Writing for TV

By Rob Brunet

It wasn’t very long ago that scripted television—at least in the broadcast realm—seemed creatively adrift. With nods to the likes of HBO for breaking the mold, and to online delivery models like Netflix and Amazon bringing binge watching to the masses, we’ve arguably entered television’s golden age.

 To get a sense of what that might mean for crime writers considering writing for TV, we gathered a panel of three ITW novelists who have screenwriting and production backgrounds.

Nancy Bilyeau is a novelist, magazine editor, and screenwriter based in New York City. 
Avram Ludwig is a film producer, director, playwright, and novelist.
Adam Meyer is a television writer, screenwriter and novelist whose recent TV credits include the Lifetime movies The Other Wife and My Life As A Dead Girl and the Investigation Discovery series Swamp Murders and Your Worst Nightmare.

Here’s what they had to say!

How has the proliferation of new long-form drama markets impacted the landscape in terms of opportunity for writers?

Avram: There are over four hundred shows now streaming, cable and network. Someone’s got to write them.

Nancy: These shows have provided much-needed work for screenwriters, as the feature spec market continues to languish and feature assignments are highly competitive. Some of these working screenwriters also pen thrillers. I don’t believe the TV dramas have employed many novelists without TV or film credits, although I’ve heard of some showrunners bringing in a novelist whose work they admire to pen an episode. Alan Ball did that on “True Blood.” Getting a staff job in a writer’s room is a dream opportunity. Most of the time you need a manager (and maybe a screenwriting agent too; a literary agent won’t do it).

Adam: When I started writing 20 years ago, it felt like the better opportunities (creative and financial) existed in feature film—today, it feels like TV is more wide open. Always a challenge to break in, but the possibilities have multiplied in ways that can only be good for writers.

Where are the best on-ramps for writers interested in writing for TV? 

Nancy: First of all you must learn the demands of a different medium—how to write visually, balance dialogue with action—and while it’s possible to educate yourself with books and studying examples, courses/workshops would be better. Then you have to write a pilot and show bible on spec, perhaps two, and find a manager to help you get work. You need to know people—not on Facebook, in real life—who hire.

Avram: TV’s a social business and it’s run by writers. Move to LA or NYC and get to know the writers that run TV shows. Each show has about six writers on average. 

Adam: To me, the most exciting possibility about breaking in today is that you can make your own high-quality projects with professional level cameras and editing software—and distribution via the Internet is free! I do think contests and festivals can be useful too—especially something like the Austin Screenwriting Conference, where I have met both new writers and seasoned pros and learned a lot.

How did you get your own start in the business?

Adam: I went to a no-name film school, stumbled into an internship at one of the granddaddy’s of reality TV, America’s Most Wanted, and just kept hanging around there until someone gave me a job as a junior writer! This was two decades ago, and cable documentary and early reality TV shows were just starting to take off—so when I left there after a couple years, I found lots of writing and producing work.

Nancy: I took several courses at Gotham Writers Workshop and I wrote three scripts on spec. Two of them made it to the semi-finals of the Nicholl Fellowship and that got me a manager.

Avram: My parents were actors. I grew up on sets and backstage.

Do you find the format and structural constraints of television writing help or hinder the creative process?

Avram: It’s just a different form of storytelling. Less interesting than prose because its image based, but script writing is creative.

Adam: Personally, I love the constraints of television writing—deadlines, page counts, you name it. It helps focus my creativity because I know exactly what box I need to fill, and then I try to be as creative as possible within it.

Nancy: I really like the structure and how it forces me to shape my material.

Compared to the isolation of novel writing, how does the team aspect of writing for television work for you?

Adam: The team aspect of TV writing is one of my favorite elements—many of my friends are former collaborators in TV, and I’ve been lucky enough to work for some very smart people, which means I’ve gotten useful feedback on the writing.

Avram: I don’t like the act of writing in teams. But they tend to individual episodes to individual writers and then the head writer rewrites them.

