Being asked, “How to succeed as a female writer in TV & film” makes me hum a few bars from almost any song from the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Not because you don’t need to try – and try hard – to succeed as a female (or any gendered) writer in TV & film – but because several of the clichés in the songs still ring true.
This guest post is by Dr. Rosanne Welch. Welch teaches the History of Screenwriting and One-Hour Drama courses for the Stephens College MFA in Screenwriting. Her writing/producing credits include Beverly Hills 90210, Picket Fences, ABCNEWS: Nightline and Touched by an Angel. Her current publication – Why The Monkees Matter: Teenagers, Television and American Pop Culture delves into the way the 1966-68 series changed television and transmitted culture. She has also been published in Torchwood Declassified: Investigating Mainstream Cult Television (I.B.Tauris); in Doctor Who and Race: An Anthology and she co-edited Women in American History: A Social, Political, and Cultural Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO). Her essay “Everything I Need To Know About A Career In Hollywood I Learned From Writing Scripts” appears in PERFORM: Writing for the Screen, Directing for the Screen, and Acting for the Stage. For more information visit Rosannewelch.com.
You have to “Alertly Seize Your Opportunities”, learn the “Company Way”, insist to any still-cave-dwelling males who may come your way that a writer’s assistant “is not a toy” (nor is she – or he – meant to fetch your dry cleaning or work overtime for no pay while the producer reaps all the benefits of sending a well-formatted script to the network executives for approval). You should adjust to workdays being “Long Days” and learn “How to Handle a Disaster” (like actors throwing scripts in the trash or writers throwing things across the room). You should be comfortable with the idea that there still is a bit of a “Brotherhood of Man” atmosphere in writers rooms which are still 80/20 male/female. (Having grown up with brothers or a good set of guy friends – or having played high school sports helps.) But most of all you have to remember to “Believe in You” because no one else – not your agent, not your manager, not your producer, and sometimes not your family – will always be in your corner.
If you survived that paragraph and still want to be in the business, good. Such a reality check is necessary because dreams don’t come cheap – but they do come if you keep at your writing and keep making connections along the way. That said, writers take many paths to their careers. I’ve known ski instructors who passed spec scripts off to the wives of producers who eventually hired them. I’ve known limo drivers to producers who gained their trust traveling the 405 for a year and I’ve known writers who passed spec movie scripts to the boyfriends of former college roommates who happened to be directors. (I’m still waiting for the story of the female writer who gets to pass her script off to the former female college roommate who happens to be a director so we can skip this middle-girlfriend step.)
Most of the women I know (or know of) who became writers and producers came out of the writer’s assistant world – and that list includes Kathleen Kennedy (who once assisted Stephen Spielberg and now is his producer), Marti Noxon (who assisted Rick Rosenthal and Barbara Hall before breaking in on Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and me, who worked as an assistant for several shows (so many kept getting cancelled) before being hired on staff. So I know of what I speak and I still recommend to my students that once they graduate from our Stephens College MFA in Screenwriting program they apply for jobs as assistants to writer-producers.
Before one applies one has to have prepared a portfolio of several solid, well-written, stand out spec scripts so that once their employer asks them what they do, they have something ready to share that will be too good not to produce. That entails writer courses that allow you to build up that portoflio. Some people ask if you need to go to college to be a writer – since Truman Capote didn’t. Nor did Maya Angelou. But I did and I advise aspiring writers to as well because a writer needs both writing classes and a well-rounded liberal arts education that allows them to contribute to the ever-flowing brainstorm sessions that fill a writers room when stories are being discussed.
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I’ve been in rooms where writers talked about what plot twists from Shakespeare to borrow for this week’s episode or which lines from Dante to use as a title. I’ve been in rooms where that one semester course I took on Post Civil War Reconstruction helped fill out the B story of a flashback episode. Oddly enough, what never came in handy on Touched by an Angel was that class I took on the Crusades. Imagine that. (Though if anyone wants to re-do Robinhood again soon, I’m prepared.)
Granted my knowledge of television history came partly from a course I took in college but mostly from hours spent watching it in my only-child childhood so college didn’t help me there. (But classes in literary analysis and critical studies did help me write my most recent book Why The Monkees Matter: Teenagers, Television and American Pop Culture (but that’s another column). An understanding of the history of the business is crucial so you don’t sound like a fool when someone wants to do an episode in the style of The Twilight Zone. Learning your business and learning your craft are key to getting the kind of entry level job that leads to the connections that make you look like you’ve learned How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.