Breaking In

Originally posted 2003.

One of my correspondents asks how I (or anyone) can write a script in four days. There is no good answer to that, except to say that one proceeds with little sleep and a great deal of uncertainty of expectation. The truth is, people are rarely proud of scripts they write in four days, and that’s why the situation is to be avoided. It’s like the flu, though; sometimes you just can’t get away from it.

But back to breaking in.  It does sound like something that happens to your house when you’re on vacation and forget to tell them to stop the mail — and in fact, you may start to get the message that your constant, unwelcome attempts to get someone to read your work are verging on criminal behavior.  Something to be ashamed of, anyway.  That’s where moving to LA comes in.  Now, you may be wondering how moving to the city of sun glare and traffic jams will help you. At least, I used to wonder that. I grasped that things were hopeless elsewhere, but I couldn’t see the odds improving even if I moved. I’d think, suppose I found a job in LA, doing computer support or technical writing. How does this translate into “making contacts”? What am I supposed to do, track down a producer and follow him home in my car? Don’t they have stalker laws for that? It didn’t seem that living in Los Angeles was going to be noticeably different from living in New York.

But there you are. I moved anyway. And I took stock of myself and here’s the evaluation I came up with:

I’m not going to blow the socks off someone because I meet them at a party or talk to them after a lecture. Maybe there are writers who just have that much charisma. I don’t think there can be many of them, though. I get to know people over the long haul, or else through my writing. How can I achieve that?

And I took a route that a lot of people take. I got a lower-level job in the industry — in my case, working as a script coordinator. It was a big step down in pay from what I’d been doing, but it was a foot in the door. Mind you, even lower-level jobs in television are hard to get; you can’t swing a purse without hitting someone who wants one, and they tend to go quickly to friends of friends. If I have time, and if there’s any interest, I’ll tell the story of how I got this one, because it’s fascinating to me in a kind of Jungian way. For now, though, I’ll tell you about the etiquette of apprenticeship.

Hollywood does not work like book publishing. You can’t send something in through an agent and expect someone to read it. They won’t. Hollywood works like a social networking site when it’s in beta, and you can only get in through invitation.

It’s like this: producers and executives have piles of scripts dumped on them. And they have other things they need to be doing — like their job, for instance, which is made up of inescapable deadlines. And they’ve already read 500 Law and Orders, and frankly, they’re sick of it. So, no, you’re not imagining it — they hate the idea of reading your work.  They’d rather dig a ditch — preferably to the studio lot fence, where they can tunnel under and make a quick escape before a dozen other people show up with scripts for them.  And if they can palm this one off on someone else, oh boy will they.

Unless they are obligated in some way — unless the agent keeps calling them, and it’s an agent they know; unless the writer is somebody they owe a favor to; unless there’s someone whom they trust who strongly recommends the writer — your script is unlikely to ever be read.

And sending a script in, blind, to a show, because you read somewhere in an interview that they’re looking for writers? Regardless of the PR, I’m telling you — nobody who can do anything for you is going to read it.

But every community has its gates. When you first stumble into a social networking/blog site, it’s a strange new world, and you think, “Hey, I’d like one of these free journals!… What do you mean, I need someone to give me a code? How am I supposed to do that? I don’t know anybody here!”

It’s a minor form of gatekeeping, but there it is. You participate in the community a bit, meet a few people, ask for a code, and get one.

You move to LA, work in the community for a bit, meet a few people, and ask if you can give them your script. If you do it right, they will almost certainly say yes. They’ll say it even though all the things I wrote about the avoidance of script reading are true. They’ll say it, because they accept that they have an obligation to people who have picked up and moved to this damned town and taken low-paying assistant-type jobs as a form of entry.  Their consciences won’t allow them to blow you off.

The attitude is, you’ve passed all those hurdles, and you’re devoting yourself to their show, and they’re getting you at a price way below what your intelligence would dictate in another industry. So they owe you a read.

I took a script coordinator job at a show. I waited to approach anybody about reading me, though, because I was aware that I was hired to do a specific job, not bust my way into the system. About six months into it, though, I noticed that the writers’ assistant, who’d been hired after me, had already given his spec to the producers.

Enough waiting, I figured. I asked the supervising producer and one of the executive producers if I could give them my Homicide spec. They said yes.

They were gratifyingly enthusiastic. In fact, it was kind of funny, because I got my first look at the anti-script mindset. “God, when you asked me to read it, I just sighed.” (And I’m thinking, really? You were both so polite…) “…but I knew I had to. I figured, you were a novelist — probably good with description but not so good with dialogue. So I picked up the pages as they started coming out of the printer, and man, I couldn’t put it down! They called me to the set, where they were filming my episode, and I didn’t want to go because I wanted to know what happened next…”

I heard later that the exec producer, who had a tendency to think women didn’t always write believable men, told the writers that “She writes two guys as well as two guys have ever been written.”

I didn’t mention my fannish experience with writing two guys.  Ahem. But it did crack me up.  Man, and they say fan fiction doesn’t prepare you for life.

Just through chance, both the producers I approached were between agents at the time, so they couldn’t hook me up. I was still waiting for a second-tier agency to get back to me; I’d given them my script a couple of months previously. Finally the supervising producer said, “You shouldn’t be waiting to hear back from some agency. That’s ridiculous. Do you mind if I put you in touch with my manager?”

I said, surprised, “Do you think a manager is appropriate for someone at my stage of career?”

“Even more appropriate when you’re starting out,” he said.

So he made a call and handed me the phone. I got a manager. He got me a read at a major studio — through a cold call, I found out later! He introduced himself to the studio executive and asked, “Can I send you three scripts?” and the guy said, “I’ll tell you what — send me one. If I like it, I’ll trust you to send me more.” He sent mine. A few days later I was meeting with a showrunner at a Starbucks in Encino (they didn’t have offices yet). The showrunner told me about the direction this show had taken the previous season, when he wasn’t in charge; they’d been encouraged by the network to get more into character, and had translated this into doing soapy things like having long-lost children show up. I’d seen a couple of those episodes and found them generic, because they told you nothing about the characters involved. I said, “That’s not character. Character is how people argue over coffee.”

So he hired me. Suddenly I was on staff, and it all happened pretty quickly from the time I gave people my spec. The studio exec — a sweet guy I liked immediately — said to me later, “I bet you think this is normal, don’t you.”

I thought, I’m a chick from the east coast who’s already in the headlights of approaching middle age, and I’m sitting here working with people whose names I recognize. I have no idea what normal is any more.

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