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



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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Saw a guy chasing a crying girl down the street, and of course I paused to see if he was menacing her, but he wasn't chasing her very fast, he was just keeping up with her, and he let her get into her car and lock it before he started pleading with her.

I didn't eavesdrop too closely, though I had the excuse of walking the dog. But I was amused to hear him actually come out with "I lied to you because I didn't want to hurt you," followed after some mumbling with "I was telling the truth just now."

Ohhhhh, boy, do you need to take Remedial Dialog, I thought. Who'd believe a character who said anything as lame as that?

But I didn't tell him that.

Need I say it? Sometimes they want stylized dialog. Sometimes they want realistic dialog. But no one wants real dialog. And the fact that something actually happened is no excuse for putting it in a story.

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[POLITICS] Right-wingers have been proposing all sorts of petty amendments to the Constitution, mostly as wedge issues. An amendment to prohibit burning the flag. An amendment to ban gay marriage.

Recently I heard the excellent idea that both liberals and libertarians ought to push for a Right to Privacy Amendment.

A Right to Privacy Amendment would prohibit the government from regulating private behavior except where it can demonstrate a compelling social interest. If a state or city, for example, made homosexual acts illegal, the burden would be on it to demonstrate that homosexual acts hurt other people, rather than the burden being on the accused to prove that government has no business in the bedroom. Likewise if someone wants to take peyote, the state would have to explain why that's anyone's business but his own. On the other hand, if someone wants to molest their child, the state would have little problem showing that it has a compelling interest in protecting the safety of minors.

It would not automatically establish a right to terminate a pregnancy. The anti-abortion argument is that the fetus is a human being, and the state obviously has a compelling interest in protecting human beings. However any attempt to restrict abortions would start from the presumption that a woman's body is her own business, and any law restricting them would have to establish that the fetus is an independent person under law. In other words a Right to Privacy Amendment wouldn't settle the argument, but it would, I think, force people to face the underlying issue.

Many state constitutions establish an explicit right to privacy -- California's does, in its first paragraph:
SECTION 1. All people are by nature free and independent and have inalienable rights. Among these are enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety, happiness, and privacy.
However, at the federal level, the US Supreme Court has had to extract a "penumbra" of a right to privacy from various other amendments, e.g. the Fourth Amendment:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violate....
Presumably it did not occur to the Framers that this did not establish a right to privacy, or I imagine they would have made it even clearer in the Bill of Rights.

A Right to Privacy Amendment would make a nice wedge issue itself, splitting the libertarians who'd like government to stop bothering them at all, from the religious right, who'd like the government to bother everyone who doesn't live in a manner of which they approve. And I'd love to hear any politician explain to Americans why they should not have a right to privacy.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

I just heard from the WGC that after all the hard work and writer's statements and arbitrators reading and re-reading, the Bon Cop / Bad Cop credits are... exactly what the producer proposed in the first place. Which gives me my second feature writing credit.

Whoo hoo! Feature credits are always good, even on bad movies, and I think this movie could be a hit, in Canada at least. I haven't seen the dailies, but the script was really funny.

And, under WGC rules, a substantial production fee is divvied up among the credited writers. And money is always good.

Contrary to US credits, which are generally in order of who contributed the most, Canadian credits are given in the order the writers worked. I was the last writer on the show, so I've got the last credit. I like looking like a script doctor. I love writing my own stuff, but rewriting other people's material is its own challenge and reward.

And let's face it, there's more work for script doctors -- and because you come on late in the production, there's more money available and less time to do your job in. When you're on a flat rate, less time is good.

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Monday, November 28, 2005

Strangely, browser share on this blog has held firm for the past 6 months -- even though Firefox is much more secure, faster and less buggy than Internet Explorer.

Please, folks, seriously consider switching to Firefox 1.5. For some wacky reason, they will give me a buck if you download a Google toolbar for it off the link on the right sidebar. But you should get Firefox itself for your own sake. (Mac users: I'm still pretty happy with Safari, but it doesn't work for all sites. I keep Firefox as my backup browser. It hasn't failed me yet.)

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Here's a roundup of my favorite posts from this blog. New posts since the last Blog Fu are marked with dates. (The hard work is courtesy my helpful assistant, Laurie Nyveen.)

A glossary of tv writer terminology

Springboards

Challenge your core cast's strengths
October 2005: Trust your core cast
November 2005: When your main character lags
November 2005: After the pilot script

Breaking 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
October 2005: Writing the pilot
October 2005: Tell your story out loud
November 2005: Write a synopsis to tell a story

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
October 2005: Fineness in 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
September 2005: Rewriting rules of order
November 2005: Rewriting for dollars

Production

Writing it small
Why our producer doesn't like block shooting
October 2005: Identify the gorilla

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
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
Why you need an agent, part 37
September 2005: Read for experience, not for long
October 2005: Money and freedom
October 2005: Open-source feedback
October 2005: Don't find an agent in TO if you want to make it in LA
November 2005: Trust your agent
November 2005: Learn from the other

Specs and Pitches

Pitches & Pitch Bibles (Longish post)
Two things any pitch needs to answer
What network do you want your show on?
A few more words on TV spec scripts
Why you must have specs
Why not just write the specs, already?
Network first, or producer first?
Write a spec pilot?
September 2005: How not to date your TV spec (too much)
September 2005: Pitches and spec pilots
November 2005: Spec page count

Bibles and Templates

The attractive fantasy
I just read a bad bible
What is Gilmore Girls's template?
Blowing the template on Corner Gas?
Why Tour of Duty sucks
Character names
Backdoor pilots
Who's core cast?
What's the poster?
Episodic vs. serial
October 2005: Bible is battle plan, not blueprint
October 2005: Procedural vs. character based

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
October 2005: TV drama moves to five acts
October 2005: Don't write clip shows
November 2005: It's the audience's show
November 2005: Five acts and weak act outs

Interviews

Paul Guyot, part 1, part 2, part 3 A "guyot" is an underwater seamount, in case you're wondering.
Shelley Eriksen, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5
Jacob Sager Weinstein
Chris Abbott, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5
September 2005: Stephen Gallagher, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4

Miscellaneous

Characters in SF&F
Writing Animal Characters
Remedial storytelling, or why Kerry lost
Sheherezade
On telling the truth

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Craig at Artful sez we need a glossary of set lingo so we don't appear clueless on set.

A few on-set jokes are handy, too. E.g.

Q. How do you tell the Teamster kid at a playground?
A. He's the one sitting next to his tricycle, reading the funny papers while the other kids play.

Q. What do you call an electrician who can work when he's stoned?
A. A grip.

Q. How tall is a Teamster?
A. No one knows. No one has ever seen one stand up.

Q. What's the difference between a grip and a Key Grip?

This is a grip. [You throw your glove on the ground, step on it, and try to lift it off the floor. Which you can't, because you're stepping on it.]

This is a key grip. [You throw your glove on the ground, step on it, and try to lift it off the floor. You can't. Then you get a bright idea, and announce, in a low voice: "Uh, could I get a couple of guys on this?"]

Yep, I was an electrician on set for two movies, before I realized I was a lousy electrician...

