10 Writing Fellowship Questions Answered
10 Writing Fellowship Related Questions Answered by a Current Fellow
If you’d like to see me go Jerry Maguire and share what I really learned along the way and what I believe may (or may not) have made a difference in getting into the fellowships, check out my other article “Ten things I’ve learned on my way into two TV writing fellowships (that may or may not have made a difference on getting in)”
For those of you who are looking for more easily digestible answers to fellowship related questions, I’ve surveyed ten questions from my peers and am attempting to answer them below. Please keep in mind that all of this is my personal take on things and is by no means intended to answer the all important question of how you ultimately get in. That’s not up to me to answer.
1. What were the stages you had to go through to become a fellow and what was the interview process like?
Humanitas New Voices is different from CBS (and the other main fellowships) in terms of not having to spec an episode of an existing show and having to be nominated in order to apply. So, once you have your pilot ready you need to find somebody to recommend you via an online form. The exact criteria this person should meet are listed on the program’s website. After that’s done you can upload your script, cover letter and biography (you’ll find more info on what’s expected in each of these on the website). For the CBS submission you need to have a current spec of an existing show as well as a pilot, a bio and a letter of intent – again, the exact info on what should be answered in these is on the program’s website. For CBS you need to actually get a physical hard copy of the submission notarized and then mail (not e-mail) it. Sounds minor, but I’ve heard of people missing the deadline because they didn’t realize that. That’s the submission process. Then you wait and if you’re lucky you eventually get a call several months later to schedule an interview.
I hear some programs will call out of the blue and instantly do a quick impromptu pre-interview on the phone. I’m not sure how I feel about taking that call while sitting on the 101 or in your OBGYN’S waiting room, but alas, if it happens it happens. It might be a good idea to prep a bit, just in case.
Humanitas had a quite challenging interview process starting with several rather short-notice interview rounds that consisted of two parts: The general/personal pitch as well as the pitch of two pilot ideas you are proposing to write in the program. (Somewhere along the ride I was also asked about further material. It’s so important to always have further samples ready. Think about it this way: From the moment you’re applying to the moment you’re coming in for an interview you often times have 6 months of dead time – that’s when you can write your next amazing sample (or two).
In my case, the show ideas I pitched for Humanitas just weren’t a right fit (I still think they were good…), but the interviewees believed in me and gave me the amazing opportunity to submit an entirely different slate of ideas on very short notice. (This just goes to show how important the personal component of the meeting is, I’m still so grateful for this second shot and I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten it, had I not given my interviewers reason to personally believe in me and see my potential.)
After the interviewees selected two ideas from my new submissions, I was coached through shaping them into a solid verbal pitch, which was an incredible learning experience. I would have to go back in my calendar, but I think I went in for about six interviews and there were some emails and phone calls between them. Once you make it past this hurdle you will get word that you’re in the final-final selection, but that you are still not a “winner” until a showrunner adopts you and your final show pitch. In my case, the process of finding a showrunner took more than 4 months (I believe) — that’s when the true anxiety sets in – you’re at the grace of a showrunner who despite their already insanely full schedule has to add you onto their list of commitments – that’s quite an ask and as much as I hoped it would work out, I was also prepared for it all to fall apart. Which just goes to say that there is a lot of luck involved at this point (or at least I feel incredibly lucky).
I was set to meet one showrunner but scheduling conflicts kept pushing the meeting back and while I got more anxious every time, the ladies of the program ultimately decided to pitch me to somebody else. I got a call to meet Pam Veasey – no big deal, given the woman is a legend and at this point the work of almost a year was depending on her liking me enough to give me a shot. Luckily Pam is simply amazing and so willing to give back and pay it forward that she agreed to adopt me only a few hours after I had left her office. That’s when I got word that I was one of the four winners.
For CBS the process is not too different. I got a callback (right when I was the most panicked about Humanitas) and went in for an interview a week later. After that, you’re set up to meet your potential future network-exec mentor and if everybody approves you get in.
I remember getting my happy call while ironically sitting at the intersection of Beverly and Fairfax, right across from CBS.
2. What were the emotional highs and lows of the extensive application and selection process?
That’s a loaded question. In general I think you need to get ready for a constantly repeating cycle of joy and excitement, followed by instant panic and insecurity that if you’re lucky translates into an adrenaline rush that helps you to tackle whatever task is thrown your way, or if you’re not so lucky, into writers block which can be quite a challenge. I’m usually on the adrenaline side, but when I actually started the work on my Humanitas pilot a couple of weeks ago, I put so much pressure on myself and felt so stuck that I literally didn’t get anything on the page for two weeks. Dealing with this kind of pressure and getting yourself over that hump was only one of the many important lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Further, especially during the Humanitas selection process, it was also hard to accept that the final step (the “showrunner adoption”) was out of my control. But this actually became a very valuable lesson, too: As much as you want something to happen, sometimes it’s just out of your control and it’s how you prepare yourself for that situation that will define how your future will play out. If I can slip some form of advice in here – make sure you have a support system. This goes for the fellowship interview process just as much as for a career in this town in general.
