Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Face-Lift 629

Guess the Plot


1. As finals week approaches, Mark braves peer and family in his quest to remain drunk just a little bit longer.

2. Brenda has one complaint about the faculty of Shadyville U: they're all dead. It's vampire versus zombie versus small town girl in this thrilling story of love, intrigue, and English 101.

3. As test scores plummet, vice principal Josh Gregory realizes the problem lies with the school district's administration, but the administration is blaming white supremacists and Muslim terrorists. Will Josh have to talk them out of arming the students against a possible attack on the school?

4. After flunking out of six graduate degree programs, there's one thing left for Rachel Turner: collections consulting. She can help the untutored rich improve themselves with impressive selections of books, art and curios! It's all brilliant, until her first three clients die in mysterious circumstances and Detective Vince Spinelli, former art major, suspects she's the culprit.

5. Marcus is a doctor
In love with young Cherise
They share Roberta's outlook
On the subject of disease

Stanley plays the trumpet
At night in Larry's house
David draws some pictures
With the insides of a mouse

Leo likes the leather lash
Ginny loves her physics
They're all in love with money
Like most crazy Academics.

6. Doug has the school's worst case of spring fever, and there's still a month until summer vacation. Will he give up, drop out, stop trying? Of course not--even tenured professors don't get paid if they don't show up.

Original Version

Dear Agent,

I am seeking representation for my one hour television drama – “Academics.”

Think high school meets “West Wing.” [I'm thinking that, and what I get is a high school student gets elected president of the United States; immediately drugs are all legalized, sex education is taught by porn stars, and we go to war with Canada just for laughs.]

High school vice-principal Josh Gregory wants to make public education make sense -- and make kids smarter at the same time. Unfortunately, test scores have been falling to record lows for five consecutive years, and it seems the District office is more concerned with public image than with building capable kids. [The falling test scores belong at the beginning of the paragraph. That puts the "unfortunately" closer to the district's attitude, which is what it describes.]

When an unfounded rumor begins to spread that white supremacists are planning to attack the high school, the staff is sent into a flurry of District-mandated overreactions. [Surely this rumor is based on the fact that white supremacists have a motive in attacking this high school. What is it?] Josh is overwhelmed by an attack of common sense and realizes he isn’t educating children anymore; he and his colleagues are sowing seeds of failure while pandering to the lowest common denominator. And that isn’t enough –- not nearly enough. [What isn't nearly enough of what? Is he saying we need to do more than just sow seeds of failure and pander to the lowest common denominator? "Not enough" implies that we need to do something in addition to sowing and pandering. Instead he should say, And that's immoral, or disgraceful, or reprehensible.] Like it or not, the kids aren’t going to wait for the school district to figure all this out. They’re growing up, and Josh knows the real threat to students isn't Muslim terrorists or white supremacists. The real threat to everyone -- is the education the kids aren't getting.

I am a certified Montessori Elementary teacher and have written a humor column for a local magazine for two years. In the past three years I have also written two novels and four screenplays. Please consider “Academics.” It is provocative and timely, yet most importantly it will make for a damn entertaining hour of television. [I agree--if the students are armed and the school is attacked by Muslim terrorists or white supremacists.] [That "yet" implies that provocative and timely usually = not entertaining. I'd make it an "and."] Thank you for your time.

Best regards,


You don't really see many stand-alone 1-hour dramatic TV shows in the U.S. Back in the 1950s maybe. Maybe if you got it up to an hour and a half it could be a Lifetime Network movie or a Hallmark Hall of Fame production.

I know little about who would handle this, but I'm guessing that as bad as the odds may be with novels, they're way worse with a television drama, especially if it's not a series. Now, if white supremacists and Muslim terrorists both happen to attack the same high school at the same time, and end up fighting each other, and the computer geeks and the jocks team up to save the school, you may want to put this in the mail to Oliver Stone.


Anonymous said...

What EE said. you sound a bit clueless about the TV biz. Also nobody should ever know the true count of your trunk novels and unsold screenplays. Just use the query to pitch the one you're pitching and leave off mentioning the others. If anybody wants to know about your priors, they'll ask.

