Here's my challenge, to myself and to anyone else who wants to take me up on it:
Before you go back to work in January, finish something.
Choose any piece of work you want. If you feel brave, tackle an entire script you've been rolling around in your head. For the meek (who cannot resist the persistent call of eggnog and Christmas TV) finish that last act you've been avoiding.
Personally, I aim to write a first draft of my new pilot. Right now it's in the 'treatline' stage (half-treatment, half-outline), so I've got my work cut out for me.
What's your challenge going to be? Post it in my comments section along with progress reports during the holiday and I promise to provide moral support.
PS. If you're dying to buy me a Christmas present, the Christmas Story Leg Lamp Head Knocker is high on my list.
I've been avoiding blogging because I didn't want to be a downer. Writing has been a chore lately. I've been torturing myself with my new BBC-bound pilot, dragging myself to the computer at infrequent intervals, forcing myself to try work out the kinks, even though it just ain't working.
Which brings us to today's topic. How do you know when it's time to abandon a project?
I wish I could actually answer this question for you. It's not an easy one. Take, for example, my current pilot. I know I love the idea. I know the themes are solid, there's a lot of story there,the 'what is it' is clear and enticing, and I have the personal experience to give it that extra oomph. I'm still very committed to the idea, but, as my writer's group will attest, I just can't make it work. And the more I can't make it work, the less I want to think about it. And the less I want to think about it, the less I want to write, the less I want to be a writer.
Yeah, I guess should have said 'uncle' quite a while ago. I left it too long, let one project infect my soul until I almost wanted to give up trying to be a TV writer altogether.
On the other hand, I have a few friends (you know who you are) who hardly ever finish anything. I've read their 90% completed pilots and thought "Man, this is gonna be great when it's done!". I've told them as much. But I can think of at least 4 pilots of 4 great writers that are still only 90% done. Meanwhile, those writers have gone on to start other projects, sometimes lots of other projects, and left their cookies a little under-baked. And you just can't serve under-baked cookies to guests, the same way you can't show unfinished pilots to potential employers.
Plus, it's a lot easier to start a script than it is to finish one.
(Nostalgic aside: This makes me think of one of my favorite Buffy scenes where Buffy compares her relationship with Angel to baking cookies. The metaphor quickly turns a lot dirtier than Buffy intended. Man, I miss that show. Perhaps it's time for a rewatch, since the current season of television has encouraged me to read a lot of books.)
So where is that line between slightly under-baking your delicious cookies and recognizing that the batter is yucky and you ought to just…
This metaphor ain't working.
I wish I had a magic answer. Like, you must put in at least x number of hours before you decide to leave a project behind. But there isn't one. I guess the best way to know if you're an early-abandoner or a bash-it-until-it-bleeds-er is to look at your pile of finished scripts and compare it to your pile of ideas you've started writing.
Lots of nascent scripts and very few finished ones? You have earlyabandoneritis. Take some antiabandotics.
Do you just have one script you've been bashing away at now for, like, forever, and nothing in your finished pile? It's time to put that baby to bed and start something new. You can always pick it up again in a few months if you really want to.
(Incidentally, this story has a happy ending for me, this time at least. As soon as I trashed that one pilot and started a new one, I magically felt like writing again. And I got more done in a couple of hours than I've done on that other project in a couple of months. Sigh.)
Step One: Join a Writers' Group
Step Two: Have a Great Idea
Step Three: Heroes and Villains
Step Four: The Story
Step Five: The Outline
I'll be honest, this is the part that kills me. This is the part that has me creating Excel documents and Powerpoints and using the index cards in Celtx and filling notebook pages with ideas and scratching my head and tearing my hair out.
Some people can just breeze through the outline, having lined up the whole story in their head beforehand, each nugget dropping neatly onto the page one terrific story point at a time.
I hate those people.
My process is more like throwing rice pudding at the wall, one splatted spoonful after another (but less fun). Most of that stuff does not stick, then you have a huge mess to clean up later.
So how does this help you?
Well, if you're struggling through your outline, at least you now know that while it might not be exactly normal, at least you're not the only one.
I can also toss around a few tips to help you out. Maybe.*
Do a beat sheet
A beat sheet is a little point-form compendium of the key moments in your script. It can take any form you want it to, as long as it helps you compile all the must-have moments that make up your story.
You might want to think about adding some character beats in here - ones that don't necessarily give the story a huge push forward, but will shed light on your characters.** This is a pilot, after all, and we want to know who these people are.
The most important beats (and therefore the most difficult) are the act outs. They need to be strong, attention-grabbing, edge-of-your-seat moments that will cause your audience to flip the page as fast as their little fingers will let them. The middle act out also needs to turn the story in a new direction.***
Do not. I repeat in bigger letters Do Not start your outline if your act breaks are weak. I speak from experience. I have rewritten so many outlines trying to find my act breaks and it's just not the way to go. Plan your act outs, and the rest of the story will be easier to craft. (In theory. To me, story is never easy.)
