Archive for August, 2012

Lost in Translation and Spaghetti

Despite having studied Russian for approximately three years, I did not speak the language well, only really knowing, “Hi, how are you?” and “Good” and “Goodbye.”  Which meant that when I laid out story with my team of Russian writers, I had an interpreter.

The first week my writers of “Poor Anastasia” met with me they were furious with how I was telling story, insisting it wasn’t very Russian, no one in Russia would behave in such a way, and the Tsar (remember, this was an historical soap, the Tsar and his handsome son and heir featured prominently) would never do whatever I was proposing he do (get involved in his son’s romances, have emotional conversations with his wife).  You name it, whatever I suggested, my writers hated it.

Early on, my interpreter, a frail-looking young woman whose name I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve forgotten, told me the writers were correct.  The story was not very Russian.  No one in Russia would watch the show.  Once I ascertained she had never written anything before in her life and had no experience working on a soap, I told her to not tell me that, just interpret.  Which she took to mean to tell the writers what she just told me about the show not being very Russian!

She was transferred out of the writers’ room and replaced by Masha Saltykova, who had spent a year in an American high school and not only spoke English extremely well but understood and tolerated me, the crazy American.

Nonetheless, I knew story was getting lost in translation and that I not only had to make sure my stories, character motivations and plot twists were as specific as possible but I had to be able to support my rationale for all my proposals since the Russian writers questioned everything.  And that, by the way, turned out to be extremely beneficial as it forced me to ensure my stories and character motivations  were as clear and as understandable as possible.  If I couldn’t convince my writers why I wanted to have a character behave in a certain way, I soon came to realize it was because my own rationale was weak or unclear.  Which in turn caused me to rethink that character’s actions.

When the show began shooting, I was on the set one day with Jeff Lerner, my Sony executive, and Tony Morina, an American soap director and producer who was hired to supervise the Russian director and production team.  We were observing  Pyotr Schtein, a famous Russian theater director whose presence on “Poor Anastasia” was supposed to lend prestige to the show; Valery, the “creative producer” (I was never sure what he did on the set except to disapprove of everything I wrote);  and Tony’s interpreter, Katya.

We were watching a scene being shot, in which the two antagonists, Modestovich and Polina, were eavesdropping on a conversation between our heroine and her protector, Baron Korf.  The scene was supposed to be menacing, the audience aware that Polina and Modestovich were threats to heroine Anna.  But Pyotr Schtein was having them play it for laughs.  Jeff and I explained to the director that the actors needed to play the scene more seriously.  Pyotr Schtein spoke at length in Russian to Valery, the creative producer.  Tony turned to Katya for a translation and she said, “Oh, they were talking about the lighting.”

Now, I may not speak Russian very well but I do understand it, and what the director was really telling the creative producer was, “Who do these Americans think they are, coming in here and telling us how to produce a television show?  Why don’t they just go back to America?”

Katya was also transferred to another department.

Finally, spaghetti.  While working on “Poor Anastasia” Sony put me up at the fabulous Grand Hyatt Hotel in Moscow, and their restaurant menu featured spaghetti bolognese.  I love spaghetti bolognese, it’s my all-time favorite dish, I’ve been known to eat it for breakfast, that’s how much I love it.  So, I was eating spaghetti bolognese practically every night and raving about it to the other Americans who were hired by Sony to consult on different aspects of “Poor Anastasia” as well as the Russian adaption of “The Nanny.”

One night, Tony Morina decided he had to see for himself if the Hyatt’s spaghetti bolognese was as wonderful as I kept saying it was.  He ordered it and, to his surprise, received a plate of plain spaghetti with a small bowl of mayonnaise on the side.

Tony ordered spaghetti bolognese but the waitress heard “spaghetti mayonnaise.”

See what I mean by lost in translation!

Is Fiction Fact? Or Fact Fiction?

Years ago, I was delighted to be hired to write an episode for “Murder, She Wrote.” The producers gave me the venue–a cooking show–but it was up to me to come up with the characters and story.

