer.’ Trauma didn’t do a full season, so the second job I got was also on NBC, so I was still hired on as a diversity staff writer.”
From there, Razack continued to staff on five shows. She also works to help others achieve success in the industry. In her work as Co-Founder/Co-Chair at the Think Tank For Inclusion & Equity, she’s found that while getting that second job can be hard, what can be even more difficult, especially for writers of color, is getting a title bump.
“The research we’ve done has found that so many people are repeating staff writer, but almost 36% of underrepresented writers have to repeat staff writer at least once, which is one-and-a-half times as much as overrepresented writers, which is a significant problem.”
One of the biggest obstacles for Razack when she was getting her start was making the move to Los Angeles and not knowing anybody in the industry.
“A lot of getting your first gig, and getting your subsequent gigs, is all about who you know; who’s going to put in the right word for you."
So how did Razack grow her creative network? Early on, she attended a Writers Guild Foundation craft summit. Not only was the experience educational, but she also discovered that WGF events were staffed by volunteers, so she quickly volunteered for the organization.
“I created this great network that became friends, a support group, everything in between. From that, I met people that I got into a writers’ group with, specifically for sci-fi writers. All of it was just super helpful and also helped me keep going.”
L.A. can be a very lonely town and having a strong support system is incredibly valuable along the way, especially on those dark days when you find yourself wondering why you’re doing this and doubting if you’ll ever get in.
Breaking through and getting that first job is just one step in building a writing career. Razack has found there are several more key elements to growing as a writer in the industry. Talent is one, but for sustainability, much more goes into it.
“You have to have a thick skin, but at the same time, you just have to have perseverance. It’s just keeping at it. What I say a lot of times is that getting that first job, 85% of it is going to be your material and 15% of it is going to be networking—but that 15% takes 50% of your time.”
She does caution writers, especially underrepresented writers, that a lot of people, including many of the fellowship programs, often suggest that you not have any boundaries when you go into a meeting. Just go and put your whole self out there. She encourages writers to set this thought aside.
“Underrepresented writers, for the lives that they’ve led, have a lot of trauma and there’s a lot of things that are triggering. So you need to know your boundaries. Have boundaries. Protect yourself and protect your own dignity. Your personal stories are your personal stories. That’s your humanity, so you should feel safe in sharing them or not sharing them and feel empowered in sharing them or not sharing them.”
Along the way, Razack has gotten some very helpful advice of her own, including a gem from her mentor in New York who told her to “write forward.”
“Let it suck, because writing is rewriting. If you never make it to the end of your first draft, you’ll never know what needs to be fixed.”
"I’ve seen too many writers get stuck in, 'oh wait, let me rewrite what I wrote yesterday and then I’ll keep going.' It’s like no, just write forward. Get to the end and then rewrite. It will make your life so much easier.”
When it comes to meetings, Razack recommends going in as prepared as you can be. For generals, read all the pilots and familiarize yourself with the shows that the company has. If you’re meeting on a specific show, go in and share your enthusiasm about the pilot and characters. Make sure that one of your favorite characters is the primary character. Many times though, for underrepresented writers, the primary character isn’t the person they’re going to identify with. In such a situation, she suggests:
“Talk about why you identify with the other character and what you can bring to that room. That’s really, really important.”
Meetings with execs and showrunners can be very stressful and Razack invites writers to look at these opportunities in a different light, to not just focus on that moment, but to think of the bigger picture and significance of the connection you just made. Never feel like if you don’t get this job then it’s a fail, because that is far from true.
“Every meeting is the potential to grow your network. Whether you get the job or you don’t, it’s a win if you conveyed what you wanted and it’s a win if you got the information that you need.”
For those emerging writers out there, Razack also shares this advice: “Don’t give up. If this is what you want, this is your passion and you are good at it and you are confident that you are good at it, and especially if you have unique stories to tell. Don’t give up.”
“For underrepresented writers, we need more of you. This industry’s not easy. It's not an easy path, but it’s endlessly rewarding. Especially when you can help your community and communities like yours be seen. So please come.”
Written by: Kelly Jo BrickKelly Jo Brick is a TV drama and documentary writer. A Sundance Fellow and alum of Women In Film’s Writer/Showrunner Mentoring Circle, Kelly Jo is also the Vice Chair of the WGAW Genre Committee. She wrote the Telly Award-winning film PAUSE and the Frank Lloyd Wright documentary, The Jewel In The Woods. Follow her on Twitter @KellyJoBrick.