Like really, really detailed. Really. The best outline I've ever read was written by writer's group member Adam. It was the first thing he gave to the group as a new member. It was so full of tone and detail, it felt like reading a script.
It made me laugh. Out loud. It made me cringe when the characters were being embarrassing. It made sense and I knew at the end of it exactly what the script would be (in fact, the outline was so good that the script was only a slightly better read - and it's a great script).
My point is, be like Adam. Get your characters working, get your tone on the page, let your voice live in the outline, and give each scene a beginning, middle, and end.
It is so tempting at this stage to just write a damn scene already. And if you're stuck or tired of outlining, go ahead. But only enough to get the juices flowing. Then go back to your outline. Fill in the blanks and then fill in the blanks between the blanks. Read it backwards and forwards. Is your story working and making sense? Are your characters like actual 3D people? Is your tone and voice ringing through. No? Then... iron out the creases, steamroll the bumps, squish the rolled-up cookie dough down with the back of a spoon until your outline is smooth as a smooth thing.
When you're done the outline, it's going to be so detailed and crease-free that writing the first draft of your script should take, oh, about 5 hours (you know, depending on your WPM).
Then you'll spend the next six weeks rewriting. But I get ahead...
*And then I hope you will add a few tips in the comments section to help me out. Lord knows I need it.
** A lot of people will tell you not to do this. No character moments for the sake of character moments, but I say, if you're writing that kind of pilot, go for it. What would Greek, or The OC, or Gilmore Girls, or even Buffy be without pure lovely character moments?
*** People talk about this a lot, but what does it really mean? To me, it means that something happens that you did not see coming. Something that makes your character rethink what they're trying to do, or gives them an idea for a new way to solve their problem, or adds layers to their problems they did not expect. This act break should make the audience say "No way!"
For those of you in the LA area, we TV writers and wannabes will be having our monthly gathering tomorrow night. Come on down.
Wednesday, Nov 19
7213 Sunset Blvd, Hollywood, CA
Look for the palest, most unkempt gang of people you can find. That'll be us.
In California, it seems, equal rights for chickens are more important than equal rights for same-sex couples. And hey, I'm all for letting those little chickens stretch out their wings, but shouldn't same-sex couples be allowed the same freedom?
Some people are just fucking crazy.
Excellent friend and wonderful musician Chris T-T sent me a link to Aaron Sorkin's idea of how a conversation between Obama and Bartlet might go. He's got the Bartlet character down cold, but Obama's voice could use a little work...
Here's a snippet, but go read the whole thing.
OBAMA I don’t mean your marriage, sir. I mean how did you get America on your side?
BARTLET There again, I didn’t have to be president of America, I just had to be president of the people who watched “The West Wing.”
OBAMA That would make it easier.
BARTLET You’d do very well on NBC. Thursday nights in the old “ER” time slot with “30 Rock” as your lead-in, you’d get seven, seven-five in the demo with a 20, 22 share — you’d be selling $450,000 minutes.
OBAMA What the hell does that mean?
BARTLET TV talk. I thought you’d be interested.
OBAMA I’m not. They pivoted off the argument that I was inexperienced to the criticism that I’m — wait for it — the Messiah, who, by the way, was a community organizer. When I speak I try to lead with inspiration and aptitude. How is that a liability?
BARTLET Because the idea of American exceptionalism doesn’t extend to Americans being exceptional. If you excelled academically and are able to casually use 690 SAT words then you might as well have the press shoot video of you giving the finger to the Statue of Liberty while the Dixie Chicks sing the University of the Taliban fight song. The people who want English to be the official language of the United States are uncomfortable with their leaders being fluent in it.
Guitar solos should not.
Step One: Join a Writers' Group
Step Two: Have a Great Idea
Step Three: Heroes and Villains
Step Four: The Story
This is the step I struggle with the most, so maybe all of you have some advice for me? Right now I'm stuck in story-land on my destined-for-the-BBC pilot. I know what I want the central conflicts of the show to be, but I still don't have a solid plot to wrap them around. I should be working on it right now. Maybe by writing this blog, I'll give myself the knowledge I need to move forward.
I might not know the best way to come up with a plot, but I do know one thing:
Your pilot must have a plot!
Sounds obvious, right? But it's so easy to forget about plot while you're carefully crafting characters and creating a new world. I and the other members of my writers group have all learned the plot thing the hard way. Without exception, each of us who has written a pilot turned in a first draft that was a very entertaining introduction of the characters and their world, and... that was it. The same note came back each time.
"Yeah, but where's the plot?"
It's not enough to say, my pilot is about a small-town girl in Kansas who has a trusty sidekick in her dog, Tutu. Uh-huh? And what does she do? What happens? What's her struggle?
West Wing writer tackles Facebook
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has agreed to make a film about the founders of social networking site Facebook.
Sorkin, who created US TV drama The West Wing and wrote the Tom Hanks movie Charlie Wilson's War, has even opened a Facebook account to aid his research.
"I figured a good first step in my preparation would be finding out what Facebook is, so I've started this page," he wrote.
