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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Back in the Saddle... like Riding a Bike... or Mixing a Metaphor...

So this is my first entry in a month... weird to be back.

For those of you who are here looking for scoop on The Young and the Restless - you'll have to look someplace else. Sorry, folks... this blog was never meant to gossip, and it certainly was never meant to reveal things I shouldn't. I'll tell you this much - I am three episodes into my trial. I am regrouping, learning, growing, and contributing as much as I can. I adore the team of people I work with, and I am doing the best I know how, and working hard to live up to the legacy Y&R has given its fans all these years. My first episode will air in late April, and I'm highly enjoying myself as I step back into the role of Breakdown Writer. Whatever comes of it, I'm living for the moment and enjoying each week as it happens.

And that's all I'll say about that.

In the meantime, I've also spent a week in Los Angeles, a week in Vegas, and... yes... even a few weeks here at home in Brooklyn. Suffice it to say, it's been a whirlwind month, but I'm keeping my head above water and just trying to keep myself positive and upbeat.

And why, you ask, would I need to try to do this?

I received an e-mail from a friend after I wrote my first episode, that said simply, "How was it, writing again?"

I'll tell you.

It was positively terrifying.

Not because of anything anyone said to me, or because of anything involving the show (Far from it, in fact). But throughout all of 2008, while I was doing other jobs besides soap writing, I had completely forgotten about the internal mental process that I went through when I was writing. It didn't matter if it was on a show that I knew like the back of my hand, like Days, or a show I was unfamiliar with when I started and had to learn so much of the history, like As the World Turns - it didn't matter if it was on a show like OLTL, where I worked for nine straight cycles of thirteen weeks each, or a show like my first trial at Y&R back in 2006, where I hadn't worked there long at all - none of these conditions seem to matter, this writer always seems to go through the same weekly mental process.

You get your assignment. You spend hours either in person around a conference table with other writers, or on a conference call with other writers. You have pages and pages of short-hand notes - where your episode begins, where it ends, all the beats you need to hit in between, and dozens of little notes in the margins of ideas you've had, ideas other writers had that are important and you want to make note of in your breakdown, and numerous arrows drawn (in my case), trying to make sense of the "traffic of an episode" (you need Character A to be *here* by Act Two, and over *there* by Act Four, but in the meantime, they have to cross with Character B in Act Three, so you better make sure their paths... i.e. their "traffic"... aligns properly). You have pages upon pages of notes, and suddenly you need to put it all together and make it a coherent episode.

So you start playing. You figure out, for purely practical reasons, how many scenes you need for each story, where your act breaks are, what the best midbreak tag will be... all of the logistics of the episode. Occasionally you have scenes that say one thing, and one thing alone: "Big Confrontation Here" Gee... wonder what happens in that scene?

But you figure out all of these practicalities, and your brain is kind of in "putting a puzzle together" mode. You're not really thinking creatively, you're trying to fit the pieces together so that no act is longer or shorter than the others, you have good act tags in ALL your stories (not just the front-burner one) and somebody doesn't show up in two places at once.

And then you've finished that, and you have a nice little four-to-seven page "outline-for-your-outline".

And then the "fun" part. Then you get to be creative.

Here's a sample of what happens in Tom's brain during this process (if anyone cares... and really, like most blogs, if you don't care, no worries. I won't be offended. :-)) And let me reiterate - this is my usual weekly process at every show I've worked at - this is in no way specific to any one show. ATWT has a Pro and Five Acts, OLTL and Y&R have a Pro and Six Acts, and Days has a Pro and Seven Acts - so just for the sake of averages, we'll look at a Pro and Six Act show. (This isn't really a trade secret - anybody can figure out how many Acts a show has based on how many commercial breaks there are)

And here we go...

Prologue - "No problem! I'm picking up a few stories from yesterday, and I'm starting a few new ones. Short, snappy scenes. No problem. There! One pro down... another pro down... the last pro down... cut to credits. Wow! That was easy! No problem! I've already written a page and a half, and the scene breaks are really quick, and RIGHT ON... I know what I'm doing! Yes!"

