The news is out! Will Pascoe is going to be our Showrunner in Residence for the 2021 Scripted Series Lab. While this year’s selected group of participants prepare to enter the room in the new year, we asked Will to share some advice for emerging writers.
How did you break into writing for TV?
I started by directing short films and then documentaries. Then I started directing commercials. But I was still on the periphery of what I really wanted to be doing which was to write television. I went through the NSI’s Feature’s First program that gave me that first blush of credibility. But it was pure hustle. Writing and rewriting and trying to get people to read my stuff. I asked a lot of questions, asked to take people out to coffee to pick their brain. It’s a grind. There’s no instant success. It’s all little moves forward. But you have to treat it as a job – the hustle and perseverance part. Many don’t. Many think the phone will just magically ring and they’ll be a huge hit. I have yet to meet anyone that got started that way. Building out a network of trusted people is key. I was lucky to have a few mentors who helped give me a nudge along the way.
Do you have any advice for writers trying to break in?
You need to write all the time. If you treat your writing like a hobby, people will see you as a hobbyist. You can’t have one script. You can’t have two. You need a variety. Some writers trying to break in put all their energy into one script that they spend a year writing. That’s not going to cut it. You’re competing against people who have multiple scripts and are ready to share them at any time. Hustle and networking are more important than ever. Build out a network of fellow writers. Read each other’s material, give and get notes. Then go back and rewrite. Your first draft won’t be great. They rarely are. Even from pros the first drafts aren’t great. The hard work comes from rewriting. Every draft should get better. Sometimes in leaps and bounds and sometimes only incrementally. But that first draft should be only what you show a trusted friend or fellow writer. Ask them to be honest. Telling you your script is awesome when it isn’t is going to embarrass you when you show it to someone more integrated into the business. Sometimes you only get one shot with someone who is willing to read your script. It could be a working writer who might recommend you for a job or hire you or a prospective agent or a producer who is looking for material. But if you give them something rough and it has typos and other rookie mistakes you could be shutting a door that you want to push further open. So share that first draft with trusted people who aren’t going to make or break your career. Get honest – if not brutal – advice. Then work hard to make it better by rewriting it not once or twice but as many times as needed.
What can a junior writer do in the room to stand out?
Contribute. A lot of managers and agents tell their junior writer clients their primary job is to not get fired and advise them not to say much, which is the wrong advice. A showrunner has hired each and every writer on the presumption they are bringing something to the series and into the writer’s room, so junior writers should pitch ideas. They should try and help build the story in the room. That said, they should \be aware of their role and place in the room. Don’t suck up all the air. Don’t talk over the showrunner. Realize when you’ve made your case but the showrunner or the room are taking the story in a different direction so realize when it’s time to stand down. There’s a hierarchy to the room that is both meaningless and meaningful, so know which battles to fight. Also, see if you can find a mentor within the room. Someone a level above you who might be willing to take you under their wing and give you a little private feedback – how am I doing? Am I talking enough? Too much? Am I pitching succinctly or am I rambling? Is there anything else I can be doing? Basically, as a junior writer, you should be prepared to volunteer to do homework. If the showrunner asks if anyone’s seen a movie that she/he wants to reference, you should go watch that movie and then summarize it for others in the room who may or may not have seen it. If the showrunner is into certain movies/shows/books/whatever, your job is to get into those too. Your goal is to capture the voice of the showrunner and the voice of the show so anything you can do to get into their headspace before you write a word on the page is ideal.
Do you have any advice when it comes to receiving notes and tackling rewrites?
Accept them graciously. You may not agree with them, and you may have questions about them and it’s okay to ask for clarification, but for the most part, these are notes that need to be implemented in your script. If they aren’t, in most cases you will be rewritten. The goal is to always try and get as much of your words up on the screen, but ultimately it’s the showrunner’s job to implement a story across multiple episodes and to make the voice of the show consistent. If there’s a note you think might be a misunderstanding then it’s okay to ask about it, but do it in a respectful way and realize the showrunner’s word is final. If they want the sky to be red and you think it should be blue, understand that it will probably be red in the end. When you’re the showrunner of your own show you can make it whatever color you want it to be.
How has being the Showrunner on Absentia Season 3 changed your understanding of the craft?
I realized that writing is primarily left brain and showrunning is more right brain. Showrunning is about managing people, managing exceptions, managing politics while navigating egos and insecurity. It’s about running a multi-million dollar business that is both lovely art and harsh commerce. When you’re a writer, you aren’t thinking about those bigger picture things. You’re just focused on storytelling and writing a good script. When you’re a showrunner, it’s all about the people in many respects, so time management, strong leadership, financial sense, and people management all become critical skills you need to have on a daily basis.