An Interview With Tawnya

Tell me about how you got started as a screenwriter. 

I went to Cornish College of the Arts Acting Conservatory where I minored in playwriting. I wrote, produced and sometimes acted in the plays I wrote. The writing tapered off a bit after graduating, but when I came to LA I did that typical thing a lot of actors do which is to write screenplays with the intention of creating work for myself. It quickly became apparent that because of my acting experience I knew how to write scenes and dialogue well but I didn’t understand structure or many of the other elements necessary for telling a great story. I started reading every book I could find about screenwriting and took several classes, including a two-year course. A few weeks in I realized I wanted to be a writer and not an actor, so I committed to writing. And it will sound a little crazy and methodical but I instinctively knew I had to get my 10,000 hours in before reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” so I wrote. Initially I committed to 10 hours a week. And at first it was a struggle to get to the ten hours but once I made 10 hours a week regularly, I upped it to 15, then 20, then 30 and pretty soon I was writing 30-40 hours a week.


You have been awarded two fellowships. What was the Fellowship experience like? 

I was one of 10 writers selected for 8 spots (there were two teams) in the FOX Diversity Program, which has evolved into the Fox Writers Initiative. In our day we did a six-week class where we rewrote the pilots that got us into the fellowship. For me it was great because a legitimate person in the business was validating me as a writer. It was encouraging as well as helpful to be vetted by industry professionals because then others are willing to give you a closer look. Additionally, FOX optioned my pilot. During that program I decided to move from features into television. I knew I needed to get into another program so I applied to Disney, WB and NBC Writers on the Verge with my new writing partner, Ali Laventhol, (we had just finished our first feature together) and we got into the latter.

NBC WOTV was the program that broke us into the business. It was like the finishing school that made us room ready. We were offered one of 8 spots (11 writers total as there were 3 teams) that did the three-month program, which was very much focused on getting you and your material to the professional level. We wrote a new spec and a new pilot in the very short amount of time we were given: 4 days to develop and write our outlines and 4 days to develop and write our drafts. Having experience writing at that breakneck speed is invaluable on your first job. You sometimes only get 2 – 5 days to write your draft. Seven days and beyond to write your script is a luxury. During the program we also learned about pitching and branding from an expert, did executive speed dating with NBC/Universal execs from USA, NBC and Syfy, we were also given NBC Exec mentors and then at the end of it all we had a “coming out” party – cocktails with agents, managers and execs.


You mentioned your writing partner. What brought you two together, and how did you know that she was “the one”? 

Ha! Yes, she’s “the one” – totally. I spend more time with her than I do my husband. Ali was actually a writer in the first class I ever taught at Writers Boot Camp. We became friendly and talked about doing a feature together but we were both busy and it didn’t happen. She had a great feature, so I introduced her to producers who optioned it. Later those producers broke up. She started working with one of them and so did I, separately. I was living in India for a stint (too long a story to get into here) but when I came back for a few months we met up for lunch. As we were saying our goodbyes in the parking lot, Ali asked me if I had talked to the producer lately and, I don’t know, maybe I picked up on her thoughts, because I said, “No, why? Does she want us to partner up on my project so I’ll finish it?” I had an assignment and another option at the time so I wasn’t spending a lot of time on that particular script. Ali said, “No, no, but I was thinking— ” And before she could finish, I knew what she was going to say and I blurted out, “Let’s do it.” We wrote our first feature together over Skype when I was back in the states and living on the east coast before coming back to LA permanently. It was an incredibly smooth process considering the distance and technology. Ali and I like the same material, we have complimentary voices, we both have a similar work ethic, we have the same goals and we get along. That last part is key. You have to respect each other as people and writers. We finished the feature and both needed to write another spec. We wrote a “Nurse Jackie” that got us into NBC WOTV and the rest is history.

 

Now that you & Ali have been together for some time, what are the benefits of the partnership, and what is the distribution of labor? 

The greatest benefit is that it’s wonderful to have someone else on this journey that wants exactly what you do. Being part of a team means someone always has your back. It makes the highs in this business more joyful and the lows less difficult to bear. We always have each other to bounce things off of: creatively and personally. It’s really nice. We keep each other sane, I think.

