Screenwriting 101 For Geeks

This is one in our 'Geek Like Me' series of columns exploring the nuances of geek culture.

I love television. I've always loved it. From a young age I wanted to be involved in creating it, but I had no idea what that meant. I was just a small town girl from Northern California.

After college, I moved to Los Angeles. I'd heard that's where you needed to be if you wanted a job in TV. Through a combination of hard work, creatively applied ambition, and a pinch of natural ability, I managed to sell a script to Nickelodeon. Suddenly, I was a professional writer.

That was 12 years ago.

I've produced hundreds of episodes of television since then, so you'd think I'd have this whole writing thing figured out. I don't.

Stringing words together to form a narrative accounts for only 25% of being a writer. How did I arrive at that figure? I made it up. Just go with it.

Television writing is composed of the following:

25% idea generation
25% script writing
25% managing
25% performing

The first two categories are obvious. In fact, most people would combine them. But television writing is a unique animal. Story generation happens in a room with other opinionated quick-thinkers, and the best idea wins. Hours of mental Olympics every day and the clock's ticking to come up with a complete storybreak in time to write it before you shoot it. Crossing the finish line is its own reward.

As for managing, I'm using the term broadly to describe a writer-producer's responsibility in both managing the people who work for you as well as the varied aspects of production. It's probably more like 38.6% of the job, but I'm not going near that math.

The last category may surprise some people. It certainly surprised me, as I've only recently realized how big a role performing plays in being a successful writer. And I don't mean performing as in doing your job well. I mean acting, as if on a stage.

If I knew going in that this was a requirement of the job, I probably wouldn't be where I am right now.

Why? Because I'm a geek.

Growing up, I managed to hide my geekdom. In fact, I had a great cover story. I played sports. I was the MVP of my high school's tennis and basketball teams. No one knew that I was a member of the official fan club for Star Trek: The Next Generation or that after I destroyed a tennis opponent I would race home and curl up with a book of short stories from Philip K. Dick.

And I wasn't just a geek back then, I was also quite shy. Actually, saying I used to be shy is like saying Arnold Schwarzenegger used to lift weights. I was timid to the point of self-isolation.

So, yeah, performing? No thanks.

The reason I was attracted to writing in the first place was because it was a solitary endeavor. Or so I thought.

As it turns out, a huge part of being a successful screenwriter is the ability to win over people. You do this by selling your ideas to your colleagues in a writers room or persuading studio executives to buy your pilot or feature film concept.

It's called pitching.

And, let me tell you, pitching ain't easy. In fact, it's an art form. Some people come by this talent naturally. The rest of us have to work at it.

Even if you have the all-time greatest idea in the history of the universe times infinity, you're screwed if you don't present it the right way.

You have to be confident, passionate, and convincing. And you have to structure the pitch correctly. Four things that are difficult to do independently, let alone all at the same time. For those ten minutes, you are an actor. And you better be believable.

So how does an introverted geek pull this off?

Practice, practice, practice.

Or, if you're like me, your friend Wil Wheaton calls and convinces you to perform on stage in front of two thousand people at a geek concert and from that moment on pitching to a couple of network executives doesn't seem so scary anymore.

However you come by the skill, it's a necessary one. Being a writer isn't just about selling your product, it's about selling yourself. Living inside your head isn't an option anymore.

You have to be a storyteller... out loud.