by Michael Cassutt
We are living in an era sometimes called “Peak TV,” though when FX chair John Landgraf coined the phrase in 2015, he was pondering a universe of close to 400 scripted programs, most of them drama, being produced in America every year across the many platforms of broadcast (CBS, NBC still going strong), basic cable (USA, AMC and the like), premium cable (HBO, Showtime, Starz) and the growing world of digital streamers (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu). Now, four years later — the year it would all go bust, according to Landgraf’s original prediction — there are closer to 500, with growth projected to continue at five percent every year.
True, some outlets are buying less – the Fox Network is barely a market now — but in the past month two major new digital channels have gone on-line, Apple+ and Disney+, with NBC’s Peacock and Warner’s HBO Max scheduled for spring 2020. And a whole mythology has sprung up around the way most of these dramas are written.
That is, via the Writer’s Room. If you believe the websites and the on-line seminars, it is the temple all writers wish to enter, whether you’re a baby writer hoping for a first opportunity, or someone in mid-career — or a veteran desperate for “another bite of the apple”. It is where the magic happens — or career-ending mistakes are made. (Google Walter Mosely and STAR TREK DISCOVERY.)
If you believe social media, it is where novelists long to be, especially when their novels are being adapted. (By the way, if your work has been bought for TV, insist on being included in the writer’s room. You won’t be the showrunner and you may not be listened to, but by God you’ll know what’s being done to your prose, and why.)
And some novelists have made the leap. Michael Chabon – Michael Chabon! – is showrunning DISCOVERY for CBS All-Access. Charlie Jane Anders is in L.A. right now, working in a room. Close to home, novelists Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck have worked in the room for THE EXPANSE, one of the most acclaimed SF TV series ever, for five seasons now. And other members of the WC consortium have been blessed with these opportunities, including David Anthony Durham on one of the GAME OF THRONES prequels, and Saladin Ahmed on FOUNDATION. Max Gladstone did time in three different mini-rooms, not for the four big TV drama markets listed above, but for the vital and growing world of web series, such as WIZARD SCHOOL DROPOUT.
And there is this year’s writer’s room for two WILD CARDS series, which counted Melinda Snodgrass and me among the eight present. What is a writer’s room? How does it actually work? And oh, yeah, how do you get in, and is it worth it?
First of all, writer’s rooms date back to the Black and White Age of television . . . they were a staple of variety and comedy series like YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS.
(That particular writer’s room, whose members included Mel Brooks, Neil & Danny Simon, Lucille Kallen, Mel Tolkin, Selma Diamond and others, has been chronicled in film and on stage, first in the feature film MY FAVORITE YEAR, and then in Neil Simon’s play, LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR.)
For those of you old enough to remember them, MARY TYLER MOORE and the other classic MTM series were created in writer’s rooms.
And when ambitious serialized dramas such as HILL STREET BLUES and ST. ELSEWHERE emerged from MTM, they, too, relied on writer’s rooms.On my first series, THE TWILIGHT ZONE (working with a somewhat younger George R R Martin), there was a room that met two mornings a week. TZ was an anthology show, of course, so there was no need for continued discussion of a season story arc, continuing character moves, etc. We simply met to talk about the latest drafts, to give notes and then assignments. (“Cassutt, take this thing and do what you can with it by next Monday.”)
My second series, MAX HEADROOM, had no room, just a writer-producer and an executive story editor (me) who oversaw several freelance writers — and toward the end of our run, two story editors. This was the model for most TV dramas of the day, which were not serialized. A writer-producer or story editor would hear pitches from freelance writers, then supervise the development of an episode through the outline and teleplay stages.
But when I joined 1988’s TV 101, followed over the seasons by WIOU, EERIE INDIANA, SIRENS, BEVERLY HILLS 90210, SEVEN DAYS, THE DEAD ZONE, all five seasons of Z NATION, on BLACK SUMMER and the unproduced IN THE CLOUD and then FOUNDATION and now WILD CARD . . . I was in a room with anywhere from five to nine other writers of varying levels of experience and talent. So if anyone can explain this, it’s me.
