Breaking into TV Writing

Andrea Wachner covers the basics for Media Bistro:

Most people who've ever watched television think they can write for it. Most people who've never watched television think they can write for it. The guy who just sold me my television thinks he has a screenplay. From their overstuffed couches, viewers assume that being able to predict the next line of dialogue before it's spoken entitles them to be in the My Name is Earl writers' room, when what it actually signals is just how hard the task really is — so hard that experienced writers often fail. "A lot of people think TV is a thing you do from your home in your spare time," says Jane Espenson, a writer on Battlestar Galactica. "It seems like a career you can get into if you've already got a job. But it's not."

How can you get in? According to my research, there are four ways, no ways, and also an infinite number of ever-changing ways to get work writing for television, and being a good writer is only half the battle. Maybe less.

Getting a job writing for television can be harder than dating, and just as serendipitous. So whenever I meet someone who's been successful in TV-writing, I get them to tell me how. While there is no equivalent to JDate for hungry writers, stories I've heard of how people got their start run the gamut from infuriating to inspiring.

It's who you know

John Schulian's story is both. At an age when some men divorce their wives and buy Corvettes, Schulian divorced his wife and started watching TV. "I had never been a big television watcher, ever in my life," he says. "But for some reason, I watched the pilot of Hill Street Blues and it just absolutely killed me how good it was.

The characters were brilliant. The writing was smashing. I was floored and I became a faithful watcher of the show. Hill Street showed me that writing for television could be an honorable profession." In June of 1984, Schulian decided at that point that the Chicago Sun Times was not big enough for him, quit his job there as a sports writer, and moved to Pennsylvania. In February of '85, he contacted a former coworker who had stayed in touch with another former coworker, a photographer who now worked for the LA Times and was married to TV writer Jeff Melvoin. "I called Jeff out of the blue, and he didn't know me from a sack of potatoes. He could not have been nicer or more supportive — and we talked for about 45 minutes. This was the first of many acts of incredible generosity, charity, and big-heartedness that I would encounter over the next few years."

Schulian showed up in L.A. in April and called Jeff, whose response was, "All right, at 11 a.m. you've got a meeting with the vice president of MTM Productions." Melvoin had also scheduled him with the head of development at Geffen Film, and for dinner together in Santa Monica, even though Melvoin and Schulian had never even met. "The one thing [Melvoin] said that stuck in my mind was that everybody gets into the business a different way," says Schulian. "There is no one way to Hollywood." To which Schulian replied, "Well, I really like Hill Street Blues. What if I wrote a letter to Steven Bochco? Dear Mr. Bochco, I'd sure like to do what you do!" He included a copy of his book and an article he had written for GQ. Within two weeks he received Bochco's reply, which said, "A lot of journalists think they can do this and a lot of journalists can't." Less than a year later, Schulian was writing episode 8 of L.A. Law. "I had not read a script in my life. I had certainly never written a script," says Schulian. "I was just completely flying blind. Nobody ever fell off a truckload of turkeys the way I did." Other folks Bochco took a chance on? Deadwood writer David Milch and David E. Kelley of Ally McBeal and Boston Legal fame. Schulian turned in his rewrite in August of '86 and that September he joined the writing staff of Miami Vice. "I guess it's fair to say that things were moving at warp speed," he says. He would go on to co-create Xena: Warrior Princess.

However, Schulian believes his strokes of luck are from a bygone era of the TV industry. "I think the business has changed so much," he says. "You like to think that these sort of impossible stories can happen, but I don't know.

First of all, it's not even the people who run the shows that do the hiring. You've got to be signed off by the studio, and the network, which is just completely wrong. This is a frustrating and unhappy time, in terms of hiring and putting together the kind of staff that you would want."

It wasn't just extraordinary acts of kindness and raw talent that gave Schulian his second life, it was also timing, lottery-winning-lucky-timing.

"As I would figure out later, I had caught Bochco at absolutely the perfect time in his career. He had left Hill Street Blues — and he had time in a way that he never would have had time when he was in the midst of production — I can't thank Steven Bochco enough. Ever."

At Espenson's first pitch meeting, she sold a story — increasing her income that year by almost 50 percent. She was hooked.

TV advice from the blogosphere

So who can you come to thank in these frustrating and unhappy future times?

One possibility is Espenson. While she hasn't created a Hill Street Blues yet, she did write a spec M.A.S.H. when she was 12. She's among the few professional TV writers out there with a strong sense of responsibility towards her fellow wordsmiths. She dispenses smart, free, spec writing advice on her blog: http://www.janeespenson.com/ .

