This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 054: Tawnya Bhattacharya Talks About Her Career As A Television Writer.
Ashley: Welcome to episode 54 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at sellingyourscreenplay.com. In this episode’s main segment, I’m interviewing Tawnya Bhattacharya. Tawnya is a television writer who got her start through a couple of the fellowships that studios and production companies offer. These fellowships are open to anyone. So if you’re looking to start a career as a television writer, you’re not going to want to miss this episode and hear exactly how they work and what you can expect from them if you are selected. So stay tuned for that.
If you find this episode valuable please help me out by giving a review in ITunes or leaving a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread the word about the podcast.
Over on YouTube I want to thank John Rachel who left me a great comment on episode 49. Thank you for that, John, and then on episode 52 I got a nice comment from Stephen Hoover. Thanks again for that. I always look at these comments so if you have a question or comment about an episode, please don’t hesitate to leave it over on YouTube. YouTube has a nice commenting system so it’s easy for me to respond to your questions and comments. Thank you, everyone, who has subscribed to my YouTube channel. I’m pushing close to 550 subscribers so that’s exciting to see as it grows nicely. If you use YouTube a lot please consider subscribing to my channel.
A couple of quick notes, any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellinghyourscreenplay.com/podcasts. And then just look for episode 54. Also, if you want my free guide “How to Sell a Script in Five weeks” you can pick that up by going to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free. You just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons. I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide, how to write a professional log line inquiry letter, how to find agents, managers, and producers who are looking for material. It really is everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. So go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
A quick few words about what I’m working on. In episode 52 of the podcast, I did a quick recap of my currently optioned screenplays. I mentioned my one location horror thriller script and that the option was about to expire. I actually gave the producer another free option on the script. So that one will be tied up for another six months.
A writer who used my email and fax blast service a couple of weeks ago is in negotiations on a script he wrote, and he was asking me about how to negotiate with the producer. I get these sorts of questions from time to time so I thought it might be worth talking about for a second on a podcast. I know a lot of writers are very put off with free options. In fact, the lawyer that I worked with has been getting on me about giving out too many free options. He thinks I should always try to get some money for them. I know there are some producers whom I work with who’ve listened to this podcast so I’ve always been a bit hesitant to openly discuss how often I give out free options, but I do think it’s worth talking about even if I get some producers who refuse to pay me for options in the future since they know I’ll probably end up giving them a free option. Here’s my thinking. My goal as a screenwriter is to get movies made. My goal isn’t to make money-optioned scripts. My goal is to get the movies produced. So I want to create as little friction as possible to achieving that goal. It’s really that simple. Now with that said, I will usually push the producer for at least 500 dollars for a six-month option. If they balk then I have to make a judgment call. I’ll ask myself do I really think they can get the movie made. If I think they can get the movie made, I’ll usually give in and give them a free option, and I determine that by looking at their credits on IMDB and talking to them. This is obviously more art than science but I’ve been doing this long enough that I think I have a good feel for who actually has the chops as a producer to get a movie made and who doesn’t. And when I say do I really think they can get a movie made, we’re talking about only a small chance of actually succeeding. In most cases even the most experienced best producers aren’t going to produce every script they option so keep that in mind. I’m just looking for a sliver of a chance and if I think they’ve got it, I’ll usually give them the option. Also, another consideration, I have lots of scripts so if it’s a script that’s sitting around for a while, I’ll be a little more flexible on the option payment. If I don’t think I’m going to be sending the script out for six months or so, I might as well give them a free option and see what happens. I mean, what’s really the down side. In some cases I’ll try and cut the time period down to just 90 days. That way the producer’s really forced to work hard on your project while they have the free option and in almost every case I’ll be able to negotiate some small payment after the initial option expires if they want to renew it. So let’s say I give them a free six-month option. Then after six months if they want to extend the option they’ll have to pay me, say, 500 dollars for another six months. It’s not a ton of money but trust me, an independent producer isn’t going to pay you even 500 dollars unless they’re pretty serious about your script. I want to reiterate, though, I usually push the producer pretty hard in the beginning to try and get some sort of payment, usually 500 dollars or a thousand dollars for the first six months.
