Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Nathan writes: I am also an aspiring writer and I was just wondering if you could offer any advice on the steps necessary to become a writer's assistant. My situation may be a little different seeing as how I reside in Toronto, Canada, but I'm pretty sure the process is the same.
I can't really speak to the Canadian process, but once again I can refer you to Alex Epstein for TV Writing in Canada concerns and Jane for Canadians Coming to LA concerns.
As for how to get a writer's assistant job: This is tough. If I really knew how to get one of these prized gigs, I'd be doing it. But I've met enough of these lucky kids that I seem to have a sense of how it works. Here are some of the ways it happens for people:
1. Know someone. It's kind of the key to everything in Hollywood...generally the people who get WA jobs right off the bat know people. But don't be discouraged by this - I've posted before on what you can do if you don't know anybody. (A year and a half ago, I didn't know anybody either.) Network. Join tracking boards. Go to alumni events. Ask people to drinks. Cultivate relationships.
2. Be another kind of assistant first. Sometimes these jobs are easier to get without strong connections. Agency assistant, On-set PA, Studio assistant, Prodco assistant, Office PA, Showrunner assistant, etc. Through these jobs you will meet people (bosses, assistants and otherwise) who might be able to help you get in the door. Click on the Job Search or Internship labels at the bottom of this post to read more about breaking in and becoming an assistant.
3. Cold call. It sounds crazy, and I feel like this should be a last resort for everything (getting jobs, getting people to read your script, etc.) except maybe for internships, but I've heard a couple of people say they became writer's assistants by calling the production office and asking if they could submit a resume. The worst they can say is no. If you get on the phone with the current WA, ask if you can submit your res in the event that s/he gets promoted to script coordinator or staff writer.
Any WAs out there, please feel free to share your stories and advice!
Remember that there are way more people who want these jobs than there are available positions. Just like all jobs in Hollywood, there is a TON of competition from people just as awesome as you are. You just have to be persisent. Know that you'll probably have to apply for a lot of positions before you get one. Also, one writer's assistant gig might not be the key to success; some of these jobs are temporary, as are many production jobs. Many WAs work on several shows before getting to write a freelance episode or becoming a staff writer. It also depends on whether your bosses are mentors who will help you out, and what the culture of the show is like.
Also remember that you don't have to be a writer's assistant to become a TV writer. Plenty of writers have never been any kind of assistant. I've covered the Two Steps to becoming a TV writer before: 1. write something great, and 2. get someone important to read it (and like it). If you can get repped by a powerful agent or get accepted into a fellowship or something, you might not have to be an assistant at all. But for many of us (especially those with degrees in silly things like Television), being an assistant is a practical way to meet those important people while also learning a lot about the craft and process of writing.
If you're confused, all you need to know is: Stephen Colbert, and polar bears.
I am so glad the following interview is online for you to see. TV often makes me chuckle out loud, but this one had me nearly horizontal with laughter. And to break it down Jane Espenson-style and figure out why it's funny: I think it's the juxtaposition of a cute little polar bear puppet with the ridiculously harsh stuff coming out of Stephen's mouth.
The fact that he's a comic genius is also convenient.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
I can't speak for all agents or agencies, but from what I have seen, if agents want to pass, they'll pass. Usually the PC way to say it is "I just didn't respond to the material." It doesn't quite mean "I think it sucks"; it means "I think it sucks, but I understand that taste is subjective and there might be somebody out there who doesn't think it sucks." That way they're also covering their ass a bit (but only a bit) if it turns out to be a mega success. The answer you received inspires hope and gives you a reason to keep in contact, so I don't think agents would keep that door open if they never want to hear from you again. Unless the agent is a real newbie who is afraid to hurt your feelings, I think it's probably truthful.
As for "soon" - it could vary a lot. Keep in mind that agents are inundated with material - and stuff their current clients write or might possibly rewrite takes precedent. Maybe the agent passed it off to his or her assistant, who also has a huge reading pile. Junior agents also might be asked to read things by their superiors, so they genuinely have a lot of stuff to read. I think I'd maybe give it another week or two...but don't give up.
