Suck Ups

There was an essay in the LA Times magazine this weekend by Sharon Bordas, an aspiring sitcom writer talking about "staffing season," that hectic period after the series pick-ups in May when shows hire all their writers. But the essay wasn’t really about that. It was about sucking up. Her first interview didn’t go well, so she lavished praise  on the next showrunner she met with.

I prostrated myself before him, calling him the best writer
of his generation. Without a trace of irony. It worked. My agent called
to give me the good news: Boy Wonder Two (BW2) loved me.

She didn’t get hired as a writer, though. She got hired as a writer’s assistant. Not surprisingly, she lost the job on her first day when she pitched story ideas to the co-exec producer.

The next day I was fired. "It’s not going to happen," my agent told me,
explaining that showrunner-for-a-day had found me presumptuous and
overbearing.

She’s at a loss to understand why they got this impression of her and goes on and on blaming her career troubles on the inflated egos and duplicity of the showrunners she meets.

I didn’t even try to eat the day of my meeting with my third Boy
Wonder. I complimented everything from his writing to his shoes. Soon,
an offer was on its way, and my agent was thrilled…
The next day, one of the show’s producers announced that he had promised my job to the son of a friend. I was out. Again.

It never occurs to her that maybe the third Boy Wonder called around about her and didn’t like what he heard — so came up with a lame excuse for backing out before compounding his mistake. The whole point of the essay is that TV shows are run by assholes and talented, good-hearted people like her don’t get a break.  (She clearly thinks she’s coming off as lovable, funny, and sympathetic in her essay. She’s not).

She looked down her nose at each showrunner before she even stepped in the door for her  interviews. Each prospective employer was a "Boy Wonder," implying she thinks they got their show on the air not because of any talent or smarts,  but because they kissed the right asses and sold out. They don’t deserve her respect, honesty, or good-will. They are frauds. She is the real deal. (Even the co-exec producer is shrugged off as "showrunner for the day" when he should have prostrated himself in front of her awesome talent).

What was her interview strategy? To be a manipulative, lying little weasel, lavishing false praise on showrunners to hide her contempt for them. And when she finally snares an assistant position,  she has the gall on her first day to suggest story ideas to the co-exec producer when, in fact, her job is to answer the phones, type scripts, and get everybody lunch.

And she wonders why she was fired? Hollywood isn’t the problem, lady. It’s you.

The Joys of Pitching…again

I had a pitch yesterday, and for some reason, it’s got me thinking of all the bad pitching experiences I’ve had (not that the pitch yesterday went badly, it didn’t, but that’s not to say he leaped out of his seat, kissed me on both cheeks, and said "My only goal in life now is to make this project happen!").

Okay, so here’s my story, which I’ve told here before. This goes back a few years. 

I was in middle of pitching three TV
series ideas when the newly minted network exec – formerly a lawyer,
rock musician, accountant and personal trainer—interrupted me.

“You have no clue what makes a good TV series concept,” the exec said. “And your pitches suck.”

I smiled. “But does the rest work for you?”

“You
want to hear a pitch? This is the perfect pitch, I just bought it.” the
exec continued. “There’s a cop. He’s a rebel. He’s a rogue. He doesn’t
play by the rules. He’s also an incredible slob. He’s teamed up with a
new partner who’s a stickler for the rules, a team player, and a neat
freak. His new partner is…a dog.”

I stared at him. “A dog?”

“A dog,” he said proudly.

“Does the dog talk?” I asked.

The exec’s eyes lighted up. “Now you’re getting the hang of it.”

Cowboys and Indians

I told this story a while back, when I first started this blog — but most of you weren’t around then, so it’s going to seem fresh and new.

We were writing an episode of a series for a Major Television
Producer who had dozens of hit shows to his credit. This particular
series, however, was not destined to be one of them.

For this
episode, he wanted to do a “modern take” on a “cowboys and indians”
story. He wanted to see “indians on the warpath” only with “a
contemporary sensibility.”

“Call’em Native Americans instead of
injuns,” the Major Television Producer instructed us, “that’ll make the
story instantly relevant.”

He also wanted it hip, sexy, and edgy. And he wanted women, lots of beautiful women.

I
joked that we could have seven super-models lost in the desert. His
eyes lit up. “Yes,” he said. “That’s perfect. That would give the show…
sophistication.”

