Archive for the ‘ TV Writing ’ 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.

The Importance of Mentors

When I was six, in a race to finish homework in order to watch Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, I did a sloppy job of coloring and ended up with a C.  When Dad saw the grade, he asked me why my work was so sloppy.  When I told him, he gave me advice I’ve never forgotten: If you want to succeed in whatever you do, do it well.  I took those words to heart, not realizing at that moment that Dad had become my first mentor.

Mentors are important to our work as writers because they not only point out where we’ve gone off course but never fail to support us.  It’s that combination of criticism and encouragement that every writer needs to not only do his or her best but to keep writing, even when the odds seem against us.

As you begin your journey as a writer, keep an eye out for your mentor.  It could be a supportive high school teacher, or college professor, who gives you helpful criticism while cheering you on.  Perhaps it’s a successful friend who is willing to give you the benefit of his or her experience.  Or even a parent, who, despite wanting something else for you (my dad wanted me to be a lawyer) will still do his or her best to make sure you do yours.

On each show I’ve written for, I’ve always taken away something helpful about writing from my boss, be it Len Katzman on “Dallas” (who taught me how to embrace every character and find something to love even in the most dastardly like JR Ewing), Ann Marcus on “Knots Landing” (who knows more about how to structure a show in her pinkie than most of us do after decades in the business) or Gary Tomlin on “Sunset Beach” (who insisted that we protect our hero, even if he’s in the midst of losing the girl).

In Killer Ratings, I thanked several teachers who, in some way, contributed to my becoming a professional writer.  They were all my mentors and I will always be grateful to them.  Now it’s time for you to start looking for yours.

It’s not about the kasha

When I was headwriting “Poor Anastasia” in Russia, I created a scene for an episode in which the core characters (the show’s anti-hero Korf, his best friend Repnin, and Anna, the beautiful serf both men were in love with) were eating breakfast.  I told the writer of the episode that the scene needed to be about the tension between Korf and Repnin, with Anna in the middle of their tension.  Repnin, who was in love with Anna, didn’t know she was a serf.  His best friend Korf did, and Anna was plotzing with anxiety as she wondered when and if Korf would reveal to Repnin the truth about who she really was.  (In 1862 St. Petersburg, it was not only illegal to fall in love with a serf but it could shatter Repnin’s love for her.)

Instead of the tension, subtext and anxiety, I got kasha.

My writer wrote the entire scene about Korf offering Repnin kasha, explaining it was excellent kasha.  Anna, who was eating the kasha, agreed, so Repnin helped himself and also agreed that the kasha was excellent.

That was the scene.

Now, maybe, the subtext got lost in translation, although to her credit, when I told the writer what I found missing from the scene, she went on to write other episodes with the subtext and tension and stakes I found missing in the “kasha” scene.

In counterpoint, when I was teaching at UCLA, one of my students, Mary, wrote a spec “Six Feet Under.”  In her script, two of the characters were in the middle of a fraught relationship that was going south fast.   Mary chose to illustrate the tension in their relationship by setting a scene in a restaurant with a table that rocked.  All one character could focus on was the rocking table, which was annoying the hell out of her, while the other character was trying to get her to focus on what was wrong in their relationship.  By the end of the scene, the character obsessed with the rocking table was shouting for the waiter to come and put a matchbook cover under the table leg in an explosion of anger that was way bigger than the rocking table warranted.  But the message was clear.  The scene wasn’t about the rocking table.  The rocking table was a way of showing how the character couldn’t deal with the end of her relationship, and the anger and upset she felt as a result.

Kasha and rocking tables are great when they are used to highlight what a character is thinking and feeling without the character having to actually say what he or she is thinking or feeling.  Just make sure the kasha doesn’t become the star of the show.

You hate me, you really hate me

“I’m sure you’re a good writer on other shows, Lisa, but just not on this one,” were the painful words the headwriter of the daytime soap I had been writing for told me right before she fired me.  Ouch!

In the world of TV writing, getting fired is inevitable.  Bryce Zabel, a well-respected television writer and producer, once told my UCLA screenwriting class that if you weren’t fired at least once, you weren’t a professional writer.

Andy Zack, my literary agent, sent Killer Ratings to every publisher in NY only to have the novel rejected by every publisher in NY.  It wasn’t until the emergence of ebooks that Killer Ratings managed to find a home with Ignition Books, an e-publisher.

So, how do you handle rejection in a way that doesn’t cause you to spend years feeling bad about yourself and giving up writing forever? To face the disappoint when your book or your script is not met with overwhelmingly love followed by a paycheck?

First, take the time to feel bad.  But don’t take too much time.  Whenever I get a call from either the headwriter or my TV agent, telling me my contract was not being picked up for renewal, I call my mom and cry on her shoulder.  Then I call a couple of good friends and cry on their shoulders.  But I set a limit to my mourning.  Three days to a week of feeling sorry for myself but that’s all.  Otherwise, I’ll become obsessed with the bad feelings the firing (or rejection letters) engender and not get back to work at all.

And by “work” I mean my own writing projects, those I write during the times I’m unemployed.  I’ve written a first draft of an epic-romance novel, two TV pilots (one of which was bought by Russia) and even Killer Ratings, which, as you know, had its own happy ending.