Act One - "Wait, what did I write in these notes? I can't read my own writing. I think that says 'kick'. Or does it say 'kiss'? Hmm.. I'll come back to that later. Oh, here's a good scene. A pick-up from the Pro. Something really emotional. Really important. Lots of history to be mined here. Let me just dig in. And dig in. And dig in. Wait a minute... I just a wrote a scene that's ALMOST TWO PAGES, single-spaced. That's about five times too long. Good GOD, boy... rein yourself in! You can't turn this in. Okay, I'll edit it when I'm done. Leave it as is. Get to your act tag. You can do it. Wow, I just wasted about two hours pontificating on one scene in Act One. How in the world did I get so off-track? Just get through this act. Then you can take a lunch break."

Act Two - "Okay, I wrote for a few hours, then I took a lunch break. Now I don't want to work. Yes, I do. You can do this, Tom. Just dive back in. Pick up where you left off in Act One. Okay, now I've got the hang of it. Oh, wait. This scene is REALLY cliche. I mean, unbelievably typical soap scene. You can't turn that in. And... did you just use the word "soulmate"?! UGH! You know better! Come on, be creative. Think - you can do this! God, you're a hack. This is it. This is the episode where everyone reads it, and realizes you don't have the first clue what you're doing. Okay, now get serious. Give them something original... something powerful... something they've never seen before. (...) Okay, you can't think of anything. There's plenty of time. Just move on. Get to the Act Tag."

Act Three - "Now I have a second wind. This isn't so tough. So you wrote a few cliches in the last Act... you'll go back and fix them later. This is your big mid-break tag! You know what you're building to. So what if you're already running about four pages too long? At least you have something written and you're not staring at a blinking cursor. Wait, the suspense is building... you're actually building anticipation to that great mid-break tag. Oh my God, I can actually feel my heart race as I get to the Act Three reveal! Fingers are flying over the keyboard, everything's coming together... and suddenly... BANG! That's a great tag! Go out to a thirteen minutes long commercial break on something you KNOW will bring the viewer back! Yeah! I did it! I'm not a hack! WOO HOO!"

Act Four - "Oh wait. I'm not done yet. Okay. Deep breath. You've only been writing for about ten hours straight. Maybe you ate lunch, and maybe you watched something on your Tivo for a little bit there. At least you didn't pause to watch a train wreck on The View (today, at least) Just keep trucking along. Wow, I'm running out of steam. And so is this act. Where am I? Oh, right... the 'Big Confrontation Here' scene. Wait, what do they say that these two characters haven't said a million times before? I don't remember. Somebody said something interesting about this, but I can't remember. Is that my stomach growling? Is it already dark outside? Man, my head is starting to hurt. How long have I been staring at this screen? Let me just play a round of Solitaire. Or watch Damages. Or Battlestar Galactica. Screw that, do I have any 90210's on my DVR? I need to get away from this computer..."

At this point, Day One ends. Insert full night of sleep here.

Act Four - Part Deux - "Man, coffee is AWESOME. Okay, where are we? Right, here we are. In Act Four. Wow, these last few scenes are really unfocused. But the solutions are really easy. Just fix *this* and cut *this* line, and change *this* to *that*. Wow, that wasn't so tough. I wonder why I didn't think of that last night? That was the easiest solution in the world! Wow, I'm plowing through Act Four. This is so easy - I don't know why I was freaking out last night. What's wrong with me? I'm brilliant! I'm awesome! I'm the king of the world!"

Act Five - "I'm crap. I'm a dead cockroach trapped in a piece of gum on the bottom of the shoe of a homeless drug addict. I'm a worthless, awful, untalented writer. Have I been writing this episode for about ten days or what? It sure feels like it. Only one more act until I'm done. Who cares that it's either A) four pages too short or B) nine pages too long. I'm almost there. Just keep going. Keep typing. Oh my God - did I just write a line from an old Seinfeld episode? I think I did. Jesus, what a nightmare. It's going to be awful. They're going to note you up the wazoo. It's going to be a disaster of epic proportions. Seriously. This next notes meeting will be the Hindenburg of notes meetings for you. Say adios to your paycheck, buddy. This is just bad. Bad, bad, bad. Are we in Act Six yet? God, if I can just get to Act Six, at least it'll be written. And at this point, that's all I can ask for."

