Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Advice for young writers trying to break in

This is in addition to the standard -- just keep writing – the more scripts you write; the better they will be – advice (which, by the way, is still sound.)

But beyond that..

Immerse yourself in the industry. If you want to break in to sitcoms, watch every sitcom (at least once or twice). Know who is on staff on all these shows. Know their background. Did any of these working writers go your college? That’s a connection. Utilize it. Are any of these writers from your hometown? That’s also an in. Do you know if they are rabid New York Jets fans (although I don’t see how anyone could be this season)? You get the point. Do your due diligence.

Information is so much more accessible these days due to this interwhozits thing the kids all yammer about. IMDB is invaluable, as are industry websites. You don’t have to buy Variety or the Hollywood Reporter anymore to keep up on who sold what to whom. Nowadays if someone sells a pilot pitch it’s a big story.

What are the networks buying this development season? There are some clear trends. Have you spotted them? Who are the writers the networks are buying? Why is that important? Because if you know the style of the writer you can get a sense of what the networks are looking for.

Which current shows are on the way out? Which are on the way up? I would not recommend writing a spec PARKS AND RECREATION. The show is ending its run this season. But the announcement of that was made months and months ago. You should not be surprised that it is going off the air. (If you are writing a spec PARKS AND REC, don’t junk it. Just know it will have a very short shelf life.)

Kevin Reilly is now running TBS and TNT. First off, know who Kevin Reilly is. Second, if you’re trying to break into sitcoms, TBS does a bunch of original sitcoms. What impact has Kevin Reilly had? How is he making his mark? This is a story you need to follow.

Who is Wendi Trilling? You hope to sell a pilot to a network? It behooves you to know who Wendi Trilling is.

If you’re going to spec an existing show, binge watch it. Take copious notes. How do they construct their stories? What joke forms do they use? Go to the effort of obtaining a copy of one of their scripts. Know their specific format, the general lenth. FINAL DRAFT has the templates of many current series. Take a minute to scroll. See if yours is among them.

If showrunners are speaking at the Paley Center or UCLA or WGA or Walmart, go see them. If they’re interviewed on podcasts, go listen to them. If they’re interviewed by the TV Academy or WGA for their archives program, go watch them. Attend conferences. Read how-to books on writing. Read scripts. Assemble support groups of fellow aspiring scribes. Sit in all-night diners debating THE MINDY PROJECT for four hours.

Know your history. Just as today’s ballplayers need to know who Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams were, wannabe sitcom writers need to be aware of Larry Gelbart, Nat Hiken, Jim Brooks, Alan Burns, Norman Lear, Garry Marshall, Jerry Belson, Phil Rosenthal, David Crane, Marta Kaufman, Bill Persky, Sam Denhoff, Danny Arnold, Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Diane English, Treva Silverman, Susan Harris, Steve Gordon, Carl Reiner, Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll Jr., Fred Silverman, Brandon Tartikoff, Gene Reynolds, Linda Bloodworth, Glen & Les Charles, Sherwood Schwartz, Bud Yorkin, and many more. Tina Fey did not invent TV comedy. There were people before her.  And I don't mean Amy Poehler. 

I suppose the big question aspiring writers have to ask themselves is – is this a full-time commitment or a hobby?

If it’s a hobby, something to do to fill your spare time, that’s fine. And why knows? If you’re super-talented you might get lucky. But truthfully, that's like winning the lottery.  For the most part, success comes to those who almost treat breaking in as a full-time job. And if you’re a newbie to this, let me tell you, those are your real competition. Young writers who are passionate, driven, and know everything that’s going on around them. They eat, breathe, and sleep television.  You stand a much greater chance of success if you’re one of these people.

Yes, it’s hard work with no guarantee of reward. But I will say this – someone has to break in. We all did. Why not YOU? As always, the very best of luck. Thank me when you win an Emmy.


Dan Ball said...

Thanks for the advice, Ken!

A lot of this is confirmation for me. I can remember in 4th grade, I watched the Oscars and I knew who everybody was--even some of the crew members that had been nominated. That year, my mom and dad both worked at the airport and when we had an awful snow storm that shut down the whole state of Kentucky. Since I was stuck there with them, I'd hole up in the conference room with my sketch pad, watching James Bond movies I'd borrowed from the pilots lounge. I still have that sketch pad and when you look at it, it's not unlike the "Purity of Essence/Peace on Earth" scribblings of General Ripper in DR. STRANGELOVE. Only I did that with the casts and crews of James Bond movies and the movie titles. Eventually, I did think that was weird to be doing since I didn't think my parents would ever be let me to go into filmmaking. Here it is 20 years later, and not much has changed. I know EVERY actor now and could name a credit or two for each of the crew members who are nominated for Oscars, along with the people who SHOULD BE in that group. So industry immersion: check!

