Showrunner Oliver Goldstick encourages TV writers to focus on three things when looking for work after their first staffing job.
There’s no shortage of advice on how to land your first TV writing job. But how do you find work again when that gig ends? What steps can you take to turn that first hire into a second one and beyond? Showrunner Oliver Goldstick (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Pretty Little Liars) encourages writers to focus on these three things after leaving their first staff position.
Question: “What advice do you have for a new writer looking for work after their first staffing job?”
Oliver Goldstick: This isn’t a coded question about stealing office supplies, right? First off, congratulations for procuring that first staffing job. Pat yourself on the back before you melt into a puddle of uncertainty. The business of television has changed a lot in recent years: series orders are truncated, writers are compelled to move onto the next gig just as they’re settling into a new “family,” and many writers are being robbed of mentorships, i.e., learning on the job from an experienced showrunner and/or upper-level writers. New rules apply, so we must adapt accordingly. BUT, even as I become the elder statesman in the writers’ room—which roughly translates into knowing what Paul Newman did before salad dressing—some things haven’t changed. I would encourage a staff writer who’s leaving their first job to focus on three things: 1) building the portfolio, 2) balancing solitude with socializing, and 3) bonding with representation to set achievable goals.
1) The Portfolio. It’s crucial to take advantage of “downtime” to write another sample. Doesn't matter if it’s an original pilot, a screenplay, a libretto—commit to realizing an idea that you’re passionate about. Write that first draft. You might leave that first job with a script (i.e. your writer’s draft) that can be used as a sample, but chances are, an original piece will provide a more solid introduction to your voice, your skill, your sensibility. When staffing a room, I’m inevitably drawn to a wildly original, distinctive sample; off the top of my head, I can cite two original pilots (neither produced to my knowledge) where I felt compelled to meet the writers. One centered on the teenage sister of a Columbine-type assassin who was forced to return to the psychically scarred high school months after the tragedy; the other was a Gothic mystery set in soot-choked Victorian London. The latter’s atmospheric teaser took place in a morgue where there were strings tied around a cadaver’s fingers. Those strings were attached to bells—if they rang, the morgue staff would be alerted that this fresh arrival was back from the dead, or at least awoken from a coma. It’s literally been YEARS since I’ve laid eyes on these samples, and yet they continue to haunt. Both writers, in their interviews, admitted that they wrote these samples out of passion, never expecting them to be produced. I share this not to endorse writing a sensational spec for the sake of shock value, but rather following your gut and telling a story—as Robert Penn Warren would say—that’s chosen YOU.
2) The Balance. Our chosen vocation demands solitude. We have to leave this reality to create another. And yet, when we come up for air, it’s important to occasionally seek out community. In other words, if you’re a young writer who has recently joined the Guild, attend the panels that are offered, join a mentor’s room, bounce ideas and questions off people who’ve blazed a trail you’d like to follow. I’m often asked what I would change or do differently if I were starting out today. I urge these young writers to seek out people who “get” them. What does that mean? Think of that sandbox your five-year-old self wandered into at your neighborhood playground. Think of how some kids immediately wanted to engage, play the same game, jump into your alternate reality. And then there was the kid who just stared at you like the worst kind of cockroach. Yeah, that's not the kid you want to give your spec to 20 years later. Some people will never “get” you, and unfortunately, we waste a lot of time early in our careers trying to win over those people. Find the folks who do “get” you, who laugh and cry at the same things, and hold on TIGHT. Those souls will inevitably be the same writers and executives you will work with again and again throughout your career. Which leads me to…
3) The Bond. At this stage of your career, you need to work with representation that understands your long-term goals and recognizes the type of writers and producers who will nurture you. You’ve already managed to get your foot in the door, you’ve hopefully made some nice friendships, you know how at least one writers’ room works—now you need someone to expand your professional horizon and offer opportunities. Make sure you recognize this agent/manager as a partner. You’re working toward a common goal. If you’re honest with your rep, if you plan achievable goals, share the type of series you aspire to work on and/or create, you have someone who’s got real direction in helping you find that second job.
I’ve known many writers who struggled to get a second gig after staffing, and I’ve known others who were fortunate to be on a series that welcomed them back with a promotion. But, as we know, this isn’t a business where you can ever get too comfortable. You must keep producing new work and you must find a balance between doing that work and forging connections with people who can help you realize future goals.
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