In this recent case it’s a producer I have worked with a bit before. I like him; he’s produced a good number of films in the last few years so I know he’s a legitimate producer who will produce some more movies in the next few years and if he’s got some of my scripts optioned, he’s likely to produce one of mine. So I optioned a script to him before. So theoretically he should have paid me 500 dollars to renew it since we already had it for six months. So in this case we just ripped up the initial contract and signed a new one. In this case, too, there is no paid extension so he can’t renew the option unless I agree to it even if he’s willing to pay me. So that actually puts a bit more pressure on him to really get this thing going in the next six months and buy the script before the option expires. Obviously since I’ve worked with this producer, he knows me and I know him. If he’s close to getting it done, of course, I would probably just renew the option to him, but it’s pressure on him by not having that out of knowing that he can just pay me 500 dollars and get it for another six months. He knows he’s pretty much got to wrap this thing up in six months because you never know what I might do in six months. I have all the cards basically.
The other thing that I think a lot of writers miss in this whole equation is that being an independent producer is damn hard work. I feel like a lot of writers have this attitude that these producers are exploiting writers by not paying them for the options, but I can tell you as someone who has done some producing, being an independent producer is harder than being a writer and most of these guys are struggling to make a living. So there’s really nothing exploitive about it. It’s just a really tough business. Producers don’t get paid until the movie gets made and sometimes writers have to share in that risk. Anyway, that’s my feelings of free options. I hear from so many writers who feel like it’s the neat thing to give out free options and maybe it is. That’s great for them, but again, for myself, I just want to make it as easy as possible for producers to make my movies and sometimes a free option is a step in that direction.
So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m talking with television writer Tawnya Bhattacharya. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome, Tawnya, to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me.
Tawnya: Thank you so much for having me, Ashley.
Ashley: So to start out, I wonder if you can give us a quick overview of your career and kind of how you got started in the entertainment industry.
Tawnya: Well, I had been writing for a while before I actually broke in and I had started writing features. I took a lot of classes and worked on the craft and then I wrote my first pilot basically because a friend was telling me you should write this pilot story. It was basically my life, and you never do that. You always teach people don’t write about your life because most of the time it’s not that interesting. But mine was kind of unique in that I had grown up on a reservation and I decided to sort of fictionalize part of that and have three sisters in this town and they were all cursed except for one. We won’t go into the story but I wrote that pilot after writing feature after feature after feature which takes a lot of time and effort. I mean, it was 110 or whatever pages of material and you can get lost along the way. When I wrote the TV pilot, it was like wow! This is really a lot easier than writing a feature and I really enjoyed it. It was the first one I wrote. And then I submitted it to Fox Diversity Program which is now called the Fox Intensive Fellowship or something like that. I got in and did that program and it was really great and I thought I should be writing TV instead of features and so that program did a lot to at least validate me which is always important. You need that one person or entity to say you’re good and that they believe in you and then other people are willing to take a closer look at you. So then I submitted to all the other programs. I really hadn’t known about the other ones so I submitted to ABC, NBC, Writers on the Verge, Warner Brothers Writing Workshop and got into NBC Writers on the Verge and at that point I was working with a partner by then. So we got in there and that’s the program that really launched our career as a team.
Ashley: While I’m thinking about it, are there any resources like you just mentioned all these different fellowships quickly. Is there like—maybe it’s on your website where people can actually find out what are the good fellowships to submit to.
Tawnya: Yes. On my script anatomy, www.scriptanatomy.com, you can go to resources and it will list all the fellowships that are the top ones for television to break into, and I think there are some other ones too that feature ones that are up there as well.
Ashley: Okay. Perfect. I’ll put that in the show notes because I know people will be asking me specifically about that. So just to get an idea sort of the scope of what you’re doing, exactly how many fellowships would you say you submitted to over this whatever span of a year or so.