I definitely agree with the "keep writing" bit. It's the most frustrating part because it seems like it takes forever to finally assemble a decent "portfolio". Thankfully, a great way to relieve the stress of having to keep writing is to keep writing.

I just finished two screenplays for grad school and part of my assignment (which I forgot to do) is to come up with a marketing plan for selling them. I'll probably renew my IMDbPro subscription to get the contact info of production companies and I'll hit up the screenplay competitions too.

I was just looking at the recent guests on LARRY KING NOW on Hulu and he actually had a showrunners week earlier in this current season. Also, Jim Rash has a great show on Netflix called THE WRITERS' ROOM that interviews random showrunners from recently/currently-running shows like GAME OF THRONES, PARKS & REC, WALKING DEAD, SONS OF ANARCHY, BREAKING BAD, DEXTER, etc. The gamut.

This ain't a hobby for me, though. Even though I turned in my last screenplay for the semester a week ago, I'm already looking for ways to revise both of them or start working on something new. I feel like a shark: if I ain't writin', I'm dyin'. Plus, I'm trying to go back to reading some of the screenplays over at and give feedback and maybe post some of my works for feedback too. The only thing really standing in my way now is my other full-time job. But I can't imagine life would be any easier if I wasn't working or that I'd get more work done. (In fact, I'd probably fritter more of it away.) I actually tried to take two years off so that I could do that, but it didn't go as well as I'd hoped. Having an unrelated full-time job is seemingly the worst best way to manage your time ever.

Bruce100 said...

One small note of caution regarding Final Draft templates. It includes templates for 2 shows I write for in the UK. In the case of one of those shows, FD has never had the correct template in the 10 years that show has been using FD, not even close. In the case of the other, not only does it have the template wrong, that show doesn't actually use Final Draft.

Dan Ball said...

One thing in this post has inspired a Whenever-day question.

The original quote:
"What are the networks buying this development season? There are some clear trends. Have you spotted them? Who are the writers the networks are buying? Why is that important? Because if you know the style of the writer you can get a sense of what the networks are looking for."

My question:
How smart is it to bet on what audiences will want to see versus what's trending?

This semester, I wrote a Western feature and a Star Trek TV pilot because I want to see those things made, damn the odds. There's sort of a market for Westerns, but the Star Trek TV market is dead at the moment and the foreseeable future. Despite the current trends, I feel like history proves audiences will go for both of those if they're done right. Am I crazy for thinking like that or is it actually smart?

I just think that audiences don't care about the trends as much as the gatekeepers do. They just want to watch good shows and movies. My gut tells me they want more Westerns and the Trekkies, at least, want more Star Trek.

Fred said...

This is an emergency Friday Question: We will be in Los Angeles from December 29 through January 2. Since "A or B" isn't running anymore, what are the "must sees" or "must dos" in Los Angeles? Also, you have said that the locals leave during that week. Where should we eat that might otherwise be an impossible place to get a table? I'm asking you, Ken, because my friends in LA have totally dropped the ball with suggestions.

Dana King said...

Well put. When I was a musician, there were mornings in music school when I didn't feel like getting up at 7 to practice. I'd lay in bed for a few minutes, until the little man in my head reminded me that somewhere, someone I;d have to compete with at an audition just got up to practice.

So I got up and practiced. It still didn't work--I lacked sufficient talent and am in another field now--but I'm comfortable that I performed my due diligence.

Andrew Parker said...

Hi Ken,

Friday question and apologies if you've already answered it. If you were doing BIG WAVE DAVE'S now, would you do it single cam or multi-cam?

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

...and kids,

The study habits you develop in school should be good ones, because they transfer nicely to real life.

Ken was an A student, I remember. His success wasn't an accident or simply due to breaks, I think.

Good luck!

Thomas Mossman said...

As a Trekkie, I would love to know what your pilot's, but I would understand any reticence to discuss its contents.

I think every Trekkie has an idea for a series, even if 99% of them still follow the same "command crew on a bridge" format.

blinky said...

Your advice will work for any career: actor to zoologist. Know your industry players. Nothing freaks out your interviewer, in a good way, when you go in to Google and you can bring up to your potential boss that you love mountain biking and playing the oboe too!

Gilmore said...

