The TSC Fellowship recipients are back after a whirlwind conference weekend in Toronto. Here are seven pieces of advice from conference speakers, on topics ranging from mental health to writing, pitching, and receiving notes.
On looking after your mental health:
“You don’t need to be sick or in pain to create something.”
-Christopher Cantwell. Showrunner, Halt and Catch Fire @ifyoucantwell
On creativity and discipline:
“The most important thing is to write every day. Your two most common enemies are procrastination and perfectionism, two sides of the same coin. Your mind tricks you into not doing the work. Push through and write the words regardless. Find a path to your subconscious. Some days are harder than others. Creativity is elusive – capture it by work ethic. Just keep working. Writing every day on a schedule is like training for a sport.”
-Carlton Cuse. Showrunner, Locke & Key, Lost, Bates Motel @CarltonCuse
“Know what each character wants at the start of each season. That want needs to be in each episode with characters making both good and bad decisions based on that. It colours everything they do. Then you get ready to blend them together based on episode theme to get the stories to talk to each other. That makes it cohesive.”
– Ayanna Floyd Davis. Showrunner, the Chi @qu33nofdrama
On writing your pilot:
“Anyone who is reading your pilot has probably read a thousand pilots, minimum…meaning you probably can’t surprise them. But they still want to be surprised. Subvert their expectations and focus on twists of character rather than plot. Let the characters feel familiar, then have them do surprising things.”
-Ben Watkins. Showrunner, Hand of God @_Benipedia_
On cutting through the marketplace noise:
Always be saying something. Be innovative and provocative. You have to be able to cut through in this market. People are hungry to see things subverted and see themselves reflected.
– Heather Brewster. VP, Scripted, Global Content Div, Keshet Int’l @HtoTheBrewster
“If you’re pitching as a team, practice as a team. MULTIPLE TIMES. Assign specific roles. “Before I let Kevin answer that, I’ll give you some context…” Prepare your answers to all anticipated talking points.
– Kevin White. Speaker and Pitching Coach @TheOptimalPitch
On receiving studio notes:
Listen to what is being said and try not to interrupt even if you disagree. Ask them specifically, “what’s driving the note?” Then you can figure out if it’s a matter of opinion vs truly constructive. It’s okay to say “let me think about that.” Be willing to at least consider or even try what’s being suggested. Fight for what you truly believe in. Let go of things that don’t affect the integrity of your project.
-Phil Breman, VP Scripted Programming, NBC @PhillingYourDay
We’d like to thank the organizers of the Toronto Screenwriting Conference for their dedication to bringing in such wonderful speakers. We’re already looking forward to next year!
Were you there too? What speakers stood out for you? Are you planning to go next year? We’d love to hear about it.
We’re back at the office on the heels of last week’s pitching event and wrap party. It’s official: You party goers came with good ideas and you weren’t shy to pitch them! Feedback from the many decision-makers in attendance has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I want to thank you for organizing what was a great event and for making it such a great experience for me.” -John Orlando, Senior VP Programming and Development, Sony Crackle
“You folks put on a heck of a show. It was welcoming and fun and everyone from the conference steering committee was so lovely.” -Chris Kelley, Production Executive – Comedy, Bell Media
“It was such a nice experience and you and the team put together a fantastic event! Bravo!” Melanie Nepinak Hadley, -CBC Scripted Content.
We want to send a huge thank you to the folks at Netflix, the CW, Sony, CBC, Bell, Corus, Sony Crackle, SyFy, and Lionsgate who took the time to celebrate with us.
Thanks, also, to our Scripted Series Lab participants, Petie Chalifoux, Kat Sieniuc, Todd Ireland, Corey Liu, and Mike Orlando for all their hard work. We couldn’t have done it without the support of the CMPA, the WGC, and Creative BC.
Thank you to all the local producers, showrunners, filmmakers and screenwriters who brought your energy, your ideas, and your enthusiasm. If you weren’t able to attend this year, we hope you’ll join us next year. We’re already thinking of ways to make year two bigger and better.
Karen Lam, (Ghost Wars, Van Helsing, Evangeline), offers some fresh advice on the importance of doing real world research.
Do you think TV writers need to do research outside the writers’ room? If so, what type of research?
You can google stuff about serial killers, but I’ve spent months actually talking to FBI agents and inmates, doing first hand research interviewing people. I can tell you it’s not the same as looking something up on Psychology Today. You can’t make these people up! Real cops sound different than they do on tv. Victims of horrible crimes aren’t just dark and mopey. They act differently than on tv.
To me the more first-hand non-tv experience you have, the better. It’s important to go out and deal with real humans.
What influence has your documentary work had on your writing for film and television?