Tawnya: My situation was very unusual. This is not the way it is for most people so I don’t want people to get disheartened if they submit year, after year, after year and don’t get any traction because most people do submit several years before getting noticed and getting in and that’s perfectly normal. For me the first time I submitted was to the Fox Diversity Initiative—it’s got a different name now—and I got into that one and then the next year, the next season I submitted to those three, ABC, Disney 1, Warner Brothers Writers Workshop and NBC Writers on the Verge and I got into that one. So that’s like really rare but to be honest, I also had been writing features for a really long time and I was teaching at that time at Writers Boot Camp. So I was familiar with story and structure and I had already cut my teeth on all those features and doing so much work that my entry into TV was a little bit easier if you look at it that way, but it wasn’t because it was all this time before and trying to break in.
Ashley: Now did you submit multiple scripts to these fellowships or you had one script and you submitted it to these five or whatever fellowships?
Tawnya: They always changed their rules it seems a little bit every year but when I did it, you would submit one script only—and it’s actually better—one of those will allow you to submit more than one script but I think they judge you on both of those scores so if you have a really high score on one but then you sent your second best one and it’s not that great, your average is going to go down whereas Writers on the Verge asks for a spec and Disney I think when I did it they asked for a spec script and then once we made it past that, initially we went to a semifinalist and they asked for a pilot and maybe one other piece of material. They asked for two more pieces of material. So they all had different guidelines to go on and look at.
Ashley: Okay. Perfect. One thing I’ve heard people do—I’m not a TV writer so I’ve never submitted to these so I don’t have good answers—but I’ve heard people submit like the exact same script year after year. They feel it’s good and just didn’t get maybe a fair shake. Would you recommend something like that?
Tawnya: Absolutely not. You should be writing something new every year anyway because you need to have that practice. The job when you go on a TV show is basically to spec that show. That’s the job so you need to have that sort of practice of mastering someone else’s story structure and voice. The other thing is they’ll ask you if you’re submitting the same pilot and I think they would feel that it’s lazy to not submit something else. If you look at that same script and you made massive changes, then that would be great but they record all those submissions. They have someone doing coverage on it and those people can probably look at it and see what you’ve done so I would do something new for that reason for the sake that you just need to be writing another spec to have that practice.
Ashley: Aside from that tip, are there any other just general tips and guidelines you might have for people submitting to these fellowships?
Tawnya: I would definitely get someone to proofread your material. It sounds so simple and ridiculous but it’s true. My writing partner actually reads for one of the fellowships and I know other people who read for the fellowships too. And they are always blown away by the fact that people are misspelling things and formatting things incorrectly and missing words or whatever. You know it just doesn’t look professional. You don’t want to give them any reason to say no so that’s one thing I would do. I would start early. I think a lot of people start at the last minute and they’re wavering. Maybe they’re not sure they’re going to enter. Maybe they’re just procrastinating like we all do, but start early and work on your spec. If you can I would start in winter. I’d start like right now and at the latest I would try to start in January or February, and get into a writers group and hone your material and give it to them. You have to really vet it, and I don’t want to say that I think you should consult with somebody because I am also a consultant. However, I did and I would. I would do that because the competition is so great. Nowadays there is like two thousand people entering each program and the number gets bigger every year. So a lot of those people are consulting and they’re vetting it through their writers group and their friends and people whom they know so you have to make sure that spec is amazing because nothing less will help you.
Ashley: Are these spec scripts of current episodes on the air or are they just an original pilot spec?
Tawnya: A spec episode actually means of an existing show and then a pilot would be an original work. Initially you’re going to need to send us a spec of an existing show to any of the programs that you enter and then a pilot might be asked of you at the beginning of that submission process or somewhere down the line.
Ashley: And these rules are going to lay basically this out so you know if you’re entering this NBC fellowship you know to have your pilot ready to go if you make it to that next round or whatever.
Tawnya: Actually there was one that didn’t ask for a pilot but the rest of them do. It might in the future because it’s probably easier. I think it’s easier to vet people or to find strong writers through a pilot because—not that it’s easy to mimic somebody else’s voice but that structure and who the characters are, it’s all laid out for you. So then to create your own is more difficult to do so if I were NBC, I would ask for [laughing 0:16:06.5] the men from the boys or whatever.
