There and Back Again: a Writer’s Tale

Karen Venice Beach June 2017
Karen Venice Beach June 2017

Last spring, immediately upon graduating from my MFA Program, I hopped in the car and drove from my home in New York City to Los Angeles. My plan was to submerge myself in the world of entertainment and look for any kind of work in the industry, hoping to form alliances and make contacts that would lead to a staff writer job in TV Drama.

My real hope was that I would find enough success that my family of hardcore New Yorkers would pull up their deep roots and join me there. The fallback plan was that if it didn’t work, I’d come back to New York and keep working on my career from this end. Since you can tell from the title of the piece that I am back in New York, you already know the ending of the story. However, there’s a lot more to tell about the middle. In fact, I think I might be writing about this trip for a long time to come.

Dylan, Bobby and Jess at a restaurant
Jessica’s 21st Birthday

At first glance, the trip would appear to have been a failure, but it was far from it. In the next series of articles, I will write about my experiences there from several perspectives. First and foremost, I want to write about the realities of being fifty-something with a whole lot to give and not finding anyone who’s interested because they can’t see past your age. Secondly, being married for twenty-two years to a wonderful man and mom to two now-grown children, this was the first time I was on my own in the world. Sure, I had their support and probably couldn’t have managed the trip without it, but having three to four months of independence from family living was fantastic. I feel guilty even writing that sentence, but it’s true. Of course, I missed them, but I’d recommend the trial separation to anyone who has been married a long time if only to appreciate what you have.

Third, I will write about the reunion with old friends that I enjoyed in L.A. and how wonderful it was to see people I hadn’t seen for a quarter-century and find that the connections that made us friends still existed. I’ll speak of my unexpected love of the city of Los Angeles and the kindness of people who reached out to me after hearing my story of chasing my dreams. I’ve lost count of how many articles that makes, but there is another topic I want to address that may not seem to fit in with the overall topic of the blog but has become very important to me, nonetheless: minimalism.  And I haven’t even broached the topic of career!

I hope you’ll join me for the upcoming L.A. series, and I look forward to hearing your comments on life changes and anything else you’d like to communicate. Keep writing. 🙂

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!

A Networking Story

Hi all,

I’ve been having some good luck with networking lately, and I thought I would share the following emails I exchanged with Manny Fonseca. He’s a weekly columnist for the http://www.thebusinessofshowinstitute.com/newsletter-06-29-12.html#06-29-12-12 . He also mentioned me in this week’s column. If you’re a screenwriter and you’re not reading this newsletter, you are missing out on a valuable opportunity to gain insider knowledge of the industry at no cost.

As far as networking is concerned, I’ve come to believe that there is no one too important to  reach out to, so long as you know how to do it and respect boundaries. Here is our exchange:

Hi Manny,

I love your column and appreciate the time you take to help out those of us trying to break into the business. I particularly love your advice on what not to do when you get an opportunity to meet with mucky-mucks.

I’m a fairly new screenwriter in New York, and have been working hard to master the craft for about three years. My goal is to get a job in TV at the staff table. I’ve applied for the network fellowships and workshops, but know what a long shot it is. Everyone has told me that I have to be in LA to work in TV, and I have taken this advice to heart. I definitely don’t want to die without at least giving it a chance.

A few months ago you mentioned the “living in LA” question in your column, and said something like — if you’re married, and your spouse doesn’t want to move, leave him. Although I know you were joking, I agree that there are worse reasons for separation! In my case it is not only my husband, but also my two teenagers who have no desire to be in LA. I am making preparations to move out there on my own in the fall and give it a shot. If it works, I’ll bring them out there, if not I’ll come home. I’ve worked too hard and love this too much not to take a shot.

My question is, other than the usual approach of meeting everyone possible and attending networking events, do you have any particular advice to hit the ground running? Since I’m leaving my family to pursue my dream, I want to make the best possible use of my time.

Once again, thank you for your time and attention. I’d love to buy you a drink sometime to show my gratitude and shoot the breeze.

Karen

——————————————————————————————————————————————

Karen,

First off…wow.

What does hubby and the kids think?  Or, have you even told them yet?

I shared your email with a couple of friends over the weekend and they were both semi-horrified even going to the joke that my advice “was breaking up a family.”

I’m not like them though…I applaud what you’re doing.  The “what if” is WAY more brutal than the trying and failing thing.  At least with the latter you know now.  Know what I mean?

My advice, although it might be kinda hard, is to try and get an internship somewhere.  You need to have some development experience under your belt and some “street cred.”

The golden opportunities are getting writer assistant jobs, interns on TV shows or working as a producer’s assistant.  Not sure what your background is and what your job history is like, but I’m sure you’re more than capable of surviving out here.

I will tell you straight up…it’s VERY lonely doing it on your own.  Even when you have someone.  My roommate is a very good friend of mine.  She finally moved out here this year and it’s been pretty hard on her.  She sits in the apartment all day with little to do.  She’s working on stuff, but nowhere near the amount of stuff she WANTS to be working on.