Um, I think I'd rather see an animated West Wing but, sadly, this article comes from the BBC. So unless today is April 1 in England, I think we might be forced to endure a movie about a website sometime in the not-too distant future.
I'm pretty sure even Aaron can't pull that off convincingly.
BTW, if you can find his official Facebook page, let me know. Do you think Aaron will say yes to my friend request?
Aaron Sorkin Announces New 'West Wing' Animated Series at SorCon
On Day two of the 2008 San Diego SorCon, the biggest Aaron Sorkin convention in the world, screenwriter and producer Aaron Sorkin revealed plans for his next project, an animated continuation of his most popular franchise, The West Wing.
"I'm excited to bring my Emmy Award-winning writing to the field of animation," Sorkin said in a speech before approximately 30,000 screaming fans, many of whom were dressed up in the business-suit costumes of their favorite Sorkin characters. "The costs of live-action production restricted me to a set only slighly larger than the actual White House and an ensemble cast of under 15 actors. But animation technology will enable us to provide fans with extended 40-minute walk-and-talks, digitally compressed dialogue for faster delivery, and a cast of over 70 main characters...
Events scheduled for day three at SorCon include a panel discussion on rapid-fire dialogue, an American President debate on what sorts of policy deals would cause the president's girlfriend to break up with him in the modern day, and a seminar on how freebasing cocaine can improve your screenwriting.
Hilariously specific article in The Onion. Do most people know who Aaron Sorkin is? Is there a regional LA issue of The Onion? Is everyone as obsessed with the West Wing as I am? Would this be funny if you'd never heard of Aaron Sorkin?
It happens sometimes – you just can't find the time (or the energy) to write.
The trick is to make sure it doesn't happen too much, or for too long. One week? No problem. You're back on the horse before you notice you fell off. Two weeks. A little worse. A whole month? Whoa. You've got some splainin' to do, Lucy.
When it happens, I think the trick is to not let that become the norm. Set yourself a strict schedule if you have to. Book yourself as busy at least a couple evenings a week, and maybe one morning on the weekend. Go somewhere that is not home. Take only your laptop and your ideas. (And maybe your iPod and your wallet, cuz coffee always helps.) Don't use the old "I'm watching TV – it's the same as writing" excuse too often. Yeah, watching TV is crucial, but if you're always watching and never producing, then you're no different than the rest of America, watching your eight hours a day.
It's tempting to sit back and take it easy, now that all the fellowships are applied for and it's summer. Sure, give yourself a little break. Fair enough. You've earned it.
Then start a shiny new project, or dig out something that you've been avoiding polishing, find a writing partner, a group, a great café. Do whatever you need to do to make sure you're still a writer, and not just a couch potato with a laptop.
Me? I'm working on a brand new pilot to send to the BBC. Figure I might as well use my British-living background to launch some work through one of the only open doors in the business.
Please include on a separate page in 500 words or less why you are interested in the fellowship and how your voice would add to the diverse landscape that is television.
That's a lot more specific than the generic "statement of intent" phrase they've used elsewhere. Also a little harder to do, I think.
I'm kinda stuck right now, to be honest. Maybe I should go back and polish my Pushing Daisies for a while instead.
30-Second Restaurant Reviews
Casa Bianca Pizza Pie
1650 Colorado Blvd, Los Angeles, CA
A line of hungry patrons waits.
And for what?
Greasy pizza pie.
Over-cheesed and under-sauced.
Am I the only one who feels this way?
On the plus side, you've had plenty of time to organize your writers' group and hone your idea. If you don't know what the F I'm talking about, you can catch up here:
Step One: Join a Writers' Group
Step Two: Have a Great Idea
Step Three: Heroes and Villains
Now it's time to do a lot more thinking about characters.
Activate your hero
Everyone knows this precious rule of thumb, and yet, so many scripts come out with the lead character sitting dumbly by while things happen around them, it makes me want to bash my TV in. (Not really. I love my TV.)
Let's have a little example from the (un)real world of TV.
Bionic Woman vs Sarah Connor
In the pilots for Bionic Woman and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, we were introduced to two women, both supposed to be ass-kicking ladies who had the chutzpah to lead their own shows. As such, everything (ie. the success of the show) hinged on these characters.
But, is there any doubt who would win in a fight – even if she doesn't have artificially installed super-strength? No, thought not.
Sarah Connor is not a nice person. She kills people, she's hard on her son, doesn't trust anyone, she's kinda dark, rarely smiles. Total hard ass. But she makes the decisions. She acts. She has a goal (a very noble goal) and no two-bit terminator is going to stop her from protecting her son and saving the world. Sometimes she has to do bad things for the greater good, but we don't mind, we like her, because she GOES FOR IT.
I can't speak for what happens to Jamie Sommers after the Bionic Woman pilot, because I hated her so much from the start, I never made it to episode two. But we're talking about pilot writing here, so episode two isn't important. In the pilot, Sommers is this nice, sensible, girl. Friendly, unassuming. Which might make for a nice person to go to the movies with, but a character like that really can't carry a show. Add to that her reluctance to become the Bionic Woman and her general whiny "why me?"-ness and you wonder what dark forces were at work in the creation of this character. Incidentally, compare this to the Buffy pilot, where we have another reluctant heroine. But the Buffy pilot works because there is something Buffy wants - to be a normal teenage girl - and she'll do anything to get it. (Plus, she gets to kick ass on some gnarly vampires before the episode is over.)
