interview: Karen Kirkland, Executive Director of the Nickelodeon Writing Program

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I met Karen in 2009 when I was a Finalist for the Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship (as it was called then). Even though I didn’t get in that year, Karen was very encouraging and supportive, and told me to stay in touch. I wrote another script, applied again, and was lucky enough to make it into the program the following year where I got to work with her and learn from her. It was an amazing experience and I’m so grateful to have had that opportunity. I wanted to do an interview with Karen to talk about some of the details of the Program.

What’s your favorite part of running the Nickelodeon Writing Program?

Oh! That’s an easy one… The best part of my job is unearthing new talent, watching them develop into strong writers, confident individuals, and (as corny as it may sound) helping to make their dreams come true!

What distinguishes Nickelodeon from the other network writing programs?

Hmmmm… I would say the obvious things are, we’re a year-long Program. Some of the others have shorter windows. We’re a full-time Program. I know some of the others meet in the evenings or on the weekends. We pay our writers a competitive salary. I think some of the others either pay a small stipend or nothing at all. I don’t know all the inner workings of the other Programs and to be honest most of the time, I’m super focused on servicing the writers in our Program and making the Nick Writing Program the best it can be. I hold myself to a very high standard of excellence, so my goal is to always have the Program be a reflection of that excellence. I’m not really a fan of the divisive nature of this industry – so I really spend as little time as possible thinking about the other Programs that are out there. It’s my opinion that all the programs should have the same goal – and that is to develop great writing talent!

How has the program changed over the years?

The Nick Writing Program has been in existence since 2000, but I think we’ve experienced our biggest growth over the past 8 years. There are now distinct systems in place that help to ensure we’re staffing as many writers as possible within a given year. When I first began at Nickelodeon, the Program was not very well known within the industry at-large. I was amazed by how few writers, executives and agents knew about the Program. Especially because it was such an amazing opportunity for writers to get paid while doing what they love to do – write! Unlike before, now many of the writers that graduate from the Program are either being staffed on our shows, or they are leaving well equipped to get staff writing jobs elsewhere within the industry.

The way in which we recruit writers has changed as well. We now take a very active approach in discovering new writing talent. We spend hours at film festivals exposing writers to our hand-tailored workshops. I travel a lot throughout the year to various colleges around the Country spreading the word about the Program and encouraging graduating students to apply.

We have a huge presence on Facebook and on Twitter. We’re attempting to take advantage of as many social media outlets as possible.

I would say that now after many years of marketing the Program and after many staffing success stories – we’ve begun to nurture relationships within the industry as a whole and folks have taken notice.

You get well over a thousand submissions each year, all comedy scripts. Can you talk about the steps a script must go through for it to make it as a semifinalist?

Our selection process is very rigorous!  There are three ‘rounds’ of reading.  During round-one, all of the scripts are read by script analysts who are experienced at doing coverage and who understand the sensibilities of this Program.   They understand precisely the qualities that I look for in a good script.  Scripts that make it through the first-round are then moved into the second-round.  The second-round scripts are read in-house by development and current series (both live action and animation).  The third-round is read by the Directors, EIC’s and VP’s within development and current series, again both live action and animation.

After the scripts have gone through the several rounds of reading, I then read the scripts that have come through the sifter.  At that point I may or may not “pass” on a few more. The writers of the remaining scripts become the semi-finalists.  Keep in mind that at this point, we still haven’t even looked at the application, the bio or the resume for the writer.  We don’t know anything about the writer other than his or her writing ability.  All semi-finalists have a phone interview with me and it’s usually during this time I’ll take a look at the bio, resume and application so I can start to get a feel for who they are, what their passions are, etc.  I’m naturally intrigued by people, so I want to find out what motivates writers and what drives them to create.  During the phone interview is when I ask for a second spec (hint, hint).   If the writer doesn’t have a second spec – they’re immediately disqualified.  It’s my belief that if you’re a writer – you’re constantly writing, and if you’re a television writer – you should have more than one television spec.  Once I read your second spec, you’re then called in for an in-person interview.  If all goes well during the in-person interview – you’re then a finalist.

