Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Happy Trails, See you on Weebly

Thanks to everyone who has read, commented and followed my blog.

I've recently begun a new consulting service, which means a new site on Weebly and a new home for my blog.

I look forward to posting on a much more regular basis with tales from events and workshops I'm teaching as well as observations about life in general so please join me on pitch2script!


Thursday, January 24, 2013

Telling Your Own Story

The other night I was watching "Face Off" - yes, I know, it's a reality show and therefore the enemy of all writers.  What can I say?  It's a guilty pleasure.  For the uninitiated, it's a competition show for special effects make-up artists.  If you've never seen it, it is worth checking out just for grins.

Anyway, at the end of each show the best and worst make-up looks are presented to the panel of judges.  The first thing the judges say is, "Tell me about what you've done."  Invariably, the contestants with the best looks ALSO have the best story.  For instance, in the last episode one contestant said something like, "Well, it was supposed to be an homage to the Twin Towers, so he has pieces of the buildings on his arms and legs," and on and on.  The make-up was as compelling as the story, trust me. On the other hand, the contestant who had one of the top looks, said, "His name is Gritty Jim (or whatever the name really was) and he was a detective who was left for dead..."  Right off the bat you find yourself more compelled by this contestant's story AND his clear, detailed backstory showed in his make-up job.

Consider this when you go in to either pitch your story.  Too many times writers stick with the generics -- "it's about a woman who (fill in the blank)", "or a man looking for x.  The first thing that struck me about the example above is that the make-up artist gave the character a name.  Ok, I don't remember exactly what the name was, but he still had a name which automatically makes it easier to care about him.  So when you tell a story, think about starting off with at least a name.  "It's about Kathleen, a woman who..." is already more engaging.  If you aren't already thinking of your characters in those terms, if you don't know them as well as the make-up artist did and all he had to create was a mask and a costume, then your story is in bigger trouble than your pitch.

Keep this in mind when going to meetings with producers or agents as well.  There is always the inevitable, "tell us about yourself" moment.  Be prepared with a story that connects with the listener on an emotional level as well.  I'm not saying to create a fictional backstory, but to find a way to let them get to know you on a more personal level than just where you went to school or where you grew up. Film producer Peter Guber gave similar advice in his LinkedIn "deep thoughts" column for anyone going out for a job interview.

At a Warner Brother's Writer's Workshop meeting (the consolation prize for those of us who came close, but not cigar) the point was made that if you claim to be a storyteller, then be able to tell an engaging, interesting story about yourself.  Because after all, whose story is more important than your own?

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Art of Pitching

You have finally conquered the terrifying "Blank Screen Monster" and have come up with a really tight story.  Whether it’s a book, a feature, or a TV series, you still have yet to climb that one last uphill mile of Mt. Doom – pitching your story to a potential buyer.  After sitting through more pitch meetings than I care to count, here’s a few brief tips on pitfalls to avoid and power steps to take to make the most of the meetings you get.

Have a specific idea:

Everyone wants to hear a story so if you’re lucky enough to get in the room with an executive or agent, have a story to tell them.  Nothing is more of a turn off than a vague idea. 

For instance, “I think I want my series to star a guy who solves crimes with the help of his two buddies.  There’s probably an antagonist in there, some one who isn’t really a criminal but somehow stands in his way.  I think I’d like to set it some place that’s warm, with beaches.  Maybe a car.”   Not really all that engaging, is it?  You’re asking the audience (and that’s what the exec or agent is, an audience) to fill in all the blanks for themselves.  Sorry, if you want to be a writer you’re going to have to do some of that work for us. 

