Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog



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Friday, September 30, 2005

What do you think, guys? Would you buy this book?

Please let me know what you think about this cover. Seriously. You like, you don't like... you are my core readership, so let me know your honest reactions.

(And please let me know now, as if there's anything you don't like about it, I have to convince my editor, and she'll have to convince the graphic design people at Holt!)

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Someone's cut a new trailer for The Shining. It's such a heartwarming movie. I'm taking my 10 year old.

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... the cultural tentpoles of America, please go see Mirrormask, Neil Gaiman's deeply weird fairy tale. That way, it'll go wide soon. K? It's at the Landmark Nuart in LA, Landmark Sunshine in New York. (It's also playing in about ten other cities; check out the site.)

The rest of you, Serenity is opening today.

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Thursday, September 29, 2005

This year, broadcast execs are telling us writers: go deeper! Be realer! Go scarier!

It's not something we're used to hearing. It's thrilling. We'd pinch ourselves, but then we might wake up.

Last year the show that kept coming up in meetings was Sopranos. This year it seems to be Rescue Me. I guess because it's much like another workplace soap, except it doesn't rule much territory off limits. Everything's up for grabs. The hook is ostensibly that Tommy Gavin sees dead people. But the real reason to keep tuning in is that it really shows you the weirdness of the male perspective in all its glory.

Looks like that's the direction they'd like us to go on one of our shows, and it's exciting. Except we're going into the deep, fragile, scary, volatile weirdness that inhabits the minds of 16 year old girls...

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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Responding to the folks who asked why the people in New Orleans didn't just leave, Joe Scalzi has this post about what being poor means.

E.g., Being poor means hoping your kids don't have a growth spurt.
E.g., Being poor means crying when you drop the mac and cheese on the floor.
E.g., Being poor means hoping the toothache goes away...

It's compelling reading.

I have never known anything but the most voluntary sort of frugality, thanks to my parents, and thanks to my grandparents, who started out poor enough. I hope I'm grateful enough.

It occurs to me that when the President talks about how he's in favor of the "ownership society," he means that society is there for those that own things, and if you don't, it's not.


Courtesy of Will Shetterly.

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COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: Who gets screen credit when a staff writer writes a show? I'm told the head writer often grabs the credit.

SG: That one's outside my experience. I did work on a show once where a freelance saw his script so rewritten by producer and script editor that he wanted his name off it, and the show went out with no writing credit at all.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: Do you write drama or comedy? Is there a big dividing line in the UK, or does one shade into the other? Here in Canada we have these wacky half hour dramas that don't exist anywhere else.

SG: I'm not stopping and thinking too deeply about this but I'd say the dividing line is very much there. Off the top of my head I can only think of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais who started out writing sitcoms and now write a successful blend of drama-with-humour. Mostly our drama's rigidly naturalistic while the most successful comedies of recent years have been quite dark and absurdist.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: How important do you feel genre is to television? Are there clearly defined genres? Does the audience like hybrid shows that cross genre lines, or are they problematic?

SG: Well, I grew up on genre shows and I think they're enormously audience-friendly and entertaining, but it seems I'm at odds with our commissioning culture in that one. Right now you'd have to look long and hard to find any British-made fantasy or sf outside of childrens' TV. Whenever I get one of my shows onto the screen, it always feels as if I'm reinventing the wheel. Even when one of them's well-received it seems to gain me no ground for the next one.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: Do you have a writer's union? Is it strong or weak? I notice the producers were proposing having multiple people writing episodes at once with no guarantee. Were you all to be paid, or only the lucky successful one?

SG: We have the Writers' Guild of Great Britain. I've been a member since my first professional sale and I served for three years as a regional chair. But I'd be kidding myself if I said we had the clout of, say, the WGA. [Ed. note: Neither does the WGC. The WGA can be pretty heavy when it needs to be.] Only a fraction of working writers are members. A significant fraction, and enough to have a credible presence when it comes to negotiating basic rates and conditions. But there are few direct advantages to joining, so many don't. As for the unacceptable 'writing race' that I was invited to be part of, I didn't stick around long enough to establish the terms.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: How do you know when a draft is done?

SG: When I've ticked off all the notes on my big yellow pad. I know the script's fully done when I've seen the rough cut and written or rewritten all the loop lines.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: How do you think the advent of DVD sets will change storytelling? E.g. will there be more room for serial storytelling?

SG: Getting an entire season of a TV show is like picking up a Russian novel. Suddenly serial elements are desirable instead of irritating. I mean, you miss the first episode of something on broadcast TV, and even if everyone's talking about it you feel that the bus has gone without you. Or you miss a show in mid-season and never regain your grip. Or you just run out of commitment... I remember getting all the way to the last episode in the second season of Murder One and just not having the will to watch the end, even though it was the one where you found out the verdict. We taped it, kept putting it off for months, finally taped over it. Still don't know the outcome. But with a set you've got no ads, better picture quality, and you set your own timetable. We've been watching Lost week-by-week (season one just started over here), but only until the DVDs arrived yesterday. Now we're three weeks ahead.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: What shows do you watch? Why?

SG: At the moment my must-sees are Deadwood, Carnivale, Alias (although season 3 tested my devotion and I'm not sure I'll be on board for season 4), Battlestar Galactica, Family Guy. I like CSI but only Las Vegas; I can watch New York but not Miami. I'm awed by the stripped-down procedural drive of Law & Order. I was never a Buffy fan but I think Firefly's wonderful. I've heard good things about House and Veronica Mars so they're both on the list. I think shows like these are the next logical step up from the kind of incident-led, movie-look entertainment TV I grew up with. The Saint, The Avengers, The Prisoner, Callan. The new stuff has the same kind of joy but with a richer adult sensibility.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: There seems to be more room in British TV for unlikable yet compelling leads. Only now are HBO and Showtime catching up with that. Why do you think the British audience has a greater stomach for watching shows about bastards and/or losers? Or is that not an accurate perception?

SG: I've heard theories that it's all a consequence of losing an Empire. All I can say is that I feel no personal responsibility for any of that.

Warren Zevon once said, "I couldn't imagine writing about a winner if he wasn't a loser who'd prevailed." I liked it so much I made it the opening quote in a book.

Thanks, Steve!

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I liked how Sunday's episode of Grey's Anatomy touched on the gaping flaw in US medicine: a big chunk of the population can't afford it. The doctors on ER can work miracles, but we don't see anyone turned away at the door because they don't have good enough coverage. Of course, they wimped out in the end. The writers pulled a rabbit out of their, well, some part of their anatomy, and our beloved patient didn't have to lose his bar after all. But it was nice to see that at least one show is aware that not everyone is getting a crack team of doctors working on their life-and-death emergency. A lot of people are just dying.

In the Canadian version, of course, the teaser would be: the character collapses in the bar, and the doctors say, "You need an operation, or you'll die! What's your schedule look like next Spring?"

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So FEMA hired Carnival Cruise Lines, at double their normal rate for a fun cruise, to house victims of Katrina. It's also buying huge quantities of mobile homes to give to the suddenly homeless.

Wouldn't this have been a golden opportunity to show that small business can do well what government can't? That is, give the victims money and let small and big business compete to provide housing in the most sensible manner, where the people decide they most need it? Rather than creating big projects. Almost no one is using the boats, of course, because how do you find a new job when you're living on a boat?

Not to mention, private enterprise could have taken people's rent money and used it to build housing, hiring the people who need the housing? Hell, people with Winnebagoes in their driveways could have driven them down and rented them out -- if there were money to be had.

Why award no-bid contracts? Why not let the market decide?

What I hate so much about this administration is that it won't even adhere to Republican principles. It spends like a drunken sailor, and the result is big government. But because they don't believe in big government, they make sure it's big, corrupt, ineffective government. If the US can't have big effective government like every other Western nation, with decent education and health care, at least could the US have effective lean government?

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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

"Brownie," testifying about FEMA's monumental incompetence in the face of Katrina, now claims that his biggest mistake was "not realizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional".

This is primo buck passing, and if he had been competent he would have known that about Louisiana before Saturday -- hell, he coulda just watched The Big Easy. But taking it at face value, this is why federalism is not always such a great idea. Sometimes the states just can't handle stuff very well...

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While we're at this comparison of writing TV in Britain and its North American colonies... would any working TV writers from other countries be willing to tell us about how it works there? Australia, for example? France? Germany? Iceland? Let me know and I'll send you a few questions, or you can just fire away.

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What I'm reading now -- at least, what I have out from the library and/or on my bathroom bookshelf...