Ashley: Okay. So take us through that next step. You’ve gotten this NBC Writers on the Verge fellowship. What is sort of the first step from that—and that’s obviously a great honor and stuff—but there’s still a big leap from that to becoming a professional writer and take us through that process. How did that all go down and how did that work for you?
Tawnya: That’s a good question because not everybody who does a fellowship will end up getting staffed. There are certain programs that do mandate that you take their writers and because they’re the studio producing the show they can do that. So ABC/Disney does that and so does Warner Brothers, and there is also CBS Fellowship out there too. NBC and CBS don’t mandate that you’re on [not understood 0:16:53.8] so not all their people got staffed. In my era I think only maybe four of us got staffed so half. There are usually eight slots in these programs. So after we did the program which consists of writing a new spec and a pilot very quickly, in a ridiculous amount of time and doing things like speed dating with executives and learning how to pitch yourself. There are a whole series of things you end up doing. It’s sort of a finishing school for you to launch yourself into the business. After that we have sort of a coming-out party and there are a lot of agents and managers out there who want to know who is coming out of the programs. Many of them are diversity programs and diverse writers are often lacking in writers’ rooms. So they’ll ask for those people’s specs and pilots, let them read them and maybe want to meet with them. And for us our script went to a few people and then we met with a couple of managers and an agent. And we chose a manager and then that manager got us—those managers, and it was a team at the time. We started with them. They got us other agency meetings. And so we got our agent and then it was like okay, sit and wait for what happens which is the big—it’s staffing season. And so you hope that you’ll go out on meetings and generals and own that and get staffed on a job.
Now for us because we’re not on one of those pr0ograms, we weren’t on one of the programs that mandates from the show, for us what happened was there are only so many staff writer slots so if, let’s say—and I don’t know how many there were, but let’s say there were 18 shows staffing that year, and there were eight people coming from Warner Brothers Writers Workshop and eight people coming from ABC/Disney, there are 16 taken up right there so there are only a couple spots left. And those often go to someone’s writer’s assistant. That was another really great way to break in or somebody’s friend or maybe somebody slept with somebody. There were so many ways that it happens for people. So for us it was really difficult because we weren’t in that kind of a program. So we didn’t staff during the network’s staffing season. We staffed in December on a cable show and we got our first show shortly after the program. It basically took a village to get us that job. What happens is you’ll go to a [not understood 0:19:17.8] meeting and then you’ll—there’s no particular order. Like for us we went to the show-owner meeting and once that went well we met with the executives on that show. So that’s how it kind of breaks down.
Ashley: And how many of these types of meetings did you go to and not get staffed? I’m just curious sort of the full scope of the amount of work that you had to do to get this job.
Tawnya: Well that is a great question because I don’t feel like we’ve ever gotten like tons and tons of meetings. I think last year was our biggest year for meetings, but as a staff writer, a lot of people don’t get very many meetings at the bottom level because those jobs are already snapped up or whatever. For us, I think, to be honest, we had two meetings which is good odds except I kind of consider that we really only had one because one of them was absolutely a hundred percent a favor. An executive at NBC—and they didn’t call for us and because we came out of that program and because it was an NBC show, I think they felt obligated to meet with us. But I think it was clear when we were in the room that they were not very interested. It was one of the most painful and awkward meetings I think we felt we ever had. We found out later that they were actually waiting to get their pick-up call. They got that call when we were in that meeting. They were jumping out of their seats because their phones were buzzing. They were like okay; it was nice to meet you. Two wasn’t very many but you only have to get one.
Ashley: So let’s just take a step back. You mentioned a couple of other ways, being a writer’s assistant and that kind of stuff. Maybe you could just run through some of the other ways if you’re an aspiring TV writer obviously hitting these fellowships hard every year is probably a good thing to do, but what are some of the other things that writers should be doing that might actually land them a job on a TV show.
