Friday, June 29, 2007

Billion Dollar Kiss

by Jeffrey Stepakoff

Jim sez:

Here you go, folks. If you want one book to lay out the world of TV writing for you, this is it.

Some of it may be a bit "inside baseball" to fully comprehend as an outsider -- but odds are if you're reading this blog, then this book is chock-full of exactly the sort of information you need to stuff into your brain. And if you're just curious about what the Great Oz is up to behind the TV curtain, this book is a 4-star tour of the other side of the drapes.

Best of all, it's well-written and great fun to read.

Jeffrey Stepakoff is a seasoned pro who not only knows a lot more than we do, he's damned entertaining laying it out. Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that a longtime storyteller knows how to structure his book to read like a great story -- but, well, you can't always bank on that. This book delivers on all fronts.

What Stepakoff brings to the topic that's so special is a broad historical context he lived through as a working writer -- and a willingness to talk openly about his career. Okay, I'm sure there are some polite obfuscations and generous characterizations of events in here, but the fundamental truths shine through. He came out here just a writers were becoming highly-paid assets in TV, lived through the boom years and then saw the money-gusher become a relative trickle (which happened, of course, just as Sam and I -- like so many others -- arrived with our buckets in hand...).

As we've ranted at various times in the podcast and in our Scr(i)pt Magazine column, writing in Hollywood (TV or film) is a business, not just an art. Some aspects of that business are obvious, but there are trends and prejudices that are completely obscure -- until someone reveals them to you. Knowledge is power, and he shares a lot of really hard-to-acquire knowledge in here.

This is important reading for anyone interested in writing for Hollywood. Get it, read it.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Conversations With My Agent

By Rob Long

Jim Sez:

This one is more for the flavor of life than anything else. Rob Long is a gifted guy, wrote for Cheers (among other things) and did this book back in 1998. I haven't read it in a long time, but I remember being struck both by the wonderful humor of the writing (no surprise) and the nature of his relationship to his agent, believe it or not.

It sounded like a humorous fabrication then. I'm much less certain now.

Seriously, there aren't many good good books about being a screenwriter, but this one is fast and interesting. Check it out.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Variety & Hollywood Reporter

Jim sez:

To succeed in any field, you gotta speak the lingo, have a finger on the pulse, put the thumbscrews to all the appropriate metaphors. So if your goal is to swim with the sharks, as they say, you gotta get in the water, and these two publications are the baptismal cesspools -- ah, tide pools -- oh, screw the metaphors. These things are mandatory reading.

These two publications are known as "the trades." They're published daily, but there's also a condensed weekly version. Both are accesible online, but however you get 'em the subscription price ain't cheap.

Day in, day out, most people in hollywood pretend to read these -- and if their names are mentioned, sometimes they actually DO. At one level they're trade journals, like Plumbing Digest, but they're also the papers of record for industry news, business and social events: the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and People magazine rolled together and served up with lots of weird insider lingo.

Most of the "news" isn't really new to serious players when it shows up in print. But there are things that, for any number of reasons, people want everyone in the community to know, and this is where that happens.

And that's where it's useful to you: name-dropping is a necessary evil out here and this is where you meet the people you've never heard of. Why are there 30 pages of ads celebrating Steven Spielberg's pet dachshund's birthday? That's a no-brainer. The 32 pages devoted to Wilbur Wassisname's daughter's high school graduation -- that you only get if you've noticed his name as the lawyer to all sides involved in the twenty biggest deals of the year.

And all the serious reasons aside, it's fun to read how PR flacks try to spin the latest disaster.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


by Terry Rossio, et al.

(Not a book, a website ( ) but required reading nonetheless. )

Jim Says:
Time was, the word blog didn't exist, 56k modems were the hot shit and people were hitting it big writing TV comedy ‘cause sitcoms ruled the airwaves. Yeah, we’re talking way back, like seven, eight years ago? Maybe longer, I can’t recall. But back then, Terry Rossio started doing his Wordplay columns as essays on the Motley Fool section of AOL (though if they really had anything to do with investing, the connection is lost on me.) Rossio & his partner Ted Elliot had broken into the screenwriting game (Little Monstethe tha Mask of Zorro, early drafts of Godzilla, etc, etc.) and the columns were his record of the often painful, always amusing lessons he learned as he went along.

