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Who Hates Whom / Bob Harris

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

"The geopolitical equivalent of scorecards that get hawked at ball games. Only Bob could make a user’s guide to our increasingly hostile world this absorbing, this breezy, and—ultimately—this hopeful."
~ Ken Jennings, author of Brainiac


Jane in Print
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

Jane in DVD

Jane in DVD

Now Available:
+Battlestar Galactica Season 3
+Dinosaurs Seasons 3 & 4
+Gilmore Girls Season 4
+Buffy: The Chosen Collection
+Tru Calling
+Angel: Limited Edition Collectors Set

Jane in Progress


Wednesday, October 31st
On Top of Mount Percentile

Gentle Reader Sean in New York writes in with some new information about the Warner Brothers' Workshop. This is fascinating. Sean tells us that in his rejection letter...

... they informed me that I was among the top 5% of the entries submitted [...] so I was invited to a special seminar for the top 5% to discuss how to make our specs better.

Really? That's incredibly cool! If any of you others out there also find yourself in this category, you have my congratulations. This is a big deal.

Sean has concerns about the cost of a mid-week trip across country for this. Oh, man, Sean, if there's any way you can swing this, you should do it. This isn't just some kind of consolation prize, this sounds to me more like a genuine boost over Hollywood's towering threshold. You won't just be getting inside advice that you could get from any schmo like me. You'll be getting inside advice from the actual people deciding who gets into the program!! I know nothing for sure, but I'd certainly suspect that the scripts of the previous year's seminar participants are read with extra interest.

And, by the way, Sean tells us that the script that earned him this attention was a spec Heroes. Take note of that -- I wouldn't have thought Heroes was an especially specable show, but Sean apparently knocked it at least 95% of the way out of the park.

So everyone get to work. Next year I expect to hear that everyone finished in that top 5%! You know you can do it!

Lunch: pad thai with lots of tiny lime wedges

Jane on 10.31.07 @ 06:36 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, October 30th
Hello, Good Buy

Sometimes you just have to ask the audience to make a "buy". Your story might require that they accept some piece of invented technology or a small coincidence or perhaps a slightly flawed plan on the part of a villain. I've talked in the past about one way to make a buy more palatable, namely by "hanging a lantern" on it, which means actually pointing the unlikelihood out to the audience and simply owning it. If a character says, "Wow, that was kind of a weak plan," then your audience tends to relax and accept the weak plan as a part of the story, instead of feeling cheated. Again, it's all about feeling like you're in the hands of a confident writer who is aware of what they have created.

But even with a good stockpile of lanterns, you have to be careful. One buy per script is a good maximum. If you've come up with a great intricate bank heist with split-second timing and a stunning surprise resolution and it requires that a guard turn away from a security monitor at an important moment, well, that might be okay. But if it also requires that the armored car driver wouldn't use his cell phone to report a malfunctioning radio... well, then you might want to see what you can do to come up with some logical non-lantern-hanging explanation that will eliminate one of your buys.

Over and over again, I discover that people who are merciless viewers, snorting at the screen about plot points that they find dubious, can be shockingly cavalier about similar holes in their own plots. Perhaps they've decided that sloppiness from others excuses their own. Nope. If it would make you snort when someone else does it, it should make you snort at your own pages.

Lunch: "Santa Fe Salmon Salad" -- I didn't like the sound of it, but it was quite good

Jane on 10.30.07 @ 05:16 PM PST [link]

Sunday, October 28th
Tough Talk About The Deficit

I'm back in Los Angeles where it's warm. So let's get on with the bloggin', shall we?

I find here a letter from Alexandra in Culver City, who points out that I was very unclear in my entry for Sept. 23rd of this year in which I talked about reconceptualizing one-hour spec pilots as half-hour spec pilots. I didn't mean to suggest that anyone should actually write half-hour versions of Ugly Betty. I just meant to use Ugly Betty as an example of the kind of comedic-toned show that could've had its pilot script whittled down by its original author into a charming half-hour pilot if they'd chosen to do so. I hope that clears things up!

On a different topic, Alexandra also asks, "...does it ever happen that you actually get staffed on a show that you don't know in its entirety? If so, do you 'bluff' your way in the writers' room on the first few weeks of the job, or are you open about how much you love or don't love the show, or how much you know about all the characters...?"

