WonderCon 2018: Notes From Day One

WonderCon 2018 was amazing! So much more relaxed than Comic-Con.

I’ll do a summary post about the Con later this week, but I wanted to get my notes from Day One up first thing 🙂

Note: Some of the panelists’ names are probably misspelled, because I couldn’t always get close enough to see their placards :/

A story is a story: writing in multimedia

  • sam sykes: bring down the heavens series; also munchkins series
  • Sarah kuhn: heroine complex series; also comics
  • Judd winick: artist and writer for dc comics and indies
  • Judy ann neeb: librarian and moderator
  • What was your first writing medium?
    • Judd: comic strips; was meat and potatoes work, you write and draw and ink and letter everything yourself, then send it out
    • Sarah: zines; at the time, heard you could write everyday and get paid for it by being a journalist; so middle school started their own zine, photocopies printed out and gossip about cheating on math tests, etc
    • Sam: devoured every dragonlance novel ever, and then all the dragons disappeared, so what’s the point, might as well write his own thing now, started with prose because art was hard, went right to novels, because that’s what he’d read, sold first novel at 25, but had been working on it since 14
  • Weird how market has shifted, short fiction is basically dead, can barely sell it, let alone make a living at it, unless you do nothing but anthologies, or maybe you get known as a novelist first, which is backwards, thirst for short fiction isn’t dead, though, just look at subreddits for people posting and consuming it by the ton, we’re just looking for the next way to do it
  • Short fiction used to be the minor leagues for writers, eventually would get asked to do a novel, but nowadays path seems to be through self-publishing more than short fiction
  • To be a creator today, you almost have to master multiple media, unless you can just knock one of them out of the park, to keep up with everyone else, need to be in many places at the same time
  • Sarah’s approach to comics: voltron-ing skills?
  • Judd: Everything other than one-room-one-person work (which is rarer now) means working with a team, so have to work on your social skills, interact with other people and compromise with them, in larger teams, bottom-line is still storytelling within the tiny garden you’re given
  • Sarah: whenever starting a new kind of writing, still feels like an imposter, owes her current career to short fiction, wrote geek-girl rom-com for her friends, serialized it online, did a pdf zine, got a bit of a following because wasn’t that many geek-girl protags, that series helped her get an agent when she had a novel ready; was approached to write comics, someone asked her to, she said yes but i have no idea how to do it, she did a lot of research before diving in, reading and interviewing and going through samples, before realized it is telling a good story at its base, same basic skills, though with different scaffolding on top
  • Judd: not enough credit given to editors who find people say “do you want to do this?” and barrel through objections from the writer about not knowing how to do it
  • Sam: as the mediums change, you start relying on more and more people, novels is just him and an editor, comics is him and artist and editor and letterer, etc, what it comes down to is the ability to trust other people, you’ve got this idea and you’re trying to get it out there, and trusting other people in that process is hard, comics is littered with the carcasses of writers who did not understand that trust of the artist that’s needed
  • Judd: best advice for writing comics from bob shreck the editor and founder of oni press: write the script like it’s a letter to your artist, like you’re talking to a person, and that’s how you can make things a partnership
  • Worth mentioning that artists understand geometry and positioning better than you do
  • Has there ever been a point in your writing where you’ve wanted to change the format? From comic to novel, or novel to script, etc
    • Judd: never been able to switch gears; not that the option is always there, don’t sit around saying “i think this would be better as a major motion picture, lemme make a call”; people have asked him to do prose, but when he starts thinking of a story, by the point he’s excited about it, he wants to draw it, that’s what he enjoys doing as an artist
    • Sarah: never wanted to switch in the middle, gets hooked into whatever the right media is for the story, and sticks with it; tried to make her heroine series very visual, since they’re inspired by comics
    • Sam: one of the marks of being a professional is putting your head down and barreling through, can’t chase every thought in your head, unless you’re pat rothfuss (and if you tell him i said that, i’ll tell him you’re lying, and he’ll believe me); your idea of perfect keeps changing, so no use in chasing that perfect, best to do many projects at the same time, not all of them have to be finished at the same time, if you have a novel, nothing can stop you from tweaking it a little and making it a comic, but if you want to do it as a living, you have to barrel through and finish it, which means you have to choose
  • Judd: advice he gives to kids about writing: know your ending, if you’re going to do a novel, do it, finish it, get a draft, and then you can edit it and make it better; writing is the worst, he likes editing, when he can fix it
  • Sam: a little like constipation, sometimes you just gotta sit down and force it out
  • Judd: greatest job in the world, we get to make shit up and people pay us money, i’m 48 and i draw and half-watch television, like when i was ten
  • Sarah: often feels the script for comics ends up being a conversation back and forth between writer and artist(s), her first comic was smaller team, used to tell the colorist “more sparkles!”, felt like her own little clubhouse, initial scripts for clueless series were more detailed, since had a different artist, once they started getting art, got to more a shorthand with her