A better (though far from perfect) way of pitching that idea would be, “The series is about a p.i. named Thomas Magnum.  Ex-military, Thomas’s easy-going nature covers up some issues that will continue to haunt him throughout the series.  Just barely getting by as a private investigator, he manages to luck into the greatest gig on earth – head of security for wealthy, mysterious recluse Robin Masters.  In fact, Thomas and the audience may never even meet Robin, even though Thomas gets to live in the guest house of his swanky Hawaiian estate and drive his spare car, a red Ferrari.  The only glitch in the deal is Higgins, Robin’s very British Major Domo who takes care of the estate who distrusts Thomas, from his Hawaiian shirts down to his ragged flip flops.  Despite Higgins (and sometimes with his help), Thomas and his two war buddies, hustler Rick and straight arrow, helicopter pilot TC, solve cases from the highest of Hawaii’s wealthy to the lowest of the beach shack dwellers.  While primarily a “case of the week” procedural, there will be some over-arcing, serialized elements concerning Thomas’s past.  (In case you didn’t recognize it, I just pitched “Magnum P.I.”)

See how different the two versions are?  I didn’t go into details that don’t matter – like the famous mustache, brown hair, the guard dogs, etc.  That there will be sexy folks on the beach is implied and can be emphasized as you go through more of the potential storylines.   Which leads me too…

Know your characters

When you’re pitching a series, you don’t want to pitch the pilot.  If you notice in the example above, I didn’t tell a specific story, but I set up a very specific world.  The story points in the pilot will come out as you describe each character.  For instance, after you set up the world using the example above, you will launch into something like, “Our main character is Thomas Magnum, a man with a strong sense of honor, a boyish sense of humor and ridiculously good looking.  After getting out of the Navy, he decided to stay in Hawaii.  No more life and death decisions, just a mai tai, beautiful sunsets and even more gorgeous women.  Smart, tough, although sometimes too trusting, it was easy enough for Magnum to parlay his military experience into a p.i. license and in the pilot he’ll show up at Robin Master’s estate, claiming that the wealthy recluse hired him on as his security expert in exchange for living at the house.  Higgins, Robin’s right hand man, is apoplectic at the idea but gets a call from Robin himself proving Magnum’s claims.  Throughout the series, Magnum and Higgins will have an adversarial relationship with an undercurrent of mutual respect and eventually friendship.

Thomas’s best friends in the world are TC and Rick.  Back in the war, TC was the chopper pilot who…” 

And so on, for each major character.  It’s good to say what, if any, character arc your main characters are going to have.  In the case of Magnum, like most procedurals, the arc wasn’t initially very important so it didn’t need to be part of the pitch.
Have potential episodes in mind

After describing the characters, you want to talk about the potential episodes in general terms, not so much “at the end of act one x happens, act two opens with y”.  BUT you DO want to have specific storylines in mind that you can tell if the person you’re pitching is interested. 

It goes like this; once you paint the world you want the series to be and describe the characters, you either just launch into some episode ideas or ask, “would you like to hear some potential storylines?”  Usually you can tell from their body language if the person you’re pitching is interested, in which case just plow ahead.  If you’re not sure, ask.  Most people won’t be rude enough to interrupt and say, “thanks, don’t call us, we’ll call you” but you also don’t want to put people in that position of wishing they could. 

Be ready to give some brief examples of what a typical episode of your show would be about.  If you’re pitching a comedy – MAKE SURE THE STORIES YOU TELL ARE FUNNY.  If it’s a drama or a mystery, make sure the stories seem like they have enough fuel to last an hour.   

*Can’t stress this enough: KNOW THE STRUCTURE OF YOUR SHOW!  Comedies, both single & multi cam, typically have an A & B story, and often (though not always) there’s a small runner or C story.  Be ready to talk about your episodes in those terms! For instance, be able to say, “A typical A story is the daughter trying to find a date to the prom” and then say the funny things that keep her from doing so.  “The B story might be the son going on a field trip and getting lost” with the funny details of that.  “A possible runner might be the mom constantly losing her car keys”.  Ok, none of that is really hysterical but you get the picture.  Don’t just come in and say, “A typical episode is the daughter can’t get a date to the prom.”  No matter how much funny stuff happens, it’s not enough to sustain 20 minutes of show.  The same goes for a one hour as well; there’s typically an A and B story. Usually the A is the case of the week in an episodic show (medical, legal or cop procedural case) and the B story is some personal event that one of the main characters is dealing with. 