Rubicon, a history of the last years of the Roman Republic. This is the book they based the miniseries (which I didn't see) on. Geez, their politicians would feel right at home in Washington, and it's not 'cause the architecture's the same. 'Cause, well, 'cause I like history. It's so much less painful than contemporary events.

Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw by Will Ferguson. So I can learn how to be more Canadian.

Introduction à l'ancien français, Chrestomathie du Moyen Age, Les Troubadours, L'Occitan Sans Peine: all research. I need to reconstruct about 20 lines of Old Occitàn, believe it or not, for my last screenplay.

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge. 'Cause I liked A Deepness in the sky so much. There is so not a movie here, but what the hell.

Sandman: La Saison des Brumes by Neil Gaiman. Reading it in French 'cause that's what was in the library. The library being, of course, the Bibliothèque Nationale de Québec. This time I'm looking at the artwork more. As they say in Cape Town: hectic.

What are you reading right now? (And just because you started Finnegan's Wake 20 years ago and gave up doesn't mean you're still "reading" it.)

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DMc has an interesting analysis today of the British and American systems of writing TV. Like me, he vastly prefers the American system of having a writer-showrunner and a Writing Room. (At the film fest, my writer cronies and I all agreed that there are few things more thrilling than breaking story in The Room.) He claims Canada has the worst of both systems. I'm not sure. I think we don't hire enough staff writers, but I believe that's changing. At least, I think I've convinced a few people...

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Ahhhh, The Avengers. Showed it to Lisa, who'd seen it as a kid and hadn't grokked it. This time she got it.

Not much story there -- slow even for the time -- 50% of it is Diana Rigg and Patrick McNee being sly at each other. Oh, but they do sly soooo well.

And Rigg in a leather catsuit, bound to a saddle sidesaddle ... well, who can say no to Diana Rigg in a leather catsuit? Not I.

It's a lesson to us all: so long as the characters are marvelous, you can get away with very little spectacle indeed, and low-key spectacle at that. (Karate chop!)

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COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: How do you break into TV in the UK?

SG: In my case I started out writing for radio, where there were genuine openings for newbies. You could write a piece on spec, send it in, make a sale, and be treated like a pro from the first day... and with any luck you'd rise to it and act like one. Most of my sales were to Saturday Night Theatre, a 90' slot for solid, well-told stories. One of these was a science fiction piece which my producer sent over to the Doctor Who office with a note, and out of that came my first TV commission. I used to say of radio drama that it was the nearest thing we had to a National Writing School. It's still a way in, but there aren't as many radio openings as there were.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: How do you get hired onto a British show?

SG: A producer's first instinct seems to be to call on the writers who've given them least trouble on previous shows. That can be regardless of whether they're the right person for the gig. There are a lot of competent dullards out there with lengthy resumes.

If stuck they'll send out a call to agents, describing the show and asking them to suggest suitable clients. Certain agents -- and I believe mine's amongst them -- have a reputation for paying attention to the brief and only suggesting genuine candidates. Others are like Broadway Danny Rose and send along every juggler on the books. They tend not to get asked again.

If they don't know you but your agent can make you sound good, the producer will read a sample of your work and then call you in for a meeting. After you've discussed the show, you go away and try to come up with a suitable story idea. You write it up in two or three pages, send it in, and wait. If they like it, they'll commission a treatment and if the treatment works, maybe after notes and revisions, they'll commission a script.

The limiting factor here, to my mind, is that every story in the show represents the first thoughts of an outsider encountering the concept for the first time. I didn't mind it as a contributor but I instantly saw the weakness in it from the creators' side -- good people coming along, grabbing the wrong end of the stick, rushing into story to get the job.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: You mentioned free lancers. Are many episodes free lanced or is it mostly staff?

SG: Almost everything's freelanced. The soaps tend to be the only shows with an actual writing staff. They have storyliners devising the long-distance stuff, which makes its way down to the contract writers in the form of scene breakdowns which they turn into dialogue. I got into a conversation with one of the contract writers at a Guild event once; he explained how they were paid by the episode but guaranteed a certain number of scripts in a year, with holiday provision and pension rights.

Going back to the earlier point about breaking in, I understand that some of the soaps will give new writers a tryout by giving them old scene breakdowns to work up. There was a scandal recently when one of them invited new writers to submit storylines in the hope of being given a tryout, but required them to sign away copyright. Then some of the rejected ideas began surfacing in the show... it was blamed on an over-enthusiastic individual in the script department.

More tomorrow...

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Monday, September 26, 2005

The president is calling on Americans to reduce their nonessential driving.

I'd like to clarify that a bit. Can we all agree that no one needs to drive a Hummer? Anywhere in the US? Ever?

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My interview with Stephen Gallagher, continued.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: I gather non-writing producers have more power in the UK?

SG: It's rare to find a producer with writing skills. Occasionally a writer makes a splash with a hit show and gets to be an Executive Producer on the next project, but with a few exceptions it's a vanity credit. One of the exceptions would be Russell Davies, who's effectively the showrunner on the Doctor Who revival. But I could probably name you dozens of the other kind.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: I have the impression the British system is more about small blocks of episodes completely written before they shoot, often by small numbers of writers who slave to get it all perfect before it goes to camera. If so, doesn't that create a lot of work for everyone and piss off the audience when you can only get 6 episodes of Coupling a year? (It took us 7 episodes to figure out the template for Naked Josh, and we only had 8 first season, damn it.)

SG: Every now and again you'll get a British TV executive fulminating over how British writers resist team writing and how they're singlehandedly responsible for holding back our television drama. But their own business model isn't about hiring writers, it's about buying stories, and as long as that persists then British writers are always going to be a bunch of spiky loners.

One of my favourite British shows of recent years was Jonathan Creek, a detective drama about the odd-couple pairing of a scruffy, lateral-thinking magic assistant and a dysfunctional true-crime writer who drew him into unsolveable cases. If ever a British series cried out for the creation of an inventive writing crew sparking off each other under the close direction of the show's creator, it was this one. It had the feel of something that could really have gone the distance. But instead they never made more than six of them in a year, all penned singlehandedly by David Renwick. Before the second year was out the cracks were showing and the inventiveness was flagging. Series four and five were down to three episodes each and the show felt dead on its feet. A real shame because at the beginning, it was great and the potential was always there. Renwick could have run a great ship but he just stayed chained to the desk.

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: When you're creating a show, do you write a spec pilot or a bible or what? How much do you write before taking it to a producer or network?

SG: Experience suggests that if you want a producer to pick up your idea and run with it, a descriptive proposal is best. Premise, setup, characters, story. Then they feel they're being involved from the ground up. If you show them a spec pilot it's like you've started the party without them. I find a useful compromise to be a proposal plus the first ten to fifteen pages of the pilot. If you've written the first act and you still haven't proved that there's a show there, then there's no show there.

As far as the network people are concerned, they'll only greenlight on the
basis of at least one fully developed script.

To be continued...

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

[I'm taking this post down because its content is probably too inflammatory for anyone to get what I was trying to say, and anyway it's off topic.]

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You probably should read this interview with Joss Whedon... I particularly like his attitude how you have to write your movie as if you'll never make another -- even if it is obviously based on a franchise and you may very well make another.

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Scott the Reader's blog is "Alligators in a Helicopter," which is a shout out to Josh Friedman's "Snakes on a Motherf***ing Plane." According to this post about his job as a pro reader, they're still paying $50 a pop. Yikes. I think it was $40 back in 1987 when I was reading for Carolco. Might have been $45, even.

Reading scripts is not a bad job to have done because you read a lot of scripts. It's not a job you want to keep long, I feel. Since you don't work in the office, you don't make too many contacts. Since you don't work in an office, you don't see why some badly written scripts are worth making and other better written scripts are not. (I got fired for virulently punting a boring Horton Foote screenplay; Horton Foote won an Oscar for To Kill a Mockingbird and the script was intended as a Molly Ringwald project. It was still boring as digging post holes.) I'd say reading for more than 6 months is not helping your career; try to get at least an assistant job in an agency or development company or production company. On the other hand, better a job in showbiz than a job not in showbiz, so long as you have some time left over for your own work.

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Watched Joyeux Noel at the Film Festival. (There are now two competing Montreal Film Festivals, but that's another story.) It's a crowd pleaser about Christmas eve, 1914, when the men in the trenches crossed no-man's-land to celebrate Christmas with each other.

