Sunday, May 17, 2009

Dynamic Duos: A Q&A with Writing Partners Matthew Federman & Stephen Scaia

Writing with a partner is like being married, without the sex… unless you’re married to your writing partner. And then I’m guessing the sex is off the table when you reach an impasse anyways, so I stand by my original statement.

I usually write with a partner and the one question I always hear when sitting across from an Executive or a Producer is, “How do you write together?” Not an odd question. I’ve known writing teams that work in the same room on the same scene at the same time and I’ve known partners who live in different states and e-mail scenes back and forth. Charles Fleischer, the actor and voice of Roger Rabbit, once summed up my relationship with my first writing partner while we were sitting in an executive’s office at Disney pitching a story. He took one look at my partner and me and said, “Let me guess, you’re the Jew and he’s the goy. He types, and you tell him what to type.”

Yeah, something like that.

There’s a great dichotomy in writing with a partner. On the plus side there’s always someone there to bounce your ideas off of; someone who will tell you when your work needs just a little more refining. On the down side, there’s always someone criticizing every little thing you write. In my career I’ve written with four different partners. Each relationship was different except for one constant; that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you’ve read what the other person has written and really, really hate it. Depending on the type of relationship you have with your writing partner responses usually range from a polite discussion to a knockdown, drag-out, beat the hell out of each battle royale. I’ve run the gamut on that one. I’ve also sold projects with all four writing partners, proving that there’s really no right or wrong way, just whatever works for you.

With that in mind I asked writing partners Matthew Federman and Stephen Scaia how they work together as a team. Matt and Steve have written episodes of E-Ring, Jericho and the soon to be released Warehouse 13. Here’s that they had to say.

Jeffrey Berman: Collaboration is such an intimate creative relationship. How do the two of you work on the same script together? Do you write in the same room at the same time or do you assign scenes to each other and then hand the pages back and forth?

Matt Federman: We conceive the story and major beats together. Then "break" the outline into scenes. Once we have the specifics to go off and write we take different scenes (it's fairly organic, we tend to want to write different scenes) write them individually and then email the scenes back and forth, compiling them as we move through the script until both of us are happy with everything.

Stephen Scaia: It's funny, sometimes I think our writing experience is shaped by us both having grown up with older brothers. That means we work really hard to be as specific as possible in our outlines, allowing us to luxury of not being stuck in a room together for the actual writing process.

JB: What are the benefits of writing with a partner? Are there any downsides?

MF: Creatively, you can sometimes have a broader vision as a team than one would individually since you're having to please two people just to move forward with an idea. Also our first drafts are usually pretty solid because of our process which is essentially writing and rewriting simultaneously. Personally, writing can be very lonely but being a part of a team you have support. Also, left to my own devices I can get into a paralysis of wanting an idea to be perfect before getting started but Steve is always pushing to get started faster. As for downside, teams split a salary which is the reason many people will avoid it. But my response to that is: 1) It's still a great salary; and, 2) We seem to work more consistently because we are a "bargain" so it all works out.

SS: Another big bonus comes during meetings. We've heard many writer friends talk about how they sat for 20 minutes, sipping their complimentary water with nothing to talk about. But with two of us there, Matt and I can play off each other to loosen things up, and if the meeting is completely a bust at least we've entertained ourselves. Downside: all our good war stories are not only do we have to take turns with who gets to tell what story (unless it's how we met...we're BOTH tired of telling that one) neither of us lets the other embellish too much.

JB: Take me through one of your episode from Jericho. How did the two of you work on it from beginning of the script up to the last draft?

MF: We wrote four episodes of Jericho: Rogue River, Semper Fidelis, Condor and Sedition (with our boss Carol Barbee). Rogue River and Sedition had in common a placement on the schedule that meant we were coming off of a specific story and feeding into a specific end point. Semper Fildelis and Condor were slightly freer floating. The difference there is that for one type of episode, (i.e. Rogue River) you have on the white board something to build off of (in R.R. the words "Medicine Run") and in another you're constructing a story from scratch and selling the pitch to the room (the other writers/producers). Steve and I tend to prepare a lot, we come up with as much as we can together, even the basic structure, themes, etc of the episode, then pitch it. If the pitch is accepted we go write the outline, etc. The process is basically the same as described above except now we are not just making ourselves happy but the other writers/producers/actors/executives/etc. Story elements can even change based on locations and other production issues. So the

rewrite process goes all the way through shooting and editing. The constant for us is keeping in mind what first got us excited by the idea so in a long and highly collaborative process you never lose the story you first wanted to tell.

