Finding One’s Niche
Jessica Queller, the freshly minted co-showrunner of “Supergirl,” originally wanted to be an actor.
Growing up in Greenwich Village, she dreamed of a future stage career. In the 1990s, while in her early 20s, she hung around the Malaparte Theater Company, which was run by Ethan Hawke and Ms. Queller’s boyfriend at the time, Jonathan Marc Sherman (“Sophistry,” “Things We Want”). “I came up with these crazy talents,” said Ms. Queller. “Peter Dinklage and Sam Rockwell and Philip Seymour Hoffman — and Calista Flockhart and Cara Buono, both of whom remain my two best friends.”
But, unlike her peers, success eluded her. “I was the Salieri of the Mozart story: ‘I am so passionate about the theater! I’ve read everything, seen everything!’ But I just [couldn’t] get cast at the Roundabout and on Broadway, where my friends were.”
So in 1997 she went to Los Angeles to audition for pilot season. There, a light bulb went off: Why not try writing instead?
“All my boyfriends had been writers — I revered writers and storytelling, and had the epiphany around the age of 30. ‘Oh, maybe I don’t want to marry a manic-depressive alcoholic writer, maybe I just want to be one,’” she recalled, laughing. “I had this little voice inside of me going, ‘I think I could do that.’”
Ms. Queller then burrowed for two years, writing at night and sleeping during the day. She eventually secured a job, her first, on “Fling,” the ill-fated show from Glenn Gordon Caron (“Moonlighting”). The show was canceled by Fox in 2001 before an episode was televised. But the credit did lead her to a gig on “Felicity” and the writing niche that has determined her career ever since.
“Here I am, 47 years old, still writing for teenagers and early 20s [viewers],” said Ms. Queller, who has also worked on “Gilmore Girls” and “Gossip Girl,” which ran on the WB and CW.
It was advice from an agent — one she met because her mother’s best friend’s son-in-law was the man’s tennis teacher — that set her on this path. Upon hearing that she was writing a spec script for the David E. Kelley show “The Practice,” the agent told her to choose a lane.
“It was easier for me to say ‘I know everything about what it means to be a struggling young woman’ than it was for me to say ‘I know what it means to run a law firm in Boston,’” she said. “The advice wasn’t necessarily bad — it was a bit limiting — but it worked, because I did become the go-to person for those types of shows as I was trying to establish a career.”
More than 15 years later, Ms. Queller senses that finding a regular writing job is an ever more difficult proposition, as new writers flood the profession and movie scriptwriters chase the money and possibly greater glory that prestige television can provide. The statistics bear that out. According to the Writers Guild of AmericaWest, 4,129 writers reported earnings in 2015, far above 2010s total of 3,242.
The Toll of the Grind
For those lucky enough to secure a job, maintaining it can take its own toll.
Before his first staff writing gig on “American Crime,” Mr. Moore worked a night shift in customer service at a psychic advice company. But in 2014, the Houston native was accepted into NBC Writers on the Verge, which trains aspirants from diverse backgrounds and introduced him to the peculiarities of writing for television. The image of the lone scribe, sweating over the Great American Novel or the next “Citizen Kane,” does not translate to television writing. Collaboration is integral to the profession, and the work of more junior writers is ultimately subservient to the vision of the showrunner (not to mention the desires of the companies bankrolling the project).
“I had to be comfortable letting go of something that I knew was just a draft,” Mr. Moore said. “Because that’s TV. You go through a writers’ draft, then a studio draft and then a network draft.”
He also had to learn to be rigorously disciplined. “I never thought I was a fast writer until I got into the program,” said Mr. Moore, now 37. “It showed me that I really had to be structured: ‘O.K., Kirk, you have to sleep at this time, you have to work at this time, you have to write at this time.’”
Unfortunately, Mr. Moore’s all-nighters, poor eating habits and self-medication would catch up with him during the third season of “American Crime.” “I was so stressed out and not getting sleep, it just compounded — and then I was in the hospital,” he said.
