by Diana Peterson
In April I finished my work as an Executive Producers’ Assistant on NBC’s LIFE. During my time at LIFE I was fortunate to work with a talented young writer named Melissa Scrivner. Melissa was promoted from Writers' Assistant to Staff Writer after just one season. Let's hear her story.
DIANA PETERSON: While working as a Writers’ Assistant how did you establish yourself as a writer?
MELISSA SCRIVNER: That was fairly simple to do on LIFE because I was working with a very talented and very encouraging group of writers. Yes, I did my work as an assistant, but no one ever treated me like I was lower on the totem pole. I was lucky in that if I said I was working on something, these writers would go ahead and asked to read it, without my having to awkwardly wonder if maybe they’d be willing to take a look, if they had time, but if not, don’t worry about it. They were great about offering before I had to ask.
I realize not everyone has this kind of job situation, so, in that regard, I think the most important thing to do while trying to establish yourself as a writer is to write. When I was the Writers’ Assistant on LIFE, I got up every morning at six and wrote for an hour or two before going to work. I wrote every day and still do, so that when I met someone who wanted to help me, I was ready. No one can help you if you don’t have good material, and if you write every day, odds are you’ll eventually come up with something good!
DIANA PETERSON: What steps did you take to getting staffed on LIFE?
MELISSA SCRIVNER: I wouldn’t say I took steps, specifically. Since it was my first time being in a writers’ room for a long period of time, I tried to keep my mouth shut and learn how story was broken, how arcs were figured out, and how on earth to write a procedural. I know a lot of times the Writers’ Assistant tries to look for ways to pitch without seeming pushy, but I didn’t do that. I just listened and learned, so that when I did get my seat at the table, I was ready.
I also ended up writing all the web content for the show, which was a great opportunity for me to do some writing without the pressure of having to deliver an actual script. I tried to be creative with it – I wrote fake transcripts from Charlie Crews’ trial and newspaper articles from the time he was arrested. It was fun for me and a good chance to show my bosses I knew the show and loved working on it.
Most importantly, though, I was writing every day. I can’t emphasize that enough! When my bosses came to me asking to read something (something I realize not everyone else’s bosses do – but I was very, very lucky), I was ready because of this step. If you don’t write, everything else you do doesn’t matter.
DIANA PETERSON: Tell us about your first experiences as a Staff Writer. What did you struggle with at first...if anything? How did your work as a Writers’ Assistant shape your performance as a writer? Are there any anecdotes or stories you can share on mistakes or triumphs?
MELISSA SCRIVNER:I was definitely terrified the first time I had to pitch A stories at the very beginning of the season. Everyone was looking at me, and my voice was shaking, and it killed me because I could tell everyone was rooting for me! I would rather have been pitching to a roomful of hateful strangers, instead of all these great writers who were proud of me. It literally felt like your family watching you and snapping pictures at your first dance recital, if you were a really bad dancer and wearing an awful Spandex bodysuit in an unflattering color. Except they all thought you were great, because they were your family. I remember Rand Ravich trying to help me along and calm me down by asking questions and picking up the dialogue if I was struggling. Thanks for making me remember that! But after those first couple of days at the table I was as loud and talkative as anyone else.
DIANA PETERSON: What advice do you have for current Writers’ Assistants looking to take the next step?
MELISSA SCRIVNER:Again, write every day. I started with specs, and probably the first few you write might not be so great, but you’ll learn how to structure a story and how to make your characters’ voices accurate. After you can do that, concentrate on writing something that people who read ten or more scripts a day will remember the next morning. The script that has gotten me the most meetings actually came about because the LIFE writers, back when I was an assistant, were discussing the series finale of THE SOPRANOS. When we’d broken, Glen Mazzara (one of said writers) turned to me and said, “You should pick up where that finale faded to black. See if you can do it.” There’s nothing I like more than a challenge, so I did it, and although I can’t speak to whether or not it’s a good script, people tend to remember it.
DIANA PETERSON: How did you get an agent? What advice do you have for young writers seeking representation?
MELISSA SCRIVNER: I got an agent because during the strike, Steven Selikoff from William Morris called up Far Shariat on LIFE and said he was bored. Were there any young writers Far could send him to read? Steven was very crafty, because what he was really asking was is there anyone over there you’re thinking of staffing. Far came to me, said he was very happy with my work on the website, and could he read something. I gave him my SOPRANOS and a pilot, he read them, loved them, and passed them on to Steven. I then went to meet with Steven and another agent, Blake Fronstin. I wore four inch heels and felt very intimidated sitting in the William Morris lobby (I had never been inside). Then Steven and Blake appeared and whisked me out of the building to Starbucks. Four blocks in four inch heels while they told me how difficult it was to break into television. I left that meeting having no idea where I stood with them. I’d had several meetings like this one in the years before, and I think agents have a tendency, when you’re an assistant, to try and get your loyalty so that when you do get staffed, you’ll remember them. What happens, though, is that they string you along until you can do something for them with minimal effort on their part. That’s not how I felt with Steven and Blake, despite the fact that they didn’t know any better than to make me walk in high heels.
One of the hardest things to do is sit back and wait for things to happen. I’m very bad at it, but that’s what I had to do in this situation. I didn’t bother these agents, didn’t call, didn’t email, and I met with others. It’s a lot like high school – people only want you when someone else does. Then Steven and Blake called me the day after the strike ended saying they wanted to sign me. Even though I basically had a job lined up (I got staffed the following month), I still feel like they get me as a writer more than anyone else I met with did. I am very glad I went with them.
The important thing to remember is that your relationships with other writers are going to be more important than your relationships with agents, especially in the beginning. I never would have gotten an agent without Rand and Far’s help, so concentrate on your relationships with writers and your writing – then when a writer wants to hire you, the agents will appear.
DIANA PETERSON: Is there anything else you’d like to add or share that you think may be helpful to young writers?
MELISSA SCRIVNER: I find it helpful to think of goals for five years and ten years, so that if things aren’t happening just the way you want them this year, it doesn’t wreck you. Other than that, just keep writing, don’t get bitter, and remember, if you’re willing to get back up after you’ve been kicked in the head a thousand times, you’ll do just fine!