10 Things I Have Learned on My Way Into Two TV Writing Fellowships
(that may or may have not made a difference on getting in)
My partner in writing-related crimes, writing coach, Lee Jessup, recently asked me if I would be willing to volunteer as source of information for Kevin at Scripts & Scribes. Kevin was looking to find somebody who could offer an inside POV on the TV Writing Fellowships and who ideally was right in the thick of it. I’m currently in the incredibly lucky position to be a fellow in not only the CBS Writers Mentoring Program, but also one of the Humanitas New Voices winners. I firmly believe that information is the true holy grail of our business and I constantly find myself wishing that paying-it-forward was higher on everybody’s agenda, especially because I am the lucky beneficiary of some of those rare amazing humans who went out of their way to let me learn. Naturally I was excited to pass some of this on to you, in hopes you can make use of it.
Before I dive in, a disclaimer: Everything in this article is based on my personal experiences and takeaways and by no means is it meant to answer the question of how one gets into a fellowship. That’s something only the people behind the fellowships can truly answer (and they do so every year on countless panels, so go hear them speak there). I’m just a writer unable to resist the temptation of putting my own experiences into written words.
As I said, I believe information is the holy grail of our business. Consequently I make it a point to read all the books and articles, listen to the podcasts, go to the panels, do the Googling, do the watching, have the coffees; in short, do everything to learn, no matter how little the takeaway seems. But while knowledge is amazing, if it is not translated into easy-to-follow instructions or lists, it’s often intimidating. Fine, maybe it’s not intimidating to you and it’s just because I’m German that I need rules and lists in my life, but either way, I have compiled a list of things that I have learned along the way and that I try to hold myself responsible to.
10 Things I Have Learned on My Way Into Two TV writing Fellowships (that may or may have not made a difference in getting in)
Some of these are pre-fellowship epiphanies and some of them are based on what I’ve learned since going on the interview rounds, and while I have yet to find the all-knowing godmother/father who can confirm my suspicion, I believe they all in one way or another played a part in convincing decision makers to give me the wonderful opportunity of partaking in two fellowships at the same time.
#1 – every “No” is one step closer to a “Yes” – [Ron Meyer]
Three years ago, I was bummed out because a feature script I had submitted to OUTFEST didn’t make the finals. I pouted for a day, and then asked my friend if she (through a third degree connection) could introduce me to somebody involved with the competition so I could take them out for a coffee and learn how I could improve on the page and in terms of my career. I got my coffee meeting and the incredibly kind woman suggested I apply for a workshop that Outfest organizes in collaboration with NBCUniversal (I think it’s currently called NBC Fusion). Of course the deadline was the next morning, but that’s always the case, isn’t it?
I applied and two weeks later I found myself at NBCUniversal (my first time on the lot) 7 feet away from Ron Meyer who was speaking candidly about making it from being a driver to becoming the Vice Chairman of Universal. When asked what advice he would give us, he said – and mind you I am a writer not a journalist so don’t take any of these quotes as on the record: “Keep in mind that every “No” will get you one step closer to a “Yes.”
Ironically the “No” on my feature script, not only lead to me picking up this motivating and so very true wisdom, it also introduced me to TV writing in general and that in form of Karen Horne, Vice President of Programming Talent Development & Inclusion for NBC Entertainment and Universal Television.
#2 – Writers Write. it’s your job to hone your craft – [Karen Horne]
Karen Horne was one of the speakers that day and she not only (unknowingly) convinced me that TV writing is the right place for me (tell a German about act breaks, fast paced deadlines and time pressure and she’ll come) she also taught me what might be the most important point on this list, especially in connection with the fellowships and a career:
We all tend to worry more about landing that agent/manager, or getting into the fellowship than about the quality of our material. I get it, it’s only natural. In scenario one we find somebody to presumably do the work for us, while in scenario two we need to do it ourselves. Now again, I am German and I might have a bit of an obsessive work ethic, but even if you don’t, the simple truth speaks for itself: Scenario one is completely out of our control and the more time we waste worrying about it the less time we spend writing and beyond that, everything in scenario one will magically fall into place once we’ve honed our craft to the point where it’s good enough to get attention. [This is assuming you don’t keep your excellent material hidden away in your drawer but get it out to writing competitions and industry contacts].
When asked for her advice on getting into the fellowships (and advancing your career), Karen said: “Hone your craft. Sign up for UCLA extension classes, go to writers groups, read scripts… learn everything you can” (again, this is not a direct quote, just what I remember).
One hour after I left Universal that day, I signed up for my first UCLA extension class: Writing the One Hour Drama Spec Outline. I’ve been meaning to thank Karen for this for three years, and by the time this hits the web, I will have utilized some of my newly-developed fellowship networking skills to finally have done so.
