by M.K. Lords
Getting into the groove with your writing is never as simple as waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s about doing the legwork: immersing yourself in the world of your story, rigorously exploring the minds of your characters and digging deep into the themes that move you. Only then can you tap into your creative mojo, on and off the job. Nobody knows this better than TV Writer Speed Weed. Speed’s an industry veteran with 15 years of experience.
Speed’s sold pilots to HBO as well as AMC and worked as a staff writer, Co-EP and producer on top shows like Law & Order: SVU, Arrow and Haven. He’s also served as a Co-EP on 100 episodes of television.
If TV Drama Writing’s your jam, check out Speed’s upcoming TV Drama I Class starting on November 11 on LA’s East Side.
Speed took time out of his busy schedule to talk with us about his journey from playwright to TV scribe, hard-fought wisdom on surviving in the ever-evolving landscape of Tinseltown and what not to do on your first day of work as a TV Writer.
1. Tell us about your journey as a writer…
I spent all my time in high school and college on the stage or directing. I was a theater kid through and through. When my parents said they wouldn’t support me if I tried acting professionally, I went into other lines of work after college, but I couldn’t get the theater out of me so I started writing plays. Right before going to Yale Drama for playwriting, I found television, which is playwriting for our day.
2. You’ve worked on Law & Order: SVU which is one of the longest running procedurals in the history of television. What’s your secret for coming up with believable clues that drive your story forward and deliver a satisfying ending?
Actually the challenge there was coming up with new methods and motives for crime that the L&O franchise hadn’t done before. And given that they’d done everything, that was a challenge. I think I got the job because I pitched a mushroom poisoning over the political issue of water privatization. They’d never heard that before. Benson and Stabler were grounded as characters, so if they believed it, the audience believed it. I think that season we had one episode involving both twin-cest and fatal familial insomnia — both ridiculously rare things — but our characters cared so it worked.
3. You’ve also recently written on Arrow, a show that was adapted from a DC comic. What are some of the challenges in translating a comic book to television?
Arrow redefined comic book storytelling for the screen. The way the creators combined genre superhero storytelling with more relatable everyday character storytelling was novel — and very cool. At first, I found it very hard to do – characters fight bad guys and then have emotional scenes about how they feel. Then I realized it’s structurally very similar to opera. Action-aria. Not sure my co-writers appreciated the comparison.
4. You’ve also worked on Sci-Fi’s Haven. What was it like to jump on an original show (not based on existing IP) created by a team of relatively new writers?
Sam Ernst and Jim Dunn are wildly original storytellers and Haven was a dream job. To be fair to Stephen King, Haven was loosely based on one of his short-stories, but Sam and Jim built a whole world, taking very little from the IP. That’s the best-run show I’ve ever worked on.
5. Are there any constant lessons that apply to each writer’s room you’ve worked in that you could share?
Don’t be an asshole. Television is a cooperative sport. Originality is hard, so you need everyone feeling safe, supported and eager to participate. If you think you know better than everyone else, go write features.
6. You’ve also sold pilots to multiple networks. How do you come up with story ideas?
Ideas for TV shows come to me all the time. I don’t have to work at that at all. I have so many lists of potential ideas I don’t know where they all are. It doesn’t mean they’re good. It’s just, there’s a lot and they’re constantly coming. The work comes in testing them against the fundamentals of story. Can you make them work? Will they sustain? And the key to this (story 101 here) is character. All good story springs from character, so, once I sit down to work an idea, I spend a lot of time building characters.
7. And then, once you have those ideas, how can you make sure they hook executives?
I’m still figuring this out. There’s definitely a higher art to it. But I’ve seen people chase the “what do they want?” canard and it gets them in trouble. For now, I stick to what hooks me. If it goes to series, I gotta write in and defend it, so if I’ve lost my love for it, I’m fucked.
8. What’s the #1 rookie writer mistake a new writer can make?
Not knowing they’re a rookie. It’s okay to be a rookie. We were all rookies. I had a bitch of a time on my first show until a friend gave me a photo of a little boy standing next to his bike with training wheels. I posted that picture on my computer. I was a rookie, and I could smile as proudly as that little boy with my new bike.
9. What’s your advice to aspiring TV writers for breaking into the biz who want to have a long healthy career (great projects, less downtime)?
Believe in your voice. Write what you like/are good at (usually the same thing). And write a LOT.
10. What can students expect to learn in your class?
Fundamentals of character, structure and story for TV. These are not as obvious as you might think, especially if you come from other closed-end modes of storytelling (fiction, features) but they can be taught quickly and effectively. You need these to write a good pilot — and you’ll need them every day for the rest of your career.
Thanks so much Speed! Dive deep into character and TV storytelling structure with Speed’s master class TV Drama I Class starting on November 11 LA’s Eastside.
By Jeff Bernstein
As a TV Writer, how do you get staffed on an A-List ground-breaking streaming show out of the gate? It’s the million-dollar question every aspiring scribe is asking. TV writer Stephanie Kornick has the answer. Her first writing gig was a staff position on season four of Amazon’s award-winning series Transparent. Currently she’s writing a biopic about Andy Warhol’s Trans Superstar Candy Darling and adapting the novel Radiant Shimmering Light.
If you’re developing a series of your own or want to dip your toe into television writing, Stephanie’s teaching a live online TV 1 Class starting this Saturday, February 16!
We caught up with Stephanie by phone to discuss her work, creative process and experience working with one of Hollywood’s most celebrated and innovative showrunners.
1. How did you get your start in TV?
I was a summer intern in the Original Programming Department at Showtime as part of my graduate program. This led to a Writers’ PA position the following year on the TV show United States of Tara, which eventually led to more assistant jobs on more TV shows.
2. You studied playwriting in graduate school and wrote/produced the play “Small Talk.” Can you tell us a little bit about the play, the most important lessons you learned from that experience and how did it affected your TV Writing?
My background is in theatre so it’s always been my comfort zone. Working on Small Talk was an opportunity to see my work come to life – something that can take a while when you’re trying to break into TV or film. Theatre is more process oriented than TV or film, so it allows for space to rehearse and workshop the material with actors before it’s performed in front of an audience. Even then it’s still a living, breathing piece of work that is always evolving. I try to approach my TV writing like this by reading the dialogue out loud and letting the material talk to me.
3. What are your biggest influences (TV, plays, musicals, books, etc.) and why?
My favorite TV show is The Comeback. I love the discomfort and honesty in the tone. I also love the movie Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind because of the unique perspective and it always makes me cry. I love Charlie Kaufman. I love the musical movie Moulin Rouge because it makes my heart sing. And I love Waiting for Guffman and all things Christopher Guest. One of my favorite plays is The House of Yes. I really love a good dark comedy or a musical.
4. What’s your approach to writing a script and how do you keep those skills sharp?
It really depends on the script. I try to listen and stay open. Sometimes I do a lot of research. I am always working on multiple projects at once at various stages. I try to take lots of breaks and avoid too many social commitments. I also try to not overdo being on social media. I’m not a huge social media person in general . . . I’m just on The Facebook. But still, it can feel very distracting when you are creating.