As far as distributing the work, I think we both find our partnership to be very equal. But we don’t measure it in terms of 50-50, or by pages… We don’t think about who did what. Everything is divided as close to halves as we can but there are days when she does more and days when I do more. We know it balances out. Once you start having a mental or literal chart in a relationship that ticks off how many dishes you’ve done and how many times you’ve taken out the garbage vs. the other person… the relationship is doomed. Something that teams face is people want to know WHO the talent is? Who is the one who does all the work? Who is the one who can write? As if writing partnerships are just co-dependent relationships where one person is completely happy to drag around dead weight as an emotional crutch or something. I’m sure those teams exist, but we know a lot of teams that function like ours and I think we all find it insulting that people would assume there’s a non-contributing partner. And we both cringe when we hear one partner say their partner doesn’t do shit or that they are the one who can write. That perpetuates the belief that you couldn’t possibly have two talented, smart people who want to be team.

As far as process goes, once we land on an idea, we talk a lot about the characters, the themes or world… When we feel like we have something, we develop the project together using Script Anatomy tools up to the outline stage then split the script. Sometimes it’s by halves. Sometimes it’s every other act. It just depends. We write our parts, put it together and rewrite or tweak together. Sometimes she’ll take one of our scripts and do a rewrite and do a pass and sometimes I’ll do it. We just do what needs to be done and we divvy it up based on what we have going on.

 

Could you tell me how you got your first job and what it was like on that first job?

For us, and for most people, landing the first job, it takes a village. Fortunately we had support from our manager, NBC execs and mentors, and a UCP exec we had met through the WOTV program. She passed our material to the producer and showrunner of FAIRLY LEGAL. Once we got the showrunner meeting, it was up to us to nail it. This meant massive preparation. We watched all episodes from the first season (we were up for a spot on the Season 2 staff) and broke everything down. We defined what we liked and what, in our opinion, could be improved. In this instance we were meeting with a showrunner who had been hired to revamp the show — so we knew thoughts on how to make the show better would be welcome. Sure enough his first question in the meeting was: “So, we all know what’s working. Let’s talk about what isn’t.” Luckily we had specifics ready to discuss, and solutions to pitch. We talked about how and why we related to the characters. We each mined our personal experiences for relevant anecdotes. We pitched case ideas, and we were able to compare and contrast other legal shows within the TV landscape. Apparently, it worked because we got the gig!

Once in the writers’ room, we were equally overjoyed and terrified. A writers’ room is its own beast and it definitely takes time to acclimate. On that first job we had a pretty big staff and the hierarchy was firmly in place, so that means we did a lot of listening. As far as pitching goes, it’s like anything new… you get better at it the more you do it and that was true for us. We ended up writing an episode and going to set in Vancouver. And thankfully, our showrunner was one of the nicest in the business so overall it was a wonderful experience.

 

What does it take to graduate from staff writer to producer-level writer? Is this something that happens naturally, or do you have to fight for it? 

Both, actually. You do get bumped up levels “organically” if you stay on the same show as it’s already worked into your contract. That’s one way. The other is to fight for it because if your show gets cancelled you may have to repeat a level when you move to a new show. That’s not the worst thing that can happen. The worst is if you are offered a job only if you bump down. DO NOT take the job. I know people do and I get it: everyone needs a little scratch. But I really think if you’re willing to accept less than what you deserve that’s what you’ll get. I know that sounds all jingle bell and incense-y and I’m not that person, I just believe you have to believe in your worth. Perhaps it’s budget or what have you, but when you’ve worked hard and gotten to story editor you shouldn’t be asked to go back to staff writer. But, enough of that soap-box! You may also be asked to repeat a level if you haven’t been on 22 episodes of produced television. They don’t have to bump you. So either you have an agent who will fight for you or you don’t. It’s a long story, which I won’t get into, but we were staff writers twice because of… I don’t know… a political situation. We had heard stories and known writers who had been staff writers for three years or more. Because we’re a part of a team it became a financial issue (you don’t get paid for your scripts as staff writers either) and we told our reps that we couldn’t afford to be staff writers again and that we didn’t want to hear about those offers. Some reps just want you to staff and don’t care what level you are but we are very fortunate to have the most kick-ass, awesome agent in town and he got it. We went out for staffing season and we had this great meeting and then it was crickets. We were like, “Hey, what happened? We thought we were going to get an offer on that one.” Our agent said, “They’re willing to give you an offer but you don’t want to hear it.” So we waited. And that’s scary because you’re broke and there are moments when you’re wondering if you’re an idiot for not just taking the job. But again, my motto was “We’ll get what we accept.” I really felt strongly that we had to put our foot down and fight for what we wanted. On our next job we bypassed Story Editor and jumped to Executive Story Editor. It was worth the wait.

