Welcome to Best of 2011 Week 2. Last week I ran my favorite design column of the year, Ten Things Every Game Needs. Today I'm running my personal favorite column of the year. I talked last week about how it took me six months to write that column. Today's column took me ten years.
It's become a running joke in my column that I used to work on the TV show Roseanne as a staff writer. I had always planned to write a column or two (or three, apparently) about the experience but I kept putting it off because I felt like the time wasn't right. This year I realized my five hundredth column was coming up and it felt like it was something I was supposed to write before I hit that milestone.
I chose this column because I feel like Part 3 is one of the best, and most personal, columns I've ever written, and it didn't feel right just running the third part of a series so you get the whole thing today. The second part dips a little bit, but stick with it, because it ends strong.
I hope everyone has been enjoying the holidays and you all have a happy New Year. See you next week for MagicTheGathering.com's tenth anniversary!
A Roseanne By Any Other Name, Part 1
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.
A Roseanne By Any Other Name, Part 2
Last time I talked about how I got my job as a staff writer on Roseanne. Today I am going to talk about what it was like to have the job. While the experience had plenty of downs, today's column is about the ups. (A hint at what to expect in Part 3.)
Lesson #4 – Beware of the Impact Others Have on How You See Yourself
One of the oddest things about my time on Roseanne was the contrast between my old life as a "runner" (aka production assistant/gopher, check out my article Tales of a Runner if you want some sense of what that life was like) and my new life as a writer. A runner is the lowest person on the Hollywood ladder while a writer, at least in television, is on one of the higher rungs.
To get a better sense of this, let me share with you a conversation I had my first day as a writer on Roseanne. Remember, that the last day I had worked just six weeks earlier, I had been a runner, meaning that I would have had to go do the task that this conversation led to. The other person talking to me was someone from the office staff whom the runners of that show reported to. I'll call her Sally.
Sally: Mark, I hope you're settling in.
Me: Yes, everything's been great. Everyone's so nice.
Sally: That's wonderful. We're excited to have you here and we want to make sure that you have everything you need.
Me: Don't worry about me. I'm pretty easy.
Sally: We have your office set up. Are there any supplies you need to write?
Me: I'm good. I don't need anything special.
Sally: Mark, you're on Roseanne now. You're a writer. We're here to make sure that you get what you need.
Me: I'm just so excited to be here. I don't want to be any trouble.
Sally: It's no trouble. Our job is to help you write great scripts. Surely there's something that you need.
Me: Okay, a pad of paper. And a pencil. I write all my scripts out longhand before I type them.
Sally: That's great. What kind of paper do you like?
Me: Anything will be fine.
Sally: But what do you like to use?
Me: At home I write in a notebook.
Sally: Why don't we get you a notebook?
Me: If you have one, that would be great.
Sally: We'll get you one. What kind do you use?
Me: Like a five-subject notebook. The kind kids use for school.
Sally: Wide ruled or college ruled?
Me: Wide ruled.
Sally: Any color preferences?
Me: I guess black.
Sally: What kind of pencil do you need?
Me: Do you guys have any mechanical pencils?
Sally: We can get them for you. What kind do you use?
Me: I usually use Pilot.
Sally: What kind of lead?
Me: 0.5 millimeter.
Sally: Great, we'll get it for you.
When that conversation started, if I was given scrap paper and a crayon I would have been happy. I had no interest or investment in making demands. I was just excited to be there. What I didn't really take into account at the time was that I was allowing others around me to shape how I was functioning. Some poor runner, which was me just six weeks earlier, probably had to go to five stores to find a black, five-subject wide-ruled notebook and a Pilot .5mm mechanical pencil.
At the time, I remember feeling like I hadn't changed at all. I was just "runner Mark" now writing on staff at Roseanne. Looking back, though, I believe that I did not understand that the change was not as much a function of me acting differently as it was one of everyone acting differently to me.
This lesson is especially relevant to design, because I think many designers do not understand the impact that others have on their designs. Because designers spend so much time internalizing what they are doing, it's very easy to miss the influence that others have. For example, during design I interact with numerous departments. The reaction each of them has subtly shapes how I do my design.