5. What’s a common rookie writer mistake and how can it be avoided?
I think a common mistake writers make when they’re just starting out is to assume that their first couple drafts are their final drafts and that they are “done.” It’s an ongoing and ever evolving process. Don’t get too attached to your ideas, especially if you want to work in a writers’ room.
6. What’s the best advice you received early on in your career?
Be patient. It takes time. And make friends with the assistants. These will be your people.
7. What’s something you wish someone had told you when you first started in TV?
Be in the world of Hollywood, but not of it. Enjoy the validations, the perks and all the fun sparkly things, but don’t get too attached to any of it because it all comes in waves. And you can always write yourself out of anything. That’s the beauty of being a writer. When things don’t go the way you think, trust that a lesson will present itself. Don’t take shit personally. Just enjoy it.
8. Your first staff writing gig was on Transparent. What was it like to work with Jill Soloway and what did you take away from that experience?
Jill approaches scenes and story from a place of feeling. They use language that relates to me in terms of theater: beat changes, playable actions, etc. That approach and focus was something I experienced in theater, but less in television.
In other shows I’ve worked on, it never felt like there was time to find the true motivation for the scene on set. It was often about the director trying to get his shot. But Jill made time for the scene to breathe. They create space to discuss the emotional context of the scene. What are the characters doing to get what they want? I had never seen that brought to the writers’ room before that.
9. You came up as an assistant and trained the assistants on Transparent. What are the most important skills to develop to get a first assistant gig and continue to move up the food chain to staff writer?
A lot of being an assistant is being a nanny for adults: putting the writers’ needs before your own. I was a good nanny and also a pretty organized person, so this helped me as an assistant. As an assistant, your role is to support the writing staff. It’s not about you and what you want and why you’re such a fabulous writer. It can be humbling.
But as a writer, I think you need a little bit of ego to make that leap from assistant. Hopefully not too much ego, but it helps to be confident in your voice as a writer and know what you add to room. But there is no one path or right way to get where you want to be. It has to feel right for you.
10. What are you reading/watching these days and why?
I’m reading the book Radiant Shimmering Light by Sarah Selecky because I’m a huge fan of Sarah’s (and I happen to be adapting it to a series). I’m watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, BoJack Horseman, Kidding, Ancient Aliens on the History Channel, all of The Real Housewives, True Detective, The OA (I love everything Brit Marling does.). There’s so much great content out now. It’s hard to keep up.
11. You’re writing a Candy Darling biopic. How did this project come about?
The producers had Candy’s life rights and were looking for a writer. One of the producers, Katrina, had worked with my husband on a movie. He’s a producer and Katrina knew I was working on Transparent. She read a play I wrote and said, “You should come in and meet everybody on Candy Darling.”
They sent me a documentary. I loved it and came up with a loose take on the material. They wanted someone who was collaborative and open to suggestions. It was fun. I had a strong take and a clear vision, but I read the room. I wasn’t too locked into my version of the script. There’s no point of us having a marriage if it’s not right. It has to feel right.
12. You’re currently adapting the novel “Radiant Shimmering Life” to series. Tell us about this project.
We’re pitching it as a multi-season, one hour show. Initially, my agent read the book and said, “This is so you.” She was right. The next step was to give it my take as a TV show by figuring out what the logline, tone & pilot would be, as well as clarify where it’s going and answer the “why now?”. It’s basically a regular pilot pitch. The book had just one character in first person so I created lives for the secondary characters and expanded on what the author had set up.
Thanks so much Stephanie! If you’d like to learn more about Stephanie’s creative process and get her help writing your pilot, you should check out her live online TV 1 Class starting this Saturday, February 16!
by Aaron Fentress
Welcome to the golden age of branding. An ever changing crop of social media outlets are available to every aspiring influencer with an internet connection to taut their wares.
In this rapidly changing landscape, one thing is sure: Copy is king. Whether you’re a blogger, entrepreneur, internet personality, bestselling author or celebrity chef, to harness the power of instagram or twitter you need writing chops.
Enter Heather Sundell, blogger, freelancer, copywriter, storyteller, creative writer, marketer, social media-lite and Head of Content at JoyMode. We caught up with Heather and she gave us the dirt on what it takes to be a successful purveyor of words that sell.
1. You wear a lot of different hats as a writer, but where did you get your start? How did your blog help your career as a freelance writer?
When I decided to be an English major at USC, there were two tracks: Literature and Creative Writing. In college, I studied and wrote fiction, in addition to updating a Livejournal one of my writing teachers made us keep during a semester. I HATED blogging. I thought I was terrible at it, which made me not want to do it all.
After a couple of years away from it, and with the rise of bloggers, I immediately took to Tumblr because it wasn’t an echo chamber like other blogging platforms with which I had experimented. Tumblr is a social platform, you have people talking back. I’m a Gemini; I like social! I’ve always been an early and avid adopter of social media, so Tumblr felt like the perfect fit: writing and connecting with people. I started a personal blog under my digital alter ego, MissHezah, but quickly switched gears to start Terrible Twenties shortly after turning 25 years old. In the midst of a quarter-life crisis, After a while, it evolved into my platform to tell my story of coming into adulthood.
My blog helped with my career as a freelance writer in a few different ways. I think most obviously, practice makes perfect. Having a platform to write often was invaluable in not being afraid to create, and learn how to do it efficiently. As I mentioned, Tumblr and Facebook became critical in getting feedback for what I was writing, which helped me refine my topics and how I tackled them in real-time. I started to not only write what I wanted but what other people were interested in reading, which helped me send compelling pitches. Lastly, I think blogging helped me freelance because it created a community of other writers for me to tap into for support. Whether it was peer editing, or sharing contacts, having other successful blogger friends has been a giant advantage in breaking into a freelance career.
2. Where do you get the inspiration for your blogging?
I find inspiration mostly in my own life or observation of cultural moments and trends by reading articles. It’s also imperative to read other people’s blogs for inspiration on topics, formats, and promotion.
3. What skill-sets should aspiring bloggers master first? What do you think the elements of a great blog are?
A great blog has a VERY clear point of view. To achieve that, an aspiring blogger needs to identify an authentic perspective to own. That will help distinguish yourself as a unique voice, as well as provide a dependable lens through which all ideas can be filtered. Also, self-editing is super tedious and supercritical. By the time you’re done with a blog, you just want to get it out in the world, but it makes a huge difference to take the time to edit.
4. You do a great deal of live storytelling. How does storytelling affect and inform your copywriting and blogging?
I consider my storytelling training and practice as a form of cross-training for everything else. I learned early on that just because something sounds good written, it doesn’t have the same impact spoken, and vice versa. Storytelling is writing to be spoken and performed, so it needs to be written way more conversationally and casually than you would any other type of writing. Storytelling is also the art of telling personal stories, which can help bring a new level of insight and vulnerability to your blog, or angle to a copywriting project.
5. How is copywriting different from other types of writing? Is it? Should it be?
Copywriting is very different, most notably in the length. Truly great copywriting can say a lot in just a few words. A lot of copywriting in today’s advertising and marketing world lives on social media so it needs to capture attention and evoke an emotional response in a digestible length. It’s also different in that you need to effortlessly be able to weave a brand message into compelling creative writing, whereas most other types of writing don’t have any ulterior motives.
