Contemplations on the Whiteboard

Recently I re-watched the fascinating documentary Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show which can be found on iTunes here.

It’s a good documentary for TV writers, especially, and TV lovers may also enjoy learning about what goes on behind the scenes.

As I watched, one of the things I couldn’t help notice was that in every writer’s room (where most of the Showrunners were interviewed), there were white boards. They were huge, and they lined the walls. They were covered in neatly scrawled outlines for episodes and for seasons. I would have loved to take a closer look.

The reason I’m so interested in white boards is that it might be the most useful tool I’ve learned so far in graduate school. When I studied at Writers Boot Camp, the curriculum was more movie than TV-oriented, and none of my teachers had a television background. When I started to write TV Pilots, I always ended up with too much content and too many pages. When I cut pages, my pilots would end up story-dense – in other words, too much story for the available page count. Learning to use a whiteboard has helped me to write lighter page-counts, and then I can add the content that will most enrich my characters, rather than having to cut, cut, cut.

Since my grad school program is Writing and Producing for Television, all my teachers have TV backgrounds. And that, I’ve learned, means using a white board. The first semester program included a six-hour class where my cohort wrote an original pilot together. While I could go on about the folly of having 13 strangers write a pilot together, for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to concentrate on the whiteboard.

We started by plotting out the season. We didn’t plot it out in detail, just the broad strokes, including major events at the mid-season mark and the season finale, and how to get from here to there. Once that was complete, we turned to the pilot episode. That’s where it got interesting.

The teacher divided the board into four sections (one for each act) and numbered from one to six in each of the four sections. We had a good idea of the A story line by then. We started with the broad strokes, again filling in the set-up event, the act-outs and the end, until we had two or three scenes per act fleshing out the story. Using different colors, we proceeded to fill in the other story lines. Soon, had the beginnings of an outline. From there, we wrote the actual outline on the computer, and then scenes, updating the board as we went along. Soon, we had a first draft. This process is known as “breaking story.”

Example of a Whiteboard with a pilot episode mapped out
Example Whiteboard

For me, using a whiteboard has revolutionized TV writing. In my own pilot-writing process, there are a lot more steps to go through before I plot anything out on the whiteboard, including making sure each story line stands on its own. Before consolidating my story lines into a script, however, the whiteboard helps me to make sure I’m ending the acts on the strongest moments, spreading out the story lines in a way that works for the story, the timeline, and the overall balance, so there’s not too much of any one story line back-to-back. Whenever I’m planning a rewrite, I can see at a glance where changes will be made and how to make room for new content.

While there are many facets to writing an original pilot that using a whiteboard won’t help with, such as characters, relationships, theme, symbolism, and plot development, this was the missing tool in my arsenal and I’m very happy to have it in my toolbox.

Triumphs in Queer TV

I really enjoyed making this video essay — so much so that I think I’ll keep making them. I’d love to know your thoughts.

Text of Theresa Rebeck Laura Pels Keynote Address

Last night I saw someone do something very brave. My friend, Theresa Rebeck, a very successful playwright, TV writer and novelist, got up in front of a group

via Text of Theresa Rebeck Laura Pels Keynote Address.

Studying Directors

I went back to school this spring, and will finally have my bachelors in TV Writing and Media Arts within the year. For my American Cinema Class, I have to choose a major star or director to focus a research paper on. We’re supposed to pick three films over the course of their career and discuss reflections on society at the time the films were made. Since feminist issues seem to be a central theme through all of my classes, I went in search of a great female director. I was only able to find a few with a large enough body of work to study samples from different time periods. Since I write screenplays myself and dream of becoming a slash, I’m super-concerned with the Hollywood boy’s club’s misogyny and ageism.

I chose the director Kathryn Bigelow. I knew of her, of course, but hadn’t seen most of her films or studied her in any way. Last night I watched “The Weight of Water,” from 2000, which was fascinating, although it received mixed reviews. I had no idea that she had directed “Point Break,” which of course I saw in my Keanu Reeves phase – hahaha. She’s building an impressive body of work, and at this point I’m frustrated about having to pick three to focus the paper on. I’m sure I’ll change my mind once the deadline starts looming, but I’m also sure that I’ll see as many of her films as possible.