Great question, Al! (Can I call you Al?) The answer to the question is "Yes, it happens all the time." In fact, even a rabid fan comes into the writers' room of an established show suffering from a distinct information deficit. They might know the characters, but they don't know about all the story lines that were considered and then dropped, or the foibles of the actors that limit what the characters can do, or the preferences of the network for a certain kind of episode, or the plans that the show runner has for the future arc of the show. Everyone expects the new guy at the very least to be uninformed and curious on these points. And usually, of course, the deficit is even larger. You can be a fan of a show and still forget big chunks of established back-story, or have failed to observe some quirk of one of the characters. No one expects you to know everything. I make mistakes all the time in the Battlestar writers' room -- forgetting some occurrence in a past episode or (repeatedly) mixing up which ships are Raptors and which are Raiders, or suggesting some character act in a way counter-indicated by everything else they've ever done. Shrug. I note the error and move on. I've done this in every room I've ever been in, and, to varying degrees, so does everyone else.

And what if you're barely aware of anything about the show? It happens. A lot. There's no need to hide it. You'll have done as much quick research as you can, of course, starting from when you heard you had an interview, but you might still show up feeling generally unfamiliar with the show. It's fine. You will be given disks, on your first work day, of all the shows to date. If you aren't given them, ask for them. Ask questions in the room if you can do so without derailing the process, or corner higher-level producers in the hall or over lunch with your questions. I myself sat down and reread all the Television Without Pity recaps of Battlestar when I got my current job, to make sure I hadn't just seen the episodes, but had checked my perceptions of what was going on against someone else's reactions. I remember hearing that a high-level producer at Star Trek: The Next Generation, was hired without having seen any of the show, or even of original Trek, and that they spent their first weeks watching endless tapes to immerse themselves in a culture entirely foreign to them. And that's certainly not an isolated or unusual case. The other writers will generally be eager to help, to discuss, to bring you up to date.

In other words, Don't Bluff. Except... well... it's not bluffing, exactly, but... you asked if you should be honest about how much you "love or don't love" the show. Don't love the show? Oh, no, you love the show. Seriously, you LOVE the show. Even if the other writers are downplaying it, find something you love about it. This show is someone's brainchild, someone loves it very much, and hundreds of people are devoting their time to try to make it the best it can be. If you don't at least try to wrap your arms around it, you will have a bad time and you won't do your best work, and you might just get a reputation as a negative presence. It's far better, I believe, to have a few grumpy-pens question your taste, than it is to have a show-runner question your love of the craft and/or devotion to her project.

Besides, they hired you, right? What's not to love?

Lunch: the "protein scramble" at Factor's Deli -- egg whites and ground chicken with grilled tomato slices.

Jane on 10.28.07 @ 04:23 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, October 24th
Who Cans Worms, Anyway?

Sometimes, someone will read your script and point out a problem you had never noticed. "Hmm... they go to all that trouble breaking into the bank when it's been established on the show that one of the secondary characters has a mom who works as a teller." Or "Wait-- if they'd just set their time-travel pod to take them far enough back in the first scene, they could've avoided all the problems!"

Sometimes, you have to acknowledge the note and fix the problem. Sometimes, the problem isn't fixable and your script blows up. But SOMETIMES, you can just say "can of worms!" and run away.

If a bunch of people have read your script and enjoyed it, and only one guy noticed the problem, you are sometimes totally justified in ignoring the note. Lots of good stories have threads that can be pulled if you look for them, characters who take an illogical action at a crucial moment, for example, or a super-weapon from a previous episode that suddenly seems to be unavailable. If it the problem is small enough and you feel the dramatic payoff is big enough, you have my permission to just go with it.

Just because a thread is there, doesn't mean it has to be pulled. Sometimes you can just tuck it under and no one will even notice.

Lunch: butternut squash ravioli, baked potato, double-chocolate pistachio cranberry square

Jane on 10.24.07 @ 03:16 PM PST [link]

Monday, October 22nd
Look Alive

I used a term in the last post that I'm not sure I've talked about yet. I mentioned keeping a character "alive" in a scene. You probably figured it out -- if a character doesn't speak for a long time, they disappear from a scene. In general, this is a bad thing. Sure, the marine guarding the door doesn't have to say anything, but if you bother to have a major character in a scene, they should be kept alive in it.

This is obviously going to be a consideration when you're actually working on a show, because actors generally hate being treated as set decoration -- if they're in a scene but not in it, they'd often rather be cut. But it's also important in your spec scripts; a silent character is even more prone to disappear on the page than he is on the screen, given that on screen we can see him.