6. You’re the head of content for Joymode. What does that entail and how did you get that job?
At a startup company, titles don’t mean much; everyone does everything! For the most part, I head up all of our branding and creative content. I am helping to establish our brand’s story and come up with creative ways to tell it to our audience. My job ranges from content strategy to running our social channels and writing every line of copy that goes out. It’s super creative, and I use my writing skills in many different ways from writing presentations, to email marketing, and emotionally resonant creative campaigns. I was tapped to take the role because the founder and I had been following each other on social media for a couple years after I tried the service when it first began. I think the role is really a culmination of all the different positions I’ve held: communications, SEO, social media, copywriting, content marketing, and blogging.
7. What was your biggest struggle early on in your career?
The Recession! I graduated college in 2007, got two jobs in SEO and social media and then got let go into the worst economy. I might as well have had NO jobs. It took me a year and a half to find my way back onto a career path. In between, I moved from LA to Denver, then back to LA. I worked as a server at a tea house, the assistant manager of a hot dog stand, interned for free, and was an executive assistant at a branding agency. I’ll never take any job, big or small, for granted ever again.
8. What’s something you wish you had known when you were starting out writing?
It’s really important to surround yourself with other writers, particularly successful ones. I didn’t have any for a very long time, and it’s an isolating feeling. It wasn’t intentional; all of my good friends were focused on more professional endeavors. But still, there’s an inclination is to keep other writers at a distance because they’re the competition, or because their success makes you jealous. You must get over feeling miserable about other people’s success or being defensive about other writers, especially those who write in similar formats and topics. It’s easy to see someone’s good fortune on social media and feel angry at how easy it seems for that writer, but you don’t know the whole story of how difficult it was to get there. Writing isn’t just writing, it’s networking. You want the most successful people to be your best friends so that you can be successful too!
I think it’s also super important to call yourself a writer. I was hesitant to use that title for a long time because I didn’t consider myself a *real* writer. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Put it in your social bios and start telling people it’s what you do, and the opportunities will come!
9. What is your advice to aspiring copywriters? What do they need to demonstrate in their portfolio to get work?
Make sure you HAVE a portfolio. If you are not allowed to advertise certain brand work on your website, create a PDF portfolio you can send with your resume. Your portfolio should be diverse in industry verticals and in type (i.e. email newsletters, social media, blogs, web copy, video, etc). Most copy is digital, so try to showcase it in context. If it’s Facebook copy, show the entire post with the creative. Providing a short case study with each piece of creative is helpful for hiring managers to not only see your writing skills but also your ability to creatively problem solve for a client. The best copywriters are able to communicate a brand message both creatively and strategically.
10. What can students expect to learn in your classes?
My professional background in communications, marketing, content, and social media, combined with my freelance creative writing, storytelling and blogging experience allow me to teach a unique set of best practices that borrow rules and skills from multiple writing artforms. I let all writing inform my approach, which offers a multi-dimensional, on-trend, and actionable set of skills to any aspiring blogger. In my class, you will not only learn how to create the content, but how to ensure that it’s read and shared with a growing audience and following.
11. You’ve written for some big publications and done copywriting and content creation for some huge clients. Do you have any insights for our readers on how to create stories that are worthy of publication? How do you write the kind of copy that makes you stand apart as a copywriter?
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, jump on one that’s already on the move. You can create stories that are worthy of publication by reading stories that were published and taking note of why you liked it. Read the comments section. What resonates with people? What is a divisive topic that will generate conversation? Learn from other successful writers!
Same goes for copywriting. Pay attention to the ads in your social feed, commercials, billboards, and email marketing. What makes you stop and click? Keep a folder of copy you like as inspo.
By: Aaron Fentress
Great characters are easy to talk about, but difficult to define. But that’s where Bronwyn Garrity comes in. She’s got an eye for characters and what makes them tick. And she’s had quite the career. We spoke with Bronwyn about her journey and got her thoughts on great scripts, great characters, and great writers.
Bronwyn’s teaching a TV Drama 1 for Writing Pad starting Oct. 7th.
1. Tell us about your background as a writer and how you made the transition from journalist and ghostwriter to television?
I think I always wanted to be a writer. At the very least, I wanted to work with writers. At first, I thought I might go into book publishing or magazines, and did work as an editor early on even as I wrote movie and music reviews on the side for Teen Vogue. My big break as a writer was with an essay I wrote about privacy in the digital age that was published in an anthology of essays and in “The Nation” magazine. After that, doors started to open, and I wrote for the LA Times, the NY Times, and Vogue, among others.
When a ghostwriter friend of mine realized he had taken on too much and asked if I’d write one of the books he had a contract for, I jumped at the chance, writing The Art of the Teese for Dita Von Teese in three months. The book captured the attention of the publisher who began reaching out to me for other projects. The work was fast and intense, but I loved immersing myself in worlds I would otherwise have no access to. Talk about material!
Around this time, I had an idea for a feature, and reached out to a friend I knew in the business. Together we sold the pitch and I was sure my career as a Hollywood mogul was made. Over the next five years we spent developing this feature and others, I realized how wrong I was and how endlessly these projects can drag on. It was crazy-making. Meanwhile, television was becoming a much more creative medium for women and I decided to try to break in. I wrote a pilot that incorporated some of the research I’d stumbled across in a ghostwriting project, and gave it to a few friends. One of them shared it with his agent at UTA who shared it with Shonda Rhimes. That’s how I got my first job in TV.
2. You have an impressive range of genres on your resume. What’s your approach to working on such a diverse array of genre’s and styles?
I think good characters are the same in any genre. Whether they are traveling through time or working at Newsweek in 1970, the best characters resemble you and me. Their hopes, dreams, fears all spring from the same places.
3. How do you refill your creative tank?
Reading books, traveling, hanging out with friends.
4. What piece of advice would you give to someone who has just gotten their first job in a room? Things to do, things to stay away from?
Go home and study the scripts. I made the mistake of believing I was hired because people wanted me to write the way I write when what I had been hired to do was to write in the voice of the showrunner. Why this was so hard for me to learn I don’t know. As far as being in the room, listen more than you pitch as a staff writer. TV is very hierarchical and many rooms don’t appreciate being dominated by “baby writers.” On the other hand, if you don’t pitch at all, you’ll be in trouble too. Read the room notes every night, even if no one else does, and come up with pitches before the start of the room every day. Then, if and when the conversation moves in the direction of one of your prepared pitches, toss it out into the room as if you’ve just come up with it on the spot. You’ll be viewed as “good in the room” and word will get around.
5. What was your biggest struggle early on in your career?
Figuring out how to pitch and disagree with powerful (often male) personalities without offending them. Given the hierarchical nature of television, this is tricky, especially for a woman. It was a muscle I had to develop in a high stress environment and I can’t say I did it well at first. Find a woman who does it well — who is strong but open and whom everyone likes — and then pitch and argue the way she does.
6. What are the top scripts that all aspiring TV writers should read?
I can only advise aspiring drama writers, but I love The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Weeds.
7. What was it like to write on “Good Girls Revolt”? What about “Grey’s Anatomy?”
Good Girls Revolt was a revelation. For the first time in my career I walked onto a set that was almost entirely female. It actually gave me chills. I loved the characters we wrote, and the showrunners Dana Calvo and Darlene Hunt who guided us and who always fought for what we believed was right in the scripts. It was a shock when the show was cancelled.