At that time in my life, I met with neighbors and friends every Thursday night  for dinner at one of our homes, the host home responsible for cooking  dinner that week. My friends, consisting of three FBI agents, a doctor, a computer geek and his clothing designer wife were all quirky and funny with their share of emotional ups and downs. Since every Thursday night became a “cooking show” of our own, I decided to make them the characters in my story, using their lives and relationships to give color to the “Murder, She Wrote” episode.

And, I told them I was doing it!

My friends were flattered and amused so on the night my episode aired I invited them to my house for dinner and to watch the show. I braced myself for their anger and horror as they saw their emotional dynamics played out on the small screen. (In some cases, I even kept their names.)

Instead, they laughed uproariously throughout the show, thinking I had made up everything. Except for one story point, which they insisted was about me, and which was, actually, the one thing I had made up!

My neighbor Jeannine’s only comment was, “I don’t mind that you made me the murderer, but did I have to be a serial killer?!” (The character killed two people in the show, and, okay, I did make up the fact that real Jeannine, to my knowledge, has  killed anyone. )

My point is that if you hesitate about stealing the lives of friends and family to create your story because you think they’ll stop talking to you, or even sue you, don’t. In my experience, friends and family never see themselves in the characters I’ve based them on.

And because we get our best material from the people we know (and sometimes love, sometimes hate) why not use them to flesh out your characters?

No one but you will ever know.

Daytime Soaps vs Prime Drama

A friend from Russia e-mailed me that a friend of hers was looking for books how on to write for soap operas and could I recommend any? I couldn’t offhand (except for one written by a British writer many years ago about British soaps and which may now be out-of-print), but it did get me thinking about how you do write for soaps and is it any different than writing for primetime dramatic shows.

Despite their different formats five day a week serials and one hour/once a week dramas have more in common than not.

–In both, you need compelling characters, with equally compelling stakes/goals as well as difficult obstacles to overcome in order to achieve their goals. In “The Good Wife” Alicia Florrick wants to win her legal case every week. In “The Young and the Restless” Nikki worries over the missing Victor who disappeared after his wedding to Sharon.

–There should be strong antagonists, equally compelling, who serve to provide the obstacles to those goals. “The Good Wife” has a revolving door of fascinating antagonists: prosecutors, other defense attorneys, heads of corporations, government officials. “Y&R” has Jack Abbott, Victor Neuman’s arch-nemesis, Phyllis vs Sharon, now Nikki vs Sharon (to  name only a few). In “Days” there’s Stefano DiMera, at odds with, well, practically everyone else on the show.

–The central premise needs to be simple (so that when you’re telling someone what it’s about you can pitch it in a log line or one or two sentences), but at the same time the stories should have plenty of meat on their bones so that they can run for years. “Good Wife”: Alicia defends interesting clients with compelling cases each week  while simultaneously dealing with her cheating states’ attorney husband, Peter. On every soap: It always starts with a core family and the lives, loves, losses of its members.

Differences: Most primetime dramas air 13-22 episodes per season on average. But daytime soaps are five days a week, airing all year round, which means they naturally burn up story more quickly. So, the tendency on a daytime serial is to slow story done. Which explains why you can tune into your favorite soap a week or two after your last viewing and discover the story hasn’t moved very far forward. Characters spend scene after scene talking about their emotions, and are more character driven than plot driven. (Although I would argue that shows such as “Homeland” offer very compelling, character-driven story.)

But, characters represented in whatever format you’re writing should be three dimensional, with hopes, dreams, fears and faults. Their reasons for the actions they take should be in keeping with who they are, rather than because the plot dictates they need to take a specific action.

In other words, character, not plot, should drive your story. In soaps, most of the characters are driven by love, the desire to be in love, to hold on to their love, to protect their love, even to deny their love. In “Hollywood Heights,” the Nickelodeon soap I most recently wrote for, the heroine was in love with Eddie, the rock star. Eddie was in love with Chloe, his model girlfriend. Chloe was in love with Tyler, her sleazy wannabe actor friend, but was also in love with the lifestyle Eddie could bring her. Tyler was in love with Chloe. All four were driven by their love, with obstacles, revelations and heartbreak creating twists and turns in their stories.