Act Six - "Oh, these are my tags. This is easy. BAM! Cliffhanger #1! BAM! Cliffhanger #2. These aren't so bad. And here's the big finale. The big last scene. Give it all your worth, dude! This is the finish line! You can do it! Holy hell, you did it! You're done! You wrote an entire breakdown! That's right! I did it! I pulled it off!"

"But this is just a first draft. Let's go back, look at what you wrote from the beginning. Oh. OH! Yikes. Really? I wrote that? Was that really me? Ee! Ah! Oh, man... just stop reading. This is just depressing. Stop. Put it down. Before you slit your wrists on paper cuts or something"

Insert second night of sleep here.

Day Three - "Well, this isn't that bad. Okay, so your page count is a little off. And one scene is three times longer than it should be. And another is way too short. But it isn't so awful. Actually, this cliche is terrible - but it's easily fixed. Stop and breathe. Think. Oh, I know of something that will work here, instead of this awful final line. That wasn't so tough. Wow, I can't believe I didn't think of this yesterday! And here's another scene that meanders too long... dude, I can write the same thing in three sentences that I wrote in TWELVE sentences. Pro, Act Three, Act Six - all pretty solid. Just need to make these fixes. Move this here - copy and paste this here... this is actually starting to look pretty normal! My God, the page count is finally right. The scene count is right. Cover page looks good, and I think... dare I say it? As I read it again, I'm really happy with how it turned out. I mean, it's not the most amazing, Emmy-worthy outline either, but there are some nice romantic moments, some nice family moments, some nice history nods... and a little action/suspense. Overall, it's not terrible. I think I might actually be done. Yeah... yeah, I think I'm done."

At this point, after reading and re-reading about nine times, you open up your e-mail program, ready to send it in to your employers and other writers. And then there's one last moment of panic.

"Wait, are you really going to send this? Once you send this, you can't take it back. It's out there. If you want anything changed, you can't change it before the notes meeting. You better be sure. Are you sure? You better be."

And then you stop and take another deep breath. And you realize - yeah. I'm sure. Maybe it's not perfect, but I'm pretty happy with it - and whatever I missed, my colleagues and/or network reps will call me out on it. And they will only improve my episode. And when all is said and done, I'm pretty damn happy with it.

It's going to be all right. Yeah, hit "Send". It's going to be just fine.

And you know what? It usually is. And when it isn't - then you buckle down and you make the changes you need to. Either way, you suddenly realize you actually ENJOYED the process. Sometimes it was exhilarating. Sometimes it was confusing. Sometimes it was boring. Sometimes it was damn near orgasmic. And sometimes it was completely horrific. But you wouldn't trade it for anything. You just went on a journey with 12-20 contract characters, and all of their joys, their insecurities, their travesties and their personalities became part of you. Not every part of the process left you smiling, but you feel like you just climbed a mountain, and you stop and you wonder...

...when can I do it again?

17 comments:

shallotpeel DonnaB said...

I've missed you.

And, this is that kind of blog! One that prompts a few good words ...

Anonymous said...

thanks you so much for this update.

I am very glad to read how an episode gets written. We all know that there are a lot of people needed to write a soap, and it is fun to see how it is done.

If I understood correctly you are a breakdown writer. Does it mean that you write the entire episode, dialogues and all?
Who is in charge of keeping the history of each character, after all we can see a lot of characters in one episode?

Thanks for the info!

Anonymous said...

LOL @ "The Process".

Glad to hear from you again!

louisa said...

Oh how I've missed you! I know you'll busy.... but keep us updated. Can't wait to see your first episode. Hopefully you can make me like Cane and Lily!

Becky said...

Tom, thanks for the blog. It's been a while. It's interesting to know how you workflow goes. Good luck with the new gig and I hope it all works out for you.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Tom great post, but could explain exactly what it is a breakdown writer does? Are you writing an actual script or just the outline which is given to the dialogue writers?

Scott N said...

Thanks for sharing all this, Tom. I think it will be fun when that first episode airs to see how everything you described panned out and who the actual characters involved turn out to be.

