This week our Scripted Series Lab participants welcomed writer, Gemma Holdway, to one of our “order lunch and then ask so many questions that she has no time to eat,” sessions. Gemma’s credits include consulting producer on The Murders, story editor on Ghost Wars, and Cardinal, as well as script coordinator on Gracepoint, and High Moon.
How did you make the transition from film school to being a working writer?
I started writing TV movies on spec and meeting with MOW (Movie of the Week) producers, and had some success with that. Generally, they don’t care if you have credits. They just want a script.
At the same time, I was trying to get into scripted TV. I got my first job on an American show, High Moon, as a producers’ assistant, clearances coordinator, and script coordinator. It was a lot to take on, but I made some good connections doing that job. I had to learn how to script coordinate on the fly, but it led to other script coordinating gigs. While doing that, I always made sure that people knew I was a writer, and that I had samples.
I find that when you do script coordinating again and again, people want you to stay in that role because you’ve proven yourself as an asset in that capacity. Eventually, I found I had to speak up and ask for a story editor credit as well. So, on Ghost Wars I was script coordinating but I was also a story editor. I pitched ideas but I was also taking notes, preparing script for production and I wrote an outline on that show, so I got a “story by” credit.
After that experience, I decided not to take any more script coordinating work and was able to transition to just being a writer.
I’ve heard some people say, in Canada, they expect people to do three full seasons of script coordinating before they’ll consider moving you up. I script coordinated on full seasons, pilots, MOWs and features. But script coordinating for features or TV movies won’t advance your TV writing career.
What was the transition to going in as a story editor like for you?
For a long time, as a script coordinator, I had to read the room. Some people don’t want you to participate much at all and others do. Even in rooms that were less open to my participation, I would keep pitching to some degree, but cautiously.
In some larger rooms, you may get the message from the top that everyone can participate, the best idea wins but you might get sideways looks from mid-level or junior writers. I had to decide, “Am I going to please everyone at the table, or am I going to focus on pleasing the showrunner?” That can be a constant struggle. I do think you need to be mindful of the hierarchy in the room. Give space to the senior writers, try not to interrupt, and find the right moments when it’s safe and a good idea to pitch.
When I moved into being purely a story editor, the next challenge was stepping up to the plate. There are different pressures on you. I’m naturally a bit shy, so I was nervous about putting myself out there. With help from showrunners like Damon Vignale, I learned I had to just pitch every idea. Sometimes it was really embarrassing, but in the long run, it’s worth it even if you’re going to make a fool of yourself. You’re paid to come in and pitch those ideas. A lot of people want that job, so you need to prove your worth. It’s scary but it can also be a lot of fun.
Larger rooms can be very political. You might have a few people doing most of the talking, but you can often expand on/add to someone’s pitch. You don’t want to just tear other people’s ideas down unless you have a good alternative.
How many spec samples did you have when you went looking for an agent?
I think my agent was willing to invest in me because of my script coordinating experience. Often that’s a good way into a story editing job.
I had four pilots. My interests are broad, so they were all across the board, genre-wise, all one-hour dramas though. Now I also have a half-hour dramedy that I wrote last year.
When you get an agent, you still need to hustle. You can’t just rely on the agent to get you work. They’re submitting your work, setting up meetings for you and negotiating your contracts but I also set up meetings for myself.
What’s the usual ladder of seniority in a room?
You start as maybe a writers’ assistant and/or script coordinator. Then you’re a story editor, then an executive story editor.
Often, it’s useful to look at producer credits to understand the hierarchy in the room. Going up the ladder there might be a consulting producer, co-producer, producer, supervising producer. It gets confusing, but those are middle of the pack.
The “second” in the room is often a co-executive producer. Your showrunner is an executive producer.
How, when and where do you like to do your writing?
That’s a good question. I have a red couch and I like to sit there and write, but if I’m on a tight deadline, I’ll move around a lot. I use the Pomodoro Technique, where I write for twenty-five minutes, and then take a break, and then write again.
Do you write chronologically?
I do, but I need to stop doing that! You should write the scene that you’re most excited to write in that moment.