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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Unspooling

As most of my readers know, much of the last six months here in the Casiello home have been spent turning it from a dust-ridden bachelor pad, into a co-habitable home for me and The Beau. As such, there's been lots of cleaning and digging into old boxes and closets, trying to make room for the crap he and I have accumulated over the years.

In the process, I've come across some real gems - a few long stories I've collected from various shows over the years. Some of them are long stories I've actually told as a member of the writing team - and others are copies of old long stories written by previous head writers and long since buried in the back of a writers' assistant filing cabinet. Some of them were approved by the network and made it to air - and some of them were quickly thrown out, and left to collect dust underneath a pile of old mailing labels and manila envelopes. (One of them was written by Doug Marland, and once I get through all hundred and fifty pages of it, I'm definitely going to blog more about it for all you Marland/Oakdale aficionados - did you all know Holden Snyder's original name was Clem Holden?! CLEM?!)

It's interesting looking at the spectrum of styles used in all of these long stories. The Marland long story is EPIC. I mean, every detail is laid out, meticulously logged from one chapter of the story to the next. As I flipped through it, I was so impressed at the way the stories weaved in and out of each other. I haven't seen a long story written out like this on a soap in years.

And then I started to think about why.

Many fans would say it's due to the fact that head writers now are "lazy hacks". That's probably a vast over-simplification. I don't think writers these days want to devote that much time and energy into writing their long stories, because inevitably you end up with what I call The Unspooling.

Here's how it works:

A) Head writer crafts detailed long story, writes it all out, single-spaced - every move, every reveal, every pay-off, for three months (Thirteen Weeks).
B) Network approves it whole-heartedly. It's "just what we're looking for!"
C) Breakdown writers begin the first few chapters of the story. Everything is great - it's playing out at exactly the pace and the proper tone as the head writers' original document.
D) Somewhere in Week Three, the network doesn't like how something plays. It's "a small section of the story", and they "just want to tweak it."
E) So the scenes get tweaked. Only suddenly, pulling out a thread of the Story in Week Three means you can't play another detail in Week Six, and then the reveal in Week Thirteen has to change slightly. But it's all good. We're professionals. It's what we do. Moving on.
F) Week Four begins, and things are back on track. Only this time, there's an actor vacation that was approved eight months ago. Crap. We don't have our leading lady for the next two weeks. Okay, so we postpone what's supposed to happen in Weeks Four and Five until Weeks Six and Seven, and we'll just highlight another storyline in Weeks Four and Five until we get her back.
G) Oh, but wait. If we postpone Weeks Four and Five into Weeks Six and Seven, then the rewrite that took place (in Step E above) in Week Six has to be changed to Week Eight.
H) Do-able. We'll make it work. It'll take a lot of planning, but we should be able to get everything back on track by the reveal in Week Thirteen during Sweeps. We don't need that beat in Week Ten anymore, so we'll just cut that and move right to Week Eleven, and then we'll still have the reveal by Sweeps. Just pull that thread out.
I) We're writing Week Six now, and suddenly realize the plot movement in Week Six was supposed to be build-up to the beat in Week Ten - you know, that beat that we just erased from the long story from Step H earlier! Well, what's the point now? So Week Six it out the window - Week Six that was originally Week Four, and now serves no purpose to the reveal.
J) Then the executive producer enters the room. Guess what? These two actors hate each other and refuse to work together after a big blow-out a few weeks ago. Damn. There goes your Week Eleven love-making sequence. It's okay though (everyone sighs, exhausted) - we'll play it off camera. Just pull that one thread out, the rest will be fine.
K) Only it's not fine. You're now playing beats from Week THREE in Week TEN, the threads you pulled to appease the network earlier you now realize you need in Week Eleven - because you can't play what you originally wrote in Week Eleven. And crap, we're now two weeks away from Sweeps and you have to rush the story to get to the big reveal. And just then...
L) The network steps in and realizes they don't like how the story's been playing on-screen (since Week One of the story just started to air), and want to completely change the ending. Let's go dark for two weeks and come up with a whole new Sweeps. In the week you're writing the Week Thirteen Reveal.
M) Writing team drinks heavily and throws in the towel.

