Friday, April 10, 2015

My Response to an Insightful Post about the path to Writing Professionally for TV by Greta Heinemann

My Response to a wonderful Post by Greta Heinemann, which is excerpted below. The original post was on Scripts and Scrbes   

10 Things I Have Learned on My Way Into Two TV Writing Fellowships

(that may or may have not made a difference on getting in)


Greta Heinemann

My partner in writing-related crimes, writing coach, Lee Jessup, recently asked me if I would be willing to volunteer as source of information for Kevin at Scripts & Scribes. Kevin was looking to find somebody who could offer an inside POV on the TV Writing Fellowships and who ideally was right in the thick of it. I’m currently in the incredibly lucky position to be a fellow in not only the CBS Writers Mentoring Program, but also one of the Humanitas New Voices winners. I firmly believe that information is the true holy grail of our business and I constantly find myself wishing that paying-it-forward was higher on everybody’s agenda, especially because I am the lucky beneficiary of some of those rare amazing humans who went out of their way to let me learn. Naturally I was excited to pass some of this on to you, in hopes you can make use of it.

Before I dive in, a disclaimer: Everything in this article is based on my personal experiences and takeaways and by no means is it meant to answer the question of how one gets into a fellowship. That’s something only the people behind the fellowships can truly answer (and they do so every year on countless panels, so go hear them speak there). I’m just a writer unable to resist the temptation of putting my own experiences into written words.

As I said, I believe information is the holy grail of our business. Consequently I make it a point to read all the books and articles, listen to the podcasts, go to the panels, do the Googling, do the watching, have the coffees; in short, do everything to learn, no matter how little the takeaway seems. But while knowledge is amazing, if it is not translated into easy-to-follow instructions or lists, it’s often intimidating. Fine, maybe it’s not intimidating to you and it’s just because I’m German that I need rules and lists in my life, but either way, I have compiled a list of things that I have learned along the way and that I try to hold myself responsible to.

5.  Be as interesting in person as your material is on the page

I just recently went to a fellowship panel where Jeanne Mau, VP Current Programs CBS Entertainment and part of the CBS Writers Mentoring Program selection committee, stated the obvious and was quickly backed up by her counter parts at ABC, NBC and FOX: Your letter of intent is incredibly important, so don’t half-ass it. (Jeanne probably found a more elegant way of paraphrasing the half-assing part, but you get the idea.)

My first job in America quickly taught me that the entertainment industry is more a “people business” than it is a skill set based business. If you have to choose between a handful of excellent people, you will pick the most memorable and relatable one. The one you won’t mind getting stuck in an elevator with. Please don’t misinterpret this as nepotism. I will never get tired of telling the world that I almost didn’t apply to the Humanitas fellowship because I had several extremely talented friends who were recommended to the program by very important showrunners or knew somebody in the selection committee and I assumed my chances were zero-times-zero because I had neither. I did it nonetheless because I’m stubborn, and was brought in solely based on my material and my letter of intent. A lot is about who you know, but gladly that’s not always everything. Back to the letter of intent.

This letter is your opportunity to explain why you are special and different than the other extremely talented writers (and there are plenty) who are competing with you. Keep in mind that most of the fellowships are also attempting to fix the diversity problem in this town by nurturing diverse and traditionally underrepresented talent. While that doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you have to be of color (I’m German – we’re famous for being rather un-diverse to say the least), it means you have to have a unique, diverse life story. And I may go as far as to assume, given the selection committee has to read thousands of applications, that you better catch their attention in the first two sentences if you want them to read on.

I can’t tell you what exactly the magic mustard is that goes in a perfect letter of intent, but I can tell you that if you’re drawn to this crazy career there must be something off enough about you to spin an attention-grabbing story around it. (If not, you can always start eating only potatoes to finance your writing education, get starch poisoning and use that as story – it might work. I haven’t tried it yet.

