Television: the Perfect Training Ground for a Novelist

Kath here. Please welcome Elise Allen to WU today.  Elise, a writer for children’s television and film, debuts with  her solo YA novel Populazzi, which Publisher’s Weekly calls ” a smart mix of hilarity and tragedy in this Macbeth—meets—Mean Girls tale.”  No stranger to the YA market, Elise has also co-authored Hilary Duff’s New York Times bestselling Elixir. We were intrigued with Elise’s background in writing for television, and are thrilled that she is able to share her experiences with us.  Take it away, Elise!

It’s ironically fitting that this blog is Writer Unboxed, since I’m here today to talk about what I’ve been doing for the writing for TV. 

In other words, being a Writer, Boxed. 

I don’t mean that as a bad thing.  Oh sure, it sounds hideous — you and your laptop, cramped in some tiny glass cube like a Cirque contortionist – but really, I’ve been doing it for fifteen years now, and it’s pretty fantastic.

It’s also a terrific boot camp for a novelist.  It’s not surprising to me that many great authors started out in TV, including notables like Adriana Trigiani, who wrote for The Cosby Show and A Different World; and Suzanne Collins, who wrote for Clarissa Explains It All and The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo.

Here’s the deal when you work on a TV show.  Unless you’re the creator (in which case you built the box, which is a whole different animal), by the time you get on the scene, the premise, the characters, the voices… they’re already in place.  You come aboard Cheers, there’s a bar, there’s Sam, Diane, Carla, Norm, Coach, Cliff, and there’s all the basic dynamics between them.   The show’s tone is also established before you arrive, and its rhythms and heft are very specific.  You can’t write an episode of M*A*S*H with the whimsy of a Glee. 

When you’re assigned an episode of a show, you might get to shape that episode’s plot… but you might not.  If you’re a freelancer – not on the actual salaried writing staff – you might instead get the entire skeleton of your episode in outline form, with the mission to flesh it out.  Even if you are on staff, and it’s your job to hang out all day with a bunch of other writers and crack jokes, pitch stories, and dither over what to order for lunch; even if you’re spending every day in a whirlwind of glorious creativity… it’s creativity within that box defined by the pilot episode of your show. 

In my own career, I’ve seen boxes of all shapes and sizes.  I’ve written for prime time sitcoms, preschool series, older kids’ shows, an evening soap opera… I’ve been all over the map, and each show had its own set of givens.  The joy is in playing within the confines of the show to come up with the best, funniest, most interesting story I can.  As a runner, I compare it to an adventure race.  A 10K is fine and all, but it’s more fun if you’re swinging across streams, slogging through mud pits, and clambering over rope bridges along the way.

Writing for television – especially writing for many different shows – forces you to increase your mental dexterity.  You have to adapt your voice to match the tone of each show, and each established character.  You have to write quickly – I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a show that wasn’t racing to meet deadlines.  You learn not to be precious about your words, and how to accept criticism.  The TV script you turn in will be pulled apart by the show’s creator, the network, the studio… an endless array of people.  And if you’re lucky enough to be on staff, you’ll get to sit in on the evisceration, as all your co-workers sit together in the writers’ room shouting out each line they think could be better.  The first time it happens, every joke punch feels like a personal rejection, but you get over that.  If you’re going to function, you realize it’s not about you, it’s about the script, and making it the best episode of that particular show it can be.  You do all kinds of rewrites, tweaks, and punches, some on your own, some with the other writers, and that’s just part of the process. 

These are the things you learn as a Writer Boxed… and they make you a better Writer Unboxed.

When I wrote Populazzi, I was definitely unboxed.  I got to create a whole world and populate it with characters I knew inside out, whose voices I was allowed to find on my own. 

During the time I wrote the manuscript, I also helped Hilary Duff with her novel Elixir, wrote several episodes of Dinosaur Train, and worked on a couple Barbie DVD features.  That was okay; I was used to leaping in out of different worlds from writing on different TV shows. 

While I had a few months to write each draft of Populazzi (which sounded like a blissful eternity to me), the time flew by and felt like nothing at all… but that was okay, because I was used to writing under crazy time constraints.

A couple weeks after I turned in my first holy-cow-it’s-brilliant draft of the manuscript, my amazing editor Samantha McFerrin sent me pages and pages of notes that in the nicest, most constructive way possible, ripped the draft to shreds.  That was okay; I was used to that.  I didn’t waste time getting defensive.  I stood back, considered her notes, realized 99% of them were dead-on correct, then leaped into a very different, deeper, and much better second draft.  Then a third.  Then tweaks and fixes after that.

