Real Writers Break In! Amadou’s Fast Track: From First Pilot to Manager in 18 Months
The below post was written by Amadou Diallo, who, in what would be considered lightening-fast, went from new to repped writer (also winning a big screenwriting competition along the way) in just a year and a half. In this Real Writers Break In! guest blog, he breaks down what worked for him, and what he learned, along the journey.
In May 2019, I wrote my first TV pilot. Eighteen months later, I signed with a manager. I’m saying this not to brag, but to let you know that in an industry where the odds are stacked against newcomers, your success is possible.
Those eighteen months were defined by hard work, unwavering self-belief and yes, good fortune. You’re going to need all three because there’s no magic formula for getting repped. My journey had moments and circumstances that will be different than yours. But in looking back on the experience, there are lessons I learned that will be relevant for the rest of my screenwriting career. I’d like to share them.
Getting repped, for me, was about committing to three things: craft, hustle and community.
Nothing happens without a standout script. That sounds obvious, but if you’re spending time and money on any kind of breaking in strategy and your writing isn’t up to par, you aren’t going to get the results you’re after.
Writing is hard, so be kind to yourself. The first script I wrote sucked compared to the second one I finished. And the second one wasn’t as good as my third script. To improve, you’re going to have to commit to writing; writing a lot.
This means you’re going to have to learn to embrace failure. Why? Because the majority of your ideas aren’t going to be very good.
I keep journals where I jot down new ideas and brainstorm fixes for existing story problems. I’d say 90 percent of what’s in them should never see the light of day. But by moving those bad ideas out of my head and onto paper, I’ve created space for the good ones to arrive. I firmly believe that my first job as a writer is to sift through all the bad ideas so that my readers don’t have to. It’s like doing community service, except I’m not wearing an orange vest on the side of the highway picking up beer cans.
Reading scripts has been as important to my development as writing them. When I started this journey, although I had read many stage plays, I could count on one hand the number of pilots I’d read. Fortunately, that was a problem with an easy fix since a Google search can turn up pilots in PDF format of nearly any show you can think of.
I became a voracious reader of TV scripts and quickly amassed several oversize binders full of dramedies, period pieces, horror, rom-coms, you name it. Reading scripts wasn’t about luxuriating in the brilliance of my favorite shows (though that’s a lovely way to spend an afternoon) but about volume. After reading dozens of professional scripts, the dos and don’ts of formatting, act breaks, slug lines, etc. soon became second nature. And now, whenever I do have a question about how to handle special circumstances in my own scripts, like texting or dream sequences, I have, in those binders, a library of examples for reference.
Writing, of course is where the rubber meets the road. I’ve never been too picky about where or when I write as far as getting the creative juices flowing. But I do need deadlines to be productive. I like to set short-term goals. It might be five pages a day if I’m writing the script or getting to the first act-out if I’m breaking story. These deadlines are self-imposed and nobody but me cares if I make them, but for whatever reason, I treat them as if a six-figure payday will be lost if I don’t make them. You have to find what works for you, because you’re going to have to come up with a lot of material.
Before you even think about getting repped, you need to have at least two, and ideally three scripts in your portfolio.Once you finish a script, the next step is to find out if it’s any good. The best way to do that is to get feedback from people you respect. At this stage, criticism is far more helpful than praise.
During my first coaching session with Lee, when I was hoping she would be dazzled by the sheer genius of the script I had sent her, she asked whether I had ever taken a screenwriting course. When I said, No, she added, kindly, but firmly, “There are challenges in your pilot that screenwriting classes would have addressed.” Did that sting? Sure. But you know what? She was right. At her suggestion, I enrolled in a TV pilot course at Script Anatomy. Halfway through the very first class, I realized that I was going to have to rewrite every script I’d done up to that point.
Remember what I said about embracing failure? There were a lot of things about the pilot Lee read that didn’t work. But by writing it, I gave her the chance to identify those failures for me and suggest a way to fix them. I’m a much better writer for taking that screenwriting class. And the very next pilot I wrote was my strongest script yet. Those are big wins that easily trump the temporary hit to my ego. They put me on the path to being ready for representation.
So how do you know when you’re ready for a manager? By the time I began taking meetings with managers, I had four one-hour pilots in my portfolio. Those four pilots were all page one rewrites of previous scripts, so I’d argue that I actually wrote eight pilots over the 18-month period I mentioned at the start of this piece. That’s a lot of writing, but the payoff is that when potential managers asked the inevitable, “What else do you have?” I had scripts (emphasis on the plural) ready to send them. Once I signed with my manager, we hit the ground running sending two pilots out simultaneously to execs and studios, with no further edits on my part. That’s what being ready looks like.
No matter how amazing your script is, it won’t get you anywhere just sitting in your drawer. That’s where your hustle comes in. You need to get your work in front of people.
