From Contests to Staffing— 4 Tips on Finding Your Voice and Getting Read
I’m Annie Nishida, and I’m a television writer who went from being un-repped to being a staff writer on Disney Channel’s Gabby Duran & the Unsittables, in what feels like a total whirlwind.
Almost exactly two years ago, I wanted to quit writing. I had graduated from USC’s screenwriting program three years prior and had yet to land any sort of screenwriting gig, while I watched my classmates succeed in the industry. But then I took a step back and reexamined what was really going on.
I hadn’t written a new sample in three years.
I hadn’t put my work out into the world.
But most importantly, I hadn’t been making things. So, I started to do that again.
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I started with a passion project-- a written/illustrated novella. Prior to this, I hadn’t written prose, and the only art training I had was from one semester in high school, so this was an experiment that ended up being quite liberating, especially because I chose to self-publish it and didn’t have to address anyone’s notes. After that, I continued to illustrate autobiographical comics, and with each one completed, I felt like I was strengthening my voice. I got a real handle on my style of humor and started to get a sense of the types of stories I wanted to tell, which is something I hadn’t done up until that point. After a year, I was ready to go back to screenwriting, and within a year of that, I was staffed in a comedy room.
Here are some of the most important things I did for both myself and my career that led me to where I am now.
Find your voice
Upon graduating from film school, I didn’t have a clear voice. My samples were all over the place, and at the time I had written them, I was still grappling with finding who I was, and what made me unique. I was writing characters I didn’t connect with and didn’t particularly care about. I started to find my voice by experimenting with prose, illustration, and looking back at my (and my family’s) experiences growing up. But, you can start anywhere -- including just stepping back and looking at the stories that resonate with you. This was definitely a process for me, but also so helpful and necessary for anyone in creative fields.
Make cool things
I am a true believer in the idea that if you make something cool that you believe in, somebody WILL see it. Make something that only you can make, whether that’s based on a real experience you had, or populated by people you grew up with, a totally fictitious story that you feel like you absolutely have to share with the world, or a combo of all three. Write things that make your heart sing, that are painful, that you absolutely cannot bear to keep to yourself. Just make things! Every time you write a new script, you’re learning from your previous work, creating something people can potentially see, and learning more about yourself. It’s a win-win-win.
Get your work out there
Once I wrote a pilot that I was proud of, whether it was received well by others or not, I entered it into contests. I started with one at first, just to gauge what others thought of it-- and it ended up being a finalist. Then, I started entering it into a few more-- including ScreenCraft’s Pilot Launch and their Screenwriting Fellowship-- to see if this was just a fluke. When it continued to place, I knew that not only did the script resonate with me, it resonated with others. Then, I started sending out query emails to reps, making sure to mention how I placed, as well as a tidbit about my background as a writer. I ended up signing with my manager, and then later with my agent. But, this only happened because I was willing to put my work out into the world.
Know your story
When you go to any sort of meeting, whether it’s with a potential rep or a showrunner, they will always ask you to tell them about yourself. This question always caught me off-guard. I knew my stories like the back of my hand and was ready to pitch them out, but I wasn’t ready to pitch myself. I didn’t find my life particularly interesting, which was a mistake. I realized that if I think that about myself, then it would come off that way to others, too. So, I started digging. I reflected on my favorite and least favorite memories from childhood, what got me into writing, what my family is like, what things I enjoyed as a teenager-- anything and everything that led me to where I was; anything and everything that made me, me. Once I got this down, I finessed it into a 2-3 minute story that could give a complete stranger a good sense of who I am. If the person you’re meeting with doesn’t connect with you as a person, they’re not going to want to read what you write. I realize that this can seem daunting, so if meetings still make you nervous, sometimes I like to pretend I’m a totally cool, successful writer being interviewed on a podcast.
With all of this said, no matter where you are in your career-- whether you’re taking generals every day or writing before and after your shift at work-- you have the power to take these steps, and you don’t need anyone’s permission to do so.
Annie Nishida is a screenwriter, illustrator, and activist who uses her experiences as a fourth-generation Japanese-American and product of the MySpace Era as inspiration for her coming-of-age themed stories. She is currently a writer of Disney Channel’s Gabby Duran & the Unsittables, and exhibits her comics at indie publishing events up and down the California coast.