Anyway, you probably know where I'm going with this (since I've said it before): your lead character should be a go-getter, a force of nature, someone to be reckoned with. Think of Veronica Mars, think of Eric Taylor, John Locke, Greg House… even Jerry Seinfeld and Michael Bluth... they all want something, and they're all out there trying to get it.
What does your lead character want?
And just as crucial…
Who is standing in their way?
I'm gonna make a statement here that may not be popular. It's not something I've read in books, or learned from some sage advice-giving pro. It comes from struggling with my own pilot and watching my friends struggle with theirs.
Big build-up, crescendo in the dramatic music...
Make all (or almost all) of your supporting characters antagonists for your lead.
Or, if you're writing an ensemble show, make each character a potential antagonist for every other character.
Think about it and you'll see that this makes sense. If you want to set up a show that could run for 100 episodes or more, you're gonna need lots of conflict. If there's potential conflict from all angles, you've got a lot of meat to chew on before you have to go down to Vons and buy up some more tri-tip steak (aka. introduce a bunch of new characters).
But where can we see this on TV, you ask?
House is surrounded by people who argue, stand in his way, and make his life miserable (usually for his own good). There's not a yes-man among them, which means there's lots of personal conflict for the writers to draw on. They've gone a step further here and made House his own worst enemy.
In Friday Night Lights, the whole town is full of people who are just waiting for Eric Taylor to slip up. And his wife and his daughter, his two biggest supporters, do their share of damage, too.
Brothers and Sisters is an ensemble show where the same principle is in effect. Each sibling -- and their mom -- has the potential to cause problems for their brothers and sisters. And they do.
The Bluths make Michael miserable on Arrested Development. Every single one of them. His only (reluctant) ally is George Michael and I bet that would have changed if the show had existed much longer.
In contrast, a show like The O.C., where the main characters are all basically friends, found itself having to introduce lots of new characters each season so they wouldn't run out of stories (they ran out of stories anyway).
You'll notice that all the above shows are pretty much character-driven. In procedural and high-concept shows, there tends to be more of an Us vs. Them structure.
Lost is a good example. For a long time it was Good (the castaways) vs Bad (the others). But don't you think things got waaay more interesting when the castaways splintered off into factions and you didn't know who was right, who was wrong, and who was just plain evil?
True procedurals, like Bones, CSI, or even Buffy, get away with being even more black and white. But they can afford to be, because they have a weekly guest antagonist (the crime/criminal/demon), so they don't rely as much on inter-character conflict.
So, once again (and I cannot stress this enough), these are my observations, not hard-and-fast-carved-in-stone rules. Go ahead and worship the Golden Calf if you want. You could find lots of examples where these ideas don't apply. I'm merely suggesting, if you want to make writing your first pilot a little easier, and you want me to like you:
Activate your damn lead and Make everyone an antagonist
Got it? Good.
Seriously, have one less $13 drink at The Standard each month and give it to the WWF instead.
2. Packed (60 people? 80? more)
3. Kinda scary, actually
Scary in that there are so many talented, driven people out there, all trying to get those few, precious jobs. Of course, the scary was totally drowned out by the fact that, for once, everyone in the room was walking around proudly saying "I'm a TV writer".
The question of the night was not "What do you do?" but "What are you writing?"
Here are the hot specs of the season, as determined by me in my wholly unscientific poll of all the people I talked to.
In comedy, Samantha Who? and 30 Rock are the clear winners.
In drama, I spoke to several Dexters and Friday Night Lights, a couple of Pushing Daisies, a Mad Men or two, and one House. Everyone agreed that there was no definitive drama this year, and we could pretty much write whatever we want.
The bloggers were out in force. Amanda was there, of course. And Josh. But I also got to meet Our Man in Los Angeles, Red Right Hand, and Writerling. I know I’m missing out at least a few others. Damn this short-term memory. Check Josh's blog for a more complete list.
I met people who had been Writers on the Verge, ABC Fellows, NBC Fellows, and Warner Workshoppers. I met someone who had just sold their pilot, and people who had done freelance episodes for shows, and people who were looking for their next staff job. I also met a few people who were writing their very first TV spec ever. There was range in that room, baby.
Writers were getting groups together and talking about agents and sharing tips on how to be funny and talking about the future of TV on the internet (not to be confused with TV on the Radio) and trying to decide if there were any shows that were just too damn arc-y to spec... we were pontificating, ruminating, and often spouting complete and utter crap. It was marvelous. Weirdly, not one person asked me what I thought of Dr Horrible's Sing-along Blog (love it, obviously).