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Someone sent me their spec script to read (which I do sometimes, for a fee). To boil everything I wrote him into a handful of of dicta, any story line for a spec script should:

a. be distinctive to the show. If this story line could appear on another show, and be equally satisfying, it probably isn't distinct enough. So, for example, any stories based on universally dramatic situations -- a bad cancer diagnosis, a pregnancy -- are probably not good. Of course there are always exceptions, mostly in science fiction shows: if your android character gets pregnant, it could be a good spec idea.

b. likewise, be distinctive for the lead character in that story. It should arise out of who that character is and what she's up to. If you could give the story to someone else on the show without hurting the story, you haven't made the story distinctive enough.

c. invoke personal stakes for the lead character in the story. Unless the story means something personally to the character whose story it is, it's not strong enough for a spec. Even if 99% of all CSI stories are just cops investigating murders, for your spec, there should be something personal to your investigators, whether it's that they know the victim, or they used to be a stripper too, etc.

d. should wrap up completely within the episode. A good spec story is like a good free lance script, but edgier. A good free lance script should give the story editors breathing space. It slips between two episodes without affecting the main chronology much. It has little overall story arc movement. Don't introduce something in your spec that will still have to be there in the episode after your spec, e.g. a new boss, a new dog, a new baby. Only showrunners and their staff get to introduce big new story elements, and they do it (hopefully) as they arc out the season before writing anything.

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Michael J recommends his professor's site if you're interested in tracking product placement in movies.

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Friday, November 25, 2005

The Harry Potter series has always bugged me because it feels too much like a parody of a coming of age story set in a British Boarding School -- magic is too easy and too cutesy, not mysterious enough. Sure, Rowling has a huge imagination, but the plots seem all over the place. I'm not quarrelling with the series' popularity, I just haven't loved any of the movies as much as I loved, say, the new Superman teaser trailer. Which feels mythic. And magic.

But the HP stories also bug me, I realized, because I'm not a wizard. I've always felt left out in the magic department. I know people who claim to be able to see auras. A friend of mine could draw down the Moon -- and if you'd seen her when she did it, you'd know that it wasn't just her there, something or someone old and strange and yet utterly familiar was in her.

I can't do that. I can't get out of my head enough to work magic. Or, at any rate, I can't feel magic.

But then I realize that in another way I am a wizard. I say things and they appear. My mojo has to be working, and other people have to agree that those things ought to appear, and large numbers of people are involved in making the things actually appear. It takes a stretch of time and a lot of negotiation. But still. I imagine them, and then one day, there they are. After that, they take on a life of themselves. They appear, and then they go on to live in people's memories and dreams. I don't even have to be there any more. Other conjurors can keep the world and the people I created alive.

Lisa and I were talking on the drive down here about what a thrill it is to write things on a page, and then someone acts them, and suddenly there's this fictional person on the screen, saying the things you thought of for her to say, and people have feeling about this fictional person, and want her to be happy, and fear for her life, and wish she could sort it all out. When it works, it's a rush.

After I realized that, I felt a lot better about Harry. (Or, at least, Hermione, who's willing to put the work in. And who, thank God, has finally started looking her age.)

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Product placement considered as the alternative to paying for TV episodes (assuming broadcast advertising falls to TiVo): sure, that's all very well and good when you're selling cars. My characters can drive your cars. They can take Tylenol and they can drink Pepsi instead of Coke. And I can definitely work Levitra into an episode. But ING Bank? The stuff for clearing up infections under your toenails? Auto insurance? Some of the stuff they advertise on TV is boring, and a lot of it is kinda gross. I don't think anyone can count on sponsorship and/or product placement to replace broadcast advertising.

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

We're having a traditional Thanksgiving this year. We're inviting the neighbors over and asking them to bring the food. Tomorrow, we'll massacre them and take their land.

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... Gil Scott Heron to the contrary.

Adam Sternbergh, writing in New York Magazine catches on to the idea of subscription television, using the example of Firefly, which I proposed in this post in April. Glad to see you've joined us, Adam.

The article points out that "ransom marketing" is used with board games: the game designer creates a game, advertises it, and when he receives enough money, releases the game for free.

John Sullivan blogs that while it's all very well and good to have a subscription model for Season Two of something with a following, but how do you finance Season One?

Good question, and whoever figures it out is going to put all his grandchildren through college on the answer.

I suppose you could air the pilot. How many people would pay for Season One of Global Frequency after watching the pilot? But you'd still have to finance the pilot out of your pocket, and you might not be able to convince people to fork out money for your show based on just the pilot. It takes a couple eps to figure out what Carnivale or Deadwood or Firefly is trying to do.

So that leaves producers or studios having to front the money for the first three or four episodes, after which they start to recoup. I don't think the studios would like that idea very much. But it's essentially what they do already with negative financing. On the highest budget shows, the network fees don't cover the production costs; the studio only recoups when they can syndicate the show and/or air it overseas.

Or you can move everyone to the HBO subscription plan, which is basically: we air whatever we like, and you pay for it in advance, and if we're right, we get to keep our network.

Right now no one will do that so long as they can get TV for free. But if advertisers leave because no one's watching, studios and producers will have to go to a subscription or ransom model as the networks die off.

Yes, you heard that right. If all shows are being sold direct to consumer, the network stops being a distribution web, and becomes merely a brand. And as much as networks like to remind us what network we're watching, I don't think anyone's watching a show because it's on Fox. We're watching Fox because it has a show we like. So once shows air direct-to-consumer, we don't need the networks any more.

The great thing about being a screenwriter in all this, is that none of this is our problem. People will always want stories. It's up to producers to figure out how to get paid money to hear our stories. We just have to come up with stories that people want to pay money for. That job won't change much.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

OKAY, VERY FUNNY. NOW CAN WE HAVE BILL BACK?

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

[POLITICS] This from a sociologist friend of me mum's:
Just so everyone understands this. I helped the New York Times with their map from FEMA data of where Katrina victims applied for FEMA benefits. The map ran in September. The data has been shared with a number of academics.

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from Evangeline Franklin, MD, MPH Director of Clinical Services and Employee Health City of New Orleans indicating that they "urgently needed" the FEMA data that was published in the New York Times. I called up Dr. Franklin, and apparently FEMA had refused to give this data to the City of New Orleans. The City wanted to use it to try to estimate who might return.

Bottom line, FEMA is refusing to share data with the City of New Orleans, even though the New Orleans health department is part of the recovery team.

Andrew A. Beveridge
Professor of Sociology
Queens College and Graduate Center CUNY
Email: andy@troll.soc.qc.edu

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[POLITICS] Responsible Democrats like Murtha are now calling for a phased pullout from Iraq before the Army falls apart as an institution and the Guard and Reserve are destroyed. Some irresponsible Republicans are still insisting we can win the war with the troops we've got.

Neither is a good option. Obviously we're not winning the war. On the other hand what happens after we pull out? Shi'ite dominated theocracy? Corrupt and fragmented pseudo-democracy? Entire country fragments and becomes a failed state, just like Afghanistan before the Taliban took over?

All of these sound like ideal places for Al Qaeda to set up. Cheney was lying when he implied that Saddam was pals with Al Qaeda -- the secular dictator hated the anarcho-jihadists -- but does anyone believe the Iraqis will have the national will to root out terrorists? Why would they, when lots of Jordanians apparently think blowing up a hotel in Amman and killing a lot of Jordanians is a fine thing so long as it spits in America's face?

(Yes, there were demonstrations, but reporters had no trouble finding people who approved of the bombings. And even if Iraqis can be convinced to stop killing other Iraqis, that's a long way from convincing Iraqis to take action to stop their fellow Arabs from training in Iraq for 9/11-style missions in the West.)

Why is no one asking what it would take to actually win the war? Because it would be political suicide, that's why. It would involve drafting at least 250,000 young men, training them in Arabic, and sending them to pursue a "clear and hold" strategy in the Sunni heartland. Many of them would get killed. None of them would be happy to go. Rich kids would pull strings to get deferments, as Cheney did, or find their way into units guaranteed not to serve overseas, as Bush did.

