By Vanessa Zimmer
Back when they were children, eagerly awaiting regular deliveries of videotapes of their favorite TV shows to their doorstep, JaNeika and JaSheika James had no inkling they could be a part of the world they so adored.
Twin daughters of a military member living in Germany, the two obsessed over those videotapes — ALF, A Different World, Saturday morning cartoons — sent to them by their stateside grandparents.
They slowly became aware that there were real people behind these television programs, and they became the sisters’ new heroes: like Yvette Lee Bowser, who created the Fox sitcom Living Single. At one point, the sisters drove from Florida to Wilmington, North Carolina, to visit the set of Dawson’s Creek and observe the production side of things.
JaNeika was studying at the University of Florida to become a dentist. JaSheika joined her there, entering the journalism program to study TV production. “Wait a minute,” JaNeika remembers. “I love TV too!” From then on, they both set their sights on writing for television.
Through periods of unemployment and uncertainty, they persevered. JaSheika moved to Los Angeles and became a production associate for ABC. JaNeika went to graduate school at Syracuse University for a master’s degree in TV, radio, and film. She connected with their idol, Yvette Lee Bowser, interviewing her for a project. They wound up talking for three hours, striking up a connection, and, later, JaNeika contacted Bowser via email and asked to become her intern. Bowser agreed!
It was a 10-year journey to become staff writers (and then supervising producers) for Fox’s Empire. They entered the writing rooms for Gossip Girl on HBO Max, the sequel to the CW teen drama that ended in 2012, and for Bel-Air, a dramatic reboot of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, on Peacock.
“We’re dreamers, and that’s why we’re here,” says JaNeika at a Sundance Collab Advisor Studio series in November 2021. The sisters joined the series for a session on Breaking In and Sustaining a Career in Television.
The personable pair offered some advice for aspiring TV writers. The writing room, with its multitude of writers, story editors, producers, assistants and more, is a “microcosm” of the world, says JaNeika, and every person in the room can contribute.
- “It’s important to make your voice heard,” says JaSheika — even in a writing room with a strict hierarchy. “Be respectful, but also know that you’re getting paid for your ideas and thoughts, so if you’re in a position to contribute, please be willing to do so.”
- Don’t bad-mouth pitches from others in the room, says JaNeika. Always remind yourself that everyone in the room wants to create the best work possible. “Yes, and,” is a good technique for adding to another person’s idea.
- Be solution-oriented. If you want to point out a problem with the story, make sure you have a fix to offer.
- Cultivate balance in your life. Don’t make your work everything. Experience life. “People with more life experience have more stories to tell,” says JaSheika.
For those writers working to become established:
- Be prepared with a portfolio — resume, bio, headshot — and scripts, ready to send out at a moment’s notice.
- When pitching a pilot, a complete script isn’t necessary — in part because the company you’re pitching to will want to contribute. The important elements to convey: Why is this a good idea, and why now? Describe the world as you see it created, the main characters, the idea of the pilot episode, the tone, how the story might evolve over time.
Perhaps more than anything, the James sisters advocate for being persistent, flexible, patient — and fearless.
“Speak up,” says JaSheika.
“Unapologetically,” adds JaNeika.