Pearls of Wisdom from Working Pros: WHEN ARE YOU READY TO STAFF?

“I’m ready to staff!”

Some never-staffed before scribes state this, inspired by the confidence gained from their stellar body of work and the reactions it has garnered; others do so with the knowledge that they have toiled season over season and year over year over new pilots and spec episodes and fellowship submission deadlines and… when is it finally going to happen?

That is a declaration I’ve heard all too often, from writers at different levels.

But there are also those who make this claim with hardly a completed original pilot to their name, with few industry connections, without a tangible way to really get there.

Which got me thinking… When is a writer really ready to staff?

It can’t be as simple as just putting a stake in the ground, can it? Of course not. Working with many writers who have gone from emerging to professional over the years, I know that it is a bit more complicated than that.

To help shed light on the matter, I turned to some of my working-TV-writer friends and clients, who had this to say:

Eileen Jones, who writes on FOX’s LETHAL WEAPON told me:
“(You’re ready… )WHEN YOU KNOW YOUR PROCESS. Saying the deadlines can be tight in TV is an understatement, and beyond that, there’s an expectation of very fast, very good work. Taking too long will make everyone (especially your boss) doubt your skill level and worry about the story — or worse, both.To have the confidence that you can succeed at each and every challenge, you need to know your process inside and out — know what gets you connected, gets you moving, gets the words on the page.”

Tawnya Bhattacharya, a supervising producer on ABC’s A MILLION LITTLE THING and owner of/instructor at Script Anatomy had this to add:
“Truthfully not everyone has a correct inner awareness meter on where they’re at with their writing. There are writers who think they are ready because they have a good idea. Or they’ve written several pilots and think that means they are experienced. Or someone liked their pilot and said it was good, so it must be. Here’s the recipe I see working and that is a pretty good determiner of a writer being ready to work. 1) The writer is constantly writing and developing new material, usually in class and in their writing groups. They are dedicated. 2) They start to get better and have a strong script or two that they put out into the world (contests, fellowships, etc). There’s usually a period of no responses or no placement in these contests and fellowships, but they keep writing and rewriting and building their portfolio. 3) They submit again and start getting traction. Often placing in a contest as quarterfinalists, semifinalists… Then they start placing in the top 10 or top 5 or what have you. 4) Maybe they get Managers and Agents asking to read them at that stage, or maybe they win the contest… 5) They get that manager or agent. Basically, the work starts to get validated and as the writer builds up “wins”and momentum it’s just a natural climb up the ladder. This a very common pattern I see. Another way in is being an assistant on a show and proving yourself and then being given a shot by the showrunner.”

Greta Heinemann, writing producer on NCIS NEW ORLEANS and creator of Writer’s Wright productivity journal told me:
“A writer is ready to staff when the opportunity to do so is the next inevitable step in their career/ when the opportunity is just around the corner.

An assistant who’s earned her stripes and has built their relationships by sharing great material with their showrunner that gets them excited to promote them.
A program fellow who’s been prepped by the program.
A writer who’s written one (ideally more) pieces that have gotten them reps and buzz and therefore got them into meetings with executives, producers and show runners who’re passionate about them and believe in them.

Anyone who requests staffing without at least one of these prior career steps in place only proves that they have no understanding of the industry and are TOO GREEN FOR THE JOB.”

Dean Craig, creator and showrunner of Direct TV’s HIT THE ROAD, and writer of DEATH AT A FUNERAL imparted:
“Like anything you learn most from doing it, but of course having experience as a writer, having written pilots gone through the notes process, and having worked directly for a producer who is seeking something specific from you will be a massive help when you get there…”

Paul Puri, writer on CHICAGO MED, opined:
“To me there are separate but important skillsets — the being good on the page, being good in the room, and being able to learn/adapt.

I think that you should ideally have a couple of scripts completed. They should all unify and use well the following:

Goal (real, false)
Individual points of view per character that are distinct
Button of a scene
Turn in the story
Character arc
Theme throughout

Being good in the room is a “softer” skill, but really means being able to not step on toes, pitch many ideas that solve problems, and being able to track how any idea you pitch affects all of the above listed factors simultaneously without lessening them. And yet being able to adapt to what someone else’s vision is of what’s best, even if you disagree with them. 

Some of that can be learned a bit on the job, but the flexibility/adaptability is necessary to “level up” on the rest. 

Plus being able to take notes which means not getting emotional about story, including if yours gets ripped apart. And most importantly being able to see the note behind the note, rather than buying/not the thing pitched exactly which seems terrible.”

And finally, always-writing Hollie Overton, who is never one to mince words and whose credits include a producing-writer stint on CBS’S TELL ME A STORY, as well as two published novels and teaching stints as Script Anatomy shared:
“Most writers believe they’re ready long before they really are. I definitely showed scripts to decision-makers way too soon.  In some ways, that’s also part of the process. It isn’t pleasant, but sometimes you need to hear “you’re not quite there yet.” I know when it happened to me, I vowed to work even harder. 

So how will you know that this script is THE SCRIPT? If you’re right out of college, then I’d wager this isn’t the one. It’s not impossible. Maybe you’re a Lena Dunham prodigy, but usually, you still have a lot to learn, not just about writing, and the business, but about the world in general. Your ideas need more time to mature. This is the time to get life experience, get a job on an agent or manager’s desk and build your contacts. Do zany jobs that will make you interesting in a writer’s room and give you a unique outlook on the world. If you’re pursuing TV writing later in life as a second career and you’ve only written one script, and it took you months and months or even years, you definitely aren’t ready.  Once you’re on a writing staff, things move at a lightning pace. You have to be able to write a draft in a few days, navigate tricky room politics and pitch confidently in a room. These things take time to learn and you only get better by doing. I’m also a big believer in submitting your work to writing contests. Some people argue they’re too competitive, but I’ve always found them to be a great barometer on how your work stacks up.  In my experience, writers who consistently place in these contests are ready for their shot. It’s also a much better feeling to be chased by reps as opposed to chasing them.”

As for me… the making of a staff-able writer lies in the difference between bravado and confidence. Confidence comes from not only understanding the mechanics of TV writing, but from executing those on the page in a timely, expert fashion again and again. Confidence comes from knowing your strength, and consolidating your weaknesses when it comes to writing, pitching, managing sensitive relationships and organizing your thoughts. Confidence comes from not only writing a great pilot as your “show piece”, but also from writing a pilot that reflects your understanding of the business, the needs of the industry and how it works. And lastly, confidence comes from momentum, which can only be built with outside advocate’s support and enthusiasm. Once you are able to bypass the bravado that leads a wholly green writer to announce “I am ready to staff!” in favor of building tangible confidence based on experience, written pages, effective process and passionate advocates, then you may just be ready to step into your first professional TV writing gig.

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