Troy DeVolld’s Reality TV Pro Tip Grab Bag

by  Troy DeVolld

Hi, all.  Gee whiz, it’s been a while… I feel like a ghost on my own blog.

Thought I’d pop by with a grab bag of pro tips that aren’t long enough for their own features, but that have been hard-won lessons along the way.  Enjoy.

A 44-minute docusoap typically keeps its pace best at 12-15 scenes.  Don’t overload it.  More is not more.  More is too much.

You can’t tell five stories in an episode with a cast of five people.  People can participate in others’ stories, but it’s best to keep to an A,B,C and maybe single-scene D story.  Yes, if you have a one-scene nonsequitur moment that you want to use (maybe because it’s funny), it probably belongs at the top of Act 2.

Get somebody in the room who hasn’t seen the edit to watch down your rough cut.  You know the material and your brain fills in the gaps in logic and story based on that familiarity.  Let fresh eyes that you don’t have to answer to get a look.

Stick up for the show, not just your ideas.


Troy DeVolld is a Larry Brody buddy, former senior story producer of Dancing with the Stars, and all-around true master of the reality TV genre. This article originally appeared on his Reality TV blog. And while you’re thinking about him, why not buy his book, Reality TV: An Insider’s Guide to TV’s Hottest Market?

Pioneer TV Writer Susan Silver Talks About ‘Hot Pants in Hollywood’

And if the headline above doesn’t make you keep reading, Susan and we at TVWriter™ are going to feel awfully…cold? Apologies, and now to the main event:

How To Thrive Despite Your Fears
by Jeryl Brunner

We all experience fear and self-doubt, no matter where we are in life. But Nelson Mandela said, “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Take the barrier-breaking television writer Susan Silver. She was one of the first female TV scribes to find herself in coveted male-only writers’ rooms. The Milwaukee native hit Hollywood and amassed impressive credits writing for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Maude, The Bob Newhart Show, The Partridge Family and other hits.

Throughout her life, so many moments filled Silver with fear, which began when she was a child. “I was overprotected to the point of paralysis. Thus, I was fearful of a lot of things,” she explains. “I was called high-strung by teachers, nervous by school nurses, and I was always in tears from slights either imagined or real from friends.”

In her recent delicious memoir, Hot Pants In Hollywood: Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms, she describes being the consummate “scaredy kid” who was afraid of everything. The fears continued to her adulthood. ‘Somehow I overcame my fears,” explains Silver. “Or continued in spite of them.”

But she didn’t let any of that get in the way of her dreams, especially when the odds were stacked against her, just by virtue of being female.

When she was a casting director for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, she desperately wanted to be a writer on the hit variety show. However she was told that wasn’t an option because all the writers were men. They insisted that they would be uncomfortable having her in the motel room where they worked because they needed to be able to “fart and strip down to their underwear.”

Instead of backing down, she found a way to spend time with the writers and soak up their knowledge when they were fully clothed and in their offices. And ultimately she had her manager at the time (the great director Garry Marshall) submit her to be a writer for a new female-focused series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She was hired.

Whether she was working as a TV writer or meeting Bill Clinton in the Oval Office during his presidency or approaching Israeli President Shimon Peres in Israel when he was surrounded by guards, Silver always found her inner chutzpah.

Throughout Hot Pants in Hollywood, Silver reveals the innovative ways she was able to get what she  wanted despite her fears. “What gave me the idea that I could accomplish anything, have a life filled with iconic celebrities and success beyond my wildest fantasies?” she asks in the book.  “My scaredy kid still lives inside me. But if you talk fast and carry yourself tall they won’t find out… maybe….”

Read it all at Forbes

Unblocking John Ostrander!

 

Do you recognize this man? How about his name? Does it mean anything to you? Just wonderin’….

by John Ostrander

A sad fact of a writer’s life is writer’s block. That’s when you sit down and look at the blank page or the empty screen and go “I’ve got nothin’.” Some form of that can happen every time you start to write. The really bad version can go on for a long time, maybe for years. Not only do you not have an idea, you feel that you can’t write, that you could never write, that you will never write, and what the hell were you thinking when you thought you could write.

