Friday, September 28, 2012

5 Questions with LaToya Morgan, Writer on PARENTHOOD

LaToya Morgan is currently a writer on PARENTHOOD who previously wrote for SHAMELESS. She was kind enough to answer 5 (actually 6!) questions about how she got her start. You can follow her on Twitter at @MorganicInk.

1. How did you get your start?

Honestly, film school is where I got my true start.  When I was a Screenwriting Fellow at the American Film Institute, I was loving life -- completely surrounded by lots of really talented people and these incredible professors who had been nominated for Academy Awards reading my material and giving me notes.  I’m a big time cinephile and was a huge fan of the writers teaching there, so it was heaven.  They helped shape the way I think about characters and story in a way that has never left me.  I can practically hear the chorus of naysayers screaming at me now, so let me say this: Not everyone needs to go to film school to be successful in Hollywood.  This is a proven fact.  But for me, AFI was the place where I really honed my writing.  I dug in deep and wasn’t afraid to take storytelling risks.  I also made great friends who have continued to be influential in my career to this day.  It took a few years of working as an assistant at production companies and agencies after AFI to finally break into Hollywood, and that was when I got into the Warner Bros. Writers Workshop.  The Workshop is an incredible fellowship and through it I got my first staff writing job on SHAMELESS, which was a dream come true.  The hard work that I put in on that show helped me get my current job on PARENTHOOD, which has been amazing.

2. What writing samples did you have?

This is a great question.  I had lots of writing samples and I think that people trying to break in should have at least a few things in their arsenal that they feel can be a silver bullet.  There will always be a pile of scripts on someone’s desk and your job as a newbie is to have a sample that will set yourself apart from the pack.  After work every night while I was an assistant I kept writing new TV specs and features.  Those samples served me well.  One of the features I wrote placed in the Nicholl Fellowship and that’s how I got my manager.  The TV specs I wrote made me a finalist for several writing fellowships before the Sons of Anarchy spec I wrote got me in the the Warner Bros. Workshop.  Some people may not know this, but when you get to a certain level in these fellowships, they like to ask for original material.  So as much as I think specs are useful, it’s critical to have original material that showcases your voice as a writer.  For me, that was the Nicholl script, this little indie movie that I wrote and almost didn’t write because I didn’t think it was commercial enough to get traction.  But it was one of those ideas that I was very passionate about and it just wouldn’t leave my head.  I finally wrote it and it hasn’t been made yet but that script has gotten me meetings with some of the most brilliant and amazing showrunners and producers in Hollywood -- my idols, really.  So if you’re passionate about something, write it - you never know where it might take you.  Also, don’t be shy about exploring other mediums.  I wrote a play that ended up being the writing sample that ultimately got me my first staff job.  Some people only read pilots, so I wrote my first one this staffing season and that’s what got me most of my meetings and my second job.  I try to have a sample for all occasions.

3. When in the process did you sign with an agent and/or manager?

I signed with my manager a year before I got into the Warner Bros. Workshop.  During staffing season while you’re interviewing with shows for jobs, The Workshop sends your material to agencies.  It’s a whirlwind process and I was lucky enough to get interest from several places before I even landed my first job.  Once I got the gig, even more agencies came knocking.  Choosing a representative is important.  You want to make sure that these are not just people who are powerful but that they really understand the writer you are and the trajectory of the career you hope to build.  I met lots of wonderful people during this process and that was the biggest factor in my decision.  I think most people who are starting out feel that they need an agent or manager right away.  That may not necessarily be the case, especially if you’re still trying to get your material to a place where it’s ready to be sent out.  It’s okay to take the time to do that.  It goes back to that pile on somebody’s desk.  When your script finally lands there, you want it to be the best it can possibly be.

4. Some people say that a staff writer's main job is to shut up and listen, while others say that staff writers have to speak up enough to earn their keep...what was your first staffed experience like?

I’ve been lucky enough to be in rooms where staff writers are welcome and encouraged to contribute, which I’ve loved.  There’s nothing more fun and exciting than when a pitch in the room starts to get legs and everyone is riffing and adding on to it to tell the story.  As a staff writer, you have to find the balance of contributing but also not stepping on higher level writers' toes.  My rule of thumb is to follow the music of the room.  If you can’t come up with an idea of your own, figure out a way to add onto something that someone else has said that’s valuable.  You never want to be that one person who is constantly derailing ideas.  You also don’t want to be the one that everyone is staring at because you will not shut up.  Everyone has his or her own style.  I’m a sniper.  One of the things I do is find areas for story that I can become an “expert” on so I can contribute effectively in the room.  On SHAMELESS, I happened to have a crazy family very much like the Gallaghers and come from the same working class background, so there were lots of stories that I could draw from to pitch ideas.  On PARENTHOOD this season, we have an adoption storyline and I have an aunt who adopted a child from foster care and know several people who work in that area.  I took initiative and made calls and did lots of research.  My mother is a cancer survivor, so I could relate really personal stories to another storyline we’re doing this season, so I felt comfortable pitching those ideas and they were received well.

5. What's something that you learned in the room? 

Don’t be afraid to fail.  This can be terrifying, especially if you’re a recovering perfectionist like I am.  There are going to be ideas that you throw out that will not fly.  Not because they aren’t good ideas but for a variety of reasons, including upcoming arcs of the season, or roads not traveled previous seasons if you’re staffed on a show that’s not a pilot or the showrunner’s taste.  Or the idea could just suck.  It happens to all of us, not matter what level you’re at.  But you have to constantly generate ideas.  It can be intimidating at times, but always remember that you’ve been brought to the team because the showrunner has confidence in your abilities and he or she is paying you for your thoughts and opinions.  So be thoughtful.  And always, always be kind.  We’re all just people.  People who need people.  Cue Streisand.

