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A few weeks ago, I interviewed my friend Heather Flanders about being a TV writer (check it out here) and she had a lot of great advice. She had even more fantastic advice for women writers who are trying to break into the industry. Her tips are invaluable. Enjoy!
1. Be Nice.
Be nice to people. Most of us have to work less than amazing jobs for a long time before breaking in. I made Starbucks runs for people who were more deserving of a grande frothy cup of urine than an afternoon caffeine treat. But I did it, and with a smile. You never know who will be in a position to hire you down the road. I just spoke with a writer friend who got her last gig because her writing partner had been nice to a production assistant on one of their earlier jobs… and now that production assistant has his own show and wanted them on his staff. It happens. I can’t believe when I see someone being a butthole to someone who is essentially there to support them. I hear a lot of excuses for this behavior like, “They were treated like shit when they were an assistant or PA, so now they treat people like that. Payback.” I disagree wholly. Say hi, say please and thank you, and be nice. If someone’s a jerk to you, cry in your car, shake it off, and know that one day it will come full circle. Always does. Another thing I recommend is finding fun outlets so you can continue to be nice. I once had a dartboard custom made with a photo of my terrible boss as the bullseye. The amount of things I hurled at “him” over the course of a year was obscene. And cathartic.
2. Write Something You’d Want to Write For.
You need a kick-ass sample. Really. It needs to kick ass. But before you write that kick-ass sample, I think it’s helpful to pick a show you like and write that sample in a similar tone. There is so much content out there and knowing exactly what you want to do can be very helpful. People are quick to brand you. After writing on Blue Mountain State, executives assumed I was a raunchy female writer who knew a lot about sports. While my out-of-office language is quite colorful, my writing isn’t that raunchy and the only thing I know about sports is my fiancé likes them. A lot. Obviously, starting out you’ll take whatever writing job you can. But coming off Blue Mountain State, and taking all of those meetings, I realized I needed a sample to show a little more of “me” as a writer. So I wrote a dark dysfunctional family comedy and used that as my next calling card. And keep writing. I’m so much better than I was a few years ago and it’s not just because of working in a room—it’s because I’m always working on my own stuff as well. I read everything I can, too. New pilots, old pilots, features, comedy, drama… all of it. Good writing is good writing. Plus every time I read something awesome I want to run to my computer and start writing. It’s fuel for the writing fire.
3. Ask for help.
I’m always scared someone’s going to think I’m bothering them if I ask for help. There are many times I failed to follow up with a possible contact or was too scared to ask someone to lunch or coffee or for five minutes of advice. Now that I’m a working writer, I know there’s nothing more flattering than someone asking for your wisdom. In general, people want to help other people. No, I’m not going to read your script and give it to my agent. But asking that random friend of a friend to lunch, or even writing a complimentary email to someone you have met or whose work you admire, can be valuable. And if someone says no or ignores you, so be it. But I bet more often than not, people will be willing to help. If someone does agree to read you, please, please, please, please make sure your sample is ready. You have one chance to make an impression. And if your Tuesday night writing group still can’t figure out what genre they’d classify your spec as, you aren’t ready to show it to a professional. Period. Also, tell people you’re a writer—no matter what your day job is. When I worked for that director/producer, he knew my goals and often asked me to be the writer’s assistant on huge feature punch-ups. Being a “secret writer,” how’s that helpful?! You’ll only feel like a fraud calling yourself a writer if you’re NOT writing. And like I said, people like to help people. If you are nice, hard working, and have samples, put yourself out there. Which leads me to:
4. Sell yourself with confidence.
This is for the ladies. Confidence. You have your sample, and that gets you in the door. But then you have to physically walk in a door and sell yourself to get on a writing staff. It IS a boys club. Many times a room will be nearly staffed and then it’s “okay, now we need a girl.” One female. Maybe two. Sure there are exceptions to this. But I’ve worked on five shows and I’ve never worked with more than one other woman on a staff of 8 to 12 people. It’s wrong and backwards. I mean, do all women have the same voice? Is the female point of view that singular? Of course not. On the shows I’ve been lucky enough to have a female peer, we couldn’t have been more different in perspective and voice. It’s sad and frustrating that there isn’t more balance there. Not to mention daunting. I used to fret over coming across as too girlie in meetings. Especially when I’m told “they need a girl. One girl.” So, if I’m going to be that one girl, if I wear bright colored nail polish and blowout my hair, will the guys think I can’t “get dirty” and hang with the boys? Should I only discuss the female characters on the show? A writer once told me that every meeting she has, she casually works into conversation that she’s in a relationship (so bosses won’t worry about dating drama) and she doesn’t plan on having kids for at least a few years (so no maternity leave on the horizon there). Another writer friend told me she’s worked with women who get their makeup professionally done before pitch meetings because “people want to work with pretty people.” Wow, right? It’s a lot of pressure to be the “one female” a bunch of male writers are choosing to have in a small room with them 40–70 hours a week. And that pressure can slowly chip away at your confidence.
A while back, I had a show meeting (job interview) that began with being escorted into a glass conference room where six men were already sitting on an L-shaped sofa. They had me sit in the center of the L, like I was a guest on The View: Testosterone Version. Making things more awkward, one of the six men is a huge movie star who I had no clue was going to be there. So, here I am, sitting in the middle of 5 men and 1 movie star. And the first thing the showrunner says is: “So, tell us a little bit about you…” My face was a blend of 47 shades of red. My heart was beating so loud my chest rocked back and forth. I was “pitting out” (thank god for patterned shirts). I finally pulled myself together and eased into the meeting because, by that point, I have this amazing thing that I work really hard at: confidence. And if I’m not feeling it, I’ve trained myself into faking it. And then eventually I’ll feel it.
It’s a tough business. It’s maddening. But, confidence is key amidst all the uncertainty and doubt. Being confident means you are comfortable. And I don’t know about you, but when I’m comfortable, I am WAY FUNNIER. If I get in my head or start shame spiraling, I just suck so hard. So hard. So for ladies especially, I say find your confidence. Everyone started somewhere. I’ve seen some hugely successful and super talented writers pitch the worst ideas and jokes—because they’re human and it happens. My worst enemy is telling myself I suck, or someone’s better than me, or I’ll never be good enough, or what I get has nothing to do with really deserving it. I spiral with the best of them. But figuring out a way to be a confident woman and confident writer has made such a difference in me personally and professionally. Some of us wear Converse, some of us wear heels, some of us (and I really am sad about this) are trying to bring back Birkenstocks. Be yourself. Wear your nail polish or don’t. Just do what you do with confidence. Because you rock.
And ladies, support each other. There’s enough room for all of us. The more women working on TV staffs, the more room we’re making for women in the future. I love nothing more than reading about a woman selling something or succeeding in some way. In fact, I hope anyone reading this is next.
You can follow Heather on Twitter at @hegapoo.