STAFF WRITERS ANONYMOUS:
THE 12-STEP SURVIVAL GUIDE TO YOUR FIRST SEASON IN THE ROOM
You endured the rigors of staffing season. You cheered at the news when some Very Important Person liked your material. You nailed the meeting and you got the job! Hooray! …So now what?
Since we here at Script Anatomy have yet to find the official “staff writer handbook” we decided to concoct a little survival guide based on our experience. We hope it helps you through what will surely be one of the most fun-slash-scary times of your life.
1) FIND WAYS TO MANAGE STRESS:
If you’re like us, writing on a tv show has been your holy grail for an embarrassingly large number of years. And just like when any long-time dream becomes reality, the excitement can be coupled with excessive worry. Although deadlines, creative differences and hallway politics vary in degree from show to show, we suggest you pick up a few of these habits as soon as you sign your contract.
– Do yoga. Take walks. Sweat. Get zen.
– Buy a treadmill. Burn off the anxiety and a few calories, too.
– Visit your local liquor store. Red wine is good for your heart, anyway.
– Zone out to the tube. Cheesy reality tv can remind you that your drama is not as bad as you think.
– Find a good therapist. Everyone needs to vent and a good shrink will remind you that what you think is happening and what’s actually happening are not the same thing.
– Read. You might try “Please Meditate. It’s good For You” by Olivia Rosewood or “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t” by Robert I. Sutton, PHD or “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama.
2) THE NEED FOR SPEED:
Now that your mind is in the healthy zone, let’s get down to business.
During your introduction to breaking story with the pros, you may notice ideas flying around the writers’ room faster than you can think. You will need to speed up your brain. You will need to fine-tune your fast-twitch muscle fibers and you will need to be ready to pounce. The days of wandering around your house contemplating a story beat for hours on end are over because a writers’ room is nothing if not fast and furious. It’s like being on court during a nine-way tennis match with players who hit the ball at 100 mph, and trying and stick your racket in. So think fast and get in the game.
3) TO SPEAK OR NOT TO SPEAK:
There is an unspoken terror among staff writers that causes many lost nights of sleep: the idea that if one is not speaking enough in the room then one is not contributing and therefore one will soon be fired. Not all staff writers suffer from this affliction, but if it happens to you, don’t feel like you have to speak just to speak. It’s probably better to say nothing than to say a bunch of dumb stuff. And by all means, don’t re-pitch (in different words) just for the sake of talking. Instead, trust that you’ll eventually have a good idea. Have patience. Even though you are a staff writer and everyone else may have been writing tv since dinosaurs roamed the earth, you will have valuable ideas, too. Know that you can afford to be discerning and wait until that great idea comes.
When you have an idea you really believe in, don’t give up trying to get it heard even if the rest of the room ignores you or steam rolls right over you. This is normal. No one is thinking about being polite when they’re trying to get their pitches out. Being heard is one of the most basic human desires and never is it more on display than in a writers’ room. So keep trying and don’t take it personally.
5) THE PITCH-SLAP:
If your idea is dismissed (and believe me, this will happen) don’t cling to it, don’t re-pitch it over and over again. Let it go and move on. You are there to support your showrunner’s vision of the show, not to campaign for your own.
6) TAKING CREDIT:
So you pitched an idea and they shot it down. You’ve moved on, you’ve let it go. (Good job!) But then… a few hours later someone else pitches the same thing and the room loves it! What the–? Totally sucky, I know. The worst. But resist the urge to scream, “Hey I said that, like, 3 hours ago!” Instead, take a deep breath and remember it’s (probably) not personal. Sometimes an idea has to marinate before it makes sense. Or the idea might sound different in a new context. Or the story may have evolved enough in those passing hours that it now works. Or, let’s be honest, the person who just pitched it may have articulated it better than you did. That’s why you’re a staff writer who still has stuff to learn. You will get better at this pitching thing the more you do it, so let it go and focus on coming up with your next good idea.
7) SEATING CHART:
Where you sit on the first day matters. At least in our room it did, because where we sat on the first day is where we sat for the next eight months. Which, if you must know, was the furthest possible point away from the showrunner. Yes we were staff writers and the seating was hierarchically driven, but the other staff writers did sit a bit closer. Why are we talking about something so petty, you ask? Because when you’re trying to make your voice loud enough to pitch an idea when everyone is talking at once, it is much tougher from the faaaaaaaaaaar end of the table. Resist the urge to buy a megaphone, if this happens to you. Just learn to project, or maybe, sit closer on that very important first day.
8) KNOW THE LANGUAGE:
You may be familiar with some of the terms already, like “jumping the shark” and “at first blush.” But here are a few that were new to us:
“Gilding The Lily” — Decorating something superfluously that’s already beautiful, or in tv terms, adding more to a story beat when nothing more is needed.
“Hang A Lantern On It” — When you need to make sure an audience registers a specific piece of info, you highlight it or hang a lantern on it. In other words, the opposite of subtle.
“Shoe Leather” — The investigative beats in a procedural. Usually focused on boring evidence.
“Schmuck Bait” — When you present a big problem at an act break to get the audience to stick around for the commercial, then immediately and easily solve the problem at the top of the next act.
“Too Small World” – when a story component feels too coincidental because every random player in a case just so happens to have personal history with each other. Like, the client is the witness’s sister’s second cousin and the lawyer is the Judge’s long lost fraternity brother. True, the world is getting smaller – but not that small.
9) PLAY NICE IN THE SANDBOX:
Not that you wouldn’t normally treat everyone nicely. This is an just an extra reminder to be kind to your Writers’ Assistant, Script Coordinator, Writers PA and especially the Showrunner’s Assistant – not only because they’ll probably be your boss someday, but because they work their asses off and they know more about what’s going on behind the scenes of your show than you do.
10) YOUR SCRIPT:
If you’re given two weeks to write your script, write it in one. Then get notes from everyone else on your staff (maybe even the showrunner if she/he offers) during the second week. Even though they call it a first draft, you may never get the chance to rewrite it. So try to make your script as shiny and polished as possible. Because hypothetically, it would be the worst thing in the world to turn it in and then think… “Shit, if only my showrunner knew how well I can really write…”
11) AFTER THE DRAFT:
If you’re lucky enough to write an episode on your first show, understand that you will not necessarily produce it. You may produce some of it, none of it or all of it. This includes casting, prep meetings, table reads, set supervision, studio and network notes, editing and the rest of post.
If you’re lucky enough to go to set, remember, you are just a staff writer. Do not give notes to the director or the actors or anyone else for that matter. Usually, the proper channel to go through is the Producing Director. If he or she is not on set when you notice something awry then you can approach the director. But do it in a very covert, stealth-ninja manner – i.e. not loudly in front of everyone as this does not prove that you know more than them, it proves you’re an ass. Or worse – “green.”
Be grateful for whatever parts of the overall process you’re invited to participate in, learn as much as you can, pay attention to details, make suggestions and give notes where appropriate and then let the rest go.
12) AND FINALLY, THE THEME OF THE DAY:
Seems to be a theme here, this “letting go” business. Our showrunner was a very wise man who understands the importance of letting things go. One afternoon he took all of us down the street to the multiplex where we watched a movie. Did I mention it was, like, two o’clock on a Tuesday? Yes we saw the remake of FOOTLOOSE, but still. The next day in the room, energy was up and creativity was on fire.
So whether your thing is meditation, exercise, a play-date with your kids, a few tequila shots or a matinee of an eighties classic remake, carve out the time to shake things off — then refocus. You’ll be a better staff writer and you might even learn a few yee-haw dance moves while you’re at it.