Spotlight on VE Schwab

  • Written 15 novels in 8 years
  • No trunk novels, doesn’t start novel until she knows she has enough for the novel to come to fruition
  • Longest time, had just an image for darker shade of magic: wounded man falling through a wall and hitting a girl dressed as a boy
    • Six months later, hit on the idea of doing an homage to harry potter, a multiple worlds story
    • What if the young man isn’t walking through a wall, is walking between worlds?
    • That shot became the crystalizing ingredient needed for the book to come together
  • Always working actively on one thing and letting 3 or 4 others simmer
  • Leans towards fantasy, because grew up wanting the world to be stranger than it is; Wanted the cracks in the sidewalk to lead to other world; as a writer, wants to seed your world with doubt, wants you to look for the stranger things in the world
  • Was 11 when harry potter came out, and started reading the books; didn’t love reading at the time, mother’s friend was in a bookstore in socal and called her mom “hey, there’s someone here doing a signing, her line’s not long, it looks like something your daughter would enjoy”… which is why she has a signed copy of the sorcerer’s stone; potter was a hook for her, showed her you could create a story that would make a person forget they’re reading a story
  • “What drives the part of your writing where you describe clothes so well?”
    • Really, really loves coats
    • Watching pushing daisies, realized the guy has a really wonderful black trenchcoat
    • Never been very feminine, not a dresses person, but finds coats can be very cool and sexy and not strictly one gender or another
    • Uses fashion because it’s a very good shorthand for a character, lets you visualize the character very easily
    • Kell’s coat is a nod to the room of requirement
    • Kell’s coat, nella’s knives: ways for you to see character easily
  • Always been a cinematic writer, resisted writing novels for a long time, wrote short stories and poems and everything else, realized she was afraid of failing to write a novel, so sat down and made herself do it
  • Has to see each scene in her head before she can write it; like creating a movie in her head and then translating it into a book
  • Loves tv and comics and film, those are her recharge
  • Getting to write her first comic now, and that’s so cool because her illustrator can directly translate everything she wants to see
  • Nothing better as a writer than to see a lot of fan art and it all looks the same; means you were able to get it across well
  • At any given time, have up to 6 projects in development; currently has 3, film makes publishing look very very fast
  • “Where does your affection for redheads come from?”
    • Not a natural redhead, is a very light blonde, but never felt like a blonde on the inside
    • Her father is a weasley redhead, and always got teased for it, never felt good about it
  • Her male characters are always hufflepuff, and her female characters are slytherin
  • Wants to see more ambitious women and emotive men
  • “Books not about love, but about entanglements”
    • Loves romance, but so often in fiction, romance supersedes every other kind of relationship
    • And it’s the least interesting relationship, so often these cool dynamics take second fiddle; wants to see more sibling rivalries, more frenemies, etc
    • Loves a long con, where they start out adversaries in book one, but by book three they become involved, because the relationship is built on something
    • Likes room for progress and intensity
    • Really likes familial relationships, thinks rhy and alucard are the core relationship for the darker shade of magic books
  • “So how do you feel about ’shipping for your characters?”
    • Sorry, been rewriting a book from scratch for two months, not as articulate as normal, just finished yesterday
    • Fine with shipping, weirded out about it
    • As author brings 50% to the book, reader brings the rest
    • Tries to do nothing to dictate the reader’s relationship to the book and the characters, doesn’t want to control the other side of things
    • Side note: if you have a problem with a female character, especially a strong one, ask yourself if you would be as bothered by them if they were male
  • “Interest in monstrosity and monsters?”
    • Grad degree is in medieval depictions of monsters and monstrosity
    • Not interested in monsters so much as outsiders
    • Monstrosity is an easy way to talk about people that don’t belong, to otherness
    • When she does have something that is clearly monstrous, she tries to look at its origins, and explore that
  • “Why london for shades of magic?”
    • Two reasons: one, because she wanted to play against the assumptions we have as readers for what kind of story we’re getting in london
    • And two: multiple worlds, all based on the same geography, was thinking how fun would it be if you took a well-known city and take it down to studs, rebuilt it from the ground up with just the geography there, but to do that, needed something a broad audience would be able to imagine with little effort, and london fits the bill: city, with the thames running through it, and bridges, etc
  • “Really open with struggles with anxiety, how does that impact writing process?”
    • In savage song, main characters are different aspects of her anxiety: one lashes out, the other shuts down and internalizes everything
    • Didn’t set out to be open about anxiety, set out to be open about publishing
    • When she started, no one was talking about the industry online in an open and honest way
    • It’s very isolating, and you feel like you’re the only one going through it, when really every author feels that way
    • At conferences, she heard other authors griping about it, but then saying they needed to keep the glamour of the job alive, and so shouldn’t talk about it openly
    • She decided: well, i’m going to talk about it, and maybe it’ll help other people
    • Over time, she just became honest about all of it, the publishing, the anxiety, the depression, coming out, all of it
    • Found the most incredible thing: readers started celebrating with her, showing up at events saying “i’m proud of you”
    • Not calculated, not planned, comes from an authentic place
    • 15th book, rewritten in two months, it’s still a struggle, the struggle changes but doesn’t go away
  • If you’re writing, even if you’re not published yet, you’re not “trying to write” you’re a writer, we’re all in this tribe together
  • “What’s a question you hate getting?”
    • Used to hate “where ideas come from?” Because each book is so different
    • Aren’t any questions she really hates anymore
    • Heard each question enough, tries to answer them in ways that are not just honest but also helpful for others
    • Does get tired of hearing people ask about when the third archive book is coming out, because she knows it hasn’t come out yet, and is very very aware of where it is, it’s a sensitive topic for her
  • “Why comics for the steelheart series?”
    • Had this idea for a story, about the king of red london as a prince, with pirates and bad magic, etc, but is working on three more books for the next arc in the shades of magic series already, so thought didn’t want to write it as a book, wanted to do something else
    • Was talking with titan, her uk publisher, and they do comics, asked her if she wanted to do a comic set in the shades of magic world, and she thought: this is perfect
    • So: first four issues are coming out this fall!
  • “Also have a middle grade book, and vengeful, the next book in the vicious series”
    • City of ghosts is a weird one, set in edinburgh, scotland, which is where she lives part-time, one of the great things about britain is that everyone has a ghost story, and they’re very blasĂ© about ghosts
    • Middle grade book, but it’s written to 12 year old her, so that’s how she feels like it
    • Girl almost drowns, ghost boy pulls her out, and when she comes back, she pulls him part of the way back as well; her parents pick up a tv series called the inspectors that has them going from town to town doing shows about local ghosts
    • Vengeful: five years have passed since vicious was published, and it’s been five years in that world, as well
    • Has five new female protagonists, and it’s about how women take and hold power in that world
    • So dark, so violent, impressed her how violent it got
    • Comes out in september
  • Rapid fire questions:
    • “Live anywhere?”: edinburgh, scotland, just bought a place there, only place she felt like home
    • “Character in other world?”: delilah bard would fit in game of thrones perfectly
    • Favorite villain didn’t write? The Darkling
    • Favorite monster? Voldemort
    • If you had magic, what would you do with it? Definitely rule white london; white london is for the takers, with enough magic, could sit on that throne for a while
  • How to switch between middle grade and adult?
    • Only difference is the version of herself she’s writing towards
    • Middle grade: 12 yr old me
    • YA: 17 yr old me
    • Adult: current age
    • Middle grade is beautiful, because you can explore so dark themes, children as so good at reading things that would disturb adults more
    • Tries not to dial anything down, just thinks of terms of writing to herself
  • Will the next trilogy be cliffhangers?
    • Doesn’t know
    • Firm believer that the first book should stand alone
    • Apologized for the cliffhanger at the end of book two, but:
    • Second book is a little harder
    • Gathering of shadows was her first cliffhanger, so she went all out for it
    • Should be able to stand a little more on their own, because they will each have their own protagonist, but will build on each other
  • Tools that help you write from vast material?
    • Plot is her weakness, plot is not natural for her, so she works on it till it becomes her strength
    • Plot is the skeleton, gotta have it strong to support everything else
    • Marks out five plot points, when she gets to one, she bisects it: what happens halfway between one and two? Etc
    • Had to do a rewrite because spent so much time on makeup for a very badly skeleton’d corpse

Publishing your first comic book

  • Ryland grant does stand up during the technical difficulties
  • Was supposed to have visual aids, but they’re broken
  • Rylend: working screenwriter for years in LA, just recently decided to dive into comics, first book aberrant comes out in june
  • Haven’t made comics yet, and you want to? That’s ridiculous, do it
  • Never been a better time to get into comics
  • Used to have to troll artists alley to get people to draw your book
  • Has artists in brazil, in hungary, letterer is in the uk
  • Can find everyone with the click of a mouse
  • Get off your butts, and do it
  • David pepose: interned at dc, first comic spencer & locke (what if calvin and hobbes grew up in sin city) come out last summer, has been pitching everywhere
  • Karla nappi: tv writer and script editor, first comic book duplicant will be released by vault comics soon, was a pilot script she turned into comic, set in future where there’s a pandemic of organ failure, focuses on scientist that makes duplicate organs
  • David schrader: short filmmaker, recently got baby bad-ass published
  • Steve prince: self-publishing guru, six titles so far, including monster matador, set in a future where monsters have overrun humanity, travels world fighting monsters with sword and cape
  • Jeff leeds: anthology guru, collections of short stories, easier to produce and cheaper, good way to wade into the water, by day, jeff is exec at nbc
  • “What makes it the right idea?”
  • “How do you get it into the hands of publishers?”
    • Need a cover, 6 pages of art that’s colored, inked, lettered
    • 6 pages is the min, more is better
    • Then need a treatment: the meat of the story, all the way through
    • Describe your team, list everyone’s experience
    • Need to be able to say “i know where this story is going”
    • Keep it short: no one wants a 60-issue series from someone they’ve never heard of; first arc of spencer & locke is only 4 issues
    • Karla: did five pages, no one would pick it up because they couldn’t see where it was going, so had to publish the first issue herself, find letterer and colorer via conventions, that helped her get a publisher; had a treatment for the first 15 issues, but publisher that picked it up only wanted to do the first 5 and see how they did
    • One place where having a finished book might hurt you would be with a company like Boom! Comics, who want you to use their own artists, and will want to edit it, etc
  • Steve: primarily a writer, writing pitches, going to publishers, you’re waiting a lot, very challenging market, but printing is relatively cheap, comixology submit makes it instantly out there, if he has an idea he just does it, no waiting for others to sign off, people more likely to read comic book than a comic script
  • Submission process for anthologies is a little different: a short compressed time window for submissions, instead of the eternal death march for regular issues; submissions process is going to be easier, will need pitch and character designs, not whole story
    • One example: theme was las vegas, sent in pitch, they asked for page by page outline, not a full script, and went from there
    • [but how do you find out about these anthologies?]
  • Unless it says otherwise in publisher’s site, only email them
  • There are really good fb groups connecting comics writers and artists, can use them to find people

Writing Great Dialog

  • Merifred scott: writes comics and animation; including guardians of the galaxy and transformers, avengers, spider-man, etc
  • Holly hukins: writes animation, usually comedy, first job was on rugrats (first season), story editor on recess, recently created some preschool shoes, now working on 8–11 comedies for amazon
  • Jim: wrote a lot of scooby doo, wrote an episode of supernatural where the brothers are sucked into a scooby cartoon, producer and editor on green lantern animated series, etc
  • “People from michigan are weird”
  • Matt lane couldn’t be with us, has been having back problems
  • Craig miller: written curious george, smurfs, beastwars, gi joe, done a lot of international market work
  • How many of you are writers or want to be writers?
    • I feel so sorry for you
  • Novels are very different dialog than comics or video games or animation
  • Harrison ford to george lucas: “you can write this shit, but you can’t say it”
  • What is it you keep in mind when writing dialog?
    • Meriford: make sure everyone has a distinct voice, a distinct pov; will go back through and read every line that a character has, all in a row, to make sure their voice is distinct; easy when writing back and forth to have the characters’ voices start to sound the same
    • Craig: every character should have a distinct speech pattern. Each line of dialog should tell you immediately when you hear it who it is
    • Jim: do your own personal table read to your family; read it out loud, always
    • Craig: there are lines that read just fine, but your mouth can’t say them
    • Holly: table read with the writing team is traditional on comedy shows, lets you punch up jokes and catch things like “you started each line here with the same letter”
    • Meriford: uses final draft’s text-to-speech feature to get robotic feedback on how well it works
    • Craig: people of different walks of life, from different parts of the country, speak differently
    • Meriford: definitely don’t want to distract from main character with weird dialog from the auto mechanic, but believes people talk the way they think. An auto-mechanic that thinks with their hands is going to speak differently than one that is very organized and thoughtful
    • Holly: actors really appreciate that. Love it when they can come in and use the dialog to figure out how to play it, because it sounds like how the character thinks and approaches the world
    • Jim: each format has its own constraints and needs; an 11-minute short, every line needs to drip character and be surprising in some way; for an hour-long piece, can let things breathe a bit more
    • Craig: in animation, things have to be happening, no one will watch really long scenes with lots of people talking; in comics can’t have soliloquies, have to keep things moving
  • How do you come up with the speech patterns for distinct characters?
    • Meriford: i steal it; noticed female characters tend to fall into sounding the like the same “action lady”, pulled one character from tommy lee jones’ patterns in the fugitive; had one class where they had to ride the bus and listen, take notes, to figure out how people talked
    • Jim: You cast your story in your head, with actors that you’ll never get
    • Meriford: you can even steal little quirks, like how obama used to tell a joke during a speech, and then stop and comment on it, and it was such a dad thing to do
    • Jim: like in improv, you build a character around these traits and quirks, and then put them in situations; what would norman be like at the deli? Things like that
  • Jim: what they don’t tell you, the introvert, looking for a job as a writer where you stay in a dark hole all the time, is that what you’re really signing up for is a lifetime selling your story to other people, and you have to become comfortable doing that
  • Meriford: hardest part of being a dramatic writer is having to walk into a roomful of people
  • How do you juggle between dialog that’s clear and not on the nose?
    • Jim: gotta hide it; to your ear, gotta sound like something someone would say; there are tricks, and everyone’s heard the backstory dialog that sounds weird
    • Meriford: three levels of dialog: first where you mean what you say (hello, i love you, duck), second is when you mean what you say, but you talk about it sideways (“it’d be a shame if something happened to that nice suit of yours”); third level is where you never speak about what you’re actually talk about (gene hackman talking about horses after getting demoted by denzel washington in crimson tide); don’t want to live in number 3 or number 1, want to bounce between 1 and 2; another number 2 example: the fight’s never really about the dishes, even though that’s what you talk about
    • Craig: if you do stop to have a conversation while the t rex is chasing you, it’d better be damn good dialog
    • Meriford: on the other hand, you can stop to have those moments, like hawkeye and black widow in the first avengers: “this reminds me of budapest” “you and i remember budapest very differently”; so much character and backstory embedded in those two lines
  • Meriford: loves writing spiderman, because he talks through every fight, it’s a compulsive tick for him, so you never have to kill your darlings in that one
  • How do you convey accents?
    • Holly: tries not to use accents, mainly
    • Craig: standard thing in scripts is to put in parentheses “has a german accent”
    • Jim: example, early mistake he made writing scooby was to actually write “rutt-roah”, actor took him aside and said “don’t do that; i know how to do the voice, if you put an ‘r’ in front of every word, i won’t know what it is”
    • Meriford: in print, especially, use a lighter touch with accents than you want to, it’s hard to read, maybe throw in a word or two from the language, or use the ol’ asterisk (translated from the chinese)
  • What about characters written as cyphers? Like james bond, a bland character in exotic situations?
    • Meriford: tries to avoid writing bland characters, just as a rule
    • Craig: bond isn’t a cypher, he’s a job, is allowed to show some emotion but in few situations
    • Jim: jack reacher books are like that, he’s a machine, what’s interesting is the situations “the corruption goes a lot deeper than you think”; sometimes it’s not about the character, it’s the world, but the other people have to have a lot of character in their dialog
    • Meriford: if you’re gonna write a character with very functional dialog, give them a quirk or two to give that smooth line of dialog a bump or two, make it seem like they still have some depth

Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books

  • Henry herz: moderating, three picture books coming this year; also does self-publishing
  • Jenni holm: newberry award winner, three time
  • Antoinette portis: will be here later; former creative directory at disney products; ny times bestseller
  • Dan santat: ny times bestseller, caldecott award winner
  • Deborah underwood: writes intersteller cinderella, supersaurus, here comes cat
  • Eugene yelchin: newberry honor winner; haunting of falcon house
  • What inspires your writing?
    • Dan: grew up watching 80s tv: a-team, falcon crest, airwolf, a lot of inspiration comes from borrowing other people’s ideas and making them your own, watches all kinds of movies, the weirder the better, anything to jump start his imagination, doesn’t shy away from anything that he might not be into
    • Jenni: pulls things from her own childhood, grew up in the 70s, middle child of five kids, only girl, read a lot of comics, late father was a huge comic fan, weaned on prince valiant and flash gordon, didn’t notice at first that weren’t a lot of women in comics, but when grew up wanted to see herself in comics, stole a lot from her own elementary school life
    • Antoinette: some from own childhood, some from daughter’s childhood
    • Eugene: so many ideas, so much information coming in, hard to decide which ideas to pursue, what he uses to choose between them is the emotion behind them and the strength of the idea, even if he has a poppy idea that would sell books, if he doesn’t feel anything about it, can’t write it, has to let it go
    • Deborah: quiet book inspired by sitting at concert, waiting for it to start, noticed the different qualities of the silence that the crowd went through; for her the common thread is ideas coming out of quiet or out of play
  • Questions from the audience: How many pages?
    • Picture book age: golden number is 32 (dan), if you add to it, you add by 4
    • Henry: fictional picture book, you’re looking at 500 words
    • Can find templates online to give a sense of the layout
  • All endorse society of children’s book writers and illustrators, chapters all over
  • Best book experience?
    • Deborah: new york children’s musical theatre group made her book into a musical, she got to go to new york and see her characters up on stage
    • Eugene: differs with every book, each book is its own world, living in that world for a time, is its own special experience
    • Antoinette: wanted to make her own art, her own property, after working for corporate masters for so long, ran away from disney, everyone thought she was crazy, but felt so good to get away and do her own thing, create her own art
    • Jenni: her son always read other books, had to do a book report on a newberry award winning author, left his book at school, she pointed him to her book, got him to write a book report on her own book
  • Audience question: as an artist how do you get on a publisher’s radar?
    • Antoinette: If you join the scbwi, it’s very helpful with all that stuff; can send postcards and have a web site, your target audience is editors and publishers, who are the ones that do the hiring of illustrators, not writers
    • Dan: you’d be surprised who’s looking at websites
  • Audience question: what do you think about self-publishing?
    • Henry: it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish; have your own timeline, own creative control, trad publishing is slow; downside is you’re responsible for everything, so either need to be a master at everything, or have a team that can be masters at everything; too often can see people rushing to self-publishing because they want to see their names in print, and don’t want to spend the time honing their craft; don’t think of it as a shortcut around traditional publishing, because the quality won’t be there
    • Antoinette: getting your self-pub book into a bookstore is a full-time job on its own, and as a creative person it’s probably not a job you want to take on
    • Dan: contra that, there are people that like the hustle, so even though they’re talented enough to be trad published, they choose to be indie
  • Audience question: proper approach for submitting manuscript if you’re not an author?
    • Deborah: if you’re just an author, double-spaced typed manuscript is fine, if you’re an illustrator and you submit art, it’s a red flag for publishers
    • Eugene: so much depends on the art, better to submit without art
    • Henry: cover letter is typically three paragraphs: what’s the story about, market potential, bio stuff
    • Jenni: industry is more agented now, so becoming standard practice for publishers to not accept unagented manuscripts
    • Henry: true for the big five publishers, but for the medium sized and small pubs, they’ll still accept unsolicited submissions
    • Deborah: also, some publishers will accept unsolicited manuscripts from people that attend certain conferences
    • Dan: some graphic book publishers will even do “new talent” events
  • Audience: why prefer children’s books as a medium?
    • Dan: had a cartoon show on disney for three seasons, dealing with executives is a pain in the butt, whereas in children’s publishing, an editor will endorse your views and your voice, your perspective is more intact in children’s publishing
    • Eugene: also comes down to your personality; if you’re more comfortable working in a team, than by yourself, then you’re going to drift into different media
    • Antoinette: knows an author/illustrator that is constantly pitching shows, wants to be in tv and movies, and to her it sounds like hell, don’t make as much money in children’s publishing, but you have more creative freedom, so it’s worth it
  • Audience: how has having children affected how you write children’s books?
    • Jenni: they kind of ruin it, actually, productivity went into the toilet; i don’t think you need to have kids to be a children’s author, got her start before she had kids; in fact, recommend not having kids often
    • Deborah: i don’t have kids, and that’s why i have time to write; people write for the age of the kid they actually are, so i’m 6
    • Dan: kids help me become a better writer, because my memories of being a kid are a little skewed, thought was writing with things for himself as a kid, but then had kids, and realized he’d forgotten so much; had to re-discover his childhood through his kids
  • Audience: do you see a dramatic change in how you do things with tech?
    • Jenni: kids are growing up so fast now, feels like there’s a renaissance going on in comics for children
    • Dan: thinks the attention span for kids is shorter; take a book like jumanji, that’s 4,000–5,000 words, couldn’t get something like that published today; if you’re pushing 700 words in a picture book, you’re already getting word-heavy
    • Antoinette: counter to kids’ attention span being shorter, is that they are way more sophisticated visually, don’t have to show every step anymore like you used to
    • Eugene: but even grad students these days don’t focus on an image like they used to, we have so much coming at us that we don’t stop to study anything and read an image properly
    • Antoinette: but kids spend so much time with a book, memorizing it
  • Audience: appeal to parents first or kids?
    • Dan: flip flops, just tries to make a good book
    • Jenni: writes middle grade, she writes for the kids
    • Antoinette: my 4–5 yr old is dictating what works and what’s funny, want it to not be stupid, for the adult that’s going to be reading it
    • Eugene: little kids don’t buy for themselves, but older kids do, so it’s two different modes; i write for myself as the kid that i was, mostly write for 10–12; thinking about other kids and other teachers would make him too worried
    • Deborah: agree with writing for the inner kids; also likes to put things for the adult reading it that they can chuckle at that the kids won’t get

Inside the writer’s room

  • Mark: show runner for the librarians
  • Gab stanton: vampire diaries, the flash
  • Michael morducci: vampire diaries
  • Ryan cordel:
  • Ashley miller: fringe, black sails, thor, x-men first class
  • Steve melching: star wars rebels, clone wars
  • Kay reinalt: twisted, free-form, freakish
  • Marc bernarden: alphas, castle rock
  • Amy berg: counterpart, da vinci’s demons, eureka
  • Chris parnell: co-president of sony pictures studios, worked at sony for fifteen years
  • Focus on the awesome task of writing in a writer’s room, a team work, and the writer’s room as a living organism
  • What’s inspiring you on tv
    • Amy: obsessed with the good place
    • Marc: also watching the good place, because he does everything amy says, also watching jessica jones season 2
    • Kay: also watching jessica jones season 2, loves it, waiting for the last season of the best show ever, the americans
    • Steve: watching a lot of weird comedies, like another period
    • Ashley: catching up on shows that everyone else has seen, recently discovered community, watching now and it’s perfect in every way: marvellous ms maiselle
    • Ryan: not a comedy writer, but love’s Love on netflix, gets LA completely right, also loves the crown, looking forward to the terror
    • Michael: handmaid’s tale is awesome, wormwood about mk ultra is amazing
    • Gab: the one dirty secret they don’t tell you is that once you work in tv, you no longer have time to watch tv anymore; check out no activity on cbs because it’s surprisingly good
    • Mark: rebels just wrapped up its four-year run, it’s like the breaking bad finale of animation; we binge everything sucks, it doesn’t suck
    • Chris: end of the fucking world is also great
  • Philosophy behind a writer’s room: impossible for one person to crank out all the material needed for a series; but lots of studies that argue against group brainstorming, that more creative work comes out of one person
  • How important is a good showrunner to a group think session?
    • Kay: most important; if you’re trying to tell a single season story, have to have a strong point of view
  • What does it take to be a good showrunner?
    • Chris: movies -> director runs it, writer is just one component; tv -> opposite, writer-driven medium
    • Amy: is really about surrounding yourself with the right people, need the right mix of personalities and skill sets, when you’re hiring crew, need your department heads to be great facilitators, can’t really go it alone and get the job done well (see true detective season 2)
    • Gab: have to manage people, have to manage a ton of money, have to manage all these writers, have to make decisions about all the costumes, etc, have to be the kind of person that can go to someone and say “help me out with this” and be open to what they have to say
    • Marc: have to be able to communicate what your objectives are, so others can march in the right direction and get it done
    • Ashley: best showrunners remind him of the best teachers, a lot of those skills convey, personality type that needs to walk into the room with a plan, but know the plan is going to change as soon as it encounters other people, not quite egoless, but have to let people talk and give them permission to be wrong; it’s a hard skill to teach people that just want to work alone in a dark room
    • Kay: showrunner has to protect the writing staff, has to make the room a safe place for everyone to be able to contribute
  • Michael: thinks what makes the best writers who they are is courage and empathy; that’s also what makes a good boss; don’t want to scream at people if they come up with a not-great idea that moves the show forward, because then you won’t get their best
  • Recommended: john cleese on creativity; find the video on youtube, it’s great
  • Chris: and yet, you’ve got to hold everyone to creative standards in the room
  • Michael: agrees, but don’t want to scare people, make them afraid to bring up ideas later on
  • Steve: and sometimes, those crazy, bad ideas you pitch lead to the good ones, you laugh about it, and then it frees you up to think of the good one
  • Gab: vocab about it, “this is the bad version, but…”
  • What kind of structure do you impose?
    • Amy: law of diminishing returns, happens early in the afternoon, comes in with an idea of what she wants to get done, and if she gets there, she gets there, sometimes you have to be willing to call the brainstorm session over and move on
  • When breaking season down, use a board, index cards with different color for each character, writer’s assistant is writing everything down, nice feeling that something’s being done because you have a physical object at the end of the day; break down the season episode by episode, or arc by arc
  • How do you build a team?
    • Mark: be as brutal as you can, until you tell me i can’t change it anymore, and then tell me it’s brilliant; there’s a real value in criticism, if you can trust that everyone is working toward the same goal, you want to make it better
    • Chris: have to be able to take a note, to teach people how to take notes
    • Michael: was told by a showrunner, most tv writers are not very good, his job is to let them take the script as far as they can, and then come in and make it better; on vampire diaries, they put all the character names in a hat, and everyone had to pull a name, and they became the advocate for that character, kept them from dropping the ones they weren’t as excited about
    • Marc: have to be willing to remember that you’re getting paid to not get everything you want, you’re not always going to win, and you have to be willing to accept that, and move on
    • Gab: writing tv is really about mimicry, because you have to be able to write in the voice of the creator of the show; when she was coming up, you had to write a sample episode, and that proved you could fit into the show; today everyone’s writing their own pilots, and that shows they can write, but not that they can do the work in the writer’s room on the show
    • Mark: “just because you can write hamilton, it doesn’t mean you can write ncis: des moines”
  • Ashley: any a-hole can be an artist, the hard part is being a craftsperson, showrunner has to bring an understanding of the craft into the room, and how to use the craft of the writers in the room; pitching responsibly means having an awareness of what the consequences of the idea will be both for what came before and for what comes after; best defense against terrible ideas is “tell me about”, it’s still notes and criticisms, but a different way to think about it, opens people up instead of shutting them down
  • Amy: worries that if you have to come to the room with such a complete idea, you won’t bring it, she’s good at ping-ponging off of ideas that are very small grains of things
  • Kay: very important when you’re doing it for the first time, that you feel comfortable and not stupid, even when you’re still learning your craft
  • Marc: what he wants from a showrunner is the same thing as from a dungeon master; some idea of where you’re going, but the ability to shift things on the fly as the players throw monkey wrenches into things, give them agency in the game; a good DM will roll with the players moving off of the main storyline, and find a way to incorporate it into the main arc

Intro to TV Writing: first draft to staffing

  • Possible questions:
    • Previous panel talked about shift from writing episode for the show on spec to writing your own pilot; which is better?
    • How much of the show do you need to have worked out when pitching a pilot?
    • Better to get a gig writing on a current show before pitching your own?
    • Agents? Needed or not needed?
    • Where do you send these scripts? How do you know which shows/editors/producers might be open to them?
  • Melissa: wrote for lost, the gifted, veteran of the warner brothers workshop
  • Cat: being human, the cape, cw’s arrow, legends of tomorrow
  • Drew: marvel’s agents of s.h.i.e.l.d., buffy, arrow, warehouse 13
  • How do you go about spec’ing a script of an existing series?
    • Melissa: don’t write for a show you don’t like, it’ll be terrible; watch all the episodes so you don’t do something they would never do; watch a show with a legal pad and do a break down of the show minute by minute, the pacing, how it’s put together
    • Cat: seconds everything she said; first script ever spec’d was lost, tried to make it as much as a contained story as possible, found some plot holes she thought she could fill out; try to find that space to work in that’s self-contained; but also find a way to orient readers that might not have seen the show; she did a “previously on lost” to let reader know where everyone was and what’s going on; everyone said she was crazy to spec lost, but that’s how she got a job on the verge
    • Drew: wrote an ally mcbeal and a sopranos, and a buffy spec, had a meeting with an exec of 21st century fox, they showed it to joss whedon, which is a NO NO
    • Rule: you don’t show the spec you wrote for the show to the actual showrunner, not only will they immediately spot all the flaws, but for legal reasons they can’t read it (might be accused of stealing ideas from it)
  • Purpose of writing a spec is to show you can write in the voice of the show
  • Dangerous to write a spec for a show that’s been around a long time, because it could vanish, then you’re screwed
  • What are you looking for in a script?
    • Cat: ex: for a superhero show, not just looking for superhero writers, right now looking for humor, and writers who can write emotional moments, arcs are very important for them; snappy dialog also great; period piece for a time-travel show; humor and heart
    • Melissa: when reading for vampire diaries, looking for genre scripts, but in a wide range; had to be able to write banter, since it was so critical to the show
    • Drew: it’s character, emotion, and humor, just like cat and melissa said; for example, on agents of shield, they’re all comic book geeks, got that covered, what they’re looking for is emotion, can you write it, can you inspire it?
  • Original pilot talk: heard eps lately say they want to read the pilot, others just want the spec
    • Melissa: wants to read the pilot, tells you a lot about who the person is; when go into a meeting, they want to get to know you and figure out who you are as a person; even if you don’t get the gig, it’s not always about you, don’t ever take it personally; when she goes into meetings, starts with the story about why she became a writer
    • Drew: when writing pilots himself, he’s known for comic book shows, so will zig instead of zag, write a family drama; he’s looking for in a pilot is writers that can do some good worldbuilding, present a fully-formed world from the get-go; no place to hide in a pilot
    • Cat: when writing a spec pilot, really take a hard look at your dialog; showrunners will skip prose and go right to the banter, because they’re busy; what separates a good writer from a great writer is finding those voices and channeling them in a way that’s distinct; make it so it sounds like only those characters could sound that way
    • Melissa: harder bar: should be able to say at the end of the pilot: what’s the series? You should have questions, you should get to the end of the pilot script and immediately want to know what’s coming next, and know what sort of questions are going to be coming, what’s the underlying engine of the story
  • Audience q: How can get writing to people like them?
    • Drew: the best way is to have an agent, or a manager; need to network, go to writers events in LA, don’t cold-call them, meet them that way
    • Melissa: if she had unlimited resources, would invite a group of writer’s assistant’s out to drinks, find out who needs people
  • Audience q: why write a spec script if you can’t show it to the show?
    • Cat: main purpose is to get into any of the writer’s programs for the networks, warner brothers, nbc, fox, etc, all of them need a spec script as part of the application process; also EPs will read spec scripts later on
  • Audience q: how much map out for the series when pitching pilot?
    • Melissa: you don’t have to show anything, but as a writer, it’s a good thing to know the big signposts, what’s going in to season two, etc; ed solomon: don’t do it for the money, or the credit, or the fame, do the work, the rest will follow; it seems easy, but it’s not
  • Audience q: if a show gets cancelled, does that kill the spec scripts for it?
    • Yes
  • Audience q: what’s the biggest oopsie you’ve ever made and how did you get past it?
    • Melissa: do a lot of research on the person you’re going to meet when going into a staffing meeting; know whether they’re casual people or formal, so you know how to dress, how to approach them
  • Audience q: biggest takeaway from first season staff writing?
    • Cat: learn how to write on whiteboards, like practice, and get really good at it, because that skill will be enough for you to stay in the room, they’ll keep you just for your ability to write legibly; if you have good board writing, they will love you
    • Drew: really lucky that his first staff job was writing with buffy; once you get into the room, have to be ready to shift your skillset to working with a roomful of (potentially) geniuses; when you’re building a story with other people, it’s like a train, once it’s building momentum, if you’re the person that just says “no, that’s crazy” then you’ve just pulled the emergency brake on the train, no one likes that; gotta learn how to work with people and introduce things gently
    • Melissa: should have been more comfortable in her own skin; surprised by how miserable she could be doing the thing she had worked so hard to do; wasn’t quite the right fit for that staff room, and made it worse by being incredibly awkward; should have done some meditation and relaxed so she could enjoy having made it
  • Audience q: elaborate on the fellowship?
    • Cat: replicated feel of the writer’s room, ten people total, all pitching specs to each other, getting feedback; going through very organized process of outline, then vomit draft, then revisions; half of the program was writing, the other half was the business; practice going to general meeting, execs would come in and talk about what they want from writers, etc; got a speech instructor who told them how to speak in public; even had showrunners come in and talk to them; started out as a novice: one tv spec and one pilot; had two more scripts when she was done, and felt ready for a writer’s room
  • Audience q: biggest mistakes you see in tv pilots? How about submitting artwork?
    • Melissa: notices people overcomplicate things, ten pounds of story in a one-pound bag; simple idea executed well carries a lot more in the read; ask a friend of yours that you consider a little dense to read it and see if they can make it out
    • Drew: if you need art to back up the script, then you’re failing a bit, since the spec’s purpose is to show you can build the world with just the script
  • Audience statement: animation caucus has monthly meeting where they do events with professionals coming in
  • Audience q: if you have a pilot, what do you do?
    • Cat: same thing
    • Melissa: if you want to pitch it to a network, helps if you can find an actor who’s interested, will get them to answer the phone, at least
  • Audience q: final polishing?
    • Cat: writer friends, use them; writer’s groups can be so helpful; friends get on shows, and then they recommend you, and give you advice
    • Melissa: do a table read; find actor friends if you can, but even if not, just get friends together and have them read it, because you can discover things you missed

How to Fix: Guardians of the Galaxy II

Damn, what a missed opportunity.

I enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and hoped the second would be more snarky fun.

Instead, it’s a stiff, nonsensical mess.

What Went Well

The fight scenes and set pieces are absolutely stunning. I mean just gorgeously filmed, with excellent special effects, and clever shots.

The soundtrack was similarly inspired. Any Cat Stevens fan is a friend of mine.

Zoe Saldana continues to do great work with slight scripts. And Kurt Russell was a great choice for Ego.

What Went Wrong

Ye gods, so much.

Almost everything feels stiff and forced. The weird sniping between Rocket and Peter is overwrought and comes out of nowhere. The opening credits sequence with Groot is cute but completely drains the background fight of any tension. The feud between Gamora and Nebula feels rushed and shot through with bad timing, from the “not ripe” yaro root joke that falls flat to Nebula’s kamikaze run entrance that has absolutely no effect on anything else that’s happening.

So many things seemed designed to drain the events of any meaning. Yondu loses his control-hawk, but it doesn’t matter because he gets it back within a day of getting captured. The Sovereign tracks them across the galaxy, but it doesn’t matter because their pilots are so bad they can be held off by one ship while Peter flies around asking for tape. It doesn’t even matter that they “kill” so many Sovereign pilots, since their ships are all remote-controlled drones. Nebula takes out Yondu for a bit, but it doesn’t matter (in the sense of her becoming the new captain) because the writers want to make jokes about Taserface.

Then there’s the big, gaping, passive hole at the center of the story.

Peter’s relationship with his dad is supposedly at the heart of the plot, but there’s no tension there, either. Peter is never forced to choose anything, he just gets carried along with events. He meets his dad, and just goes along home with him. He finds out his dad is evil, and then immediately is forced to go along with his plans (until rescued by his friends).

There’s no drama, no moment of choice anywhere. It’s just one set piece after another, all of which we know the Guardians will come out on top for, until credits roll.

How to Fix It

We start with the spine of the story: Peter and his encounter with Ego. We strip out the parts that add fake tension: he killed Peter’s mom, he smashed his walkman, etc. We take out the forced usage of Peter as a battery.

Instead, we push Peter into a terrible choice: his father or his friends.

Maybe Ego is dying, and only Peter can save him by staying on the planet and serving as a second battery. Or maybe Ego promises Peter he can bring his mother back, if only he helps him “recharge” by overtaking those planets he’s placed seeds on.

Either way, we need the climax of the story being Peter making a choice. He needs to be forced to choose either the father he never knew, or the ragtag family he’s assembled on his own. We need to see both choices as something Peter could do. Whatever he chooses, he’s going to lose something.

And then we can echo that conflict out to the other plotlines. Nebula can still take out Yondu, but then have her take over the control of the Ravager ship. She jettisons Yondu and Rocket out of an escape pod; they’ll have to fend for themselves. Meanwhile, she’s decided to take the ship and track down Gamora, for her revenge.

When she arrives, it’s in the middle of the battle between Ego, Peter, the other Guardians, and the Sovereign. And Nebula will have a choice: to protect her sister, or to stand by and watch her fall.

Meanwhile, Yondu and Rocket are facing a choice of their own. Having hobbled over to a nearby star system to lick their wounds, they have to decide what to do next. Yondu tries to induce Rocket to join him as a Ravager, saying something to the effect of “this is where you belong.” They can steal a ship, and then keep stealing, for as long as they want. No Peter to keep them from grabbing a few batteries when they want.

But then they see news of the Sovereign fleet heading to Ego’s planet, and they realize their choice could mean all of their friends will die.

Finally, we need to fix the character of Mantis. Currently, she’s Ego’s plaything. Her role in the story is to be a love interest for Drax. She doesn’t affect the story in any way, or have any choice she has to make.

So let’s give her one. Make her one of The Sovereign, a mutant named Bug that the gold people think of as a mistake. She stows away on the Guardian’s ship to get away from the home where everyone hates her. Drax discovers her during the initial fight with the Sovereign, and decides to take her under his wing.

The rest of her storyline can play out normally from there, with one twist: during the final battle, she gets contacted by the Sovereign command with an offer: betray the Guardians, and earn a hero’s welcome back home.

More than polishing up the dialog, or making the actors do more takes until it feels natural, or dropping the weird cameos from Howard the Duck and the Watchers, it’s these changes that will push the movie into a meaningful, purposeful shape.

How to Fix: Rogue One

What Went Wrong

Almost everything. From casting, to story, to editing, this movie is a step backwards for the Star Wars franchise.

Let’s start with the protagonist. Throughout the movie, she is almost completely passive. I don’t know if the actress is any good or not, because most of her screen time consists of her gazing gratefully at the men that are doing things for her.

Compare this with Rey, who we see surviving just on her wits and her skills in her first few minutes of screen time.

An example of how blatant her passivity is: in one scene, there’s a glorified claw game that needs to be manipulated. Not difficult, certainly something that anyone with any manual dexterity at all could use. But rather than grab the controls herself, and execute the mission we’re supposed to believe she passionately wants to succeed, she hangs back and let’s the nameless guy next to her take over.

Her actions are just one piece of the story that’s problematic. At several junctions, characters make decisions that are out of step with what we know about them, and don’t make sense within the world as a whole. Why assassinate an enemy scientist, when you could capture them? Why send a signal to a fleet that you’re on the planet surface, when the reason they’re there is because they know you’re on the surface?

Why film a 2-minute scene with one of the classic villains of cinema, just for him to throw puns?

Perhaps the film as shot would have better explained all of these inconsistencies. But the edited film is so choppy, so eager to hop from place to place and set of characters to set of characters, that it becomes a confusing mess. We never spend enough time with the protagonist to care about her, or any of her companions (save for two, which I’ll get to later).

Again, I can’t help but contrast it with Episode VII, which used long takes and wide establishing shots to give us a sense of mood and place. And for the protagonist, it takes its time letting us know who she is, following her for a day before the main storyline gets going.

We get no such chance to learn about the protagonist of Rogue One. Only 2 min scene followed by 2 min scene, emotional beats chopped off at the wrist, ad infinitum.

How To Fix It

The real tragedy to me about this movie is that the core story is fantastic: Imperial scientist is working for them against his will, and instead of collaborating, uses his position to undermine them from within. Daughter finds out, and decides to mount a rescue. In doing so, she has to “go rogue,” rebelling against the rebels to get what she wants.

That’s a great story. It directly addresses the moral problems in the Star Wars universe, where we’re supposed to celebrate the destruction of a battle station on which hundreds of thousands of people were living and working. Were they all worthy of death?

Unfortunately, that story has been buried underneath disconnected characters, sloppy editing, and a tension-free plot.

We need to make some major plot tweaks, trim several characters, and bring the focus back to the central character.

We open by fleshing out the party scene that was a 10-second fuzzy flashback in the film. It’s a good-bye party for her dad, one last night of drinking and dancing in his Imperial uniform before moving out to farm country. Jyn’s sneaking downstairs to grab some extra dessert after bedtime, mostly oblivious to the dialog between her father and the Director (who is trying to convince him to stay, ribbing him about getting his hands dirty, etc). She gets caught, of course, giving her father a chance to sweep her up in arms and dote on her, calling her by her nickname.

Right away, we establish that we’re going to humanize the Imperials a little, and that our protagonist’s allegiance might be ambiguous.

Next we show the family at work on the farm, years later. Jyn doing chores, eating with her parents.

There’s a knock on the door. It’s their old family friend, the Director.

Her father invites him inside, outwardly friendly but it’s clear there’s tension between them.

They talk. The Director pushes her father to come back to work. Says he can’t do it without him. When her dad refuses, the Director responds with a threat: “You won’t like it when I come back tomorrow. I won’t be alone.”

Her dad again refuses, and the Director leaves. Her parents stay up late, talking about what to do. They decide Jyn and her mom should leave at first light, heading to the shelter.

But when the Director returns the next day, with troops, as promised, they’re ambushed by a rebel squadron. Jyn and her mom flee as her dad is captured, but her mom is killed in the crossfire — by the rebels.

Jyn gets to the shelter, waits as she was told, where she’s found by Saw.

Now we’ve established a lot of backstory in just a few scenes: the ambiguous relationship her father has with the Empire, the dangers of living in a civil war, and why Jyn might hate the rebels as much as she mistrusts Imperials.

Next scene: Jyn a little older, running a scam for Saw. We learn Saw is a scoundrel, one of those living just outside the law that sometimes help the rebels, sometimes the Imperials, as suits them. She returns home, flush with cash, when she sees a rebel leader leaving. She confronts Saw, finds he’s been helping the rebels out, sometimes without pay. Angry that he’s working with those that killed her mother, she strikes out on her own, leaving Saw’s home and his friends.

So now we have more backstory, another layer to Jyn’s personality. And we’ve introduced Saw, and know who he is and what he’s doing in the movie. We care about both, the protagonist and her surrogate father. We can take either side in their argument, and feel justified.

Next we see Jyn, a little older now, committing another theft. She gets caught this time, and sentenced to a labor camp for her crimes. It’d be nice if we could see an example of swift-but-cruel Imperial justice here. It would give the audience a reason to lean toward the rebel side later on.

The rebels attack the prison transport, freeing everyone, including her. Most of her fellow prisoners are rebels, but she curses them. They restrain her, take her back to base — can’t let her go, she’ll run right to the Imperials and give them away — where they find out who she is, and her connection with Saw.

Saw, it turns out, is their only connection with a mole deep inside the Emperor’s Death Star project. The mole’s used Saw to pass intelligence to them for years. Saw’s holding the last message for ransom, though. He says it’s too important to let go without getting properly paid for it.

The rebels make Jyn a deal: if she meets with Saw, and negotiates a fair price, they’ll let her go.

She agrees. They assign her Cassian and the droid as her minders (jailers), and send her off.

She still meets Chirrut and Baze, but not as strangers. She knows them both, because she grew up on their planet. They know where Saw is, and readily take her there (after disposing of the Stormtrooper patrol that tries to grab them).

Notice: we don’t need any backstory on Cassian, or the pilot, or any mysterious goons working for Saw that capture them. Since everyone knows each other, we can spend more time showing what matters. Also, the stakes are higher, because these characters all have relationships with each other.

We also don’t need any scenes showing Director Krennic and his problems. Why do we care? It’s enough to see the Death Star looming over the horizon, and firing on the city. We can find out later they did it just to test-fire it.

So, we have Jyn reunited with Saw. This scene is filled with tension now: will he welcome her back? Will she put aside her antipathy for rebels long enough to get free?

And: what’s the message Saw’s holding on to?

Saw is glad to see her, still feels guilty for letting her go. Won’t stop working with the rebels, though. He’s seen too much of the Imperial yoke to want to wear it forever. Jyn says she doesn’t want to negotiate, that her jailer should do that.

Saw tells her negotiating won’t be necessary. Because the message is for her.

That’s when he takes her back and plays it for her. She hears her father for the first time in years, explaining how he was taken from her, and how he’s been working against the Empire from within.

This scene is the turning point of Act One. The moment when Jyn starts to have something to live for besides herself. And when she starts tilting toward the rebel side.

We still have the Death Star blow up the town, and Saw’s people have to leave. He doesn’t hang back to commit a pointless suicide, though.

Instead, the pilot kills him.

We don’t know anything about the pilot at this point. We’re told he defected, and so Cassian breaks him out of jail when things start collapsing around them. He breaks off from the group, though, and finds Saw gathering some last-minute things to take with him (including the message from Jyn’s dad).

The pilot shoots Saw, then hurries to the transport. Tells everyone Saw died under a pile of rubble. Too bad the message was lost.

Because the pilot’s a double agent. The Emperor’s set one of his classic traps for the rebels: give them what they think they want, but be there to snatch it away at the last minute.

Now we’ve got a reason for the pilot to matter, for the audience to care about him. And to worry about Jyn’s survival.

They get back to the rebel base, where they’re assigned to go fetch Jyn’s dad, now that they know he’s the mole.

Cassian still gets secret orders, but they’re to kill her father only if it looks like he’ll be captured and interrogated by the Imperials. Since he’s been their mole for so long, if they fail to get him out, the Empire can learn exactly how much they know, and change it so their knowledge is useless.

They get there, stage a rescue, but it all goes bad when Imperials bomb the place. The pilot, forced off his vantage point by Cassian (who was readying his sniper rifle), used the opportunity to sneak off and radio them what was going on.

So no Director Krennic, but we still have Cassian make a choice not to kill Jyn’s dad, when it’s clear the mission has failed and the Imperials know about their mole. He and Jyn still have a fight as they take off in a stolen shuttle, but this time it’s him as the only rebel against her crew of rogues, instead of Jyn the captive against a group that Cassian leads.

When they get back, there’s more reasons for Jyn to abandon the rebel cause. She makes her case to the Council — shrunk to just a dozen people, instead of seemingly everyone in the rebellion crowded into one room — but they decide not to go after the Death Star plans. They want to prep for a conventional assault on the station, they don’t want to waste people and resources on a likely suicide mission with dubious benefit.

She’s crushed, wondering what to do, when Mon Mothma takes her aside. She can’t give her any official backing, she tells Jyn, but she can see that she gets off the base safely and has access to enough equipment to pull off her raid to get the Death Star plans.

So there’s hope. Jyn gathers her crew — the defecting pilot, the two temple priests from her childhood — and starts prepping the raid. Cassian comes to her, asking to be part of it, to prove to her that he can be trusted.

She agrees, and her crew is complete. There’s no group of redshirts going with them. They’re going in stealthy and quiet, using the pilot’s knowledge of the facility and her ability to get into places she shouldn’t to pull it off.

One more change: as they’re stealing the shuttle for their mission, and asked for the call sign, she tells the pilot: “Tell them our call sign is Rogue. Rogue One.” It’s a symbol of her independence, her refusal to submit to authority of any kind, no matter how seemingly benign. She’s on the rebel side, for now, but she’s not really a rebel. She’s a rogue.

When they get to the planet, things still go pear-shaped. The pilot betrays them again, radioing Darth Vader that the rebels are there.

His betrayal turns out to be a boon, though: since he’s connected them to the Imperial network, they’re able to get a signal to the rebel fleet that they’ve gotten the tape, and they should send a ship into orbit to receive the transmission.

So we still get our space battle, with the rebels sending in more and more ships to both get the plans and then try to get their people off the surface (which is the real reason they need to drop the planet’s defense shield). We still have Jyn’s squad being picked off one by one, as they race against time to both get the plans and get them transmitted off-world.

But having spent so much more time with them, as a group, we care more. The victory — their victory — comes at a high price.

Story by Robert McKee

Life changing.

It’s changed the way I watch movies. As I watch I’m now looking for the beats within each scene, paying attention to the rise and fall of emotional charge throughout the film.

It’s altered the way I’m approaching the novel I’m currently writing, helping me to think more clearly about each scene and its purpose in the book.

It’s even got me thinking about going back to outlining everything before starting.

If you’re a writer, I think this book is essential. It’s forever altered the way I approach my writing, and somehow made me more confident in what I’m doing, even as it’s shown me what I’m doing wrong.

Three of the many things I learned:

  • Archetypal stories uncover a universal human experience and wrap it in a singular cultural expression. Stereotypical stories do the opposite: dress a singular experience in generalities.
  • An honest story is at home in one, and only one, place and time.
  • California scenes: two characters that hardly know each other share deep secrets about their past. It happens, but only in California. Nowhere else.

How to Fix Deadpool

This movie was surprisingly good. I’ll admit I know nothing about the comic book character aside from his appearances in Squirrel Girl. But it felt like Ryan Reynolds has been working his whole life to be able to play this role, and it fits him like a leather gimp superhero suit.

There’s actually nothing to fix here. Honest. It’s funny, irreverent, and personal, exactly what it needed to be.

Nothing to fix.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Went Wrong

Ok, you got me. There’s one thing that bothered me: it got a little clichĂ© at the end.

Vanessa getting kidnapped because the bad guys can’t find Deadpool, I understand. Vanessa getting tied up, I understand. But Vanessa helpless until Deadpool can rescue her? Felt too typical, too normal, for any movie, let alone one that was going out of its way to be different.

How to Fix It

Rather than push Vanessa’s character into damsel-in-distress mode, I’d prefer her to escape on her own. Preferably, via her mutant powers.

There’s a perfect moment, after we first see her tied up, and then Deadpool shows up. The villains’ backs are turned while they banter with Deadpool. That’d be a great moment for Vanessa to suddenly color-shift, and then become invisible.

When the villains turn back to sneer at her, she’s gone. They pop open the container, wondering how she escaped, but then get distracted again by Deadpool.

She uses the fight to wriggle her way free of the constraints, then hides, coming out to deliver her sword blow to the villain just when needed.

It’s a small change, but giving her a mutant power — one that she’s presumably kept from Deadpool — gives her character a little more depth, a little more mystery, and letting her use it to free herself is both more in line with her character (strong and independent) and subverts the clichĂ©d ending.

How to Fix Captain America: Winter Soldier

I loved this movie when it came out. It was interesting, well-paced, and felt like it did justice to all of its characters, no matter how minor. Not to mention the events of this movie aren’t just taken seriously, they pushed the ongoing MCU TV series and movies in a different direction.

But re-watching the movie revealed a few flaws.

What Went Wrong

In a word: cinematography.

The camera is moving throughout the movie, jostling and shaking back and forth constantly. Its particularly egregious in most of the fight scenes, where the trembling camera combines with super-quick cuts and bad framing to render them illegible.

The scene where Black Widow and Captain America are sitting talking inside Falcon’s house? The camera constantly dips down and tilts, so that different parts of Black Widow’s head are in frame every couple of seconds. What did the shaky-cam bring to this scene?

It seems the camera only stands still for the CGI shots, like when the heli-carriers are taking off near the end of the film.

How to Fix It

Simple: stop shaking the camera. We’ve had the technology for shooting movies in a stable fashion — even action scenes, mind you — for a few decades. Use that.

We’ve also got to reframe most of the shots of the movie. The sequence where the Winter Soldier, Cap, and Black Widow are all fighting around an overpass is in particular need of a re-shoot. Most of the shots are at odd angles, with any background that could help orient the action completely out of frame.

This is a great movie. It deserved to be shot clearly, without the headache-inducing edits that chopped movies like Quantum of Solace into a boring mess.

How to Fix Thor

I’ll admit it. My wife and I are re-watching all the Marvel movies in preparation for Civil War.

Like Iron Man 2, Thor is mostly good. On this re-watch, Loki came across as more of a tragic figure to me, a son trying to prove his worth to his father, but choosing the wrong way to do it. Thor grappling with his newfound weakness on Earth is still my favorite section of the movie (I’m a horrible person, and laugh every time Jane hits him with her car).

But there’s one glaring weakness in the film: Thor’s Asgardian friends

What Went Wrong

I don’t list them by name, because, well…can you remember their names? Or really, anything about them?

Sure, one is female and one is big and hairy and one is Asian and one is dapper. But that doesn’t tell us anything about them as people, as characters and personalities.

We never get a sense of them as individuals, and we don’t get a sense of them as a team. As a result, every scene with them in it lacks emotional weight. We simply don’t know who these people are, or why they’re friends, and we don’t care.

This is important because several key points of the movie involve them: the expedition to Jugenheim, their betrayal of King Loki, the fight against the Defender in the Earth town. Leaving these characters as bare sketches, as stereotypes, lowers the stakes in all of these scenes, weakening the movie as whole.

How to Fix It

Intro Thor and his team by showing them on a mission. Something small, but enough to see them in action and solidify their camaraderie.

We should see each of them exhibit their abilities. Using the Big One’s gregarious personality and Loki’s lies, the two of them talk the group past some guards. The Asian One and the Dapper One do some scouting, which requires them to scale some stone walls and do a little acrobatics. The Female One sticks by Thor’s side, stopping him just as he’s about to step on a trap. Thor can lost his temper halfway through the mission, putting them all in danger and causing his team to bail him out of trouble.

It doesn’t need to be long, just enough to give us a sense that these people have been working together for a long time, they trust each other (mostly), and they’ve all good unique histories. Maybe each one is from a different world, and so they can all give us some sense of how the Nine Realms work together?

To make room for it, we drop the intro sequence about the war with the Frost Giants. It’s confusing, it’s backstory, and we don’t need it. We do need to see Thor’s team in action.

The mission sequence also gives us a chance to show Thor’s second of three strikes. Odin welcomes them home after the successful completion of their mission (it’s the reason for the celebration in the beginning) but chastises them for taking a risk, etc. He can mention a previous (recent) strike, one that Thor thinks of as an adventure, but Odin sees as a mark of his immaturity.

We still have the Frost Giants sneak attack in the middle of this, and the Defender does its job. But now Thor and Loki get to ask what they were after, and Odin gives them the history, but abbreviated, and without the Earth piece.

With that change, the stakes are higher throughout the movie. When Thor goes to Jotunheim, we understand that he’s disobeying his father again, and dragging his team — who we know and care about — along with him. When Thor starts fighting, we understand that not only has Thor put peace between the worlds at risk, he’s put his team in danger, since we just saw Odin warn them against crossing him a third time.

We totally understand when Odin appears and takes them home, then yells at Thor and takes his hammer. It’s the culmination of a chain of events, not a father suddenly turning abusive because his kid stayed out past curfew.

And when Thor’s friends face off against the Defender, we care a lot more. They’ve broken the terms of their freedom in Asgard to find their friend, only to discover he’s no longer the strong fighter he was. The fight against the Defender will likely be their last, but they’ll fight it together.

How to Fix Iron Man 2

Re-watched this one over the weekend, and it holds up better than I remember. Rourke’s villain is still over-the-top, and Rockwell’s industrialist is so sleazy and incompetent it’s hard to believe he’s in charge of anything, let alone a large company.

But overall this is a fun movie, despite dealing with heavier subjects, like Stark’s relationships with Pepper, Rhodey, and his mortality.

A few things could have been done to make this movie even better, though.

What Went Wrong

Because of the noise generated by the villains, the emotional beats can get lost.

At the end of the movie, we think that Pepper Potts is giving on being CEO, and Tony’s going to take over. This undermines the sense of Pepper as being the more competent of the two, and is misleading: Tony doesn’t return as CEO.

We also think his best friend stole one of the Iron Man suits just to punish Tony for getting drunk at his birthday party, which makes him seem petty and mean.

How to Fix It

During the fight between Rhodey and Tony at the birthday party, we need to hear Rhodey lecture Tony about his other lapses. We need a sense that this is the last straw for Rhodey, that Tony — because he’s dying — has been neglecting his duties as Iron Man. Getting drunk while in the suit at his party is just his latest shirking of responsibility to Rhodey, and it’s gotten bad enough that he finally just takes one of the suits, instead of waiting for Tony to step up.

For the Potts plotline, all we need is for Tony to talk about how good she is at the job. He can drop a compliment into his failed apology when he brings her the strawberries. The comment bounces off her anger, of course, and rightly so, but it’ll reinforce the idea that she’s the right CEO.

Then, on the roof scene, instead of offering to resign, Pepper should ask how *he* dealt with all the stress. She can talk about how it’s worse for her, since she has to worry about him, too, but she doesn’t even come close to quitting. Instead, this is a moment for Tony to support her emotionally, telling her she’s doing great, she’s better at it than he was, and she’ll make it through.

Small changes, but they’ll underline the emotional parts of the story, and strengthen what is already a good movie.

How to Fix Spectre

Such a disappointment.

What Went Wrong

The entire film is pure formula. Intro is an action sequence where Bond kills someone. Following scene is him seducing an informant — who is never seen again — followed by Bond fighting with M over his rogue methods. This is followed by Bond seducing another woman, getting tortured by the villain and then shrugging it off, more fighting scenes, the woman’s in love with Bond, cue credits.

How completely boring.

How to Fix It

Instead of playing to formula, we’ll subvert it at every turn.

Take Dr Swann. As written and cast, she’s just another young Bond girl. So we’ll recast her, putting Amy Purdy — Paralympian snowboarder and double amputee — in the role.

We’ll introduce her much earlier, putting her on the ground in Mexico City, where she’s on the trail of the group that’s trying to kill her father.

Bond’s there, too, but they’re working at cross-purposes. His mission is surveillance, but hers is assassination. The chase across Mexico City is in part a race between the two of them, a race that Swann wins.

Bond spends the rest of the first half of the movie one step behind Swann. When they meet, it’s not like two potential lovers chatting over coffee, it’s two fierce competitors battling it out.

Our mid-point reveal is now multi-faceted. We reveal Swann’s prosthetic legs, and that getting them for her is the reason Mr White joined Spectre in the first place. She reveals her mission to Bond, who realizes his personal vendetta and hers are aligned. Reluctantly, they join forces to go after Blomfeld and take down Spectre.

Here we subvert another expectation: Blomfeld is actually the widow from the first half of the movie.

Bond still goes to the funeral, but the widow gently puts him off when he tries to seduce her. On his way out, Bond sees Swann, and goes chasing after her, and so forgets about the widow.

But in one of the final scenes — say when Bond and Swann crash a party held at a chalet high in the Alps that they hear Blomfeld will be at — he sees the widow again.

They flirt this time, playfully, with Bond clueless as to who she really is. That is, until someone else passing by greets her by name.

Bond naturally readies for a final showdown, but Blomfeld laughs at the idea. Why would she want to kill him? He’s been doing great work for her so far.

She proceeds to outline how well Bond has helped her: how his pursuit of low-level thugs has weeded out her weaker minions, leaving the organization stronger (Casino Royale). How he failed to prevent her gaining control of vast quantities of water rights in South America (Quantum of Solace). How he took down a thorn in her side who was trying to take over her computer systems (Skyfall).

She has no reason to kill him, since he’s been helping her all along. Even the MI5/MI6 merger has been good for her, since she only needs half as many moles as she used to.

She turns to leave, but runs right into Swann. Swann, of course, has every reason to want Blomfeld dead: for first ruining her father’s life, and then killing him.

A fight ensues, Blomfeld flees, Bond and Swann give chase. We get a great sequence of them skiiing and snowboarding down the slopes at night, Bond clumsy, Swann graceful and Blomfeld desperate. They finally corner Blomfeld against a cliff, where Swann, overcome with rage, pushes her off.

Both Bond and Swann sigh with relief, thinking its over, that they’ve put their ghosts to rest. But when Bond returns to London, Q tells him of a message he intercepted: of a meeting being called between Spectre’s remaining seven heads. They’ve injured the organization, but they’ve not taken it out.

How to Fix Revenge of the Sith

Almost done with the prequels. Thankfully this is the best of three, though given the generally low standards of the first two that isn’t saying much.

What Went Wrong

I’d be remiss if I didn’t once more point to the most comprehensive take down of these movies.

Most of the problems with Revenge of the Sith are carryovers from mistakes made in the first two movies, emotional beats that fail to land with as much impact as they should because the foundation work for them hasn’t been done.

For example, PadmĂ© and Anakin’s romance should feel tragic, with Anakin’s concern for her driving them apart even as they try to keep their growing family a secret. But their interaction in Attack of the Clones was so still and formal, it’s hard to believe either of them would miss the other, except that the plot calls for them to. Instead, their “love story” feels like a piece of background that Lucas wanted slotted into place, as cold and unfeeling as a CGI’d starship.

Even Count Dooku’s death, which should be a pivotal moment, is treated so perfunctory that it feels trivial, just one more Sith slain by a righteous Jedi. No big deal.

How to Fix It

For starters, we need to make the changes I outlined previously, for the first two movies.

This means there’s no Count Dooku in this one. He died in Attack of the Clones, a tragic end for a renegade that thought he was doing the right thing.

We also have to continue rewriting the scenes between Padmé and Anakin. Two people in love, hiding their child from their superiors, should display a lot more fear and desperation than they do. We need to see their relationship deepen and grow, despite their need to keep it in the shadows.

It would help if we got some hint that Padmé made an effort to hide her relationship with Anakin. We should see her dating other men, or dropping hints that she was being courted by someone else, to deflect attention from the young Jedi that apparently spends every night in her quarters.

Ditto for Anakin. We need to see him lying to the other Jedi, making excuses and begging away from assignments that would make him leave the capital. We need to feel the danger that Anakin and PadmĂ© are in, and how far they’ve already gone to maintain their relationship. So when we see Anakin slipping to the Dark Side in order to save her, its one more small step along the path that he’s been on for years.

We also need to see more tension between Anakin and Palpatine, preferably over PadmĂ©. As a Senator that’s presumably alarmed at the direction the Republic is going, we should witness her at her work: campaigning for re-election (with Palpatine possibly campaigning for her rival), lobbying for support for bills from her other Senators (bills that would likely reduce Palpatine’s authority), giving interviews with the media to support her position.

All of this should make Palpatine grit his teeth, and Anakin should be constantly defending PadmĂ© to the Chancellor. It’d be one more sign to the audience of his feelings for PadmĂ©, and it would tip off Palpatine to the significance of Anakin’s devotion.

And once Palpatine realizes that, he decides to kill Padmé.

That’s the final change we make. The visions Anakin sees of PadmĂ© dying are not of her “losing the will to live” — which is frankly insulting for such a headstrong character — but of Palpatine draining her life force.

We know Palpatine has manipulated the Jedi’s visions of the future before. He decides to kill PadmĂ©, knowing the visions of her in danger will drive Anakin further down the path to the Dark Side.

His plan is originally to blame her death on the Jedi, pushing Anakin to break with them for good. But when he finds Anakin near death after his fight with Obi-Wan, he drains her life force and uses it to keep Anakin alive, in a single stroke sustaining his most powerful apprentice and sealing Anakin’s allegiance to him.