There are things you can do when the malady strikes, some less useful than others. Crying, swearing, cursing, screaming are all options but you eventually run out of energy and then you’re back at square one – the damned blank page or screen.

Not all solutions work for all people and what work’s in one situation may fail in another. That all said here are some things that I’ve tried that sometimes work.

Do not panic! Seriously, calm down. It only feels like life and death. You’ll write again. Relaaaaaax.

Do something else. Staring into the abyss (a.k.a. that blank page or screen) until you’re cross-eyed only hurts your vision. Go do something else. Something physical. I’ve been known to wash dishes when I get desperate. Go for a walk or a run. Don’t read, watch TV, play video games, text or call someone. You’re looking for something that will shift your mind into neutral. Something that will silence the chattering monkeys in your skull.

Work on something else. I generally have three or four different projects working at the same time. If I get jammed up on one, I’ll go to another. If I get jammed on all of them, I revert to the rule above. Play with a cat. If nothing else, it may amuse the cat.

Check the basics. If I stall out on a plot, it generally means I’m making a Writing 101 mistake. I haven’t done the basics regarding plot construction or building a character. I tell myself that I’ve done this for so long that I can skip a step or two. That’s hubris talking and hubris is a lying bastard. Or maybe I’m so late with the deadline I don’t have time for all that. Wrong again. When you’re running late you only have time to do it right once. Take the time. Do the work.

Write about it. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing here. I sat down to write this week’s column and had nothin’ so I wrote this column about having nothin’. A rather Seinfeld column. Seriously though, as a writer you put into words that which exists only in your mind and heart. It’s most likely will be nothing you will ever read again or show to anyone but the physical act of putting words – any words – down can be therapeutic. Yes, it most likely will be crap. Let it be crap. Write it and flush it.

Get paid for it. At one time, I thought I had a serious case of writer’s block. Had it for years. Nothing came, nothing worked. Then Mike Gold offered to pay me for a story (my first printed work, as it turned out). Boy Howdy, that block just evaporated. Funny how motivating a paycheck can be. Knowing someone will give you the real coin of the realm for your writing can be awfully encouraging.

I hope all this has been a little help to some of you but – hey, I’ve got this week’s column so I’m good.

See y’all next week.

Unless I hit a block.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. Don’t forget to read his most excellent blog at ComicMix, where this piece first appeared. You can learn more about John and his masterworks HERE

Allie Theiss: Daniel Thomsen’s Approach to TV Writing Success – Part 1

by Allie Theiss

Writer Daniel Thomsen has been at the top of TVWriter™’s radar for a long time and has worked on some of this  minion’s favorite shows (TIME AFTER TIME, WESTWORLD, ONCE UPON A TIME, among many others). I’m delighted to have had the chance to talk to him about his enviable career.

When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?

I grew up during the 1990s, in the rural rustbelt, before there was much attention given to writers in television. I was a passionate STAR TREK fan, but all that meant was I watched every new episode of TNG and DS9. It fed my storytelling imagination, but I didn’t pay attention to the names of the writers or anything like that. It just never occurred to me that I could write stories to make a living. That wasn’t my world.

I went to college in Boston for business and technology, and fiction writing was always just a (secret) hobby. Living in a big city for the first time exposed me to theater, music, and art. I started to see that people from all walks of life could participate in creative work.

And then, as luck would have it, I graduated right as the first “dot com” bubble collapsed. All the jobs I was hoping to get as a Web technology worker disappeared, and I was faced with a crisis that turned out to be very liberating: I could either stick around in Boston and wait for the economy to bounce back, or I could move to Los Angeles and try to turn my writing hobby into a career. There didn’t seem to be much to lose, so I packed up my car, drove across the country and gave it a shot.

Why did you pick the TV business to showcase your creativity?

