All the Stuff EXCEPT the Script

The part of Fellowship applications we all ignore until the last possible moment: The personal essay and the bio. We like to say it’s because the script is so much bigger and more meaningful, and it should be the only thing that counts, right? But when we stop and look deep down inside, the reason we’re procrastinating is… this shit is hard.

For the personal essay, the prompts and rules differ slightly, but the basic idea is that you need to write about what makes you a unique person, what compels you to write, and why your voice is so sorely needed in the modern TV landscape, without being cliche or insufferable, and all in 500 words. So easy, right? And the bio is “another writing sample” which means it should tell your life story in a way that’s entertaining and relatable and about a half a page, max.

So first, don’t run away. And don’t assume you can write a page and a half in your sleep so this will be easy. Don’t even tell yourself that. Find a couple days between drafts of your script, when you can’t look at the thing anymore or you’re suddenly sure that everything you ever thought was brilliant and right is clearly ALL ALL wrong. Take a deep breath and tell yourself it will all be okay, you’re just going to redirect for now. And turn your attention to the essays. Make yourself focus on them. Do not write blog posts about writing them instead of writing them. Ahem.

A good place to start is by defining your brand. This is a great article that explains what that means, exactly. And even better, gives concrete steps to take to define your brand. Do them. Do all of them. Figure out how you’re trying to sell yourself. This will reflect on everything else you write. (Or should.)

Next, the essay. There are so many different thoughts on this. I’ve taken seminars and heard from judges and everyone I know has thoughts. Here’s what I’ve landed on: your personal essay proves that you can tell a story. So find your most affecting personal story and tell it, like a short story. It needs a beginning, middle, and end, and if the end can relate back to the beginning, so much the better. Your reader should have the same reaction you want them to have to your script – which is to say, if you’re a comedy writer, it should make them laugh. If you’re a drama writer they should cry or gasp or whatever. Laughing and crying would be best, but don’t force it. Cloying is the worst. Just tell this one story. If you incorporate your brand statement, it should fit nicely as the “why I write” without being the same thing everyone says.

Your bio, on the other hand, should hint that you have many, many stories to tell. You don’t have room to actually tell them all, but every sentence should make them want to sit you down and ask you questions. I think of when I was a page at Paramount, where new employees would be interviewed and hired in groups. My bosses told me about someone they were bringing in for an interview just because she had the bad fortune to be named Britney Spears, and they had to meet this person. The chances that you have the same name as a celebrity are low, but what about you would make someone say, “I HAVE to meet this person!”? Imply your most fascinating stories. Use adjectives to do it quickly and efficiently. Don’t just say you were a wedding videographer, and don’t tell me you were a wedding videographer who didn’t know how to frame a shot. Tell me you were a terrible, overpriced and overworked wedding videographer.

And lastly, all that stuff that people say and you say “I KNOW” but really you don’t know. I was talking with a friend recently who was a finalist at Disney last year and she told me it’s important that your spec and your pilot (they ask for a pilot if you make it to the next round – you knew that, right?) have the same point of view. For instance, hers both reflected her unwaivering optimism. (In her spec, this meant featuring the optimistic character.) And I said, “Ohhh, THAT’S what that means!” I had no idea what “point of view” really meant, in a way I could define. So find the one word that defines you. If you’re not sure, look back at the work you did on finding your brand. If it’s not in there, it should be.

And then the interviews. You should know, going in, that part of the price of admission is being vulnerable. They want to know that you’re willing to give everything, to tell all your most painful stories for just a chance at winning. So be prepared.

And finally, a lot of this is luck. Writing is subjective and reading is subjective, and most of these contests “cast” their winners. My masterclass at UCLA was like that – of the 8 people selected to be in the class, four were men and four were women; four were comedy writers and four were drama writers. There are slots they need people to fill and maybe you fit the category and maybe you don’t, but that part’s not in your control. Do the best you can with the parts you can control. And try not to procrastinate.

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Rakes and Invisible Acorns

I decided that this year would be my big push year. I wrote a list of the scripts I’m going to write and the projects I’m going to get done. I looked for classes that would specifically help me with those projects and signed up. I’m entering ALL the contests. This is the year.


You know that old Simpsons scene with Sideshow Bob and the rakes? Sideshow Bob is out to kill Bart, and he tracks the family down where they’re hiding and sets off to find Bart, but he takes a step and immediately a rake flies up and hits him in the face. He regroups, changes direction, takes a step, and… another rake. He regroups, takes a step… another rake. You get the idea. The scene goes on for a really long time. (Comedy writers use it as an example of a joke that goes on so long it stops being funny and then actually gets funny again.) The point is, I feel like I keep stepping on rakes. And then I had a realization.