Tawnya: Well, I think if you write a really amazing pilot that you can either—maybe you have an agent already or you’re going to get an agent without a script—but if you have something that’s amazing, that everyone’s going to read in town that they’re hoping to sell for you, then that will help you in the staffing process. I know people who have sold pilots and never been staffed. I know people who have sold a pilot and then got staffed. There is that opportunity which is not an easy thing to do but that’s one way. The other way is to be a writer’s assistant or script coordinator or a production assistant just to get your foot in the door and move up the food chain that way. I know several writers who were writer’s assistants or script coordinators on shows that I was on and they either got their first job or they’re still a script coordinator. However, they got a script so they’re writing an episode. Then they negotiated that because I’ve been a script coordinator for a long enough time and then you can bump up that way too. It can be a slow process for the writer’s assistant or script coordinator, but it can be for a staff writer too because the show can get canceled. I was on a show one year where I was pretty sure that the next year had we had a third season, that script coordinator would have gotten on staff and then the show got canceled and the writer’s assistant would have too. But that’s one way and I think—I don’t really have the answers for how you get those jobs because they are far and few between too. Sometimes I’ve heard that it’s just as hard to get a writer’s assistant job or a script coordinator job as it is a staff job, but there are networking things. I think there’s like a junior Hollywood JHRTS (junior Hollywood ratio and television society) that you can become a member of. There’s a really awesome group called Chicks with Scripts so if you’re a female, that’s a really strong sort of networking for women writers that is run by Eva Taylor who’s a friend of mine as well. There is Next Gen Fems so try to network basically and those people will know about those gigs. That’s kind of where I would go.
Ashley: Do you have some—again, just a ballpark figure of what percentages like on your current show, what percentages came through the fellowship program? What percentage came up just working their way up as the assistant? What’s sort of the most common would you say?
Tawnya: I think that for me, in my experience it’s been semi-equal. The current show that I’m on, I’m on NBC’s The Night Shift which is a medical show, there’s one writer who came out of Writers on the Verge. There were other writers who were in programs but they didn’t get those jobs because of that program because they were further up the food chain at that point and didn’t need that. It’s really for your first job is what those programs help you with. Some of them will help you with your second job and whatnot but that was not our experience. I’m trying to think if there were any writer’s assistants on the current show. On the last show, Perception, there was a writer’s assistant who then became a staff writer. So it feels fairly balanced. There were a couple program writers on that one.
Ashley: Let’s talk about just moving—okay, so you’ve gotten the fellowship. You’re staffed on a show. Obviously shows get canceled. You’ve got to move on. Maybe you could talk about sort of your experience moving from one show to another. How does that take place and how does someone who’s gotten that first break continue their career?
Tawnya: The easiest way to move up the food chain is if you stay on the same show because it’s already worked into your contract what your level bumps are going to be. So if I were to stay on The Night Shift if I’m lucky and it gets picked up for the next two seasons after this one, then next season I’ll be a producer and the season after that I’ll be a supervising producer. And then my contract would be renegotiated because it’s a three-year contract. That’s the norm. So if you can stay in the show. I have a friend who was on SVU and bumped up from staff writer all the way up to [not understood 0:25:34.2] so that was just season after season and staying on that same show. It happens automatically. It also happens if you’re really—you have a really cool boss. I’ve heard people like Vince Gilligan will bump somebody up several levels. That’s really rare but he’ll do that because (a) He thinks they’re worth it and (b) He’s cool because he gets it. He knows how difficult it is. It’s really difficult to bump up sometimes because if your show gets canceled, they’ll often want you to repeat as a staff writer, and I’ve known people who have gotten stuck in staff writer positions for three to four to five years which is insane or if you’ve taken a break off for too many years, then you’ll have to repeat that. The other way that you can do it bump up is if you’re on shows that have been canceled every year like we have, is you have a great agent, and I think you also have to stick to your guns because for us we had to repeat staff writer a second year and there was a political thing that kind of went on that I can’t really get into. So we had to take this staff writer position and then the next year I could sort of tell that our manager was like “Well, you might have to repeat staff writer again.” I’m like no; we’re not going to do that. We don’t want to do that. We’re going to put our foot down because if we can’t go out there and get a job at the next level which was story editor, then we’ll sit out and we’ll wait until that happens because I kind of am the person who believes that you will get what you expect in life. If you’re willing to oh yeah,–and I’ve heard of this too—I’m a story editor but I’ll bump down a bit to be a staff writer, then that’s what’s going to happen. I also think you shouldn’t do that as a writer because it’s unfair to other people who are trying to move up the food chain to then go oh great! Now everybody’s accepting jobs at a lower level than what they actually are because we all need to get work, then that’s what the industry’s going to do to you. So I think you have to hang tight and fight for what you believe in and then have a really good agent.
