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.

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…

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

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.

A Draft per Month for Twelve Months

A year ago in March, I came to the realization that unless I put my writing first, it was never going to get done. My life needed to revolve around my screenwriting, instead of the other way around. That was when I started getting up at 5 and writing for two hours before my kids got up and the day kicked in. It wasn’t perfect, since some of the time was inevitably claimed by dogs, coffee, and a bite to eat, not to mention regular old daydreaming. For the most part, though, it was quite productive. As they say, an ounce of morning is worth a pound of afternoon.

Every once in a while (or more often), I get a notion that if I’d take that morning time to get other things out of the way, I’d have even more time to write during the day. Inevitably, I try it. Sometimes for a week, or two, or even longer. And every single time, I discover that it doesn’t work. When I get up and write first, I may or may not get back to it during the day, but at least I know I got some writing in and the most important thing was taken care of. When I use the time for other things, like this blog, I sometimes get the writing in later and sometimes I don’t. Inevitably, my project stalls, I lose interest, then have to work myself up into a frenzy of motivation, and get back to my morning writing.

The main reason I am sharing this is to come clean and admit that even though I continue to work hard and improve regularly, I am far from perfect. It’s also good for me to have a written account of the struggle to refer back to the next time I start thinking the mornings could be used more constructively. Maybe I’ll save myself the trouble next time.

Another reason I wanted to reiterate the importance of daily, scheduled, uninterrupted writing time, is that I am seriously thinking about setting myself a new goal of a draft per month for twelve months. In that way, I’ll be building up a body of work samples, flexing my screenwriting muscles and getting closer to those 10,000 hours it takes to master a craft, according to Malcolm Gladwell. I know it’s a very lofty and difficult goal, but the outcome can only be positive. What have I got to lose, after all?

I’ve been writing screenplays for a few years now. I took classes and have a great set of tools to take me from inception through final draft. I have a working support alliance, and I’m evaluating scripts for students at my old school. It’s time to sh*t or get off the pot, as my dear departed Mom would have said. I’d like to think she’d be proud of me. Is there anyone out there who would care to join me in a draft per month for twelve months? Happy writing!

Smashing Procrastination

When I started screenwriting, I procrastinated over the usual things. The kids had to be picked up, the reports needed typing, the bills paying, the housework, the dinner, the DVR with my favorite TV show on it. I eventually realized that if I didn’t give screenwriting a central place in my life and its own home on my schedule, I would never finish anything.

Over time, I learned to put my writing first and everything else after it. It took some trial and error, and eventually I settled into a time slot early in the morning, before the interruptions started.  That worked really well for a while.

Until… I got better at disciplining myself to write, and my procrastination got better too.  While I was writing, it was off doing push-ups. It learned to wait for me to let my guard down, and then pounce.

Sometimes, I don’t even know I’m  procrastinating. Blogging, for instance, has become a major source of procrastination for me. The rationale is that it is an important networking tool, and that I am furthering my screenwriting efforts by sharing what I know. And technically, it is writing. It’s good practice for me to put myself “out there.” In some ways, it really helps me. And so do social networking and discussions and forums and email updates and research and books and trades… you get the picture. Even TV-watching helps me prepare to achieve my goals.

And then there are the really beneficial distractions. I am beginning to read and evaluate scripts. I’ve got two writers groups, one of which I am organizing. The other one is made up of members with far more experience than I (translation — I have to prove my worthiness to be there). Those things will take up several hours per week, but will also make my writing better.

So now it’s not only my family, home, hubby’s business, two dogs, and managing everyone’s schedules, but all those writing-related activities as well. And suddenly, there’s too many important things to get done and no time to work on my White Collar Spec! I’ve gotten away from it without even realizing it was happening. That’s how cunning procrastination is.

So I’m back to square one, having to learn the same lesson. Screenwriting first, everything else second.

Okay, it sounds good, but what does it mean? How do I fight this enormously powerful enemy—procrastination in all its forms?

This is where I need all the tools at my command. First of all, I need to be absolutely clear about what is most important and why. I can look back at my statement in Hill’s Key #1, in which I developed a “Major Purpose.” I can remember how much I want to work in TV, and how all the other things in my life can support that if I let them. I can talk to members of my mastermind alliance, and therefore stay accountable. I can admit it in my blog: I’m not getting much writing done. I can make a commitment: I will finish my first draft by Wednesday. It is more important than the script evaluation due tomorrow, the preparation for my groups, or the laundry that needs folding.