Even with proper rest, there are other stress factors to consider, like cantankerous showrunners (see: the obscenity-filled emails Frank Darabont sent to his staff during Season One of “The Walking Dead”), or the constant scramble of having to find the next gig. With many of the new shows being greenlit by Netflix, Amazon and the higher-end cable networks offering fewer episodes a season than a typical broadcast network show, the need to embark on a job search more often has intensified.
There may be more television shows than ever, but the spoils aren’t necessarily trickling down to the writers. Between 2013 and 2016, the overall median earnings of writer-producers decreased by 25 percent, according to the Writers Guild of America West.
Mr. Moore considers himself fortunate, finding his experience on “Crime” and “13 Reasons Why” to be, long hours aside, comfortable and inclusive. “I’ve been on shows where they actually respect my opinion, whether I’m a staff writer or whether I’m a producer,” he said, before echoing the “Crime” creator John Ridley’s approach: “‘I don’t care about your résumé. I care about what you can bring to my story and the show I want to tell.’”
After his stint in the hospital, though, Mr. Moore knew he would have to make lifestyle changes to keep producing quality work. “I had to stop drinking, I stopped drinking caffeine,” said Mr. Moore, who is working on the second season of “13 Reasons Why.” (“American Crime” was canceled in May by ABC.) “That’s taking some time to get used to. But I learned from my mistakes. I want to do this for a long time.”
Climbing the Ladder
For many television writers, like Aïda Mashaka Croal, the ultimate goal is running one’s own show.
Ms. Croal, currently a writer and co-executive producer on “Marvel’s Luke Cage,” originally dreamed of becoming a neurosurgeon while growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, and her parents’ native British Guiana. But her time at Stanford, studying under the playwright Anna Deavere Smith, steered her toward writing and eventually, in 2003, to the ABC Daytime Writers’ Program.
But while she’s toiled on soap operas (“One Life to Live”), sci-fi shows (“Sanctuary”) and historical dramas (“Turn: Washington’s Spies”), it’s “Luke Cage,” about a black superhero in Harlem, where she feels most at home.
“When I looked at television, I thought every single show was about a white man doing something, and I felt like, ‘I have to fit my stories into that narrative in order to be hired,’” Ms. Croal, 42, said. “It created a sense of insecurity: Well, what do they really want to see? What do they really mean? And I would kind of psych myself out about it, so it was nice to have somebody say, ‘What we really want to see is what we really have to say.’”
Besides a higher paycheck, her co-executive producing role has meant new responsibilities, from casting and production decisions to the hiring of directors. “I thought I was working hard before, and I was working hard, but I simply did not have the visibility in all areas of the operation,” she said. “It’s terrifying at first — I was like, ‘I don’t know if I have the stamina for this.’ But you build it up — quickly — because that’s the job, and I find that I love it.”
Her role on “Cage” has also prepared her for her next mission: her own series. A show she co-created for AMC in 2016 did not get the go-ahead — she declined to divulge details, but said that it ran up against a similar show that came to fruition more quickly. (That show has since been canceled.) Nonetheless, Ms. Croal remains undaunted. “It’s happening,” she said. “There are a couple of opportunities out there, and we will see very shortly which dream will come true.”
While the Peak TV era has afforded greater opportunities for talents like Ms. Croal, the industry may be in for a reckoning. Executives like Mr. Landgraf wonder how long the newcomers will stuff the market at the current pace despite seemingly negative returns. (Netflix, which just signed Shonda Rhimes to a multiyear deal, will spend $6 billion on original content in 2017.)
“I think all industries go through phases of expansion and contraction, as well as periods of stasis,” he said,
Mr. Landgraf may be unsure about the timing of that decline, but he does have one piece of advice if, or when, that day arrives: “When an industry contracts, it’s just better not to be in the bottom third in terms of talent,” he said. “The only way to really preserve your longevity is to continue to grow, and retrain and get better.”
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