Okay, this is basically the Perfect Storm of events, and I'm exaggerating slightly. But it's not that far from the truth. The head writer who holed up in his or her house for two weeks straight, drowning in a sea of index cards and dry erase boards, now has watched as one thread after another is pulled out, and the entire quilt completely unspools. As they struggle to pull the pieces together, try and come up with a logical ending to this quagmire they're in that will somehow make everybody happy, it hits them - "This is the story that will make me a hack. Why oh why did I plan this down to the tiniest detail, when there's so much that can go wrong?"

On the other hand, I've seen plenty of head writers turn in "bullet points" for a long story. Two pages (tops!) of half-sentences, with just a list of beats. "Boy meets girl." "Boy loses girl." "Girl sleeps with boy's brother." "Girl gets pregnant." "Baby has mystery disease." "Brothers team up, find out girl has long-lost twin sister, who donates bone marrow to save baby." "Baby lives, boys end up with girls."

Once upon a time, I thought this was just the easy way out. A head writer's net income has six or seven zeroes, all for a two-page beat sheet?!

But after seeing the way so many of these detailed stories have been picked apart, dissected, and ended up un-spooling on-camera? I have to wonder if maybe that isn't the only way to go these days in order to preserve some sanity. This way, if a detail is pulled apart, it doesn't take your whole long story with you.

Don't get me wrong. In my perfect world, the head writer would have an incredibly detailed long story, where all the beats are carefully laid out, and your Sweeps periods for the next YEAR are planned on January 1st. The network has signed off on a year's worth of story, and instead of constantly shoehorning in changes, the head writer is now free to focus on the characters' voices, the smaller (more emotional) beats in each episode, the subtext and working with his/her team of breakdown and script writers to create the best possible show. And sure - life gets in the way, and you'd have to make changes for actors/directors/EP's, etc. But in the end, all the notes were incorporated before the story even hit the breakdowns, and all are happy with the direction of the show for the year.

Ah, yes. In a perfect world... but that is not the reality of writing for television.

The clouds swirl around you, the threads are pulled out one by one, and at the end of the day? You're going to have to make changes anyway. So why spend the energy rewriting a two hundred page document, when you can just rewrite a two-page beat sheet?

Having been away from daytime for the last year, and gotten a little perspective, I can see the pros and cons to both methods. The beat-sheet writers tend to have a much easier time at their jobs... their stories roll with the punches, and they tend not to be as stressed out. And therefore, they tend to stay in their jobs longer. While the ones who detail out their long stories? They tend to get more frustrated, spend a lot more late nights working, and inevitably, end up in arguments with the higher-ups and don't last long. Gone are the days where Head Writers own a part of their show, and had the final say. You can't fight City Hall, so how do you write the perfect long story when you know what inevitably will happen?

In an industry so hell-bent on writing by committee, I've come to realize that my naivete in terms of the auteur's vision on daytime may be wonderfully idealistic (and something MarkH did a really interesting blog about recently) , but it's not the way a show can thrive. Not in this day and age. I marvel at the head writers who somehow manage to find middle ground - who so tirelessly write enough long story for their breakdown writers and script writers to not feel like they're lost at sea, but also write the LEAST amount of story to give to the networks, so the whole process doesn't get picked apart. A breakdown writer once said to me in my younger days "The more you write, the more they'll note you". True enough. Ergo, writers started writing less.

Still though... I read these old long stories stacked up in my bookshelf? And that naive part of me that started in this business ten years ago re-emerges. I get lost in the details of a beautifully crafted long story, and think back to my childhood, watching the way these stories played out on-screen and wondering what it would be like to one day be the one spooling the stories in the first place.

And what it was like to write for the sake of writing, and not to avoid the noting.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Another Soap Writer Joins the Club!

Hey all!

I hope everyone's holiday was good last week, and you're all chilling out and saving some energy for New Year's Eve in a few days! I just finished my December job (well, almost... two more days this week), and gearing up for what I hope will be an exciting January.