Anybody else have similar experiences to share?
Friday, July 25, 2008
So I am moving. To West Hollywood. I'm kind of astounded that we were able to find a place with everything we wanted. 2 Bathrooms! 2 Parking spots! And there is a wet bar. Wet bar! Okay, it's a sink in the living room with some shelves and a funky silver-gold mirror. But it rocks. My commute will only be three miles! Of course, when I stop working at an agency and start working on a TV show I'll probably have to commute back to the valley again...but I'll be living basically right at the bottom of Laurel Canyon so I'm okay with it. I can no longer make sarcastic remarks about living in the valley, which does sadden me a bit. But I've heard the closest 24 Hour Fitness to my new place is a major Boys Town (Boyz Town?) hub, so I can probably make sarcastic remarks about not fitting in there instead. I bought 3 years at 24 Hour Fitness, since it was the cheapest way to go. Guess I got over that fear of commitment, huh?
My boss has said a lot of funny, entertaining things this week. I think my favorite was his comment about some exec: "I've never liked her. She is an AMBASSADOR OF DOOM." I think the best thing about him is that he's not really trying to be funny most of the time. And those are generally the funniest people, you know?
He also did it. It. The thing where he asks me what I want to do with my life. Strangely, it was after he asked me about lunch and whether I had a boyfriend. (I think the link there is that if I had a boyfriend, I would be able to get free meals. I told you, my boss is old school.) So I came clean and said I was a writer. It's funny, a wise TV writer told me I should tell EVERYONE I'm a writer. But there is a kind of stigma about it, at least at the agency. It's generally a Super Bad Idea to do that in a job interview (for a job that's not a writer's assistant or something). But another TV writer theorized that it's only a bad idea when you're vying for a job. Once you have the job, tell everyone, so that that you're on their radar and they can do what they can to help you.
And it seems that my boss is going to do just that, eventually. He mentioned an exec producer he knows on a show I like. He said I should get TV agents here to read my stuff. I pitched him my feature idea and he liked it, so I said I'd let him know when I finished it. He also gave me the advice that I know but sometimes have trouble adhering to: JUST KEEP WRITING.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Friday, July 18, 2008
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Here are some highlights, from the writerly perspective:
“30 Rock” (NBC)
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” (HBO)
“The Office” (NBC)
“Two and a Half Men” (CBS)
“Boston Legal” (ABC)
“Mad Men” (AMC)
WRITING FOR A COMEDY
James Bobin, Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie - "Flight Of The Conchords" ("Yoko") (HBO)Jack Burditt - "30 Rock" ("Rosemary’s Baby") (NBC)
Lee Eisenberg, Gene Stupnitsky - "The Office" ("Dinner Party") (NBC)
Tina Fey - "30 Rock"("Cooter") (NBC)
Bryan Fuller - "Pushing Daisies" ("Pie-Lette") (ABC)
WRITING FOR A DRAMA
Michael Angeli - "Battlestar Galactica" - ("Six Of One") (Sci Fi Channel)
Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, Daniel Zelman - "Damages" ("Pilot") (FX Networks)
Matthew Weiner - "Mad Men" ("Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" - Pilot) (AMC)
Matthew Weiner, Robin Veith - "Mad Men" ("The Wheel") (AMC)
David Simon, (teleplay), Ed Burns - "The Wire" ("30") (HBO)
I admit I am sad that Friday Night Lights didn't make it...but it is the first time ever that basic cable shows were nominated for Best Drama, so that is very exciting. Mad Men is also the first basic cable series to snag to honor of most nominations for a drama. The ever-increasing quality and variety of cable programming almost makes up for how America's obsession with reality TV makes my soul hurt.
It looks like Mad Men is definitely the hottest show to spec right now, huh?
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
At least I can drink mid-week without judgment...I look forward to meeting a lot of you tonight at Cat & Fiddle. 8 pm!
Monday, July 14, 2008
I think it also helps that every job I've had I kind of consider to be a character study. I've worked at an ice cream shop, a video store, an insurance company, a chain restaurant, a reality TV company, etc etc. And though I generally hated the work at all of them and never got paid much, the people I met made them all worthwhile experiences.
