Wednesday, May 23, 2018

What is a retcon and how was it used in season 2 of 13 REASONS WHY?

Having given my overall thoughts in a fairly non-spoiler fashion for the second season of 13 REASONS WHY, this post will be rife with spoilers as I take on one of the more contentious reveals of season 2. If you haven't seen it yet, this is your warning - turn back now.

Season 2 of the show uses a trial as a framing device through most of the episodes, often interrogating characters about their perspectives and calling into question some of the things Hannah told us in Season 1. This is what's known as a "retcon," short for "retroactive continuity." It's what we call it when backstory is established or changed after the fact. In some circles, "retcon" is used to imply "bad retcon," as in an instance where a newly-established backstory actually contradicts and overwrites previously established facts.

In general, any time a new detail about a character's history is revealed, that's a retcon. I first heard this term in comic book circles, where DC Comics would often rewrite the history of their characters and pretend the new history had been there the whole time. (Hawkman's storyline became a mess because of this kind of thing in the 90s.)

Some TV shows have handled this elegantly. One of the best examples I can think of is ANGEL, where the 100 year-old vampire's history was revealed in many flashbacks over the course of five seasons. The flashbacks often challenged assumptions the fans had about Angel's history, but never actually violated what had been said before. For example, Angel is cursed with a soul in 1898 and fans assumed that he walked the Earth as a tortured soul until 1997 when he was given purpose and became an ally to Buffy.

We came to learn that wasn't the case, that even after he was ensouled, Angel struggled long and hard not to prey on people, with a relapse or two along the way that eventually propelled him to the rock bottom spot he was in just prior to meeting Buffy. It gave new dimension to what was known, but never compromised existing continuity.

Which brings me to 13 REASONS WHY. Via the trial, we hear testimony from several characters that adds to the story Hannah told on her tapes. Some - like Stephanie's tale of getting a willing kiss from Hannah - don't match what Hannah said, but it's easy enough to reconcile the differing recollections and find a way for both stories to be consistent.

That's not the case with three reveals on the stand:

1) Zach Dempsey reveals that in the summer before Hannah killed herself, the two of them became close. She decided to "get it over with" and lose her virginity to him, after which she initiated regular hook-ups with Zach over the course of the summer. It came to an end when his friends returned and he kept the relationship secret, claiming it would protect her from being harassed by his jock buddies.

When Clay finds out, he's heartbroken. He asks the spectral-Hannah he sees in his mind a question she could never answer, "If I'd been there [in town during that summer] would it have been me?" His old jealousy rears up, but his hurt is coming from a deeper place than that. As far as he - and we - knew, Hannah was a virgin. A month before she died, she and Clay almost hooked up at a party, but as they kissed and things got intense, Hannah's mind could only take her to all of the groping, sexual assault and humiliation she'd suffered up to that point. Freaking out with PTSD, she saw in Clay every guy who'd ever touched her without permission and told him to get off her.

So learning that Hannah not only had sex with Zach, but a LOT of sex, he can only ask, "Why did she freak out with me and not him?"

2) The second major retcon is a bit more minor. It comes out that Hannah's father was cheating on her mother, and Hannah found out about it last spring. She demanded her father come clean with her mother. He ended the affair and tried to work things out with his wife.

3) A third retcon is the discovery that last spring, Hannah and Clay spent all night with Jeff and a few other friends doing some trippy drugs. As they came down from the high, Hannah made some remarks to the effect that she was considering suicide.

As to the second one: There's no indication in season one that there had been any affair and especially no indication that Hannah knew. In fact, on Tape 6, when talking about Valentine's Day, Hannah talks about how her parents have the perfect marriage saying, "My parents were high school sweethearts. So shoot me: I still believed in romance." Though the flashback takes place before the cheating, Hannah's VO comes from a time after she knew about the affair. It's incredibly hard to reconcile that with what she knew to be true. It needlessly compromises Hannah's perspective in season one, especially since it would be easy enough to rationalize her parents breaking up in the aftermath of her death.

And the third one? Clay and Hannah seem a bit TOO familiar at this point in their timelines, but that's less of a blip than the fact that both of them spending all night with Jeff undermines Clay's angry "You didn't even know [Jeff!]" when an emotional Hannah approached Clay after Jeff died in episode 10 last season. If this was the only continuity hiccup it would be easily ignored, but the other retcons earn this one more scrutiny. In a big picture sense, it's not terribly severe though.

