Monday, May 25, 2009

How To Write Good

The question I get asked more than any other is: "How can I write a script for my favorite TV show?" So I thought I'd reprint something I wrote some time ago to address this:

Writing a script for your favorite TV show is easy. Just sit down at your word processor or typewriter or clay tablet and do it. Selling a script to your favorite TV show, however, is nearly impossible. But it can be done. Here's how:

First, research the show you're aiming for. Know it backwards and forwards, inside and out; be prepared to quote every single memorable moment from every single episode since it first went on the air. (Don't be silly; of course you can. We live in a world in which the Bible has been translated into Klingon. You don't have to go that far.) Know those characters as well or better than you know your own family. When you feel you've done that, come up with a story that illuminates them in a way you've never seen on the show. Important tip: Do not bring in a new character and tell his/her story, unless by doing it you bring to light a side or aspect of the main character(s) that we haven't seen before.

Now write the script. If you don't know how to write in production format, there are lots of books out there that will tell you, or you can download script examples from many places on the Web. But beware falling into the quagmire of obsessing over shot headings, transitions -- in short, the mechanics of it. It's the story that's important. There's really only one technical detail to remember: film is a visual medium. Therefore a script with more action description than dialogue is to be preferred over the other way round. Actors might love to declaim, but directors and producers hate it. If you can write something in which the characters have enormous depth and resonance, yet never say more than four lines at a time, they'll not only hire you, they'll canonize you.

When you've finished the script, polish it. Go over it and over it until it shines, until every comma, parenthetical, line of dialogue, etc., is absolutely the best you can do. That doesn't necessarily mean be a lapidary with every word. You're writing the blueprint here, not the finished product. Your script is only going to be read by a few dozen people, tops, and deathless prose isn't their primary concern. Strive for a balance between functional and evocative. Active voice ("he runs") is better than passive ("he's running"). Like that.

Take your time. You've only got one shot at that show with this script, so you have to make sure it's your best possible effort. I mean this. You're lucky if you get the staff to read it once -- they won't read it twice.

Next, get it to someone on the show who will read it and who can (ideally) buy it. If he's one of the many who can say "No" but can't say "Yes," find a way to get it to the showrunner, or one of the producers. This is the hard part. If you know someone on the show, ask them to read it. If you don't, use every means within the law to put yourself in the same room with one of those someones and get to know them. Yes, this probably means moving to LA -- you can't network long-distance, even in the Internet Age. How badly do you want this?

Most shows will not look at a script that's been sent in "over the transom" (i.e., not by an agent), for legal reasons. To find a reputable agent, call or write to the Writers Guild and ask them for a list of agents. Start calling them or writing to them, and keep doing it until you find one who will send your script to the show. In short, get the script to the people on the show and get them to read it, by any means short of stalking or otherwise alienating them. Remember: a producer's job is to get episodes produced and on the air. It's not to find new writers and guide them along, unless he/she is convinced that by doing so his/her job (getting episodes produced) will be made easier. If a producer does read it, and feels that there's potential in the script but that it's not quite there, he will do one of two things: Buy it for the story and assign it to be rewritten by one of the production staff, or ask you to do a rewrite. (Don't worry about having your idea ripped off -- it doesn't happen. Well, hardly ever ...) Obviously, you want the rewrite. Again, try by every means possible to convince them that you should be allowed to shepherd your work through to the end. If they're adamant that, due to time restraints or other contingencies, they want the rewrite done in-house, smile and take the cut-off money. Be nice about it, and in all probability they'll ask you to pitch (come up with more story ideas) again.

Yes, it does sound a lot like the old Steve Martin routine about how to be a tax-free millionaire ("First: get a million dollars ..."). But it can be done. It is done, by lots of people all the time. I did it. You can do it. The information on how to do it is out there. (In fact, what with webpages full of downloadable scripts and DVDs of damn near every show from The Honeymooners on, it's a helluva lot easier than it was when I was coming up.)

Speaking for myself, when I was a writer-producer, the thing I looked for in a writer boiled down to one thing: Could I use him/her more than once? A lot has changed in the business since then, but that hasn't. Nor is it likely to.

If the talent and the drive is in you, you can make it happen.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Magic of Radio

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1974, the first place I rented was a tiny studio unit in a court fourplex behind an engine parts shop. It was up in the Valley’s north end, almost into Sunland. The rent was $65 a month, and my neighbors were a hooker and a Hell’s Angel.


The Angel was a nice guy, actually. His name was Jim. He used to tell stories of huge convocations of Angels; so large, yea, that the very earth did tremble and the noonday sky blacken from the rumbling of their hogs, and the smoke that did issue from their tailpipes. These stories usually ended with the vengeance of the entire biker nation befalling some hapless simpleton, said vengeance being dispensed in the form of steel-toed boots -- many, many of them -- kicking the poor bastard into an unrecognizable pool of protoplasm.

Jim would tell stories like these with the same mild tone and genial smile that he used when saying that he was going to the Safeway across the street, and did I want him to pick up anything?

I came, gradually and somewhat reluctantly, to the conclusion that trips to the Safeway and unrecognizable pools of protoplasm were all pretty much the same to Jim. When I realized this, I felt sad -- not to mention somewhat in fear for my life. But he always stayed a solid 8 to 10 on the affability meter around me.

The same could not be said of the hooker. She was a bit on the meretricious side -- kids would flee, screaming, from her door on Halloween -- and she had a mouth on her that can only be described as having once been owned by a stevedore who’d just lost a winning lottery ticket. And was inflicted with Tourette’s. However, she did put her heart and soul into her work. (I hasten to assure Constant Reader that this knowledge was gained solely because she tended to leave the windows open, especially in the summer. She left the curtains open too. The first -- and last -- time I went outside during one of her marathon sessions, I lost many sanity points.)