Thanks for this Ken. It makes me feel less stalker-ish when I'm going through all the writers who work on every American sitcom on IMDB Pro.

Furthermore, I tell myself talent doesn't exist because that helps me finish writing a script and keeps me away from sinking into an awful state of depression.

Charles H. Bryan said...

I don't think you even have to really buy The Hollywood Reporter any longer. I used to subscribe, but now I find almost everything I want to read for free on its website. They even send me newsletters to articles that I may have missed tat I can then go read for free. Awesome business model.

Here's a question for any day of the week: What in hell is going on with THE INTERVIEW? Is it a little depressing that we're afraid to show movies now? I mean, a Seth Rogen/James Franco buddy comedy is a terrorist magnet?

Charles H. Bryan said...

"that", not "tat". My stupid fingers. My lazy proofreading.

Also, there's a movie idea in this INTERVIEW debacle. Couple of mid-level actors get together and make a movie about something completely inane that carries a controversial reference. Now they have to hide. (Did someone already make this? This doesn't seem like a new idea.)

Also, if these terrorists were smarter, they would have just let the movie come out and said nothing. It's got a 46% at Rotten Tomatoes.

Jay said...

Hi Ken,
Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this post, but specifically, for the part about learning who famous writers are, because Tina Fey did not invent comedy. I'm a big fan of Tina's, but meet anyone (especially girls) under the age of 30, and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are about as informed in comedy as they get. I'll bet they think Tina was the one who gave the GE Building in NYC the nickname "30 Rock".

Also, have you heard this story/rumor? When Dick Van Dyke got married to a much-younger woman a few years ago, Leno brought it up to his writers while discussing jokes for his monologue. Apparently, one of the junior writers thought Leno was just trying very hard to be funny (an easy assumption for one to make) and that his boss had made up the moniker "Dick Van Dyke" and that there was no such person. It took Leno and several others in the room to convince this "comedy writer" who Dick Van Dyke was and Dick's connection to comedy.

As an aspiring comedy writer who has had very little luck with a career, I have to say that hearing this story pissed me the f*** off. That ass-clown is a professional TV comedy writer and I'm not????!!!! But then again, I remembered who thought this guy was funny enough to hire him, and that made me feel a little better.

Love your blog!

Darth Weasel said...

@ Charles H. Bryan
Conspiracy Theory w/Mel Gibson had a similar enough conceit I think it qualifies. Conspriacy theorist of no particular import throwing random stuff out there inadvertently reveals deep dark secret, runs for life with eye candy on arm.

gottacook said...

Dan Ball: As someone on the periphery of Star Trek fandom ever since the 1970s gap between the original series and the movies, I know that there's a sizable body of opinion that Star Trek does indeed belong back on TV, and I concur.

The trouble with the Trek feature films is that far too many of them (including the first one in 1979, the most recent Abrams-directed one, and three or four in between) involve a Threat To Earth, often accompanied by a super-villain. A return to series form would avoid the big scenes of destruction that seem to be required for a Trek feature to be greenlit these days. There were good reasons why the original series never visited Earth.

Bubba Gurney said...

Great column...but it sounds like way too much work...almost like a real job. I just want to be rich and I really have to go through all that?

Would you like ketchup with your fries?

Dan Ball said...


Even though four of the five series took place on a starship, I think we need one more series to revive that format again before another series does something different like DS9.

I'm a little hesitant to share much about my script, but I'll describe my approach.

Since Bad Robot's mucked up the franchise, I'm going back and temporarily removing a lot of the typical Trek tropes that Gene Roddenberry and Rick Berman swore by in order to make room for re-invigorating STAR TREK's deeper purpose, which was to talk about today's issues with science fiction.

Overall, I think I've been careful enough not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I've kept the same STAR TREK tone and there's more than a few permanent classical elements--maybe too many of them. (There's one in particular I probably shouldn't have used, but I don't care because I think I used it correctly and I think it adds something.) However, some might see my approach as sacrilegious, while others might think I've nailed the spirit of STAR TREK.

Unlike Bad Robot, I'm not trying to redo the STAR TREK approach or conform it to anything but its original self. From there, I'm just cleaning it up a little. However, that also means I'm stripping away some silly original features that made the franchise suffer after several series and movies. If STAR TREK's going to make a major comeback, I think it's better to lose a few of those minor features and tell better stories than to make a mediocre clone of everything that's already been done before. If you've seen PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, you know Gene Roddenberry wasn't a perfect storyteller. However, if you've seen THE LIEUTENANT, you know he could be a damn good one. I'm wanting to bring out THE LIEUTENANT side of Roddenberry's vision more than the goofy PRETTY MAIDS side.

