Friday, February 27, 2009

You Too Can Write Black Diamonds

Writing is like learning to ski. Your ass hurts and there's always snow down your pants. Wait, that's not right.

What I mean master the bunny hill, because all you really need to do is stay upright and you'll be at the bottom before you're able to gain enough speed to wipe out. It's not that you really know how to ski; it's that you can keep yourself alive until the slope evens out and gravity's on your side again. Then you try one of the big ones, and suddenly you're speeding down the hill, screaming like a maniac and wondering whose idea it was to strap giant pieces of metal to your feet and push you down a mountain. Finally you get intimate with a nearby snowbank (or tree) and realize that the bunny hill method of skiing is going to get you killed.

I used to write journalism and prose pieces, usually very short ones. I had certainly heard words and phrases like "rising action" and "climax" and "resolution," but I never really paid any attention to structure. Generally I could write enough clever dialogue and rich sensory description to keep readers engaged until the the end of the piece.

It doesn't work so well with writing scripts. Everything has to be planned out. Every beat must build to the next one. Every line must have meaning. And I knew this. But I think was in a bit of bunny hill denial.

So my next step is massive structure study. I am going to be watching and reading pilots nonstop, breaking them down, copying their moves and hoping that someday I just naturally think of perfectly structured stories.

(And for the record...I snowboard now. But that shit's so much harder to learn that you won't master the bunny hill til like day 3, and the analogy is just a mess...)

Also, I just saw the movie TAKEN. Logline: Liam Neeson brutally murders dozens of strangers to save his 16 year-old daughter from human trafficking (ignoring all the other enslaved women) so she can return to her superficial LA life. Yowza.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Party Down

Veronica Mars fans rejoice!

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Cowrite screenwriting contest

There's a new collaborative screenwriting contest called Cowrite. A movie premise has been posted on the Cowrite website and writers now have the opportunity to contribute to the developing story. The script will be written in ten page increments by aspiring writers throughout the world.

Every other week, the best ten-page script submission will be added to the developing story until the script is finished and ready to be sold. There will be eleven winners over the six month contest. For their ten-page contribution, each winning entrant will receive money and prizes totaling $3000, a pitch meeting with Benderspink and a chance to win the grand prize of a paid rewrite of the script. Winners will also share in any potential script sale proceeds.

Another exciting aspect of the Cowrite website is the "Pro's Take" section where professional screenwriters and industry professionals will offer comments and suggestions on the developing story as well as insight into how to get started in Hollywood. This mentoring program will serve as an invaluable tool for aspiring screenwriters and help guide the story along. Guest mentors will include screenwriters Andrea Berloff (World Trade Center), Jesse Wigutow (Irreparable Harm) and Josh Schaer (TV's Jericho).

This is believed to be the first screenwriting competition where the end goal is to try to sell a collaborative screenplay. Cowrite has partnered with The Los Angeles Film Festival and software companies Final Draft and Jungle Software, all of which will supply prizes to each of the eleven winners. For more information, go to

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Networking for Feature Writers?

Jason asks if there's a networking group like LA TV Writers for feature writers. I don't know of any of you guys? I guess maybe feature writers are too hermit-y for that kind of thing.

(And yes, I write features too...but I'm more social than like 90% of people on earth already.)

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Sunday, February 22, 2009


Thanks for the comments, dudes. I will try to incorporate your suggestions into future posts.

For writing tips - I don't really go there that often because I do believe that there are plenty of other resources out there, from professional blogs to books to podcasts to live panel discussions. I don't know if I'm really qualified to be sounding off about writing when none of my work has been bought or produced. But I can tell you what I hear, what I like, what I've learned, and what I struggle with myself.

I do love here's my take on that:

Make it short. Cut out as many words as you can. You probably don't need to start any of your characters' lines with words like "well," "so" or "anyway." Don't have your characters speak in perfect complete sentences. Let them interrupt each other. Remember WEST WING? God, that snappy Aaron Sorkin dialogue was so great. People hardly ever got sentences out. They also used to repeat words a lot, which was fun. Also remember that people rarely say what they're thinking or feeling. There might be a big confrontational moment in a later act where it finally comes out, but for the most part, people are not good communicators.

Listen to people speaking in real life. Sure, dialogue on TV and in film is cleaner and prettier (in real life, people say "like," "um," and "you know" a disturbing amount of times), but being a good listener will still help you be a better writer.

Think about what people DON'T say. MAD MEN is great for this - there is so much conflict created in those tense silences.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

What do you want?

I'm curious. What would you like to see more of on the blog? Topics I'm missing? Things you're dying to know?

