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?

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.

Boldly swinging into new territory

george jungle

As the shelter-in-place continues, I hope you and yours are staying safe and healthy.

I also hope you’re managing to be at least somewhat productive during these trying times. When all of this started, my initial thoughts were “Woo-hoo! I’m going to get SO MUCH writing done!”

Yeah, no.

I’m fortunate enough to be able to work from home, but there’s also all that standard around-the-house-type stuff that needs doing, so while Writing Time is a thing, it’s just not as abundant as originally hoped.

Not that I haven’t been making progress.

-Working on the rewrite of the horror-comedy has been a real eye-opener, especially on the comedy side. Looking back at some older scripts, my idea of comedy was mostly slapstick situations and characters making clever comments. With this one, I’m forcing myself to use those less and focus more on developing funny scenarios that work within the context of the story.

-After something like two, two and a half years of jotting down ideas for it, I finally decided to start mapping out the story for an animated concept. It’s still in the early stages, but I managed to nail down the plot points – including an out-of-the-blue idea for one of the main storylines that feels perfect AND really ramps up the conflict.

-Blew the proverbial dust off some notes for an older sci-fi project in need of a rewrite. Some of the comments made quite an impression, so I’ve been squeezing in some work on applying them to the story – along with some significant changes to give it a thorough overhaul. Still some work to go, but it’s a good starting point.

-Honestly, not much attention has been given to the sci-fi adventure, but it’s still on the latest version of the WIP list.

All in all, hoping to have at least two, maybe three of these as ready-to-go drafts by the end of the year.

Another bonus of working on all these newer projects is re-experiencing the joy and excitement of writing. It’s one thing to go back and do the umpteenth draft of the script you’ve been working for a long time, and definitely another to create new pages for an idea that for the most part is just seeing the light of day.

I tolerate the necessity of the former, but fully embrace the thrill and exhilaration of the latter.

Even better – when they’re ready to go, I can contact my stable of savvy readers and be able to start off with “New script. Whattya say?”

Exciting times, chums.

Hope your writing output-during-quarantine is also coming along nicely.

FROM THE MAXIMUM Z COMMUNITY BULLETIN BOARD

The fine folks at Roadmap Writers are offering up some of their master webinar series FOR FREE during the month of May. They include interviews and Q&A’s from TV writers/creators, Hollywood screenwriters, development executives, producers, literary managers, and more.

Click here for all the details.