Wednesday night. 1:37 a.m. Until 1:34, I had been staring at the ceiling and listening to the meth addicts upstairs vacuum for what must be the thirteenth time this week. Oh, what I would trade for lethargic, pot-smoking Pacific Northwest neighbors who passed out at 8:00! But it wasn’t the vacuumeths that woke me. And sadly, it wasn’t the beeping of my phone, alerting me to a middle-of-the-night text-message from Matthew McConnaughey, who’d be the only person I’d pick up for. My sleeplessness was a severe case of test anxiety: on Wednesday morning, I turned in a rough draft of the outline of my first Veronica Mars episode, “Blast from the Past,” which I was co-writing with Phil Klemmer. I lay awake all night imagining the margins filled with red-penciled remarks like “this sucks,” and “WTFWYT?”
When I got to work, the outline had not been returned to me. Rob called me and Phil. “Belben. Klemmer. The Champagne Room.” I followed Phil into Rob’s office.
“What’s up? Did you get your nipples pierced?” I joked.
“No,” Rob said seriously. “I want to show you the empty spot on my desk where your outline should be.”
I froze. “It’s almost done,” I stammered. “I gave a draft--”
Rob laughed. “I’m just giving you shit,” he said, and proceeded to play a video for a band he wanted to use on the show.
But the pressure wasn’t off. When I finally did get the outline turned in later that day, and skipped out the door for a relaxing night on my saggy IKEA sofa, I’d been home and halfway through a cold post-work beer when the phone rang.
“Cathy? It’s Rob. Do you have a minute?”
Immediate oh fuck sensation—the blue-lights-in-the-rearview-mirror, “SEE ME” on the English final, “We need to talk,” sensation. The boss was calling me at home. The only time a boss had ever called me at home was when someone died. Rob didn’t sound sad. He sounded scoldy.
I gulped at my beer. “Um, yeah.”
“I just read your outline,” he said. “You can’t just change the story that we agreed on in the room.” He pointed out that an entire scene was missing—a series of beats that we’d mapped out in the room that somehow hadn’t made into my outline.
Fucking Diane, I thought. She’d seen my outline before I turned it in. Jesus, she’d insisted that I show it to her. And somehow, remarkably, she’d managed to catch a couple of formatting errors and reword a few sentences, but she hadn’t noticed an entire scene was missing? I was frustrated—was it sabotage or just a misunderstanding? I took another gulp of beer. Probably sabotage.
I hadn’t consciously changed anything, I told Rob. “I can barely talk at the writers’ table—I’m going to have the guts to change the storyline?” I’d just gotten confused, I told him, about what we’d finally decided to include (we’d talked through about 87 versions in 6 days). I left out the part about how Diane and I had gone over my outline before I turned it in to him, and how she hadn’t pointed out the missing scene. I didn’t mention that the writers’ assistant’s notes for the day had been incomplete. Instead, I made a funny joke about blowjobs, hung up, and revised the outline.
Writing a script is incredibly different than the type of writing I’m accustomed to. When I write short stories or articles, I’m the Rob Thomas of my own little universe: I get to pick the topic, the words, and the structure. Here, we start as a group. When it’s time to break a story—meaning that at least three of us aren’t assigned to a script and there’s a deadline looming, Rob rounds us up (usually by shouting, “Coffee up, motherfuckers!”_ and we trickle into The Room to toss around around A-story ideas, figure out where we need to go with various subplots, and determine which characters (i.e. actors) we can include in the episode.
Once we eliminate the ridiculous and the banal and agree on an A-story, we hammer out the beats together. This can take a week, depending on how complicated the story is and how many technical glitches we have to work out. A bottle episode—one that is filmed entirely on our sets in San Diego to save money—limits the plot. All of the action has to take place at the Mars’ apartment, Neptune High, Keith Mars’ office, the sheriff’s department, or Java the Hut, where Veronica works. This sounds like a wide range of locations, unless the plot calls for Veronica to track a missing classmate to a Bajama resort.