There were a few reasons. First and foremost, the years I spent in business school gave me a very practical approach to starting my career, no matter what field it was in. One of the first questions I asked myself was: “How can I work my way up the ladder and get in the door?” I didn’t always have a lot of insight or awareness back then, but one thing I was very smart about was never assuming that “writer” could be an entry-level job — I didn’t have the experience, the training, or the connections.

I did some research and discovered that television had paying jobs for people who wanted to apprentice — production assistants, writers assistants, script coordinators, etc. I could move to Los Angeles and make enough money to pay my bills (barely) while learning the ropes of TV writing. In contrast, when I looked at the world of feature films, I didn’t see those jobs. Frankly, I wasn’t confident enough to be a guy who sat in his apartment, wrote spec scripts and counted on the fact that one of them would eventually win the lottery.

That’s a fairly emotionless answer, so I should also point out that I’ve always loved television more than movies. I grew up in a rural area of the country, and it was a long drive to get to the theaters. I like serialized stories, and I like that television can build rich, lifelike worlds the audience can keep coming back to week after week. To me, movies can feel very transactional. But when a great television show ends, we feel a genuine sense of loss. That’s powerful motivation for me as a writer.

What do you find challenging about writing TV shows for the fantasy/sci-fi genre?

Honestly, I think we’re in a GREAT era of television for fantasy and sci-fi. People are taking chances on unique, ambitious genre stories. Ten years ago, when I was working on THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES, the challenge was that we needed to draw a huge number of viewers because we were on the Fox network in primetime. But we didn’t want to make a summer blockbuster; we wanted to tell a story for true fans of genre — an allegory that took Sarah and John Connor’s fight against Skynet and framed it as a mother’s endless fight to raise her child.

If we had done the show in 2017 and the same number of people watched it on Netflix or Hulu or Syfy, we probably would’ve been able to do more episodes. The economics are better now, and they allow storytellers to take more chances.

Today’s TV landscape is an embarrassment of genre riches. If the biggest challenge today is coming up with the idea that’s ambitious enough to make noise in the crowded marketplace… that’s an awesome challenge to face!

How did you first break into TV?

I hope LB won’t be too embarrassed for me to include the detail that he provided a lot of knowledge and assistance in my early career. When I moved to Los Angeles, I didn’t know a single person, but I knew LB from his online classes, and his advice pointed me in the right direction.

I got a PA job in a writers’ office on a show called BIRDS OF PREY, spent my first year in LA getting lunches and coffee during the day, and delivering scripts at night. It was hard work that barely paid the rent, but I met a group of writers that directly paved the way for my future career. My various assistant jobs led to a freelance script assignment for a show called CLOSE TO HOME. The freelance script led to an agent and, after an anxious year of taking meetings, my first staff job on THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES.

But the only reason I got that staff job is the woman who created BIRDS OF PREY (and met me as the young idiot delivering her coffee) made a phone call that got my script read by the creator of SARAH CONNOR. From my first day on the job as her PA to my first day on the job as a staff writer, it was about five years of just scraping by.

I tell people who want to do this that, unless they have an incredible connection, they should expect to put in at least five years of networking before their break. Looking back, I’m proud of the way I hustled, but the hustle wasn’t everything — I got a few lucky bounces, too. It could easily have taken me a few years longer.

How does being a TV writer now compare to how you thought being a TV writer would be in regards to the way you have to write and not just the politics of showbiz?

The biggest adjustment to writing on staff is accepting that your ONLY job is to deliver your best, most creative ideas in the voice of the showrunner. When you’re thinking of ideas to pitch in the room, your thinking is always framed by, “How would the showrunner want to tell this story?” When you’re sitting down at the computer to write lines, you’re not just writing the lines that would otherwise come naturally to you. When you’re on set, and someone asks you a question, you’re answering on the showrunner’s behalf.

It’s a very tricky skill to learn, and there’s a balance to it, because most showrunners want you to incorporate some of your own voice into your work as well. But when I say balance, I mean 85% showrunner voice, 15% personal voice. Sometimes even less, depending on the job.

