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Friday, July 07, 2006

The good people at Syracuse University Press were kind enough to send me a review copy of Starting Your Television Writing Career.

The book consists of: 51 pages of overview of how you write a good spec script and what you do with it (in other words, how you start your TV writing career); 49 pages of a comedy outline and script; 90 pages of a drama outline and script; and 27 pages of interviews with established TV writers.

I found the overview frustrating. Granted I'm not the best audience for this book, because it's written for nonprofessionals who want to get into the business, and I've written my own book. But I have read TV writing books that taught me stuff, particularly the brief but superb pamphlet the WGA has on its site, Writing for Episodic TV. The overview says more or less the same things I say in my book; which means I agree with what it says. The problem is it says them briefly instead of in depth; generally instead of specifically. It felt like it was written by someone who sat in on meetings with experienced writers and then wrote down -- quickly -- what they said.

This may not be true. The authors each have one television credit on the IMDb, and run the Warner Bros TV Workshop. Which is not to say that they are professional TV writers. But pro or not, who can say in 57 pages what you need to know to write TV? You can say more or less what you need to do, but you can't really explain yourself, or say how to do what you need to do. They say what some of the things you shouldn't do in a spec script are, but they don't really get into how you come up with a great one.

The interviews were similarly more directed at end results than processes. Not, "How do you come up with...?" and "How do you deal with...?" but "What was your first sample script and how did you get someone to read it?" I found them less compelling than the yards of interviews the WGA has up on its site. Because the interviewers there are pro writers asking on behalf of other pro writers, the interviewers contain more meat. More anecdote, too, but you can comb through them, as I did when I was writing my book.

I would also have found it more interesting if each interviewee had been answering different questions.

The bulk of the book, though, is the scripts. And I gotta ask: what's the point of putting one comedy script and one drama script into a book? You need to read dozens of TV scripts, not one each of drama and comedy. And there are dozens to read on the Net -- see my right sidebar, "Links to downloadable scripts." You have to read scripts from current hit shows so you can watch the shows. Who cares about "The George Lopez Show"?

So, in all, I was disappointed. I'm so sorry, Syracuse University Press. I really wanted to like this book.

One interesting point though: I did notice that this book uses some different terminology than I've heard. For example, it says a typical scene will have three or four "story beats." That's a different use of the word "beat" than I've run across. What I would consider a beat, usually you'd have one in a scene, or two in a long scene. The book defines "act break" as "the place in the script where the action reaches its highest point." I've only heard "act break" used as a synonym for "act out," a term the book leaves undefined. And I'd never heard of a "clam," which apparently refers to an overused trendy phrase (e.g. "Talk to the hand"). It may be helpful to know these usages, so it might be worth checking out the glossary.

Also, they mention Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee, which I'd forgotten about. It's a video store in North Hollywood that has tons of recordings of shows (though it's a little more haphazard than the Museum of Television and Radio). You can rent tapes from them by mail.

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