From a writing standpoint, you'd think making a good movie out of that would be shooting fish in a barrel, but it's not. Sure, you have the magical event itself, punctuating the stupid horror that was the war to Make the World Safe for Democracy. But how do you make that personal? Or rather, how do you make that personal in a surprising yet inevitable way? We know how it's going to go. The guys are going to fraternize. Then they'll get in trouble for it because fat cat generals who've never been near the trenches think that fraternizing with the enemy is no way to fight a way.

You'd have to uncover an unknown side to it. Or find a way that some of the characters are at odds with the impromptu ceasefire, some reason they're against it. So they're torn.

As it was, everybody was sort of buffeted by external events. Buffeted by the war. Buffeted by Christmas. Helpless in the jaws of history.

People liked it, but there wasn't very much movie there. I think the reason it got made had a lot to do with it being a UK-French-Belgian-German-Rumanian (I kid you not) co-production. Dollars to doughnuts the producer got all the money he needed from the five governments and the theatrical rentals are pure gravy.

It frustrates me to see sloppily plotted independent films. They suck up funds that could go to better independent films -- funds that aren't exactly sloshing around. But meaning well is not the same as telling a good story.

I was particularly disappointed in this one because the movie isn't timely. The war that Western Civilization is in now isn't one that will take time out for Christmas. Jihadis don't celebrate Christmas. (I know that moderate Muslims venerate Christ as a prophet, but we're not at war with them. Yet.) It's easy to acknowledge that World War I was a spectacularly bad idea all round. But just exactly how the "global struggle against violent extremism" should be prosecuted, well, I don't know that you can make sense of that in a movie. Over There is doing a good job of reminding us what our troops are suffering through, but that doesn't say much about whether their sacrifice is or isn't worth it.

Anyway, the audience applauded and everyone came out happy. What do I know? I didn't think My Big Fat Greek Wedding was that great of a script, either. I'd have probably written it differently. I'm sure I could have got it down from $100 million box office to a very satisfying $10 million...

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Stephen Gallagher (Dr. Who, Rosemary and Thyme, Eleventh Hour) was kind enough to answer some questions about what it's like to write in the British system. It's sort of appalling, really...

COMPLICATIONS ENSUE: The big question, of course, is how the British system works. You probably have a good idea of how it's supposed to work here. A writer brings a pitch or spec pilot to a production company, which brings it to a net, or the net takes the pitch directly. They commission a pilot if it's not written already. Some of the pilots get shot. Some produced pilots are picked up for a series order. Usually there's a writing staff of 4-8 for a drama, more for a sitcom. The creator is showrunner if she or he has enough experience, otherwise the creator gets second chair while a showrunner's hired on. The showrunner is almost always an experienced writer.

STEPHEN GALLAGHER: In our case the first place to go with a pitch (or 'a submission', as it's still sometimes called) would be one of the old-style broadcasting companies, an independent producer, or the Drama Department of the BBC. They, in turn, are all entirely focused on the needs of the Channel Controllers, who'd be our equivalent of your network people.
There's a whole story to be told about the political background to changes in the structure of British TV during the 90s, but we'd be here all day if I started to tell it. I'll just jump ahead to the outcome, which is that we moved from a producer-led to a scheduler-led system. The tricky part is that we haven't made it all the way there yet.

A successful, active producer will pay you to write a pilot script. A lesser producer will get you polishing up your treatment for free in the hope that he can persuade someone else to underwrite the scripting. A total loser will try the old, "You write it for nothing, I'll put in my time, and everyone wins in the end" routine.

Whoever takes on your idea for development, there are effectively only two people in the business with significant greenlighting power -- the Controller of BBC1, and the ITV Network Drama Commissioner. Theirs are the big, popular channels with a lot of hours to fill. BBC2 and C4 have so few hours for original drama that it's barely worth taking a mainstream idea to them -- although it's sometimes worth remembering that BBC2 has a penchant for the Cultural (= set in the sixties) and C4 for anything 'edgy' (= issue-driven with wobbly camerawork). Our other channels generate little to no original drama at all, although they may invest in a piece of some international project and show it as their own.

The networks don't finance pilots, although they'll occasionally spring for a 'back door pilot' -- which means they'll commission a one-off drama for broadcast with the idea that they'll spin a series from it if it goes down well. But almost without exception, everything that gets made is going to get shown. It's after the greenlighting of a show that everything differs. The pitching process may be American-modern but the organisation for the making-of lags way behind.

The producer keeps hold of the reins and has the show written entirely by freelancers, of which you the creator will be the first in line. You may get hired to write further scripts, and you should get a 'created by' credit and a fee whenever it appears. But you'll have no actual creative control. You won't get an office, or a parking space, or even a pass to enter the building. You'll be required to show up for meetings but you don't get to call them. You may not even meet any of the other writers. The producer will be the arbiter over every creative thought you offer. You'll have to sit at home and watch the show if you want to find out what direction it's taking.

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Saturday, September 24, 2005

I'm promoting Michael Alan Nelson's comment to post 'cause it's so interesting and useful:
I've been asked to elaborate on my newbie mistakes and flat-falling techniques. So no laughing.

One of the main problems I had moving from writing prose to writing comic books was the limited space for my actual words. Since I'm quite fond of the sound of my own keyboard, I tend to dole out lengthy slabs of dripping prose. That works sometimes with standard fiction, but with comics there is only so much room to put text.

My first published graphic story was only 8 pages. When I first turned it in, half those pages were filled with dialogue so dense there would have been no room for the art. So my editor kicked it back and said "Cut." So I was forced to find the most economical way of saying what needed to be said, yet write it in a way that made it enjoyable for the reader. Needless to say, it was a painful learning experience.

In my second published graphic story, I had the same problem. Only this time it was with the art. I had too much information that needed to be crammed into two pages. And since I didn't have much experience with panel layout and writing a visual narrative, the artist had to struggle to get the story across effectively. He did a great job, but I'm sure he cursed my name several times during the process.

One thing I like to do in my prose is lay a little bit of pipe in the periphery. Just subtle things that happen off to the side that help establish the characters and their world without hitting the reader over the head with it. This can be done in comics too, but I just don't have that skill set yet to pull it off effectively.

It's all taken a little bit of adjusting. And moving back and forth between comics and prose can be especially draining. But I really enjoy the medium of comics. It opens up a way of story telling that I never had before.

Alex, you may also want to investigate some smaller publishers as well as Image. You might be able to get a book made without much, if any, money from your own pocket. You probably wouldn't have the name recognition that comes with Image(and the subsequent selling power), but it still could be beneficial. I'm published through a small publisher (BOOM! STUDIOS--sorry, had to plug)and even though they don't have the biggest name out there, they're known for quality comics. Just something for you to think about.

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Friday, September 23, 2005

Watched the tail end of A Few Good Men, 'cause the last copy we'd rented failed just about when Col. Jessup walked into the room.

Is there an effective Tom Cruise movie in which the theme isn't "he grows up"?

And what will he do for a living if he ever does grow up?

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Comics, huh? A chance to get some of those beloved projects going, the ones that are a wee bit ambitious for Canadian TV budgets, the ones that depend sooo much on the visuals ...

... a chance to fall into yet another medium which requires a huge learning curve. An ooooh so tempting medium. That I'm not really in the mainstream of, 'cause I don't really get Watchmen or Cerebus, only the stuff non-comics fans like, such as Sandman. So that's one strike against me right there.

And one which would require hiring artists, which in turn probably means hiring staff... and it would be tempting to have staff ...

... and it does seem like an awfully good way to get Unseen done ...

Fortunately all I'm doing right now is researching the possibilities. I'm just looking out over the ocean. Not, actually, renting a boat. Or buying a bathing suit. Or dipping my toes in the water ...

Some kind people have sent useful information my way. For the sort of thing I'm thinking of, Image Comics seems to be the way to go. They'll publish your comic for a fee, and it's up to you to put the comic together and market it. You keep the creative rights.

(Hmmm ... the Canada Council for the Arts funds graphic novels...)

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Can anyone give me a rough estimate of what it takes to produce a comic? Say you had a fantasy or SF TV series idea. Say you couldn't sell it to DC or Wildstorm or Marvel etc. Are comic books cheap enough to produce that you could actually finance a run of, say, six issues? 'Cause we all know execs will read comics when they won't read scripts. And (if it's done right) your book can answer a lot of questions about look and visual style that a script won't.

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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Woke up at 8. Wanted to go to sleep at 10. Instead I did what I felt up to doing, which was chewing through some of my TiVo'd shows. Watched Invasion which had just barely enough going on to keep me from fast forwarding through it. I need a little more story here, guys. Watched Over There. No clue if it's accurate. But it certainly is effective story telling, and it takes you some place you'd probably not want to go personally. Definitely watching this one. Watched The Grid. It's, y'know, fine. Too bad the terrorists are so much more compelling than the heros. Also, who are the core cast? I'm a little lost. I'm assuming Dylan McDermott and Julianne Margulies, but you wouldn't know it from the episode. And, of course, watched Rescue Me.