It's also, in general, a good idea to give all the important players in a scene a line up near the front of the scene. It's very distracting to a reader to have someone start speaking in the middle of the scene if the reader wasn't even aware they were in the room. I know, you mentioned them in the stage direction at the top, but that's kind of the point: if a character isn't actually speaking, they're not really fully present to the reader.

It'll feel like you're directing traffic when you start writing to accommodate this. You're handing out lines based on reasons other than the logic of the situation, which can feel very unnatural. But it is important and is done so automatically by working writers that your script will look more professional for having accomplished it.

Lunch: shrimp dumplings, pork dumplings, chicken feet (which I enjoy because they are both delicious and a genuine psychological challenge)

Jane on 10.22.07 @ 08:41 AM PST [link]

Sunday, October 21st
Damp Thoughts

Hello, Gentle Readers. I'm still in beautiful (and rainy) Vancouver. Posting may continue to be a little sporadic, but I'll do my best to bring you the freshest in writing advice!

Know what can help enliven an otherwise static scene? Give the characters something to do. Let 'em play poker or unstick a stuck window or wash dishes or eat. I know this may seem like more of a production detail than a writing one, but actually it can be a huge help in the scripting. You can demonstrate a character's reluctance to talk, for example, by having them suddenly talking too much about the task at hand. Or you show their sudden attention to a topic by indicating that their hands go still, or betray a sudden shock by showing them dropping something.

Action like this, especially something with a verbal component ("I call," "hand me the thing," "watch out"...), also helps break up the dialog so you're less likely to have big blocks of text as one person pours out their opinion. It can also help keep minor characters "alive" in a scene.

And here's the important part -- the activity you choose helps give depth to your characters. Are they Scrabble people? Or are they at the gun range? Trying to get gum out of their son's hair, or clipping their overweight husband's toenails, or typing out a warrant? You can help deepen the illusion that this character has a real life by picking the activity wisely. It's not just staging. It's personality.

Lunch: ketchup-flavored Pringles, Coke

Jane on 10.21.07 @ 12:54 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, October 17th
Back to the Drawing Board and Loving it!

A supplemental post today, Gentle Readers, because I don't like to have a day in which there is a new post, but no actual writing advice. So here we go...

Sometimes you have to rewrite a scene quickly and under pressure. Certainly, when you're on staff and your episode is being produced, you will have to do this. But even as a spec writer with a contest deadline looming, you sometimes have to do this if you've suddenly realized that a scene isn't working. The best way to approach fast and stressy work is to make your job easy. That means limiting yourself to one goal: a scene that fulfills its function in the story. Notice that preserving a line that you really love, or keeping a certain character in the scene, or retaining a really cool transition into the next scene... these are additional goals. They might feel like they're making it easier, since they represent work that's already been done, but they really aren't. They're splitting your focus.

It's usually fastest to throw everything out, start with a bare slug line and think about the absolute minimum that the scene needs to accomplish in the story. Get that down. Now you can embroider and embellish... hey, maybe you can even fit in that line you wanted to save after all, but that's only a consideration after the scene is working.

This method also helps combat scene-spread, the tendency of scenes to expand during re-writing. A scene written this way will be short and to-the-point, which is probably -- almost certainly -- exactly what you need anyway.

Lunch: pulled pork, beans, beets, corn. Like a picnic!

Jane on 10.17.07 @ 02:26 PM PST [link]

The Importance of Self-Promotion

Did you know that authors rarely do book tours anymore? It's true. Unless you're a huge draw as a freestanding celebrity, those tours just don't sell enough books to pay for the travel costs. So now there are internet tours, where you promote your book by "appearing on" various websites. Of course, this is all a way to announce my up-coming internet book tour to promote Serenity Found, the newest book edited by me, about Joss Whedon's Firefly/Serenity universe.

So, for those of you who want to follow the tour, here is the schedule:

Oct. 19: FireflyTalk.com

A popular podcast about all things Firefly and Serenity, which was recently named Best Produced Podcast of the Year at Podcasting Expo. I will be interviewed on their two-year anniversary show.

Oct. 24: SerenityStuff.com

A blog devoted to Firefly and Serenity merchandise. I will be interviewed about the book.

Oct. 30: Arghink.com

Best-selling author Jennifer Crusie's blog. I will be interviewed or appear as a guest blogger.

