"When in doubt, do not, I REPEAT, do not whip it out. Ted Nugent is not a life coach." ~me

My résumé is available: here.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

So How Do I Get Started in Screenwriting?

Free Picture: Silver Pen On White Background ID: 262001

I shared some writing advice today with my friend, Erin. I'm no expert, but I sure have opinions. On everything.

Immediately after I read a great story from NPR: Danny Trejo: From the Big House to the Big Screen.

Danny's final quote struck me:
"When you talk about my big break, you know, I got a few of them in my life. Everything good that has ever happened to me has happened as a direct result of helping someone else," Trejo says. "Everything."
It inspired me to write this post.

One of the questions I hear a lot, and something I posed myself many years ago, is "How do I get started at screenwriting? Take a class? Get a degree? Read some books? Read some scripts? Just write?"

The answer, of course, is "How should I know? I'm not your fucking teacher."

The real answer is: there is no wrong answer.

Cop out, right? Not really.

Everyone learns differently. All I can share is what's worked for me.

Read Scripts
I list this first because nothing teaches you more than reading lots, and lots, and lots of scripts!

For TV, Google - TV Scripts is my absolute favorite site in the whole wide world. Here you will find PDFs of pilot and episode scripts from the US & UK for dramas and comedies. I cannot recommend this site highly enough.

SimplyScripts is another site for TV and film scripts.

The site nofilmschool shares Oscar-nominated scripts every year. Here are some from 2014.

And I use an app called Scripted on my iPad where I can also download PDF scripts.

This is just a sprinkling of sites.

Write Scripts
Write, write, write! I spent so much time learning and reading and talking about writing, I wasn't sure if I'd ever actually write! I finally did.

Just write. It's OK to suck. It's OK to fail. The only way to learn this is write, write, write. It's all practice. It's all learning. And rewriting is where the serious mastery comes in. You can't get to your rewrite without your draft!

Seriously, you don't share anything until it's ready so there is NO REASON not to write. In fact, I should be writing right now.

Take Classes
I like online classes. They give me structure. It puts my goals on a calendar. I get assignments. I interact with other students. I already have a degree (BA in Mass Media / Management) so I wasn't interested in another one. Or a masters, in anything. But I love learning.

Here's what I've taken and why it worked for me:

In 2010, I flew to LA and took Steve Kaplan's two-day Comedy Intensive. Other than blogs, I hadn't written a single script page. But this class was awesome! I learned so much about comedy, and really got the writing bug. I also walked out with two pieces of advice: 1) do some improv, which I already had and 2) join a writers group, which I did as soon as I returned home. Steve offers this class several times a year, and he also put a lot of his teaching into a book: The Hidden Tools of Comedy. He's also a really nice guy.

In 2011, I took Beginning Television Writing taught online through Screenwriters University. It's taught by William Rabkin (TV writer and producer) and author of a book I highly recommend called Writing the Pilot. The online class is only four weeks long. But it got me to pick a TV drama to "spec" -- writing on speculation for an existing show that will never, ever see the low-def/high-def/cathode-ray-tube shining light of a screen but demonstrates you can write a TV script for someone else's show. I chose ABC's Castle, for its mix of drama and comedy. And I thought my personal style of sarcasm would blend well in the fun banter found on that show.

Then I brainstormed Castle story ideas and Bill & I narrowed it down to one (his feedback was invaluable). And then I went to outline - something most writers need to do (and many networks require) before going straight to the script. The outline is where you work out your entire story (actually multiply threaded A, B and sometimes C stories) and fix the holes/issues/unseen traps.

After the class was over, I wrote the actual script. Probably took me a year, which is way too slow for TV, but I was working full time and love to procrastinate. And since I wrote this over two years ago, I need to rewrite it to align with the current timeline of the show, and because I'm sure it's absolute shit and needs several rounds of polish to make it better.

