It was 2:30 a.m. in late July and I had all the time in the world. Without any professional duties to worry about the following day, I could seize my late night creativity kick and birth the pilot I’d been wanting to put together for weeks. With zero knowledge of script formatting or TV writing structure, I threw together fifty pages of dialogue, stage orders, and pure, authentic, uninhibited inspiration. Did it look like a TV script? No. The thing was in MS word, for God’s sake, not Final Draft, Celtx, or Trelby, which I eventually downloaded for free. What I lacked in direction I made up for in heart and passion, and when 4:00 a.m. rolled around and I was too pumped and excited about this world I’d created to listen to my body and rest, I mapped out the following nine episodes, planning enough content for an entire season. If anything ever becomes of this show, I know exactly how each installment will play out. I know how it will end. It’s all whirling around in my head, and much of it’s on paper.
The next day, I wrote episode two and got to the middle of episode three before choosing to take a step back. I make a lot of decisions based on creativity, impulse, instinct, and emotion, but there’s a business savvy side to me I’ve never been able to ignore, and I credit that for my strong social media following, Facebook presence, and success as an internet writer/editor/troll. You can be as whimsical as you’d like, but it’s important to work smart and not simply hard. I had tons of ideas for episodes and events in my show, but couldn’t ignore the fact that I knew nothing of the entertainment industry, let alone TV writing. Before continuing, I needed some guidance on how TV writing works. Why pen an entire series without first consulting outside sources who’ve been there?
So, later on in hot, humid July, I pulled the covers over my head and quietly thought about moving back to my home state of California — this time to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting. For more than a month and a half, I didn’t tell anyone I intended to return to the West Coast as soon as I could, as I didn’t want to upset my Manhattan friends or worry my roommate that I’d bail on our lease. A two-hour phone call with my mother one night in early September changed everything, and once she began throwing out solutions and ideas for me, I actually started packing up my room. Yes, before I even told my roommate I’d be relocating to the West Coast, I began yanking my clothes off the shelves and tossing them into my multiple suitcase, wanting nothing more than to start fresh at that moment and flee NYC, where I not only couldn’t make it but was becoming the worst possible version of myself.
Everyday, I fought the urge to bark at everyone around me, faulting random passersby for the fact that it’s so hard to live in New York City, which may as well be a war zone with its suffocating train platforms, unsafe subway conditions and unspeakable crime, unpredictable and deadly weather, lowlife catcallers poisoning all five boroughs, children of socialites dominating every single field, nepotism and elitism, truly heinous and embarrassing favorability toward the rich and neglect of the poor, you name it. I had to save whatever was left of my free-spirited California/Arizona identity before it completely crumbled to make room for misery and blind ambition. Some say Manhattan is going to be underwater in the future thanks to global warming and the habits of its selfish residents. That seems tragic, sure, but maybe it’ll restore everyone and provide them the clean slate I sought when I moved back to the West Coast. I know I’m not the only one who’s needed a change of scenery to come back to life.
“Laura, I think what you really need is to come back to California,” my mom said at the start of our now-famous phone chat. “UCLA has a great extension program for aspiring screenwriters. Take classes there, get a little structure, and be back on a college campus. You loved being on a college campus at UA. UCLA is very similar.”
My mom was spot on, and luckily for us, UCLA starts later than most schools and there was still time for me to sign up for courses. I’d just have to miss the first session of spec sitcom writing, but it wasn’t like I was working toward my master’s. I’m only taking one class as Pass/Fail, as I was overly concerned about my absence at the beginning and didn’t even want a “B.” I’m in school for “A”s now, not that it matters. My goal was, and is, to learn. I needed to learn the basics of screenwriting to:
a. give my pilot the attention and edits it deserves
b. have a foundation
c. feel more confident about approaching an industry with which I had no experience
The moment I verbally agreed to make the life-changing move, I began to clear out my tiny Harry Potter room. By the end of the night, all my clothes were off the shelves, my shoes were packed up, and my books were in boxes. A week later, everything I owned was in California, where most of it came from in the first place. I had to stay in NYC for another two weeks, but I was cool with that. I knew I’d be home before long.
It’s been nearly three weeks since I settled into my bachelorette pad, and So Cal life is truly as good as it sounds. The 75 degree weather and sunlight have replenished my soul and spirit, I don’t feel like a total freakshow walking around in sundresses and pastel colored clothing, everyone is friendly, and I’m spending lots of time at TV show tapings. I’m loving my courses, classmates, and professors, and I’m also having a blast working with Budd Burton Moss, my LA fairy god father, so to speak. It’s great having someone look out for me over here — as well as an adviser who wants me to succeed in this insane industry.
