Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Want to write for the movies or TV? Two great new books help you learn from the pros at UCLA Extension Writers' Program

I admit I'm totally biased. I work for UCLA Extension Writers' Program online, teaching all levels of novel writing and story structure, and I've also taken a one-on-one screenwriting course with them.  (Hey, I didn't make the first round of the Sundance Screenwriters Lab last year for nothing!) But if you can't be in a class, what's the next best step? Linda Venis, the Director of the renowned UCLA Extension Writers Program (and yes, my fabulous boss) has gathered together the top talents in the writing for film and writing for television programs for two essential books: Inside the Room: Writing Television with the Pros at UCLA Extension Writers' Program, and Cut to the Chase: Writing Feature Films with the Pros at UCLA Extension Writers' Program.

Each book is based on the program's workshops and written by its successful film and writer-teachers who aren't just teaching what they know, they're also actively working in the business.  I'm delighted to have Linda here to talk about the books. Thank you so, so much, Linda.

What do you think makes Writers’ Program, in general, so good?

First, thanks for the compliment about the quality of the Writers’ Program!  Second, to return the compliment in a 100% genuine way, one of the reasons the Program has such a strong reputation for excellence and has many student success stories to its name is because the teachers are all professional writers or work in allied fields (literary agents, development executives, etc.)  They have, collectively, 1000’s of published and produced writing credits in every field of creative writing and screenwriting, and they are incredibly generous in sharing their knowledge with aspiring writers.  In addition, because we’re an open enrollment program and attract adult learners from all over the world, we’re able to offer a very broad and deep curriculum--upwards of 425 courses a year.  Students can write full screenplays, novels, memoirs—whatever they are passionate about--and be mentored all the way through the process.        

How are these books a natural outcome of the program?

Cut to the Chase and Inside the Room draw directly from the Writers’ Program film and TV writing curriculum, and my main impetus for creating these books was to make our comprehensive training more widely accessible and to try and capture the diverse expertise (and personalities!) of some of the pros who teach for us.   With a total of 25 chapters and 24 authors, the books represent a rich layering of knowledge, techniques, tips,  and strategies to write screenplays and be a working writer.  Just like the Writers’ Program itself, the books offer readers best practices as well as specialized and alternative practices.  

 Can you talk about how the experience of learning through these books might differ from being in a class?  

Once again, I have to say that the extraordinary access the books’ readers have, at their fingertips, to so many diverse, dynamic, expert points of view on how to write and survive as film and TV business writers is unique.  If people are using Cut to the Chase and Inside the Room in screenwriting classes or writers’ groups, the books, so much the better—the books can be a “guide on the side.”  The obvious limitation to learning how to write a script by only using a book is they aren’t getting feedback on the work they create—it’s more of a one-way street.  That said,  the chapter authors give a lot of concrete guidance for working through the process, staying on track, warding off the dreaded inner critic (as well as negative people in their lives!), and inspiring their readers to persevere.    As editor, I strove to ensure that the chapters were well-organized , easy to follow, and used lots of recent films and TV shows as examples—in short, the books have been designed the books explicitly for readers.     

Tell us about some of the amazing people in both books.

The chapter authors are the real deal:  taken all together, they’ve had thousands of hours of movies, television series, and pilots produced, and a brief list of their credits include The Simpsons; House, M.D.; Pretty Little Liars; Frasier;  Liar Liar;  Meet the Robinsons; and Journey to the Center of the Earth.  They have won Emmy and Writers Guild Awards, and several have written their own (very good) screenwriting books.   As television writer-producer Zoanne Clack (Grey’s Anatomy) says, “The Writers’ Program instructors have been out there--they’re speaking from experience.  They can tell you how the business really works, how to market yourself, and what the market wants.” 

What I find so great about these books is that they are based on the process of writing movie and TV scripts. The reader has to do the lessons and the exercises, and in doing them, they begin to think and work like a professional.  Why is thinking like a professional so crucial?