In 2013, I took the ProSeries through Hal Croasmun's ScreenwritingU. My focus is TV writing, and this six-month program is geared toward screenplays (film), but the many, many lessons were invaluable. Lessons every day! Writing assignments every day! And you learn to give and receive feedback. It helped me a lot in creating characters, subtext/symbolism, scene-writing, idea generation, etc. I came out of it with a screenplay draft and connections to lots of wonderful writers who are alumni of ALL of the ProSeries through the years.

My screenplay Inside Out needs a full rewrite, because I came up with a better antagonist, and because my skills have grown, so fresh rewrites will only make this script better. It's also another writing sample, and it's marketable.

You can also take individual classes at ScreenwritersU for particular areas, and they're always offering free classes (2- to 3-hour teleconferences).

Read Books
There are lots of books out there. Beware! Not of nefarious writers, but of the time suck. Books explaining writing, rules and methods helped me a lot. Books explaining the business helped from a marketing perspective, which you'll eventually need to do, but I got caught up in "What if I made it?! How does this business work? What if I made it?!" Make sure writing is your main focus, and reading supports it.

ALSO, remember to read stories, novels, short-stories, scripts. When I read a novel now I appreciate the work, the creativity, the voices, the characters, and mostly just the enjoyment.

In addition to the titles already mentioned above, a few writing books I particularly enjoyed were:

The TV Writer's Workbook by Ellen Sandler
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Successful Television Writing by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin
Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias
TV Writing Toolkit by Jen Grisanti

I cannot say enough about #ScriptChat, an online meetup every Sunday night at 9 PM ET on Twitter. I found this godsend before I went to LA for Steve Kaplan's Comedy Intensive.

For one hour every week, writers of all skill levels meet online in a "chat-room" that curates every tweet using the #ScriptChat hashtag in a live discussion.  I enter the chat using tchat.

ScriptChat! <<--Go directly to their web site for all the details.  They have book links, script site links, transcripts of past chats, a calendar of weekly topics/guests. The first Sunday of every month is TV focused! And they have LOTS of great guests.

I have met (online and now in person) writers who have changed my life. Jeanne Bowerman and Jamie Lee Scott, just to name two wonderful friends. I even won a mentorship from Zac Sanford, one of the moderators and now a friend, free of charge for six months that he graciously extended to a year.

And if you're nervous about chatting, don't be. You can always "listen" from the sidelines and no one even knows you're there. You can jump in if and whenever you want.

Join a Writers Group
I was fortunate enough to meet some serious writers in Baltimore who share honest feedback, improve with every script, and share so many of my interests. When I returned from my trip to LA in 2010, the first thing I did was search online for a local screenwriters group. actually listed one with a few hundred members: the Baltimore Screenwriters Coffee Club. They meet up once a month in the city and have different guests and open discussion. They also, quite often, ask writers to bring 10 pages of their script for a table read. You get feedback this way. It's wonderful!

I happened to bring my first, and only, 10 pages ever written of my Castle spec one night.

Another life-changing event. Two guys, Chris Mueller and Mike Brennan, happened to be there. They heard my Castle pages and approached me after the meeting. "Hey, we're TV writers too." And so began our own writers group, and friendship.

Chris created the web series Click! and invited me to join as a writer with him, Mike and one other writer, Steve Burgess. Long story short, that's how I got my first IMDB credit!

Watch TV and Films
Kind of obvious, and also can be a very tempting distraction, but in addition to reading scripts, you really do need to watch TV shows and films to complete your education. It's true you'll never watch TV or film the same again, and you will become that guy or gal, who points out the tropes, glaring errors, lazy fixes, broken rules, and brilliant execution. But you will still enjoy it. It just might be alone. ;-)

Back to my pilot!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

I Quit My Day Job

Call it a first step in believing in myself.

"I quit." I have wanted to utter those words, for different reasons, for a very, very long time.

Why did I do it? Because it's time.

I didn't like who I was at work, or after work. Angry. Chip on my shoulder. Not being my true self. And definitely not doing what I really want to be doing.