Keep that in mind.

As for that drink.  I’m buying the first round to celebrate your newfound road to happiness.  And please know you have a friend and a supporter of the cause.  Get out here and lets make it happen!

Manny

——————————————————————————————————————————————

Hi Manny,

I have to say, it was very classy of you to respond to my email so quickly and generously. I wasn’t expecting to hear from you at all. It means a lot, and gives me so much more courage to network.

My hubby and kids are scared but supportive. We plan to Skype constantly and visit whenever possible. Since they’ve been living with my obsession, too, they know how important it is for me to give it a shot. I think if we weren’t scared it would be weird. But, I believe we’ll get through it and end up together in the same city, hopefully while we reap the benefit of financial rewards through work in screenwriting.

I’m hoping to get some production credit under my belt this summer, and also to finish my original pilot, which will give me three good samples of my work. I also believe there is a good chance I’ll at least get an interview with either Disney, WB or NBC on the Verge. My applications, spec script and reference letters were very respectable.

I’ll definitely need to have paid work when I get out there.

I have a screenwriting blog at http://karenlovestv.com. I’d like to share some of your letter with my followers, along with a referral to your column/newsletter, of course. Would that be alright with you? It’s an article about networking strategies.

I’ll keep you informed and let you know when I’m arriving! Thanks for your support and advice,

Karen


Please, share whatever you like.

Let me offer this true tale.

Be prepared.

I preface this story with the knowledge that I realize that a girlfriend is very different than a husband and kids.  I know this BUT…

Be prepared.

When I came out here I had been dating a girl for two years.  We did all the usuals.  She bought a webcam.  We made plans to Skype.   Text.  Chat daily.

Buy shit happens.  You miss you’re first Skype date and it’s “what happened”. You say working late and they’re VERY supportive.

You miss your third Skype date and it’s what the fuck?

5th and you’re growing apart.

7th and its heading downhill.

Then there’s the reverse.  You’ve just put in a 12 hour day.  You get home exhausted and just want to say hi and go to bed.  You jump on…where the hell are you?  You get this text…”watching blah blah blah, jump on in 15.” and you get resentful.  You don’t want to wait 15.  You want to go to bed.

My point is this…don’t plan anything.  Don’t set yourself up for disappointment.  Come out here ready to work but also prep yourself that it just MAY be one or the other.

What if you make it and they change their minds and don’t want to live in California?

What if you make it and they move but are resentful?

My girlfriend never had any intention of coming out here.  She never thought I’d make it and catered to the fantasy.  She supported the 3-4 month plan and then when I got a full time gig she “was happy for me” but not happy for me.  Know what I mean?

Just be prepared.

That’s all.

M

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.

Success

It’s measured in moments. Tiny increments of achievement, over time add up to significant progress. Sometimes you notice them. Once in a while, someone else notices. Most often, they go unrecognized in the daily grind of life, when you struggle at the keyboard to finish a scene, to edit what you wrote yesterday, to elevate the content from the mundane and derivative to something fresh and captivating.

Suddenly, one day, you’ve arrived at a milestone. You didn’t see it or hear it coming, but you felt it gathering. Maybe you weren’t sure what it was, exactly, but you knew things were shifting, you were getting somewhere. In moments of doubt, you wondered if it was your imagination. There’s only one thing to do. Keep writing.

It’s been a few years now, and you are sending out an application, just like the rest of the world of aspiring screenwriters. That most coveted prize of the ABC/Disney Fellowship dangles before you. You know you’re a serious candidate, that you’d be an asset to the staff table, but hardly dare to hope that anyone else will recognize that. There are many gifted people out there. How do you stand out from the crowd?

So, you call on your most trusted teacher/advisor, and ask him to take another look at your spec script, even though he’s already evaluated it several times. And just to be sure, get a fresh pair of eyes to look it over, too. They tell you it’s good, although those words are not usually spoken in the context of the evaluation. Aside from a few suggestions of small edits, they have no notes for me. In fact, they both say they like it better than the show it’s based on. And in that moment you know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that you can really do it. You can achieve your dream and write for TV.

Now you are ready, and you dare to ask for the letters of recommendation you need to include with the application. It seems incredibly audacious, but you ask the friend in the writers’ room who’s too busy to eat if she’ll take a look at your script and write a recommendation. Since she knows how hard you work, and how much you want it, and also because she’s incredibly nice, she says she’ll be honored. You’ve already received another letter from your first teacher, an award-winning filmmaker. You really admire his work, and the praise in the letter is dazzling. He writes as though you are his equal.

You’re calm. Even though you’ve worked years for this recognition, you didn’t expect it. You know you’re ready to move on to the next level. There’s no mania, none of the adrenalin that accompanies forcing the way through things you just have to have. Your brain buzzes with hope and something else. That feeling that you’ve earned your seat and that it’s coming. Maybe you’ll win the fellowship and maybe you won’t, but you deserve it.

That moment is real success. And no achievement will ever feel better.

