Videogames to Staffed Writer: Interview with Kira Snyder By Jeane Wong

Kira has been writing her whole life, in different forms. From working in the videogame industry and theatre world, Kira explains how she made the jump into her current form of writing-- on a staff of a television series. Currently Staff Writer on Eureka, Kira previously was Staff Writer on Moonlight and sold a pilot to Cartoon Network as part of their new live-action initiative.

JW: I see you started off in the theatre world. Did you want to act?

KS: I was a drama major in college. I started off wanting to be a stage actor but then I discovered writing. After graduating I worked in theatre doing a little bit of everything, writing and producing, teaching, directing, even backstage work like costumes and lighting. All that has been very helpful background for screenwriting, both as it informs my writing and during production.

Playwriting is a lot of fun and very rewarding. Developing a piece with a director and actors and hearing a live audience’s reaction to your work is a fantastic experience. In a city like Los Angeles with so many talented actors and a thriving theater community, it’s easier than you might think to get your work produced.

JW: Then later you worked in the gaming world, how does one apply and break into that industry as a writer?

KS: My main focus in games has been design -- I still do a little game consulting off and on -- but I’ve done a fair amount of writing as well. Like screenwriting, there isn’t one single path to becoming a game writer. Mine was ridiculously straightforward: I answered an ad on the Electronic Arts jobs site. The WGA has a Videogame Caucus and the International Game Developers Association has a Writing subgroup, both of which are great resources on how to break in. In general, game companies looking for writers want to see if you have credits, good samples, and an understanding of writing for interactive media.

JW: Do you need to be technical or have a technical background to write for games?

KS: Not necessarily, although it can help, just like understanding physical production can make you a better screenwriter. Some companies like BioWare may ask as part of the application process that you use their tools in submitting a writing sample.

JW: I know for all the people reading the HWAS blog here, they may have the writing samples but not the credentials but want to write everywhere they can. On a game, there are jobs that can be a stepping stone to being a writer? Like there are PAs in TV or movies?

KS: Not so much for writers. The videogame business is very competitive, like TV or film. It’s hard to find a way to break in. Game companies tend to hire writers on an as-needed basis for each specific project, and sometimes only from within, say there’s an artist or engineer who also writes and asks to try their hand at it. But if you have a good sample and love games, you can do your homework on a company and its projects and just apply, whether they have a listed opening for a writer or not. You never know.

More broadly speaking in games, though, there are entry-level jobs such as quality assurance tester and customer service. Being a game tester is not as glamorous or fun as it sounds, getting paid to play games all day, because you’re often playing the same small piece over and over and over looking for a particular glitch, but it’s a great way to learn the business and see firsthand what makes for good game design and an engaging player experience. I know a lot of people who started out as testers and worked their way up to producers and designers. A lot of companies hire interns too, and like TV and film there are schools where you can study game design and production. Many companies hire out of those programs.

JW: So I saw that you’re from the Bay area, what is your background growing up?

KS: Well, my Dad was in the Navy so we moved around a lot, but I mainly grew up in Virginia. I came out west to Stanford for undergrad, and got my Masters from NYU-Tisch in Interactive Telecommunications. Then I came back to Northern California for work. The Bay Area’s a major center of the videogame industry.

JW: Eventually when you moved down to LA, what was your break?

KS: I was writing TV specs on the side while working at Yahoo Games. I was familiar with the Warner Bros. TV Drama Writers Workshop but had never applied as I was not down here. When my job moved me down to LA, I applied to the Workshop with a Cold Case spec. I had a really great mentor during the program, Chris Mack, who’s an executive at WBTV and who now runs the Workshop. They sent my material to Moonlight, the executive producers met with me, and I was staffed. That was my first job in the industry.

JW: When you started writing TV, what from your background influenced your writing?

KS: From playwriting, I love rich characters and dialogue, and from games, I love action and other genre elements. Moonlight was a fun show to work on because we were able to tell a lot of different type of stories. The show had a detective mystery element, vampire lore and action, and this epic paranormal romance at its heart. It was not always the same story. It was a lot of fun to play around with those different themes.

It’s why I love Eureka as well. It tells cool sci fi stories, contains quirky comedy, and has deep and relatable character relationships at the center of the show. There are a lot of tools in our toolbox.

JW: When you were working on Moonlight, did you have any idea that vampires was going to be something as huge as it is now? Did you have any inkling that vampires were going to be this trendy?

