Sunday, March 06, 2011

Dream Big: Tear Down. Rebuild. Repeat.


With the right feedback, an open and receptive mind, and a willingness to just start doing that thing you want to do so badly, I believe you can achieve your dream, whatever that dream might be. Like a champion of run-on sentences. ;-) I've actually had three big dreams. And two have been realized, so far.

Before I get to the two I've achieved, I'd like to talk about my current dream: writing for television. And for my scriptwriting friends out there, I'd like to start with a quick review of a course I recently completed, entitled: "Beginning Television Writing", taught by veteran show runner William Rabkin online at Writers University.

The class was great! It lasted four short weeks. There was some reading and discussion around the franchise of a dramatic series (what makes a show special in its genre), which was all very helpful and interesting, but the main focus was getting you to pick a current dramatic series and start your spec.

The one book requirement, which I had read and enjoyed before I took the course, was Successful Television Writing, written by Rabkin and his former partner, Lee Goldberg. I highly recommend it.

If you want to be a TV writer, you need to demonstrate you can write for TV. So you must write a script for a new episode for a program currently on the air. Although this may seem a bit circular, it's not uncommon in the arts. You want to be a novelist? Where's your novel? You want to be a rock star? Where's your CD? Think of it like a demo reel, or an artist's portfolio. You need to demonstrate you have talent, not just passion and drive.

I've spent the last few years studying television and film writing, story structure, script formats, writing techniques and the industry itself. But I haven't been doing enough of the most important thing: writing.

I took this course because it got me prepared to confidently write my one-hour dramatic spec. I ultimately chose Castle. For a great list of shows to spec right now, check out Jen Grisanti's suggestions in Heather Hale's Which Show Should I Spec? article.

I wrote three story ideas:

Nerder. The body of a white-hat (good guy) computer hacker is found dead the morning after an underground hacking contest. A cast of introverted, eccentric and seemingly harmless geeks are the main suspects, but as Castle and Beckett dive deeper, we learn our victim had uncovered a government conspiracy and Castle theorizes he was assassinated by either the U.S. feds, or an overzealous black-hat competitor.

Last Will and Testaments. A wealthy socialite, who was absolutely hated by her family and staff, dies of seemingly natural causes, but the autopsy reveals she was poisoned. When two different “legitimate” wills appear, the theories start flying. Castle believes it was a contract hit from a charitable organization that stands to collect millions according to Will #1, and Beckett believes it was the daughter, who stands to inherit everything from Will #2. We also learn the socialite had a warm side, and was anonymously funding a young man’s life, who turns out to be her biological son. The DNA will prove the daughter was actually her niece, who poisoned her own mother the same way our victim was murdered, when she was only a teen.

Copycat. Jake Tower, a writer from Castle’s past, has been accused of murdering his ex-wife – following the same methods in Castle’s latest novel, which hasn’t been published yet! Castle never liked Tower, who stole Castle’s first love (the victim) and always felt he was a plagiarist. Things get creepier when Castle learns Tower has stalked Castle though the years and “plagiarized” his life. Tower charms Beckett, spinning Castle off of his game. Beckett discovers the real murderer is someone else Tower crossed.

I fleshed out Nerder into a one-page summary. I'm a geek and it's in my wheelhouse. And Bill kindly shredded it to pieces and convinced me it's not the spec to write. Although he did like my favorite part: a bar-code tattoo on the unidentifiable victim that could only be seen under a black light.

And that's why I took this class. I don't want flattery, I want criticism. Bill was fantastic. He was accessible, direct and encouraging. But you only get out of it what you put into it. I missed the first week due to a business trip and had to make up for lost time when I returned.

Bill actually liked Copycat. So I wrote that into a one-page summary, and he gave me some notes. And then I changed the story based on those notes and it became even better.

Copycat (revised). Charlotte Stein, an old girlfriend from Castle’s past, has been murdered – by the same methods in Castle’s latest novel, which hasn’t been published yet! Charlotte’s ex-husband, Jake Bulinsky, is a struggling novelist and the prime suspect. As they dive in to the case, things get disturbing as Castle learns Bulinsky (pen name Jake Tower) has stalked Castle though the years and “plagiarized” his life. He’s creepy, but is he a murderer? Beckett somehow pities Tower, spinning Castle off of his game. As if Jake hasn’t caused himself enough trouble, new enemies are about to be revealed.

I now have a fully outlined story (you're welcome to read the one-pager if you like), and am "beating" out the scenes. Writing the actual script is the last step. I took this course because I needed to light a fire under my ass to knock out a spec, and I wanted honest feedback from an experienced television writer and show runner. And I got just that. The fear is gone; the writing is happening. And don't think I won't get some more feedback once this spec is finished. I'm talking to you, Xandy!

My advice on prepping for this particular class (it runs often): pick the one-hour drama you're interested in specing first. I spent a lot of time analyzing and considering very cool shows - I recommend you know which you really want to write for prior to beginning the class. It will leave you more time to write, and get some great notes. Bill also has a new eBook coming out in March for the Kindle called "Writing The Pilot", which I will definitely buy - it's my next goal after finishing these specs.

I don't know about you, but I am the type of person who loves to prepare when I'm going to take on something new. I love to read about it. I love to talk about it. But I'm often reluctant to really do it because I'm afraid of embarrassment and failure.

Well, guess what? In my humble opinion, you can't learn and grow without doing both.

