Category Archives: writing

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Spoiler alert: this pizza burger is not the murderer.

Spoiler alert: this pizza burger is not the murderer.

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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.

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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

I am a New Adult (Again)

When I was 18 years old, I could not wait to leave my boring, suburban hometown and go to college in the city of Boston. And even though Boston was only a 40-minute drive away, I was convinced that moving to the city had the power to magically transform me—80’s movie montage-style—from a chubby, overachieving nerd, into the glamorous, urbane sophisticate I was no doubt destined to become.

I began my metamorphosis by drowning my former Student of the Month persona in gallons of cheap vodka, while my inner good-girl was smothered in a wardrobe of all black.

The strange thing was, I had this one professor who somehow managed to see through my shroud of pretension and catch a glimpse of the real me.  Over the next four years, she frequently sought me out, encouraging me to get more involved with the university and become a student leader. I spent four years dodging her requests.

And yet, I found myself oddly tempted by the idea of revisiting my inner go-getter. Because somewhere hidden deep inside of me—though, evidently, not quite as deep or hidden as I thought—was a motivated, hard-working kid who didn’t really want to waste her entire life stumbling home from nightclubs at 3:00am. I was enthralled with the idea of a life of reckless hedonism, yet I could no longer ignore the ambition roiling inside of me, the desire to live out my life-long dreams, or at the very least, to get sh*t done.

Shortly after graduation, I began to reconcile these two disparate halves of myself, retaining just enough of my free-spirited proclivities to make life enjoyable, while making sure to carve out enough time to honor my inner over-achiever. I was only 23 when I started to shoot my debut feature film and my former professor was the first one to pull out her checkbook.

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I spent the rest of my 20’s pining for and simultaneously reenacting my college days. It was the 90’s, and my generation pioneered the concept of prolonged adolescence, formerly known as “slacking,” which, in turn, spawned the rise of the pervasive Man Child[1] phenomenon of today. Sure, I worked for a living and (mostly) paid my own bills. But none of my friends actually had it quote-unquote together, and as we drank our nights away at the local pool hall, we laughed over the  fact that anyone in our youthful, fun-loving age bracket actually gave a crap about bourgeois, old-people things like 401Ks, biological clocks, and marriage.

Then thirty came, hitting us like the slap of a screen door in the three-decker Allston apartment we were too old to still be renting. We certainly weren’t kids anymore. We were freaking thirty.  So where were our amazing careers? Where were the new cars and engagement rings? In a phrase: What the hell was wrong with us?

For me, turning 30 was the beginning of my adulthood, though true adulthood didn’t come until I became a parent, at age 34. Looking back, I don’t regret my extended stay in Never-Neverland, and judging from my resume (two features under my belt by age 28 and various TV-producing jobs) I can’t exactly call myself a slacker. But I do wonder what I might have achieved if I’d followed the path suggested to me by my old professor and given in to my ambitious side way back when I was still in college. I also wonder what I would have lost by giving up those extra ten years of my youth.

I spent my twenties fighting adulthood with everything I had and my thirties learning to accept it. At 43, I fully embrace my adult self, though there really isn’t another choice. Which is why I believe it’s entirely possible that New Adulthood is more than just some marketing scam cooked up by YA publishers.  I am a New Adult now, for the fourth or fifth time over. Maybe all of us always are.


[1] For more info. on the Man-Child, watch an early Judd Apatow film.

Hilary Weisman Graham is an award-winning screenwriter, filmmaker, and the author of the YA novel Reunited (Simon & Schuster), now available in paperback. http://www.amazon.com/Reunited-Hilary-Weisman-Graham/dp/144243984X/ref%3dsr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1321630047&sr=8-1

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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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The Next Big Thing: GIRLS LIKE ME

I haven’t blogged as much lately, so I was happy when my friend Sera Rivers tagged me to be a part of The Next Big Thing Blog Tour. You can check out her post about her work-in-progress — the amazingly titled POE IS ME – by clicking here.

And here are the deets about my Work-In-Progress.

What is your working title of your book?  GIRLS LIKE ME

Where did the idea come from for the book?  The idea started with a meeting I had in LA two years ago where a producer suggested that I brainstorm ideas for a modern adaptation of LITTLE WOMEN. I never managed to do this successfully, but ended up with about a dozen other ideas, one of which was GIRLS LIKE ME.

What genre does your book fall under?  Contemporary YA.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Chloe Moretz as Zoe

Bella Thorne as Nora

Dakota Fanning as Brooke

China Anne McLain as Claudia

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? When a life-changing emergency plane landing compels Zoe Marshall’s pilot father to come clean about the three illegitimate children he fathered back in his days as a ladies’ man, Zoe’s feels like her whole life’s been a lie. But things go from bad to worse when Zoe’s dad invites his long-lost daughters to spend the summer with them in New York.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?  My agent is shopping it now (fingers crossed).

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?  I’m trying to sell it as a partial.  I currently have 108 pages and a 30-page, chapter-by-chapter synopsis.  I think it took me about three months.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?  Hmmm, I can’t think of any actual books like it, but tonally, it’s Sarah Dessen meets Jay Asher.

Next up on the The Next Big Thing Blog Tour:

Tom Ryan, author of WAY TO GO (Orca Book Publishers)  www.tomwrotethat.com

Susanne Winnacker, author of The Other Life, its sequel The Life Beyond (coming March 1, 2013 from Usborne), and Impostor (coming July 11, 2013 from Razorbill/Penguin)  www.susannewinnacker.com

Julie True Kingsley, soon-to-be-published author & blogger extraordinaire. http://julietruekingsley.com

Wendy Thomas, 2012 NaNoWriMo winner, chicken goddess, and author of of the ebook:  Waste Not, Want Not – How Weighing Discarded Edible Waste for One Month Taught My Family the Value of Food http://simplethrift.wordpress.com/2013/01/10/lesson-678-the-next-big-thing/

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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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