Topical Blend #1: To Err Is Human – This is the article that started this sub-category. In it I explain some classic mistakes designers (and humans in general) make through the foibles of my love life.
Resolutions – This one is backwards from the rest in that I explain how I use the lessons from game design in my life. I don't link to this article all that much, but it definitely came from a similar place as the rest of the articles I'm listing here.
Tales of a Runner – This article is about many of the crazy things I did when I was a runner in Hollywood. If you haven't read it, it's the best set-up I've done to today's column in that it details my life right up until the events in this article happened.
I Never Promised You a Roseanne
I have been blessed with a wonderful job. A job so cool that I've found a way to write millions of words about it. A job so cool that over 1100 people applied to become my intern. (If you haven't been paying attention, we have a winner for the Great Designer Search 2: Ethan Fleischer.) But being Head Magic Designer is not the only cool job I've ever had. The other occupational highlight of my life has become kind of a running joke in this column. I mentioned it a few times and then everyone loved mentioning how much I mentioned it and it snowballed into a running joke.
I've always wanted to write an article or two about my time as a staff writer on Roseanne, but it has become a running joke, and that made me shy away from it. As I come up on my five hundredth week (happening at the end of the Summer), it dawned on me that it seemed crazy not to talk about a story so juicy before I hit the five hundred mark. So today I'm finally going to actually talk about my time on Roseanne. If this isn't something you want to hear about, you've been warned and can run away now.
Still here? Good, then let me tell you a tale, a tale of a tiny ship. Or rather a tiny writer. As I walk through my time on Roseanne, I am going to explain the many lessons I learned from the experience and talk about how those lessons have made me a better Magic designer. As you will see many of my lessons come from me doing things incorrectly during my short stint on Roseanne.
Lesson #1 – Good Ideas Aren't Enough; You Have to Be Able to Sell Them
My time on Roseanne began with something known as a "spec pitch." Almost every television show has a staff writing it. Most shows are written primarily by their staff, but thanks to the Writers Guild (the union for writing for television and film), three episodes each year have to be done by an outside writer. This policy was created to help provide more work for freelancers and to allow new writers a chance to break in. In this case, the new writer was me.
Several months earlier I had finally landed an agent, and she was setting up meetings for me. Some were opportunities for me to meet with people looking to hire writers and some were spec pitches giving me a chance to sell a script. The day I walked into the Roseanne writers' room for the first time, I was there to pitch ideas for the show. The way a spec pitch works is that you're brought into the room in front of the head writer and some of his staff. You stand up in front of them and answer the question "So what do you got?"
Before any of this happens though, your agent talks with the head writer and you are given some guidelines for your pitch. Normally, this includes how many episode ideas they are interesting in hearing and what kind of things they do or don't want. You have to remember that this pitch was at the start of the fourth season of Roseanne. The show was the number-one show on the air at the time and it was assumed that any writer would be well versed in the show.
I was extra excited, because not only was it the top show on television, but I was a fan. I thought it was a very well-written show and the idea of having my first script be for a show that I truly admired was exciting. It's very common when breaking in to have to work on shows that you would never watch, so the chance to work on something that I actually admired was very motivating.
As I walk you through what I did for this pitch (both beforehand and in the pitch), I'm going to bring up some basic lessons about pitching. Some of you might ask what this has to do with Magic design, and the answer is "a lot." A big part of being a designer is selling your ideas to everyone else who needs to approve them before you can move forward. The advice I'm about to give you is general enough to apply to most types of pitches, but it works just fine for selling Magic design concepts as well.
Know Your Strengths
Let me start by saying that while there are many wrong ways to pitch, there's no one right way. To have the strongest impact you have to understand your own strengths as a salesperson. Make no mistake, by the way—that is the task you are performing when you pitch something. You are selling it. You are convincing another person to "buy" it, if not in physical form then in concept.
In television, when you pitch, you are told how many episodes they want to hear. For Roseanne, I was told that I could pitch between three and ten show ideas. To me this meant I could pitch ten show ideas. I always pitched the maximum allowed because I felt ideas were my strong suit and I was good at pitching many different types of episodes. The other advantage of having the maximum is it makes it easier to move on if a particular idea isn't working.