SS: All true. To add to that: we really like to pitch. A good pitch is a bit of theatre. Done right, your pitch makes people ooh, ahh, aww--and the most important part--send you off to write the script. Once you have a script, another great part is the "damage control" aspect of production...a favorite story we tell (telling it now will therefore means that next time, Matt gets to tell it) is of the first season finale of Jericho. We had a huge final scene featuring a Cobra attack helicopter. Now, most of the staff being 13 years old in the body of 30 year olds, we went to location to watch. We got there, only to find out that: a) The helicopter broke down in Barstow and wasn't going to show up; b) We had 20 minutes to re-write the entire scene (which, by the way, was helicopter dependent--and pivotal to the entire show). Loved that. It was just like Apollo 13...well, minus the saving three

men marooned in outer space.

JB: How do you resolve a situation where you both absolutely disagree with each other over a scene or a plot point?

MF: Remember the end of Rocky II when Rocky and Apollo hit the mat and Rocky gets up first? It used to be like that. We'd pummel each other until someone relented. That was bad. What we have learned over time is to start with questions like "What are you trying to get to?" Not to get caught on the specifics but to step back and look at the big picture. Generally we find agreement there. So now it becomes a question of "does this accomplish that?" What happens now pretty much 100% of the time is we either tweak something or find a third way that both of us agree is better than either of our options from before.

SS: I'd prefer to think of it more like Rocky III, as Mr. T was way more bad-ass than Carl Weathers...but I defer to the guy from Philly. See?! We've clearly grown a lot.

JB: Is it necessary for a good writing team to have similar sensibilities in order to create a good story or are writing partnerships more successful when people have different strengths and perspectives?

MF: I think it's helpful to think of it like any relationship. A certain overlap of values and vision is simply necessary. Otherwise you're not even talking the same language and you'll never find agreement. But if that overlap is total...if you are completely alike then you never learn or grow. Maybe that's okay for some people in a relationship but as a writing team that's death. Also, the lifeblood of story is conflict so the fact that Steve and I come at things from different angles frequently gives a scene an inherently dramatic conflict. So as with anything, it's a question of finding the right mixture.

SS: Again, agreed. We always know when we're on the right track creatively when we're both excited about the same thing for different reasons. Every great scene from TV and movies is a multi-tasker. By yourself it's very easy to fixate on one thing in script/scene/line of dialogue, the other guy keeps you thinking about how much more it could be.

JB: What advice can you offer a team to help them establish a successful career as writing partners?

MF: Assuming that talent and ambition are already a given, a team --as does a single writer--has a brand. But with a single writer the brand is organic to what one person writes. So the team needs to agree on their brand and establish themselves as, say, action/adventure/genre writers and stick with that at the beginning. The town needs to know what you are before you get to branch out over time. Otherwise I think the advice is the same as for everyone hard, be smart, and keep writing.

SS: Also, move to Los Angeles. There's no better way to learn the business than to immerse yourself.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Write Environment / Write On! Online Query Contest

The first step in getting your project noticed is to have a dazzling and informative query.

Enter the The Write Environment
/Write On! Online Query Contest by June 22. The winner in each category – Screenplay, Teleplay, Fiction, and Non-Fiction - will have their query read by a literary agent, among other prizes.

A query is the letter sent to an editor, literary agent, or publisher a writer uses to promote a project - and him or herself.

"What elements must all query letters have?"
• Great opening hook
• Supplemental information about your book or article (word count, people you interviewed for the article, genre your book [or screenplay] falls into, etc.)
• Information about you - aka your "platform"
• A request to send your manuscript or proposal - or for representation in the case of an agent.
• How to contact you

First Prize
- David Boxerbaum, a senior literary agent working at APA, where he represents writers and directors in the feature and TV world, will read the winners in the screenplay and teleplay categories
- Laura Strachan, who has a boutique literary agency, specializing in literary fiction and narrative non-fiction, will read the fiction and non-fiction queries
- The winning queries will also win an iScript recording of their project. Screenplay or Teleplay up to 110 pages ($275 value); prose or non-fiction up to 20,000 words ($300 value)
- One Grand Prize winner will take home a copy of Save the Cat Software

Second Prize
- Screenplay: Slumdog Millionaire, by Simon Beaufoy, courtesy of The Writers Store
- Teleplay: Sliders script, autographed by writer Jon Povill

