Behind-the-Scenes with T.V. Writer Cydney Kelley

March 19, 2015

Cydney’s creativity is matched only by her determination and drive to succeed in one of the most challenging careers in Hollywood. Cydney has written for top television shows including Days of Our Lives and BET’s The Game. In this month’s ‘Behind-the-Scenes,’ Cydney takes time out from her busy schedule and shares her experiences and expertise in this in-depth look at what it takes to be a television writer.

 

 

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I grew up a long way from Hollywood in a place called Cedar Falls, Iowa. It’s a college town with a population of about 45,000. (We have one freestanding Starbucks.) As a kid I watched way too much TV.

 

At the age of 14 I decided I was going to work behind the scenes in television… specifically I wanted to work on Days of our Lives.

 

Here’s a typical conversation when I was a teen:

 

 

INT. MIDWEST FAMILY ROOM — NIGHT

 

Cydney and her dad are sitting on the couch, TV trays in front of them. The television screen shows an episode of Days of our Lives.

 

DAD (sighs): Really, Cyd? Do we have to watch this while we eat dinner?

 

CYDNEY: Uh, yeah, Dad. I have to know what’s going on. I’m gonna work there someday.

 

 

So yes, it was a very specific goal. But I wasn’t going to stop until I made it happen. There were a few setbacks — My first venture living in California was short-lived and I ended up back in Iowa.

 

But after 2 years at the University of Northern Iowa getting my gen ed out of the way, I transferred to Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles to major in screenwriting.

 

I had tried numerous times to get an internship at Days with no success. Then, my senior year, I took a class called Roads to the Entertainment Industry where I had an assignment to interview somebody who had a job that I wanted.

 

Well, instead of interviewing the obvious (a writer), I interviewed the writers’ assistants at Days. I got to spend the afternoon with the two writers’ assistants and that same day they offered me an internship.

 

I was on my way.

 

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First job in Entertainment?

 

My very first job in entertainment was an internship at FOX Television Publicity. I worked in a glamorous skyscraper in Century City (with star-sightings that include former President Reagan and Rob Lowe) and I even got to dress “business casual” which was all very exciting to a 22-year-old from Iowa.

 

I spent most of my days Xeroxing articles that mentioned any of the FOX TV shows and compiling them into a packet and distributing them around the FOX lot.

 

It was a great first look into the world of television.

 

My favorite part of the internship was being able to accompany show publicists on set visits for table reads as well as photo shoots.

 

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When did you know you wanted to be a professional writer?

 

When I was about 14 I knew I wanted to work in entertainment in some capacity. My bedroom was pretty much a shrine to all things Hollywood. By the time I got to college and had to specify a major, I decided screenwriting was for me.

 

I’ve always enjoyed writing and received high marks in those classes.

 

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A Typical Day as a Television Writer

 

A typical day in the writers’ room at The Game would start at 10:00 A.M. for the assistants and 10:30 A.M. for the writers. We usually take an hour or so for lunch. On occasion we will work through lunch, ordering food in.

 

We usually wrap the writers’ room anywhere between 7–8:00 P.M. on an average day. I’m told these are good hours as opposed to some writers’ rooms which go on past 11:00 P.M.

 

Production is a totally different beast.

 

We filmed the show in Atlanta where our schedule would last at least 13 hours a day. Sometimes 16. By the time we started production in Georgia, the Los Angeles writers’ room had usually wrapped.

 

Cydney on location for The Game — Atlanta 2012

This past season there were 8 writers (including the creator) plus myself and another writers’ assistant and a writers’ PA (Production Assistant). When the room starts in the morning we generally chit chat for a bit… easing into the actual work.

 

At the beginning of the season we will spend most of our energy pitching story arc ideas for each character. We will either write these ideas on the dry-erase board or on color-coded notecards. (Each character gets their own color.) Once we have a number of strong story arcs for each character, we piece them together like a puzzle.

 

We know what the character will be doing in the beginning, middle, and end of the season before we ever write a script.

 

Once we get the stories approved by the network (based on a verbal pitch from the executive producers [AKA the highest ranking writers]) we start to write outlines.

 

These outlines are generally about 6 pages, single-spaced. They are divided up into scenes and act breaks.

 

Sometimes, if we run out of time to complete the outline together in the writers’ room, one of the lower level writers will take it home to finish it up and flesh it out.

 

The executive producers will then read these outlines and tweak them. They will give their notes to me — the writers’ assistant — and I will put the notes in and proofread it. Our other writers’ assistant will also proof it so that no typos slip through the cracks.

 

Then I will send the outline to the network, in this case BET. A few days later we can expect to get notes from them. We will then implement those notes if we feel it’s necessary.

 

Once the outlines are approved, a script writer will basically turn it into dialogue — the script.

 

They will do this on their own time (after work/on weekends).

 

This is what I did as a writer for The Game. (I wrote an episode that aired in 2013).

 

I took the approved outline and turned it into the script. The story ideas were there, but I came up with most of the dialogue.

 

Once the writer finishes the script, ALL of the writers will punch it up and rewrite it.

 

We have a large TV monitor connected to the computer so the writers’ assistants can type in the changes as we go along (allowing all of the writers to see what’s developing on the monitor).

