Wednesday, January 14, 2015

How Hit TV Pilots Can Help Us Write Novels Agents Want

I recently discovered something really interesting: some of my favorite TV Shows all started out with the same director of their pilot episode (first show of the series). I decided to do a little research on the director and found he came to make seventeen out of his nineteen pilot shows get picked up by a network and stay successful. For writers, this is like having a first chapter sent to an agent and having seventeen out of nineteen agents request to publish your book just from the first ten pages. How cool is that?

Now who is this crazy successful director? His name is David Nutter and he is my new idol.

David Nutter, Director

Before I go into the stuff I've read on him and how he has made his these shows successful, I think we all need to know what shows this director has worked on:

Millennium (1996)
Sleepwalkers (1997)
Roswell (1998)
Dark Angel (1999)
Smallville (2001)
Dr. Vegas (2003)
Tarzan (2003)
Jack & Bobby (2004)
Supernatural (2005)
Traveler (2006)
The Mentalist (2008)
Eastwick (2009)
Chase (2010)
The Doctor (2011)
Arrow (2012)
The Advocates (2013)
The Flash (2014)

Now I bet you can look at that list and pick out at least three or four shows that have been your favorites. He's actually been the director/producer on many other shows (including X-files, Game of Thrones, and ER). How's that for a list?

A pilot is most commonly thought of as the first episode of a television series… the first story in a series of many more stories… and while this is often the case, it’s not entirely accurate. The truth is: a pilot, whether in script form or actually produced, is a selling tool used to illustrate what the TV series is about and how it works.  In other words, a pilot is designed to convince network or studio executives that this series a good investment of their money and airtime.  Some pilots never even make it to air… they’re simply used to get the series “picked up,” then discarded. The first few chapters of our books are just like that. Hopefully our editors let us keep most of what we have written, but either way, our first ten pages are what sell our book to agents and publishers.

So what makes Nutter's pilots successful and how can that help us make our first chapters shine and step out of the slush pile?

1.) A Likable Main Character - Does that mean the main character is good looking, perfect in everything they do, makes the right choices, and has super powers? No (though that may be true for some of Nutter's pilots). Nutter says that one of the common threads in all of his pilots is that the main character has a void in their life and "it's that deep emotional thing that the audience can grasp onto that I try to bring out as a director." 

Take the pilot of "Arrow" for example. In the first episode, we meet Oliver Queen. We find out the billionaire was a player who actually ran off with his girlfriend's sister and that sister died on Oliver's boat when it capsized. Does that sound like a likable character? Not exactly. But then we see that he was shipwrecked for five years and he has changed and we like him because he wants to bring justice to those that have poisoned his city. We find out he still loves the girl he left behind, protects his family and friends at all costs, and has to hide how much he has changed from the ones he loves - even pretending to still be a playboy so that he can moonlight as a hero. Now we can like him because all of us at one time or another has had to hide a part of who we are and we've all made mistakes and want to make up for them. Every one of us has family or friends that we would do anything for. 

I watched many of Nutter's pilots and read several articles from the director himself. Then I put together a list of what I believe makes his shows successful. Now some of these are pretty much self-explanatory or you've heard before, but I think when you take into account all of these ideas and use them when you revise, you can make your novel and, specifically, your first first few chapters - your pilot, if you will - successful.

2.) Quick Audience Connection with Main Character - Everyone wants to be able to relate with the main character of their show. That's why we keep watching. The audience needs to identify with something early on with your main character. If your characters are generally unlikeable, even if you think they're interesting, it won't carry a reader/viewer to the next scene. Nutter did this with the series "Flash" in the character of Barry Allen. Straightaway in the first episode we see this awkward forensic scientist who clumsily walks into people in the street and talks fast, but notices things like Sherlock Holmes. The first time he's on a crime scene we already like him because he ignores what everyone says and gets right into the dirt to find the killer. 

Barry Allen in "The Flash" 
3.) A Character with a Past (Deep Characterization) - Few pilots start off with the main character's birth and the audience seeing him grow up to be the doctor or super hero. Most pilots start somewhere in the middle of the story, and rightly so. BUT, every character has a past and we need to see bits and pieces of it right at the beginning. We don't have to have all the answers. We just need a glimpse of their past or how they got to where they are when we first meet them. Maybe it's something they think, a look between two friends, or something someone says to that character that lets us in on who they are. Every character we write isn't just a character. Character refers to the essence of who anyone in your novel truly is on the inside. Is he or she a good person or a bad person? A hero or a villian? Character is the spirit of that person, while characterization is the quantifiable result of who they are. Every character we write should have a back story and several pages of characterization. Does that mean we share that in our first chapter? NO! But it will influence how we write the character.

Max from "Roswell" telling about his past.

