Monday, September 8, 2014

Want to be a writer? Learn to hit deadlines and learn to be collaborative

Hopefully today will mark the start of a more active stretch on this blog. I've spent the better part of the last two months occupied with side projects, but as work on those is drawing to a close, I should be able to devote more attention to this blog.

Back in July, I attended San Diego Comic-Con and was lucky enough to attend a panel with a murderer's row of TV writers.  Speakers included Ashley Edward Miller (who was kind enough to praise my puppet videos when I introduced myself to him,) Jose Molina, Sarah Watson, Christine Boyan, and a number of other writers whom I regret I cannot recall at this moment. As these gatherings often do, the subject turned to the topic of breaking into TV writing and working on staff. Unsurprisingly, many people had varying stories, though just about all of them agreed it wasn't easy.

One point stressed again and again was the need to be the kind of person whom other people want to spend 12 hours a day with. You're spending five days a week in a writers' room with maybe a dozen other people. No matter how good a writer you are, if you make that an unpleasant experience, you won't last long. For a number of showrunners, a key question they ask themselves when considering a new hire is "Can I stand being with this person constantly?"

Ashley Edward Miller had some of the best advice though. He related the story of how one of his earliest assignments with his partner Zack Stentz was on the syndicated sci-fi series Andromeda, run at the time by Robert Hewitt Wolfe. The two "broke" the story over several days with Wolfe and the writing staff. (For those not in the know, "breaking a story" is the process by which a script is worked out beat-by-beat, scene-by-scene, usually on white dry erase boards in the writers' room.)

It's important to know that these two were freelancers and not part of the writing staff. This script was essentially a "job interview," or at the very least, that's how they were choosing to look at it. Every night, after spending the day gradually shape the outline in the writers' room, Miller and Stentz would go home and write the scenes that had been worked out. This meant that 13 hours after the story was completely broken, Miller and Stentz turned in a completed first draft.

Time is money in television and where you lose the most time is waiting for new scripts. A show may start the season with plenty of lead time, but it's an inevitability that come November, that lead time is gone and scripts are being turned in uncomfortably close to production time.  This means less time for production to prep, less time for rewriting that can sharpen the script, less time for casting to get the actors you need, less time for wardrobe to clothe those actors, less time for the script coming up next in the rotation.... you get the picture.

It's my understanding that on most shows, a writer gets a week, perhaps two, to turn in a first draft. By being diligent, Miller and Stentz just gave the show at least seven extra days. In production terms, that's huge. If you're able to save time, you will rise through the ranks. (Obviously, this also assumes that your work is of a certain standard. Turn in a shitty script and the time spent trying to make it production-ready will murder any days you save them.)

Miller and Stentz were quickly welcomed onto staff and went on to write for the shows Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Fringe, and have written the screenplays for Thor, X-Men: First Class and are currently working on the Power Rangers reboot. When guys who've been that successful tell you what they did to get started, you should listen.

TV writing is probably not a career for you if you are the kind of person who was writing all your college final papers the night before they were due. You have to be a writing machine, so as you work on your own scripts, set strict deadlines for yourself and hold yourself accountable. Be brilliant, but also try to be early.

This doesn't stop when you become the executive producer. You might be the top dog on the show, but you're still accountable to your studio and network, and believe me, they are far more comfortable working with someone who is hitting their deadlines, making their days on set and staying within budget.

A friend of mine worked on a perpetual "bubble show" a few years ago. This was one of those series whose fate always seemed like it could go either way come renewal time. Ratings were decent, but not huge, buzz was light, quality ranged from decent to mediocre. It was not the sort of show that people were breathlessly recapping the next day, talking about on Twitter, or writing about in publications. If it died, you probably wouldn't be shocked and if it came back long enough, you'd like wonder, "Whoa, that show's still on?"

The show went on for several seasons longer than common sense would seem to have dictated and do you know what a huge factor in that was? The showrunner's collaborative nature with his network and studio. He'd come in the first week of the season with a roadmap for the first 13 episodes, including the main characters' storylines and the new characters they intended to introduce. "Here it is," he'd say. "This is the season, I'm open to your feedback."

And he was. Better still, because he was a good manager of his writing staff and his production team, that show was a well-oiled machine. Scripts were delivered on time, his directors made their days, and he spent his budget wisely.  The show rarely, if ever, had overages, and he knew how to rob Peter to pay Paul if there was something on the show he felt was worth the extra expense.

The number one rule of film or TV is "do not cost them extra money or time." If you can pull that off, a network or studio will generally be far more inclined to loosen the leash creatively.  And when you do have creative differences, pick your battles. You cannot fight a network on every point.  More significantly, if tensions get to the point where such discussions more frequently resemble a battle as opposed to a creative discussion between two parties who both want the show to succeed, you've already kind of lost.

They have the money so they get to set the rules. The smart showrunner accepts this as a reality and by being a team player who's not causing trouble for them elsewhere, can make disputes into a negotiation rather than a standoff.

Network executives are covering several shows, all of which become the standard by which they are judged. When cuts are being made at the end of the season and your show ends up on the bubble with another show, it might well be the show that was the bigger nuisance that gets the axe. Someone has to go - so it might as well be the show whose creative "genius" prompts the thought "Life's too short to spend it fighting this guy."

Or to put it more succinctly, don't be that guy who ends up making everyone else's jobs harder. I promise you it'll hurt you in the long run.

If you cannot collaborate with others, if you consider yourself socially awkward and fear having to speak up in meetings with executives, if you cannot tolerate working within limitations or being beholden to creative input from others, then a career in television is not for you.

And let's be honest, if you want to work in film, those traits are equally essential. If you want to write without limitation and socialization, become a novelist.


  1. I can tell you from a guy who joined the Navy as an E-1 (bottom basement, below the mail room) and has worked his way up, I really can't stress enough the adherence to schedule, budget, etc. I'm to the point now that I wouldn't know how to operate without a deadline. There's an old saying that 5 minutes early is 10 minutes late, and if you apply that to all of your deadlines, you'll always be ahead of the game. Early just becomes your norm.

  2. Great post!!! I'm a novel writer and I have to eat deadlines for dinner, not to mention I'm an administrative assistant which means I eat deadlines with peanut butter. I too have a editor/publisher whom I have to pick those battles wisely. Even though I REALLLYYYYYY want to use THAT scene, the publisher says, um ... no. So I find medium ground or actually listen and learn something new. You'd be surprised what those who have gone before you can teach you if you listen.

    I want to also add, writers, please don't forget to learn good writing techniques. You'd be surprised what you can bring from novel writing to script writing. Stein on Writing is a great book in which you could bring stuff to the script. (Steven King's On Writing is another one.) Go to writing conferences, take writing classes, learn, learn, learn. I hate it when I see a TV show and I think, if only the writer had done .... Sigh. (I remember watching the Old A-Team episodes and I noticed Murdock wearing his Jacket in every episode. This is good in novel writing, but you want to let the reader/viewer into why he won't let it go. I kept thinking, there are at least 3 episodes that could revolve around that jacket. Oh well. ... Breath.) Writing techniques bring more tools to your toolbox as Stephen King always says. I love getting so pulled into a TV show that I'm so grateful for commercials so I can have the blessed bathroom break. And that's when I see a lot of writing techniques shine through. And it's yummy!!!