Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Ducky Effect & Standing Your Ground

We've been enjoying ourselves mightily in the WGA's showrunner training program. The speakers have all been wonderful and informative, and the nicest thing is that they reinforce each other. It's also been terrific getting to know the other participants in the program. Writing, even in TeeVee, is a pretty solitary endeavor. You don't realize that you share experiences with other writers until you talk to them. This is death to producers and executives who want to retain control. The last thing they want is us talking to each other.

One of the things that every showrunner has mentioned is to protect your work and stand your ground. This isn't something you learn when you're on staff because when you're on staff, you're supposed to write somebody else's show. I've known writers who try to fight for their scripts on somebody else's show. No matter what the situation, that isn't your job as a staff member. So it's quite the adjustment to make, to move from writing someone else's show to writing your own. After the experience we had recently, I've come to a conclusion. I'd rather fail with my own work than with someone else's. It's easy to believe people who tell you that they know what they're doing, and if you only trust them, you'll get your pilot made. I haven't found this to be the case. Although some compromise is always necessary, the real trick is knowing when to, erm, hold 'em, and when to fold 'em. I think that as writers, we have to be willing to pull the plug. We have to be able to walk away, to protect the project. That is the only thing that gives us power. Although people will say that they respect you for bending, that isn't really true. All that means is, they can make you do whatever they want. And once an executive or a producer gets a taste of that, you have no chance to regain any power.

I haven't dealt with book editors yet but based on what I've heard from other novelists, the novelist is recognized as the author of the book, and the editor's job is to help the novelist facilitate the best version of the novel. The editor doesn't give the personal kind of input that you get in TeeVee and film -- i.e., this is how THEY would have written it. It's understood that the novelist is the author, the creator. In TeeVee, they'll talk a great game on that. You'll get that kind of lip service -- this is YOUR show, and we only want to do what YOU want to do and what YOU feel is right.

That's utter crap. Most of them don't mean it. All they want to do is lull you into a false sense of security. They want you to trust them, and then they slowly strip YOU out of your own show. It's generally not done maliciously, which makes it even harder to defend against. So the real trick is learning how to do that. Being nice and easy to work with does work to a point. If you aren't easy to work with, people won't work with you unless you're the most brilliant writer on the planet. And most of us aren't. But as writers, we need to come from a position of strength. And if you sell a pilot -- YOUR idea -- that's already a position of strength. Don't give it away.

Moving on. I was watching Tuesday's episode of Veronica Mars and as Pizz lovesicked his way through the episode, something occurred to me. I would like to call it the Ducky Effect. This is the guy who acts like a friend, but really isn't because he's in love with the heroine. We're supposed to sympathize with this character because he is us, right? We've all loved from afar. Ducky was goofy and clearly a pal, but he loved Andie. Even though he never said anything. Aw, poor Ducky! The same thing's going on with Pizz. Boyfriend LURVES him some Veronica, but now she's back with Logan. OR IS SHE? It looks like she's going to get all pissed at him AGAIN in the next few episodes. I suppose she'll end up with Pizz, because once a girl learns she's the object of affection, she will of course fall head over heels for the sweet friend-like guy. And he'll be perfect for her, because he'll Treat Her Right. And that's all that matters. Only it isn't. Logic doesn't enter into desire, does it? You can't talk yourself into loving someone because they present themselves as the Perfect Love Of Your Life. To quote a favorite band, Love Don't Work That Way. So how is this less of a fantasy than Lord Of The Rings?

This character is a male Mary Sue, the writer as character in his own story. This is every sensitive guy who ever loved from afar. On the surface, this is a valid character to add to a story. But the problem with him is, he's always played for sympathy. You're always supposed to be able to identify with him. He's shorthand for longing. But he's a dishonest character. I've had recent experience with this type of guy and until you're involved in something like that, sure, you want to sympathize with Ducky. But now I just want to punch his face in. I want to tell him to grow a pair, and be an adult. Sorry, Ducks, I know you're just in high school but if you don't nip this in the bud now, you'll be a grown-ass man who acts like a teenager. Either a guy like Ducky gets the girl, or the movie ends and there's no fallout. I don't know ANY women who managed a successful relationship with a Ducky. But because of the way movies and TeeVee have portrayed the lovesick friend, I gave it a shot.


