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Who Hates Whom: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up A Woefully Incomplete Guide by Bob Harris

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~ Ken Jennings, author of Brainiac


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Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe, edited by Jane Espenson

Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, edited by Jennifer Crusie and including Jane Espenson's short story, "Georgiana"

Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly, edited by Jane Espenson and Glenn Yeffeth

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Thursday, May 29th
Link Letters

I have recently received mail containing requests to post links to a couple of interesting sites. First off, Gentle Reader Claire suggested that I should post a link to the Battlestar Galactica podcasts. Not only will you find Ron Moore's personal accounts of each episode there, but also a series of recordings made in the writers' room during the breaking of the "Razor" Battlestar movie. I wasn't on the staff yet when Razor was being conceived -- I was hired almost immediately following that point -- so you won't hear my voice, but you will get to eavesdrop on a actual working session. This should be invaluable for those of you who've always wondered about the dynamics of a room, or who are aspiring to work in one and wonder now what you're getting yourself into. I think you'll find it fascinating -- I listen to these podcasts myself, and I'm startled to realize I never directed you to them before, Gentle Readers.

But we're not the only show with cool stuff going on. There is also a very nifty blog that takes you behind the scenes of Eureka, Sci-Fi channel's other hit. Check it out as well, especially if you're a fan of the show.

Lunch: tri-tip, cauliflower

Jane on 05.29.08 @ 05:10 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, May 28th
Two Long!

Gentle Reader Claire in Massachusetts writes in with a great question. She notes that a lot of drama series are launched with two-hour pilots and wants to know if that means it would be a good idea to write a double-long spec pilot.

It is true that this is happening more and more. One reason for this is so a pilot that is never ordered to series can still be aired as a television movie and recoup some of its cost. I suspect we'll see more and more of this.

Notice that it also allows writers more time to tell a story despite the fact that they have to do so much character-introducing and world-establishing.

And yet, I wouldn't recommend writing a two-hour spec pilot. Specs are writing samples and when someone is looking to staff a show or even find a new client or select a contest winner, they usually have to read a lot of samples all at once. In their haste, they're gonna be grabbing the slimmest scripts, not the fattest ones. And this holds true across genres. Even if you're writing something with a sci-fi flavor (Sci-Fi network loves the two-hour pilots).

Comedies don't generally have over-long pilots, but they do sometimes have those extra-long episodes. Don't take that as an excuse to make your Office spec come in at 50 pages. Shorter is better, in comedy specs even more than in drama.

Lunch: egg foo yung from the commissary. It's never quite as good as you'd hope.

Jane on 05.28.08 @ 02:08 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, May 27th

Friend-of-the-Blog Danny Strong wrote the movie RECOUNT that premiered on HBO this weekend. Did you miss it? That's okay, I suspect HBO will implement some sort of scheme in which they rerun it a couple times. Don't miss it next time, though, because it's fantastic.

I read every draft of Danny's script, and yet I have no memory of giving help of any kind. All I recall saying is, "Wow. This is really good."

I recommend looking at the movie as an excellent example of how to handle exposition. Danny is telling the story of the 2000 Presidential Election Florida recount. He had lots and lots of very technical material to deliver to the audience. And never once does he just shove a chunk of it at the viewers, hoping to get past it as quickly as possible. It's usually delivered by one character explaining something to another character who genuinely doesn't have the information, and there is always an attitude behind either the giving or the getting of the information, usually both. Incredulity, amusement, shock, anger, even blank incomprehension -- these attitudes make expositional moments into character moments.

Notice also his use of intercutting. He frequently cuts between the Democratic and Republican camps discussing the same point of law. The intercutting puts the emphasis on the different approaches to the problem and, again, makes the scenes about attitudes, not legal procedure.

He also found real-life obstacles for his characters. The guy who had to chase Gore down to prevent him from making a concession speech? He really did have a busted knee. The lawyer who argued the case before the Supreme Court? He really is dyslexic and has to work without notes. These are the kinds of character details -- one more little thing to overcome -- that you want to invent for characters that you make up, and Danny was smart enough to discover and exploit them (in a good way) for his script.

Writing scripts based on real events is incredibly difficult. There's no reason to think that the journey of a real hero actually will conform to the Hero's Journey, after all. If you're trying to shape real-life events into a satisfying script, you're not going to do better than this example.

Lunch: Cup O' Noodles

Jane on 05.27.08 @ 03:30 PM PST [link]

Friday, May 23rd
Waning Moonlight

I was asked by someone -- dear me, I've mislaid the note or email -- to check with the ABC Fellowship people about a very specific question. The writer needed to know if they could still submit a spec script for the show Moonlight, a show that has only just very recently been canceled. Well, I checked and was told, as I'd suspected, that they're going by the letter of the law here. The program accepts scripts only for shows currently on the air, and recently canceled is the same as canceled. Now, you might get lucky -- after all, there's no reason to think that all the readers for the program check the day's cancellation news, but is that a chance you want to take? (It isn't.)

