Writing for the Screen
Alexandra Salerno | March 2017
In the literary world, Hollywood is most often thought of as a place where writers have gone to wash out. William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Aldous Huxley—all of these writers famously moved to Tinseltown to try a hand at screenwriting, but the narrative associated with their experiences is often negative, reinforcing an arbitrary cultural and professional line between prose writing and screenwriting. These negative stereotypes are outdated, and don’t represent the true nature of the creative landscape in Los Angeles. In particular, the explosion of scripted television and streaming platforms has driven so much growth that the entertainment industry is ripe with employment opportunities for writers looking for creative day jobs. And I’m living proof.
In July of 2014, I packed up everything I owned, loaded up my car and my cat, and headed west to Los Angeles from Ohio. Over five days, I crossed the country in my tiny car, hoping that the leap I was taking was not the biggest mistake of my life. I had decided, almost overnight, to completely discard my career and professional identity as a teacher of writing. Instead, I was now an aspiring television writer.
It may be disingenuous to say it was an overnight decision. As long as I can remember, I’ve been both a die-hard book lover and a die-hard television lover, and alongside my creative writing education, I stayed glued to all of my favorite TV shows. After graduation from my MFA program, I diligently pursued a career as a teacher while also following the careers of novelists-turned-television writers Nick Pizzolatto (True Detective), Elwood Reid (The Bridge), and Noah Hawley (Fargo, Legion). Watching the work of these writers added to a growing sense that some of the most exciting storytelling was happening on the small screen.
At the same time as I was waking up to what Alan Sepinwall calls the television revolution, I was becoming more and more disillusioned with my day job as a writing teacher. After a few years of hard work and good luck, I found myself without a job. In addition, I was swiftly realizing that teaching, which I had convinced myself was the career for me, had left me feeling unfulfilled, both creatively and professionally. Unsure what to do, I indulged in more television-watching, finding the friends who enjoyed hashing out our favorite scenes from Game of Thrones or Parks and Recreation, talking them to death until one friend, a television writer and producer living in Los Angeles, finally said to me, “You love TV, and you’re a great writer. Have you ever considered making a living in TV writing?” I was speechless, because I had, in small moments here and there, done just that. But I had hitched my yoke to teaching early on, as it was something I felt trained to do. Other than in writing and publishing short stories, I wasn’t sure how far my creative talents ranged. Was this indeed a possible career path for me?
With that question, a door cracked wide open for me. I began a television drama pilot script and read as much as I could about the subject. With no further teaching job prospects emerging, I applied for adjunct positions in LA, telling myself I had to go somewhere (my job in a small town in Ohio was ending, and I had to move regardless), and that if I could find something—anything—in LA to justify moving, I would do it. I was sick of Ohio winters anyway. Why not bet on myself, and take the chance?
Now, mid-way through my journey after breaking into the entertainment industry with a production assistant job, I’m asking myself the same questions, but on a larger scale. Why don’t more post-MFA graduates take the very leap I took? In fact, after finishing an MA and an MFA, I only knew two fellow writers who had pursued this track; why weren’t more creative types and post-MFA writers pursuing careers in Hollywood? After all, there have never been more opportunities in the entertainment industry. For any post-MFA grads interested in working in entertainment, I’m here to share with you some dispatches from the field. What follows is a primer for working in Hollywood, and, specifically, in screenwriting.
The Craft of Screenwriting
If writing is your goal but you have little experience with actual screenwriting, take heart: as a creative writer, you are a trained storyteller. This is a transferrable skill, particularly as you move from a writer with a day job to a potential professional writer. Think about it: many creative writing graduate students cross genres during their graduate career, either for fun or for professional reasons, and experimenting with screenwriting is just trying your hand at a new genre. Although this might seem most immediately applicable to the prose genres, poets need not count themselves out. Often, scripts that stand out are the ones that can do very much with very little, and I can think of no better form of training than as a poet for this purpose.
So, where to start as a screenwriter? First, consider the content and form you’re most interested in. Are you more drawn to comedy, drama, or somewhere in between? What do you watch religiously? Which films do you make a point to see in the theater, rather than waiting until they come to Netflix? This will help you determine if you’re interested in writing for the big screen or the small screen. And keep in mind, online streaming platforms have changed the marketplace quite a bit, and the small screen isn’t so small anymore when it comes to great storytelling.
