I’ve done a lot of posts about TV writing. But this is a post about the before… the writing I did when I was still learning how to write TV and hoping someone would pay me to do it someday.

Before I even knew it had a name I was writing fanfic. I filled notebooks with stories about my favorite characters from soap operas and prime-time shows, weaving the stories I wanted to see that had never been told by the writers who made me fall in love with said shows.

Once I learned what fanfic was officially called (from an article about the “Star Trek” fandom) well, then I knew that I was writing it. And thanks to the Internet, I had a way to post it and see if other people liked it. To my great surprise, some folks did, and so I kept writing it. And writing it. And writing it.

Oh, did I ever keep writing it.

I wrote a lot of other things, of course – because when you want to be a TV writer, you have very specific things you must be writing, like TV specs and pilots. Lots of TV specs and pilots. But whenever I got stuck or frustrated or just couldn’t make myself stare at a script page for another second, there was always fanfic to go back to.

My first big fandom was “The Pretender.” I was all about some Jarod and Miss Parker and if Steve and Craig were going to hold out on me FOREVER (I love you guys, but for real!), then I was going to write a hundred different scenarios wherein my favorite genius and my favorite badass ended up together.

Next, there was “General Hospital.” In truth, GH was technically first because I hand wrote a ton of stories in those notebooks about GH (Brenda Barrett epics, y’all) that have long since met their end during one of my mom’s spring cleaning frenzies. But in my official days as a fanfic writer, GH took up a lot of my time. A LOT of my time. I wrote mostly Sonny and Alexis fics, but also Cassadine family stories and more Brenda stories (Brenda and Jason, you guys… BRASON FOREVER!) – and then there was my other favorite Alexis pairing – Alexis and Jax. There are all kinds of other random little stories and one shots of things that caught my attention, but 90% of it is easily Sonny and Alexis.

And then there came my deep dive into the “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice” fandom. I consider them one and the same because I got into both shows for the same reason – one Addison Montgomery, legendary kickass surgeon in Jimmy Choos. I wrote Addison winning Derek Shepherd back. I wrote her making it work with Mark Sloan. I wrote her falling for Alex Karev. I wrote her with Pete and with Sam and with Wyatt and Noah. I even wrote her with Burke and the bomb guy (yes, The Kyle Chandler bomb guy.) Because Addison was this amazing woman who just wanted to be forgiven for not being perfect. And really… isn’t that what we all want?

There are for sure some other random stories from other fandoms, but these were the ones that sucked up the majority of my time.

When I became a working TV writer, I pulled all my fanfic down where I was able to because I was worried people would think it was weird or cheesy. Would think I was too much of a fangirl to be taken seriously. And then one day I mentioned it casually to another writer who admitted she had written some fic, too — and she was impressed with the sheer volume of stories I had written. And then I started talking about it more, and finally what the reaction I really got from people was “That’s so cool! I bet you learned a lot doing that” I stopped acting like it was a secret shame — and the truth is, I really did learn a lot from writing all those stories.

— I learned how to write for my whole audience. There are characters in my fics that are characters I absolutely hated on the show, but I couldn’t write them like I hated them. I had to write them for the people who watch the shows. Not to say that there aren’t a few fics in my collection where I didn’t take a swipe or two, but I quickly learned that meant I was alienating some readers. So to the best of my ability, I tried to write those characters fairly. And it was a great lesson. Because any writer who writes TV who tells you they love every character they’ve ever written equally is lying to you. Sometimes there are just a few who don’t resonate for you the same way as others. But you have to write them for the audience that loves your show. That’s your job. So practicing that in fanfic came in very handy.

— I learned that I have a type when it comes to the female characters that often pull my attention the most on a show – tough as nails, often deeply misunderstood, with demons that lead them to make painful mistakes, but who will sacrifice themselves in a heartbeat for someone they love. This is pretty evident in my pilots. They are script worlds built around women that definitely fit the description above.

— I learned a lot about problem solving. I wrote one of my most popular fanfics on a regular schedule… posted a chapter every Friday or Saturday night over a couple of months. In this particular fandom, friends would message me asking when I was going to be ready to post… so the pressure was pretty intense. And if I was stuck on a story point or a line of dialogue, well… the clock was ticking. So I learned a bit about something being “good enough” to meet a deadline. How not to be too precious with every last word and just get the damn thing done. Because that’s a lot of what TV writing is… just getting it done. You want it to be good – great – brilliant, always, but sometimes it is literally just about turning it around to get a script distributed by a certain time – so “good enough” has to do.

In my most recent writers room, several conversations about my fanfic writing led to a declaration that I should repost it all. Then I looked at how much I have. Guys, I’d need to hire an assistant just to post fanfic if all of it was getting reposted, so that is probably not happening. But I will post some of my greatest hits here on the blog as I have time to assemble them.

But here is what I’m not going to do as I repost these stories:

— I am not going to rewrite them. Not even proofing them. You get them as is, typos, formatting issues, and all. Because the point isn’t to pretend like they aren’t chock full of mistakes. The point is that I wrote and kept writing and got better as I did, and that’s why they’re still worth something to me. Each of these stories is a building block to the writer I have become, so whatever they are or were, they have value to me. The mistakes are part of that. My need to make a proofing pass just to see if I used the same word too many times in a script? I figured out that bad habit writing fanfic. And the subtle difference between reusing a line or phrase for effect and just being repetitive? I learned that from writing fanfic, too. So other than copying and pasting separate chapters into one PDF file, you’re getting what the original readers got.