I loved writing Populazzi.  I’ve yet to experience anything as creatively fulfilling as writing a novel, and I hope to do more.  At the same time, I have no plans to give up on TV.  It’s a medium I enjoy, and the skills I keep honing there will only serve me as I continue as an author.

0

Comments

  1. says

    This was refreshing, Elise. Good, fresh perspective. I would probably have problems with multitudes of hands mucking about in my brilliant stew but, if you lived through it, others (some others) can too. Thanks for sharing.

    0
    • says

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Alex! Some stews turn out better than others, of course, but I’ve definitely come to enjoy the process.

      0
  2. says

    Great blog, thanks! I just finished reading Populazzi (LOVE it!) and think TV writing opens the door for great adventures in novel writing!

    0
  3. says

    That was fascinating! I’ve always wondered about writing for television, just because it seemed like it would be a confining medium. Thanks for sharing!

    0
    • says

      My pleasure, Caryn! The fun with TV is finding the freedom within the box. Even with a show as specific as Sid the Science Kid, where there are clear segments plus a required curriculum, there’s lots of room to maneuver.

      0
  4. says

    This is fantastic! There’s this whole world of television writers out there that I never knew existed. What an amazing job that must be.

    The only time I can ever get anything done is when I’m crunched for time, which is weird because I hate being rushed (I get that from my dad).

    0
  5. says

    Great post. Writing in that “box” for television must be so hard at times. Sure, you get parameters to work within, but having to write within that outline, with tight time constraints, and to do it well must be such a challenge as an artist. Good luck with the novel :)

    0
    • says

      Thanks, Alex! It’s a unique discipline, especially compared to the freedom of writing a novel. I like having TV assignments during the novel-writing process though — it uses other muscles, so it’s a nice change of pace. It’s like Jeff Galloway’s marathon training program, where you alternate running and walking to rest certain muscle groups while still moving forward and covering miles.

      0
  6. says

    Interesting post. Sounds like a great learning experience and the word boot camp springs to mind. I would love to have worked in that environment because I would have learned a lot. I also love the idea of working under pressure; one of the problems self publishing is there is no pressure from others to set deadlines for you.

    I don’t mind criticism because I understand that if you ask ten people for an opinion you will get ten opinions. Writing a novel is a bit like raising a child. When it’s ready to be let loose on the world it had better be ready because you won’t be there to defend it once you’ve let go.

    0
    • says

      Great analogy, Christopher — thanks for checking out the post!

      I respect the discipline self-publishing requires. I tend to load up my plate — I don’t overload it, but I keep it pretty full, and deadlines help me prioritize. I think I’d flounder quite a bit without them.

      0
  7. says

    When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Sally on the Dick Van Dyke Show. Remember? Three writers working together to beat that weekly deadline. I thought it would be so cool to work with a group of other writers like that. I’ve gotten to works with other writers and artists throughout my career, but probably nothing as intense as writing for TV. Fascinating post.

    0
    • says

      Yes!!! Totally with you, Mollie — writing the Alan Brady Show looked like the best time in the universe.

      When it goes well, it’s great just like that.

      I’ve done a lot of animation TV lately, and that’s terrific, but there’s something really thrilling about live action, when you’re on the set as it’s taping, making last minute tweaks and changing things on the fly in front of a live audience. Part of me misses that… but another part (the I-like-hanging-out-with-my-kid part) REALLY prefers the hours in animation.

      0
  8. says

    “…you’ll get to sit in on the evisceration, as all your co-workers sit together in the writers’ room shouting out each line they think could be better……”

    It’s really a interesting scenario. I wish I should have been in your writers’ room when a writing session in progress. It should be a novel experience to watch how a bunch of enthusiastic writers work together with shouting out lines and jokes, as I’m used to work alone in my
    study in a totally silent environment.

    Thank you for presenting this fascinating blog.

    0
    • says

      My pleasure! I have to admit, it was pretty horrible the first time one of my scripts was torn into, not so much because I was precious about it, but because I was new, young, and nervous, and fairly convinced each pitch to fix something meant I was one step closer to being fired. Once I got past that, the process was great.

      0
  9. says

    It strikes me that sometimes working within a structure can actually be freeing. Like knowing you need to organize your poetic message within the rules of a sonnet. In a way it’s easier than starting with a blank page because at least the structure – a part of the creative process I find daunting – has been figured out for your in advance.
    Great post, Elise!

    0
  10. says

    GREAT post and so cool to be able to discover through you what it’s like to write for television. I’m one of those people (of millions of them of course) who LOVE t.v. I love to watch Lifetime movies and The Middle and Modern Family along with (I must admit) Barbie movies with my daughter. I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder whilst I write and I don’t have a deadline, but I wonder if that wouldn’t spur me on to better things? Thanks for the great post.
    Patti

    0