Trying really hard ALWAYS feels like stepping on rakes.

That’s how it is for everyone. That’s why most people don’t try really hard all the time. There’s WAY fewer rakes if you’re not trying something new. And it made me feel much better to know that this feeling of getting hit in the face isn’t just me, and it isn’t just this year. Putting off my goals wouldn’t make them easier. And I’m not cursed. I just need to keep powering through.

Not getting into all the classes I want.
A death in the family, necessitating a last-minute trip across the country for the funeral.
Half of my writing group being unavailable (all for good reasons, but this is about me).
Getting a rejection from one contest exactly as I’m trying to get my stuff together to enter another one.

But then there’s the acorns.

Tiny, invisible acorns, that the universe pelts you with. The real-world analogy would be when I was working on Jericho and our production office was covered with this carpet that created static electricity really well. And we, of course, all wore rubber-soled sneakers, because that’s what you wear when you work in a production office. When the Santa Ana winds would come through and the air would get really dry, literally every piece of metal you’d touch would give you a static shock. Pens, doorknobs, file cabinets, staplers, shock, shock, shock, shock. It had a very depressing effect, to be constantly low-level hurt like that. We all get static shocks sometimes and shake them off, but when it’s every few seconds, it’s harder to shake. It gave me a new appreciation for people with Tourettes or chronic pain disorders. It’s really hard to be happy.

Tiny invisible acorns are the micro-annoyances the universe throws at you. You’re likely to get at least one a day and shake it off, and you might not even notice that you’re getting considerably more than one a day until you snap. None of them are really big enough to qualify as “bad-day makers,” which makes it really hard to explain why you just snapped.

And then there are squirrels. Most of the acorns come from the trees, but sometimes you’ll have squirrels throwing them at you. When there’s too many acorns, when the squirrels in your life are the people you physically spend the most time with, it might be time for a change. Which doesn’t necessarily mean change is available, but that’s why you have to keep stepping on rakes, to stop the acorns.

The cat wakes you up early.
When you get up, you realize the cat was hungry because she barfed all over the bath mat.
The news insists on showing the complete speech of someone who makes your skin crawl because he signed an executive order rolling your rights back AGAIN.
Your carpool buddy is late.
You keep telling other drivers “that’s not how stop signs work” but they’re not getting the message.
Your boss calls from the car with a big project she wants done before she arrives at the office.
You can’t leave the office on your lunch break.
The person you need to talk to has no interest in talking to you.
A visitor to your office comments on the amount of work on your desk.
There’s a lot of traffic on the way home for no discernible reason.
etc. (there’s a lot of etc. You do you.)

And, of course, there’s the general universal badness. The political climate, the talk of a WGA strike, the feeling like everything is wrong, the fact no one has put me in charge of the world yet. So far the only thing I’ve found that helps with that is reading Neil Gaiman short stories. When you’re absolutely certain that there’s something evil just beyond your peripheral vision but you can’t name it or stop it, Neil Gaiman has your back.

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Read This

Ken Levine has been on a roll this week! Here’s:

A primer on the industry side of the industry.

What you need to know about the possible WGA strike.

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The Beat Your Pilot Needs

I’m working on rewriting a pilot for the HBO Fellowship, including looking at current HBO shows and getting a feel for their brand and tone (this is particularly difficult since, at least for dramas, all of their current shows are based on books) and deciding what my show should be. Should it be non-linear? How many characters should I follow? What will be the “oh, shit” moment?

The “oh, shit” moment is the moment that the audience will remember forever, that makes them sit forward and swear. (The corollary is the “oh, no” moment, when a show does something so bad you can’t believe anyone ever thought it was okay. Don’t do those.) Some big “oh, shit” moments from pilots include:


Mad Men: Don Draper was married all along.

The Leftovers: 2% of the world’s population disappears at the exact same moment.

Westworld: A robot swats a fly, thus harming a living thing and violating/growing beyond her programming.

This Is Us: The show takes place in two timelines and all the characters are related.

Pitch: The dad’s not really there.

Now obviously, not every pilot ever made has one of these moments. But they are memorable, and if you’re entering a contest, that’s something you want your script to be. They cause the reader/viewer to be emotionally engaged with your show. What’s interesting is that there’s not necessarily a pattern to the “oh, shit” moment: most are at the end, but some are in the teaser (Leftovers). Some are character beats, some are functions of the narrative structure, some are the basic premise of the show. Some barely matter to the show as a whole (“ghost dad” never really came back in Pitch), but all are incredibly important to the pilot.