For example, during Zendikar it was clear that the main drive for me, tapping the rich vein of mechanics involving land, was not a selling point to other people in the company. Because of that, I spent a lot of time pushing other aspects of the set, knowing that I had to create an expansion I could sell internally. This pressure really pushed me towards the adventure world aspect of the set. Note that I'm not saying that this influence was a bad thing—just that I had to understand the impact it had on me.
Looking back at my Roseanne days, it was clear that I would have a much better sense of where I stood and what I needed to accomplish if I had a better grasp on what was shaping my reality. It is very easy now with hindsight to see my blind spots, but had I been able to see them at the time, it's quite possible my time at Roseanne would have ended differently.
Lesson #5 – Be Careful of "The Shiny"
Whenever my time on Roseanne comes up (and believe it or not, it's not something I actually talk about all that much; no, really), everyone always wants to know the same thing: what were all the actors like? My next lesson plays right into this fascination. Just as everyone wants to know about the stars of the show so was I intrigued by these celebrities whose world I had been let into.
The fact that I'm going to spend a large chunk of today's column talking about the actors shows how easy it is for the splashy aspect of life to take center stage. Yeah, I could talk about my office or about how scripts are laid out or what the weekly schedule was like, but in the end I wouldn't be delivering what the majority of the readers wanted to learn about.
The shiny is a real issue in Magic design. Certain aspects of the set are just splashier than others and, as such, they are going to pull focus, not just with you but with anyone who deals with the set. A designer has to take extra time with the shinier aspects of the design because the same things that draw attention internally will draw attention externally. My lesson here is not that's it's bad, but that you have to be extra vigilant about it to make sure that you're spending the proper time on the shiny parts of the set.
When I look back at my time on Roseanne, it's clear that I was a little too taken by the shiny and that it was definitely one of the things that kept me from focusing as clearly on the things I needed to. As we will see in two weeks, this pattern of behavior would come back to haunt me.
But enough internal monologuing—what was the cast of Roseanne really like? I'll tell you while providing life lessons along the way.
Lesson #6 – Sometimes Your Greatest Successes Come From the Places You Least Suspect
Michael Fishman (D.J.)
Of all the cast members on Roseanne, Michael Fishman was the one I had the least interaction with. Michael was a little kid and he spent most of his time in school while on the set. Looking back though, I had a very important relationship with Michael, one that arguably got me my job on Roseanne in the first place.With Michael Fishman (D.J.)
For those not familiar with the show, let me quickly recap. Roseanne was a "blue-collar comedy" about a lower-middle-class family struggling to get by. The main characters on the show were Roseanne, her husband Dan, their two teenage daughters Becky and Darlene, their young son D.J. and Roseanne's sister Jackie. (Roseanne had a fourth child later in the series, but I like to pretend the later seasons don't exist, as they lessen what I believe is one of the best sitcoms of all time.)
When the show first began, D.J. was a little kid (three or four, I believe). As such, the actor who portrayed him was picked more for his visual similarity to Roseanne than any other factor. As he grew older, one thing became clear: he was the weakest link when it came to acting (although to be fair to Michael, he was on a show with a very strong cast, and I include Roseanne in that assessment. She could only play one character, but it was one she was very good at).
The reason this would become important is that one of the things that the head writer, a guy named Bob Myer, really liked about my pitch is that I pitched some good D.J. stories. In other words, I had a knack for finding ways to make D.J. important without requiring Michael to stretch too much as an actor. The idea that I believe Bob loved best and that I think directly led to me getting hired was a story that was actually used during the fourth season. The pitch: D.J. stops talking and no one notices.
The lesson here was that my affinity for Michael and his character proved to be invaluable to me. It's not something I would have guessed walking into my pitch, but it was something I figured out along the way. Once I did, I played it up as I understood it was a strength. Design is very similar. You need to get a grasp on what is successful even if it isn't the thing you planned to have the focus. Remember, good designers learn from their work. They have the ability to let their design tell them what it needs rather than forcing what they think it needs upon it. Your design will tell you what's important. Listen to it and respect the fact that the best of ideas don't always come from the obvious places.
As for Michael, I wish I had some insight into him, but all my stories about him are basically about him acting like the young kid he was.