What do you think separates a great script from a mediocre script? What are some common flaws in the scripts that don’t make it?

A great script from a mediocre script…? A fresh, unique point of view, a distinct writing style. A great script has a unique premise, a well told story, a clear A, B and C story, clearly defined character motivations, scenes that move the story forward, and a solid structure. I love it when I read a MODERN FAMILY spec where the writer has not only given me a fresh perspective on the show in terms of the story idea and the premise, but I can still feel the tone of the show, the character voices have remained intact, but the writer’s voice – in terms of his or her perspective, is also coming through in that script. That’s a really difficult thing to do. And of course, your script has to make me laugh out loud! It has to be funny. The dialogue needs to be witty. Your story, the arcs and your characters all need to be multi-layered. I can always tell when a writer’s had fun writing their script because I have fun reading it.

Most of the common flaws are a result of writers that aren’t invested in their work. Before you write your spec, do yourself a favor – write a 1/2-page premise first, then an outline, then (and only then) should you write your first draft. Do your research – it’s not enough to watch a couple of episodes. Watch them all – multiple times!

I want to see writers who are open to change, writers who are not necessarily completely married to every bit of dialogue they write.  Being too married to your material, and not being open to notes is definitely a rookie mistake in my opinion.  I understand it though – it’s difficult.  As a writer, you’re really putting yourself out there, that’s a part of you on that page.  And to have someone say, “Hmm, this really isn’t working for me,”  - I get it – that’s a difficult thing to hear.

But it’s my opinion that in order to succeed in this business as a writer – you’re going to have to develop a thick skin.  I know it can be tough at times because sometimes it feels as if you’re committing entirely to someone else’s thought process.  Within the confines of the Writing Program – a writer needs to be able to come to the table with the understanding that this is going to be a collaborative process.  We’re going to have a conversation about structure, tone and dialogue and we’re also going to talk about what my “take away” is as a reader, as an audience member.  I’m diving into your story with an open mind.  What is the emotional journey of your characters?  Is this what you’re trying to convey?  What are the character motivations here?  What kind of story are you really trying to tell?  I think those questions are important ones.

Also, on the flip side of that, a writer shouldn’t just agree with everything I’m suggesting.  You can’t.  You have to be committed to and stand-up for your vision.  Which is more easily done when writing original material. And I think that’s the fine line. Our writers may not be as savvy coming into the Program, but once they leave, they know exactly what that fine line is and how to navigate it. They understand the difference between picking and choosing their battles and fighting not for everything – but for enough.

Once writers make it through as a semifinalist, they get to look forward to an interview process that’s pretty intense. Do you think there’s anything people can do to prepare?

Haha! Huh! It is a pretty intense interview process… Again – for fear of sounding corny…you gotta’ be yourself. By the time you get to the interview process, we already know you’re a rock star writer. At that point it all boils down to personality. Who seems to be the right personality fit for the Program. Unfortunately there are only four “slots”, so sadly, we’re going to have to turn someone down. That’s the not-so-fun part of my job. I think the hardest part of that interview process is not being nervous… Usually when a semi-finalist gets super nervous – his or her nervousness will end up masking their true identity. I also think it helps to have an anecdote or two…a couple of ice breakers if you will. Don’t depend on the people in the room to make conversation. You be the conversationalist and let the interviewers respond to you.

At what point in the process do you look at the resumes and bios? How important is entertainment industry experience?

I don’t look at applications or bios and resumes until nearly the end of the process – which is usually about an hour before I’m about to get on the phone and do a phone interview with a semi-finalist. And the reason is that I want the work to speak for itself. The majority of writers who become writers within this Program don’t have any “professional” experience to speak of. In addition, to be considered for the Program, you can’t have had any network or cable produced television credits. The Program is here in part to help writers gain room experience. So for us – pre-existing entertainment industry experience is not at all important.