I’ve also noticed a distinct difference between journalism and entertainment. Everyone is struggling in both fields, but it’s more common to seriously struggle in entertainment. I know people who have truly amazing TV gigs one day and no leads the next. A friend of mine currently works on a hit ABC Family show but knows she’s going to need a new gig in December when it stops shooting. Talk about stressful. More so than journalism, you’re truly only as valuable as your latest project/job. Why do you think actresses and actors go nuts? They’re on top of the world one second and totally forgotten the next. I see it happen on all levels here, and if I manage to have some sort of impact on this industry, it will happen to me. I will get down on myself, maybe even more than I got down on myself in journalism. Trust me, it’s not easy being here without something concrete and stable, but I would rather be in my current position than miserable at a journalism job. At least my heart is totally in this. If you’re upset and your heart isn’t in it, nothing is going to push you through the rough patches. And there will be many, so get ready for a wild ride. You don’t feel as bad about lacking a full-time job in entertainment, because pretty much everyone goes through that a million times.
Anyway, now that I’ve read quite a few scripts, become a total nerd in class, done my homework, and spoken with a lot of people who’ve worked in TV and film, I feel more confident about the pilot I created in July. I polished the text today, formatted the whole thing correctly, and now want to show it to anyone willing to give me constructive criticism. I know, I know, it’s better to spec a CURRENT show on TV, and believe me, I’m spec’ing New Girl like there’s no tomorrow, but I also want to invest myself in a set of characters I created. The folks in my series — a 1-hour drama with influences of Glee and Greek — are all total weirdos. There are too many characters, I will say that, but only a couple people in the main crew. Everyone says outrageous things, because I’ve lived enough to know everybody in this world is insane. The levels of insanity set us apart, but no one is sane. Anyway, my biggest concern with the pilot is the fact that each character has the same brand of zany, random humor, and that’s where constructive criticism would help me out. More voices too. It has tons of jokes and one-liners for a “drama” because I value comedy writing, but it’s a light drama like Glee, which also relies heavily on jokes. We’re not dealing with Breaking Bad here. I’m not even sure I have enough darkness within me to put together a show like that. If I do, I couldn’t survive writing it. Trust me when I say writing negative content messes with you. It’s why I published The Wingmen earlier this year. I wanted it out of my life — it was truly weighing me down and breaking my heart.
Anyway, I poured my heart and soul into this pilot. I absolutely did the same for The Wingmen, but I also spent more time on that story. This is lighter, fresher, happier, funnier, and best of all, fictional. Sure it’s based off things I experienced in college, but the main character of my series is not necessarily an onscreen version of me. There are plenty of similarities and her life experiences mirror many of my own, but I’m having some real fun by making stuff up. She’s more sarcastic than I am, and though I’d think a lot of the things she says out loud, I wouldn’t say I’m as cynical as she is. Maybe this girl is the person I wish I could be more like — I don’t really know. All I know is I love establishing personalities and relationships between characters I create. Some are more complex than others, but they all need each other. I’m enjoying the fictional aspect so much — I almost want to say it’s healthier to add an extra layer of fiction, because when it’s all truth and you’re too close to the story, everything about the process hurts.
The Wingmen came close to totally crushing my enjoyment of the writing process. Most of us care more about the finished product than the journey itself, and while I actually like the journey of writing, I almost didn’t make it out of that one. The book will always be in my heart, but the number one reason I chose not to work with an agent on it (and I had offers) was because they all wanted to wait years to release it. The Wingmen had been haunting me for nearly seven years at that point, pushing a decade — I couldn’t drag it out another day. I needed the story out of my life, not keeping me up at night or thinking about the first person I ever loved. Turns out he’s still the only person I’ve ever loved, but that’s my fault. Everyone who tries to love me now is turned away, and I am actively working on not hurting the men who will never hurt me. That’s a story for another day, though. Crystal recently said of my ideal man, “Laura, you want a composed trainwreck. Do you know how impossible and specific that is?!” Yes, I do. She had a point when she added, “There’s only room for one trainwreck in a relationship, so don’t fault a guy for not being a trainwreck.” If anyone’s going to be the trainwreck, it kind of has to be me. I mean, have you read my blog?
As earlier stated, The Wingmen has my heart — but so does this pilot, which brings me happiness, not sadness or traumatic memories of nursing a broken heart and taking care of a dying parent at the same time. I relived my first love, first heartbreak, and absolute worst memory when writing The Wingmen. I know writers are supposed to be self-loathing, because ART, but even I have a limit to the amount of emotional distress I’ll endure for a passion project. Sometimes you have to call it a day and give your heart the TLC it needs, because at the end of the day, your passion project may not be there for you.
I feel better about the state of my pilot, and maybe, just maybe, someday someone with power and the willingness to grow/guide me will skim through it. Most agents want specs of current shows, and I’ve got those too, but in terms of my true love, this is it. This is my Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. I use that reference because yesterday my intro to screenplay writing professor said he feels like steerage when flying coach after business class, lamenting, “It’s like I’m Leonardo DiCaprio without looking like Leonardo DiCaprio!” I’d like to think this pilot will one day look AND feel like Leonardo DiCaprio, and not just to me.
So, which one of you awesome friends of mine will read my pilot and tell me whether it’s Leonardo DiCaprio or Billy Zane — you know, the rich creepster in Titanic? Any takers?