Top 10 Writing Lessons from a TV Producer

The other night, I went out with a group of fellow television producers (I’ve been a TV producer for fifteen years). As always, we shared stories about shows, executives, production disasters, talent (actors/writers/directors celebrities) and potential gigs. Per usual, we had a great time, but I left thinking about how much I have learned from TV producing

Specifically, how much television production has
taught me about writing and the business of writing.

So now, I want to share my favorite lessons with you, dear writer friends, in hopes that these tips can help you as much as they have helped me:

1: A “No” is as good as a “Yes.” When I was first learning to book guests on talk/news shows, I was always disappointed when a potential guest said, “No.” I felt like I had failed. But my Executive Producer taught me that getting ANY answer is a step forward. “Maybe” is not an answer. Neither is, “I’m still waiting to hear back.” But if you get an ANSWER, you can take action. When you get a “Yes,” you get to celebrate and move forward. But when you get a no, is it time to mope in your office (or on your couch or in bed)? NO. That’s the time to take action again. When you get a “No,” you get to cross that person off your list and move onto the next ask! As a writer, you’re going to get rejected by agents, editors, publishing companies… But when you start realizing that “N0” is just an opportunity to move onto the NEXT person on your list, you’ll stop dreading rejection and start feeling empowered by it.

2: A new show every day. For much of my career, I have produced five-nights-a-week of television. We (the staff, crew, and talent) put up a new show EVERY DAY. Some days we put up great shows. Other days — to be honest — we put up real stinkers. But the next day, we had to put up another show… No matter how sick or distracted or uninspired I was, I had to go to work and create new content. And day by day, we built weeks and seasons and years of shows. As a writer, I do the same thing. I write EVERY DAY. No excuses. No days off. No taking a break to wait for some mysterious muse. And little by little, day by day, I build novels. Just remember, it’s amazing what you can produce if you do the work day after day after day…

3: Have a sense of urgency. On a TV set, we are under CONSTANT deadlines. Things move unbelievably fast. You will only survive — and keep getting hired — if you have a sense of urgency: act like your task needs to be done NOW (or, more accurately, five minutes ago). There is no time to waste. Now, inject that same sense of a ticking clock into your writing life. I’m not saying to rush, but don’t let yourself put things off either. Life is short. You only have time to write so many stories, screenplays, and books. Write like you are going on live television tomorrow. It will instill a sense of excitement into your writing — and you will be more productive.

4. Wikipedia is not a source. I’m a news/talk producer and a historical novelist. FACTS play a major role in both. My viewers expect me to give them accurate information during a newscast, just like my readers expect my history to be accurate. Wikipedia is NOT A SOURCE FOR NEWS BROADCASTS AND IT SHOULD NOT BE A SOURCE FOR YOUR WRITING. Whether you are looking up the population of a town or a famous quote by a president or the dates of a pope’s reign, Wikipedia may be right — but it MAY NOT. As a writer, it’s your responsibility to be right. So don’t be lazy. Find a book. A newspaper. Talk to a survivor of an event. Go to the official website of that town, the White House or the Vatican; not the Wiki page. Use a real SOURCE.

5: There is no such thing as impossible. A good friend and fellow producer wrote a great piece about the time she was asked to “Book a Unicorn” by her writing staff. The writers were serious — they wanted a MYTHOLOGICAL, IMAGINARY creature on their set. This is not an abnormal request in Hollywood. We are regularly asked to produce the “impossible.” And, in this case, “NO” is NOT an answer. We must find ways to make the impossible possible. This is Hollywood; it’s what we do. I approach my writing life in the same way. People have told me it’s too difficult to make a living as a writer (you’re living a dream, they say), or to get novels published in this market, or to sell the movie rights or become a bestseller. But when people tell me my dreams are impossible, I think, I work in Hollywood, baby. EVERYTHING is possible here (And I know it’s true because my friend DID manage to book that unicorn…)

6: Obstacles are just problems to be solved. In TV production, you can count on one thing: SOMETHING WILL ALWAYS GO WRONG. It’s why all producers are great problem solvers. We face problems every second of every day. Put out a fire on the set, another one starts in the booth… But these fires aren’t going to bring the show down; it’s our JOB to put them out; it’s what we do. Same goes for my writing life. During the writing, publishing, and selling process, things aren’t going to go as planned. But that’s okay. No matter what obstacle comes my way, I will adapt, solve the problem, and move forward. I know how to change with the change — and hopefully use that change to my advantage. Don’t get depressed by the obstacles — be invigorated by them. It’s your JOB to conquer those problems and move forward.

7: No matter how bad it looks, it’ll all work out. I’ll let writer Tom Stoppard take this one, with this brilliant exchange from the movie Shakespeare in Love:

Henslowe: Allow me to explain about the theater
business. The natural condition is one of
insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster. 

Fennyman: So what do we do? 

Henslowe:  Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well. 

Fennyman: How? 

Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

These lines from Shakespeare in Love are some of the TRUEST I have EVER HEARD about the entertainment industry. Things always fall apart. Always, always, always… But somehow, if you stay on the set and keep trying to solve the problem, the answer just… appears. Same goes with your writing: keep working at that problem with your story, publishing plan, or marketing. Keep WORKING, and everything will turn out well. How? It’s a mystery.

8: FREAKING OUT is normal. I’ll tell you a secret about those famous people on TV who look so confident. They are just as nervous as you are. Oscar-winning actors worry about their performance. World-famous singers are anxious about their voice. Internationally best-selling authors don’t want to read about their latest review for fear of it getting into their heads. It’s NORMAL to question yourself or lose your self-esteem. The most famous people in the world get scared. It’s okay. So the next time you’re up all night wondering if you are talented enough to be a writer, just tell yourself that you are no different than (insert your favorite celebrity name here).

9. Do not be intimidated by anyone; you deserve to be in the room, too. This may be one of the most important things I have learned. I have been around all kinds of “important” people: Presidents and rock stars. Nobel Peace Prize Winners and Olympians. Oscar-winners and billionaire CEOs. And you know what? They are just people. They are sometimes nice and sometimes mean. They get embarrassed, just like you and me. Sometimes, they trip on the way to stage. They are charming and quirky and shy… They are PEOPLE. So, don’t ever be intimidated in any room. I don’t care which agent you are approaching or which publisher is reading your work. They are just people who need someone to represent or a book to publish. Don’t be intimidated. You are a person. They are a people. Simple as that.

10: You are an artist. I see some artists get wrapped up in the media — in their brand or in their looks. The public starts watching them and suddenly they lose sight of who they are and what they want to say. As a writer, I know you need social media and the press to sell your work, but don’t let all that noise distract you. It’s not REALLY that important. What is important is your work. You are an artist. So, put away this computer and go create your art.

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