Coming out of the Joss Whedon-verse of shows where writers got their own fan clubs, Jane Espenson is no stranger to people reveling in her words. But she was not expecting the intense traffic to her site when she decided to embark on a one-woman “spec script” writing course on her blog.
If you haven’t been to Jane’s site yet, you most likely have seen her work. She’s written for Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Gilmore Girls, Ellen, The O.C., Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Jake in Progress and more. Jane was also a winner of the coveted Disney Writing Fellowship Program. All of this gives her more than enough cred to instruct new screenwriters on how best to write a “spec script” in hopes of giving them a leg up on breaking into the business.
Jane talks to us about her blog, some extra hints about writing and what’s the perfect five-minute lunch.
1. Your blog on JaneEspenson.com has gotten very popular. While the Jossverse fans were quick to embrace writers as much as actors, your blog has undoubtedly brought you more fans and awareness. What has that been like?
I get letters from around the world. I find this amazing. I gave the blog a really narrow focus. It’s just intended for aspiring writers with spec scripts. And I assumed Buffy fans would make up the majority of those who would stumble across the blog.
But the letters that I get suggest that I’m not staying within the Venn diagram overlap of spec-writers and Buffy fans. I get letters from all sorts of people from all over the world who are reading the blog – some of them apparently for the lunch descriptions alone! Wild! But I still want to keep the blog tightly focused. I’m there for the spec writers… others are welcome, but the speckers are my target audience and I don’t want to let ’em down.
2. Many new writers look to the Disney Fellowship as the Holy Grail. What was your experience there, and for those who aren’t one of the chosen, what do you recommend they do to get a similar experience?
I had a great experience in the Fellowship! I wrote tons of spec scripts under the direction of working TV execs, I got lots of practice pitching, and I made valuable connections that helped me get an agent and jobs. It was the perfect transition into working television-writer life.
Part of the experience, of course, can be simulated by just assembling a group of smart writer-friends with good instincts and writing lots of specs with their input. The connections… well… you’ve pretty much got to be in LA if you want that part.
3. If you had to write a “10 Commandments for Spec Writers” – what would it be?
Ooh! Great idea! Sounds like this could be a good blog entry too!
- Don’t spec a show you don’t respect.
- Don’t make your spec about a guest character. Focus on the main character.
- Get sample scripts of produced episodes. Study them.
- Follow the show’s story structure exactly.
- Find a story for your spec that plays on the show’s main theme.
- Don’t write an episode that resolves the show’s mystery or consummates its romance.
- Place the story turns at the act breaks, and give us reason to come back after the commercials.
- In a comedy, spend time polishing the jokes, especially the last one in each scene.
- Spelling, formatting, clarity of stage directions – they really matter.
- Use strong brass brads.
4. You talk a lot about jokes in scripts, how to refine them and how to make them more powerful. But when does a writer just have to say”enough” and throw it out? And if you’re a trusted reader of a writer’s scripts that just aren’t funny (it’s not their ouvre) – do you recommend gentle suggestions that the writer look into another genre, or straight up tough love?
Comedy is interesting – it’s one part of writing where there seem to be born practitioners and those for whom it is a real mystery. I myself am much funnier in writing than in person. And, as you can tell from the blog, I approach comedy more analytically than most people do. I taught myself a lot about how to write funny. But I think there’s a limit to how much can be taught.
Some people shouldn’t write comedy. Usually, these people don’t try to
write a comedy script. They know where their abilities lie. And, lucky for them, we live in the golden age of television drama. Why try to break down the doors to a comedy career when there are so many amazing comedy writers out of work? If I read a script that was severely un-funny despite trying to be funny… I would probably gently point out that all the jobs are in drama right now… “Would you like to write a drama?”
5. One of the most difficult parts of writing is pacing. While a writer knows what she needs to do to move the plot forward when she outlines it, do you have tips on how to keep the pace even throughout scenes so that an act doesn’t fall flat?
This is all about rewriting, I’d say. It’s hard to judge pace while writing. But if you set a script aside and then read it straight though with fresh eyes – or get input from a trusted friend – you can spot where it drags and where it rushes.