On the other hand, we might have a shot at establishing a secular Iraqi state with enough internal coherence to keep the terrorists from setting up shop.

The alternative is what we've got in western Pakistan -- chaos in which no one can agree on anything except hating Americans -- except in downtown Baghdad, with easy access to the Gulf States and tech-savvy, English-speaking, Western-educated jihadis.

If we were actually willing to put our national heart into it, could we win the war?

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[POLITICS/WAR] Here's a business idea for all you budding entrepreneurs. The Army is woefully short on Arabic speakers. So is the Iraq war effort as a whole.. And I'm going to bet not too many American Arabic-speakers are anxious to sign onto the first-one's-free now-we've-got-you-now-we're-gonna-keep-you Army.

Someone ought to rassle up a bunch of indisputably patriotic Arabic-speakers and put together an overnight translation service. Fax or email us your documents, our guys read them during our day/your night, get'em back the next morning.

Or is someone already doing this? I hope?

It's a mystery to me that the Army doesn't insist on teaching all the soldiers Arabic. Sure, it's a hard language to learn and any language takes time. But if there's one thing the Army does extremely well, it's teach people stuff. And the soldiers aren't patrolling all the time. Be a good idea if our guys knew a little bit more than "Allahu akhbar."

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Today we seem to have ironed out the last few details of my option contract for Exposure. A contract for a series is a bit like a pre-nup. You want to be with the other party, so it's awkward to be defining the terms too carefully, because everybody likes each other, right? Or you wouldn't be doing any kind of deal. Yet contracts are by their nature adversarial, and they tend to dwell on what could possibly go wrong.

So we'll be glad when that's all done, and it seems like it will all be done tomorrow.

Also, Lisa finally heard that her book is officially accepted at Random House. I never doubted that it would be -- it's too good a subject, and too good a book, and anyway, publishers don't stay in business by rejecting manuscripts -- but it's nice to have the confirmation.

And, really most importantly, I'd been worrying about the Pikapie's stubborn refusal to say more than about 5 words, though she seems to understand English well enough to have a tantrum when I say "No Sesame Street, it's a school day." It turns out that none of the other bilingual kids in her class at the garderie are speaking yet, either. So she's not even late for her cohort.

And that is the most important happy news of the day!

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Apparently, the German tax shelter may be dead, drying up a source of revenue for the motion picture studios. I'm not sure the tax shelter was helping indie filmmakers, though there have been from time to time other German monies for, say, doing your post-production in Berlin.

Outside of the US, all the national film industries survive on government support. French films are subsidized directly, and there are also requirements that a certain percentage of TV aired in France be officially made by European filmmakers. Certain blessed British producers have access to money that comes from the national lottery. "Canadian content" pictures (films made by Canadian writers, directors and actors) get a big production subsidy, and Canadian broadcasters are required to air a certain amount of homegrown product. Telefilm Canada can also at its discretion support films it deems worthy because they speak to Canadian culture. Producing outside the US is partly a chase after the various government goodies.

This accounts for the different flavors of the different national cinemas. If you have to please the audience alone, you get American-style movies. But some films out of France seem to be made with apparent total disregard for audiences, perhaps because they are so heavily supported by their government.

I don't know that there's an incentive system that will guarantee that filmmakers make culturally worthy films that audiences want to see. It's the filmmakers that have to figure out how to bridge the gap -- how to make an audience-pleasing film that also speaks to culture. And it's important they figure that out, because the audience is also the voters. And if they have to pay taxes to have a national cinema, they're going to want to know what they bought.

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Finally figured out why my tags were not getting through to Technorati: it only reads tags in the post body, not in the sidebars. (Must be some tricky programming, that.) So now I'll have to start tagging the posts... as you see.

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There are bad lengths for screen stories and good ones. I find I can't get a five page story without first writing a ten page beat sheet and boiling it down. A page and a half is easy. Three pages (750) words is even harder than 5 pages. I have to throw out actual story and replace it with something simpler.

When I write a synopsis, my goal is to tell a story. Not necessarily the same story as in the movie. It's more the story that the movie would be if it were that length of story. I take out stuff that's too complicated for the length. Sometimes I replace it with simpler stuff that's not in the movie. If they can't be bothered to read the screenplay...

I find the best way to write a synopsis is to reread the screenplay once and then retell the story off the top of my head. I try not to refer to the screenplay unless I'm stuck and can't remember. (That's a warning sign that the story may not be flowing properly, by the way.)

A synopsis that's a precise reconstruction of the screenplay story is almost always dull to read. Don't write a real synopsis. Tell the story.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

WARNING: LOST SPOILER ALERT
Q. Will we get any clarification about the numbers this season?
Damon: Carlton might want to punch me for actually going on record and saying this, but I think that that question will never, ever be answered. I couldn't possibly imagine [how we would answer that question]. We will see more ramifications of the numbers and more usage of the numbers, but it boggles my mind when people ask me, "What do the numbers mean?"
TV Guide interview
Uh oh.

If you don't know, then you're cheating.

I mean, by the time we were done writing Charlie Jade, we knew.

We're just not telling.

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I'm reading Janice Dickinson's shockingly candid autobiography No Lifeguard on Duty, and I find it striking that as soon as she started getting to work with top photographers, she started studying photography. Taking pictures, running them by the photographers she was working with, trying to improve her work, taking shots of the other models she was with.

That's how you get to be a supermodel.

When I was at film school, one of the classes I learned most from wasn't in film school. I studied Meisner Technique with Joanne Baron. I was not trying to become an actor -- Goddess forbid! But I was trying to learn what acting is like from the inside. This helped my directing some, and my writing more. Training as an actor helps you act the characters who are speaking in your scenes. If you act them, it's easier to write motivated dialog -- and short, heartfelt dialog at that.

The other class I learned most from was Richard and Barbara Marks' editing class. I took it three times, the first for credit, the next two times auditing. Richard Marks has been nominated for an Oscar for editing. (By now he may have won one, I didn't check.) I learned how to get into scenes late and out of them early. I learned how to end on a movement that propels you out of the scene and come in on a movement that draws you into the scene. The parallels for writing are not too hard to feel.

My actual screenwriting classes -- well, I got a lot of practice writing screenplays. I may be a particularly dense student, but I don't think I've ever had a breakthrough as such as a screenwriter, unless you count life-changing experiences like moving out of LA and getting a divorce. Probably the most valuable experience I've had as a screenwriter has been writing my two screenwriting books -- you learn a lot by explaining yourself.

Often coming at the problem head on is the least helpful way to get at it, as generals have had to re-learn in every war since 1861.

Learn from the other.

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Friday, November 18, 2005

Right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer has a bash at anti-evolutionary Christian fundamentalists. I agree with his take. Evolution isn't anti-God. It's an extraordinarily simple system capable of creating extraordinarily complex organisms. It would be just like a divine being to create complexity out of simplicity. If you were to compare gods, y'know, I'd want to worship the one that creates the universe out of just a few natural laws. Not the one who has to keep poking and prodding to keep the engine going the way he wants it. Who's the god among mechanics, the guy who can keep fixing your car? Or the guy who fixes it so well it never needs fixing again? (Though, of course, the first guy stays in business longer.)

