Kiyong Kim spent ten years working a day job as a web designer while he wrote and made short films on the side. Things came into focus for him when a friend of a friend got into the Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship.
You can read more from Kiyong on his blog.
I didn’t major in screenwriting. I didn’t go to film school. I went to art school in Boston and studied illustration. I can draw you a picture of the zero connections I had to the entertainment industry.
Despite that, I wanted to be a writer.
I had written short stories in high school, and in college I learned what a screenplay is. I read some books on the subject, and then wrote my first script, Brobot, which I submitted to the Slamdance Screenwriting Competition. It came in 4th. This was before they had a separate short script competition, so my short beat out feature scripts, and got me some attention from managers and producers. I completely squandered that opportunity because I had nothing else to show, but it gave me the confidence I needed to take this whole writing thing seriously.
Trying to write while having a day job
Even though I wanted to be a writer, I had a full time job as a web designer. It’s really depressing to be good at something you don’t like. Had I known better, I would have started out as a PA and tried to get a job as a writer’s assistant. Instead, I paid the bills by pushing pixels around in Photoshop, and wrote on nights and weekends.
I was very disciplined with my writing and made a lot of sacrifices to hone my skills. I took jobs that paid less but had better hours, had more flexible vacation days, were closer to my house, or had any other factor that would give me more time to write. I would write during lunch breaks, and save up my vacation time to work on scripts. I also wanted to become familiar with the production process, so I took classes in directing, editing, and animation.
While I spent all this time writing, I was painfully aware of the opportunity cost of what I wasn’t doing. But I kept at it, because my shorts would get into festivals, or my scripts would place in contests. I had to continue.
Then one day, a friend of a friend got into the Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship. I knew the odds were ridiculous—less than 1 in a 1000—but actually knowing someone who succeeded made it seem within the realm of possibility. I decided to apply.
Rocky, I & II
In order to apply to the writing programs, you need a television spec script. I had written several shorts and a couple features, but never a spec. So I read some books on TV writing, and wrote an episode of The Office.
In the fall, I heard I was a semifinalist for the Nick Fellowship. I had a phone interview, an in-person interview, and ended up as one of four finalists. That brought three days of interviews with executives, writers, and show creators.
Only three fellows were chosen that year, and I was the only finalist who did not make it. I had gotten too nervous in some of the interviews. During those interviews, they don’t even look at your writing; they look at your personality, and at how well you sell yourself. I was horrible at selling myself; writing ability alone isn’t enough.
When Rocky fought Apollo Creed the first time he didn’t win, but he didn’t lose either. Just getting to that point was a personal victory for me. It was validation that I was on the right track, and that all of the hours spent writing hadn’t been a complete waste. If I could have another shot, I could make it.
Cue the music for a Rocky training sequence.
I immediately went to work on another spec, this time for 30 Rock, and applied again. I took an improv class, a TV writing class, and made another short. That fall, I was a semifinalist again. I was prepared for all those interviews this time.
In Rocky II, (spoiler alert) Rocky wins. I made it into the Fellowship.
The Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship is a full-time, paid program. We started out writing new specs as well as rewriting our application specs. We usually have six weeks to write a script, which includes researching a show, pitching premises, outlining, and doing multiple drafts, and we’re usually working on several scripts at once.
I was used to writing in short bursts at nights and on weekends, not for eight hours a day, and I used to write scripts leisurely over the course of several months, not in six weeks. My writing muscles were quickly whipped into shape.
After writing several specs for network shows, each of us was given the opportunity work with the EIC (Executive in Charge) and write a spec of a Nickelodeon show. I got the new animated show Robot & Monster, which hasn’t aired yet, and has no finished episodes to watch and study. I had seen some of the character art and was given the show bible and a bunch of scripts, but I didn’t know how the characters would look or sound, or what the show’s timing and rhythm would be like. It was a challenge, but the EIC provided guidance along the way.
Besides just paying us to write, the Fellowship opens doors by setting up meetings with people at the studio, including current and development execs, line producers, coordinators, writers, and Fellowship alumni. We’re working on more specs as well as a pilot, and I’m about to sit in on the writers’ rooms for Robot & Monster.
Ideally, I would love to get staffed on a Nickelodeon show before the Fellowship ends, and then at some point, I’d like to put my art school education to use and pitch my own animated show. We’re halfway done with the Fellowship, and it has already been a life changing experience.