Jennica Harper hails from Brampton, Ontario, but now resides in Vancouver, BC, where she currently writes for the acclaimed CTV series, Motive. She has worked as a writer on such TV series as, Some Assembly Required (YTV), Shattered (Global), and Mr. Young (YTV/Disney XD), for which she won a 2013 Leo Award and was nominated for a 2014 Canadian Screen Award. Jennica also adapted a comic book, The Clockwork Girl, into an animated feature that was released in 2014.
In addition to writing for film and television, Jennica is also an accomplished poet whose books include, The Octopus and Other Poems, What It Feels Like For A Girl, and Wood. In 2014, Wood was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, and her poem, “Linear Notes”, received the Silver National Magazine Award for poetry. Her poems have also appeared in literary journals across North America, as well as on buses and skytrains as part of Translink’s Poetry in Transit project.
As someone interested in writing for television, I reached out to Jennica via email with a few questions about the business and her career path. She provided great insight about what it’s like to write for Canadian television, and had some excellent advice for writers such as myself looking to break in to the industry.
You completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Did you find it beneficial to your career?
I did. One of the best things about studying writing is you get used to receiving feedback from others, and figuring out what’s worth implementing, and how. While I don’t think any specific degree is necessary to becoming a screenwriter, I do think workshopping helps you learn to hit deadlines, develop perspective on your own material, and learn to rewrite.
Can you talk a bit about the early days of your career after completing your MFA and how you found your footing?
I spent a number of years working a variety of jobs – some film-related, some not. I worked as an assistant on a CBC drama, I did script coverage for several funding agencies, I taught screenwriting, and I also worked for a non-profit and as a copywriter in marketing. Throughout that time, I was always writing new TV scripts, both pilots and specs. My goal was to stay afloat while having a solid amount of time in my week to continue writing and improving my craft, until I could get an agent or make something happen.
Many people I’ve talked to about having a career in television say that it can’t be done in Vancouver, and suggest either moving to Toronto or LA. What are your thoughts, as someone who is able to live and work as a writer in Vancouver?
I won’t lie, it’s tough here. There aren’t very many Canadian shows in Vancouver right now whose writers’ rooms are local. The numbers are more in your favour in Toronto or LA (if you’re able to work there). That said, there are obviously opportunities in town. Somebody’s got to be here to write the Vancouver shows!
In addition to writing for crime (Shattered, Motive) and children’s/YA TV shows (Some Assembly Required, Mr. Young), you are also an award winning poet. Can you talk a bit about your diversity as a writer? Do you find it hard to switch between genres and jobs?
When I’m full-time on a show, I don’t write poetry. TV writing is very task-oriented; you’re constantly working toward the next deadline. It’s too hard to change gears and get into that quiet, exploratory headspace you need to write poems. But I usually have a few months off each year. That’s when I make some time for poetry.
As previously mentioned, you’re currently working on the TV series, Motive. What does a day in your writer’s room look like?
A typical day in our room might involve, in no particular order: group breaking a story (collaboratively building the bones of an episode, beat by beat, and act by act); reading a draft of someone else’s script and giving them feedback; working alone for a while on our own outlines or drafts; meeting with other departments (e.g. locations, casting) about choices for an episode that’s about to shoot; and Twizzlers.
What do you enjoy the most about writing, and what do you enjoy the least?
My favourite part of writing is when you’ve fully outlined your script and you’re just writing the actual draft. I love that security – I know what has to happen, and now I get to play with how that happens, and how the characters react. What I enjoy least is the moment you realize something you’ve been building a whole story around doesn’t work. I live in fear of having to start something over and throw work away. But sometimes, it has to be done.
I’m sure that your work keeps you quite busy, and you’ve also got a little one at home, but when you’ve got some spare time, what TV shows do you enjoy watching? Are there any shows whose writing you admire?
Somehow, I manage! Some of my favourite shows ended in the last year, but some current favourites (all of which I love because of the writing) are: The Americans, Orange is the New Black, The Good Wife, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Bob’s Burgers. And I loved the new David Simon show, Show Me a Hero. In someone else’s hands, the material would’ve been issue-y. From him, it’s pure character.
How do you see the Canadian television industry evolving over the next couple of years?
It costs a lot to make a season of TV, and I think we’re going to see more productions seeking partners – co-productions with other countries, and shows designed to be sold to a U.S. network alongside a Canadian one. I also think that with the success of Orphan Black, Continuum, Lost Girl, and Bitten, we’re going to see more and more genre shows – people are watching!
Do you have any advice for writers looking to break in to the television industry?
My biggest piece of advice would be: commit. It’s the best advice I was given. This is a competitive industry. You can’t just hope you’ll get lucky and sneak through – you’ve got to be committed to getting good, and you’ve got to be willing to put in the time. Plus, the advice I always give: be nice and be sane! The days in TV are long – you want to be the kind of person a showrunner can spend 14 hours in a room with and still be happy to see you the next day.
Shaelyn Johnston is an Ojibway and Irish-Canadian writer from Vancouver, British Columbia. In 2015, her short story, Anishinaabemowin, took first place in the senior category of Historica Canada’s Aboriginal Arts & Stories contest. She is currently in the fourth year of her Creative Writing BFA at the University of British Columbia, where she focuses mainly on screen and non-fiction. She can be found online @shaeamberlee.