Advice from TV Writing Fellowship Superstars

by Susan Sassi

Fellowship Season is almost here. Writers dream of landing these coveted spots. The first step in turning a dream into reality is research. So, if you want a TV Writing Fellowship, what better way to gather information than by gathering it straight from the superstars’ mouths. I reached out to some TV Writing Fellowship Alumni to pick their brains a little and dig for some valuable pearls of wisdom.

 

                

                           

 

What’s the best writing advice, motivation, or tip you ever received?

 

Shirin Najafi:

It’s probably cheesy that I am about to reference Steven Spielberg, but I once read somewhere this advice he had along the lines of “filtering out the noise to listen to a voice deep down inside of you.” It’s a simple idea but it really resonated with me. Earlier in my career, I had a habit of constantly asking others for their opinions and advice, and I would follow whatever they suggested even if it felt wrong on a gut level. I can’t think of an instance when this led to good results. So the best advice I “received” (i.e. reading a quote from Steven Spielberg) was to listen to your gut and to use that as a way to filter through advice and opinions. Of course, sometimes you don’t have a strong gut feeling, and then advice can be helpful. Or it can help you figure out what you already feel deep down (like when you ask a waiter what’s better between two options and then you don’t want to get the thing they suggest because you kind of already knew what you wanted).

Crescent Imani Novell:

Write on a regular basis. I had a day job and it was hard to find the energy to write at night.  I also wasn’t making enough money so I was always looking for a second and/or better source of income.  I used to say: “I can’t write until it’s right.”  I told one of my old bosses that statement and he said I should be saying: “I have to write to make it right.” I didn’t listen right away–but I should have. When I did, my life changed.

Rishi Chitkara:

Write the pilot that your reps don’t want you to write.” Don’t write something with the sole goal of selling it or becoming the next Hollywood wunderkind. Don’t mold your work to industry expectations or try to mimic whatever’s trending. Stick to proper format, and structure, and try not to go too off-the-wall esoteric. But above all, work towards a unique sample that reads clearly stands out and will be remembered. Even if that means it will never get made.

Hannah Rosner:

Write what you want to write, especially when you are just starting out. Chances are slim that anything you write early in your career will actually get made. So, instead of writing what managers/agents/producers tell you to write because they know what’s “hot right now,” have fun telling the stories you are dying to tell? Once you become a professional writer, it becomes harder to find the time to work on passion projects. So, write those passion projects now.

Jesse Esparza

From Suze Orman’s “Young, Fabulous, and Broke” (For real, watch this) — Invest in yourself because that’s all you have control over. Be so good at whatever you do, that you are needed, that they cannot succeed without you. Be the first one in and the last one out. Always say yes to things that can further your career, but never settle for anything less than what you want and what you’re worth. It takes time, but in the end, your investment pays off.

Lira Kellerman:

The best writing advice: write the thing that’s uniquely yours. This is kinda the same thing as, “Write what you know,” but it includes the life experiences and themes you grew up with, and the life lessons you had to learn the hard way. It also includes the *years* of processing and understanding, so you can give each character empathy because if you’re gonna pull from your life, you have to make your antagonists sympathetic. The best life advice: go to therapy.

 

How many rounds of notes and re-writes did you do before submitting your pilots for Fellowships?

 

Shirin Najafi:

When I last applied (in 2019), I had been working on my pilot for about five years. There were three different versions (totally different premises) of this same story. For each of those versions, I did a full rewrite at least once and then several rounds of smaller edits. I don’t think writing three completely different versions of the same pilot story is normal. I picked a difficult, personal story to write about, which is why it took so long to crack.

Crescent Imani Novell:

Expect to do at least three. Be ready to do 13 or more. I remember being angry when a former instructor read the first draft of one of my scripts and at the bottom of her notes she wrote: “Good start… 13 or 14 more drafts and maybe you’ll have something.”  I really wanted to cuss her out. I thought she was insulting me then.  But she was correct. Now that I’m in a writer’s room and have some skills and experience under my belt, we get it done in three drafts.