Had to go to sleep at 1. Just couldn't stay conscious. Lisa put me to bet with an ice pack on my shoulder. Realized it was not the pain medication. I really am sick... that explains the headaches, too...

I hope the next big pandemic doesn't come my way, I seem to have a barely functioning immune system...

UPDATE: I am sick, but the headaches turn out to be caffeine withdrawal. One of the perils of being a coffee-addicted freelancer is that sometmes you accidentally put decaf in the coffee maker. That can blow your whole day if it's not caught. Sleepiness followed by headaches. Now the headache's going away, but drinking coffee at 8:30 at night will have a cost, too...

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

I was loving Gilmore Girls last year, but "Fight Face" irritated me too much. Too many secondary characters who never listen to anyone, doing things that no one would do on Friends because it's too forced and TV-esque. It's fine to be an hour sitcom, but sitcom characters have to behave plausibly or it's not funny. I hope it's just a momentary lapse, but I watched half the show with my eyes closed out of sheer embarrassment.

Rescue Me, on the other hand. I'm still catching up on last year, but as for not-nice lead characters, Tommy Gavin's a pretty good example. He's a selfish, reckless, violent, womanizing alcoholic. But human, and watchable. And, by the way, Denis: Jim Profit could take a lesson from him on how to hurt your enemies and get away with it.

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... my American counterparts (some of them multi-award winning screenwriters/producers) said you never, ever write word one of the script until you've been hired to do so, and bibles should be somewhat limited with the information it has about the show, since the network suits will probably change 70-90 percent of it on you before the first draft of the pilot script is even finished.

So, I compromised. The bible runs about 35 pages and includes a detailed synopsis of the pilot episode, plus synopses of another 40 episodes or so right up to the two-hour series finale. But I will not write a single word of any script until the show gets the green light for production and I am hired/paid to do so.
I don't agree about network suits changing 90 percent of your show, because they're buying your show, so they must like most of it. We changed Naked Josh very early on from a show about a college student to one about a college professor, but it was the same show, just aged up 7 years. The basic relationships were the same, and the structure was the same (themed half hour comic drama).

Not that I'm an expert at this or anything, but I'll write a 10-15 page pitch bible and then try to get a producer and network on board. You should be able to get structure, template, characters and springboards into a dozen or so pages. Remember you're selling the sizzle, not the steak, so more detail than that and you're just making exec's heads ache. 35 pages might be right for a writer's bible, but too much for a pitch bible.

A lot of shows in the States are sold off spec pilots. After reading a pilot, an exec can sense whether there's a show there or not. Though as John Rogers pointed out recently , a hot pilot is no guarantee the writing staff won't have a gun in its collective mouth by January because the template isn't really there.

I'd say, if you love the project and you haven't got it set up, the next step is to write the pilot. If you can get people to buy the pitch and pay you to write the pilot, great, but if not, write the pilot. If nothing else you'll probably learn a lot of things about the show that will feed back into making a better pitch. Actually having to write stuff that will need to be shot will change a lot about your show, especially if it's in the fantasy genre.

Likewise, if you've got a great treatment for a movie, sure, try to get paid to write it. But if not, write the movie and try to sell it.

Also, don't stick forever on the same project. I'd love more than anything to get Unseen set up, but it's a hard sell. I'm letting it lay fallow a bit. I wrote the movie version as a backdoor pilot. I'm pitching other shows. I'll come back to Unseen and the show will probably be better for it. Certainly I'll be a more plausible showrunner.

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I sent off the manuscript for Crafty TV Writing to my editor at Holt. I'll follow up later today with a sample breakdown, beat sheet, and an act full of script pages. Which, for Charlie Jade fans, will contain my draft of the fourth act of "The Shortening of the Way." (Ever wonder where the A story went?)

I think this is gonna be an interesting book, even for veteran screenwriters...

I'm in a rare position these days of having more things that I wanna write than time to write them. I'm not usually full of ideas. I'm just good at closing. Give me a good series idea and I will probably write the series pitch bible (say 10-14 pages, assuming I can crack the template; give me a good screenplay idea and I will probably write the damn thing. So only having three or four ideas a year isn't so much of an impediment.

I want to rewrite Unseen. The script is probably "good enough," but I want it to be superfantastic. It's not the kind of movie that gets made if it's just "good enough."

I have to write The Eighth Day, 'cause Telefilm is paying me to, and the thoroughly nifty Anne Fenn will story edit.

I have to polish Medieval, 'cause it's doing me no good sitting there with marks all over it, and it's as close to a slamdunk concept as I usually get. (My ideas are usually much more ambitious than this one is.)

And I've got an occult thriller series whose title I don't even dare say... but which I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to write a hundred episodes of. Structurally it's less of a series than a series of mini-series. That is, it's structured like a Vertigo comic. A fundamentally interesting character goes on a series of shall we say adventures, but each adventure takes place over many episodes -- maybe even a season -- and each adventure makes a coherent story. Sort of like 24 if you can call those stories coherent. Harder to pitch than a proper series because there isn't a template -- "every week Lilah does X" -- there's no franchise. You have to actually know where the first story is going, and it wouldn't be a bad idea to know what the second story is. If you look at Hellblazer or Sandman, every graphic novel - several comix bound together -- is a complete story made of serveral episodes. This might be a better way to deal with sort of mythological material.

Has anyone tried this on TV? So far as I know your shows are either episodic -- each ep is a story -- or serial -- the story just goes on and on -- or some mix of each. But multi-story arcs, not so much. I think.

I get excited just thinking about it.

But one thing at a time. Damn it. I can't really justify starting on the occult thriller when I've got other stuff much closer to completion... And if the network comes back with a "yes," I'll be scrambling on Exposure...

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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

We sent off our revised pitch for Exposure to the network, having done our best to answer the notes the network gave us. Pitching series here in Canada seems to be much more a thing done on paper. Network execs take pitches on paper, people work up pitch bibles, and only then do you write your pilot. In the States, often seems to be the other way around: pitch the pilot, pitch the series, then maybe write the bible, maybe don't.

Anyway, I hope we got it right.

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According to Statcounter, no one who visited yesterday visited today. This seems unlikely. Has anyone had success counting unique visitors, rather than hits? What do you use?

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... starring Adrian Pasdar. Terrible pilot. I didn't like anyone. Didn't believe the main character, who was unconvincing as the too-arch or not-arch-enough villain. The ponderous v.o. didn't work for me. I don't care if main characters aren't likable, but I found him uncompelling.

Denis ... why do you like this show?

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Monday, September 19, 2005

Avast there! 'Tis International Talk Like a Pirate Day, me hearties.

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I'm halfway through watching Constantine. (Yes, it's that compelling.) And what I'm wondering is, why they felt the need to have the hero be John Constantine? Being as he doesn't wear a trenchcoat (a coat, yes, but a tan trenchcoat, not), is clearly on the side of Heaven, and doesn't crack wise. Let alone, isn't British. Oh, yes, and he's got a little sob story about growing up with the Sight.

John Constantine doing an exorcism gratis, in the hopes it will get him in good with God???

The movie's cool enough, it's just nothing to do with the John Constantine I know. Couldn't they have called Keanu Reeves' character by some other name? Leaving room for a movie about, well, John Constantine?

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If you are a showrunner or show creator or network executive, and you'd like a free advance copy of Crafty TV Writing, in exchange for your hopefully effusive quote about the book (assuming you like it), please let me know your contact info...

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Lisa and I drove from East Hampton to Montreal tonight, an ungodly long trip, but we got a lot of work done on Exposure. Car trips are the best for talking over the show, issues like tone and character. Somehow the road gives just enough distraction to free up the mind, while being stuck where you can't putter or actually write helps you focus on thinking. Lisa came up with a ton of premises -- she has a lot more insight, clearly, into being a 15 year old girl -- and we refined them and reworked them and made them into stories. It will take a day or two to work back into the written pitch but then I think we'll have a much more interesting show than we did, richer and more solid; and it was a good show before.

I would like to avoid taking any long car trips in the immediate future, but they sure are good for the creativity, if you have the write partner on board. In my case, I'm the structure guy and she's the one brimming with Things That Could Happen. With bad chemistry, a writing partnership can be hellish, but with the right one, it's like a great marriage. (In this case, of course, it actually is a great marriage...)