Once you know the type of projects you’d like to focus on, bone up on screenwriting as a craft in the same way you might any other genre. There are hundreds of worthwhile, accessible, practical craft and introductory books available, like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, Pamela Douglas’s Writing the TV Drama Pilot, or Chad Gervich’s Small Screen Big Picture, to name just a few. But as many a post-MFA grad learned in craft classes, nothing beats reading the real thing. Read as many feature or TV scripts as you can, with an eye toward constructing your own. Once you’ve immersed yourself, writer Daniel Tuch (Burn Notice, Hand of God) says, “Start and finish as many scripts as you can.” Good advice for the aspiring writer of all genres.
The student of screenwriting should also remember that a script is a different animal than other genres, as it’s a blueprint for a visual medium. Mike Alber, a writer and co-executive producer (The Thundermans, Kirby Buckets), says, “Screenwriting is very fun, but it’s more formulaic than other genres. I always outline when working on a project, whereas I almost never do when writing a personal essay or short story.” Writer and executive assistant Ben Glass (Kirby Buckets) echoes this statement, adding “[Screenwriting], unlike poetry or fiction, is merely a means to an end. A TV script is a step in the process of the final artifact: the produced episode we see on TV.” This goes for feature scripts as well, and it’s imperative that any good writer remembers this as they read scripts by others and move on to writing their own.
Whether you’ve written one script or one hundred, it’s also necessary to familiarize yourself with industry standards. If writing is to be your day job, the name of the game is selling your work, or getting staffed on someone else’s project as a writer, and being familiar with the playing field is a crucial step in achieving these goals. Glass writes, “There’s an insane pressure in Hollywood to write something that isn’t just good, but also commercial, sellable, bankable, entertaining, in the zeitgeist, and not currently being done.” So how do you keep up with what’s out there so you can develop something fresh and unique? As many writing graduates already read trade material related to their own genres (Publishers Lunch, publishing blogs, and review sites) to learn the market for their work, it’s a great idea to begin reading entertainment industry publications like Deadline.com and Variety for the very same reason. This will help you to see what types of projects are selling, and give you a hint about what scripts to study next. Overall, knowing the craft, industry standards, and the market will help you have an edge when you enter the fray.
According to CBS Diversity Writing Program Fellow Chris Wu, “The most significant advantage to a career in screenwriting is that there is really very little barrier to entry. All you have to do is write, and aside from a computer and software, there are no real financial constraints to that.” But lest you assume breaking in is all roses and sunshine, one must still find their first entertainment industry job, and that can be tricky. Wu continues, “The disadvantage of this career is the intangible nature of your path. Every writer has a different career trajectory, and it’s impossible to predict how yours will look.” So once you have a few scripts under your belt, where do you go from there?
Aside from the truly wacky career trajectories, there are three typical entrees into screenwriting: the traditional film school path, the industry assistant path, and the writing contest path. Many aspiring writers still choose to go the film school route, but it’s by no means the only or even the best way to break in, especially when you consider costs of tuition and living expenses while in school. “In terms of education I used to think that if a person needed to learn or sharpen certain skills, like writing, [he or she] should go to film school,” says writer and producer Shernold Edwards (Haven, Sleepy Hollow, Hand of God). “Now there are so many other ways to work at the craft, that actual film school may not be necessary. People who have degrees in all sorts in fields end up writing. Law, Biology, Engineering, all of it.” This may be doubly true for a post-MFA grad, who may not want to take on another three-year graduate program. But the true benefit of film school is the connections a student makes through the process. Edwards did complete an MFA in screenwriting from Columbia University, but of her time there, she concentrated less on the academics and more on the experience of meeting like-minded individuals and networking: “Getting into the entertainment industry requires you to have relationships,” Edwards says. “Some people already have an ‘in’ and some people need to go to film school to make contacts. I was the latter.”
Aside from the traditional film school experience, many writers pursue short-term, private writing courses. This was the case for writer Alison Bennett (You’re the Worst). “I started taking classes in sketch writing and TV writing at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre New York,” says Bennett. “From there, I got on a house sketch team, which led to me finding representation as a writer. I started out working freelance jobs and got staffed on my first series a few years later.” Bennett’s experience shows that not all classroom learning is the same, and there are a variety of ways an aspiring entertainment industry writer can approach learning the craft.