Please comment.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Hollywood ASST

Everyone in Hollywood saw this video by lunch today. Shout out to Jesse, my fellow IC alum (that's his mug before you hit play). I was also amazed at the speed at which this was posted and passed around...a dozen people must have IMd it to me. I'm not rushing out to buy a miniDV, but we miss out on the instant reaction by just writing scripts and not producing things.

Also, it's pretty hilarious, and is so so true.

Hollywood ASST from Back of the Class on Vimeo.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

LA TV Writers networking event

Has it seriously been a month since the last one?

The next LA TV writers meet-up is tomorrow night 2/18 at the Falcon on Sunset in Hollywood at 8 pm. Hope to see you there!

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Support Reality Writers

Some friends of the blog wanted me to tell you about a rally this week to support reality writers:

Support American Idol Workers!

In 2008, the American Idol Truth Tour traveled across the country to expose the poor working conditions for writers and other workers on American Idol.

On Wednesday February 18, the Truth Tour comes to:
7800 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Genesee Gate

Rally & picket begins 3:30 pm SHARP

American Idol continues to be a ratings juggernaut, raking in huge profits for FremantleMedia, the multinational corporation that produces AI and other popular shows like America's Got Talent, Million Dollar Password, Family Feud, and The Price Is Right. Despite FremantleMedia's success, the corporation does not provide the writers who contribute to the success of these shows necessities like health care and pension!

As American Idol broadcasts live on Feb. 18th, join reality and game show writers, along with the Teamsters, Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice, Professional Musicians Local 47 and other community supporters outside CBS TV City to demand that FremantleMedia treat its writers with respect!

To RSVP click here. For more information, go to

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

2009 Rod Serling Scriptwriting Competition

My alma mater Ithaca College is hosting another Rod Serling conference and writing competition. Applicants must submit a 10-20 page script written in the same genre and style that would have been suitable to conform with episodes for either THE TWILIGHT ZONE or NIGHT GALLERY. More specifically this means displaying traits of either a horror or a science fiction genre, while exhibiting strong social themes. First place wins $250. The deadline is April 1, 2009.

For more information, go to the website.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Your Screenplay Sucks (Happy Valentine's Day)

Happy Valentine's Day or whatever. Today we celebrate by talking to Will Akers, a screenwriter, Vanderbilt professor and author of the book Your Screenplay Sucks.

What made you decide to write this book?

Beginners all make the same mistakes. I've been writing scripts for twentyy ears, teaching for fourteen, and critiquing screenplays for at least ten. People pay me a good chunk of money to critique their screenplays and I was beginning to feel either guilty or silly because I was saying the same things to every single person and I wrote the book so I could say, "Here. Do this checklist, then send me your script and we can talk about more interesting things than not having character names that rhyme or start with the same letter. Or your characters talk on the phone all the time, or they spend too much time in the microfilm room of the library, etc." The idea was, a writer could do the checklist, send the rewritten script to me, and we could talk about character, structure, and the more interesting aspectsof writing.

The book evolved as a way to get writers' screenplays past the firs tlayer of defense -- the reader. Readers have an unbelievably difficult job, an untold number of screenplays they have to process, and they are looking for two things at the same time: a great script...or a bad script. If it's a great script, it'll help their career. If it's a bad script, they can quit reading it and go onto the next one. The book gives people tools to keep them from making fatal errors (that beginning writers don'tknow about!) that stop the reader from reading.

What is your background in screenwriting?

I took screenwriting classes at USC. When I got out of grad school, I optioned a book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and adapted it. I gave the script to a friend who gave it to a friend who gave it to a friend who decided to finance the movie, and it got made. Since then, I've never stopped writing. I've had three screenplays made and have written almost countless screenplays that have not gotten made. I've written for television, I've written for studios, I've written for independent producers. I've been paid to write. I've written plenty when I didn't get paid. The interesting thing is, it all feels the same. It feels like writing. You have to enjoy it when you're not getting paid because if you don't, you won't enjoy it when you are getting paid.

What are some common mistakes rookies make?

Buy the book, and find out about all of them! The most common problem is people put the backstory in the first twenty pages. Often with beginning screenwriters, I say, "Just tear out your first twenty pages and write FADE IN on page twenty-one." You'd be amazed at how often that helps. One of my pet peeves is bad physical writing. People turn in a screenplay with incorrect grammar, poor spelling, unclear image order, incoherent sentences, and expect someone to spend between a hundred thousand and a hundred million dollars on what they've made up and put on the page. People use the verb to be way too much. Nothing shouts, "I'm an amateur" like fifteen is's on page one of your script. Beginning writers, because they've written short stories since they were inthe third grade, constantly take you into the character's mind. You cannot do this in a screenplay. You write what the camera can see. You can't have a shot of "Billy remembering the skates his grandfather gave him when he was nine years old" because the camera can only see Billy sitting there like a mope. Another huge problem is separating out the characters' voices. Often, writers' characters all sound like one another. or worse, just like the author. It's imperative that each character sounds only like themselves andno one else, and, in the best of all worlds, someone none of us have ever met. Remember how the girl talked in JUNO? Not like any other character inthe history of motion pictures. Diablo Cody won an Academy Award because she knows how to separate out characters' dialogue.

