TV Writers Vault -
Executive Interview Series
Karen Kirkland -
Executive Director, Nickelodeon Writing
The Television Writers Vault is very pleased to
welcome Karen Kirkland, Executive Director of
the Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship, here to
share some valuable insight of their program shepherding new writing talent into the
Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship was designed to
attract, develop and staff Writers with diverse
backgrounds and experiences. The fellowship
provides a salaried position for up to one year,
and offers hands-on experience writing spec
scripts and pitching story ideas in both live
action and animation television. It fosters
opportunities to nurture relationships with
creators, network executives, producers,
writers, showrunners, and editors.
We encourage all aspiring Writers to explore
this special opportunity provided by Nickelodeon
in an effort to discover new and rich talent.
Scott Manville: Thanks for sharing your time with us at
the TV Writers Vault, Karen. We’re very excited
to share your program with our Writers and
Thank you Scott.
I’m really excited to share information
about the program as well.
It’s such an amazing opportunity for
writers who want to write for television!
Scott Manville: Can you share some details of the
We offer writing fellowships in live
action and animated television to writers with
diverse backgrounds and experiences.
The program was developed to broaden
Nickelodeon’s outreach efforts and
provides a salaried writing position for up to
Participants have hands-on interaction
with executives pitching story ideas and writing
The main objective or goal of the program
is to get writers staffed on our shows.
Scott Manville: It’s clear that the television writing
program at Nickelodeon has been a terrific
vehicle for discovering and fostering new talent
for the past decade. How have you seen it evolve
as it relates to discovering new talent and
operating within the industry?
I think the program has grown by leaps
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 six
years ago, 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 How to Tell a Story workshop and
giving Script Reviews.
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.
Just this year we finally have
a 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 are starting to take notice.
Scott Manville: What’s the selection process like?
Karen Kirkland: Our selection process is very rigorous!
There are three ‘rounds’ of reading.
During round-one, all of the scripts are
read by professional readers who are experienced
at doing coverage and who understand the
sensibilities of the fellowship.
They understand precisely the qualities
that make for a good script.
that make it through the first-round are then
moved into the second-round.
second-round scripts are read in-house by the
coordinators and managers within Network, in
both development and current series (both live
action and animation).
third-round of reading is done 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.
point I may or may not "pass" on a few more. The
writers of the remaining scripts become the
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 intrigued by people and 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).
writer doesn't have a second spec – they’re
belief that if you're a writer - you're
constantly writing, and if you're a television
writer - you should have more than one
Once I read your second spec, you're
then called in for an in-person interview.
goes well during the in-person interview -
you're then a finalist and moved into speed
interviews are a super intense series of
interviews (with show creators, head writers,
line producers and network executives) that take
place over the course of a few days.
Eleven interviews over a course of 4 days
to be exact…
Scott Manville: What kinds of writers/writing are you
We’re looking for strong writers
with great personalities.
A writer that has a creative
point-of-view, a writer we’d want to spend an
entire year with, a writer that we’d feel
comfortable sending into one of our writer’s
rooms, someone who can hold his or her own.
A writer that is able to pitch jokes and
The majority of the writers that get into
the program don’t have any professional
To be considered for the program, you
can’t have had any produced television credits.
For submission to the fellowship you must submit a ½-hour
spec script based on ANY comedic television
series currently on-air and in production on
primetime network or cable.
½-hour spec. It does NOT need to be for a
Nickelodeon show, nor does it need to be
Keep in mind that we don’t accept pilots,
original material or feature-length scripts.
Your best bet is to write a spec script for
Modern Family, The Office, Parks and Recreation,
Community, Curb Your Enthusiasm, It's Always
Sunny in Philadelphia - just to name a few.
The script will mainly be judged on story,
humor, dialogue, character development,
structure and originality.
Scott Manville: What advice would you give to writers who
are looking to enter the program?
Have multiple 1/2-hour television specs written
- assuming you want to write for television.
Beware of typos - they are not your friend!
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
Have 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 - that's
Scott Manville: Once a Writer is brought into the
program, what is that experience like for them?