- Fiction: From Crime to Crime, autographed by author Dennis Palumbo, courtesy of The Writers Store
- Non Fiction: Heliloggoging in a Sucker Hole, autographed by Bart Colantuono, a chopper pilot who can currently be seen on this season of Ax Men on The History Channel

Third Prize, courtesy of Barnes & Noble
- Screenplay: Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder
- Teleplay: Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television by Richard Walter
- Fiction: Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass

- Non-Fiction: Thinking like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published by Alfred Fortunato and Susan Rabiner

Submission Guidelines
- Email your query to by June 22
- Queries should be 1 page
- No attachments, paste text in the body of the email
- Include name, email address, address, phone number, and category at the top of your submission
- There is no charge to enter this contest
- By submitting, you are agreeing to join the Write On! and The Write Environment email lists

Winners will be announced on July 7 in the Write On! July Newsletter and on and

The Write Environment and Write On! Online are pleased to join forces for this contest, designed to help writers jump-start their careers. Sponsors include The Writers Store, iScript, Blake Snyder and Save the Cat, and more. For tips on writing a good query letter, read the Write On! Online Author Q&A with The Query Queen Wendy Burt-Thomas.Submit your query today!

To your success,

Jeffrey Berman, The Write Environment

Debra Eckerling, Write On! Online

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Jay Kogen Live at The Writers Store May 28th

Los Angeles, CA – The Write Environment, in conjunction with The Writers Store, is pleased to present a live interview with Emmy Award winner Jay Kogen, writer/producer of The Simpsons, Fraiser, Malcolm In The Middle, The Class and much more.

Hosted by Jeffrey Berman, the live interview will be conducted at 7pm on May 28th at The Writers Store in Los Angeles, California. For more information on the event please contact the Writers Store at 866.229.7483.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Writing wrongs with My Name is Earl, Scribe & Co-Executive Producer Michael Pennie

"Comedy is serious business."
- W.C. Fields

You know what’s funny? I do. But just because I think something’s funny doesn’t mean you will, which probably explains why I don’t have a sitcom on the air… yet. I’ve probably spent more time watching sitcoms than I have making love, lifting weights and dining out with friends… combined. Sounds tragic when I put it like that. But I’ve often heard it said that the best comedy is borne of tragedy. If that’s true I should be a success any minute now.

Phil Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, once told me that in his opinion the difference between a successful sitcom and a not so successful sitcom is relatability. Who am I to argue with Phil. And if what we see on the screen really reflects our own lives, then how hard can it be to write about it? Right? You'd be surprised. A good sitcom, a successful sitcom is one that doesn’t just make you laugh, it makes you empathize. Writing jokes is easy. Placing them within the context of a well crafted story and then having them repeated by a relatable, honest cast of characters in a 22 minute time frame - not so easy.

Michael Pennie makes it looks easy. Michael is a Co-Executive Producer/Writer for My Name Is Earl. The story of a ne'er do well who dedicates his life to cleaning up his Karma. Prior to working on Earl, Michael was a Co-Producer/Writer for the equally successful sitcom, Yes, Dear. Take it from me, when it comes to knowing what's funny, Michael is at the head of the class.

Jeffrey Berman: Humor is subjective. So how do you know when something you've written is funny?

Michael Pennie: That can be tough. Especially when you write and rewrite a scene so many times that you become sick of the jokes and lose perspective. I like to bounce stuff off of other people – and not just people I consider to be funny. Sometimes I even ask my wife. I find it more helpful to get the opinion of those that don’t necessarily have the same sense of humor as I do. Since most people probably don’t want to be critical of their friends work, I make sure to tell them that I’m not looking for their approval; I truly want their honest feedback. Also, it helps to have them read the script or scene in front of me, or listen to me pitch a joke to them verbally. It’s usually not hard to distinguish polite laughter from true enjoyment.

JB: How difficult was it for you to find that unique voice of a show like My Name is Earl? And what advice would you have for writers when it comes to finding the voice of any sitcom?