— I am not going to shy away from things that, looking back now, make me roll my eyes at myself. You will see that baby writer Niceole loved her some cliched phrases like “Make love to me” and “You are the love of my life” and so on and so on. Some of my “love scenes” are so trashy romance novel in style that I honestly should have probably tried to write a romance or two back in the day… and my obsession with happy endings is rarely disrupted (though I did write a “Pretender” story once that had people ready to yell at me because it most definitely did not have a happy ending).

— I am not going to change the ridiculously pretentious names of some of these fics. Oy! I have learned a lot about titles since way back, let me tell you. But they are called what they’re called, so… laugh away.

With those rules in place, here’s the first fic I’m reposting – the Destiny Series. It’s a very early one from my “Pretender” days, set just after the season three finale when Miss Parker got shot and I had a lot of time over the summer to obsess about what should happen when the show came back. For those who don’t remember, season three was basically the season of massive Miss Parker heartbreak because she fell in love with Thomas Gates, and then he got murdered, and then she got shot by Willie Gault, and basically my girl couldn’t catch a break.

It’s long, y’all. Most of them will be. So if you’re brave or curious enough… the file is attached.

More to come…

Destiny Series Whole File

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When I talk TV with people, I’m never shy about heaping praise onto shows that I love. And I’ve long since gotten used to having this exchange when I bring up “Person of Interest” –

“’Person of Interest’? Isn’t that just a typical CBS procedural?”

Me: “No. It’s one of the most well-plotted serialized shows I’ve ever watched.” (And remember, I’ve seen over 1,000 TV shows!)

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The finale of POI aired last week, and I’m still strung out emotionally over it. It leaves the screen after 103 episodes. Not every single one was perfect but every single one was necessary to complete what turned out to be an amazing canvas.  And in my humble opinion, its legacy is to be one of the most underappreciated shows in recent memory.

As many of you know if you’ve read my blog before (or follow my fangirling on Twitter), I write with TV on in the background – typical latchkey kid behavior manifested in my adulthood.  This translates to writing at the office as well, thanks to my friends Amazon Prime and Netflix, which I stream in the background and listen to over ear buds while I write.  Last year, I re-watched the first four seasons of POI as my background, and even though I own all the DVDs and have seen multiple episodes several times, it was that re-watch that clued me into something monumental about why I adore POI so much – 85% of what I love about the show was put in motion by the end of episode 10. We’re talking characters, relationships, and ideas that consistently played through five seasons – including the final moments of the series – and most of it was on the board by the end of episode 10.  That cohesion over 103 episodes was accomplished without the writers dropping story points and with major cast changes to wrestle with along the way.

Within those first ten episodes, the characters became my heart when it came to this show.  This little group of four became the embodiment of the emotional struggle of everyday life… how we make mistakes and try to overcome them, how we search for redemption even if we aren’t sure we deserve it, how we look for the best in people even after we lose our way.  And they did all this while fighting the good fight for the little guy… taking down bad guys, helping people stay on the path of right when they were about to step into wrong. Even as the core cast both expanded and then lost members in heart-wrenching fashion over the years, the mission remained unchanged, and underlying every action, every episode was one clear message:

No one is irrelevant.

It might be this key point that explains my great love for this show, above the A-plus writing and great performances… POI was hopeful in a way I never expected it to be and that it turns out I needed so much.  Life mattered… good mattered… saving one person at the risk of everything mattered… and that idea propelled the entire series.

Over the past five seasons, we went on journeys to the darkest places within these characters and often found light there – John’s need for vengeance after Carter’s death inevitably brought him home, to the place Carter most wanted him to be – with the people who loved him; Harold’s battle to save the world revealed the best in those he chose as allies; Fusco went from dirty cop to hero because John and Carter and ultimately all of Team Machine reminded him who he wanted to be before the dark side tempted him.  And along the way, enemies – Root and Elias – turned into friends.  Meanwhile Shaw, the embodiment of what it meant for life to be “irrelevant” joined the team and embraced the mission in her own unique way.

And none of these characters’ pasts were whitewashed to make us like them.  Humanizing Elias by letting us into his abusive and tragic past gave us a deeper understanding of the path he chose and the drive behind the rise of his organized crime empire, but the show never tried to convince us his sins were justified. Instead it helped cement how monumental it was when Elias stood beside Team Machine in some of their most dangerous moments, even though he knew Reese, Harold et al would take his criminal enterprise down in a heartbeat if he endangered someone they cared for or one of the “numbers” the Machine asked them to save.

Root – in all her complex, twisted glory – was another character who had done dark, terrible things – had even tried to harm our beloved team – and yet her obsession with the Machine actually gave her the chance to find the connection she’d craved her whole life – both within the team and with the Machine herself.  Root found her purpose after a life of thinking people were just “bad code,” and her mission to save the Machine from all threats helped us to understand that the Machine’s importance was even greater than we’d ever suspected.

But I think the most amazing accomplishment of this fantastic show is the humanity the writers imparted upon a set of typed letters on a computer screen and a bunch of cables and servers.  The Machine was as real to us as any of the team… and our connection to her deepened as it became clear she suffered the pain of loss with Harold and Reese, that she hated the idea of failing them. As the Machine’s very personal relationship with Harold, her “father,” created conflict over the years, she became a maturing child, struggling to both find her own identity and be the “person” her parent wanted her to be. And in her ultimate act of humanity, the Machine found a way to be what… or who… she was meant to be despite Harold’s fears and reservations, even if that meant she might be destroyed.