Rishi Chitkara:

Candidly it’s hard to say.  It took me about six weeks to have a draft, which I then continued to nitpick neurotically until nothing bumped me. In terms of the spec, it took about two weeks with a similar process. For the essay, I pieced it together over several weeks with various degrees of informal feedback from people whose opinions I trusted. I did this all MONTHS before the application deadline on weekends/nights. Give yourself as much time as possible.

Hannah Rosner:

Many, many, many. I had friends, colleagues, my writer’s group, even my Mom reads my scripts before submitting them to gather feedback and continue polishing. It was so much work, but it all paid off.

Lira Kellerman:

As many as it took. And I know that sounds like a cop-out answer, but I would consider myself ‘done’ when the notes were all very positive, and the suggestions to fix anything were actions I disagreed with. Once you’re at that point, and where the notes are now just quick typo/grammar fixes, you’re finished and your script is good to go.

 

Did you find a particular exercise helpful for mining stories from your life for the Fellowship essay questions? Would you be willing to share?

 

Shirin Najafi:

I don’t recall a particular exercise. My advice for the essays would be to write from a truthful place and to write with details and specificity. They read a lot of these essays, and some of the questions are pretty broad (like “Why do you want to be a writer?”). Details and specifics are a great way to make the essays engaging and stay in someone’s mind.

Crescent Imani Novell:

The key is to be a storyteller. Just like in our scripts–we need an interesting protagonist with goals and obstacles.  There should be an inciting incident, a turning point, a big high, a low-low, some comedy, some drama, problems, close calls, mistakes, and good lessons. A beginning: that sets everything up. A middle: with obstacles and turning points. An ending: that has a worthy resolution. And all of it should reflect the genre you write in, your tone, and your style.

Rishi Chitkara:

I’ve got zero shame in sharing this: I asked my therapist what he thought. After many a year of listening to me rant about my strengths, my frustrations, and most important of all, my crippling insecurities, he was able to zero in on the areas that were worth exploring. It worked. Talk to people who know you for the real you and understand how you see the world. Those people will help you shine

Hannah Rosner:

The truth is, every writer has a unique point of view, something they care about deeply that is woven into every story they tell. Personal reflection can help you connect to your inner voice and ultimately help you set yourself apart as a writer. Start by journaling about the most important moments in your life. How did those moments, those turning points, shape who you are?  What themes are present in your writing? Why do they mean so much to you?

Jesse Esparza

Tell a story with your essay. So many times, people (myself included) never think that they are interesting or they have a special, unique story to tell, but that is never the case. You must fully open yourself up to things you may have never openly shared before. I never thought I’d be sharing about my dad getting deported, and how that affected me, but with some guidance from some of the people in charge of these programs, I was able to break down why I am a writer and why I like telling the stories I do. It can be uncomfortable (it sure was for me!) but once you allow yourself to be vulnerable and honest, you can really answer the questions, tell your story, and stand out.

Lira Kellerman:

What themes are in your pilot sample? Do you have a character with a particular viewpoint, hardship, or experience that mirrors your own? Use that particular thing as your essay subject so you can talk about how that experience colors your work.

 

If you could go back in time to before you first applied for the Fellowships and give yourself advice, what would it be?

 

Shirin Najafi:

I would tell myself that this career will take a long time. I kept thinking success was right around the corner, and as a result, there was a lot of disappointment.

Crescent Imani Novell:

I would get professional feedback on my scripts from qualified people who were actually in the business.  I would also not wait until the last minute. That is self-sabotage.  You must put effort, planning, and skill into this. If you win–it will change your life. Treat this like it’s a life-changing opportunity–not a last-minute lottery ticket where you might get lucky.

Rishi Chitkara:

Do not take the essay questions lightly.  They’re your third writing sample, not a rehash of your resume. Essays are an opportunity for you to lay out why you deserve a seat at the adult table, using your own voice, perspective, and life experience. If there’s a stack of 50 amazing semi-finalist writers, whittled down from 2000 applicants, a well-written essay will help move the needle to the finalist phase.

Hannah Rosner:

Be patient. I wanted to be the next Lena Dunham ASAP! I wanted to be running shows when I was 25. I now laugh at my younger self — while I respect that ambition, I was not even ready to be a staff writer back then. My writing had a long way to go and I had so much to learn about the industry. A lot of writers want to skip steps and speed to the top, but each rejected submission is a learning opportunity and a chance to get better.

