Archive for the ‘ Books ’ Category

Throw Out Your GPS

When I bought my Honda Hybrid, I insisted it come with a GPS navigator system. It was so easy to plug in the directions and let the oh-so-proper woman behind the speakers direct me to my destination. What I discovered, however, is that I would automatically plug in directions to a destination I’d be heading for at least once a week–without ever really getting to know how to get there on my own. So, one day, I didn’t use my GPS, using my brain instead to lead me there. That first trip was actually kind of nerve-wracking, given that I had taken the route at least twelve times before.  For the first time I really had to pay attention to where I was going and how.

I realized that writing a script or a novel is similar, especially when you rely on the many “how to” books that proliferate the writing market. When I started my first screenplay, I eagerly bought a number of books on how to write a screenplay, using them as I would a GPS system, to help me navigate the best and easiest way to get to my destination–a completed script.

But when I finished the script, thanks to those many “how to” books which told me my inciting incident needed to happen on page ten and the end of the first plot point on page thirty, I discovered I had written the most boring screenplay imaginable. It was purely by the numbers–page numbers. With no inspired character moments or out of the blue plot twists to engage an audience.

I threw out the “how to” books and went back to the beginning of my story, deepening character and coming up with new incidents, ignoring the exact pages on which they should occur. The revised screenplay was optioned several times and even landed me a job on (the original) “Dallas.”

When I stopped using my GPS, I discovered interesting side streets that still led me to my destination–in some cases even faster than if I had stayed true to my navigator’s directions. Why don’t you try throwing out your GPS, those “how to” manuals, and rely on your own instincts? You never know what interesting side streets your imagination will take you to.

A Twist in the Tale

You’re writing five pages a day, or one hour a day, and your fingers are flying on the keyboard as your characters and story take off, moving forward almost faster than you can get the words on screen.  Then…screeeeeech…crash!  You’ve written your characters into a hole you can’t get them out of it.  Your brain freezes, as do your hands hovering over your keyboard.  You’re stuck.  So are your characters.  What do you do?

Whenever I write myself into a corner, I have several tricks to get myself out of it.  First, if I put a character into a situation I can’t get her out of, I don’t delete the situation and go for something more easily solved.  I love not knowing how to get her out of her hole because if I don’t know, my audience won’t know either and will read (or watch) on to see how the character makes her escape.  If I’m writing with a partner, as I did on “Poor Anastasia” (the talented and wonderful Betsy Snyder), I’ll talk out the situation with her.  Two heads sometimes are better than one and with two of us tackling the problem, one of us can usually come up with an answer.

If I’m writing alone, I may discuss my knotty plot problem with a friend, but it’s important the friend be knowledgeable about writing and objective enough to not feel hurt if I don’t use his or her solution.  Many times, while listening to my friends’ suggestions, I actually get inspired and use their suggestions as a springboard to the idea that actually solves the plot issue.

When no friends are available, or if I just don’t feel like interrupting my work to discuss the story with a friend, I’ll get up and head to the kitchen for a snack.  Invariably, I’m halfway to the kitchen when the solution comes to mind.  If I was good, I’d do a 180 and head back to my office but, alas, I always get the snack first then return to my computer.

Sometimes, I’ll take a yellow legal pad or my laptop and write in another location.  A different venue gets different creative juices flowing and I’m able to tackle the plot issue from a different perspective.

Finally, when stuck, I’ll go back to my five pages of stream of consciousness and just write, “I’m really stuck here and I don’t know how to solve the issue.  What if this happens or that happens…?”  And then, happily, I find the solution.

But whatever you do, don’t stop writing.  Because then you may find yourself stuck permanently, with your character trapped in that tricky situation forever.

Know your audience

After Jeff Lerner from Sony hired me to consult on the Russian soap “Poor Anastasia,” he and I had a conference call with the Russian producers and head writers of the project.  I had been given some of the translated material to get an idea of what the story was about and clearly Jeff and I considered it a soap opera.  In looking for an American writer for the project, Jeff called my agent, Jim Sarnoff, because Jim represented soap writers exclusively.  Jeff knew he needed a writer experienced in American daytime soaps to give knowledgeable help to the Russian writers.  When I read the material, essentially a synopsis of the story, I knew it was a soap: the Russians planned to air it five days a week (in primetime, however, not during the day), the central story was romantic, featuring twentysomething characters as well as strong families in conflict with one another.

However, during the conference call with my Russian colleagues (who I had yet to meet), I referred to the show as a miniseries.  Alexander Akopov, the executive producer of “Poor Anastasia,” leapt at on my description, agreeing that, yes, that’s exactly how they saw the project, as a miniseries.

Well, you can have a miniseries that’s still soapy and I didn’t pay as much attention to his enthusiastic endorsement of the show’s description until mid-way into the writing of the show.