Fortunately, though, he doesn't read my blog!

That's all for this post, Gentle Readers. I am off to finally read a G.K. Chesterton book, because Tim Powers told me to.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Blogging In the Time of Cholera

Hello, Gentle Readers! There isn't much going on here but I felt guilty about not blogging, which of COURSE is the best reason to blog. So I thought I'd talk about what happens in TeeVee this time of year if you aren't on a show or producing a pilot.

Nothing. Yes, nothing happens. Nothing at all. And that makes this time of year crucial because soon (and hopefully), you'll be ramping up for staffing season, which should really be called Evil Nightmare Time for all that I like it. In order to enter staffing season prepared, you need to do a few things:

Write a new spec. Everybody may have loved your spec Rescue Me last year but this year, they want to read something new. CHOOSE WISELY. I always tell people to write a spec pilot because if an executive has to choose between an original and thirty-five CSI specs, what do you think she's going to read first? Writing a sample for a show is really tricky. You want to make sure the market isn't flooded with similar specs but you also need to make sure that your spec is a show that executives will either be familiar with, or will think they're familiar with. Look outside the box -- you don't have to choose from the broadcast networks. You also don't have to have seen every episode of the show. You just need to get the gist, to figure out the structure and the tone and get to know the characters. It's a lot harder to write a spec for a serialized show, like Grey's Anatomy, for example, because the show changes so quickly. Your spec will become outdated. This is why there are a lot of specs for standalone shows, and especially for cop shows. The Shield is an insanely popular spec. So don't write one. Look at shows that premiered this year, that look like they're coming back, and that have some critical cache. You want to be able to use this spec for the next year. You won't always get to write a spec for your absolute favorite show. Don't write Battlestar Galactica specs, or Veronica Mars specs. Executives haven't seen those shows. If you choose to write a spec pilot, make sure you love it. There's no point in writing original material if you aren't in love with it. One more tip -- if you DO NOT want to be a procedural writer, don't write a procedural spec, no matter what anyone tells you.

Read the pilot pick-ups. I used to read all of them but that started getting pointless. For one, you're not going to meet on all those shows. And two, some of them are so awful they'll make you want to eat your own hair. You do NOT have to read every pilot. You need to look at what writing samples you have. Iff you have nothing but procedural samples, don't read serialized family dramas. You have to market yourself to the right shows. There are writers who like to have all their bases covered and will write another spec quickly if they need another genre in their arsenal. It's always good to at least be familiar with the pilot pickups, and with the people involved -- the creators, attached producers and production companies, directors, studios and networks. If you have a good agent, they'll want to make sure you're covered everywhere before pilot production begins and people are too busy for meetings. If you don't have a good agent, you need to make sure this happens.

At this point in the year, these are the most important things you can do to prepare for staffing season. After staffing starts to get crazy, all you can do is hope you get meetings and hope that the pilots you meet on actually get picked up. There will be nothing but rumors flying around, especially after assemblies start to come in and people are seeing footage. But a pilot that's hot one day could be cold the next, so take all of that in stride and don't let it make you crazy (I'm still working on this). I'll talk about pilots I read as I read them. And just in case anyone in TeeVee looks at this blog, they're all WONDERFUL and I love and adore each and every one.

I did want to mention a few movies I saw, one of which was magnificent and then there's the other one. Children Of Men is getting unjustly ignored by the critics as they fall all over themselves for Babel, Dreamgirls and Little Miss Sunshine. I guess Little Miss Sunshine is the best of that lot, but although I enjoyed it when I saw it, come the hell ON. The tonal shifts in that movie make my head hurt. Children Of Men, from the masterful Alfonso Cuaron, is simply breathtaking. It's everything a movie should be. Clive Owen is staggering in it, and the filmmaking is so good it seems like a documentary. This movie is totally chaotic, which puts the viewer into our characters' points of view like no other movie this year. Even the social commentary works -- this would be completely over the top if any other director (except maybe Paul Greengrass) had made the film, but Cuaron just KNOWS. He made what is easily the best Harry Potter film, and his adaptation of A Little Princess is flawless. Scorsese should get the Oscar this year, mostly because he doesn't have one, which is absolutely appalling, but if the Academy continues to ignore Cuaron, I'm gonna punch someone in the heart.