6. You’ve written for some pretty diverse shows – Buffy, Gilmore Girls, Jake in Progress, Battlestar Galactica and now The Batman. What’s your key to moving across genres like that?
I think too much has been made of the perceived difficulty of this. After all, it’s not crazy to imagine being a fan of all those shows as a viewer. If you can tell a strong episode of Gilmore Girls from a less strong one, and you can do the same with Jake in Progress… then you clearly already have a sense of both shows. That sense is all you need to go from writing one to writing the other.
7. You’ve worked on several shows that are known for their voice – Gilmore Girls, Buffy, The O.C. How easy or difficult is it for you to adapt into the characters in each new world? What has been the biggest challenge or surprise?
I think, when you step into a show with a “voice,” that it’s all about just absorbing it. I’m sure you’ve noticed that after you read a big piece of Jane Austen, that the voice stays with you for a while, and you want to say “Lord, am I tired” and such.
Right now, I’m listening to an audiobook of A Passage to India during my commute and I arrive at work every morning with an ear for minutely described details of human interactions. It’s exactly the same thing. That’s why I recommend that spec writers begin their writing sessions by watching a little bit of the show they’re specing (or reading a bit of one of a produced script for the show), just to get that voices-in-my-head feeling.
My biggest challenge or surprise? I thought Cordelia would be really hard to write. I was always perplexed by that kind of girl in high school. I found their minds to be so foreign I couldn’t imagine I would know how to write for one of them. But it was shockingly easy. Rory Gilmore, who is more like me, was conversely very hard to write.
8. Fans of The O.C. often cite the witty banter between the Cohen family as what sucked them in. Was that particular patter difficult to get exactly right? Is Sandy Cohen as much fun to write for as he would seem to be?
This wasn’t as long ago as Nowhere Man, but it was long enough ago that the details of writing the voices have left my mind. I remember having a good time writing the episode and that it changed a great deal during the breaking-writing-rewriting process – more than any other script I’ve ever written. But writing for Sandy? I’m afraid I have no specific memory of this.
9. Your writing credits on Angel include “Rm w/ a Vu,” when Doyle was still part of the show. Do you feel like something important was lost along with that character, or was his demise part of business as usual?
Doyle was a great character. It would have been great to keep him around, but it wasn’t in the cards. And I think the pain of the character’s death reminded everyone about the stakes of Angel’s business. It got real very fast.
10. What is your favorite “Buffy” episode that you wrote and why?
I’m really fond of lots of them. “Earshot” and “Superstar” turned out really well. And I liked “After Life” because it was kind of a departure for me.
Right now, I think “Harsh Light of Day” is my current favorite because it has so many big moments in it all right in a row. I remember looking at the outline and going – oh, Anya and Xander, that’ll be fun to write, and Spike and Harmony, THAT’LL be fun, and this scene and this scene – it just doesn’t stop. But then there are the two Buffybot episodes… I like those.
11. What’s something you were able to do in the Buffy comic books that you wanted to do during the series, but weren’t able to pull off?
I got to write a Jonathan adventure from the “Superstar” world – something you could never do on the show beyond our one episode. Loved that.
12. You worked on Nowhere Man (which is now, FINALLY, on DVD) – one of my favorite shows. What did you learn working on that, and what’s your favorite memory about the show?
That was a looong time ago. I remember my first meeting with one of the writers, who then took me in to meet the show runner. There never was a meeting with the staff as a whole. I remember it all being very stressful until I was actually out writing the episode.
My ep was a fun classic Sci-fi premise – our hero found himself reliving the day in his life that changed everything, the day of the pilot episode. I gained confidence in my ability to write in the hour format – I do believe this was the first hour-long episode of television that I had produced. (I wrote my Star Trek: Deep Space Nine this same season, but I think Nowhere Man was the earlier one.)
13. Let’s say, in an alternate universe, you tire of the glory of writing for television, and decide to open a bar instead. What is your theme? Classic and contemporary, perfect for high-priced hookers and their classy men? Sci-fi geek chic, replete with a room for conventions in the back? Dive bar cool, with a dress code requiring at least one piece of clothing made from acid washed jean?
Oh my. Well, I love the bar at Trader Vic’s, an old Hollywood-era place right near where I live. It’s got a crazy Polynesian theme. Lots of the drinks come in hollowed-out pineapples or ceramic coconuts or they have little plastic parrots sticking out the tops. I think I’d like something like that. “The Coconut Palm,” I could call it. With one of those neon signs outside that simulates motion – a coconut falling from a tree. Cute!
14. You’re a Project Runway fan – who’s been your favorite from each season? Is there something that you would have scripted differently than the way it turned out on screen?
Season One – Austin
Season Two – Diana (the tech-nerd girl, eliminated early),
Season Three – Michael
Well, almost everything would be different if you scripted it. That’s what makes GOOD reality TV so watchable – all the ways in which it isn’t how you’d script it.
15. Which movie/TV version of Pride and Prejudice is the best one?
The 1985 BBC production with David Rintoul as Darcy is my personal fave. Also, have to give it up for the old Laurence Olivier one. These two Darcys capture Pride perfectly. I think there’s a modern impulse to put some earthiness in Darcy that he simply doesn’t have. He’s above that.
16. What is your greatest masochistic tendency? Trolling message boards after a show you’ve written airs? Reading the trades? Eating something you know is going to come back and bite you in the butt in an hour or two?
Hmm. I’ve had to take Tetris off various computers in my life. It can literally steal hours. And you even feel like you’re accomplishing something, so it’s extra insidious.
I still fool myself into thinking that a quick game of something-or-other is a good way to transition into writing. It isn’t.
17. Ever been tempted to create a new handle and sign on to message boards to defend your writing or show in general when the fans get a little too out of hand?
Oh, gosh, yes! What a good question! I’ll get furious sometimes and go so far as to actually start typing in a defense, when I realize that I don’t want to engage. The ones that get me are the ones that reflect a misunderstanding of what happened in the episode. (These bother me even if I didn’t write the thing in question. I remember reading a review of Steve Martin’s Roxanne that said his character had already had a nose job. No. That was a JOKE he made in the script at one point, but it was quickly dispelled. The reviewer missed it. Grrrr. Bothers me.)
It drove me nuts, I recall, when we were holding the reveal of how Dawn came to be part of Buffy’s family. I knew I should be enjoying the fans’ confusion, since that was the point of the exercise, to set up the fun reveal. But I hate causing confusion. Drives me nuts. It’s why I hate to be late anywhere – am I afraid the person I’m meeting will be angry? No? I’m afraid they’ll be confused. I try to make my scripts super clear. And if they’ve left someone confused, I’m upset.
18. Spoilers! As a writer, does it kill you to read spoilers that have gotten out? As a viewer, do you read spoilers?
I myself try to avoid spoilers if it’s a show I really love. I don’t even let myself watch the scenes-from-next-week on Project Runway. If I’m less invested, I’m okay with spoilers.
It doesn’t kill me if spoilers get out unless I think it’s really gonna affect enjoyment of the ep. And I’m always very tempted to give away spoilers myself – although I never do. But it is tempting. After all, they’ve got a shelf-life. They’re worthless after the thing airs!
19. What was your worst summer job?
I painted dorm rooms in the summer before I went away to college. Hard work, hot work, the most physical job I ever had. I burned so many calories that I had a chocolate malt every day after work and didn’t gain weight. I guess, looking back, it wasn’t so bad.
20. On your blog, you update what your lunch is each day. What’s your favorite comfort food? What’s the recipe to your favorite “5 minutes for lunch and it needs to be good” meal?
I can answer both those with one recipe. Toast bread and smear it liberally with yellow mustard, moving very fast. Sandwich cheddar between the slices and microwave it VERY BRIEFLY to melt the cheese (the heat of the recently-toasted bread is doing some of the work, remember). Serve with sweet pickles. Mmm. Tastes just like grilled cheese only without the butter and the need for a stovetop and a fry pan. Genius!
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