Thursday, August 26, 2010

Log lines

As I mentioned last time around, I was rushed to write the first draft of the "Being" pilot because I expected nothing to come out of my initial query submission. Now that I'm getting ready to start circulating the pitch again, it occurs to me I probably need to think beyond the pilot to future episodes.

The original query included log lines for potential episodes. Log lines are simply mini-synopses of plots, usually with hooks. For example, the log line for the proposed second episode was this:

Joseph finally tests the dating waters, but when he fails to come home one night, Jasmine presumes the worst and practically puts out an APB on his whereabouts, leading Joseph to look for other housing options.

Of course, having good ideas for shows is one thing. Being able to develop them into full-blown scripts is another. Considering the time from idea conception to completing the most recent draft, the pilot episode of "Being" took about a year and a half to develop, so there's no evidence that I can produce another script, let alone within a short deadline. This means I need to start working on at least another full teleplay, as well as treatments or outlines for several more episodes.

Aside from the practical need to have more material ready at request and proof my pilot wasn't just a fluke, developing further episodes serves another purpose: to test the strength of the characters as real, living, breathing people, not just objects created to serve the plot. If the characters don't speak to me, if their actions and motivations don't come naturally and feel convincing, then there's no point in even continuing down this treacherous road.

Thankfully, I do have those loglines with which to work. I have a starting point. And I have characters inside my head, telling me they want to find love, attain success and maybe eat a bottomless stack of pancakes. All I have to do is listen.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I suppose there's a certain irony in the fact that a guy who's spent much of his adult life avoiding watching television is trying to develop a series for that very medium. It's not as though I have anything against TV in general, not counting its use as a babysitter, its persistence as background noise or its ability to bend the will of your average person to its inflexible programming schedule. I grew up -- like most American children of the 1970s -- watching plenty of TV shows, from Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood to The Dukes of Hazzard and A-Team. And even in recent years, I've enjoyed/continue enjoying programs such as Arrested Development, The West Wing and -- yes, I admit to this -- Smallville, though on my schedule via DVDs and the magical interwebs, rather than on the network's prescribed time.

Still, the truth is, I went a good number of years without ever owning a TV set (I purchased my first one just last year; any other TV I've watched in adulthood has belonged to a girlfriend or ex-wife), and I've always been more inclined to spend my time productively rather than passively. It's nothing personal against TV -- this goes for most leisure activities, sleep and even calls of nature. I like to work. I'm good at it. I like results. My editors like results. I find it hard to slow down; worse, I find it harder to get back in "the groove" once I've stopped working, so I like to keep that momentum going.

What does any of this have to do with the title of this new blog you may or may not be reading? Well ... all that time being productive means I must be producing stuff, right? For whatever reason, one of those things I produced was the idea for a film or television series based very loosely (though sometimes not loosely at all) on my own life experiences -- specifically, that of a 30-year-old guy living under the same roof with his ex-wife, trying to start his life over even as being tethered to the one he's just ended.

From this basic concept, I had a loose collection of amusing (and sometimes bizarre) potential scenes, a reasonably sized cast of colorful characters, and smatterings of potential dialog collected into a Google Doc -- one that sat untouched for months until one of my favorite websites, Jeffrey Berman's The Write Environment, announced a query contest last June. It was simple: Write a query for your screenplay/teleplay/novel/etc., and the first prize winner gets his or her pitch read by a fancy agent. I entered "Being," my concept for a TV series about a recently divorced guy entering his 30s with no idea who he is, trying to carve out a new identity, with the help of his very few friends. And ... I won. In addition to a few other prizes, my query would be read by David Boxerbaum of APA. I didn't think much of it, even after winning, other than being able to pat myself on the back and return to my existence of merely being awesome ... until it came to my attention a few weeks (months?) later that Boxerbaum really liked my pitch and wanted to read the teleplay for the pilot.

One problem: I had no teleplay written. Worse: I had never written a teleplay, screenplay, or anything of the sort. At least not since writing a play in college. And even then, I really didn't know what I was doing. So I did what anyone else in this situation would do: I told Debra Eckerling (of Write On! Online), the intermediary between Boxerbaum and myself, that I had to put the finishing touches on the pilot and I'd send it over by Monday morning. This was a Friday.

