Interview with writer extraordinaire Brendan Hay

Full disclosure: Brendan is my husband. And he’s an amazing writer. I’m not just saying that cause I married him. We first met at NYU in our sophomore year of Dramatic Writing at the Tisch School of the Arts. He graduated a semester early, interned at The Daily Show, became a production assistant, then a writer’s assistant, and the rest is history.

I’ll give you the full PR list of his work in a moment. But what I’ve learned from him as a writer is…
1) Work hard
2) Be nice 
3) Don’t toot your own horn too loudly

His bio: Brendan Hay has written for The Simpsons, The Mighty B!, and the upcoming season of Robot Chicken, which premieres this December 2010. A lifelong comic book fan, he also wrote the mini-series Scream Queen and Eureka for BOOM! Studios, as well as short stories for BOOM!’s Cthulhu Tales and Devil Due Publishing’s Tromatic Tales and Lovebunny and Mr. Hell. You can follow him on Twitter @B_Hay.

Scream Queen by Brendan Hay, Art by Nate Watson

In late 2011, his graphic novel, Rascal Racoon’s Raging Revenge, will be published by Oni Press, the same publishers who put out the awesome Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series. So as a bonus, I’ll be giving away one FREE copy of SCOTT PILGRIM’S FINEST HOUR VOL. 6 by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Enter by making a comment below. Tweet or Facebook this post for an extra entry!  Simple as that. Contest ends Nov. 1, 2010 so enter now!

Make a comment and be entered to WIN a copy of Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour Vol. 6!

LET’S GET STARTED.

1) With all the great gigs that you’ve done: TV, comic books, graphic novels, and one terrible pilot you co-wrote with your wife, what have you learned about writing?

For starters, don’t co-write a pilot with your wife. No matter how talented, sweet, and beautiful she is, it will not end well. [Yes, we wrote a TV pilot together. I wrote Act One, Brendan wrote Act Two. Needless to say, it was terrible because it sounded like two different scripts mashed into one. Lesson learned.]

The second most important thing I’ve learned about writing is to do just that: write. It sounds obvious, but the key to becoming a working writer is writing regularly. Writing for yourself is a good start, but it’s even better if you can learn to write with deadlines in mind, so try to find – or form – a serious writers group.  That way, you’ll be accountable to others if you procrastinate.  Also, writing with deadlines is essential. It forces you to learn that – to borrow an idea from David Rakoff – all your work will suck at first. It’s a sad, but basic fact. And that is totally fine. It is okay to suck. Because once you get through that first draft, or even just first pass of a paragraph or a scene, you will rewrite it and it will get better. Sooner or later, it will even get great. But first it must suck, so it’s best to get that sucky version out as fast as possible and into as friendly an environment as possible, and that’s where the writers group comes in.

The other great thing about writers groups is that all writers must overcome a desire to keep their work to themselves. Any of us can fall into a trap where the novel or script is “never finished” and we just rewrite it over and over. By having a group with firm dates and a set amount of pages or scenes that need to be delivered, you will learn to share your work and embrace feedback.

2) Scream Queen earned a nomination from the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) for its annual Great Graphic Novels for Teens list. Scream Queen is a mashup of horror movies and comic books, with the premise that what if the slasher in a teen horror movie actually fell in love with his would-be victim? What is it about teen movies and the teen genre that you love?

Teens get to experience major life milestones for the first time and their future is still unwritten, so they make for interesting characters.  They also tend to take their situations very seriously, which helps me as a writer since A) it raises the stakes and B) can easily lend itself to comedy, in that it’s more fun and easier to accept a teen character going to crazy lengths to solve a problem than an adult. 

Also, in the particular case of Scream Queen, I was writing an homage to the teen horror and teen comedies of the 80s.  Comedy and horror are pretty much the same genre to me, in that you’re writing to create a visceral reaction in your audience.  Just, you know, a laugh in one and scream in the other.  So when mashing them up, it seemed like the natural common ground to both horror and comedy is a teenager.

Oh, and I also do a shockingly good bratty teenage girl voice and look for any excuse to break it out.

3) Tell us about your graphic novel Rascal Raccoon’s Raging Revenge. What was it like working with Oni Press? And how did you pitch them the book?

Rascal Raccoon’s Raging Revenge is my love letter to alliteration.  Also, it’s about a Wile E. Coyote-type cartoon character who manages to finally kill his version of Road Runner and find himself lost, wondering what he’s supposed to do with the rest of his life.  What he decides on involves lots of revenge, a little bit of love, and at least one anvil.

Working with Oni has been a pleasure, but then again it always is working in comic books.  Maybe I’m just jaded from TV, but folks in the comics industry tend to be more passionate about their work and all around good eggs.  As for the pitch, I met Oni’s Editor in Chief James Lucas Jones via email years ago when I was looking to score a copy of the Scott Pilgrim Free Comic Book Day special and he was looking for tickets to The Daily Show. We helped each other out and stayed in touch, catching up at conventions. At the 2008 San Diego Comic Con, I mentioned to him that I had an idea for a book and emailed him a six or seven page treatment for Rascal Raccoon. Thankfully he liked it and, after developing it further with him and later our artist, Justin Wagner, I got to writing the script.  

5) What advice would you give to any writer who is starting out? What is some great writing advice you’ve gotten from your mentors? 

Like I said earlier, just write. Ever since college, I’ve had the mantra “Write or Die!” as a screensaver and that’s exactly what you need to do.