From the beginning of the Humanitas madness all the way to today, I was incredibly lucky to have the support of my partner, my writing coach, industry supporters, and countless friends and fellow writers to keep me sane. Some of them were in the trenches with me and some of them didn’t get callbacks and although they were hurting accordingly, they still cheered for me, which was so selfless of them and keeps me forever grateful. Also— get prepared to feel like shit if you get in and somebody close to you doesn’t. It’s the worst, especially if they are incredibly talented. It’s important to always remember how lucky you are and give back where you can.
3. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to someone applying to a fellowship?
Another big question. I can’t claim to have the inside scoop on how to get in. The people running the fellowships are the better source to answer this, but I compiled a list of 10 things that I learned along the way and that may or may not have helped me personally to get in, so you can check that list out in my other article.
4. Do you think the fellowship has prepared you for working on a real TV show?
Particularly the CBS program has taught me invaluable tools to give a good showrunner meeting, which is definitely a key ingredient to landing a staff job, but what I find equally as important to mention here is that it taught me more respect for the staff job itself.
We often think that walking into a room is simply a matter of coming in, pitching some ideas and writing scripts, but it is not. The truth is, without years of experience under your belt you know nothing. Existing in a room and finding the right way to support your team and showrunner is an art in itself and I think the first step to successfully tackle a staff job is to understand that. Being aware of all the different factors that will shape the dynamics in the room might be a first step of learning how to master them and not forgetting that as a staffer you’re there to learn while working harder than you’ve ever worked before might help you from staying off the shitlist for long enough to be brought back.
So, do I feel like I’m ready to be on a show? Yes, but with the goal of doing a good job, staying on a show and building a career from there, I know I also have a lot more to learn once somebody gives me that shot.
5. What are some resources that helped you get into the fellowship?
In my separate article I’m talking about some of my “mindset” resources (for lack of a better word), so I’ll keep this to a dry fact sheet.
- Books [Always in my reach: Jen Grisanti’s TV Writing Toolkit, William Rabkin’s Writing the Pilot, UCLA Extensions’ Inside the Room, Carole Kirschner’s, Hollywood Game Plan, Chad Gervich’s Small Screen Big Picture]
- Non-TV related books [If I develop ideas I’ll often go to The Last Bookstore in DTLA and buy up a sack of $2 books that nobody has ever heard of. There’s always some story inspiration in them – recent gems are BURIED ALIVE – a Janis Joplin bio, L.A. NOIR a short story collection, CRIME WAVE some James Ellroy fun and THE HARRY BOSCH novels – well… people have heard of those…]
- Scripts [I keep a few scripts close by that I love. As a matter of fact I read the SONS OF ANARCHY PILOT about 5 times a year and the same goes for BREAKING BAD and MAD MEN. Other usual suspects are THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, PULP FICTION, FIGHT CLUB and as of recent THE IMITATION GAME and AMERICAN CRIME.
- Podcasts [Nerdist Writers Panel, On the Page, The Treatment, Scriptnotes, On Story, Scripts & Scribes, The Business, Martini Shot, Writers Guild Foundation etc.]
- Trades, email news letters, blogs etc. [The usual suspects: Variety, THR, The Wrap, SSN insider, Deadline, Hitfix & many more]
- YouTube & Social Media [you’ll be surprised what you can find out about people before meeting them]
- Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, iTunes and good old fashioned television [Scripted shows, documentaries, and recorded panels like the Paley Fest]
- Panels [Nerdist Writers Panel, WGA panel, Writing Fellowship Panels… anything goes]
6. What are some questions to prepare for if interviewed as a finalist for a fellowship?
It’s funny, because thinking back I couldn’t quite tell you exactly what I was asked – I think your nerves kind of wipe your brain after the fact, but below are the pointers I can remember.
Because the interviewees are nice and want you to succeed (remember that, it keeps you calm) they’ll probably extend an invitation to tell them who you are and where you’re from, so be prepared to tell your own story in an entertaining, memorable fashion in under two minutes.
I believe I was asked about the inspiration behind my script. It’s a bad idea to say “because it’s cool” – this is an opportunity to show what excites you and how you can turn something personal into a script. It’s also a good segue to tell them a bit more about yourself.
Chances are you’ll be asked what else you’re working on, or what else you have read-ready. Bad idea to have nothing.