#3 – Never forget that you know nothing. [I credit this to my clueless self]
This is one of my favorites for several reasons, but let’s start with the basics: Classes, (which are quite pricey – more on this later) mentors or teachers can only help you if you are willing to learn. In order to learn, you need to understand that you’re not naturally always right. It’s a tough pill to swallow. I’m Gen Y myself, and while certainly not as annoying as Gen Z (sorry, Gen Z) we do tend to have a sense of entitlement to us (more on this later). We think HILL STREET BLUES, THE WIRE and ER were cool in a retro-ish kind of way, but given they were all typed by guys using the 2-finger eagle-search typing system (and possibly doing so on typewriters) we assume that whatever our first script is will instantly be a thousand times better. I’m semi-joking; if you’re dismissing any of the shows above you should probably look for another career path, but what I’m trying to get at is that it’s easy to dismiss a note by telling yourself that whoever is giving you the note “just doesn’t get it” – that’s not a thing. Whoever is giving you notes and doesn’t get something is a potential audience member not understanding your show. I force myself never to dismiss a note without considering it thoroughly and investigating its origins. (This isn’t always that easy, especially when its in context of taste and genre notes. If I read a far out there sci-fi piece chances are my taste notes might be off because it’s not really my thing, so that’s just something to keep in mind.)
But now back to the additional meanings of not knowing anything: I try to live by this as a writer because it keeps me curious and restless and I try to live by it as a mentee, which hopefully keeps me humble (damn Gen-Y genes) and allows me to keep learning.
4. Don’t be afraid to invest in your education.
I mentioned this earlier – classes and workshops aren’t cheap. It’s easy to dismiss them for exactly that reason, but if you invest in them (and I mean the right ones, not the rip-offs), you’re investing in your career, which will pay off (I am resisting the temptation to attach the WGA minimum pay scale for TV writers. Fuck it. Here it is, take a good look: WGA Minimums – Basic Agreement ). If I read this, I’d curse out the undeniably over-privileged writer behind this article. She clearly has no idea—
Just to defend myself before you even get there, let me say that I was solely responsible for feeding myself starting at the age of eleven. That’s when I started to work several jobs. I worked to finance my studies, while also saving up money to emigrate to the US. In the process of it, I got starch poisoning because all I ate were potatoes, as they were the cheapest and longest lasting food I could afford (which by the way makes it two of us in Hollywood. Billy Bob Thornton and Greta Heinemann) – I pay more money for my writing education per year as I do for going out, or for my travels. There are great places to learn and get career support. They exist for a reason. [Check out my other post “10 Writing Fellowship related questions answered by a fellow” for a list of my trusted favorites.]
5. Be as interesting in person as your material is on the page
I just recently went to a fellowship panel where Jeanne Mau, VP Current Programs CBS Entertainment and part of the CBS Writers Mentoring Program selection committee, stated the obvious and was quickly backed up by her counter parts at ABC, NBC and FOX: Your letter of intent is incredibly important, so don’t half-ass it. (Jeanne probably found a more elegant way of paraphrasing the half-assing part, but you get the idea.)
My first job in America quickly taught me that the entertainment industry is more a “people business” than it is a skill set based business. If you have to choose between a handful of excellent people, you will pick the most memorable and relatable one. The one you won’t mind getting stuck in an elevator with. Please don’t misinterpret this as nepotism. I will never get tired of telling the world that I almost didn’t apply to the Humanitas fellowship because I had several extremely talented friends who were recommended to the program by very important showrunners or knew somebody in the selection committee and I assumed my chances were zero-times-zero because I had neither. I did it nonetheless because I’m stubborn, and was brought in solely based on my material and my letter of intent. A lot is about who you know, but gladly that’s not always everything. Back to the letter of intent.
This letter is your opportunity to explain why you are special and different than the other extremely talented writers (and there are plenty) who are competing with you. Keep in mind that most of the fellowships are also attempting to fix the diversity problem in this town by nurturing diverse and traditionally underrepresented talent. While that doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you have to be of color (I’m German – we’re famous for being rather un-diverse to say the least), it means you have to have a unique, diverse life story. And I may go as far as to assume, given the selection committee has to read thousands of applications, that you better catch their attention in the first two sentences if you want them to read on.
I can’t tell you what exactly the magic mustard is that goes in a perfect letter of intent, but I can tell you that if you’re drawn to this crazy career there must be something off enough about you to spin an attention-grabbing story around it. (If not, you can always start eating only potatoes to finance your writing education, get starch poisoning and use that as story – it might work. I haven’t tried it yet.