Grey’s Anatomy was my first job, and as a high-profile show with a huge writing staff and a roomful of big personalities, it was a hugely challenging experience for me. I’d never been in a writer’s room. I’d never been on set. I’d never worked with actors or directors. I was a deer in the headlights, and I made a thousand mistakes and embarrassed myself every day. But I learned so much and I’m grateful for the experience.
8. What are you watching these days and why do you think this show stands out?
There’s so much good television out there, my frustration is in not being able to watch it all. Some of my recent favorites are The Crown, Bloodline, Fargo, Fauda. I guess they stand out for me because the people feel real (with the exception of Fargo which I love for it’s off-kilter style).
9. What can students expect to learn in your class?
I think my strength as a writer is with character. Hook, plot and structure are all important in pilots, so we’ll do that, but without strong characters no agent is going to remember your pilot when they get back from lunch.
Don’t let your characters die on the vine. Work on them with Bronwyn in her TV Drama 1 starting Oct 7th.
By Jeff Bernstein
Getting a break in TV is tough and the statistics behind seemingly a direct career path that starts with a studio fellowship are daunting (.16% get into the ABC Fellowship).
TV Writer, Miguel Ian Raya has walked that path with persistence and an iron will, leaving behind a lucrative career as an attorney only to climb the development from the ground up, first as a PA, then as an assistant for Michel Gondry and eventually as an ABC Fellow leading to his first gig.
He’s worked on top shows such as ABC’s Once Upon A Time and Freeform’s Stuck In The Middle. As Fellowship Season approaches, we spoke with Miguel to get his take on the selection process.
Miguel’s teaching a TV Spec Class for Writing Pad starting on 10/7 in LA.
1. How did you get your start writing for Television?
It’s a long and circuitous route really. I actually started out with aspirations of becoming an lawyer and went to law school and received my law degree. I soon realized, however, that I wanted to have a greater hand in the creative side of the business so I ultimately went back to school again, receiving my MFA at Columbia University. At Columbia I wrote plays, musicals (including a couple that were produced), TV pilots and screenplays. After that, I spent a few years as an assistant, working for producers (Brian Grazer), directors (Michel Gondry) and in development (Original Film). During this time, I learned as much as I could generally about the business, but also specifically about writing. I also learned as much as I could about television and the business of TV – and ultimately use that knowledge and education in an actual position within the TV industry when Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz hired me to be their assistant on “Once Upon A Time.”
2. What was your time as a fellow for ABC/Disney like?
To this day, I still consider myself so lucky to have been chosen. Tim McNeil runs one of the top programs in the industry. He does that by having a highly scheduled, but also balanced workday for each of the fellows. ABC is a full-time program. And it’s one of the few programs to bring in guest speakers each day, set up one-on-one creative and executive mentors, foster new work from their writers during the program, and specifically work to get EVERY program writer staffed (and they also pay their fellows). Due to the program, I ultimately ended up getting hired for my first staff writing position on Freeform’s “Famous In Love” where I wrote an episode for the first season.
3. What’s your number one piece of advice for the fellowship application?
Don’t just know what you like or what you want to write, but know yourself. Specifically, know what makes you special and what sets you apart as a writer. Sometimes that specialness is easier for one person to identify than another, but it is important to remember that everybody has something. The trick is figuring out what it is, isolating it and making it shine.
4. How did you choose what show to spec for ABC and how did you approach it?
I chose “Grey’s Anatomy”. At the time, Greys was in its 11th (!) season and they were going through another creative renaissance and the show was (and is still) so strong. So there were so many rich places I could take my spec story from where it was already going thanks to their narrative. But I also knew that choosing a veteran show could show the judges that I could tell a compelling story for characters that have been on TV for over a decade (something still very important to network television and the executives that make these decisions).
In addition, my other sample, my original pilot, for the program was a heavily serialized fantasy show. It was a huge conceptual swing – and something very personal to me. So, I wanted to hopefully show the program judges that I had some versatility. And they would hopefully see I could do multiple things and work in multiple genres as a TV writer and not be pigeonholed, an important skill for success in the ABC program and for TV writers generally.
5. What’s been the biggest struggle in your career?
I think this is an evolving question for everybody. I sometimes think the business is a little like a video game in that each new promotion is like leveling up. When I was a PA, I wanted to be an assistant so badly. But when I got the chance, there were so many more issues and challenges and things I needed to learn – and learn quickly. Once I felt comfortable in that role, I just wanted someone to recognize me as a writer. And now that that has happened, it has also come with a new set of challenges.
6.In addition to an MFA, you have a law degree. How have these skills informed your work and career as a TV Writer?
When you are becoming a lawyer and studying the law daily, you have to develop analytical and critical thinking skills. It’s a sink or swim thing. But once you have these skills, they will always help – even outside of legal situations. In fact, I think they can also be applied specifically to every day situations that writers find themselves in during the course of business, whether negotiating a contract or something else, like pitching a story in a room. You always have to bring your “A-game” in what can sometimes be an intense situation, and law school gives you plenty of practice.
7. What piece of advice would you give to someone who has just gotten their first job in a room?
I’ve been a part of three as a write and a few as an assistant, and the one thing I can definitively say is that each one is different. First off, take a beat and observe the room. If this is your first job, no one is expecting you to lead, so you have that flexibility. Take the temperature and figure out what this room likes and doesn’t, both in terms of story, but also on a personal level. And once you’ve figured that out, know your place as a writer. Know what the room and the showrunner expect of you as a writer and deliver on that. I had an EP once tell me that as a young writer, on most shows, you are not expected to throw the touchdown pass, but you do have to make a block here and maybe catch a pass for 5 yards there – just move the ball down the field little by little, easy does it.
8. What is the most valuable piece of advice that a writing mentor has given you?
A mentor once told me that every TV writer has rough patches in their career, but the great thing about TV is you can always write yourself out of that slump – with new original material.
9. You’ve worked for some high-profile directors like Michel Gondry & Brian Grazer. What what did you take away from them?
Michel and Brian are very different people but they are both incredibly creative and incredibly successful at being creative. I think in a marcro-sense, each showed me that there is more than one way to craft and nurture a great story. And they are both exceptional storytellers.
10. What was it like to write on “Once Upon a Time”?
To be able to take these iconic Disney characters and contribute to their legends and their stories is really a once in a lifetime opportunity. But “Once Upon A Time” is such a standard-bearer not only in terms of the stories they have told over the years, but also in the way their room is run. Eddy, Adam and the rest of the staff are always about telling the best story and have refined the process over the years in ways that really extract that each break. And they were able to do that while providing a great environment for everyone on their staff.
11. What can students expect to learn in your class?
We are going to break a great spec for each of them. And we are going to do that by identifying who each student is and what kind of stories they want to tell because of who they are. But I hope the students who sign up for my class also know that having me as an instructor means getting someone who has experience at many levels, who has been a part of multiple writers rooms in both drama and comedy, and can offer insight and examples from a career in the industry that they might not find in other places or with other instructors.
12. As a writer who has crafted a spec that was good enough to get you into a great fellowship and has been on staff on several shows, what should aspiring fellowship applicants and staff writers keep in mind as they try to put together a great episode of television?
