Restraint of Pen and Tongue – Great for Life, Bad for Scripts

I’m a 4 am writer. I love the quiet, the darkness, the lack of ringing phones and pressing business. It’s just me, my two sleeping dogs, and my laptop.

One of my mantras is “stay off the internet,” but I’m not always that strong. Especially if I’m waiting to hear from someone.

The days I go straight to my dropbox and don’t even open Google Chrome are the best. I get so much done, and barely even think a thought that isn’t about the world I am creating. But the days when I check my email… I get distracted. I want to interact with real people, think about my day and share my thoughts. Sometimes, I feel lonely and anxious and write emails I might regret later. On the worst days, I get into a neurotic anxiety spiral and share it with whomever I reach out to.

Long ago, I first heard the phrase “restraint of tongue and pen.” When I remember that, I benefit greatly, and the place I need to remember it most is when I’m emailing someone. It seems so important to say what I want to say, and it’s so easy for the person on the other end not to understand, to misconstrue, to take something personally that was never meant that way, or just to think I’m a mess. Invariably when I let my emotions take over, I regret it. Then I’m embarrassed at best, and at worst, I’ve hurt someone’s feelings.

In my screenplays, however, I can let myself go. My characters can say what they need to say and take the consequences. It’s all up to me. Early in the process, when I’m writing a first draft, I may have a tendency to hold back, limit the suffering I put my characters through. In rewrites, one of the first questions I ask myself is “Where do I back off, and how far can I push it?”

One time, a trusted mentor read a draft of one of my scripts in progress. He asked me why I had skipped from the beginning of a meal to the end when there was a potential for so much interesting interaction. The surprising answer (even to me) was that I did it because I wanted to save the actors from having to eat during the scene. Of course, his response was that they are actors and they love to be tortured. Otherwise they don’t think they are doing their jobs! He was kidding, but you have to admit he had a point. Why else would they gravitate towards roles with the widest emotional range and the greatest physical torment?

One of the things I often notice when covering scripts for beginning writers, is the tendency not to let the main character suffer. Most early screenplays are somewhat autobiographical. The writer wants the main character to be liked and understood, therefore is afraid to let him or her act out. Then, because it’s them, they don’t want them to suffer.  I always remind them that flawed characters are most human and that’s why we love them, and the more they suffer along the way, the more we want them to succeed. So go ahead, let the nun get raped, the thief get caught and the diver hit his head on the rock. Just don’t do it in an email!

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
  • What script evaluations teach me

Great article by David Mamet

In my opinion, what David suggests in this article is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard on screenwriting. I couldn’t wait to share the link: Ican’t wait to read some more of this blog by David Chen. It looks amazing.

TV Specs and How To Break a Series Down

When discussing TV specs, we are always told how important it is to break the show down, but in my experience, there’s not a lot of guidance about what that means. For the most part, I’ve developed my own procedures, which I am happy to share with you today.

I spend a lot of time breaking down a series before I begin to write the spec. When I was doing the Vampire Diaries last summer, I only gave myself three weeks to break down the show and write the first draft. That basically meant two weeks of breakdown and one week of outlining and drafting. As soon as I finished the first draft, I went back to the breakdown, which continued throughout the writing. I had no way of acquiring Vampire Diaries scripts, except for the pilot. Not having them was a handicap, but I’m so glad I went through the process of writing it anyway. It was the first script I finished, and I learned a lot.

For one thing, VD is serialized, and the episode I wrote picked up where Season Two ended. It was meant to be the beginning of Season Three. In my study of the series, I discovered that each show has three to four story lines. I wrote four.  It’s a bit long for an episode, and I am sure the formatting doesn’t perfectly match the show. That’s where not having scripts was a problem. The other problem was that I put the finishing touches on it at the end of August, and the Season Three premiere was a week or two later. That made it outdated almost immediately.