4.) A Compelling Story - I know this is kind of obvious, but true more than most of us think. If you don't have a good story to begin with, doing #1-3 won't matter. When choosing scripts that he has directed, Nutter said, "I guess the simplest answer I can give you is that I've got to fall in love with it. It’s got to move me in some way. I've got to be touched emotionally by something. It can’t be just flash and no substance or, ‘Just the facts ma’am,’ without any heart. And at the end of it I say to myself, ‘Do I want to watch the next episode?’ That’s really what it’s all about."  

5.) A Variety of Emotions - 
Whether we are a female or male, we are all drawn to emotion. It drives us in our decisions, it gets out blood flowing, brings tears to our eyes, and makes us laugh. Think right now of your favorite book or movie. Now think of why it is your favorite. I can guarantee that there is some kind of emotion associated with it. Lust. Anger. Joy. Heartache. These feelings are what make us come back for more. And this is where we find good writing - in the emotions.

The main difference between TV Shows and novels is that in TV shows the emotions have already been read from a script and interpreted by actors and directors on the screen for us to see. In novels, we have to write what we want the reader to interpret as emotions. We do this through the tone of our words, the setting, dialogue, and the actions of our characters. 

Laurel in "Arrow" telling Oliver off after he returns.
So to sum it up, your "pilot" chapters of your book should have: a likable main character, quick audience connection with the main character, a character with a past (deep characterization), a compelling story, and a variety of emotions. 

Now get that agent to "pick up" your book!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Top 10 Things I Learned in 2014

Author Robin King

1. Life has meaning in its imperfections. Perfection is overrated. If any of you have read my book, you will know that this is a quote taken from Remembrandt. Many of us are perfectionists. We don't want to admit that we can't do something that is just right. We won't sing in front of people even though we love it because we don't sound like Taylor Swift. We won't invite people over because our house doesn't look like a showroom. We won't join in on a basketball game because we know we can't shoot worth beans. We won't go out onto the dance floor because we're awkward and uncoordinated. We won't run a race because we aren't fast.

I'm the same way. There have been many times in my life where I didn't try something new because I was worried I wouldn't be able to do it right. Writing was that way for me. I had been journaling and writing for over fifteen years, but it took me that long to have the courage to turn that writing experience into a book.

Signing contract

Be imperfect! Embrace imperfection! My favorite people are the ones that make mistakes and allow me into their lives to help them through it or laugh about it and move on. Or they own those mistakes and turn them into strengths.

2. You don't have to be the best. Just do YOUR best. This year, I have learned that it okay to stink at things. I ran a marathon this year - my 11th actually. I felt like I tried to train as hard as I could. But, a leg injury held me back. Now I could have just thrown in the towel, but I decided that I just needed the accept the fact that I wouldn't be the fastest one - I just needed to do my best. Now, was it the best race I've ever run out of my 11? NO! But it was the best that I could do at this time in my life. Read more about it in my post on "A Marathon of Lessons."

My 11th marathon was not my best, but it was the best I could give this year.

3. Let it go! Yes, yes. I know you are all sick of that song. You know why I love it still? Because it's so true. Not in the sense of letting your magical freezing power show, but in how we tackle the relationships in our life. I'll admit, that I'm not one to hold a grudge and I'm pretty quick to forgive, but there are a few times this past year or two that I could have held onto something - I even had a right to hold onto it, but in the end I decided that carrying a judgement or anger toward someone or something, no matter how justified, is only hurting myself. So let it go. Release yourself.

Author Robin King
My daughter often reminds me to "Let it go!"

4. Nature is medicine. What do I mean by that? I mean that being outside and enjoying the world around us can be a cure for lethargy, depression, and stress. I had the opportunity this past June to visit Lincoln City, Oregon. Though much of the time there was spent doing family reunion activities, I took several mornings to go a run by myself near the beach. Each time I would take time to breathe in the ocean-laced air and the cool breeze. One morning I found a secluded spot on the beach where I could sit on a rock and contemplate. I stared out over the ocean waves and felt a peace that I can't even describe. I came back to Utah so refreshed and ready for whatever life could throw my way. Since then, I have made sure that several times a week I go outdoors and do something, whether it is taking the kids to the park, going on a walk or run, hiking in the mountains, or just sitting in my front yard. Our bodies need the sun and fresh air. We also need the reminder of the beautiful creations around us. I think nature helps us to take a look outside ourselves and, in turn, it gives us its own medicine to help us make it through the day. Next time you are having a hard time, get outside! I promise it will improve whatever is placed in your way.  

My view at the beach in Lincoln City, Oregon. 

5. Don't always play Devil's Advocate. It's my greatest fault. You know what I'm talking about. Your spouse is talking about how he thinks that the HOA shouldn't make you keep your garbage can out of sight. Now you really actually think that it is a silly rule most of the time, but you argue that keeping them hidden makes the neighborhood look nicer. Pretty soon you're adamant that garbage cans should only be seen for the 10 minutes it takes for the garbage truck to loop your block and your spouse thinks we should keep them on our porch with a big sign that says "This is my property. Close your eyes if you don't want to see it." You get the idea.