Ashley: So I get this a lot and I’m sure you get it too but I get a lot of people that send me questions. They’ve written an original pilot and they just want to know how they can get that made. I generally tell them that there is no market for original shows from unknown writers, and maybe I’m being too hard on them but my advice always is listen, you’ve got to do exactly what you’re talking about. You’ve got to work as a TV writer for many years and then eventually maybe someone will make your original show. What advice do you give them? A lot of these people, they have no real interest. They just think they have a brilliant idea that would make a great TV show and they don’t really have an interest of a career as a writer. They just want to see their one show make it onto the air. What do you tell people like that?
Tawnya: It’s like going to Vegas and putting all of your money you have in your bank on 22-black and expecting it to turn up. I mean, if you’re really not interested in a career in television, think about how you’re competing with people who that is what they live and breathe. That’s all they want to do and that’s what they’re working towards. And you’re going to come in, just some person who really—maybe you don’t even know how to write but you have a great idea—well, if you have a great idea, then maybe I would find a writer and say I think this is really a great idea, maybe give me some sort of story break. I don’t know about a story break, but I understand why people do it. It’s like writing the original TV pilot. The original TV pilot nowadays is like the great American novel was back in the day. So everyone wants to break into that somehow even if they’re not interested in pursuing a career. I kind of thing it’s—I don’t want to say it’s a waste of time because there’s always someone who is going to do that and succeed somehow. But it’s too difficult to do. It takes so much work and so much time and so much energy. For somebody who just wants to do that one thing, you already have so many things stacked against you. (a) Maybe you’re not a strong writer. (b) Who do you know in the business? How are you going to get that agent? That’s also very hard to do. So I don’t suggest that. But then I do have writers who I work with who don’t want to staff because they feel like they’re right and they’re not going to get into a diversity program or that they’re too old to be a writer’s assistant or a script coordinator so they just want to write material to sell. I understand that but those are people who are actually working to become a professional writer and to have their own show. And it’s not that they wouldn’t staff, it’s just that they’re not going to try and go that route. To those people I say yeah, keep going. Maybe produce a web series or a short film or something that’s going to get you some attention, to get the representation to come to you or anything. But I do know writers who have not staffed and who have sold shows and maybe they haven’t staffed not because they’re not good but because it’s really difficult to break in without a program or being a writer’s assistant or somebody’s best friend way high up there.
Ashley: Can you give us some quick advice on what sort of specs in this day and age people should be writing. I mean, years ago when I was in the mid 90’s, the advice was don’t write original pilots. Now it seems like that’s turned and people are telling you. Should people be writing existing shows and what are some good examples of shows people should be writing pilots.