Negativity saps creativity. And even if my anger is justifiable (I could list all the reasons that have wastefully occupied my brain for far too long), it's not worth my time or my energy. Or yours.

It leaves control in someone else's hands. But I should be the one driving my life. My day job doesn't keep me from writing. I do. It's time to take back the wheel.

There were signs from the universe that I chose to no longer ignore.  Here are just three in the week that led up to my decision:
  • Monday morning, February 24, while waiting at a traffic light outside my office, I hit skip on my iPod (always in Shuffle mode) and REO Speedwagon's "Time for Me to Fly" comes on. The light turns green.
  • Later that same Monday, I read the news that Harold Ramis passed away, whose comedy influenced my life more than any other writer's. He left a body of work that would make anyone proud. Where's mine?
  • Friday evening, February 28, leaving the office my iPod serves up a random podcast, And Then There's That, co-hosted by my friend Dennis Lane, a prolific writer himself who was taken from us last May. On the day before Dennis passed, we bumped into each other at a Starbucks where he asked me how Click! the web series was going (I'm one of the writers). Dennis always did encourage me to write. And he still does.
Needless to say, I don't see all these moments as coincidences.

So I wrote a short, cordial resignation letter. No burning bridges. No Norma Rae moment. No dance suitable for YouTube. I just said thanks and goodbye.

I have enough savings to take off 60 days. It may not seem like much, but two months of solid writing equates to two or three years of writing bursts on the nights and weekends I can muster the energy. After that? We'll just have to wait and see.

So here's to the journey! I finally bought a ticket.

Holy shit. I quit my day job.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Who the Fuck Am I Kidding?

Those words echoed in my brain more than any others in 2013.

I love to write. More truthfully, I love to be read. But I don't love the writing process. And I get caught up in "what makes a true writer".

I don't write every day. I think of goofy things and tweet/post them, but that doesn't count. I have to stop comparing myself to what defines other folks as writers. "You're not this if you don't that." That's such bullshit. Define yourself. Fuck everyone else. Sorry for the F-bombs but I'm trying a new thing: ignoring my internal censor. And apparently my Thesaurus.

2013 had its personal ups and downs, but whose didn't?

I did complete the ScreenwritingU Pro Series, knocked out a comedy screenplay (well, 75% of one before I blew up the entire story once, and the third act twice), and "developed" a promising new sit-com. Developed is a fancy way of saying I have the entire cast of characters, premise, engine, and stack of episode ideas without an actual pilot. Yet.

So I accomplished most of my goals, and furthered my craft. And I did a lot of reading and reviewing of other people's work this year, and offered some well-received, constructive feedback. That was an honor. So 2013 was actually a growth year.

The week I turned 50, I flew to LA to put myself out there and pitch my screenplay at the InkTip Pitch Fest. I was greeted with kindness, encouragement and hope. And crippling self doubt. I met up with some fellow Pro Series alumni, who are just awesome people, and made some new friends. At times I felt totally empowered; most others, I felt like a fraud. But I, like many writers, am my own worst enemy. I built myself up to this grand event. And then I came home.

And I haven't written a god damned word since.

Why? I was spent. Exhausted. Affected by everything and everyone around me. Because I didn't bloody feel like it.

My day-job world was upended. I'm a numbers nerd/tech writer/failed champion of logic at Arbitron Ratings - the audience ratings for U.S. radio. Arbitron was purchased by Nielsen in December 2012. The week I returned from LA, in late September, the transaction completed. A huge party was thrown. Weeks later 500 coworkers (of about 1,000) were laid off. I was not one of them.

With nearly 18 years there, I was hoping for a severance package, some time to myself and that opportunity to write full time, even if just for a few months. But that wasn't meant to be.

Why don't I just take the leap? Because it's terrifying to quit an IT job at 50 and start over on just your savings (very little of that) and a dream.

It's not that I don't believe I have talent, I'm just a realist. I'd love to write for television but of the 1,000 or so gigs (all taken), there are 5,000+ qualified, previously produced (often represented) writers competing in an amazingly supportive way. And they're already in LA.

