Chocolatey delicious advice for wannabes

As promised, I'm back to share the best bits from the pinnacle, the zenith, the apogee, of the whole Screenwriting Expo 2007 experience. No, it wasn't the lunch. It wasn't the free Celtx USB key. It was, my virtual friends (and real Mom)...

...the extraordinarily peppy Bill Lawrence.

One would think that, after almost 15 years in the business, a writer might be a little cynical. But if there's cynicism brewing in Bill's breast, he kept it well hidden at Expo. He was funny, sincere, and brimming with chocolaty delicious advice for TV-writing babies everywhere.

Plus, after spending an hour-and-a-half on stage entertaining everyone, he exited, followed by at least 30 people (including me) who wanted to get some face time. Bill stayed in the hall for another 45 minutes, until he had shaken hands with all of us and answered all of our questions.

How sweet is that?

So here we go, reissued and repackaged, advice from Bill Lawrence filtered through me and delivered to you.

On career lows
Bill was fired from his first four writing gigs. That's right - four! Talk about discouraging. Instead of quitting to become an embittered New York cabbie, he went home, shed a few tears, and vowed to make some changes. Apparently, as a young writer, he'd had a bit of an attitude in the room. It led to three of the four firings (he deftly skimmed over the details of his departure from Friends). On his fifth job, Bill went in reformed, and he's been a mega-success ever since. So leave the attitude at home, in your closet, on that top shelf that never gets dusted – it will only kill your career if you bring it out to play.

On being a TV writer
It's clear the Bill loves loves loves being a TV writer. This pretty much sums it up:

"If you ever hear a TV writer complaining about their job, you have my permission to kick them in the face."

On working with his wife
Christa Miller, Bill's wife, plays the snarkodelic and irresistibly hilarious Jordan on Scrubs. He says he decided to cast her because "that's pretty much what she's like". Also, he's, like, the only guy in North America who gets to tell his wife where to stand, what to say, and what to wear. Of course, that only applies at work. She chose his outfit for Expo.

On directing TV
Bill says that the whole cast hates it whenever he directs an episode – and he hates it too. "You have to sit there while everyone does each line like seven times. It's so boring!" Every time he has to direct, he tries to go in with a good attitude – this time he'll work hard and do a great job. About 15 minutes in, he's lost interest completely and just wants to run back to the writers' room where everyone is having fun.

On writers' assistants
When my turn for face time came, this is what I asked: "Do you think that the only way into the business these days is by becoming an assistant and working your way up the ladder?"

"Absolutely not," says Bill. He told me that if he was getting into TV writing now, he'd take all that time he spent looking for an assistant gig and channel it into finding representation. Though he's heard of shows that promote their assistants to staff writer jobs, he doesn't really think it works, because in the eyes of the other writers, that person will always be an assistant, not an equal member of the writing staff.*

He also talked, during the event itself, about Scrubs' enviable writer training program. The show hires a new assistant each year. That person spends a year working as an assistant. The next year, they are given an episode to write. Once their episode has aired, the entire staff helps them find an agent, and they are sent out into the world, produced script in hand, blinking their wide brown eyes at the wonders they behold. Wait, he didn't say that last bit – I just got a little carried away marveling at the brilliance of it all.

Every show should adopt this policy. What could be better than getting a year of training in an actual writers' room, then being given a credit and the help of a gang of mentors? It's ideal. C'mon, all the other shows in the world, get with it. Adopt The Scrubs Method now!

Slacker excuses
Too much schmoozing, not enough writing. My Bones is a sad, lonely, and neglected creature. But now I'm ready to feed it the finest oats and curry comb until it shines with a virile glow.

*I discussed this with a fellow TV writer, who also works as an assistant on a real, live sitcom. He didn't agree at all. He knows a couple of assistants who have been transformed into fragile baby-writer butterflies, and they're getting along like ice in a freezer (FYI - that's good. Ice likes it cold).

So there you have it. There are no definitives in this business, but that's why we love it.