Writing update: As I wait for more notes on my pilot, I think I am going to start writing a romantic comedy feature. I am admittedly uneasy about the fact that I've named this blog Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer, but I want to write one anyway. My biggest goal is to craft the story so that at one point, you really don't know which guy the girl will go for. Like in Bridget Jones' Diary - which I think works because Hugh Grant comes off as cool and turns out to be an asshole, while Colin Firth comes off as an asshole and turns out to be cool. I often hate reading romantic comedies because by page 10 you know that your main guy and main girl will get together, and the rest of the script feels like a waste of time. So I want to have two guys and make mine as unpredictable as possible. We'll see how it goes.
Apartment update: Didn't get the place in Brentwood. BOO.
Saturday, July 12, 2008
I also attempted to explain to him the difference between a text message and an email, which turned out to be very difficult. See, text messages go to your phone, but if you have a blackberry, so do emails. "You can get both on your phone," I explained. "But I can only get text messages on my phone."
"What kind of phone do you have?" He asked, astounded. There are people in this world without blackberries?
Later the head of the Interactive Media Department came in to help identify the little icon that distinguishes texts from emails, and I sent my boss the message, "This is what a text message looks like."
He had a similar response when my friend and I came back into the office a little early from lunch. "Didn't you go to lunch?" he asked, similarly astounded.
"Yeah, but it was getting hot in the park," I said.
"Don't you go out to lunch?"
We laughed. "We're assistants," my friend said.
"We make pennies."
"You don't go out to lunch?" It was as if we never blinked or something.
And once again I realized that the older and richer you get, the less you have to know about life. The technology is one thing; he was an agent before computers were invented, so I have to let that go a little. And he really does try to learn, which is cute. Plus, he knows how to conference phone lines, which is sort of impressive. But this man probably has no idea how to do laundry or put gas in his car. I bet he hasn't made his own lunch in 35 years.
Part of me wants to have people do all the little stuff for me someday. I mean, imagine how easy life would be...but I feel like I would kind of lose touch with humanity, you know?
Though if "humanity" resides in all the crappy apartments I've been looking at this week, peace out. Bring on the money and the minions.
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Most of the books out there seem to be geared toward film rather than TV, though they might be helpful in their discussion of dialogue, character, conflict, etc., since these topics are universal in all writing. Also, a problem with books on TV and screenwriting is that they become outdated quickly; I would want to be reading about Friday Night Lights and House, not Roseanne and Hangin with Mr. Cooper, you know? Books from the 90s also won't be equipped to instruct you on ABC's recent and somewhat overhwhelming six-acts-plus-a-teaser structure. Still, I am of the opinion that it's good to read a variety of books, blogs, scripts, etc. (ALWAYS be reading professional scripts), and take whatever bits of knowledge you find helpful. Here are some books I've enjoyed:
Billion Dollar Kiss focuses not on craft but on the career of TV writing, which makes it a very interesting memoir and a window into what to many of us is a secret world. There are also a lot of fun anecdotes like how Stepakoff initially paid the bills by stuffing envelopes with his pal Kevin Reilly.
Save the Cat is based on the concept that your character has to do something akin to saving a cat so that we like him/her. It's a fun, very specific guide about what should go on every page of your feature. If you're kind of lost in lofty ideas about the Hero's Journey, this is much more practical.
Lofty ideas about the Hero's Journey! Okay, I admit that I never finished Story. I mean, it's frickin thick. (Exactly why it was so helpful in propping open my old rotting window when I lived in Ithaca last summer.) It is pretty classic, though. Maybe just watch Adaptation and take the bits from when Nic Cage goes to McKee's seminar.
I admit I didn't discover this book until I decided I need to stop reading books and start writing scripts...but I love Alex's blog, and I've talked to a number of people who like the book.
The Hollywood Standard is THE book for format. If you're ever thinking, hmm, how do I format an intercut inside a dream sequence that takes place both inside and outside - this is your book! (And PLEASE learn how to do intercuts - I can't tell you how many scripts I've read in which writers put down new slug lines everytime a new person talks in a phone conversation.) Anyway, THS is a good reference guide to have on on your shelf...though I still maintain that you need to read as many professional scripts as possible to really get a handle on format.