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Friday, September 16, 2005

Larry Fouch's Moviewatch pointed me at this useful page: The Sight and Sound Top Ten Poll. They've polled directors and critics on their favorite films. So if you want to see what Milos Forman watches on a rainy day, now you can.

Mine are:

Alien
Bladerunner
Annie Hall
Braveheart
When Harry Met Sally
All That Jazz
Cabaret
Moulin Rouge
Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring...

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

A couple of times I've been in story meetings with the director, the producer and -- gasp -- the original writers. While this mark of respect for the original writer is admirable, it makes things more difficult. It's something akin to the new parents meeting the mother who's giving up her baby -- except that the mother has been FIRED for bad mothering. Or, if you will, a story meeting between ex-husband and new husband. You get the idea.

No one likes hearing what's wrong with their baby, er, script. No one likes it. Most people dwell on the problems, not the good points of a script. After all, the good points don't need fixing. But there are always good points. If you are meeting with a producer about someone's script, there are plenty of good things about the script -- no one hires a writer to fix a script that has nothing going for it at all.

The best rules to keep in mind are:

a. If you are the original writer, don't defend your own stuff. It is really important to say things like "I'm not defending what's up there, I'm sure we can find something better, but..." You are entitled to point out what the old version accomplishes in terms of setting up plot points or character, or entertaining the audience -- any replacement is going to need to do those things.

b. You can also say what you were trying to achieve. If they don't like the scene, it may be because it doesn't accomplish what you thought it did. But if you explain what you were going for, the other people in the room, if they're listening, can sometimes find a quick fix to your scene that allows people to keep it. Usually people would rather keep stuff than replace stuff. It's less work that way.

If you happen to be the new writer in this very awkward sort of meeting, don't be afraid to go overboard praising what's good about the old script. Don't worry, the producers know what's wrong, that's why you're there. Be sure to start with praise and end with praise. If the producers have gone to the trouble of having the original writer there, it's for a reason -- either personal connections or the writer's got some kind of guaranteed involvement. No one will mind if you "waste" a little time being extra nice.

And when you do criticize, be functional about it. "I have a problem with this because" or "this seems to cause a problem here" is better than "This is bad" or "I hate this." Try to draw out the original writer about what they wanted the scene to do. Take advantage of them being there -- draw them into the process as much as possible. Treat them as a resource.

If you're a producer thinking of setting up such a meeting, try to make sure that only one person is new to the current approach. In other words, don't have three different people weigh in at once. The writer needs to convince the director. Then the writer and the director sell it to the producer. Then the producer and director sell it to anyone else, with the writer giving out positive, thoughtful vibes. Otherwise people wind up talking at cross purposes. It seems like more meetings would take more time, but they can be shorter meetings.

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Interesting interview with my favorite prose writer, Neil Gaiman, about his upcoming $4 million movie with Dave McKean, Mirrormask, and how special effects are changing what you can envisage in a script. Zemeckis told him "there's nothing you and Roger Avary can write that will cost more than $1 million per minute to shoot. Which is pretty cool to think about.

I'm dying to read Anansi Boys. It's not out for another five days, but who's counting?

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Cleaning up all the stuff that accumulated on my desk while I was away, and sending off the things I promised to send to all those development people I met in Toronto. My West Wing spec (yep, I've got a spec too), my pitch for The Alternative, occasionally a writing sample of something that's been on the air...

I've got two or three more pitches to send out, and then it's on to those very insightful network notes for Exposure. That should take a little while.

Boy, I do not love Toronto. It reminds me all too much of L.A. Big chunks of it actually look like LA. The many fine Thai restaurants do not entirely make up for the crappy low-rise buildings and scrubby lawns. And Tuesday it was wretched hot. With smog. Except that, you know, it's a wet heat.

Interviewing a couple of interns over the next day or so. You'd be amazed at the high level of experience and professionalism of some of these people. But then, the more professional you are, the more you understand how to leverage an internship.

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Someone in the Texas Democratic party -- either of them, really -- should register all those new voters living in the Astrodome. They might have some political opinions right about now.

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On Tuesday after Katrina, I blogged about how the President really ought to go to New Orleans to see the devastation firsthand, so he'd get it about what happened. And here again on Wednesday. Here's the Newsweek article about how he didn't get it about what happened until aides made a DVD of news reports. On Friday.

Ahem.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

North American films, both US and Canad, have a potential audience of, say 300 million people in North America alone. Quebecois French flicks are native to an audience of no more than around 5-6 million francophones in Canada. But ironically, it is English Canadian filmmakers who envy Quebec French filmmakers their tiny captive audience. Quebec has a real film community, with its own stars and star directors. French Canadians watch their own films. 20% of tickets sold in Quebec are to movies made in Quebec. That's as if 20% of all tickets sold in Tennessee were for films shot in Tennessee. (I wonder what the numbers are in France?)

French Canadian films speak to their audience as no other films do: not just in their own language and dialect, but in their own culture. These aren't just The Barbarian Invasions type Oscar bait. These are also popcorn movies like Les Boys I-IV, about a misfit hockey team, and the Elvis Gratton series about who the hell knows.

Should English Canadian films do the same? Lacking a captive audience, it's hard. There are TV movies about Canadian events, but I'm not watching them. For a theatrical movie to score for Canadian audiences, I'm not sure being culturally Canadian is as important as being a good movie that finds a niche in the overall North American cultural market.

But I'm hoping thereare some things you can do in Canadian films you can't do in American ones. Medieval may be a Sam-Raimi type comic horror movie, but it's also bilingual, because the characters just naturally are. We'll see if it gets made of course, and if I have to take the French out to get it made...

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Monday, September 12, 2005

I'm killing an hour before my first meeting today. I'm only pitching the comedy, and the comedy pitch is simple and easy and I know how to deliver it. So I don't really need to refresh it in my mind. I have some serious homework to do on Exposure, but I don't feel like gearing up for that -- I need to sit down with that for a good long while and think it through. The lifestyle show is essentially placed. So I am just sort of gathering my thoughts, and debating what to do after I rewrote Exposure and after I finish polishing Medieval. Write The 8th Day? Or rewrite Unseen?

Which is hardly an urgent decision, but helps me clear up a sensation of having too much on my plate. I've been hoping to place Unseen with a Quebec producer and thereby get paid for rewriting it, but at the glacial pace of the Quebec motion picture industry in the summer, that hasn't happened yet. I'm also thinking that since I know how I want to rewrite it, I should just do so, like I keep telling everyone else to do with their scripts.

Quebec producers take their cottage season a bit too seriously for my taste. I actually have Telefilm money for The Eighth Day. But my heart is more in Unseen, possibly just because I've worked on it more recently. And, if I wrote it up, my Toronto agents might be able to do something with it in LA...

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Saturday, September 10, 2005

A brunch, which was wonderful, and a schmoozy Telefilm party, which was hard work. Now I'm physically and psychically exhausted. Part of it is my arm, which never ceases to ache. But most of it is that I still find talking to new people, no matter how wonderful, exhausting. It just wears me out.

But all the work continues to be worth it as I get my story out and meet people who've actually heard of the shows I've done. I pitched stuff to producers and directors. I shook hands with gummint folks who dole out the money.

When I get home on Tuesday night I think I may just curl into a fetal position and have to be fed by hand.

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Friday, September 09, 2005

The meetings at this market are going brilliantly. Had a terrific meeting with a couple of extremely intelligent execs who showed by their comments that they really knew what I was pitching. They could see its flaws quite clearly, and sent me along with my work cut out for me. That means they took the time to understand my project, and could see the show, both as they'd like it and as I've put it on paper. I take that as a very good sign.

On another project, based on Lisa's book, there was some doubt, until the producer I was meeting came up with the very government program that will enable us to shoot a demo episode FREE. Which, even if the tv show didn't go, would still make a very good electronic press kit for the book -- something to show booksellers and to air on BookTV.

Now off to dinner with my agents, and then a big party thrown by the good people whose network air Charlie Jade.

It's all good...

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I'm on the fast train to Toronto, going through three, count'em,
three pitches, 'cause I naturally my first three meetings would all
be for different shows I want to do. And as I get the shows back into
my brain, I'm realizing that I didn't define the main character of
one of them well enough. I was trying to anticipate the questions
I'll get asked, and "Who is Claire really?" kinda threw me for a loop.

Now I have an answer.

One of the joys of television is it gets you out of that solipsistic
hermitlike writer frame of mind. Sure, a bad collaboration between
writers, or between writers and producers and network execs, can kill
a show. But a good one makes it incomparably better than anyone could
make it on its own. You just have to embrace the process, not run
from it.