Practice Makes Perfect… but so does paper or iPad

The key to a really professional pitch is that you delivery is smoothly, as effortlessly as talking to your friends about a movie you saw last weekend. 

Granted, a pitch for either a comedy or a drama should take about 30 minutes.  Nobody, and I mean nobody, expects you to memorize that much material.  For some folks, like stand-up comics turned writers, it’s just another performance and, with a lot of practice, is easy to do.  For most writers, however, relating a detailed concept and flushed out stories is no mean feat.  Use cards, paper, iPad – whatever you need to do to feel comfortable delivering your pitch.  I just recently went to some network pitches and everyone from the studio executive to the agent to the network exec all agreed that they don’t mind at all if a writer uses notes.  Now, that said, I wouldn’t recommend just reading it straight off the page – eye contact is important for you to pull them in as well as being able to judge if you need to speed things up, slow things down, ask questions, etc. 
Even with notes, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can do this off the cuff, no problem.  Just like the way to Carnegie Hall, a great pitch requires practice, practice, practice.  Honestly, I’ll never turn down a pitch because I didn’t like the last idea the writer pitched, but I will think twice if the writer came in unprepared and lifeless.  You’re only going to get one shot at this so take the time to practice with every friend and family member who can’t out run you. 

The Toughest Part of All…

Have fun.  I know, easier said than done, but nothing makes an audience want to hear more about a story than the passion of the person telling it.  I’ve fallen in the same trap – you want to be uber cool and professional, ice water is running through your veins THAT’S how good you are.  But you know what?  Unless you are one of the remaining Bourne co-workers, that’s probably not who you really are.  Let your love for your story and your characters shine through.  You don’t have to be comfortable with people or the life of the party, just let how excited you are to be talking about this project and the possibility of seeing it come to life drive you. 

I was recently at a Women In Film breakfast where actress/producer Felicia Day was speaking and she said something that will always stick with me.  She was terrified of auditions to the point of going catatonic.  Then, the tables were turned and she was the producer auditioning other actresses and the view from the other side of the table was startling.  She realized that producers want you to be good, they want this to be the best pitch (or audition) ever because that means they have a winner on their hands they can sell.  No one but the most insecure or mean spirited (and I’ll grant you, there are plenty of those out there but screw them) wants you to fail.

Since everyone in the room is with you, what can go wrong?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Don't Play Telephone with Your Career

Remember playing the game "Telephone" when you were a kid?  That's the one where everyone sits in a circle and someone starts off whispering a message in the ear of the person next to them.  The fun of it is seeing what the message morphs into by the time it gets all the way around the circle.  Usually it doesn't even closely resemble the original message.

Hysterical, right?

Sure, unless you're talking about the series or movie pitch that you've spent weeks or months developing. But that's exactly what can happen if you don't follow up a meeting with a written version of your pitch.

Frankly, I have NEVER understood a writer coming in to pitch a project without having something down in writing.  Hello!  At the end of the day, we're hiring you to write a project, not verbally tell a story.  Unless you've got a list of credits as long as your arm (and frankly, if you did you probably aren't reading this blog), you're going to have to prove you can write the characters and situations you've described at some point.  Allegedly writing is what you love to do and what you do better than anything else so why not show it?  But I digress...

So you meet with the producer, development executive or agent.  You tell the best story ever, with characters that jump to life and a line or two of really smart dialog.  Guess what happens next?  The person you pitched it to has to pitch it to the next person up the food chain.  Always.  There's always a bigger fish who has to weigh in on whether or not to pursue your project.  Seriously, I don't care who you've pitched to, they have to sell it up the ladder to the producer, the studio, the network, the talent.  Sometimes all of the above.  Are you willing to bet your  project that they get every nuance of the story and character right as they orally pitch this from one desk to the next?

Even with the best of intentions, often times the spirit and tone of the piece can get mangled. Everyone has days when they're in a crappy mood or hate their job or got dumped by their girl or took a decongestant... whatever the cause, no one pitches every story perfectly every time.  Hedge your bets and help the person who is trying to help you by giving them a written form of your pitch.