I have Desperate Networks at home and I really am going to read it. Our TV Lit Dept head strongly recommends it - so I do too. It's about the modern landscape of television (something you should probably read up on if you're going to work in it).
Feel free to comment with your favorites. (Especially Jamie. How's that?)
Saturday, July 5, 2008
Here are some more examples we came up with, from shows with similar tones to my pilot:
Brothers & Sisters – Kitty has different political leanings from her family. William had a secret life - and his death will force Nora to find a new identity. Kitty and Nora will have to coexist. (These are just a couple. The B&S teaser is so packed with information, it's astounding.)
The OC – Ryan is from a different world. How can he fit in this world, or the family? How will it change Seth's life? Also, Marissa's family is imploding - and Jimmy Cooper will always be in love with Kiersten.
Veronica Mars – Papa Mars doesn't want Veronica to be a PI, but he can't stop her. Also, Veronica trusts no one, which makes her a great PI but poisons all of her relationships.
Greek – Casey is torn between the past (Cappy) and the perceived future (Evan). Rusty wants to devote time to both his studies and the frat - can he balance both? Rebecca slept with Evan, but Casey has to stay with Evan and get along with Rebecca so that she can become the sorority president.
Gilmore Girls – Lorelai has to cultivate a relationship with her estranged parents for her daughter's sake. She also has to walk the line of being mother and friend - and make any dating decisions carefully, since her first priority is Rory.
Grey's Anatomy – Meredith just slept with her new boss. She also must try to fit in when she will always stand out because of Derek and her mother.
Steven asks: would I ever get a good career writing television in Canada?
I suggest you ask Alex Epstein - since he is a TV writer in Canada. Pretty much everything I know about Canadian television involves Degrassi: The Next Generation.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
And then it dawned on me. Exploitation. Not me, my cat, Tony. He is fricking gorgeous, and he knows it. Surely I can exploit him the way stagemothers exploit their beautiful children, right? And it won't even mess up his psyche, because he's too dumb to realize what's going on. I mean, he thinks pens are the coolest thing ever.
So I did some internet searching...and there are certainly photo contests. But it seems that the only prizes are CALENDARS, CAT FOOD and KITTY LITTER. WTF? Where's the cash I need? I mean, yes, Tony does need food and litter - but my roommate buys that shit. (Yes, I want to exploit an animal I do not even own. Don't judge me. My roommate makes studio money, and she talked me into letting her buy him; she called me from Petco and was like "Amandaaaaaaa there is this really pretty orange one and he's so cute can we get him please please PLEAAAASE?" What can I say, I'm a sucker for that slight Oklahoma drawl.)
So I guess I'll be looking for more profitable endeavors. Do let me know if you've got a connection in the cat modeling world, though. I'm telling you, Tony's hott:
He'll even cuddle with you between 10 am and 7 pm. (The rest is CRAZY TIME, during which my couch becomes a hurdle and no pens are safe.)
Coming soon: Actual posts related to TV writing
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
My name was the 3rd most popular female name in the 1980s, when I was born. It kind of sucked always being Amanda P amidst all the other Amandas, but when I took Latin and found out what my name literally translated to (“must be loved”), I found a new appreciation for it. What strikes me about the website's graph, though, is the huge downslope my name takes after the 80s. Amanda gave way to Emily and Madison, and those names will surely hand over the tiara to others. It got me thinking. When I was a kid, practically all of my friends’ mothers were named Linda. Seriously, LOTS of Lindas - but I didn’t know any Lindas my age. It was a mom name. And someday that’s going to happen to me; I’m going to be a Linda.
Moving onto a blog lesson I've been thinking about: LEARN TO MANAGE YOUR MONEY. Or, at least don’t spend it, so that you actually have money to manage.
Hollywood lesson #1: There is a lot of money to be made here.
Hollywood lesson #1B: You will not see any of it for a very long time.
Hollywood lesson #1C: (You’d better really want this.)