This should also stand as a warning about specing first-season shows in general. It's very hard to tell, early on, what's going to be a hit (remember Commander-in-Chief) and you're taking a real gamble in assuming that any particular new show will survive. I think you should spec a first season show only if you have connections at that show and think you can get someone there to read it. Then you're taking the gamble of writing a show for the (sure to be hyper-critical) writers of that same show, but at least it's a different gamble.

UPDATE TO A PREVIOUS STORY: Today I received a gorgeous orchid from my new best friend Ringo. Or, I suppose, from the very charming Ringo-assistant I met the other day. I assume this is a thank you for returning the box of clothes. The note says "Peace and Love, Ringo," which is simply too cool for words.

Lunch: matzo ball soup and a cookie

Jane on 05.23.08 @ 01:18 PM PST [link]

Thursday, May 22nd
Shelf Life

Book news today.

First up, I now have in hand my copy of "Apocalypse How" by Daily Show writer Rob Kutner. You can order it here, or here. I suggest you do, in fact, because it's very funny. I love that it doesn't just concern itself with the details of life after, say, a crippling epidemic, ecological collapse, robot revolt or nuclear war, but also includes discussions of post-Rapture life for those of us not transported out of our clothes. The book is like a primer in one of the most important skills in joke-writing, namely finding every possible angle on a single topic. Lovely.

In the section on entertaining post-apocalypse, I particularly enjoyed this bit on party chat:
...it's always a good idea to start with topics of common interest: "Barely tolerable weather we're having, eh?" "How 'bout those hyenas?" "Anyone here managed to reach groundwater?"

It's the hyenas that get to me. It's one of those fill-in-the-blank jokes that is always fresh because it's not the form of the joke that's funny, as much as it is the magical choice of that one word. Hyenas. Punchier than "flesh-eating microbes," and less obvious than "zombies," it hits the perfect note.

At the same time my copy of Apocalypse How arrived, I also received a copy of "Half-Assed; a Weight-Loss Memoir" by Jennette Fulda along with a nice note from Jennette herself.

She says that my posts about responding to notes helped her during the editing stages of the book. Yeah? Cool! Thanks, Jennette!

If you recall, my basic advice on this topic is to listen to notes without reacting negatively in the moment and to think about the ideas underlying the notes. When you approach your rewrite, you'll find ways to supply what the reader found lacking or correct what they found out-of-tune that you will never find if you bristle and bridle when you first hear their reaction, or if you react to the "letter" of what they're saying without making sure you understand the "spirit" of it.

Lunch: avocado lettuce and tomato on olive bread

Jane on 05.22.08 @ 01:29 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, May 20th

I don't usually do this. I like to limit this blog to writing advice. But I cannot resist this. So please, enjoy this personal tale of hilarity that (I'm hoping) will somehow reduce itself to a writing lesson at the end.

Get this. Remember how I was just in Vancouver? Well, instead of checking luggage, I had a box of clothes FedExed up there and then back down here when I left. It avoids the hassles of baggage claim and I totally recommend this plan. When you're ready to head home, you just scoop your unlaundered clothes into a box and ship it off, neat as you please.

Except that they do some sort of operation at the border in which the shipping labels are removed and sometimes switched. Fun!

This means that when a box arrived at my home yesterday, it didn't contain my clothes. It contained someone else's clothes. Luckily, this person was savvier than I about the hazards of international shipping labels, and had included a piece of paper with his name and (business) address. I have the property of a "Mr. R. Starkey." Those of you who know stuff about stuff are now freaking out. A little checking re: the address and the business name has verified: I have Ringo Starr's clothes. Okay, now everyone can freak out. Please notice that according to any system of logic, this makes me the fifth Beatle.

Steps are being taken to fix the problem. Don't worry, I'm not going to keep the clothes. I'm not even going to look at them, in fact, and I'm hoping Ringo is exercising similar restraint when it comes to my (if you recall, unlaundered) items.

So, how is this a writing lesson? Well, doesn't it make you feel a little better about the inciting incident in a lot of comedies?

UPDATE: I just took Ringo's clothes to Ringo's house. Turns out that wasn't a business address after all, but his actual home address. Holy cow. I met his charming British assistant who gave me a signed Ringo photo and was very happy to have the box of clothes, but who did not have my box of clothes. So they're not with Ringo after all. Who knows what other celebrity is pawing through my stuff -- I hope it's Shatner, don't you? Anyway, it's been a fine adventure and Ringo Starr has star-shaped stone inlays in his driveway. Not tacky like it sounds, actually very nice, very tasty.