And don't get me started on Clint Eastwood. ENOUGH ALREADY.

Then I saw a movie that is sadly exemplary of how to sell your soul and make lots of money. A Night At The Museum. Holy crap, has anyone else seen this thing?? I think a computer wrote it. It's a totally fun idea that got developed so much it became a big pile of goo. Has Shawn Levy made ANY good movies? Is he just the guy the studio loves because he's easy to deal with and doesn't have a vision? Are the words "a film by Shawn Levy" aas terrifying, or moreso, than "a film by Akiva Goldsman?" Wouldn't it be awesome if Shawn Levy directed an Akiva Goldsman script??? More power to you, Shawn, for being able to thrive in the business, but dude, take some PRIDE.

I FINALLY have my end of the year music list done! Here are the top twenty. And they're not ALL British. I think a few of them are American:

Muse: Black Holes & Revelations
Pure Reason Revolution: The Dark Third
Keith: The Red Thread
Dirty Pretty Things: Waterloo To Anywhere
Roddy Woomble: My Secret is My Silence
The Feeling: Twelve Stops and Home
Hope of the States: Left
Snow Patrol: Eyes Open
The Veils: Nux Vomica
Kasabian: Empire
Razorlight: Razorlight
Irving: Death In the Garden, Blood On the Flowers
The Basement: Illicit Hugs & Playground Thugs
Thirteen Senses: Contact
Merz: Loveheart
Mando Diao: Ode to Ochrasy
Sophia: Technology Won't Save Us
Leya: Watch You Don't Take Off
Jim Noir: Tower of Love
The Devastations: Coal

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Oh, Rich and Famous Writer!

Two posts in two days. It's a new era, Gentle Readers. This is the first rant of the new year. Thanks to a friend of the blog (FOB, I suppose), I read a missive by Laurell K. Hamilton, writer of the Anita Blake series. Ms. Hamilton has her own blog, where she communicates with her fans -- although I don't believe she has Comments enabled, so she just writes and they read. I don't read the blog on a regular or a semi-regular basis or, well, ever, but since the post was titled "Dear Negative Reader," how could I NOT read it?

First off, almost every writer who's been produced or published has at least been tempted by the internets. You want to see what people thought of your work. You're proud of it, so it stands to reason that it went over big with the audience, right? Pretty much wrong. I entered a few skirmishes when our first Millennium episode aired, mainly because I'd been a part of the internets community before. So I thought I knew how to handle those reactions. However, I did not. Because things change. You are no longer a part of the community. You're the "professional." It's a weird transition but if you block out the negative stuff, you discover that there are a lot of people who appreciate your work. And then you take the next step -- not looking at all. Let the forum peoples have their private place to discuss you. Seriously. It's much easier when you draw that line.

Ms. Hamilton simply Does Not Get It. She makes many cardinal mistakes in her post. First is her assertion that she rarely gets to the message boards, but something compelled her to look this time. I love this. Because one thing I've learned is, either you look, or you don't. There's no in-between. If this sort of thing bothers you, by all means, DON'T LOOK. EVER. Because if you look AND you have a forum, you'll talk about how pissed off you are. Which is exactly what Ms. Hamilton did. And like most injured professionals, she claims that she wasn't upset or angry. Um. Okay.

She continues her mistakes in the very next paragraph by stating that if you don't like her books, she's thrilled for you. Because why waste time reading books you don't like? The genius of this paragraph is what follows. I'm not sure of the efficacy of snipping from other peoples' blogs, so I'll paraphrase. She tells these Blake-haters that there are other books out there for them -- books that don't make you think as hard, books that don't push the envelope. In short, the kind of picture book George Bush still enjoys. And I gotta say, WOW, that's awesome! Because clearly, girlfriend isn't pissed off or angry or hurt. No sirree, implying (nay, SAYING) that people who don't like your books simply hate good, complex writing doesn't indicate fury of any sort. She just CARES that these people find the books suitable for their third-grade level of reading.