In my attempt to talk to everybody (didn't even come close), I also met actors, agents, assistants, insurance adjusters, internists (the medical kind)… all connected with TV in some way or another. And judging by the wide mix of colors, genders, and ages in the room, the diversity initiative people have nothing to worry about with their next generation of writers. We come in all shapes and sizes and from all backgrounds.
And we all have stories to tell.
Anon said... I noticed that you moved to L.A. from Canada and I was wondering if you wouldn't mind giving me some info on how that went for you? What steps you took, where problems arose, etc.It just so happens that I have moved to a few strange and foreign places in my time. So far I’ve lived in Grande Prairie (ahh, Northern Canada), Vancouver, Victoria, Geneva, Oslo, London, and Los Angeles. LA is not as strange as London, or as foreign as Oslo, but it’s still pretty far out there.
I bounce back and forth on wanting to move to L.A. and I'm just... curious.
As a Canadian moving here, your big advantage is that you already speak the language, even if you can't quite spell "colour" the right way or say "about" without causing people to crack up. You'll also find yourself wishing you spoke Spanish as a second language instead of French, but mostly you can get along in your Canado-English.
In terms of adjusting to the city, you shouldn't have any more trouble than your average American who comes from Minnesota or Schenectady or wherever. You have to find a house, a job, a car (I know three people here that don't have cars – they are crazy), a boyfriend / girlfriend, and a favorite coffee shop, just like anyone else would.
If you're coming from a relatively small town – relative to LA even Toronto is pretty small – be prepared for the culture shock of living in a huuuge city. I still get goosebumps when I'm at the top of Mullholland Drive looking down over the city at night. It's not crowded like New York or London, but it just goes on and on and on... Also, in LA it's trendy not to put a sign up outside your bar or restaurant, so unless you know already know where the hip places are, you can't find them. Just one of the ways LA rewards people who are in and punishes newbies. Just like any new town, LA can seem pretty unfriendly and scary at times. Unless you know people here already, expect to have an adjustment period when you're mostly miserable. While you're still adjusting, take the time and opportunity to laugh at how crazy Americans go on holidays, like the 4th of July and Thanksgiving.
Loneliness and misery shouldn't last too long because most people in LA want to meet as many people as they can for networking purposes. It's much easier to meet people here than in Northern Europe, where no one will talk to you unless you're, like, standing on their foot or something. In LA, strangers talk to you wherever you go. Especially if you're female and they're not. If you're into something specific, like Indie Rock, or Ultimate Frisbee, or Stamp Collecting, you'll easily be able to find a gang of people who share your interests. If you're into TV writing, I can hook you up with the coolest kids in town...
A major problem for foreigners coming to the US (aside from the work visa thing, which I discuss in this post: Canadian special-interest edition) is getting a credit rating. They can't just check into your Canadian credit history – that would require computers connected internationally via some kind of crazy, I dunno, net or something. No, I don’t understand why my international credit card company could not issue me an American credit card. Anyhoo, I digress.
Without a credit rating, you have to pay cash deposits to get gas hooked up and get a mobile phone service etc. If you're looking into renting a house, you won't have any references and your credit check won't go through, so that might limit some of the places you can move into. But, if you're looking for, say, shared accommodation on Craig's List, that shouldn't be too much of a problem. Just make sure you account for that extra cash outlay when you're saving for your move.
Finally, like I said (perhaps unwisely) in my Writers On the Verge application, I think everyone should leave home and move to a foreign place, at least for a little while. It’ll give you a broader perspective on the world, which will, ultimately, make you a better writer.
I’m, like, 10 days late responding to this tag from Will Dixon (your definitive source for all things Canuck TV-related). I wasn't ignoring you, Will, I just didn't see it.
I mean, how could I resist a what are you listening to tag? Answer: I couldn't. So, here are:
Seven speaker-shaking songs for the summer.
Liam Finn Better to Be
I’m not ashamed to say I’m half in love with Liam Finn, even though I, ahem, remember when he was born, having been a fan of his dad’s (Neil Finn of Crowded House). He’s got daddy’s gift for writing perfect pop songs, but he adds his own punk-rock spirit to the proceedings. Liam's many live shows are The Best I’ve seen this year. And his drumming is outrageously good.
Electrocute Just Like I Am
A perfectly formed pop song with a gorgeous bassline. Ideal for those of us who like our pop with extra sugar. I couldn't find this song online, but you can listen to a bunch of their other stuff.
Benji Hughes Tight Tee Shirt
Ahhh. This is the song of the summer. Love the lyrics. Love the bassline. Love the Stevie Nicks /Bootylicious-esque guitar. Love the phrase “just like really awesome candy”. Love it!
Listen to it! http://www.myspace.com/benjihughes
Chris T-T We Are the King of England
Chris T-T is a hyphenate: sweetheart-genius. In the interests of full disclosure, he’s one of my best friends. But he’s also one of the most talented songwriters playing music today. This video is so beautiful, except for my embarrassing cameo at the end…
Ludacris Girls Gone Wild
The chorus is as dumb and misogynist as they come, but, shit, Luda’s flow in the verses gets me every time. And the production on this track kicks serious ass. The Neptunes at their finest. Plus, it's fun to pump out of my speakers while cruising down Sunset with the windows rolled down. No one expects to see ME driving when they look over…
There’s no real video (This wasn’t a single? What were they thinking?), but here’s one of those weird non-video YouTube things.
