I know the strike is in full swing, but I’m working on a couple TV spec scripts (a Dexter and a CSI: Miami) in hopes of getting staffed on a TV show once the strike is over. I don’t know any showrunners personally, and I don’t have an agent… so what’s the best way to contact these people? Should I go through the networks? Studios? Write the show directly? I feel pretty good about the quality of my scripts, I’m just not sure how to get them to the right people. Any thoughts?
I received an email yesterday from DARREN, an aspiring TV writer, who lives in Tampa. Darren writes…
Well, Darren, thanks for writing, and I do have some thoughts. And unfortunately, you may not like them.
The cold hard truth is… no matter how brilliant your scripts may be, writing talent is only one part—and sometimes a small part—of what gets someone hired on a TV show. Yes, showrunners and producers want to hire the best possible writers… but they also tend to hire the best writers they already know.
This isn’t because showrunners are shallow or lazy; it’s because writing staffs often spend close to fifteen hours a day locked in a room together for nine months at a time… and showrunners need to know they can stand sitting across from someone for that much time without wanting to kill them. The process of writing a TV show is incredibly collaborative—unlike writing your own spec script—and showrunners need to know each member of their staff has the personality and social skills to be an enjoyable collaborator.
So the question you should be asking is:
How can I start meeting showrunners who could hire me?
And that is a two-part question.
Part A: Move to Los Angeles. That may be easier said than done, but if you want to pursue a TV career, you need to be where the business is. You wouldn’t try to be a marine biologist in Omaha, and you wouldn’t try to get into federal politics living in Wichita. America’s film and TV industries really exist in only one city: L.A. (and sure, you can add New York, but only a handful of shows are produced there).
Part B: Become a writers assistant. Most new TV writers get their first break by being promoted from "writers assistant" to "staff writer." As a writers assistant, your main duty is sitting in the writers room with a TV show's writing staff, taking notes on virtually everything that comes out of the writers' mouths: every joke pitched, every story suggested, every bad idea brainstormed. You may also be asked to pick up lunch, make copies, do research, file scripts or paperwork, etc.
While it’s not a glamorous gig, working as a writers assistant does two things. It allows you to learn the inner-workings of a writing staff, including how writers work together to “break” (outline) and write stories... and it allows you to form relationships with working writers and producers. So when it comes time to hire or promote someone new, you’re (hopefully) at the front of the line.
How, then, do you get a writers assistant job?
Again—it’s not easy. As the gateway to an actual writing job, writers assistant gigs are almost as hard to come by as actual writing positions. Which means the best way to get one is… quite honestly… to start at the bottom.
Most writers assistants begin as "production assistants," the lowest rung on the assistant ladder, often working on a specific show, such as Cashmere Mafia or According To Jim. As a P.A., you’ll be fetching coffee, running errands, stocking the fridge. It can be dirty, grimy, thankless work. But you’ll also be rubbing elbows with higher-ups who can promote you: producers, writers, execs, etc.
Expect to stay in that first P.A. position for a year or so… then, at the end of the year, approach the show’s "line producer" or showrunner and ask if you can transition into being the "writers PA" (very often, writing staffs have their own production assistants to take care of grunt work the writers assistant is too busy to do). You’ll spend the next year doing the same types of manual labor you did as a PA, but you’ll be doing it strictly for the writers… which means you’ll have the ability to form even stronger relationships. And, if you’re lucky, they may let you sit in and observe the writing process from time to time.
At the end of that year, approach your boss—again—and express your interest in becoming the writers assistant. If there’s an open opportunity, you’ve hopefully formed strong enough relationships to get promoted.
How long you spend as a writers assistant depends on many factors: when a real writing job opens up, how much higher-ups like you, the show’s writing budget, etc. Some writers assistants get become staff writers after a year. Others spend two or three years as a writers assistant. I have a friend who got his first official sitcom job last summer… after spending eight years as an assistant.
Of course, while perseverance, patience, and connections are important elements in the assistant-to-writer path, the most important factor of all is…
Your writing talent.
No matter how charming and likeable you are, no matter how much the writing staff loves you... you still need the chops to survive in the writers room. Which is why—though the road from Tampa to Professional TV Writer may be long and grueling—writing your Dexter and CSI specs is imperative. But even more imperative is: when they’re finished, start another spec. And another. And another. No matter what happens: keep writing. Not only to build up your library of material—so when you finally have an opportunity to get a writing job, you have the required tools—but because it makes you a better writer. And whether you’re currently getting paid or not, your job as a writer is to never stop writing.
So congrats on the specs! Personally, I loveDexter, so I hope you have a great script. And by simply having them in your pocket, you are well on your way to being a professional TV writer.
In the mean time, however, get some sleep. It's 1:46 a.m. on a Wednesday night, and I am off to bed. But if anyone out there has questions, please don't hesitate to email me at WDScriptNotes@fwpubs.com… or simply post in the comment sections below.
Until then, have a good night… and I’ll see you tomorrow…
P.S. As a nightcap for Darren and all you Dexter fans (as well as fans of The Nails), here's a fun little Dexter video...
DEXTER'S GREATEST HITS