But today's blog entry isn't about me.

As you all know, I've lived through some doubts about keeping the blog going after it went public in February '08. But if anything positive came out of that turning point, it's that other soap writers found their way onto the web. A short time later, Sara Bibel got her own blog over at Fancast. Dena Higley began blogging about her home life over on the Days site. And suddenly, other writers like Karen Harris, Victor Miller, and Thom Racina, found their way onto Blogtalk radio shows like In the Zone, and the Robert Reid show. Just recently, Guiding Light invited Internet bloggers over to Peapack, New Jersey. These aren't people associated with any of the soap press - they're just fans like the rest of us, who began their own commentary. Finally, daytime is catching up with the rest of us on the Internet (although I think we all waited about five years too late), and I think it's fantastic.

Now, another soap writer - one I consider to be a very dear friend, and I adore completely - has joined the rest of us out here. I first met Leslie Nipkow when she was a script writer on One Life to Live - although I didn't really get to know her until she was promoted to Script Editor and began joining us for the weekly Monday morning writers' meetings with the network. Her levity, and ability to find a way to laugh under even the most tense circumstances not only got me through many an awkward notes' meeting, but also through three months of walking in circles last winter during the strike. And this past year, even though we've been traveling on different paths since the strike ended, she's proven herself to be an invaluable friend, and got me through many periods in 2008 where self-doubt and insecurity reared their ugly heads.

Leslie has veered back into essay writing, and earlier this year, had one of her pieces in the New York Times! A few weeks ago, she posted this essay over at I loved it - it's bold, blunt, funny, and paints a much different picture of the "Soap Opera Experience" than anybody else currently online, from a very different perspective than we're used to. And fans of Loving and One Life to Live will really get a kick out of it. You'll never think of Randolph Mantooth the same way again!!

I encourage everybody to go check it out - and who knows? I would love to see Leslie's work continue, and find an audience online, only because her sense of humor, love of both writing and acting, and her experiences working on BOTH sides of the camera is truly inspirational and enlightening. So if you like it, let Freshyarn know, or leave a comment here!

Congratulations, Leslie!

And Happy New Year, all!!!

xoxo --tom

Monday, December 22, 2008

Where in the World is Tom Casiello?!

It sure has been awhile, hasn't it?

I can't remember the last time I took so much un-announced time away from the blog. Believe me, it wasn't planned. Suffice it to say, I've been running around like crazy trying to get ready for the holidays, and get what's left of my finances in order. I'm also way behind on all of my soaps, and my holiday break is basically going to be me and my DVR. The poor Beau will probably forget what I look like. But there's a lot to catch up on, including Heather taking Adam down on Y&R, Todd's trial on OLTL, Alan-Michael and Marina... oh wait, I mean Craig and Dani on As the World Turns, and Annie's reign of terror on AMC. I'm also still waiting with bated breath to see what GH has up its sleeve in the new year, considering I've been hearing some pretty wacky rumors.

In terms of my writing... well, things may or may not be happening. Here's how it works when you're focused on your own projects - since you're not writing for an EP or a Head Writer or a network, you're basically writing with zero boundaries. Which can be totally wonderful, but it can also be tremendously intimidating. You don't know what quirks your eventual reader will have, and you're never quite sure who you can trust and who you can't trust out there in "Reader-Land". I can't say much, but I can tell you that projects thought long dead have suddenly been resurrected (much like many a former soap spouse) and while I've been keeping my fingers and toes crossed for that, I also got a mysterious phone call two Fridays ago that also could prove to be my salvation in 2009 (a great Friday tag, leaving me totally hanging... again, just like a good soap)

So basically, I've been afraid to come near the blog, because the way these things work, the rug can always get pulled out from under you. It's nothing personal - sometimes things work out, and other times, circumstances beyond your control step in and you end up on an entirely different path altogether (Writers Strike, anyone?)

So I've avoid typing anything, because I don't want to give away too much or too little... and not that I'm a superstitious person, but I don't want to jinx anything.

Suffice it to say, things are hopping over here in Tom-Land, and I'm hoping that soon, very soon (in writer-speak, "soon" could mean a few months, by the way), I'll be sharing some wonderful news on these pages.