Nov. 7: SliceofSciFi.com

A popular site devoted to the Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror genres. I will be interviewed and they will give away a signed copy of the book.

Nov. 16: DragonPage.com

A podcast featuring interviews with the creators of the best in science fiction and fantasy. I will be interviewed and they will give away a signed copy of the book.

Nov. 22: signal.serenityfirefly.com

The Signal is a podcast devoted to all things Firefly/Serenity, winner of the 2007 Parsec Award in the category "Best Fan Podcast" and the 2006 People's Choice Podcast Award winner in the categories "Movies and Films" and "Best Produced." I will be interviewed.

Nov 25: SpaceWesterns.com

An e-zine for the Space Western sub-genre. I will be celebrity judge for a Space Western limerick contest and they will be giving away a signed copy of the book as one of the prizes.

Nov. 28: USA Today - Pop Candy

Pop Candy is USA Today's pop culture blog and one of the most popular entertainment blogs on the internet. I will be interviewed and Firefly/Serenity lead actor Nathan Fillion's essay from the book will be excerpted.

Dec. 4: trashionista.com

A site devoted to female fiction of all genres. I will be interviewed by author and Serenity Found contributor Shanna Swendson.

Dec. 9: SpaceWesterns.com

I will make a second appearance on SpaceWesterns.com to discuss the book.

Did you catch the important bit? Guest Judge in a Limerick Contest! Seriously, that makes me just about as happy as anything could.

So mark your calendars, Gentle Readers. If you can take that much more of me -- there I'll be!

Lunch: pasta eaten during stress -- no memory of actual ingredients or flavors

Jane on 10.17.07 @ 11:04 AM PST [link]

Monday, October 15th
Waking Up Familiar

Remember this excellent piece by E. E. Knight on writing blunders? I've been thinking a lot about them, especially the one about not starting your narrative with the character waking up in the morning. This particular prohibition is spot on and I think there's something really interesting to be learned from it.

Keep an eye out for the waking-up opening, and you'll start to see it everywhere in movies and stories. I googled, "the story opens with," and "waking up," and found, among other entries:

"The story opens with Engineer Jack waking up..."
"The story opens with a girl waking up..."
"The story opens with Kelly waking up..."
"The story opens with Robin waking up..."
"The story opens with Will Barrent waking up..."

Yup, everyone loves it!

Here's why. It's good. Waking up provides a natural starting place, and it allows you to establish a character's ordinary life and the ordinary status of their world before the inciting incident takes place.

So why avoid it? Because everyone loves it. It's just become so familiar now, and it's so easy that it shows a lack of effort and imagination. In pitching a pilot this very season, I had to take a few extra minutes to find a better opening to the story, because my brain went right away to that waking up/morning routine. The opening I found? Much better. Anything that makes you think, tends to make you write better, and the main sin of the waking-up opening is that you can write it without thinking.

Lunch: pork loin, havarti cheese tart, mashed potatoes

Jane on 10.15.07 @ 04:50 PM PST [link]

Sunday, October 14th
Guest Speaker Conclusion

Okay, ready for more information from guest speaker and friend-of-the-blog Marcia? If you recall, Marcia is an accomplished writers' assistant, with access to inside information about the job that I simply don't have. So, once again, take it, Marcia!

Here's where I say what you've been hoping I wouldn't. Writers' assistant jobs are near impossible to get if you've never been one. What's equally frustrating is that a large percentage of those who end up in my position for the first time, get there by pure, dumb, luck. Being good at the job is how you land consecutive gigs, but that first one? Luck is a big part of it. There's an unfortunate Catch-22 nature to the hiring of a writers' assistant. No one wants an inexperienced writers' assistant, but new writers' assistants can't become experienced if no one will hire them. Which is where connections come in. This won't come as a shock to most readers, but being in this business is often like being in the mafia. It's more than just a little helpful to know someone to get your foot in the door. That's not to say the totally unconnected can't find a job, but connections on all levels should never be overlooked. Nor should you feel the need to take the "I can make it on my own" stance. Take the advantages you can. Sure, connections may have gotten you the job, but it's your abilities that keep you in it. Staying employed consistently is based only partly on who you know, the rest is the reputation you cultivate.

