Lesson #12 – Credits Are Not an Exact Science
- Take My Bike, Please ! (1991) (story)
- Vegas, Vegas (1991) (writer)
The first is what is known as a story credit and the second is a writing credit (and a shared writing credit at that). A story credit means that the story was yours. A writing credit means you actually wrote the script. If no one is given story credit, it is assumed that the writer wrote the story in addition to the script. While this seems very clear in concept, it's a little muddier in execution. For example, did I come up with the story for "Take My Bike, Please!"? Not exactly. I came up with part of it. Remember last time when I talked about how the head writer loved my "D.J. stops talking and no one notices" story? That's in there. Most of the rest though was created by other people.
The reason I get story credit here is that a bunch of my ideas were spread out of numerous episodes. Rather than give multiple people credit over all the different episodes, credit was fairly broken up and spread around. Magic credits work similarly. There are plenty of sets that I worked on that I was not given credit for, just as there are sets that I was given credit for where chunks of the work were done by other people. At the end of the day, I feel I have been properly credited for my work even though what I've done and what I've been credited for do not always line up exactly. (Also, as the Head Designer and one of Magic's spokespeople I get a larger share of the praise and blame no matter who actually does the work.)
Lesson #13 – Four Heads Are Not Always Better Than One
In previous parts, I talked about how the writing staff had thirteen writers on it. What this meant was that there weren't enough scripts to go around. As such, my only script was co-written with three other writers: Don Foster, Sid Youngers, and Joel Madison. These three writers had a few things in common. One, they were all junior writers. Two, they had all been hired by Tom Arnold. And three, they were all friends with one another.
I liked all three of them, and they were very funny (one would expect that all comedy writers are naturally funny, but that just isn't the case). So when we were assigned to write a two-part episode where Roseanne and Dan go to Las Vegas, I was sure it was going to be a snap. I remember the day the four of us holed up in Joel's office and started writing. And "started writing" is very apt. I think two hours went by and we hadn't gotten out of the first scene.
It became apparent that trying to have four people "drive the bus" wasn't working so what we did was chop the script up into four parts with each one of use taking a piece. As the new guy, I got the last remaining piece, the first half of the second episode. It turned out that I ended up with what I think was the most memorable scene of the whole two-part episode: the scene involves a drunk Roseanne having a fight with Wayne Newton, who Roseanne believes to be a poor Wayne Newton impersonator. ("Now he's telling me what to do. He sounds like every other man on Earth. Excuse me, every other man on Earth except Wayne Newton.")
One of my favorite moments from Roseanne was when I was sitting at my computer writing and realizing that I was writing a scene for Roseanne, John Goodman, Tom Arnold, Sandra Bernhard, and Wayne Newton. That was pretty cool. (While I did get to fly to Las Vegas for the shoot—a lot was shot on location—I never got a chance to meet Wayne Newton.)
The lesson here is one that comes up often during Magic design. Sometimes a problem is best solved by a group and sometime it's best solved by individuals. Each approach has its strengths, and the job of a lead designer is to figure out what technique will best solve a particular problem. The technique I often use is to take part of a meeting to see what the group can do. If it becomes clear we aren't getting anywhere, I'll make the challenge an assignment for the designers to work on individually.
Lesson #14 – You Don't Always Know Where Successes Will Come From
One of the things the Vegas two-parter did was introduce a new character to the show, Nancy (played by Sandra Bernhard). Nancy was married to Arnie, Tom Arnold's character.With Sandra Bernhard (Nancy)
It turns out that there is something called a character creation fee. If you create a character (defined as having written the episode that introduced them), whenever that character appears in another episodes, you get paid. Be aware that I didn't create Sandra Bernhard's character, but because I was one of the writers of the two-part episode that introduced her, I got money (one fourth of the total fee, of course) every time she was on Roseanne. I used to remember turning on the show each week just to see if Nancy showed up. It was a running joke at the time with my roommate to yell "Cha-ching!" the first time she'd appear on screen in an episode.
I bring this up because it demonstrates that it is impossible to predict the consequences of creative decisions. Many times I have worked hard on some aspect of a set only to find something that was done without much thought is the thing that steals the spotlight. For example, in Future Sight, I created Tarmogoyf because I liked the idea of a card that referenced card types that didn't exist yet. Lorwyn was going to introduce both planeswalkers and tribal—one of these might have been slightly more successful than the other—and this seemed like a great chance to tease the future. I came up with the Lhurgoyf riff because I felt the easiest way to do what I wanted was to check for card types in the graveyard. I had no idea that I was making the defining creature of the set. (To be fair, Mike Turian, the lead developer for the set, really put it on the map by changing the stats from */* to */*+1 and dropping the mana cost to .)