Who knows? Maybe tomorrow...

But if it isn't tomorrow, I want to say HAPPY HOLIDAYS to all my readers out there. It's been such a crazy year... on January 1st last year, we were all wondering what story the "real Greenlee" would come back to, I was looking forward to the strike ending and returning to work, and NOBODY knew this blog even existed. And here we are, almost three hundred and sixty five days later... and life is totally different. I've got a partner living with me, and new friends I've made all across the Internet (Hi, Kenny! And PR! And Toups! Hi Superposter! And Soap Queen! Hi Ryan! And Jack Peyton! Hi Damon! And Patrick! And Mark! Hi Marlena! And Nelson! And Snark! And Khan! And Luke and Jamey! Hi Na'Vell and Matt! Hi Rhinohide! And MsT! And Crystal! I feel like I should be looking into the Magic Mirror when I type this! :-)) I've got job prospects lined up, and a whole new future that a year ago, I thought would never be possible.

2008 has been a truly terrifying, inspiring, surprising, traumatic, wonderful, educational year for me. And I hope all the little moments that added up to your 2008 somehow make sense in these final days. And as we look into a very uncertain year for daytime, please know that I treasure all you guys out there reading - both the friends I've met and the friends I haven't, but still keep in touch with all the time through the blog. You've made the last twelve months so memorable, and so special, for all of us out here in Soap Land, both current and former.

Without you, we would be absolutely nothing. I would be absolutely nothing. And I hope in some way, some of the words found both on these pages and on your TV screens have managed to light up some light inside of you, given you a little hope in the middle of so much drama, and a little joy in the midst of so much uncertainty.

Have a wonderful holiday and a fantastic New Year's!

All my love,

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Little Business

Having pontificated enough, I realize I still have a few myths to bust, and I've gotten some good feedback on the idea of posting some old-Tom-scripts (circa 2001) online and talking about what I would do differently now, but I still don't know how I would get around the legalities of that. (A few networks might have something to say about that. :-))

But it did get me thinking about putting together some "I Wanna Be A Soap Opera Writer" experiment, with people writing scripts off of old breakdowns. Again, I question if I could get sued (not that they could take much away from me these days). But I do know there are a lot of fans out there who dream of one day writing their favorite characters, and if I can find a way around the lawyers, it might be kinda fun. I wish I could offer a job as a grand prize, but they're few and far between these days. Sorry, would-be writers!

I'll see what I can do...

Gluttons for Punishment, Springing Eternal

Occasionally, somebody will liken soap fans to abused spouses (with apologies and great sympathies to anyone who's ever been abused by their spouse). We may be beaten down, talked down to, and ignored - but many of us keep going back for more. It's a morbid comparison, but one that's not entirely untrue.

After the last couple of days, I'm pretty sure that analogy could apply to soap writers as well. I already wrote about the WGA holiday party the other night, and catching up with everyone who is also out of work in daytime. And last night, I got to spend the evening with another fellow former soap writer - one I've worked with and talked to many times, but never face-to-face.

We spent a lot of time talking about what's right in the industry, what's wrong, the behind-the-scenes stories that aren't really appropriate for repeating, and of course, my favorite topic between former soap writers - the most preposterous stories the fans never saw on daytime. (One day, when all of the people involved are long gone, I'm going to post a list of the WORST ideas that NEVER made it to air, thankfully were killed before they could make it in breakdown - it's a list that I think soap fans would go ga-ga for, and would inspire both laughter and horror. It can always be worse, soap fans. ALWAYS.)

So after all of this fun and gossip over drinks, the inevitable question came up "Would you go back?" And the answer for both of us was pretty much "Yes".

Don't get me wrong - there are a lot of out-of-work soap writers out there right now, ranging from the lazy to the brilliant (most of us are definitely somewhere in the middle), and we're all working on our own projects - some of those projects are satisfying us financially, and some of them are satisfying us emotionally. But free of the early morning network meetings, where phrases are micro-managed and spirits are broken, we love being able to explore ideas and themes and worlds with utter freedom.