For example, my first job as a writers' assistant was on the show Arrested Development. I was actually hired originally as the show runner's assistant. That's where connections helped, seeing as I was only up for that job because a friend of mine from college was an assistant at the production company co-producing the show. When the show runner asked her to help him find an assistant, she put my resume on the top. How did I get to the room from there? Now for the luck. In an attempt to save money, they put off hiring a writers' assistant until we moved into the offices on the lot, which meant I was to function as both assistant to the show runner and writers' assistant in the room for two weeks. During that time, they had the most detailed notes, not a single lunch order was delivered incorrectly, and every writer's whim was met. By the time the move came, I was given my choice of the two jobs.

If you're luck and connection challenged, one avenue to a writers' assistant gig for the inexperienced is as a writers' PA (being different from a regular production PA in that their responsibilities are solely to the writers, writers' assistants and script coordinators, versus being used by the entire production.)

(LisaKlink's October 4th blog that Jane linked you to had some particularly good advice for those right off the bus.
[The blog is here. You can page down to the relevant entry. - Jane]The only thing I'd recommend caution with is her "find a way to stand out" piece of advice. She's not wrong, but you want to make sure you do it in a way that doesn't get under the skin of your fellow underlings. Because, though it may work to get you in good with the writers, it's also those little people on the same level as you or thereabouts that recommend you for future work. For example, when I get hired as a script coordinator on shows, I do my best to make sure MY writers' assistant and MY writers PA are hired. By which I mean, the people I've worked with in the past who I know will work hard for me, are people I don't mind spending 18 hours a day with, and who don't have a chip on their shoulder about the work. Anyway, where were we?)

You can often interview for a production PA spot and specify that if the position is open, you'd love to be the writers' PA. They're usually hired by the same person. As a writers' PA, you'll be exposed to how the room works and have access to the writers. Though a good skill to have is knowing when not to be around (you wouldn't want to be known as that meddlesome PA), getting to know the writers and proving your worth is a good way to get that bump you're looking for. For example, the writers' assistant who replaced me when I left Arrested Development was formerly the writers' PA.

So be sure you really want this when you give it a shot. You're going to have to stick it out. For some people, it's a short journey, but for most of us, it's a long, winding road with many twists and turns. There'll be disappointments along the way. Show's get cancelled, orders are cut short, all ending your chance of a bump to staff writer in the future. Not to mention, there are plenty of show runners unwilling to see you as anyone other than the guy/gal who clacks the keys. But don't let that discourage you from continuing on. There are also those show runners who will see that you're working just as hard as everyone else to make their show a success, and reward you for it, if not in this production, than a subsequent one. You never know where that next job will come from, where it will lead you, who in the room will sell a pilot, and who will be able to give you the push you need to land what we're all trying to land... a seat at the big kids table.

Thanks so much, Marcia! Jane here again. I hope you all found that helpful. And I wanted to leave you with this. One of my fellow writers this year at Battlestar Galactica began the year as our writers' assistant -- "clacking the keys," as Marcia put it. Now he's one of us. It happens.

Lunch: escargot and a greek salad in Squamish, Canada

Jane on 10.14.07 @ 11:48 AM PST [link]

Friday, October 12th
Today: A Guest Speaker

Greetings from Beautiful Vancouver, Gentle Readers. I'm up here because they're shooting an episode of Battlestar Galactica that I wrote. It's all very exciting and a little bit cold. Anyway, my time is limited, so I decided to invite in a guest speaker. Friend-of-the-blog Marcia is very experienced as a Writers' Assistant, and I decided to go to her with the question that so many of you keep asking me about pursuing that job. Take it, Marcia:

So, Jane tells me you want to be a writers' assistant. I'd beg you not to, what with all of you being my competition, but if you can't be dissuaded... then let's talk. I'm sure your first question is, "How do I get a job as a writers' assistant?" Good question. But before that, let me ask you one. Do you really know what the job entails, what you're getting yourself into? Being a writers' assistant kinda stinks. It's the worst job ever. I'll give you the top three reasons why:

1. The pay is just enough to get by and more hours than you can imagine.

2. It'll never be the job you pictured when they handed you your diploma back in college. Not even close. A sentence you're sure to mutter under your breath: "I'm so glad I worked my tush off for a first rate education from a four year institution for this."

3. You'll be expected to sit quietly by as you watch a roomful of people do exactly what it is you'd cut off both of your hands for a shot to do (and that's a big sacrifice considering you need those hands to keep your current job.)