The Blow Pile of Gold
The antidote to Ludacris – this song is all girls on top. The Blow’s live show was one of the best I’ve seen this year.
Junkie XL Not Enough
Great pop songwriting + techno/electro production = a very happy me. Oh, and this track features vocals and songwriting from Willoughby and Electrocute. Full circle enough for ya?
If you've read this far and you have a blog, consider yourself tagged. If you don't have a blog, feel free to comment. I wanna know what's making your ears smile this summer!
Between the skunks in the basement, the bees in the tree, the pigeons in the attic, the possum in the trap, and working, buying cars, and being sick, there has been very little writing of any kind.
So I leave you with this for the weekend.
It’s only been three days since I wrote anything, and two since I worked out, but I already feel... weird... displaced... yucky.
But, as Emerson Cod would say, that ain't none of your concern. You just want to know:
How to write a spec(tacular) pilot
Step one: Join a writers' group**
Step Two: Have a great idea
Most writers I know are having ideas all over the place. We all have our little portable notebooks filled with scratchings that we made during a dire dinner with the in-laws or while we’re supposed to be finding that perfect bouquet of donuts for our boss's latest conquest.
So I’m gonna go ahead and guess that ideas are not a problem.
But what about great ideas? Ones that will make a great spec pilot? Those can be slightly harder to come by.
Now, I’m no expert on what makes a great pilot. (Then again, neither are the people who decide which pilots get made and which get torched. The whole thing is basically a crapshoot.) But I can suggest a few ways to make your pilot easier to write, while also making it a stronger idea should you win the Let's-make-your-pilot Lottery and suddenly be faced with the need to write 12 more episodes.
1. Create a finite world
Where oh where is your pilot going to be set? Want to use your location to create conflict? Then make it a place your characters can’t escape. They need to be stuck with their annoying neighbors, the mysterious black smoke cloud, or Buddy Garrity. That’s why the housewives are so desperate, and the Lost-ers are so, uh, lost. They can’t leave their finite world (the island won’t let - cue spooky music).
Let’s think about this from a different perspective. The Heroes perspective. That show is all over the map – literally. When things get bad the characters can just fly away or time travel to somewhere less dangerous. What fun is that?
2. Flaw-up your characters
It’s tempting to write a nice story about some nice people doing nice things. I mean, you want to like your characters, right? You want to think they could be your friends. Which is cool. You should want to be friends with your characters.
Just make them the kind of friends that end up getting you arrested, or hitched in Vegas, or on the red-eye to Europe without any luggage. Or all three. Don't make them the kind of friends who encourage you to save for retirement and increase your mortgage payments in order to decrease your… yawn! No one on TV thinks about their mortgage. They’re too busy having sex with their paralyzed best friend’s girlfriend.
3. Find your football
In my writers’ group, we like to say that a pilot needs its football. It’s a Friday Night Lights reference – duh! Your football is not, strictly speaking, what your show is about, but it is the framework upon which your whole show hangs. Call it your Vampires and Demons (Buffy), your Sex (Sex in the City), your Rich vs Poor (The OC), your Murder and Mayhem (every police procedural and Pushing Daisies), your Political Adventures (West Wing), or your Sororities and Frats (Greek). It all amounts to the same thing.
You’ve gotta find your football.
Well, actually, you don’t. But your life will be a whole lot easier if you do. Football will transform your idea from:
Small town boy unhappy in small town
Small town boy unhappy in small town when invisible potatoes start to reveal to him the deepest, darkest secrets of the townspeople. In code. Tuber code.
Which one would you rather watch?
10-Second Restaurant Reviews
Porto’s Bakery, 315 North Brand Blvd., Glendale, CA
You’d think Porto's was the only lunch place in Glendale
nay, in Los Angeles
The way the patrons swarm like flies around a particularly
potent compost heap
But the food's not like compost, in that it's not rotting and it
tastes rather yummy
Even if you're sitting on the sidewalk, roasting like an invisible tuber
in 104 degree heat
*I've stolen Josh's method of putting bracketed comments in small text, because I like it. Thanks Josh.
**For writers in LA, you can join a new networking/social group for TV writers and their friends. It's going to be the best group in LA, and I'm not just saying that cuz I started it. When you come to the first networking event, you’ll surely meet others who need some critiquing partners.
As many of you know, I love this little piece of free screenwriting software.
With the new release, they've added lots of features, including a template for scripting comic books. Neat. But most importantly, they finally finally finally got their forced page break to work. Now we TV writers can be happy using Celtx, too.
I promise I will get back to regularly scheduled blogging soon. I'm just trying to get my life organized and my Pushing Daisies written before I start a full-time job (contract) on Monday. I'm steeling myself for the huge lifestyle switcheroo. No money, lots of free time will soon be lots of money, no free time. I'm not complaining though. Could be no money, no free time, which is what a lot of my friends get.
