Advice on being a successful writer from writers:
For television writers
- Step 1: Move to LA.
- Step 2: Decide if you want to write for sitcoms or dramas.
- Step 3: Write a spec of a show you love.
- Step 4: Keep repeating step 3 (with different show specs) until you get a job
- During step 4, you will be showing your specs to agents or, more likely, agents' assistants, and trying to get meetings with agents and begging them to represent you.
- Step 5: Now that you have an agent, he/she will try to staff you. You don't need to worry about that process; just do what the agent says.
Most important: You have to move to LA so you can make contacts that will put you in proximity to agents and the business in general. And you have to write. A lot. And you have to be persistent. Madly persistent.
Another way is to get a writers' assistant job. But getting a writers' assistant job is just as hard as getting a staff job, in my opinion. Unless you are best friends with the showrunner or the showrunner's kid. Two specs is a good idea -- more is better. And after two or three specs, a great pilot is also nice -- that's why you have to keep writing. And writing. And writing. People who keep writing (if they are actually any good) will get staffed eventually with a little luck. As times goes by you may need new spec scripts. Get on it.
The norm is two spec scripts, that is two scripts written for existing shows. People are now more open than ever to a pilot by an unknown writer, so that's an option. Some even say it's easier to sell an original pilot than to be staffed on an existing show. Generally, you don't submit a script for the show to the show you want to work on.
On writers & agents
I often get the question on how to get an agent for your writing. Often, new writers get a manager first. Managers are generally regarded as easier to contact and approach. They tend to have fewer clients and are often more interested in building a career than agents are. Technically only agents can seek out work for you but this line is often blurred. Agents get 10% and managers take 10 or 15%. Bottom line – the easiest way to get one is to sell something. Then, of course, as the old joke goes, you don’t need one.
It is incredibly difficult to get someone to even read your work who is in a position to help you. Even when you do get someone to read it, it’s 50/50 they actually will, and the most common response is to never hear anything again. Seriously. It’s like people agree to take your script and then leave the planet. Even if they stay on earth, chances you just will never speak of it again. People often don’t want to say no to a script. They may never read it. They may read it and hate it. They may start it and give up. It’s up to you how much you pester them. Personally, I’ve followed up for a year regarding a script both as a writer and as a producer.
If someone does agree to read my script, I first follow up in 2 months. And then again in 6 weeks and then 6 weeks after that. I do so politely. And then, unless they tell me to keep checking in (which does happen), I move on. “I wanted to check in and see if you had a chance to read my script…” is one common phrase. If a big company gets it, chances are a reader, someone likely your age, is taking the first and likely only read before passing on it. In doing so, they perform coverage, which is another topic.
People are usually extremely guarded about these contacts, be they agents, managers, producers, or people in development. If you pass along a bad script, you can burn a contact. Most scripts are indeed quite bad and people really don’t want to read any. That said, finding the right script is critical to careers, and everyone knows that.
I’ve been on all sides of this. I’ve been in development as a producer and I’ve been in development as a writer with producers. It’s not easy and can last years. Remember – building a network to consider your work is critical. Below is some advice I’d like to pass along some advice from a very busy and successful writer I know on how to get an agent. This often applies to managers as well:
One classic way is to approach a new or junior agent.
A new (i.e. 'junior') agent will help senior agents handle their clients, but also may bring on some of his/her own. You can find out about this through friends or in trade publications like Variety or Hollywood Reporter. Agents work insane hours and have to be very careful of how they apportion their time. And most of their time is spent on three jobs:
- A) Creating (or widening) a writer's relationship base with the buying community -- i.e. studio execs, producers, directors, etc.
- B) Getting a writer assignments, which often means begging and pleading execs to take a meeting with him/her.
- C) Selling a writer's material (spec, pitch, etc.)
So, in looking at a potential client, the agent is going to ask him/herself four questions:
- A) How much do I believe in the writer's work?
- B) Can I justify taking on this new client to my bosses at the agency?
- C) How much energy will I have to put in to getting the writer's career going?
- D) Realistically, how big or small will be the likely results?
It's taken me more than a few years to understand an agent's mentality out here. In terms of contacting these people, a personal intro is a million times better than a cold call or query letter. If you don't know them, but maybe a friend of yours does, or a friend of a friend. Six degrees of separation. If that fails, write a query letter that will get the agent's ASSISTANT interested enough to possibly pass it along to the agent.