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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Eggs. Not all in one Basket.

Going back to the drawing board is tough - especially after slaving over a first draft and thinking you had it nailed, only to realize that it's not at all what you wanted.

As Trevor Finn - from my TV Writer's group - so sagely put it "Maybe you needed to do that draft to figure out the story you really wanted to tell."

With the new-found gift of hindsight - seeing how I struggled with that draft - those words are really hitting home as I take a hard look at what the core of my story was about.

Peter's been an absolute kick-ass friend in encouraging me to dig deeper, to slough off my world's history and start fresh. He's gotten a glimpse of the bigger picture I was trying to paint - trying to fit into a pilot - and his jaw went a little slack. See, there's backstory and then there's backstory. And I made the newbie mistake of making the past of my world far more interesting than the world itself. By the time I was putting my characters in, all the really cool stuff had already happened.

It's really a hard thing to know when you're writing in a vacuum, to know how much is too much. To know when to say 'okay, that's enough'. Peter's been very cool in allowing me to bounce ideas off of him (even though he's insanely busy at the CFC - yes there will be many pints raised in his honour), helping me to figure out what had me so excited in the first place. Why I wanted to tell this story.

What I realized is that it's not about the external threats, the 'problem of the week' but the characters, and the world. The complexities of these people being diametrically opposed and on a collision course. It's about the intricacies of their personalities, their convictions, their needs - and the horrible lengths they're driven to in order to live.

So yeah, I've gone back to the drawing board, wrote some notes - well, a lot of notes... and now I'm putting it away. Letting it percolate. The ideas are flowing but I'm going to let the pot fill a bit, you know?

And that's where the 'not all in one basket' thing kicks in. While I've been pursuing this idea pretty strong over the last year, I have to be careful not to let myself fall into the category of becoming 'that guy who only works on one script'.

If I wanna work in TV I've gotta be able get ideas done, and not just my own. I gotta challenge myself to both learn my craft while coming up with new concepts and stories. I gotta prove my worth to someone who's going to sign my paycheque somewhere down the line.

So I'm getting to work. And levelling out my foundation - so to speak. I'm reading 'Writing the TV Drama Series' by Pamela Douglas right now and I have to say it's been - so far - exactly what I needed. Filling in the cracks of what I've learned on my own, the little nit-picky details that I'd kinda wrapped my head around. That's kind of the problem with being self-taught - I've only learned what I needed when I needed it so there's all these wonderful little potholes in my basic knowledge that everyone else I've talked to just seems to 'get'. Things like how to understand what a 'beat' is, how many you should have in a scene. What a scene is. These are things I 'kinda' understood but didn't really 'get'. (Thanks to my wonderful girlfriend for finding this gem for me!... and thanks to the Toronto Public Library... free books, who knew? :P)

Anyways, in the book, they say we should be doing about 4 scripts a year. Spec, work or otherwise. Just to keep us learning and in the game, to learn the craft. The other thing they explicitly state, one that they push forward hardcore, is that you've gotta be ready for the long haul, comparing it to learning an instrument.

John Wells - producer of ER, The West Wing and Third Watch - says "I wish I had more of a sense that is was much more like learning to play a musical instrument. After four or five years you start to not embarrass yourself. It takes 10 years before you can even begin to call yourself proficient. And that's very difficult for for students because they've been through 12 years of primary school, four years of college, and often a couple of years of graduate school and they think they've already done 16, 18 years of education, so they want to go do it right now, though they've actually just started."

I figure I'm maybe 2 years in now, maybe a year and a half since I started REALLY pushing myself to learn. Guess that means only 8 more to go, right?

Either way, the main message is that I can't be resting on my laurels. I've started coming up with log lines and concepts like crazy. Filling up my book with all the craziest stuff that will and will definitely not fly. I've also started pitching to my co-workers and strangers, finding out what the strongest concepts are. So far, I've got two. One's a drama, the other's a comedy. There's a third that's getting good reviews too, but it feels kinda derivative right now so I'm not sure.

I'm putting together pitch documents - little 2-5 pagers that summarize my show and it's concepts - before I try writing the script. I used to just have ideas and I'd start writing but I've learned that while that might be fine for film, TV you have to know your game inside and out. You have to be able to say 'this is my show:' and then make their eyes explode in gory fireworks displays. Okay, not so much with the gore, but you get the idea.

And that's the secret. If I can make their eyes light up, see that spark, I know I'm on the right track. The more sparks I see from the more people, the better the idea. Those are the ones I'm turning my thought processes to right now. I'm also looking at some recent shows to decide what to spec next. Since I've never done a Comedy (or even attempted, really), I'm thinking about doing a Chuck. Of course, everyone and their monkey will be doing one, but hey, that's fine. The challenge will be to tell a story that works and has my 'voice'... whatever that is.

Guess that's something I'll figure out over the next 8 years or so.

Until then... back to work.

Cheers all,

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