What would they possibly experience in the
course of a busy day?
Karen Kirkland: The Fellows begin in October every year,
and they come into the office every day from
10am to 5pm.
We feel that one of the most
beneficial tools a television writer can have is
the working knowledge of the creative process of
getting notes from an executive and learning how
to incorporate those notes into their scripts.
To that end, we assign the Fellow to an
Executive in Charge of a show (an EIC).
The Fellow will spend a week researching
that show and coming up with 3 story ideas.
The Fellow will then pitch his/her story
ideas to the exec.
The exec will choose one of them, give
the writer some notes and then the writer will
have two days to write a premise based on that
story idea. Once
the premise is complete – we’ll then put the
Fellow on a six week writing schedule.
During which time, they’ll have two weeks to write
an outline, and turn it into the EIC.
schedule yet another notes meeting and the
writer will either need to revise the outline,
or move on and write the first draft. They’ll
have a week to write the first draft, followed
by a notes meeting, then two days to write a
second draft, then a notes meeting…
They’ll continue on this path all the way
through to the final draft.
Each fellow does this for both a
live-action show and an animated show.
In addition, during the first few months the
writers are inundated with meetings with
everyone at the Studio, from executives, to show
creators, to head writers, to line producers and
even folks in our post-production department.
elongated one-hour meetings, and the writer must
come to the meeting prepared with at least 10
questions for the person they’re meeting with.
The fellow is then free to network and
nurture relationships, which is something we
Interspersed with their writing and their
meetings are in-house workshops on how to break
story to how to write for comedy to how to
succeed in Hollywood - and that’s over the
course of 4 or 5 months. Then we send them to
UCB, where they take improv classes. Then we
send them off to the Robert McKee “Story”
By March or April, they are ultimately placed on a show –
where they get experience in the writer’s room –
which is so incredibly valuable.
Within the first few weeks of being on
the show, the fellow is usually pitching out
story ideas and/or they’ve been assigned another
script to write (this one getting produced).
the fellow stays on that show until their
fellowship is over in October, and hopefully –
like many of our past writers, will then segue
onto the show as a staff writer.
Scott Manville: You have a ton of experience witnessing
new writers and their works. What are some
rookie mistakes that new writers often make?
Karen Kirkland: I
want to see writers who are open to change,
writers who are not necessarily completely
married to every bit of dialogue they write.
married to your material, and not being open to
notes is definitely a rookie mistake in my
understand it though - it’s difficult.
writer, you’re really putting yourself out
there, that’s a part of you on that page.
have someone say, “Hmm, this really isn’t
working for me,”
- I get it – that’s a difficult thing to
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
there are some execs out there who are
frustrated writers themselves and they want you
to take their notes, and commit entirely to
their thought process.
Within the confines of the Writing
Fellowship - a writer needs to be able to come
to the table with the understanding that this is
going to be a collaborative process.
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
I’m diving into your story with an open
am I feeling? Is
this what you’re trying to convey?
the character motivations here?
of story are you really trying to tell?
those questions are important ones.
the flip side of that, a writer shouldn’t just
agree with everything I’m saying.
have to be committed to and stand-up for your
I think that’s the fine line. The 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 for enough.
Scott Manville: How’s the reception of new Writers by the
Network and other Producers? We know TV
Production and Development at the Network level
is fast paced, often like jumping off a cliff.
Does the fellowship program soften the landing?
Karen Kirkland: I think I’m really lucky (and so are the
Writing Fellows) because I oversee (and they are
a part of) a program that the Network and the
other Producers here at the Studio absolutely
A huge amount of value is placed on the
program and the Network is completely committed
to helping us place the most talented writers
into the program and ultimately onto our shows.
I think of this program as a talent pool, and when an exec
or a production is in need of a writer, they
know exactly where to go!
I think part of what makes this program so successful and
why we’re able to staff so many writers on our
shows is that we’ve gotten complete buy-in down
the line - from our exec team to our show
creators, to our line producers and even from
the other writers on each of our shows.
I think in some ways the fellowship program definitely
softens the landing, but only a bit.
