FAQ of Aspiring Writers

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen “a mid-career journalist trying to write one-hour dramas” answers the FAQ of aspiring writers in her blog, Wasabi Mama. Visit WM to read about her first staffing season in LA:

I’m back in Joisey taking a breather from TV staffing season; soon enough I’ll head back out to L.A. for more meetings. As I sift through reader e-mail and blog comments, I’m noticing some similar questions from fellow TV-writing aspirants about the process. I’m hardly your expert, this being my first dance in Hollywood, but you know what they say about the one-eyed chick in the land of the blind. So here’s me taking a fumble at some answers. It bears repeating that I speak only from my very limited and narrow experience as a mid-career journalist trying to write one-hour dramas. Please add your own in the comments.

Do I really need an agent to land TV meetings? Unless you’re Facebook buds with execs at all the networks, studios and individual shows — yeah, you do. Agents don’t just set up meetings with execs. Without an agent, I wouldn’t have had access to all the pilot scripts this season, and thus would have no idea what shows would be hiring. Plus my big-agency agent lends an unknown schmuck like me credibility by association.

What about a manager? Here’s the reality check: an agent’s top priority is his agency. His goal is to make money for his employer, whether by securing a lucrative contract for a writer or a packaging deal for developing a show. My agent’s smart and good at his job, but my newbie hands need a lot of hand-holding. Enter the manager. This relationship’s much more narrowly focused on the client. At a price. The manager takes a cut of my earnings, too — which tally up thus far to zero. (More on the agent-lawyer-manager thing here.)

So how exactly do I go about getting an agent and/or manager? I can only tell you my own experience and that of my friends, and you’re not going to like it: contacts. I met my TV agent through my book agent. I have a friend whose agent is his former colleague’s brother. Recently I met a working TV writer who didn’t even have an agent until she got her show, though she did have a manager. I’m told managers are easier to score. Don’t despair: my point is that you probably know someone who knows someone. If you don’t, take a workshop. Join a Meetup group. Attend a McKee seminar. You’re bound to meet people, trade cards. But here’s the catch: you’ve got to have something to sell. A great spec, a ripping good story, a fascinating bio. Me, I had an idea. It was just that — an idea. Then I had to learn what the hell a “treatment” was.

How do I get started? Write a spec. An original spec. You know all those books that tell you to write a pretend episode of a real show? Sure, do it for practice. But my agent didn’t even send out my “Good Wife” or “Big Love.” All he sent was the very first script I ever wrote in my life, which was an original idea based on an article I wrote.

Do I need to quit my job? I think that depends on what you do and how serious you are about making a switch. Me, I was a full-time staff writer at a newsweekly magazine. No way I could juggle a career switch on the down-low. To the lawyer and dad who wrote me from D.C. — buddy, I feel your frustration. It’s a big, big deal to toss a hard-fought career to the winds, especially with dependents in diapers. The good news is your lawyerly expertise won’t go to waste; you’ll have a terrific shot at one of the many legal shows that go to pilot every season. See David Feige’s story for inspiration; he’s a lawyer who wrote a book about his experiences as a public defender, then co-created TNT’s “Raising the Bar” with none other than Steven Bochco.

Will anyone take me seriously if I have no TV background? If you could call a do-over on life, you coulda gone the USC > intern > TV writer’s assistant > TV staff writer route. Me, too. All I can say is I didn’t even know that career path existed, and I’m not getting laughed out of meetings. It could be blarney, but what I keep hearing from execs is just the opposite: that they find my background as a journalist/author/blogger refreshing. Four of them in a row told me about the “Hollywood bubble” and the need for fresh, “real” perspectives and stories. Who knew a New Jersey address was an asset? That said…

Do I really have to live in L.A.? The answer I’m still trying to swallow is yes. As a baby writer, all the jobs — and I mean all of them — are there. This season I’m hearing about maybe three pilots, max, that’ll be written out of New York. Even the “Law & Orders” have migrated west. Me, I’m still hoping against hope for a shot at the thimbleful of New York shows. But if I get so lucky as to score an offer from something in L.A., I’ll have some tough decisions to make. I know someone who commutes from her home in Brooklyn to write on a well-regarded show in Hollywood. The things we working mothers do to keep our constituents happy, right?

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