You only get one chance to sell your idea. Once people have decided they don't like it, it becomes very hard to change their opinion. In my particular case, I literally had only one chance to sell it. Because of this, whenever I prepared for a pitch I was very thorough. For each episode, I would name it and break down what happens by act. I would know what happens right before each commercial break and would be aware of what each regular character was up to. I had my A plot and my B plot, and my C plot when the show called for it. (In television writing, the A plot is the main story line while the B and C plots are smaller stories. Because shows try to use most of their regular characters each episode, they tend to have multiple storylines running though the show.)
I would figure this all out and then I would memorize it. Every word. The only thing I ever brought into a pitch was a single notecard with a super brief outline, which would sit in my pocket. I tried to never bring it out if at all possible. I treated my pitch much like I would a play. I memorized all my lines and I would rehearse it thirty to forty times to make sure that I knew it forwards and backwards.
What is the single most important thing to do in a pitch? Be excited by what you're selling. Your goal is to get the person you're pitching to be excited. It's much easier to do that if they can get the excitement from you. A corollary to this is that you need to be excited by what you are selling. If you, the person who's created the idea, can't get excited about it, odds are the idea needs some work.
My favorite story about my pitch is that when I walked in I was asked if I wanted any coffee. I replied that I didn't drink coffee. I then went into my pitch. As anyone who has seen me in video interviews or in person knows, my energy level gets pretty high when I get talking about things I care about. At the end, one of the writers said, "I can see why you don't drink coffee."
Follow the Flow of the Person You're Pitching To
You're job in a pitch is to convince the person you're pitching to "buy" something. An important part of doing that is gauging what is and isn't interesting to them. If they don't like something, move on. Don't try and convince them that they should like something they don't. All that does is reinforce that you don't have the thing they want. If they like something, talk more about it.
For my television pitches, I always prepared a short and long version of each episode I was pitching. I would start with the short synopsis to test the waters. I only told them more if they took the initiative to ask to hear more about it. Remember that people are much more interested when they initiate the topic. When someone asks a question, they become invested in hearing the answer. Your job in a pitch is to make them want to ask you questions. That way, you are not telling them what you want to say, you are telling them what they want to hear.
I could tell my Roseanne pitch was going well because I was asked a lot of questions about many of my episodes. I believe I ended up giving my long version for almost every episode. The fact that I had prepared answers allowing me to quickly and succinctly answer them helped immensely.
A quick aside to a different pitch, because it illustrates this point in a comical way. I was pitching to Home Improvement. It was the first season of the show and at the time only a few episodes had aired. Those early episodes all focused on the star Tim Allen, so every one of my pitches had Tim as the main character in the story. A minute into my pitch, I was stopped by the head writer. "Do you have any stories about Jill [Tim's wife]? We're really looking for stories for her."
I was not informed that they wanted to hear stories about Jill—obviously, if I had, I would have brought stories with Jill as the main character. But I had just been informed quite clearly what the person buying wanted, so on the fly, I changed each and every story to play up Jill's role.
Don't Overstay Your Welcome
In other words, get in and get out. When you're trying to make a good first impression (of yourself or your idea), you want to leave the other person with a taste for a little more. As I explained above, you want to be in a position where the other person wants more information from you. That doesn't mean, by the way, to not answer their questions. If you have a good idea, it will generate questions well beyond the first few minutes of thinking about it.
The first sign I had that my Roseanne pitch had gone well is that I glanced at my watch after I left the writer's room (never look at your watch during a pitch, by the way—it tends to create negative connotations: "You're wasting my time," "I have other places to be," "I'm bored"). I thought the pitch had taken fifteen to twenty minutes. It turns out it had been almost an hour.
Always End by Saying Thank You
You're not just selling your ideas in a pitch. You are also selling yourself. In television writing, for example, if the head writer likes your idea, he (or she, but it's still usually a he) has two options. He can purchase the idea (for someone else to write), or he can purchase a script from you. The first is less money and less opportunity. Selling your idea but making them think you're a jerk hurts you and your idea. As a general life lesson: be nice. As a lesson for pitching: don't give them any reason to say no.
I just said that there are two outcomes of a successful pitch. It turns out that there's actually three. Later that day, I got a call from my agent. She said, "They loved you. They're not just talking about a script; they're talking about a staff position."