Fact: TV writers rule

You know, I do believe writers are the finest people in the world. And among those people, TV writers are the finest of the fine.

Upon what do I base this massive generalization, you ask?

Screenwriting Expo 6, I answer, quite emphatically. I'm not sure what the emphasis is for, it just sounded good, and since this isn't a script, I don't gotta cut it. So ha!

Sorry. My brain is fuzzy and smudgy from spending four days in an airport hotel.

OK, focus.

Even though I got free Expo admission because I was a finalist (no, I'm not done bragging about that yet), I'm so glad I decided to volunteer at the Expo. Not only do you get free lunch and free parking, even on the days you're not working, you also get to meet hundreds of writers, volunteers, guest speakers, hotel staff... I'm a bit of an introvert, but when everyone around shares a common interest and everyone is so darn nice, smiling, shaking hands, and having a bit of a chit chat is actually fun. I highly recommend volunteering for next year's Expo if you're in the area.

I ran into the winners of the competition in the TV category – in Drama Frederick Kim for Lost and in Comedy Brian Lubocki & Ryan Harris for Family Guy. Brian and Ryan also got into the finals with their Desperate Housewives and got into the finals last year with their screenplay. Frederick was telling me about other comps he's won in previous years with other specs. Talent coming out the yin yang, and all three were super-nice as well.

See? TV writers rule.

More proof, which I will detail in my next post, came in the shape of Bill Lawrence - possibly one of the most enthusiastic and generous writers on the planet.

But before we get to that, here are my Expo highlights and lowlights, including some nuggets of wisdom I'm sharing with all y'all.

Speaker highlights
Richard Walter – Attitude vs Gratitude: Strategies for Securing an Agent
I wouldn't say Mr Walter's workshop was particularly on topic (it should have been called: How Not To Be Your Own Worst Enemy), but it was damned entertaining. The mail bag portion, in which Mr Walter read letters written to him from rage-filled writers was hysterical and shocking in equal measure.

I managed to take away one sweet nugget of advice:

Write to a few writers you admire, tell them why you like their writing, and ask them a question. The theory is, as a writer, they won't be able to resist writing back, and before you know it, you have a connection.

My additional advice on this subject: Don't pick a "famous" writer, like Shonda Rhimes or Jane Espenson. Choose someone slightly more obscure who probably doesn't hear from their adoring public on a regular basis.

Heather Hale – Power Networking
Yes, another networking seminar. You see, I know a lot about writing, so the writing seminars all seemed to be a rehash of things I've heard 100 times already. Networking, on the other hand, is a topic I know ziggledy squat about. I used to think of networking as an inherently despicable yet unavoidable activity. After Ms Hale's workshop, I came away thinking networking might be kind of fun.

Her advice was all about follow-through. Meet someone nice at a conference? Send them a card the next day saying "Hey, it was great to meet you." Maybe ask them a question you simply must know the answer to, or send them something they might find interesting. Just like Richard Walter said, that person may be interested enough to write back. After a while, you have a connection.

Heather also emphasized the following: BE SINCERE. Don't write to someone just because they could help you, even though you found them to be an irritating ego-maniac. Write to them because you're truly grateful for their advice, or you want to share something you think they will find valuable. I used to think networking was all take, take, take - blech. Now that I understand that it can be about building a mutually beneficial relationship, I have renewed respect for the process.

Biggest disappointment
Tim Minear – Breaking the Story
He canceled. We were sad. Poor Tim, he had a nasty case of the flu, and while we wouldn't have minded him sneezing on the front rows, I guess it's probably better that he stayed home. Still, this class is supposed to be a blast, and as one of the few TV events at the Expo, the ticket-holders were most bummed. A few enterprising people suggested we stay and break the story anyway, so that we did. About 8 of us hung out, breaking the Firefly episode that would have taken place right after Serenity. I think Tim would be proud.

The one thing I really didn't like about Expo? TV Writers seem to be second-class citizens there. First, there are only a few workshops specifically designed for us. But most importantly, the winners of the TV Category got $1,000 each. That's it. Not bad, until you consider that the genre winners in movies each got $2,500 and the overall winner got $20,000.

