Heidi Nyburg followed up her top 10 finalist placing in Script Pipeline’s TV Writing Competition with a win in the 2017 Script Pipeline First Look Project for her pilot Silicon Curve. The series is loosely based on the story of her mother working in the male-dominated 1970s Silicon Valley. Soon after her win, the pilot garnered attention from producers and managers. She writes both features and TV material.
You’ve worked in entertainment for a while, but what made you jump into screenwriting?
If by “for a while” you mean directed a few shorts and produced a feature in college, then yes, I am clearly an industry veteran. The truth is I started late, I did things backward, got the job first, then went to college. I have always loved writing, and while working as an analyst at Netflix, I took a weekend TV writing class at a community college in Cupertino. I knew that having story ideas wasn’t enough, it’s all in the execution, and I wanted to create something real. Later, I went back to college and studied television and film at San Jose State University. I took a screenwriting class there, and the first week, the professor used my scene as an example in class. We cast it, did a little table read, and everyone laughed in the right places. It was fun. I think I still have the audio recording because I thought it was really special to have that opportunity, and I’m kind of sappy like that. Looking back, it was pretty awful, so much description. I wrote my first feature in that class and then was invited to take the masters class as an undergrad.
But I think it was taking the UCLA professional programs in both TV and film that really solidified it for me. I had some fantastic teachers. The late John Sweet was an inspirational mentor to me, and Chuck Kim in the TV writing program. Both were instrumental in helping me elevate my writing. They asked good questions, which really pushed me to get to the root of the stories I was writing.
Although you’ve written features, it’s been your pilots that have cracked through (at least with Script Pipeline). For up-and-coming writers who kind of straddle the line, writing features and TV material equally, what are some of the key takeaways that help you transition between both?
I started out writing features, and I’ll always be drawn to writing them. You get the entire story, it’s full circle. But I think I’ve focused on TV more because of the fantasy, the dream, of being able to see what the characters do next. I know none of my shows are shows yet, but I firmly believe that if you are going to do something, do it with the intent and the belief and the work ethic to make the end goal happen. That’s a super long and wordy way of saying act as if. If I’m writing a show, I’m writing the bible, too. I’m doing everything possible to make it a thing. Writing television offered more for me in terms of building a long-term world and characters I’d want to follow. And transitioning back and forth, I found that writing for TV has improved my feature writing. Learning to write act breaks in television and then transferring that technique to film scripts has helped me tremendously to create scenes that push the story forward. Even if you’re writing for streaming or premium cable where there are no commercial breaks, you still write to them, so that skill translates really well to film. I think every good film does that, every scene should be compelling enough to work as an act break.
I guess the takeaway is to let the lessons from one platform of writing spill over into your other writing. Be fluid about it and see what serves the story best. If you have a feature you’ve written that feels like it has more there, try rewriting it as a pilot. It worked for Sam Esmail with Mr. Robot.
Writers are bound to receive tons of advice. Some of it. . . well, probably unsolicited. Who were the figures that motivated you to keep it up–and more importantly, what guidance did they impart that continues to carry you through from script to script? How does a writer decide what advice to take and what advice to abandon? There can only be one direction, after all. At some point do you just trust your gut instinct?
I’ve been pretty lucky in that everyone around me has been supportive and encouraging. From my neighbor who listens to pitch after pitch on our walks, to friends who read drafts. And my husband, who has read everything I’ve written more times than I have and who has gotten quite good at giving serious notes. To put it diplomatically, he’s very objective. He reads my work like a loveless stranger; no holds barred. It’s kinda sexy, actually.
The least supportive person has been me. You know that voice that pops up? The “you’re not good enough” voice. “Who do you think you are? You’ll never be Shonda Rhimes.” Yes, that voice can be painfully specific. I spend some time pushing that stuff away. Ultimately, though, whenever I’ve thought of giving up, some bright spot will reveal itself, and I’ll laugh about ever contemplating it. I think this goes for anything you do that’s competitive and requires a person to keep trying harder: you reach a point where it’s more difficult psychologically to not pursue the goal than it is to pursue the goal. Giving up is always harder. It’s the death of a dream, and who wants that?
Advice to take or to abandon (I’m going to take that to mean notes). . . . I’m just gonna say it: I love notes. Notes are a gift. Whether at face value or for the note behind the note. The fact that someone took the time to read words that came out of my head still blows my mind. Most notes are incredibly helpful, and all notes have a spirit of the note that has something to reveal.
As for deciding whether or not to use a note, I think about it a lot. I play the change out in my head, play out the ramifications. Some of the best notes have been ones where initially I’m almost repulsed by the idea, something that feels really backward. Sometimes it’s a note I’ve given myself. Something doesn’t feel right about a plot point, but I’ve been living with it so long it’s like a comfortable old sofa. So do the hard work, try to apply the note, make the change that seems impossible. Every single time, the story will be better for having done so. Even if you don’t end up using the feedback, the exercise of trying to use it will always be useful. I think the important thing to remember when receiving notes is to listen graciously. Every person who reads your work has a whole world they bring to the table, different perspectives, experience. Take it all in and decide what works best for the story.
And yeah, at some point it is a gut instinct. But most of the time, for me, it involves some insomnia. What if it doesn’t work? Ah, but what if it does?
Silicon Curve stood out to us on a number of levels regarding the writing, but also conceptually. It’s very “right now.” And such a stellar role for an actress. What made you decide to pursue it as a series? How much did your childhood and your mother’s experiences play a factor, maybe not in the direction of the plot, but the themes and some of the character inspirations.