Even worse... there's nothing I'd rather do. Well, other than get staffed, that is. But being a writers' assistant is a walking contradiction. As much as it's incredibly frustrating, it's also the best education on being a writer and what being in a writers room is all about that you can get. Though it's 50-50 whether or not you'll be learning how to successfully run a room versus how to run a show into the ground, it's all valuable. It's all experiences you'll be able to cull from when you write the next great American sit-com or the next great American drama. Either way, take it all in. And never complain. I'm constantly surprised by the number of writers' assistants I cross paths with who have nothing but bile for the writers in their rooms. And nothing but disappointment for the career they have chosen. These are the ones who didn't know what they were getting themselves into. The ones who never thought they'd be doing the job for more than a few seasons. Sure, there are those lucky writers' assistants who end up landing their first gig on a show that becomes a hit, where they're quickly promoted after a season or two to staff writer. But this, my up-and-coming comrades, is not the commonplace. It's the exception. Let me just say this clearly now: being a writers assistant in NO WAY guarantees you will be staffed.

Along the same lines, it's in no way the only way to get closer to that first writing job. Many people take the assistant route. Writers with development deals are usually guaranteed assistants in their contracts. This is often an opportunity to put in your time with a writer who could end up selling a pitch and running their own show, which gets you one step closer to the room. Not to mention earn yourself a mentor who might read your specs and give you notes and gentle nudges in the right direction. Also, the agency route has worked for some. End up on the desk of a literary agent, and you'll have the opportunity to meet and form bonds with all sorts of writers, as well as develop relationships with current and future agents who could someday represent you. But if you're sure that writers' assistant is the path for you, here are a few necessities to being a good one. Don't even bother looking for a job as one if you don't possess the following:

1. Make sure your typing skills are honed. This may seem obvious, but new writers' assistants are frequently shocked by the fast pace of a writers room. Nothing will get you fired faster than an inability to keep up, causing notes to be incomplete and basically useless to the writers. That includes being adept at spelling and punctuation. Often, the writers assistant's computer is connected to a large TV monitor so the writers can see what you're doing, and nothing distracts them more than your errors.

2. Study up. Be an expert at one of the two most popular scriptwriting software programs, Final Draft and Movie Magic. I have found Final Draft to be the most common, but Movie Magic would be number 2. If you're already a pro at one, it wouldn't hurt to have a cursory knowledge of the other, if only to be able to convincingly lie when you're asked in an interview. Also study up on MAC and PC operating systems. The computer in the writers' room tends to be whichever the show runner prefers, so be prepared to use both.

3. Thicken your skin. A writers' room is a place where writers need the freedom to pitch any and all ideas, including the outlandish, the shocking, and the sexually explicit in order to have something to temper down for air. It's not a room where one should feel censored. Censorship is the antithesis of creativity, so a cringe, a self-righteous stare, or any other form of judgment on your part is a bad idea. It gives you what some writers would call a bad "room vibe." I'm not saying prepare yourself for a hostile work environment, but don't expect a normal one either. If you don't think you can handle that, walk away now.

You're probably saying, "I get it. I hear you. It's not all cake and ice cream. But I already know I'm sure. I want this. How do I get the job?"

Since I know act breaks, I think that's a good place to end for today. More from Marcia next time!

Lunch: Mmm... it's the catering truck at the set! I love the catering truck! Lamb and coconut cream pie.
Jane on 10.12.07 @ 02:42 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, October 9th
Get Back on the Horse, Just Not Right Now

So, I understand that some notifications are going out to Warner Brothers Workshop applicants who didn't make it through the first cut. If that's you, I'm sorry, but remember that this is a very small program, so there are undoubtedly many many future successful television writers, counting you, who just got that same letter.

All it really means is that you need to write another spec of a currently-existing show that you can use to apply again next year. Every year, I see people jumping too quickly to spec shows soon after they premiere. This is a mistake for a couple of reasons. Most obviously, it takes a while to find out if a show is going to even survive. Also, a show takes a while to settle down, to find out what its strengths are, which kinds of stories it tells well, which characters are clicking, and all of that stuff. You may love Reaper, or Chuck or Pushing Daisies, but at two or three episodes in, you may have yet to really see those shows in their final forms.

Watch the new shows, certainly, and start picking those that you think might fit your specing sensibilities, but keep your fingers off the keyboards until at least mid-season or even later.

