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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Thursday (2/25/10) 8:03pm - ... wherein Peter answers formspring questions about writing.

Here are all the writing questions I've received so far on formspring.

You seem to get an awful lot of high-quality stuff actually done. What's your secret? [1/28/10, anonymous]

This answer got out of hand, so I put it
on the blog.

What's the greatest number of footnotes you've ever used in a formspring answer, blog post, or email? [2/4/10, anonymous]

An email I sent to Judson and Sarah on 3/20/2009 had eighteen footnotes. I believe that holds the record.

I think you're a prolific writer, and I want to be as prolific as you.  How do you write so much? Can you offer some advice on how I can be more prolific?  Do you have a protocol for when you're not done writing something, but you're drawing a total blank?  [2/11/10 by mrjeffbritt]

Thanks!  (... and that reminds me, I need to crank out a Sketchwar entry tonight.)

This post should address most of your questions.

As for a 'protocol for finishing something', if you find one, let me know.  The way I write tends to be 50% brainstorming, 40% outlining, and then 10% actually writing.  I rarely get stuck in the actual-writing stage.  However, there have been tons of projects where I've been in that first 90% and then stalled out and gave up.  (I have so many failed TV specs it's just embarrassing.)

Does that answer your question adequately?  If not, feel free to fire me a follow-up.

Can you give me an example of "breaking a task down into a series of sub-steps"? That might be the core of my original question, because I don't ever do that. [2/11/10, by mrjeffbritt]

Sure thing -- here's a hand-wavey version of the checklist I made for writing the latest KOOP script:

ooooo General brainstorming
ooo Brainstorm characters
oo List possible A-stories
oo List possible B-stories
o Pick an A-story and a B-story
oo List scenes for A-story
oo List scenes for B-story
o Pick act breaks for show.
o Write outline for show.
ooo List details about each scene.[1]
ooooo Write script.
oo "Free safety."

I'm using the letter "o" to represent a checkbox.  Every hour I spend on a task, I tick off another checkbox.  Hopefully, I've set things up so that by the time I check all the boxes for a step, that task is finished.  If not, I can always use a "Free Safety" box to finish something off.

Now,  you might wonder "How can you be sure you'll be finished listing possible A-stories after two hours?"  And you'd be right -- I can't be dead certain that I'll come up with a good idea in that amount of time.  (Keep in mind:  sometimes I fail at these projects.)  But generally I try to *over*-estimate, so that I allocate *more* than enough time to finish the task.

Also, I might get halfway into the project, and realize that I've guessed completely wrong on how the remaining half of the work should go.  In that case, I write up a new checklist for the remaining work and switch over to that.

[1] More info about this step at the top of this post.

This week's Sketchwar topic is "Reporters." What was the VERY FIRST image or idea you had (if you have yet) that was potential content for your Reporter sketch (regardless if you'll actually use it in the final product)? [2/11/10 by mrjeffbritt]

The best I can do here is copy out the first few lines of the brainstorming text file I made for the topic:

* A reporter has a story that threatens their parent company, and the editor tries all sorts of ways to water it down.
* While insisting that it's not a conflict of interest
* An on-site TV newscaster deals with an interfering passerby.
* Eh, maybe we could hit the 40s reporter in a serial archetype.
* Do a radio-serial bit?

So you know a lot about screenplays...why does there always seem to be a sassy gay friend/black friend/young friend in romcoms. Is this harkening back to some ancient trope about sidekicks and we fill in who ever isn't in the "dominant" cultural group? [2/4/10, by juliejezebel]

Answered here, but cross-posted on this page since it's also a writing question.

Despite having known you for ages, I actually have no idea the answer to this question: How did you discover your interest in screenwriting? What is it about that genre that appeals to you, as opposed to writing novels? [2/14/10 by 3stripedsocks]

(Let me preface this by saying I always feel like a bit of a sham, calling myself a screenwriter.  I write a few pages here, a few pages there, and once in a blue moon I polish off some longer piece.  But anyway....)