My documentary work balances my fiction writing because these people’s stories change me. They change how I view the world. It’s important that I’m not going in with an agenda. I’m not trying to direct them into saying anything. When I’m doing my documentary research, I just stay in the moment and trust that if it’s going to be important to my other projects it will percolate and stay with me.
When you go out there you have to understand that people are complex, and you may not get the answers you were expecting. The questions that you ask should be open ended and you have to be there to listen to them. I give people space. It’s a conversation, not a set of questions, and I never know where the conversation will go.
As writers I think it’s really important that your reality gets reflected with specificity. It’s the details that make it real. When we’re not using our own backgrounds or our own real-world research, characters can just seem like copies of copies of characters.
Our whole job is to be a vessel, and to give some sort of voice to what needs to be spoken. I say have as little ego as you can so you can have compassion for your characters and be open to what comes. Go talk with real people. Do primary research. Get yourself into a situation where you get access to real stories and real situations. Otherwise what are you doing but regurgitating?
We received a question this week from someone who loved to write but wasn’t sure how to turn their writing into a career. I thought I would share my thoughts on the blog in case there were others reading with the same question.
First let me say I wouldn’t have felt qualified to answer this query except that I’ve now had the pleasure of interviewing several television writers and showrunners with our scripted series lab. Although each writer seems to have found his or her own unique career track, one consistent thread between them is that they all managed to make circuitous but ultimately important connections in the film industry. They also share the traits of being humbly dedicated to working on their craft and working hard. I’m sure I won’t be the first to come up with this conclusion but I now believe aiming for a career in tv and film writing requires a two-front strategy:
- Make connections in the film industry…in every and any department.
- Be a professional – meaning always be writing and working on your craft.
Get in anywhere you can. Whether you are a PA on set, working in the accounting department of a production company, building sets in the carpentry department, or logging footage for documentaries, you never know how your connections and understanding of the wider industry will help you get a script to the right person who can help you get your next opportunity and so on. Be invaluable at your job, be someone people want to extend themselves for, and let people know that you are also a writer. Volunteering at film festivals can also be a useful way to meet people and learn more about how writers fit into the industry.
While you build your network, you have to continue to work on your craft. Pump out that material, draft after draft, and you’ll get better with each one. Try different genres. Write original material and non-original specs to show you can write in your own voice or adapt to someone else’s. Create an ironclad routine for your writing. There are many great books that a quick internet search will reveal.
There are some great teachers in our local screenwriting programs. Check out the full and part-time options at UBC, SFU, Capilano University and Langara. Also, check out Raindance, InFocus and Vancouver Film School. Here at the PSP we accept applications for our highly competitive scripted series lab, (running January-April) beginning in August.
When you feel your work is ready, you can start entering your scripts in screenwriting contests. Making it to the finalist round of any of the major competitions is a great way to get the attention of industry decision makers. Making your own short films or web series’ can also be a great way to showcase your work and your ability to make things happen.
Beyond craft, there are some great websites and podcasts to help you understand the business of screenwriting. Some of my favourites podcasts include: Script Notes by John August, Write On by Final Draft, On the Page with Pilar Alessandra, and Storywise with Jen Grisanti. Both the Writers Guild of Canada’s Writers Talking TV, and John Ward’s 49 Degrees North focus specifically on writing in Canada.
I would to hear from working writers out there. Do you have any tips for turning a love of writing into a screenwriting career?
Given Showrunner Sarah Dodd’s CSA winning talent for binge worthy police drama, we are pretty excited to reveal that the scripted series lab is working on a new crime series. I asked our writers if they had any advice for nailing the obligatory scenes and conventions of this beloved genre and here are some of their notes:
You’ve got to have the bullpen recap to summarize what’s known so far in the investigative line and to clarify the direction of the investigation.
Your cops have to talk about the case while driving in the car!
The protagonists need to drive their scenes. They are acting out their own strategies, and we find deliciousness in the surprises that befall them.
Treat every suspect as a potential killer. Keep their motives and opportunities in mind.
You need to really humanize the victim.
Have a red herring switch that’s going to flip the investigation on its head.
As one of my favorite experts on story, Shawn Coyne, explains, “Conventions are elements in the story that must be there or the reader will be confused, unsettled, or bored out of their skull.” Coyne has three steps for finding your obligatory scenes and conventions in his “the Story Grid” podcast:
- Decide which kind of story you want to tell.
- Find other stories like the one you want to tell.
- List all the things they have in common.
We barely scratched the surface with our crime drama tropes, so what did we miss?