Generally speaking, it's best NOT to leave behind pages or a synopsis at the end of the meeting because you'll want to tailor your idea based on any questions or concerns that came up in the meeting. At the very least, pretend you are going to do that.

Before you leave, without being pushy or rude try to get the executive's e-mail or their assistant's so you can follow up the meeting with a BRIEF synopsis of what you pitched to them directly.  And I do mean brief.  Something that can easily be passed along in an e-mail is best, so try limiting it to a page or page and a half.  Giving them a catchy, memorable logline to boot is icing on your cake.

ETIQUETTE TIP:  Get an e-mail or an address of everyone you meet so you can follow up EVERY meeting with a polite "thank you for your time, it was wonderful meeting you" note.  It makes a difference. 

Someday, after you've pitched your idea but no one sees the genius of it all, it may be necessary to spec the script out.  That means writing it on the speculation that someone will buy it once they see the idea on the page.  A lot of movies and series have gotten set up that way lately, even from newbie writers so don't dismiss the idea as ridiculous.  Again, you love to write, you want to sell this... maybe I'm a dolt, but I don't see the problem.  


Seriously, you want to be a writer so prove it by writing.  Whoever tells you not to write a word until someone pays you for it isn't doing  you any favors at all.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Get It Right the First Time (ish)

Over the weekend, I participated in a horse show (don't worry, this will be relevant in a minute).  Like nearly every one who rides or participates in any sport of any kind, I left the ring feeling like, "that was ok, but I could have done so much better."  It's a pretty common feeling -- I should have thrown the ball farther, or I could have played that poker hand just a little bit smarter, etc.  That's all fine and good in certain aspects of your life, but writing isn't one of them.  

Don't get me wrong; there is a time for rough drafts and "Hail Mary" takes on an idea or a script.  The adage about writing being mostly re-writing is as about as true as any saying can be.  Heck, I've already re-written this blog post 5 times and I'm not even close to being done.  Try out a version, give it to your writing group to get some feedback, play with the characters to see what feels grounded and real.

However, the script/pages/pitch that you hand in to a producer, agent or whoever that final destination for it might be, better be the best darn version you have in you.  Period.  End of story.  If you need to take a couple more days to feel like this is the best version you can give, do it.  Because the odds that you'll get a second read out of someone are slim to none.

The only exception to that rule is if the person/studio/network you're giving the project to has a vested interest in reading it and giving you notes until they think it's right.  Guess what?  If they feel like the draft you gave them was anything less than the best you can give, they're going to be peeved.  Even if you're doing work on an if/come basis for someone, what they are investing is their valuable time and they will be equally peeved if it feels like you're wasting it with half-baked plots or undeveloped characters.

What CAN happen is that you turn your draft in, a draft you've sweated blood over, and the recipient responds with notes. Maybe a ton of notes.  They liked your general concept, but the specific plot doesn't work.  As the writer, you can discuss it with them, listen to their concerns and engage in a dialog about how to fix it.  What you CAN'T do is say, "I hear you, let me try to make that better".

I know, it sounds like a good thing to say, right?  You think you're telling them, "I'll do a better version of that story or character now that I know what you want."  But you're really saying (whether you know it or not) is, "I didn't give you my best work because I wasn't sure you'd like that idea.  Now that I hear that you don't like it, I'll do a better job of writing that exact same thing, certain that when I give it 100% you'll see that I was right and love this as much as I do."

BZZZZ!  Sorry, wrong answer.  You had your shot before you turned in that first draft.  If there were things you weren't certain about, call the people you're working with.  Really listen to them, don't do that half-listen thing you do when you ask someone a question to be polite and really don't care what the answer is.  Once you've turned it in and the person tells you an idea, plot or character isn't working, don't keep hammering at it with the idea that if you write it better they'll get it.  Right or wrong, for better or worse, not only will they not get it, they may very well get pissed that the very thing they didn't like it back on the page in front of them again.

