Thursday, January 22, 2015
Q. In the FAQ section of your site, you mention that it can be a little more difficult for older people to break into TV writing. I just turned 29-years old and am considering going into television writing. I know I am probably at a disadvantage compared to, say, people fresh out of college who are looking to break into TV writing.
My question to you is this: How much of a disadvantage, if any, is my age? I'm still willing to "rise through the ranks" and take on W.A. and P.A. jobs before becoming a Staff Writer and working my way up. But I know those types of jobs typically go to early- to mid-twenty somethings.
It depends what you've been doing for the past nine years. I started writing TV specs in my thirties and didn't get a TV episode on the air till my late thirties. On the other hand, I had a feature film credit, and a couple dozen feature specs, and I'd worked in indie features for years. If you started breaking into TV writing from being a TV agent, likewise, then 29 is not old at all.
Or, if you are Don Draper, it's not unreasonable, either.
If you were actually a soldier, cop, trauma ward surgeon, lawyer, or rich dilettante who solves crimes for the police, then you could parlay that into being the baby writer who actually knows something about the procedural world.
If you were, on the other hand, an accountant, then you would be, yes, a bit behind. But 29 is not outrageously old, if you're willing to pay the dues and work the ridiculous hours. I continue to think that the real issue for aging writers is not actual prejudice, but an unwillingness to eat all the crap sandwiches you have to eat to break in, or even stay, in the biz. (If you're successful, you get more bread to spread the crap on, which makes the sandwiches much tastier.)
There are also areas of TV where older people are more welcome. Kids' programming, ironically, is a haven for older writers, because they have
But 29, for a writer? Not horribly old. (For an actor, 29 is horribly old. All things being equal, do not attempt to start an acting career at 29.)
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Have you ever considered the possibility that print shops, email sites, the WGA/WGC, coverage services, et cetera, even the copyright office, steal non-copyrightable ideas? I recently joined Zoetrope Virtual Studio and realized that people just put their (albeit bad) screenplays up for everybody to read. If I wanted to, I could write ripoffs of these unproduced screenplays and get off scot-free. Likewise, agents can share ideas with their (other) clients, managers (especially the ones who are producers) can just steal stuff. Hell, what if an agent or a development executive or producer is also a screenwriter? It's not unheard of for production companies to do this, but what about other parties? All you need is a logline. Dinosaurs fight Nazis on the moon. Now you can write that screenplay and I can't complain about it.
I don't think print shops steal scripts. (What's a print shop, Grandpa?) I would be stunned to hear that the WGC or WGA registration services, or, Lord knows, the Library of Congress steal scripts. I would be stunned to hear they even read them. And there's no percentage in an agent stealing a script when he could just offer to represent it; and a producer won't steal a script when the writer would probably be only too happy to option it for a buck.
But writers? Especially non pro writers?
I have often wondered about sites like Zoetrope, where bazillions of nonpro writers post their loglines, and read other people's loglines. If you've got a really great hook, the only thing keeping other writers from stealing your hook is the knowledge that you've already written the script, so they're at least six months behind you. Is that enough? Usually it is. But if they have access to your script and find out that you've done, in their opinion, a really terrible job delivering the goods on our hook, they could poach it.
When I was teaching a writing seminar, I came across a script with a brilliant title and hook, but which I felt didn't deliver the goods on the concept. At all.
I'm not a thief, so I optioned the script and got some producers to hire me to rewrite it. But what if I had read the script on an online forum where there was no evidence that I'd read it? What if I dumped the title and wrote another script, with an entirely different plot that, I felt, delivered the goods? Legally, I would be free and clear. You can't copyright a hook.
Later on, the guy refused to re-option the script, so while I got paid for my rewrite, the project is dead. So I paid a price for being honest.
I've never posted my loglines on a site. And I recommend you pitch your script idea to anyone but fellow writers. It's too easy for a writer to "forget" where they got the idea.
However, I think non-pro writers generally have much more anxiety about their ideas being poached than pro writers. If you have a really great idea, odds are, no one is going to steal it; you're going to have to ram it down people's throats. It's all very well and good to think up "snakes! on a plane!" But then you have to deliver the goods. That is, as we say in computer science, non-trivial. A great hook is worth money, but only if you figure out how to deliver the goods on it.