In other post I’ll write about Jeff’s and my first visit to Moscow when it became clear the two male headwriters didn’t understand the soap genre and Alexander fired them and made me the headwriter.  (Although Jeff and I insisted he keep one of the writers, Yuri Belenki, who remains a dear friend.)  As the headwriter, I was responsible for the vision of the show, as well as story and character development.  The writers I hired, as I’ve written in another post, argued with me constantly about how I was telling the story, claiming it wasn’t Russian.  When I would exclaim, “the babushka in Minsk will love this,” they’d argue back, “The babushka in Minsk will never watch it!”  (Turns out she did; in fact half the country watched “Poor Anastasia.”)

What I came to realize is that my writers didn’t understand who their audience was.  They were all university-educated, smart, funny and verbal but they were all a bit embarrassed by the show.  It was too romantic.  Too soapy.  It was not a show they would watch.

Here’s a deep, dark secret: Given a choice, I wouldn’t watch soaps either.  Aside from “Dark Shadows,” which I loved as a kid, I was never a soap fan.  I wanted to write for the police procedurals like “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue.”  But somehow I found myself writing for soaps and being told to stick with the genre because I was good at it.  And while I may not have been the audience I was writing for, I understood I better know who that audience was and write for them!

Which is what I told my Russian writers.  I said we were writing this for every woman in Russia who was coming home from her stressful, low-paying job, who had to take care of her husband/parents/children.  That she needed to turn on the TV and watch a show in which she could forget about her problems, lose herself in the romance of Korf and Repnin competing for Anna’s love, while Anna hides the terrible secret that she’s a serf.  “You may not watch this,” I told them, “but there are millions of women out there who will.  If we understand exactly what they want to see.”

Whatever you write for, whether you like the genre or not personally, you have to know your audience and write for them.  Even if you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, you need to ask yourself, “Who do I want to read/watch this?”  You certainly shouldn’t write a sweet, tender love story if you’re hoping for an audience of teenage boys.    When I wrote “Killer Ratings,” I aimed for an audience who enjoyed light mystery but also wanted to know about what goes on behind the scenes of a primetime TV drama.  

Throughout, Alexander Akopov supported my point of view and encouraged me to never give in to my writers when they wanted to take conflict or un-Russian-like story twists out of the plot.  But, secretly, Alexander was still embarrassed by the soapy elements. The story Alexander wanted to tell?  Monetary reform!

It seems that in 1842 St. Petersburg, the finance minister Kankrin (Jeff thought his name sounded like a hemorrhoid medication)  urged the Tsar to revalue the ruble.  Nikolai I did and–yea!–the ruble was revalued.  Alexander felt this was a very important moment in Russian history that should be dramatized, and, suspecting I might disagree (after all, I took out all scenes in which the tsarevich provided his fiancee, Marie of Saxe-Coburg, skin cream for her psoriasis that my writers felt was necessary because “she really did have skin problems”) wrote and shot the scenes behind my back, only revealing them to Jeff and me when we were back in Los Angeles for a short break and unable to physically stop him.

Naturally, Jeff and I hit the roof but it was a done deal.  Alexander was the boss, he’s the one who hired Sony, and therefore me, to come to Russia and work on the show.  When the monetary reform story line aired, I asked a Russian-speaking acquaintance who lived in L.A. to check the Internet and see what the fans were saying.  She checked for a week and our subsequent conversation went something like this:

Masha (not her real name): Are you sure you gave me the right dates the story was airing?

Me: Yeah, why?

Masha: Because I don’t see anything about monetary reform.  No discussion at all.

Me: Are you sure?  What are they talking about?

Masha:  It seems Repnin and Korf had a duel over Anna.  That’s all they’re talking about.  They’re really angry that Anna ended up with Repnin, they want her with Korf.

See?  My audience didn’t care about monetary reform.  They were engaged in the romance, in the duel for Anna’s heart.  I also learned something hugely important: that the audience wanted Anna to end up with Korf (the bad boy) as opposed to Repnin (the good guy).  Isn’t that always the case?  My Russian writers would never tell me something as important as that (although some did alert me that monetary reform story was a bust).  But finding out about it, I used the second half of the series to slowly bring Korf and Anna together and found another love interest for poor Repnin.  Of course Korf and Anna didn’t really come together until the last episode of the show.  I wanted the audience to keep watching in the hopes Korf and Anna would be together at the end.

The funny thing is, while I wrote the show for those poor, stressed-out women, their young daughters started watching it with them, and even their husbands, and, yes, even Putin, who admitted to a journalist in some embarrassment that he watched the show two or three nights a week!

The Russians are so different from us in so many respects but there’s one thing we all have in common: We love a good story well told.

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.