Spreadsheeting a Novel

For several weeks now, I’ve been planning my first novel.

Originally, this was going to be a screenplay. However, the main protagonist is 80 years old, and the moviegoing audience likely wouldn’t match her demographically. On practically every website and in practically every screenwriting book I encounter, it’s pounded into my brain that the lead characters must be young. People like to see reflections of themselves onscreen, and the older cohorts just don’t seem to go out to theatres. (They’ve likely learned by now that they can afford to wait until the DVD comes out.)

A synopsis: Anna, celebrating her 80th birthday alone in the 2040s, learns that her pension has run out and she has only two months before she’s evicted. She’s offered “dechronification”, a backwards-aging procedure, but first she must go through a FIVR (full-immersion virtual reality) program in which she confronts her demons. Along the way, she learns valuable lessons about herself — proving that you’re never too old to learn.

I’m using some Excel spreadsheet ideas to plan it out. I don’t have a title for it yet, but I do have a Save the Cat genre. I’m pretty sure I’m dealing with a “Fool Triumphant”, or a novel in which an underdog character proves her worth to the world and — most importantly — to herself. I originally thought it was a “Rites of Passage” tale, but now I think I’ve got my genre down. As for its conventional genre, it’s obviously science fiction, but with a smattering of period drama as Anna faces her past.

I hope to finish it by the spring. Then I can have a reason to read those emails I get about how to find an agent!

Updating a Spec Outline

It’s happened to you. You’ve toiled long, hard hours on your spec outline. You’ve loved it and hated it. You’ve turned it over and over in your tired brain. Finally, blessedly, you’ve come up with an outline that you’re sure will turn the heads of Hollywood. It pops and sparkles. It incorporates all the main characters and a couple of recurring. It fits into the world of your show. It’s sure to finally launch that career you’ve been dreaming of. It’s your ticket to the big leagues.

And then the new season happens to you and… not only has the main character got a new job (and the usual format acquired a new regularly-used set as a result), but your spec is about the family looking after a goat and the family has just got a new dog!

Based on my own experience with American Housewife, I have a few tips.

  1. First, be thankful that your spec is only at the outline stage. You haven’t put fingers to keyboard in Final Draft and committed to dialogue that’ll be more difficult to change. Count that blessing!
  2. Make a list of the changes you’re now going to have to incorporate into your outline. In my case, my new American Housewife outline had to incorporate (a) Katie’s new job (with the quirky characters it introduces, such as Whitney and possibly Kevin) and (b) the new dog, Luther.
  3. Assess each change. How important is it? How permanent is it likely to be? This is a bit of guesswork, but you can’t get inside the minds and plans of the writers enough to predict how dated each change is going to be over the long term, so you might as well make your best guess.
  4. Do some research on each change. I find Deadline Hollywood to be a good place to research what’s in the works for TV shows.
  5. Analyze your first draft and look for places to make your more minor changes. In my case, I looked at my first draft and decided to make the goat get the dog in trouble in a couple of places, to move one scene to Whitney’s office, and to add a couple of scenes in Whitney’s office.
  6. For more major changes, integrate into your story. As an example from my outline, now that Katie’s a party planner, doesn’t it jump out at you that she should now be planning the garden party through work?
  7. For changes that can’t integrate with your story at all, accept that you may have to write a new spec. This sucks, but we’ve all been through worse.
  8. If you’re lucky and you don’t have to write a new spec, rewrite. Don’t forget to go over your entire outline and integrate anything you feel works.
  9. Go over your rewrite and make any changes you’re inspired to make.
  10. Celebrate! Pat yourself on the back. Give yourself a reward!

Stay inspired,


Making Time for Writing

One of the hardest things about writing is figuring out how to make time for it.

In my situation, I’m taking the UCLA Extension one-hour spec writing class online for that simple reason. If I weren’t taking the class, I probably wouldn’t find the time to write. Taking the class gives me accountability. If I don’t write my synopsis this week, I miss the deadline. If I miss the deadline, I get a poor grade. If I get a poor grade, I have to admit to myself that I’ve failed in front of others. Plus I’ve wasted my money. That’s incentive.

I’m also studying for the GRE, which I’m taking in a little over three weeks. I also have a business to run to keep my bank account in the black and support my writing-class-taking habit. So it’s easy to tell myself that I can’t make the time.

Guess what? With this week’s class deadline looming, somehow I did. I just wrote my Bull synopsis while sitting in front of Family Feud.

So, my top three recommendations on how to make time?

  1. Pay money to take a class. That way, you have people watching you meet your deadline. You have a grade lurking in your future to tell you you’ve succeeded or not.
  2. Make your environment as relaxed as possible. If it makes you uncomfortable not to have distractions like the TV, have that TV on. Nothing summons the staring-at-a-blank-screen spectre as effectively as setting aside time, religiously eliminating all possible distractions, and “preparing” yourself to sit down for half an hour and stare at a blank screen.
  3. Relax. Know that whatever you write can be rewritten. Especially if you’re doing this on a computer, nothing is ever set in stone.

Incidentally, my working title for my Bull episode is “Making Time”. I’ve just submitted a rough synopsis, and we’ll see what changes are made through feedback.

So, go ahead and relax. Make the time. You can do it. I promise.


Speccing Bull

I’ve decided to spec CBS’s Bull for my UCLA Extension one-hour spec class.

The first thing to do when speccing a show is to find out all you can about it and write it down in one place: a “series bible”. So far, I’ve gleaned preliminary information from its CBS information page and its Wikipedia page, which leads into a page of episode summaries that I think will be very useful as I develop my story idea.

Given the current #MeToo movement and the ongoing Brett Kavanaugh controversy, I think this is a great moment for me to explore the treatment of sexual assault victims in the justice system. The Season 3 opener made it clear that in this season, Bull will explore the theme of following higher ideals versus the pragmatic need to do often distasteful things for the money. I initially feared that basing my spec on the #MeToo movement would date it, but on further reflection I believe that this is an issue that goes beyond trending and beyond the times.

So I’ve just submitted my story idea. I’m waiting to see if it gets revised or added to, and I’ll keep you posted on the process.