6. You can’t control the outcome of a meeting but you can influence it by being prepared
In retrospect this is one of the biggest lessons learned while going through the quite nerve-wrecking interview process for the Humanitas New Voices program, later the CBS interviews and now every workshop in the program, general meeting and hopefully soon staffing meetings.
If you’re in the incredibly lucky position of getting called in for an interview you have to be prepared. You need to know whom you’re meeting with, you need to know how to talk about yourself and what you want out of the meeting.
I was incredibly lucky because my first make-or-break-it interview (for Humanitas) was with Carole Kirschner, who – after Googling her twice – I learned had written a book about how to break in and how to give good meetings along the way (Hollywood Game Plan, I wouldn’t push it if it didn’t save my ass). Now, as a good German, I appreciated Carole’s lists and rules so much, that I (obviously) read the book and prepared myself meticulously by following it step by step. Last but not least, if you’re set to meet with a woman who wrote a book on how to give good meetings she’ll likely be impressed seeing somebody do exactly how she laid it out herself. If you’re smart, you’ll go buy that book now, but in the meantime here are some CliffsNotes from my end:
* Make a personal connection with the person you are meeting (more on this in a moment)
* Be able to tell your unique “how did I get here” story in less than a minute and in an entertaining and memorable fashion.
* Be able to talk about your writing, your life, the other person’s work, little stories, the specific opportunity you’re talking about, etc.
* Direct the conversation in a way that allows you to (in a Slick-Rick-non-pushy-way) slip in why you’re the right person for this opportunity.
* Have questions or a specific “ask” prepared. If delivering a specific “ask” always present it with an easy out for your counterpart (No I won’t read your script!)
* Have shows to talk about (you’re writing for TV, dude – the least you can do is watch a lot of it)
* Have some new projects up your sleeve to talk about (nobody likes a one-hit wonder. If you can’t say what you’re currently working on, you’re not working enough (see point 2 – Writers Write.)
* Be fucking grateful! (More on this later).
A word about nerves: I’m in the incredibly blessed position of having pretty good ones because I’ve gone through nerve-wracking interviews during my immigration process with the Department of Homeland Security and consequently am not as afraid of Hollywood Execs. If you’re incredibly nervous A) try to remind yourself that they want you to succeed (they think you’re talented otherwise they wouldn’t have brought you in) B) be well-prepared so you know what to expect (if you listen to podcasts featuring the people you’re set to meet it almost feels like you know them walking into the room) and C) take a chill-pill (a non-drowsy one please!
7. You’re nothing without your peers
I have many incredibly talented writer friends who give me notes and support and without whom I’d likely have about three hairs left on my head. Most of them, I made at writers groups and UCLA Extensions (which is another great reason to go there), some of them I’ve made through life, none of them I made through senseless mixers. (I feel strongly about networking being crap unless you manage to build relationships if not mutual friendships where you help each other out and don’t just think about what the other person could do for you). I have a dedicated and supportive writing coach (Lee Jessup) who not only helps me channel (non-hypothetical) “holy fuck how am I going to develop 6 new show ideas in 2 days for Humanitas?” nervous breakdowns into constructive buckle-down energy, but also keeps me honest about my output quantity and quality. I have mentors and former teachers, one of them, for example, being Zadoc Angell, a manager at Echo Lake who knows Carole Kirschner well and who was kind enough to go out of his way to give me a call to prep me for my meeting with her. I mention this, because it relates to my note earlier about making a connection with whom you meet. It’s great if you went to the same school or are from the same place but 95 out of 100 times you won’t be (especially if you’re from Germany and your school name sounds something like “Fuckhockshoole” if American’s say it.). What’s truly helped me was to find connections and friends we have in common and then shamelessly name-drop them (in a non-douchy way). When I told Carole Kirschner during my first Humanitas interview that Zadoc was kind enough to prep me a bit for the meeting, Carole (and I’m guessing here) likely concluded that I’d done my homework and that I can’t be that much of an idiot if Zadoc, who she trusts, is a supporter of mine.
The same goes for my CBS interview. After I got the callback, two friends of mine instantly offered to introduce me to former fellows for prep meetings and besides the invaluable insight I got from them on the interview process, mentioning their names in my interview not only filled my interviewees’ eyes with joy and pride but also secretly told them again that I A) did my homework and B) am not that much of a pest that people would refuse to help me.
A lot of this is also related to building and maintaining professional relationships with executives, producers and writers above you. I’m still at the early stages of mastering this beast so I don’t quite feel entitled to speak to it. One thing I will say is that being grateful and respectful and casually keeping in touch without being a pest has worked out alright for me so far.
