writing down the sun

my adventures in spec script writing, part un

Posted in tv, writing by annie on June 7, 2008

So, I’m writing a House spec script. What this means: I write the script in full without payment. Unlike real Hollywood TV writers who, once established, get hired (read: PAID) to write such a thing, I’m writing it “speculatively” — i.e., speculating on something else happening. The catch in my case: the “something else” I’m waiting for isn’t a writing gig on House* but a breakthrough on my novel. So, you might say I’m “speculating” that this endeavor will reassure my shaky choice-shy psyche that yes, it’s OK to finish the novel.

And to start it all off, I’m watching/rewatching old episodes with an eye towards sussing out and understanding the structure. It’s like playing TV detective! (Not “detective on TV” though. That’s something else entirely.)

And as it turns out, your favorite TV shows have a secret life all their own. You think you know — you don’t know! Here’s what I mean:

Normally, House follows a very predictable structure. Teaser – 2 minutes or less. Titles. Act one – six to eight scenes, normally 60% less than 1 minute long, the rest from 1 to 2 minutes long. Hardly ever does a scene go over 2 minutes. Act two has a similar structure; three as well but it’s shorter overall, four is more like three, maybe a bit shorter, and then the last scene sometimes lays a foundation for the next episode.

I haven’t seen ALL the House episodes yet – nor have I analyzed all the ones I have seen. But I feel pretty comfortable stating that they fall within this structure, more or less.

If you’re a regular House watcher you may have felt (as I did) the first part of the finale — “House’s Head” – felt …. different, somehow. Not just the whole “House is the patient — whaaa?!” thing or the amnesia or the hallucinations and hypnosis — something about the whole “feel” of the show was different.

Turns out, there was a very good reason for feeling that way: The structure got turned on its head. The teaser was the same, but then there was an immediate cut back into Act One, after titles, and from that point on all hell broke loose. SEVEN Acts, not four! First act waaaaaay longer than usual! Number of scenes per act decimated! TWO scenes in one of the acts! Average time per scene something like 3 minutes, much longer than usual! Whoa, nelly. What in blue blazes is going on here?

But watching it, you’d never single that out and say “Oh yeah, they changed the structure.” (Unless you were some script nerd, as I fear I am becoming.) Yet the structure completely changed the way you experience the episode. Made it more intimate and at the same time uncomfortable – like you stayed too long at the party and watched the host and hostess get into a crockery-throwing, obscenity-hurling smackdown, yet you just couldn’t NOT look …. or something.

I’m telling you, there’s like this whole secret life of television shows you think you know — you don’t know until you break out the stopwatch! It’s so cool. I never really got into “technique” before — I was more focused on being creative (to varying degrees of success, I might add). This is pure technique and as such it’s very interesting and new.

Also makes me think “What the hell did I agree to do?! No way I can keep all this together!”

Which then makes me think “The hell you say … just watch me.”

Which, when you get right down to it, is The Whole Point.

*Ironically, were I writing this as a wannabe TV writer, and not for creative treatment, I’d be looking for a job on any show other than House, actually. Show runners never read spec scripts for their own shows for legal reasons. I am told.

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stuck in the house

Posted in tv, writing by annie on June 1, 2008

So I’ve been just consumed — OK, let’s call it what it is — obsessed — with watching the first two seasons of House MD on DVD. A few strange developments have occurred during this marathon:

  • I’ve decided I really like the show after all. I know — that sounds pretentious, like I was too cool for House, one of the (arguably, the) finest shows on TV. Yet it rubbed me the wrong way at first. Probably because of this ass, also being brought up by a nurse who saw firsthand the unbelievable arrogance of most (I didn’t say “all”!) doctors. So — yeah, it started chipping away at my doc-defenses. I admit it — it’s technically good, and I like it. Happy, Dr. Pig Jowls?
  • I’ve developed a simultaneous block on my novel. Actually, to be honest, I’m pretty sure the block arose first. The House marathon was a distraction, but . . .
  • . . . I’m beginning to think the two are connected. What I mean: I think House is the solution.

Explanation: I’m blocked, whatever we agree that this means. For whatever reason, most likely self-induced, I cannot get past a certain point in the novel draft and therefore it sits untouched, damn it. What I think will help: something structured. ‘Cause, see, the novel isn’t, right? It’s like this vast wasteland of possibility.

And what, pray tell, is more structured than an established procedural-cum-character drama spec script?

See where I’m going with this?

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The Mean Doctor Blues

Posted in writing by annie on July 8, 2007

Reading Emily Yoffe’s piece for Slate in which she recounts her experiences being a human guinea pig for a bunch of med students filled me with a wistful longing. How I wish my experiences with doctors were anywhere near that hopeful.

To be honest, most of my doctor encounters have been pretty uneventful. I inherited a charming, handsome general practitioner from my mother, Dr. B., and he is my primary care provider. He listens pretty well, and if I have to wait an ungodly amount of time for an appointment, that’s offset by the walk-in hours he provides with his physician assistants on staff, and an eclectic assortment of magazines in the waiting room (not to mention a TV that isn’t tuned to Fox).

So why is it that it’s the bad experiences that stick in my mind? Specifically, one encounter in particular, with a doctor I nicknamed “Dr. Pig Jowls” – for a reason I can’t relate here, as it would identify the unfortunate man pretty clearly. Dr. PJ was my brother’s surgeon during his final illness – esophageal cancer. Jim’s diagnosis came too late for treatment, so we were left with palliative care, part of which involved inserting a feeding tube, after which Jim would never eat solid food again. An awful enough fate, to be sure, so why the fates decided that we needed the additional hell of Dr. PJ escapes me.

I say “we.” Surely, it was Jim who was exposed to the worst of it, being the patient and the one dying. But it was my mother and I who, oddly, became the angry ones – angry enough to consult the hospital administrator, who said all the right things but apparently did nothing, and whom we never heard from again.

Dr. PJ’s assault began with the first appointment. His nurse coldly demanded $200 before Jim would be allowed in the hallowed halls of his treatment rooms. Jim, having been out of work for months prior to this, didn’t have the cash. My mother, being a senior citizen on a fixed income, didn’t have it either. So until I could help them out, they were stuck. They’d traveled 45 minutes south to his offices, and the staff knew they were coming. They couldn’t have told them up front this was going to happen? More to the point – what?! You’re going to turn away a dying man who can’t eat food because you won’t bill for $200? And – how much?! Dr. B, by way of comparison, charges $50 for a visit, and that’s average around here. True, Dr. PJ’s a surgeon, but still – $200 is a princely sum in these parts.

The offense wasn’t over with the loan shark tactics, unfortunately. Dr. PJ’s rudeness extended all the way to the operating room and then some. After Jim’s surgery, Mom (a retired RN and former hospital administrator, whose mind was plenty sharp back then) questioned both Dr. PJ and the nursing staff repeatedly on the protocol. She was told by both – don’t use the tube until Dr. PJ sees him again. That appointment was two weeks away. In the meantime, my brother choked down liquid shakes (and promptly threw them back up again).

Shortly after the second visit, Jim’s tube became dislodged when he stumbled while going to the bathroom. Mom took him back to the hospital, where Dr. PJ was to reinsert it. She called to ask me to step in for her, as she was due in the Social Security office to see about getting Jim some benefits, and someone needed to be there when the doctor came out. This was to be my first – and last – encounter with Dr. Pig Jowl.

Mom warned me prior to leaving that he had been ugly to her and to Jim that morning. Specifically, he’d said in a loud and sarcastic voice that if Jim was just going to rip the tube out, he wasn’t going to keep putting it back in. My blood ran hot in my veins. I knew Jim would never have torn the tube out deliberately – he demonstrated no signs whatsoever of not accepting his fate. In fact, we’d all been so impressed that Jim – the alcoholic, the emotionally damaged one who strongly resisted acknowledging any flaw or problem – had risen so gamely to this seismic challenge and kept his balance so beautifully. There was something heroic in the way he faced his death, all along.

But here was Dr. PJ, accusing Jim of deliberately sabotaging his handiwork. This tidbit set the mood for the confrontation that followed. He threw open the doors to the waiting room about an hour later and looked for Mom. I recognized him immediately – having never seen him before – and walked over with a polite smile to introduce myself. His eyes narrowed as he quizzed me about my relationship to Jim; he was reluctant to give me any information, and sounded exasperated when he asked where my mother was.

I took a pause and said loudly, “She had to go to Social Security office to get his benefits started before he dies. She asked me to step in. What do you have to tell me?” It had the intended effect – all eyes were now on him, and he knew it.

He started off in a low voice, as he began to recount the procedure, which went well. But he lost it again quickly as he started to insist that Jim had been drinking before the incident and that he simply could not do that anymore.

I think I yelled, “What?!”

Dr. PJ was accusing my alcoholic brother of drinking. Drinking alcohol.

Let me count the ways this is absurd:

  • Jim was barely able to walk by this point, let alone drive a car. He hadn’t left the house except when driven by one of us for weeks.
  • Jim could barely tolerate drinking lemonade or Coke. Alcohol would have made him gag and vomit.
  • If Jim couldn’t drive or walk, where was he supposedly getting this alcohol? From my 80 year old Southern Baptist mother who’d been haranguing him to quit drinking for the last 30 years? Somehow, I doubt it.

Still, Pig Jowl insisted my brother had admitted this to him. What he’d said, I quickly fathomed, was “I’ve had something to drink.” Jim, like me, was the child of a nurse and a pharmaceuticals salesman. He’d grown up around the medical profession, and knew that you’re not supposed to have anything to drink or eat before surgery. He’d told his doctor this, who interpreted it as an admission that he’d been trying to get sloshed.

While this was playing out in my mind, Dr. PJ was blathering on. Furious, I interrupted him and said “Why did you tell my mother that Jim couldn’t use the tube before he saw you, two weeks after the insertion of the tube?”

He blinked. “I said no such thing.”

“Oh, yes, you did,” I said, “and there are witnesses to this.”

He steadfastly refused to admit it, suggesting perhaps my mother was “confused.”

I threw up a hand to shut him up. “I’m going to the administrator right now.”

“Fine,” he said. “The offices are that way.” He gestured off to another set of doors across the lobby, turned on his heels and stormed out.

That was the last I saw of him.

I went straight to the administrator’s office, but only a VP was able to see me. She was very nice – she’d lost her husband to cancer, she said. She offered me a milkshake recipe that her husband had been able to tolerate. She seemed concerned about the blatantly incorrect post-op directions Mom had received but seemed to blame the nurses, instead of PJ. She said she’d pursue the matter and vaguely mentioned some “chain of command” the corporate owner of the hospital required be followed, and it might “be awhile” before I heard anything.

And that – three years ago – was the last I heard from her.

Since that time, I’ve struggled to let that go. Yet every single time something brings it to mind (something like Yoffe’s piece – and no, it doesn’t happen often) the maddening sense of frustration and howling indignation on my brother and mother’s behalf comes flooding back. I wish I’d ripped him a new orifice – verbally, of course – right there in the crowded lobby. I wish I’d been able to inflict as much emotional damage as he did on my family.

But, I didn’t. I did “the right thing.” I complained, bitterly, if politely, to the “right people.” And nothing happened. Well, nothing as far as I’m concerned. My family received no apology, no satisfaction. My brother died the day before New Year’s Eve that year, not even managing to see a new year dawn. And just two years and one month after that, my mother was dead, felled by her own battle with cancer.

So, I hope those med students that examined Ms. Yoffe are also getting some fundamental education in how to be a human being with their patients. I hope that they are being told even now by some professor that there will be serious consequences for a failure of civility as gross as Dr. PJ’s. I hope – but I don’t hold out much hope. It seems arrogance is as much a vaunted quality as skill with a stethoscope in the medical profession these days. Would that it were different.

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Posted in what i'm thinking now, writing by annie on June 7, 2007

writing down the sun

Posted in writing by annie on May 19, 2007

It’s staring at me.

Eye to eye, nose to nose, so close if I sneezed I’d have to apologize profusely to it and hand it a tissue.

This project is the mother of all intimidating projects. It won’t let me go, but it won’t let me start it, either.

OK, that last bit is rubbish. I’d love to throw the responsibility for my seeming inability to get a handle on this thing off on the project itself but the truth is, it’s my baby. No one is forcing me to do this except some inexplicable inner drive to see it out there – a conviction that it needs to see the light of day, and that others need to have it. I take no credit for the genesis of the project – the underlying ideas are neither original nor are they particularly earth-shattering. The uniqueness lies in the way I discovered they could be strung together and connected to form a sturdy foundation for something everybody wants to learn how to do, desperately.

(Vague enough for you? Sorry about that. Can’t be helped.)

And now, the self-imposed deadline is but two months away – less than that, really. And while progress has been made, it’s of the delegated variety. Now, it’s time for those who’ve assisted me in this to step back and turn it back over to me. It’s time for me to step up and run the ball down the field, to use a trite sports metaphor that I despise.

And for the life of me, I can’t seem to muster the … the gumption, I guess … to get it going. It scares me, this project, for a lot of reasons. One is that it will require me to practice what I preach. It has the power to reveal me as a fake or a genuine person of integrity. I believe myself to be the latter but I also know we all have the capacity to appear, or behave, as the former. And that scares me a bit. Another reason is that it will require a willingness on my part to abandon, with finality, all my excuses for “Why I Haven’t _____________” (fill in the blank with any self-improvement project I’ve undertaken over the last 40 years).

(I still don’t feel 40. When am I going to feel 40?)

And yet, I know – even as I know I’m totally free to abandon this project and liberate myself from its awesome power over my feelings of adequacy and self-worth – that I’m going to hold my breath and dive in. I know I’m going to start, and I’m going to go great gangbusters for days on end, and I’m going to run into brick walls, and I’ll step back, bloodied but unbroken, regroup, and try again, and that some days will seem like endlessly shoveling a mountain with a teaspoon, and other days will feel like racing the wind, but when all’s said and done, there will be a finish line. There will be a closing, and an opening. An end and a beginning. And I’ll shake myself off and start all over again. I know this because that’s what I do. And I can’t really stomach the thought of being any other way.