Episodes: Friday mailbag, September 15

"Hello, we are the friends from college."

Hey, newsletter fans. You smell that crisp burning scent in the air? Why, it's the smell of a new fall TV season coming over the ridge, marked by the scent of networks burning all of the scripts for shows you've already forgotten that debuted last fall! Remember (consults 2016 fall TV preview) Notorious? Well, neither do I!

But the rapidly approaching fall TV season can mean only one other thing: It's time for another mailbag!

Meryl asks:

I wrote a pilot, but I don't live in L.A. What am I supposed to do with it now?


Sadly, the answer to this question is still, 9 times out of 10, "Can you move to LA?" While it's not impossible to sell a TV show from somewhere other than Los Angeles (or New York, every so often), at least not in the way it was even 10 years ago, the folks who've come here from elsewhere, pilot script in hand, and found themselves selling said pilot script are few and far between. Even someone like Nic Pizzolatto (who made his name in television on the True Detective pilot) had to toil for a year on Magic City before he got to make his show -- and he had Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson at least interested!

Now I'm guessing you didn't write this to me because you hadn't considered moving to LA. Most likely, if you could, you would, but you're not in a position where you can. That makes things tricky, unless you have a bunch of industry contacts somehow (stranger things have happened -- the guys who created Cheers live in some small town in the Midwest, so maybe they're your neighbors!).

But you do have some options open to you, options that weren't there even a few years ago. There are multiple TV scriptwriting competitions anyone can enter with the right entry fee. I believe Amazon still does the thing where you can upload your script to their server and it will be voted on by other readers (I think?), though that has some concerns about you maintaining control of your work. And you could always cold send it to some agencies if you really believe in it. (I would suggest you not do this, but it was pretty much your only avenue before the rise of peak TV.)

Honestly, you could also shoot it independently and put it on YouTube, or shoot a selection of scenes and try to Kickstarter the money to make a full pilot. This requires you to know good actors and/or a good director (if you're not going to do it yourself), but if you do a good job, you can enter it in NYTVF or the LA TV Festival.

But, really, I would recommend you keep writing. The more stuff you write, the more you're going to figure out your voice, even if you think you're already there. It took me about 10 years before I felt comfortable showing stuff to more than a few trusted friends, and even then, it took me a few more years before it got to a place where it was actually kind of OK. And try writing some different things, too. It's a lot easier to break into TV now as, say, a novelist, because the medium is so hungry for new people. But the long and short of it is that if you're not in LA, you'll have to build some other path into the industry. But in 2017, that doesn't have to be an impossibility. Find some like-minded folks in your town. Form a writers group. Go nuts. It'll happen!

Kelsey asks:

When you are working on a personal project, when and how do you decide to allow others into it?


I'm a bit odd because a.) I have little to no shame about my bad drafts and b.) I've always worked with a writing partner (well, at least for the last 10 years or so), which means that I'm always letting somebody else into a personal project, or they're letting me into theirs. I think because I'm so steeped in television -- which is, I'll remind you, written by rooms full of people -- none of this feels strange to me.

That said, I have a whole bunch of short stories I wrote a few years ago that I'm pretty proud of that I've never shown to anybody or tried to get published, so I understand where you're coming from. It's hard to show people your most vulnerable self, and that's what your early drafts amount to. You want to believe it's something; you deeply fear it's nothing. The wrong reader can torpedo everything.

But I'm a firm believer that the draft will tell you when it's ready to be read. As an example of this, a few weeks ago, I wrote a long, slightly personal essay for Vox that I submitted for editing. My editor, Jen, one of the handful of people I trust most in the world, read it, and I could tell from her reaction to it that she wasn't... sure about it. And I wasn't sure about it either. I pulled it for the time being, and I think we're going to rework it into something else later. I felt much better after I did that.

With some projects, I've been ready to let people in from day one. With other projects, I've never let people in. It just depends. You have to be true to yourself, but you also have to listen to the voice that says, "You need an outside opinion." You will know when that is. Trust in yourself. And don't let the voice telling you everything is terrible get you down. Some of the smartest writing advice I've ever read is from Dan Harmon, who tells people to allow themselves to write bad drafts. You have to do that to get to the good ones, and you have to be OK with your doubts. All of the best writers I know doubt themselves endlessly -- it's how they get to the good drafts.

(Confidential to people I personally know: I will always read your drafts, and I hope you know that!)

Maxwell writes:

I am worried about my roommate. Having lived with him for a few weeks now, it is dawning on me that he doesn't really have any friends, at least at our university. It can be pretty harsh to be alone around college, built up as this place where you find yourself and are supposed to have the time of your life or whatever, and I've invited him out to do stuff with my friends, but he doesn't seem to get out much besides that. Do you have any suggestions to help him find friends, or figure out if he even wants to have friends?


We're going to do something a little bit different to answer this question, by throwing it to the best advice giver I know: my wife, Libby Hill, entertainment reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

The most important thing to do here is make sure that your roommate really wants a lot of friends and that's not just something you're wanting for him. There are people who get by just fine having only three or four really close friends and then a handful of good acquaintances. Libby, for instance, is an introvert who gets by just fine having just a couple of friends, and since I am a really great friend and a very large man, I make up a lot of that deficit. (I'm kidding, sort of.) So maybe your roommate is like this, and he's relieved to spend so much time alone. That's how he might recharge his batteries, and college might be an important part of him realizing that's how he recharges his batteries.

But others, like myself and my cat Pippa, need constant social stimulation, or at least need to go out with a big group of friends every few weeks, with smaller outings with small groups more frequently than that. (It is the great irony of our marriage that Libby works in a busy office and I work mostly from home. At least I can keep Pippa company.) If your roommate is like this, then the best you can do is just let him know you're there for him if he ever wants to talk or ever wants to do something with you. For all you know he does have really close friends online, or he talks to a significant other on the phone every night, or whatever. You're still new enough around each other that you can't say for certain.

The biggest thing to keep an eye out for are signs of depression, Libby says. If he's always skipping classes and sleeping all the time, or if he's constantly dragging himself down, or if he's talking about hurting himself, just pay closer attention, and know when it's time to call for help (especially if he's talking about hurting himself, even jokingly). Sure, sometimes sleeping through class is just sleeping through class (we all need to do it now and then). But if it becomes a lengthy pattern, it's possible that he's falling into a depressive phase and will need someone to step in and help.

The long and short of it is that you can't really say how he should or shouldn't make friends, and until he asks you how to make friends, the best you can do is what you are doing -- letting him know you're there. And if he gets to a place where he really does feel like he wants to make friends, well, college has plenty of opportunities to get involved in theater or play in a sports league or join a gaming group or what have you. (My recommendation for nerdy sorts is always to join a D&D game. It meets regularly, it doesn't require great amounts of social interaction, and with the right people, it's fun as hell.) It's good that you're looking out for him -- but you need to be sure he needs looking out for. We're all different, and maybe this is just how you two are different from each other.

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox