Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sex and the City: when TV is more than TV


The Sex and the City movie is already making gobs of money, which makes me quite happy. I was one of the hardcore fans who saw it at midnight on Thursday night, and I thought the film was touching and funny and lots of fun - but a bit long and too cutesy at times. In a way, though, the quality of the film is not the talking point here. I'm thrilled that first Juno and now SATC are proving that female protagonists CAN drive a box office hit. SATC is a whole different breed, though, and in a funny way it affirms one of the things I love about TV: a beloved, long-running TV show is more than just a show. It becomes ingrained in our culture. Women everywhere have befriended these four women, related to their boy problems, taken Which-Character-Are-You? quizzes on facebook. And it crosses generations; though Samantha celebrates her 50th birthday in the movie, plenty of moviegoers are 17 and 18 year-olds who were only 7 or 8 years old when the TV series debuted. The show has reached new audiences through DVD sales and syndication on TBS, and will likely live on for many years to come. It's funny, it's poignant, it's universal.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Just pick your show and start writing.

More on what to spec: I don't know. People have been asking me a lot about specific shows, and I hate to go on the record with some official answer when it's a question that gets such varied answers. So this is as official as I'll get:

Spec a show that's in its 2nd season or later - but be wary of anything that's been on for 5 or more seasons.

Don't spec a show that looks like it might be cancelled soon. This can be hard to tell, but if you check in with the trades (Variety and the Hollwood Reporter) every now and then, you should have a sense of it.

Spec something that demonstrates your best qualities as a writer - whether it's witty banter or plot twists or broad comedy. It should be the kind of show you want to get staffed on.

Most importantly, spec a show you love and that you're passionate about. If you pick a show because you think it's popular or commercial or the Right Thing To Spec but you don't enjoy writing it, then that will show through in your writing.

Otherwise, it's up to you. Pushing Daisies? I say sure, go ahead. But I'm not the all-powerful beacon of TV spec knowledge. I guess I know more now that I used to, though, or I wouldn't have written a spec of The OC between seasons 3 and 4. :)

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What to spec

First, deadline reminders:

June 1 - Austin Film Festival Teleplay Competition. Make sure you read the fine print about the separate title page and cardstock.

June 1 - CBS Writing Mentoring Program. A friend's boss is one of the mentors, so I have it on good authority that it's a very worthwhile program, and that they definitely consider women as a minority (woo!). I don't know if I'll be applying, though, because in addition to a spec, the program requires you submit either a play, short story or screenplay. Another CBS assistant who's applying theorized that they'll read whatever is shortest, so you're safe entering a crappy screenplay, but not a crappy short story. Hmm. I do have a crappy screenplay. But I don't really want to be sending out anything crappy, you know? I guess there's always next year.

A lot of you have been asking about what shows to spec, so I got some more advice, this time from one of the agency's tv lit assistants who also happens to be an agent trainee. First, though, please heed my advice that you should ALWAYS write something that you're passionate about, and not just try to follow industry trends. Also remember that every opinion will differ a bit. If you're on page 32 of a spec that's not on this list, it doesn't mean you should throw it out.

She says that current half-hour specs she sees are 30 ROCK, MY NAME IS EARL, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, some TWO AND A HALF MEN still, and occasionally CURB and ENTOURAGE. For one-hour, it's DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, GREY'S ANATOMY, UGLY BETTY and HOUSE, and she has also seen DEXTER a lot recently.

As for cable shows: It depends on the popularity and general social familiarity with the show. A couple years ago you saw a lot of WEEDS, but as that show is winding down, it's not much in vogue anymore. DEXTER is popular right now, as was THE SHIELD two seasons ago. As a rule she would stay away from big costume pieces like THE TUDORS - besides, the story is so lock step anyway. Although, she's starting to see MAD MEN pop up. That actually would be a good up-and-coming spec to work on.

And yes, it's too late for THE OFFICE. Some execs refuse to read them, even.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Some weekend thoughts

On Friday I picked up Season One of Greek at Target for $19.99 - and it could very well be the best $19.99 I've spent this year. Fricking love that show. After watching the long version of the pilot, I watched it again with commentary from the creator and EPs, Smith, Pillar and Segan. Commentaries aren't specifically designed to give you writerly insight, so they're often just heaps of compliments (our actors are so great! our directors are so great! this location is so great!) and fun facts like "that's my bike!" or "Jacob actually hit Jake in the face with that paddle because he didn't know he wasn't supposed to." But there were a couple of insightful moments in the Greek commentary, about the world Patrick Sean Smith hoped to create, the relationships, and the idea that he was setting up stereotypes and then peeling them away to reveal deep, complex people. Other pilot commentaries I've found to to have insightful moments include the Grey's Anatomy pilot and the OC pilot.