But the first retcon is a bit more complicated for me. It's revealed in the sixth episode of the season, "The Smile at the End of the Dock," written by Julia Bicknell. It's the first truly great episode of the season, which is not a surprise because Bicknell also wrote the fifth episode of the previous season, which I raved about here. The prior episodes are all pretty strong, but Bicknell's script instantly has more depth, nuance and complexity - with so much of the story driven by strong and relatable emotions from the characters.

But it IS a surprise because the Zach/Hannah relationship revealed within is a development that I have a strong objection to. I don't know if I've ever seen a plot point I disliked so much done in such fantastic way that I was still marveling at the quality of the writing, performances and the direction. I could probably eviscerate and defend this plot line in equally passionate measure.

So in the spirit of the season-long trial storyline, that's what I'm going to do. Today I'm going to prosecute this retcon, going into all the reasons why it's a massive misstep... then tomorrow, I'm going to defend it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Season 2 of 13 REASONS WHY is a different show, but still emotionally powerful

For my 13-part series discussing the first season of 13 REASONS WHY, go here.

Don't worry - I don't think I can get 13 distinct posts out of the new season of 13 REASONS WHY, but I am going to be talking about it this week, starting with this broad review - and I assure you, I've taken great care with this to discuss the high points of the season without including any spoilers that would ruin the experience.

Last season ended with Clay listening to the last of the tapes Hannah Baker made before her suicide, seemingly answering all questions as to why she took her life. (And showing us those heartbreaking moments in painful detail.) He confronted the counselor who failed to act on her suicidal behavior and got Bryce Walker, the star athlete who raped Hannah, to admit to that act on tape. Hannah's parents were delivered copies of the tapes, at last getting a window into what preceded the worst weeks of their lives, and Clay reached out to a depressed friend, Skye, literally driving off into the sunset with her.

It could have ended there, even with the two loose threads of creepy photographer Tyler stockpiling guns and the suicide attempt of Alex, both of who were named on the tapes as reasons Hannah killed herself. I wrote last year of these loose threads:

"If that's foreshadowing a school shooting story, I'm gonna get nervous. Part of the appeal of season one is how universal many of the traumas felt. If we get to school shootings and rape trials in season two, a little bit of that verisimilitude gets lost and this could become just another teen drama. As a writer, I get the appeal of "13 Reasons Why... I shot up my school" though."

Welcome to Season 2, where indeed there are stretches where the reality is slightly heightened from what we experienced last season. At times it DOES feel like "just another teen drama," albeit a well-written and exceptionally well-performed and produced one. To be fair, this was pretty much the only option if the show was to evolve out of its old model

Season one had a tight focus, using Clay's journey through Hannah's tapes as its spine. Half of an episode was devoted to Hannah's fall while the other half was Clay's reaction to what he learned, which spilled over into smaller threads involving Hannah's parents and their plan to bring a lawsuit against the school, as well as other students determined to stop Clay from completing the tapes. Despite all that the show explored, Hannah's suicide was always the core, explored from both sides, with the emotional heart coming from the love story between Hannah and Clay.

In contrast, season 2 splits its focus amongst multiple subplots that make this more of an ensemble than season 1. The Bakers' lawsuit against the school goes to trial, which makes for the most unifying thread of all the stories, as the subjects of the tapes take the stand and testify about Hannah, often bringing new details that they remember differently from Hannah, or in some cases, that Hannah didn't disclose at all.

Most of the divergences from what we know of Hannah's story seem to play fair. I've seen some fans react to season 1 with the notion that any time a character's version of events didn't match Hannah's, that meant that she lied on the tapes. It's a notion that overlooks the idea that they other person's recollection is just as subjective and that Hannah is only telling the story as she experienced it. Most of what season 2 adds to Hannah's story fleshes out some relationships in ways that ring true - though two major discoveries (which I won't reveal here and will handle in later posts) threaten to change not only what we knew of Hannah, but also undermine some of the most resonant aspects of season 1.

Katherine Langford's participation isn't limited to just these flashbacks this time around, and by the end of the first episode, she's appearing to Clay as a sort of ghost. Ghost-Hannah personifies his developing conflicted feelings about the Hannah he thought he knew and the new truths he's discovering. Yes, it's a conceit to keep the excellent Langford around and in scenes with Dylan Minnette, but it works. At first, Hannah haunting Clay threatens to become too cute a concept, but in the back half of the run, Clay allows himself to feel more anger at Hannah, and an even later use of Hannah's ghost in an intense episode soon before the finale delivers a Minnette/Langford scene that's as haunting and heartbreaking as some of their best work last year. (Their interaction in the finale is about as perfect a conclusion to Season 1 as one could hope.)