I could literally write about specific things I loved and outstanding moments on this show for pages and pages. But what I hope after you read this is that if you watched it once and said no… or you never watched it at all, that this will make you go back and give it another chance (Netflix is your friend!). Look beyond the case of the week setup that helped us get into the world and spend time with these fascinating characters, go on a journey with them that will both rip out your heart and renew a little of your faith in the world (as much as any TV show can do that).

And if you loved POI as much as I did… if it brought you the same joy and heartache and wonder that it did me… thanks for sharing the roller coaster. And thank you a thousand times over to the wonderful writers and actors and the crew that made this show come to life… you’ve inspired me forever.

Yes, you read that correctly… as of March 9th, 2016, I have watched at least 1,000 TV shows in my lifetime. I say “at least” because the first 500 or so titles I listed were done from memory and research, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few… but the list is officially at 1,000… and it’s attached in case you want to peruse the titles. tv show list

A little background for those who don’t know the origin of “the list.” I was working on my pilot “Kingdom,” which eventually helped me land my first TV writing job. But as happens when we writer types are stuck and banging our heads against our computers, my brain was all, “Hey, what could we do that feels productive but isn’t work?” And then I remembered this notebook my brother used to keep of every movie he had ever seen. We got those genes split decisively between us… he’s the movie guy, I’m the TV girl. And much like he will watch ANY movie you could possibly imagine, I will watch at least one episode of just about any TV show that sounds even a little bit interesting or stars someone I really like.

Thus, the list was born… and the rules were pretty simple: to make the list, I have to have watched at least one full episode of a show that originally aired in prime time. The program can be a drama, comedy, or a news/reality show – and I counted the shows I had to watch when I was making my living as a closed captioner because, well, I had to finish them, so they counted.

A lot of the original 500 shows were things I saw because of the magic of syndication (which is why I added the “originally aired in prime time” part of the rules). My parents loved to torture me with their favorite shows, so when I got hired on “Ironside,” I had actually seen every episode of the original “Ironside” because my mother loves Raymond Burr. Other shows were seen courtesy of friends whose parents had VCRs and taped shows I wasn’t old enough to watch when they were on but then saw later… some were viewed by way of the Internet and some were just seen through dogged determination to find them somewhere because I wanted to see them. Some were seen courtesy of the one human being I know who has definitely watched more TV than me, who tapes it all and saves it on DVD. And I own a ridiculous number of show box sets, as evidenced by my crowded bookshelves.

When I mentioned the list to my “Mysteries of Laura” writers’ room, co-ep Amanda Green said I had to write something once I reached 1,000 shows… I had to share what I’d learned by watching all that TV. So here are the musings I came up with on what all that TV taught me. But one thing I’ll be up front about right away… I’m not going to shit on any shows by name, for two reasons: One, some of my friends work on those shows, and ever since someone was a jerk to me about a show *I* worked on, I’ve been sure to never do that to another writer. Remember, no one is actively trying to write a show you don’t like… we just all have our own tastes. The second reason I won’t be dropping names is just good ol’ common sense. This is still a business, and I might have to go meet with a showrunner or executive producer who worked on a show that’s not one of my faves. I can still dislike it… doesn’t mean I need to make my career harder by telling that person here in print that I hated their show.

And now… on with the lessons…

 

1 – The reason I love TV is the long-term relationships with characters. I was writing features when I finished grad school and then finally woke up to the fact that I love TV and thus, should be writing it. That’s not to say that I don’t adore some of the movies I see… but when I fall in love with characters, 2-3 hours just isn’t enough sometimes. The weeks, months, and years that go into watching characters evolve and change and fall in love and get broken by tragedy on TV… it’s what made me want to be writer in the first place.

 

I’m a long way from a job title that means I get to decide how a show’s future gets plotted out… but I hope that when I get there, I take my deep love of the character/viewer relationship with me while I make decisions about what happens to my characters. As a viewer, it’s one thing to get a twist I wasn’t expecting – and be gut-punched by it – but see the beauty in it and walk away satisfied. A perfect recent example… I was sure I would be unhappy if anyone but Melinda May killed Grant Ward on “Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” because my goodness, she deserved to get to do it… but ultimately, when it was Phil Coulson instead… I just cared that it was done, that the actions of everyone involved made sense to me, and that finally my little “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” family was safe from Ward (well, sort of, but that’s a whole nother blog post).

By contrast, every TV fan has had a moment watching a show when you can feel the writers’ “aren’t we clever” vibe radiating out of the TV screen at you, and all you’re thinking is, “No, you’re not clever. Because you just made a character do something that five years of viewing tell me they’d never do…” and it’s frustrating, not because you didn’t get your way as a viewer, but because you just can’t buy the character’s actions or the story… and nothing ruins your relationship with a show faster than losing faith in the storytelling. That’s usually the only thing that will make me break up with a show I’ve been watching for some time. I refuse to “hate” watch… so once I dread watching a show, we have to say good-bye to each other.

Now that’s not to say that some good ol’ fan outrage isn’t awesome sometimes. When I’m screaming on Twitter at a show that they just ripped my heart out, it usually means they’re doing their job exactly right… and I’m suffering (in all the best ways) because of it.