Tawnya: I think you should write an existing show, a spec in order to either break into the program or have that sample into the manager who’s going to want to know that you can write in somebody else’s voice. There are a lot of great shows out there, but I always say what do you think is going to stand out? I’m a drama writer so when we wrote our specs, we wrote a Madman spec which is not an easy show. It’s a very difficult sophisticated show with wit, humor, and amazing subtexts and d deep relationships. We wrote a Nurse Jackie. We thought it was a drama but we actually took a comedy slot, Writers on the Verge, but we’re drama writers. So I would say that—Breaking Bad isn’t on the Internet anymore—but a Breaking Bad is going to stand out more than say something on network, not necessarily any network show because I think something like Hannibal is a good show to spec or I think Good Wife is still a good thing to spec. It’s kind of a tiny bit long in the tooth but if you can write a really great one, I think it will get noticed. But if you write a show that’s just like a regular sort of normal drama—I mean, people have gotten into the programs with Parenthood, but I think you’ll stand out more easily with something that’s a little more Wow!, that has a little more impact such as Orphan Black or Downtown Abbey. I have a writer, who got into a program that I worked with who wrote a Downtown Abbey, and I have a writer who wrote The Americans and got into Writers on the Verge and those two are very difficult shows to write and write well. So that’s going to be something that people take into consideration as well. If you’re writing in Modern Family vs. a Nurse Jackie, the Nurse Jackie is a more difficult show to spec and is going to have more cable moments that are going to stand out more so than like a normal sort of network show. I’ll put them on my website actually, shows to spec, but I think you need something that is really going to stand out and have really surprising impactful moments. I think anybody out there who watches Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad is going to understand that writing something like that is going to be more impressive than writing a spec of the Night Shift.
Ashley: Okay. Some good advice. And what about pilots? Should everybody in this day and age have an original pilot or two that they can show people?
Tawnya: If you’re trying to write for TV, absolutely you should have—I mean, I know a writer who has gotten a couple of jobs and only had one pilot—but that person also has a law background and is always the legal consult on the shows he’s worked on as well, staff without reason to. If you want to write for television, you’re going to need a couple of pilots. That’s for getting an agent and manager; they’re going to want to hopefully staff you with that because not very many show owners will read spec scripts anymore to staff you. There is always somebody who will read it for whatever reason. There was one year that somebody was like “I only want to read—and I think it was from Mob Doctor—they only wanted to read Soprano scripts which is really old and was kind of surprising or medical scripts. That’s all they wanted to be specs. So if you had a—maybe not Nurse Jackie—but a Gray’s or something like that—then that’s what you would submit, but that’s really rare. Most show owners want to read pilots.
Ashley: I want to touch on something you just mentioned, somebody with a legal background being able to parlay that into writing a script. Are there some other background-type things like that that someone might be able to use and how do you present that? Is that ever considered in something like the fellowship programs or the fact that you’re an actual lawyer who has some real experience in this.
Tawnya: I think they absolutely consider that because they know that if they have a procedural that year, a police procedural or a legal show or medical show and you are a writer who’s also a doctor or a former nurse or were a paramedic or whatever, then that can help them staff you. So like if anything in your background that can help you staff like if you grew up in a cult, then that’s something that you want to write about and make sure that you talk about as part of who you are and what your brand is because that can help you get staffed. I’ve worked on a legal show, a police procedural and on a medical show now and we have consultants with all of those shows which you have to have. You need them and so if I work with a lot of writers who are former lawyers, doctors, not really too many cops yet, but it’s always funny to me that they don’t write their medical pilot first or their legal pilot first because they’re like I’m so over that career, I just want to be a writer and do something else, but that’s probably the ticket that’s going to break you into the business.
Ashley: So let’s talk about script anatomy for a minute. What’s going on over there and kind of maybe give us a two-minute kind of elevator pitch for what you guys do at Script Anatomy.
Tawnya: Script Anatomy is a company I launched in I believe 2010 and it’s basically to help writers elevate their writing and also break into the business. It’s not that we help you break into the business, but we get you ready to break into the business as a writer. The unique thing about Script Anatomy is that I have a ten-year teaching background and then I’m also a current professional writer who is using my own process to teach other writers. So what’s I’ve done is I’ve built a series of tools from concept development and beyond and me writing to help writers from their concept of development write their scripts. We have a lesson every week in a six-week class, and then we have a tool and then our writers get feedback from their instructor and peers on every single tool all the way through the process. And I think that’s why I’ve had a lot of writers who have had success. I’ve had a couple who have been staffed on shows having been in business for that long. Obviously I’m working too so I haven’t been able to teach as much as usual which is why I actually expanded my business and have other instructors now, but we’ve had several writers break into the program. I’ve got two in programs right now and one who may be breaking into ABC/Disney and then I have three last year in programs. So that’s kind of what we do. We have the television writer’s workshop which is the initial class where you learn the tools and write your script to outline and then we have a rewrite class in development and I teach an advanced pilot lab.