Wisely, the writers never stray from the idea that whatever ghost-Hannah says is a figment from somewhere in Clay's mind. She represents whatever side of Hannah that Clay is fixated on, someone to confront with the hard questions that he can't really know the answers to. And her appearances remind us just how much what Clay experienced last year has left some permanent psychological scars.

Though Minnette and Langford both delivered Emmy-worthy work last season, the clear breakout was Langford, in her first major role. This year, it's Dylan Minnette who's leading the charge through the emotional grinder, with Clay's breakdown over the course of the season. I suspect he'll be overlooked again, but he has to go to some dark places this year. His journey alone makes this season worth it.

Season one trained us to expect that Minnette, Langford and Kate Walsh would break our hearts. One of the delights of season two is how every returning supporting player has raised their game. Alisha Boe is the standout among this faction of the cast, as her character Jess deals with the aftermath of her rape last season.

Also excellent is Justin Prentice as Bryce Walker, who is so good at being the intersection of white privilege and toxic masculinity that it could typecast him for years. Alternately charming and chilling, Prentice plays Bryce as the cool jock everyone wants to be while effortlessly letting the monster he is peek through the mask now and then.

Miles Heizer's Alex is dealing with memory loss after surviving his suicide attempt, and the frustrations that come with it and his relationship with Jess both play one of the season's core themes of healing. Ajiona Alexus is another returning actor who gets meatier material this year as Sheri and really stands out for it. Ross Butler brings some welcome depth and conflict to Zach, a jock who faces the struggle of being a nice guy amid a social group of sociopaths, and I underestimated Brandon Flynn, who gets a pretty powerful arc that takes him from Clay's adversary to ally and carries material I wouldn't have expected him to handle after season one.

Christian Navarro's Tony seems to get less interaction with Clay this time around, in a story that deals mostly with his anger management issues, but he really shines in scenes where he gets to play his devotion to Hannah. And I can't forget Sosie Bacon's Skye, who becomes the first overt echo of Hannah's problems in a season full of them.

Plotwise, I wasn't too far off-target with some of my guesses. One of my private suppositions was that Clay and Skye might get involved in a relationship out of his desire to prevent another suicide, but that they ultimately were too different and Clay might find himself guilted into staying with her out of fear that leaving her would trigger another depression. It seemed like an interesting dilemma that could grow out of his survivor's guilt. It's probably also a bit obvious, which is season 2 front-loads this story and doesn't spend too much time dwelling on it.

The trial storyline unfortunately locks Kate Walsh's character into a plot where she ends up playing many of the same emotional beats as season one. She has more screen time, but a lot of it is eaten up looking tense at the plaintiff's table in the courtroom. When they hand her the ball, she drives it into the end zone, though, as with one moment where she recalls offering Hannah advice on her appearance and now laments, "Why couldn't I just tell her she was beautiful?"

For the first two-thirds of the show, the trial works better as a device to interrogate the players on the stand than it does in reshaping our opinions about Hannah. In particular, great use is made of Clay's more questionable tactics in season one, when his shadier actions compromise him on the stand and his anger at making things worse for Hannah leads him to do something that may be his most ill-advised action yet.

The Bryce Walker storyline soon expands to reveal a years-long buried history of sexual assaults involving the top jocks at school. Clearly taking its cue from rape cases like the Stubenville High School events, the show explores it as a mystery-thriller. Related to this are a series of mysterious Polaroids left for Clay, telling him "HANNAH WASN'T THE ONLY ONE." Someone seems to be targeting several of the people on the tapes, threatening them physically and with notes. This show isn't totally built to be a thriller in this way, and some of the creaks show now and then in the first 2/3 of the arc. Where it ends up is pretty effective, though.

Less successful is the running subplot surrounding the bullied Tyler. I've enjoyed the irony that this is a series about someone who was bullied and about how many of the characters learn they need to be more empathetic... and then proceed to shit all over Tyler at every turn. Not that Tyler hasn't done some stuff to earn their disgust, but it's interesting to see the "Be careful of people's feelings" get harder to follow when the victim isn't a pretty and charismatic teenage girl. But the fact remains that Tyler just isn't as compelling as some of the other characters and so his evolution into a potential school shooter becomes one of the season's lesser threads.