Lesson #7 – There Are Many Ways to Learn About Something
Laurie Metcalf (Jackie)
I walked away from Roseanne with a real good sense of Laurie Metcalf. She is a very dedicated actor who loves what she does. She is funny and friendly and a loyal friend. The interesting thing is that I spent very little time interacting with her. So how did I get to know her so well? Through one of her best friends. You see, one of the writers I hung around most with was dating the head costumer for the show. She had gotten her job through Laurie as they were good friends. The two of them had come up through the business together in, if memory serves me correctly, Chicago.With Laurie Metcalf (Jackie)
While I had always liked Laurie as an actress, I gained even more respect for her as I learned all about her background. There is a very compelling argument that she was the strongest actor on the show (with her big competition being John Goodman). The more I learned about her the more I liked her.
The lesson here is that education doesn't have to always be so direct. When I'm trying to understand my latest set, I often try to get a different vantage point than I've had before. I'll have new people play my set or I'll try a format I hadn't tried before. Just as there are ruts you can fall to in design, so too are their ruts in how you come to understand your design. Part of growing as a designer is branching out to find new ways to educate yourself about your set.
I did have a few chances to actually interact with Laurie, and she was always extremely nice. She was approachable and very down-to-earth.
Lesson #8 - There's Always Room to Be Surprised
Lecy Goranson (Becky)
My memory of Lecy was that she was very fun-loving. I got some chance to spend time with her and of everything, I most distinctly remember her laugh. She was always very happy and fun to be around. If you had told me that one of the cast was going to stand up to Roseanne, I'm pretty sure Lecy would have been my last pick. (Yes, even after Michael.)With Lecy Goranson (Becky)
The event in question didn't happen during my time on the show but a few years later. Lecy wanted to go to college and Roseanne wanted her to stay on the show. Lecy volunteered to fly in from time to time and appear on a certain number of episodes a year, but Roseanne wasn't interested. She was in or she was out.
Lecy walked away from the number-one show on television to get a college education. This, by the way, is why Sarah Chalke (later of Scrubs fame) became "the other Becky." Yes, Roseanne replaced Lecy with another actress.
The reason I bring this up is that I remember how stunned I was when I heard the story, mostly because I had gotten a chance to know Lecy and I didn't realize she had that in her. I was quite impressed.
The lesson here is that it's important in design not to make assumptions. You have to be prepared for things to surprise you, because if you don't you can miss out on wonderful ideas. Buyback, as an example, one of my favorite all-time mechanics, was created by Richard Garfield as an idea for a card or two. He didn't even pitch it as a mechanic. But playtests soon showed that these few cards had a little something special about them and we quickly came to realize that we had an awesome mechanic hiding out in our set.
In retrospect, I wish I had spent more time getting to know Lecy, because I would have liked it if that story hadn't surprised me.
Lesson #9 – There Is Always Good Among the Bad
Sara Gilbert (Darlene)
Of all the cast, Sara was the one I got along best with. She was extremely mature for her age (while she was six months younger than Lecy, you would have never guessed that from meeting her), and she and I got along wonderfully. Sara and I would occasionally have lunch together even after I left the show. She is quite intelligent and was fascinating to talk with. Of all the connections I made during my time on Roseanne, my friendship with Sara was probably the one I have the fondest memories of.With Sara Gilbert (Darlene)
During this three-parter I am bringing up many things I did wrong. I feel it's important to stress, though, that I did some things right. It's very easy to see things in a white or black light with everything being good or bad. While I made plenty of mistakes during my time on Roseanne, there are a few things, like my friendship with Sara, that I feel I did right.
In the context of design, it is always important to recognize that there's always good and bad mixed together. You need to figure out what worked in the playtest that went horribly awry, just as you have to figure out what still needs improvement in a set that gets high marks during devign (the design development overlap stage).
Lesson #10 – Don't Judge A Book by its Cover
John Goodman (Dan)
One of the things my time in Hollywood taught me is that there is often a big difference between an actor's persona and his or her actual personality. John Goodman plays such vibrant characters that I always assumed that was what he was like. It turns out the opposite was true. John was pretty quiet and tended to keep to himself. He was very nice, but he wasn't the kind of person to open up to just anybody. The one exception to this was after each taping, the cast and crew would go to a restaurant across the street. John would get a few drinks in him and then he'd start telling the most amazing stories. That was when his charisma came out and I soaked up every story I could. John was the actor I wish I could have gotten to know better, because he seemed like a fascinating person. And, as a quick aside, he has the largest head of any person I have ever met.With John Goodman (Dan)
This lesson carries over very easily to design. The most common way is when we revisit a theme that we've visited before. It's very easy to just assume that this set will be just like last time we tackled the same theme. As an example, when we started Lorwyn design, I was amazed how many people in the company just assumed we were going to make Onslaught II. A good designer has to look past assumptions because the most amazing discoveries come when you're ready to expect the unexpected.