Here are some interesting facts about her. She was born in 1951, which makes her 63 now and still going strong. She’s divorced from Cameron Crowe, which I’m sure was a huge factor in her earlier success — being married to him, I mean. I love that she beat him out for the Oscar with “The Hurt Locker.” Another factor that I find extremely interesting is that she is 5′ 11 1/2″ tall. I read once that tall men are more likely to be successful and make more money than shorter ones — I’m sure that’s true for women as well. Many people consider her movies to be “guy movies.”

If you want to discuss any other female directors, I’d love to hear from you. I’ll keep you posted on my studies of Kathryn Bigelow.

Here’s the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nelE1UbylSE

Check in on Screenwriting

I was distressed to discover that it’s been almost a year since I’ve blogged. Certain life events interfered with the process for me, and it’s only now that things have settled down that I can commit to blogging on a regular basis.

One of the main occurrences was a job in a production company in midtown, where I am a part-time receptionist. Even working part time after not working for a while changed my schedule enough to cause major repercussions. I’m once again searching for a full-time job, so it will be interesting to see how much impact that has on me.

The first thing that went out the window after I started the job was my writing. I had always been a morning writer and now I have to leave the house at 6:45 to be at my desk by eight. I was already getting up at 5:30 and couldn’t imagine getting up any earlier. I tried to get the writing in later in the day, but no matter how committed I felt, there were many days it never happened. Eventually I realized that if I didn’t want to give up writing entirely, I’d have to get up at 4.  Since last Christmas I’ve been writing from 4 to 6 am. It’s become my favorite time of day, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world. I still try to get some more writing in later in the day, as well as on the weekends, but if life intervenes, at least I got that time in.

I hardly feel qualified to give advice to anyone, but when I look back over my blog, it seems preachy and know-it-all. I’ve decided to just keep the focus on myself and let any readers in on my process, rather than trying to teach anything. If it helps someone, that’s great.

Today I’m working on a new original pilot, and I have a final draft needed on my Sci-fi pilot. I have a couple of specs and an abandoned feature. There have been a few more false starts. I’m still a beginner. The only difference is, now I know enough to realize it. I’m working towards a body of work that I feel good about, and then I hope to win a contest and/or find an agent. I’ve applied for the network fellowships for the third year in a row.

If, as they say, the journey is more important than the destination, then I’m doing great. I can’t deny, though, that I have a burning desire to be staffed on a TV drama. Until that day, I’ll be logging my 10,000 hours.

The next thing I have to fit in is getting to the gym on a regular basis.

Thanks for reading, and keep writing!

Prep for Success

If you’re a relative beginner, like me, it is time to accept  that screenwriting comes with a long and difficult learning curve.

In addition to the daily requirement of  hours at the keyboard, one of the ways you can set yourself up to succeed is through ongoing involvement with screenwriting classes. Mine is with Writers Boot Camp. They have a great set of tools and a serious commitment to creating professional writers. They also have networking opportunities and events, and many other opportunities to stay involved.  If you are starting out, I couldn’t recommend it more. I started back in June of 2009 with Basic Training, the six-week class. I’d been trying to teach myself the craft from books for over a year, and could barely get my script out of Act One. I took the six week class and had a real first draft of the feature I was writing, complete with beginning, middle and end.

Because I loved the class and really wanted to do this, I enrolled that September in Project Group. The first six months was done online with one-on-one sessions by telephone with my instructor. The tools they teach are very difficult to grasp at first, and it was frustrating to me that I had to work so hard at them. Instead of an A+ and a pat on the back I’d get notes on how to make them stronger. The philosophy at WBC is that the focus is not on whether your work is good or bad, but on the goal of making a draft industry-worthy. I could see myself improving and the value of the system, but at the same time I had never worked so hard for so little positive reinforcement.

After the online portion of the course, I attended a class in New York City every two weeks, with weekly phone sessions with my instructor. I was lucky to live where I could take the course live, and even more lucky to have a very dedicated teacher who was willing to go over and above the call of duty. Since I knew TV was where I wanted to be, he suggested I do extra work to break down and study some of my favorite shows. With his help, I learned what made them work and how to bring some of those elements into my own writing.  By the time I finished the two year program, the tools clicked into place and were of great benefit to my writing process. My understanding of them continues to grow and so does their usefulness to me.