I've finally been making some headway with rewriting my college radio pilot, despite the fact that there was a lot of procrastination in the form of shoe shopping and dish washing and banana bread baking and scrolling up and down and staring at the screen without writing anything for a while. I finally just said I AM GOING TO WRITE THIS SCENE and I did it. Sometimes if a scene is too daunting I move onto one I really want to write, one that's easier because I can already hear the snippets of dialogue going back in forth in my head. And usually once it's out you feel so accomplished (even though you may tear it apart later), the other scene doesn't seem so daunting.

FYI, the banana bread was delicious (anything with half a stick of butter has to be, right?) and though truly Grecian sandals still elude me, I got some white shoes and silver shoes a sweet pair of pink/gold Steve Madden knockoffs for $14.99. Hott. Unfortunately there was no beach-ing as Southern California chose my ONLY VACATION DAYS as its ONLY CLOUDY/RAINY DAYS EVER.

Another realization I had while pilot-ing is that you can really do yourself a disservice by focusing too much on efficiency and not taking enough time to develop your characters and their relationships. I was so focused on plot that I cut a lot of these moments out of my original draft, only to make my writers group hate one character and fail to understand the relationships and motivations of several others. Now I'm going to minimalize my minimalism a little bit and throw it all down on the page, and snip out whatever seems to be too much in the realm of expositional cheating later. I am reminded of one of my favorite scenes in the OC pilot - when Ryan is getting dressed for the fashion show and Sandy comes and helps him tie his tie. It's a touching moment, where we see that Ryan has never really had a father figure (though neither of them come close to saying it), and Sandy sees himself in Ryan. Does it move the plot? Not really. If you cut it out, we could figure out for ourselves how he got from wifebeater to suit...and there is a similar moment when Julie criticizes her daughter Marissa's hair and dress choices. No huge plot advancement - just simple moments that delve into relationships, and really bring us into what the show is about.

Another thing I thought about is that pilots don't necessarily need to include huge plots with all the minor characters. Instead you might be just planting seeds for later in your hypothetical series. Someone's got a secret, like Jimmy Cooper and his money troubles. In Greek, Calvin's gay - but we don't see a confrontation or resolution yet, just the fact that he doesn't want anyone to know.

Lastly, I just want to mention how much I love Death Cab For Cutie. I know people have mixed feelings, but I am always so amazed the originality and poignance of Ben Gibbard's lyrics. The song on the new album that I've been listening to the most is "Your New Twin Sized Bed," in which he repeats, "You look so defeated lying there in your new twin-sized bed." A song about watching someone give up on love, manifested in their furniture choices. I just love how Death Cab songs always explore complicated relationships and emotions in unique, detailed ways. It's never I love you or I miss you or I hate you. It's Our-Love-Will-Never-Work-Out-Like-Long-Divison-Without-A-Remainder.

Gets me every time.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Summer TV Preview!

Some new shows:

In Plain Sight - Sunday June 1, USA
From the website: In Plain Sight is an all-new crime drama from USA Network starring Mary McCormack as Mary Shannon, a U.S. Marshal attached to the highly secretive Federal Witness Protection Program (WITSEC). While Mary loves her job, she knows better than anyone that it's not easy leading a double life—especially since getting shot at on a regular basis is all in a day's work.
A 22 year-old art school graduate takes a temp job at a laboratory and ends up in the middle of a bizzare science experiment gone horribly wrong. The handsome stranger who saves the day: The Middle Man. Based on the comic book by Javier Grillo-Maxuach, it's a quirky action story that looks like fun.

As for the returning shows I'll be watching:


My Boys - Thurs June 12, TBS

A simple comedy about PJ tomboy sportswriter in Chicago and her group of guys. I like because it's cute and funny, and manages to be a traditional sitcom without feeling goofy or outdated. The guys also have some nice specificity to them, and they're not all in love with PJ. It shouldn't be hard to jump in, but you can also catch all the previous eps online.


I need to catch up on some of season one, but I found the historical drama about ad executives to be really provocative and poetic. My criticism would be that it's hard to like protagonist Don Draper, who is unfaithful to his wife. We like Greg House despite his flaws because he saves lives for a living. But Don? He's a salesman. Still, the show is gorgeous and unique, and offers up plenty of social commentary about sex and gender.