Well I don’t want to give all my secrets away before class! But I will say that if they are early in the process (as we will be in the class) and writing an original, to really to not necessarily know every beat of the story but to know why they want to tell the story, who their characters are, and what they want out of the story for their characters – both in the pilot and in the series. The latter will really help titrate how much you want to reveal for each character during the course of the pilot and how you want to reveal it.
If they are writing a spec episode, I think its so important to know the series you are writing backwards and forwards so that you can truly justify your spec as something that hasn’t been done before, but is also completely in line with the tone of the show – which can sometimes be a difficult bar to clear.
But also, don’t be afraid to take chances and be vulnerable. Competence won’t be enough for a lot of these programs. You are going up agains hundreds and thousands of applicants. You might write a really solid script, and believe me, we’ve all written them, but unfortunately that might not be enough.
13. You’ve written on both comedy and drama shows. What are the special challenges of each type?
A writing instructor at Columbia once told me there’s comedy in drama and drama in comedy. It sounds cliche but it’s also true. I think it’s just about knowing the person you are, and how much you want to tap into each – and then being able to rearrange yourself and your own mind for the kind of story you want to tell.
I will also say that while comedy shows can seem so light and fun upon a watch, the process of writing them can sometimes be incredibly daunting. You are telling jokes but more importantly you are telling a story and the two do not always go hand in hand. And if it’s a sitcom, specifically, both need to be top notch. But it’s also incredibly rewarding to see these stories really “play” when on set or in the finished product.
If you’re applying for the fellowships and are looking for that edge, check out TV Spec Class for Writing Pad starting on Sunday October 7th in LA.
By Jeff Bernstein
Comedy is tough and writing it is brutal. Just ask scribe Joshua Corey. He’s written on shows like ABC’s Speechless and Alex, Inc., sold a pilot to Sony, and won the 2013 Humanitas Prize for New Voices. We caught up with Joshua to discuss his creative process, hard fought lessons and what makes a great pilot. He’s teaching a TV Comedy Pilot Class starting Sunday 9/23 in LA.
1. How did you get your start in TV?
I began as a writers’ PA (the kid who gets the lunch) for Men of A Certain Age. They hired me because the creator and I went to the same college and probably because they felt bad for me (I pathetically wore a suit to the interview). Just by chance, I grew up on a car lot, and the show dealt with that world, so I was able to contribute stories right away. I made friends with the writing staff and they kindly recommended me for other assistant jobs. I worked my way up the assistant ladder from there, and five years later, I got staffed with my partner on a Disney show.
2. How do you and your writing partner work together?
We’ve been together for six or seven years. When you’re partners, you literally split one writer’s salary. That’s the major, major con. The pros are: you have a buddy with which to endure the brutal parts of the business; you have someone to bounce ideas and jokes off of – getting instant feedback on your jokes makes the writing process fun; you are twice as hirable, since you’re basically giving the studio a “two for one” deal.
My partner and I happen to have exactly the same sensibility, but slightly different work processes. I much prefer that to the other way around. Don’t work with a partner whose taste is way, way different than yours. And, if you’re mind-blowingly brilliant all by yourself, don’t work with a partner – did I mention it’s HALF the money? To end on a “pro” – speaking from my experience watching this process, not living it – when you get to the level of running a show, partners split the many, many duties outside the writers’ room, which is huge.
3. What’s your approach to writing a script and how do you keep those skills sharp?
We don’t write pilots before we’ve outlined them in great detail. Once there’s an outline, we split up scenes and take a crack at them individually, stopping constantly to eat muffins. Then we switch and I rewrite my partner as he rewrites me. We usually punch up jokes together and that is a long but fun process. Once we have a draft we like, we table read it, out loud, with friends who are also actors and some friends who are definitely not actors. Then we rewrite it again. And again. We keep sharp by constantly writing.
4. What’s something you wish someone had told you when you started in the biz?
You’re not writing your first pilot (or your first few) to actually sell it; you’re trying to showcase your ability and your voice to get your foot in the door so that you can then write something that will sell.
5. What’s the #1 rookie writer mistake?
Probably being so hard on yourself that you never finish something, or even get started; you can’t learn to write without writing. New writers often spend too much time and energy (sometimes years) on a single project before anyone else even sees it. You have to write something as best you can, get feedback, revise, then move on to something new. The runner-up would be showing your script to a professional when it’s not formatted correctly and/or contains typos.
6. Is there an aspect of writing that you still struggle with?
Many aspects. And I’m sure there are things I haven’t yet discovered I suck at. Right now, I’m trying to get better at being clear with my writing without hitting the audience over the head. In network TV, you often have to spoon-feed the audience the “lesson” of the episode, or spell out the plot twists. I’ve gotten good at that, but I’d like my own writing to be more subtle, which requires unlearning some of those habits. In short, I’m trying to learn to give the audience more credit, and trust that my viewer is smart.
7. What is the most valuable piece of advice that a writing mentor has given you?
Advice for first drafts: “Don’t get it right, get it written.” I think a prose writing professor gave me that advice in college, and I still regularly repeat it to myself.
8. What can students expect to learn in your class?
How to come up with a solid story for your pilot that can be broken down into simple, one-line beats, and how to use your pilot to showcase your own voice and worldview.
9. You produce a podcast as well, Just Kicking It with Josh & Kratz? How does this project inform your TV work?
The podcast is just for fun. When you work in a writers’ room, your job is to pitch ideas the showrunner will like. On our podcast, we do whatever we think is funny and no one questions it; no one gives us notes and there’s no network or boss to please. If you like stupid jokes and genre bending weirdness, Just Kicking It may be for you. But, really, I must warn you, it’s very stupid.
10. What do you think are the elements of a great comedy pilot?
A great comedy pilot features a world/perspective/character that we haven’t seen on TV before, tells a complete story, has comedy inherent in the concept, and has hysterical jokes told by actors who are funny.
If you have dreams of seeing your own show on HBO, check out Josh’s TV Comedy 1 Class starting Sunday 9/23 in LA.
By Josh Krilov
It is often said that writing is re-writing. But even more important is de-writing: Deconstructing the work published in outlets to which you wish to gain access. When it comes to this process, Max Ross is a master.
His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, American Short Fiction, The Common, The Los Angeles Review of Books, newyorker.com, and elsewhere. His stories have twice been shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize, and he has led writing courses at NYU and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
I spoke with Max in anticipation of his upcoming Fiction Bootcamp on 10/4 and hisShort Story Bootcamp starting 12/6.
1) Do you have different approaches to writing fiction vs. nonfiction?
My approach is at once identical and opposite. For both forms, I need to be sure there’s a solid structure in place, a sequence of scenes that, when put together, creates some sort of narrative. But the process of creating that structure differs quite a bit when I’m writing fiction versus when I’m writing an essay.
With nonfiction, I tend to write about things I’ve experienced in the recent past. It might be a family dinner, the death of a friend, or a soccer game I’ve gone to. Typically, immediately after the event, I’ll have some inkling that I want to write about it — and this inkling usually arises because I can ‘see’ the scenes that would need to be written in order for a narrative to emerge. I sense that I’ve received, almost without trying, all the material I need for a story. (Not to say that makes the writing much easier.)