BuffySquirrel said...

This probably needs more than one character.

150 said...

Is this really how the TV industry works?

_*Rachel*_ said...

Ok, I like the overwhelming attack of common sense, but the rest of that sentence feels like the verbal equivalent of paper mulch.

So… what do they do? I really did like the arming idea… the kids taking it into their own hands always makes things fun, especially if children are your target audience…which they probably aren’t.L Please give me something spicy about this drama.

Shouldn’t you just list what you’ve published, not written? I’ve written a lot, and the only things I feel justified bragging about are my wins and meeting 50K for NaNoWriMo.

I’m not so sure about the use of that word; I’d call it a curse word. For me, a no-no—for others, more likely a no-no if your audience is children. What would your students say if they heard that word?

Dave F. said...

This doesn't seem focused enough for a one or a two hour drama.

Are we focusing on one day? Or are we focusing on several weeks/months worth of events? Is this a weekly series or is it a stand-alone movie?

All of that would make a difference to the producer or star or director who reads the query.

I don't have a problem with some of the plot points but they are jumbled together.

wendy said...

Thanks for your ideas. Please keep them coming.

This is a series and I am describing the pilot episode. One of the more challenging aspects of this type of query is that one must sell a description of an entire series along with a description of the pilot in as few words as possible. I took for granted the person receiving the letter would understand the premise. That may be a mistake.

EE, very helpful and insightful comments (as usual). I will incorporate.

And hey, Anonymous...if you are going to be belligerent enough to tell me I don't have "a clue" about the biz, you should at least have the integrity (balls) to put your name on the comment. My name is Wendy Meyers and I stand firmly behind every stupid thing I've ever said. So, unless you're in the "biz" and require anonymity to participate - shut up or put up friend.

I hope some of you that that are lurking will consider offering your opinions. I could really use the help. Thanks!

Dominique said...

How did "West Wing" end up in there? Except for the part about white supremacists. But even that was only a few episodes. Seriously, the reference damaged the query, because I got bogged down looking to understand the "West Wing" comment, and it made everything -- like your plot and main character -- else seem like a waste of query space. That's not good.

GutterBall said...

#5 is awesome. It's got a kind of "Avalanche" feel to it. I can almost hear the ol' Surfers giving it a go. Heh, instant hit, man.

As for the query itself, does the process even work the same way for TV shows as for books? Huh.

TV is a scary place to be these days. If you're not a sitcom or a reality TV show, it's nearly impossible to get any play. Just ask Joss Whedon about his like 5 different shows that have been awesome...and summarily cancelled.

Unless you've got something highly marketable, I can't imagine any station ponying up the dough for a one-hour drama. Maybe for a mini-series or a TV movie, but if it's not a season long, it's pretty much gotta be guaranteed gold -- ie., have someone incredibly famous in it or some such. The plot alone won't win this one for you, which is why I'm not sure querying is the way to go.

Unfortunately, I don't have any other suggestions because I don't know how it works, either. Sorry!

150 said...

This might help:

Right now I can't envision a logline for this. I don't quite see where West Wing and high school intersect. It might help to clarify whether the white supremacists are elements of the pilot episode or the season arc.

I genuinely am curious whether the process for pitching a TV series is to query agents about it. Do you have a link or something to pass along? I'd love to read more about it.

Anonymous said...

I didn't say you didn't have a clue, i said you sounded a bit clueless -- basically an invitation to maybe adjust your phrasing to something that sounds a bit more savvy. or don't, as you see fit.

chelsea said...

It's funny hearing people say "I don't think this is how the TV biz works . . . not that I have any idea how it works". I'm assuming the author did some research into the business before writing this, and if she didn't, she will. As book writers, I'm sure people have gotten sick of hearing "Unless you're Stephen King or the next J.K. Rowling, maybe you should just give up and go back to cleaning toilets." I mean, is that why people come to this site? To be told to quit?

