Today I went to one of the VIFF Forums on Drama writing for television. The panelists included Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik of "Durham County", Molly Newman of "Brothers & Sisters" and Dahvi Waller of "Mad Men". I made it out of the day job in Burnaby at 1:17 PM (thanks to my fabulous co-workers, who took on a bunch of my work) and was paying for my pass into the session in downtown Vancouver at 1:42 PM with 3 minutes to spare. Also, thanks to my buddy Erin (@nopantsisland on Twitter), we had great seats!
What I took away form the forum is still a little jumbled in my head, as I try to sort it out, I will talk about the difference between television writing in the US, and television writing in Canada. From what I understand, in the US you get on as a writer's assistant, after getting coffee, copying outlines, and researching you may or may not be one of the lucky few to get a staff writing position on a show. From there, if you keep your head down and your ideas sharp, you may move on in your career and get to the point of actually writing an episode or seven. Once you ascend to another dimension, you may achieve Jane Espenson status (@CapricaSeven on twitter) though this is unlikely for most.
In Canada, you have an idea. If you know the right people in the right market, you may get some cash to develop that idea. If you have a great agent, you write a pilot for that idea, and someone makes it (I'm still unclear on the *someone* bit). Then, after you've tread the deep end for longer than you thought humanly possible, and your pilot gets picked up, they may (likely will) bring in a veteran to help you, and you become one of the coveted story-breaking, outline-creating, writers room attendees. Though from what I understand, you can be booted from this process at any moment, depending on the nature of your contract.
These overviews are pieced together from the bits I've been gathering by asking cheeky questions, appealing to more experienced friends, and researching what I can on my own. It seems to me both systems have their good points, and both have gaping flaws. The US system definitely puts the emphasis on mentoring young writers, and honing their skills into people who can eventually stand on their scribe-stilts. This system does not leave much open for the inexperienced writer with the big concept. If you want it, you have to earn it, pay your dues, and work your ass off for it. The Canadian system, however, leaves the door open for new ideas, even from inexperienced writers. You get a few names, you can most likely pitch to someone, even if they shoot you down. The problem is that once you experience a morsel of success, the stress and loneliness that follows from the solitary nature of that success can threaten to envelop you. I'm not sure which system is better, or if there is a clear winner, but I do know that they both scare the living crap out of me.
Is that normal?
Perhaps its because I haven't actually pitched anything besides a short film. Perhaps its because every time something doesn't come easily to me I question my skills. Perhaps I just need some chocolate. If I ever make a dent in either system, I will edit this post with an opinion. For now, I'm going to bask in the knowledge of the late, great Blake Snyder and read "Save The Cat". At least its something I can take to the bank.
OK I didn't mention Tone once. I got tired, and this was already too long.