The Nick Writing Program has a large and active Facebook community. I think it’s great how you make an effort to maintain a dialogue with the community of aspiring writers. What made you want to do that?

It’s funny because I can’t tell you the last time I was on my personal Facebook page…it’s just way too time consuming. But – I think using Facebook and Twitter as a way to reach our audience is quite a useful tool. So often in life we’re on the outside looking in… I think using Facebook and/or Twitter as a way to give aspiring writers a real-time glimpse of what it’s like on the inside, is an awesome way to stay connected. I really enjoy communicating with our Facebook/Twitter family! If I can offer words of advice or inspire a writer to keep on – keeping on…just when they feel like giving up – then what could possibly be better.

It’s also a great way for us to stay connected to writers that we meet out in the field. So often I’ll meet a writer at a conference or a film festival and there’s never enough time to really get to know that writer. The FB page allows us to continue nurturing our relationship long after the event is over.

I also like to use the page as a resource for writers. A place where they can come to get information and to share information. We like to have fun doing what we do and I really hope the writers that follow our page are always excited to see what we’re going to do/say next.

Can you talk about some of the success stories of writers who went through the Program?

When it comes to writers who have “graduated” from the Program, some of them get staffed here at Nick and some of them don’t. Some of them get staffed here first and stay for a few years, then move on to other staff writing gigs once production has ended on the show they were writing for.

As a result of being in the Program, the majority of the writers that have come through have received multiple produced credits on Nickelodeon shows. However, our main objective is to not only get them produced credits, but to get them staffed as well.

In the last eight years, we’ve been successful at staffing the majority of our writers on Nickelodeon shows. In addition to those that are still writing for Nick (Jonathan Butler, Gabe Garza, Jessica Gao, May Chan, Ron Holsey, Ivory Floyd, Kerri Grant, Stacie Craig, Sasha Stroman), others that have come through the Program are currently writing on or have written on shows like Modern Family, Guys with Kids, Outsourced, The Cleveland Show, Mr. Sunshine, Sesame Street, Everybody Hates Chris, My Boys, Arrested Development, and Aliens in America to name a few.

For the writers who don’t get staffed, it’s my hope that they consider themselves to be part of a family… Part of the Nickelodeon family. I really cherish the relationships that I have with a lot of the writers that have come through the Program. I love it when they come “home” to visit. They are always welcome here and if I can do anything to help – I will!

Odds are, most people who apply to Nickelodeon and the other writing programs aren’t going to get in. Do you have any advice for other ways they can break in as a writer?

Wow… We started with such an easy question and we’re ending with such a hard question to answer. Hmmm…this business is really based on relationships. So I would say you have to constantly build and nurture those relationships. I think a big part is what I call “honest” networking. Meaning – you’re not just networking to get something from someone (like a job) – but you’re actually meeting people in an effort to build a rapport and to build relationships that develop into friendships.

There are only so many ways one can really break into this business as a writer – so you’re going to have to be resourceful. Writers’ PA’s and/or Script Coordinators are commonly hired by a friend…or a friend of a friend that happens to be a Showrunner. Not always – but it’s common. Once that writer gets an “in” on one production – it becomes easier to get the next gig. Freelance writers – the same thing…usually hired by a friend or a friend of a friend… Staff writers are usually staffed through their agent or they’ve worked their way up the ranks from Writer’s PA or Script Coordinator.

Showrunners have a responsibility to the Network – so understandably they want to work with writers they know can deliver (on a deadline) AND writers they can spend 8 – 12 hours a day with.

Another way? You could write your own material and create a web series… It’s possible, you could get the attention of an agent or someone in development at a Network.

Bottom line is…it’s not exact science. I wish I had a better answer.

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A huge thanks to Karen for taking the time to answer these questions with such honesty and thoroughness. I know she’s super busy running the Writing Program as well as the Artist Fellowship. Karen is really accessible through the Nick Facebook page and Twitter, so reach out to her.  Again, I’m extremely grateful to Karen for my experience at Nickelodeon. Good luck to everyone applying!