I just find that there’s something magical in the idea that writers can make an audience invest so deeply in characters that the viewers will stay through thick and thin, for years on end. I watched plenty of the shows on this list from start to finish… and I don’t regret a minute of it.

2 – I don’t watch nearly as much comedy as I used to. I’m not sure why that is. I used to watch every half-hour show around… and maybe it’s just because what I find funny has changed? I’m not sure. I do watch a few… “Brooklyn 99,” “black-ish,” “Togetherness,” (though it’s more dramedy than comedy), and I will usually try one or two new ones every year, especially if my comedy writer friends are working on a show. Side note: I will always watch at least one episode of anything from Tina Fey, Jack Burditt, and Robert Carlock because 30 ROCK FOREVER!

3 – Please give me the characters I signed up for. I’m all about cool guest stars. I’m the first person to get excited over someone in the promo for next week on a show I love. But I also tend to get attached to ALL the characters in my shows… not just the leads. In fact, sometimes the secondary characters have kept me watching when I’ve grown to dislike the lead characters. When shows sideline regular cast members for too many guest stars – stunting their character development – it is a fast track to me becoming less interested in the show.

4 – If death visits your show a lot, I probably didn’t keep watching it. No doubt because my number one reason for loving television is that relationship I feel with the characters, shows with high body counts have never been my thing. Which is why, when my shows do kill off characters, I’m usually curled up in a ball on the floor. I can barely think about Bobby Simone’s death on “NYPD Blue” without tearing up. Every single little Carter reference on “Person of Interest” is a hug and a knife to the heart simultaneously, and I remain deeply traumatized by Joe Coffey’s demise on “Hill Street Blues.” So, yes, I get it… characters have to die – sometimes because their story is done, sometimes because an actor wants to leave a show – but I need that to be a rarity.

5 – Some more lessons I’ve learned from shows I didn’t like or quit watching:

  1. I need an emotional connection to at least one character before the end of the pilot. If I don’t have it, I’m probably done.
  2. I don’t respond well to the “throw in everything including the kitchen sink” approach to storytelling. Once a show becomes about nothing but nonstop twists, it loses the focus on the characters, and I generally am out.
  3. Don’t get stuck in the same story rut. If the solution to every season is a return to the same story well… who has control of the business, what breaks Couple A up this time, who learns the secret this year… I usually get too frustrated to keep watching. I find that I can handle about two uses of the same plot device before I just start wondering what else there is to the show and have to move on.
  4. I don’t need the characters to be likable… but I need to know why I should care about what they’re doing.
  5. A show doesn’t have to be “bad” for me to not want to watch it. Sometimes it’s just not my cup of tea because it’s too violent or too dark or just set in a world that doesn’t interest me. That in itself is a lesson… not everything I write will be something people respond to. You have to know that going in… and be happy with the audience you do find.

 

6 – Procedure is not a dirty word. I promise. It feels like the turn to “character driven” has made the word “procedural” something worthy of a swear jar in this business. But one thing I know about myself as a viewer is this… if I’m not sure how your show works, I will end up turning it off. Every great show has a formula – again, I know, bad word – but it does. That doesn’t mean your show is a beat for beat paint by numbers project week in and week out. It just means that I know what the show is. If you introduce me to characters who are police officers, they have to be police officers at a certain point, even if the show is really about the dark and twisty parts of their personality. If they’re lawyers, they should be lawyers. If it’s a family drama, I need to know how the family functions. Whatever you want to dub it… procedure, your story engine, your overall blueprint… the sooner it’s established, the more likely I am to keep watching.

7 – The most important thing I’ve learned as a viewer and as a writer is this… every story has been done. It just has. Hell, some of them had been done when Shakespeare did them… so they’ve definitely all been done by now. But that doesn’t mean that your take on Story X can’t be fresh and cool and enjoyable. What does your buddy cop show look like? What does your dark and twisty apocalypse look like? Why is it special?

That goes for pitching in rooms, too, not just writing pilots. I am very careful not to ever say, “We can’t do X because Show A, B, and C did it.” Instead my approach is… “Show A did it that way, so what if we did this instead…”

In a climate where every network seems to be racing to remake what’s already been successful, I find what I’m responding to isn’t something that is a literal remake of something I loved but rather shows that evoke a feeling of one I loved once upon a time. For instance, I grew up loving reruns of “The Rockford Files” and adoring “Hart to Hart.” That type of show – the light procedural — went away for a little while, and then “Castle” showed up and I was like… “THIS! I missed this!” It wasn’t a remake of those older shows, but it gave me the same payoff… characters I cared about and a sense of fun while bad guys got put away. Similarly, I recently told someone that part of the reason I love “Code Black” is because it reminds me of “St. Elsewhere” – and that is a great thing. I didn’t even know I needed that show until CBS gave it to me… and now I am so happy to have it. The characters are very different, and it’s in no way a literal remake of the long-running NBC show, but its spirit is familiar in the very best way.