Throughout the season, the show finds ways to engage with criticisms levied at it. One scene threatens to make the subtext into text, as the school principal speaks of the damage that Hannah's tapes could do if people see them as empowering, while Clay counters that Hannah's suicide has started a much-needed conversation about things no one was talking about. In other occasions, Hannah's motivations for making the tapes is called out. Did she want revenge? Or was she just trying to tell her story? Did she lie? The show presents a counterargument to many criticisms of it without pretending there are easy answers, and without seeming too defensive.

And importantly, the show explores many alternatives to suicide - through Jessica's story and her friendship with another rape survivor, through Alex's recovery from his attempt, through Skye, through the grief of everyone touched by what Hannah did. If season one started a conversation, season two definitely makes an effort to deepen it in a way that should redress much of what people found missing the first time around.

Overall, while season two hits some powerful emotional heights, it's by design less often less intimate and personal than season one was.  One of the major exceptions to this is the season finale, which feels like an almost-perfect conclusion to two seasons of story. For those who find parts of season two too great a departure from the first, the finale binds everything together in a way worthy of the best episodes of season one.

There's a genuine sense of closure to a lot of character arcs in the finale. Minnette and Langford again share some powerful scenes where Clay finally sorts out his feelings about Hannah. If that doesn't reduce you to tears, a late callback to a significant moment from season one should melt even the most hardened heart. Without giving too much away, I'd argue THAT scene would have been the perfect conclusion to this episode and the series.

I don't know where a season three of this show can go, or even IF the show could go own, but this is a group of performers and creators who I will make a point to follow for a long time to come.

Friday, May 18, 2018

As 13 REASONS WHY returns I reflect on why you should write what you love

13 REASONS WHY returns at midnight tonight on Netflix and I'm very excited for season two. You might remember that I wrote a 13-part series on the first season last year:

One result of that was that my friend, GAWKER V. THIEL screenwriter John Gary, insisted it was past time that I write a teen drama spec pilot. To him, it was unbelievable I had done it yet. (The closest I'd ever gotten was showrunning my college drama while I was still in college, but I'd never written an original spec, or even a spec episode of a teen drama.) He said something like, "You watch all these shows! You know all these shows. You should WRITE one of these shows."

Despite John's advice to write what I love, I resisted this. I gave the same excuse Bryan Singer gave for not pursuing Star Trek, "I think I'm too big a fan of Star Trek. You'd feel like you were watching WRATH OF KHAN" again.  I knew the genre too well that I felt paralyzed by every wrong choice. With every notion, I either felt, "I've seen that, and they did it way better" or "This is exactly the kind of thing that I've railed against because the ways it can go wrong are A, B, C, etc."

He said, "No you have to do it."

So I did... and people really seemed to like the spec.

And then to compliment it, I wrote a spec 13 REASONS WHY and despite MUCH anxiety about if I could pull that off... my readers are liking that too. I forgot what a relief it was to hear "This feels like the show and everyone's voices are in-character." So if nothing else, I have two strong samples that weren't in my portfolio a year ago.

What I'm saying is, I owe John and 13 REASONS WHY a pretty big debt. I tweeted a few of these sentiments and John added his own thoughts: "Write your favorite genre. Write the thing you love to watch the most. Write what you know the best. Write who you are. Write you."

One thing I did while breaking the spec episode was go back and rewatch season one again. The internal timeline of the show is a couple of weeks, and we're given a couple hard dates to work with in there. We know that Hannah Baker killed herself on October 10 and that the deposition that is shown in the last episode happens on November 10th.

Given that Clay is said to take a few weeks to go through the tapes, and that the show starts a couple weeks after Hannah's death, I was curious if the timeline as presented on the show stood up to scrutiny. Turns out that it does! Here's the way the timeline seems to break down:

The biggest assumption you have to make is that Clay takes the weekend off between listening to Tape 4 and 5. (I'm referring to each individual side as a tape just for simplicity. I know that technically that's "Tape 2, Side B" and "Tape 3, Side 1." It's just easier to think of it as one tape per person.)

That weekend isn't depicted on-screen, but the first four episodes all are clearly back-to-back and would take us through an entire school week. When Clay gets to the fifth tape, it's ALSO a school day and it's a case where it's not directly tied to the end of the previous ep. Further, the episode dealing with Tape 7 ends up spanning a school day, a weekend and the start of the next school week. So week 2 of tapes has some wiggle room, just so long as we assume that episodes 5-7 cover one week of time for Clay.