Lunch: roasted artichoke soup and a roll

Jane on 10.09.07 @ 02:11 PM PST [link]

Monday, October 8th
Sweaty Clumps of Talent

Holy cow, Gentle Readers, I was just looking through my current stack of letters-to-answer when I pulled out a nice long one that I don't recall reading before. To my embarrassment, I see that it's dated October 20, 2006. The hell? How'd that happen? So apologies, Adam in West Hollywood, and thanks for the letter!

Adam is (was) debating whether to write a half-hour or an hour-long spec. He was tempted to try specing a multi-camera half-hour to bring some diversity to his portfolio, but he wasn't sure he'd like the process of actually working on such a show. He described a scene he'd seen in a "Behind the Scenes" feature on a Friends DVD in which the writers had to fix a joke during the taping when it failed to get a laugh:

So there was this tight, feverish little knot of writers pitching out jokes like hot little coals no one could hold for too long [...] as the crowd watched from ten feet away...

Adam asks if I've ever been expected to pop out jokes under the gun like that. The answer is that yes, I've been part of those awful feverish huddles in front of a waiting audience, although I've never felt that I've done much good there. The ability to find a new joke under pressure that way is a particular and prized skill that half-hour multi-camera writers are supposed to have, although the degrees of actual skill vary wildly. Also keep in mind that, in that huddle, you're trying to get a fresh take on a moment that you've already been staring at for a whole week. If you're flushing with the excitement of the challenge, go into sitcom work. If you're feeling what Adam calls "big dragging icicle chills," then it's probably not the job for you.

And given that, Adam, I'd say you don't need a half-hour multi-camera spec script. Write shows that are like the shows you want to write, if you get what I mean. If you'd like to write a spec for an existing show that mixes comedy and drama, try Ugly Betty -- it'll show off your joke skills without pushing you toward a tense and sweaty career.

Lunch: Chicken Caesar Salad. The croutons they used were clearly intended to be used as turkey stuffing, as they tasted strongly of sage -- very odd mixture of flavors

Jane on 10.08.07 @ 03:25 PM PST [link]

Thursday, October 4th
Knight Writer

Friend of the blog Jeff has directed my attention to this excellent piece by E. E. Knight on writing blunders. Knight is not specifically talking about television writing here, but much of it translates to our favorite genre.

Several of these entries are very relevant for the writing of stage directions and parantheticals. I was really struck by the admonition against telling us what a character "almost" did. He writes: "'He almost screamed' doesn't tell me what he did do. Did he choke back a scream, bite it off, or did the scream come out as manic laughter?" That's an extremely good point.

In other entries, he touches on other aspects of indicating a character's emotional reaction, making sure it's not overly-amped for the situation or so flatly described that it's meaningless.

In our natural inclination as screenwriters to fuss over the dialog, we sometimes forget that the stage directions are our opportunity to speak directly to the reader and tell them what the characters are feeling without the biased and unreliable characters getting in the way. Think hard about your characters' emotions and reactions -- think about them as you would if you were an actor who had to play that role. Now make sure that your description does them justice in succinct and precise and creative language.

P.S. Please notice the new link in the "Jane Recommends" box on this page. If you're not reading this from the actual web page, come on by and take a look!

Lunch: sopes -- have you had these? A Mexican dish built around a little corn-flour patty. Yummy.

Jane on 10.04.07 @ 09:26 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, October 3rd

Oh, Gentle Readers, we are very lucky today. Meet Friend-of-the-blog Lisa Klink, a brilliant and accomplished television writer. (Check out her credits on imdb). Lisa forever has my envy because she worked inside the world of a couple of the Star Trek series, while I sniffed around the outside. Anyway, Lisa read yesterday's post and now she leaps, superhero-like, to the rescue. Lisa writes:

In your blog, you wondered if anyone could help out newbie writers with questions like how to get an assistant job. My blog addresses a lot of that stuff - plus what the writers' room is like, what to expect from an agent, etc. Feel free to throw any folk with those types of questions my way.

Wow. How perfect is that? Her blog is here: lisaklink.com/blog1. Please check it out! I myself just lost a lovely chunk of time reading and learning there.

This is probably also a good time to mention the blogs of a couple other incredibly smart and accomplished writers: Ken Levine and Doris Egan. Learning from -- and being totally charmed by -- resources like these are part of how you (yes, you, Gentle Reader), are going to succeed in this business.

Lunch: veggie sandwich on rye, extra avocado

Jane on 10.03.07 @ 12:11 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, October 2nd
Now for Some Stuff I Don't Know...

