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Friday, August 10, 2007

I just got word that Telefilm has approved funding for me to adapt David Layton's novel THE BIRD FACTORY. It's a comedy -- "About a Boy, with infertility," if you will. I actually agreed to do the adaptation last year, but we had to get all our ducks in a row, and then Telefilm had to have a good gander at them. Um.

I think this will be a funny, funny movie, and I'm looking forward to writing the script -- just as soon as I write two more scripts for my pay cable series.

Fortunately, I broke the story and wrote the outline last month, so I'm ahead of the game. This is a violation of my own rules, really. I have always been extremely wary of doing any free work on projects before the financing comes through, in case financing doesn't come through, or the deal doesn't close, and I'm stuck with pages I don't actually own and can't sell. Also, the Guild bans spec writing.

I've broken my rule three times over the past six months or so, for a combination of reasons. One, the projects looked very likely to go (into development, that is), so I didn't think I was taking a big risk with my time. (Not having to treat every project as extremely unlikely until it actually closes is a real blessing.)

Second, two of the projects were original ideas of mine that I had optioned, meaning I owned the underlying material. Rewriting my own feature on spec means that at worst, if the development deal falls through and the option expires, I still own the project, and now it's better written. Writing the pilot to my own series on spec means that at worst, I have a spec pilot I can take somewhere else.

That still leaves the novel adaptation. If Telefilm hadn't approved the development, I would have been stuck with an outline based on a novel the rights to which I don't control. So why work on it? The calculation had to do with scheduling. I wanted to do as much as I could for the feature before the series deal kicked in. (I'd already written the pilot for the series, so I couldn't write more before getting network notes.) I wound up an outline and 35 rough pages into the adaptation before the series closed. I may not get back to the feature until the Fall, but my producers won't feel they're being ignored.

And emotionally, having figured out what the story is, I know it's just a matter of X weeks of writing to take the outline to a first draft. The point in a project that makes me the most nervous is before I know what the story is. After I've broken the story it's just a matter of time and love.

Bear in mind, I didn't tell the producers I'd specced anything, and had they asked me to do it, I would have refused, with a bit of resentment thrown in for flavor. This all came from me.

Not speccing the commissioned work would have definitely been the more prudent approach. But I wasn't about to go looking for more commissioned work in case it all closed at the same time. And I already had as many TV pitches and spec features in my portfolio as my agents could really handle. So I asked myself, "Is there something better I could be doing?" And since taking a vacation is simply not in my bone structure, I went ahead and outlined.

And then I stopped as soon as I got funding for an outline on another project. Because there was something better I could be doing.

My point is time management. It's always good to have irons in the fire, because you never know what will go. Moreover, It's good to have at least two projects in motion, so when you send a draft to your producer and you're waiting for notes, you can jump to your other project. But you don't want to be all over the place creatively, either. And you never want to be in a situation where you have to write faster than you can write your best. So I chose to focus on the deals I had rather than looking for new ones. And that meant writing without total confidence I would get paid.

There's a creative advantage, too, to writing before you close a deal. They can't really give you notes when they haven't paid you anything. So you can pursue your creative bent freely. Later they can pay you to make it something else. But you've taken it that much further, and a better draft always sells your concept better. Even if later there are notes that take the project in a new direction, you've tried some things and you know your story better. You may have to rip up the whole thing and rethink it. But you'll be creatively ahead.

I think, actually, a lot of this goes on. Marc Cherry rewrote and rewrote Desperate Housewives until the network finally got it. He couldn't sell the concept. We know, because he didn't sell the concept. Had he not written the pilot over and over on his own dime, he wouldn't have his name on a monster hit show. I don't see the WGA squawking.

I think to be a writer at a certain level these days, you have to think like a producer. You might have to take financial risks. You might have to find a network and then find a producer. Or at least take your producer in to meet execs that you know. You have to leverage your representatives too. My agents and manager have at least as strong relationships with the network execs, both US and Canadian, as all but a few big producers up here. So I'm not just selling a concept and a piece of material. I'm offering a package.

I'm not sure how this helps the spec monkey, except this thought: a tv writer is not an artist in a garret. You are a creative flame, sure. But you are also your network of relationships. If you spend half your time developing your relationships, you will not be as good a writer, at first, as the guy who's spending all his time writing. But you will get on the air faster. And seeing your pages transformed into pixels is a better education in practical screenwriting than asking your friends what they thought of your pages. And all screenwriting is practical.

In the end, all three projects got financed and went ahead. So I guessed right. And now instead of having spent my summer wondering what else to write, I'm a pilot, a rewrite and an outline ahead of schedule. Nice.

Labels: , ,

6 Comments:

Wow, when it rains, it pours. Glad to hear you've got so many irons in the fire, and that everything is panning out so nicely for you, Alex.

KJC

By Blogger Kelly J. Compeau, at 10:58 AM  

Is there a way to ensure that you aren't overcommitted? We all want to avoid not having enough work, but you also don't want to be in a situation where you can't deliver what's required. Do you have a rule of thumb that you use?

By Blogger Jason, at 12:25 PM  

There isn't a rule of thumb. It depends on the projects. I allocated a lot of extra time for the pay cable series because it absolutely has to be effing brilliant. I also allocated extry time for the novel adaptation, because I feel it will challenge me in some interesting ways. Whereas if I were, say, free lancing a script for a well-crafted show in its third season, I might allocate relatively less time because I know the characters and the actors and the tone and the structure, and it's just a matter of doing that. If I were rewriting a horror movie, I might not need as much time as fixing a delicate Chekhovian drama. You just how to know how fast you write various kinds of things.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 12:38 PM  

"My point is time management ... you never want to be in a situation where you have to write faster than you can write your best."

I'm thinking of having this tattooed to the inside of my eyelids. Too many times as a freelance writer I've found myself scrambling to cover all the spec pitches that suddenly became live jobs.

"you don't want to be all over the place creatively, either."

Amen to that. Especially don't make a habit of juggling comics, novels, non-fiction books, journalism, radio drama and TV pilots. Sure, it's all writing, but switching genre and medium with all the inherent differences in craft can do your head in.

By Blogger David Bishop, at 4:18 AM  

So, you assume your agents, producers, etc. aren't away of your blog. . .

By Blogger Very Readable Bill, at 4:03 PM  

There's nothing in there that my agents and producers aren't already aware of ... now.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 4:17 PM  

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