Hollywood lesson #1D: (And if you’re in it for the money, I don’t think you’ll last. Go work in investment banking or something, where being 23 might mean a BMW and an expense account, not a job as a secretary, I mean assistant.)
I got a scholarship to college, which was the best and worst thing that ever happened to me. Okay, mostly best. Without the scholarship, I never would have gone there. I never would have studied TV. I never would have studied abroad, never spent a summer in NY or a semester in LA. I never would have moved here. If my life were told a la Sliding Doors there would be two very different stories indeed.
But it was the worst thing because it let me live without worrying about money. Each semester I’d get more money for books, housing, etc. When I moved off-campus and stopped munching my way through all-you-can-eat meal plans, I got even more money. I didn’t save anything. Essentially, I had an allowance until I was 21 years old.
And now I am poor. I am poor and sitting in Starbucks, my ass getting numb from this hard wooden chair, using a tmobile account that a generous blog reader shared, drinking Diet Coke (from one of those cost-effective 12-packs) from a plastic Starbucks cup that I’m reusing in the hopes that it looks like iced coffee. In reality I’m sure none of the other patrons care that I'm a mooch, and I’m sure the employees probably have other things on their minds, like how being a barista is giving them lots of material for their pilot but that it’s also driving them crazy. Still, it puts me at ease; I can sit here, free to ignore my writing and instead eavesdrop on the high schoolers I’ve come to realize are regulars here.
It dawns on me that Sherman Oaks is a lot like Clarence, the suburban town I grew up in. We had dirty snowbanks instead of palm trees, but Transit Road was a lot like Ventura Blvd, and in high school (or on those strange breaks from college) we didn’t have many other places to go than Starbucks. In fact, after about sophomore year, I started avoiding the place since I didn’t really want to run into those sort-of-friends you stalk on facebook but haven’t actually talked to in years. If I really needed a green tea frappucino I’d drive a few miles down Transit to some other high school’s Starbucks where no one knew me.
And I’m doing the same thing now. 3,000 miles away, I'm sitting in some other high school’s Starbucks. The scruffy boys and leggy girls get up and go outside to greet more of their own. But I’ll be here ‘til close, my ass getting number, my Diet Coke running out.
In a few years I'll be their Linda.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Eep. It's like dating...when is too soon to call? Too late? Surely there is an official rule etched somewhere in a dark cave that you will never find. I think you have to kind of balance how busy and important your reader is. Studio execs who work 12 hour days and take home seven scripts to read probably don't have time to learn their kids' favorite colors, much less read extra scripts. First off, if you manage to form a relationship with an agent, studio exec, producer, working writer, etc., you probably want to let them offer to read your script. To this end, I find that talking really passionately about what you're working on - and having those projects sound really interesting, unique and commercial - is a good way to get them to offer. Once they've got the script, give them at least a few weeks. Maybe more. It is okay to check in, but don't be pushy. And be prepared for negative notes. If you think it might help, reassure them that you're ready to be ripped apart. If it will push them along. And if you are indeed ready.
If your script is being read by someone lower-level, an assistant, an aspiring writer friend, etc., I wouldn't be so concerned about waiting a certain time to check in. Still though, even with people who are equally "important" to you, be polite. The relationship should go both ways. They're doing a favor for you - what are you doing for them? Also remember that lots of assistants have huge piles of scripts to read for bosses who haven't read anything since the other WGA strike. Sometimes people just get kinda swamped. I myself have a few scripts I've been holding on to for a little too long. But there's that pesky 40-hour-a-week job and going to the gym and reading books and writing scripts and blogging and watching TV and seeing movies and doing dishes and networking and the fact that sometimes I do none of these things because all I can do is get through the day.
If you try a couple times and get nothin from your reader, move on. If you've got some talent and you give it time, you'll find another way in. Your career will power on without them.
And if you're talking about query letters you've sent out, I don't think you're supposed to follow up unless they've gotten back to you and asked for your script. If they don't respond to your query at all, that means they a) don't accept queries, b) don't want to read your script, or c) both. If they did ask you to send it, and you did but haven't heard back, I think a few weeks is fairly standard.