But it always comes back to the writing. While the idea might not be new… how you approach it can be. Your ability as a writer to convey what you find magical about the setting and the people… and the performances that are born from those pages… that’s what will draw an audience in. Every family drama is, at its core, the same show… but something about the Taylors of Dillon, Texas, was more real to me than any other TV family I’d seen in forever… even though they wrestled the same issues as most of TV families… job stresses, how to keep a marriage together, and teenage kids pushing their boundaries.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is… I’m always being inspired by things I loved. I want to write cool superhero shows because I love “Agents of SHIELD” and “Agent Carter” and “Daredevil.” I want to write my version of uplifting sci-fi because I love “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.” Someday I hope I write a family drama half as beautiful as “Friday Night Lights” or “Once and Again,” and a show about cops that resonates as deeply as “NYPD Blue” did for me, or maybe something that’s even a fraction as breathtaking as “The Americans” or “Manhattan.” Whether it works or not will be about taking what inspired me and finding a way to make it *my* story… what do I have to say about being a cop or a superhero or a family in a small town that someone else hasn’t already said? Hopefully the answer to that question will affect an audience the way these shows did me.

8 – Things that will make me watch a show forever:

  • Character consistency: If I already love the characters, as long as their evolution is true to the person you introduced me to in season one, I will stick with them through anything.
  • A feeling that the show knows where it’s going: I don’t mean that I can literally see where it’s going, but that every season of the show reaffirms my faith that the writers know where they want to go with the series. The truth may be the writers’ room has no idea how it all ends… but the storytelling on screen is so steady, so solid, that I, as a viewer, get to live in the belief that they have it all figured out while I stress out and analyze and wait for the next season to see what comes next.
  • Respect for the audience: again, this isn’t about giving us everything we think we want. It’s about never losing sight of the fact that you’ve asked your audience to invest their heart into a show, and it should always feel to the viewers like it matters to you that they’ve been willing to do so.
  • One great relationship: I’ve stuck with shows when they took a downturn because of one key relationship and generally, I’ve been rewarded with the show finding its feet again and ending strong. And that doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship… a great partnership, a real, grounded friendship… that can be enough to keep a viewer hanging in when the story gets a little murky.

9 – All these television shows later, I maintain this as a statement of fact: “Hill Street Blues” is the greatest show in the history of television. It not only holds up terrifyingly well (if you could CGI the giant portable phones out and update the cars/clothes) with storylines about community policing that shouldn’t still be relevant and yet absolutely are, but it changed the face of television in a way that made every other “greatest” show since possible. The thing I personally loved most about it was the relationship between Joyce Davenport and Frank Furillo. It would still be a modern, risky take on a relationship now… then, it was stunning. These were two world weary, sexy people who were focused on their careers and carried a ton of baggage from their individual lives; smart, savvy individuals who loved each other deeply, respected one another, and yet still constantly struggled to make room for one another in their lives as their careers brought them into constant conflict. I often think back on that relationship when I write couples in my own work, trying to find that level of depth and intelligence in their interactions.

And now that you’re all, “Girl, wrap this up,” I’ll do so by offering the piece of advice I pass on to all aspiring TV writers in case you’re the ones who are reading this – be a student of television. Watch TV. Watch shows older than you. MUCH older than you. Those are the shows that inspired the showrunners who created the TV you love. Know them. Love them. Learn from them. And love TV. LOVE IT. Because it’s too hard and brutal a business to be in if you don’t. When people give you shit for loving it so much, remember that it’s just your chosen form of storytelling. Some people come home and read books every night… you choose TV shows instead. There’s nothing wrong with that.

And never lose your inner TV fan. Because if you love it… that fan is why you love it. Protect him or her at all costs… from cynicism, from snobbery, from haters of all shapes and sizes. LOVE TV. Always.

I’m taking some time to write this now because if I put it off, it’ll be next June before I find a moment, and it won’t be much help to anyone then. As a disclaimer, this is obviously my experience with having and valuing a fantastic spec (or three) in my writing portfolio. You will know people who got hired by showrunners who only wanted to read original pilots. But you will also meet writers who worked for or know showrunners who won’t hire first-timers without seeing a spec.

Why? Because your job as a member of a writing staff is to write the voice of that show — the tone, the characters, the basic elements that make that show unique. If it’s “Castle,” you better be able to nail the romantic banter between Castle and Beckett, both when they’re flirting and when they’re angry. Writing a “Masters of Sex”? Your ability to write all those complicated female voices is what will make that script a winner (if you ask me anyway). Writing a killer pilot can help you get representation and impress execs and get you meetings, maybe land you a job. But some showrunners out there simply will not hire a writer without reading at least part of a spec for one reason… they need proof you can write a show that isn’t your own creation, but rather, models someone else’s, which is what they’re hiring you to do.

Once you have that first precious staff writer job, the spec becomes far less important if not wholly irrelevant. You will hopefully emerge from that job with co-EPs, EPs, and showrunners willing to testify to how fabulous you are, and that endorsement and a great pilot to show off your talent and point of view will get you the next gig.

So what show do you spec? There are definitely places you can go to find out what the hot specs are, and if you’re following people like Carole Kirschner and Jen Grisanti on Twitter, you can find recommendations pretty easily. My advice is always this: only spec a show you love. A show you like a lot isn’t really good enough because that thing you don’t like about the show will torture you throughout the process. So spec a show you love, full stop. And maybe that is one of the shows everyone is recommending… or maybe it’s a show you catch flack for loving or that you hear no one in the industry watches. If that’s the case, you have a choice to make — take the risk on a show you love that people might not know as well or spec the “popular kids” everyone’s raving about.

