I first sat down at a Macintosh in 1986. Prior to that, I'd worked on early PCs and Commodore machines. The Mac blew me away. It still does.
Here's a pic of the first Mac I could actually afford. I've owned several since the venerable Mac Classic, but this one holds a special place in my heart because it's the first one that actually lived with me and became part of my personal space. The way my other Macs do. And the iPod. And iPhone. And iPad. And AppleTV.
So. Network staffing season came and went and left me standing at the altar like a jilted groom.
It's very tough out there, especially for newer writers. Network TV writing staffs are shrinking at precisely the same time the networks are making tons of money. I know, it doesn't make sense. I've worked extensively in the corporate world and I never understood it when a company would cut back on the core reason they were making money.
I had meetings on lots of network shows over the past few months, but when it came time for staffing, they all ran out of money before getting to the lower-level positions.
A number of amazing, talented and very affordable writers I know are in the same sad position. Truth be told, it's not uncommon for newer writers to warm the benches for a season or two between gigs. That's when you hunker down and crank out original pilots and new specs and keep the creative gears greased. Which I was prepared to do. But thank goodness for the world of cable TV, which has come to my rescue.
My new gig: I've joined the writing staff of a brand new SyFy TV show called Defiance. I've signed a brick-thick stack of non-disclosure forms so legally impenetrable that I can tell you absolutely nothing about it.
But I can point you to this sneak preview trailer, and to a brief interview with showrunner Rockne O'Bannon, whom I was lucky enough to work with on V.
Set on a future Earth, Defiance introduces players and Syfy viewers to a world ravaged by decades of conflict, where humans and aliens live together in a world the likes of which no one has seen. The game combines the frenetic action of a top-tier console shooter with the persistence, scale, and customization of an MMO, while its TV counterpart exudes the scope, story, and drama of a classic sci-fi epic. The game's story will take place in the San Francisco bay area, while the TV series will be set just outside of St. Louis, MO. Because they exist in a single universe, the show and the game will influence and evolve each other over time, with actions in both mediums driving the overall story of Defiance.
I think I am allowed to say this much: it's gonna be a helluva lotta fun.
This was a groundbreaking show in many ways. Its innovative five-year story arc set a standard for later shows like Lost. This storyline wasn't just bold in a narrative sense. As a low-budget syndicated show, it fought each year to survive another season. Fans always worried it would be cancelled before the space war saga was complete. (As it turned out, the lackluster final season suggests it could've ended a year earlier anyway.)
Babylon 5's dark new universe was a nice break from the beige-hued safety zone of shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation (and would influence the darkness and, yes, multi-year story arc of the best Trek spinoff, Deep Space Nine). It was chock full of interesting new aliens, exciting space battles and a giant story arc centered on the Shadows, giant insectile creatures whose violent motives were one of the show's great mysteries.
As Sutherland points out early on, Babylon 5 has not aged well in many ways. You have to tolerate some flimsy sets outfitted with Ikea furniture, more than a bit of wooden acting, and some blue-screen work that, for various technical reasons I don't understand, does not transfer well to DVD.
Straczynski cites the British TV sci-fi series Blake's 7 as an inspiration for Babylon 5. I didn't catch up on that show until recently, and it took great effort to look beyond its laughable shoestring budget and focus on the widescreen story and compelling characters. Like that show, Babylon 5 has a grandiose, inventive pulp space-opera plot straight out of E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series (seasons 3 and 4 are the peak of the show for me), as well as some astoundingly good CGI and makeup, and a thrilling score by Christopher Franke of Tangerine Dream fame.
In short, it's the little show that could -- and did -- many great things on a miniscule budget. Its cult following remains strong to this day. Sadly, numerous attempts to spin off the franchise fizzled out because none were as creative as the original series.
Back in the 1990s, I welcomed each new installment of this adventure the way I used to eagerly await monthly comic books when I was a kid. While The Twilight Zone and the original Star Trek were huge influences on my early efforts at writing, Babylon 5 is the show that made me want to refocus my life, move to Hollywood and become a TV writer.
Last month at Comic-Con, I finally got to meet Straczynski and tell him just that. "You're doing it right," he replied.
ABC has officially cancelled V. We hate to end the saga on such a game-changing cliffhanger, but them's the breaks.
After being on the viewer-fan end of many an unfair cancellation (hello Firefly, Karen Sisco, Threshold, etc.), it's interesting and enlightening to be on the creative side for a change. No matter what the show's about, or who's involved, it all comes down to money. And while V did respectable numbers and gave the network one of its few shows with a strong male viewership, it was in the end too expensive to continue.
While I can see the reasoning clearly from the other side, it's no less frustrating to experience. There were so many cool tales left to tell. We'd opened up a new world of stories that would've been fun to explore. Now we'll never see Erica shattered and vengeful over her murdered son. We'll never find out what Bliss is doing to the troubled soul of Father Jack. And we'll never see the all-out global war as humans use every weapon they've got to take back their planet.
Many fans have written to ask: Can V continue on another network? If another network's interested, then sure, it's possible. Other shows, like Medium, have jumped networks to survive. But the major networks have already committed their budgetarty war chests to the upcoming fall slate of new and returning shows. None of them have any room or money for V right now. In another year they might ... but the actors' contracts will be long expired by that time.
