Career Guide

Adele Lim is making waves in Hollywood

Malaysian-born Adele Lim is living the television writer’s dream. Based in Los Angeles, which according to Lim is “where all TV writers are”, she is the current executive producer and co-showrunner of the new drama series Star-Crossed, with an impressive portfolio to boot.

Amongst the television shows she has written and produced for, are One Tree Hill, Private Practice, Las Vegas and Life on Mars.

In spite of her stellar achievements, Lim is unpretentious as she recounts her journey to Hollywood to The Leaderonomics Show.

“I always knew I wanted to be a writer,” shares the writer-producer. Her years living in the United States make themselves known in her accent, though a twang of Malaysian still shines through.

Writers know their kind, she explains. “You can always tell. In secondary school, you’re the person who is always writing the school play, who wants to write the article for the school newsletter.”

Lim’s own professional writing career began at The Star, where as a teenager, she maintained a weekly column. “I used it as a platform to complain about everything!” she shares. Even from an early age, she learned that in order to be at her best, she had to write things she was passionate about.

While Lim’s career is now firmly established in the television business, television writing wasn’t always on the cards.

After graduating from college in Boston, Lim’s initial plan was to return to Malaysia to head into copywriting and advertising.

“Then I met a cute boy in college who said ‘Let’s move to LA and try to get into television’,” she exclaims with a laugh. So they packed up and moved to Los Angeles.

The journey wasn’t straightforward, but the move certainly paid off. “I did a lot of crazy jobs, the way you do when you first graduate and you don’t have a lot of experience,” she adds.

Then a couple of years later, in 2000, she answered an advertisement for a writer’s assistant role for a television show, and got the job. “It was Xena Warrior Princess,” she shares.

Learning the art of television writing

In her role as a writer’s assistant, Lim learned valuable lessons about writing as part of a writers’ group.

“In a writers’ group, you need a free flow of ideas, so you can’t be shy about pitching ideas. Even if you think they’re bad, they might actually give another writer an idea that might be the brilliant, perfect idea for that script,” she says.

Being resilient and open to criticism are equally important. “Be very thick-skinned,” Lim explains, “Trust your instincts and go for it. Have enough self-confidence to be able to pitch your ideas and tell people why they are great ideas for the show.”

“The other reason to be thick-skinned, is that writers make fun of each other all day especially when we are trying to avoid work, which happens all the time!” Lim exclaims.

While there are definite up sides to her field of work, there are challenges as well. According to Lim, people don’t realise how much work goes into a television script.

Writers are restricted by budget and production, but must also meet the expectations of the studio and network. One final episode can represent months of work and have gone through numerous rewrites.

Perseverance is essential. “You get a lot of feedback from fellow writers, the studio and network and actors,” she explains.

“Sometimes actors say the lines and the story doesn’t work for them. You have to have the humility to acknowledge it’s not perfect, and make sure your script gets better with each rewrite.”

A writer’s job continues through production. “Writers are on the set a lot to make sure that what is written is being shot accurately,” she says. “It’s the writer’s job to project the integrity of the script.”

The challenge comes when actors want to deviate from what is written. At this point, writers must know their material to provide a good explanation to actors why the scenes are written in that way.

“If it’s a big name A-list person who is used to having things their way, then it may be a problem on set,” Lim explains. “You have to have a very good reason for every decision you make for a character. You can’t just say that you want them to say something ‘because it seemed like a fun thing to do’.”

“Actors take their jobs seriously. They want to know why they’re doing the things that they’re doing, so you have to provide a clear explanation,” she justifies.

The perks

However, Lim still gets a thrill out of seeing her scripts take life. “The great thing about being a TV writer is the speed at which things become reality. You come up with nonsense, like gangsters in front of a noodle shop. The next day, they’re casting gangsters and building a noodle shop. You put it on paper and then you have hundreds of people making it a reality!” she exclaims with delight.

Lim, who has found her niche in non-procedural, character-driven drama, cites Las Vegas as one of the most enjoyable shows she has been a part of. “You have a lot of actors and performers who wanted to be a part of it,” Lim explains.

In a two-month period on Las Vegas, she was able to work with the likes of Snoop Dogg, the Black Eyed Peas and Jean Claude Van Damme.

“I remember thinking ‘Wow, this is great. I get paid to do this!’ But at the end of the day, it’s still serious work,” she says.

Nuggets of wisdom

Lim’s advice to aspiring writers is to work on writing. “If you want to be a writer, you should write!” Lim exclaims. “Buy books about screen writing, watch TV shows that inspire you, see how they are written.”

According to Lim, most television writers are based in Los Angeles, so that is the best place to learn about the industry. “Get to LA, try to get a job as an intern, a personal assistant or a writer’s assistant,” she advises.

She suggests getting representation (managers to help you get a writing job), and emphasises the importance of continually working on writing samples for new materials and existing shows.

Meet showrunners too (the executive producer that hires all writers). “Look for showrunners that have similar sensibilities because you’ll be spending a lot of time with them,” she adds, explaining that this was how she chose her roles.

“But do it only if you’re passionate about it,” she affirms, “Don’t do it for money and glamour, even though these may be there. Go from a place of passion. If you’re a writer, don’t go seeking for the most commercial aspect of your writing. Become the best that you can be, and if there’s a market for it, they will find you.”