We cringe at the deadlines, we cower at the notes, we roll our eyes at some of the decisions. And yet, most of us would go back if given a shot.

Not just because of the paycheck. But because somewhere under all of this vitriol, hope lives on. We remember that moment sitting at our computers, completely lost in the middle of a scene, pounding out the thoughts and desires as if we ourselves are these people, and we love that rush. We love stepping into these fictional characters' shoes, and allowing them to help us discover something about ourselves in the process.

Michael Logan recently talked about hope in the latest issue of TV Guide, and in spite of the low ratings, budgets being slashed, vets being fired - the execs in charge remain positive. Naivete? Maybe a little (okay, a lot.) Denial? (Okay, possibly.) But many soap writers share that hope that there's still a way to turn this around, so I don't doubt that everyone's intentions aren't pure, even if their actions show otherwise.

Because at the end of the day... even if you have two actors in front of a piece of cardboard with a home video camera, if the words are there, if the feelings are evoked, if the writing is solid, people will watch. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - it's all about that kiss. If it's done right, that's all you need.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Memorable Pages

Wow... what a night.

First things, first - I got back from the photo shoot on Monday night (late, like at midnight). It was quite the adventure - I worked HARD for about thirteen hours a day, but then was able to eat and drink (whatever I wanted) on the company's dime after that. So as long as I went to sleep early, woke up early, and didn't stop working my ass off until the end of the shooting day, it was totally worth it. And I would do it again in heartbeat.

So I got back last night and worked all day today in Job #4 I have right now. While I was there, I received a messengered package (more on this later)... and then I headed to the Writers Guild's Christmas Party. With the Beau in hand, I headed to the hotel, and caught up with numerous people I haven't seen since the picket line. The first thing I noticed immediately is that with the exception of ONE WRITER, every other daytime writer I saw there was currently unemployed. I don't know what to make of it, but with the exception of one, every one I caught up with there goes under the title of "Former Soap Writer". Weird, right?

But back to that messengered package.

For reasons I can't get into, I was in need of some old scripts I wrote YEARS ago, that I had saved on a computer that has long since crashed (years before I truly understood the meaning of "back up your stuff") So a good friend helped me out with the material he still had on his computer, and on the subway ride home, I got to read what Tom Casiello of the early 90's thought to be "good dialogue".

Some of it was bad. I mean, REALLY bad. But some of it - some of it was kinda pretty cool to read. The thing about writing scripts is that it uses a TOTALLY different part of your brain than writing breakdowns. Richard Allen once told me that you use the part of your brain that writes a screenplay to write a script, but you use the part of your brain that solves a crossword puzzle to write a breakdown. And I think he's totally right. Writing scripts is all about detecting the nuances in character's voices, whereas writing breakdowns is all about making sure every scene is about something, while trying to get from Point A to Point B, in accordance with your head writer.

But it's always interesting to read your past work, and reading what Tom Casiello thought of dialogue back then was highly entertaining. In fact, I'm signing off now to read a lot more of Ryan and Kendall, Carly and Alexis, and Craig and Sierra. And what I thought of them back then.

In writing, so much of it, no matter what the show or who the characters are, it's an interpretation of what's going on in your life. And piecing together the style I wrote with the things going on in my life back then - good or bad, right or wrong, it's the kind of thing I can spend all night doing.

So you'll forgive my intense sense of nostalgia at the moment.

In the meantime, I've taken on a whole slew of freelance jobs, and I know I have another six myths to discuss in my blog. It might take longer than I thought, but I will get there. Just bear with me. Unfortunately, the bills have to get paid, and I'm going to try and juggle the jobs and my blog as best I can.

Thanks for hanging in there with me. In the meantime, I can't wait to dig back in to Greenlee being a BITCH to Kendall, and lovin' every minute of it.

xoxo --tom

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mythbusters - ON HOLD!

Hey all!

