4% diamond, 96% rough

10/16/11

I’m going to return to a concept I played with last year, which was making Mondays on the blog all about “writing” – and I can almost totally promise it won’t be mood-crushingly dull. Writing about writing is a specific skill in itself, and like any meta-activity, if you’re not careful, you can absolutely destroy your navel with gazing.

Tessa and I are frequently asked about the TV scriptwriting process, so let’s begin there, shall we? You’ve all seen television shows, and you’ve all written words down, so at least we’re not diving into arcane poetic structure, right? Today, I’ll try to explain how I go about the very beginning, which I’ll call THE GERM.

First off, the wife and I are currently developing shows, which means we’re dreaming up ideas for pilots and inventing characters who don’t exist yet. Many writers work on existing shows (called “staffing”) who think up plots for shows that are already well-established [for example, see the most-recent episode of “Community” for the fantastic work of staff writer (and co-exec-producer) Chris McKenna].

So how do you create a world out of nothing? By being interested in everything, is my answer. This is why not everybody should be a writer, because I believe you truly need to walk around with your eyes, ears and pores open to experience. You must have an inner fascination for a wild range of topics, and when you meet someone with a passion, you have to adopt it yourself, however briefly. You’ve got to care, and not everyone is geared for that kind of torque.

It is through this wide net you might catch what I will call THE GERM, which is tiny, tiny, tiny idea of something that might be cool. It can be a half-idea, and it doesn’t even need to make sense, but you know it when you feel it. The Germ can be a snippet of dialogue, or a job you’d never heard of, or an entire premise, or an unrelated fact without any context. It can be truly anything.

When you’re writing scripts, you zealously guard your ideas, not because of any worries of outright theft, but because you have to believe that any idea you just got, someone else just got too, and from that moment on, it’s a race.

But it’s not other people you need to worry about, it’s YOU. If you don’t write all these things down somewhere, it’s gone. You won’t just forget what it was; you’ll forget you even had something to remember.

So I have little pieces of paper. I have emails I’ve sent to myself, voice mails, notes on my iPhone, notes on my computer, and scribbles on dry erase boards. They all eventually migrate to a Word file that has snippets like these:

• THE GREGORIAN CALENDAR FIXED ALL THE EARLY CALENDAR INACCURACIES, BUT THEY HAD TO SKIP 10 DAYS TO MAKE IT WORK. SO THERE WAS NO OCTOBER 5-14 IN THE YEAR 1582

• IN GREEN BANK, WV THERE ARE NO WIFI OR CELLULAR SIGNALS IN A 13,000 SQUARE MILE RADIUS, PEOPLE FLOCK

What good will those do? I have a few ideas. Let your mind run on them if you will.

Or take this evening, par example. The Lulubeans has been watching Dogs With Jobs on the BYU Channel (yay DirecTV!) and we saw the show featuring Wiley, the border collie/Dalmatian who chases birds off the runway for the Coast Guard on Ediz Hook in Port Angeles, WA.

PortAngelesCoastGuardMap(bl).jpg

they might have thought of that before putting the runway next to a bird sanctuary

But Wiley is wily, and because he’s involved in so much of the Air Station’s business, he actually has a security clearance higher than many humans who work there. That is a very cool piece of information, whether or not it will ever get used in anything.

Yes, I can hear the jokes: it’s a show about a secretly-talking dog who accidentally gets promoted to Rear Admiral, etc. etc. etc. but think of it differently. In real world espionage, if you were one dog away from the inner sanctum of something… it doesn’t have to be a dog, and the whole thing can be rearranged, but it could lead you somewhere else very interesting.

Your germ can be much more obvious. One of my three brothers was being frustrating, and I decided I was going to fly to where he was, and straighten things out. Instead, Tessa and I wrote a half-hour comedy about doing it, and that script sold twice in the last four years. The brother in question probably still doesn’t know any of this.

Now, a wizened old Hollywood veteran would probably say I’m being too precious with all this dream-catchin’ nonsense. He’d probably say “the networks want a cop caper where the crooks get caught, and you gotta write ’em one.” Fair enough. I’m not saying my m.o. works for everybody, or that the thousand little snippets I plunk down make any sense.

But then again, we’re not in this to be jaded or wizened. We only want to develop shows that turn us on in our own precious little ways. Between us, Tessa and I probably have about 12 awesome television script realizations between us, and when we’re done with those, we’ll leave.

I’ll end The Germ section with a nugget from Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford in 2005. He explains how he’d dropped out of Reed College in order to stick around and audit the subjects that particularly struck him:

“much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on… Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this.

I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac.”

iPodShuffleChance(bl).jpg

Like Steve Jobs’s creation the iPod Shuffle used to advertise, “give chance a chance.” Take stupid ideas seriously. Don’t be afraid to be not funny. If your Germ is potent enough, it will germinate.

on WEDNESDAY: The Smell Test!

8 thoughts on “4% diamond, 96% rough

  1. Peter Rukavina

    In a related calendaring note, from Wikipedia:
    The October Revolution … was a political revolution and a part of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It took place with an armed insurrection in Petrograd traditionally dated to 25 October 1917 Old Style Julian Calendar (O.S.), which corresponds with 7 November 1917 New Style (N.S.). Gregorian Calendar.
    So it’s both the October *and* November revolutions, depending.

    Reply
  2. Alyson

    I love reading about the writing process. Stephen King’s On Writing is especially entertaining.
    Keep it coming!

    Reply
  3. Salems little sister

    I am at my favorite dog park reading this and have thought a show about people and dog parks would be funny. It’s an odd assortment of folks and their fur children. Maybe the airport dog could visit!

    Reply
  4. GFWD

    Interesting that you cite to Jobs. Steve didn’t create the MP3 player. He made it more user friendly. He improved it. The guy who invented sliced bread didn’t create either bread or the slicer.
    My point is this: why haven’t you focused your TV show writing efforts on writing a treatment for a current show, perhaps with an edgier twist or different format in order to get your foot in the door to get noticed. In other words, make their MP3 player an iPod instead of trying to create the first new something? I’m not trying to dash your creative spirit, but it wouyld seem that if you can write something for someone that they already know they like, you could better bend their ear to get them to review that which YOU like.
    Is that somehow beneath you creatively or is that generally shunned by writers?

    Reply
  5. Ian

    GFWD, here’s the long answer: what you’re talking about is writing a “spec” for a current show, and it’s done all the time by writers who want to break in to staffing, or those who are trying to get the ear of a good agent/agency. Typically, it’s what you do for the first few years of getting your foot in the door.
    We were blessed to come into the fold under different auspices, and landed with a fantastic agency and manager because of our previous life experience and stage play experience. We did write a couple of specs for existing shows back in 2004 or so, and it was a great exercise.
    The short answer is: that’s what you do when you’re new, and we’re 5 years past that, thank the lord above.

    Reply
  6. Anne

    Ian, I can so relate to storing up all those bits and oddments about anything in the world. Have always done that, although I’m not creating the sorts of worlds you are in my work.
    Also, yes to this: “when you meet someone with a passion, you have to adopt it yourself, however briefly.” This is what I love about feature writing. I seem to soak up people’s enthusiasm and reflect it back as I write about it. Lifelong learning — and you get paid for it! Thanks for sharing your process; fascinating.

    Reply

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