As tv writers, it’s helpful to remember that we are ultimately writing for actors. We were very pleased to have Camille Sullivan generously visit the scripted series lab to share her perspective on engaging with the script as an actor:
To paraphrase David Mamet from his book, True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, “It’s the writer’s job to make it interesting. It’s the actor’s job to make it truthful.”
The role needs to be interesting and it needs to be active.
You can even be active when it comes to character descriptions. It’s much more interesting to play a character described as “fussy, fidgety, etc” compared to “attractive.”
Every character in your script should have a different rhythm to their speech.
Actors enjoy having something to reveal as an undercurrent.
Make sure even your minor characters have arcs!
It’s fun for actors when they really want something and they don’t get it, so they change tactics. That’s human, after all. In real life, people are fluid and crafty.
Camille Sullivan is an award-winning Canadian actress. She has starred in several films, including the upcoming movie, “Hunter Hunter” directed by Shawn Linden. Notable TV series include, “Unspeakable”, “The Disappearance”, and “Intelligence.”
As aspiring TV writers are busily preparing their applications for those highly coveted Writer Mentorship programs in L.A, I thought I would put together a collated list of recommended reading from three of the prestigious mentorships.
For Canadian writers, I’m afraid I wasn’t able to find a recommended reading list for the CFC’s Bell Media Prime Time TV Program, but I suspect all recommended reading below would be helpful. Studying any of these titles would also be helpful for anyone applying to our PSP Scripted Series Lab!
*Please note that there are duplicate titles because I wanted to keep each list intact.
The CBS Writers Mentoring Program Recommended Reading List:
“Writing the Television Drama Series” by Pamela Douglas
“The Hero Succeeds: The Character-Driven Guide to Writing Your TV Pilot” by Kam Miller
“Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development” by K.M. Weiland.
“The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives” by Lajos Egri “The Hidden Tools of Comedy: The Serious Business of Being Funny” by Steve Kaplan.
“Hollywood Game Plan: How to Land a Job in Film, TV and Digital Entertainment” by Carole Kirschner.
Writer’s Wright Journal. A journal to help you stay motivated.
“Writing for Episodic Television: From Freelance to Showrunner” by John Wirth and Jeff Melvoin
“Small Screen, Big Picture” by Chad Gervitch
“Story” by Robert McKee
“Making a Good Script Great” by Linda Seger
“Created By…Inside the Minds of TV’s Top Show Creators” by Steven Priggé
“Inside the Room” by Linda Venus
“Change Your Story Change Your Life” by Jennifer Grisanti
“Creating Unforgettable Characters” by Linda Seger
“Successful Sitcom Writing” by Jurgen Wolff
“Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box” by Alex Epstein
Walt Disney Television Writing Program and the NLMC/NHMC Latino Television Writers Program Recommended Reading List:
“Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters” By Michael Tierno
“Creating Unforgettable Characters” By Linda Seger
“How to Manage Your Agent” By Chad Gervich
“Making a Good Script Great” By Linda Seger
“Successful Sitcom Writing” By Jurgen Wolff
“The Art of Dramatic Writing” By Lajos Egri
“The One-Hour Drama Series” By Robert Del Valle”
“Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box” By Alex Epstein
“Story Line” By Jennifer Grisanti
“Story” By Robert McKee
“Save The Cat!” By Blake Snyder
“Inside the Minds of TV’s Top Show Creators” By Steven Priggé
“Elephant Bucks” Sheldon Bull
“Writing the TV Drama Series” By Pamela Douglass
“Inside the Room” By Linda Venus
“Change Your Story Change Your Life” By Jennifer Grisanti
How important is the title of your spec script? A great title is like a great first impression. It’s invaluable. Can a great movie or tv show get the attention it deserves with an unmemorable or confusing title? I doubt it! “Parasite” … The title is disturbing, right? It’s an amazing film, and I was thrilled by its success at the Oscars. One of the many things the movie has going for it is a great title; one that is memorable, aligned in tone, and suggestive of its genre. So how do you come up with a great title?
In insightful her book, Good in a Room, pitching consultant Stephanie Palmer lists the five qualities of a great title with the acronym: “S.M.A.R.T”
Repeatable (it sounds good when spoken out loud)
Tonally Appropriate (meaning the feeling it evokes matches the expectations of the genre)
Consider these qualities in light of this year’s nine nominated features for best picture: “1917”, “The Irishmen”, “Jojo Rabbit”, “Joker”, “Little Women”, “Marriage Story”, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, “Parasite”, and “Ford v Ferrari”. Which titles play by the five rules? Which do you think is strongest? I think “Parasite” wins best title as well as best picture!
Coming up with a great title often takes time, so try not to settle with the first thing that comes to mind. Start brainstorming early and let your mind brainstorm and incubate as long as possible. Once you have a shortlist, make sure to get feedback. Also, it would be wise to scan imdb to make sure the title hasn’t been used already.
