interview: Theo Travers, CBS Writers Mentoring Program 2012

Theo and I met through Nickelodeon, which he mentions below, and also through the message board of the Yahoo TV writers group. He recently went through the CBS Writers Mentoring Program, and I’m SO happy he just got staffed! I think today was his first day!

Theo Travers is the newest staff writer on Showtime’s House of Lies.  He moved to Los Angeles four years ago after working as a television news reporter in Memphis.  Coolest moments include interviewing Barack Obama one-on-on and riding with undercover cops on drug and prostitution stings.  Theo’s writing earned him a coveted spot in the CBS Writer’s Mentoring Program earlier this year.  Prior to that, Theo optioned a one-hour pilot, “Thieves of Baghdad,” to Fox after being selected to participate in its Diversity Writer’s Initiative.  Theo also helped create a web series industry showcase for fellow NYU Tisch alum on the west coast.

The CBS Writers Mentoring Program requires a spec and original
material to apply. What did you submit?

I submitted an NCIS: Los Angeles spec and a piece of short crime fiction.  As of late, the program, for legal reasons, will only consider original material that is not a pilot.  I’ve seen some writers get tripped up on the idea that CBS asks for the two samples to also be similar in tone or theme.  Ideally, any writing you’re going out with feels uniquely yours in some ways and, as a result, similar in tone.

How many scripts did you write before you were accepted? Did you
submit to the other writing programs?

I applied to CBS at least twice before in years past without advancing.  Same with the other TV writing programs set up at the networks and studios – WB, Disney/ABC, NBC, and Fox.  I’ve sent off notarized applications more times than I can count and knocked on wood hoping this time it would be different.  And then, for a while at least, I kept receiving those diplomatically-worded rejection letters filled with faint praise.  In my head, it all reads, “You’re good, but not good enough.”  I gradually came to discover that’s not entirely true.  The selection process for these writing programs is partly a numbers game in the beginning.  Most hire readers to help weed out the good scripts in the first round.  Then often assistants, coordinators, and execs at the network/studio help narrow the selection down to the finalists.  Until this point, aside from filling out the application correctly, your script is the only thing that matters.  This past year, I reapplied with the same spec I submitted last year.  This year, I got into the program.  Last year, I didn’t even pass the semi-final round.  The key difference?  Last year I was racing to complete my spec by the deadline.  The following year, I had many months to make revisions based on notes from other writers including Kiyong Kim — thank you, Kiyong.  A tight, well-written sample is by far the most important part of the application process.

What was the interview process like to get into CBS?

I had two rounds of interviews once I received word I was a finalist.  I was stoked – excited and scared at the same time.  Thinking to myself, “Theo, this could be your shot.  Don’t blow it.”  I first met with Carole Kirschner and Jeanne Mau who run the program for CBS.  This meeting was like a lot of general meetings writers take.  Carole and Jeanne wanted to get a sense of who I am, what I bring to the table, and to answer any questions I had at this point.  Then the following week, I met with Beth Miyares, Lee Hollin and Megan Spanjian at the studio.  This too was a general where I was prepared to talk about what influences and informs my writing, what kind of stories I like to tell, what shows I’m watching, etc.  Maybe a day or two later, I got the call that I was one of 5 writers selected.  Was so excited and proud.  And I had at least a day or two to celebrate before the work began.

What was the CBS program like? How was it structured?

The program is essentially broken into two sections.  One part of the program has you working one-on-one with assigned mentors, executives at the studio or network, on a new writing sample.  It could be a spec or pilot, assigned based on what samples you already have in your portfolio.  My first week of the program in late October of last year, I was expected to pitch shows  to Beth, Lee and Megan.  Scary!  I came in with four show ideas, some more fleshed out than others.  As Murphy’s Law would have it, in the room they responded to the one I was least prepared to pitch.  And based on a schedule, I was off to work on beat sheets, outlines and eventually a script, getting notes from CBS each step.

The second part of the program are weekly work sessions on the Radford lot.   We began each session with a story “nugget,” something unique about yourself that one might find surprising and funny, but also informs the kind of writing you do.  We’d spend time working on how to pitch ourselves in meetings, which for me doesn’t come naturally.  It takes practice and feedback to make sure you’re hitting all the points you want to convey without coming off too eager, nervous or even worse, boring.

These sessions would also include panels of agents, managers, executives, and producer-level writers. We spent time learning the anatomy and politics of a writer’s room, held mock interviews, got practical advice on what and what not to do, talked candidly with writers about how race, gender and age play into the process.  By the end of the program, you come away with a new writing sample, a host of new contacts, and skills that will help you thrive for as long as you’re in the game of pimping yourself out as a writer.

The program assigns you to mentors, right? How did that relationship work?

I was actually surprised at how open and accessible my mentors were.  Beth, Lee and Megan were happy to answer questions I had and were very quick with turning around notes to me.  Most of our correspondences were over email and phone.  I’d set a call to receive their notes.  My script took a little longer than the timeline the program prescribed.  By the time late January rolled around, the development execs I was working got slammed with pilot season.  Fortunately, I was able to continue working with the program directors until I nailed the writer’s draft.

