My Third Party Voting Friend is the TV Writers’ Logic Police of This Election

I’m from the Midwest – so my social media feeds are not entirely void of Trump supporters. Their posts can scald, but I have developed a protective layer that prevents me from exploding when I rub up against them. The algorithms must have figured this out, because now I’m being fed more posts from my progressive lefty friend (we’ll call him Stan, which either is or is not his real name) whose feed, as we approach the one-month-til-E-Day at this writing, has become a barrage of doom-forecasting about America’s fate under Biden/Harris rule.

If you have a Stan-like-person in your life, then I don’t need to overexplain the philosophical stance. The gist is that while Trump is a “Capital D” Devil, moderate Democrats are—at the very least—“Small d” devils, and that far too few people have noticed this. Posts from Stan are intended to educate by citing examples of Democrats’ historical sneakiness, posturing, failures and hypocrisy.

These observations are not untrue.

What they are (especially if delivered with enough snark and given wide airplay) is a decelerating force leveled against a group of people who need to move en-masse toward a goal.

What if our political situation was a TV Show?  One of the first things you have to do at the outset of creating a show is break story. Breaking story is charting your map of where you’re going story-wise, and planning the stops—plot points and emotional beats – you need to hit along the way. This is a balancing act, because of course it’s impossible to predict exactly where you’re going to end up, or if every stop is going to work like you’re hoping – but even with these uncertainties in play, in order to start moving you have to drum up the faith that the destination you’ve chosen is worthwhile and that your chosen direction is something that is bringing you closer to it.

Recently I was listening to a TV showrunner, Glen Mazzara, talk about the dynamics of a writers room during this stage.* He says, I understand the scene isn’t working – that it’s cliché, or reminiscent of something, or it makes no sense. I don’t need you in my writers’ room to tell me it’s not working – I want you to help me make it work. The worst thing you can do in the room is be “the logic police” – you’re saying no, you’re creating a negative feeling.**

My friend Stan is the logic police – and I can say first hand, it’s not only a negative feeling, it’s a tangible obstacle. In this case, the time I spent on social media engaging with his arguments and attempting amateur-level cognitive behavioral therapy was time spent at a stand-still –and time that I could have spent writing postcards or phone banking or doing anything else positive or forward moving.

Mazzara also says, I have a rule. That is “do not knock something off the table without putting something else there.

I pressed Stan to say what, exactly, he was suggesting that people should do as they approached the ballot box, given there are no perfect answers. He danced and dodged, until finally, pinned down, he recommended voting for a third party candidate. Which third party candidate? I asked.  He responded, Anything lefty. Probably Green.  He was not proposing any solution, merely a way to “send a message” to the Democratic party.***

Believe me, I have all kinds of rebuttals to this that I’m tempted to provide here, but I’m going assume you’ve seen different versions of most of them on your Twitter and try to stay on track with my analogy.

From the time I first contemplated writing for screen, teachers, writers, and agents have told me, you’re not going to love every opportunity that comes your way, but you have find something in a project that resonates with you. And, I’ve always strongly felt that when you join a team, you have a responsibility to add value that is both energetic and tangible. The network and the studio have bought the Biden / Harris show. That’s the job. Sure, there was a time when I dreamed a Warren show would become a reality, but now is not the time to cry about that. Now is time to beat out the most compelling Biden / Harris season we can imagine and promote the hell out of the pilot to get the numbers we need November 3rd for a four-season pickup.****

Footnotes:

*A cool thing that has come out of the pandemic is that Sundance Collab is temporarily offering a free membership with access to a lot of educational content including the Glen Mazzara masterclass where I sourced his quotes.

**When I heard this, I thought of my friend, writer Dave Metzger, saying something similar at an AMA. He added that another reason logic-policing often receives tepid reception in a room is that, in a group of seasoned writers, everybody already knows there’s a problem. Pointing out the obvious is not a move forward.

***Notably, Stan seems to assume that despite his nay-saying, the Biden / Harris ticket will prevail – i.e. he’s depending on people to disregard his logic and supply him with an improved Little-d devil system that he can criticize . He’s basically that guy on your school group project who maligns you for being an authority-smitten grade-grubber instead of doing any work because he knows you’ll carry him to the “A.”

****If you enjoyed this post, then tune in for Part 2 of this series, tentatively titled, Here’s Why My Infuriating Third-Party Voting Friend is Not All Wrong wherein I will quote Harold Zinn, Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” and Jack Epp’s book Screenwriting is Rewriting. It will be published after the election.

(Final note while I figure out how to captions a “feature image” with the new WordPress settings… “Paul and I voted — not for a third-party candidate.”)

My Journey from Contest to Manager to Agent to Paid Writer… Maybe!

