Saturday, September 6, 2008

Tricks of the Trade

I was up in the attic the other day, looking for things to donate to an upcoming charity auction. (Yes, Highlander fans, this is the same infamous magic attic from which I used to bring forth all those outtakes and behind-the-scenes clips that I showed at conventions, the ones that are now on the DVD sets as "Lost Footage.") I was momentarily confused to find in one of the boxes of Souvenirs/Auction gak a paperback copy of David Gerrold's book, "The Making of The Trouble with Tribbles."

But then I remembered that in my 5-cons-a-year period, I often told the story in my Breaking into Screenwriting or Script to Screen panels of how I, as a youngster, learned about the TV biz. And it was from David Gerrold. His columns in Starlog magazine, "Rumblings" and "Soarings," discussed contemporary movies from a writing standpoint, and it was from him that I learned about MacGuffins. I still remember a column he wrote about the disrespect to the viewer inherent in killing a beloved character, and then resurrecting them, thereby rendering the whole thing an emotional psych-out. And a column in which he took a film to task for its lack of a climax, causing me to examine my own nascent writing and realize I suffered from a similar problem. I had a chance to lavish this praise upon him one time when, at the age of 17, I stood in line for his autograph. Hearing my story, he nudged the fellow sitting next to him at the signing table (if memory serves, it was first-time-novelist David Brin) and teased, "Hey, she says I helped her reach climax!" I turned bright red and fled.

David Gerrold's Inside Star Trek and Making of the Trouble With Tribbles books were invaluable resources for me. The anecdotes he told gave a realistic glimpse into the process of being a TV writer and producing a TV show. He tells a story about having to cut 12 pages out of his Tribbles script after it went through the typing pool and got properly formatted. It was an eye-opening reminder about the realities of production -- the primary goal is to have a certain number of filmed minutes, ones that can be produced in the number of days you have, with the resources you have. Being clever or touching or downright effing brilliant is great, but first you have to have something you can make and show. You might think this is self-evident, but in fact many beginning writers -- and even many employed writers -- don't have that internal radar for how many sets, how many characters, how many pages you can really have. David Gerrold helped me develop mine, before he ever met me.

Today, there are hundreds of resources for getting a glimpse inside the industry. Instead of just a handful of Behind the Scenes memoirs, there are scores of detailed DVD commentaries and insider interviews. There are writers and showrunners that have their own avid fandoms. I've mentioned before my impression that many of today's emerging writers learned their impression of the Way Things Work from reading Buffy insider articles. Because of their ubiquity, the buzzwords that that writing staff used for certain things have become generally accepted terms. It gives newcomers a leg up, I think, when they come in already knowing the concepts of Hanging a Lantern on a problem (my early mentors used a different phrase for the same concept -- our watchword was, if you have a plot hole, Drive A Truck Through It) or using a Placeholder or House Number while searching for a cleverer solution that achieves the desired result.

If you love TV, you're probably reading this kind of article or listening to DVD commentaries for enjoyment. But if you want to make TV, don't underestimate the educational value. Listen to the stories about how an idea took form in the writers room, or about how something was changed at the last minute when a location was unavailable or an actor broke their arm. That's your future. That's the fun part of the job.

And don't forget to share your stories, like David Gerrold did, with a new bunch of kids looking for their own way to reach climax.

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