The second track is the writing contest, of which there are many, with rewards ranging from small cash prizes to full-year fellowships working in creativity labs or on existing television shows. Some of the most coveted prizes are the Austin Film Festival Prize for best screenplay and teleplay, or the network fellowship contests like NBC’s Writers on the Verge, the ABC/Disney Writing Program, and the CBS Diversity Writers Mentoring Program. But how do these fellowships lead to breaking into the business as a bona fide writer? R.B. Ripley says, “My pilot went on a real tour de force and won three contests and was a finalist in two others…. Practically speaking, it got me interviews with about a dozen managers, and from that I came away with representation who really believes in my storytelling skills and potential to have a great TV career.” As many MFA prose writers know, representation is the first step in getting your work out in the world, and the entertainment industry is no different. Much like developing relationships in film school, Ripley’s experience shows that winning contests can lead to that crucial next step toward getting staffed on a show or selling a project to buyers.
Finally, the third track to breaking in is becoming one of Hollywood’s ubiquitous assistants. Of his experience in Hollywood, Wu says, “Many writers I know started off in the mailroom or as an assistant and found their way working as an assistant on a show.” Whether for films, television shows, management agencies, or production companies, going the assistant route has landed many into a writing job, after a few years of diligent work and promotion, that is. This route can lead to invaluable practical experience. “I learned so much…working support jobs on actual TV shows,” says Tuch. “I felt like through my jobs as a [post-production] PA, set PA, Executive Assistant and Writers’ Assistant, I got the hands on education I needed to prepare me for my first staffing.” An advantage of this route is that the more people you meet at all levels of the profession, the more possibilities there are for employment when other assistants or writers you know begin to get their own shows or writing gigs; the strengths of these relationships can often get your foot in the door for those same opportunities.
Whatever track you may take, remember that having a circuitous entry into the entertainment industry is often a boon, rather than a disadvantage, especially as a post-MFA graduate. Alber, a fiction MFA graduate and former writing teacher, echoes this sentiment: “I’ve found having a little life experience isn’t bad when looking for TV work…at least it gives you something to talk about in meetings. And that life experience—especially my teaching experience—has also been helpful in making [me] more comfortable in a writers’ room and pitching in front of network execs.” Often, you will find that whether or not you get a job will depend on how well you hit it off in meetings.
Of personality in television writing specifically, Alison Bennett writes, “You want someone with a strong voice and storytelling sense…. But the most important quality is being a ‘good hang’—someone you don’t mind being stuck in a room with for twelve hours a day.” So, talent matters greatly, but so does your ability to articulate your ideas clearly and personably, as well as make a good impression as a future co-creative worker. Edwards sums up this dynamic aptly: “Each writer figures out their own path. Regardless, when that door opens, s/he better know how to write and be good at it. And/or be a joy to work with. And/or not be a freak. And/or be exactly the kind of freak the gig requires.”
One more consideration for post-MFA grads, particularly women and people of color: in an effort to increase the range and richness of stories being told, the entertainment industry is searching for minority voices in a way that’s unprecedented in an industry with a history that’s mostly white and male. And since Hollywood values relationships, the more diverse its spaces are, the higher the likelihood that a feedback loop will occur in which even more diverse voices enter these spaces. Of her experience as a woman of color, Edwards writes,
Use whatever you have to get access. Don’t be ashamed of diversity and other issues intended to expand inclusiveness. I’m a black woman from Toronto with Caribbean parents. I’m pretty good at what I do. I learned and continue to learn how to be better. I took advantage of that access when it presented itself. Did being black help get my foot in the door in Hollywood? Yes. My first gig was a television movie for Lifetime about a black family. I had a spec script about a black family…. That spec is getting me great meetings. Why? Because things have changed.
As Edwards affirms, writers’ rooms, production companies, and management agencies are all on the hunt for stories from talented women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color. So if you belong to one or more of these communities and want Hollywood to reflect more diverse stories, the timing couldn’t be better for you to break into the business.
Entertainment Industry Day Jobs
Not sold yet on the writing part of screenwriting, but interested in the general creative energy within entertainment? Writing isn’t the only creative job available in the industry. In film and television, the scripts are just the beginning of the journey a project takes as it gets made, and all along the way are varying types of positions in production. In addition, much like in the literary world, there’s an industry within the industry devoted to talent recruitment and development.