We TV writers really need our own festival.


TV conventions that make you go arrrgh

You know what I hate?

Three characters are chatting alone in a room on any given TV show. One character moves off to the side, you know, about six feet away. The first two characters start talking about some deep secret that the third character doesn't know. For some reason, despite being JUST RIGHT THERE, that third character can't hear a word they're saying. They don't even seem to realize there's a conversation going on. Deep secret is contained. Third guy remains blissfully unaware. Audience is informed.

Arrrgh. Why oh why, do writers do it?

I know it saves you having to do a whole separate scene, and I know it helps with the practicalities of a shoot, but come on! There's no way in hell ever that could happen in real life. I'm usually pretty great at suspension of disbelief, but seriously, that three-in-a-room thing is one impossible convention that should be eradicated.

What's your TV pet peeve? As future TV writers of America, let's work together to stomp them out.

Slacker excuses
Did you know you can get the most delicious Bloody Mary's at the Cha Cha Lounge in Silverlake for a mere $2 on Sunday afternoon? Well you can. And that leads to needing a nap on Monday afternoon, thereby putting a halt to Monday's productivity.


Dime me up, dime me down

What are your characters doing just before they enter a scene? I find that my characters are usually doing something stereotypical - in my Grey's they'll be checking a chart, in my Bones, they're usually doing something kind of sciency. So basically, they're sitting around waiting for that other character to come and talk to them and move the story forward.


What are your characters doing just before they enter a scene?

In House, the go-to actions for House are: watching TV; playing piano; bouncing his cane.

In Episode 23 of Season 3 of House ("The Jerk" written by Leonard Dick), this happens in one scene:

Cameron and Chase approach House at the nurse's station, all abluster with their news (they're all 'it's an infection!' or whatever). House is, inexplicably, on his knees behind the desk.

They start talking about the case, lots of doctory dialog. Then, a nurse reaches into frame and hands House a dime. He looks at her, says 'Thank you' and continues talking to Chase and Cameron.

A tiny look from Cameron shows that she's just figured out why House is on the floor. He was looking for a dime he dropped.

No one ever comments on it, nothing ever comes of it, it's just a lovely little character moment, so bleeding wonderful because it's totally believable that the miserly House, despite being crippled, would get down on the floor to look for a dime.

It's those moments that take an episode from great to grrrreat (to quote my favorite tiger).

Now I need to work on building a few more moments like that into my scripts.

Slacker excuses
Anybody who has been monitoring my progress through House Season 3 will have noticed I've watched at least three episodes a day for the last week. Only one more episode and I'll be all caught up. It's going to kinda be like running out of Vicodin. Man, will it hurt, but I'll be a lot more productive afterwards.


It's an honor just being nominated

Great news (for me)! My Ugly Betty spec made it to the finals in the 2007 Screenwriting Expo 6 Screenwriting Competition Television Category. Whew. That's a mouthful.

The list of all finalists and winners in all categories is here.

My script went Top 10, which means I get into the Expo for free. And, much more importantly, I get bragging rights. Now I just have to find the right people to brag to. To whom to brag? Oh, and I have to find my grammar skills.

I've also made the decision to make my specs available for public consumption. Click on the links right over there on the right hand side of this page to download them. Why don't more people do this? Is there some legal or moral issue I'm completely overlooking? I love reading other people's specs. Everyone should post them.

I've been thinking a lot about point of view lately (how's that for a subtle segue?). Yesterday I was watching a House somewhere in the middle of Season 3, and it jarred me to see Cuddy in a scene alone with a patient. I could be wrong, but I think that's the first time there's been a scene from Cuddy's point of view - sure, she's done lots of scenes without House, but Wilson, Cameron, Chase, or Foreman has always been there too. Not so coincidentally, Cuddy's first POV scene is in the episode where it's revealed that House might actually be in love with her. So now I know, big things for Cuddy are coming in the rest of Season 3. Of course, you've all seen it, so please don't tell me if I'm wrong!