A few days later, they officially made the offer. I had just been hired as a staff writer on the number-one show on television through a cold spec pitch. ("Cold" means that I came in as an unknown quantity; I didn't have any previously relationship with any of the writers.) It's hard to explain how crazy what I just did was. For those of you who don't work in Hollywood, it's not the kind of thing that happens very often, and not on a hit show, and especially not on one that already had twelve writers (which is giant for a television writing staff, especially a sitcom—more on them in a bit).
Lesson #2: Understand the Motivations Behind Why Things Happened
A big part of writing this article is allowing me to look back in hindsight to understand what happened and to put context on it. At the time, I believed I got on staff because I wowed them (and to be fair to me, I did have a very good pitch), where looking back I realize that my lucky break was more about finances. I had come up with numerous ideas they liked. It was cheaper to hire me on staff than it was to buy all my ideas.
What this meant—and once again, I didn't make this realization at the time—was that I had a limited amount of time (what turned out to be about six months) to convince them that they needed to keep me because once my time ran out, keeping me was no longer the cheaper thing to do.
This lesson is a crucial one that comes up all the time in design. It's very easy to make changes in your design without taking the time to understand what is causing the change. The problem with not understanding these motivations is that you lack the ability to capitalize on them. You even have the risk of making further changes that undo the good work that the first changes did.
It's very easy in the creative process (and life) to just "go with the flow" and do whatever feels right in the moment. My time on Roseanne, though, demonstrates the folly of this strategy. I was so excited to finally be on a writing staff that I didn't take the time to understand what was going on. I enjoyed myself, but I set myself up for a big fall because I didn't take the time to understand what had happened to me. More on this in Part 2.
Lesson #3: It's All About the People
I said before that there were twelve other writers on staff. (Quick interesting factoid: of the thirteen writers on staff, nine of us were Jewish.) Here are their names:
Two of the writers were, obviously, Roseanne and her then-husband, Tom Arnold. Of the remaining ten writers, two in particular went on to have the most notoriety.
The first, Amy Sherman, who would marry a man named Daniel Palladino (who also would later write for Roseanne) and become Amy Sherman-Palladino, was the creator of one of my favorite television series, Gilmore Girls. Amy was my favorite of all the other writers (with Don being a close second). One of the reasons I enjoyed Gilmore Girls so much, aside from the awesome writing, was that I loved seeing Amy succeed.
The second is a man named Chuck Lorre, who very recently has been in the news for being the person Charlie Sheen hates. Chuck has created numerous shows: Grace Under Fire, Cybill, Dharma & Greg, Two and a Half Men, and The Big Bang Theory. There's a very high chance that Chuck doesn't even remember who I am, as we had very little interaction. (The junior and senior writers were segregated quite a bit.)
The question I most often get is whether I worked with Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse) who did, in fact, work on staff at Roseanne, but, unfortunately, two years before me, during the show's second season. I like to think that Magic history might be forever changes if he and I had the opportunity to work together.
It's interesting when you look up the bio of these writers how much they keep appearing on the writing staffs of each other's shows. These folks took the time to integrate themselves into each other's lives. They had a golden opportunity to build friendships and network. Did I manage to do any of that in my time on staff? No, I didn't. One of the reasons I had trouble getting work after Roseanne was that I didn't use it as an opportunity to build upon. The biggest part of that was that I didn't do a good enough job getting to know the people.
Of all my lost opportunities, I believe strongly that this was the biggest one. Note that my troubles in Hollywood would directly lead me to the path that got me here, so even though there are things I would have done differently in retrospect, it's hard to get too upset, as the choices I did make have led me to a wonderful life. I do believe, though, that this life lesson was an important one and is something that has had a big impact on how I function now as a designer.
Whenever I start a preview week I always list all my designers. The reason is that the core of the design experience is the other people I get to work with. My lesson here came from not valuing the people. I had a rich resource at my disposal and I let it slip away. This is not a mistake I've repeated at Wizards of the Coast.
Roseannes Are Red
So I got my foot in the door of the number one television show. I was actually on staff, but little did I realize the clock was ticking down. I had a show to write, actors to interact with and several unforgettable experiences ahead of me.
Join me in two weeks for Part 2 of this story, and join me next week when we return to the birth of metal.
Until then may you take the time to stop and smell the, let's just say, roses.