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17 thoughts on “interview: Karen Kirkland, Executive Director of the Nickelodeon Writing Program

  1. Kiyong I think you are not only a truly amazing writer, producer and director – but also a truly amazing person. I’m made better by our friendship :-)

    Thank you for allowing me chat with your blog followers – I hope it’s helpful to them – KK

  2. I just finished printing and packaging my submission materials for this year’s program. Great read. Can I ask, do they prefer WGAw/Copyright registration info on the title page or none at all? There’s no mention of it on their site, but I want to cater to their rules & preferences.

    Thanks for sharing all this info with us.

  3. Pingback: Scriptwriting Advice for Executive Director of the Nickelodeon Writing Program - GalleyCat

  4. Hi Kiyong,

    I just came across your blog and really appreciate the information. I’m planning to apply to this year’s program, but I wonder: When Karen says that she asks semi-finalists for a second spec script because she believes writers are constantly writing, do you know if it has to be a spec? What if you’re “constantly writing,” but you’ve been working on your own pilots? Just curious. Maybe I can ask her via Facebook or Twitter. Thanks!

    Rachel Carter

  5. Kiyong,

    Great to read this information. A lot of this is stuff that Karen had said previously, but I suppose there’s only so much you can ask/say about the program. I want to reiterate though, this was a good, useful read. So thanks.

    Not trying to be a dick or anything, but honestly, why do you think you didn’t land any kind of writing job or make any progress towards your goals of being staffed/landing representation/getting more notice AFTER having gone through the Nickelodeon program?
    What about WOTV makes you feel like you stand a realistic chance? Honestly, everything I know about these contests is that they are INCREDIBLY competitive. And the fact that you’ve now placed into 2 is stunning. Congrats are in order, but what do you think is really your obstacle from landing the gig you are seemingly so close to attaining?

    Brian Levine

    • hey brian. first, i would say it would be a little presumptuous for me to assume just because i went through a writing program, that i should automatically have an agent and be staffed. i’m competing with other writers from other programs, script coordinators and writers assistants who are all looking to get promoted, and experienced writers who were already staffed that are also looking for work.

      in my particular instance, the show i was assigned to at nickelodeon had showrunners that were new to nickelodeon and weren’t familiar with the fellowship. they weren’t interested in working with people from the program, and so i wasn’t really given an opportunity. that part was frustrating, but it was beyond my control. it’s not like i was given a chance but i wasn’t good enough or i screwed it up. if you go through my blog entries while i was in the program you can sort of see how all that played out.

      i wouldn’t necessarily say i feel i have a “realistic” chance of getting staffed after wotv. nothing about trying to pursue tv writing is very realistic. i’m definitely hopeful, but not sure if realistic is the right word. the main thing i’m hopeful about is that wotv tries to get you representation, whereas nickelodeon unfortunately does not. when you sign the contract to get into nick, it says you are not allowed to look for representation while you’re in the program, vs nbc, they’re going to start sending our work out to managers and agents over the next few weeks. also, nbc is a much bigger network with more shows that would need writers, so there are more opportunities.

      having gone through both programs has been truly amazing and i’m definitely aware of how fortunate i am, but i also know getting and maintaining a career takes time and effort and a little luck. the sooner the better, but i plan to keep trying until it happens.

  6. Pingback: reader question: spec stuff | kiyong's blog of creative pursuits

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  8. Hi Kiyong,

    I went through what I like to call an “internet tangent” and it landed me on your site. Kudos to you, sir for taking the time to help fellow writers with such a busy schedule already on your plate. I’d like to apply to the Nick Writing Fellowship with a spec script I wrote for Parks and Recreation, but would they prefer one of their own shows? I couldn’t find anything about that in my research, so I thought I’d go straight to the source and ask someone who’s already been through the process. Thanks in advance Kiyong, and keep on doing what you’re doing. You’re help is invaluable to inexperienced writers.

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