Why is it that we have to take the other side of so many discussions? I've been working on this a lot this past year and I have to say that it PAYS TO AGREE. I'm not saying that we shouldn't voice our opinions, but I think many arguments could be avoided if we looked at the things we agree about first before we jump in a "devil's advocate" role and start arguing for the other side. Just try it. The next time you are at the dinner table and your significant other brings up how amazing Obamacare is and how it is going single-handedly save our healthcare system, look at the points you agree with first before you argue for private healthcare. I know, it will be hard at first, but believe me, we all want people on our side. It shows that we care about and understand them.

Our 14 year anniversary in July - after all these years I'm finally learning not to play "devil's advocate."

6. Chaos is acceptable. In fact, it can make for fun and excitement. I love a clean house. I love it when my kids sit quietly in their seats at church with their arms folded and their eyes on the speaker. I enjoy eating dinner while we are all sitting around the table with engaging conversation and dabbing our faces with napkins. Let's by honest, that happens maybe 10 % (or less) of the time. Toys are always on the floor and my 4 year old and toddler can't sit staring at the back of a church pew or someone's head for more than 2 minutes. At least every other dinner, someone spills a drink and one sibling "accidentally" kicks another one. Though I love peace, chaos is part of my life. And it's ok! Which brings me to my next thing I learned . . .

Sometimes this year my house looked like this (for Elijah's baptism) . . .

And other times it looked like this . . .

7. Just go with it. Really, friends. If things are chaotic, accept it and move on. If your child decides they really want to wear the jeans with the frilly dress to school, LET THEM. If your husband really wants to watch Planet of the Apes (and you have no desire to), do it with him. Do it FOR him.

Now, I don't mean to let people walk all over you which I have let happen plenty of times in my life. What I mean is that if someone really wants to do something, and it isn't going to hurt you to go along (or you don't really care either way), then let them have their way. Be the bigger person. I've found through several experiences this year, that I'm happiest when those around me are happy. Sometimes I have to remind myself what is worth fighting over and why, but generally I've found that in the end, I'm just as happy going to the park as going to the swimming pool, so why not do what the 8-year-old wants? Yes, I would love for my pre-teen boy to wear designer jeans, cut his hair short and play competitive soccer, but he only likes elastic-waist pants, enjoys the swoop of his hair over his forehead and the making of Minecraft videos. So I just go with it. I still trim his hair on the sides and remind him to go outside and play when he's been on the computer too long. Sure, I still cringe a little when his hair falls into his eyes or get jealous when I see his friend wearing a snazzy tie to school. Oh well. In the end, I actually didn't think Planet of the Apes was all that bad. Interestingly enough, I saw two teenage girls the other day wearing jeans with a frilly dress. Shows you how much I know.

I wanted to go to the pool, but the kids wanted to hike the 'Y' - sometimes it's better to just go with it
(even if two of you have on flip flops and we only had one water bottle).

8. Let people choose. Forcing only creates tension. This one relates a little to #7, but has been a BIG realization for me this year, not just with my kids, but also with friends and adult family members. No one wants to be forced into anything. No one. I know we all want to just grab our husbands and make them hang their pants in the closet instead of over the bathroom door. We want to carry our 8 year old from the couch to the piano bench and make him practice. "Get your seat belt on!" has been a phrase shouted a little too often to the back of our van. But my 4-year-old has taught me a great lesson this year: everyone wants to make decisions on their own. I have had to learn to ASK instead of TELL, NEGOTIATE instead of DEMAND. I have been trying to give people options instead of just telling them what to do. This has been really hard for me. As an adult, you feel like you know what is best. The problem is, we aren't experts and we can't read people's minds. Maybe she's not wearing her seat belt because the strap is too tight. Maybe his pants aren't hung in the closet because they were airing out. Maybe he's not practicing piano because he can't figure out the notes on his own and he needs help. I have had to learn this last year to ask politely for things to be done and if they aren't happening, I have learned to ask why. I'm still learning this great lesson, but I hope that writing it out will remind me that it's something I need to do.  

She won't wear her seat belt, but she does remind me to stop and smell the roses.

9. Bad things happen to everybody. Bad things happen to good people. Challenges are POL (part of life). When I taught school, I used to tell my students that for everything we did in class some would be POC moments and others POL moments. POC stands for "Piece of Cake." There were so many times this year where things were POC and I had fun (birthday parties, our family reunion, running some races, writing conferences, date nights, book club), but there were several moments that were POL and I didn't enjoy (changing diapers, cleaning up messes, folding laundry, fixing broken things, taking kids to the doctor, working). I think when I recognized the things that were just Part of Life, it made them easier.  Sometimes we just have to do things because they have to get done - cleaning, house upkeep, yard work, giving baths, cutting hair, washing clothes, making dinner, earning money etc. All these things eventually have to get done. It's just a part of life.