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Tomorrow morning I get on the 6:55 to Toronto. (I love trains. You get to look into people's back yards.) Then it's 3 meetings on Friday, four on Monday, three on Tuesday, two big parties, a brunch with friends and for the rest of it, staying with one of my favorite fellow writers (and favorite people). This will be fun.

And it will be work. Worky McWork. I would probably never go to Toronto except that the Canadian business, toy that it is, mostly lives there. I've done pretty well in Quebec. But there are five times as many people making stuff there. So I gotta.

So as soon as I'm packed, I have to start reminding myself what the hell these tv shows I'm pitching are all about ... I've swapped them out of my brain to write Medieval and, before that, Bon Cop, Bad Cop. Now I've got to swap it all back in before my first network meeting tomorrow at 2...

...and having read Craig and John's little spiels, now I gotta work twice as hard!

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Will someone explain to me the magic of Sports Night. 'Cause I know there are fans out there. I watched the pilot, and the awkward laugh track really threw me. Tonight I'm watching the Season Two opener. And I sense there's a brain there. But instead of Sorkin applied to politics, which seems terribly urgent and important, this is Sorkin applied to sports news. Which seems like a big so what. Not to mention, in a half hour, the dialog seems less snappy and the camera much stiffer, the shots less interesting. Of course, I'm making a snap decision based on not particularly wanting to finish this episode, but I'm testy that way.

So, sports fans: why is this show great?

And: what shows from the past are worth going back to?

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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Toronto is sort of the L.A. of Canada, without the nice weather. It's spread out and there's no real there there, and everyone else mocks it for its cultural pretensions. Oh, and there's practically no architecture from before 1900. It is multi-ethnic without, somehow, feeling cosmopolitan. (DJ McCarthey calls Torontonians "Amish with cars."> People hate it, and then move there.

I'm going there on Friday for the Toronto Film Festival. Not to see movies, of course, though I'll try to catch Beowulf, 'cause it's got guys with axes and helmets, and my friend Lina Roessler's short, Berlin, because she's one of Montreal's best actresses. I'm going there to schmooze, of course. So far I've got meetings with two networks and six production companies, two big parties and a brunch, mostly thanks to my terrific Toronto agents.

It's my job.

And, of course, I'll see friends, which will be great.

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Thanks to Mac Harwood for 'splaining how I needed to hack my blog template to get the sidebar you see on the right. Mac, you rock.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

I generally don't crossref John Rogers' posts 'cause I assume y'all are just reading Kung Fu Monkey, but this yer post on how to turn your story into a selling pitch is particularly fine. It's based on Craig Mazin's equally fine article on pitching.

Now, class, what I'd like you to notice is how much work these two gentlemen put into the job of selling their stuff. They're not just writing it and throwing it to the dogs. They're chopping it up and mixing it with bacon and then feeding it to the dogs. That's why these guys are where they are. They're talented, but they also know how to focus their talents.

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I was just curious why showrunners in interviews, articles, always seem to make the comment that they prefer to read original spec material(pilot or film) instead of just another C.S.I. spec etc...as a writing sample?
My guess would be because they'd rather read a great spec pilot than a great CSI. After all, a great CSI is just a perfectly executed intellectual exercise (that's me being snarky about the show). You can watch a great CSI by turning on the television. A great pilot is something fresh and exciting. Reading the script is (if it's a great script) like watching the pilot to a new show that you want to start watching.

But you want to know what's the best script for you to pour your effort into. It takes much longer to learn how to write a great pilot than a great CSI.

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I'm looking for an intern here in Montreal.

Who you are: organized, articulate and determined. Clever, literate, funny, discreet, cool, organized and ambitious. And did I mention organized?

You're devoted to the great stories, and love television and movies. Possibly you want to be a director or producer, but probably, God help you, you want to be a writer. You might be a Mac person. You'd like some exposure to showbiz, and you're willing to pay your dues.

The job is whatever you make it, but here are some of the things I've asked my interns to do:
  • Scour the Net for interesting quotations for my book, especially interviews with screenwriters.
  • Figure out what's the best mobile phone I can get free from Fido.
  • Write to websites suggesting link exchanges.
  • Track down screenwriters' publicists or assistants and try to get an interview set up.
  • Find a good local venue for a showbiz get together (and get invited too).
  • Read the stuff I'm writing and give candid notes.
  • Read SF books and see if they're worth adapting. (Gee, this is a tough job sometimes.)
  • Find the best cheap personal copier.
  • Get an answer out of the tangle of bureaucracy that is the ACTRA Health Plan.
  • Enter a bunch of numbers into my cell phone.
  • Help brainstorm story ideas.

Mostly it's calling and tracking down and emailing and surfing. Mostly you don't have to come in to an office and can work on your own time.

The benefits of working for me for free include:
  • an inside look at the motion picture and television industry
  • meeting writers, producers and directors
  • a credit on your resume (or college credit, if you can set that up)
  • yes, after you've been working for me for a bit I will look at some of your stuff.
  • The unpaid job could turn into a paid job down the road, and if you prove yourself, I’ll also recommend you for any assistant positions I learn about, even if that would mean losing you as an intern.

I also sometimes need personal assistant-type stuff. Deal is, non-showbiz stuff I pay $8 an hour for, showbiz stuff is the internship.

If you're interested in an intern position here in Montreal, please email me a personable letter with a resume as an attached PDF. You may also answer as many of the following questions as you feel like:

  • How has TV drama changed overall over the past thirty years?
  • Who wears the third ring?
  • What's the earliest science fiction story? Why?
  • Where can I rent a small motorboat to tool around the St. Laurence River?
  • Où sont les neiges d'antan?

Do not post to the comments section. You should be able to locate my eddress without much trouble.

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Courtesy Assistant/Atlas, who knows whereof, here's the thinking on the hot specs:
Hot shows to spec: Entourage and Housewives,
definitely. With its plot twists and general
what-the-f***-is-going-on nature, Lost would be a pain
in the ass to spec for, and I don't think it's in as
much demand as you'd think.

With the proliferation of procedurals, any CSI-like
spec is probably the spec most likely to land you a
job. I'd say the other hot specs are the teen soaps:
The OC and One Tree Hill
Hah! See, I wouldn't have thought of One Tree Hill.

BBG did the call-the-agents'-assistants thing like I asked (it's so great when people actually take your advice!), and got
Entourage, Two and 1/2 Men, and Will and Grace for sitcoms
Desperate, C.S.I., LOST, Nip/Tuck, and House for hour long.
I asked if it's a good idea to write a pilot--they said no.
Yeah, I gotta repeat this: writing a spec pilot is NOT a particularly good idea unless you are a veteran tv writer. Why? Because writing a pilot is incredibly hard. Much, much harder than writing a spec episode. You write a spec Alias, as I've said before, you automatically get Jennifer Garner's pouty lips and knockout body in a sparkly dress. (At least until she starts showing.) You write a spec AKA or whatever you want to call your show, you've got to create your characters in the reader's head. You have to create the sense that your show has a template. On Naked Josh we spent the first seven episodes wrassling with the show's template, and I wrote at least one ep that simply wasn't in the template. This is on a "go" show, right? Already cast. Granted the NJ template was a tad ambitious, but you can really wrap yourself around a tree trying to create a template in a single episode.

If you are a veteran writer, there are advantages to writing a pilot. You can stand out from the crowd. You can show people your originality. But they already know you can write someone else's show. You have credits. You have a rep. And, of course, you can sell the damn thing. In my little neck of the woods, the next thing I write on spec in TV, whenever that is, will be a pilot. But I've sold a show and optioned others. If I were heading back to LA, ayn kaynhoreh, where I have no rep at all, I would be writing a spec episode of something -- my West Wing spec has begun to grow moss, and my Buffy and X-Files specs are rotting in the ground. (Not to mention, I write better than that now.)

By the way, it was an educational experience, that ep I wrote that wasn't in our template. Once you define the show, it stops being yours, even if you're one of the creators. Once you've established a template it becomes very hard to push outside that template. And that's why, as I keep saying, television is not a medium for personal expression. You can express yourself, yes, but it's not about you. It's about whatever parts of you will serve the show. The show is a beast that must be fed. Always best to bear that in mind when you're riding it.

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Monday, September 05, 2005

People are asking a lot of questions about specs and scripts to read today. 'sfunny, 'cause I could swear I just wrote up an index to previous posts. Many of them answer these very questions. And you no longer have the excuse of having to read a year's worth of blog to find the answers. You can just go to the index!

By the way, DMc doesn't recommend writing an Entourage spec. Read why.