Jesse Esparza

I’ll give you advice that I lived by. Don’t be crushed for too long if you don’t get in. Have something else that gives you purpose and makes you happy. Have other things in your life that matter to you. Be sad for a day, maybe two, buy some new shoes, feel better, and move on to the next thing. Keep writing. It never stops. It never stops. Get used to writing a new pilot a year. You never know which one is going to get all the attention, or even get sold. So always keep sharpening your tools with new projects. And lastly, when a friend, frenemy, colleague, acquaintance, or all of the above get something, be happy for them! Be genuinely happy for them. There’s nothing good that can come from thinking why them and not me. It can only mean that your time is coming soon.

Lira Kellerman:

I wish I could go back and ask myself, “Is comedy really your genre?” Once I bit the bullet and said, “Okay, maybe I should try writing a drama,” that’s when everything hit for me. I got into Writers on The Verge, got a manager, and still get general meetings. If you also write dramedies try to write a drama pilot. You’ll naturally put in comedic dialogue that allows levity where it’s needed, and that’s a great skill to show off.

 

How many times did you submit to the fellowships before getting in?

 

Shirin Najafi:

I applied in 2011, 2014, and 2019. I didn’t apply every year because the requirements included a spec, which was a writing sample that was not particularly useful to have outside of applying to these fellowships.  This was a bit of a barrier to applying frequently. After being rejected from the fellowships, I’d pursue other avenues for a few years before coming back to apply to them.

Crescent Imani Novell:

I applied maybe two years in a row. Then I did not apply for many years because I convinced myself it was impossible to win. Then, after I saw about three different acquaintances win fellowships, I decided to apply again. I applied for three years in a row and finally made it on the third try of my second round of attempts!  So… don’t give up and don’t quit.

Rishi Chitkara:

Four times for NBC. I think three for CBS, but it may have been more. Every writing opportunity is a chance to grow your skills. If you don’t get in, by all means, take however much time you need to feel frustrated. Then sober up and get back to work. Best of luck!

Hannah Rosner:

I submitted three times to fellowships before finally getting in.

Jesse Esparza:

Once or twice. I’m a savant!

Lira Kellerman:

Four times; three times as a comedy writer, and that fourth time as a drama writer that proved the one-hour space is where my talents undoubtedly shine. Biting that bullet and believing in myself and the stories I *truly* wanted to tell, definitely paid off.

 

My Takeaways on Preparing for Fellowships

 

These writers had a lot of great things to say so it’s hard to pick out just a few takeaways to summarize, but I’ll try.

First, never expect success is right around the corner.  It sets you up for disappointment and that takes a toll on your mental state. This path is a life-long marathon. Doing this for the love of the craft and not recognition is what will sustain us.

Second, write what you love not what sells. It might be tempting to say, “Action movies are popular now, so writing one can increase my chances.” Art is subjective, you can’t control what other people are going to like. But you can control writing the scripts you will enjoy. At the end of the day, the most important person you can make happy is yourself.

And lastly, dig deep for those fellowship personal essay questions. Ask friends, therapists, and anyone who will give you feedback and information on who you are. Go for long reflective walks and journal introspectively. Look for themes in your writing and see how they came from your own life.

I hope you found this article helpful. If so, please share it on social media. You can find more resources below to assist you with your fellowship application.  Thank you and best of luck!

 

Other Script Anatomy fellowship resources:

 

TV Fellowship Bootcamp

Feature Writing Fellowship Panel

TV Writing Fellowship Panel Recording

 


 

Susan Sassi

Written by Susan Sassi

Susan Sassi’s scripts have received recognition from Austin Film Fest, Women In Film, Emerging Writers, CineStory, Fresh Voices, The ‘Breakk’, Stage 32, Genre Screenwriting Contest, and ScreenCraft TV Writing Contest. You can find her satire in The Belladonna, Weekly Humorist, Slackjaw, Widget, Robot Butt, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Greener Pastures. Website | Medium |Twitter

 

 

 


 

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