I raved about this show a lot last summer. It's a slick action-comedy about a modern day McGuvyer-type spy who gets blacklisted and uses his skills to help everyday people, while trying to figured out who burned him. (From the website: He's got a pesky FBI tail, a violence prone ex-girlfriend looking for closure, and a hypochondriac mother calling him 30 times a day.) Tonally Burn Notice is similar to Chuck, but badass instead of nerdy. And let me point out that it came first. :) Jeffrey Donovan is great as the emotionally unavailable male-Veronica-Mars-ten-years-later kinda guy. The Miami setting also adds some fun.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Maggots don't test well. Dogs do!

Last night I went to another JHRTS event. This time it was a panel called From Pitch to Pilot: Exploring the Relationships, Writers, and Responsbilities of the Development Process. It featured writer Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars), producer David Nevins (president of Imagine), Christina Davis (SVP of CBS Network) and Jonathan Davis (SVP of 20th Century Fox). It was also moderated by CAA TV Lit/Packaging agent Kathy White - who was a really enthusiastic moderator who kept the talk on topic well. It was really interesting to hear all the different perspectives, each person a script or idea must stop at on its way through the pipeline. Highlights:

-Testing isn't always indicative of a show's success. CSI originally tested poorly because it was so gory; once they snipped it, it was great. "Maggots don't test well," Christina said. Rob Thomas chimed in: "But dogs do!"

-Pitching is really about conveying the heart of your story and its characters, not going through the story from Fade In to Fade Out. Christina explained that execs hear about eight pitches a day during the season, so you have to be able to jump in and tell your story in thirty minutes. You have to get to the heart of your idea and characters. Don't go through the plots of every act; if they go forward with your idea, they'll pay you for that part.

There was also a lot of discussion about preserving a writer's idea, and how it can be difficult to take notes from producers, studios and networks - though producers and studios really are your allies, trying to help you sell your idea to the network.

I think sometimes the downfall of these kinds of events is that the panelists are a little bit out of touch with their audience. I think the JHRTS crowd is very educated and many are aspiring studio execs or producers who understand how it works, rather than kids "fresh off the truck from Texas" (Rob's expression) - but still, I don't think a lot of us were sitting there thinking, oh man, how do I deal with conflicting notes from the studio and the network? How do I know which producers to trust? How do I approach casting my project? We are a few years behind that. We are thinking, how do I get an agent? How is assisting a producer different than assisting a studio exec? What do I do when studio execs don't call me and ask me to write screenplays because they like my young adult novels (again, Rob)? So that's where I hope I can bridge the gap a little. It's hard to go from clueless newbie to well-versed Hollywoodite. There are a lot of steps - and questions - in between.

By the way, I don't have to go to work til Tuesday. I took off, because I haven't taken a single sick day or vacation day since I began working in October. So I'm going to write, hang out at the beach, and go shoe shopping. And it's going to be everything I thought it could be.

Coming soon: Summer TV preview. Woo!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Forgot to mention...

That my friend Kat interviewed me for her blog. I don't really think I'm worthy of interviewing, but check it out if you want.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

NYTVF contest

I thought the NY TV Festival was just for produced pilots - but reader Matt just tipped me off to the fact that they have a script contest. You can enter online from June 2 - 13. It's free - and the prize is $25,000 and a development deal with Fox. The catch(es): your script must be an original half-hour comedy pilot (no hours, and no specs) - and it must not be submitted to any other contest.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Expensive lessons

It's been kind of a big week. Work was BUSY. We went out with a spec. And sold it. In like 2 days. The studio exec who bought it said that she came into work to find all her executives arguing about the script's plot. "How could she? He would! She wouldn't! How could they...!" And she knew that any script that got people so fired up was a movie, and a movie she had to make.

We sold it for the amount of money I will make in 25.6 years of being an assistant (and that doesn't even include the writer's producing deal). I guess the lesson there is to write write write so that I can start getting this writing career thing going. God, please let me not be rolling calls when I'm 30. (Speaking of = I saw a great play last night called ASSISTANCE at the Working Stage Theater, about being an assistant and the insanity that comes with it. Luckily my experience hasn't been as harrowing as the one portrayed onstage, but I certainly related to the internal struggle one goes through when her life becomes taking care of someone else's life.)

My boss did tell me that he couldn't have done it without me, that I was an integral part of the process and that I was really on the ball. That was nice. He also brought me back some candy from the candy store (turns out it's not a euphemism for coke!).