Being hard-working and committed to my writing, after the 2-year program I was invited to join Bivouac. It’s an alumni group designed to bridge the gap between Project Group and Professional Writer. In addition to a monthly meeting, I finally got my chance to evaluate scripts, which is nearly as valuable to my education as the tools of WBC. I was carefully trained to assess student scripts according to a strong set of guidelines and focused notes. The process is so effective that it allows me to help every single writer to advance to the next-stepping stone and make their script better. It has been incredibly rewarding and has a profound effect on my own writing.

If you want to be a screenwriter, it can help to surround yourself with people who have similar goals. Find a great teacher  and develop a writing process that works. If you are willing to use the available resources and work hard to master the craft, then it the question of “if,” becomes a question of “when.”

These are some of the ways I have set myself up to succeed, and I’d love to hear about yours. Keep writing…

Goals Review

It’s a whole new month – the summer is flying by and I’ve hardly blogged at all. I’ve been very busy, interning for a production company, writing my original pilot, looking for paid work and reading and evaluating scripts. Not to mention trying to keep my two lazy teens busy and all the maintenance tasks life requires, as well as helping my husband with his business. Is it any wonder I can’t find time to blog? Nonetheless, it’s important to me and I am re-committing to a regular publication. Ideally I’d do one each day, but will be happy with once or twice a week.

I decided this would be a good time to review my goals. Here is the list I made of New Year’s resolutions for 2012, along with a progress report on each one:

  1. + Continue to work on my screenplays every day, 5 – 7 times per week  — I’d say I’ve done a fairly good job at this. I write steadily, and if I miss a day or two I give myself a stern talking to and remind me what my priorities are, and that the writing comes first.
  2. + Keep a blog – Also a successful endeavor! I may not have blogged as much as I hoped I would, but at least I’ve blogged each month. There’s always room for improvement
  3. – Exercise 3 – 5 times per week – I’ve barely gotten to the gym, and now I know that I really need to in order to keep up with the pace of the life I want. Unfortunately, I’m not twenty anymore
  4. – Get back to Flylady’s housework plan: minimum input for maximum output – the house is a wreck and Flylady’s emails remain largely unopened
  5. – Open the mail and process daily; keep the finances organized and running smoothly – The finances are a mess and the mail piles up by the time I get to it. Thank the universe that most of the bills are paid through online banking!
  6. + Eat healthier; get the kids to eat healthier – I definitely changed our eating habits for the better, and am making healthier choices when I shop
  7. + Get out more instead of isolating at home – I’d still rather stay home, but it’s much easier to get out during the summer. Besides, interning for the production company I don’t really have a choice. I’ve also been better about making plans and meeting friends socially
  8. + Start that writing group and do more networking – I started a writing group, which worked for a while and died off. I’m in Bivouac, which is a professional writers group, and I’m doing quite a bit of networking
  9. – /+ Get a job writing for TV – okay, maybe that wasn’t a realistic goal. But I did enter the fellowship competitions at Disney/ABC, NBC Writers on the Verge and WB. Unlike last year, my applications were awesome, prepared ahead of time and my sample was very strong and tight. Who knows? I could hear from them… stranger things have happened.
  10. + Say yes to all opportunities – Yes, I have been doing that – now if I could only get a financially lucrative opportunity to say yes to!
  11. + Monitor progress weekly and monthly – Okay, maybe not, but I’m doing it now, right?
  12. x This one’s new – Rewrite my Original Pilot until it’s tight and awesome, then do another draft on my White Collar Spec, so I’ll have three strong samples, and start finding people to read them once they are really ready.
  13. x Get a real job with a paycheck and health benefits in the entertainment industry. I’ve been looking, but it’s tough out there
  14. x Start to form a real plan to move to LA

There you have it – the + means I’m making progress, the – need more attention, and the x means new. See you soon… Keep writing!

Summer TV

Not that long ago, great summer TV was an oxymoron. Luckily, those days are gone. Here are some shows I recommend catching up on:

Newsroom by Aaron Sorkin – HBO

Wow, what an exciting show! I think it might even be better than the West Wing. I just watched the first two episodes back to back and it’s truly riveting. Jeff Daniels is magnetic, and Emily Mortimer is simultaneously endearing, pathetic and and impressive.  Allison Pill and Dev Patel are both charming and believable in their youthful eagerness, ambition and intelligence. The dialogue crackles, the pace is fast and the plot twists are surprising and suspenseful.