Sam & I used to read those columns in the offices at our restaurants & talk about actually using those stupid BA’s in English we’d picked up. So, really, the fact that you’re reading this is Rossio’s fault. I'm not sure we’d have taken the plunge without his wry, insightful horror stories about the indignities of screenwriting. What made them so useful wasn’t the inspirational element – though he definitely finds silver linings wherever they can be found. The real value is in the unvarnished truthfulness, the eye-opening realities he discusses. has been up as its own website for a long time now, and it’s one of the best resources for screenwriters on the web. It’s packed with a vast array of guest essays, reference links, Q&A compilations, and, of course, the Columns themselves. Each column tackles a distinct topic and in a few pages conveys more worthwhile information than most complete books on writing. I visit regularly -- the more I learn about how this place works, the more I glean from reading the columns.

Sadly, Rossio doesn’t have much time for the site anymore it seems (the poor bastard's too busy producing & writing movies).

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Adventures in the Screen Trade

by William Goldman

Jim says:
Okay, Bill Goldman's glory days seem to have passed...but damn, he had some pretty glorious days: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride (like "The French Lieutenant's Woman," a GREAT example of making a good movie out of unique book by discovering the creative truth that makes the story work, rather than just transcribing it to a new format). This book chronicles his experiences making movies, and damn, it's a fun read.

Part of Goldman's appeal is both the big money he made (Butch & Sundance set records for a spec in its day) and the skill with which he represents writers. He very correctly pointed out that the problem with being a writer is that EVERYONE knows alphabet, so everyone assumes they can write, too. What writers need is a secret language, like cinamatographers have film speed and f-stops and whatnot, so people who don't know what they're doing will stay out of our work...

Enough: this book is required reading. Great stories, well told, what's not to like?

There's also a sequal, "More Adventures in the Screen Trade". It's somehow not quite as compelling, but there're plenty of good stories in here, too.

The First Time I Got Paid For It

Edited by Peter Lefcourt and Laura J. Shapiro.

Jim Says:
This is one of my favorite books on the business. Maybe because it's very much like our podcast: real writers telling real stories. There are some crabby postings on Amazon about this book, criticizing it for not fulfilling whatever expectations the readers came to the table with. It isn't "inspirational" enough. Or the stories are about how hard it was to break in until some better connected friend opened a door. The whining pissed me off enough I actually wrote my first Amazon review. People need to get a grip on the very, very basic truth that writing for Hollywood is NOT winning the lottery. As well assume that all coal miners stumble across the Hope Diamond, 'cause, y'know, diamonds are carbon and it just makes sense that if you dig awhile you'll hit one.

Okay, the odds aren't THAT bad, but you take the point.

I found these stories entertaining and inspirational in the much more grounded sense: these people (mostly) worked hard for a long time and it paid off. Some of the stories are funny, some are alarming, some are just plain weird. Some of these writers aren't as good at writing prose as you'd think. But the one thing all of these stories share is that they were written by people who've actually made some success in Hollywood.

Good, bad, or weird, this is what they chose to say about breaking in, and it's therefore valuable reading for anyone else thinking about trying to do the same.

About The Booklist

This blog is a companion to our podcast site

We're a couple of screenwriters trying to make our way in the wilds of Hollywood, stumbling humbly along between brilliant success and crushing defeat.

We've long promised a list of recommended reading for our listeners, and, somehow, Sam dumped it on me, Jim, to put it up. So I'm go to start this, thinking it may become an evolving, ongoing attempt to share books we found inspirational to our writing process -- whether or not they're explicitly about screenwriting.

First, I want to state my bias about screenwriting books (Sam will chime in with his own preamble, I suspect).

I think they suck.

Most are blatantly opportunistic attempts to hoover money out of the wallets of people who have dreams. I can't wait until I become jaded and bitter enough to write my own.

Seriously, though, writing about how to write is like writing a book about playing jazz piano. Yeah, you can do it; yeah, you can describe the process of creativity; yeah, others can probably learn some things along the way. But does reading that stuff REALLY make you a jazz pianist? No. You have to play piano, a lot, preferably under the tutelage of more advanced performers. As we've tried to convey in our podcasts, there's just no substitute for experience. Writers are people who write.

All of that said, I'm just as hungry today as I ever was for tips and stories about making it out here. Anything I can stuff into my brain that teaches me something or just gives me the fortitude to bang away for one more day.

My curmudgeonly ranting aside, there are books out there that are useful -- or entertaining at least. So here goes...