When you’re writing your own pilot, remember when you’re breaking the story to decide what your “oh, shit” moment will be and then build to it. If you can pull it off, you’ll be step above most of the competition.


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TV Terms: What is a trope?

I’m not going to just list a bunch of tropes at you. Other people already do that. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately, especially in the context of a Jack in the Box commercial:

In the commercial, Jack announces to his restaurant executives that they are going to start serving brunch all day. One of the executives asks why, and we flash back to Jack sitting on his couch, watching TV with his pregnant (presumably) wife, who announces that she’s craving brunch and that Jack should start serving brunch all day at his restaurant. When Jack dismisses her, she casually mentions that she could invite her mom to stay with them, and the horror music in (presumably) Jack’s head transitions us back to the present.

Commercials only have 30 seconds to tell a story, and so they often rely on tropes to get complex ideas across. In this case, the dominant tropes are that pregnant women have cravings and are unreasonable, and that men do not get along with their mothers-in-law. The commercial doesn’t have to show us Jack’s past interactions with his mother-in-law. A few seconds of horror movie music (also a trope, in that you can recognize horror movie music without knowing the specific movie it came from) and a culture wherein all media has been depicting mothers-in-law as shrill harpies conditions us to understand that this is the relationship, and Jack is being threatened by his wife.

Tropes are shorthand, and that makes it easy to think of them as lazy and bad, but sometimes they’re necessary. Especially when you’re establishing character, you often need the quickest cheats possible so that you can get to the story. A character appearing with disheveled hair can get the point across that they’re overwhelmed much faster than watching them try to get to all of their appointments, and if the story is not about getting to those appointments, then you want that part over with as quickly as possible. (Never mind that in real life, being busy almost never results in frizzy hair. The audience has been conditioned (ha!) to understand it that way.)

Which is not to say that tropes are never lazy and bad. Tropes are so common that it can be difficult to recognize them, but as a writer it’s important to know when you’re using them and do it deliberately. The writers of the Jack in the Box commercial may not have been aware that the nagging mother-in-law is a trope that they were using (although they would have understood that this was a concept everyone would understand, they may not have taken the time to consider why or had the vocabulary to name it a trope). And that’s a problem, because that particular trope is Sexist AF (“as fuck”). Many tropes are so culturally ingrained that we’ve all grown up with them, but culture changes much faster than tropes do, so many tropes that we today recognize as Racist or Sexist or Homophobic AF (or would if we thought about them) are still in use. It’s especially infuriating when you realize that although Jack in the Box decided to go with a Sexist AF trope, the most obvious one for them would target a stoner audience. So they reached to be sexist. They put effort into it.

One of the best ways to be sure you’re not using the wrong kind of trope is to make sure that your characters are completely and fully fleshed-out. Is the boss a cold bitch because that’s a trope, or because her parents were addicts and she spent her whole life trying desperately to control the people around her? (And are you planning on fleshing that out in the context of the story?) If a reader tells you that you’re using a trope, what they often mean is that this feels like it’s been done before and you should try to be more original. Having complex, complete backstories is a good way to make that happen – and something you should be doing anyway.

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Holiday Binge-Watch: The OA

This is the new show that just dropped on Netflix. It’s eight episodes about a woman who turns up in a hospital after being missing for seven years. The big twist: before she went missing, she was blind. Now she can see. I’m going to discuss spoilers, but try to keep them vague, so it’s up to you to decide if you’re okay with that or if you’re very spoiler-sensitive and you want to come back after you’ve seen it.

From the beginning, this struck me as the most Netflixiest show to ever Netflix. Which is to say, I think with this series Netflix has really cemented what their drama brand is. (Superhero shows aside.) Stranger Things, Sense8: mystery shows that start with one character who knows what’s going on, slowly unspooling the supernatural truth over 8 episodes as we explore more of the side characters and bring them together as an ensemble. The differences with The OA include that we’re not actually sure there’s anything supernatural going on, and the exploring of the side characters is… inconsistent. There are some great moments, but I’m hard-pressed to say there were any side stories given as much care and depth as the main story. Not that I expect them to get as much time, of course, but for instance: Buck is given a conflict in episode 1. It’s never addressed again.