What would you say are the most important things to keep in mind when writing a screenplay?

Keep the story moving like a rocket sled on rails. Always rememberyour audience. Just because something seems interesting to you doesn't mean it's actually interesting. Run your spellcheck. Have incredibly compelling characters. They can't just be "sympathetic," they have to be fascinating! Tell a story you're dying to tell. Don't write a movie just because you think you're going to make a lot of money. You probably won't, so if you tell a story that means something to you, at the end of the process, you will have learned something. Enjoy writing when you're a failure, because becoming a success won't make you enjoy it any more. The most important thing to keep in mind? You have to have a greatstory. It can't be a good story, it can't be an okay story, it has to be a great story.

Any other important facts or interesting anecdotes you'd like to share?

People complain about the development process, but I've had pretty good luck with it. I've been fortunate to work with talented people whose goal was making the script better. I've never run into stupid political agendas, where people say that their idea is better than mine just to make themselves feel better about their wretched lives. The most important fact to share about screenwriting is... if you meet some "real," who wants to read your script, be sure you give it to them when it's absolutely, totally, positively, 100% perfect. They're not going to help you, or read it again, unless they think it's fantastic. They have so little time, that if you do find someone willing tor ead your script, give them the finest piece of work you possibly can, so stellar that it's going to make them look good if they give it to someone else. Don't hand someone a screenplay and say, "Thanks heaps for reading it. I've still got a little more work to do on Act Two." Sadly, the only two ways to know if someone actually liked yourscript are if they 1.) want to give you a check, or 2.) pass it off to someone else. Compliments, in Hollywood, or pretty much anywhere else, mean nothing. They can tell you they liked it, but if they don't give it to a director-friend, or a gaffer-friend, or an agent, or someone else in the industry, it means they didn't like it all that much. I get great fan mail about Your Screenplay Sucks!'s usefulness. I wish I could get every single person who's writing a screenplay to read it - not because I need the money, but because it's truly helpful. Check out the website:

Thanks to Will for his advice!

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Thinking of Clarence

I can't sleep. A plane crashed in my hometown tonight, six miles from my house. All 44 passengers and 4 crew members were killed, plus one person on the ground. News reports keep mentioning the nearby fire hall, where we all used to park when we hung out across the street at my friend's house. And now I'm reading dozens of Facebook status updates, people counting the miles. Seeing smoke. Praying.

It's all so surreal.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Small Screen, Big Picture

I've been meaning to review the book Small Screen, Big Picture by Chad Gervich for a long time. But you know, I've been really busy writing a feature with structural problems and doing Google searches for "how to make money without having a job."

It's a fantastic book. I have a degree in Television, and I wish I had learned more about this stuff in college. The difference between a studio and a network. What happens during pilot season. What an overall deal is. Why some shows stay on the air and some don't. It's the kind of thing you'll eventually learn by being an assistant in the industry - but this is learning it the easy way, and it gives you a lens into each kind of company, whereas each assistant position is its own little niche.

There are also plenty of modern examples and helpful quotations from successful professionals, from writers to producers to network executives. Though the subtitle is "a writer's guide to the TV business," I think the book is actually a must-read for anyone who wants to work in any aspect of TV. It's comprehensive but also simple and to-the-point.

And for more of Chad's thoughts on all things TV, check out his blog at Script Digest.

Coming soon: An interview with Will Akers, author of Your Screenplay Sucks.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Things I Love: Gossip Girl

Sometimes I love Gossip Girl and sometimes I love to hate it. But lately my glass of haterade is totally empty. Here's why:

1. Blair - and Leighton Meester - steal the show. She manages this delicate balance of heart and vindictive evil, and she has such a great sense of humor about herself. She's not self-deprecating, but she is somewhat self-aware, and it works.

2. Chace Crawford now smiles regularly. In season one, his constant model-like sexy scowl became tiresome, nearly ridiculous. But now Nate and Vanessa are rocking these great down-to-earth attitudes, and it's a nice contrast to the painstaking intensity of Chuck Bass. I like that Nate can sort of keep Chuck in check. I also really like his face. We're getting married.

3. Jenny's not a crazy whiny selfish unrealstically-successful-in-the-fashion-world bitch anymore. And there was even a line acknowledging her move away from the raccoon eyeliner.

4. GG just...goes for it. Yeah, we've seen the whole teacher affair thing (um, Pacey! Anyone remember the storm episode?), but never with, you know? Guitars up. Clothes off. Rock.

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