Honestly, we can chase this back to my early childhood.  In many family, any conversation with three siblings in it will have at least five characters in it, complete with different voices.  It's just how our sense of humor is -- there are no real setups or punchlines, we just launch off into one little hypothetical scenelet after another.  So I think that laid the groundwork.

Through high school, I remember writing one or two bits that I now recognize as early attempts at sketch comedy.  (I remember something about an irate severed head that I must have written after watching the TV adaptation of Stephen King's It.)  But mostly I just wrote short stories -- awful, awful short stories.

I don't think I wrote any fiction in college, apart from an awful, awful novel I wrote one summer.  (God, it was so bad.)  I got back into writing after graduating and moving off to Boston.  At first, I was trying to write prose.  I was wrote little stories in which nothing happened.  Unfortunately I'm neither funny enough nor prose-stylish enough to write a plotless story that's worth reading.  (Trust me.  I'm not.)

I decided to try screenplays around '97 because, hey, stuff has to *happen* in a screenplay.[1]  Maybe it would force me to learn how to do plot.

I think the first thing I did was an attempt at a South Park episode.  We could call this 'fanfic' or a 'spec script', though I didn't know either term at the time.  I just assumed I was developing a very silly hobby of writing fake episodes of TV shows, and nobody else ever did that.  I continued writing fake-TV-episodes just because it was fun, and it kept me busy during a very, very boring period of my life.

It's odd.  Pretty much every hobby I have, I first started doing for some specific purpose, but then kept at it for some completely different purpose.[2]  I started writing screenplays to learn about plot, so I could get better at writing prose.  But then I kept doing it just because it was neat, and gave up writing prose.  Again, I think it's that scene-based sense of humor coming into play.

But also, screenplays are wonderful because they're so elliptical.  By this, I mean that they're egg-shaped.  No.  By this, I mean that, when you create a screenplay, you're not creating something awesome.  Instead, you're creating something that gives lots of *other* people a chance to be awesome.  It's like you're setting a little sudoku puzzle, providing just enough information, and leaving everything else blank.[3]  Those are the parts other people fill in.

So you can write a joke knowing not only that it's a good joke, but it's effectively an infinite number of good jokes, depending on how it's delivered, shot, edited, scored, etc.  You can evoke a setting knowing that a set designer can take those few dashed-off sentences in any number of directions.  Your work is a launching-off point for a whole crew of artists -- and if you've done your job well, those artists can make an infinite number of choices that are all right, and all wonderful.

[1] ... oh, how naïve I was!  I have since learned that there are many screenplays in which nothing ever happens.  Awful, awful screenplays.

[2] Example:  I first learned guitar partly because I thought it might impress girls; to date, maybe six women (?) have ever seen me play a song on guitar.

[3] This reminds me, screenwriting also appeals to my puzzle-enthusiast side.  Screenplays are much more merciless than novels (IMHO) when it comes to satisfying a bunch of artificial constraints.  It's not "Oh, do this for a few chapters, meander over here, do some exposition about this subject, then maybe tie up that thread."  It's more like "This plot twist has to happen by page <x> or <x+1> at the latest."  There are rules, and there are lots of them, and even the best screenwriters violate them at their peril.  Some people bristle at such restrictions.  I find them interesting and fun.

(Final semantic nitpick:  technically, you meant 'medium' or perhaps 'format' rather than 'genre', right?)

(Final semantic nitpick: technically, you meant 'medium' or perhaps 'format' rather than 'genre', right?) Ah ha ha ha ha. Yes, sir, I did. Forgive me, as the trials and tribulations of grad school leave my brain in the state of ooky goo. :) [2/14/10 by 3stripedsocks]

Ha!  You should go commiserate with the Gelatinous Cube....

Do you write screenplays and sketches alone exclusively or do you collaborate? Assuming you write alone exclusively, is there a philosopphy behind it or is it more of the introvert? [2/11/10 by SullyUT]

Oh, hell, *all* screenwriting is collaboration.  The "lone man in his garret pounding out works of genius" is pretty much a myth.  Every screenwriter at least bounces ideas off the people around them, or gets notes on their drafts, or has to rewrite during the production process.