I also watched an episode yesterday where Cameron recites a mnemonic for the bones of the wrist. Actually coincidentally, the title of my last post was a mnemonic for the bones of the wrist. Scaphoid, Lunate, Triquetrum, Pisiform, Trapezoid, Trapezium, Capitate, Hamate, since you asked. And yes, I had to look it up.

Sorry about all this House talk. I think I'm addicted. I blame Jane E. She started it.

Slacker Excuses will not be seen in this edition. Instead I bring you:

Things I have dropped from my TiVo-like-device

Private Practice (OK, I never added this one to begin with)
Big Shots
Bionic Woman
Reaper (My dream is that Reaper will do badly enough that they'll have to bring back Veronica Mars mid-season. What? It could happen.)

Hanging on by a Thread
Dirty Sexy Money
Gossip Girl
Grey's Anatomy

There to Stay
Pushing Daisies
Heroes (though it has not been very good so far this season!)
ANTM (I know I shouldn't, but I can't help it)
The Office
My Name Is Earl
Ugly Betty

Doesn't say much for the quality of the new shows this season, does it? The weird thing is, there are lots of great actors and there's lots of great writing in so many of these shows - it just doesn't seem to be translating into great TV for some reason. Maybe I'm jaded.


Scottish Lads Take Prostitutes To The Caledonian Hotel

I want to be that cool girl who sits in a café all day, spiking on coffee and rattling off pages and pages of unbelievable scriptage, but...

...it's just, I have a big comfy chair in my office at home. And my iGroove. And no annoying half-fat-extra-hot-double-double- dry-with-an-extra-shot ordering ninnies interrupting my train of thought. I sat in Groundworks on Sunset yesterday for three hours and got. Nothing. Done. The only thing I got out of it was a sore gluteus maximus and an aching trapezius from their extremely non-writer-friendly chairs.

Speaking of which I found a double badass online resource that's a total lifesaver when writing medical or forensic jargon. It's The Visual Dictionary - like Wikipedia but with pictures, and a little more authority, I think.

Slacker excuses
Got my screeners for my AFI FEST articles today. Lots of movies to watch. But Mom, I wanna watch TV!


Caring for your introvert

First they build you up, then they knock you down.

Yep, I heard from Warner Bros. Nope, they don't want me. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't pretty bummed. They're wrong of course. My mother said so. They do want me. They just don't know it. Can't really call up Mr Warner or his Bro, though, so I'll just have to concentrate on all the other swirling madness I've got going on right now.

I'm volunteering for the AFI FEST writing features for the Fest Daily. I've also just put my name in for volunteer work at the Screenwriting Expo. Once I'm done with those two things, there's the WriteGirl volunteering which I think should be pretty amazing.

And there's baby writers' group that I have yet to do anything about. But I will. I will.

Then there's the Bones spec. My goal is to get a decent first draft finished today. And my pilot is shaping up nicely.

So nyahh. Lots to keep me occupied while ten people that aren't me get to learn TV writing in what's bound to be the opportunity of a lifetime.

Slacker excuses
Have been plowing through House Season 2. I could say I'm studying story structure and characterization, but really, I just want to know what happened with Chase and Cameron and Foreman before Season 4 gives it all away.

Oh, and I love this article: Caring for Your Introvert.


Shocked, stunned, and squealing like a little girl

Guess who's a quarterfinalist in the 2007 Screenwriting Expo Screenplay Competition Television Category??

I'll give you a hint. Me! It's me!

I'm not one to toot my own horn... but TOOOOT.

Sorry. I'll calm down in a minute. It's just, now I know I'm not a completely useless, talentless hack. Or at least I know someone out there doesn't think so. Yeehaw.

Thanks to everyone whose blog is listed to the right for the tips, tricks, and moral support you've provided through your writing. Oh, and thanks to The Academy, The Hollywood Foreign Press, God and all other deities who took a personal interest in my writing.

Here's the full list of quarterfinalists.