Q & A with Michael Jamin

Michael Jamin has been a television writer/showrunner for the past 25 years. His many credits include King of the Hill, Wilfred, Maron, Just Shoot Me, Rules of Engagement, Brickleberry, Beavis & Butthead, and Tacoma FD. He’s currently working on a collection of personal essays to be published in 2021. Some of them can be read on michaeljamin.com

What’s the last thing you read or watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

I thought the show Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge was a masterpiece. She wrote one soliloquy towards the end of the series that made me want to stand up and applaud.

I’ve also been re-reading David Sedaris’ works. To me, his writing is like watching a magic trick. When you finally arrive at the end of one of his pieces, you ask yourself, “How did he get me here?” It’s just so lovely. When people read a good book, they often say, “I couldn’t put it down.” But I put his books down all the time. I’ll read a particularly poignant passage, or beautifully craft line, and stop reading for a few moments just to admire it.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

In high school and college, I very much enjoyed writing, but I wasn’t a good writer. I was funny, but I didn’t yet understand story structure so my writing lacked cohesion and purpose. Even though I studied under some very talented authors, I don’t think they knew how to convey this. They just wrote from the gut, and because their talent level was so high, their writing was very engaging. It wasn’t until I got work as a staff writer in television that I really started started to learn about structure, and that can applied to so many different mediums.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

A year or so after moving to Hollywood to follow my dream of being a sitcom writer, I met a guy who would eventually become my writing partner.  For a couple of years, we worked every night and weekend to assemble a good collection of spec scripts. Probably close to a dozen. Eventually we landed on the writing staff of Just Shoot Me and we’ve worked steadily ever since.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Even in comedy, it’s not about the jokes or funny situations. It’s all about story and how engaging you can make it. Until the audience can identify the three main components of every story, the writer is just wasting their time… daring them to find something better to do.

What are some of the most common writing mistakes you see?

Most new writers don’t really understand what makes a story. They think they understand, but if you ask them to define what a story is in one clear sentence, they’re at a loss. It’s a difficult question!  But if you can’t define it accurately, you’re never going to be able write one on a consistent basis.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

It’s not so much tropes that bother me as it is tired old cliches. In comedy rooms, we call them clams. They’re jokes that have been floating around the zeitgeist and you’ve heard a million times. “Asking for a friend.” “Said no one ever.”  Those are clams. You see them on dopey friends Facebook posts. That’s fine for them, because they’re not writers. But if you want to be a writer, then your job is to create new things to say, not transcribe old ones.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

Start the story sooner.

Raise the stakes.

What’s the story really about?

Does the idea have enough weight to be a story?

Do your act breaks pop?

What are your thoughts about writing a spec script for an already-existing show as opposed to a totally new and original pilot?

When I’m staffing for a show, I much prefer reading scripts for existing shows. Writing an original pilot is very hard, and it requires a completely different skill set from writing a spec for an existing show and it’s a skill set that I’m not really looking for. I don’t care if you can create an entire world. I want to know if you can write a compelling script for characters who already exist.

Have you ever read a spec script that immediately told you “this writer gets it”. If so, what were the reasons why?

Most spec scripts from new writers are mediocre. And these are writers who are good enough to land representation. But there’s no demand in Hollywood for mediocre writers. If the story doesn’t start quickly enough, or that first act break doesn’t pop, I’ll put down the script and pick up another one. That may seem unfair, but viewers are no different. If they’re not engaged by the story, they’ll click the remote and find a story that does engage them. I’ve got a huge pile of scripts to read and one of them will be great. I decided to hire one new writer without even finishing the script. I could tell he knew what he was doing.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

I’ve been a sitcom writer and showrunner for 25 years. A friend of mine who is an aspiring writer had been begging me to create an online course, but I just didn’t have the time. When the pandemic hit, that excuse went out the window. So I spent a few months creating an online screenwriting course. This is everything I wish I had when I was trying to break in. If anyone is interested, the first 3 lessons are free.

You can also follow me on social media:
Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/MichaelJaminWriter/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/michaeljaminwriter
Twitter:    @MJaminWriter

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Speaking of tropes, there’s nothing more familiar than the standard apple. But it works, so why are we trying to improve on it?

The return of a classic

angry writer

Hi writers!

Hope you’re staying safe and healthy during these turbulent times, but also hope you’ve been able to be productive and get some writing done.

Which means it’s time to dust the cobwebs off the long-absent and fan-favorite topic:

PROJECT STATUS UPDATE TIME! (lockdown edition)

How’s it going with your current WIP?

Here at Maximum Z HQ, notes for the horror-comedy spec continue to roll in, many of which should prove very helpful for the inevitable next draft.

And a lot of time has been spent on developing the outline for the fantasy-comedy spec. LOTS of pieces to this puzzle, but it’s slowly coming together. Really looking forward to when it’s completed, as well as fine-tuning it.

Also been enjoying reading several scripts from fellow scribes. I’m fortunate to know so many talented folks.

How about you?

Chipping away…until it breaks

spongebob chisel

So how do you put YOUR story together?

For yours truly,  progress in developing the outline for the fantasy-comedy spec is slow but steady. The notebook filled with ideas and potential scenes and sequences is filling up at a somewhat rapid pace.

After much internal deliberation, the plot points are in place, and the task of connecting them continues.

Storylines, subplots and character arcs are being established and fleshed out.

All in all, it really is coming together – even though at times it’s like trying to figure out a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle but the image on the cover of the box is out of focus and has a few water stains.

As much as I enjoy the overall writing process, there’s a certain appeal to this part of it. Coming up with ideas. Mapping it out. Putting it all together.

