Emilia Serrano, Television Writer, Class of 1995
Currently on THE FINDER (FOX). Previously staffed on RIZZOLI & ISLES (TNT) and MY GENERATION (ABC).
"Television writer." Sounds fun. Is it?
It’s as awesome as you would imagine. And I’m not simply saying that because the free snacks are a bonus. The ability to harness your experiences and use them for dialogue and storylines, and get compensated, is a dream come true.
What exactly does a television writer do? (Include shows you've worked on.)
The writers’ room is a place to share your stories. In a way, being a TV writer lets you relive the best, or most influential, moments in your life. Your brain is forced to pull out memories and you’d be surprised how great your recall is when called upon in a writer’s room.
Our job is to help the Showrunner/Creator make their TV show come alive on the small screen. We follow the Showrunner closely to match their tone and hand-in scripts that they (hopefully) won’t have to rewrite. Writers brainstorm all day, every day, and then put it on paper. It’s harder than that, but that’s the scope of the work that’s not the actual scriptwriting.
There’s tons of prep work before we even write a script. Break an episode in the room, which can take a week or several weeks. Write an outline (10-20 pages). Outline turns into a script (50-65 pages).
Does every writer do the same task?
The responsibility gets more serious as you go up the ranks. For example, a Staff Writer is there to pitch stories and add to other pitches. If you get a script assignment as a Staff Writer, you’re in heaven. The fancy titled jobs, like Executive Producer or Consulting Producer, generally write more scripts.
How do you handle disagreements among writers?Here’s where your people skills will make or break you. We’re in the same room together 8-10 hours a day and being observant is key to surviving in the writers’ room. You have to go with the flow. Playing nice with others is crucial. If you don’t like people or can’t handle eight different opinions, then you may not last.
There must be a downside.
The business side of it isn’t so cool. Agents, contracts, and the least fun of all—waiting. Staffing season and pilot pick ups for network TV happen during the month of May. And you can feel everyone in the business waiting for the call. It’s intense. My husband hates it and we have to double up on couples counseling because the stress is intense. And then when you do get staffed, there’s still a bit of a waiting game. Will the show get renewed? Will your contract get extended? Do you like the show? That happens every staffing season. Being hired once doesn’t mean you’ll get hired twice. I try to karaoke a crap load just to calm my nerves.
Where do you write for inspiration?
When I’m staffed, I use the studio’s office or write from home. But when I’m not working I like to spend a solid weekend in San Francisco to write a script. Kerry Egan (SMC ’90) always provides a home away from home and lets me crash at his pad in North Beach. That part of the city inspires me like nothing else. Maybe the ghosts of writers really do hang around that part of town. I can finish a first draft every time I’m there. Almost every time.
And I always see Katie McCaffrey Talbot (SMC ’91) for inspiration. Together, we just have the funniest family stories. She and I had a show at Saint Mary’s called SMC-TV Unedited. We’d walk around campus and she’d film me doing inappropriate “man on the street” interviews. We were canceled after I offended a faculty member. They should’ve canceled me for wearing a blazer!
How can a writer stand out from the crowd?
I don’t have a crazy past, but I have a unique point of view. I describe myself as a first-generation, tomboy Mexican with pretty hair. My parents were auto workers and our Mexican culture was embedded in our everyday life even when we moved from the East Bay to the Midwest. We were the only Mexican family in our town. That was crazy. Only much later did I realize I had a great place to mine stories.
TV execs also want to see more diversity on the screen. It’s a tough battle and I try to honor my culture by writing or pitching features with Latina characters. I will never write about teenage pregnant Latinas or a gang movie. I tell people that Mexicans have other stereotypes that are more fun.
When did you start writing scripts?
I was an advertising writer before I was hired on MY GENERATION. But I started writing scripts because several TV writer friends enjoyed my life stories. That was 2006. I wrote a feature and a pilot soon after. Now I write about 2 scripts a year, in between jobs.
Is it true what they say, “it’s all about who you know?”
I wrote a half-hour comedy pilot and my friend, Stevie Long, liked it enough to tell me to quit my fulltime job and freelance so I could get more scripts in my bag. By the time Noah Hawley read my feature script, I had other scripts ready just in case someone asked to see something else. Stevie and Noah are great examples, and I’m blessed to have them as mentors. They don’t ever do just one thing. Ever. Books, features, tv shows, etc. Noah just sold his fourth book and Stevie wrote Hulu’s first series. Noah helped open doors for me, and gave me my first TV gig, and now I have to pay for lunch every time we meet up. I’m cool with that. I love eating.
Getting into a network writing program is a huge step, but it’s not the only way to become a writer. I did the National Hispanic Media Council Latino Writing Program with ABC. Met other aspiring writers, network execs, and development execs. I would not have met these people without the help of NHMC. The programs are great and all the networks have them, so I encourage writers to look on their websites and apply.
Do you use your Saint Mary's education in your work?
An SMC education is not only about your degree, but it’s about nurturing students to become adults. I loved my time there. Of course, we had “the pub” on campus so that’s probably why I enjoyed it so much.
Also, the small classroom doesn’t let you hide. You have to speak up because it counts. That’s good practice for any job. The Jan Term classes gave me a creative outlet and I think it was my favorite part of learning at SMC. I never enjoyed English classes, and people assume all TV writers are English majors or grammar wizards. Not me (please fix my typos). Although I didn’t gravitate toward a traditional career, SMC fostered creativity. One year, they had Isabel Allende speak at a luncheon. To see a famous Latina writer at our small campus was awesome.
What advice do you have for students who aspire to a career in television writing?
Start writing ASAP and don’t stop.
If you’re truly serious about writing, you should write an original script once a year. There’s no other way to find your voice than to search for it through practice. Discipline plays a huge part. I also think snacks are vital to the writing process. Not sugary snacks because they’ll make your keys stick. Gross.
And move to Los Angeles.
If your present self could talk to your college-aged self, what advice would you give?
You should’ve broken up with him sophomore year.