8. The fellowships aren’t the end all be all
Am I incredibly lucky and blessed to be given the opportunity to participate in these fellowships? No doubt. What I have learned in this past year is beyond mind-blowing and every Thursday evening when I attend the CBS workshops I’m the luckiest little Bavarian pig in Studio City and every morning when I sit down to work on my Humanitas pilot or receive a notes email from my generous showrunner mentor, the incredible Pam Veasey, I am stunned about how lucky I am and grateful for every moment of it, but naturally I often find myself asking: What if I had not gotten in?
Luckily I didn’t get in the first time I tried, so I can give you an honest answer:
I would keep plowing forward, because my career is still my responsibility, not the responsibility of the fellowship selection committees.
Between having gotten “No’s” in 2013 and “Yes’s” in 2014, I attended yet another UCLA extension class, wrote 2 specs and 4 pilots, shot and directed one (and got my first manager during the course of it), won the UCLA writing competition with two scripts at the same time (and got my second manager in the course of it), won a couple of other writing competitions, interned at one of my favorite production companies in town that I had glorified since the age of 14 (I’m going back there for a general meeting as writer tomorrow, how exciting is that?), post produced my full hour pilot presentation, got agents and more. This all goes to say that it’s still all up to you to generate opportunities and if I may assume – that kind of mindset might be an attractive one to the selection committees as well since a train in motion is easier to move along.
9. There’s no shortcut or overnight success. With or without fellowships.
This is a two-parter. One: When Lena Dunham broke out with GIRLS, I briefly made the big mistake of comparing myself to her. We’re the same age and both made an ultra low budget feature hoping to break in. How come she’s now the awkward, naked female Woody Allen of HBO and I’m not her bad-ass, blazin’ guns, completely not neurotic counterpart at FX? Well, tough shit.
Hollywood keeps telling tales of overnight success because they make for a good story and nobody wants to talk about hard work. Yes, THE IMITATION GAME was Graham Moore’s first screenplay. Yes, Nic Pizzolatto went from novelist to TRUE DETECTIVE practically overnight. Yes, Mickey Fisher’s EXTANT was discovered through a writing competition (or at least I think so) but they are the exception. For every YES out there, imagine how many NOs there must have been and how hard these lucky ones mentioned above had to work to maintain their reputation. This counts big picture, but also small picture – for every selected TV writing fellowship fellow, there are hundreds if not thousands of writers who didn’t make the cut. Chances are, they’re you and me. When that happens, I remind myself of Ron Meyer and of how many people turned down Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad – see if it works for you.
The second part to this: One step after another is still forward. I try to remind myself of that, as I am preparing myself for what’s to come. I’m pushing for staffing this season and my reps and support system are pulling hard (which I am incredibly grateful for) and I’m ready to do everything it takes, but yet the stars may not align and it might just not be enough. There’s always a good chance that by the end of April I’ll be done with CBS and by June I’ll have completed my Humanitas pilot and that will be the end of my current adventures. What then? I don’t know the exact answer, but what I do know is that I’m preparing pitches for development season and a second script (alongside my Humanitas pilot) to be roll-out ready by June. I’m lobbying for assignments and after Sundance and HBO I’m also back speccing and prepping my submission materials for another round of fellowships. It all goes to say that no matter what opportunities are given to me, I know I have to keep generating more.
10. Be humble and grateful. Be good to each other.
Let’s go back to the Gen Y issue I mentioned earlier (and I’m not excluding myself)—Don’t be an entitled, fucking idiot. Be grateful and be humble. Know that everybody giving you the time of day, no matter how low or high up on the totem pole, is doing you a favor, so be appreciative of that. Send a Thank You note. Send cookies. If you can’t afford to send cookies, send potatoes or a hand drawn post card. I don’t care what you do, but please, please be grateful and never be above things. Don’t refuse to pick up that coffee. Lend a hand where you can, even if it’s just to clean the office after lunch or wipe that whiteboard.
There’s nothing more soul-crushing than seeing somebody who has been given an unbelievable opportunity be entitled or complain about something while somebody who’d truly appreciate it is waiting on the sidelines.
Also, get ready for this insider tip: There’s not a single ungrateful person in the CBS workshop (everybody there is awesome – shout out!!!), so I suspect being humble and grateful might appeal to the decision makers. Got it?
Lastly, be good to each other. Life is too short to backstab and while the good ones do not always succeed in the short game, we will in the long one, especially if we stick together!
If you made it all the way through this article and the 10 fellowship related questions (hyperlinked) A) congratulations I’m impressed and B) Find me on Twitter if you still have questions. @ImmersiveG
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