6.  You can’t control the outcome of a meeting but you can influence it by being prepared

In retrospect this is one of the biggest lessons learned while going through the quite nerve-wrecking interview process for the Humanitas New Voices program, later the CBS interviews and now every workshop in the program, general meeting and hopefully soon staffing meetings.

If you’re in the incredibly lucky position of getting called in for an interview you have to be prepared. You need to know whom you’re meeting with, you need to know how to talk about yourself and what you want out of the meeting.

I was incredibly lucky because my first make-or-break-it interview (for Humanitas) was with Carole Kirschner, who – after Googling her twice – I learned had written a book about how to break in and how to give good meetings along the way (Hollywood Game Plan, I wouldn’t push it if it didn’t save my ass). Now, as a good German, I appreciated Carole’s lists and rules so much, that I (obviously) read the book and prepared myself meticulously by following it step by step. Last but not least, if you’re set to meet with a woman who wrote a book on how to give good meetings she’ll likely be impressed seeing somebody do exactly how she laid it out herself. If you’re smart, you’ll go buy that book now, but in the meantime here are some CliffsNotes from my end:

* Make a personal connection with the person you are meeting (more on this in a moment)

* Be able to tell your unique “how did I get here” story in less than a minute and in an entertaining and memorable fashion.

* Be able to talk about your writing, your life, the other person’s work, little stories, the specific opportunity you’re talking about, etc.

* Direct the conversation in a way that allows you to (in a Slick-Rick-non-pushy-way) slip in why you’re the right person for this opportunity.

* Have questions or a specific “ask” prepared. If delivering a specific “ask” always present it with an easy out for your counterpart (No I won’t read your script!)

* Have shows to talk about (you’re writing for TV, dude – the least you can do is watch a lot of it)

* Have some new projects up your sleeve to talk about (nobody likes a one-hit wonder. If you can’t say what you’re currently working on, you’re not working enough (see point 2 – Writers Write.)

* Be fucking grateful! (More on this later).

A word about nerves: I’m in the incredibly blessed position of having pretty good ones because I’ve gone through nerve-wracking interviews during my immigration process with the Department of Homeland Security and consequently am not as afraid of Hollywood Execs. If you’re incredibly nervous A) try to remind yourself that they want you to succeed (they think you’re talented otherwise they wouldn’t have brought you in) B) be well-prepared so you know what to expect (if you listen to podcasts featuring the people you’re set to meet it almost feels like you know them walking into the room) and C) take a chill-pill (a non-drowsy one please!

9.  There’s no shortcut or overnight success. With or without fellowships.

This is a two-parter. One: When Lena Dunham broke out with GIRLS, I briefly made the big mistake of comparing myself to her. We’re the same age and both made an ultra low budget feature hoping to break in. How come she’s now the awkward, naked female Woody Allen of HBO and I’m not her bad-ass, blazin’ guns, completely not neurotic counterpart at FX? Well, tough shit.

Hollywood keeps telling tales of overnight success because they make for a good story and nobody wants to talk about hard work. Yes, THE IMITATION GAME was Graham Moore’s first screenplay. Yes, Nic Pizzolatto went from novelist to TRUE DETECTIVE practically overnight. Yes, Mickey Fisher’s EXTANT was discovered through a writing competition (or at least I think so) but they are the exception. For every YES out there, imagine how many NOs there must have been and how hard these lucky ones mentioned above had to work to maintain their reputation. This counts big picture, but also small picture – for every selected TV writing fellowship  fellow, there are hundreds if not thousands of writers who didn’t make the cut. Chances are, they’re you and me. When that happens, I remind myself of Ron Meyer and of how many people turned down Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad – see if it works for you.