I get asked some questions, Gentle Readers, that, sadly, I don't have answers for. Right now I'm looking at letters from "Maggie" in Westlake Village, from Jane in Los Angeles, David in Puyallup, Washington, Ellen in Vancouver, Matthew in Pennsylvania, and others. They're asking excellent questions about where to find produced Battlestar scripts and how to get started in writing if you're not a US citizen and therefore can't enter some of the competitions. Or they want to know about how to get writers' assistant jobs. Or how to get their scripts into the hands of showrunners. Oof. Um… In general, I dunno.

I write about writing. I can also give a sort of generalized advice about getting into the business that boils down to: write specs, enter contests, take classes, join writers' groups, meet people, consider moving to LA, look for jobs that put you near to the writers' room, and write more specs. The only part of this that I feel confident enough to tell you how to do is the "write specs" part. I have no idea how writers' assistants get their jobs or what opportunities there may be for writers in Canada. And, as much as I want to help, I'm not sure I want to become the clearing house for this sort of information. If someone does want to take on this job, I will happily post a link to their site.

I don't fault anyone for writing in with these questions -- they're great questions and you're smart to ask them -- they're just beyond the scope of what I do.

And while I'm going through the mail bag...

Many thanks to Sara in Richmond, CA, for an article about computer usage's influence on standard language -- really fascinating. Another hearty "thank you" to Teri J. who sent me a copy of her book. And a "you're welcome" to Friend-of-the-Blog Eric Loya here in Los Angeles -- my favorite book store clerk. And to Jennette in Indianapolis who also has a book coming out -- how wonderful is it that so many of you who write me have either written a book, or just won a contest or made a short film or otherwise have accomplished so much! I'm constantly impressed by you, Gentle Readers!

Keep writing -- I read all the letters even though I can't always find an answer worthy of blogging. It's not you, it's me.

Lunch: salad and a cup of alphabet soup -- I scooped it myself so it was almost all alphabet and very little soup.

Jane on 10.02.07 @ 12:22 PM PST [link]

Monday, October 1st
The Tween Life

Remember Gentle Reader Lauren in Michigan? She asked a bunch of questions in a recent letter about the day-to-day life of a professional writer. Well, I realize that I left one of her questions unanswered. In addition to wanting to hear what a writer does on a show, she also wanted to know what the writer's life is like between shows.

Ah, that's an interesting question. March-ish to May-ish are traditionally when a lot of shows are on hiatus, and writers find themselves without an office to go to until June. If you're staffed on a show that's returning for another season, and you know your contract is being renewed and you have no particular pressing ambitions beyond that, you can legitimately behave like a college student over the summer vacation. Take a trip, spend some money, employ your days gathering all that real-life experience that makes your writing better when you return to the room all refreshed. I have done this, and it is, of course, wonderful.

But usually that's not what happens. Odds are that the last show you were on is not coming back. Or maybe it is, but you've been told you're not being renewed -- this is not unusual and is not a career-killer although it feels like it at the time. In those cases, you're going to want to write new television specs. Maybe you want to expand your career into features, so you need a spec feature, too. Or maybe you want to set your goals higher than the show you're currently working on, so you need a spec that showcases your skills better than all the produced scripts you're accumulating. For these reasons or others, you're likely to spend your break writing new spec scripts.

You need them fairly quickly, too, since these are the calling cards that you will use toward the end of the hiatus to get interviews with any show runners who like what you wrote. And, by the way, since lower level writers are the last ones hired, you will sometimes be interviewed on a Friday for a job that starts on Monday. So you have to be mentally ready to jump back in.

In summary, your vacation will be spent working hard, and just when you find out if you've done your work well, it's over and you're back in the room.

Unless you aren't.

It's not unusual to spend a year here or there, early in your career, "unstaffed." Guess what you do on your year off? You write spec scripts. You can also do all those other things that help, of course: join writers' groups, make connections with other aspiring writers, produce short films and put 'em on the internet, get some short stories published, look for writers' assistant work, take classes from working writers, etc.

Every time you get hired after a hiatus, either a normal or an extended one, it's like you're a computer rebooting. You want to make sure you're also installing updates.

Lunch: beef shabu shabu

Jane on 10.01.07 @ 12:22 PM PST [link]


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Walt Disney Writing Fellowship Program
UC Berkeley
Jane recommends you also visit BobHarris.com



October 2007

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