Joss Whedon, the mind behind Buffy The Vampire Slayer, reads her blog. John Hodgman, the "PC Guy" and Daily Show correspondent, wrote about her blog on his blog. As Espenson says, the genesis of her blog was, "I'll talk about the only thing I know, which is how to write a good spec." She had no idea it was going to fill such a huge gap for would-be TV writers. "I assumed lots of people were doing it, and other people are — Doris Egan [of House] has a great blog , and [Emmy-winning writer/director/producer/major league baseball announcer] Ken Levine has a blog , but I guess nobody does it with as much focus as I do," says Espenson. "I don't talk about anything else. Lunch and screenwriting tricks specifically designed for television, and even more specifically designed for writing a spec that will get you hired. I make it sound doable, I make it sound accessible — because I think it is. The numbers are low, but people get in [to the TV industry] every year."

Be a good fellow

As Espenson tells it, the ABC Disney Fellowship program is her Steven Bochco in shining armor. Living on $12,000 a year as a graduate student at UC Berkeley, Espenson's way of procrastinating on her linguistics dissertation was cranking out three Star Trek: The Next Generation specs. Based on spec No. 2, Espenson got the call to come in, and at her first pitch meeting sold a story — increasing her income that year by almost 50 percent. She was hooked.

Through routine trips to L.A. to pitch Star Trek with Ron Moore, who remains a colleague of hers, she found out about the fellowship. "To get into Disney, you needed a half-hour script. Disney was out of the drama business entirely because it felt dramas were 'not profitable' and 'never would be again because they can't syndicate. Dramas are done! Everything's comedy!'

So I wrote a Seinfeld [episode] and sent it in [to Disney for fellowship consideration]. Espenson's script was accepted, she spent two years in the program where she landed jobs on Dinosaurs, Monty, and eventually C.S.I.

Espenson attributes part of the program's success to the fact that shows are given incentives to hire fellows. "You aren't taking that big a chance as a show runner if you employ a Disney fellow because, like I was, they're paid by the fellowship. You don't have to tap into your writing budget; you get another body in the room working for you absolutely free. At a time when budgets are so small, it's not just a luxury. You might really need that to fill out your staff. So it's probably becoming a better and better way to get in. You need a certain amount of experience in your room. You do want young writers, but you hire from the top down. By the time you're hiring your staff writer, you've got no money."

According to Writer's Guild of America West president Patric Verrone, the industry works to hire people who are the cheapest. The triangle of good, bad and cheap — pick any two. The natural course of business is to find writers who they can pay the least to, who can deliver the fastest. At some point in their career, the good point in that triangle takes over and you get people who are actually in demand because of the quality of their work.

Have a portfolio to pull from

Most writers would do well to have at least a couple brilliant specs and maybe even a scintillating pilot in your script stable to get you hired.

"Spec writing is so much different than what you actually wind up doing," Espenson says. "Spec writing is a solitary activity, but TV writing isn't. TV writing is a committee. You're in a room with other writers a lot of the time, you're social, you're interacting. Breaking stories, on both comedies and dramas is done in the room. It's very collaborative. So you have to be able to work with others, you have to compromise with all these other people, and you have to be flexible. That actually hurts a lot of young writers because they come in and they think to make their mark, they have to make an impact and it's like, no, actually you can be pretty quiet your first year as a writer. Write a good draft and you're doing fine. This notion that you have to come in and somehow transform the show, fix the show, that's totally wrong."

While being a good writer is a huge part of being a working writer, Espenson says, "not being crazy is the hugest part. There's that meeting that you get when the show runner has read your material, has talked to your agent, they know what your background is, they know that you'll fit into their staff, and they call you in for a meeting anyway. That meeting is to make sure you're wearing pants. So make sure that your eyes are focused and you're not just spittin' nails crazy. If you are a hermit in a cabin in the woods, work on some social skills."

"I have not met anyone yet who has also been inspired to start blogging or increasing their outreach. They read their writer's assistant's scripts. They give them an assignment. They let them rewrite something. They let a P.A. sit in on the room late at night. That's how most people do their outreach and a lot of people do that really well. Show runners do that."

Take what you can get

It's not all just a matter of standing behind a Bochco in the valet line, the money you sink into school can pay off, too. Verrone rode the other express train to Hollywood, as an editor at the Harvard Lampoon. "I think that when I came up in this business, there were still some variety shows that you could write for that paid less than the sitcom or drama world and that's how new writers got their start. Then, it turned into new writers had to work as writer's assistants and that's how they got their start as the sitcom and drama world expanded across a lot of additional new networks," he says. "Now, new writers are given the opportunity to work in cable programming, in direct to the Internet webisodes, and other Internet content, and I think that is opening up a lot of opportunities that both new writers can take advantage of, and existing writers – my goal is just to make sure everybody gets paid for it."

Andrea Wachner is a Los Angeles-based TV writer.