Oddly enough, there is a screenwriting connection to this thought. Your screenplay should feel like it's one thought, every new moment arising naturally -- if surprisingly -- from the last. If it looks like you potchkeyed new stuff onto old, that will throw your readers out of the story. So when you get a note, you have to be willing to rethink the whole story. Doesn't mean you can't re-use old material. But you have to rethink the old material and make sure it fits.

There can be a substantial amount of carnage in this approach. It feels like a lot of extra work. But, on the other hand, if you don't do it, you're wasting your time. Remember the old shop class dictum: "Don't take the time to do it over. Take the time to do it right the first time."

One of the ways movies get screwed up is when directors and producers hire a new writer to rewrite the screenplay, but tell them to keep X and Y and Z exactly as they were. Or worse, leave the screenplay exactly the same but add A, B and C. You can't do that and tell one story. So what happens is you wind up with a Frankenstein monster of a story, bits and pieces from various stories that want to run off in different directions. Screenwriters are often accused of rewriting more heavily than necessary in order to snag credit. But when they don't rewrite thoughtfully and radically enough -- because they were asked not to, or there was not enough time -- you get monstrosities.

That's probably what happened with Catwoman, to get back to another recent post. I'm sure JR's draft made sense, but by the time everyone else was done with it, it was more chimera than cat. Just guessing.

Jutratest makes the insightful connection that when you create the template for the series, you are behaving like the evolutionist's creator: you are creating the world and the rules, and if you've done your job right, stories of staggering complexity and beauty can arise without changing them. If you've done your job badly, you have to keep readjusting the template, introducing new central characters, changing the ones you've got, etc. Of course, since there is no God but God, we all wind up having to do a little poking and prodding no matter how much thought we've given the problem early on. Still it's something to strive for.

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Spent some of this morning writing new notes for the ongoing arbitration for the movie I worked on this summer. You try to make clear to the Guild arbitrators what you contributed to the final script, in the hope that they include you in the credits. Normally everything should be clear from the drafts themselves, but if you cut a few characters, the omission may not be obvious, yet it is a valuable contribution to the story. Likewise if you make the scenes flow the way they ought to, but hadn't been, it looks like you did nothing at all. Now we all earnestly await the decision, because in Canada there's always a whacking big production bonus to be divided among those writers receiving credit. You want to get credit, and share it with as few people as possible.

I was relieved on seeing the very final draft that there had not actually been that many changes. It seems to me that if I were an arbitrator, I would give me a credit. How many other people I'd give credit to, I have no idea, because I haven't read all the drafts, which the arbs have to do, poor guys.

The only way you stay sane in this business, though, is not to celebrate victories until they are signed, sealed and delivered. Right now I'm just happy I got to work on the movie. It was a fun job, I got to work with a director I admire, and there was a nice pay packet involved. If I get a credit I'll be delighted. But if I don't, I don't think I'll be too upset about. I haven't spent my production bonus, y'know. Likewise if this series goes, I'll be jazzed beyond belief. But I don't let myself get psychically wrapped up in that outcome. I work towards it full bore, but I don't have my heart set on it. If we don't get a series, at least I got to write a pilot for a network for a show I created. I got to prove myself to some people I respect that I'd love to work for again. That's a great step in the right direction. To me, showbiz is all about building. If you pay attention to how you treat people, and how you work, then every job puts you a notch higher up. If you don't pay attention, you might explode, but you also might just flash in the pan.

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Having finished our pilot, now we're trying to figure out what to do for an encore. That throws you into all sorts of questions you don't have to answer the first time. Do you show range by telling a fluffier story than your intense, raw pilot? Or do you go dark again, one-two-punch-style? Do you write episode two, which plays off episode one; or try a center-cut episode meant to show what the typical episode might be like. Do you pursue some of the story arcs suggested in your pilot, revealing more about the characters we got to know before, or serve the characters who were underserved in the pilot? In a pilot you can have a shocker of a plot. It's like a film in that you can bring in someone new, or kill someone off, or burn the house down, or shoot the President, whatever's the premise of the story. But you can't do that in a second episode, or it starts to look like you don't have a template that allows you to generate compelling stories with the cast and the venue you have. (Kind of like going to war. You can choose where and when to start your war, if you're starting it. But once it's on, you have to fight the war you have.)

All of these questions are in the service of the big question: what second episode will most convince everyone that we have a great series here that people will want to watch?

I think we do have a great series. The network challenged us to do stuff they haven't seen before, which is not what you expect to hear from a network -- or rather, you don't expect them to mean it. That makes the show harder to write. The previous incarnation of the series would have been a breeze to write, very soapy, very Spelling. This incarnation is tougher. We're trying to do episodes that get at the universal truths of growing up female, but magnified and intensified by the business our girls are in. That criterion means we have to throw out eight perfectly good story ideas for every one that fits the template. And of course you have to throw out unnumbered not-so-great story ideas to get one perfectly good one.

I look forward to the day we have a writing staff. For the moment it's just us. Thank goodness we love each other.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Apparently the proverb "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" was invented on a bathroom wall in Australia in 1970. Which goes to show: any medium will do if it's the right sentiment.

I am still waiting for my neologism "eddress" (for email address) to catch on...

UPDATE: Which I see someone else claims to have invented in 1995. Anyway, it's a good word.

RE-UPDATE: Which I see someone else used in 1991. And Esther Dyson is using it now, so it should catch on. I may possibly have been the first to use it in a book, though -- someone's cited my usage in Crafty Screenwriting.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Language Log tracks new language usage and abusage.

For those of us looking for a screenwriting-related excuse for this procrastination, you do want to sound like you're up on your slang. Especially if you are not, say, 18, which is what producers want you to be, for some reason.

If you need an excuse, though, you're probably working too hard.

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I thought I'd give it a few weeks to see if the pain and spasming came back, but they haven't. Getting a distensive arthography -- that's where they inject your shoulder joint full of saline solution and cortisone -- seems to have stopped dead the nasty process of my shoulder freezing up. Since the (really shockingly painful) procedure, I haven't been waking up in agonizing pain, and I've been able to start to get movement back in my shoulder.

So, kids -- if your shoulder starts to freeze up, get yourself a little distensive arthography before it gets worse. Don't wait!

This has been a public service announcement.

Tag: shoulder

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Kane, responding to my latest post about Grey's Anatomy, asks:
So, then, to tie your themes together, to what extent do you think Sex in The City's greater success in pulling off the "different plots tied together by protagonist-spouted theme" concept derives from the lack of commercial-driven structure, as compared to merely better writing or different genre expectations?
First of all, I can't speak to success. Grey is a hugely successful show, top 5 I think I remember reading. And if you're talking about artistic success, Grey still has years to prove itself.

But yeah, Sex and the City wasn't written to act outs, really, because it was on HBO. (Does anyone know if the script had act breaks?) They can find outs in the editing room, but even if S&TC had been written for broadcast TV, I think the outs would still have been softer. It goes with the territory: character drama vs. medical procedural. The story arcs were soapy (will Carrie dump Aidan for Big?) but the stories were more lyrical slice of life. On Grey you can always get an out when a patient's condition worsens, or someone has a heart attack in a restaurant. Sex was going for intriguing stories about the kind of people who live in New York, how they have relationships with their dogs, how they struggle to find apartments or renovators, etc. They weren't really going for the big cliffhanger act out.

I was really fond of S&TC, but I kind of overdosed on it while we were doing Naked Josh, which was definitely inspired by S&TC -- the original pitch was "S&TC in college" before we aged it up. And the VO sometimes seemed to stretch the theme more by sleight of hand than actual resonance between the stories.