Over those three days, I gave myself a crash course in writing for TV, buying books on both the art and craft of both teleplay and screenplay writing. I forced myself to write like I'd never done before on top of that, fleshing out sketches of vignettes into full-blown scenes, eventually churning out 22 pages of comedic drama. I had just enough time for my TV-loving girlfriend to read it over, mail it to myself in order to enact a poor man's copyright, and e-mail the draft off to Boxerbaum (via Eckerling). One of the most nerve-wracking ordeals of my life was over. Now all I had to do was wait.

About a week later, Eckerling sent me this message about Boxerbaum's reply:

They thought your concept was great, but said your writing needs to be stronger - that "it isn't quite there yet."
Well ... of course not. I wasn't disappointed. I wasn't surprised. I wasn't offended or angry. I was just ... eh. I knew it wasn't great -- the teleplay, not the concept. I've written a lot of different things over the course of my life, but most of them have been based on journalistic style. It's what I've done for most of my professional life. I've been a reporter and editor and blogger, and I've always performed on and met deadlines, but doing so in a completely unfamiliar style for a major agency on the first time out? That would have been like pitching Esquire when I was 16.

So "Being" went back on the virtual shelf of my Google Docs account. Unfortunately, "isn't quite there yet" didn't give me specific, constructive feedback on my script or my writing, and I really had nowhere to go with it. Looking back now, I can see all the things that sucked about that first draft. Problem number one: I conceived the show initially as an hour-long drama with comedic flourishes, maybe something cable-worthy. But the end product was a half-hour pitch, with too much drama, not enough comedy and an uneven tone. It opened fairly depressingly and slow, shifted scenes too often, and ended on a pretty dim note as well. The dialog wasn't that bad, I don't think, but it also lacked bite. It was naturalistic, but maybe too much so.

Fast-forward a year later: I've been writing more and more fiction, specifically comic books, cutting back journalistic assignments to once a month, if that. On a plane trip returning from a Jersey Shore vacation, a flash of inspiration hit me, and I outlined an actual three-act structure for a feature-length film based on the same concept of "Being," though taking place later in the protagonist's development, when he's entering a new phase of life that drastically changes him and his relationships (something that would make a perfect season two plot line). It got me excited about the project again, though now I was redefining characters and wavering between developing it further as a screenplay or as a novel.

One night a few weeks ago, walking home from the gym, another one of those inspirational bolts of lightning struck. I figured out a way to make the teleplay for the pilot suck less, move faster and read leaner. I sat down immediately at my computer, ignoring the post-workout hunger gnawing at my belly, and within an hour, I had rewritten about half of the pilot, livening up the dialog, throwing out extraneous scenes, adding a twist or two, and ending up with a page or two more, despite all the cuts. It came out naturally and easily, unlike the first draft. I registered it with Writer's Guild West the next day (after review by the girlfriend and subsequent revision), and then ... nothing.

I wasn't sure what to do. The agent in New York I'd been working with the last half decade specializes in books and film, not TV, and he didn't like my last book pitch, so that seemed like a non-option. I considered going back to Boxerbaum with the revised teleplay, but self-doubt got the best of me. What if he didn't really like the concept all that much to begin with? What if he just said that stuff to be nice and let me down easy? I don't know the protocol for these things. Is it OK to re-pitch the same agent with a different version of the same script he already deemed wasn't "quite there?" Most of the big agencies don't accept unsolicited submissions. But do they accept unsolicited queries? I didn't know where to start. So I did the only logical thing: I started a blog.

So here we are, my friends, answering the question we asked about a dozen or so paragraphs back: what's the deal with "From Zero to Hollywood?" It should be obvious now. You're invited to come with me as I stumble my way through the minefield that is the modern television writing business. You'll watch as I fumble finding agents, pratfall pitching producers, wrestle writing scripts and generally try to avoid getting chewed up and spit out by an industry in which I have extremely limited experience. I may not make it, but it'll sure be fun watching me try. At least for one of us.

I hope you'll stick around.