How do you get into a room? Aside from attaching yourself to your own novel as it moves into development, the steps are these: you write spec scripts, you find a manager or an agent (or a manager who finds you an agent, this being the one new step since 1975), your reps get your material read by studio execs and showrunners. Another way is to get hired as the writer’s assistant, the individual who sits in the corner of a writer’s room taking notes on what is said. Given the fast, furious and fractured nature of what is said, this is trickier than it sounds. (And getting an assistant job is almost as difficult as getting an entry-level writer’s position, if you go by numbers. That quest is so intense that there are even Facebook groups for prospective and current assistants with tips and complaints.)
But even these assistants have written scripts. And that is scripts, plural. There are cases where some writer has composed a single perfect spec that led to a career. Well, maybe one: David Milch. Don’t bet on that happening again. Once you’ve managed the magic leap to a staff and find yourself headed to a room—
What is it?
Physically it is simply a conference room with white boards on its walls and a few reference items or other chairs around the periphery.
The Showrunner sits at one end, setting the tone for every day’s proceedings — giving the “let’s get to work” order after ten or forty minutes of opening chat, defining the goal of the day (“we have to complete the break on episode 3), guiding the talk, directing the assistant (“write that down”), calling the breaks to bathroom, or lunch, or snack, quantifying the day’s work (“okay, we got a lot accomplished”) then telling everyone it’s time to go home. The Showrunner will also have decreed a policy on computers and cell phones, almost certainly “none in the room”. Certainly that is my preference: I have worked in rooms where writers had their computers open as desired, and it frankly led to a room with divided attention. Come on, you can live without your phone for 45-50 minutes at a time.
As for the mechanics of the room, a senior writer, one with decent penmanship, will wield a marker and make notes on the white boards. (I had this job for ten long months on BEVERLY HILLS 90210, smearing the white board for 32 episodes. My arms are still tired.) Most work days run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. More than that and you risk wearing people out. (Writers have, or should have, lives. It makes them better writers.) Rooms that overlap with production are a special case, because the showrunner will be absent most of the time, the decision-making turned over to her deputy. The hours may vary a lot, too, because production always runs late and things always go wrong.
Your colleagues will become your new best friends, or, more rarely, worst enemies. Think about it: you will be working with other writers, people who have gone through the same agonies of creation, rejection, re-creation that you have. There will be some extracurricular fun. What Melinda Snodgrass remembers from WILD CARDS is “the comradery. We went to baseball games, played Bananas, made margaritas.” Thus are teams built. As with any team, some other members will be easy to get along with. Some not. Some will strike you as intimidating geniuses you could never hope to equal, some will clearly be idiots who shouldn’t be working.
You will probably be expecting a world of jargon, from “bottle episode” (designing an episode to be shot with no guest cast in a limited number of existing sets) to “infodump” (obvious, I would think) to “sexposition” (we’re looking at you, GAME OF THRONES) to “hanging a lantern” (taking the weakest part of your story and embracing it). And on and on. There are dozens of websites that have such lists, and you can accept as much of it as you wish.I’ve been in something like sixteen different rooms and can say that I’ve never heard half of these terms. And trust me, in any room you join, half of your colleagues won’t know them, either.
All this makes the writer’s room sound mysterious and even intimidating, like a secret society at Yale. And for many years, rooms have been a bit like that. In the old days, most denizens of writer’s rooms were white males over thirty. Today, rooms are becoming more diverse. To quote Landgraf: “In 2018, the network’s series writer makeup broke down like this: 48% white men, 21% white women, 17% non-white men, and 14% non-white women. Among showrunners, 33% are women and persons of color. Obviously equal opportunity and representation is still an un-met goal. But the business, and by extension, writer’s rooms, are far more open to new narratives and new voices. No matter your age, ethnic identity, gender, mobility, you should not find yourself all alone in a room. Nor should you be exposed to jokes about those subjects.
There is a history of rooms (see this article on the FRIENDS writer’s room and a subsequent lawsuit: https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/friends-writer’s-room-lawsuit-me-too) as freeform battlefields where racist and sexist jokes, insults, and gestures fill the air in the service of “comedy”. As with the all-male, all-white, all-middle aged rooms, those days are gone – or on their way to should be. A showrunner’s responsibility is to make it clear that slurs of any kind are not acceptable, You hear complaints, and not just from elderly writers, that this “P.C. nonsense” makes it impossible to be funny, or dramatic. I’ll simply say that my experience proves otherwise.