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I'd love to figure out how to have a sidebar on either side of this blog, but the way I've programmed this blog's layout, it's not obvious to me how to do it. If one of you kind HTML mavens would like to take a look at the source and give me a hint how I can easily have two sidebars using CSS and not frames, I would appreciate it!

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I have been re-working my Entourage spec to make it more relevant. One of the ideas I was toying with was used in last night's epsiode, but more importantly, Ari, the agent, was fired and has begun setting up his own agency.

I want my spec to be ready by October, and of course I want it to be relevant for a little while at least. The problem is I have no idea where the show is going to take Ari, so I have no idea how to use him in my spec. Is he still at the old agency? working out of his car? has he told his wife? I feel like I am creating new details for the show for the purposes of my spec, details that will probably date my spec the minute they air the first episode of the 2nd season.
Inevitably, if you're speccing a serial show, it will be out of date in one detail or another. That's why you write a spec whose plot is tangential to the series arc. It's a one-off episode that does not depend on what's going to happen next.

You're not writing your spec as the next episode. You're writing a reasonably up to date episode, which at this point means an episode that could theoretically have aired somewhere in Season Two, which just ended. No one expects you to have an inside line into the Entourage writing room. (Though a lot of agents would kill to get one.)

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Sunday, September 04, 2005

In case you're new to this blog, here's a roundup of some of the higher signal-to-noise posts...

UPDATE: People keep asking about where to find scripts to read, and what a spec script does, and how to get a job in showbiz. My answers, dear friends, are below. Yes, I have already blogged about many of the things you're asking me about.

A glossary of tv writer terminology

Springboards

Challenge your core cast's strengths

Beating Out the Story

How do you get away with plotholes?
Making plotholes fun
Characters and their dumbass mistakes
On characters and the dumbass mistakes they make, part 2
On calling for backup, part 2
What can happen offscreen?
Nothing can happen offscreen
Time cuts
Train wrecks and telegraphing
Second thoughts on telegraphing
Addressing viewer expectations
Tracking expectations
Losing the audience's trust
Fully resolved by first act out?
Suspense v. surprise
Compressed reality
On step outlines
The Sucky Point
Getting past the Sucky Point
Going for the gimmes in the 4400 pilot

Scene Work

Have uncommunicative characters explain each other
The cut away from the predictable conversation
The conversation at cross purposes
Format wars
Good playing dialog vs. good reading dialog

Comedy

Three Tools from the Comic Toolkit
Where's the comedy
Comic commitment
Simple plots

Rewriting

On taking notes
When to pull the plug
The Writer Bomb

Production

Writing It Small
Why our producer doesn't like block shooting

The Writing Room

Credit the room, not the writer
Why you must have a writing room
Writing personnel titles

Your TV Career

Your foot in the door, or why you should intern
On staffing season
A few more words on TV spec scripts
Why you must have specs
Why not just write the specs, already?
Best Screenwriting School in the World. And it's free, too.
Be a back door man. Or woman
Script coordinator vs. writing assistant
Getting onto a show
Never say "no"
Contests and fellowships
Working with people who can't tell good from bad
Working for less than scale
Write a spec pilot?
Why you need an agent, part 37

Pitches, Bibles and Templates

The attractive fantasy
Pitches & Pitch Bibles
I just read a bad bible
Two things any pitch needs to answer
What network do you want your show on?
What is Gilmore Girls's template?
Blowing the template on Corner Gas?
Why Tour of Duty sucks
Character names
Backdoor pilots
Network first, or producer first?
Who's core cast?
What's the poster?
Episodic vs. serial

Reading TV

Where to find tv scripts to read
More where to find scripts

Watching TV

Watching with 9 year olds
Canadian SF?
More sex please
Car wreck TV
What naughty girls those L Word girls are
24 has jumped the shark
Watching Firefly
Project Greenlight, the fake break

Interviews with pros

Paul Guyot, part 1, part 2, and part 3 A "guyot" is an underwater seamount, in case you're wondering.
Shelley Eriksen, part 1, part 2 Part 3, part 4 and part 5
Jacob Sager Weinstein
Chris Abbott, part 1, part 2, part 3, part four, and part 5

Miscellaneous

Characters in SF&F
Writing Animal Characters
Remedial storytelling, or why Kerry lost
Sheherezade
On telling the truth
Redistricting, a modest proposal. Nothing to do with TV, but I wish someone would pick up the meme and run with it.

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[I want to write a spec script but] I don't know where to start. What's the page length for a half hour cable show? If I wanted to send it to the network for possible consideration for future seasons where do I begin or do I just use it as as a sample to find an agent? Do I write a couple to show them that I am not a one hit wonder? Any tips?
I should really do one of JR's "Index Fu" things. But I answer some of these questions in my TV FAQ, though it's way out of date now:

How do I sell my script to TV?

How do I get a job in TV?

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I'm struggling at the moment with the reality of medieval armored combat. (I like a job where this sort of conundrum comes up.) It's clear that bodkin arrows will punch through armor. By the same token, I can easily imagine the dagger point of a halberd punching through plate armor, not to mention chainmail, with the full weight of a knight focused on one sharp point. But how on earth did knights do any damage to each other with swords?

In period stories, you read all about knights splitting each other's helmets in half with a good stout blow. But it's hard to imagine in reality. Yes, a sword functions pretty much the same as an axe, focusing all its cutting power on wherever the blade hits. But if you took an axe to, say, a steel frying pan, good luck doing more than denting it. So, either people's helmets were made of far inferior metal (possible). Or, plate armor is not as thick as your basic steel frying pan (possible). Or, the stories are full of it (definitely possible).

You also read about Richard the Lionheart being able to crack an anvil with his sword, while Saladin could slice a feather in midair with his. That's definitely hyperbole. Ask anyone who owns an anvil. Maybe the swords were just for putting down the peasants, and knights hit each other with maces. On the other hand, you do see armored guys in medieval paintings with swords sticking out of them...

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Saturday, September 03, 2005

Here's a Scientific American article from October 2001 predicting what would happen if a major hurricane hit New Orleans (levees swamped, city drowned in 20 feet of water), and talking about the measures necessary to prevent it.

I know, Clint: get back to screenwriting. And I will. At least, I'll make sure it's not all outraged political sentiment. For those of you who are just here for the screenwriting, now's the time to bail on this post.

But I have noticed a few people here and there posting the question, "Since when is it government's job to protect people from natural disasters?" (Usually this is phrased, "Since when is it the *federal* government's job," as if Louisiana could handle a disaster this size on its own.)

On one hand, I agree that we have counterproductive policies, such as reimbursing people when their houses are destroyed by predictable disasters such as earthquakes in California, tornadoes in Kansas, hurricanes on the Gulf, storms on the Carolina barrier islands, etc., which encourages people to build houses where they woudn't otherwise do so. And build them in the same places, again, which is contrary to any sort of common sense.

But. My answer to "since when is it government's job" is ... since about 4000 BC, when people started having governments. What was all that stuff about Joseph and Pharoah's dream? It was Pharoah's job to store grain in the seven fat years against the seven lean years that were coming. Only Pharoah could afford to do it. Left to their own devices, some people would have stored grain, some wouldn't have, and when the famine came, the grasshoppers would have killed the ants and eaten them.

It is government's job to do those things that are for the common good that the market will not accomplish. I'm a free-trader. I think markets are the most efficient way of allocating resources ... except when there are externalities that the markets ignore. The cost to having my car on the road isn't just the gas I buy and the cost of the car. Someone has to build the road. I can't afford to build the road myself. Someone has to make sure the Middle East isn't taken over my people who hate us. I can't do that myself. Someone has to make sure that everyone stays on the right, and doesn't drive in the breakdown lanes. When people are just looking out for themselves and their own, it looks like ... well, something like New Orleans. Or Baghdad. I would be hard pressed to come up with a more legitimate purpose for the federal government than the job it didn't do in NOLA. It could have forbidden people to drain the marshes and build under sea level. It could have forbidden people from channelizing the Mississippi at the expense of the protective marshes and barrier islands. Or it could have built higher levees and sea gates on Lake Pontchartrain. Any of those would have helped.

I think it's instructive to look at the blue state/red state divide and ask: which are the successful, rich red states? I think the argument that taxes make people poor is belied by looking at the states. New York: blue, fabulously wealthy. California: blue, very well off. Mississippi: red, dirt poor. Louisiana: red, dirt poor. Ohio: doing okay for itself, swing state. Massachusetts: stinking rich, blue. You can make the case for Arizona (red, rich), but Arizona hasn't been populated long enough to have problems yet.

