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WRITERS ON THE VERGE: Screenwriters Guide to Life After TV Fellowships

Lee Jessup gives advice about applying to TV fellowships and how to use the months in-between to maximize your efforts to break into screenwriting more effectively.

Lee Jessup is a seasoned career coach for screenwriters, with an exclusive focus on guiding and supporting screenwriters as they parlay their screenwriting prowess into a focused and dynamic screenwriting career. Follow Lee on Twitter @leezjessup

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For many emerging television writers, the beginning of a new year brings with it the big push toward applying for TV fellowships. From January to June, they spend their time writing and polishing up those brilliant originals, writing spec scripts for shows that pair well with their voice, crafting bios and unique fellowship essays that stand out from the crowd. Workshops are taken. Consultants are engaged to make sure the work is solid and tight and beyond reproach. Material is combed over time and again for typos. And then, come June 2nd (unless you’re still aiming for NHMC in August), after many sleepless nights, tireless hours of writing, dedication that impresses everyone and a single-mindedness that you have never exhibited before… Phiiiiiiissssssss goes the air out of the writer’s proverbial writing balloon. All that’s left now is waiting. After all, as far as fellowships are concerned, there is nothing else left to do.

There is just one problem here: Waiting is passive. You’re not actually DOING anything. And building a screenwriting career - whether in television or film - requires active “doing” the whole year round. Therefore, you have to figure out how to best make strides for your screenwriting career in the year’s remaining 6 or 7 months. Fellowships, while an important opportunity for writers trying to emerge in the television space, are no longer the only way to get noticed these days. There is much to be done beyond them, and many more opportunities you can create for yourself.

tv fellowships

Case and point: After completing her fellowship applications last June, Greta Heinemann sat down to write her most ambitious original pilot yet: JUDASTOWN. It was JUDASTOWN that helped land her a new manager in January, before her acceptance into the Humanitas Fellowship was announced. It was JUDASTOWN which was then read and got her meetings all over town, including one with Jeff Lieber, showrunner of NCIS New Orleans, the show on which Greta just got staffed.

Homer Wells, aka Tobey McGuire in The Cider House Rules, put it best when he said: “To do nothing. It's a great idea, really. Maybe if I just wait and see long enough, then I won't have to do anything or decide anything, you know?”

Once you submit to fellowships, waiting and seeing is the last thing you can afford to do. After all, television is becoming more competitive by the day, so you don’t have the luxury of being guarded with your strategic and creative efforts. In the simplest terms, it’s up to you to get a move-on and keep up your momentum. Therefore, you have to identify the avenues through which you can keep moving your screenwriting career forward.

To get you started, here is a list of endeavors to pursue from summer to spring in order to make the construction of your screenwriting career a year-long commitment:

Write your next original pilot
Television writers should be completing new work every 3 to 6 months, which means you have plenty of time to break, outline and complete your next stellar original before the end of the calendar year. And it even serves the purpose of the fellowships: Come the next fellowship cycle, you will have a new original ready to submit, and will not have to scramble to complete work last minute. New work is your lifeblood. It is your conversation starter and your most valuable asset, so take the rest of the year to plan out and execute the sort of strong, memorable work that can open doors and carve out relationships for you.

Expose your work
Continuing to get your work out there is integral to your success. I always tell my writers: if you’re not getting rejected, you’re not doing your job. Therefore, it is important to get your work into enough hands in order to begin amassing those rejections. After all, you will never get to that all-important YES without hearing a healthy amount of NO’s. Here are a number of vetted avenues to get your work exposed:

Live pitch events - Los Angeles
Every year, a number of live pitch events take place in Los Angeles. While you are not going to sell your pilot in the room, these events do offer you access to a room full of willing executives, which is a great opportunity to build and expand your network.

This year, the following events are still coming up on the calendar:

      Other live pitch/networking opportunities

          Online pitch opportunities

            If you do decided to take advantage of a live or online pitch opportunity, remember to take your time and utilize outside resources to prepare your pitch and supporting materials. A strong one sheet and a memorable, compelling pitch are integral to your success here, as is your ability to ability to start carving out meaningful relationships. Showing up is important. Showing up prepared is invaluable.

            Generate new pedigree for your work
            Just because fellowships are closed, doesn’t mean you can’t submit your pilot script to contests or get vetted through listing services such as the ever popular The Black List. Sure, it would be great to say that you were a finalist or a fellow in one of the television fellowships, but you can’t sit and wait for something like that. Instead, go out there and make it happen. After all, pedigree is what separates your work from the pack, and gives executives, agents and managers the ammo they need to prioritize your script. Not only that: A high placement in a prestigious contest - which may be announced any time of the year based on the contest’s submission closing date - or a high score from The Black List is a great reason to reach out to your network and market your new work!

            Continue to build and communicate with your network
            Speaking of network… Let’s talk about yours. In time, your network should come to include agents, managers, working writers and industry executives you’ve met along the way. If you haven’t started building it yet, there is no time like the present! Connect with other writers on Twitter or Facebook, get to know executives through in-person or online panels, and encounter agents and managers through pitch opportunities. If you already have a growing network, it’s important to find reasons to communicate with these important industry contacts throughout the year, while always continuing to amass new industry contacts. High contest placements, the completion of new work and other small but relevant “wins” are all great reasons to keep the communication going, in the very least on a quarterly basis. Come fall it’s going to be time to get those holiday cards out! Reach out to your contacts, thank them for their support and wish them a happy holiday season.

            When in doubt, take a class
            The post-fellowship season is a great time to step into a screenwriting class, develop new work and improve your craft ahead of the fellowship season to come. Classes provides you with much-needed structure and deadlines when motivation and momentum are hard to find, and also gives you the opportunity to grow your community and develop meaningful relationships not only with knowledgeable instructors, but also with other writers on the rise. A few of the TV-centric classes that I love:

            Participate in teleconferences and panels
            Whether you are local to Los Angeles or remote, there are countless panels, webinars and teleconferences happening in person and online to keep you informed about the industry space and developing your craft. Look to organizations like ISA, The Writers Store and Stage 32 for informative educational opportunities that will not only enhance your knowledge but also introduce you to potential mentors and contacts in the industry space.

            The suggestions above are just a few of avenues available to you for ongoing career efforts once your fellowship application has been submitted. Remember: more and more writers are setting their sites on television every day. The space is becoming extremely competitive, which means that if you want to make a real go of this, you have to be at the top of your game for the better part of the calendar year.

            A screenwriting career NEVER happens over night, and rarely materialized the way that you expected it to. There is no one way to “make it,” and until you do, it’s your job to pursue all relevant channels in order to get there.

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