The next mistake is to feign confusion about why someone who hates something so much would say so, and would keep reading. This goes directly to the psychology of the internets. Hyper-critical people DO read/see/listen to things they don't like because some people tend to get more out of criticism than praise. Or, hell, they just like yanking chains. There's nothing you can do about this, and you're not the only one it happens to. Unfortunately for the universe, only Harlan Ellison is a master at deflecting these types. There is no other. I love how Ms. Hamilton takes this shit to heart. Because although she says that her books are complex little masterpieces (more paraphrasing), she refuses to hear any negative criticism. Kinda like the Christians who claim to be so faithful but whose faith is threatened at every turn. Yes, faith is hard. But crap, stand behind what you do! Nobody cares as much about your work as you do. That's just a fact. But if all you want is to write wonderfully and have people praise you, don't get produced or published. Because once it's out there, man, it ain't yours anymore. Nobody's gonna have the same interpretation and love that you have. So either don't publish, or learn to live with it.

Ms. Hamilton actually does one thing right -- she mentions her sales figures. I once had an internets tiff with a romance writer (I won't name any names but she also writes under a pseudonym). Said romance writer was furious that I (along with others in the same forum) denigrated her genre by saying that no great writers had ever crossed over from romance, although writers from other genres have and are considered great writers. This is simply true. But this particular romance writer took major umbrage. Because the most important thing to her was being respected. She spent all of her online time in a forum, as herself, where fawning acolytes spewed praise upon her. Negative attention never occurred to her. But when the negative attention came, all she had to do was go, "Hey, you know what? I'm insanely popular, and way richer than you could ever hope to be. And people adore my work. That's all that matters to me." She never did that. She spent her time trying to force us to admit that romance WAS a critically successful genre. Geez, woman, just wave your paycheck in front of me and say that's why you write! There's nothing wrong with that, if that's who you are. Absolutely nothing. So Ms. Hamilton didn't fall into THAT trap. But occasionally going in forums, wandering into communities because you need a quick ego fix? You're doomed to get pissed off and hurt. And that's why she's really pissed off -- she didn't expect it. She expected total adoration and she didn't get it. When the subject of a forum appears, she/he is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. It's not fair to the participants, and it makes some of them act out like three-year-olds. And you, the professional, pay the price.

The rest of the post, which is practically one ranty paragraph of about three million words, consists of Ms. Hamilton defending her characters which she, of course, sees as extensions of herself. She once again implores readers who don't like complexity to find it elsewhere. She actually wants "negative readers" to read books that are clinically organized, lacking in character, consisting only of plot. Um, sure, because that's the only alternative. And Ms. Hamilton thinks she's not pissed off? Seriously?

I've read several of her Anita Blake books. I quite liked them at the beginning but when they started getting self-indulgent, I checked out. Not when they started getting complex, Ms. Hamilton, or started to push the envelope. I can tell the difference, you see. The real kicker here (aside from Ms. Hamilton's utter failure to properly use an apostrophe) is that she goes on and on about HER universe and HER characters and how much they mean to her. What's funny about that? Her new series is uncomfortably close to Emma Bull's "War For the Oaks." Like, one step past "inspired by." And I'm not the only one who's noticed. It's funny that writers like Emma Bull, Tim Powers, Cory Doctorow and Robert Charles Wilson don't see the need to scream about their detractors. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they're not engaged in the social aspect of writing which, let's face it, is one tiny step above fan fiction. Ms. Hamilton is lucky enough to get paid for her fanfic. Better writers just WRITE, and damn the negativity. Stop whining, Ms. Hamilton. It's unseemly.

I'll talk about music in the next post. I swear.

np - "Condoleezza, Check My Posse," the Majestic Twelve. Hilarious.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

It's the End Of The Blog As We Know It...