The second part to this: One step after another is still forward. I try to remind myself of that, as I am preparing myself for what’s to come. I’m pushing for staffing this season and my reps and support system are pulling hard (which I am incredibly grateful for) and I’m ready to do everything it takes, but yet the stars may not align and it might just not be enough. There’s always a good chance that by the end of April I’ll be done with CBS and by June I’ll have completed my Humanitas pilot and that will be the end of my current adventures. What then? I don’t know the exact answer, but what I do know is that I’m preparing pitches for development season and a second script (alongside my Humanitas pilot) to be roll-out ready by June. I’m lobbying for assignments and after Sundance and HBO I’m also back speccing and prepping my submission materials for another round of fellowships. It all goes to say that no matter what opportunities are given to me, I know I have to keep generating more.

10.  Be humble and grateful. Be good to each other.

Let’s go back to the Gen Y issue I mentioned earlier (and I’m not excluding myself)—Don’t be an entitled, fucking idiot. Be grateful and be humble. Know that everybody giving you the time of day, no matter how low or high up on the totem pole, is doing you a favor, so be appreciative of that. Send a Thank You note. Send cookies. If you can’t afford to send cookies, send potatoes or a hand drawn post card. I don’t care what you do, but please, please be grateful and never be above things. Don’t refuse to pick up that coffee. Lend a hand where you can, even if it’s just to clean the office after lunch or wipe that whiteboard.

There’s nothing more soul-crushing than seeing somebody who has been given an unbelievable opportunity be entitled or complain about something while somebody who’d truly appreciate it is waiting on the sidelines.

Also, get ready for this insider tip: There’s not a single ungrateful person in the CBS workshop (everybody there is awesome – shout out!!!), so I suspect being humble and grateful might appeal to the decision makers. Got it?

Lastly, be good to each other. Life is too short to backstab and while the good ones do not always succeed in the short game, we will in the long one, especially if we stick together!

If you made it all the way through this article and the 10 fellowship related questions (hyperlinked) A) congratulations I’m impressed and B) Find me on Twitter if you still have questions. @ImmersiveG


I really believe there’s some great things that Greta Heinemann writes that will benefit everyone making their way through the entertainment industry. 
I especially found points #5 and #6 original and insightful. 

(#5) Many creators forget that what they are selling is not only their work, but themselves. 
It’s not just projects connected to the fellowship Ms. Heinemann talks about, if you write in the entertainment business, working with people is part of the process. If this is something that proves to be difficult, then one should figure out how to do better; or channel their creativity in a different direction… like writing a novel because such a pursuit will limit how many people you need to deal interact with in a respectful and productive way. 
(#6) This point is a nice blending of the old affirmation about letting go with the parts of life you can’t control, but also emphasizing the essential aspects you should seek to control to be successful.
I often run across people who are too caught up in the spiritual aspect of “letting go,” in lieu of not doing their homework/or the hard work that enhances the chances that what you can’t control breaks in your direction. 

My only critical note would be a single sentence Ms. Heinemann used in her introduction --  

I believe information is the holy grail of our business. 

I actually disagree with this one line. 
I believe information in the entertainment business is the exact opposite meaning of the term “Holy Grail.” 
If I was to throw out a basic definition of the term, I would use something I just grabbed from wikipedia -- “A grail, wondrous but not explicitly holy.” 

Information about the entertainment business, even useful, trustworthy information, is out there, not hidden, and can be had by those who make even a nominal effort to find it. Therefore, even though it might appear to be a bridge to success in the entertainment industry, I don't belive it to be the Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail in the entertainment business is -- Creativity
This is why there are fellowship programs like the one Ms. Heinemann is participating in. 
The hope is that what will be discovered with such programs is the one thing that is impossible for companies to mass produce, like a DVD, or an iphone. 
The Holy Grail that has a hundred knights searching across the land is the discovery of the rare talent for Creativity. So it can be nurtured, celebrated, and sanctified by being transformed into creative content...
On a DVD... or streamed on an iphone.  
Not information. Creativity 

Regardless of my critical response to the one aspect of Ms. Heinemann’s post, I implore anyone interested in the entertainment business to read her insightful words. There’s a lot of wisdom in what she has learned and what she is sharing with the rest of us!