It's neat to see the writers were clearly tracking this, and it drives home just how glacially clay must have moved through the tapes compared to the others. He's the 10th person to receive the tapes, so they passed through nine people in the span of October 11 to the 21st. (Clay receives the tapes via mail on Monday the 23rd, which means the person before him would have had to send them out on Saturday the 21st.) It's doable, especially if you assume that some people might not have mailed the tapes and instead delivered them to the next recipient personally.

[UPDATE: Season 2 has given fixed dates to details that had to have been worked out from context earlier:

- the date of Hannah's death is stated multiple times on screen to have been October 9th. I had presumed October 10th because that is the page we see Mr. Porter rip out of his planner. I'm guessing that the writers' notion was that was the back side of the page that he ripped out... October 9th. Originally, I thought this was a mistake because we see Hannah get the tape recorder from Tony at school and if she's getting it on that Monday, she couldn't have killed herself the same day, but...

- Episode 11 of Season 2 attaches the date of September 30 to the party where Hannah is raped by Bryce. This fixes one detail - giving Hannah an entire week to record the tapes and set up her plan. However, it also contradicts something Clay says in Episode 12 of Season 1, when he says that Hannah slit her wrists "less than a week after" that party.]

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Happy 10th anniversary, Go into the Story!

Scott Myers is the Cal Ripken of screenwriting.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of Scott's blog, Go Into The Story, a site for which no introduction will be adequate. Almost as soon as it came into existence, it was THE hub for everything screenwriting related. Scott not only has maintained a daily posting schedule since the beginning, he's maintained a routine of 4-6 posts a day for 10 years. These include features like The Business of Screenwriting, Reader Questions, Daily Dialogue, Script Breakdowns, Script Downloads, Interviews with working professionals, links and featured looks at the most important news in writing and the industry.... and much, much more.

It doesn't shock me that when Franklin Leonard was looking for an official blogger for The Black List, he went straight to Scott. I'd be hard-pressed to think of anyone who's given more to the aspiring screenwriter community so selflessly.

It's not easy maintaining a blog with a focus on writing. I've been blogging just over nine years and a few years ago I started feeling like I'd run out of things to say. Even just aggregating other articles and keeping the conversation going on some of these topics became too much to do while working full time and trying to advance my writing career.

Then I look at Scott, who's kept Go Into The Story running even after taking a job as Assistant Professor at DePaul University's School of Cinematic Arts, even as he takes time to be a mentor for the Black List Labs, and maintains private script workshops and Screenwriting Master Class. Heck, last year the man released 12 e-books about screenwriting. For free!

If it wasn't for Scott Myers, there's an excellent chance that far fewer of you would have ever been aware of me. I discovered Scott's blog almost exactly nine years ago, some four or five months after I started blogging. I think I was getting MAYBE 30-50 hits per day to the entire site back then.

I was trying to think of ways to extend my reach when I ran across GITS. I instantly recognized it as a treasure trove of screenwriting information. I was instantly addicted to this look behind the curtain from one of the writers of K9. He had a lot of great stories from his time in the industry and wasn't short on practical knowledge either. And back then, he was getting a lot of engagement in the comments. After reading for a few days, I noticed that Scott linked to other sites and would spotlight other screenwriting resources. I commented one whatever post was his featured post that day, keeping my fingers crossed that it would have the desired result.

It did. I soon got a email from Scott. As I hoped, my moniker caught his interest enough that he followed it back to my blog and saw the few months of posts. I guess what he saw made enough of an impression that he was interested in finding out more about me. I got bold and asked if he could do a shout-out to my site in a future post and he offered to go one better and feature a brief interview with me. I barely knew the guy, but he treated me like a friend. It was my first experience with making friends as "Bitter."

When the interview went live, my traffic immediately jumped to about 500 and then quickly 800 visits a day. Over the years, it would steadily grow higher, but Scott's spotlight was responsible for the biggest percentage jump in my visibility and engagement. He put me on the map and I will be eternally grateful for that.

It would be over four years until I actually got to meet Scott face-to-face. By then we'd traded dozens of emails, often conversing about some of the big changes in screenwriting that were affecting aspirings. It was good to have a sounding board to help make sense of whatever the heck was going on with the then-new Amazon Studios and more than once, our conversations were centered on "What can we do to help good writers get better?"

Scott's students are a fortunate group, indeed. But everyone who's read GITS for the last ten years can also count themselves as beneficiaries of Scott's generosity. A kinder gentleman you could not meet, and a more enthusiastic screenwriting teacher you could not hope to find.