Is cable an option for V? Sadly, no. Cable shows are produced for a fraction of the budget of a network show, and there's just no way for an effects-heavy show like V to scale down the numbers.
I had a great time on my first TV writing gig. I worked with and learned from some amazingly talented people, and was thrilled whenever something I'd written made it to the final cut. The actors and crew and everybody else flat-out rocked.
If you are one of the millions of people around the world who watched what we made: thank you, deeply and sincerely.
Now it's off to the annual merry-go-round known as staffing season. When I emerge on the other side, either with or without a new gig, I'll report back on that singular experience.
Comics writer Gail Simone has some honest and tough advice for anyone hoping to make it in the world of comics. Her words are good and sound and wise and can easily apply to anyone wanting to write novels or poems or plays or TV or just about anything else.
Here's a key excerpt on something that I wish I'd realized sooner than I did:
... [P]ut away the excuses that are getting in your way. Don’t share them, don’t give them that power. Move around them. No one can clear that path for you. You have to do it. You have to be smart, talented, and determined like a bastard. And you have to put the things holding you back aside. Bury them in the yard and plant a tree over them. Work hard, make art you’re proud of and show it everywhere. Know what you offer and let others know it. Do it now. Start right now.
If her words scare the hell out of you or piss you off, you will probably be happier doing something else worthwhile with your life. But if you're scared and pissed off and yet still somehow hopeful and inspired, then you know what to do.
The back floorboard of my car is packed with plastic water bottles. Writers all over Hollywood collect them during staffing season. Every meeting you book could lead to a job writing for a TV show. And at every meeting, someone will hand you a bottle of water, and it will end up in your back floorboard.
I've not had time to empty these sloshing bottles onto my parched plants, let alone recycle the bottles. But if there's an earthquake or alien invasion while I'm driving, I won't die of dehydration for a while.
Nor have I had time to update the blog. I wanted to write something about staffing season and how it's a big crazy game of musical chairs, but Life -- wonderful tho' 'tis -- just isn't giving me any free time right now. Turns out other writers are sounding off on their experiences over at John August's blog, and they're doing a great job of it.
I’ve been in LA since 2002 and every single year, the refrain is always the same: “Ugh, this is the worst year ever, no one’s getting work.” I absolutely believe people have been repeating those words since the days we were all fighting over gigs on radio dramas.
Snagging a staff job requires these things: hard work, self awareness, a killer script, a logical connection between your brand and a show that makes it on the schedule, and a fair bit of fortunate timing.
Remember that staffing is a war of attrition. You might deserve a gig this year, but if that gig falls through due to circumstances out of your control — tough shit. Stay focused on the circumstances you can control and prepare for whatever’s next — development season, cable staffing, Subway sandwich artistry, etc.
It's getting harder for new TV writers to enter the game. This is something I've heard from a lot of writer friends, some of whom have been working since the mid-1980s. In the Jan. 2011 issue of Written By, the member magazine of the Writers Guild of America, veteran TV writer Marc Scott Zicree says it's tough out there for new and old writers alike. I'd link to that article but it's not available online. I'd quote from it but I've misplaced my copy. I'd draw a picture illustrating my frustration here but I really can't draw. So let me try to summarize a couple of troubling key points from the piece as I remember them.
Once upon a time, nabbing a gig as the writers assistant on a TV show put newbies in the pipe to land a script assignment. It's never a sure thing, of course -- a good writers assistant might not be a good writer -- and even so, it may take a year or more for them to prove themselves worthy of the shot. But if the show is going smoothly, sometime in the back half of the season a showrunner might decide to take the writers assistant off the bench and let them pitch an episode. It's a generous and smart move, since the assistant has been living in the writers room and paying close attention to which stories work and which don't. And it's a golden chance for that writer-wannabe to nail a pitch and land a script credit that, in most cases, kicks them up to Staff Writer status.
It looks as if this practice is slowly being phased out at some shows. One pal recently interviewed for the writers assistant position on a top-rated cable TV show. He was warned by the showrunner: "We don't promote from within," and told explicity that, if hired as writers assistant, there was no chance of ever pitching and writing a script. In other words: All those long hours and crappy paychecks better make you happy, because short of increasing your list of contacts, this job will do practically nothing to further your career as a writer.
Given that many of today's top writers and showrunners got their start this way, I'm really dumbfounded by this. Without that path of entry, it's incredibly hard for anyone to land their first gig as a TV writer. It's a bitter Catch-22: some studios won't even look at new writers with no staff experience. Paying your dues as a writers assistant was once a reliable course of action.
So crank out the best spec you can. Kick everything up a notch: dialogue, characters, plot, and even just the sheer economy and impact of each sentence. Almost anyone can write a spec that feels like an average episode of a show. What you must do is write the best episode of that show, the one that would air during sweeps week (but not the one that relies on stunt casting a guest role that eclipses the regular characters).
Apply to all of these programs. And if you don't get in, don't give up. Regroup, keep writing, and try again. It took me many tries to crank out the spec that got me into the game. It was a long and frustrating journey that required a lot of sacrifice but if I'd quit, my big chance never would've happened.
These programs aren't the only way into the industry. But if you're a wanna-be writer looking to break in, you cannot afford to ignore the opportunities they present.