I was hoping to continue talking about more myths regarding soap writing, but the time has gotten away from me... and I'm leaving in about 17 hours for IslaMorada to work on a photo shoot. (I know, right? Me? Working a photo shoot?) It's crazy, but it was a great opportunity that fell in my lap, and with daytime headed... well, where it's headed, I'm taking full advantage of every opportunity that comes my way. Time to find a new future, and new doors to walk through.

In the meantime, I've also got my hands full with that writing project that's been floating around my apartment and an outside desk or two for the last six months. Things seem to be happening, but in this biz, you tend to get the rug pulled out from underneath you a lot. If this year has taught me anything, it's that I need to let go a little, when it comes to dreams of the past. But it doesn't make me any less of a fan, that's for damn sure. And I'll keep trying, while I continue on this crazy journey.

I'll be back with the rest of my debunked myths next week... but in the meantime, have a fantastic weekend. Play nice, and I'll talk to y'all next Thursday!


Monday, December 1, 2008

Mythbusters, Soap Style - Part Four

So this one is for all the fans out there... and before you jump down my throat, hear me out on this one.

The Plot-Driven Myth

Plot seems to have become a four-letter word around Internet Message Boards these days, and it doesn't have to be. Plot is actually a very good thing. And if a plot drives your story, it's not always the worst thing in the world.

Wait! Wait! Before you all start furiously typing and call me a hack, work with me for a second.

It's very easy for us to divide head writers into camps like "plot-driven writers" (pretty much everybody after 1990) and "character-driven writers" (most of the writers who have long since left the business), and never the twain shall meet. And that's kind of a myth. You need plot. In fact, a great story should be the perfect marriage of plot and character. If stories were all character-driven, chances are, not a whole lot would happen. If it weren't for plot, that accident that killed BJ would never have transpired at exactly the right time to save Maxie's life on General Hospital, and if it weren't for plot, a few frat guys wouldn't have been introduced out of nowhere into Marty Saybrooke's life on One Life to Live. If it weren't for plot, Natalie would have never had a twin sister and Cindy never would have been infected with the AIDS virus on All My Children. If it weren't for plot, a plane crash wouldn't have killed Craig and sent a distraught Lily through the burr-riden woods, ripping her clothes in the process, into Josh Snyder's arms... and Iva wouldn't have thought he was raping their own daughter on As the World Turns.

Plot is NEEDED in a daytime serial. And sometimes, it drives the story. That's not always a bad thing. '

Don't misunderstand - When you get too plot heavy, and the characters get lost under the blanket of the plot, then that's a problem. (I fell victim to that trap a few times at Days of Our Lives - and it WASN'T pretty. I learned my lesson after that year, I'll tell you that much.) A good story should involve both the Fates (i.e. the soaps' writers) throwing in curveballs, much like life... as long as the characters react within the established boundaries of their personalities. If a character is going to do something that the audience doesn't think is within character for them, it's our responsibility to get the character to that life-changing decision in an organic and natural way. The greatest soap writers understood that - the secret is to take the time for the character to become something he or she previously wasn't. (Annie Dutton's slow descent into madness on Guiding Light is a good example of this, or Victor feeding the chickens on Hope's farm for months on Young and the Restless) If you can get get them to that plot point in a way that doesn't turn the audience against the show, then it's okay. Plot and character have to merge in order to drive the whole story.

Don't get me wrong - I still think there are writers out there who rely way too much on plot and end up sacrificing character in order to make their plot work. And when you start shoe-horning characters into storylines to fit a need they shouldn't fulfill, then I definitely think it's a bad thing. But sometimes the plot NEEDS to drive the storyline for a week or two... and then, ideally, the characters need to drive it for another month or two. But if reading drama going all the way back to Shakespeare tells us anything, it's that outside forces raining down on our couple when they least expect it is how great story unfolds.

Plot doesn't have to be a four-letter word on the Internet... believe me, I post on message boards too, and my immediate reaction when I hate something is to say "Enough with the plot-driven crap! Where's my old school character-driven soap opera?!" But then I remind myself about the basic aspects of storytelling, and that sometimes, a storyline needs to be plot-driven. Not for very long... but long enough for our characters to react to what's happening around them... and then they can take the wheel and drive for awhile.