Anyway. The query gave me a sense of the premise for the show, but, like Buffy, I would love to hear about more characters. I'd also love a bit more on what actually happens, rather than just reading what Josh realizes. I think you have a good basis though, and if you can take out some of the vague parts and put in some specifics it will help a lot :)

One side note: the conflict centers around the white supremacist threat, so the mention of Muslim terrorists sort of comes out of nowhere. I know Muslim terrorism has been a media favorite in the past few years, but I don't feel it necessarily adds to the query if there's not anything about Muslim terrorist threats IN the show.

Robin S. said...

I knew a lot of people in situation #1 in the 'guess the plots'. They were the fun guys who are now managing departments in auto stores and countercultural weird shops, but hey. It was good while it lasted, I supposed.

talpianna said...

The one think I know about the "TV biz" is that you ABSOLUTELY CANNOT get someone to read your script proposal unless it comes through an agent. The reason for this is the number of (usually) frivolous lawsuits filed against studios claiming that successful movies were based on ideas "stolen" from their unaccepted scripts. (As far as I know, the only person to win such a suit was Art Buchwald, and that was because they DID swipe his idea; but even invalid suits take time and money.)

As for the script itself, the plight of falling test scores is not in itself DRAMATIC. You need to have a core cast of characters and more exciting situations: the basketball star who cheats on his exam; the drama teacher who is having an affair with one of her students; the math teacher who accepts bribes for good grades; the teen who is suicidal because of the pressure his parents are putting on him to get into Harvard or Yale, and the like.

Evil Editor said...

Film and TV scripts are submitted through agents who handle film and TV scripts. Not many literary agents do both, but there are big agencies that handle everything in the entertainment field.

wendy said...

Thank you all for your assistance. I will comb through it carefully.

If you are interested in the full story there is a treatment for the show on my website:

Last week I was asked by a producer friend to write a short "query like" piece that could be used to sell the show. After 8 hours of writing (The query EE posted.) this is all I could come up with. This has really been the most difficult part of the entire process.

However, because I knew exactly where to go to get help I'm sure it will soon be much improved. Thanks for coming through again minions!

Anonymous said...

try the Raindance writer's lab by Elliot Grove.

Phoenix said...

Hi Wendy:

I can provide a tiny bit of insight with the caveat that my industry experience as an assistant at a Hollywood agency where I did first reads of scripts was 20+ years ago. Things have probably changed. A lot. So take the shoulds and needs with the proverbial grain.

First, you need a log line that includes the X meets Y reference. That should always be how you lead, whether in a written query or oral pitch. Your log line should be one, maybe two sentences that summarize your premise in an exciting manner.

Then let us know the story arc. This can be just for the first season, but it needs to be more than just the pilot. You need to demonstrate the overall premise can be sustained. TV writing is also choppier than a leisurely novel. If your query wanders, the reader will think your story and scripts will wander. In addition, attitude counts. Declaritive sentences carry more authority and, by inference, more credibility.

Ditch your entire bio paragraph -- if you haven't written produced scripts, then no one cares. Use the space to name your audience and include a few additional recurring characters.

Attach your treatment.

Hollywood is tough. You have to work in the biz or know people to have a real shot at getting a series produced. Everything is sold on ideas and ideas are plentiful. No one's going to invest in you or anyone else if you haven't already proven yourself in some capacity. It's like needing platform for nonfiction. But hey, there's no harm trying, right?! Go for it!

I think a few more specifics that make for at least one tense moment would go a long way, but maybe the following will help?

High school meets "West Wing" when vice-principal Josh Gregory decides to buck the administration and fight for the one thing his kids aren't getting: an education.

Test scores are falling, the District office is playing the PR game, and the kids are riding a wave of apathy that will dog them the rest of their lives. A disillusioned Josh is ready to walk out when a rumored attack by white supremacists pits him, his staff and a handful of displaced students against a school board shackled by ineffectual policy.