Be bold, be daring, go for the high fences as you write and rewrite, but be sure that whatever you give to the network or studio is the absolutely best you can deliver.  If they don't like it, file it away in your "ideas to come back to" file and come up with something new that will work for them.  Because promising to write the same idea but better next time is like promising sex will be better next time; it leaves your partner wondering what you were holding out for in the first place.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Multi-Camera Or Single Camera, That Is The Question

Despite what Shakespeare (or whoever was writing his plays) said, the real question these days in TV sitcoms isn’t to be or not to be – the success this year of several shows prove that comedy is back in style.  These days, when you’re pitching your half-hour comedy idea, the question that you will invariably be asked is, “it is a single or multi-cam?”  Answering that it can be either one can show a certain amount of flexibility on your part, but consider carefully whether your idea really is better suited for a multi cam or single cam environment. 

There are a few things you should keep in mind before deciding the format of your show.  Type of humor, casting, and style are all key elements that should influence your choice.  Knowing the difference between the two is vital to picking the right format.  (While there are a few successful hybrids out there, most comedies are strictly one or the other.)   


Multi-cams are shows that are shot in front of a live audience with multiple cameras shooting the scene all at once (hence the name).  They usually air with a laugh track that is (hopefully) made from the actual live audience’s reaction, often sweetened and edited to make the show appear as funny as possible to the viewing audience at home.   Typically they take place in limited locations (home, office, cafĂ©, etc.) that are easily created on a sound stage. 

The common industry belief is that multi cam shows tend to play to a broader audience.  The pacing of the show tends to be a bit more set up & joke, set up & joke than a single cam.  Staff writers aren’t sitting around the table writing sophisticated jokes to make each other laugh; they’re writing jokes for the tourist from Peoria who will eagerly file in to be part of a studio audience. 

Because they are shot in front of a live audience, shooting time is limited to just one day, although the day can go for as long as it takes to get every single shot.  Some talent will be attracted to that schedule (for instance, an actress who wants to spend time with her family) while others will either like or dislike the idea of performing in front of a live audience.  It’s not a huge factor in deciding the format for your show, but being aware of it can help you avoid some pitfalls like not getting that perfect piece of casting that you wrote the entire show around. 

In the past few years, multi cams were considered old-fashioned and out of style.  They appeared predominantly on CBS, while “hipper” networks like Fox and NBC preferred the slicker look and feel of a single cam.  This fall, however, has proven to be the come back of the multi cam.  The ratings success of new shows like “Whitney” on NBC and “2 Broke Girls” on CBS may have networks rethinking their preferences. 


Single camera shows are shot more like dramas.  There is no live audience so typically they air without laugh tracks.  They can go to multiple locations and have a greater flexibility as far as lighting, camera use, etc. 

The comedy of a single cam show is believed to be a bit more sophisticated.  The humor can take its time to develop; there aren’t any pauses for the studio audience laughter to die down so the rhythm and pacing of the show is completely up to the writer and director. 

The shooting schedule can span over a number of days, can take place outdoors or indoors, and although ideally it will stick to a set schedule can still be grueling on talent and crew alike.  Again, when casting a single cam you want to be careful to choose actors who don’t require the energy of a live studio audience to play off of in order to be funny. 

In the past, single cams like “Community,” “The Office” and “Parks and Rec” had been the domain of NBC, but hits like “Modern Family” and “The Middle” on ABC and this season’s first proclaimed hit, “New Girl” on Fox have shown that there is an audience for this kind of humor across the boards. 


Before you sit down to your computer and bravely spec out your comedy script, keep in mind that the two different styles have completely different script formats.  Multi-cams have the dialog in 1 ½ line spacing, and often the description is written in all caps.  Their page length (because of the spacing) tends to be longer, around 50 pages or so.  Single cams are written in regular feature format and tend to run around 35 pages.  Programs like Final Draft have templates to choose from that will clarify and simplify your options. 

Resources: has a pretty comprehensive list of the comedies on the air and what type they are, as well as the new comedies that have been put in development. has excellent samples of various script formats.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Elance Blog: How to Use Visualization to Achieve Your Freelance Goals

Here's an interesting article that might be helpful for you writers out there struggling to make the leap to professional PAID writer...

Elance Blog: How to Use Visualization to Achieve Your Freelance Goals