A staffing career isn’t like being a rock star. It’s like being the rhythm guitarist who plays alongside a rock star.

(Not coincidentally, I think that’s why so many more people are now trying to join the business as creators rather than as staff writers. The creators are the rock stars.)

It isn’t over yet. Join us next week for Part 2 of this conversation with Daniel Thomsen and the Big Question: “What path do you recommend a budding TV writer take to get hired onto a show?


Allie Theiss, is a TVWriter™ Contributing Writer and one of TVWriter™’s Recommended Writers. Check out her daily Story Prompts, Book Marketing ideas, and Script Magic on Instagram. Learn more about her HERE

Writer Cindy Caponera on Showtime’s ‘I’m Dying Up Here’

Inasmuch as LB himself is a huge (Whew, almost said “yuge” but managed to stop meself in time) fan of I’m Dying Up Here, it’s a thrill and a delight to have found this interview with Consulting Producer and writer for the show, Cindy Caponera.

by Patrick McDonald

One of the great new premium channel TV series, which piggybacked on the “Twin Peaks” return on the Showtime Network, is “I’m Dying Up Here.” Set in the 1970s, it tells the stories of fictional stand up comedians in Los Angeles, and one of the Consulting Producers and series writers is Cindy Caponera.

Caponera wrote the latest episode, “Girls Are Funny, Too,” which focused on Cassie (Ari Graynor), as she tries to break new ground in an era where women in comedy had even more obstacles in a man’s show business world. The episode was loose, poignant and funny, and highlighted the excellent cast, which includes Oscar winner Melissa Leo as Goldie, the owner of the club that the stand up comics perform in. Add in Jake Lacy, Al Madrigal, Andrew Santino, Erik Griffin and RJ Cyler, and the world of the comedy in the 1970s is magnificently represented. – the series even places real people like Johnny Carson and Richard Pryor in the mix. “I’m Dying Up Here” was created by David Flobette and Executive Producer Jim Carrey.

Cindy Caponera was born on the Southside of Chicago in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. She honed her comic skills with two stints in at The Second City comedy club on Wells Street, and began her television writing career with the early Comedy Central series, “Exit 57.” She landed a writing gig on “Saturday Night Live” in 1995, and after three seasons on that show has worked as a freelance TVwriter ever since. Her credits includes “Norm,” “My Boys,” “Sherri,” “Ground Floor,” plus Showtime’s “Shameless” and “Nurse Jackie.” In 2014, she published her collection of essays, “I Triggered Her Bully” – named a Kindle Top-Rated Humor Book – and it’s available both in online and print versions. She talks with HollywoodChicago.com for a third time, about her involvement with “I’m Dying Up Here,” both in an interview transcript and audio.

HollywoodChicago.com: The episode you just wrote, ‘Girls Are Funny, Too’ almost seems personal. What was the cathartic effect of writing something that profound about the situation with ‘funny girls’ in the 1970s?

Cindy Caponera: Well, for example, when Cassie [the woman comic portrayed by Ari Graynor] is assaulted in the parking lot in the episode, that was the extension of the oppression felt in that situation. I really identify with Cassie, coming up in a comedy world where you’re struggling to be really funny, yet still be feminine and live your truth… and that world is primarily men. I came up in that type of world a decade later, not in stand-up, but improv comedy. At The Second City back then, if there were two women in an improv group, it meant that there would be four or five guys as ‘the balance.’ Even in TV writing today, my agent will tell me that a show has their ‘woman writer,’ and often I’ve been that one woman in the room.

HollywoodChicago.com: How do you connect with the character of Cassie directly?

Caponera: There was a scene in the pilot where she goes in and essentially blackmails Goldie. And I thought, ‘geez, that character has balls.’ She’s always asking for what she needs, and she still gets the backlash like the assault. She’s complicated, ambitious and confident, and in that era she was really doing something different, much different than anything her girlfriends were doing. I was doing the same thing in the 1980s when I was learning improv comedy, not staying in the neighborhood and marrying someone from the gas company or a fireman. It was really difficult….

