Write Like a Pro: What You Need to Know About Writing for TV with "Lizzie McGuire" Writer Nina Bargiel
On dealing with writer's block
Here's the truth: you don't get writer's block if you're a writer. Yes, you can feel frustrated and have terrible writing days and no have any ideas, but the reality is that if you want to make a living - not a hobby, but base a career on writing, then you will have deadlines that will have to be met. As a TV writer, you're not able to push back production because you don't have an idea. You can't delay the release a week or two to work the kinks out. Every single week there are hundreds of people that rely on you to get your work done so that they can get their work done.
If someone put a gun to your head and said "write or die," you'd find something to write about, trust me.
That's not to say that I don't have roadblocks in scripts. If I'm working on a spec (meaning it hasn't been sold to someone yet, so I might have the luxury of time to work on it) and I run into problems, I'll watch TV. I write sitcoms, so in those instances I watch classic shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show and Rhoda to see how they deal with it. But sometimes I'll watch something more contemporary - I'm REALLY into Broad City right now (IT. IS. BRILLIANT. AND. FUNNY) and the characters are so clear and yet it's so unexpected - so I'll watch with a critical eye to see how they get themselves into (and out of) situations.
The best and worst things about being in a writer's room:
Best thing: you laugh a lot.
Worst thing: Some rooms are VERY competitive, and a lot of the time you're coming up with jokes. Have you ever told a joke that just DIED? Now imagine having to come up with a joke on the fly, speak up over 3-10 other super-funny humans (seriously, it's like the Comedy Olympics) and sell the joke that you just came up with 2 seconds ago. If it fails, those super-funny people will turn their super-funny ways into making super-fun of YOU. But it happens to EVERYONE.
On getting your creative juices flowing
I really don't think about inspiration or creative juices because I think that it's a dangerous thing to rely on. If you wait until you're inspired and everything is just right, chances are you won't get a lot of writing done. The best writer isn't someone who was inspired. It's the person who finishes. I know that sounds terrible, but I think the romantic notion of writing does everyone a disservice.
That said, sometimes I'll hear a word or phrase or see someone and think THAT IS A CHARACTER. I'll have full conversations in my head that I'll type in a text file that I keep on my computer (the other one is in notes on my phone.) My husband is also used to be jumping up in the middle of the night to write something down.
While I've written high-concept shows before, I usually start with characters before I start with the concept. Some people are the other way around, but I'm personally good at character-based comedy so I stick with what works.
On roadblocks facing getting an agent or being published
You need to work to get an agent and to get work you need an agent. It's tough. I don't know much about publishing, but the TV world is tough to break into. Your best bet is to move to New York and LA, get a job in production or development as an assistant, write like crazy and do a great job at whatever crappy beginner job you have so people want to help you. I am always willing to help someone who is busting ass at their job.
A typical day in her life:
I'm not on staff right now, I'm pitching projects and in development on a few other things, so right now my time is my own. So I might get up, walk the dog, write, go for a run, write some more, make dinner and hang out with my husband. (I'm boring.)
If I'm on staff, I'll be at work at around 10am, then we're generally in the room all day, but it depends where you are in the week. If you shoot on a Friday, Monday morning may have you at a table read at 8am. The actors read the script around a table, hence the name. The writers and network people listen and then they get notes and the writers go off and rewrite the script. Then Wednesday there will be a writer's run-through, where we see our rewritten script on stage with the actors moving through the sets and saying their lines. Then we'll rewrite it again. Thursday will be the network run-through where the actors do exactly what they did the day previous but with another rewritten script, and this time the network people are there. The network people give us notes, then we're back in the writers room rewriting again. Then on Friday, there's last minute things and then we shoot in front of a live audience, where we'll still be making tweaks with new jokes and the like.
If it's your script, chances are you'll be on stage for a good part of the week, doing rewrites there, too. Sometimes you'll be at work til 7pm, sometimes til midnight. When I was an assistant I had a boss who worked on a show that wrote until 4am on some nights. It just depends.
On setting realistic goals
I set goals based on what I have control over. I can't control if someone hires me. I can't control if they buy my script. I can't control whether they want to meet me. What I can control is giving my agents and manager the tools to sell me - and that's product, aka scripts.
On getting exposure
I use Twitter to tell jokes, and I'll get noticed by people who could possible hire me. I once got a job being a talking head on one of those commentary-type shows for the BBC via Twitter! You could also write for a comedy site like Cracked and the like (nb: I haven't done this. I do have a blog - theslackdaily.com)
Ugly truths of the entertainment industry
Here's the thing I say to people. If you want to be a doctor, you can study hard and find a medical school somewhere that will take you. You can practice medicine somewhere. It may not be where you want, but if you work hard, it is possible.
If you want to be a writer, you can work the hardest, you can be the most talented, and there is no guarantee that you will ever make a living at it. You may never get paid for doing it. If you are prepared for that and willing to take that chance, then congrats, then you're just as crazy as the rest of us.