Falling Skies – TNT

Once I caught the first episode of Season 2, I had to go back and see the entirety of Season 1. It’s a science fiction show about Aliens who invade the earth, kill the adults and kidnap the children. Noah Wylie plays a father of 3 boys whose wife was killed in the first wave of attacks. Now they are members of an organized militia staging a resistance against the aliens.  There is a lot of violence and action, yet it still manages to be character-driven. It’s a well-written, engaging escape. I highly recommend it.

So You Think You Can Dance – FOX

This is the summer’s guilty pleasure, for me. I find it so interesting to get that peek into the passion and hard work that goes into a career in dancing. Sure it’s beautiful, but it’s also inspiring, dangerous, and heartbreaking. There are certainly a lot more injuries than you’ll ever see on American Idol! I can’t resist seeing these very young people putting all they have into their dream.

Breaking Pointe – CW

This is a reality show on the CW that just finished its first season. It’s an inside look at Ballet West, located in Salt Lake City, Utah. The dancing is breathtaking, the characters are engaging, and the drama, well, it is the CW. I imagine you can find it in reruns for the rest of the summer, along with its airing partner “The Vampire Diaries.” Hard bodies all around.

Worth mentioning:

True Blood – HBO

It took me a long time to get this show. Sure it’s funny, but I had a hard time identifying with the characters. Is it me, or are they unnaturally stupid? However… it is great to see Chris Meloni back in a villain role. If you’re like me, you loved him as Chris Keller in Oz. After a decade of playing Detective Stabler on SVU, he’s back on HBO.

And a plug for HBO GO – its replaced Netflix as my favorite streaming video ever. Way to go, HBO.

Fellowship Applications: What Not to Do

Last year, around June 8, I decided to enter the competition for NBC/Universal Writers on the Verge. I didn’t have a completed spec, or even a half-completed spec, but felt that if I worked hard on it, I could get it in time for the June 29th deadline. I decided to write a Vampire Diaries Spec, because I had been watching it with my teenage daughter and I thought it was fun and it fit the specifications of being popular, renewed and in its first three seasons.

Actually, Season two had just wrapped up, and that gave me about forty-four episodes to study, most of which I had seen. The first thing I needed to do was to find some scripts to see how the show was formatted and get a feel for the style of the writing. As it turned out, CW scripts are hard to come by, and I was only able to get my hands on the pilot. What I couldn’t learn from that, I had to make up or glean from the show.

For the next three weeks I worked very hard to get the script together, 8 to 12 hours a day. I hadn’t done a spec script and was still learning how TV story lines intertwined. What I ended up with was a polished first draft, but a first draft nonetheless. Being an egomaniacal newbie writer, I sent off the script, convinced that even in its unfinished state, my natural talent would shine through – Hah! On the day it was due, I slaved away on my computer until the last possible moment, finishing up the essay questions and filling out the application. Of course I never heard from them.

This year I’m doing somewhat better. Having spent the rest of the summer rewriting my spec, I sent it off to a contest in which it placed in the quarterfinals. That alerted me that another draft was needed. I took the time to rework it, cut it down considerably, and through the process of several evaluations over the life of the script, I got it close to the best it could be.

This year, I have already applied to Disney and WB. Thankfully, I learned my lesson and had my essays written, reviewed and rewritten well in advance. The actual preparation of the applications took much longer than I anticipated, so I was very happy to have given myself that extra time. Weeks before the deadline, I asked some friends in the industry for letters of recommendation, which they agreed to do. I ended up with three glowing letters to choose two from, and felt that the application I sent off would be seriously considered. I had done all I could do.

I’d say the most important lesson I’ve learned is that I never want to show anyone work that is sub-par. Second, another set of eyes will always see something I’ve missed, so it makes a lot of sense to have my work evaluated by a trusted advisor. Third, everything takes longer than I think it will, so I have to leave extra time to do it right.

That’s what I’ve learned to date about applying for Fellowships and Workshops. If you have any insight to the process, I’d love to hear about it.

Checking In

I haven’t been blogging as much as I’d like, because I’ve been so busy writing my scripts. Here’s a sneak peek into what I’ve been up to lately, and what I plan to write about in the near future.

  • How many drafts does it take to get to a final product?
  • Writing with a partner – joys and frustrations
  • Getting those applications off and what not to do
  • Nerdist.com
  • What script evaluations teach me