Given its collaborative nature, how easy is it for writers who don’t live in the major production centers to access television writing opportunities?

Avram: I would think impossible unless you’ve done a hit book that gets turned into a series.

Nancy: You really can’t. These jobs exist in Los Angeles, or maybe NYC or Vancouver. They’re not going to want to Skype you in when there are hundreds of great writers in these cities, ready to work in the room.

Adam: Honestly, it’s tough but not impossible to access television writing opportunities outside the major production hubs, but you might need to be creative/flexible. I lived in LA years ago but now based in Northern Virginia, and write a lot of true-crime shows for cable. I work with producers everywhere from Atlanta to LA and we do everything by email and phone—same with the TV movies that I write, which are invariably for companies in LA.  

In a lot of ways, the crime fiction industry is very supportive to new entrants. How does the television production industry compare?

Nancy: Producers are hot for great crime writers. But the problem is, there is so much money on the line, they’re not going to give a job to a completely green person who just has potential. Publishers can try a new novelist with little financial risk to themselves. See the difference? Producers are going to want a Richard Price or David Simon for a big new crime show, because writers on that level are guaranteed to know what they’re doing and have original vision, create nuanced roles that talented actors want to play. That’s really important.

Avram: TV is very clubby and not easy to get into. Being able to write is the least part of TV writing. Can you manage a show? Can make it happen is probably more important.

Adam: Frankly, I believe that crime fiction has more of a built-in support network than the TV industry —organizations like ITW being the perfect example. There is no TV equivalent that I know of. But I have found supportive individuals along the way, and conferences like Austin can be very helpful too.

What skills might a successful novelist need to develop in order to make the shift to television writing?

Avram: Pitching, constant pitching and selling of ideas.

Nancy: Work on dialogue writing and sharpen description skills. Focus on telling an evocative, original story in as few words as possible.

Adam: The number one skill that I think you need as a TV writer—besides persistence, a given for any working novelist—is the ability to take and use feedback. When you write a novel, you may get feedback but you have much more control over whether and how to use it. In TV, you need to be able to receive notes—even idiotic ones!—and figure out how to use them to make the work better.

Do you find you’re able to work on both television and novel writing at the same time, or is either too immersive for you?

Adam: Often I find that a TV project is so all-consuming that I focus solely on that, or else I’ve got a break in my TV schedule and I totally immerse myself in novel-writing, and either scenario can be fun. But I like it best when I’ve got a good balance of both and can split my days between TV and novel writing.

Avram: I can only write one thing at a time, no matter what it is.

Have you ever worked on a television project that involved your own novel? How hard was it to give up the necessary creative control?

Avram: Not yet.

Adam: I’ve never worked on a television project that involved my own novel, but I’m planning to adapt my novel-in-progress into a TV pilot. My hope is that if I’m lucky enough to see it produced, I’ll be a good collaborator and learn something from those less close to the material than I am—but we’ll see!

Nancy: I optioned my first novel to a producer but it did not go into production. But across the board, if you’re a control freak, TV and even feature film writing is not the way to go. You’ll be miserable.

What surprised you—good or bad—about writing for TV?

Nancy: How much I enjoyed it!

Avram: The first time around I think you just have to sit back, listen and learn, and accept that whatever results is going to be very different from your book.

Adam: What’s surprised me the most about TV is that even on the worst shows I’ve written, I’ve met some of the smartest, funniest, most creative people I know—and that’s probably a big part of the reason why I’ve kept doing this work.

ROB BRUNET writes character-driven crime fiction laced with dark humor. His debut novel STINKING RICH was listed on Crimespree Magazine’s Book Picks for 2014 and named one of the year’s top debuts by Mystery People. Brunet’s short crime fiction appears in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Crimespree, Noir Nation, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, and numerous anthologies. He loves the bush, beaches, and bonfires, and teaches creative writing at George Brown College in Toronto, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and son.

To learn more about STINKING RICH, click on the cover below: