Friday, January 31, 2014

LA FIRSTS: Cody Lyons

LA FIRSTS is an interview series at ATW&SB that shines a spotlight on just a few of the countless people who make the brave and absurd decision to move to Los Angeles to write for film or TV. We talk about what got them packing boxes, the realities that hit when they first came to L.A. and important milestones they finally achieved.

Cody Lyons is a creative exec at Outlier who's also working on his own scripts.

When did you first decide to move to LA? What made you decide to go for it?

I'm from Washington State. I met some friends in there who were from the LA area and were moving back. It was a now-or-never situation.  I had been saving money and writing scripts prior, but had no real plan of execution until they told me they were moving back.

Where/What was your first apartment like?

I jumped around the Long Beach/Orange County area for a year or two.  I've lived in Fullerton for a few years now.  Everyone asks about the commute, and while it's impossible to figure out LA traffic, it's not too bad. I feel living in Orange County keeps me sane, while at the same time I sometimes wonder if I'm missing out on making LA friends or networking opportunities.

What is it about Orange County that you like better than LA?

Where I live in Orange County it just seems easier to get around. I can run to a store or grab food and not have to deal with the kind of traffic you would have to deal with making a short trip down La Cienega. Parking is also quadrillion times easier in Orange County.

I can also go out and have drinks and not have to worry if I'm at the best place for networking or the trendiest spot.

What was your first industry job? How'd you get it?

I moved to the LA area at quite possibly the worst time: the writer's strike. I applied for every industry job that I saw an ad for and went a couple interviews, but had no bites. I had saved more money than any other time in life when I made the move, but it was dwindling fast.  So, I took another job and then fell into a place where I was comfortable, but soon realized I wasn't going to accomplish anything without taking a chance.  I was able to get an internship at a new production company and was later hired on as a creative exec.

Do you remember reading a particular script that inspired you or made you think you had to be a writer? 

It wasn't necessarily a script. I started writing a novel my freshman year, but gave it up pretty quickly. I then floundered through high school without any real direction. It was the spring after I graduated--everyone in my incredibly boring criminal justice class was talking about something in a hatch--could it be parallel universe, a Nazi bunker? That's when I discovered LOST.  I had to find out who created this show and how they went about it. There were no film classes at my local college, so I bought every screenwriting book I could get my hands on and ponied up for Final Draft 7.

What was your first celebrity sighting or a time you saw/met someone you admired?

I had lunch with Kyle Killen (Mind Games, Awake) we had exchanged a few emails and I asked him to lunch. At that time in my life I was basically just writing pilots, sharing with my screenwriting group and putting them in drawers. He basically lit a fire under my ass and said I had to get into the industry in some way. That's when I started looking into the internships.

I also almost ran over Ed O'Neill at Counter Burger in Santa Monica.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Three new screenwriting books for 2014

It's been a few years since my 2011 post about the best screenwriting books (and my 2012 update), so I thought I would write a post about three new books that have hit the market. My philosophy about screenwriting books is that you should read whatever interests you and take away any advice you find helpful, remembering that there is no shortcut to a great script, and no absolute rule you must follow. Screenwriting books cannot replace professional scripts (read some!), and at some point, you need to just start writing -- but books can help you learn how to analyze movies and professional scripts, and guide you through writing your first few screenplays.

Screenwriting Behind Enemy Lines: Lessons From Inside the Studio Gates by John Schimmel

I was really impressed with John Schimmel's book. First off, he has a lot more experience than many other screenwriting book authors, and provides a unique perspective since he worked as a development and production exec for Warner Brothers, Paramount Studios and Ascendant Pictures. Beyond that, he has written a practical guide with thoughtful analysis of concept, structure, character, dialogue and plot. It doesn't get philosophically lofty, but doesn't gloss over difficult concepts, either. I also liked the way he stressed that writers must acknowledge that they're trying to sell to a difficult marketplace, but shouldn't shy away from trying to SAY something (their "Truth," as he calls it). He discusses the importance of concept, and doesn't discuss craft in a vacuum - after all, you're trying to sell something. He also offers a lot of specific breakdowns of films (everything from The Fugitive to Transformers) and anecdotes from other professionals. It's a good book for beginners, though I don't think it's too basic for people who have written a couple scripts.

150 Screenwriting Challenges by Eric Heisserer

What good is a bunch of screenwriting advice if you don't sit down and write something? If you need to get your hands dirty to learn about a concept or if you're simply feeling stuck in your writing, check out this unique book of screenwriting exercises by pro writer Eric Heisserer (Hours, The Thing, Nightmare on Elm Street). He offers challenges in dialogue, character, scene, writer's block and more. Flip to a random page to do a free-write, or use the challenges to improve a specific skill or a weak part of your script. These challenges can be a jumping off point for a brand new idea or a way to reinvigorate a script that's been through development hell. They're simple and varied, without a bunch of flowery language you don't need. It's only a couple bucks and definitely worth it!

Screenwriting 101! by Film Crit Hulk

If you want to dig deep into the art of storytelling and screenwriting craft, check out this affordable and thoughtful book by Film Crit Hulk, who has written for Badass Digest, The New Yorker and EW. If you follow him on Twitter, you probably already have a sense of his style: passionate, reflective, analytical and yes, a bit long-winded. In the book, he covers everything from "The Modern Difficulty of Relativism" to how to format a slugline, so there's, um, kind of a LOT -- but he's offered a specific table of contents that helps direct you to what you most want and need. (Sections within chapters are also fairly short and concise.) The book also features plenty of discussion of specific titles, and will offer lots of ideas and directions for your ongoing study of film. If you want to dive into a book that mixes screenplay basics with a deeper discussion of WHAT IT ALL MEANS, definitely check this one out.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

LA FIRSTS: Alison Stevenson

LA FIRSTS is an interview series at ATW&SB that shines a spotlight on just a few of the countless people who make the brave and absurd decision to move to Los Angeles to write for film or TV. We talk about what got them packing boxes, the realities that hit when they first came to L.A. and important milestones they finally achieved.

Alison Stevenson is a writer and comic originally from LA who recently moved back to the Southland in 2012. She has written for VICE and Uproxx's Filmdrunk, and recently developed an animated pilot with Workaholics co-creator Connor Pritchard. You can find her on Twitter at @JustAboutGlad.

When did you first realize that you wanted, or needed, to move to LA?

Well, this is a weird one for me because I am actually from LA. I left when I was 18 to go to UC Davis and then kind of hung around the bay area because I really did not want to go back to LA (home). I got into stand-up comedy (almost completely by accident), and after doing that in the Bay I figured that the move to LA was inevitable so I might as well get it over with.

What was the first thing you did when you arrived?

Well, I moved back home to live with my mom so the first few months was filled with a lot of wallowing in self-pity. I hit up as many open mics as I could, tried finding a job, and wrote.

How did you find your first LA apartment (and what was it like)?

I moved into and apartment about a year after living with mom. My friends from college offered me a spot, and now I live in a beautiful spacious living room complete with curtain walls, and no closet. Okay, this is sounding a lot sadder than it really is. I'm in Studio City, and have grown to love this neighborhood. I love any neighborhood where a thrift store and comic book store are within walking distance. Okay, maybe this is still sounding pretty sad.

How did you find your first job in LA?

I tried doing the whole “find a job in the industry” thing but was just being offered stupid unpaid internships for people who suck. I interned for a day for this woman who wanted me to help her organize a beauty pageant, and just could not handle it. I also figured that a PA job would be full-time, and if I got one it would be a lot harder for me to find writing time, and stand-up time. That's also probably me making excuses for my overwhelming laziness but I have never been good at time management, sticking to a schedule, having a lot of energy, or any of that responsible adult shit.

What was that first job like?

My first that I stayed with for longer than a day was for a website. In fact, I still have it. Other than my freelance gigs, this job requires me to go into an office and help run the site.

What was your social circle like when first arriving in LA?

My social circle was mostly my mom taking me to the mall and begging me to lose weight. I also hung out with some old friends from high school. When I wasn't trapped in the hell that is my hometown of Woodland Hills I would hang out with other comics, and the random friends I made at events. It's a slow process, but eventually you find yourself surrounded by a good group of people you can feel close to, and watch Netflix with while getting drunk off of expired wine.

What was the first time LA felt like home?

I became a regular at a bar.

What was the first time moving to LA felt like a mistake?

I became a regular at a bar.

Did you have the kind of writing time you expected when you first got settled?

I had a lot of time on my hands, which was kind of a bad thing. I had no job, not a lot of friends, and all the time in the world, yet still found it difficult to find writing time. Mainly because I would spend the day watching Ally McBeal for six hours straight. Having copious amounts of free time is both a blessing and a curse. I much prefer my schedule now. I have been forced to learn how to balance my time more wisely. I'll admit, I still suck at it but I'm learning. I've cut it down to three hours of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

What lead to your first bit of exposure as a writer?

Getting the opportunity to write for Filmdrunk and for VICE. Filmdrunk came first, then VICE followed shortly after. I would contribute to smaller blogs, and write on my own blog but these were the first sites where I knew I was definitely dealing with more than ten readers.

How much longer did that exposure take from when you first expected it?

Well, I admit that I got really lucky when it came to both those opportunities. I still don't think I have a huge amount of exposure. Funny enough, both opportunities came through stand-up. I don't know what the advice is there. Do with that what you will.

Monday, January 13, 2014

LA FIRSTS: Delayna Michelle

LA FIRSTS is a new interview series at ATW&SB, shining a spotlight on just a few of the countless people who make the brave and absurd decision to move to Los Angeles to write for film or TV. We talk about what got them packing boxes, the realities that hit when they first came to L.A. and important milestones they finally achieved.  

Delayna Michelle is a writer from Virgina who moved to Los Angeles in 2011. She now works as the executive assistant to the showrunner of Seth MacFarlane's American Dad. You can find her on Twitter at @DelaynaMichelle and a contributor of, an anthology of lies, deception and lessons learned--a website created for the sole purpose of inspiring a more truth-filled world.

When did you first realize that you wanted, or needed, to move to LA?

I didn't admit to myself that I wanted to be a writer until I was 26. Later than most people, I think. I had a good job, had a good group of friends, lived in a nice apartment...and I was completely miserable. I visited L.A. when I was 29 and it was the first time I felt I belonged somewhere. Going back to Virginia was the most depressing moment of my life. It was like I had seen the world in color for the first time when I was in California, and my life in Virginia was in black and white. With my 30th birthday approaching, I decided I couldn't live like this anymore. There was no point in living a life that was, in my opinion, mediocre. I didn't want to die wondering, "what if." So, I quit my job of seven years, gave away most of my belongings and moved in with my parents for about 8 months so I could save some money to move.

How did you friends and family react when you first told them you were moving?

I'm one of those people who doesn't really like to tell people what I want. Carrie's mother's voice starts screaming in my head, "THEY'RE ALL GOING TO LAUGH AT YOU" and I clam up. So, naturally when I started telling people that I was going to move to L.A. to pursue screenwriting, they were shocked. And I think no one really believed I would do it. I'm pretty shy and scared of a lot of things (like dying alone without cats), so this was completely out of character for me. My parents were definitely hesitant to offer their support. I think the thought of me living so far away scared them. But when they saw how determined I was, they changed their mind. And like my dad told me before I left, they "just wanted me to be happy."

What was the first thing you did when you arrived?

Cried. Isn't that what everyone does when they realize they left everything behind to chase an impossible dream?

How did you find your first LA apartment (and what was it like)?

A friend from high school had made the move to L.A. almost a year prior to me, and she told me there was an opening in her apartment complex in Koreatown, which is pretty central to most of things. (Except the beach. Nothing but the beach is central to the beach.) I applied and that's where I ended up and still live. It's a studio (good luck trying to find a one bedroom for a reasonable price) and I pay for a parking spot. (Good luck finding an apartment where parking is included. You'll most likely have to street park and that can be torture.) It's pretty quiet and I have a great view.

What was your first LA neighborhood like?

I live in Koreatown, but it's like, the very beginning of Koreatown, and pretty close to Hancock Park where all the mansions are. Turn one way and you're in the lap of luxury. Turn the other and you have no idea what anything says because it's all in Korean characters. Keeps things interesting.

How did you find your first job in LA?

I have a degree in environmental science, but I didn't move 3000 miles across the country to do that again. I wanted to work in "the industry." Unfortunately, most of the time, working in the industry is all about who you know, and I didn't know anyone. EXCEPT, I did have a producer of a couple of my favorite TV shows following me on Twitter. I took a deep breath, and direct messaged her, asking if there were any openings at one of the shows. I thought for sure I was going to get blocked. To my amazement, she said to send her my resume. OMG! It was all very kismet because a couple of PA positions had just opened up. I interviewed and got a job as a production assistant to the writers of American Dad!

What was that first job like?

Being a production assistant is both awesome and sucky. On the one hand, you're paid very little. After taxes, you're starting out on a little less than $500/week (and I work on a network show. Cable shows could pay less). And living in LA is VERY expensive. I have to ask for money from my parents at least once every couple of months (I'm lucky I have them. I don't know how I would have gotten out here or survived living here without their help). Your hours are long and unpredictable, and you have almost no time to work on your own stuff. And that's just for an animated show. A live show is worse.

But on the other hand, you're in! Your foot is in the door and you get to know a lot of insider information about the ins and outs of Hollywood. You make connections and get valuable advice from people who have been where you are and are now at the top. Not to mention, you're learning first-hand about making a TV show. And you see celebrities! I met Pamela Adlon recently and it was like, the highlight of my life. I love her.

How did that first job help you land on your feet/expand your social circle?

I took my job as a sign that I did the right thing in moving out here. I got my job after only 2 months (unheard of). And since you're working long hours with people, you get to know them pretty well. It's like having a nice little niche where you feel like you belong. Awww. Yay.

What was your social circle like when first arriving in LA?

I knew a couple of people from high school and a couple of people from college when I first moved out here. So I wasn't completely alone. And my high school friend lived down the hall from me for the first few months. I think if it weren't for her and her husband pushing me to get out, I would have just stayed in the corner of my apartment, rocking back and forth, wondering what the hell I just did. Thanks, Katy!

What was the first time LA felt like home?

I think it was my 31st birthday. I had been out here for about nine months, and I went out to dinner with a few guys from work and their girlfriends. It was good food, good people, and I felt happier than I had in a really long time.

What was the first time moving to LA felt like a mistake?

Every bad day I have at work. It can get so frustrating. You feel like you're never going to make it. Every time you're passed over for a promotion, or mess up and get yelled at makes you wonder why you're knocking your head against the wall, trying to make it in such a harsh industry. And L.A.'s a tough city to live in. It can feel like everyone's against you (especially driving. Everyone's against you when you drive).

How did you move past that first time feeling that?

I still feel that way every now and again. Like I said, those are on my darkest days when I feel like nothing's going my way (or I'm majorly PMSing). But it always passes. I think about moving back to Virginia and every cell in my body revolts at the idea. If you feel like you can't go back, the only thing to do is to just keep pressing forward.

If you could do it all again, which of your firsts in LA would you do differently (and why)?

I honestly don't think I would do anything differently. I followed my gut for the most part and everything worked out pretty well. It could have gone much worse, but I don't think it could have gone much better. I'm in a great position, I have great friends, and I'm happy. It's like Joseph Campbell said: "Follow your bliss and don't be afraid...doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be."

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Is it possible to be a screenwriter and have a family?

Emma writes: My dream job is to be a screenwriter, but I have heard so many rumors about it. I know it tough business to get into but that's not what I'm worried about. My main worry and the rumor that freaks me out the most is that you don't get to have a real social life outside of work. I was wondering if you could tell me if that is true. I'm not the type of person who goes out clubbing every night, it's more the idea of having good friends and spending time with them on the weekends and one day having a family. 

Actually, the fact that it's a tough business should worry you. In 2011, only 2,338 members of the Writers Guild of America West reported that they made money that year, down 2.3% from the previous year. Given how many people are trying to be writers and how many people have once sold something, that's a tiny, tiny number. It's even a smaller number of writers who can make an entire living on screenwriting alone.

What it boils down to is this: if you're one of the few people who makes it as a screenwriter, then yes, you will have the time for a family (and perhaps more importantly, the money for child care). Feature writing is probably the most flexible, since writing can be done anytime at home, and meetings can be moved around.

On TV, If you're a showrunner, you make the rules, and can bring your kids along. From The New York Times' 2013 profile of SCANDAL creator Shonda Rhimes:
As part of her Shondaland production company, Rhimes oversees some 550 actors, writers, crew members and producers, and her days are optimized to do so. In the morning, she gets her older daughter, Harper, who is 10, off to school and then contends with whatever is most urgent: writing, giving notes on a script and watching casting videos. The televisions in her office and home are connected to a system that allows her to watch real-time editing by her editors. Both of her daughters have rooms across the hall from her office at work. The younger, a perfectly chubby-cheeked 1-year-old named Emerson, comes in every day, clambering onto Rhimes's lap during meetings.
Unfortunately, most writers - even pro ones - will never reach Shonda's level. If you're not the boss, it's tougher. You can't just bring your kids into the writers room, and although I've heard of some showrunners letting their writing staffs go at 6 pm, others make them stay until midnight. It just depends on the showrunner and the show.  One upside is that TV writing gigs aren't 52-week-a-year jobs; you'll have a hiatus at some point. One downside is that even if you are talented and lucky enough to sell a movie or work on a show, there's no guarantee you'll work again the following year. It might help to have a spouse with a more stable career.

What's probably a more important and relevant consideration for you is that you won't be a full-time working writer (in features or TV) for a long time, if ever. In the meantime, if you try to make connections and work your way up by getting a job as a production assistant, showrunner assistant, script coordinator, etc., you might have to work long hours, and you won't have the authority to make your job flexible. Even writers assistant jobs, which are coveted and competitive, require you to work for hours typing up notes after the writing staff goes home. Also, many lower-level industry jobs also pay very little, meaning that if you have kids, most or all of your salary could go to childcare. Plus, you'll need to spend a lot of time outside of work writing samples on spec.

Plenty of professional screenwriters have families and social lives. It's getting to that level of professional writer that's the problem.