So, if you want to know the first lesson of writing for soap operas, start with love

In the beginning….

The event that changed my life came as all these things do, with a phone call, totally out of the blue.

I had just been fired from “Guiding Light,” with a couple more scripts left to write.  (In daytime TV, in some contracts, you have what’s called a “notice date” in which your boss or agent calls to let you know your contract is not being picked up, but you still have x amount of shows [usually four] left to write. Very discombobulating to do your best, knowing the Powers That Be just fired you, but for me at least, I do always try and do my best.)

In any case, I was at home, sitting at my desk in my office, most likely writing one of these “dead man walking” scripts, when my phone rang. It was my agent, Jim Sarnoff, calling to tell me about a call he had just received from an executive at Columbia Television (now Sony Pictures Television International).

“The guy’s looking for a writer interested in some sort of Russian soap. Historical. I’m not sure what it’s about or if it’ll come to anything. You may have to go to Russia.  If you’re interested, give him a call. His name’s Jeff Lerner. Here’s his number.”

Now, here are some things my agent didn’t know about me:

1. My grandmother, Sonia Schecter Seidman Schweisberg Schmuckler (the woman was married as many times as a soap opera heroine), was from Odessa, escaping to the U.S. after one pogrom too many.

2. In high school I thought it would be very cool to learn Russian so I could speak to her in her native language. So, I studied the language my senior year in high school and for two semesters in college.

3. Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated by historical catastrophe. The sinking of the Titanic, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Amelia Earhart’s disappearance.  So:

3. When, in 1971, the movie “Nicholas and Alexandra” was coming out, my mom told me it was based on a true story about the last tsar of Russia, murdered, with his wife and five children, and that his only son had hemophilia…and…the movie was based on a book. Catastrophe lover that I am,  I ran to the library to check out the book. Which I then had to stop reading because my brother, according to Mom, had already bought the book for me and was waiting to give it to me as a birthday present.

4. The book, “Nicholas and Alexandra” by Robert Massie, started my lifelong fascination with Russian history.  (I still have it–dog-eared and very much treasured.)

Which all came to a head that fateful afternoon when my agent called and told me about the historical Russian soap and that this Jeff Lerner wanted to meet writers interested in the project.

My only thought after hanging up the phone with Jim was how soon could I call Jeff Lerner without appearing embarrassingly eager. (The answer: Screw it. I called within five minutes.)

I met with Jeff a week or two later. The Russians were writing a historical soap called “Bednaya Nastya” (“Poor Anastasia”) set in 1842 St. Petersburg about two noblemen in love with a serf and the daughter the serf has with one of the noblemen. Jeff gave me some translated pages to read and when I saw that the Tsar and his son featured in the series, I lit up like a Roman candle on July 4. This was not Nicholas II and his son Alexei who were murdered in Ekaterineburg on Lenin’s orders, this was Nicholas I and his son, the Tsarevich Alexander, who would later free the serfs and then be tragically blown up by a suicide bomber. I immediately started lecturing Jeff on this Nicholas (who started the Crimean War) and his son, probably boring him to tears but with my enthusiasm unabated.

I got the job. Six months later Jeff and I made our first trip to Moscow. And because of one phone call, out of the blue, I had the adventure of my life for the next six years.

Be nice!

When you’re working on a writing staff for a TV show, you’re spending more time with your colleagues than you are with your family. And like your family you have good days and bad with your fellow writers.  It’s important to get along with them, not only to make your work more pleasant but a lovely side benefit is that more often than not, you end up with dear friends long after you’ve all moved on from that show.

I was hired on “Knots Landing” mid-season, when the staff was already established. As excited as I was to be working on “Knots” I was nervous about meeting the other writers, fearful that they might resent a new writer dropped into their midst.

I will never forgot my first day of work. I was given a former storage room as an office, windowless, small, with a desk and chair squeezed in among the supplies. Suddenly, the three other staff writers, crowded in the doorway to introduce themselves. Rachel Cline, Don Marcus, Jim Magnuson. They made room in my office to hang out with me, and they could not have been warmer or more welcoming.

