I first came across Lynn Sternberger’s work when watching The Bold Type; a brilliant series on Amazon Prime. At first glance, the show might seem like the glossy Gossip Girl type, but it’s so much more than that; tackling issues from race to sexuality to female empowerment. But this job only scratches the surface of Sternberger’s career. After some Twitter networking and a writing course under her belt, she made the move from Canada to Los Angeles and hasn’t looked back since.
How did you get into writing for television?
While I’d been a voracious consumer of TV my entire life, I didn’t realize that writing for TV was a career path I could pursue until the advent of Twitter. Around 2010, I started connecting with other fans and a few writers’ rooms which had started to pop up on the platform. Twitter allowed me to engage with the writers more directly and discuss episodes more critically with other super-fans. That year, I made Twitter pals with a writer in LA who had written a spec episode of The Good Wife. Eric was applying to the ABC/Disney fellowship, and asked if I could provide feedback on his draft. When I read it, I realized I was completely capable of writing something similar. I didn’t know why I had never tried it before. Eric got into the fellowship that year and has had an incredible career ever since (first on Empire, now on Power). Concurrently, I applied for and was admitted into a year-long TV writing program in Vancouver, B.C. My first spec episode, fittingly, was an episode of The Good Wife. After film school, I moved to Los Angeles and started hustling.
What’s your favourite part about the job?
For me, there’s no feeling like pitching an idea to a room full of writers you respect and seeing them get excited. It’s an environment where everyone offers their own ideas and the best idea wins. So when your coworkers get onboard and your pitch sticks all the way into a script draft, that feels like a massive win.
Being inside a writers’ room is like being in a room full of word architects, debating the most elegant execution of your showrunner’s vision, and then building something beautiful from the blueprint stage to the grand opening. Hopefully, you will see your own contributions all over the place, but the product is more surprising and special and grander than anything you could have accomplished alone.
Is there a particular TV show or film that has inspired your career?
The Good Wife was the show that turned me from a viewer into a creator. But before that, the series that made me love the art-form of television included: The West Wing, ER, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Grey’s Anatomy. While I don’t consider myself much of a feature writer (at least not yet), watching queer cinema was also a huge part of my own development, so most of my stories have queer themes.
Now that I’m trying to envision and shape a long career for myself, I look to creators like the UK’s Sally Wainwright. Her work has spanned multiple genres —cop procedural, crime noir, family dramedy, historical, etc — but the commonality among all of her shows has been incredibly compelling roles for women. I would like to follow in Sally’s footsteps, in both range and content.
You have created some brilliant work. A favourite of mine was ‘The Bold Type’. What was your best memory of writing for the show?
I had two particularly fulfilling experiences working on the first season of The Bold Type. One was helping to craft the “Kadena” storyline, which was personally meaningful to me as a queer person who has always wanted to tell queer love stories without falling into tropes. The second was pitching a reveal in the finale that I felt would make an important statement. That pitch stuck, and Sarah Watson wrote the reveal in the most beautiful way imaginable. But aside from those storytelling “wins,” it was truly wonderful to work for Sarah, who was my own sort of Jacqueline figure. In just six months, she taught me lessons about female leadership and storytelling that I will carry with me into a (hopefully) life-long career.
Do you have much of a say in the production process after a script is complete?
The amazing part about television (opposed to film) is that the writer maintains a lot more control throughout the entire process – they don’t hand off a script to an auteur director who then takes over the “vision.” In TV, the director executes the vision of the showrunner. As a younger writer in the room, I’m not generally the person making decisions — that would be the executive producers — but I’ve always been welcomed into their conversations.
When I’ve been on set in the past, the process of shooting involved a continuous conversation between that episode’s director, me, and my boss, the showrunner.
What’s it like to be part of a writers room? (We don’t get much of that here in the UK!)
I’m a writer who thrives in the room. Not every writer does. At the very least, though, you get to order lunch from a nice restaurant and have it hand-delivered to you every single day. You are compensated well (go union!). Usually, you are spending copious time with really wonderful, funny people. It’s not a bad life.
But I’m also intrigued by the British model. You guys crank out geniuses like Sally Wainwright and Charlie Brooker and Hugo Blick and Abi Morgan. They write absolutely brilliant series without the benefit of a room. It’s beyond me how they manage it. I’d love to trail any one of them for a few weeks and learn.
Do you ever switch off or is your day to day life a constant source of writing inspiration?
Honestly, I’m still figuring out my own best processes. There’ve been times when all of my ideas crumble under self-doubt. Those are very difficult stretches. Sometimes I give myself the day off to recharge. Other times, I’ll plunge ahead because I’ve committed to doing this thing and if I don’t at least try, I’ll feel like a fraud. Sometimes my writing group will help me transform a crap idea into a viable one.
At the best of times, I’ll hit a creative streak where I rapidly generate multiple ideas that I think have legs as potential series. Usually, those concepts marry emotional arcs that I might draw from my own experiences with environments and characters who are much less familiar to me. I’ll often meld together multiple things that excite me. For example, I’m currently writing a pilot about an all-female jazz band set in 1940s Chicago. I don’t play jazz. I’ve never been to Chicago. But I knew I wanted to write about what it means to be a female creative in a world that hasn’t been designed to accommodate your dreams.
And finally! As an actor, I appreciate that life in LA can be a tricky business. Would you say this is true of being a writer, or does the road get smoother the more shows you work on?
In my limited experience, the road hasn’t been smooth for longer than six months at a go. I’ve compared “breaking in” to Hollywood to being a hamster on a wheel. You’re desperate to get on the big wheel and once you manage to jump in, you’re living your best hamster life, happily spinning away, blissfully unaware that very soon that wheel is gonna eject you ass over teakettle into a pile of wood shavings. I think once you’ve stacked up a few writing credits, it gets easier to get back on the wheel. Eventually, you may learn to recognize when the wheel’s going off kilter and to brace yourself better. You gain resilience. But creatively, getting tossed into the wood chips never feels good. Ha! What a pleasant and uplifting note to end on.
You can find Lynn on Twitter at @LynnSternberger. And keep your eyes peeled on your TV screens for more of her brilliant work!