Depending on how long you’ve been exploring the business of being a writer in Hollywood, you’ve probably asked or heard someone ask, “How do I get a writing job?” One of the first answers to this is often, “You need to have an agent.” The following question is, predictably, “How do I get an agent?” To which you’ve probably heard someone say,  “Get a manager and  the manager will get you an agent.” Which of course begets, “How do I get a manager?” And the answer is often, “Win a contest.”

So, if you win a contest you’ll get a manager then get an agent then get a writing job. Is this true? Yeeessss… ish.

Does winning a contest get you a manager? In 2011, not long after I graduated from school,  I  won a pretty big contest. It was sponsored by Amazon Studios and had a chunk of prize money attached. Amazon ended up optioning the script, twice. Both times, the executive pursuing the option waxed poetic about how they were going to introduce me to agents and get me repped. Once I signed the paperwork, he never mentioned the idea again and any emails where I brought it up the subject went unanswered. I also probably sent a dozen cold queries citing my contest win — (note that this is pretty much NOTHING in a numbers game like cold queries) and also didn’t get a response. Certainly no one ever sought me out based on my contest win. So I did my day job and allocated my extra time to writing. A few YEARS went by…

THEN, about four or years later, I was invited to a party by an old USC classmate. At that party, another classmate introduced me to his manager. A couple months after that, the same classmate heard that the manager had a specific opening in his roster.  He wrote to both of us, recommending me.  So at that point there was a combination of things at work. This classmate knew me personally from school, had read my writing and knew it was in the genre the manager was looking for. AND he knew I had won this contest.  I think the contest win helped give him the confidence to make the referral, because it was like having someone else, someone more important, vouch for me. There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have gotten the referral, or the manager’s interest, without the contest win. But the personal connection with someone who had actually worked with me, who was also connected to the manager (enough to know his needs) was also key. The fact that the manager had met me face-to-face among people he already liked probably also worked in my favor. I think if any of those things had been absent, it wouldn’t have happened. So:

  • Contest win  + Degree from Name School + Referrer familiar with work AND personality + Intangible Group approval of having been invited to party + Writing samples = Manager.

Does having a manager get you an agent? Almost a year into my relationship with my manager, I wrote a pilot script that “popped” more than the other scripts I’d been working on. The manager used this to get me read by two agents he knew. The first wasn’t responsive, but the second was. This agent worked at the same company as a senior agent who had taught a class at USC. I had worked hard in the class, and kept in touch in the years since (without agenda, I’ll note. He had promised he would never rep one of his students, and I believed him). So again — it was a confluence of things… an exciting script, the manager’s relationship with the agent PLUS the goodwill of the senior agent based on the effort I had put in to the class and to staying in touch… and I had the good school credentials and the contest win, AND – at this point a script I had been working on while un-repped had won a fancy prize — a fellowship in Switzerland. As a note, I don’t think the agent particularly liked either of my contest-winning scripts,  but he liked that he could tell people it had won because it made me shiny.

  • Manager + Manager’s Agent Relationship + Senior agent as secondary referrer familiar with my work AND personality + Degree from Name School + Hot Script + Other samples + Contest Win + Fellowship Win = Agent.

Does having an agent get you work? My new agent used the exciting script to get me a “water bottle tour” and  some pitches.  Ultimately one of the companies I pitched became attached and entered into the development process to pitch the series. Everything was going according to plan! However, the project ultimately floundered and didn’t move forward. The exec who had loved it never responded to another email. My samples earned me the opportunity to pitch for some open writing assignments, I got to break stories, go to meetings and give my “take.” Though my take was occasionally chosen, the projects ultimately fell through,  I enjoyed the process. I could feel myself becoming a better all-round writer and pitcher.

There was only one problem:

In the four years of being unrepped + year of having a manager + four years of having both manager and agent (= nine years), none of the work I’d done had been PAID.  All this time, I was teaching, editing, consulting, doing random side hustles and admin work — or going deeper into debt — or both.

Today, as I write this, this seems like it might be about to change. Not in a big way. Not even in a “quit my day job” way. But, in a way that at least breaks the almost decade-long cold streak. (Knock wood — send good vibes!)

To say it is to jinx it, so details must wait for a future post , but I can tell you now that the answer to the question “Does having an agent mean paid work” will be an equation containing a number of factors…

Something New / Script Analysis

This spring I’ll be taking a cross country trip in order to teach three classes at University of Florida.

Two of the topics I’ll be teaching will be very similar to classes at USC that I feel were the most valuable to my writing career.  One of them I enjoyed greatly.  The other, I did not enjoy as much, but have always been grateful that I took it. I’m going to write a post about each.

The one I enjoyed was called “Screenplay Analysis.”