Ashley: And is there a specific type of person you’re looking for, someone who has so many hours per week to devote to this, someone who’s written a few scripts? What do you sort of look for as the perfect student for your program?
Tawnya: I mean, I get all kinds of writers. I have writers who aren’t sure if they want to be professional writers but they’ll take the class or are interested in it. I have writers who have written a lot and now they’re coming and they want that final push. But I feel like the kind of writers I attract and like to attract are writers who are very serious about writing and breaking in and pursuing this as a career. The age range is usually mid 20’s up into the 40’s and 50’s of writers who I teach. I just want writers who are very serious because I want my writers to succeed and want them to be serious about pursuing this as a career, not a hobby.
Ashley: So maybe you could just mention a few of your upcoming classes, what’s coming up and if people are interested, they can check them out.
Tawnya: Sure. I have an advanced spec lab which is being taught by Holly Overton. She wrote on Cold Case and The Client List. This advanced spec lab is great for someone who wants to break into the program or to submit to the program because it’s all about spec scripts and being taught not only by a working writer but someone who was in two of those fellowships. She did the Producers Guild Fellowship and also the Warner Brothers Writers Workshop. And then I’ve got my television area, my very standard meat and potatoes television area writers’ workshop where you learn all the tools. That’s being taught By Dee Dee Feldman who’s amazing. She is an awesome instructor. She is one of my main people and that starts January 10. The Spec lab starts the 11th. And then I have a comedy class coming up which will be an advanced pilot comedy class and then I’m teaching an advanced pilot lab March 1. My whole year is sort of by classes listed on the website so if they want to check that out, they can see what’s coming up.
Ashley: And I’ll link to all that in the show notes so people can find that stuff. What’s the best way for people to keep up with you and maybe if you have a Twitter handle you could mention that.
Tawnya: My God, this is so embarrassing. I guess it’s opscriptanatomy. There is that and that’s actually very active. And then I have a personal one @tbhattacharya and then I’m on Facebook obviously Tawnya and also script anatomy. Then my website again is www.scriptanatomy.com so they can sort of follow what’s going on there. Also what’s up there is recent news which has all the success stories of all my clients who are doing well in the business. And then in the New Year I’ll be writing for Script Mag which I am very excited about so they can maybe see what I have to say about the business on that.
Ashley: Perfect. Well, Tawnya, you’ve been very generous with your time. I really appreciate you coming on, answered lots of great questions and I know anybody who is aspiring to be a TV writer will get a lot out of this.
Tawnya: Any time. Thank you so much.
Ashley: So perfect. Thank you. I really appreciate it.
Tawnya: Have a good day.
Ashley: Just a quick plug for my email fax blast query service. Just in the last eighteen months I’ve optioned eight scripts, sold one script and got one pretty well paid writing assignment and all of this has come from using my own email and flax blast query service. Here’s how it works. First you join sysselect. Then you post your log line inquiry letter in the sysselect form. I review your log line inquiry letter and help you make them as good as they can be. Then you purchase the blast and I send it out for you. The emails you send are sent as if they’re coming from your email address so all replies go directly back to you. You can also exclude companies if there are specific companies you don’t want to send to for whatever reason. To learn more about this check out www.sellingyourscreenplayselect.com.
To wrap things up, I just want to touch on a few things from today’s interview with Tawnya. I think the main take-away is if you want to be a television writer, research these contests and fellowships and enter all of them a lot and keep entering them. Tawnya has a list of all the good fellowships on her website so I will link to that in the show notes. So if you’re wondering which ones you should enter, do check out the show notes. I will link to it and you can figure out which ones are the ones that are appropriate for you.
Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.