KS: Vampires never really go out of style. But I think that when I was on Moonlight, we were ahead of the vampire curve. We had a really dedicated fan base. So that was a clue as to how many people out there respond to these types of stories.

JW: So what do you think of the vampire shows on the air?

KS: I like them a lot. I love True Blood. And Vampire Diaries is fun. And all of them are different, that’s one of the cool things with vampires, you can change up the mythology to create something that’s familiar but also your own.

JW: Going back to your writing, what does your writing portfolio look like?

KS: I have a Dexter spec. I have a couple of original drama pilots, a feature, a comic book script, my plays, and even a short story. My Veronica Mars is past its expiration date but depending on the show is still a good sample. At least that’s what my agent tells me... One thing I feel that I’m missing is a solid comedy sample, and I want to try a half-hour. Maybe a pilot, or a single-camera spec like Modern Family.

JW: A lot of people talk about high concept pilots now such like Dexter with its twist. What do you think of that in terms of building your portfolio?

KS: Writing a pilot is your chance to create something that is uniquely yours, and yes, sometimes the key is finding that high concept hook to stand out. One way to go for that is to explore a premise that is familiar but different: Dexter is about a guy who hunts serial killers... and is a serial killer himself. The X-Files is about FBI agents solving crimes... of a paranormal nature. But you shouldn’t feel limited in a pilot to some catchy high concept. Damages, Sons of Anarchy, and Breaking Bad are fantastic shows, but while their premises are great I’m not sure you’d call them high concept. With the growth of the scripted market in cable, there are so many places looking for shows that fit their specific voice, so you should feel free in a pilot to write what you want, even kooky, complicated, uncategorizable stuff. You can do anything.

JW: But some still find it difficult to create a world.

KS: It’s challenging, all the things you need to set up in a pilot. The world of the show, the characters and their relationships, and the story engine, because that is where all your episodes will come from. The engine’s easy to determine in some genres: on a doctor show, new stories come in the door every day. On a lawyer show, there are new cases. On a cop show, new crimes. In a sci fi show it might be the new planet you visit or adventure you embark on every week. The characters and their relationships are themselves an engine, and sometimes the only engine in character-driven shows. On Mad Men, the business of the ad agency and its clients is the source of many stories, but even more so are the relationships and politics between the people who inhabit that world. Every show needs that engine, or it’ll run out of stories.

At the end of the day your show’s really about the characters you create, and their relationships. I heard a panelist at a WGA seminar on pitching for TV say that essentially every show is a family show, which I think is a great insight. They’re all family shows! Whether it’s a metaphorical family of cops on The Shield or ad execs on Mad Men or a literal family as on Brother and Sisters or Modern Family.

JW: In terms of writers, who do you want to work with?

KS: That is a long list. Ron Moore. Jane Espenson. Shawn Ryan. Josh Schwartz. J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Carlton Cuse. John Wells. Joss Whedon. I could go on…

JW: Any advice for writers applying to the WBTV Workshop, the ABC/Disney Fellowship, or similar programs?

KS: Well, first of all write and submit the best script you can, of course. In the interview stage, that old cliché “be yourself” applies. By that I mean not just avoiding being schmoozy or false, or putting on a personality that’s not yours. I’ve found that the people you’re meeting with are interested to hear what’s unique about you, what about your writing is coming from you and you alone. For me, people were intrigued with my theatre and videogaming background, and how I brought those experiences into my writing. Even the fact that I was a Navy kid and grew up all over the world was something people were interested in hearing about. So heading into these interviews it’s worth thinking about how you’ll bring fresh perspective to their program and the industry. It can be professional or life experiences -- in my year at the WBTV Workshop, there were a few people who had been lawyers, or had an unusual family -- or just your outlook.

JW: To wrap things up, once the writing is theoretically done, what did you do to put yourself out there? How did you go about and cultivate relationships as a writer?

KS: Well, I’m not the best at going out to big networking mixers. Some people get a lot out of those situations, but that kind of thing is really hard for me. I think the most effective networking is the kind you’re not even consciously doing. You get to know people naturally, through UCLA Extension classes or writing groups or jobs or side projects, and just stay in touch. The industry feels very big, but it really is a community. You’ll see the same people again and again as you move through your career, and people at your level will progress as you do, I’ve found. I’m still friends with my WBTV Workshop group, and over half of us are working screenwriters now.