Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Interview with Michael Patrick Sullivan, guy who writes

Most likely you have not seen anything Michael Patrick Sullivan has written - Yet. Michael is one of those guys that's about two inches from a professional writing career in television, and it's a place he's been sort of destined for all his life. This past year a short film Michael wrote called Mastermind premiered at Comic Con, and interest in his work has been picking up ever since.

Michael has a wall of DVDs of nothing but TV shows. A wall. He's seen more television shows than I've heard of, and he knows the ins and outs of all of them.

What never ceases to amaze me about Michael is his productivity. He writes like gangbusters, and almost always good stuff. Michael is very private, but I managed to pry some information from him about his process, because I think one of the biggest problems writers often have is sitting your ass down in the chair and writing. Michael has that problem conquered.

EB: What's your daily writing schedule like?

MPS: I don't really have a daily schedule in the conventional sense. Some days I write, some days I don't. However, every day I intend to. Some days turn into research days.
I get big chunks done on the weekends. Start early and stay up late. I've had Saturday nights where I go out, so Saturday night stuff, come home at 3AM and then write until 6 or 7.

On average, I get home from work, I wind down, get caught up on the goings on of the internet and then just start writing. If no one or nothing stops me, I'll just keep going until either I get tired or I get to a logical stopping point like the end of an act. I always stop at the end of an act, even if it only took a page to get there. The end of an act is time to review everything up that point.

Do you write vomit drafts or edit as you go?

I don't really vomit draft. I may call it a vomit draft, but from what I get from talking to other writers about their vomit draft, mine is more like a dry heaving draft. I don't just power though stuff, let the plot holes fall where they may and then clean it up on the next pass. To me, it ultimately feels like more work. It's like lifting the same load twice because I didn't just put it where it goes the first time.

I thoroughly edit as I go. Everything from page one to whatever page I'm on is in a constant state of review. As much as what goes before informs what comes after, I also do it the other way. I will immediately go back and rewrite whatever I need to to support a late stage idea.

How do you decide which project to work on next?

The decision is made in two stages. First, as a TV writer I'm always conscious (or trying to be conscious) of what the popular specs are and what the popular spec might be in the near future and evaluating the current array of specs I have. Which ones are getting too old? Which ones are maybe not as good as I used to think they are?

So if I need a spec, that's probably what it's going to be. I've already decided that as soon I finish the pilot I'm currently writing, I'll get into a new spec.

Otherwise, I go with whatever it is I can't not write. And there's never a tie. There's always one thing that's clearly ahead of the rest.

When do you decide to let a project go?

When I'm not motivated enough to even continue writing. I'm not one of those people who has to make themselves sit down to write. Even if I hit a stumbling block, if I like the idea enough, I will slave to get past that obstacle and move on with the story.

If I get up to any point where things just aren't working and I don't feel a push to make it work, then I'm just not into it enough, and if I'm not into it, I certainly can't expect anyone else to, so why bother continuing.

If I'm spending too much time brainstorming new ideas or working out the next project beyond just a basic concept, then it's time to just drop the current project and move on.

It usually means that once I got to know my characters, I didn't like them as much as when I first met them.

What do you feel is the key to cranking out so many good scripts?

Writing has to be a priority. We have enough things in our lives that get in the way of writing, so I try to keep those things to as much of a minimum as possible. For instance, I'm not a big video gamer at all, largely because I don't want to spend that time not writing. I just got Call of Duty: Black Ops and in four days, I've played to for about two hours total. I also just got the new Greg Rucka novel and I've barely gotten into it because it's time I feel like I should be working on my pilot.

There's usually a small window after I finish a draft where I feel like I can do any recreational thing I want and not feel like I'm impacting my productivity.

Also, whenever I'm not physically writing, I'm still writing. In the car, at work, when I get in bed, basically anytime I can concentrate on it, I try to do so. Not always successful, but I try. I'm outlining before I write the fairly loose outline and I'm basically prescripting in my head as much as possible before any time I sit down to write the script.

I've cut out things that were taking up too much time as well. I used to do some freelance entertainment journalism, but it started absorbing too much time. They were paying gigs, but they were too much of a drag on what I considered to be more important writing.

Also, I've known more than a few writers who just don't keep writing. They've got a couple of good a specs and a pilot and they're in no hurry to increase their inventory. I look at that in two ways. You're not really a writer if you can switch it off like that. You might be good at it, but if it's not in your blood, then I just don't understand why you do it all.  I think Throw Momma From The Train said it best. "A writer writes, always." Secondly, the more material you've got (especially original) the more chances you make for yourself.

I recently went into a pitch with six ideas ready to roll. And after some general chat with the execs about what they're looking for, what direction the network is looking at and that sort of thing, I self edited down to two ideas. If I'd gone in with just one or two and they were the wrong one or two, I'd have been dead before I even got started. The same holds true for written material. It give you a greater ability to tailor you're submitted samples to whatever it is you're submitting to.

Lastly, and this is probably not so duplicable because when I tell people this part, they find it hard to - I dunno - understand, accept, believe, whatever. Some people put on music when they write (which BTW, The Social Network soundtrack is really good for that), but I put on the TV while I write. So a lot of time lost by other people just watching stuff, I regain a lot of.

It's also a good litmus test. If I stop writing while the TV's on it either means what I'm watching is really, really good or what I'm writing isn't good enough.

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