Meanwhile, upfronts laid out the slate of new shows for the fall. Variety's got a nice little schedule if you want to check it out. I'm interested to see 90210, LIFE ON MARS, KATH & KIM, THE OFFICE SPINOFF, SIT DOWN & SHUT UP and SURVIVING THE FILTHY RICH. Not a ton of exciting new shows, really.

From the comments - Dan says: ScreenPlayLab hosted an event in April where the head of the Disney Writing Fellowship program spoke. He announced that night that the deadline for applications is July 31, 2008 this year.

Thanks for the tip!

On a similar note, a few of you have asked whether fellowships and contests are worth entering. I think the answer is another equivocal Yes and No. The programs by ABC/Disney, CBS, NBC and Fox are all completely legitimate, and you can be sure that the execs are going to be picking people they want to be in business with. Thing is, they're all highly competitive diversity initiatives. You've seen my picture. I'm probably not getting in. The WB program is the only one not specifically for diversity - but it's also a one-night-a-week-thing that won't take the place of your day job. Still, I've met a writer (and heard of many others) who did the WB program and subsequently were staffed on WB shows. So it works.

As for Scriptpalooza, Script PIMP, Austin, etc. - I figure they're worth a shot if they seem legitimate. I think the goal there would be to use them to find representation. Up-and-coming managers and agents sometimes look at contest winners to find new clients. The contests are filters. They figure, if someone picked this script out of a thousand entries, they've just saved me from reading a pile of crappy scripts. Does a contest win guarantee you get repped? Definitely not. You may still have to write queries, and just drop the fact that you won. We got an unsolicited submission the other day from someone who won Austin, so it obviously didn't work for him (or it got him a really small-time agent and he's looking to upgrade). That's another thing to remember - getting an agent or manager doesn't necessarily mean you've reached ultimate success. It should definitely help - but agents and managers looking to take on brand new writers may not have the resources and contacts to get you staffed or get your material bought immediately.

Anyway, the contests are usually like $50. I figure it's worth a shot for the deadline and the possibility.

A lot of you have also asked for advice on what shows to spec. I'm still collecting intel, but so far I'm getting a different answer from everyone. For example, one TV lit agent assistant said that Grey's is totally out. Then a production company assistant said that her company only reads House and Grey's specs since they're staffing a medical show. For now, I'll say, write specs, write pilots, just WRITE. And don't worry so much about the show's current plot since your readers probably won't be caught up.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Meet the characters (you know and love)

One of the most challenging - and most exciting - things about writing original material is describing the characters. It's difficult, because you only get a few lines to create the image and personality of the people you want your readers to fall in love with. Plus, you have to walk that tightrope of how much background you get to give, and how deep you can go into things-that-can't-be-shot, the cardinal sin as decreed by all screenwriting teachers and books.

So I figured...why not learn from the best? I read the descriptions of my favorite characters from various pilots and thought I would share them. I hope you find them as inspiring as I did.

(And my girl-love of Veronica Mars is totally reaffirmed.)

---

We finally see the face of our heroine, VERONICA MARS. She is not cute. She is sexy. Tough. Prematurely jaded. Angelina Jolie at 17.

---

A FACE pressed against the glass. One of the most beautiful faces you’ve ever seen. But the first thing you notice is the soulfulness behind this girl’s gaze. Meet –

SERENA VAN DER WOODSEN, 17.


BLAIR WALDORF, 17.

Pretty. But will never feel beautiful enough. The sink runs. She wipes saliva from her lips. Rinses with mouthwash. A ritual. Checks her SIDEKICK on the counter.

Her eyes narrow. She inhales sharply. A siren has just sounded in this girl’s soul. She exits into –


CHUCK BASS, 17. Future Senator or cautionary tale.

DAN, 17, will be fine when he gets to college. That is little consolation today. JENNY, 15, isn’t waiting for college. Wants to be popular now.

---

Pull back through the picture window to where KENNETH a bright and chirpy (Clay Aiken type) NBC page is giving a tour.


JACK DONAGHY, 45, handsome and impeccably dressed

---

CAMERA FINALLY REVEALS NED'S FACE

Simultaneously handsome and awkward, about 30 years of age. Ned's lips are whistling but we don't hear a sound.

Ned runs his hand over the pine frame then lifts the lid, bathing the body of Charlotte Charles, aka CHUCK, in sunlight.