This is such a great question—especially since many people  assume writing scripts is much easier than it actually is—primarily because they have seen a ton of movies and TV shows.  That’s why it’s important that new writers understand the difference between the Product, which is the final script, and Process, which is a creative journey writers need to undergo to actually type “The End.” The process of writing a script takes time and practice—there are certain steps that need to be completed and which build upon one another; it’s like acquiring any complex skill.  Talent is important too, but without acquiring a writing practice, those who dream of writing for film and TV won’t have a shot at a sustained  career.  But the good news is that once people get a handle on the process,  they can create script after script--how a script gets completed is demystified for them.  

Can you talk about what’s called the “screenwriting a la carte” nature of the Writers Program.

One of my favorite features of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program is that students can “customize” their screenwriting and creative writing educations.  Our students are educated adults—they aren’t looking to earn another degree or follow a proscribed curriculum.  Instead, our students want to acquire specific skills, particular kinds of guidance—maybe they want to write a literary novel or a horror movie or persona poems.  Maybe they want to work specifically on scenes or characters.  They might have already written a lot, so they can jump right into more advanced courses.  Or they might be brand new to the creative process and want a course that is exercise-driven and highly supportive.  Given the scope and depth of the Program, the varied expertise of the teachers, and the fact that as a continuing education institution, we have the flexibility to create courses that respond to our students’ needs, we are able to offer a large “a la carte” array of classes from which the students can shape their own course of study. The books are organized in the same way: readers can work their way through the books linearly, or they can dip into chapters that suit their writing levels and needs. 

I love the quote that screenwriting “is a journey, not a race. It’s supposed to be hard.” I think writers need to embrace that fact. Yet, both books break the process down into bite-sized pieces to make it understandable and even fun. Can you talk a bit about that, please?

I love that quotation too, and it’s an image that pops up throughout both books.  It’s a warning, on one level, to let new writers know that the process will take a while—it comes back to the Product versus Process distinction I mentioned earlier.  But also, it’s such a reassuring image:  screenwriting is a creative journey in which writers delve into their own experiences; test out story ideas; develop juicy, complex characters; learn structure and outlining; power through their first draft; and then go on to the more refined levels of the screenwriting process.  The organization of the chapters is extremely deliberate in the way it breaks down the elements of this journey--so for example, the more subtle aspects of feature film writing  typically undertaken at the revision stage such as dialogue and visual storytelling are included in the “Rewriting Your Feature Screenplay” section of Cut to the Chase.    And yes!  Both books make the journey fun! 

What interested me too, was how much of the information was both specific and particular, and yet could transcend genres. There was much in the screenwriting book that could apply to the novel, that I found myself taking notes. Care to comment? Wow—if  a New York Times best-selling novelist has found these film and TV writing books applicable to her own craft, my day is made!  Actually, I’ve always been a big believer in the power of cross-disciplinary study, and if writers in various genres find Cut to the Chase and Inside the Room useful, I’m delighted.  I’m already getting feedback from people who aren’t necessarily interested in writing screenplays—or even being a writer—but they love how the books take them inside how scripts are put together and what the movie and TV industries are really like.    

And do you think you will have a book for Writing The Novel?
I never say “never” (not too often anyway), but I do think there are excellent books on the market for fiction writers.  However, my next big project will involve the creative writing side of the Writers’ Program, and I have a wonderful gift that was bequeathed by a beloved, long-time fiction writing teacher who passed away in 2011, Phyllis Gebauer, to support it.   More to come, Caroline! 

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Your questions were very thorough—I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to chat about the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and our new books.  The only thing I’d add is that if people would like to find out more about us, we’d invite them to visit our website:  http://blogs.uclaextension.edu/writers.  

Linda Venis, PhD
Director, Department of the Arts
Program Director, Writers' Program

UCLA Extension Mission:  "To provide knowledge and connections for people to achieve their personal and professional goals"

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