So, yes, we’re not sure there’s anything supernatural going on. The OA tells us there is, but she’s an unreliable narrator at best. And the thing is, I’m fine with stories where the central mystery is not actually the central mystery. I love K-Pax, and in that story, it really doesn’t matter if Kevin Spacey is an alien. But that’s because there’s another point to the story which is much more important. In The OA, it sort of feels like they forgot another point. The entire thing really does hinge on whether there’s something supernatural going on, and then they leave it ambiguous on purpose. They say they have a plan for a season 2 (for any show to get picked up they have to have a plan for at least a couple of seasons) but I’m not sure how they could do that without immediately answering that central question. Which is maybe the point? They think of it more like a cliffhanger? Who knows. But it means the ending feels a little flat because it hinges on a single event that doesn’t revolve around any of the main characters. So if whether or not there’s something supernatural happening doesn’t matter, then what matters is the person in the middle of that event and that’s not someone we know or care about.

My mother had an interesting take, which was that she saw it as the story about the beginning of a cult. A charismatic leader claiming special powers gathers a group of misfits and trains them in a special vocabulary and series of movements. I haven’t seen any interviews with the creators that indicate that was their intention, but it would certainly be an interesting direction for the show to go in. Especially since Netflix kept the show basically a secret until a few days before releasing it, clearly in the hopes that it would amass a cult following. But it would require one major sacrifice on the part of one of the creators. To say more would be too spoilery, but it would be the sort of thing I don’t normally see happen and the sort of risk I’d love for Netflix to take.

If you’re a writer and considering pitching a show to Netflix, this is definitely something to watch to help understand their brand. Otherwise, your enjoyment might depend on your patience and interest in parsing details to create theories, whether or not the show ultimately validates them.

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Midseason Check-In: No One Likes the Shows I Like

Okay, that’s not strictly true. Critics tend to agree with me. But the ratings don’t. I’m trying not to take it personally, but… what’s wrong with everyone?

As we’ve discussed before, shows aren’t so much canceled anymore as just left to end their run. Several of these shows just weren’t given a back nine. There is still a possibility they’ll be given a second season during the May Upfronts, if there’s enough grassroots phone calls and letters, but it’s a slim chance.

Lucifer: I admit I was late to the game on this one, jumping into the second season. I was a little turned off by how polished it all looked. I mean, it’s a homicide show set in the glamorous L.A. The glitz is supposed to be set off by the gruffness of Peter Falk, the outsider who can see straight through the bullshit and get stuff done. He bumbles his way in and everyone underestimates him but he tells the truth and puts the bad guys away, every time. Lucifer wears fancy suits and knows all the celebs and owns a nightclub. Glitz is in his bones. But being part of the world means he’s not dazzled by the razzle – he’s looking right at the hand doing the trick, and the thing he cares about, most deeply, is fairness. He may be the Devil, but his mission is always justice. Plus, he’s funny and educated. The show did get a full season 2, but the ratings are barely better than, and sometimes even with, Gotham.

The Good Place: What should the qualifications for getting into “the good place” be, exactly? Is it enough to say the right things, or do you have to put in the work to achieve them? If someone hands you a charity responsible for helping poor people and you only plunder it a little, do those lives saved go on your CV? What about if you travel the world negotiating peace treaties in order to further your career? Does it count? Should it count? More importantly, why is this show even on the bubble? These issues shouldn’t be reduced to stupid tropes and pithy catchphrases and this show does an excellent job of mining real humor from nuance.

Pitch: The promise of the first female major-league ballplayer. She has to be an amazing ballplayer, which includes getting along with her teammates and the press and managing the business around her. And she has to be an amazing woman, who looks sexy but chaste and speaks truthfully but restrained and never, ever, appears to be trying too hard. Because as far as she’s gotten, if she fails now, no one else will get a chance. Her failure would be a referendum on women. She wants to be an excellent person, but that’s not an opportunity afforded to her, because she is a woman, so she has to be the perfect woman, and perfect women aren’t supposed to play with the big boys.

Frequency: If only we all had a chance to change the past, knowing what we know now. This show can get a little bogged down in trying to make the emotional stories carry as much weight as the crime stories, and I wouldn’t mind if they’d occasionally stop and say, “here is where we are in this investigation, and here is what we need to move forward and change the outcome,” but this is a show where the characters’ actions have actual, tangible consequences that they have to live with, and even if you can get back the happiness that you had, it can’t ever be the same and you’ll have to fight so damn hard just to get to where you were.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Many, many words have been written about how good this show is and how you should be watching. You’re not willing to listen to experts. Maybe I should make a meme about competing shows literally killing their stuntmen or something.

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