As much as designers like to be in control and plan on what is going to define their set, in the end, there are just factors outside their control that can turn little things into big things. As a corollary, this means that you should pay attention to the quality of everything, even the little stuff, because you never know what's going to end up front and center.
Lesson #15 – Iteration Is Key to the Creative Process
A question I am often asked is what exactly was my day-to-day life on Roseanne? To explain, let me walk you through an average week, one during which a show was being taped. In television, or at least in sitcoms that are filmed in front of a studio audience, each show is done over the course of a week. Usually in a month you have three weeks on when shows are being taped and one week off to let everyone catch up and give the actors a break.
Roseanne taped on Fridays. Different shows tape on different days. The great thing about taping on Friday was that each show started on Monday and ended on Friday, making the show week match the actual week. I'm going to walk you through Roseanne's week, which is pretty typical for shows like it.
Monday – In the morning is a script reading where the cast reads through the script for the first time. All the writers are there taking notes. In the afternoon, the director works with the cast to start "staging" it, meaning he or she helps figure out what the actors do on stage and where the camera is going to be placed. While the cast is starting rehearsal, the writers retreat to the Writer's Room. Thus begins a long week of rewriting. Basically what goes on in the Writer's Room is the whole writing staff trying to one-up all the jokes and if needed, structurally fix certain scenes. During a wild week, whole scenes can come and go.
Tuesday – Tuesday is usually when the first rewrite is sent to the cast. (Often the script is sent to the actor's home late Monday night—see my runner column for how this caused me to once break into an actor's apartment building.) For each rewrite, the pages with changes are printed up in a different color. Each version has a set color. I don't remember the order, but it's something like first draft – pink, second draft – blue, third draft – goldenrod, etc. Thus as the week goes on, the script gets more and more colorful. In the morning, the cast is given a chance to work with the new script. In the afternoon, there is a run-through, which the writers watch. More notes are taken and the writers all retreat to the Writer's Room.
Wednesday – Wednesday is a lot like Tuesday. The actors spend the morning working on the changes and there is a run-through in the afternoon. I should note that all sorts of other things are also going on—costumes, props, sets—but I'm just focusing on what the writers are up to. In the afternoon there's another run-through, more notes, and more time in the Writer's Room.
Thursday – Same basic day, with one big exception: the run-through in the afternoon is now done on camera with props and costumes. This allows the crew to make sure they know what they are doing and to check that nothing has to get rewritten due to technical difficulties. The day ends, as every day does, in the Writer's Room.
Friday – It's Taping Day. Barring disaster, the rewriting in the morning is just tiny tweaks to lines. There are two tapings to make sure everything gets covered and to allow some options in editing. The first taping is in the afternoon. The cast and crew break for dinner, and after dinner is the second taping. Only the second taping is in front of a studio audience. Usually this is where most of the footage comes from, as the live audience taping tends to bring out the best in the actors.
The lesson I learned from the weekly structure of Roseanne is the importance of iteration to the creative process. Essentially what happens all week is that the writers create changes and then let the actors work with those changes and from that performance they figure out what new changes need to be made.
This process is almost identical to how I design Magic every day. The design team makes changes, and then we playtest. It's the playtest that shows us what needs to change. It's not enough to just look at your creative work. You have to get it into practice so you can view it as it is going to be viewed by your audience. For Roseanne that meant that the script needed to be acted out. For Magic, that means that the set has to be played. A common mistake in design is doing too much work without iteration. It's very easy to sit with a script or a file and constantly tinker, but doing so without being able to see it in context can often do more harm than good.
Lesson #16 – If You're Not Working Towards Your Goal, You're Working Against It
Upon graduating college, I moved to Los Angeles. The reason was simple. My career goal was to create television shows. To do this, I had to first establish myself as a writer by working on existing shows. I would move my way up, eventually getting to the point where I had enough clout to start pitching my own shows. The key to doing this, though, was making the big leap from not writing to writing. Called "breaking in" in Hollywood, this is the hardest thing to do, because there is stiff competition and you have to stand out in a herd of struggling writers.
This is why getting on the staff of Roseanne was so important. I had done the thing that many writers never do. I had my "big break." The key was using this momentum to get other writing jobs, hopefully working my way up as I proceeded. I knew this going in. I understood the importance of the job to my future. I've already told you that my stint on Roseanne only lasted a little over half the season. So what happened?