My sweet and loving Grandpa Charlesworth passed away this year. 
Another side of this is that bad things happen to everyone. I have wonderful, spiritual, giving, beautiful friends and family members who have had cancer or miscarriages, spouses have passed away, children have died, mental illness has been unimaginably difficult, jobs have been lost. All of these things happened this last year to people I know. Good people! Sometimes things just suck. It's true. What can we do about it? Well, after we cry out all the hurt, we can do two things: we can let it get us down or we can let it make us stronger. Whether we survive cancer or heartache or children making poor choices, we can choose how we respond. We are all survivors. Which brings me to my next lesson . . .

Alana required a lot of holding this year and it was hard, but I learned to cherish it.
10. Happiness is a choice. I had a few hard hits this year. A hurt leg. Painful training. A baby that needed to be held all the time. A few challenging kids. Car issues. Money issues. Insurance issues. Family health problems. There were times where I could have easily thrown in the towel, crawled in a hole, and cried myself to sleep. I feel like I've been blessed with the ability to stay calm and collected amidst a storm. BUT, I've also been told a few times in my life that I'm "unfeeling," which is a defense mechanism that my brain takes on when most people would probably have a nervous breakdown. I like to keep my emotions in check. It's just who I am. But I do FEEL. Just as much as the next person. And when things got tough this year and I wanted to throw in the towel, I made a choice - not to let it get me down.

How? Did I just flip a switch and say, "I'm going to be happy now?" Um, I don't know of anyone who can do that. No, though I did apply some of the other life lessons I learned this year, what I did the most was find things that made me happy to replace the times when I could have been down.

**I DANCED: When most of the kids were in school and no one was watching, I would blast music from my phone and dance in the living room with my baby (I apologize to anyone who may have been looking in the window. I never said I was good at dancing . . .)

**I RAN: The chemicals released while exercising and the chats with good friends while running always bring a smile to my face.

**I READ: I love good books! I may not have had a lot of time sit down and read like I wanted to do this year, but audiobooks have become my friend.

Reading in the tub - bad for books, great for happiness!

**I WATCHED: Yes, I did watch TV. Like a good book, a show on Netflix or Hulu, one that has excitement or comedy can turn a chore (like laundry) into an entertaining endeavor. Now, I'm not saying to become a couch potato (I'll admit that about 90% of the things I watched this year were done while cleaning, cutting coupons, sewing, or editing photos, etc.), but the distraction of a good show can bring us out of ourselves, and hopefully put a smile on our faces.

**I MEDITATED: Okay, I know what you are picturing. No, I didn't sit cross-legged with a mono-toned hum in the middle of my living room floor. Honestly, sitting for more than a minute at a time with five kids is nearly impossible without someone shouting, crawling on me, or demanding something. For me meditation happens while doing dishes or driving in the car. You just have to take a few minutes of either silence or, my favorite, oceans sounds (remember what I said earlier about nature?). I have the cool FREE app on my iPhone called Ambience where I have downloaded soothing sounds. My favorite is called "Pacific Ocean." Sometimes I put on my headphones and turn this on when I need a few minutes to regroup. I also use it while I write because it helps my mind concentrate on the story. Having trouble sleeping or falling asleep? I turn on my ocean sounds and, in minutes, I am out like a light.

**I WROTE: Before this year, I didn't know how much fun it was to just write. After a challenging day, starting a scene to a book or finishing a chapter had me wishing I had more hours in the day. During the summer, I convinced my son to do a few writing activities a week with me. Sometimes it took us 10 minutes and other times it took us 30, but we used some writing prompts from this book called The Write-Brain Workbook. Even if you aren't a writer (my son hates to write), it was fun to take the ideas and stretch myself. Afterwards, we would read each others' writing and give ourselves a good laugh.

My distracting writing buddy.

**I SANG: My poor children have to listen to me belt out songs on the radio in the car or show tunes around the house. I don't care. I love to sing and it makes me happy. Whether it is music, art, karate, organization - find something that makes you happy and do it, no matter how good you are.

Singing at my book launch of Remembrandt. I know I'm not the best, but I love it and it makes me happy!

I think the hardest part about happiness is making up our minds ahead of time to be that way. Now that I know what things make me happy, I can go back to the list and choose something that day that makes me happy. FIND YOURS! We can CHOOSE to be happy.

I still have a lot to learn. I'm imperfect, I'm not the best, my life is chaotic, but you know what? It's just POL. I'm just going to go with it and choose to be happy. I hope you do too.