You will most certainly be asked what shows you watch or what shows you could see yourself writing for. It’s always a good idea to slip in a few shows on the network you’re talking to (but don’t over do it). And this should go without saying but it’s never a good idea to say: Oh, I don’t watch TV.
I think I was asked if I had any questions. That’s a tricky one because you don’t want to seem uninformed but if you don’t have any questions you might seem uneager to learn. I usually like to ask what the expectations of me are, and that in a way that by no means can be misinterpreted as “she’s asking us how much work it is because she’s lazy.” I genuinely like to please the people about to hopefully give me a life-changing opportunity and it’s simply easier to do so if I get them to lay the cards on the table.
7. What are some commonalities you see with your fellowship peers beyond the quality of their writing?
I’ll focus on CBS here because I spend every Thursday evening with that gang. I think a common theme is definitely that everybody is driven, naturally curious, eager to learn and grateful for the opportunity (you can tell by the fact that everybody is always beyond prepared and eager to ask questions). What I love about my peers is that they’re all good people sharing what they’ve learned outside the program, swapping feedback, and supporting each other. Nobody is unnecessarily competitive or back-stabby (I secretly hope that’s a #1 selection criteria for the decision makers). I will also say that the group is quite colorful and I don’t necessarily mean only in terms of the color of our skins (although I happen to be the only white person in the room). I will say that a certain awareness of diversity issues within the industry is also a common theme given, in one way or another, we’ve all had our own experiences related to this ongoing problem and are all eager to fix it.
8. Do most writers in fellowships also work? What is the workload attached to a fellowship?
When I got the Humanitas grant, I was in the incredibly lucky position to (by downsizing my expenses to the bare minimum) make writing my fulltime job for a few months. So as of right now, from 7am until I go to bed that’s what I do, seven days a week. Sometimes I get shit from friends for being the one who doesn’t have a real-life, grown-up job and still turns down all kinds of weekend trips and evening activities – so I can tell you that I keep busy. Would it be hard to keep up with all that while working a fulltime job? Yes, definitely. Could I make it work? You bet I would. What are a few sleep-deprived months for a potentially life and career-changing opportunity like this? Looking at my peers at CBS, we have folks who have high pressure entertainment jobs, students and one lady is even in the process of getting her PHD in neuroscience (no big deal) while being at CBS and in CAPE (again, no big deal) and she makes it work just fine. So the answer is: You make it work. This is not your time to worry about workload. I would even go as far as to say that a career in this industry never is.
9. What’s the biggest misconception about writing fellowship programs?
I think there are several misconceptions about the fellowships out there, so I’m glad to answer this. I think there’ll always be rumors about nepotism and biased choices, but I am happy to tell the world that I personally had no connection to anybody at Humanitas (nor a flashy recommendation) when I was brought in. I think there’s also a circulating rumor that as a straight white man you don’t even have to apply to the diversity programs. I’m not sure if that’s entirely true. Keep in mind that your name on a script does not automatically give away your race (and often times they are read blind anyway) – so if the material is up to standard it comes down to the letter of intent to convince the selection committee that you may not be diverse according to the WGA, but that you have a diverse story that makes you a not-to-be-turned down candidate. I also often hear that older writers who are coming to this from another career hesitate to apply. Again I think it is up to you to convince the selection committee why you’re the right person for the spot. (This is definitely my personal POV and the reality might be completely different, but I always err on the side of “applying anyway” – so take this with a grain of salt).
I’ll throw in a quick sidenote here: One of the number one questions I was asked when putting together this post was what to write in the Letter of Intent. I can’t really answer that question because it is a case-by-case question and not really my place to butt in (ask the fellowship folks at one of their panels). What I can tell you is that it’s an incredibly important deciding factor, that you probably have about 2 sentences to catch their attention, and that you can learn a lot on this from the above question 7 and Carole Kirschner’s book “Hollywood Game Plan” (just use the meeting chapter and translate it to your letter.
Back to the misconceptions: Another big one is that the fellowship will automatically put you on a bullet train that’ll move your career from zero to Shonda Rhimes. That’s simply not true (if it happens it’s the exception). The programs definitely open doors for you and will equip you with what you need to “survive” out there for a while, but you can never lean back and assume the work will be done for you. The fellowships have different ways of “staffing” their own. CBS does not promise to get you staffed, but they sure pull hard for you and try everything to help. All in all it comes down to the old wisdom that opportunities are what you make of them.
And lastly – and this might not be a misconception – but a wrong conclusion: Even if you feel like you’ll never make it in, if you keep honing your craft, never stop applying–
10. If you’d sum up what you’ve learned in one sentence, what would it be?
Constantly work on honing your craft, always be prepared, build and maintain relationships and never take anything for granted.