As soul-blasting as that was, what really pissed me off was when, not having a phone of her own, she gave my phone number (I was in the book, for Chrissakes, get your minds out of the gutter, people) to her current boyfriend -- a swab, in every sense of the word. One night, around three am, I was awakened by the phone. I stumbled over to answer it, and was instructed in no uncertain terms to request that the lady betake herself immediately to my phone, so they could discourse.

Except he didn’t put it in quite those words.

So I said, “Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” Except I didn’t put it in quite those words, either.

I slammed the phone down and went back to bed. About a half-hour later I was awakened by a knock on my door. A loud knock. Several of them, in fact. Sailor Boy was drunk, pounding on my door and screaming about how he intended me grievous bodily harm.

I was, not to put too fine a point on it, terrified. There was only one door to my pathetic little domicile, and Barnacle Bill was on the other side. Not for long, though, the way the door was starting to shake.

And now we come to the reason why I’ve put you through all this. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Magic Of Radio:

There’s a momentary lull in the pounding, and I hear Jim’s door open. I hear his feet going crunch-crunch-crunch through the gravel. They stop near my door. By now Popeye’s resumed his pounding.

Then I hear Jim say, “Hey.”

The pounding stops. There’s a pause, more pregnant than an 11-month elephant. Then I hear what sounds, more than anything else, like a cinderblock dropped onto a slab of raw meat. A second later there’s another impact -- that, no doubt, of my nemesis hitting the ground.

I open the door. Jim’s standing there, rubbing the knuckles of his right hand. He gives me a smile, looks over my shoulder and snorts in disgust.

I turn around, and see the strumpet pulling the extremely unconscious sailor, by his ankles, across the courtyard and into her place.

I look back at Jim. He shakes his head and says: “Love, I guess.” Then he walks back to his place.

I moved out the next day.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Writing With Parkinson's (#1 in a very occasional series)

You may have noticed a distinct lack of postings lately. That’s because I haven’t been doing any. The reason I haven’t been doing any is because, quite simply, I haven’t had time. And the reason I haven’t had time is because, where I used to be able to type 90 words per minute, now I’m lucky if I can do nine -- with as many mistakes.

And I can’t talk into my computer, because I can’t talk.

This isn’t whining. (Okay, maybe it is whining. So what? I happen to believe that whining releases healing hormones and endorphins. It’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it...)

I’ve been feeling guilty lately about not blogging. And about not working (fast enough) on writing stuff they’ll actually pay me to write. And about getting behind on letters. And ...

You get the idea.

I think this entry marks the start of an occasional (and I do mean ...) series on being a writer with Parkinson’s. I’ll call it ... Writing With Parkinson’s. (Hey, you don’t know how lucky you are. I was going to call this post Blog Of Flanders. Why? Why not?)

So, all you teeming (or, as the Santa Barbara zoo spells it -- three separate times, so you’ll know it wasn’t an honest mistake -- “teaming”) hordes out there, stay tuned ...

Saturday, May 9, 2009


Memo to J.J.: Put. The camera. Down.

“Not your father’s Star Trek”, indeed. In this long-awaited freewheeling hyperkinetic reboot of the series, J.J. Abrams, as director, does everything short of attach bungee cords to our POV and fling us headlong into the vacuum. That, along with enough lens flares to produce a galloping case of photo-sensitive epilepsy, had me begging for Dramamine before the opening battle sequence ended.

Maybe I’m getting cranky in my old age. (All right: crankier.) But I can’t help feeling that a story worth telling is worth telling coherently. And don’t get me wrong -- this is a story worth telling. It re-ignites the pilot light in a (sometimes overly) spectacular fashion, with humor and character favored over plot. And the casting is great. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban as (respectively) Kirk, Spock and McCoy pin down their characters like nail guns on stun, and the rest of the cast, though not given as much to do, do their best with what they have.

And the best, of course, is Leonard Nimoy as “Spock Prime”. The character fits him now so well, and he plays him so effortlessly, that it’s difficult to imagine him not wearing the ears to bed every night.

The movie’s not without problems and plotholes (for example, although we can suss out the contrivance that leads to Spock Prime and Kirk being both marooned on the ice world of Hoth -- er, Delta Vega, and even sorta kinda accept it, still, two people could wander around on an entire planet for some little time before running into each other). And the villain, a Romulan blue-collar named Nero (as in, “Hi, Chris, I’m Nero” -- one has visions of Cap’n Pike and him sitting down over a couple of still extant 23rd Century Buds to work it all out, instead of Pike winding up being tortured in a dingy basement on the enemy ship) is somewhat less than Khan-like in stature and menace. (You’d think that, being such a “dese dem ‘n’ dose” kinda guy, he’d at least get around to fixing that burst water pipe.) This is the biggest problem of the film, for my money -- even a young, still wet-behind-the-ears Kirk needs a more majestic villain. And do we really need an entire subplot referencing the Kobyashi Maru test again? (I know, I know. I wish I hadn’t mentioned it in the ST:NV episode, too.)

But never mind; Abrams keeps the pace skipping merrily along at about Warp 9, and the technobabble at a merciful minimum, so it flashes past like road signs barely glimpsed (“Transwarp beaming!” “Red matter!” “Gravitational sensors!”) And, when all is said and done, we come out at the end more than ready to see this group of cantankerous twenty-somethings take on the Klingon Empire. Just bring sunglasses next time.

Live long and prosper, gang.