As an episode, it encompasses much more story than a normal episode would, but it also set up the next few episodes for the season. It was exciting to watch the real episode on TV! I was gratified to find out that several of the things I had written in my script came to pass. Other things were different, of course, but in subsequent episodes my scenes kept popping up. I take that as a sign that I did a good job of getting into the workings of the show. To me, that says I’m hirable as a staff writer.  That’s very good news, since staffed on a TV drama is exactly where I want to be. On the other hand, taking on so much story in one episode would not work in real life. There is several episodes worth of storytelling in that one spec.

Having learned what I learned, I chose an episodic show for my next spec: White Collar. I also made sure I was able to acquire scripts. Ellen Sandler, writer of many TV comedies, suggests you have three. I was able to get my hands on five. I won’t give away my source, but I will say it was a product of a networking opportunity. Using Sandler’s book, the TV Writer’s Workbook, I made a spreadsheet of everything I could think of to count.  That told me a lot about how the show was structured and how the story lines intersect.  Of course I am also studying every show in the series.

After I practically memorize every episode and dissect the scripts I have, I start outlining. If done correctly, this takes quite a bit longer than actually writing the first draft. This is where I get into the protagonist’s goals and relationships, and the other major components. By the time I’ve worked that all out for all the story lines, I have a pretty extensive outline. I also have a list of things that need to be part of the episode, such as traits that show up, or tics a certain character uses, how many jokes are there (even in drama), and what story points are integral to most, if not all, episodes. I have a range of formatting options, as well as non-changing structure, such as number of acts, if there’s a teaser, etc.

Laid out this way, it sounds exhausting, but it’s really fun. It’s doing all things I love! I’m watching TV, reading scripts, writing and defining characters. By the time I start the first draft, it practically writes itself. Then I take a rest while I send it off to a trusted advisor. That’s a lie. I usually start on something else so my good habits aren’t interrupted. It comes from terror that if I let them go I’ll never get them back.

If this article helps anyone, I’d really love to hear about it in a comment below. As a new writer, who has worked very hard to acquire what skills I have, it’s important for me to share what I can and help others. I have gotten a lot of help already and I will continue to need it to get this career off the ground. In a way, I’m paying it forward. Conversely, if you know of any steps for breakdown that I haven’t touched on, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, happy writing!


The best days are the days we get to write. It flows, and the time allotted flies by. Those are the days we leave the computer wishing for more time, longing for the moment we can return. We think about it all day, and even sometimes write in our sleep. Those moments of reverie between sleeping and waking are the best of all. The answers come. The truth about how your character has to respond in a situation that was puzzling you, or where you went wrong in the battle scene.
Other days aren’t so fun. Those days, we have to don our editor’s cap and do the outlining, the revisions, the cutting. Sometimes it feels like slogging through quicksand. The worst thing we can do on those days is invite the muse in, let her take over, and give in to creativity. Because without the editor, we can never finish, we can’t polish, we can’t see what’s missing, or what isn’t working. We certainly can’t “murder our darlings.” The editor is every bit as important as the writer. And they don’t always get along. It’s best to keep them separate.
I have a routine worked out for when I’m stuck. First of all, I set the timer for 15 minutes, and continue to work on what I was working on. Sometimes that solves the dilemma. If the timer goes off, and I’m still miserable, I do something else. Sometimes it means skipping a scene and going to one I feel better about. Sometimes I work backwards, and sometimes I switch tasks entirely. There are two things I try not to do. One is switch between my writer and editor caps, and the other is to leave a session stuck.
Whenever I switch from editor to writer in one session, I usually end up writing something that I won’t use. That’s a waste of precious writing time. If I leave a session feeling stuck, that’s worse. It means that I will not want to return, I’ll have to wrestle myself back into the chair and I’ll still have to deal with the stuck part when I finally do overcome procrastination. If instead, I find a more pleasant way to end the session, I won’t have given myself another reason to avoid writing. Life gives me plenty of those already.