Lesson #11 – Taking No Risks Can Be Even Riskier
Roseanne & Tom (Roseanne & Arnie)
Let me start with Tom. I actually got to spend a bit of time with Tom. The reason was that some of the writers were friends of Tom's. In fact, they were writing on the show directly because of Tom. Many of these writers were the junior writers on the show so they were the ones I hung out with (along with Amy Sherman and her writing partner Jennifer). As such, I not only got to interact with Tom, I also had the pleasure of writing some stand-up jokes for him. (I have no idea if he ever used anything I wrote.)With Roseanne and Tom Arnold.
For those that think I have energy when I'm interviewed, you should see Tom on a daily basis. Tom had a lot of energy. Talking to him was hard sometimes because he would bounce around from topic to topic, sometimes mid-sentence. I found Tom pretty likeable although a little intimidating. He had a manic energy that was hard to handle for too long a period of time. All in all, though, a nice guy—well, at least to me. (There are a lot of famous stories about Tom's wild antics. For example, according to stories he once attempted to strangle the head writer I'm going to be talking about in a second for questioning Tom's power to edit scripts.)
Finally, we get to Roseanne. Before I talk about my one and only encounter with her, let me give you some background. For those who don't know much about the show Roseanne, let me bring a few key points up. First, it was the number-one show on the air in America at the time. Second, Roseanne had a reputation for being, let's say, very headstrong (and a little crazy). In her defense, I think she's quite talented and did have a lot to offer to the show. That said, Roseanne had a reputation of being a madhouse, churning through writers.
The most famous story involved a man named Jeff Harris who was the head writer for the show's second season. Here is the letter that he published in Variety (the Hollywood trade paper) announcing his retirement from the show:
The point I'm getting to is that I came into Roseanne well aware that it was a show with a tornado of turmoil with Roseanne at the epicenter. In fact, the one piece of advice given to me the day I started was "The less Roseanne knows who you are, the better off your life will be."
There were stories aplenty floating around about staff members Roseanne fired on a whim, so the last thing I was planning to do was initiate a conversation. Here is the full recap of my one conversation with Roseanne.
On every stage, there is a section called the "craft service area." This is the area where the food is. Hollywood stages are notorious for being stocked with food, and Roseanne was no different. I had stopped in to grab something to eat when I heard a very familiar voice from behind me: "So you're the new writer?"
I turned around to see Roseanne. While I knew not to initiate a conversation with Roseanne, I also knew that I didn't want to do anything to raise her ire. That meant I was going to be in this conversation as long as she wanted to have it. I thought of what I knew about being approached by a bear and tried to apply it: Seem meek and harmless. Don't threaten it in any way.
"Yes, I'm the new writer."
She looks pauses and looks at me. "How old are you? You look pretty young."
"That's pretty young."
"Yes, it is."
And with that, Roseanne turned and walked away.
It's funny looking back that I worked so hard for her not to notice me. While there was some risk in her knowing who I was, there was also a pretty big risk in her not knowing me at all. I wonder what would have happened if I had bothered to get into her good graces. Perhaps she would have stepped in to keep me. I have no idea because I took the safe path, which in the end did nothing to make me any safer.
This applies very directly to Magic design. The greatest risk, I say to my designers, is taking no risks. The one thing surest to kill Magic the fastest is us not being willing to try out new things. Magic's lifeblood is its evolution and its ability to constantly surprise the audience. Not every idea works out, but ideas that aren't tried never work out.
A Roseanne Is a Roseanne Is a Roseanne
We've gotten to the end of Part 2, and I haven't even started writing a script yet. Join me in two weeks as I explore my Roseanne episodes, share some more stories from behind the scenes, and explain how it all came to an end. Join me next week as we visit a world nine layers deep.
Until then, may you enjoy the shiny, just not too much.
A Roseanne By Any Other Name, Part 3
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
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.