Breaking an A-story means deciding on each plot point, and determining how the Mystery of the Week will ultimately be resolved. And it must be resolved—there are no “To Be Continueds” in Veronica’s world. And there are also no dues ex machinas, either, no matter how many of the writers graduated with English degrees. Veronica has to figure things out herself, and she has to do it cleverly within 42 minutes, using her brains and high-tech equipment, and it all has to fall within the realm of the possible. A talking garbage can can’t whisper, “Hey, look in here,” to Veronica. She can’t find secret golden tablets or trip literally over clues. Rob insisted on this—and the show is strong and brilliant because of it—the solutions must rise organically from Veronica’s own ability to analyze and investigate.
Breaking an A-story means dividing the plot points into five acts—the cold open, which is the teaser portion of the show that precedes the title sequence, and then four acts that are separated by commercial breaks—each act ending with a cliff hanger that beckons the audience back to the sofa after the ads for condoms or Britney Spears’ fragrance. After an A-story is broken, the various subplots are broken—the B and C stories that deal with relationships between characters and developments surrounding the season-long mystery.
Once these decisions are made, and a tri-color, five-part, point-by-point story line exists, the project is turned over to the individual or pair of writers assigned to the episode. They construct a one-page summary and submit it to the network for approval, then write a detailed, 25 page, act-by-act expository outline of the show. Outlining takes another week, as the writer(s) and Rob haggle over scenes, words, and ideas. Once Rob is satisfied, the outline goes to the network, and via conference call, they ask questions and express. Final decisions are made, and then the episode “goes to script”—meaning that the writers are charged with creating the actual dialogue—channeling the voices of teenagers, gang members, and detectives.
The best part about going to script is that the scriptwriters are free to work wherever they please. “I type in one place, but I write all over the house,” Toni Morrison said, and so I’m writing while I lounge by the pool, take a mid-afternoon nap, call friends, and go for my nightly walk. I can take my laptop to the tiki bar and drink mai tais, as long as I post my work to the public folder at the end of the day and ultimately, deliver an episode that satisfies Rob, the UPN executives, and Veronica Mars fans around the globe.
The hardest part about writing the script is that even though I was executing a story designed by a group, and one which must please an enormous, diverse audience, I still felt personally attached to the words and ideas that I used. For about the billionth time in my life, I was advised to grow thicker skin. The X’d out portions of my drafts weren’t judgments about my character or my talent—they were business decisions about what appealed to our sponsors, our producers, and fans. I learned, slowly and with the aid of pharmaceuticals, that life is too short to stress out because someone would rather hear Veronica described as “notorious” than “renowned.”
My confidence about writing wavered daily, but it did grow stronger. And so did my attitude about life in Hollywood. In the book Personal Village, Marvin Thomas suggests establishing connections in your community by visiting businesses and gathering spots at least seven times to become a regular. So that means I wasn’t just the random crazy lady hobbling around the block in sandals she never should have worn on a three mile walk. I was a community fixture, waving at my friends in the Little Shop of Whores as I limped by, my pals at the three head shops in the stretch of Hollywood Blvd. between Cahuenga and Wilcox, and the guy in the plaid mini-skirt who camped out by Orson Welles’ star.
I never carried a camera and I didn’t have Oscar statuettes falling out of my pockets, so I was never mistaken for a tourist, but the real tourists did stop me and ask for directions. I helped two teenage boys who wanted to know where they could find the stars of “some cool people, like Dave Chappelle.” I had to break the news that a) I don’t think Chappelle has a star yet and 2) the stars aren’t organized in any sensible way, let alone by how cool people are. I pointed out James Brown’s star. They didn’t know who James Brown was, forcing me to do this little “you know, the guy who goes YEOW!!!” impersonation. They just looked at me. Thank God I’m not here pursuing an acting career. Channeling the voice of an eighteen-year-old white girl is so much easier.