Ignorance may have been bliss for me when I decided to write a spec of “The Closer,” which I adored beyond reason, for a sample the year I applied to the CBS Writers Mentoring Program. I wrote it out of pure love and the knowledge that it fit my voice to a T. I do not kid you when I tell you that a good half-dozen people who read that script said to me: “I don’t even watch this show, but I had to know how this story ended.” I don’t tell you that to brag. I tell you that to say, if your story is great and you’re writing the hell out of it, the reader will finish it! Yes, maybe someone somewhere said, “I don’t watch this show” and pushed my script off the top of their pile. But I didn’t have to write the best “The Closer” spec anyone had ever read to compete with 100 others. I just had to write the best one I could possibly write, and it stood out on its own.

A writer I know inspired this post today because she was dealing with the issue of wanting to spec a serialized show. As more and more shows take on that element, breaking away from straight procedure, it will continue to be something up-and-coming writers struggle with. This also comes into play when a cliffhanger leaves you wondering what the hell the next season of a show (even a procedural with a killer finale) will look like. So I share these two stories in case they help you.

In the CBS program, I wrote a spec of “The Good Wife,” right before half the universe decided to write one. That show has very clear serialized elements, and at the time, it involved Peter running again for States’ Attorney and Derrick Bond working with Will to take the firm away from Diane. (Damn, those folks love to fight over that firm!). I made a very careful choice (with the endorsement of my mentors) to take clear, simple positions on where those stories existed in the exact timing of my “episode,” and went forward. Yes, there was a risk that one or both stories would blow up, but I minimized them without pretending they didn’t exist and focused on showcasing the rest of the show. The spec later helped me progress deep into another writing fellowship, and no one ever had an issue with the way I handled those choices.

The following year, I had a shot at a job on a show that had a much lighter tone than most of my samples. So to even try to get a meeting, I had to prove I could model that voice. My solution was to wrestle a tight turnaround on a new “Castle” spec, mostly because I knew that show like the back of my hand and knew I could do it. Problem… the beloved precinct captain had died in the finale, and I had no idea what the show was going to do the following season. So I decided to take advantage of a precedent that had been set on the show… the captain was not in every episode, so there would be no captain in mine. That spec didn’t get me a meeting on that show, but it helped get me one for another, and the exec actually asked me about how I chose to deal with that issue since he knew “Castle” well, too. When I explained, it was clear he just wanted to know I had thought about it and not just excised a character I didn’t want to deal with, and the meeting went great.

Does that mean you have to write a new spec every year, because a story element ruins yours or because the show did something too similar? Probably — but you should be doing that anyway!

Another young writer I know said that he had one good spec and one good pilot, and wasn’t that enough? My answer is no. First off, what happens if you’re applying to one of the writing fellowships that requests supplementary material — what are you sending them for round two? And if you’re lucky enough to get meetings for representation or jobs, you may run into someone who wants to see more than one sample. I went into my first staffing season with the aforementioned specs and another for “Covert Affairs,” which I wrote to add a second lighter-toned piece to my portfolio. On several of my meetings that year, it became clear through conversation that the exec and/or showrunner had read a pilot and at least part of a spec while considering me. And I know that on at least two of the shows I’ve been hired to write, more than one sample has helped me nail down the job (though more recently, those have been pilot submissions.)

My point is, you need an arsenal of material — the more the better — pilots AND specs. If you aren’t sure what to write next, think about the shows you realistically think you could get staffed on. Do you have the right sample for that show? Do you have mostly male leads and could use a female-led script to show you can do that voice, too? Is it all twisty darkness in your pilots when you love that one show that is drama with a sense of humor? Examine what you already have and write what you need to make your material selection more well-rounded. That is not to say write everything. If you can’t imagine ever writing a medical show, don’t write a medical show spec or pilot. But if you really want to write sci-fi and don’t have a sample that will get you a meeting — write that.

I’ll close with this — one of those showrunners I’ve heard talk about wanting to see a spec from a staff writer is Shawn Ryan, who I saw at one of those awesome Nerdist panels at Nerdmelt Comics. He listed off every spec he wrote when he was trying to catch a break in this business, and I believe it was something like 15 shows. Shawn Ryan, the guy who created “The Shield”… wrote that long list of specs just to get his first full-time staff job.

So pick a show you love and write a killer spec. Then write an awesome pilot. Then enter that spec in all the fellowships you can. Then write another pilot. And if your spec gets blown up in the season finale, so be it because you are already going to be planning your next one. And your next one. And your 15th… if that’s what it takes to get you that first job.

It took me 12.

And if there is some bleary-eyed typo I missed, please forgive this tired writer — because my new job on “The Mysteries of Laura” is awesome, and our kick-ass writers’ room has been pitching and breaking like madmen and madwomen and well, I need to go to bed.

Now go write! And good luck!

So with one big life change behind me — moving out of the apartment that’s been home for a decade and into my friend’s house — it’s time for another. I gave notice at my job today and will be leaving closed captioning at the end of the month.

Obviously I do so with great hope that my next job description is “TV Drama Writer” but with plans already set as to what I will pursue to pay the bills if, God forbid, that doesn’t happen. (PLEASE, TV GODS. Seriously!).

So why now? Because I think you just know, deep down in your gut, when your life needs to change. You feel it, it nags at you, and finally, you have a choice… ignore it and stay stagnate or take the risk and change it.