Flowers-vocabularyBefore my script analysis class, the construction of a movie felt to me like a large amorphous blob. The class showed me how, in fact, a movie is made up of segments and parts that perform various functions — that there are recurring techniques and devices that are recognizable. It was the difference between walking through a garden and seeing “a bunch of flowers” and walking through a garden and seeing tulips and roses and snapdragons and having a sense of why they are planted where they are — either for aesthetic purposes — color or height or when they will bloom — or because of what they need to grow — light or shade or more or less water or a certain kind of soil. And also — to belabor the metaphor — differentiating between kind of gardens and understanding the elements that might go into choosing what kind of garden to plant in the first place.*

Another aspect of script analysis that made it enjoyable was that it was a large class taught in a dark auditorium. The teacher lectured, and unless you raised your hand, you didn’t have to fear he was going to break the fourth wall and pull you on stage. In my pedagogy classes, this was considered pretty old school, but honestly, I enjoyed it. I could process and think and plan out my questions if I had them. It was a class about receiving, and a class about training ones brain to think in a certain way.

However, it was a divisive class among the students. While it was one of my favorites (so much so that I snuck into other sections of the class for the next couple semesters), it was other people’s least favorite class. They found it boring and confusing.

I imagine it will be the same with my students. An odd part of being  a teacher is how at any point you can be rocking one student’s world while at the same time you are simply inflicting torture on another student — by teaching the same material.

So I’m both looking forward to — and daunted by — the opportunity to teach this subject for the first time!  I’ll try to check back in and let you know how it goes!

*I feel I should make it clear that I know next to nothing about flowers or gardens.

The First Cloned Cat

A couple years back, I conceived of a series which involved a fair amount of research about clones. I still perk up my ears when I see articles about clone advancements. People have been cloning their pet dogs for several years, but now the the first cat has been cloned.

Of particular interest:

For their pet cloning services, Mi says Sinogene hopes to someday transfer the memories of the original animals to their clones using artificial intelligence or man-machine interface technology, according to the Global Times

Writing: Obstacles and Stakes

The other day, I was asked to give notes on a short script that had an interesting premise and main character and cool settings, but felt lacking in dramatic dramatic tension. In my notes I talked about obstacles and stakes, which are elements that come up commonly enough with clients or students, that I thought I might do a mini-lesson here.

Here’s a simple four-step structure you might use for a short film:

  1. A character has a goal.
  2. The character makes a plan to achieve that goal.
  3. The character attempts to execute the plan.
  4. The character succeeds or fails in the plan = outcome / aftermath.

Here’s an example that matches that goal. (EXAMPLE 1)

  1. A cat wants the kitty-treats on top of the fridge.
  2. The cat plans to jump on the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  4. The cat eats the treats.

What would happen if we added some obstacles and stakes to this story?

OBSTACLES in writing are pretty much the same as obstacles in life — they are whatever gets in the way of our progress toward a goal. These can internal, like self-doubt or external as in this case: Let’s say that there’s a pile of dishes on the counter, waiting for their turn in the sink. There’s only a TINY area of counter where the cat can land without dislodging a dish…

STAKES are what a character stands to gain if she succeeds or lose if she fails. We already know what our kitty-cat gets if she reaches the top of the fridge — delicious cat treats, but we can make those treats a little more important. Let’s say the cat didn’t get any dinner, so she is legit HUNGRY. Maybe her owner was making an important romantic dinner for someone, got distracted and forgot to feed the cat. (Then she brought the dishes into the kitchen, and forgot again!)

So what happens if the cat FAILS? If the cat jumps and lands badly, she will dislodge a pile of dishes — they will come CRASHING to the floor, breaking the good china and ruining the romantic vibes happening in the next room. The cat’s owner will be pissed, and will throw the cat outside — still with no dinner! Oh — and it’s RAINING outside!

What does our story look like now? (EXAMPLE 2)

  1. The cat, locked in the kitchen, looks mournfully at her empty bowl. Her stomach growls. She looks at the treats on top of the fridge and licks her lips.
  2. The cat evaluates her route to the top of the fridge. There’s a pile of fragile dishes on the counter, but there’s also just enough space for a pair of kitty feet. The cat decides to go for it.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter and lands perfectly on the counter — but what she didn’t see was — it’s WET. As she makes her leap to the fridge, her paws SLIP! She madly claws for the top of the fridge but doesn’t make it and falls backwards. Now she’s in danger of smashing the dishes AND seriously injured! [We’re RAISING the stakes.] BUT at the last moment, she TWISTS and sinks her claws into the CURTAIN on the window. She climbs the curtain, and drops down to the top of the fridge!
  4. The cat happily digs her nose into the bag of treats.

THE END