I think Grey's effort to be a themed show is a bridge too far. I don't feel the show needs it. Certainly not to tie together fatuous observations by Meredith Grey ("love is about choices"!) with life-and-death cases in the trauma ward. It's got to be tying the writers' hands a bit in the A story. (On the other hand they probably have a big bank of interesting medicine, so they may not feel their hands are too tightly tied.) I'm not sure what the theme is adding to the show emotionally or intellectual, other than the audience realizing "oh, I see, they have to choose which patient will die and which will live, and that's like which woman will Dr. McDreamy pick," which throws me right out of the story, anyway. I'm not sure that S&TC always added value by having themes, sometimes the juxtapositions were kinda strained, but at its best the juxtapositions really made you feel you were seeing different sides of the same animal. One of the best themed eps I ever saw was a Hill Street Blues by David Mamet, which was about the different faces of death, if I remember right.

You can go too far, too. On NJ we often had to throw out good stories because our template required all the stories to make the same anthropological point. I think we would have done better to use the theme as a jumping off point -- the way S&TC did -- than to make ourselves a Procrustean bed for stories. I would rather see the different stories argue different sides of the anthropological point -- counterpoint and harmony, not Gregorian chant.

But that's all water under the bridge.

Does that in any way answer your question? Or am I rambling as much as I think I am?

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Did promos always run up smack into the teaser? It's bugging me. I understand airing a promo for a show later on that night or on another night. Seems odd to run a promo for the show you're about to watch. I mean, I'm sitting down to watch the show already; do you need to show me what's going to happen in it? Or has clever market research revealed that viewers won't watch the show unless they know what it's going to be about.

I thought the point of a teaser was to give you a hint what the show was going to be about, and get you to watch the show. Have teasers become so clever and/or beside the point that they no longer do that, and we now need promos too?

I'm grumbling because I'd really rather be surprised what's going to happen in the ep. And I have to fuss with my DVR, going back and forth quite a bit, to make sure I'm starting the show when the show starts, and not when the promo starts, since they run into each other.

Same problem on the tail end. Hard to avoid the promo for the next ep -- and I really don't want to know what's going to happen on the next ep -- unless you're really, really quick with the remote, because the promo starts before there's even a decent fade out on the tag. Tag end, boom you're in the promo.

These are funny issues because writers obviously have no control over them, but you can't really write around them. You can only write as if they don't happen. You wind up writing for the DVD, where there are no ads and no promos, and people can actually watch the credit roll if they so desire -- rather than having it squunched to one side.

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Lisa and I have been working for the past few weeks on that scariest of all possible screenplays, the pilot. Scary, because if you do it right, if the domestic network and the overseas networks like it well enough to fork out money for it, you have now created a series. If you have the credentials, you are on your way to running your own show. Scary, because there is so much to get wrong. A pilot has to do everything a good hour of TV does -- entertain, move, and get you to watch the next episode -- plus establish the template of the show, invent the characters and their voices, and bring in an audience for something that's never been on the air. Damn, that's a lot of weight.

We turned our first network draft in today. Say a little prayer for us. Say a brucha. Slaughter a black lamb in the dead of night. Light incense before the altar of the Joss.

Meanwhile, we are thinking about what our second episode should be. Piece of cake. Right?

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John Rogers felt he had to explain himself about why he sometimes mentions his (impressive) successes on his blog -- because an (anonymous, of course) reader told him to get over himself. And mentioned Catwoman. Like it was his fault.

One point, of course, is don't allow anonymous comments. I don't, and the level of discourse is better for it. If someone's unwilling to show his face, we shouldn't have to listen to his opinion.

Another is: fool, if you're blaming John for Catwoman, you don't know squat about how movies get screwed up. But then, if you knew anything, you wouldn't be taking potshots at John about his blog.

Another is: hey, John, it's your blog. You're doing us a favor by giving us insight into your writing and your life as a writer. If some fool wants to make a snippy comment, don't feel you have to respond. It took him half a minute to write the snippy. It took you fifteen years to learn how to write.

At John's rates, we're probably reading a hundred thousand dollars worth of blog. Minimum. Bare minimum. Okay, people? That's a hell of a charitable donation.

One thing I like about the whole mess though, is knowing that JR faces the Black Dog just as much as anyone else: the feeling that you're writing crap and that your Muse has run off with the neighbor. Always cheery to hear people who work on $100 million movies complaining about how sucky they think their writing is. Takes the edge off the unavoidable-but-unworthy envy.

JR makes the very interesting promise in the comments "and one of these days, we will discuss the various jobs of the various drafts." That post, I want to read.

DMc asks another interesting question in the comments:
Now -- have you ever found a foolproof way to tell someone that they've just made the stupidest, most unexecutable note ever while still having them like you?
Which is something I sure as hell would like to know.

Though I've always been fond of "Okay, we'll definitely look at that." Followed a week later by "We tried that, and it didn't work."

Personally I don't stress much about whether my stuff is good or not. Not because I think I'm better than everyone else, just because I try not to stress about things I can't control. I try to make the right choices, but choices made, either it is good or it is not, and if I have done the best I can, that's the best I can. And I thank the Goddess that people are willing to pay me to do it.

PS Come back to Canada, John. The Mounties found the guy.

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Watched the latest two Grey's Anatomy eps last night. Looks like they've gone to five acts. I'm not sure I like it. I'm missing the shape of the episode. While all the medical stories are resolved within the hour, I felt like I was losing track of some of them -- and I'm watching without commercials. Meanwhile the soapy personal stories pop in and out, feeling more like moments than story arcs.

Maybe I'm missing having strong act outs. About half of the outs seem fairly soft. Some of you are surely going to retort that this gives the show a more realistic feel. And it does. But the show feels spotty. Some of the stories are moving. Others just feel like they're trying to push the episode's theme -- whatever faux profundity Meredith Grey is spouting this week, such as "love is about choices."

Before you rebuke me for being tough on the show, bear in mind, I'm watching the damn thing, aren't I? So it ought to go without saying I'm there for the clever and occasionally brilliant writing, the convincing and compelling characters, the scary if occasionally over-the-top life-and-death trauma ward stories. If I didn't actually like the show, I wouldn't be watching it. And how about a round of applause for the most ethnically diverse show on TV? But I watch everything with a critical eye. (Lisa says I've ruined television for her, though usually it means that she can now predict plot points an act or two away.) I try to see where the seams are. If you don't look at what doesn't work, you can't avoid those mistakes in your own work.

Boy, Meredith Grey, though: surely the least interesting title character on television. People are dying and being saved all over, and the thing that leaves her reeling is her breakup with her boyfriend of, oh, I don't know, three months? Someone get this character an aneurysm. Then she can just narrate from her coma, Sunny von Bulow style, and we'll be spared the Dr. McDreamy maunderings.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

Today there was nothing to write because we're waiting for notes; and I could barely get anyone on the phone. I don't find writing stressful at all. It goes well or it goes badly, but I feel better for having done it. Today I felt like was sort of walking back and forth in front of a big wall, muttering, and the gates never opened.

So went out to a movie.

Good Night, and Good Luck is a lovely little piece directed by George Clooney about TV journalist Edward R. Murrow and his effort to topple demogogue Joe McCarthy from his position terrorizing the American people into anti-communist hysteria. The movie is small in scale, set almost entirely at the film studios. Most of the scenes are of a few white guys sitting around smoking and talking, woven in with some period news footage. Still, Clooney creates a lot of drama with those white guys.