My move is part of what’s allowing me to do that. Knowing I have a safe place to land and a roof over my head makes it easier to risk being unemployed for a short period of time, and while the rational, responsible, grown-up me is already doing minute calculations of just how many bills can get paid for how long without another paycheck… the part of me that knew it was time to do what was best for me is totally at peace.

I was also certain it was the right time and the right decision because no argument could make me doubt it. Sure, I’m a girl who likes nice things (See my numerous posts about shoes and massages on Facebook), and it could mean sacrifices ahead. Those cuts and slashes to my lifestyle could go far deeper than the trivial. But none of that seemed worse to me than NOT changing what I knew needed to be changed.

And thus… a letter of resignation is submitted, my agent and my manager are hard at work trying to help me find my gig, and I am unpacking and cleaning and getting yet another fellowship spec finished up and breathing deeply for the first time in a very long time because I know that I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing.

So what will I take with me from this long road I’ve walked in the closed captioning biz?

Hours and hours studying some of the best writing on TV up close and personal. I’ve had the pleasure of working on shows from awesome folks like David E. Kelley, Mike Kelley, Shawn Ryan, and Andrew Marlowe to name a few, and I’ve learned so much from how each show runs, how it’s assembled, what changes are made from VAM to Final cut, and from seeing shooting drafts become completed TV episodes. I always joke that this job was a master class in pacing and dialogue structure, but one I got paid to take.

Post people work hard, y’all! Unsung most of the time and forgotten when it’s glory time by and large, these are some dedicated, smart, fun people. I’ve worked with some great ones and some not so great ones, but they’ve all taught me a lot about how I want my post production staff to run when I’m finally the showrunner. I’d tell you which show has the best post production staff in TV… but I don’t want anyone hiring them before I sell a pilot and steal them away from where they are now 😉

How much harder and longer can I work when I feel like I can’t type another word? A lot longer, and a lot harder… because no one’s deadline cares how tired you are or how sore your hands are. Get it done, get it out, get it on the air. Oh, and that power outage in Hollywood that meant “Ugly Betty” still had to be at the network by 6 a.m. Pacific even if we weren’t getting final video till 2am or later? Just one of the fun adventures of delivery deadlines.

In a larger sense, I take away some important truths about myself as well, perhaps none more important than an acknowledgement of my own strength, determination, and ability to do what needs to be done to balance my work life and my personal life… a lesson learned after allowing one to grossly overtake the other.

And I have learned that in the hardest of times, when I’ve been knocked down and have nothing to hold on to, I can find a way to stand up and move forward.

So forward it is… to what, we’ll find out in the coming days. But I’m fortunate to have friends and family willing to support me through it emotionally and spiritually, and while I may not be able to say I’m doing this without fear, I can say absolutely that I am doing it with total confidence.

One last note… my new roommate (aka one of my oldest friends in LA) bought this for our house. It’s kind of our mantra for the months ahead. Let the adventure begin!

wakeupsmiling

In the midst of staffing season, a little life reality check on what matters beyond having a job you love and following your dreams… family. My niece is getting married in less than two weeks, which seems impossible to me, and yet… here it comes.

You can imagine she’s heard a lot about being so young and is she sure and couldn’t they wait a little while because, well, that’s what folks say these days when you’re under 25 and getting married. And they’re good questions to be sure. But I have to admit, I didn’t ask any of them.

The truth is, I’m a little in awe of her. This beautiful young lady that is so much of everything good that our family had to offer is ready to jump into the idea of sharing her life. And sure, she’s young, and maybe that makes it easier because the baggage she’s carrying around is a little lighter. But she’s also hopeful and certain and confident. She’s all the things you’d hope someone would be when they decide to walk down an aisle and promise to love and cherish forever, because wow… that’s a lot to promise.

She has faith in love and a belief that things can work out. Not in happily ever after… so much as choosing to be happy and working to stay that way.

I’m a true-blue marriage-phobe to this point in life. Not because I don’t think it’s awesome… I know some folks who have great marriages… not perfect, but great, the kind of relationships that make you realize the effort you put in is worth it. But the whole faith in love thing is a little harder for me.

So yeah… I’m a little awed by her bravery and her strength and her heart. And I’m sure to be a crying mess when I watch my brother walk her down that aisle.

And I can’t deny, I’m hoping a little of that faith rubs off on me.

I mean, it certainly can’t hurt, right?

I know, I know, I disappeared from the blog!  The overtime at work combined with the awesome-but-hectic Writers on the Verge schedule has kept me hopping, but I was determined to write some kind of entry before the year was out.

I’m not a resolution type of person.  I feel like I set goals all the time, and they don’t get bogged down with the implications of January 1st and a new year, so rather than think about what’s to come, I thought I’d take a minute and think about the five best things I did in 2011.  Some of them were fun, some were about hard choices, but all of them helped make this a huge year of change and growth for me that I am incredibly grateful for.

1.  Mother’s Day at the Greek

My mother isn’t really a concert person, but I felt a very strong urge to do something really memorable for Mother’s Day this year.  I was worried that when I proposed my great idea, she’d turn her nose up at the whole concept of coming to LA for a girls’ night out.  So imagine my surprise when she said yes… and not only agreed but was excited about the prospect.  So I scored us tickets to Wavefest at the Greek Theatre, which in a few short years of patronage has become my favorite LA concert venue.