I was so touched that I vowed then and there that if I was the “old hand” on a show, I would be as warm and welcoming to the newbie as Rachel, Don and Jim were to me.

Years later, I was hired on the Aaron Spelling soap “Sunset Beach” where, as the last one hired on the original writing team, I was again given a warm welcome by the other writers. I’ll never forget Betsy Snyder walking around the large conference table, hand extended in greeting, joking about why she couldn’t join me and the other writers for a welcome to the show lunch a few days before. I was new to daytime soap and feeling out of my element. Betsy, who sat next to me in the writers’ room was patient, helpful and encouraging. When I was hired to write “Poor Anastasia” in Russia she was my first choice to help me come up with story for the series.

When Betsy left “Sunset Beach” she was replaced by Paula Cwikly. I only knew Paula as an NBC executive but I was determined to follow the path of Rachel, Don, Jim and Betsy and extend her a warm welcome. As a result, Paula and I remain the best of friends (in fact we’re having lunch today), and when she became headwriter of “Days of our Lives” and I found myself unexpectedly unemployed, she immediately hired me to write scripts on “Days.”

Betsy has also remained a good friend, as has Don (as well as other writers from my various shows).   I love that my friends and I hire each other when we can. But I especially love that after all these years we have remained friends.

Being nice costs nothing and gains you everything.

“I would like to thank the Academy…” Part Two

You have an idea and you’ve started writing. You’ve followed my advice and not talked about your story with friends or family. But at some point you will need feedback on what you’ve written, to find out if you’re on the right track, to get inspired to move forward with fresh ideas or to rewrite and make your work better. Who do you show your work to?

Your instinct may be to show your work–finally!– to your friends and family, but if they love you (as they should) you might hear only words of praise, which is lovely and ego-boosting after slaving away for weeks and months on creating your “baby,” but not particularly helpful.

Or, if they have an ax to grind, they might instead be unusually harsh. My dad, after reading my “Hill Street Blues” spec said to me, “It’s like a regular ‘Hill Street Blues’ episode, but it’s nothing special.” Thanks, Dad. That was 30 years of therapy.

(On the other hand, it was Dad who encouraged me to be the focused, disciplined writer I am today, and who also helped me find my voice when I was in college and struggling to be a writer. But more on that in another post.)

My recommendation is you take a writing class. As someone who has taken classes herself as well as taught classes (twelve years at UCLA Writers’ Extension and now starting my second semester at USC School of Cinematic Arts), I find that a classroom situation helps you get the best feedback from students and teacher. A class also provides discipline and deadlines, both necessary when writing on spec.

Now, most of us enroll in class thinking Steven Spielberg will pop out behind the door to hand us our writing Oscar while at the same time refunding our tuition as he tells us the class is not necessary for us, he wants to hire us immediately. Unfortunately, he disappears in a puff of smoke the second after you have read the first several pages of your work, and your teacher and fellow students start heaping your baby with criticism. I took a novel writing class at UCLA many years ago (to get feedback on “Killer Ratings”) and one student was so affronted by our feedback that she argued about everything and eventually stopped coming to class. As my teacher eventually told me, “That student just wanted to hear how great her writing was.”

It’s important that you attend class with an open mind, understanding that your work needs to be improved and rewritten. For instance, in that same class, on the advice of the teacher and students, I changed the name of the book from “Forty Share” to “A Killing in the Ratings” (a writer friend later recommended I shorten it to “Killer Ratings”) and I introduced the plot point of Rebecca, Susan Kaplan’s boss, receiving death threats in order to introduce tension to the story early on, since Rebecca’s death doesn’t occur until several chapters later.

Now, not every student’s critique is going to be helpful. Like you, these students have a learning curve (which is why they, too, are taking the class). While you shouldn’t reject everything your classmates have to say about your writing, you don’t necessarily have to accept everything they’re saying either. (And, yes, sometimes even your teacher isn’t 100% correct although I always give a teacher’s critique more weight–and I am saying that because I’m a teacher!)