From a story point of view, I would have told it differently. I would have started the story earlier. The movie makes it seem so easy. Murrow makes the scary decision to attack McCarthy, and from that moment on the junior senator from Wisconsin is on his way down. The scarier story would have been how McCarthy got to the heights of power by smearing everyone who opposed him. But that might have hit uncomfortably close to home. More comfortable to reassure us that one or two brave men can turn the tide against hysteria, provided, of course, that they're backed by a guy who owns his own network.

I would have liked to know what it cost Murrow to take McCarthy on. I'd have liked to have known his doubts, whatever they were. The Murrow in the movie is stern and brave; only Robert Downey Jr.'s character wonders, "What if we're wrong, what if we're protecting the bad guys?"

But the piece Clooney did direct is still powerful, and beautifully wrought, and worth seeing in this age when the Vice President wants permission to torture enemies of the people, and the President says that anyone who disagrees is unpatriotic.

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TwoAdverbs emails me:
Christopher Lockhart will host a PITCH IN with the ALAMEDA WRITERS' GROUP on Saturday, December 3, from 9:45 AM - noon. Come pitch your idea for feedback or listen and learn from others.

The AWG meets in the Upstairs Auditorium at Glendale Central Library - 222 E. Harvard St. (at Maryland), Glendale. The event is FREE.

For more information visit: www.alamedawritersgroup.org
Personally I wouldn't pitch my stuff in front of other writer -- you don't see me blogging about my stuff -- but it's always good to listen. And you can't beat free.

This is the sort of thing that is always going on in LA somewhere, and one of many reasons why living in LA helps you become a screenwriter. There's just a lot more information floating around than there is in, say, St. Louis, or Montreal. Once you've been in L.A. a while, it is possible to move elsewhere, but it is harder to start elsewhere. Depending on who you are, usually much harder.

If you go, see if you can meet some people at your level, and start up a writing group.

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

Whoops! Screenwriter suddenly decided to put an extra page break on every page marked 'FIXED A-PAGE". There seems to be no easy automatic way to shed these extra page breaks, because I can't unlock an unlocked script.

I don't know what theory this program is operating under, but I really wish Screenwriter would stop thinking it knows more about screenwriting than I do.

UPDATE: Craig Mazin points out that there is a command to "flex A-Pages," but I still consider this hostile software behavior.

RE-UPDATE: "Flex A-pages" does nothing to remove unwanted "fixed A-Pages." It's greyed out. You still have to remove them manually. And there are 52 of them.

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Friday, November 11, 2005

Iranian-born cartoonist Marjane Satrapi is now doing a weekly cartoon for the New York Times. Check it out!

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Everyone's writing pilots for the same network we are. Lisa asked if that makes me nervous.

It doesn't, particularly. Networks always commission a lot of scripts. I'd rather compete with my friends -- who might toss me a script to write, or at least have the courtesy to lose to me at poker -- than strangers.

You can't worry about what other people in the business are doing. That way lies madness. Sure, if you're up against a competing project that's just like yours, you have to weigh the viability of your project. Otherwise, just buckle down and do your best. If anyone's going to worry about the competition, it should be your agent, not you...

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Q. I have an upcoming interview for a spot on a writing team and I'm wondering if you can give me a heads up on what I should expect. I'm not looking for "do's" and "don'ts", but perhaps an anecdote on a past experience you've had in such meetings.
It's no different than any other interview, except you're dressed for a barbecue, not an office. You want to seem like someone they'd enjoy having around in the office. A lot. Someone they'd like to work with for long periods of time. Bright, energetic, straightforward.

And, it's a good idea to Google everyone you're going to meet with so you can talk about the things they seem interested in and avoid putting your foot in it.

In my experience, the job is almost always wired. You get a sense really fast whether they want to give you the job, and it's your to lose, or they've got someone else in mind, and they're seeing you so they can say they interviewed people. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't give it your all in the meeting.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

I changed over from Final Draft to Screenwriter because everyone recommended I do it, and because Final Draft has a few glitches, and because Final Draft 7 massively mangled a file of mine.

Now I am regretting it.

Screenwriter is fine for a feature script. But I am having hideous trouble getting it to behave on the TV script I'm writing.

Here is how you start a TAG in Final Draft:

Style the line as ACT (a style found in most TV templates, or easily created where you define elements as All Caps, Centered, Page Break Before). Type "Tag."

Here is how you start a TAG in Screenwriter, so far as I know:

In "Edit User Lists", choose "Act Information" and tell Screenwriter that your show ends after Act 5.

Hit "return" in a blank line. You'll get a menu that allows you to choose End of Act. This creates a line that says END OF ACT FOUR, followed by a forced page break, followed by a line that says ACT FIVE.

Delete "Act Five." You now have a blank Action line. Type TAG. Screenwriter will recognize the word "TAG" if you have already loaded a correct TV template.

If you have not already loaded a correct TV template, you now write to tech support to try to figure out WHAT THE HELL YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO DO TO GET A FREAKIN' TAG.

The problem is that Final Draft is programmed essentially as a word processor. You can define as many styles you like. The crucial ones are already defined: action, character name, dialog, parenthetical etc. But you can have more. I usually create elements called SHOT, ACT and ACT OUT. Sometimes I create DIALOG 2 if characters are talking in a foreign language that I want to translate on the page. So you type merrily along. Final Draft does not really know much about what you're typing. It just knows that after a slugline, the next line should be action. And so on.

Screenwriter was created by people who wrote the great and powerful Movie Magic Scheduling and Budgeting programs. So rather than working like a word processor, the guts of Screenwriter seems to be a much more rigid framework. Screenwriter keeps your scenes numbered at all times, because you need scene numbers to do a scheduling board. Screenwriter won't let you delete a character name (if, say, you wanted to merge two characters' dialog), because dialog is not allowed to exist without a character name attached.

I don't know why on Earth the Screenwriter people decided to have Screenwriter automatically number the Acts, but it does. That's where all the problems are coming from right now. I can't just type in "ACT FOUR," it knows I'm in Act Four, so if I type ACT it supplies the FOUR. That's a problem if I want to write TAG instead of ACT FIVE. I get TAG FIVE.

I guess this is supposed to save me the trouble of remember what act I'm writing. But if I can't remember that, I've got much bigger problems, don't I.

If I want to create a second Dialog element, for subtitle text, the only way I can see to do it is to hijack the Script Note element and make it the second Dialog element. This works just fine, but Heaven help me if I need subtitles AND Script Notes. Not a problem in Final Draft, because their program doesn't know that much about scripts, so it doesn't hardwire the kinds of elements. It just leaves them all loosey-goosey, user-defined. Screenwriter knows exactly what elements it thinks a script should have. If you want something that isn't one of those elements, go f*** yourself.

I have never had to refer to a user manual so often, and I have certainly never had to write tech support so often after referring to the user manual.

The Screenwriter people have told me they're going to revamp the user interface for the next release. I hope they revamp it a lot. 'Cause this is not workin' for me.

UPDATE: I was finally able to get my act title to say TAG by setting "Tag Text" to "TAG" in the User Lists, and then creating an alias to "TAG" called "TAG."

Naturally.

RE-UPDATE: No problems getting a TAG in a new file. Go figure. But that's not the point. The programming shouldn't make it that hard. This is quintessential Microsoft behavior: by trying to automate things that require some intelligence (little dancing paperclip says, "You seem to be typing a letter!", or adds spaces before every left parenthesis that starts a line, and so on), it makes it hard to do them yourself.

If this happens again, I'm going back to Final Draft 6.

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DMc's got a handy long-ass post on premise pilots vs. in-media-res pilots. Inneresting stuff. Denis poormouths the Canadian tv industry from time to time, but scripts is scripts and four act drama is four act drama. (Except when it's five act drama.)