What was the workload like? How hard was it to balance that with a
full time job?

It’s tough.  While I was in the program, I was also assisting two production execs at Nickelodeon in Santa Monica.  Fortunately, my bosses were very supportive and didn’t mind me leaving work two and half hours early once a week to drive across town in rush hour to Studio City.  And making yourself write after spending 50-plus hours in front of a computer all week is no fun either.  But you suck it up and do it.  To me, writing for a living is the coolest fucking job anyone could have.  In many places in the world, people are just trying to figure out how to get clean water and medicine.  I should be so lucky that my biggest problem is a challenging road to living my dream.

Can you talk about what happened after the CBS program? Did you have
the chance to meet with agents or managers?

After the program, Carole and Jeanne were generous enough to continue working with me a bit on tightening my writing sample.  I had already begun a dialogue with some agents who were waiting to see the new script.  Didn’t want to go out with anything but my best work.  So once it was in shape, in part thanks to the program, but largely due to my own networking, there were many people I was able to send my latest sample to who actually wanted to read me.  Having just completed the CBS program was a huge feather in my cap and definitely shaped the conversations I had with anyone about my work.

What’s your writing process like?  Any idiosyncrasies?

I bang my head into the wall until I draw blood.  Then I write. 🙂 No, I’m pretty methodical.  The process of building the story structure is where my strengths lay.  I tend to spend a lot of time on building the narrative spine in outline form before going to script.  And because of my journalism background, I’m pretty disciplined about it.  I’m not the quickest reader or type the fastest, but I’m diligent about putting in at least 30 minutes to an hour a day – well before the writing gig.

What makes a script stand out to you, both good and bad?

I tend to respond to anything that sucks me into a world and speaks like it’s coming from a truthful place – even if that world isn’t the one I live in.  Simple works best.  A good example, Kiyong, would be The Office spec you submitted to the Nickelodeon fellowship a couple years ago.  I happened to read it before I knew who you were.  In fact, that’s how we met when you advanced to the finalists round.  I remember reading a story that took something anyone one who works in an office knows about – people stealing your shit out of the fridge – and building a funny story around it that really showcased the characters from the show.  A good checklist I have for every scene: Is it clear what my characters want?  Do we understand what’s in the way of them getting it?  What change has occurred by the end of the scene that we didn’t know when we started?  Why should I care? If I don’t have a clear answers to those questions, you’re probably missing an opportunity in your work to really hook me as a reader.

Besides writing skill, what else do you need to be a successful writer?

My friends credit me for being good at networking.  I guess I am a little bit of a ham.  Have always been inquisitive and chatty in general.  But even if that doesn’t come natural to you, it’s a skill worth developing.  This business is built on relationships.  And it takes time and effort to build a network of trusted contacts.  Building on that, you should attempt to be consistent with keeping in touch with those you meet and want to maintain ties with.  It also helps to have a hobby.  Seriously, have something you do that has nothing to do with writing or the biz.  It clears your head, helps you de-stress,  and gives you something interesting to talk about.  This year, I’m learning how to surf.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Breaking in can feel like an act of attrition, like the universe is slowly wearing you down until you tap out.  Truly, from what I’ve witnessed and experienced, it’s those who are committed to continually working on their craft and steadily making efforts to meet new people that eventually get their break.

Don’t compare yourself to others.  It happens quicker for some.  And there’s no logic to any of it.  Just do your best work and be a good, reliable, and helpful person.  People remember that shit and will go to bat for you.  Your time will come.

Don’t be resistant to criticism.  Just because you don’t agree with a note doesn’t mean it has no merit.

Don’t be afraid to take risks in your work.  It’s the screenplays that nobody would ever make that everyone remembers.  And then sometimes they get made anyway.  I can think of at least 6 scripts that were plucked from the Black List that are movies now.

Figure a way to be consistent and make a writing schedule.  Write early in the morning or on a lunch break.  Whatever works best for you, make it a priority and do it regularly – 5 to 6 days a week.

Stretch and exercise.  Seems obvious, but yeah, oxygen to the brain helps with brainstorming and fatigue. Working out also helps prevent other health problems that people in sedentary professions develop over time.

Listen to your inner critic.  Yes, that voice in your head telling you you’re not good enough.  That you don’t have the talent or the inclination to deal with the politics of the industry.  Whatever hateful and non-constructive shit that voice is saying, give it an audience.  Then choose to ignore it and keeping plugging away.

– – –

I didn’t know anything about the CBS program, but it sounds great. Thanks to Theo for taking the time to share so much great information! You can follow him on twitter @knifepartynikos, and we’ll have to be sure to watch the next season of House of Lies!

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  1. hey guys, thanks for posting about this program and what it takes to get noticed and what to do to be consistent.
    thank you,
    working on my outline for my person of interest and my hawaii five-O spec. they are very different and hope they attract some attention if past mustard!!
    ron ron

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