What I was suggesting about agents is that maybe one of them represents Joe Bigshot and Joe Schmo sends the agent a really great hook. If it's the agent's policy to reject any and all queries from schmos, then the agent can tell Joe Bigshot the hook and have him write it.
I am pretty sure this doesn't happen. First of all, you won't be submitting your script to Joe Bigshot's agent; or if you do, he won't read it. He doesn't want to rep a "baby writer." Secondly, Joe Bigshot doesn't want to write your script. Assuming he's not busy with paid assignments, he's got a backlog of ideas he thinks are wonderful. It would be rare indeed to find a pro writer who not only would be willing to steal an idea, but who also likes your idea better than his own.
Wednesday, January 07, 2015
It turns out
that people named Elwood are, per capita, disproportionately farmers. Also, Mavis. If you're Mavis, you're probably drawn to the field, relative to if you were, say, Mitzi, in which case long rows of numbers might appeal. Stuntmen are disproportionately named Alex.
I love having my prejudices confirmed.
(Of course, farmers and stuntment are more likely to be named Mike, or John, than Elwood or Alex. It's just that Elwoods tend in the farmerly direction.)
Careful about using this in a screenplay -- these names are, after all, stereotypical. You can, of course, use it to subtly play against type. Elwood could turn out to be a blues musician. There is a fairly well known Adele who is not an accountant.
But you can name someone Mitzi, knowing that the name will carry a certain amount of baggage. I like to use ethnic names to suggest that minor characters are ethnic without having to say they're ethnic. If I name someone Dr. Takata, I don't have to say he's Japanese. (Nor does the casting director have to cast someone Japanese. On Charlie Jade, "Karl Lubinsky" was a Black actor, Tyrone Benskin.) So along those lines, if I name someone Mitzi, it puts some nuances in the reader's head without my having to say she's an accountant, or from New York, or has probably been to some bar mitzvahs in her life.
Good writing is about packing details into a few words, so any website that helps you do that is useful.
Sunday, January 04, 2015
About five, six years ago I started to get into videogame writing. It seemed really fun — you get to play in much bigger sandboxes — and video games were getting to have better and better stories, and Montreal's a big gaming hub. Oh, and, it's getting harder and harder to set up a feature film these days.
Lisa was very encouraging, pointing out that I have a degree in computer science, and that can't hurt. And I had a summer job for two summers programming for an educational computer game company on a 128K IBM. (Yes, that's "K." Some of the newer computers had as much as 256K of RAM, if you can imagine that!)
It wasn't until I'd been working in the business for a while that I put together just how much of my life I've been playing and even designing games. I was a D&D fan at 15, and drew lots of dungeons in my spare time, when I wasn't playing cardboard-chips-and-dice wargames. I was in a live-action role-playing group in LA in the '90's, and I even wrote a one-night LARP that came off pretty well, I thought. I just hadn't been writing or designing games on a computer.
One of the nice things about being a writer is that you get to use all sorts of odd experiences — the odder the better, really. At the time, spending a month writing a LARP about the evening before the battle of Camlann seemed like a huge waste of time. Fun, yes, of course, but time I could have spent writing something useful. A novel, or something. It turns out to have been preparation for my narrative design career.
In the game I'm writing now, moreover, I get to use all sorts of odd bits of history and cultural trivia that seemed kind of useless but fun at the time. ( The execution of Admiral Robert Byng pour encourager les autres! The expression, "Don't be a big girl's blouse"!)
Point is, some of us have a voice in the back of our heads telling us not to waste time. Do useful stuff. Write, and if you're not writing, read or watch stuff that is relevant to your writing. (I certainly do. Your mileage may vary. Contents may have settled. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.) If you're a TV writer, there's no point in reading a history of the War of the Roses, unless you think you might one day get a gig writing on The Tudors.
But over a long career, a lot of that wasted time becomes brain fodder. Grist for the mill. It comes back to haunt you, in useful ways.
In other words, don't be afraid to do fun and useless things.
Which is why it's totally a good thing that I somehow spent 290 hours in the last two months playing Europa Universalis IV. Right, Lisa?