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It's a mark of how polarized politics are that the Times's critic thinks Over There is right wing:
Although the soldiers in "Over There" take on distinct personalities, earnestness and patriotism are their most distinguishing features. They encounter Iraqis who are innocent, but many others who barbarically use children as decoys when setting off bombs. There are ugly Americans imposing their culture on Iraq, but many more American heroes who never question why they are at war. In the final episode, a soldier disillusioned with his unfaithful wife is reminded that he believes in two things, his young stepson and his country, a belief presented as the equivalent of prayer. Such unquestioning reverence carries "Over There" beyond support for the soldiers into flag-waving patriotism.
That's unquestioning reverence? Showing both sides of the issue? 'Cause the reality that OT shows matches what I read in the papers. Most Iraqis are innocent. Some are ruthless fanatics. Most soldiers don't spend a lot of time debating why they've been sent to war because they're in it now, anyway, and what's the point? And my God, if you don't believe in your kid and your country, what the hell do you believe in?

I believe in America. I just weep for it. I weep for a nation that has stood for two centuries as a beacon of freedom now has an administration that openly advocates torturing suspects. And won't admit that it went to war for bogus reasons. And behaves as if it has a sweeping mandate when, in fact, most Americans disapprove of it, after an election that was a major squeaker, to put it politely.

I wonder if the Bushies made a deal with McCain in 2004 -- his endorsement in exchange for the nomination next time. I hope so. Because I'd like to see McCain run. I don't agree with most of his politics. He's pretty conservative. But he's an honest conservative, and he actually stands for a political philosophy, rather than saying whatever suits the moment. An election in which McCain was running might actually be a debate about what direction the country needs to go, rather than about wedge issues.

As for Caryn James, she ought to remember that TV and movies are about characters. OT is attempting to show how people live through war -- what it's like to be a soldier in a confused war where the lines aren't clear cut. The kind of war we're going to be in from now on, because we can still easily win any war where the lines are clear cut. I think that's an admirable attempt, and I think it's silly to call it right wing or left wing.

And I think it's appalling to suggest that believing in America is right wing flag waving. Does that mean that Caryn James doesn't believe in America? And if so, what does she believe in?

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

[Political post.] Today President Bush gave Muhammad Ali (the boxer, not the founder of Pakistan) the Medal of Freedom. Aside from being a great boxer now struggling with Parkinson's, Muhammad Ali is also famous for refusing to fight in Vietnam. And going to jail for it. (He was later acquitted by the Supreme Court.)

For a guy who's sent so many people unwillingly to war, without having gone to the trouble of serving himself, that does seem a bit rich.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

CBS and NBC are going to sell reruns of broadcasts for 99 cents through video-on-demand.

This is a small but promising step toward the subscription model of financing TV: yes, I promise to pay $22 to Mutant Enemy Productions when Joss airs Firefly, Season 2. Subscription financing is how books used to be financed -- John Audubon sold his first run of bird books before he printed them, since he couldn't afford to print the books until he had the money in his pocket. Subscription financing finesses the problem of the audience refusing to watch commercials now that they have digital video recorders.

There may always be free broadcast television with commercials, for example in the case of sports and breaking news, where people are disinclined to tape now and watch later. But in the realm of narrative TV, I believe we are moving toward an à la carte pay-per-view model, where you pay for each episode you watch, either when you download it, or long in advance. That, and lots and lots of product placement.

Something's gotta replace those ads...

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Monday, November 07, 2005

Q. Can you give me an idea of what money to expect for a rewrite in ratio to other money for the project. My agent is good and knows who's who in Hollywood, but is he trying to get the most he can for me or just enough? That's my question.
Your agent is trying to get as much money as he can for you (and therefore, himself) without making the producer so unhappy he doesn't want to work with you (or your agent) again. You milk the cow, but when blood starts coming out, you stop.

If you are not a member of the Writers Guild, there is no set amount of money for a rewrite or for the original script. I address how much a non-professional should ask for writing work in my book, Crafty Screenwriting. Basically you take the amount of time you think you'll need to do the work. Triple it. That's how long you'll really spend. Then figure out how much that amount of time will cost you, i.e. what it costs to live for that amount of time. Your "nut," if you will. Double that, to pay for the time you're waiting for someone to hire you. That's how much you should charge.

I did rewrites for $5,000-$15,000 before I was in the Guild, depending on for whom and how likely the project was to result in a credit.

The basic deal I always proposed as a development exec for non-Guild writers, which I thought was fair, was: minimum $50K against a bonus (if sole credit) of 2% of budget, or (if shared credit) 1% of budget, either way capped at $250,000. This is a purchase price, and only kicks in on the first day of principal photography; up till then we'd option for as little as we thought we could get away with. Which was sometimes nothing. (See "free options" in my book.)

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

I have a strange relationship with Gilmore Girls. I find the earlier seasons unwatchable. Lorelai is annoyingly childish, and the secondary characters are all so cartoonish -- and self-involved -- that I can't stand it. But last season something changed. Lorelai had an adult relationship with Luke -- ok, she was a bit childish, but in the way a human adult woman can be childish, not cartoonishly. The secondary characters -- Sookie, and that awful guy with the French accent (yeah, I know, Michel), and Paris -- were pushed back by relatively human, attractive secondary characters like Logan, and Jonathan, er, Doyle.

Now it's back to those annoying secondary characters. I haven't been watching, so the last thing I watched was where no one will tell the idiot brother-in-law (I know, TJ) that he is not actually a contractor, after he broke a big hole in the outside wall with a sledgehammer. I mean, this is the sort of plot you can't do on a sitcom anymore because it's too dumb. But here it is resurrecting itself on what is theoretically a drama. C'mon. You can do better.

I like my hour dramas to be funny. But to be funny I need them to be keenly observed. Some of the funniest moments in television were on Felicity but they came out of the truth of characters you could believe. I believed Noel's feeling of abandonment when he discovered his girlfriend was no longer "a Mac person." (Lisa had to convert to Mac before we got married.) To me, characters with funny accents and characters who are impenetrably self-centered feel like lazy writing.

So here's the thing. According to Lisa, the Gilmore Girls fan base seems to have felt that last year -- the one I liked -- was the year the show went badly off track. And now they're relieved, and tuning in again. So there is an audience for cartoonish characters in an hour drama. It does not include me, but it's a large enough audience to keep Amy Sherman-Palladino busy.

Perhaps Ms. S-P thought she was trying something new and better. But one of the things you learn quickly about TV is that once a show is up and running, it is no longer really your show, even if you are the creator and showrunner. It is the audience's show. You can try to steer it gently in a direction, hoping you pick up new audience as fast as you shed it. But corner too sharply and the thing goes off the rails. That's why tv is not a medium for personal expression. Once you've got that template, baby, you're stuck with it...

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

Q. What is the average page count of a one hour drama? I am working on a spec for Supernatural and I've timed out the show at 40 minutes. I thought that a drama should fall between 47 and 50 pages, but the WB material seems shorter.
It depends on how chatty the show is. West Wing scripts run 67-70 pages easy. I've read that Gilmore Girls scripts can crack 75 pages. On Charlie Jade, on the other hand, a more laconic show, we tried to hit 52 pages. It also depends on the level of detail of action description. If you're speccing a show, you need to know what that show's page count typically is. There is no general answer.

Sitcoms have a different format, with double-spaced dialog. And they're very talky. So half hour sitcom scripts can run over fifty pages.