Also, try to find a day job in the industry you ultimately want to write for.  Want to be a TV writer?  Work as a PA or better yet a writers asst. on a TV show.  Want to write for comics? Intern for a publisher. By working in these industries, you’ll make the connections that will lead to your first writing opportunities.  In college I interned for The Daily Show and for Marvel Comics.  Those two internships introduced me to the people who later led me to my first writing jobs, which in turn introduced me to the folks behind my next gig, and so on. You’ll also be able to meet professional writers at these jobs, so talk to them. All the writers I know are always excited to talk about writing, so don’t be afraid to ask.

If you can’t get a day job in your industry of choice, produce your own writing any way possible.  This was some good advice I received from a comic book and TV writer named Joe Kelly back when I was in college. He pointed out that you can always produce your own short film or self-publish your own comic or stage your own reading or whatever.  It’s even easier now thanks to the internet.  Find a few like-minded folks and do it yourselves. Not only will it provide you with great, practical experience, it will also give you a polished, finished sample to show others.

And one final lesson from my two most influential writing mentors, Charlie Rubin (NYU professor, wrote for Seinfeld) and the entire staff of The Daily Show: don’t be afraid to kill your babies. Don’t be too precious and afraid of throwing out ideas or scenes that don’t work and starting over. Like I said, the best work almost always comes from rewrites.

6) Okay, so writing for the Simpsons, that was a trip. I remember you called me from the writer’s room and said, “I am pitching ideas and they are actually laughing.” Tell us what your experience was like and what you learned from it.

Pitching the writers at The Simpsons was the most terrifying and exciting thing I’ve ever done. I was asked to come in and pitch for a freelance episode.  I brought along five or six ideas – ideas that I had previously workshopped with my writers group – and just launched into them. Thankfully, they liked one of the ideas and we immediately began breaking that story.  As someone who grew up watching the show and can easily cite it as one of the top 5 influences on his writing, this gig was a dream come true.

The three main things I learned from my experience with The Simpsons are:

– When pitching, don’t read. Have it memorized ahead of time so that you make it sound natural. Also, since you’ll be working without a net this way, your energy tends to be higher (at least mine is).

– When outlining a story, include dialog. It might be a line that you ultimately use in the final draft, but it gives you crutches to get through that first draft.

– It’s okay to have your script rewritten. This really just applies to TV or other collaborative mediums. I learned this at The Daily Show too, but really, everybody gets rewritten, so don’t take it personally.  It’s just part of the process.

7) Where do you get your ideas from? I know you hate that question so I had to toss it in.

(Brendan turns silent and shoots Jenn a glowering smirk)

Ahem. I get my ideas from a computer program I developed called Hack-Bot.  Hack-Bot randomly mashes together the plots of a classic work of fiction and an obscure 80’s genre movie, then prints out the new plot for me to go pitch.

Okay, a real answer too: my embarrassments and fears.  Again, my college TV writing professor Charlie Rubin told me that and it’s always provided me with a source of interesting – and funny – stories.

8 ) So by now, everyone must think, this guy just hits ideas out of the park. So humble us with some of your best rejections. And how did you get over them as a writer?

My two best rejections both occurred when pitching premises for a TV show.  The first pitch was a sitcom about a bunch of rookie NYPD officers living together in Queens. It was inspired by my best friend’s life at the time. One producer heard the pitch and had only two questions: why do I hate cops so much, and why am I such a misogynist?  So yeah, it’s safe to say he didn’t buy the show. Oh, and the answers to his questions: I don’t, and I’m not.

The even worse rejection came when I was pitching another sitcom pilot (unfortunately, I can’t reveal the plot because it tips which network I was pitching to) and this time around, the development execs at the network loved the pitch. So much so that this time, my producer and I were just going back in to pitch the head of the network. It was supposed to be an easy pitch, a mere formality before they buy it. However, the head of network wasn’t that keen on the idea, first interrupting me a quarter of the way into the pitch with, “Ugh, (Famous Founder of Network) must be rolling in his grave right now.” My producer and I joked this comment off and kept on going, but then halfway through, the head cut us off and said his network would never buy our idea, before then getting up and walking out of the room without further comment.

How do I recover from these rejections? Simple: I know I’m writer.  And I’ll keep writing no matter how many folks reject me.  That’s just who I am. A friend of mine once said, when on a panel of TV writers, “If there is anything else you enjoy doing besides writing as a career, do it.  Because you will be happier.”  He’s right. Writing is constant rejection and self-doubt.  But there is nothing else I’d rather do.

Fortunately, I’ve also learned by now that while, yeah, you’ll get shot down a bunch, you will eventually sell your writing too. Case in point, that first sitcom that got shot down? I sold it about two weeks later to another producer.  Things work out.  You just have to give yourself time and be persistent.  Keep pitching.  Stay positive.  And most of all, write!

14 Comments on “Interview with writer extraordinaire Brendan Hay

  1. Awesome interview. The last bit of rejection can be applied to any situation, personal or professional. It’s even good advice for guys who get rejected by girls…not that I ever get rejected.

  2. I love this interview, very real, very cool! I’m proud of you both. And I too remember the advice of Charlie Rubin. Good stuff!!

  3. Haroon is the lucky winner of the SCOTT PILGRIM VOL. 6! Congrats! (Random.org picked you.)

    Haroon, I’ll email you for your address where you want me to send the book.

  4. Pingback: Writing Advice for Recently Graduated MFA Students « Typecraft

  5. I love this interview!! That’s true, Brendan is so humble and never toots his own horn although he’s one of the most successful people we know! It’s such a rare, wonderful gift and something we can all learn from.

    Also, after reading this interview, I feel bad for choosing Thomas Edison over Brendan as creative in Apples to Apples.

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