3 Things I Learned from Moderating the “Empire” Writers Panel

Photo credit: Kima Jones

Photo credit: Kima Jones

Saturday, I had the pleasure and honor of moderating of writers from the hit show “Empire” at L.A.’s Leimert Park Book Fair: Joshua Allen, Eric Haywood, twin sisters JaNeika and JaSheika James, Attica Locke and Carlito Rodriguez.

For an hour, the writers spoke frankly about their own careers, their experiences in Hollywood, and what it’s like to work for mega hit show “Empire”—which simply must be one of the best writing environments in television. As in…Best. Job. Ever.

They laugh all day. Yes, they argue. Yes, they get the job done. But they have “Good Times” sing-alongs. Their stomachs hurt because they laugh all day. One of the writers actually said this.

But I digress.

Leimert Park Book Fair

Leimert Park Book Fair

As a novelist who is also writing screenplays and pitching my novels for TV and film, I’m always eager to hear the secret to success from veterans—just as I listened eagerly to Anne Rice when I interviewed her in 1992 as a newspaper reporter dreaming of becoming a novelist. From Rice, I learned that I should shed my reservations about writing about the supernatural. I never confessed that I wanted to write novels, but Rice told me that she had learned to laugh off the stigma of genre because her books are taught in universities. That realization was a breakthrough, and I wrote my first novel, The Between, within nine months of our interview.

The “Empire” panel may provide its own kind of breakthrough—helping me focus my resolve to work harder, and smarter, to break into television and film.

The first thing that stood out: the collective EXPERIENCE in the room. Attica Locke had never worked in a TV writers’ room, but she’d spent years writing unproduced scripts for studios. (She only started writing novels–which are acclaimed–because she couldn’t produce her own politically charged legal thrillers like her new novel, Pleasantville.)

Even other writers with little television writing experience brought experience from other realms: Carlito Rodriguez was editor-in-chief of The Source. Joshua Allen was a playwright. Even young writers like identical twin sisters JaNeika and JaSheika James had years of experience in television. Everyone on the panel earned their seat at the writers’ table after years of striving and not despairing at setbacks—Allen worked on “Hostages” for a year, for example, and then it was canceled.

And most writers had waded through the experience of being “the only one in the room,” as discussed in a recent NPR article based on comic Wyatt Cenac’s anecdote about Jon Stewart shouting him down when Cenac was the only black writer in the room on “The Daily Show.” You’re the only person of color at the table. Or the only woman. Or the only [fill in the blank.] Carlito Rodriguez joked that he is black, but he is also Latino—“which still makes me the only one in the room.”

They, too, have learned how to choose their battles and experienced the extra stress in their bones. But now, they say, they feel like they have found family.

Eric Haywood, who previously wrote for “Soul Food” and “Private Practice,” rightfully pointed out that “Empire” benefited from the pioneering work of Shonda Rhimes. (I would compare Rhimes’s impact on television to what Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale did for black writers in publishing.)

Here are my biggest takeaways:

1. Write more. So you finally wrote that screenplay? Congratulations. Now move on to the next one. My screenwriting time competes with my prose writing time, but I want to learn to better set aside time for both. One screenplay will not build a career in Hollywood. Neither will two. Or three. Remember how much rejection you face with your prose? Expect more rejection in Hollywood.

2. The Way is in Training. I have never taken a Sundance lab or even a two-day boot camp with Robert McKee. Collaborating with my husband, Steven Barnes (who has extensive TV writing experience), I have learned to write screenplays by writing screenplays (with smart notes from producers), reading screenplays, and reading books about writing screenplays. I write good scripts, and I love teaching screenwriting, but I can always learn more. With an 11-year-old son, two part-time teaching jobs, and a life as a novelist, the focused time, energy and effort even a short a class demands would be good for me.

3. Network, network, network. Because I already have cultivated industry contacts over fifteen years as an author trying to adapt my books to film or TV, I tend to be too low-key about following through after new connections. I collect business cards I often don’t end up using. I let email chains die. I’m a bit shy, so I’m not a naturally social person—I’m a writer!—and I live too far outside of the city to take a drive to L.A. lightly, whether it’s for lunch or—dear Lord—a meeting. But everyone knows Hollywood is built on lunch and meetings, so am I serious or not? I may not be able to do everything, but I need to be more active in the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA). That’s a start. And lunch now and then with new people wouldn’t kill me. (Find a way to improve your version of networking, i.e. attending a film festival with accessible panelists.)

These principles aren’t new to me. They’re not new to you either. But sometimes it takes a panel of writers to help clarify what we already know.

Tananarive Due is an author and screenwriter. She teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA and creative writing in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her short story collection, Ghost Summer, will be published Sept. 1. 

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