6.  What advice would you give aspiring writers?

My best advice for aspiring writers is to be yourself.  No one can be a better you than you.  When you’re taking those showrunner meetings during staffing season, they are looking to complete a team.  Show them why you’d be a good fit.

I always tell people to constantly be writing and that sounds lame but a lot of people work on ideas.  That’s half-assed writing.  What you need to do it write scripts or plays or short stories or whatever compels you to stare down the blank page.  By that I mean finished products that you wouldn’t feel uncomfortable showing people.  Your representatives will not want to read that thing from three years ago that you’re re-polishing.  If you’re serious about being a professional writer your job is to write, even if at the beginning of the journey it’s just for yourself.

Networking is important.  Coming out of your writing cave and going out to drinks is important.  Having dinner with your friends is important.  If only for your own sanity.  Work hard but have fun too.

Be kind.  This above all else will serve you well.

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Thanks, LaToya! PARENTHOOD airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on NBC.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Writers Guild Foundation Panels: Notes on Craft 2012

Thu, September 27, 2012 - Thu, November 1, 2012 
7:30 PM - 9:30 PM
This autumn, the Writers Guild Foundation will host its fourth annual NOTES ON CRAFT series: Six weeks of panels, each composed of two or three writers, each focusing on a separate aspect of the screenwriting craft. Each panel will be moderated by Oscar-nominated writer Dan Petrie, Jr. (BEVERLY HILLS COP, THE BIG EASY) and followed by an audience Q&A session.
Sept. 27: Premise and Concept, featuring Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel (PARENTHOOD) and Zak Penn (ALPHAS). 
Oct. 4: Story and Structure, featuring Lem Dobbs (HAYWIRE), Stephen Gaghan (TRAFFIC) and David Seidler (THE KING’S SPEECH).  
Oct. 11: Adaptation. Stephen Chbosky (THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER), Robin Swicord (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA), Robert Nelson Jacobs (CHOCOLAT). 
Oct. 18: Characters. Susannah Grant (ERIN BROCKOVICH), Jim Kouf (GRIMM), Will Reiser (50/50).  
Oct. 25: Dialogue and Scene. Panelists TBA. .

Nov. 1: Rewriting and Polishing. Panelists TBA. 
 For tickets to individual events or the whole series, click here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Should I learn to write coverage by doing it for free?

Andrew asks via Twitter: Doing coverages for a producer offering critiques of my coverage in exchange; helping me to build a coverage portfolio. Good idea or sketchy?

I think it's a good idea - as long as you're not doing it for free forever. Anyone who writes coverage starts off doing it for free; I did it at two of my internships, and I also read plenty scripts and gave my agency boss quick verbal assessments without getting paid extra. (Official agency coverage is paid for.) As you're learning to write coverage and building your portfolio, this is necessary. The producer's critiques will help you improve your coverage and learn about what people look for in scripts.

However, keep in mind that the producer is getting a free service that s/he could be paying someone for. I don't think you should continue this arrangement for more than a few months; most interns work for a semester (Jan-May or August-Jan) - so that's about the amount of time I think is appropriate. After that, you should transition to being a paid reader, or move on to being a paid assistant (either at this company or somewhere else).

If you're a writer, you might also eventually want to ask the producer to read your script and give you feedback. After you've been working for free for this person for a couple months, I don't think this is asking too much. The producer might say no (or say yes and then never read it), but you don't really have anything to lose by asking.

Monday, September 17, 2012

What is a "writing sample?"

Frank asked via Twitter: I was told in coverage of a script (from an online coverage service) that it was a "great sample script" and got a "Recommend" under "Writer." What does that mean? What is next? Should I be excited?

Definitely be excited that a professional reader liked your script! We're a tough group to impress.

A "sample script" refers to a script that a writer (and his/her reps) will use to introduce the writer to the film community. If people like your sample, you'll get to meet producers, executives, etc. in general meetings and you'll be considered for open writing assignments (rewrites, adaptations, etc). Though we all write scripts in the hopes that they'll become movies someday, it's more likely that our scripts will function as writing samples. Even if a script never sells, it can be an invaluable tool that opens doors and leads to paid jobs.

In terms of what's "next" - unless the coverage service promises to send highly-rated scripts out to people in Hollywood (some of them do this), there's not really much you can do with this news. If the coverage was for an actual production company and not for a coverage service, a "Recommend" on writing would mean that you'd be kept in mind for future open writing assignments - but since this came from a coverage service, I don't think there are going to be any immediate results from your "Recommend." Still, you can feel confident about sending the script to more people. Ideally, someone will read your script and A) buy it, B) offer to represent you or C) send it to someone who can do one of those things. (Note: I don't think that writing about your "Recommend" in a query letter to an agency would be well-received.)

You might also want to evaluate whether your concept is clear, compelling and commercial. If you got a "Pass" on concept but "Recommend" on writing, the reader felt that your execution was impressive (characters, dialogue, etc.), but didn't think that people would want to buy the script. Can you rewrite the script to inspire a "Consider" or "Recommend" on concept? If it's time to move on from the script, be sure to develop a marketable concept for your next script.