 

And just like with the outlines, the writers’ assistants will proofread (and format) the scripts then email them to the network.

 

Once we get network notes we will put them into the scripts and the final drafts will be distributed to cast and crew.

 

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From Writers' Assistant to Staff Writer

 

When I was a writers’ assistant at Days of our Lives I started writing practice scripts. I would take the approved outline (written by one of our writers) and I would write the dialogue. (We had two kinds of writers: outline writers and script writers — script writing is what I wanted to do.)

 

I did a number of these practice scripts and would send them to some of the writers for their critique.

 

It eventually paid off and I was asked to write a script that would air. That went well and I was soon offered a contract to write one episode every other week.

 

I would definitely recommend the writers’ assistant route for those who want to be television writers.

 

In my opinion, being in the writers’ room is the best education an aspiring writer can have.

 

You get to be around professional writers all day, pitching jokes and story ideas… you have access to these people. And (hopefully) they’ll read your material and give you notes. They might also be a link to an agent.

 

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What is the hardest aspect of being a Television Writer? Most rewarding?

 

I’ve always said that working in television, the highs are really high and the lows are really low.

 

The biggest challenge I’ve faced is staying employed. When you get that first writing job you’re on top of the world. You’re doing what you love and getting paid well for it. And then the residuals start coming in.

 

It would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you’re going to continue getting these paychecks for the rest of your career. But that’s not going to be the case.

 

Luckily I was smart and saved my money for the down time.

 

When you work in TV you don’t typically work all year round. And you never know when that next job is going to come. You might not work for a season or two.

 

I was out of work for 11 months after Days of our Lives and before The Game. That was probably the toughest challenge I had. I’m not going to lie. It’s hard to stay positive in a situation like that.

 

It takes a certain personality to stick around in this business. You have to have a thick skin. You have to be able to take rejection. You have to be okay renting a studio apartment and sleeping on a floor sample mattress from IKEA.

 

The most rewarding part of being a writer, for me anyway, is seeing the final product on TV. Seeing your name on the screen under the words WRITTEN BY. That’s pretty cool.

 

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Social Media

 

I’m not a huge fan of social media so for me it hasn’t had much of an impact on my job. I’ve written some webisodes for the BET website, so that was a nice little bonus for my portfolio, but I’m not sure that really falls under the umbrella of social media.

 

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Current Career Goals

 

Right now my career goal is to get another job that I love. That’s the most important thing to me. I have been so lucky to have had 2 jobs that lasted at least 5 years each. That’s rare in this town. And I loved them both. I never had a day where I wanted to call in sick.

 

That, to me, is success, when your job doesn’t feel like work. It feels like fun.

 

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What are your top 5 favorite memories of working in Entertainment?

 

There are so many! But I can try to pare it down. Here they are (in no particular order):

 

· Being asked to write my first script at Days. That was a dream come true.

 

· Getting a Writers’ Guild Award Nomination and going to the ceremony. (I was the wide-eyed girl from Iowa with ill-fitting nylons.)

 

· Traveling to Atlanta every year (for 5 years) while we filmed The Game. I had never lived anywhere except Iowa and California, so living in another city was a real adventure.

 

· Writing my episode of The Game and being on set when they filmed it. That was the most exciting week for me ever… watching my show come to life.

 

Cydney on set for The Game — Atlanta 2014

 

· And, of course, the perks! I’ve experienced some fun things because of my job at The Game. I’ve been to the BET Hip Hop Awards 4 times (in very good seats).

 

I’ve gotten to meet or see some of my favorite musicians (T.I., Ciara, Fabolous, B.o.B.). I’ve been down on the field at the Georgia Dome tossing the football around (we filmed there often).

 

I’ve met Magic JohnsonEvander Holyfield… All of this was just another day at work.

 

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What is your process as you prepare to write an episode?

 

I don’t really have a specific process to prepare to write a script. As I read the outline I may jot notes down as far as witty dialogue or jokes I’ll want to try and work into the script. Otherwise, I just start writing.

 

When you write for a TV show you don’t really have the luxury of time.

 

I would just set goals for myself each day… like, I might want to write 3 scenes a day and then on day 5 or day 6 I can rewrite and punch it up.

 

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Career Preparation

 

Well, this may sound crazy, but when I was a kid I had a lot of pen pals from all over the world. In my spare time I would write letters.

 

My love for letter writing helped hone my craft since I would try to make these letters interesting and witty.

 

It was simply a fun hobby for me back then. When I got to college, I started taking creative writing and film classes. Then when I declared screenwriting as my major I really dove into those classes.

 

I also watched a lot of television and I wrote spec scripts for my favorite shows.

 

Graphic novels were another source of interest and education I discovered later on because they’re so dialogue driven.

 

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Mentors

 

I’ve been lucky to have had many mentors throughout my career.

 

Whether it was my screenwriting professor, Michael Halperin, at Loyola Marymount or several of the writers at Days of our Lives, I’ve made the most of my connections.

 

It’s important to keep in touch.

 

You never know when someone you’ve worked for in the past (or someone who has worked for you) will be in a position to hire you.

 

Don’t burn bridges. Especially in Hollywood.

 

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Current Projects

 

I’m currently writing a dramedy pilot I hope to shop around soon, and helping a former boss with a feature script.

 

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