And once there – allowing for the fact that each room reflects its showrunner – your job is to be prepared (having read source material or drafts, or – and this is rare but useful: having done some independent research), to speak up (though probably less frequently if you are a new or junior writer), to offer ideas, to express judgments about notions that might not work – politely. (Tomorrow you will still be sitting across from the person you criticize.) In truth, any SF or fantasy writer who has been in a workshop like Clarion or Odyssey or the Taos Toolbox has run the same gauntlet . . . where your ideas are presented and critiqued, where you in turn respond to ideas from other writers.
The major difference, of course, is that in the writer’s room you’re working on the same story. And, well, you’re getting paid to be there. So you will face pressure to work effectively, play well with others, and produce. What do you produce? The most common product is a story break, a record of a single episode “broken” into individual acts and scenes, and spread across one or four of those white boards.
Here is what a break for BETTER CALL SAUL looks like:
(This is far, far more detailed than most of the breaks I’ve done, but that may be a result of the difference between a contemporary comedy-drama like SAUL, and the more fanciful stories of robots, superheroes and zombies that I seem to work on.) Oh, yes, there’s this: at the end of the day, or the end of the room, you are expected to write. You will turn that white board (and assistant’s notes) into an outline. That outline will be workshopped, and almost certainly re-written once or (if you were on MAD MEN), a dozen times.
Then you will transform your outline into a script.
Being in the writer’s room is different from working at home or in a coffee shop, alone. I wouldn’t suggest that it replaces solitary composition; I don’t think you can write fiction with seven collaborators, all looking over your shoulder at the same time. But the process can be fun in its own way. And it may give you tools you can apply to your next prose project. Michael Connelly, author of the BOSCH books and producer of the Amazon series, said recently:
”Before the show, most of the Bosch books were the single narrative — they’re in his head. And you don’t have that in scripting. One of the first things [the producers] said was, ‘Bosch can’t be in every scene, or we’re going to kill the poor guy.’ We have to spread the story around to other characters, to give them more life. Most of my books since then have had multiple narrators. I’ve spread the storytelling out in my books as well.” And yes, stories and prose change when they get sucked into the writer’s room. It’s just inevitable. Partly it’s the collaboration effect: any other writer in any form will do things differently. For a wonderfully articulate and complete description, I turn to our own Max Gladstone:
“Human beings have been telling stories for a hundred thousand years or so, and for most of that history we’ve told stories to audiences, even when delivering composed work. In front of an audience you feel instantly when your work succeeds and when it falls flat. When you write by yourself like most novelists do, you’re creating an audience for your book as you write it—even if you don’t have them consciously in mind a book is like a dream of an audience—but you so rarely get to see the audience, and you run the risk that the book never finds the audience it needs. Reviews and reader reactions help a bit, but you lose the immediate response of the open mic, in trade for the ability to go real deep on your vision. Writer’s rooms and collaborative storytelling environments bring the audience back in. You’re sitting (or pacing) around a table with other enormously skilled storytellers, all pitching in collectively to build an idea. You know instantly when your new wacky concept or off-the-wall line hits the nail right on the head—because the room gets it. There’s a golden joy that comes with unlocking a tricky story problem. It’s like that moment when you’re jamming with a good band and the soloists seem like they’re linked at the brainstem, that they’re sharing notes. The writer’s’ rooms for BOOKBURNERS, WITCH WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, and WIZARD SCHOOL DROPOUT — very different projects, with very different rooms—transformed and expanded on the core concept, and made something that was bigger than any of us could have created alone.”
Add to that the fact that you are dramatizing, not story-telling. That actors have to be able to speak your lines, act out your action. This isn’t a problem in a detective or medical drama, but really a challenge for SF and fantasy with aliens and other not-human characters . You can’t have your star subjected to six hours of make-up every day. That you have to make the setting and plot and motivations acceptable to entities with the money (studios and channels).And there you have it. What, did you think I’d spill secrets of the Wild Cards room? Oh, I forgot: the one unbreakable rule of the writer’s room is that what happens there stays there.
Until you see it on your screen.
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