The Bricks of Breaking In: Writer-Producer Christine Boylan on Building a Screenwriting Career
April 4, 2019
Building and growing a television or film writing career can come with great obstacles, as well as great opportunities. Writer Christine Boylan shares her experiences and advice on making the journey from aspiring, to working writer.
Boylan began her entertainment career as an intern for the ABC soap opera All My Children, making the cross-country jump from New York to Los Angeles after a win in the Austin Film Festival Screenplay and Television competition. Building on a writers’ assistant gig at Gilmore Girls, she got her first staff writer job on Leverage. Christine went on to write for Off the Map, Castle, Once Upon a Time and was a co-EP on Constantine, Cloak & Dagger and The Punisher. She’s also the founding voice behind Bespoke Plays, a theater company in L.A. dedicated to offering play readings for local writers who create diverse stories and worldviews.
Through these experiences, Boylan has accumulated several tips for surviving the day-to-day while working to break-in. “Building up a body of work, even when you can’t get a job, is super important,” Boylan says. She also concedes it can be hard to do in the face of obstacles. “I was terrified. I could barely make ends-meet. I was borrowing money like crazy,” Boylan recalls. “Everybody has a different way of getting by—I was just barely getting by. I had no health insurance; so, having asthma, I was just trying not to get sick. Everybody’s got stuff. You’ve got to juggle your stuff if this is what you want to do.”
She also suggests finding a skill that you can do outside of the industry. “But really, find your own way! If having a day job helps you, that works as long as you can do the thing and write, do it. For some people it’s like, ‘I have a day job, but I know that I’m alone for 20 minutes every day.’ Like at Gilmore Girls, I knew I had time to myself at night when everybody left—and I happen to be a nighttime writer. I was still in the office, so I wasn’t out with my friends; drinking or partying. I had to wait for a script to come out that would maybe come out after midnight. It was awesome, because I had two hours to myself dedicated to writing.”
Boylan recounts the best advice she received early in her career, “Go and try it and if you fail, try again. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake.” And she still agrees, with an added tip: “Find an ally. If nobody on your show on the upper levels seems like an ally, find an upper level writer on another show. Writing staff is like forming a weird family. You have your family problems. Sometimes, it can even be totally toxic, and you need to escape. Get fired once. Sometimes, you have to be the one to quit. When it happens you’re going to be upset. Push through it. Get the next job.” But she stresses, “Don’t let it affect your writing. Don’t let the job affect your writing.”
Find the balance between writing and self-care is also very important, Boylan states. “You don’t need to go to a fancy gym, but get a membership to the Y, a yoga class, the boxing gym—whatever your sport is. Whatever helps you blow off steam, feel better, and stretch your muscles. You’re going to be sitting in a room arguing for eight to sixteen hours a day depending on whether you’re in comedy or not, you need to take care of your body.”
Sound advice for staff writers, especially. “You can’t treat yourself like crap and fix it over hiatus, although we all do it,” Boylan admits. “Take care of your body instead, nobody else is going to. That’s an indulgence that will pay you back.”
And enter some screenwriting contests, something Boylan champions. “They’re great! They’re for morale, and you’ll make contacts.” But she also cautions against high expectations. “You will not get an agent off those contests, ever. You will definitely get more confidence in yourself, however, like, ‘oh, wow, I did a thing, I saw a thing through to the end. People liked it.’ When it’s good, take it as energy and use that energy to do something.”
When it comes to deciding where to put that energy—specs or original pilots—Boylan says do both. “The job is to write in the showrunner’s voice. Even if that showrunner is only reading original stuff, you need to know that you can write in other people’s voices. If I can write in the voice of so-and-so, that’s another tool in the toolbox. It doesn’t make you any less of an original writer. The secret is nobody’s original. Everyone’s individual and nobody’s original.”
Boylan suggests finding the show you want to see on air that’s not on the air now, “And write that show! I think that’s advice for anything. It definitely helps me on the theater side of things. I know all the plays that I love. You know what, I would love to see a play about this—and then you just do it.” Boylan continues, “You can only write what’s authentic for you, and either it works or it doesn’t, and then you write another thing and you move on. If you don’t want to write an original spec pilot, write a play. Write a short story. Write a novel. Write a screenplay. Write other things. I think we get worried about staying in one medium. You don’t have to. You don’t have to worry about that. I write poems. They’re garbage, but it flexes different muscles.”
Which leads her to comment on one of every writer’s biggest worries: the challenges of facing the blank page. “A scene is a scene. That’s one thing that I always come back to. If I’m freaking out about something, I’m like, ‘it’s just a scene. You know how to write a scene. Even if it’s bad, you can rewrite it later. Just write a scene. We can always fix it.’”
Her closing advice for writers on breaking in is emphasizing that everyone’s path is different. “You have to figure out what is best for you—and write more than you’re writing. However much you’re writing is not enough. Write twice as many pages as you’re writing and throw a bunch out.” And Boylan insists that part is fine, too. “The way in which you can tease that work out of yourself is different for everybody. I still write more when I’m busiest. After being in TV for ten years, I’m only now learning how to really complete projects in unstructured time without doing a huge binge.”
She also has some recommended resources for writers: “The book Deep Work is about people who code or do any kind of difficult tasks—academics, deep thinkers. It’s great for writers because it outlines the four different ways to work deeply.” She also recommends Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast. “She collects all of these different approaches and speaks to different artists on her podcasts. She talks to sculptors, she talks to musicians. Everyone’s got a different way of doing it.” Boylan recalls her own way, “There was a time when I had two weeks to write a pilot. I would sleep until noon, I’d watch TV for a while. Around four I would start working and go until two in the morning. I wrote a pilot that got me a lot of work after that. It was something I had been living with for a long time, that story, and it was like, I need to tell this,” Boylan says. “Chuck Wendig is also somebody I would follow on Twitter. He tackles the problems of creativity in a really beautiful way. He’s a great resource.”
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.