We are pleased to announce that the following BC screenwriters have been awarded with passes to the 2019 Toronto Screenwriting Conference:
Sonja Bennett, Francine Cunningham, Gemma Holdway, Gorrman Lee and Nathaniel Moher
We were blown away by the number of applicants. To all of you who applied, thank you so much for sharing your hopes, goals and experience with us. We are so inspired by what we saw, and feel even more passionate about continuing to create more opportunities to help our local writers build their careers. Please stay tuned for further programming!
Damon Vignale dropped in for lunch at the PSP last week. Damon is the creator and showrunner of the original crime-drama series, The Murders debuting on March 25, 2019. He was also a writer and consulting producer for The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco, and writer and co-executive producer for Ghost Wars.
How did you break in to writing for television?
It was kind of a happy accident. I started out writing and directing independent features. On my first film I worked with a producer, Ron Scott, who many years later asked me to give notes on a comedy series he was producing, Mixed Blessings. He liked my input and assigned me three scripts. Ron showed me a pilot he was also working on, called Blackstone, and I knew immediately it was something I wanted to be a part of. When the show was greenlit to series, he hired me as a writer-producer.
You’ve just finished working on The Murders. It was your first time as a Showrunner. Can you tell us about that transition?
It was a big transition. Being responsible for everything and everyone is very different from being there solely as a writer. Handling the writing and production, you learn quickly to delegate.
Because I came up making independent film, and I also worked for numerous years as an Assistant Director on commercials, I understand production. I think that really helped.
The writing room is where I always feel the pressure because it’s where the story starts. If the work isn’t good there, it’s hard to turn it into something great farther down the line.
How did you coach writers to get the work done when you couldn’t be there?
Having a clear vision of the show you’re making is important. I’m also open with broadcasters’ notes, so we’re all on the same page. I relied on my writer-Co-EP, Karen Hill to oversee the writing team when I couldn’t. We worked together on Motive and she’s an amazing writer. She had been involved since development and her input was invaluable. I felt confident in her ability to drive the scripts forward and stay true to the tone and sensibilities of what I wanted the show to be.
What did you look for when putting your room together for The Murders?
I wanted to put a room together that had different voices. I didn’t want to create a space where we just pat each other on the back. Of course everybody in the room needs to be respectful, and buy into what the show is. That said, I try to bring people in with different points of view, different backgrounds, and different interests. I think we managed to do that with The Murders. It meant that within our crime drama, we were able to go after some really interesting stories and tackle some contemporary issues.
It doesn’t matter what room you’re in; there’s always that feeling of, “Wait, how do we do this, again?” You start with a blank page and it’s daunting knowing you have to turn out a season of television. For me, everyone’s voice is equal and the best idea wins. Writers come in with good and not so good ideas, and they all count. It shakes things up and starts a conversation that often takes you somewhere you never thought you’d end up.
Do you have any advice for TV writers trying to break in?
If you don’t have experience, then your original spec material really matters. Also, if I get a recommendation from a more senior writer, that’s going to carry some weight. At some point you are going to need someone championing you. If you have an agent, that’s great, but I think developing relationships with other writers and producers is helpful too.
There is nothing as exciting, or as crushingly revealing, as handing over your script to a group of actors for a cold read. How thrilling! Your characters will come to life and you will cringe at some of the lines you thought you loved.
You may fight to urge to grab the script back when you realize how many extra words you’ve given your quirky love interest. You may…have…to…sit…and…suffer… while the actor heroically plows through what’s written on the page long after the scene has deflated around …your…your…typos and your very robustly magnificent usage of adverbs. (See what I did there?)
Perhaps you already read your work out loud when proofing in your pyjamas. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that your solo read-aloud will catch as many issues as a read by people who aren’t familiar with the material. If, like me, you’re used to finding your typos immediately after hitting “send,” then you probably already mistrust yourself enough to recognize this wisdom.
Kim Garland wrote a great article explaining how to host a table read for Script Magazine. I would add that this exercise can be useful even in the very early “vomit draft” stages of a project. I’m lucky enough to have a screenwriting group that meets regularly to table read from our works in progress. The notes that I make on my script while listening to these reads are invaluable. I’m pretty sure it saves me future pain, and it’s also a lot of fun.
We were lucky to have Showrunner Larry Raskin join us for a lunchtime Q&A this week! Larry’s credits include Executive Producer of Reboot: The Guardian Code, Series Producer for Yukon Gold, and Director/Story Editor for Ice Pilots NWT.
On ReBoot, you hired writers who didn’t necessarily have experience writing for animation or for kids. What were you looking for?
On that show, I had a nice balance of serialized drama writers and comedy writers, including in the kids’ space. I hadn’t worked with any of the writers before, but it worked out. The main criteria for me is always a sensibility match. Being in a room is intense and very constant. You need to be able to share a sensibility for shows with a specific theme and approach. It accelerates the process. I’m also open to a voice that, if not a sensibility match, is complimentary.