The head writer was named Bob. When I got the job, I went and talked to Bob. I said that this job was important to me. What should I be doing if I wanted to stay? Bob said that I needed to keep from making waves, and not draw too much attention to myself in the Writer's Room. In essence, don't piss off the other writers by grandstanding. Remember, I was a novice writer in a staff filled with much more experienced writers. There were a lot of egos. If I wanted to keep in the good graces of the more senior writers I had to not hog the spotlight.
The Head Writer told me to lay low, so I did. In retrospect, though, I made a very big mistake. The staff had thirteen writers, a larger-than-average television writing staff even for a sitcom (which on average have larger writing staffs—comedy is hard). My pitch had only bought me the minimum amount of time as a staff writer. If I was going to stick around, I needed to make my worth known. How was I going to do that with a strategy of not doing something?Ethan Fleischer
The timing of this article is interesting because last week was Ethan Fleischer's first week on the job as my intern. (He got that job as the winner of the Great Designer Search 2.) On his first day, I explained to him that what he really won as the winner of the GDS2 was a six-month opportunity to prove himself—in many ways, the exact thing I earned with my pitch. His quest to become a fulltime designer hadn't ended when he walked in the door; it was just beginning. Yes, he'd had his big break, but that only meant he had an opportunity that few others have. He needed to use this time to demonstrate not why he needs us, but why we need him.
While my post-Roseanne story is not for this column, suffice to say that losing the Roseanne job led to a downward spiral that ended up with me being right back to where I started, possibly even worse off. I walked away from Roseanne learning an important lesson that I believe led directly to my job at Wizards: Reaching your dream cannot be done passively. If you're not striving to make it happen, you are allowing it to not happen.
I talked about this story in the first of my Life Lesson columns, but I'll do a quick recap here. I was struggling with my writing career when I stumbled upon a second job, doing freelance work for a little game company called Wizards of the Coast that happened to make my favorite game. The path from being a fan of Magic to accepting a job in R&D was a string of actions that I took. I sought out The Duelist and pitched the idea of Magic puzzles. I flew to Gen Con on my own dime to get a chance to meet Kathryn Haines face to face to try to write more for The Duelist. My series of freelance jobs for Wizards came about because I actively sought out more work and accepted everything offered to me, even things that I wasn't interested in doing. I took the initiative to go to the then-VP of R&D and tell him I'd be willing to relocate to Renton.
Even once I got my job, I took many steps to get to where I am today. I aggressively pitched myself to lead-design Tempest when I had no design credit to my name. I got involved in the Pro Tour because I took the initiative early on to be involved. I became editor-in-chief of The Duelist because I stepped up when someone needed to. Every step along the way, I took the initiative.
The big reason why, I believe, is that I had the experience of watching my dream job slip through my fingers, and I was sure as hell not going to let it happen a second time. This all leads to my final lesson of this three-part series.
Lesson #17 – Lessons Aren't Of Any Value Unless You Learn From Them
There is no shame in making a mistake. Life, in many ways, is trial and error. The biggest error is not making mistakes, but repeating them. When you take actions that lead you to somewhere other than where you want to be, you have to step back and examine what happened.
Every so often there's a Magic article that explains that the key to getting better at Magic is accepting that you are the cause of your performance. If you lost, it was because you did something, or more often many things, that led to that loss. The key to truly improving is understanding that you can't get better until you accept the role you play in your losses. In other words, you can't improve until you accept that there are things you can do that will directly lead to the improvement.
I want to end today's article by stressing that life is no different. If you aren't where you want to be, stop blaming your fate on everything else. Take a look at yourself and answer the hard question: what am I doing that has led me to be where I am? If you don't like it, take the steps that are necessary to be where you want to be. Yes, not all the factors are under your control, but just as topdecking is improved if you have the right cards in your deck, so too is life if you've taken the time to properly prepare.
You want improvement in your life? Figure out what you're doing (or not doing) that will get you there and then make changes accordingly. If you want your life to move in a certain direction, take the steps to make it so. No one else will.
And that, in a little under ten thousand words, is how I spent six months on the writing staff of the number-one show on television. It had high highs and low lows, but most importantly, it was a key point in my life that led me to where I am today—a place, I'm very happy to say, that I love being. I hope my story was entertaining and possibly even a little informative. I'd be very happy to hear what you all think of this three-parter. Feel free to email me, drop me a tweet on Twitter (@maro254), or make a post in this week's thread.
Join me next week when I address some common concerns.
Until then, may you get more than one chance at making your dream come true.