Writing my own projects gives me control of my life.  No one can criticize what I’m writing except myself.  (But be careful of self-censorship–which will be another post in the immediate future!)  I may be unemployed but yet I’m not: I get up every morning, write my five pages and feel as if I’m accomplishing something.

And when I get a call from my agent that another show is thinking of hiring me and do I have something new to show them,  I usually have that fresh spec pilot I wrote while waiting for the phone to ring.

Rejection is tough but as long as you realize writing is subjective and you keep writing you won’t stay “rejected” for long.

A Twist in the Tale, Part II

A reason writers hit story roadblocks may have to do with whether or not they wrote an outline first.   When I write for television, I don’t start any script until I’ve written a complete outline.  On “Dallas,” I turned in a detailed outline of my episode that needed network approval before I could move on to the script.  On “Falcon Crest” and “Knots Landing” I wrote beat sheets, a one or two line description of each scene, gave them to the showrunner for approval before embarking on my script.  (If you read my previous blog, “Money, Money, Money,” you know writers get paid separately for their outlines.  If an outline doesn’t succeed, it tips off the showrunner that the story might not work either and she or he may therefore decide not to have you go to script.)  And, whether it’s a full outline or a short beat sheet, I structure every act,  know the number of scenes in each act and know how to resolve the story lines.

When I wrote an episode for “Murder, She Wrote,” the writer-producers did not allow me to proceed to script until we all knew exactly what the clues were that led to the “penny drop” scene for Jessica Fletcher, in which she gathered the suspects around her and told them how she knew the identity of the murderer.

In daytime soaps, breakdown writers write only outlines, or breakdowns, which are extremely detailed structures of what the individual episode is going to be about.  Whether writing for primetime or in daytime television, I never start writing the script until I have a strong outline in place.

Having an outline helps you understand the drive of your story, the characters’ goals, stakes and obstacles and makes those moments of writers’ block rare.  Yes, sometimes when I’m writing the script off my outline I realize a plot point doesn’t work, or I come up with a more interesting way of telling the story.  If that happens to you, don’t sweat it.  You don’t have to stick with your outline.  Absolutely go in that different direction.  Outlines are merely the template to get you started and keep you focused on the story.

It’s only when you leap into your script without benefit of an outline that you could find yourself stuck in the middle of your story with no idea on how to finish.

 

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.

Money Money Money

As a junior in high school, I had my mandatory meeting with Mr. Workman, my guidance counselor, to have what was essentially the “what do I want to be when I grow up” conversation so he could direct me to an appropriate college.

When I told Mr. Workman that I wanted to be a TV writer, he made a valiant effort to choke back his surprise (in the 1970s, writing for television was not the popular career choice it is today), and said if I succeeded I’d make a lot of money but it was a very difficult profession to get into.

I had no idea you could make a lot of money writing for television. I simply wanted to write for TV no matter what it paid. Mr. Workman then recommended a small, liberal arts college with an excellent academic reputation (Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA where I spent four tumultuous years learning to grow up as well as write for TV in non-traditional ways).

When I eventually started to write as a professional TV writer I discovered Mr. Workman was right on both counts: it was hard to break in but once I did I could make a lot of money.

Let’s talk about the money.  If you’re hired to write an episode of a network primetime hour long drama today, you will make $13,948 for writing the story (outline). If the writer-producers then send you on to script (teleplay) you make an additional $22,997.

If you’re on staff, you will most likely get paid for story and teleplay without needing to get the okay to go to script. In that case you make a lump sum of $34,956 for each script you write. And staff writers tend to write anywhere from three to seven scripts per season. Depending on the number of guaranteed working weeks in your contract, you can make an additional $3,325-$4,244 per week. So, as a writer on a network primetime hour long series, you will easily make over $100,000 a year.

Employment on non-network shows is lower but still more than what most people in this country earn in a year. For a complete list of minimum salaries writers make in any area of Guild-covered writing, check the Writers Guild web site (www.wga.org) and click on Schedule of Minimums.

When you’re a staff writer on a show, you think you’ll be making this money forever. And some writers will. They’ll rise through the ranks, become showrunners, develop a reputation of being a successful writer-producers and spend the majority of  their years working. But the sad truth is most writers don’t have a multi-decade career or make the big bucks forever. Unfortunately, they don’t understand that and spend the money as if they’ll be making those six figure salaries forever.

If you’re one of the fortunate few who has gotten on staff and started receiving those amazing paychecks, save your money. I’m not saying don’t buy that Beamer you’ve had your eye on, or the two-story Colonial dream house south of Ventura Blvd.  But don’t spend every dollar of your paycheck. Set some aside for that day when the jobs dry up and your agent stops calling you. Give yourself a cushion so that when you find yourself unemployed (temporarily, I hope) you don’t have sell your house or become a barista at Starbucks. Be financially comfortable enough so you can write a new project that will get you noticed again.

My mother jokes that I always saved the first dollar I made from babysitting. She’s not wrong. During my bouts of unemployment, I wrote “Killer Ratings,” various spec pilots, one of which was bought by the Russians and actually produced. A couple of specs I wrote (a TV movie, a “Sex and the City” spec as well as that dramedy pilot the Russians bought) led to writing work on “Dallas” (the original), “Sunset Beach,” and “Hollywood Heights.”

I was able to to wrote those specs because I had saved my money and didn’t need to look for a non-writing job to pay the bills.  I hope you’ll do the same.

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