I just wanted to pitch in on this whole Denver alien thing. I was all Scully about it until I saw the below video. It's a super-enhanced version of the original, with sound and everything. I think you'll agree, it is quite compelling.
There's nothing like having a deadline, some free time, and a kick ass outline.
10-Second Restaurant Reviews
El Atacor #11, 2622 N. Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA 90065
fluffy mashed potato
in a deep fried taco
warm and safe
under a blanket
of salad and sour cream
10 potato tacos
for 10 bucks
change your life
Okay, first, an anecdote. I bought the FNL DVDs as soon as I finished watching the shows online. Yeah, I just wanted to see them again right away (in DVD quality). Also, my big plan was to make my husband watch them, so he would experience the FNL joy. I keep trying to get him to sit down to watch the first episode, and finally, last night he says to me "I don't care about FNL." Granted, he was feeling a bit grumpy from too much weekend partying, but, still, I was hurt. How could he not care about something so wonderful? Oh yeah, cuz he hasn't seen it yet. I will make him love it, I swear.
Anyway, if you haven't yet watched FNL:
*FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS SPOILERS BELOW*
Here's a secret for those of you who know and obviously love the show. I don't think FNL is perfect. Nope. There were some little glitches in the second season. And I'm not even talking about the hotly detested Landry murder plotline. That was just a symptom of a larger disease.
You see, for a while there, FNL forgot what it was.
A football procedural.
Which means, when something happens in Dillon, Texas, we want to know how it reflects on the team. If it doesn't cause a ripple in the Panthers' world, then go tell it to someone else, I don't care.
Now, I'm not saying I want to see 46 minutes of football each week. That's obviously not what the show is about.
I want to know when Smash pops a racist c*** in the mouth and gets suspended from games. I want to know when Coach Taylor takes a job at UMT and abandons the Panthers. I want to know when Riggins can't get the girl he wants, causing him to drown his sorrows in beer and miss practice. When Landry murdered that guy, don't you think we should have seen how he sweated it on the field? How he almost quit the team, or couldn't handle the pressure, or blocked the stuffing out of an opponent twice his size all because of the stress he felt? If that had happened, I think we all would have been more accepting of that storyline (maybe?). It would have been even more interesting to see how Landry handled being a benchwarmer, while his best friend was QB1. A small story, but an effective one.
On the other hand, I really don't care that the ex-quarterback is having a baby. He's the ex- quarterback. He's not on the team, he's not a coach, he's not friends with any of the other team members anymore. Sure, a Jason Street spinoff might work. But what does he have to do with football? And why is Mrs Taylor coaching volleyball? And do we really care about Lyla and her new boyfriend (other than in the ways it disturbs Riggins?). Those scenes are a little boring, because, what does it have to do with football? Plus, why does Julie Taylor seem so self-centered and whiny? Because she doesn't give a crap about football. Think about it. What was the best Julie moment? When she QB'd the Powder Puffs. Right? So, let's get back to the football, FNL.
And Coach Taylor? Why are his stories always intriguing, no matter what they're about? Because anything that affects the coach is fair game. He is the heart of the Panthers. He is football.
When you're coming up with your FNL specs, think about this. Do all your stories relate to football in some way? If not, I say, axe them, or figure out the connection, otherwise you might leave your readers wondering why your stories matter.
After all, as much as Friday Night Lights isn't a show about football, it's really all about the football.
I fell in love with Friday Night Lights.
When it first aired I thought "A show about football? Nyeh." But writers' group buddies David and Amanda both urged me to watch. And I thank them here and now. I owe them one, really, I do.
Now I'm gonna pay that favor forward. If you haven't seen it, do yourself the biggest damn solid ever and check it out. Every episode is on nbc.com for free, and there's no new TV on the box right now, so you really have no excuse not to.
By 2009 (God, I can't believe we have to wait until 2009!) I hope to have spread the word far and wide enough that FNL's viewing figures have doubled – at least. We owe it to TV to keep this show on the air.
If you trust my taste enough to just go watch, just go watch. If not, keep reading and I will convince you by listing...
A few reasons I crave Friday Night Lights
I'm going to do my best not to gush, but gushing is what men like Coach Taylor were made for. Never mind that he's kind of an ideal husband, father, and coach. Never mind that he's eye-poppingly well-played by Kyle Chandler. Never mind that he looks so good in blue (and green, and burgundy, and...).
When you watch FNL, everything feels real. It's the opposite of the surreality of an Ugly Betty or a Pushing Daisies (both of which, incidentally, I love, but not nearly as much as I love FNL). Of course, the reality has a lot to do with the writing and the acting and the directing and the filming on location in Texas. But it owes its warmth and truth to the shaky spy-cam shooting. It makes you feel like you're listening in on a conversation you shouldn't be hearing, which, if you have a voyeuristic bone in your body, just makes you want to know more and more.