I bristle at the term "screenwriting guru," especially when it's applied to me. (When the Grim Reaper comes for me, I BEG you to make sure that term appears nowhere near my obituaries.) I recognize it's usually applied with good intent, but even so, it feels wrong to use that phrase in reference to Scott. I prefer to think of him as our Yoda.

Congrats on ten years in the blogosphere, Scott! Here's to another decade of encouraging young screenwriters!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Interview with Amanda Pendolino, author of WEDDING PLANNING FOR THE BUSY FEMINIST

If you're familiar at all with this little corner of the screenwriting blogosphere, you're probably familiar with fellow screenwriter/blogger/reader Amanda Pendolino. Amanda's been a friend for a while, one of many people I first got to know through blogging and Twitter long before we met in person. She's also the ONLY paid reader I recommend, as she's always given me fantastic and thorough notes. The woman knows her stuff.

Amanda's first book is available today on Amazon, WEDDING PLANNING FOR THE BUSY FEMINIST. I'll let the blurb below set the book up:

Wedding Planning For the Busy Feminist is filled with practical, funny advice from real brides, grooms and vendors about how to plan your dream wedding on a budget. It's also an empowering survival guide that examines how modern women feel conflicted about outdated traditions and expensive social media fantasies but kinda want the perfect wedding anyway.

You're mostly known as a screenwriter and a script reader, what made you decide to write a book?

I used to have a blog about the journey to becoming a screenwriter, and I missed that sort of straightforward prose writing. (Ok, I admit it, I also like telling people what to do.) I also just wanted something different from the features and pilots I've been writing over the years. Sometimes I think it can be invigorating to use a different part of your creative brain.

Why did you choose wedding planning as a topic?

I have always been a fan of those pop nonfiction/memoir books from writers like Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Chelsea Handler. When I read them, I think, "I wanna write one of these!" Problem is, I'm not famous and I don't have a 20-year Hollywood career to talk about. So I couldn't just write about myself - I needed a topic. When my sister and best friend both asked me to be their Maid of Honor, amid a time in my life when I got invited to about 10 weddings in 2 years, I accidentally became a wedding expert. So it felt natural to choose wedding planning as my topic, and I thought writing about it from the Maid of Honor perspective could add something funny and different to that world.

The title is WEDDING PLANNING FOR THE BUSY FEMINIST and you say it deals with "modern wedding culture." What exactly does that mean?

I think a lot of women feel conflicted about weddings because they can reinforce traditional gender roles and values. "The busy feminist" is a modern, independent woman who has established a career and identity on her own. She's excited to get married (to a man or a woman), but she feels a little strange and maybe even guilty about wanting the perfect wedding. She feels like maybe it's backwards or not progressive to want such a thing... but she wants it anyway! So when couples get married, they have to decide what they want and how much tradition they want to include or exclude. How do they modernize things when family members of a different generation might have strong opinions about what weddings "should" have? So I wanted to dig into those feelings and try to help brides and grooms navigate the world of weddings.

When I say "modern wedding culture," I'm talking more about the performative and personalized aspect of it. It's no longer your parents throwing you a party when you're 22. It's two adults planning (and maybe paying for) their own wedding and trying to make it an expression of their specific relationship. With the internet - Instagram, blogs, Pinterest and specific wedding sites - a lot of couples feel the pressure to have a perfect, personalized wedding. Like, the table numbers need to refer to a shared hobby, the favors need to be the bride's and groom's favorite candy, the bar has to serve the couples' favorite cocktails, etc. Sometimes this is fun - I love signature cocktails! - but sometimes it feels like a nightmare of pressure that's fueled by unrealistic social media fantasies and companies trying to sell you products. (Have I mentioned that weddings are hella expensive?) How did we get here, and how do we deal with it? Those are the questions I find interesting and wanted to explore in the book.

You're not married, so was your perspective informed more by "This is what I'd want" or through observation and survey of friends and family at their weddings?

If you’ve been a wedding guest as many times as I have, you’ve probably already thought about whether you want your wedding to include a photo booth (yes!), dessert bar (yes!) or lobster (what am I, the carpet king of Wisconsin? My cousin's father-in-law is literally the carpet king of Wisconsin, so I learned at a wedding that I like lobster!). But I surveyed over 30 brides and grooms from all over the world about their weddings, so the book is way more about their advice than about my preferences. My motto is "you do you" - I don't pressure readers to include or exclude any particular tradition or to spend any more or less than they want to.

While the book is "for the busy feminist," do you think it has utility for the woman's partner as well? Will it help them better understand the bride's desires for the big day?