I really dig writing collaboratively.  Writing a bunch of weekly sketches with Bob was awesome.  Writing a sketch show with Ceej was awesome.  Writing Sketchville with Karin was awesome.  I far prefer collaborative writing to writing on my own.

That said, I find that most collaboration fails, because... well, there's no way to say this without sounding like a tool... because most collaborators fail.  Okay, wait, there's a nicer way to put it:  most writers I know are of the "Jeez, I have *so many ideas* but I never seem to get them to completion!" variety.[1]

So I think sometimes I find myself working with these happy/flaky/manic types, and they have a great *idea* for something, and then... nothing.  Okay, I've thought of a set of characters for this storyline... no response.  Have you given any thought to what the B-plot should be?... no response.  They quickly drop off the radar, and... er, it isn't really collaboration at that point.[2]

And then there are a lot of folks I just flat-out don't want to work with.  I mean, lord knows I'm a crappy screenwriter.  No, I'm not fishing for compliments here -- compare my work to what real pro screenwriters produce, and it's not even a contest.  But there are so, so, so many screenwriters in the world who are even worse than I am.  The last time I read for the Austin Film Festival, I read (IIRC) over a hundred scripts.  One of them was decent.  I mean, there are wannabe sketch-writers who aren't funny, wannabe TV-writers who don't know from act breaks, and wannabe feature writers who don't understand that audiences like for a movie to have a plot.

Again, I must sound like a tool, but there are lots of people you just don't want to work with, because you'll be fighting pitched battles over stuff like "DEAR GOD do not include TEN MONTAGES IN THIS MOVIE" -- stuff that any reasonably-competent screenwriter just *knows*.

So I guess the short answer is "I love collaboration, but that's mostly because I've been lucky to encounter some lovely collaborators."

(Oddly, introversion hasn't really been an issue with this.  Most of my collaboration has been of the form "Talk over the script with somebody and then go our separate ways and write scenes."  There's not an exhausting amount of face time involved.)

[1] Side note:  this bewilders me.  I have almost no ideas for projects, and that lack of creativity is very much the limiting factor on my creative output.  Every week on Sketchwar, I have either zero or one ideas for a funny sketch on the given topic.  It's incredibly rare that I'm looking at two good sketch ideas and saying, "Wow, I want to write *both* of these!"  So if I have an idea that I like, I'm going to either (1) see it through successfully, or (2) see it through to a cataclysmic failure.

[2] My guess is, a lot of people just don't have what Quincy Jones calls "ass power".  "Ass power" is the ability to sit your ass down and finish your work.

Did you get the part about the butterflies? No really, did you get... the part... about.... THE BUTTERFLIES??? [2/11/10, anonymous]

I'm amused that I thought, "This anonymous question is from Judson" before I had any recollection as to what he was talking about.

For my readers' benefit:  this refers to Judson's brother, Martin.  Back in college, Martin wrote a short story and he asked me to read it over and provide notes.  Among other things, the story's protagonist kept a cage of butterflies.  And... at the very end... one of the butterflies... GOT FREE.

As gently as I could, I pointed out that maybe he shouldn't include the 'butterfly' bit.  "But did you get that it was a metaphor?"  Yes, yes, I did, but perhaps the metaphor was a *little* bit on-the-nose, and he would do well to focus more on the story than the symbolism.

It's surprising how often, since then, I've run into clunky metaphors with butterflies.  For example, one of the Doorpost entries centered on the imagery of a butterfly coming out of its coccoon, which got an eye-roll from me.

But yeah, the answer is always, "Yes.  I understood your symbolism.  I just don't care."

Did you ever finish that spec script for Burn Notice that you were working on/talking about a while back? [2/18/10 by majcher]

No, and I am *so* goddamn ashamed of that failure.  I worked so hard on that script, and I liked my logline so much, but in the end I just wasn't smart enough to make the story work.  (Here is a brilliant take on why I failed, by the way.)

Sad, sad, sad.

I basically gave up on writing long scripts for six months after that.  I don't know if I'll ever try speccing an existing show again.  The Burn Notice spec was the last in a chain of failed specs (my run of fail has also included BSG, House, and Veronica Mars).  I feel like I just don't have what it takes to spec a show any more.

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