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Breaking Into Television Screenwriting

Tips from Michael Oates Palmer, whose writing credits include The West Wing, on starting out in television screenwriting.

By Rebort



Michael Oates Palmer, a West Wing writer, at the VIFF Trade Forum. (Photo:RA)
 
Michael Oates Palmer, a West Wing writer, at the VIFF Trade Forum. (Photo:RA)
 

At the recent Vancouver International Film Festival Trade Forum, Michael Oates Palmer, one of the screenwriters for the West Wing, gave an excellent overview of where North American episodic television is going. He also offered advice for budding television writers. Some of the information below is particularly focussed on North America, but much is universal or has parallels in the UK.

Oates Palmer's first piece of advice was to be in the right place. In North America, that means move to Los Angeles. It's where the action is. He said it's a lot more social and friendly than New York, but then he was born in L.A. himself. The only drawback with L.A. is that you are always meeting people doing the same thing, so he advised avoiding becoming too stuck in a writers' clique.

When presenting sample work, Oates Palmer suggested writing a spec episode for a new hit show that will run for many seasons and that you know television executives watch. Study and love the show, he said. If you can, write for one proceedural show and one non-proceedural show - it shows your breadth. He reminded everyone that writers come from all sorts of different backgrounds - for example, lawyers, doctors or other professionals will have firsthand expertise or experiences that should help them create an air of authenticity about a particular world. Oates Palmer did a stint as a speech writer for the mayor of New York which, unexpectedly, improved his credentials for his later job as West Wing scribe.

Mimic and emulate

He said mimicry is an important quality when it comes to writing for TV, being able to emulate the voice of the show's creator. "I can't emphasise that enough." At the same time, he suggested that producers want to see a writer's own voice and style. "Give them a take they haven't seen before," he said.

Other ways of honing your writing are to take acting classes, advice echoed by writer-directors Catherine Hardwicke and Neil LaBute at the Trade Forum.

The two hardest things for new writers are getting the first agent and then getting that first job. Oates Palmer suggested that becoming a writer's assistant, basically the stenographer in the room, is a way in. Once you've got your foot in the door you work your way up.

It's not easy. You have to hustle, but everyone in the business has had to do that. "A lot comes down to the guy sitting across from me and saying I can deal with this guy 12 hours a day without having to throttle him," he said. Television screenwriting is generally a much more colloborative affair than feature film writing. It's one of the reasons why Oates Palmer says he was drawn to it.

Glass ceiling

Asked about sexual discrimination in Hollywood he agreed that it's there, but it's not as bad it used to be. He told a story from the Eighties, where one exec, if he thought the writing was bad for a show, would come through to the screenwriters' office, "take out a certain part of his anatomy" and urinate on the work to show his displeasure. "I don't hear these kind of horror stories anymore," he added, although the exec in question apparently still has a major career.

In comedy there are not nearly as many women, and there is a tendency to "fetishize youth". Female writers can probably break into drama shows more easily. "It plays on the male chauvinism of having a couple of cute women in the room, but there is a terrible glass ceiling." That said, these days there are many more women running shows and he was looking forward to seeing a female TV mogul.

Asked about a "show bible," that details the history of characters and events for new screenwriters, he replied that the closest he'd seen to such a thing was a three-ring binder that is loosely thrown together. So what do writers refer to for character histories and to check if a subject has been tackled in a previous episode? Why the fansites, because they are so thorough.

The internet has its uses, but Oates Palmer hasn't warmed to fan fiction, the network of sites where fans rewrite their favourite shows. "I find the whole fan fiction thing really weird. Create your own stories, and please don't fantasize about Captain Picard any more," he said.

His cure for writer's block? "Reading a ton and not writing scripts."

More coverage of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

More Making It articles.


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