Me, I like a chatty, long script. A few extra lines of dialog here and there don't make a script longer to shoot. It's extra locations that kill your production schedule. I'd rather have more dialog for the editor to play with. And that means a longer script.

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Friday, November 04, 2005

We watched a few recent eps of America's Next Top Model. How are the mighty fallen? The first show seemed to have girls who actually had a reasonable shot at modeling, i.e. most of them were hot. And the hoops they had to jump through were the hoops a model has to jump through: a photo shoot on a rooftop in winter. A catwalk show.

Now the rather shockingly plain girls are being put through an Army style obstacle course, to see what they're made of supposedly. And most of the show is offstage antics. I feel the show has lost its way. It's retreated from its template as an inside look and become another Survivor rip off.

Damn. And here I was trying to do some research!

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DMc blogs that two things all his writer friends have in common are doubting and finishing.

I don't know about doubting. I generally don't doubt the overall value of something I've written until I've become a better enough writer see how much better I can make it now. And there have been things I was pretty sure were the best thing that I wrote. (Some of them still seem to be the best thing I ever wrote.) If I'm not in love with what I'm writing, I find it hard to keep writing. So I let myself love what I'm doing.

(I am also, generally, a happier person than Denis. But that's a question of personal style. Bitter works for him. He's got the whole bitter Irish thing going. I'm a good witch.)

But I do finish everything, sucky or not. I am fanatical about finishing things. If I've got a treatment, it nags at me until it's a screenplay. I only stop projects at distinct quanta -- the ones where you can hand pages off to your agent and say "Now go thou and find us some money for this thing."

And I agree with DMc that writer isn't a job track. I have never met anyone successful who started writing for the money. (Though I have met some awful people who stopped loving it, in spite of the money, and are taking work away from people who really want to do it. Fortunately they're becoming producers.) I'm a writer because I need to write. If I couldn't make a living at it, it would be a hobby. I wouldn't write TV, because there's no point in writing TV as a hobby. But I'd probably write (and self publish if necessary) SF novels and short stories. A few days go by when I haven't written anything, you don't want to be around me. I get grumpy. Grumpy does not work for me.

Back to the pages...

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Thursday, November 03, 2005


CraftyTVWriting
Originally uploaded by WeHaveTwelveFeet.
Okay, folks. Here's the new Crafty TV Writing cover. What do you think?

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Kiva.org makes micro-loans to very poor people to whose businesses a few hundred bucks can make the difference between climbing out of the hole and not. It's sort of like sponsoring a child, but it's sponsoring a business.

Right now (thanks to BoingBoing) they're overwhelmed, but check back in a bit.

Micro-loans are the very cool idea that rather than funding a $500 million dam to provide hydropower to a whole region, often what a village really needs is a $250 hand-cranked pump for the well. Or, for example, big $5 plastic rolling drums for water so that the women don't have to carry the water on their heads. Micro-loans are also too small to be worth stealing, so the President-for-Life's brother doesn't get to dip his hand in.

If they don't pay the loan back, you're out the money -- consider it a donation. But so far that hasn't happened.

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Q. I have now got an agent who is really enthusiastic about the project. I have one actor formally attached already, and today I'm meeting with an executive producer. But here is the catch. I think my agent wants to option the script, which is good and that's his job, but the executive producer would like to collaborate a bit more with me and he says he doesn't want to pay the agent for my script, instead I would be a sort of 'co-producer'.
Lessee. The agent works for you. He gets paid when you get paid.

The executive producer would like to "collaborate" with you, which means you'll do a lot of work and he'll read the script occasionally, and you would be a "sort of co-producer." Uh huh.

Of course the exec producer is going to say all sorts of stuff to avoid having to fork out money, and if a few words about "co-producing" (whatever that means) will prevent having to pay you, why not try?

It is a bad idea to work at cross-purposes with your agent. If you feel they are not working for you, find a new one and then fire your old one. But this agent is working for you -- finding directors who might be interested -- and trying to get you a money deal. I'm not saying you should let your agent make all the business decisions. Agents aren't interested in your creative control, for example. But you can trust them on the question of getting you paid.

And what the hell is a sort of co-producer? You're the writer. You're not a co-producer. A co-producer brings money, or someone else's script, or a piece of talent. In this context, "co-producer" means you write for free, and you'll get paid something or other if the movie ever shoots. Which 9 times out of 10, or 99 times out of 100, it won't.

I would trust the person who's going to benefit when you benefit, and not trust the person whose interests are contrary to yours. Every dollar the exec producer pays you, after all, is a dollar he doesn't get to spend on coke.

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We're a week behind in our Over Theres because of the New York trip, so we watched the one about the military contractor last night. There were any number of plotholes -- would the wife of an imam really argue with him in front of the entire village? -- and go-to's -- gee, people on the street in L.A. are dangerous and can't be trusted with your wallet! But it was compelling television nonetheless.

One thing I took away from it is how the people who serve in the Armed Forces live in a different world than the rest of us. If most of us had been to war, we might not bandy terms like "I'm getting killed here" so easily. Most of us have never depended on someone else for our actual survival, unless you count our parents. Most of us have never faced real physical danger out of a sense of duty.

I think we might treat going to war differently if most people had a real chance of having to serve. We would not have gone into Iraq so cocksure if the sons and daughters of Congressmen were serving. (And we all know that the sons and daughters of the current Administration do not serve.) We might be fighting the war differently.

(We might be fighting the war with enough soldiers, for one thing.)

I don't think it's healthy for a republic to have such a dividing line between those who serve and those who do not. We probably aren't going to face a military coup or a barbarian invasion. But it is unhealthy, I think, for a democracy to go to war with an army of hired volunteers. It puts the burden of war on only a few backs.

(And don't even get me started about stop-loss orders.)

I don't like war. Not many people do, outside of a few Washington think tanks staffed by chickenhawks. I would be horrified to see my daughter go to war. But we are at war, and likely we will over the years continue to be in wars. Offhand I can think of a few places the President ought to send troops, if we had any to spare. Darfur, for example. But I think the nation should bear the burden, not just the few whose sense of duty and/or whose financial need put them in uniform. If we are going to be at war, no one should be exempt.

See what a good TV show does?

Lisa reminds me that she and I are one draft into a remarkable screenplay about this divide between the families that serve (and really, the whole family serves) and those who don't, but the margin of this page is too small to contain it.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Has anyone else noticed how much less interesting Meredith Gray is than anyone else on Gray's Anatomy? In the last episode, she was the whiny wallflower wondering whether "Dr. McDreamy" would pick her, while an ER filled up with train wreck cases -- limb re-attachments, unsuccessful operations, surprise fatalities. She even had to call herself vapid and self-involved so at least we'd know the writers know.

What do you do when your main character seems the least interesting character? Time to take the character off on a tangent. I guess that's what Rob Lowe was looking for when he ankled The West Wing. (That, and a lot more money...) Meredith could have had any of the plot lines handed out to supposedly secondary characters: Christina Yang's pregnancy, Alex's failure as a doctor. Or she could go somewhere new. As it is, she needs a new story. Some reason to question her goal of being a doctor. Some obstacles to whatever it is she wants.

Right now her mom has been conveniently shuffled off to a nursing home. What if mom got better enough that she wanted to move back home with Meredith? Or, what if Meredith makes a serious medical mistake (perhaps out of warmheartedness) that for once actually has some ramifications for her?

Right now she seems to be the safest, lowest-stakes, lowest-jeopardy character in the bunch. And that is nowhere to be on a show.

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