The Connor Wars Writer’s Room 32 – Transparency

People have noted that I haven’t written a “Writer’s Room” blog in…wow, a month and a half. I used to write them between episodes. So what happened? Well, I’ll tell ya…

Early in the process of writing TCW, I toyed with the idea of not only writing the complete third season but also ending the story. Doing some quick estimates, I realized what sort of time commitment that would be. As that was bigger than I wanted to deal with at the time, I only worried about doing the season. I did have a final scene in my head–I’m a firm believer in writers knowing their endings before they start penning their beginnings–but it was still a sort of future thing. I had a season to write, after all.

Around mid-season, I committed myself to finishing the tale…or at least this part of the tale being that story ends are only the beginnings of new stories. As I was already stacking up real-life chores, some of which are time-specific to the spring, I settled on a tentative end date: March 31, 2010.

I know what writing rate I can sustain–which is a higher-than-average rate. So using that as a guide, I figured out how much story I could tell in the time I’d given myself. At this point, F0322 was slated for late January. If I was going to end in March, that realistically meant a maximum of five extra scripts for a truncated 4th season. Being a writer, I of course had to throw in a twist: I wanted the last script to not be a 1-hour teleplay, but instead be a 2-hour theatrical screenplay. I hadn’t written a screenplay in about a dozen years, so I thought it was time to give it a shot.

It’s important to mention at this point that a screenplay isn’t just a long episode. The most obvious difference is that there aren’t any act breaks, so that eliminates having a climax every ten minutes. On that note, a brief digression for a word from a paid writer:

The theory here is that good writers always produce good words; if you’re not getting paid for them, then you’re working for free. And because the Guild gets paid out of the writers’ incomes, its attitude is roughly the same as that of a pimp whose prostitutes are giving away their favors rather than charging for them. (In fact, I used to tell people I was a high-priced prostitute—but that led to too many misinterpretations.)

I could not cut just any twenty pages at random. They had to come from specific sections in order to preserve the script structure. A television script [in 1968] is broken into four acts, each fifteen minutes long. This allows for lots of commercials, equally spaced, but it is a headache to the writer. For one thing, it means that he needs three major climaxes, each one bigger than the one before—the idea is to keep the viewer so hooked that he won’t change stations during the commercial. So right there you have the whole structure of your story: Fifteen minutes and bang, a climax, (commercial), fifteen minutes and bang, another climax, (commercial, station break, another commercial), fifteen minutes and bang, a big climax, (commercial), and fifteen minutes in which to have the biggest climax of all, resolve the conflict and tie up all the loose ends. Did I say TV writers were prostitutes? Hell, we’re crib girls, banging and climaxing every fifteen minutes.

–David Gerrold, The Trouble With Tribbles

Like I said, with a screenplay I wouldn’t have the act breaks or length limitation that the teleplays imposed. It also meant that I could tell one big story all at once instead having to span episodes. Lastly, I thought that the TSCC story deserved a bigger ending that just a regular episode. I wanted bigger.

The thing is: being that a screenplay would equate to about 2-1/2 episodes, it would likely take about three weeks to write. Looking at my schedule, that meant that I’d have time for maybe three episodes before the screenplay. Not enough.

I looked at my options: 1) Do three eps and the finale; 2) Don’t make the last script a screenplay; 3) Let it take as long as it takes; 4) Write faster. The first three were pretty much no-gos from the beginning, so that left writing faster. That didn’t have a lot of appeal being that I was already writing pretty darned quickly. But…if I didn’t take any breaks, and maybe sped up a day or two per script, then maybe…

Working up a schedule, I saw that I could do it. In fact, if I kept to the already established release schedule, I should be able to bank enough extra days between releases that I could write the screenplay and have it posted on-time as if it were a normal 48-50 page episode.

F0319 was the first script I did that with. Instead of posting it within a day of finishing the draft (Dec. 16), I posted it on its regularly scheduled date (Dec. 20). From then on, I was a writing machine. Not that it was easy. First there was Christmas+New Years to work around. Then there were the Winter Olympics. With only one exception, all the scripts were now getting written in 10-12 days (or less)  instead of the 12-14 days I’d maintained all the previous season.

It was around this time that Lumir Janku came on board to help me out a bit. A good bit of the John vs Skynet plot is a collaboration between us. As I was mostly focused on the script in front of me, Lumir would propose plot ideas. Some I nixed immediately because I knew I couldn’t fit the ideas into the structure I was building. Others found purchase. Many more sparked debate: proposal, counter-proposal, counter-counter-proposal. He focused on a lot of the niggling detail things I just didn’t have the time to do alone. Along the way we came up with some ideas that never would have developed otherwise. I started assigning him co-story-by credit when the fruit of that development began appearing in a significant way in season 4.

Through January and February, I think we shaved a couple of weeks of development from what I’d have had to allocate if I were doing it alone. I think the story is better for the extra perspective. That’s not to say that it was a cake-walk. I was still doing the outlining of the episodes as well as writing them…and now had to overlap that with development. Something had to give. Mostly, it was blogging–especially the “Writer’s Room”.

By the end of the March 31 writing day, I finished the rough draft of the last script.

I can’t tell you how amazing that is. Not only to have principle writing done on the day I’d set out to do it so many months before, or having written the draft in just 17 days, but to have the yoke of thinking of this story all my waking (and many sleeping) hours lifted from my shoulders is a relief. Not that I’m done writing. I still have to finish F0405 (I let the rough draft sit, waiting for some work, while I tackled the screenplay). I also have to dive in and fix the rough bits of the screenplay. Still, from my perspective, the hard part is done.

Actually, the hardest part of this whole process was in the beginning of March. At that point I was more than 2-1/2 scripts ahead of where y’all were. It was getting hard talking about the newly released episode because it had been so long since I’d worked on it compared to where I was. Trying not to spoil stuff because of my own confusion was…well, it was interesting.

Like I said, I still have work to do on the two remaining scripts. After that, I’m sure there will be dark days due to not having all of my “friends” acting in my head everyday. Ice cream will doubtless be necessary. And after that? Lumir plans on writing a season 5. I haven’t decided if, or to what degree, I’ll bow to Lumir’s request and give input on it. My life for most of a year has been only this one particular project, and that’s all I’ve focused on. As of this moment, I’m just happy it’s not me. If Lumir or anyone else wants to play in this corner of the terminatorverse, I can only be encouraging–after all, I’ve had a ball. Yet as much as I love this story, I’m taking a break and re-discovering the world (yes, that means more blogs).

Keep on the lookout for F0405 (coming soon) my cyborg zombies and cuties. As things become increasingly less spoilery, I’ll be more open about my thoughts about the different plot threads and character arcs. So hang in there. With any luck at all, I hope you’ll be happy with where things end up — certainly happier than last year around this time.

Of course, if anyone looking to make video/movie thingies wants to pay me for screenwriting, not only can you now see a healthy writing sample, but I’m willing to overlook this whole “taking a break” thing.

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