When I was writing my first soap opera in Russia (“Bednaya Nastya” aka “Poor Anastasia”) my Sony executive, Jeff Lerner, would give me notes, and my reaction was always to say no, or to argue with him. He told me to change my default “no” to “That’s interesting, I’ll think about it,” and to not tackle any changes based on his notes until I had a day to digest them. I urge you to do the same. There were plenty of times when Jeff would give me a note and I’d think, “No way am I going to do that!” Or, I’d hang up the phone, go back to my hotel room, his notes whirling around in my head and be depressed, not knowing how to give him (really, the story) what he was asking for.

But, by waiting a day, by letting the notes sink in, I’d more often than not feel energized by them and would had figured out how to make the changes.  (One night, Jeff and I fought over a change he wanted me to make that I declared was impossible!  We hung up, tense with one another, but when I went to bed shortly afterward, I actually dreamed the solution [I told you I have vivid dreams], e-mailed it to Jeff the next morning and he loved it.)

So, if you take a class, enter it with an open mind, a desire to improve your work and to collaborate. You’ll find that the feedback you receive is ultimately more rewarding than if friends and family did nothing but strew flowers in your path.

“I would like to thank the Academy…”

So, you want to be a writer. Are you sure about that? Do you want to sit down every day, seven days a week, for however many hours a day and just write? Or do you simply like the idea of going to parties and telling people you’re a writer without actually ever having written anything?

There’s a huge difference between being a writer and saying you’re a writer. But if you’re one of those people with a fire in your belly to express yourself on the written page then here are a few things you ought to know to help get you through the tough times to become a professional writer.

First, what kind of writer do you want to be? A novelist, poet, playwright, TV writer or screenwriter? (To name just a few.) I can’t tell you the number of people who told me they wanted to be in the TV business and thought they could get in by writing. Yet, they didn’t watch television, or much care for it. They simply thought the TV industry was glamorous and well-paying (it can be, some of the time but mostly it’s a hard slog of blood, sweat and tears–lots and lots of tears) and that writing a spec script was the easiest way to break in. Ha!

If you want to be in the TV business but haven’t ever written anything before in your life, find another way to get in. But, if you love television, dreamt about stories for your favorite TV shows (like I have), have even started writing a script based on your favorite show, then you’re off to a good start.

If you have a desire to be a writer, figure out what kind of writer you want to be. A novelist should love to read. A poet should love poetry. A TV writer should love television and a screenwriter movies. Writing is not the easy way in to a profession, rather it’s a passion that gives you no choice but to enter that profession.

For me, a love of writing started when I was in the fifth grade.  My best friend, Laurie Goldstein, shared with me the short stories she was writing.  I thought that was the coolest thing ever and found a black & white hardcover composition book and started writing short stories myself.  (In fact, I still have that book with my short stories and illustrations buried in the black hole of my office closet.)

My parents were so impressed they had me reading my stories to their guests at their infrequent dinner parties.  I loved the attention.  I love the praise.  And I also loved giving free reign to my imagination.

It helped that I was a passionate reader: Nancy Drew, dog stories, biographies.  Reading good stories well told inspired me to write.  I was also a passionate television watcher.  Even though both my parents were teachers they never restricted my TV watching.  I guess because I was a disciplined kid and got my homework done promptly.  I eventually  started dreaming (literally, I have very vivid dreams) my own plots to shows like “Star Trek” (the original, then in reruns) as well as “Mission: Impossible.”  I thought it would be very cool to actually move to Los Angeles and write for those shows.  (One of the highlights of my career was being hired to write an episode for “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” )

When I told my guidance counselor in high school about my TV writing ambitions he looked at me dubiously and said, “You can make a lot of money doing that but it’s very difficult to get in.”  I had no idea at the time that writing for television paid well.  Which leads me to my next point:

Don’t embark on a writing career only for the money.  You’ll never succeed.  I’ve had many a student at UCLA Writers’ Extension tell me they were taking my class on TV writing or screenwriting in order to make a lot of money.  Those were the students, alas, who almost always dropped out when they realized how difficult it was to write well.

I write for TV because I love it.  Not always but if I’m not writing I become anxious and restless.  I have to write.  And if you want to become a professional writer, in whatever field, then you should have that passion as well.

And sometimes the money follows.