MP: I think finding the voice of My Name is Earl was more difficult than it would be for a lot of other shows. Being there from the beginning while the show’s creator, Greg Garcia, was still developing the show’s voice certainly helped me. In the early stages when all we had to work off of was the pilot episode, I learned as much from which pitches got shot down in the writers’ room as I did from what pitches actually got in the scripts. One example I recall from the first week of work was a joke pitch where Earl’s brother Randy, a grown man, is in an elementary school library, surrounded by kids staring at a computer screen. Suddenly Randy starts banging on the side of the computer and yells, “Hey, my porn machine’s broken!” The joke seemed consistent with what we knew about the character from the pilot. However, Greg Garcia had decided that he wanted Randy to be more innocent and childlike. I think that happens on a lot of shows. In early episodes of Will & Grace, you’ll notice that the character of Karen while fundamentally the same, she is a far more dialed back version of the character in later episodes. Sometimes this character evolution is the result of the actors and writers trying out different things to shape the character. This is especially true of secondary characters like Karen. In pilot episodes, most of the twenty-two minutes is spent introducing the world of the show and defining the main characters’ relationships and points of view. However, when a show gets on the air, the writers have to come up with twenty-two plus episodes, hopefully for several seasons. Inevitably this means the writers will soon look to give the supporting characters more dimension and greater significance to the main characters’ lives so they can serve as a richer source for stories and not just comic relief.

With that in mind, when writing a spec script for a particular show, it is important to stay current with the show and to be true to the characters as they are, not as they once were, or the way you think they should be. A few years ago I had an idea for a Two and a Half Men spec, where Alan’s ex-wife, Judith, and his brother Charlie wind up dating the same woman. It was a good idea except for the fact that at that particular time on the show, the Judith character was no longer a lesbian and had not been for several seasons. As tempting as it was to ignore this fact, I chose not to. My concern was that no matter how funny the spec script may have turned out, it would have seemed out of date compared to the other Two and a Half Men specs. Or even worse, I might appear to not know the show as well as other writers. A spec script’s purpose is to demonstrate that a writer can come up with similar stories and write for characters that someone else created. Why give any reason for someone to question your abilities by writing a story that takes the show or a character in direction that changes the show? Get to know the show and write a spec script that sounds like an episode of the show.

When finding the voice of a show I would recommend not only watching the show – but studying it. Record as many episodes as possible and watch them with a pen and notebook in hand. Pause after each scene and make notes. How many minutes was the scene? How frequently did jokes occur? If the show does B stories and runners, pay attention and indicate whenever a scene includes beats of the B and or C stories. Are the smaller stories different in tone from the A story? At each act break try to predict the direction the story will take. The truly dedicated might also consider taping the audio of the show so they can listen to the dialogue in their downtime. Since cassette tapes are a thing of the past, I’m guessing the best way these days is to download the episodes to an iPod. This may sound excessive, but it will truly help to get the characters’ voices and rhythm of dialogue down. Before long, when watching new episodes, you should be able to recognize a joke set up from a mile away and occasionally find yourself beating the character to their punch line.

JB: I read a quote about Earl that said, "You have to understand the humor to get the jokes." What makes Earl so different from a typical sitcom and how does that affect your approach to writing an episode?

MP: I have heard that said about My Name is Earl as well as some other shows. I’m not sure if I fully understand what that means. I imagine you have to get the humor of any show to appreciate it. One thing that makes My Name is Earl different is that most “traditional sitcoms,” as well as some not-so-traditional sitcoms, are often set in a world or a life situation to which large segments of the population can relate. For example, many people relied on a group of good friends to help them get through their twenties. Those same people probably work in an office and are now probably married and have children. This is not to say that familiarity is the only thing that makes other shows appealing and popular. People don’t just want to watch versions of their lives on TV; they want to watch really funny versions of their lives on TV. But without question, familiarity is wisely the goal of many shows. The more people that can say, “Hey, that’s just like my life.” Or, “That’s the exact same argument I have with my wife,” the more people there are that will likely become loyal viewers. Since large segments of the viewing audience probably can’t identify with the world or character’s situations on My Name is Earl, I guess we can only hope people appreciate the humor.

On My Name is Earl the humor doesn’t usually come in the familiar set-up joke form as often as it does in more “traditional” sitcoms. This was a difficult adjustment to make. Countless years of watching sitcoms and a few years of writing on one had me conditioned to create opportunities for a character to say something funny when writing a joke. On the first episode of My Name is Earl that I wrote, I was given a note that one of my jokes was “too written.” After trying to figure out how to write a joke that didn’t sound written, I came to realize that in most cases, it’s usually the straight line (the set-up) that is too written or contrived.