No super-heroes, spaceships, or mysterious smoke-monsters
Don't get me wrong. I love Lost. And Battlestar. And Bufy. I even liked Heroes there for a while. But not every show needs to be based in some alternate reality where people can store all of the CIA's greatest secrets in their brain. The world doesn't always need to be ending. Lives don't always have to be in jeopardy. Sometimes, it's nice just to watch a show about people, doing their normal people stuff, in their normal people lives, in some small town somewhere in Texas.
Nerds, jocks, and nerd-jocks
Guess what, jocks and cheerleaders are people, too. They're insecure, kinda sweet, and they love their mommas, just like geeks do. These jocks are just like real people, only with more active sex lives. I also adore Landry, FNL's resident geek. He's not some insecure speccy kid with a big brain and a wedgie. Even if no one else knows it, he knows he's really a cool guy and he doesn't give a crap what the 'cool' kids think of him. That's what the geeks who I went to school with were like. That's what I was like. Yay for dispensing with the stupid high-school stereotypes and drawing real, complex characters instead.
I don't like your average procedural. Crime-solving bores me after a while. But I love procedurals based around non-murder things. Like West Wing, a political procedural, or Buffy the Vampire procedural. FNL is a football procedural, pure and simple. Which is what makes it more powerful than, say, My So-Called Life. Instead of just being self-absorbed and kind of annoying (hey, I loved Angela, but she wasn't always that easy to take), everyone on this show either loves or hates football so much that even if they're not literally saving the world each week, that's what it seems like to them.
Snuffy Walden and Explosions in the Sky
A lot of the FNL soundtrack is by an Austin band called Explosions in the Sky. I've never really loved post-rock, but post-rock as atmospheric soundtrack to a brilliant TV show? It just works.
Much of the non-Explosions music is by composer Snuffy Walden. As if it's not cool enough that his name is Snuffy, his credits read like the watch list of my life. West Wing, Studio 60, Thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, Sports Night, Huff, and, okay, about a zillion things I've never seen before (but maybe I should). When I hear the theme music to FNL (which sounds like Explosions but is really Snuffy), my heart pounds, I get chills. Chills, baby.
Okay, so, I could go on for days, but I'll have mercy, and stop. Just stop dithering and go watch the show. You can hold me personally responsible if you don't like it. But you will. So when you do, please tell a whole whack of people about it so it doesn't get replaced by something crap.
Next time on FNL gush-fest... I'll opine about FNL's (minute) failings and reveal my simple recipe for getting it back on track.
I know, this isn't technically even writing, but it's a key first step. You want your spec to be the best you can possibly make it, right? And you know what's gonna make it better? Other writers. Yep, I don't care how smart you are, other writers will make your writing better.
Two brains are one better than one, and five are four better. Capice?
Other people will catch mistakes, inconsistencies, boring bits, and other bumpy areas in your writing that you yourself might never notice. They're also very good (sometimes annoyingly good) at making you deal with the rough patches that you know are there, but that your brain has convinced you to ignore because it's just too hard to fix them. Plus, it's a wonderful thing to have a little group of friends who are going through the exact same roller-coaster ride that you are. It makes one feel slightly less crazy for choosing TV Writing as a career, instead of, say, Accountancy.
Of course, the catch is, to get the full benefit from a writers' group, you must be wide wide open to hearing and processing other people's ideas about your work. You don't have to agree with everything that is said, but if you just sit there with your arms crossed thinking "these comments aren't very helpful" while people give you their constructive feedback, then you should just give up TV writing right now. It's a collaborative medium. If you don't want to collaborate, be a poet.
Where do I find a writers' group?
A lot of people ask me this. Actually, almost ever writer I've ever spoken to has asked me this.
You can start by searching online for writers' groups. To be honest, I didn't find this very helpful. I could not find a single group dedicated solely to TV writing, and though there is some merit in working with non-TV folk, I really wanted the specific passion and knowledge that goes along with the format.
Since there weren't any existing groups that appealed, I started my own. Where did I find the members? Online. I read people's blogs. The ones I liked, I contacted. All but one of the people I got in touch with were interested in starting a group.
You can also post on forums like the one on TVwriter.com. Or go old-school and put up a notice in your local library or web cafe (which I guess is kind of new-old school). You never know who lives just around the corner.
Even if you can only find a couple of people in your area, they can probably recommend other people, and so on, until you've got a good thing going. You might want to do a little vetting to make sure these people want the same thing out of a group as you do, but once you've found even two other people, get grouping. Our group has had a few personnel adjustments along the way, but everyone involved (past and present) are interesting, thoughtful, and exceptionally bright people who I'm happy to know. TV writers tend to be like that.
What if I live in McNowheresville?
You're so lucky it's 2008 and you can just go online and find other writers from other areas. Email your work and critiques back and forth or use an online tool like Google Docs to exchange your work. Hey, you could even go all high-tech and use something like iChat to video and voice chat with your group.
It might feel scary to reach out to a bunch of strangers, but you're gonna have to do a lot of reaching out between now and the time you eventually get hired in TV, so you might as well start practicing.
Okay, go on, get your group started. I'll wait. Once you're ready, we'll discuss Step Two: The Idea.