NARRATOR
Only Prince Charming could know how the Pie-Maker felt upon looking at her. Even in death she's beautiful, a woman yet very much the little girl he once knew.

NARRATOR (CONT'D)
Great thought was taken as to where to touch her. The hand too impersonal, lips too forward, the cheek... the cheek. Ned's finger closes in on Chuck's alabaster cheek and CAMERA JUMPS TO AN EXTREME-EXTREME-EXTREME CLOSE UP of his slow caress. A CRACKLE OF ELECTRICITY between finger and cheek.

---

GREG HOUSE, also 38, brilliant but scarred, wields the truth like a sword – and isn’t afraid to cut you. He walks with a cane and pain (the latter he hides, the former he wishes he could). He speaks and thinks quickly – and doesn’t wait for others to catch up. Wilson is his best friend, his only friend – though you’d be hard pressed to describe even this relationship as friendly. As House pops a pill in his mouth (something he does frequently)…

---

Michael Bluth (mid 30s, type A personality)

Lucille Bluth, the matriarch of the family, also staring off the ship, with a slight furrow.

---

CAMERA REVEALS CARRIE. Early thirties. Heather Locklear gorgeous cursed with the brain of Dorothy Parker. She takes a drag from a Marlboro and exhales.

MIRANDA HOBBES, mid-thirties, tall, thin, pseudo-attractive, angrily picks her way through a salad bar.

A pretty, feminine woman, CHARLOTTE ROSS (32), is cataloguing pieces of art, as she talks.

SAMANTHA (34)

---

KITTY MARCH. She is 30 today, beautiful, very appealing, politically right of center. She's the host of a radio show broadcast nationally on satellite.

BRYAN MARCH, 34, close-cropped hair, shockingly handsome but even more shockingly powerful. He is an Assistant US Attorney, but in his black power-suit he could just as easily be the head of CAA.

The hand belongs to JUSTIN MARCH. JUSTIN is thin, wiry, 27, intense, mercurial,
sharp, boyish, dangerous, innocent, and very guilty; part bad boy out of Salinger, and part Ordinary People. He sits on the edge of the bed - he hasn't slept.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

writers groups & contests

Amie writes: You mention your writing group a lot and I'm interested in how you found yours. I started one with some people at a UCLA class that I took and it was great but it's sort of falling apart. Any ideas on how to find a new (and more consistent group)?

I joined my writers group when someone read my blog and asked me to join one that she was starting with other bloggers. That was basically it. I'm afraid we aren't looking for new members right now (we have enough to read!), but since I know a lot of you are looking for groups, feel free to comment on this post and then maybe you can start finding each other!

Amita writes: are you applying to the ABC/Disney Fellowship? I want to send my application in within the next 3 weeks and I've been checking the site everyday but they haven't updated the date to be July 1st, 2008. I think the deadline stays the same every year but are you waiting for a new application before submitting? I called the number listed and all you get is a recorded (old) message. Also emailed and heard nothing back....

Indeed I will apply (link is to the right). I have no idea about the info...but I can offer the knowledge that it took them a while to get their site updated last year, too. And - many other fellowship/contest websites are lax in updating. The ABC/Disney program is definitely alive and well - I'm sure the info will be up soon (if you work at ABC feel free to chime in about the program).

Speaking of contests...thought you might want to know about a couple more TV script competitions I've discovered:

Austin Film Festival - June 1 deadline

Script P.I.M.P - May 15 deadline

Let's hope my good karma balances out all my new competition.

Write what you know ?

I'm sure you've heard the advice - to write what you know. But is it good advice? At the meeting we had to plan our screenwriting workshop, one of my fellow WriteGirls staunchly insisted that it is not - she said you should write what you WANT to know. Hmm.

I think to take the "write what you know" mantra too literally would be quite limiting indeed. We would have no science fiction, no surrealism, no tales of the past or the future.

But I do think that writing what you know can be a good place to start. The whole reason I started writing a pilot about a college radio station is that for my last TV writing class in college I wrote a pilot about law interns - basically Grey's Anatomy, but law. And I still think it's a good idea...but I quickly realized that I'm not David E Kelley, and I know nothing about law. It became a tortuous semester of research and the discovery that law interns do not have the same juicy involvement in cases the way medical interns do. So my structure of serial personal relationship dramas set against episodic cases did not work. I ended up writing 60 pages of well-developed characters doing very little. Maybe one day when I'm an Important Executive Producer I will revisit the project and hire lawyer-turned-writers to figure out the legal stuff for me.