Unfortunately, he wasn’t kidding around. We
were stuck with seven super-models. I learned an important lesson. I
never joke about the story in a meeting… or the joke could become the
story.

We went off and worked on the outline for our script.
We came up with a scene in which some bad guys destroy some sacred
Navajo ruins, upsetting the Native Americans, causing them to go “on
the warpath” and attack the bad guy’s camp. But when the Major
Television Producer read our scene, he was outraged.

“You can’t
have the bad guys destroy Navajo ruins,” he bellowed. “It’s
unthinkable. Those ruins are priceless, historical artifacts. The
American public will never stand for it. You’ll offend our entire
audience!”

We apologized, explaining all we wanted to do in the scene was provoke the Native Americans into attacking the bad guys.

“Why not have the bad guys rape the seven supermodels,” the Major Television Producer said.

“Sure,” I replied. “That won’t offend anybody.”

“Exactly,” the Major Television Producer said. “Now you’re learning how to write television.”

I’m Collectible

Tvrevivals
There’s a guy on Amazon selling my slim, 1993 reference book TELEVISION SERIES REVIVALS for $125.00, plus shipping.  All I can figure is that it must be a typo…surely he meant $12.50, right? Then again, there’s someone else on Amazon selling the original library edition of my 1990 book UNSOLD TELEVISION PILOTS for $125. Why would anyone pay that much when they could get the same book for $45 or in a two volume, trade paperback edition for $26 each?

Reader Love

My friend Paul Levine, the notorious novelist and screenwriter,  got this delightful email today from a reader of his widely acclaimed new book A DEEP BLUE ALIBI:

Mr. Levine,

Please either do some actual research before
you write your next book, or get a publisher that has proof readers
with a TINY bit of technical and/or scientific
expertise. A Glock has no safety lever…… the only
safety on a Glock is built into the trigger
itself.  After I finally got past that error….. I
get to a FIVE FOOT CORAL SNAKE?!?!?!?

I
cannot even give you an opinion as to the writing of the rest of the book, as it has been converted into carbon in my fireplace.

The thoughtful writer of the email also copied Paul’s agent and publicist, whose addresses are on his site. It’s a good thing, Paul says, that his Mom’s address wasn’t on the site, too. Paul took this email in stride, replying good-naturedly:

Thank you for your kind and thoughtful note
pointing out the errors in  "The Deep Blue Alibi."

You
are quite correct, of course, about the Glock.  It has the built-in trigger safety, not the little lever.  I own a 9 mm Beretta  with the lever, and I was picturing that gun while my fingers typed "Glock."  My mistake. You could have pointed out also that the sheriff of Monroe County 
doesn’t actually carry a Glock, and he never smuggled pot.  Just made
that stuff up, which is what we do in fiction.  I also had the mayor of
Key West growing marijuana, and to the best of my knowledge, he doesn’t
do that, either.

Now, as for the snake  I am well aware
that the longest coral snakes are in the 4-four range, and most are
smaller.  Well, shoot me with a Glock because I stretched that snake
out a foot.  At least it seemed that long in a scene written from the
POV of Victoria Lord when she discovers the snake in the
bathroom.

A book with 110,000 words has probably a couple
thousand facts —  geographical, meteorlogical, historical,
sociological and others — and if  I only made two mistakes in this one,
well that’s hitting the ball out of  the park.   The folks at Bantam
found a bunch more and corrected them.

I am very pleased that
you found a use for the book, however, and hope that it provided ample
warmth on a chilly night.

Sad News

Two television legends died on Friday — Don Knotts and Darren McGavin. Both will be greatly missed.

I never met Knotts but I was lucky enough to meet McGavin — I interviewed him over twenty years ago, over a long lunch, for an article in STARLOG magazine. It was a real thrill for me, because I was a huge fan of his two series KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER and THE OUTSIDER, both short-lived classics.  I remember him as a very gracious man and a wonderful storyteller. Over the years, I’ve also enjoyed his terrific readings of the Travis McGee novels… so much so, that I can’t read the books myself now without hearing his voice.

We tried to hired McGavin for a guest-starring role on a DIAGNOSIS MURDER episode but he’d suffered a stroke and was unable to work. We ended up giving the part to Jack Klugman instead.

