Karen Kirkland | Executive Director
Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship

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 television industry. 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 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 Producers.

Karen Kirkland: 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 program’s mission/objective?

Karen Kirkland:  Absolutely. 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 one year. Participants have hands-on interaction with executives pitching story ideas and writing spec scripts. 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?

Karen Kirkland: I think the program has grown by leaps and bounds! 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.  Scripts that make it through the first-round are then moved into the second-round.  The 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).  The 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.  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 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).   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 and moved into speed interviews.  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 looking for?

Karen Kirkland: 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 break story. The majority of the writers that get into the program don’t have any professional experience. To be considered for the program, you can’t have had any produced television credits.

For submission to the fellowship you must submit a -hour spec script based on ANY comedic television series currently on-air and in production on primetime network or cable.  Any -hour spec. It does NOT need to be for a Nickelodeon show, nor does it need to be kid-friendly. 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 30 Rock, 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?

Karen Kirkland: 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 times!

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 all...

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.  We 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.  These are 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 encourage.

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” weekend.  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).  Ultimately, 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.  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 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.  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 am I feeling?  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 saying.  You can’t.  You have to be committed to and stand-up for your vision.  And 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 love. 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 of sorts. 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?

Karen Kirkland: The program focuses on both live action and animation. In addition to writing scripts for specific Nickelodeon shows, the writers in the program also have to pick out of a box-full of -hour comedies. 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 unfortunate, but 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. In my 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 program. 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 minutes. 

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 network.

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 multi-layered. I can always tell when a writer’s had fun writing their script because I have fun reading it. 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 about.

Scott Manville: What are some of your previous fellows doing now?

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 writing for.

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 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), others that have come through the fellowship are currently writing on or have written on shows like Modern Family, The Cleveland Show, Mr. Sunshine, Sesame Street, Everybody Hates Chris, My Boys, Arrested Development, and Aliens in 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 writing a Community spec. She completed that spec and now she’s on a new six-week script schedule for Modern Family. 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 NickWriting.com to get their stuff out there?

Karen Kirkland: 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!

Visit NickWriting.com for more information and submission guidelines.
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