The crisis reminds Josh of the idealism that once fired his soul and pushed him into this profession. It forces him to see that the real threat to students isn't drugs or terrorism -- it's the lack of meaningful education. In Academics, a 1-hour series drama, Josh will go the distance to ensure his students learn what it takes to survive in a world that cares more about protocol than people. And he'll change lives, one student at a time.

Targeted to young adults, Academics' first season will focus on a core group of seven students inspired by Josh to overcome addictions, face up to abusers, and find the compassion within themselves to help others.

The treatment is attached. I look forward to sending you the script for the pilot episode.

Sarah from Hawthorne said...

I went to a really good TV writing workshop a few weeks ago from Chad Gervich, who wrote Seven Steps to Selling Your Show. Some of my notes:

Anything can happen, but be aware it is harder for writers to break into TV with original shows unless they have experience producing. Studios look for showrunners: writer/producers who can handle being a CEO of a 150 person, $50 million company.

A full pitch should have the following elements:
1. The hook - the emotional introduction
2. Logline - the one sentence nutshell
3. Synopsis - a one paragraph overview
4. Summary - a page on what the show is about, where it's going, how the characters will interact which leads into...
5. Characters - thumbnail sketches of your leads
6. The pilot outline
7. Premises for 5 or 6 sample episodes
The speaker didn't say anything about query letters, so I guess it would be elements 1, 2, 5 and maybe 6. At any rate, I would focus more on the show overview rather than on the pilot.

Good luck!

wendy said...

Phoenix, I love you! For real girl.

Adam Heine said...


It might have been the influence of the GTP and EE's comments, but I got the impression that the impending white supremacist attack was the primary drama of the story. Because of that, this line: "The real threat to everyone -- is the education the kids aren't getting." seemed terribly anti-climactic, moreso with the '--'.

There are a lot of good tips here already. I'll second that what needs doing is to show how Josh discovers what he discovers. Concrete examples are ideal (but be careful about adding too many characters to a query).

And if the kids' education, and the administration's mismanagement, is the real story, then the query should be focused on that; the impending attack should be played down or dropped.

Hope that's helpful.

Anonymous said...

By posting a query, aren't we agreeing to take criticism of all types? Are you the same "Wendy" who commented on another query earlier: "I spaced out somewhere in the first paragraph...Truth is; I couldn't wade through the query letter, sorry."? If you dish it out, you have to be willing to take it, too. I don't agree with anonymous #1, but he or she does have the right to express an opinion, right?

BTW, I think the query would be more interesting if we knew the final outcome. The premise is interesting.

Khazar-khum said...

Gutterball--the song is actually "Pepper". And that rhyme scheme is much tougher than it sounds while they're singing.

My Hollywood experience is more from the craft side (costume). But I can say that people in charge are even less aware of what works and why than are the folks in publishing. Quality & mediocrity are accidental byproducts.

You absolutely must have an agent. No two ways about it. Indy film people might look at an unagented script, but no one in TV will.

Neelloc said...

I got Khazar Khum's GTP just now...nice work! :D
Nothing much useful to say about Wendy's query though sorry.

BuffySquirrel said...

High school meets West Wing conveys absolutely nothing to me. This could be because, although I have watched WW, I never went to a US high school. Or it could be that it sets up a disassocation rather than an association of ideas. It sounds more like a group of high school kids going to meet POTUS than anything else.

(The opposite of) 90210 meets 24?

wendy said...

So I know that since the blog has moved on to the next day's work this will not get seen by many eyes which is probably for the best 'cause I'm feeling humble and grateful and (ugh!) gushy.

People, thank you!

This has all been more helpful than you can imagine. Sarah I am especially grateful for the details you were able to share. The links 150 and anonymous sent look great. In fact, I pulled something I could use out of almost every comment on the list. Buffy, I'm hearing ya girl. I'll work on it.

Dearest minions, I don't think I really understood until today what a truly valuable asset you all are. I hope I can be of some service, as well.

EE, I've noticed more success stories are being posted these days. You are doing good work (and you can't even put your name on it). Thank you for your commitment to the art and to developing the savages.