With fiction, I rarely have any foreknowledge of what I want to write about. Usually I start with a character, or a scene, or a line of dialogue, with no idea of what’s going to come. There’s a lot of trial and error involved — “Would the character do this? No. This? No.” — and it’s kind of like playing with dolls. Each scene must be created from scratch.
2) Tell us about your journey as a writer.
My approach to getting published has been fairly pragmatic. (Insofar as deciding to write for a living can be called pragmatic.) I treated it like I would treat any other job, with the knowledge I needed to start from the bottom and work my way up — I didn’t have the chutzpah to start submitting things to The New Yorker from day one. I figured it would be a waste of time.
My first byline was in a little-known alt-weekly in Minneapolis. I interned for them, and they let me write a couple blurbs about things going on around town. Once I had a few clips, I figured I might try to get published in a slightly better-known alt-weekly — this was City Pages, which was then an affiliate of the Village Voice. I reviewed a couple concerts and interviewed a couple bands, and decided to aim higher: To write for The Star Tribune. I figured because I’d written for these other periodicals in town, they might pay attention to my pitch. I was lucky. They did.
And on and on. My process stayed the same for years — I would write a few pieces for one publication, and then use those as sample clips when querying an editor at another, better circulated outlet.
3) Is it hard to both write and edit?
When editing others, I try to be nicer than when I’m editing myself. That statement’s half true. The great task of editing is avoiding the tendency to turn every story into one of my own. It’s very tempting to revise others’ work as I would my own — to make their sentences like mine, to make their storylines adhere to my personal ideas of what a narrative should be.
This is a pretty small-minded approach, and usually benefits no one. So as an editor I suppose I feel more like a custodian, where the goal is to protect and burnish another person’s jewels and make them really shine.
I’m not afraid to remove fluff and garish pendants. But I’m not very willing to blow projects up, as I do to so many of my own.
4) Tell us about your creative process.
My creative process is decidedly un-creative. I try to be a workhorse. I write for an hour or two every morning immediately after I wake up. Then I go to my job-job. Then I try to squeeze in another half hour. When I’m stuck I read books I’ve read before and try to take what ideas from them I can.
5) What’s appealing about short fiction?
A good short story has something contraption-like about it. Reading stories by masters — Borges, Munro, Saunders, etc. — I feel the pleasure a marble must feel when going through a Rube Goldberg device. It’s so satisfying! I suppose at some point I wanted to be able to make others feel that feeling with my own work.
6) Endings are notoriously tricky for writers…
My first creative writing instructor was Hot Shot American Novelist Hero Dean Bakopoulos.
He once said short stories are approaching their ends when he can feel them circling back to their beginnings. The characters return to a point where they once were, but are changed (or not).
I was an impressionable student, and have continued to use this as my aim. It’s vague but it stands.
7) What do you consider the most important element for a short story?
The language and the plot are, for me, of equal value. I don’t have patience for poorly written stories, no matter how exciting or risque. But I don’t have patience for well-written pages-long descriptions of furniture, either. Things have to happen. But there must be some aesthetic pizzazz.
8) How does your approach change depending on what outlet you are writing for?
The general advice here tends to be the best advice — make sure you know the outlet you’re pitching well. A great essay or story might not be a great fit for every publication. It’s the writer’s responsibility to understand a given publication’s subject matter and voice.
9) What’s your biggest piece of advice for aspiring writers?
Don’t be afraid to steal moves from writers you admire. Read stories you like and pick apart how the authors introduce characters, or how long they spend describing a room, or how they manage the movement of time. Then rip it off. After doing this a few times you’ll develop your own methods.
10) What will you will cover in your Fiction Bootcamp class?
This will be a class that focuses on discrete skills. Line-editing is going to be one of them — we’ll be going over some published works and seeing if we can cut any extraneous words of phrases. My belief is that a writer must know how to edit himself or herself well in order to have success.
We’ll also be discussing how to structure plots, and taking a look at some short-shorts to see how masters do it. We’ll then steal from those masters and make our own short-shorts. Which can be expanded into long-shorts. Or long-longs.
Thanks so muck for your time and wonderful answers Max!
If you want to dip your toe into fiction, Max’s San Francisco Fiction Bootcamp starts on Wed. 10/4 and his Short Story Bootcamp starts Wed. 12/6.
An Interview with Kalle Mattila
By Josh Krilov
If you are an essayist, you aspire to get into The New York Times Modern Love Column. It’s the gold standard for personal essays and one of the most selective outlets in the world. To be accepted is hard. To be an outsider and accepted is even harder. Kalle is an outsider writing about being on the outside, and he got in!
Add to that multiple pieces published in the Atlantic, the New York Times, and Monocle and you can see that Kalle Mattila’s journalistic career is no struck of luck. I spoke with Kalle in preparation for his Personal Essay Class.
1. Tell us about your writing background and your journey to becoming an essayist.
I got my first article published in Finland’s largest newspaper when I was 13 years old – I’ve been writing ever since. Entering the nonfiction MFA program at Columbia University in New York was a big turning point for me: during my two years there I was published by The New York Times and The Atlantic. That in turn helped me land a teaching fellowship in the Writing Program at Columbia and I now teach my own weekly nonfiction writing workshop to undergrads.
2. How do you know when you have a good story that’s worth writing about?
When the material just keeps flowing out of me and it feels effortless. When there’s more than enough to work with. And when there’s something personally at stake for me: when I’m scared that what I’m writing is too personal or that I’m sharing too much. That’s when I know I’m sharing just the right amount.
I also want make sure as I go along that I have all the necessary ingredients of a good story: memorable characters, real conflict, and clear change by the end of the piece.
3. Take us through the creative process.
It’s definitely a process. First, I’ll try and identify the most unusual things and events that have happened in my life. Then I’ll try and write scenes about them to see which ones take off, to see which ones feel effortless and interesting. Then, through multiple rewrites, I’ll tease out “the big realization” or conclusion that sums up the story. I’ll also try and make everything as coherent as possible. Then I’ll pitch it to an a specific that I know publishes personal essays on that same theme, and I’ll keep pitching it to various places until I find an editor who is interested in it.
4. So the challenge of writing personal essays is being vulnerable…
I think it’s difficult for everyone. The trick is not to think about what you’re sharing while you’re writing it; to not self-censor yourself. And then – once you’re actually being published and working on the piece with an editor – you can revisit it and rethink the parts that maybe don’t feel right, or feel too revealing. But by that point I’ve usually gotten used to the idea of the piece being out in the world anyway and I don’t really mind.
5. How do you feel growing up outside of the US has shaped your voice?
I think it all comes down to the writing. Anything can be made interesting with the right tricks. But being an outsider has always meant a lot of self-reflection and I think that has ultimately helped me as a writer. Personal essays require a high level of self-awareness.
6. When you write personal essays, do you have your upcoming memoir in mind?
Absolutely. Most personal essays I’ve written are now scenes or chapters in my memoir. A carefully crafted scene can be a story in and of itself and capture so much in such little space. That’s why so many personal essays get turned into memoirs: they often capture the essence of a whole book but also open up possibilities for a wider story. And they’re a great way to get started on a book, because it’s always easier to write one single personal essay than it is to try and build a whole memoir.
