Category Archives: writing advice

Tales from the Writers’ Room, Part 3: How an Episode of TV Gets Made

People often ask me how a writer’s room works. Do all the writers work on episodes together, like a snarky, eight-headed hydra, or do we toil away in solitude, typing until our fingers bleed?   The answer is neither, and both. Though I can only speak for Bones specifically, the following essay will walk you through the basic steps of how an episode of television gets made.

Step One: Pitching a World

There are eight writers on staff at Bones, and we each come to the table with a plethora of episode ideas. Some are more issue oriented, like “The Lost Love in a Foreign Land,” which dealt with human trafficking. Others take a peek inside a unique world, like “The Geek in the Guck,” which was about video games and gamers. The creator of said ideas then pitches them to our head writer, who takes a chosen few to the show-runner, who gives one of them a green light. This moves us on to…

The dudes, deep in thought inside the BONES writers' room.

The dudes, deep in thought inside the BONES writers’ room.

Step Two: Breaking the Story

Once we know the world we’re dealing with, we start breaking the story in the writer’s room, with the writer responsible for that episode leading the charge. At Bones, we typically have no more than four writers breaking a story at a time so that every voice has a chance to be heard. If you compare scriptwriting to house-building, breaking a story is a lot like putting up the frame. Using the A-story (on Bones, this is the murder case) as our driving force, it is our job to “beat” (plot) out all six acts scene by scene. When it comes to writing an episode of TV, this is the part that requires the real heavy lifting. Taking a concept and a few vague character ideas and fleshing that out into a dramatic six-act drama is no easy task. Yet on Bones, we do this 22 times a year.

Step Three: The Writing Process

Once the story’s been pitched to the show-runner and (hopefully) approved, writers are sent off to outline. We have approximately one week to transform the beats on the white board into a more formal, readable story, which then gets sent to the network for notes. Once the network approves, we’re off to script and have two weeks to deliver a “Writer’s Draft.” On Bones, each writer is responsible for writing two episodes per season, with freelancers and the show-runner filling out the rest. Also, if we choose, we are allowed to write our outlines and scripts from home. #PajamasAllDayLong


A hint of the episode title for #1020. Plus, Emily’s Silver’s manicure.


Step Four: Rewriting

If you’re a writer, you already know that writing is really rewriting. And in the case of TV writing, this concept takes an added dimension as it is truly a collaborative process. Being rewritten by the show-runner is not only common to TV writing, but expected. And while it’s crucial to stand behind what you’ve written, you never want to be married to your own words. Ultimately, the show-runner is the voice of the show, and his or her revisions are an opportunity for learning. I am constantly in awe of Bones’ show-runner Stephen Nathan’s wit, pathos, and depth of understanding of the show’s characters. Also, he writes faster than any human I’ve ever met.

Step Five: Prep

This is the stage where you think you’re done, but really you’re not, because prep (pre-production) brings up all sorts of questions and issues that necessitate script changes. Sometimes, those changes are big, like adding a whole new scene or changing a location due to scheduling issues. Other times, it can be as a small as correcting a single word of medical jargon. But pretty much every day during prep, new script pages are distributed in varying colors, marking what has been changed. Prep is also when we cast our actors, find locations, and determine costumes and props, which is my favorite part of the process.

Step Six: The Shoot

On Bones, we have nine days to shoot each episode and the majority of this time is spent on our standing sets of the Jeffersonian lab and the FBI (on Stages 6 and 9 at Fox Studios) with one-two days spent on location. Writers are encouraged to produce their own episodes of Bones, which means spending as much time on set as possible. If you’ve never been on a film or TV shoot, the days are long and the pace is slow—then suddenly fast. But the cast and crew are amazing, the atmosphere on set is fun and friendly, and there are always lots of snacks. Sometimes, one of the actors will have a question about what you’ve written, which usually leads to a rewrite on the spot. This can be slightly stressful, but I find these changes always make the show better. Plus, writing on set under time pressure makes me feel like a real TV writer.


Shooting Episode 1016 on the Fox lot.


Step Seven: Post-Production

This is the part where everyone’s hard work turns into an actual episode of TV. Editing is really the show-runner’s domain, so I haven’t spent much time in post, but my office is right across from it, so I have the torture pleasure of hearing each episode come together before I watch it on TV. ;)


I think I’ve answered the most commonly asked questions here. But if you have any others, feel free to put them in the comments section and I’ll do my best to get to them as soon as possible.


Filed under Bones, David Boreanaz, Emily Deschanel, TV shows, TV writing, Writers' Room, writing, writing advice

Tales from the Writers’ Room: Part Two

So, we are getting ready to shoot my second “Bones” episode. As I mentioned before, seeing something I’ve written turn into an actual thing is one of my favorite parts of the process, even when it’s only trash.


Prop trash: better than regular trash.

If this weren’t exciting enough, the props department brought in a food stylist to lead a “show-and-tell” of all the food we’ll use in this episode. I didn’t actually taste any of it, but Ian, our props guy did.



Spoiler alert: this pizza burger is not the murderer.

Spoiler alert: this pizza burger is not the murderer.


Ian digs in to "The Everest" while director Alex Chapple captures the moment for posterity.

Ian digs in to “The Everest” while director Alex Chapple captures the moment for posterity.

I can’t tell you much about this episode, but I will reveal the title here:  The Big Beef in the Royal Diner.  It airs April 2nd.


Filed under Bones, TV shows, TV writing, writing, writing advice

Rekindling the Flame (at a Writers Conference)

I love writing and I’m grateful to make a living at it. But sometimes, when I’ve been hunched over my computer for 73 hours straight and I still haven’t quite broken the story that consumes every recess of my conscious and subconscious mind, and my right hand has attractively stiffened into its mouse-clicking position at all times, like the desperate final clutches of a melting witch—I tend to get a bit cranky about the whole business. So, how does the burnt-out writer get her mojo back?  She goes to a writers conference!

The view from the Whidbey Island Writers Conference.  October 25 – 27th.

The view from the Whidbey Island Writers Conference. October 25 – 27th.

Like leafing through my wedding album after a marital spat, attending a writers conference reminds me why I fell in love with writing in the first place.  It doesn’t matter if I’m teaching a workshop, or taking one.  Just being among so many other people who share my passion for writing always renews my energy for my own work. Plus, where else are you able to speak so freely about the creative process without sounding like a total douchebag?

It’s all too easy to take the things we love for granted, if we’re not careful. Even a cool job, like writing a pilot for a TV network, can become mundane when you’re banging it out every day, word by painstaking word. Which is why, every now and then, it’s important to ship the kids off to grandmas, squeeze yourself into that expensive silk negligée, and slow dance to your old favorite song (even if you are only doing this metaphorically from the comfort of your conference hotel room).

There’s so much I’ve learned at writing conferences over the years and I’m thankful to have made many friends. But just as meaningful is the feeling these gatherings always rekindle in me—that even after all these years, I’m still just as excited about writing as the day I first fell in love with it.  Which begs the question:  why don’t I go to writers conferences more often?  Writing holds such an important place in my life it’s rather ironic that I often fret over taking time off from my writing (duh) to honor it.

Because the truth is: being a writer is more than just a job. Our work is sacred (this blog post notwithstanding), because in order to do it, we must be willing to give up pieces of ourselves. If you’ve never been to a writers conference, this is the secret we writers whisper in each other’s ears once we’re squirrelled away inside its secure confines, reveling just as much in our shared suffering as we do in our joy. But if you are not at a writers conference while reading this, a belated warning: this is the douchebaggy part.

I will be teaching two workshops at the Whidbey Island Writers Conference located in beautiful Puget Sound, October 25 – 27th. For more information, CLICK HERE.


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Filed under books, movies, YA, writing, Reunited by Hilary Weisman Graham, writing, writing advice

We Are All The Hardest Working Man in Show Business

Watch me, now.

Watch me, now.

Yesterday, I started the 7-minute workout, the latest fitness craze made popular by an article in the NY Times. According to the article, “exercises should be performed in rapid succession, allowing 30 seconds for each, while, throughout, the intensity hovers at about an 8 on a discomfort scale of 1 to 10.” So, when I told my husband I’d done it, he asked if I’d remembered to work at 80% of my maximum effort. To which I responded: “Doesn’t everyone?”

My argument being that most people rarely function at 100% of their capacity unless they’re under special circumstances, like competing in the Olympics or being chased by killer bees.

It’s like when you go out for a run and finally settle into a rhythm, then a car drives by, or another jogger comes along and you speed up your pace. Turns out, you did have more to give, only you didn’t want to use it unless you absolutely had to, which, thanks to a hearty dose of shame, you did, as soon as that cute guy in the short-shorts whizzed by you.

I was thinking about the idea of pushing ourselves to the max and how it relates to being a screenwriter/novelist. There’s a lot you can say about showbiz folks, but the one thing you can’t accuse them of is not giving it their all. Be it the grueling dance rehearsals and tour schedule of a highly paid pop music diva or the hours a writer like me spends toiling away in solitude—the competitive nature of this business require that when we perform, we do it at no less than 100%.

I guess, in a way, being in showbiz is it’s own kind of interval training—sprint and rest, sprint and rest.  And we need those calm periods in between film shoots and manuscripts in order to slow down and reconnect with ourselves, to get more than five hours of sleep a night, and refill our creative wells. But the second we’re called to action, we’re off and running again. Because no one ever gave that break-out movie performance or landed a life-changing script deal by giving anything less than 100%.  

At least that’s what we tell ourselves each time our screenplays fail to sell, or when we don’t get that directing job or land that plum role. We rally, regroup, then push ourselves to do better next time. We double down. Then, we double down again.

Yet, in the rest of our lives, I think most of us operate at around 80%, at best.  Just last night I was talking about this with another mom (as we watched about 20% of our sons’ baseball game) bemoaning the fact that no matter what we do, we’ll never be better than be B+ parents.  I know this because during the first three years of my son’s life, I tried parenting 100%—hauling my floppy-necked infant to mommy-baby drum circles, my valuable hours spent filling ice cube trays with homemade organic baby food.  Turns out, 100% mommying is about 20% too much mommying for me.  At least it is if I want to leave space for any of the other important things in my life, like my writing, my husband, and my friends.

In general, I believe there’s nothing wrong with living life at 80%. It’s steady. It’s not totally exhausting. If life is a marathon, 80% is what we need if we want to cross the finish line. 

But what I’ve had to come to terms with over the years is that creative types like me don’t like to run at a steady pace.  We prefer pushing ourselves to our limits, even if we have to put ourselves in extraordinary circumstances and under extraordinary pressure in order to find out exactly what those limits are. Which is why we are all the hardest-working men in show business. (No offense to James Brown.) And even though it can feel utterly depleting at times, dancing as fast as we can without any guarantee  we’ll win the dance contest, I believe there’s great value in challenging ourselves. Like mothers who suddenly find themselves able to lift a Volkswagen off their child, unless we’re pushed to our limits, we may never find out how strong we truly are. 


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Filed under books, movies, YA, writing, movies, parenting, screenwriting, writing, writing advice

3 author visits in one day! A new personal record…

As some of you already know, I could talk about the writing process all day long.  And yesterday, I got to do just that!  HUGE THANKS to the students & teachers of Fenway High School in Boston, the Boston Public Library, and the Merrimack, NH Public Library.  And best of luck to all of the fabulous NH writers I met last night who’ve started NaNoWriMo. Now stop reading this and get typing! ;)

Oh, and I told the Fenway High School kids we’d vote on whose picture was cuter–the left side of the room, or the right side of the room.  But clearly, it’s a tie.

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Filed under book blog, books, movies, YA, writing, writing, writing advice

Calling all Los Angeles Reader Girls! (and boys)

On October 25th at 7:00pm, I’ll be doing a reading/book signing at the Glendale Americana Barnes & Noble along with the fabulous Carmen Rodrigues (34 PIECES OF YOU) and Suzanne Lazear (INNOCENT DARKNESS).   We’ll also be talking about the process of of seeing a Young Adult novel into the world.  So, if you’re a YA fan and/or an aspiring writer, please join us for a night of books, fun, and giveaways!

Writing Young Adult

Date:  October 25th

Time:    7:00pm

Admission:  Free

Location:  Glendale Americana Barnes & Noble

The Americana at Brand 210 Americana Way

Glendale, CA

(818) 545-9146

Event website:

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Filed under books, movies, YA, writing, favorite books, writing, writing advice, young adult

A Good and Bad Writing Day, and Other Questions for Author Rachele McAlpine

This week, I’m featuring an interview I did with Rachele Alpine, author of the YA novel CANARY (Medallion Press) due out next August.  
Rachele is also a member of the Lucky 13’s,a group of YA & MG authors debuting in 2013.  Here’s a synopsis.
If she stays quiet, it will destroy her. If she speaks out, it will destroy everyone.

Kate Franklin’s life changes for the better when her dad lands a job at Beacon Prep, an elite private school with one of the best basketball teams in the state. She begins to date a player on the team and quickly gets caught up in a world of idolatry and entitlement, learning that there are perks to being an athlete.

But those perks also come with a price. Another player takes his power too far and Kate is assaulted at a party. She knows she should speak out, but her dad tries to silence her in order to protect the team. The world that Kate was once welcomed into is now her worst enemy, and she must decide whether to stay silent or expose the corruption, destroying her father’s career and bringing down a town’s heroes.

 1. What’s your biggest piece of advice for new writers.
Write, write, write and read, read, read.  Seriously. Find the time every single day to do both.  They go hand in hand.
2. What was your favorite scene to write in CANARY and why?
This is a great question (and one I never thought of before!).  I think some of my favorite parts were the non-narrative parts that my main character, Kate, creates.  She chronicles her time at her new school with blog posts told in poems, lyrics, quotes, and free-writes that don’t follow the traditional writing structure.  She writes these as letters to her former self, giving words of advice.  Each of these entries starts with a rule that she wish she would have known and then she reacts to the event in an artistic way.  I really liked the idea of stepping outside the traditional way of writing a novel and playing around with how I present information to the reader.  As we get closer to the book book’s publication date, we’re going to publish Kate’s post on a blog, as if she were released them in real time.  I’m pretty excited about that.
3. Describe a bad writing day.  Now, describe a great one!
A bad writing day to me would be a day when I can’t sit down and write as much as I want to.  I’m a high school English teacher and MFA fiction candidate, so my life is pretty busy.  I try to fit some time in for writing each day, but in the perfect world, I’d have endless amounts of time for everything in my life.
A perfect writing day would include my weekend/summer vacation routine.  I wake up, make a big pot of coffee and write in my pajamas for a few hours.  My dog sleeps by my feet, I play my favorite music, and if I’m lucky, the stories flow.  When the words don’t come as easily, I’ll take a break and go on a walk with my dog.  It’s just so easy and relaxed, and I love the possibilities that a whole new day of writing brings.
4. What surprised you most about the publishing process?
I love how I have been able to connect to so many readers and writers.  It’s amazing to talk with people who are already excited about your book, to connect to people who love YA literature as much as I do, and experience the amazing support YA writers give to each other.  The YA community is incredible, and I love being a part of it.
5. What are the best books you’ve read in the past year?
That’s a hard one…I’ve read so many great ones!
Right now I’m head over heels in love with Carol Rifka Brunt’s TELL THE WOLVES I’M HOME.  I want to devour every word, but I’m reading it slowly to make it last.  In the last few months, I’ve also raved about WONDER (R. J. Palacio), WHAT HAPPENS NEXT (Colleen Clayton), and IF I LIE (Corrine Jackson).
If  you’d like to enter to win an ARC of CANARY, go here:

For more info. about Rachele or CANARY, here are some other links.
Author Bio:
Rachele Alpine is a lover of sushi, fake mustaches, and Michael Jackson. One of her first jobs was at a library, but it didn’t last long, because all she did was hide in the third-floor stacks and read. Now she’s a little more careful about when and where she indulges her reading habit. By day she’s a high school English teacher, and by night she writes with the companionship of the world’s cutest dog, Radley, a big cup of coffee, and a full bag of gummy peaches. Rachele lives with her husband in Cleveland, Ohio, but dreams of moving back to Boston, the city she fell in love with while attending graduate school there.

One half-caf, soy mlik cappuccino, extra mustache, please.

Blogger’s Note:  Rachele also crafted the wonderful REUNITED Teacher’s Guide (available for Book groups as well!) which can be downloaded FOR FREE, right here.

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