Yesterday I did something I haven’t done in quite a while – I finished an original script (first draft) for a TV pilot. 60 pages written in 23 days, from starting the outline to typing “Fade Out.” In those 23 days, I wrote a total of 16,514 words – in addition to the script, I wrote two lengthy blog posts, an original short story for David Magazine (which will be out on September 1) and a book review.
Now, the blogs and reviews, I do those with regularity, so no need to mention them in any detail but the other two, that’s what I want to talk about, for my own sake, not necessarily for any one else’s.
The story, which I’ve called “Little Histories” (but which could easily have a name change when it hits print) is the latest in a series I’ve been doing for the magazine. This will be make number 4. Since the magazine has a bit of a Jewish bent, the stories tend to focus on Jewish culture and history and with one exception have all been fairly serious. While these have all been entirely my creations, the seeds usually come from discussions with the editor/publisher, with what he’s looking to explore and capture for the particular issue. I think I do a good job with them. When I contacted a rabbi to ask questions and fact check one of these stories, I sent him an earlier one as an example. His response floored me:
It read easily and the visuals were profound, but most of all it was an unmistakable and utterly necessary critique of the Jewish journey since the Shoah, and you pulled it off with a tug at the heartstrings every Jew should feel.
So, needless to say, I’m very excited and proud of these stories, these vignettes (none is more than 2500 words), I write and I hope to continue to write them with more frequency (and if you want to read them, let me know and I’ll make them available here).
But the TV pilot… that’s something else again.
I got out of the Hollywood game a while ago. The frustration level of having contracts cancelled while on the way to sign the papers, having the commissioning executive quit before putting your show into production, having a producer who stops paying you and then declares bankruptcy when you win in court are all things which can take the wind out of your sails. All of these are true, all of them happened to me, and these are just the top three which come to mind.
Now, at one time, sure, I had written a pilot in 10 days which had garnered all sorts of interest from a number of companies, I’d written movie scripts (mostly with my partner Troy) which had been optioned for little or no money, I’d been paid for uncredited rewrites and I’d written produced episodes of Internationally successful TV shows. But, as I tell my students, it’s very easy to say “no.” Getting to “yes” takes a lot of work, skill, and luck – in that order. So I stopped writing scripts myself. I’d help others with scripts, I’d teach classes on writing scripts, I’d even come up with ideas for scripts but at the end of the day, I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to write prose. I went to school and got an MFA in Fiction Writing, and sat down to put words on paper.
And I stared at that blank screen and became paralyzed with fear and doubt. Since the days of getting phone calls from producers in meeting asking for concepts, I’ve dealt with unscrupulous publishers who wanted to put out my book, the aforementioned Hollywood, and a personal relationship which destroyed whatever confidence I’d had left. I still had the knowledge, I still knew how to tell a story and could certainly edit and and guide already written projects into better shape, but my own writing was foundering. I knew I had to write, I wasn’t happy when I wasn’t, but I couldn’t come up with anything I liked. I looked at all sorts of old scripts I had done and thought about “novelizing” them. I tried to write things I thought I wanted to read, I tried out several different types of writing software… all of this was just excuses for when I once again failed to produce anything.
Then, about a month ago, my friend Matt (with whom I’d spent a great deal of time when I was last in Vegas discussing writing and screenplays and comic books) proposed a challenge to myself and a few of our writing friends – There was a contest for Episodic TV Pilots and if we joined him in the insanity of it, he’d fork over the entrance fees. Now, Matt and his brother have been working steadily on a number of scripts for the past few years. Films, TV, comics, whatever. I’ve been privileged to read a few and they’re really great, full of cool, original ideas. So I agreed to the friendly competition, knowing I had two months (deadline is September 15) to come up with something. Of course, my usual MO here was that if I couldn’t come up with something, I had old pieces (that pilot I mentioned above, for one) which I could dust off, maybe tighten up a bit and poof, instant entry.
But that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to write something new, something original which had no basis in anything else I’d written. Something to get my ass back on the horse. So I started thinking about it. I came up with several ideas and bounced them off some friends and when I hit on one I liked, I bought a new piece of writing software (Scrivener) and on July 19th, 6 days after my 47th birthday, I started outlining. My mantra became “It doesn’t have to be good, it only has to be finished.” I did my research and came up with 12 scenes which told the story I wanted to tell (about Hollywood in 1935, set against the backdrop of monster movies). On July 25th, I wrote “Fade In” and I was off. I kept up with my my mantra: “It doesn’t have to be good, it only has to be finished.” and I kept plugging away. When I realized I’d written plot elements into earlier scenes which I hadn’t paid off, I went back and fixed them . “It doesn’t have to be good, it only has to be finished.” Since this was supposed to be a pilot, I set up concepts and ideas and plot lines which could be played out over a 10 or 13 episode season and created characters I actually really liked and the whole time, I kept repeating “It doesn’t have to be good, it only has to be finished.”
Yesterday, August 11, I finished with 25 scenes, 60 pages of good, solid material. Most of the scenes were extensions/expansions of the original outline with one completely new scene I hadn’t realized I needed until I got there in the story. And now that it’s done, it’s out with people I trust to get feedback so I can make adjustments to it. The contest was the carrot, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter. I’ll still enter, absolutely, but that’s not the point. The point is that I finished it. And now I have that taste again, I know what it feels like. So the point is to continue, to keep going, to write the prose and the stories which are bouncing in my head. To continue to put words on paper.
“It doesn’t have to be good, it only has to be finished.”