When my screenplay is done, maybe it will get made, independently, with a very low budget to get my stuff out there. Can't live on that, only grow from it.

Eventually I can get some paid writing assignments. I just need more than a Castle spec as proof I'm qualified. Paid scriptwriting is possible, but probably not in 2014.

So I'm lucky to have my day job. Being a survivor at a gutted company, whose name was legally erased the day after the transaction, has been surreal. A lot of goodbyes. A lot of what-the-fuck-nows. A lot of guilt. We all knew something was coming but that doesn't change the reality when it finally goes down.

But here's the thing. Life happens. To all of us. I'm no different than anyone else. Yet, I am totally different from everyone else.

No one asked me to write anything. [Actually, that's not true. I've been asked to write a short for an actor friend and I certainly will in 2014.] But I'm not failing anyone - except my overly ambitious, overly critical, overly redundant self. And maybe the memory of my friend Dennis Lane, who we tragically lost this year, who always checked in on my latest scripts and the web series Click! (which is finally in editing!).

Hey! If you're not failing, you're not fucking trying.

So boohoo for me. I had a rough few months. I also had an amazing year with my family and friends. My grandson is a true God-send. I can't wait until he reads my stuff! My girlfriend is my rock. Her pursuit of moving out of the corporate world and into one of helping others is a model for my own reinvention. My kids, now adults, keep me grounded and so incredibly proud of who they are. And my friends, and readers, are an endless source of encouragement.

I'm not kidding myself; I'm accepting myself. And, guess what? I'm writing. No, not just a blog post.

I spent the morning organizing my screenplay's outline.  Fifty of the 80 scenes are already written. Of the remaining 30, the location and essence is already complete for each. Just ordered a massive bulletin board so my home office becomes my war room. Where I can see the entire story before me. And I can finish it.

Inside Out will soon be ready to market, get read and get shot.

Here's to 2014!


Sunday, September 8, 2013

I Am Not a Belly Itcher


I am a pitcher, not a belly itcher. Who is that adorable guy pictured above? Me, back in the day, with butterflies in my stomach because I knew everyone was better than me. Taller. Faster. More confident.

Well, the butterflies are back. I'll be pitching on Saturday. Not a four-seam fastball, but a screenplay that I've recently written. And I don't care about everyone else this time.

I'm attending the InkTip Pitch Summit in Burbank on the 20th. It's like speed-dating for writers. Who will I be pitching? Producers, managers and agents. Oh my.

So I'm flying out tomorrow four days before the actual event to immerse myself in my dream. Prepare, relax, stare at the sign on the hills. Luckily alumni from Screenwriting U's Pro Series (an intense eight-month program I recently completed) are doing a bootcamp on Friday - practice, practice, practice. Then drink.

And I'm meeting up with people I've only known via Twitter, Skype, Facebook. People who have helped me over the last three years get this far.

I went to LA in December 2010 to attend a wonderful comedy writing seminar offered by Steve Kaplan. When I returned I was so energized I was preparing to move. But I hadn't written a thing, other than blogs and freelance articles. So I decided, instead, I would come back when I had actually written. And I have!

I've written a TV spec. I entered several fellowships last year but I've heard it takes time so fingers-crossed. ;-)

I've written with three other incredible writers for Click! the web series. It's not out yet, but there are some great promos. And Alexis Barone, the actress who plays Rose in my episode, is starring in the TV show Forbidden as Lisette Lee (the Gangster Princess) on Discovery ID! this week (Thursday Night at 9 ET).

I also have a TV sit com pilot I'm currently writing, but that's not ready yet.

This week I'm pitching Inside Out, a comedy feature about a guy who loves prison.

Even if this week results in nothing more than a vacation in LA and some new contacts, I am meeting friends, celebrating a birthday and talking about something I've written, instead of talking about writing something. And I can't fucking wait.

More to come.