Will said...

Hey Tom, great post! Cool to see what a soap opera writer does. I write a humour blog and recent did a post with a little shoutout to Victor Newman, who is my favourite on Y&R. Check it out and tell me if my dialogue is pitch-perfect for a soap:

http://animalsneedkisses.wordpress.com/2009/03/02/parrots/

Anonymous said...

I fast-forward storylines about teens, babies, Chloe and the Winters. I liked the storyline about Michael's father. Sharon's breakdown storyline would be interesting if Noah and Eden weren't featured prominantly in it. Adam's upcoming storyline seems interesting. TPTB don't have to put teens on the show to get teens to watch. I appreciate storylines that haven't been rehashed.

Anonymous said...

I loved this Tom! Delving into your thought processes is exactly what I look forward to from your blog. Thanks so much for sharing.

Trudi

Lee Meyer said...

Great entry, Tom. Glad to hear you're enjoying your work!

Restless Fan said...

Thanks for that Tom. You always give great insight into how our dramas come together. Much luck to you at Y&R.

On a separate note, I just read that Ash is preggos with Vic's child. I know your not the headwriter, but I'm hoping this is a bad joke. I really don't think there is enough Vicadin out there to get me through that one. lol

cleo said...

The writing process (despair to orgasm to despair to release) is the same no matter what kind of writing, but yours is extra (deadline) intense! I'm also wondering if you write dialogue or just outline the scenes. And are there 5 breakdown writers, each working on one day's episode, and do you begin one each week, with others in various stages, or are there more writers than that and you spend several weeks on just that one episode?
Love your blog!

Anonymous said...

I know you probably can't tell us...but isn't there EUPHORIA on the Y&R writing team right now? Everything clicking, perfectly acted and produced.

C'mon, fess up. You won't sound like you're gloating...it's a well won victory.

Tell me you guys all know you're very good right now. (Oh yeah, and that TYRA MUST GO NOW!!!!)

Anonymous said...

-pn the bottom of a homeless drug addicts shoe...

LMAO!

So glad you are back in the saddle again. Yeehaa!

Loved the blog Tom.

Shaka

LoveY&R said...

Congrats on your move back to Y&R! I think you're doing a great job!

Just-aSoapFan said...

Tom,

Congratulations on the new gig at Y&R. I have been enjoying your recent contributions to the show.

As a soap fan, I've been disappointed with some of the huge plot holes and logical fallacies that plagued Y&R recently:

1) Cane and Delia's DNA Paternity Test.

Um, I understand you folks are trying to unravel LML's work and bring back Phillip III as the real Chancellor, but re-writing recent history to make Cane into some monster who would dump Lily to raise Delia seem like a betrayal of the character. For all of Cane's faults, he had some kind of integrity.

For Cane to have used Phillip's DNA for the paternity test meant that he ran the risk of abandoning his child but it also eventually assured that he would have to marry someone whom he did not love and raise her and another man's child.

I don't buy it. Not at all.

2) Sharon lies to Jack and Nick about her baby's paternity.

This just rings false. Sharon is many things but for her to lie about the paternity to spare Nick's feelings while possibly setting up Jack for a huge emotional fall seems ludicrous.

3) Paul Williams Not Recognizing His Sister's Voice.

Um, what kind of detective can't recognize the voice of his own sister? No matter how distant he and his sister may have become, I can't see him forgetting her voice.


4) Devon Lusting for His Faux Aunt.
Eew! When did Y&R sink to the depths of B&B? I guess this is it.

Why can't Y&R come up with a better storyline for an Emmy winning actor like Bryton McClure?

Hell, why can't Y&R actually do something with its black cast? The Winters clan, with the exception of Lily, is mostly segregated. Why is that?

Why is the CEO of a major company living in a dump? CEO's make tens of millions of dollars but Neil Winters lives in dark, depressing home.

Why is Devon's home so dingy looking? His father is a rich CEO. Shouldn't he be able to afford to pay for a gallon or two of paint?
___

I understand that you're at Y&R on a trial basis. I hope that it becomes a permanent gig. Please try to persuade the TPTB to fix this situation when it is politically feasible for you to do so.

Thanks!