Read it all at HollywoodChicago (and listen to the audio recording there too!)

Troy DeVolld’s Tips for Climbing the TV Success Ladder

by  Troy DeVolld

As a newbie to television seventeen years ago, I used to come in for a 7pm to 3am night shift in the late afternoon. When a producer asked me why, I said, “Because otherwise, you’ll never know who I am.” So began three straight years of employment.

A large part of success is hitting that sweet spot between simply busting ass and staying visible. Take cues from your superiors. If your boss is brassy and bold, he or she might enjoy you meeting them at that vibration. If your boss is super chill, take note of that and adjust your approach accordingly.

There’s also a third approach, which is figuring out who you are in the menagerie and playing that part well. I’ve been the “adult in the room” guy fairly often, balanced against bigger personalities and younger hires with a load of enthusiasm, but maybe in need of reassurance.

Personally, that’s how I like to staff. Kind of a rainbow sherbet of types. I don’t just want yes men/women, and I don’t just want bulldozers, as both types are valid and work just fine.


Troy DeVolld is a Larry Brody buddy, former senior story producer of Dancing with the Stars, and all-around true master of the reality TV genre. This article originally appeared on his Reality TV blog. And while you’re thinking about him, why not buy his book, Reality TV: An Insider’s Guide to TV’s Hottest Market?

J. Michael Straczynski Gave the Best Writing Advice at ComicCon

J. Michael Straczynski is primarily know these days as the creator-writer-producer of cult fave TV series Babylon 5 as well as of the slightly less cult favored Sense8. He’s also written a ton of other TV and won his fair share of awards.

So now that we’ve established dude’s cred, how about we see what he has to say about this TVWriter™ minion’s all-time favorite subject – writing:

by Dane Styler

Screenwriter, producer, novelist, and comics writer J. Michael Straczynskibelieves in sending the elevator back down. He believes in helping others, like he once was, who have talent but not enough information. So at San Diego Comic-Con 2017, Straczynski helmed another of his irreverent yet frank, funny yet informative Q&A panels as he solicited questions from a room full of aspiring writers.

Shall we begin?

FINISH THE GODDAMN SCRIPT

“While we are in the process of writing things, we can’t be judged. But when we finish and put it out there among our friends and people who don’t like us, they could say, ‘You’re not very good.’ If you’ve been working on something for a long time, finish the goddamn thing and move on to the next project. The more you do and finish, the more you learn.”

For comic books, don’t be worried too much about the type of script format you choose; it’s really what’s inside the format that matters (i.e. the content).

WORKSHOPS EN LIEU OF WRITING CLASSES

“Attend workshops before taking writing classes. Classes are there to teach you how the teacher feels you should write. Workshops help you find your voice.

“Though the best way to learn how to write is to read a lot.”

FROM CHARACTER TO PLOT

“When developing a story, there’s two ways usually: Go from character to plot, or plot to character. I work from character to plot because I found that when going from plot to character, often you end up with characters who are service to the plot instead of their own thing.”

ASK ALL THE QUESTIONS

“After you have a general idea, begin answering each next logical question, truthfully, one after another. Who is the character? What does he want? How far is he willing to go to get it? How far is someone else willing to go to stop him?”

Straczynski quoted Heinlein, saying that part of science fiction writing is solving the problem for the next five minutes. To compel readers to read further, you hook them with mystery after mystery, starting with first page and/or scene, answering some along the way as you create more mysteries. In addition, he emphasized research, research, and more research, which will lead to more ideas, and make it easier to find yours answers in the process of questioning.

“So really, your process should be: Asking the next logical question, defining your characters, and doing everything in your power to poke holes in your story. Better to figure out those holes now, than 200 pages in.

“Because if you don’t find those holes now, someone else will….”

Read it all at Bleeding Cool