Now it gets a little tricky. See, all those other things still have to get done. They are important and if I try to neglect them, they get in the way of my writing by pulling my focus. That’s another thing I’ve had to learn the hard way.  Therefore, my second task is to make a list of priorities. First priority, screenplay. Second priority, evaluation. Third, meeting preparation, fourth housework.  No, that can’t work. I’ve forgotten about personal care and family care. Those things can’t get put on hold indefinitely.  So here’s the revision:

1.  Screenplay—first draft finished Wednesday, about 6 hours per day

2.  Personal Care (shower, meals, sleep, etc.), 11 hours, 7 left

3.  Kids to school, to home, homework done, appointments kept. 2 hours 5 to go, plus all my downtime gets spent with them and hubby, and meals, too.

4.  Bare minimum of housework (just for this week) 1 hour incl. laundry and meal clean-up, 4 left

5.  Evaluation of script due Monday. 3 to 4 hours, but I’ll start it tonight, jut in case it takes longer

6.  Breakdown of 2 – 4 TV Shows or Movies by Wednesday Evening. I’d better make it 2 TV shows, and get it done Tuesday!

7.  Preparation for Writer Action Group Thursday Evening. Mercifully, it’s mostly done.

8.  Now that I know the priorities, I can map out a schedule so everything gets the attention it needs and I get some downtime, too. Like all day Friday, for starters.

9.  Each and every time I catch that devil procrastination in all its cunning disguises sneaking up on me, I will take a gigantic mental sledgehammer, and smash it to smithereens!

How do you fight procrastination?

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 Decision I Make Every Day

When I first took screenwriting classes, I was expected to meet deadlines on outlining tools and drafts. It was impossible for me to schedule the work, because I hadn’t figured out how long things took, and I was constantly getting lost in my own perfectionism/procrastination cycle. So the deadlines would come and go, and I was always asking my teacher for an extension, and then another one.  He was always patient with me, but I was frustrated with myself.

I realized that if I was ever going to finish a screenplay, I needed to change. When I started to turn in what I had, whether it was finished or not, that was a real beginning. I hated turning in drafts before I was ready to let them go, but I learned that it really didn’t matter in the long run. Every milestone reached put me a step closer to a finished product.

Nonetheless, I wanted to do better. The day that really changed my life, I came to the realization that I needed to work my life around my screenwriting. Until then, I had been working screenwriting around my life. The single most important decision I have ever made was to get up each morning and write from 5 to 7 am. In my psyche, with that decision, I stepped over the line and became a real  screenwriter.

That was about a year ago. Suddenly, I not only met deadlines, I started to exceed them. That felt very, very good.

This year, I’m learning to plan my work out on a calendar. I have writing tasks designated for each day, a first draft due date, and subsequent drafts as well.  Any task will expand to fill the time allotted, so I have many safeguards in place against getting lost in the process.

One of my favorite tricks is to use a timer.  If I’m having trouble concentrating, I’ll set it for 15 minutes and stay with a task, then switch tasks when the timer goes off. Most of the time that gets me involved and I no longer want to switch. I also use it to make sure I don’t overdo it with perfectionism. If I’m allowing myself to spend an hour on something, I can spend six if I’m not careful, and end up with something that’s no better than what I had after an hour. So I set the timer, and try hard to stop when it goes off.

The same goes for deadlines. If I spend a year on a first draft, it’s still a mess, because it’s a first draft. At least if I do it in four to six weeks, it’s a mess that I didn’t spend the last year of my life agonizing over. (Agonizing is a topic for another day). Trust me, I’ve done it both ways, and it’s much better to crank it out and let it go. Even a six-week deadline is too long for me to wrap my head around. It might as well be forever. So I give myself shorter milestones for each week. That way I can stay on track, and meet or exceed my deadlines.

I sound perfect, don’t I? I’m a wonder of self-discipline and fortitude. Not lately, I’m not…

Lately I’ve been more concerned with my blog than my screenplay. I’m working on a White Collar Spec, and the project is a lot of fun. But I’m distracted. I wonder if anyone is reading my blog, or there are any new comments. I check my email and face book pages to see if there’s any news. I read other blogs to see what people are writing about.  I’ve been cutting myself slack, because I’m new at this. But it’s time to get back to work.

That is a decision I have to make every day.

SOME DAYS YOU’RE THE WRITER, AND OTHER DAYS YOU’RE THE EDITOR

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.
THOSE DAYS DON’T LAST, BUT THEY DO COME AGAIN
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.