In this class, I had to put myself out there. And missing the first week, I only had three to get something out of it. If I didn't write, I wasted my money and my time. In three weeks I picked a series, brainstormed three stories, and fleshed out two. And now I'm writing my spec. I also have three stories for Modern Family, and now have the tools to write my spec for that show as well.

After some reflection, I realized that I've been successful in two other areas by finally diving in, making mistakes, seeking and enjoying support from family, friends and colleagues, and embracing harsh but extremely valuable constructive criticism.

At the age of 15, I decided I wanted to be a radio announcer. I loved music and I loved the radio. When I was alone, it was my best friend. My favorite TV show was WKRP in Cincinnati. I listened to radio in the car, on the beach, mowing the lawn and in my room. I really learned guitar by playing along with the radio. And I was gifted with a baritone speaking voice. I was repeatedly told I had a nice voice and should be on the radio. I believed it.

How does one get on the radio? I started on WUMD-AM, UMBC's campus station located at 560 on your AM dial, where demos and auditions weren't required. Just tuition and a good attitude. And the latter was optional. I. Loved. It! I knew I had made the right career choice. I was on the air at college for four years. I was program director. I was the station's general manager. I couldn't wait to really get on the air. Where would I start? New York? LA? San Francisco?

Here's the thing. Having a pleasant speaking-voice doesn't get you on the air. A great demo tape does. My first demo tape was horrible. All my friends and family were very excited for me, and very kind. But I needed to hear the truth. My first tape was way too long (nearly five minutes). The breaks were atrocious, and the gaps in between were wide enough to drive a fleet of semis through. And, most importantly, I wasn't being myself.

I met a man by the name of Darius Pope who worked for a local NBC TV affiliate in Washington, DC, and had years of radio experience. He was the friend of a colleague and listened to my tape. And he told me it was shit. He said I sounded like I was trying to impersonate everyone I had ever heard on the radio, and I would never get a job in radio with it. And he was absolutely right.

But he wasn't insulting me. He was telling me what I needed to hear.

For your listening horror, here's my first demo tape that I actually sent to some of the biggest stations in the country. And not surprisingly, it didn't get me anywhere.



But Darius didn't say I'll never make it. He was telling me why that tape wouldn't help. And then for reasons I still don't understand but am eternally grateful, he took me to a studio and helped me produce a new tape, and coached me to sound like me.

Here it is (just a little over two minutes long):



But Darius didn't stop there. Once I had the tape he told me to pick up the phone. Start calling local stations, ask for the program director, tell him -- not being sexist here; it was a very male-dominated industry -- that I just graduated and would love to be able to send my résumé and demo tape.

What? Cold call? This will never work. I called 10 stations. I spoke to at least six program directors and several were hiring. I landed two interviews and then my first radio job at WFMD-AM/WFRE-FM in Frederick, MD. All in the span of like eight weeks. And all because I got the feedback and encouragement I needed - I listened to it and acted upon it, and I didn't give up.

After working at WFMD for a while, I went back with Darius and made an even better demo tape. You can hear that here:



Funny thing happened though. The job paid very little. And when I got on the radio, I had nothing to say. I had no real control over the music. I was supposed to speak as little as possible, unless I was reading the news (which was fun to rewrite into small bytes). If I wanted to make it into a better market, and support a family (I was about to marry at the time), I'd have to schlep from city to city and pay my dues. For years. I had little confidence in my humor those days, and I made the difficult decision to bow out. But I achieved my dream, and I was on the air. And I DJ'd at a few bars for years, where I had total control over the music, free beer and brought in some extra cash.

So after the radio gig, I worked for various companies doing various things, but always computer related. I've been a computer nerd since I was a kid. But I was just working. It wasn't my passion. But in 1995, all of that changed. After seeing Sandra Bullock in The Net, I had a new dream: I wanted to be Sandra Bullock.

OK, not exactly Sandra Bullock, but her character Angela Bennett. A software tester. OK, not just a software tester, but a genius software tester who could run three PCs at once and identify the weaknesses and critical defects in code. It may not sound glamorous, but I thought it sounded pretty cool.

With the help of a recommendation, I got a job on a tech support line. In seven months I learned the company's software, and its flaws. With another recommendation I moved into the IT department. With lots of great mentoring, continuing education, perseverance and trial and error, I became a senior software tester, and a senior requirements analyst, and after a lot of prepping and fear, I even became a coder. All because I didn't give up, I had great mentors, and I got the feedback I needed.

And it's been fun, and it pays the bills, and I enjoy my job. But it's not my big dream. That's scriptwriting. And I'm totally convinced I will break into television writing. But only by continuing to write, seeking and heeding constructive feedback, embracing the encouragement along the way, and paying it forward once I get there.

So what's your dream? And what are you doing about it?


4 comments:

Teenie Russell said...

Hi I'm Mike, give me a call, haha. Love that you put your radio demos on, well done in following your dreams.
It definitely makes a difference getting critique from someone who knows what they are talking about.
Good Luck with your spec(s).

Mike said...

Oh, dear. You actually listened to the first demo. Thanks, Teenie! Good luck to you as well! Cheers!

One Wink at a Time said...

I thought your demos sounded fine, even great. Had to snicker at "free coke"
Gimme some of that Deeetroit Diesel :)
Enjoyed hearing snips of some great old songs too.
I think you'll realize all your dreams, Mike :)

Mike said...

Linda! Thank you for the kind thoughts. I love hearing some of the great old songs - my favorite CD compilation is called Heard it on the Radio - I think I have two volumes. And I think so, too - with some perseverance. My best to you!