Lunch: cup 'o noodles, chex mix, fig newtons

Jane on 05.20.08 @ 11:45 AM PST [link]

Monday, May 19th
Why You Want It, Not What You Want

Part of returning home involves being handed a big stack of blogmail that piled up while I was gone. Let's take a peek inside:

Amita, in Ontario, wants advice about applying to the ABC Fellowship. (First off, I don't know for sure that you're a Canadian, but your letter comes from there, so you'd better check the application, Amita -- I think the program might now be limited to US citizens -- WHOA -- I just checked and it looks like now the only requirement is US work eligibility. Is that new? Is that hard to get? Aren't you glad you wrote to an expert, Amita?)

She asks about the resume and Statement-of-Interest parts of the application. She's got interesting (and slightly conflicting) concerns: fear that her resume isn't enough like everyone else's, and fear that her statement is too much like everyone else's. Well, set aside the fear over the resume. A pre-med background and living experience in Europe is far cooler (and more marketable) than any film/tv degree. The program isn't looking for a fat resume, but for talent and diversity -- diversity of background and experience. You'll do beautifully.

In terms of the Statement of Interest, she fears she'll be writing the same "I wanna be a writer" statement that everyone else will write. What other interest would someone express, after all, if they're applying for a writing program? Here, I'd venture to guess that the key isn't content as much as enthusiasm and expression of motivation. In other words why do you want to write for television, and what inspires you about it? Are you trying to accomplish something through what you write? Or is it about fulfilling something more personal to you? Just like when you write a character, you don't just have to know what they want, but why. Tell them about the why.

There are always a few letters that I simply don't know how to answer. Please enjoy the following non-answers:

John in Hong Kong asks about how established British writers can pitch a children's show to US producers. Sorry, but that's a totally different world from my own. I guess I'd try to set up a pitch at Nickelodeon if I were you? Are they still the big kid-tv provider? I'm not even sure. But I hope you get to the right people and that you have the best of luck!

Richard in Maryland is looking for a co-writer. I don't want to become the writers' matchmaker, so I'm not sure how to help. Perhaps those networking sites like Facebook or Livejournal would be a good place to start?

And a thank you to Kelly in Ontario, Canada, who writes in with a success story about selling a comic book series after a career in film and TV. I love to hear that people are taking the creative path in that direction too. Congratulations!

Lunch: That chicken and heirloom tomato dish from the "nice side" of the Universal Studios Commissary.

Jane on 05.19.08 @ 05:39 PM PST [link]

Saturday, May 17th
Learning From The Prose

So did you see last night's new episode of Battlestar? This one, called Guess What's Coming to Dinner? was written by the amazing Michael Angeli, and I think it's one of the strongest episodes ever. Suspense, chills and singing!

In celebration, I'm going to use a line from his draft to demonstrate one of my favorite writing techniques. Check this out:

Athena, frantic, wild-horse eyes, bolts down another part of the corridor, no sign of...


I've talked about this before, and this is a great example. And I'm not even talking about the stunning description of Athena's "wild-horse eyes".

See what he did structurally? By creating a sentence that bridges over the change in formatting ("...no sign of Hera"), he's making the inherently choppy structure of a script read more like prose, like a short story. This reader-friendly technique can be part of making your spec script feel enjoyable, not just as a description of a good potential filmed product, but in itself. Angeli's scripts are always literary objects in their own right and if the Battlestar scripts are ever published, I encourage you to devour them.

Lunch: Japanese noodle soup from a restaurant I hadn't been to before. Pork broth, cabbage, egg, noodles. Lovely.

Jane on 05.17.08 @ 07:42 PM PST [link]

Friday, May 16th
Set Patterns

All right. I'm back home in Los Angeles, and my hope is that blogging will now resume its normal schedule. Sorry 'bout the interruption. Life in Vancouver had a certain work-sleep-work pattern that was very hard on the blogging.

Because I have all sorts of on-set experience fresh in my head today, I think I'll diverge a bit from the normal function of this blog. In general, I like to limit the discussion to practical advice to those of you writing spec scripts that are not likely to (are not even intended to) ever be filmed. These specs are the audition pieces that get you jobs, or get you into fellowship programs. They have special properties because they are ultimately intended for a reader, not a viewer. That's why I spend so much time talking about the poetry of a good stage direction.

But I know that some of you are doing something different. You're actually writing material that will be filmed, either because you're already working on a show, or because you're producing something yourself, perhaps for the internet. So here's some advice for those of you who need to worry much more about the viewer than the reader:

1. Write Short. When the cameras roll, the material seems to expand like a big yeasty ball of unwieldy dough. Three pages will feel like an eternity. Make sure in advance that every line is working for you. Is that particular line absolutely needed? Are you sure?