The approach I adopted to avoid then when writing episodes of My Name is Earl is to try to write jokes off of straight lines that the character might say regardless of the joke that followed. In other words, can you remove the joke from the scene and leave the set-up line without it sounding out of place or unnecessary? My favorite example of one such joke was in an episode written by Kat Likkel and John Hoberg where Earl and his brother Randy visit an “off the grid” environmentally conscious hippie commune. Earl had just been bombarded with facts about the state of the environment and in recounting everything the hippies had told him to his brother. Earl says, “Randy, these people don’t believe in plastic.” Randy replies: “That’s crazy. I’ve seen plastic.” If you removed the joke from this exchange, Earl’s set-up line still works as a straight line that a person might actually say in that situation, and could live on its own as information that serves the plot. Another example is from a flashback where Earl is in the back of a phony faith healer’s church stealing money from unattended purses. The faith healer’s con-man father approaches Earl, holds out a fistful of cash and says, “You wanna make some real money?” Earl reaches for the cash. The man pulls it back and says: “Hold on. First let me see you walk with a limp.” This flashback was necessary to the plot of the story, but it wasn’t particularly funny. Greg Garcia asked us to find a joke for Earl in the exchange. Everything we wrote sounded too jokey, or just wasn’t funny enough. By about the fifth time the joke was sent back to us, we were convinced it wasn’t possible to wedge a joke in without it sounding forced. Then we tweaked the set-up line from: “Hold on. First let me see you walk with a limp.” To: “Hold on. First let me see you limp.” Then Earl starts to unzip his pants and says, “Alright, but you’re just gonna look, right?” Again, if you remove the joke, the set-up still works as a straight line.

JB: In what way is My Name is Earl different from Yes, Dear and how would you advise writers when it comes to adapting their style from one series to the next?

MP: On Yes, Dear I would say the goal was to do funny relatable stories about young couples raising children. With My Name is Earl, we try to do funny thought provoking stories with heart. Even though the stories and worlds explored on My Name is Earl aren’t usually relatable, we do try touch on themes that people can identify with.

As far as adapting their style form one series to the next, I would advise any writer to adapt their style to that of the show’s creator. Several million people may watch a particular show each week, but as a writer or potential writer for any show you should only be writing for the one or two people that sit at the heads of the writers’ table. That’s not to say that you can’t bring your own talent and experience to the table. However, I have seen many novice and experienced writers show up and try to impose their own sense of humor and style on someone else’s show. If you are being considered for or have landed a staff writing position on a show, chances are you have talent. But for this particular job, the talent that you were hired for is your ability to come up with stories and write for characters created by someone else. You may think you know what’s best for someone else’s show -- but I’m willing to bet that they won’t agree. While this may sound creatively unfulfilling to some, you can always express your personal style by writing your own pilot or screenplay in your spare time.

JB: This one's a little tricky. When writing a sitcom is there a point where the comedy affects character development and story structure or is it just about finding where the laughs fit into each week's script?

MP: I would say that comedy does not have to, but it can certainly and should affect character development if possible. Pheobe from Friends comes to mind. Early on, most of what we knew about Pheobe came from off the cuff jokes about her mother’s suicide and how as a teenager she lived on the streets. Later on, the writers did some very good stories about Pheobie’s past and didn’t have to waste valuable page count with pipey exposition to establish her past in the episodes.

That said, I would contend that character development and story structure are far more likely to affect comedy. One of the first pieces of advice given to me by Greg Garcia, the creator of Yes, Dear and My Name is Earl was not to get too attached to a joke because often times your favorite joke will get cut in favor of story. At the time, I didn’t believe that could be true. It seemed counterintuitive that when writing comedy you would ever choose to lose a joke over a straight line. But over the years I have seen it happen time and time again. The fact is that the audience (or reader) won’t miss a joke that they never knew existed. Conversely, remove straight lines that serve to set up the plot and they surely will notice that the story doesn’t make sense.

Sometime jokes are sacrificed to protect consistency of a character’s actions. Early in the first season of My Name is Earl, Greg Garcia kept rejecting joke and story pitches where Earl’s ex-wife Joy was knowingly negligent with her kids. It was a source of frustration for the writing staff because without question, Joy was the most unredeemable character on the show. She tried to kill the main character throughout the second episode. Greg admitted that he thought the jokes were funny, but it was important to him that no matter how bad of a person Joy is -- above all else she loves her kids and would never do anything to purposely endanger them. To the rest of us it seemed we were sacrificing comedy that was organic to the character. However, in later episodes we have used Joy’s love for her children in several stories that showed a softer side of the character that would have seemed disingenuous and inconsistent had we done a lot of those jokes and stories earlier in the series.