We had our moments to be sure… she does not like having to walk anywhere, and it’s always a walk, even from the new unstacked parking, and she refused to stand still while I tried to find our way back to the car, leaving me terrified she’d fall in a hole along those terrible dirt patches and make me rush her to the hospital (both typical conflicts when Mama Levy and I are out together; that’s just how we roll).  But those little downs were nothing compared to the ups.  She thoroughly enjoyed the E Family, one of the main draws because we both love Sheila E.  And then she became an instant fan of Macy Gray, who is a phenomenal live performer.  It was a great night; well worth the effort it took to make happen; and a memory I know I’ll hold on to forever.

2.  Farewell Modesty Blaise

When I was 13 years old, my mother bought me my first Modesty Blaise book… “Last Day in Limbo.”  She bought it largely because she was tired of hearing me go on and on about some clearly important moment in my teenaged life and sent me off to find a book to read so she could enjoy her own trip to the bookstore, and since it was the only book I asked for, she couldn’t say no.  Neither of us knew that she was introducing me to my favorite fictional character of all time.  In the years since, I have hunted down both classic copies and new printings of every Modesty Blaise adventure and even have a collection of some of the comic strips.  But a few years ago, one of my best friends bought me the final collection of Modesty Blaise short stories, and while I tore through the majority of the book within a week or two, I left the final story unread, knowing that the end was really the end.

But this year, I was in this great groove of finishing things and moving on and letting go (more on that later,) and so I picked up “Cobra Trap” and finally… finally… read the last story.

It was a little heartbreaking to be sure, and I am incredibly sad there will be no new Modesty tales to come.  And yet I’m so grateful that Peter O’Donnell made the choice to end his character’s story in his own way and let her go.  Because one of the main reasons I’ve always loved the way he writes her is also the main reason I think no one has made a good adaptation in film or TV of the material… everyone else focuses on Modesty’s badassness–her criminal history, her physical strength, her ability with weaponry, her use of sex to get what she wants.  But O’Donnell always perfectly balanced all of those elements of Modesty with the very complete woman who survived a hellish childhood and emerged determined to live a full life.  She loves, deeply, built herself a family of treasured friends because the world had stolen away whatever biological connections she’d once had, and her later life, spent largely saving strangers and her loved ones from all kinds of nefarious characters, is rich and as often tinged with laughter and the ridiculous as it is shrouded in danger.

But now I know how Modesty’s story ends.  It suited her.  And thanks to the vivid books he left behind, Peter O’Donnell has made sure that just like Sir Gerald and Willie Garvin, I can always find her when I need her.

3.  Writing. Portfolio. Explosion.

Considering there have been years where I worked upwards of 65 hours a week, I used to feel pretty darn good about myself if I got one solid spec out in a year, let alone two.  So this year, thanks to the inspiration from the CBS Writers’ mentoring program and the demands of the NBC Writers on the Verge schedule, I got myself kicked into a new gear. (It didn’t hurt that my life just demanded I cut back on work hours and hover somewhere around a much more livable 48-hour-a-week range).  So I will exit 2011 with four specs and three pilots and two other pilots in stages of plotting and/or outlining.  And I can’t wait to see what my brain and keyboard conspire to come up with next.

4.  Balance, balance, and more balance

I was born with a workaholic gene, and while it has been of fabulous use to me during the years I was working my way through school or taking on a ton of responsibility that required a lot of sacrifice at my various jobs, it has tended to make it hard for me to just throw my hands up and say “yes, I want to do that” sometimes when my friends want to run out for a spur-of-the-moment happy hour or when a great opportunity for adventure appears out of nowhere.

This year, I made a promise to myself I’d do better; and I did.  I found enough Saturday evening dinners and Sunday morning brunches to stay in touch with my incredible friends, I got better at texting for the friends who love to communicate that way, I gave in and bought the last-minute tickets to see Idina Menzel (also at the Greek) for my birthday because I deserved it, and even if I had to cut down a workout from 60 minutes to 30 because of some other personal or work demand, I gave myself credit for doing the 30 minutes and stopped lamenting what there wasn’t time for.

Balance made some very hard days in 2011 much easier to endure because I had the reserves to get through them.  It made it easier to come to terms with letting my baking business go because my writing career is simply demanding too much of my attention (which is to be celebrated and enjoyed, believe me!).  And when a day was really bad… I let it be bad.  Because I knew the next day, I could take a deep breath and start all over again and maybe that day would be better.

I’m going try to do even better in 2012.  I sense some travel in my future… because in 2011, I also FINALLY got a passport.  Yeah, I have no clue how that never happened before, but now it’s time for some stamps!

5.  Embracing the New

This past year has brought so much new into my life… new demands, new people, new interests.  And I am welcoming it in and trusting that who and what are meant to stick will and that everyone and everything else will provide the lesson meant to be learned and then become a part of my past.

If you know me, you know that’s kind of revolutionary in my way of thinking.  Because new isn’t always my favorite thing.  But this influx of energy and experiences has been so important to me this year, giving me chances to be there for others, to find out how can I payback some of the kindness that’s been given to me, to enjoy the strength of some new shoulders to lean on when I need them, and to broaden my universe through the relationships that have come my way.

 

There’s a promise of a lot new to come in 2012… beloved nephews who are now old enough to drive, a niece who owns a wedding dress and is eyeing a “Mrs” at the front of her name, and another staffing season looms.  So thanks, 2011, for all that you brought to the party.

2012… what you got for me?