Christy said...

All that sounds hard, Ken. What are my odds on sleeping my way into a good writing position?

Dan Ball said...


I definitely agree. Without a great series to back a feature film, a film's going to fail or turn into a Star Wars clone. WRATH OF KHAN worked well without a threat to Earth because it built on the lore from the TV show. INTO DARKNESS tried to cheat and make that storyline work without setting up the background and it failed miserably.

If Paramount and CBS didn't own separate pieces of STAR TREK, I think the best approach would be to do a series, but break it up with feature films that are released during its run, like DOCTOR WHO Christmas specials. They're standalone stories that maybe don't progress any major storylines, but the production value's a little sexier and the stories have a slightly larger scope than an episode. FIRST CONTACT would've worked perfectly as a feature film in the middle of TNG's run. From what I understand, GENERATIONS was basically an episode shot with film cameras and ILM visual effects.

Dave Olden said...

"... From what I understand, GENERATIONS was basically an episode shot with film cameras and ILM visual effects."

Dan, can you point me to any episodes in Star Trek The Next Generation's 7 year run that *weren't* shot on film?

Angry Gamer said...

Yeah you could find out all the showrunner/writer "schools" and "cities grew up in" manually... OR you could use LINKEDIN.COM it does it automagically for you.

Best advice to anyone breaking into any industry - get advice from the people who made it in yesterday. While it's always good to talk to people who are very senior. In many industries it's just completely different now.

The entertainment industry is going though titanic shifts right now.

If _I_ were an aspiring writer I might just consider moving to northern California and camp out at Perhaps taking (gasp) a technical job on the help desk. Rather than finding out who went to my school or what award someone is up for.

All you have to do is consider if CBS, NBC etc are going to be the gorilla of Media Or are they going to be another Republic Pictures. Don't be the guy who figures out how to be the last employee hired in 2008 at Lehman Brothers... m'kay?

Still Angry said...

Oh and another thing...

It might just might be a good time to bone up on some tech stuff. Because at least one studio is VERY interested in cyber right now.

The Matrix has you Neo...

mmryan314 said...

Sorry folks- One of my EBD former students just posted. He is destined to succeed... He just might.

Calvin Rydbom said...

I'm not even in the same zip code of writing as you are, a couple of books on the history of North East Ohio, but enough that people know me as an author as I don't local TV as "The Historian". And like you it always boggles my mind when people ask me how to get a book published and then tell me they haven't started writing anything yet. I mean when I'm not working on a project that actually will bring me income and fire off Blog Posting for a Music Site in the UK. Write something everyday folks-dont wait till you have a contract.

ScottyB said...

The whole sci-fi/'Star Trek' genre never interested me much, so I always thought a premise for a sitcom was to have all those characters end up living in the suburbs and have to deal with each other as neighbors.

Imagine the hilarity if Khan woke up one day to find that moles have invaded his lawn.

Dan Ball said...

Dave Olden:

Damnit, you got me! Well, I guess I should revise it to say, "From what I understand, GENERATIONS was basically an episode shot in 16:9 with more ILM visual effects."


That sounds like a great premise for a GALAXY QUEST sequel.

Johnny Walker said...

Great advice from top to bottom. Thanks!

Johnny Walker said...

One more thing: Trying to focus as a fully committed wannabe writer seems to get harder as you get older. Things just don't seem THAT important any more.

To stay driven I think you need to more than just WANT it, you probably need to NEED it on some deeper level, too. That's the thing that will keep you pushing as things get tough, after all. The thing that will force you to make another phone call, send another email, bug that person one more time.

The problem is that I think that NEED can get in your own way, too. If you're too desperate for success it can impede the desire to get good at what you do, then you won't succeed either. Hmm.

I don't know. Maybe I'm talking nonsense, as none of the professional writers I know seem to fall into the NEED category. They just seem very talented and very smart. Maybe that's all you need, after all.

Anonymous said...

You left out 'unless you're black, in which case Hollywood isn't interested.'

MikeN said...

Dan Ball, I think it was Carl Sagan who wrote 'Good riddance.'

I think Enterprise was a well done show, and was surprised at the critiques. Basically, they felt the show wasn't cheesy enough. Now if you are keeping the short skirts, that might satisfy them.

I think the real spirit of Star Trek is in the opening theme of Enterprise, but you seem more interested in going in another direction. Babylon 5 handled social commentary much better than Star Trek.

Len said...

Excuse me. I think I wandered into a sci-fi convention by mistake.