Not the end of the blog... just as we know it. This blog came to be because I wanted to follow what promised to be an exciting pilot development process. The process was supposed to go at least until the end of January, when most networks have made their pick-ups. It's not to be. We were given an official pass (our first in five pilots) on -- you can't make this shit up -- my birthday. Networks generally don't give official passes to pilots they like because God forbid you should sell it somewhere else. So this tells you how the network feels about the pilot. Were they wrong to pass on it? Well... sort of. What seems to be happening now is that networks simply don't have the time to devote to projects. In other words, they don't have time to give you notes because the development process was so late this year. Just to give you an example of the timetable -- we turned our pilot in to the studio on December 15th. We got studio notes the following Monday. The script went into the studio on Wednesday. Our notes call, scheduled for Thursday, became the pass.

What's happened in the past is, you do a few rounds with the studio and the network and you're done before the holidays. But everything was months late this year. After getting the studio notes, it was officially obvious that the script needed a lot more work, but there wasn't any time for that. This is not unique to our project. Everybody is in this boat. Networks have to read 25 scripts over a weekend and make decisions based on that. How impossible is that? You try reading 25 projects over a weekend and see how detailed you can get when you have notes calls scheduled all day the following Monday. This is not a good way to do business, but this is what happened this year. So projects that would have been shepherded a little more, got the pass. What we were told (by our producer -- we didn't talk to the network) is that the network didn't think we could turn it around in time for it to be in the mix. Because the next step is, the network takes their strongest projects and those go on to the network president.

We're accustomed to having our scripts make it to that stage and then continue on until they choose the other one to shoot. So it was sensible to think that with a project as strong as this one, as perfect for its network, championed by two strong producers, we'd at LEAST make it to that stage. Well.

So back to the question: was the network wrong to pass? Yes, in the sense that we weren't given the chance to rectify things. And no, in the sense that the script was not good. I don't think we disagreed with a studio or a network note throughout the entire process. What we delivered was a compromise, not a vision. And that's the tightrope that you walk in this business. Because we admire the people with strong visions and voices -- Joss Whedon, Rob Thomas, Ron Moore, Amy Sherman-Palladino. When you wind up being strangled by that tightrope, you look at people like this and think, How the HELL did they do it??? How did they manage to navigate these shark-infested waters and keep their integrity intact? How could they fight and not be slapped down for it? That's the kismet of television. Sometimes all the planets align and a creative visionary is given his or her head. That's when we get truly great television. The rest of the time, we all struggle and produce the ghostly shell of what was in our minds.

But for those moments when you're really onto something, when you get to create exactly what you want to... that's why we put up with the other crap. I've had that pleasure on three episodes of TeeVee, which is three episodes more than most writers get. It's always an attempt to duplicate that. I don't know if it will ever happen again, but you can't stop trying. It's a lot like winning the Kentucky Derby. Once you get the fever, you can't stop trying, even if the longing goes on for decades. It's the pinnacle of the industry, just like really personal work is for TeeVee. Of course, nobody saw the damned things, but that's another story.

Our pilots have always been about our voice. It's the one thing that, IMO, a pilot needs to survive. It was rather fascinating to watch that being sucked out of this pilot. And for the past several weeks, we've seen the writing on the wall. I wanted to be wrong -- totally and utterly wrong. But in the end, it turned out the way we feared it would. And we're not alone -- this is going to be the story of 90% of the pilots written this year.

But there will still be things to blog about. My writing partner and I were accepted into the WGA Showrunner's Program (don't tell them we don't have a pilot anymore!), which starts this week and runs for six Saturdays. So I'll talk about that. And we're going to write our pilot the way we wanted to write it. No influences. Just us. We're gonna crank through it and hopefully show the network and the studio what OUR vision was. We want them to see that this IS a show and that we can follow up a great pitch with a great script. And, erm, we need a writing sample for next staffing season.

Next blog, which will come a lot sooner because we're not at anyone's beck and call right now, I'll talk about music and why I hated Brick.