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…

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

Hill’s Key #1: Develop Definiteness of Purpose

I’ve always been a sucker for self-help. Many of the books I’ve read have helped me. As long as I was reading them, that is. But there are a few books that I have returned to over the years, gradually building deeper understanding of their principles, and adapting their usage into my own life. The author that has helped me the most is Napoleon Hill.

Hill, may, in fact, be the father of self-help. His book “Think and Grow Rich,” was published in 1937, and was twenty years in the making. In it Hill recorded his observations from the study of many self-made millionaires, and interpreted his findings for anyone to use. It’s a very powerful book, but I prefer the more modern “Keys to Success,” which was published from his later teachings after his death. Since I’m blogging about my goals as a screenwriter, anyway, I thought it would be a great exercise to put the principles into action and report on each of them.

The first principle is that in order to achieve your goal you must have a “Definite Purpose.” This is a sort of road map to your goal. It includes not only exactly what you want, but what steps you are willing to take to get there. This is mine:

Karen’s Major Definite Purpose: I am a staff writer on a well-written, popular TV drama. As a part of the team, I am respected and valued for my contribution to the show, and depended upon for ideas, pages and integrity. I am well-paid, have good health insurance and benefits, and enjoy my life immensely. I am able to support my husband in retirement and put my children through college. Any debts I have accumulated along the way are paid in full, and I am generous with those less fortunate.

In order to achieve this purpose, I get up early and write each day for two to four hours or more. I submit my work to carefully chosen contests and fellowships, and show it to producers, agents, and anyone in a position to further my career. I behave in a professional manner, send thank-you notes and stay in touch with people I meet. I follow-up and follow through appropriately. I am building a body of work, and have several stories ready to pitch at any given time. I am prompt, agreeable, well-groomed and dependable. I maintain good physical health through diet and exercise so that I am able to meet the demands of long hours.

I maintain a presence on the internet through my blog, groups and social networking. I continue to build my Writers Action Group and to attend networking opportunities. I look for opportunities to help others achieve their goals, so I am deserving of the help I ask for. I keep my eyes and ears open for opportunity to further my goals, and act on the opportunities that present themselves.

I will post this statement on my office wall, read it aloud each day, and practice all of the above actions and more, without fail, until I have achieved my “Definite Purpose,” and am writing for TV.

For me, and perhaps for you as well, it takes a lot of courage and commitment to dare to want what I want, and to admit it to the world. My goals may change over time, in which case my “Definite Purpose” will change, too.

Next time, I’ll discuss Key #2, “Establish a Mastermind Alliance.” In the meantime, do you have a definite purpose? I would love to hear about it.