Coming from a career in journalism, it was important to let the people around me know about the shift I was making into screenwriting. I reached out to a former colleague who had a playwriting background and was now an editor at the New York Times. We met for lunch and I gave her my script for a pilot set in a near-future dystopia; no pressure to read it, I just wanted to let her know what I was up to. I heard nothing back from her. I didn’t even know if she’d read it. But six months later she reached out, saying that the Times was doing a special fiction section with a dystopian-future theme. She asked me to adapt the pilot into a short story. In January 2020, my short story appeared in print alongside entries from Pulitzer-winning authors. Was this good fortune? Absolutely. You can’t plan for something like that, but by sharing my work, I gave myself the opportunity for it to happen.
You may not be able to invite a New York Times editor for lunch, but it’s been my experience that there are plenty of people in the TV industry willing to sit down for a coffee with a newcomer.
A producer in New York who had read one of my scripts offered to put me in touch with some industry friends, “if you’re ever in LA”. Instead of dismissing the offer as something she was just saying to be nice, I took it at face value and soon made plans for a networking trip to LA. Once my tickets were booked, I followed up with the producer and she made email introductions to a showrunner and a working writer, both of whom agreed to meet for coffee. The meetings were informal; they got to know about me, my career goals, and I got to hear about their experiences in television. No hard sell or asking for favors on my end. What I walked away with was two industry veterans I could add to my personal network. That’s huge.
Now, here’s where your hustle really has to kick in; stay in touch with the people you meet. Have a contest win? Make the interview round of a fellowship? Finish a new script? Let these people know. Share your good news. This isn’t an ego thing. You’re telling them that you’re serious about breaking in and putting in the effort to make it happen.
The writer I met with for coffee was kind enough to offer to read future scripts. So whenever I had a polished version of a new script I would send it to him. Less than a year after our coffee meeting, he passed along one of those scripts, without me even knowing, to the person who is now my manager. Again, can you plan for this? No. But you can create the conditions for this kind of thing to happen. If I had spent that coffee meeting badgering this writer to pass along my work, or introduce me to a manager, I’m sure that would have raised a lot of red flags on his end. Instead, I treated the meeting as an opportunity for a conversation. I really appreciated his insights, let alone that he made time to meet with me. I considered that meeting a success well before he passed my script along.
One of the best decisions I made during this journey was to join a writer’s group. Sharing your work with your peers on a regular basis is invaluable. Fellow writers versed in the language of story arc and character development can offer detailed feedback in ways that non-writers simply can’t. And, even more importantly, they can be honest in ways that may be uncomfortable for friends and family.
In my group I get notes on my work from writers reflecting a diversity of age, gender, religion, race and sexual orientation. The feedback is in a supportive environment where the common goal is to make my script as good as it can be. Does everyone always agree on what works and what doesn’t? No. If a scene works for some people but not for others, then I have to decide what feels authentic to me. On the other hand, if three people all bump on the same beat in a script, that’s a sure sign that I need to change it.
Writer’s groups are great for providing accountability. In my group we have a Sunday midnight deadline for submissions, so I know that if I want to get feedback, I’ve got to have pages ready by then. A looming deadline makes it so much easier for me to make story decisions I’d otherwise spend weeks debating over.
Another benefit to writer’s groups is simply the social aspect. Writing is a solitary endeavor and it’s great to be able to share the ups and downs of that process with other folks who are experiencing the same thing. And there’s nothing like the motivation of success. In 2020, a member of my group won an NBC fellowship, another won the Launch Pad competition and yet another signed a shopping agreement for their feature. Their wins motivate me by reinforcing the idea that talent and hard work do pay off.
There’s also a great, supportive screenwriting community on Twitter. Many writers, showrunners, producers and managers regularly share helpful insights. I’ve met incredibly talented up-and-coming writers on Twitter. We’ve swapped scripts, traded advice about reps, and met for virtual coffees over Zoom. These are the beginnings of industry relationships. Down the road, as we rise during our careers, we may be in positions to give each other jobs. This is networking without even having to leave your house. If you don’t know where to start, you can find me on Twitter @amadouworld and see who I’m following.
Yeah, Yeah, Our Paths Are different. But How Did You Do It?
Okay, here’s the short answer. I wrote. I read. I rewrote. I took classes. And I wrote some more, until I had multiple scripts that were exceptional, not just good. I entered a bunch of contests and got rejection emails from most of them. In one major contest, though, I won their mentorship prize. The publicity from that win led to several managers reaching out. But the manager I ended up signing with found me not through the contest win, but through the personal recommendation of someone he trusted, who passed along my script. Over two long conversations about my background, goals and his vision for my career, we were both convinced that we were a good fit for each other.
This was my path. Yours is going to be different. But the principles I’ve laid out here are relevant to anyone who’s serious about breaking in. If you are relentless in honing your craft, commit to creating opportunities to share your work and seek out your own community of support and inspiration, success can be yours. I know. It happened to me.
Amadou is a Renaissance man with a career that has spanned multiple art forms. He’s toured and recorded as a jazz musician, had solo photography exhibitions and his journalism has appeared in outlets including The New York Times, The Atlantic and the PBS NewsHour.
His pilot, KING OF LESOTHO, was named a winner in Tracking Board’s 2020 Launch Pad competition and another pilot, THE COUNTDOWN, was adapted into a short story published in The New York Times’ Sunday Review.