So for my next pilot I said screw research, I'm going to write something I know completely: college radio. And though I'm still struggling with rewriting, it's kind of nice to write something I feel that I'm an expert about. In a way my challenge is that I have so many ideas, so many directions to go in, so many real-life experiences that I can pull from. If you're a beginning writer who's tackling structure and characters and dialogue for the first time, it might not be a bad idea to give yourself a break and write about something you already know a lot about. Plus, your unique perspective about growing up in your parents' hip hop clothing store in West Philly (like my new friend Kat) might be the exact thing that gets people talking about your fresh, unique voice. And you can always write that super-ambitious historical science fiction allegory next time.

That being said, please fight the urge to write a coming-of-age story about an aspiring writer searching for love and the meaning of life. :)

As for writing what you know...I think my official advice is to write the people you know, but put them in whatever jobs, situations, settings, time periods, etc. that you want. I see everyone as a potential character. Start in reality and then let your creativity take hold.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Stuck.

Sorry for the delay in posting. I wish I had a good excuse like writing my pilot or taking meetings with agents or burning 3000 calories at the gym. But alas, I have been accomplishing very little.

Except maybe watching TV. I mentioned before how much I love Greek. This past episode was one of my favorites of the season. The plot centered around Freshmen Parents Weekend, and it brought out some really nice themes of transitioning from the life your parents want for you to the life you want for yourself. It was also a plot that affected the relationships between Cappie and Rebecca, and also Rusty and Casey. I think that's one of challenges about writing that I'm still dealing with: creating plots that really demonstrate character relationships. Sometimes I find myself saying, okay, this is the plot, and that is what's going on with the characters/relationships. But they shouldn't be separate things.


Another thing that I love about Greek is that it's funny, yet sincere. Exactly the kind of show I want to write.


As for Gossip Girl. I dunno, man. Fake relationships. Two characters coming out. Sex tapes. Stupid creepy Georgina. Death (which, by the way, I saw coming with the phrase "innocent bystander" in the previous ep). A bit much for one episode, no? I still like the show, but you need to take a much bigger leap to buy what goes on in it than you did with The OC. On The OC, kids played video games, ate bagels with their parents, studied for tests, worried about saying the L word. I feel like Gossip Girl started out simpler (I even wrote a post about it), but has since gotten much more OMFG-worthy. I'm afraid that if it keeps outdoing itself every episode, it's going to be in shark-infested waters very soon.

Meanwhile, I'm sorta stuck with my pilot. I just feel like I have so much work to do and no idea where to start. I had an entire draft, then a revised one, then went back to outline stages, got some Big Notes and now am trying to redefine the A plot and decide what exactly will establish the characters and tone and concept I'm going for.


No big.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Notes

Dave commented a few days ago with this link about how NOT to succeed as a writer. I finally had the chance to click, and I found it to be very interesting and true. Although it's geared toward novelists, he's right: the advice works across the board. You can't make excuses. You can't act like you know everything. You need to listen.

So I thought I would write a post about giving and receiving notes on your work. It's a delicate art, and an absolute necessity for a career in writing. Writing is rewriting. If you ever get to the point of writing for TV professionally, you'll be dealing with notes from agents, managers, actors, other writers, producers, studios execs, network execs. Everyone will have an opinion. Sometimes you will be forced to adjust your script accordingly...but for the purposes of those readers who are Aspiring Writers - I though I might discuss what I've learned about receiving and giving notes from your class, writers group, friends, etc.

Rules for Receiving Notes:

1. LISTEN. Even if someone gives you a ridiculous, terrible note, just listen and nod and say okay. Don't be defensive. It's best to stay quiet while receiving notes (unless something is unclear, or you'd like to delve deeper into a topic). It's a waste of time to defend or explain everything about your script. If you had done a really good job, you wouldn't need to do either.

2. Don't take notes personally. Sometimes notes can be crushing. We all have those times where you think you've written the best scene of your life only to find out that it wasn't funny and nobody understood it and it was way too long. But it happens. Remember that there's a reason why you were passionate about this idea to write it down - it's just going to take work to make it the best it can be. Also, people often only make mention of the bad things, the things they think you should change. Negative notes don't mean that your script is crappy.

3. You don't have to take everyone's notes. Sometimes people give crappy ones. Sometimes notes conflict with one another. Think of every comment as a suggestion you may or may not take into account, a jumping-off place for your story to evolve how YOU want it to evolve. Keep in mind, though, that if several people give you the same negative note, you should probably rework something to remedy the problem.