Initially, I pursued the story because I kept noticing that the people talking about the birth of technology in the Valley were mostly men. And that’s not meant to sound anti-male-accomplishment at all. Yay men. It’s just that I knew, first hand, that there was a lot more story to tell. Growing up in Silicon Valley with aunts, a grandmother, and a mother who worked in tech meant that I knew those stories very well, and I thought wow, this is something people really don’t hear much about.
Plot-wise it felt much more like a series. It has that snapshot in time quality, it’s historical, it’s recognizable, the politics are there. The women and men in this story are growing and changing along with the country and society, sometimes quickly which causes a backlash, so there are growing pains. And I think looking back on those years, we are afforded an opportunity to see what has changed and what hasn’t changed. And of course, the advancing technology is there, but more importantly, I think the characters are what drives the story, their actions and their reactions to the world.
A lot of the stories in the pilot and in the bible are based on personal experience, but there was also a ton of research involved. In terms of themes, there’s a lot going on. The pilot touches on what it’s like to be the only person you can depend upon and the alone-ness of single parenthood. The fear of leaving something not great in exchange for the unknown. I think these questions and themes are relatable. And I’ve had people say don’t make Jill (the protagonist) stay with Randy (her husband), he’s so wrong for her, we won’t like her. But she kind of has to work that out for herself. And I think that makes her more interesting. What will compel her to leave or to stay? Will she be able to be alone or will she be in relationship after relationship? I think some of those answers will come from experiences in my life, and the way things played out for my mom.
Character-wise almost every person came from an impression of someone I knew, but then I intensified that impression and often combined them with another person. And Valerie is based on a friend from high school. And yeah, I hope you’re right, I hope Jill is actress bait. She’s flawed and I think she’d be a lot of fun to play. She’s inspired by an incredibly strong woman. A woman who had only been in the country a short time, had two small children, and was trying to make it all work but also trying to have a life of her own. I think a lot of people can relate to the push-pull of wanting more, against the odds.
What do you feel is the best starting point for a writer who just finished the first draft of their script? With Silicon Curve, for example, what was your next step? Is there any hesitancy when you decide the script is ready and it’s time to circulate it to industry, platforms like Script Pipeline, etc.?
I think the best place to start when you’ve got a solid first draft–like professional, no typos, on point with the formatting and act breaks–is to submit to contests. Despite any hesitancy, if you’ve done your best, I think at some point you just have to jump in. I sought out contests that have a reputation for giving good notes. Script Pipeline was one of the first contests I entered. And when I say good notes, I don’t mean notes that just tell you all the positive things about your work. I mean solid, constructive, sometimes uncomfortable notes that help you grow and better your story.
From the polished, ready-to-move-forward draft, I kept entering and rewriting and moved from quarterfinalist, to semifinalist, up the ranks until I won a couple of times. Eventually, you get to a place where the notes are from execs or a manager and they say OK, let’s leave it alone, we have it where we want it. That can be a little scary because I’m the kind of person who would reach into the television to tweak the dialogue if I could. And then always be working on the next thing.
Full disclosure: you have a family, you have kids. . . not unlike a lot of working writers. It isn’t just about carving time to write, we realize. It’s about carving time and getting in the right frame of mind. Everyone has their own creative system. What’s yours?
For me, it’s all about compartmentalizing. I’ve always got this side brain thing going, like a backburner always thinking about the script rewrite, or the new pilot. It helps to honestly identify your strengths and weaknesses. For example, I know I’m a morning person, so I save mornings and afternoons for writing and use nights for things like online classes or webinars or emails. It helps to surround yourself with people who don’t mind non-sequitur talk about your script. Ideas come when they come, so I jot down notes in my phone a lot, bits of dialogue, a conflict to work out, a new scene.
As for getting in the right frame of mind, for me, that’s a luxury I can’t afford. It’s work. Yes, it’s work that I love but, nonetheless, it’s work that needs to get done no matter what my frame of mind is. There are much better writers out there who are always in the right frame of mind, so I have to put myself there no matter what else is going on. I give myself deadlines, sometimes contest deadlines, fellowship deadlines, and now, get new pages to the manager deadlines. Also, I learned a trick from a guy I met who wrote for Rolling Stone, he said he always quits working for the day while he’s in the middle of writing a scene. Quit while you have something going so that when you come back to the page, you are instantly engaged in a scene that is already on its way. It works for me. Also typing with my kids on my lap is an undervalued skill that I’m hoping becomes an Olympic sport because I’m getting kind of good at it.
And lastly, I think it’s important to make a commitment to yourself to push forward, to find the time to work on your craft and not give up.
A television and film writer originally from Silicon Valley, Heidi Nyburg attended the UCLA Professional Programs in both screenwriting and writing for television and studied with Richard Walter and John Sweet. She focuses on dramatic one-hour shows that explore themes of independence, grief, and sometimes, murder. Her pilots and features have placed in several respected contests, including her feature Mock Draft, which made the top 10% at the Academy Nicholl Fellowship, and Silicon Curve, based loosely on the career of her mother, which won the 2017 Script Pipeline First Look Project. Heidi has written and produced sketches and short films and produced a feature film, the coming of age comedy Always Learning, currently seeking distribution. She is managed by Sonia Gambaro of Pollinate Entertainment.
Follow Heidi: Twitter