Speccing for an Agent

I got this email from an aspiring TV writer today:

I’ve written a few solid spec teleplays and one good feature, and moved to LA and tried to make contacts and all the other things you’re supposed to do. I am, however, a teacher and not a PA or writer’s assistant, so making the right contacts is a little difficult for me.

My main interest is in television. A friend who works at a managment firm that rarely deals with TV writers recently told me I should start querying agents with my TV specs. How do I do that? I could write a feature query cold, for all the good it does anybody, but how do you write one for television? You can’t exactly use a logline to generate interest since you didn’t come up with the stories. Is my friend right? Would an agent even be interested in reading teleplays? Thanks for any advice you could give.

I honestly didn’t know how to answer her, so I asked a few TV writer friends of mine for their opinions.  One of them said:

I would tell her to get a list of ALL the agencies (available through
the WGA) and send out a letter of introduction to each one stating her
objective.  I would also include in the letter that she has several
specs available which sends the message she’s serious about this. 
Obviously if there’s anything in her background that can set her apart
(awards, short film produced, Jim Brooks read and liked my script,
etc.) that would be a plus.  If she sends to forty agencies and three
reply she’s ahead of the game.

Another TV writer/producer suggested much the same thing:

My best advice would be to show your TV specs (assuming they’re well-written
and not outdated) to anybody who will read them, including your friend at
the management agency that doesn’t do television.  If the work is really
good, it will be passed along to managers and agents who are looking for TV
clients – especially hungry junior agents.

Also, send out the dreaded cold letters, but target them well.  Find out who
represents the writers who currently work on the shows you like.  The WGA
will tell you if you ask.  Then send a letter to that person’s agent,
describing how you aspire to follow in the path of great writers like
(insert successful client here), and have two fabulous specs which will make
it easy for the agent to sell you.  I did this when I first started looking
for an agent – didn’t work, but I did get some reads.

But another writer/producer friend disagreed:

it’s hard for me to imagine a good agent would read a spec TV script unless s/he
  knew the writer personally or the script was recommended.

As for networking, one of my writer/producer buddies suggested:

Start attending WGA events, stay for the reception
afterwards and mingle your heart out.  Ask other writers who represents them
and how they got signed.  And don’t overlook my favorite: UCLA Extension
classes. 

Believe it or not, hanging out with other aspiring writers is actually a good way to make contacts in the business. Many of my producer-friends today are people I hung out with at TV show tapings and Museum of Broadcasting events twenty years ago. I’ll give you another example, One of the writers we hired on MISSING, who had no previous produced credits or script sales (but a killer spec and a great personality) was part of a screenwriting group at a Barnes & Noble.  When she got on staff of our show, all those people in the group suddenly had a "friend in the business," someone who could tell them, from first-hand experience, what the dynamics of a writers room were like, what kinds of specs the producers were reading, etc.

If you’re interested in attending a UCLA Extension class, my friend Matt Witten, a writer/producer on HOUSE, is teaching an introductory TV writing class this spring and I’ll be teaching one this summer.

I am so amazingly talented it should bring tears to your eyes

"[My book] is unknown for the masterpiece that it is."

"I’m not just another writer. I don’t think people understand my relationship with this city and they don’t understand what I’ve achieved."

"There is not another writer in Southern California who sits between Bellow and Conrad next to Hemingway and Kafka…"

"Of course they admire me. They wouldn’t exist without me. I am in the canon. Those other people will never be in the canon."

No, that’s not some fanficcer talking about himself and his immortal Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings cross-over slash epic … and it’s not  Tono Rondone, James KosubDr. Robin Reid, or even Lori Prokop, either. This ridiculously over-the-top self-love comes from writer Kate Braverman, basking in her own greatness  in today’s Los Angeles Times. 

I’ve never read Kate Braverman. She may actually be the best thing to happen to literature since the invention of ink. She certainly has won her share of literary honors and has been a mentor to a very impressive list of admired, critically-acclaimed writers. But I have an immediate, instinctive dislike of anyone  who calls their own work a "masterpiece" and touts themselves as legendary artists. Then again, the article mentions that Braverman has spent much of her life as a drug addict, which explains a lot. Most of the addicts I’ve known in my life also believed the universe revolved around them…and were furious when no one noticed.

UPDATE 2-27-04: Writer Rodger Jacobs  samples reactions from all over the blogosphere to Braverman’s comments…as well as stories about some of her even more outrageous behavior.