7. What’s your biggest piece of advice for aspiring writers trying to get an editor’s attention?
Always be pitching and pitch widely. Even rejected pitches add up to something meaningful: they demonstrate to editors that you’re serious, that you can take feedback (if you ever get any notes, make sure to incorporate them), and most of all, that you’re an industrious, serious writer who’s brimming with material and ideas. As long as you always send in polished work, the editors will remember your name and read your work more closely. They’ll appreciate the persistence. And you’ll get lots of practice too.
8. Can you tell us what students will learn in your class?
I always teach my students everything I know: about crafting essays, pitching, and being a writer. I’m all about tips and tricks, and I always use practical, simple bullet points to make the material easy digest. I know exactly the tools you need to immediately improve your writing and, unlike in weight loss programs, you’ll see results fast.
Thanks so much Kalle!
If this gets you fired up to write an essay of your own, be sure to check out Kalle’s Classes at Writing Pad.
An Interview With Phil Stark
By Josh Krilov
Is it your dream to spend your days sipping a latte while crafting jokes for TV’s funniest shows with some of the biggest stars in the biz on the studio lot?
Phil Stark has been a working scribe for 20 years, contributing to some of the industry’s top shows. He’s written for “South Park”, been the Co-Executive Producer for “That 70s Show”, and wrote the screenplay for “Dude Where’s My Car?” We sat down with him to ask him about how he did it, his creative process, and advice for beginning writers.
1) Tell us about your background, how you became a writer, and how you broke into the industry.
I’m from Texas, and moved here after college to try to become a screenwriter. I wrote features for a few years, then started writing TV comedy at night while working at cafes during the day.
My big break was getting a job as a production assistant on “South Park” before it premiered. A friend of mine was Matt and Trey’s assistant, and I came on board as a PA but they knew I was an aspiring writer. One day I was driving Trey somewhere and he was talking about how he was so busy and hadn’t finished a script he was writing, I offered to finish it, and he gave me the chance. They liked my work, and gave me another script to write, and soon I had a produced credit that helped me get my first agent.
2) What’s your biggest tip for aspiring writers wanting to write stories that stand the test of time?
Start with solid characters. Real characters. Characters who do things because those things are what that character would do, not what the writer needs them to do to service the plot. Then add jokes that are hilarious but more importantly that service the story and the emotions involved, not just funny for the joke’s sake. Make sure your story has a heart. If the audience cares about the arc your characters go through emotionally, they’ll buy into all the silly stuff that’s the icing on the cake of your story. In “Dude”, the dudes had this emotionally familiar story about trying to be good boyfriends. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s an arc that we can empathize with, that makes them good guys, that makes you root for them. If the movie didn’t have any emotional arc and it was just Dude / Sweet tattoo scenes and random dogs smoking weed out of pipes… Well, it would still be pretty awesome. But having a story with heart and clear emotional arc will buy you a lot of silly gags.
3) “Dude Where’s My Car” starts with a simple escalating premise. How did this movie evolve?
“Dude” started as bunch of sketches about these two stoner dudes. The comedy and characters came out of those set pieces. Then it became about finding a narrative to put those pieces into. Then a good friend of mine told me a story about how he got so wasted one night he couldn’t find his car the next day. From there it all came together pretty quickly.
4) How do you find inspiration for your comedy writing?
I don’t ever feel like I’m running dry, comedy wise. The problem for me is finding ideas and characters to put into situations to use that comedy. If the comedy doesn’t come, then I know the characters or situations just aren’t right. Finding inspiration in concepts is something ethereal, it’s all around you.
An idea can be sparked by reading a newspaper article, in something that happened to you in real life, or even from seeing a tweet. I saw a tweet recently that was about Liam Neeson retiring from action movies. Well, there’s a movie right there! Liam Neeson tries to retire from action movies, but when on vacation he gets pulled into a real life one. Would be sort of meta, but still an interesting premise.
Sometimes ideas come not from story possibilities but from characters and relationships. You might have a family member or friend who has a relationship with someone, maybe you, that feels dramatic and compelling, and you might take note of what makes it feel that way and find a way to apply that to a premise you’re developing. Of course, if you do find inspiration in any way that leads to develop a story idea, you’ll know if it’s valid or not by how excited you get about it as you work on it. Sometimes ideas develop quickly with lots of potential into a script idea for you to write right away. Other times you get stuck, run out of steam, and then file it away in an idea folder that you can come back and revisit at a later date. Ideas are like plants, you have to water them, and they can’t be rushed!
5) What’s the #1 rookie writer mistake?
Ignoring the questions about your script that are hard to answer but easy to gloss over. What does your main character want? What is standing in his way? What is his plot driven story and what is his internal arc? How does he change by the end from how he was at the start? If you can’t answer these questions clearly it will be reflected in the script.
6) What’s your advice to aspiring TV writers for breaking into the biz & having a healthy career?
Keep writing. One of those scripts will be the one that someone reads and decides to hire you. Once you are working, you have to keep producing new material! It may surprise you how much you have to be your own agent. The agent’s job is to solicit work for you, but you always have to be hustling. This means networking! Which I used to think was a dirty word, but now I revel in it. I used to think it was tacky to talk to people about work things if i wasn’t really friends with them, I was worried they’d think I was using them or imposing on them. Now I just own it!
7) Take us through the process of selling a project.
Development is interesting. Two ways to go about it: develop your own material, or develop in an area that a producer already wants to develop. You should be prepared to go into a meeting with your own ideas to pitch, your passion projects, projects that mean a lot to you personally. But it’s also important to find out what producers want to develop, what areas they are interested in, and find something in those areas that you can apply your own personal experience to. When people say they want to hear your “take” on something, it means they like your style or manner or the way you’ve written something original, and want to see if you can bring that feeling to the projects they already want to do.
Pitching is funny. There’s the elevator pitch, and then the sit down on a couch pitch. One is just an area to explore, a situation, a character, a quick take. The other is about telling more of the story. But to tell more of the story, I need to know the whole story. So I typically do a lot of work to basically break the pilot story before I can pitch it. Then once I’m pitching it it’s about pulling back and not giving out all the information. Like, I might need to know exactly how a set of beats work to get a character to a certain point, but in the pitch, for brevity’s sake, I might say “and then there’s a set of events like x y and z that get our character to this place”. And if the producer asks how that would work, I’m ready to explain in more detail. You’re pitch shouldn’t devolve into a description of the plot (and then this happens, and then this happens, and then, and then). But you should be able to clearly state the emotional arc of your characters, this is more important than the plot.
8) What do you find to be the most valuable thing you’ve learned about re-writing?
Lose the ego. Step back and think about what’s best for the script. It can be hard getting notes that reflect negatively on something you have worked so hard on and are personally invested it. Some notes can feel like attacks on you. But it’s important to understand and master those feelings. The worst thing you can do is get defensive about a note on your script. Rise above that and see the note objectively. When you get into the production process, the notes can go from trying to make the script better, to trying to satisfy the many cooks that are now in the kitchen. You might have to change a scene that you think works as is in order to satisfy a producer, executive, director, or actor. It’s hard to figure out when it’s worth fighting for and when it’s not. That’s where you really have to leave your ego at the door. I’ve had experiences where I didn’t like a note, but instead of kicking and screaming about it, which will only make the people you’re working with think you’re difficult, I ran with it and tried to find a spark in the new scene, and then ended up with something I was really pleased with, and the producers were really pleased too. So realize that it’s a collaborative effort.