A great evening was had by all last Saturday at our Q&A event with Maggie Bandur. (Malcolm in the Middle, Community, Galivant, Deadly Class) We would like to thank everyone who came out on such a dark January night to meet Maggie. Thanks also to host, Sabrina Ferminger (YVR Screen Scene Podcast), for her energetic and fun questions, and of course, to Maggie for taking the time to share her story and advice with all of us.
Writing retreats can be a powerful tool when you’re struggling to make creative progress. What is it about going away? I’m going to put it down to creating space for deep work and recharge.
Last week I had the luxury of taking a four-day trip with my writing partner for the sole purpose of making progress on a project that has, up until now, felt frustratingly piecemeal. Both my writing partner and I were excited about this project but, it was very difficult to get more than a few hours at a time together to work on it. (It’s the kind of project that really called for hashing it out together, at least at the detailed outline stage.)
In a fit of frustration, we compared calendars and consulted our significant others to find a weekend that could work for a focused escape. At the time, it seemed very far away but soon the days passed and we found ourselves magically racing for the ferry. If I’m being honest, I was feeling a little guilty about the expense but all that was soon put to rest by the blazing pace of our progress once we settled in and got down to work.
I’m happy to report that during our self -designed retreat, we reached our target of a finished first draft! It was a huge success for us. Simplifying our “work” to one clear project with regular breaks for truly relaxing away from our regular duties proved powerful.
In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport writes, “When Carl Jung wanted to revolutionize psychiatry, he built a retreat in the woods. [It] became a place where he could maintain his ability to think deeply and then apply the skill to produce work of such stunning originality that it changed the world.” (P.18)
I highly recommend getting resourceful and creating a personal writing retreat. Most of us aren’t able to build a vacation house as Carl Jung did, but you might be able to splurge on a cabin rental or hotel room for a few days. Maybe someone you know with property in a restful setting will let you borrow their place.
Going away to write creates a sense of intention and focus. Putting money and time into your intention adds positive pressure. Having only one clear thing to make progress on keeps life simple. It’s an efficient use of energy and creativity. You can allow yourself to rest, sleep in, eat well, get some fresh air and exercise, and buckle down to work.
Wow, were we ever thrilled to see so many writers and directors come out to hear from Jem. Hey DGC, let’s do more of these together!
Jem Garrard is a British Canadian writer, director and producer.
She is the creator and showrunner of the space opera series Vagrant Queen for SYFY.
An Emmy nominated director, and five time Leo award winner,
her past projects include the comedy sci-fi series Android Employed,
Disney’s Mech-X4, SYFY’s creature feature Killer High
and the Audience Network series You Me Her.
Jem splits her time between Vancouver, LA and London.
Check out her reel at www.jemgarrard.com and follow her on Twitter @jemga
You’ve set up your general meeting with someone who can help your career. (In Vancouver we’d call that “a coffee!”) Our scripted series lab participants have come up with eight tips for your general meeting to make the most of this important opportunity.
- Do your research! Look for interviews, social media, and bio info online. Check out their work and, while you’re at it, use this research to prepare an honest compliment or two. You’ll feel more relaxed about who you’re meeting with and you’ll come across as more knowledgable.
- Right off the bat, you can ask what they’re up to and what they’re working on now.
- Be prepared for the conversation to volley back to you. Be rehearsed and ready to talk about your personal backstory and what you’re working on now!
- Prepare an agenda ahead of time. Consider how this person can help you in case they ask. (But only if they ask!) That said, be flexible and go with the conversational flow. Any meeting that builds rapport is a win.
- Be grateful! Thank them for their time, given how busy they surely are.
- On that note, be conscious of their valuable time and wrap things up in about 20 minutes.
- Offer to pay!
- Send a follow-up note to thank them for their time.
If you’ve got any great tips to share, we’d love to hear them!
I thought I would share some of the key podcasts that I listen to as an established writer and producer. I find these interesting, inspirational, and useful. All of them are done by working professionals at the top of the game. I think it’s really important to separate the professionals from the people who are ‘teaching’ but have never done it themselves. Or (and especially) the people running contests and various other scams designed to separate aspiring writers from their money, rather than build the industry.
Scriptnotes by John August, with Craig Mazin. This podcast is the benchmark. A must-listen for screenwriters, done by two of the top guys in the business. Heavy emphasis on feature writing, though that’s changing.
The Producers Guide: an excellent limited run on producing. Especially strong on the psychological demands/strategies for a Hollywood producer.
Children of Tendu: Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Jose Molina are two experienced showrunners and tv writers. This is a limited run series about the writer’s room that’s directly on point for the PSP Scripted Series Lab. I think it should be required listening! Also, Javi has a bunch of documents on his personal website and blog, including old bibles, pitches, and pilot scripts. These are also really useful references especially if you’re just starting out.
Write Along: C. Robert Cargill’s podcast on writing craft. This is shorter and focused more on the nuts and bolts. He’s a great writer and makes very good concrete points.
There are various other podcasts that tend to interview creators or writers about their lives and projects but don’t get into specifics of craft. That’s kind of a separate category but it can be interesting especially if you get a good interview with the creator of a show you love. It’s always worth searching by the name of the show you are enjoying so as not to miss out on these. Also, there are many podcasts on the creative life/journey that might also be on interest. Brian Koppelman’s The Moment comes to mind.