4. Ask questions. Find out if your intentions came through across the page, if things were confused, if there are people or plots or scenes that readers particularly like. Sometimes the parts that you struggle with may not actually be the parts that readers had problems with - find out.

5. Get a few different perspectives. Don't drastically change your story based on notes from one person - you will only know what definitely needs work and what doesn't by comparing the notes you receive.

Rules for Giving Notes

1. Always include positive notes. I guess one might argue that if a script is 100% awful, you'd be doing the writer a favor by telling them so. But I'm too nice for that, and it's fair to say that nobody's opinion will be exactly the same. It's hard to receive criticism for something you worked so hard on...so set the writer at ease. Tell them what you liked.

2. Be thorough and helpful. Don't just say that something didn't work; try to tell the writer WHY it didn't work - or, on the other hand, why it did. Go ahead and suggest fixes, but be sure to phrase them as ideas and not orders. Sometimes these suggestions might be horrible, but cause the writer to think of a great idea in response. Yay!

3. Give general notes as well as specific ones. People want to know about specific jokes that were funny, lines that didn't make sense, etc. - but it's also good to evaluate the story in a bigger sense. Comment on character development and arcs, plot, storyline, theme, tone, etc. - these are all things the writer should be thinking about.


Kind of a dry post, I'm sorry. Perhaps in my next post I will talk about Gossip (OMFG!) Girl and Greek - my two Monday staples - and how I'm probably the only one who loves the latter more.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

questions answered

Carlo asks: Do you know or have heard of writers who lived in Canada and moved to L.A?


I like to think of myself as an honorary Canadian since I grew up 25 minutes from the border. I spent many a car ride listening to a staticky 102.1 The Edge and many a drunken night stumbling across Clifton Hill with other 19 and 20 year-old Americans. But for your question, I will refer you to my friend Jane, a Canadian-turned-Angeleno who just got a Visa.

Lilia asks: I was hoping, for a future blog entry, you might talk about your own writing process. How has it progressed now that you're in the know? Are there any HUGE mistakes you used to make that just tickle/embarrass you now? Any rec's on what show you should spec or is a pilot the best way to go?

I think a major thing that has progressed is how my scripts LOOK. Simply from reading professional scripts, I have a sense of what they look like - not just in terms of format, but also in how much description is appropriate, how long dialogue chunks and scenes should be, etc. This is all second nature to me now. For example, I know not to spend paragraphs describing what a room looks like or write action lines between each line of dialogue. I think specs should be even leaner since readers already know what the characters and settings look like. The more professional scripts you read, the more the standards will be ingrained in your mind.

Overall, I think my writing has become more efficient and focused on conflict and moving the story forward. Though it is still a natural habit for me to think of characters, themes and dialogue first, I wouldn't dream of starting a script before fitting it within a standard act structure of plot, conflict, etc.

As for spec vs. pilot - from what I can tell, they both work. The best attitude to have is that great writing is great writing. If you write a fantastic spec, it will open doors for you - and ditto for a fantastic pilot. Do what you're passionate about and what you can write the best. Also, don't discount plays or short stories. My friend works for two development execs at a tv studio and she says that her bosses often welcome the chance to read something besides a pilot or spec since they read those so often. In terms of your scripts, she says to avoid cable shows that not everyone has seen (Battlestar and Rescue Me were examples, I'm afraid) and shows that have been over-specced (I think The Office may fall into this category now). Some people get bogged down into making sure their plot is up-to-date, but that isn't as important as you may think; agents and execs often just watch enough to get a sense of what the show is about and haven't seen the most recent eps. Also, I don't think just one script will be enough to launch your career - so why not write a spec AND a pilot?

Another development assistant friend says her boss will find any reason she can not to read a script (not encouraging, I know, but it happens), including the script lacking a title page. She'll throw it out. So spend the 45 seconds it takes to make one.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Will you ever make it?

Matt writes: All I hear everyday from everyone I know is, " You're going to LA, that's so cool," but the subtext is, "You're so screwed, you're gonna quit within a year." How do you get past these moments of "I'm never gonna make it," that I know every writer has?