Taxes pay for things that make people rich by making society rich. Taxes pay for schools. Roads. Bridges. Day care. Health. Disaster planning. Well-trained police forces. Hospitals. Universities. I live much better in Canada than I did in LA, even though I pay more in taxes, because I get vastly more back. When they turn off the water to work on the pipes here, they call you first. Why? Because they're not so understaffed they can't take the time. Not to mention, they fix the pipes before they break.

If the US doesn't stop cutting taxes, it's going to turn itself into a Third World nation for real. Especially after the blue states secede and join Canada.

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It's just moved to Sesame Street.

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Nothing happens in August. Not here, anyway. August is "cottage season," where you go off and enjoy your country cottage with your family... while, in LA, the networks are deciding what pilots to approve.

And I'm sick of it. For one thing, no cottage. For another, I don't have extended family in Montreal. I'm a New Yorker. (So there, Josh Friedman.) (I keep meaning to spend August in East Hampton with my folks, but something always comes up. Last summer I was in Cape Town shooting Charlie Jade. This summer, Lisa has a deadline on her book, and East Hampton is a lovely place to go to dinner parties, not a writer's retreat with ten hour subsidized day care. And, honestly, I like writing too much. And for me, part of writing is cranking out the pages, and part of it is finding a home for those pages. And I can't do that in cottage season. No one reads in August.

In LA, they take screenplays to the beach, or they would if they ever actually went to the beach. (When I lived on 7th Street in Santa Monica, I went to the beach about once a month. I was seven blocks from sand and surf, and the weather was regularly perfect.) Here, I'm still waiting to hear anything on a script I had meetings on in June... that had one of Quebec's top directors attached. Not talking about the old brush-off. No one's read it.

So I've now got a big ol' backup in the pipeline. Ideas I would have liked to have pitched as treatments are now scripts. I've got a couple of series pitches that need homes.

Which, I guess, means I'll have good inventory for the Toronto Film Festival next weekend. Which is scheduled, I realize now, the week after people turn their brains back on.

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We burned out on watching Northern Exposure about 8 eps into Season 3. We sort of felt like, okay, we get the show. But it wasn't coming up with new material. Maggie would bitch at Joel. By the end of the episode they'd sort of be an item. Next episode, Maggie would be bitching at Joel. A series where relationships don't change much from ep to ep -- where you can pretty much just dip in at any point and know everything you need to know without a "Previously On" -- is called "episodic," as opposed to a "serial" show where story arcs span several episodes or the whole season/series.

DMc has a blog entry somewhere (I couldn't find it just now) about how networks like episodic series better than serial ones, and why he hates that. And our experience with NX just now reminds me why episodic doesn't work very well on DVD. The template shows its bones. Even on an inventive show like NX, you start to see the writers' habits and tricks. Maggie's in bed with Joel? Oh, yeah, that's obviously a dream sequence. We had the same problem with Boston Legal. Look, someone else is wearing something silly on his head.

You see that on a serial show, too, but it matters less, because there's an overall story to follow. Friends had its episode stories, but you could watch a lot of it before burning out, because you wanted to find out what's going to happen with Ross and Rachel, Chandler and Monica. It wasn't just a sitcom, it was a soap, too.

(I also liked that they weren't afraid to break the Bickering Couple rule. Ross and Rachel slept together within, like, the first two years. Then they were a couple. Then they broke up. You never knew where the writers were going to take that relationship. They'd figured out that the source of dramatic tension in that relationship wasn't whether they loved each other, but whether Ross respected Rachel and Rachel thought Ross was cool. And neither of them did. So they could be a couple and it wouldn't ruin the show.)

When you air a show on TV, its bones don't show so much. The viewers have a week to forget your writerly tricks. On DVD, where people throw in the next episode right away, you can't get away with stuff so much. Or rather, if you want to get away with it, you have to give them something else to hang their hat on. Like a real season arc.

I think that's going to change TV over the next 5-10 years.

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Friday, September 02, 2005

Thanks to my half-torn left rotator cuff, I've been in a little pain for the past six months or so. But now the shoulder is starting to freeze up, just like my right shoulder after I tore that rotator cuff.

Pain is not educational. Pain does not make you stronger. It is just pain.

It is particularly frustrating because I find it is a huge distraction. I have difficulty writing when my body is demanding attention, whether it's hunger or thirst or the need to fidget. Constant, throbbing achy pain really slows me down when I'm trying to be creative.

I was talking with Mark Farrell earlier today about how much writing one can do in a day. I said anywhere from five to ten pages on a screenplay, up to fifteen on a TV show. That's because a TV show is much more restricted. You know ten fire engines aren't coming around the corner because you can't afford it. If you're doing his last show, Corner Gas, then the next scene is going to be a couple people talking at a gas station or a couple people talking at a coffee shop, or possibly, just possibly, a couple people talking outside.

I find what slows me down most on features is action. I can have a few people jabber away and fill in acres of paper, but action, everything has to be fresh and original and convincing. I need to know the geography. I need to write in stunts. Every time I hit a big action sequence it's a road block I have to clear.

I hate writing action. Particularly as the director is probably going to rewrite the whole sequence, anyway, but I need something in there that will read well. I hate writing filler.

But, pain. Codeine helps, but codeine, not the best drug for writing effectively. I can't write drunk, either. Don't know how Hemingway did it. Maybe the short sentences helped.

But I'm on page 87 and it's not going to be more than 102 pages, that I'm sure of. It might be only 95 pages, which is short, but it's a pretty damn simple story. So there you go.

Boy, I hope I can stop this shoulder from freezing up. The last time it was a year and a half of pain, some of it serious enough to require opiates. Yikes.

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Before Katrina, there was a lot of arguing about base closings. Rumsfeld was trying to close down military bases all over the country. (I agree with him on this one. Lots of military bases are left over from the Cold War when we had more soldiers.) Local politicians were fighting to keep the bases open, not because the Pentagon needs them, but because they funnel money into local communities.

Military bases are communities with housing, kitchens and stores.

We have 80,000 plus people without housing.

It would ease the pain of base closings AND provide shelter for thousands of people if we put the refugees in the military bases, wouldn't it? That's a lot better than putting people in a stadium, isn't it?

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A friend of mine whose credits include one of the best and most successful shows in Canada is thinking about getting an agent. Up till now he hasn't had one because he was working with friends.

Actually, when you're working with friends you need an agent even more. You're not going to argue with your friends about money and credit, are you?

But your agent can. Your agent can say, "Look, Alex loves you so much he'd probably work for free if I let him. But I can't let him work for less than he's worth."

The mere fact of having an agent negotiate for you is almost always going to pay for itself. After all, your agent only needs to get you 10% more to justify her salary. And she's almost certainly going to manage that. But more than that, she's going to take on the roles you can't, being demanding where you wouldn't feel comfortable doing it, confrontational when you can't -- and tooting your horn where it would be offensive for you to do it.

Having an agent means you never have to be the bad guy. And that makes everyone more comfortable.

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Donate Housing :: Find Shelter

MoveOn.Org has put together a grassroots movement for people to offer housing to those left homeless by Katrina. HurricaneHousing.Org is a website where you can volunteer a spare bed to someone who doesn't have one. Housing is most urgently needed within a day's drive of Louisiana. According to the website, over 37,000 people have offered housing so far.

According to the site:
Many shelters actually already have Internet access, but folks without Net access can still make use of the site through case workers and family members. Hurricane victims or relief agencies will contact hosts and together decide if it's a good match and make the necessary travel arrangements. The host's address is not released until a particular match is agreed on. If hosting doesn't work for you, please consider donating to the Red Cross to help with the enormous tasks of rescue and recovery. You can give online at: MoveOn.Org.

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

Here's an idea:

The President gets on the television and says: we're going to set up a hotline to put the victims of this disaster in touch with towns and churches in America that are willing to host them. I am sure the people of this nation know that we're all in this together. This disaster happened to New Orleans, but a disaster could happen to any town, anywhere, any day. We're asking the people of the United States to take in those people who have nothing left -- no belongings, no homes, no jobs, no communities -- and help them get back on their feet. Not because it's easy. But because it's the right thing to do.

That would be the Republican thing to do. Also, the Christian thing to do, if I may say so. Just expect that everybody pitches in to help these people. No government programs. Just communities helping people who are destitute through no fault of their own. People did it for Vietnamese orphans. There are Americans in New Orleans and Biloxi who own nothing more than their clothes. And they have no way to get anything. There are people begging for food by the side of the road. We, as a nation, as a society, should take them in and help them back on their feet. Because that's what you do for family.

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