 

You have a writing program – Script Anatomy – that is very popular here in Los Angeles. Could you tell me a bit about your unique approach to screenwriting? 

When I started writing I took several classes and heard amazing theories and lectures. It would make perfect sense intellectually while I was sitting there and I would come away feeling inspired but then I had no clue how to DO any of it. With Script Anatomy I wanted to empower the writers I worked with by giving them a practical and applicable process they could use in class as well as throughout their writing career. I created specific tools to help writers develop their scripts from concept through drafts. There are also lectures, of course, and writers get step-by-step feedback on their tools, outlines and drafts. My business is unique for many reasons, one being that I have current working TV writers teaching classes who are able to bring that first-hand experience to the table.

 

There is the perception out there – which I hear about often from new writers – that, because we’re in the golden age of television, television is not as competitive. Is that the case? 

Oh no, I think it’s quite the opposite. It seems like everyone wants to write for TV now. For instance, when I applied to NBC Writers on the Verge there were 1200 applicants for 8 spots. This year there were roughly 2000. The number of applicants goes up every year partly due to awareness of the program’s existence, of course. But there are hundreds upon hundreds of writers wanting to break in who are not applying to the programs. Not only are aspiring feature writers now trying to break into TV, but working, successful feature writers are turning to television as well. It used to be that the dream was writing the great American novel, then the great American screenplay and now the dream is to write the great American TV pilot!

 

Could you describe for me a day in the life of a television writer? Is it all fun and games? 

Haha! No, it’s definitely not all fun and games. Every time you start a new job there is a level of stress: Will I fit in? Will I have ideas? Will I like the other people I’m working with and will they like me? Can I write this show? It’s a mind f*#@! On the job, which, don’t get me wrong, can be very fun and fulfilling, you have to meet the expectations we talked about a minute ago. There are tight deadlines. Oh, and sometimes the commute is a bitch. But eventually you settle in and get used to the day to day – which is different on every show. I’ve worked on shows where there was a lot of “room” time, which is about pitching ideas and breaking story. I’ve been on shows where we broke every episode collectively as a room and others where you broke your own story, maybe with a Co-EP or EP, and then pitched your entire episode to the showrunner. Other shows are very research heavy. If you’re writing on a soap you might be drawing from your personal life or the lives of your friends and family. However on some jobs it felt taboo to bring up your personal life in the room – pitches were factual and scientific, preferably based on a news article, rather than emotional. Once you are assigned an episode there are a series of steps. You’ll write a story doc, outline, writers draft, studio draft, network draft, then a production draft and there are rewrites and tweaks a long the way. During pre-production you’ll cover a series of meetings: concept, production, tone, wardrobe, casting, etc. What’s nice about writing for TV is that it’s NOT like “Groundhog Day.” In other words, although it isn’t entirely fun and games, things do switch up a lot, which keeps it interesting.
What is the off-season like for you?

I swear I’m even busier during hiatus. As soon as we break I try to get in all my doctor appointments, get more exercise (unsuccessfully), catch up on seeing friends, work on the business side of Script Anatomy, teach a class or two, write a new pilot, get some reading in, meet on jobs (which takes a lot of preparation), work on pitches, pitch… take a vacation. It’s insane. I’m often so ready to jump back on a show because being on a structured schedule feels like a break.
How do you balance writing in the room and teaching at Script Anatomy?

It’s been a struggle to find the balance. I really try not to teach while I’m on a show although I’ve ended up teaching while on every show (so far) because I’d get hired on a job. I’d end up teaching for a few weeks at the start of the gig. On my first two jobs we were supposed to be finished so I scheduled a class, but then we got extended. Fortunately in both of those situations it was very manageable. However, once or twice it meant that I’d have to get up early or work on SA late into the night. In 2013 I taught 5 classes and I realized that for Script Anatomy to continue to thrive and deliver at 110% the brand could no longer be solely dependent on me teaching which is why I now have other hand-selected instructors teaching classes.

 

As someone who is moving up the television writing ladder, what advice do you have for writers trying to break in?

Great writing, just like cream, will rise to the top. So, write. Rewrite. Write some more. Repeat. If you’re just that damn good you’ll get noticed. I also tell all the writers I work with to get into writers groups, to join networking groups and to be proactive about their careers. Write, produce and direct a short. Create a web series. Don’t wait for someone to hand you a career. I always joked that if I couldn’t break into features I’d go door to door and sell raffle tickets to raise the money. Now, I don’t have to – there’s Kickstarter and several other sites out there that make it easier. I’m still willing to go that route.