Breaking the story.

You start with a premise, then figure out how to build on that. A seemingly never-ending assembly process.

Then the questions come rolling in.

What kind of world is this? What are the characters like? Who’s our hero? What do they want? What happens to them? Who or what is standing in their way? What happens if they fail?

You will come up with SO MANY ideas, some of which you might later on wonder what the hell you were thinking and toss (or possibly set aside for use in a future draft or totally different script). But for now, each one seems valid and usable.

Ask yourself questions. Work that imagination. What if my hero does THIS instead of THAT? What if this happened HERE instead of HERE? What if the total opposite happened?

(This is also part of why I’m a big proponent of outlining. It allows me to take the  disorganized chaos of a big pile of notes and assemble them into a streamlined, fast-moving linear layout.)

Very important – work at your own pace. Don’t base your output and productivity on how it’s going for other writers. You saw somebody post on social media how they cranked a script out in two weeks? Good for them (and I’d be curious to know how it reads). I’d rather take the time to really fine-tune my story before even considering starting on pages. Results may vary. It takes as long as it takes.

Since there are certain familiar elements to the genre with which I’m working, I have the added challenge of my story needing to not only be original with the initial concept, but in the execution. The last thing I want to hear is “this is just a ripoff of _____” or “didn’t they do this in _____?” I’m okay with “similar, but different”, and want to stay as far away from “very similar” as possible.

While the process of breaking the story sometimes feels insurmountable, I accept the fact that it’s necessary; to the point that I practically embrace it. Working my way through it helps me become a better writer in the long run. When I first started out, my stories were what you could call somewhat basic and simplistic. A few scripts later, I continue to push myself, always trying for something a little smarter and more complex.

I won’t say the more I do this, the easier it gets, because for the most part it doesn’t. Each script is always a challenge to put together. What I have learned is to not be as intimidated by it, and instead eagerly jump in, ready to take it on.

Dorothy Parker was half-right

d parker

“I hate writing, I love having written.”

For a writer, truer words were never spoken.

Well, almost. For this one, anyway.

It took a bit longer than I’d hoped, what with sheltering-in-place and all, but I finally managed to complete the rewrite of the horror-comedy. It’s now in the hands of some of my trusted readers.

Despite how long it took, I actually enjoyed putting the whole thing together. Granted, working on a rewrite is always a bit easier than cranking out a first draft.

Do I love that the script’s done? Without a doubt.

Did I not like writing it? Not really. (that might sound a little confusing. In other words, I did like it.)

Maybe it was because coming up with all the ideas and putting them onto the page was just a lot of fun.

Or maybe it was from developing my take on a traditional story in a genre I enjoy.

Or maybe I simply allowed myself to control the process, rather than vice versa.

It’s totally understandable why a writer would gripe about having to sit down and write. This is hard work. It takes a long time to learn how to not just do it right, but to do it well.

Hopefully once you get the hang of it, you start to see it less like work and more like an opportunity. One where you can really let yourself enjoy doing it.

Sometimes a writer will operate under the mindset of “I HAVE TO GET THIS DONE!”. While that can definitely be the case when working with a deadline, if you’re free to work at your own pace, the lack of stress and self-imposed pressure is practically liberating.

When I’m working on pages, I set a goal of completing at least three pages a day. If that’s all I get done, so be it. If I manage more, that’s great. I get done as much as I allow myself to. Removing the pressure part of the equation helps me feel more relaxed, which in turn helps me with the writing.

More than a few times during this rewrite I’d think “what’s something different that could happen here, AND that would also be funny?” and be able to come up with something. Hard to say if I would have able to do so if I was stressing myself out over the writing. And regarding the jokes, whether or not they pay off – well, that’s another issue.

This was something else that came from enjoying the writing: I think the jokes are a little stronger than in previous efforts. A lot of those were more just snarky comments, but this feels different – in a positive way.

A few sets of reader notes for this script have already come in, and once the rest of them do, it’s a foregone conclusion that I’ll embark on another draft.

And I suspect that one will be just as enjoyable to write, which means I’ll probably be practically euphoric once it’s done.

Make your fictional people more like real people

 

purple rose

The rewrite of the horror-comedy is almost complete, which is great, but I already know what’ll require a little more attention for the next draft:

Fleshing out the characters even more.

I’d already made the effort to create backstories for each of them – nothing too extensive, just the relevant details that might come into play during the story.

As they read now, they’re established and definitely distinct individuals. A big part of the next draft is to help make them even more distinct, as well as further develop their respective arcs.

That’s something a writer really needs to be aware of – making the characters feel like an active part of the story. It’s our job to make them come across as actual people – not just caricatures or cliches. We want the reader/audience to be able to relate and connect to them, which then means we care about them and are interested in what happens to them next.

It takes a while to really get the hang of it, but once you’re able to do this, your script is that much stronger for it.

Not sure how to go about it? Plenty of resource material out there to work with. In my case, since this is a horror-comedy, I had the benefit of being able to use successful ones of the past.

The really good ones not only play up both the horror and comedy elements, but the characters are firmly established. We get more insight into who they are AND how what kind of person they are factors into the story.

The writing is so strong that you can see that they’re not just a generic character. The writers are letting you know how there’s more to them than just somebody taking up space.

These films put equal parts attention on the story as well as who these events are happening to, and how they reacted to what was going on. All of those combine to make for a great, solid script.

Which is what I’m aiming for with this one.

Admittedly, the biggest obstacle of this rewrite has just been getting it done. With that finish line fast approaching, the wheels are already turning regarding what it’ll take to raise the next draft to the next level.

Can’t wait to see how it works out.