2. Let the Actors Work. If an actor can do it with their face, you don't need to write it. In a spec script that will never be filmed, you may find yourself over-explaining emotions with good cause, but if you've got good actors, let them do their stuff. If your material is going to be produced, you may want to take a pass (well ahead of time) that eliminates any of the over-writing you may have found necessary at earlier stages.

3. Be Flexible. I know you imagined a specific staging when you wrote it, but now that you're shooting it, it may feel awkward to bring this character all the way into the room, or it might look weird or simply be unshootable to have that character reacting from the other side of the window. Coming up with natural staging may even require you to change some lines around while it's being filmed, but that doesn't mean you failed. Take these kinds of adjustments as part of the process, not as a sign that you didn't stage it correctly in your head.

And, in apparent contradiction:

4. Don't Be Too Flexible. Everyone around you may get all excited about some cool shot or unexpected costume choice or really innovative staging of a scene. But you've got a job they don't have. You are the Keeper of the Story. You have to keep in mind whether or not that really interesting choice supports the scene or undercuts it. When you watch them shoot a scene, remind yourself of the purpose that the scene serves in the story as a whole, and make sure that that purpose is realized.

And, finally,

5. Stay Out Of The Way. Give any notes you have to the director, not directly to the actors unless there are circumstances that make it acceptable. Let the director do their thing. Don't panic and feel like you need to rewrite something on the spot because it isn't playing -- usually it isn't playing because it isn't cut together yet. Watch, learn, relax, and enjoy the food.

Lunch: An avocado, lettuce and tomato sandwich with a big bowl of noodles on the side.

Jane on 05.16.08 @ 01:10 PM PST [link]

Friday, May 9th
The Singular of Apocalypse

Friend of the blog, the amazing Rob Kutner, one of the writers on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, has written a book called "Apocalypse How." You can order it here, or, once Book Soup has it on their site, you can also order it there! And you can read about it way over here!

I don't have my copy in hand yet, but this is sure to be terrific. From the web site: APOCALYPSE HOW is a comprehensive cataclysmic guide that walks you through the Nine Most Likely World-Ending Scenarios, and provides useful and inspiring advice on every aspect of surviving (and thriving!) in the new world to come. Fantastic.

Up here in Vancouver, I'm continuing to enjoy watching my words get spun into gold by this amazing crew and cast. Nothing will convince you you're brilliant faster then having brilliant actors read your material. Of course, the opposite is true too, which is why I caution you to be very careful about staging amateur table reads. Terrible line-readings will make you think your writing is terrible. And it just isn't. I think you're better off listening to imaginary brilliance than real-world awfulness. So turn up those voices in your head and turn down your roommate's boyfriend's offer to read the lead in your spec pilot. Unless he's good, he might just convince you to throw out something that actually works. Remember that there is no line so inspired that it can't be read painfully badly.

Lunch: cheeseburger, pickles, other wonderful items from the catering truck

Jane on 05.09.08 @ 07:29 PM PST [link]

Saturday, May 3rd
Keeping Promises

I'm still up here in Vancouver, watching production of my next episode. It's exhausting but fun. One of the things I've been doing is making last-minute cuts to shorten too-long scenes. It's been making me think a lot about how to keep a scene short and focused and strong.

If you're tackling this in your own script, I suggest trying what I've been doing: recreating a beatsheet like the one you wrote at your pre-outline stage, only even shorter. Just make a list of the one crucial thing that happens in each scene. Sometimes two crucial things happen in a scene, especially if an A-story and a B-story are both involved, but usually no more than that. So I mean, literally a couple words for each scene: "Joe tells Carrie his secret." "Leslie starts the house fire." "Jeremy blames his father for his failings." "The soldier starts to regret his actions." Then look at the scene and find the part where that happens -- sometimes it's all in one line or one action. Decide on the absolute minimum you'd have to keep to fulfill the promise of your little beatsheet. Declare all the rest expendable.

Now, this isn't really true, of course. The heartbeat of a script is in all the stuff that might not be strictly necessary for this scene, but that gives a world its texture, and fleshes out a character so that their actions reflect a full and believable person. If you cut everything but story, you'd have a synopsis, not an episode. But keeping your eye on the function of the scene within the story is crucial and sometimes surprisingly difficult. If you know exactly what the scene needs to do, you can bring a slightly more objective eye to the cutting process. I've been amazed sometimes when I've realized that some four-page scene I've written actually plays better -- is sharper and more emotional -- as a one-page scene. You don't always lose when you cut. The bones of your story show up better when you take some of the fat off.

Even if you don't need to lose length off your script, I recommend that at some point you make one of these little reconstructed beatsheets, just to keep your focus on the most basic shape of your story, the real function of every scene. It will keep you from wandering off into the maze.

Lunch: steak, which I shared with a beagle who lives in the Set Dec Department. I love food from the set.

Jane on 05.03.08 @ 12:01 PM PST [link]


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