How did you get into writing for TV?
I never thought of doing anything else, which is foolish! I did an undergrad in communications at Concordia and took a lot of writing courses as electives. Then I started working in the industry in Montreal, getting entry-level jobs. I got work on a six-show co-production with an Ontario company and a Quebec company. I went from being the producer’s assistant, to being the story editor on set. It was a fully immersive experience, working with the writers, the cast, and with the directors. After that, my wife and I moved to Toronto. I got a job with Atlantis Films doing development and story editing. That’s when I got the opportunity to start producing series.
When I moved to BC, there were fewer opportunities for scripted television, so I moved into factual television. I did ten years of cool factual shows and then finally got back into scripted with Reboot: Guardian Code.
How is story shaped in factual TV, as opposed to scripted TV?
Factual TV uses similar storytelling skills but you’re working with what you have, as opposed to what you want. The story process works backwards. You aren’t preconceiving the story lines.
In the shows I did, we followed professionals doing their jobs. Ice pilots was set in Yellowknife, and Yukon Gold followed miners in the Yukon. Real people were doing real things. The way those shows are shaped is through discussion with the main subjects, (what are their goals, what is likely to happen,) and then being extremely nimble and responsive to what does happen. A story takes shape in the moment, often through circumstance that was not foreseen. Your crew and your story team are always trying to figure out the potential of a story, and what elements are needed to make it a great story. It happens in the moment, and then it happens again once you recover that footage, review, analyze, ask for pick-ups, and start to shape it in the story editing and writing phase. Often you use interviews to fill in gaps that you don’t have footage for, but also to provide an insight that makes it more personal. If you ever get the chance to work as a story editor in factual, it’s an amazing opportunity to hone your story muscles and your editing skills.
Do you have any advice when it comes to working with agents?
Look for an agent who gets you, and who you think would give you the extra leg up that you need. What they’re looking for is something that makes you different from everyone else on their roster. When you’re talking with agents, you need to know your brand.
Do you have any advice for writers new to being in a room?
Not contributing is dangerous because it raises the stakes to be brilliant when you finally do speak. That said, you don’t want to dominate. Like in acting, listening in a writers’ room is crucial. Like musicians, you need to understand what track is being played, and not throw in ideas for another track at that time. It’s like jazz riffing. All the instruments need to play together and support each other. Tune in to what is going on. What you bring, in terms of positive energy, will almost always be returned to you.
Do you have any advice for newer writers handing in drafts to their showrunner?
On your own projects, you have the luxury of continually changing your script until you feel it’s the best it can be. Writing for someone else’s show is really about servicing their needs and the show’s needs. It’s a different skillset. If the outline is strong, focus on delivering in terms of structure. That way, if you even get halfway there in terms of character and dialogue, you’re giving the story department something very useful to work with. If you deviate from the outline and come in with a bunch of new ideas, it could be brilliant but often there’s no time for that. Check in with your showrunner about your ideas, but I would say no showrunner wants big surprises when you hand in your draft.
A stocky woman in her seventies, her hair as royally permed as the Queen’s, sits at a four-person table by herself. Her brown wool jacket has a seat of its own. Her cane is draped against the table leg at an angle in an effort to trip innocent passersby. I have already decided that she’s horrible. Is that nasty of me? More importantly, is my character description effective?
This woman, let’s call her DOREEN, has been shouting into her cell phone for forty minutes. We are all glaring at her. She hasn’t noticed. She’s too absorbed in her very important phone call with a friend. Let’s call the friend, FRAN. Doreen doesn’t think Fran needs to make too much food. No, Charles wasn’t there. Yes, she had a funny feeling about that, too.
A lipstick stained coffee lid, a bent paper cup, three crumpled napkins, and a ball of banana bread cling-wrap lie scattered across her table. On the remaining chairs, she claims territory with a lumpy plastic shopping bag, a dripping umbrella, and her oversized beige purse. I’ve seen mothers with toddler triplets dine more discreetly.
For those of us lucky enough to be sharing our precious time with Doreen, it’s quite clear that she’s a “space taker-upper,” and probably a taker in general.
I should thank coffee shop Doreen, whoever she really is, for giving me a real-life negative impression that I can put to effective use in my writing. There’s nothing like people watching when it comes to figuring out how to show rather than tell. As John August explains in his fantastic blog post, How To Introduce Character, “Look for details that have an iceberg quality: only a little bit sticks above the surface, but it represents a huge mass of character information.”
How have strangers in public spaces influenced your scripts? I’d love to hear about it.