10) What was your biggest struggle early on in your career?
Rewriting! It’s so hard to look at a script you put so much work into, and realize that the way to make it better is to tear it apart and put it back together. But usually it’s the undeniable truth. It’s very easy to say to yourself “it’s good enough”. And sometimes it is. But you will know if your heart if it can truly be better, and that’s when you have to put in the work. I’ve read scripts and met beginning writers where this is very clear, and if the writer isn’t willing to do the work he already knows has to be done, that’s not someone I would hire. Remember: When you think you’re done, you’ve only just begun!
11) How do you create comedic opportunities?
Comedy opportunity is coming up with a premise that lends itself to conflict. For instance, the Odd Couple. Neat freak vs messy guy. Manners vs slob. Every single thing these two encounter has two very clear POVs that are in conflict with each other. If you have an idea where your main characters don’t have conflict, where does the funny come from? If they’re on the same team then the conflict can come from their interactions with others, but why not bake that conflict into the premise of your script? If you’ve got a type A lead, put them in a situation where they have to deal with a type B person.
If they’re responsible when it comes to money, have them hired by a boss who has no regard for a budget. If they just broke up with their girlfriend, have them hired for a new job they really want by the girlfriend’s mother. If they like the life they have now, put them in a situation where they have to deal with another character whose job is to change their situation. If the person is a racist, give them a minority new boss. People arguing = funny. People agreeing = not so funny. Conflict = comedy.
12) What can students expect to learn in your class?
Constructing a solid plot by developing your idea, defining your characters, establishing clear goals, and, creating dynamics that will lead to opportunities for comedy. Also, learning how to give and receive constructive notes.
Thanks so much, Phil! We can’t wait for your class.
An Interview with Steven Peros
By Laura Van Slyke and Jeff Bernstein
Picture it: you’re at your favorite cafe when out of the corner of your eye, you spot Spielberg picking up his early-morning latte. You follow him across the street through the revolving door of a nondescript office building and into the elevator where he asks you to press the fourth floor button. You’ve always wanted to break into TV. This is your big chance! You take deep breath and confidently pitch him. Luckily, you’ve just developed your perfect pilot with Steven Peros.
Steven’s done it all: playwriting, screenwriting, and TV writing. He’s sold 18 films and 4 pilots.
Add to that a staff writing gig AMC’s First Scripted Series and pilots sold to MTV and NBC-Universal. This is a man who knows what to say and how to pitch it. NYU pedigree, an eye for detail and a gab gift.
We were lucky to catch up with Steven to learn more about his life in show business, his work as a playwright and personal insight into what it takes to break into and stay in Tinseltown.
Steven is teaching classes at Writing Pad. If crafting a high concept show for TV, fleshing out the pilot or pitching it like a pro excites you, check it out.
1. How did you get your first gig as a TV writer?
I credit my first gig from being in the right place at the right time with the right piece of material. A producer knew I had written the as-then unproduced script for THE CAT’S MEOW which was about Old Hollywood. As it turns out the producer had a former partner who was trying to put together a writing staff for a new show on AMC called THE LOT, a half-hour single camera dramedy which took place on a fictitious movie studio backlot in 1938. They wanted writers who knew that world – as opposed to seasoned sitcom writers – and I had the perfect writing sample. So the lesson here is keep writing because you never know when it will come in handy.
2. What’s your advice for aspiring writers on breaking into TV?
First, learn how to write TV well. Read LOTS of pilots and take notes on what is happening and when it happens. Notice the consistencies. Don’t binge watch shows. Instead, watch every pilot and do it with the pause button so you can take notes on where each act break is and what has been accomplished in each act. Finally, don’t be afraid to be yourself. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t sell your first show. I did. Second, nurture relationships, contacts, and have the perfect elevator pitch for your show. Reach out to anyone you can who can help you on your path to a producer or agent.
3. You wrote on AMC’s Emmy-winning comedy, The Lot. This was AMC’s first serialized Period Show. Any differences between writing a period half hour comedy versus a period feature?
It was an unusual situation in that we all wrote separately and then met one on one with the show runner. There was no writers room. So it was like writing a little mini movie each week. Other than page count, there was no difference between the period TV show and the period movie except that there was more emphasis on “the joke” in THE LOT than there was in a more subtly “witty” script like THE CAT’S MEOW. It was also where I learned that all of our scripts ultimately went through the show creator’s laptop so that all episodes could sound like it was coming from “one voice.”
4. You’ve worked with legends (Peter Bogdanovich, Kirsten Dunst, Eddie Izzard, Dolly Parton). What was that like?
All of them wanted to do what was best for the work. They all have strong personalities and points of view, but were very secure so ego never came into play (despite Peter’s enfant terrible reputation from the 1970’s). I learned so much about directing and writing from Peter, especially economy. Kirsten and Eddie were both very hard workers and both wanted to say less, not more. Eddie is super smart, had just won two Emmy’s for his HBO special, and had great ideas. And Dolly Parton lives up to her reputation as both larger than life yet truly the nicest and most approachable person in show business.
5. You’ve sold pilots to prestigious networks like MTV and NBC/Universal. What’s the key ingredient to a successful pitch? Can you tell us about those pitches and what the studios/pods connected with about these projects (Barbizon, Dorian Gray, etc)?
You must be a showman when you pitch. You must make producers and network executives (1) SEE the show and (2) want to work with YOU. Those are your goals. For no more than 20 minutes (ideally 10-15 minutes) the floor is yours and they want you to entertain them and make them forget their stressful lives. They are hoping you will be great. So rehearse and be great. If there are a lot of characters, I have found it helpful to create a poster board with stills of known actors who look “in character” so that they have even more of the feel that they are watching the show unfold before their eyes and don’t have to keep track of all the names you are saying.
I always receive a big exclamation of delight when I pull out a character board because they know I am making it easier for them to focus. And don’t try to tell them everything. Just what is necessary to segue into Part 2 of the pitch meeting: Discussion (as opposed to monologue).
6. You’re a playwright as well as a screen and a TV writer. What are some of the valuable skills that you learn through writing plays and how do they translate in TV writing?
You learn how to write dialogue in scenes that are far longer than those found in TV shows. This is a plus because you learn how to write with subtlty and humor as opposed to story-story-story. As a result, when a playwright enters TV (networks are always interested in playwrights), you can show them how to bring nuance to scenes where the dialogue is too flat and/or “on the nose”.
7. What is the #1 mistake rookie writers make in their scripts?
They forget about the visual component of movies. Even though they may never go to see stage plays, their early scripts read like stage plays, communicating everything through dialogue only.
8. Would you let us in on what writers can expect to learn from your TV Pilot class?
They can expect this: if they come in with three ideas in Class 1, and if they do the work I ask of them each week, they will leave Class 5 with a thorough beat sheet, with a beginning, middle, and end, broken into acts and scenes. Every one of my students who followed my guidance left with a solid blueprint to then write their first draft.
Thanks so much, Steven! We can’t wait for your class.
Dream of breaking into the biz? Check out Steven’s TV writing workshops at Writing Pad.