I’ll try to promote more great podcasts via my twitter feed @tbcart as I come across them.
*Tim Carter is a writer and producer of movies and video games known for Mortal Kombat: Legacy, Dead Rising: Watchtower, and Sleeping Dogs.
Okay, my fellow writers; let’s put our pens down and our producer hats on for a moment. I’m challenging you to apply for more opportunities. Take your original specs, your short film scripts, your undeveloped features, and web series’ and send them out to relevant contests. Get better at selling yourself and apply for fellowships and mentorships. Let’s get way more systematic. You can prepare for writing contests and mentorships so that you’re not overwhelmed as deadlines approach.
Why? Simply put, when we place ourselves and our work into contests and mentorships, we increase our chances. For the cost of some time, a bit of potential rejection, and the entrance fees, we are increasing our chances at gaining the recognition and buzz that moves careers along to the next level.
Even when we apply for contests, programs or mentorships that don’t come through, we are building the habit of being a professional. As a plus, we develop a thicker skin and it gets easier to do the work.
Step 1: Be Ready
Build regular time for this work into your schedule, both for the initial research and for the individual application prep. One way to decrease anxiety and decrease efficiency is to create a template package, a process checklist, and a support team.
Carole Kirschner talks about building your personal logline. You can use this as a springboard for the all-important letter of intent. Once you have a letter that you feel good about, you can use it as the base template for your various applications, (obviously individualized as needed.) These letters of intent need to show your voice and to feel authentic. You should always have an up to date resume in your file, and a few “ready to send” scripts in your portfolio. Have a synopsis and a treatment for each spec in your portfolio. Will you need someone to proofread your applications? Who will write your reference letters if needed? Will you need graphic design elements for an attached treatment? Think about this in advance and do whatever you can ahead of time.
Step 2: Know Your Stuff
Research your best bets and top priorities. These will differ depending on your genre, your level of experience, and your geographic location. Scan the social media feeds and newsletters of your local arts councils, guilds, national broadcasters, and the major industry markets. You can also learn what contests are lighting up careers by listening to industry podcasts. (We’ve referenced several favorites on our blog over the past year.) Do this homework yourself and you’ll learn a lot more about the industry. Here in BC, you should definitely pay attention to communications from Creative BC, the CMPA-BC, and Women in Film and Television Vancouver, as well as Telus Storyhive and the Directors Guild of Canada – BC, and Crazy8s, to name a few. Spark Animation and Raindance Vancouver are also useful sources of information. I’m sure I’m missing several more so feel free to leave a comment with suggestions.
Step 3: Create Your List
Create a calendar of relevant submission deadlines. Because you are planning in advance, some dates will only be estimates, so make note a few months earlier to double-check and update the details. Make sure you are on social media and newsletter feeds for the contests and fellowships you will be applying for.
Step 4: Do The Work
Be organized, be disciplined and be brave. Do the work. Send in the applications.
Step 5: Be Prepared to Say Yes
Be both prepared to say “yes,” and unflappable if you get a “no.”
This means keeping your schedule clear…ish during the future conferences or mentorships you have applied for. Try not to schedule anything that can’t be rescheduled, moved or refunded.
In case you do get a “yes,” anticipate the obstacles. For example, if you have family, think about what needs to happen in terms of childcare to make this work. Is there any “just in case” groundwork you should be putting into place? Also, financial planning can be a roadblock for most of us. Will you need savings to cover potential travel costs and loss of income? Now is the time to look into funding opportunities and their requirements/deadlines. A little anticipatory thinking and groundwork can go a long way.
If you get a “no,” you’ll need to stay gracious and persevere. After all, most applicants get a no most of the time. That’s why you want to increase your applications in this numbers game in the first place.
If you are not accepted or shortlisted this time around, know that it is not a reflection of your value as an artist.
Here’s a trick – if you want to broaden your perspective and get more comfortable with rejection, get yourself onto a jury for a film festival or a screenwriting contest. Experiencing the submissions avalanche and ensuing selection process from the other side is both illuminating and liberating.
Happy planning and good luck!
Thank you to everyone who attended our sold out Q&A with Amy and Tassie Cameron! For those of you who weren’t able to attend, here are a few of the questions they answered.
How do you decide what shows you want to bring on?
We decided everyone had to love the project we were going to bring on… We had to know we would be an undeniable team if we took it on. -Amy Cameron
How do you compose a writers room?
I’m in the middle of staffing a room right now, and we’ve been doing weeks of interviews with writers, from the most junior to the most senior. You’re trying to put together a magical cocktail of people. -Tassie Cameron
On reading scripts:
It is evident when someone is trying meet markers in a script, and it’s evident when someone really loved their project and had a fun time writing it. -Amy Cameron
On using vision, and listening to the writers in your room:
Be open to accepting and taking feedback for your vision. Let the thing become an organic, breathing piece of art. – Tassie Cameron