Legitimacy Pending: The Forest For The Trees – Breaking Into Television Writing

By Erica Rosbe & Sarah Carbiener

When I first moved to Los Angeles, I so desperately wanted to get it “right,” get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, and start my career as a super official professional successful writer.  I polled all of my friends, former mentors, contacts, strangers on the street trying to determine exactly what kind of a day job I should apply for, the kinds of networking events I should attend, which shows to spec, which genres to avoid.  Now that I’d finally made the big move, I didn’t want to waste any time, and I was terrified of making some huge mistake that would forever ruin my chances.  Basically, I drove myself crazy and lost sight of the entire reason I moved out here which was to, you know, write.

breaking into television writing

Crazy or not I needed a day job to pay the bills and make those all important inroads into legitimacy.  I was told I had to get a job in production.  It was the only way to build the relationships I would need to secure a writer’s production assistant position and then a writer’s assistant gig and then fame and glory.  But I was also assured that I’d need to spend a year or two working a lit manager’s desk.  This was the best way to know what was selling, what people were looking for, and if I was very lucky, find representation.  Then again, working directly for a writer/producer would lead to a one-on-one relationship built on mutual respect and trust that would definitely launch a career.  All of this is very sound advice by the way if you can keep your priorities straight.

I was grateful for the friends who let me tag along to their tracking board mixers, co-worker’s birthday drinks, and free screenings where I met more awesome people who gave me even more great advice as to what exactly I was supposed to do to get this whole dream of writing professionally going.  These are the people who helped me find work as a producer’s assistant, an office PA, a desk job here, a production job there, and I felt so lucky.  I was doing it.  I was getting there.  It was all going to start happening any second…  Any second now.

During this time, I outlined three, four, five different spec scripts for various shows only to abandon them because a Raising Hope wouldn’t really go with the rest of my portfolio, the Dexter idea would become dated too quickly, and what was I thinking even thinking about trying to write a Mad Men.  And writing original material was a lost cause where my constant second guessing as to what I should be writing led to complete paralysis.  I stopped asking myself what inspired me and what was I interested in, and instead I focused solely on what would help my career the most, the fastest.

About a year after I’d moved to Los Angeles, I had a few industry related gigs to add to my resume, a boatload of new friends and contacts, and no way to take advantage of any of it because I hadn’t written anything new. This was because I ignored the most important advice I’d been receiving all along because it seemed like an afterthought, a total “duh.”  That advice:  just write.

This obvious advice was and continues to be way too easy to ignore.  No one thinks that breaking into this industry is going to be a walk in the park, but just because there’s no straightforward path to success doesn’t mean that us aspiring types seek to control our fate any less.  Failure is just so scary.  I mean, really, it’s the worst.  When I first moved here, I was working so hard to avoid failure that I forgot the only guaranteed way to never “make it” was not writing.  As important as connections, knowing the market and understanding the business are, it’s all fairly useless if you’re not churning out pages.

This is not to say that the day job isn’t important.  My writing partner Erica and I landed one of our first paid writing gigs through my last job.  Same goes for networking and building a support system.  Mentors to guide you and peers to claw your way up with are essential.  I have yet to secure a single day job or writing assignment entirely on my own.  And paying attention to the market, what people are writing, and what they’re reading isn’t a bad idea.  It’s way better to find out that the showrunner you admire is developing a show about ghost cowboys before you spend four months writing your version of the pilot.  Erica and I could write whole columns about why these things are important but only in so far as they don’t distract from the actual writing.

I’ve worked jobs out here that left me too brain dead to even think about opening Final Draft.  I’ve gotten caught up in going out, meeting people, and forgoing working on my script to “network” because at the end of the day, it’s easier than slogging away at my computer.  And I’ve spent more time worrying about what to write, how to write, and finding new an ingenious ways to avoid the actual writing all under the guise of getting it “right.”

The wake up call for me was when I lost a job that was making me particularly miserable and proceeded to panic.  Being a hyperbolic neurotic, I was pretty much convinced I’d washed out before turning twenty-five.  Luckily, while searching for the next job, Erica and I decided to co-write our first script.  We made a list of things we’d both been dying to write, picked the idea we were most excited about, sat down, and wrote it.   Then we got excited about the next thing, sat down, and wrote that one, too.   And we’ve been doing that for a few years now, and it’s (hopefully) starting too pay off.

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the grind, the drudgery, the mind numbing slog that is writing is the most important thing you can do for your career.  The other stuff is flashier.  The day job is tangible.  It’s a paycheck, something you can easily explain to your relatives.  The networking and mixing are fun.  You feel less alone, a part of community.  Analyzing what to write next feels important because it makes you feel smart and in the know.  Parking your butt in front of the computer for hours and hours a day?  It’s not so flashy or fun and often makes you feel pretty dumb and like you have no idea what you’re doing.  But man is it awesome to finally send someone you admire or someone in a position to help you and willing to do so a script of which you are ridiculously proud.

If I could hop in the TARDIS (a London-police-box shaped time machine for those who aren’t obsessed with Doctor Who), I’d tell Los Angeles newbie Sarah to build a life that was as conducive to writing as much as possible.  All this other stuff is important, but don’t let it be so important that it pulls you away from you came out here to do.  Kick ass in Courier 12pt.

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