It’s definitely a fun program to be in,
but it’s also a very tough program – a boot camp
The program is best suited for writers
who are seriously committed to their craft, to
becoming better writers, to learning more about
the business and to being open to the process.
Scott Manville: Does the program focus on animation,
live-action or both?
The program focuses on both live action
In addition to writing scripts for
specific Nickelodeon shows, the writers in the
program also have to pick out of a box-full of
In this particular case, I’m acting as
the EIC and they have to write a premise, an
outline, three drafts and a final while getting
notes from me throughout.
Yes, the overall objective of the program is to develop the
writers with a Nick sensibility and staff them
on one of our shows.
But what if that doesn’t happen?
If for whatever reason they don’t get
staffed, I want them to be able to walk out the
door with more than what they came in with.
Scott Manville: How is writing for Nickelodeon different
than writing for "adult" network shows?
Karen Kirkland: It’s
I think a lot of writers don’t enter the program
because they believe there’s a big difference in
writing for Nick as opposed to writing for more
“adult” network shows.
opinion, it’s not really all that different.
I think from a story perspective, making
sure you understand the tone of the show, having
a solid grasp of the character’s voices, having
a unique story to tell and injecting the script
with a huge dose of funny - it’s all the same.
If you’re a fan of our programming, you’ll notice it’s pure
entertainment for kids, but there’s also a wink
every now and then for the adult or older
sibling who’s watching along.
Keep in mind the stories are written by
adults, but the one thing we do not do is dumb
anything down for kids.
I would say however that writing for our
animated shows has proven to be a challenge to
some of the writers that come through the
For any writer that writes short stories,
they know it’s not as easy to clearly and
concisely convey an action-packed story in 11
I want to work with a writer that can give me a
fresh perspective on the show they're writing for.
However, I still want the tone of the show
to remain intact and I still want the character
voices to be accurate, but I’d want to get a
sense of the writer’s voice, in terms of his or
her point-of-view on a specific topic.
That’s not an easy thing to do whether
you’re writing for Nickelodeon or for primetime
Your script has to make me laugh out loud! The
dialogue needs to be witty. Your story, your
arcs and your characters needs to be
I can always tell when a writer’s had fun
writing their script because I have fun reading
Bottom line – it’s about the work.
The writers that have come through the
program and have been staffed on Nickelodeon
shows are doing well and are very happy – as are
the writers that have come through the program,
been staffed on our shows and have since moved
on to primetime network shows.
Nickelodeon has been able to
put kids first in almost everything we do.
Having stories that are kid-relatable,
stories that are funny and stories that
originate from character – that’s what it’s all
What are some of your previous fellows
Karen Kirkland: 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
As a result of being in the fellowship, the
majority of the writers that have come through
the program have received multiple produced
credits on Nickelodeon shows.
However, our main objective is to not
only get them produced credits, but to get them
staff writing jobs.
In the last six years, we've been successful at staffing
the majority of our writers on Nickelodeon
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), others that have
come through the fellowship are currently
writing on or have written on shows like
Modern Family, The Cleveland
Everybody Hates Chris, My Boys, Arrested Development, and
America to name a few.
But for the writers who don’t get staffed, I
don’t abandon them either.
For instance, there was one writer this
last cycle that didn’t get staffed, so I put her
on a six-week script schedule and she started
Community spec. She completed that spec and
now she’s on a new six-week script schedule for
My door remains open... Even for the
finalists that make it to speed interviews but
don’t get chosen as Fellows, they know they can
always pick up the phone and call – or come in
for a Script Review.
Scott Manville: Do you think the internet has changed TV
writing at all? Should new writers be using the
internet’s online marketplaces like the TV
Writers Vault and your Fellowship Program at
www.NickWriting.com to get their
stuff out there?
I think the internet has changed TV
writing in that there are certainly more
resources available to writers than ever before.
The ability to access scripts online, to
learning about script and story structure from
online tutorials and podcasts.
Writer’s can now realize their vision by
inexpensively creating their own webisodes.
With such a range of media platforms I
think it’s an amazing time to be a writer!
for more information and submission guidelines.