The Endless Maintenance of Life

Hi all,

When I first started blogging, it was really important to me, and I spent a lot of time making sure I wasn’t putting anything up there that would embarrass me later. In fact, there were times I spent so much time on it, that I stopped working on my screenplays for a while. Inevitably I remembered my priorities, stopped blogging and started screenwriting.

Well, that’s great, but I’ve come to the conclusion that a little balance would make a big difference. I am in the midst of a crunch, working with a writing partner to finish a script by the end of the month, I’m also doing script coverage and meeting with a monthly writers group, and not meeting deadlines on some online articles I promised.

The most positive thing about my screenwriting being at the center of my life, is that my mission and goals are always right before me, ensuring that most of my time is spent working towards them. How awesome is that? The only problem is that I am not just a screenwriter. I’m a wife and mother, a housekeeper (albeit a terrible one), a bill payer, a once-in-a-while administrator for my husbands business, a sister, friend and aunt. Not to mention, I’m a person with a body that needs care after hunching over a computer for six hours a day. Add in sleep, hygiene and meals, along with approximately three hours per day spent watching TV I’m not about to give up, an hour reading and studying, and time for my kids, and two hours for a trip to the gym, plus travel, and it’s no wonder I have no time to do the laundry, or energy to meet a friend.

So how do people find balance, without losing sight of what the real priorities are? If I’m honest, undone tasks get as much in the way of my personal fulfillment as not writing would. Maybe not as much, but close enough. I think the secret is to give a little bit of time to each area habitually, so things don’t smolder into fires that need putting out. 10 minutes of picking up 3 times per day keeps the house reasonably livable, and assuages my conscience enough to delegate some tasks to the kids. My reasoning goes, if I’m not doing it, how can I expect them to? Faulty perhaps, but there it is.

As far as the blogging goes, maybe I don’t have to be so careful. Maybe I’ll put my foot in my mouth and it will come back to haunt me. Maybe it’s not that important and it’s okay to just check in. I’m gonna give that a try.

Napoleon Hill’s 4th Key: Use Applied Faith

Some people believe in the God they learned about in their families of origin, others in a Higher Power of their own understanding. According to Napoleon Hill (and millions of twelve-steppers), it doesn’t matter what you believe in, as long as you are willing to put your faith in a Higher Power and act on it. As it says in “The Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous, “faith without works is dead.” According to Hill, faith is a state of mind that can be developed through daily practice. He refers to his own higher power as “Infinite Intelligence.”

Hill goes on to describe the various ways faith in “Infinite Intelligence” can be found. He discusses the patterns and order to be found in nature, and compares them to the workings of a wristwatch, in that it could never have been created randomly. Then he goes on to the inner workings of the mind, the still, small voice inside that guides us, the creative energy of the Mastermind Alliance, or the union of multiple minds to a single purpose, and the conscience which teaches us right from wrong.

Like Hill, I am a firm believer in a daily spiritual practice, which I have accomplished with varying degrees of success for the past twenty years or so. It began with “The Artist’s Way,” by Julia Cameron, and her wonderful suggestion of morning pages. Through those pages I found my voice as a writer, but first I found myself.  The days I didn’t write them, I felt disconnected from me. I was less able to make decisions, take positive actions, or even identify how I was feeling. My morning pages kept me in touch with what was most important to me.

From there I began to do some meditation, to write a gratitude list, and, yes, to pray. I came to believe in a Higher Power that had a plan for me. H.P. gave me talents and a dream and it became clear that it was my responsibility to use those talents. Since little else had worked for me in the career department, I threw myself into the dream of screenwriting.

I believe that’s what Hill means by “applied faith.” When those negative voices creep in to say I’m too old, not talented enough, or wasting my time, I only have to remind myself that I’ve got a job to do and my H.P. wants me to do it. And that no obstacle is too large for the Universe to conquer, but that it’s my job to do the footwork. So I do it, each day.

According to Hill, when you have a problem and ask your Higher Power for help:

You will recognize the solution by the soundness of the plan that occurs to you and by the feeling of enthusiasm which accompanies its recognition. As soon as you do recognize the plan, act on it at once! Do not hesitate, argue, challenge, worry, or fret about it. Act on it!

Hill goes on to talk about the various ways that we trip ourselves up with fear, and the power of naming those fears and accepting their existence. Then we can begin to overcome them by proceeding with our Major Purpose. He also speaks about the power of visualization and a Positive Mental Attitude.

For me, visualization is sometimes too powerful, in the sense that we can manifest something we aren’t ready for, or that we only think we want. I believe the power of positive thinking is overrated. I refuse to be an automaton who doesn’t let a little negativity creep in once in a while. Sometimes I even indulge in it. On the other hand, I am certain that obsessing on my fears of inadequacy and all the things wrong with the world and the industry will keep me from ever reaching my goals. So I plan to err on the side of positive thinking, at least most of the time.

I hope you are all pursuing your dreams. Until next time, happy writing!