1. You have to be good.
Most of the professional TV writers who blog assume that all of their readers are great writers who just need a little guidance. I admire this and I see why they want to keep their blogs upbeat and focused on writing. But it's just not true. There are a lot of crappy scripts out there. And I'll be optimistic enough to say that maybe it's because people didn't get enough notes or do enough rewriting - and that some people are best at plot, some at characters, some at dialogue, etc. But you don't need a license or a degree or any experience to write a script, and as a result, everybody and their brother tries it out. I think the only kind of people you find more of in LA than writers are waiters. I mean, actors. Unfortunately, not everyone is great. If you write scripts and get only negative reactions from a large number of people for a very long time, you might want to consider doing something else.

1B. Who the hell am I to say this? Well, nobody. But I have been writing stories since I was in first grade, and I've always gotten praise. Either I'm decent, or my life has been filled with unreasonably positive people. Will I make it as a TV writer? Maybe, maybe not...but I know I'll always be writing in some way, whether it's on a show for decent money or on a blog for 20 cents a day in ad revenue. I just can't NOT write.

2. Give it time.
You mentioned giving up after a year...and honestly I think anyone who reaches the point of Getting Paid to Write Scripts in just a year is the exception to the rule, and a very lucky person indeed. I said before that the two steps to writing success are 1. writing something great and 2. getting someone important to read it (and like it). Both steps are essential, and both take time. Don't get in your head that you're gonna move out here and immediately get an agent, sell stuff and get staffed on a show. There are going to be lots of crappy apartments and menial jobs and cheap cocktails between you and your success.

3. Write.
It sounds ridiculous, but I can't tell you how many people I meet who tell me they want to be writers...and then when I ask them what they've finished or what they're working on, they say they don't have time because they work such long hours, or they have ideas in their head but nothing down on paper, blah blah blah. We've all been there - but don't kid yourself. Writers don't just talk about writing; they write. This is the catch 22 of getting a job as an assistant in Hollywood; you might be doing really well at step #2 (meeting those important people who can make your writing career happen), but if it prevents you from accomplishing step #1 (writing something great), you're doing yourself a major disservice. You have to find the time, whether it's on your lunch hour or all day on Saturday while you're hungover or whatever. Right now I have 10 months left on my desk at the agency. When I finish, I will have 2 specs and a pilot (and maybe a feature, too), in the hopes that I can become a writer's assistant or possibly get representation and just be a Writer. If I were to finish my year without scripts, I would be qualified to go answer phones at a production company or studio. That's it. I'd be on the path to eventually become a studio exec or producer, but I don't want that; I want to write. So I need to have scripts.

4. Use deadlines, and people.
I strongly recommend joining a class or writer's group for the feedback, the deadlines and the support of other people just like you. Or at least having a list of people you send your stuff to for notes. Everybody has their moments of doubt...but if you have people you've committed to send pages to, you'll work through it. You can reassure each other, share lessons learned and nerd out over BSG and Pushing Daisies. Writing can be a lonely art - don't get stuck in your own head.

5. Know that Real People Really Make Money Writing
One of the best things about working at a top agency is hearing the success stories. Some of the clients I talk to on the phone daily make over a million dollars to write a movie. They started out just like us...and they made it. I hear my boss and his cohorts make deals all the time. Yesterday during lunch my friend coordinated a conference call that resulted in an $850k spec sale. You write it, agents shop it, execs buy it, producers make it, people see it. Happens every day. Even the highest of studio execs are in the business of making movies and TV, not shooting down ideas. (And yes, this is a very optimistic viewpoint, but I think you have to believe in it at least a little bit if you're going to last around here.) Hollywood is full of Idealists Who Make Lots of Money - how do you think they manage to be both rich and staunchly Democratic? I honestly believe that if you follow all of the above steps with determination and patience, you'll make it too.

The Town Festival

We have an inside joke in my writer's group: whenever someone's script needs a little more plot, we suggest The Town Festival. In other words, a big event where everyone in your story comes together and finally confronts all the problems they've been dealing with throughout episode. In Brothers & Sisters it's always the family dinner. In the OC or Gossip Girl, it's a party, a charity fundraiser, cotillion. In Greek it's the frat/sorority mixer. In Friday Night Lights it's the football games and all football-related banquets. In Gilmore Girls it really is a town festival. I could go on and on. Some shows don't really need them, because their settings always keep their characters in close proximity (hospitals, offices, schools, homicide beats, etc.) - but if your characters are not all living or working together, events can be fun (and often visual) ways to get your characters together - and incite conflict.

That's not to say you should impose some kind of unnatural event on your characters. But what is the natural thing to happen the world of the show? How does everyone prepare? What confrontations occur? How does the setting affect the plot and characters? The Town Festival in its literal sense is a joke - but I think the concept behind it is very useful.