Before Wu ended up in the CBS Writing Program, he started his journey in the mailroom at William Morris/Endeavor. “From there,” he says, “I became an assistant on a TV Lit Agent’s desk. Then I worked at Fox TV Studios as an assistant, and from there, I got a job as a Writers’ PA on a television show.” Though Wu’s ultimate goal was to become a screenwriter, this path illuminates some of the other opportunities available to writers and creative types who simply want to work toward a position that embraces creativity. Agencies, production companies, and studios all employ a hierarchy of executives who spend much of their time doing things many post-MFA grads are very familiar with, especially if they’ve worked at a literary journal: performing general clerical tasks, reading slush, and interacting with writers and other creatives. That can also come along with a hefty dose of answering phones, but good assistants can rise quickly to pursue the executive track, particularly if they enjoy, as many editors do, the experience of ushering nascent talent into bloom. Ripley advises interested post-MFA graduates to get an entry-level job somewhere within the industry and “spend time building genuine relationships with the people who work for the people who work for the people you want to work for.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, this advice also applies to those who are interested in the writing part of screenwriting. But what does the actual screenwriter’s day look like? According to Alber,
My day job is something like 70% writing work (within which I include breaking stories, addressing notes, reading scripts, and actually typing words) and 30% dealing with the realities of production (being on set, going to casting, sitting in production meetings, editing, etc.). The job of a TV producer varies from day to day (and project to project). It can also depend on the level of producer. On my current job, I spend most of my time in the writers’ room or in my office, rewriting. But I also take notes from the network at table reads, participate in casting for guest roles, cover the set to make sure the tone of the show is consistent, and give notes to the editors after watching the most recent cut of an episode. At the highest levels, you become less like a writer and more like a project manager, with your hand in all facets of the writing, production, and post.
As you can see, a professional writer’s time is varied.
The LA Writing Life
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, “Isn’t Hollywood a dump—in the human sense of the word. A hideous town, pointed up by the insulting gardens of its rich, full of the human spirit at a new low of debasement.” Many may disagree, but with the exception of opportunities offered in places like New York City and Austin, Texas, the truth is that the entertainment industry is still primarily centered in Los Angeles. So, taking the leap into screenwriting also means making the move to LA. But is it really a debased dump as Fitzgerald would have us believe?
Like anywhere else, Los Angeles will be what you make of it. Of the working writers I spoke to, all decried the rigorous schedule of an industry professional, the burden of long hours, and lean times in between projects (many of the people you meet will be part of LA’s large freelance-based economy; in fact, LA is in the country’s top four cities with the biggest freelance workforce, as well as being one of the cities with the highest cost of living in the US). Yet as a writing community, LA was universally heralded as positive, especially due to the community feel that comes when many residents work in the same industry. According to Glass,
[LA’s] actually kind of awesome. Most writers in Hollywood understand how lucky they are and are totally willing to meet and talk. There’s also zillions of fellow upstarts to collude with, to sulk with, and to celebrate with. I found it quite easy to plug into a writers’ group and to form friendships with people trying to make it. There’s a positive energy to meeting people here.
As Glass alludes to, something about shared goals breeds this type of camaraderie, and he wasn’t the only one who thought so. Bennett affirms, “I love the community here. I’m in a writers’ group of women who all work in TV and most of my favorite friends are writers.” But LA is a large place, and making lasting connections can sometimes be difficult. According to Wu, “The tough part of LA is the sprawl and the abundance of choice. So it’s not always easy to maintain relationships and groups.” So, post-MFA grads, this is not a career and lifestyle choice to be taken lightly.
Ultimately, LA is a place that has always rewarded the persistent, and that applies to your personal life just as it does to the professional. And the true reward just may be the title of professional writer, a job many MFA students are assured does not exist in their own genres. So, are you ready to make the leap? To those who may be considering it, here is one last plug from Daniel Tuch: “If you like writing, it’s the most fun job in the world. You come up with ideas and then people spend millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours making them a reality. You spend your entire day with other creative people, who all want to help make something wonderful.” If this is your siren call, pack up the U-Haul and head west.
Alexandra Salerno’s fiction has appeared in Gettysburg Review, Narrative, and One Teen Story. She is originally from New York, and lives in Los Angeles.