Absolutely! I imagine that most of my readers will be women, but plenty of men are deeply involved in wedding planning. And I would love for men to read the book! I try to be inclusive of anyone who is getting married, whether it's a heterosexual or same-sex couple and whether it's a traditional or nontraditional wedding. I also talk about smaller wedding and elopement ideas.

Does this cover the planning of the bachelorette party? What are the biggest rookie mistakes you can make there?

Yes, I have an entire chapter on bachelor and bachelorette parties! One thing I learned the hard way is that you should investigate flight and hotel prices BEFORE asking party guests about potential dates so you don't end up in a garbage fire of reply-alls; it turns out that Vegas flights and hotels are way more expensive when there's a UFC fight and a dentist convention in town the same weekend. I also found that I should have chilled the F out when it came to making sure that different guests were having a good time. The hardest part of a bachelorette party is trying to please party guests of different personalities and ages. I worried that a 8-month old pregnant woman was being scandalized when a shirtless Magic Mike dancer was all up on her. But she was fine! After all, she's the one who brought the giant inflatable penis to our hotel room. Ultimately, it's about making sure the guest of honor has a good time, and guests generally understand that. Another big tip is making sure you're upfront with guests about what things might cost - nobody likes having surprise costs sprung on them later. People getting married should also keep in mind that they don't HAVE to do some kind of traditional debaucherous party. The book includes a whole list of less traditional party ideas. Several people I surveyed also told me they skipped the party altogether - you do you!

One of your readers walks into Kleinfeld's - how much more informed will they be than the average customer faced on SAY YES TO THE DRESS, and will their appointment be so successful that they won't need to call in Randy to save the day?

Haha, I love that you have seen Say Yes to the Dress and appreciate its intricacies the way I do. They will be VERY informed! I have a whole chapter on dress shopping, including an interview with my friend who visited Kleinfeld as well as other bridal salons in New York City and upstate New York. I've been dress shopping with multiple friends/relatives, so I walk readers through the process of ordering a dress and have advice for people who are excited about it as well as people who are anxious about how they might look. I also give options for people who want to spend less than $500 and who may not have time to wait for a made-to-order dress. The book's appendix also contains links to 95 different bridal gown designers, since I love dresses.

Assuming WEDDING CRASHERS is a documentary, do you offer tips on identifying and avoiding the slick guys just attending the wedding for some action?

Haha! I was always a fan of that movie - I think Owen Wilson's speech advice (I also have a chapter on How to Write a Speech) is pretty solid: "People want something from the heart." Nobody I surveyed said they had a wedding crasher, but the book includes a funny disaster story from a bride whose Best Man wouldn't leave the couple's hotel room after the wedding! That might be way worse! Also, a wedding coordinator I interviewed said that one upside to having your wedding at a hotel or other venue that does a lot of weddings is that its staff members do this for a living and know how to deal with situations like crashers. If you choose a campground or public space, you have no idea what you might encounter, and if you don't hire anyone to deal with it for you, YOU'LL be the one dealing with it on your wedding day when you'd rather be downing Prosecco and basking in your lifelong commitment. This also gets into why you might want a wedding planner or coordinator - I have a chapter on that, too!

I'm gonna pose a hypothetical: you have four friends who are getting married within an 18-month to two year span. Each of them wants not only a bachelorette party weekend out of town and also a bridal shower. Does your book offer any tips in politely dealing with the fact these brides' friends are not made of money?

I think the biggest thing is that if you want to have an expensive bachelorette and shower, that's fine - but you have to be OK with it if people decline. It's better to have someone decline to attend something (or even be a bridesmaid) than to have someone accept and then complain to you or make passive aggressive comments about money for a year. If including the most people is what you value, then you should make more inexpensive decisions - it's just up to you what your priorities are. These costs really do add up, so couples should be cognizant of what they're asking of people. You can also be definitive about things like gifts - you can tell people that you specifically do NOT want gifts at your bachelorette, you do not want people to pay for your drinks/dinner if they're spending money on flights, etc. You can also explicitly tell people that you do not expect them to hop on a plane for a shower AND a bachelorette AND a wedding.

Follow-up: And also, two years later, when the remaining single friend gets married and all four prior brides bow out of pre-wedding events because of "kids and money," how justifiable IS the resulting multiple homicide?

Hahah - This can definitely be a bummer. I hope couples remember that their friends supported them and spent a lot of money on them when the tables are turned! But also, don't assume that married parents don't want to attend things. One married bridesmaid I know loved attending an out-of-town bachelorette and wedding solo because she got to sleep in a bed by herself with no husbands, kids or dogs - something she hadn't done in years!

Anything else potential readers should know?

My aim is to be legitimately helpful - I break down confusing caterer gratuities, offer wedding day timelines and provide lists of ideas for themes, favors and unorthodox registry items, for example. But it's also a humor book with advice like "Nothing sexes up a ceremony like a hot usher." Because that is 100% true.

You can purchase WEDDING PLANNING FOR THE BUSY FEMINIST here on Amazon, in both softcover and Kindle versions.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Reader question: how to get writing feedback before submitting for class?

Jason writes in with a question:

I'm currently in a graduate program for English and Creative Writing and am finishing up my first screenwriting course. I appreciate your blog's very helpful information about what not to do to get a script read. In our class, we're told to get our work reviewed and critiqued by friends and family before submitting it. However, since the readers are friends and family, most of the feedback is a very unhelpful "I like it. Good job. Very interesting. Didn't know you could write." 

What I'm hoping you have is some advice for those in school trying to figure out where to focus their efforts and what to work on so their money isn't a complete waste. It seems that getting read by industry professionals would be the right picture, but as you've stated in many blog posts, industry professionals are understandably busy and there are legal concerns with reading scripts. So my question is, is there a format or opportunity to gain industry insight on a script without submitting it for filming consideration?

There are reading services, but most of them charge a lot of money for feedback and - in my opinion - most of them aren't terribly reputable. I have a hard enough time finding places to recommend for writers looking for feedback as they submit professionally - I don't think I know of any places that would be useful for writing students just needing feedback before they turn something in for a grade.

Is it at all possible for several of you in class to start a writing group where you exchange work amongst yourselves and provide feedback? That kind of peer review can be useful. Yes, you're being critiqued by people who are still on your level, but by virtue of being your classmates, they'll be a bit more informed than friends and family who merely can offer the obligatory "good job."

In your situation, that's what I'd be doing.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The EVERWOOD and 13 REASONS WHY pilots show how to make hurtful choices empathetic

I've been preparing to address the notes on my teen drama pilot and it brought to mind two pilots that were touchstones for me as I wrote: Everwood and 13 Reasons Why. And I hadn't noticed before they not only share similar scenes, but they're KEY similar scenes.

13 Reasons Why's pilot has two moments that I think are essential to getting the audience invested in the story. The first is an interaction between Hannah and Clay at the basketball game. There's a little bit of banter exchanged that halts when Clay realizes she's there to check out one of the players. "Don't be jealous, Clay" she teases. It's clear on the page he's pining for her, but the way the scene is played is essential. Hit just the wrong note, and her teasing seems mean-spirited. Instead, it's a cute moment.

The second moment is when she seeks refuge with him at lunch when rumors spread lies about her being promiscuous. Instead of being supportive, he's cold and hits her with a jealous barb about how "maybe it's better to wait." Clay looks like a dick there, but THAT was the moment that made me lean forward and say, "Go on..." You get a lot of notes in a pilot warning how you need to keep your characters "likable" but having someone be clearly wrong for human reasons is often more effective. He's not a bad guy, but he's having a teenage boy reaction. he was rejected, he's hurt, he's jealous, and in a moment he instantly regrets (also an important component), he does what a lot of boys would do in the same situation: act like an immature dick.

And here's the rub: on the page, both those moments play harsher. You don't have the performances of the actors to soften the blows or really make you feel the subtext. But that's no reason NOT to write the scene. As for EVERWOOD, there's a similar kind of moment...

Setup: Ephram has just been forced to move to a small town by his widowed brilliant brain surgeon father. he hates it, but popular girl Amy seems to take an interest in him. But Ephram is crushed when he finds out Amy has a bf and apparently was using him but then she explains herself. Her bf is actually in a coma following an accident. The doctors can't do anything for him. Amy befriended Ephram because she was hoping he could get his father to do something. It felt like fate that a world famous brain surgeon came to her town.

So you can't hate her after that moment. Was she manipulative? Sure. But it was for a good reason. You get why she would have done it and you get the sense that she's a nice enough person she might have been friendly to Ephram anyway. You empathize with her, you empathize with Ephram because he likes her and now WE like her too... and now you want these two to get together. But they can't get together and get everything they want because her coma boyfriend complicates everything. It's a perfect knot.

So fuck writing "likable" characters. Write human people who make human mistakes and make bad choices that have empathetic motivations behind them. When Clay hurts Hannah, it's awful, but I also thought, "I've done that. And it didn't feel good."