Tuesday, March 26, 2013

General Hospital: One Fan’s Perspective on the Casting Carousel

Yesterday daytime media venues and fans were all atwitter (pun intended) over the news that General Hospital head writer Ron Carlivati plans to use Michael Easton (John McBain), Roger Howarth (Todd Manning) and Kristen Alderson (Starr Manning) in new and completely different roles, as seemingly the issues with Prospect Park, who owns the characters, cannot be resolved. While I have complete admiration for Carlivati as the man who saved General Hospital from near-complete destruction and almost certain cancellation – and I sympathize with the actors who play the roles – I believe this is the wrong move for the show.

Quick history: McBain and the two Mannings were all tent-pole characters on Carlivati’s One Life to Live, which was ABC’s soap opera ratings leader when it was canceled by then-ABC Daytime President Brian Frons, an even bigger daytime villain than Mikkos Cassadine. ABC then sold the rights to OLTL and its sister cancelled show, All My Children (AMC), to an entity called Prospect Park, which promised to revive the shows online. Carlivati and his OLTL producer, Frank Valentini, both signed with Prospect Park to run the online version of OLTL. After signing several actors from both shows, Prospect Park was unable to make further headway in bringing them online, and the deals seemingly fell apart. General Hospital wisely snapped up both Valentini and Carlivati, who brought Easton, Howarth, and Alderson over in their OLTL roles.

At first, this was a controversial move. General Hospital fans objected to the OLTL characters coming and seemingly taking over their show. Their protests died, however, when the true talents of the Ron/Frank partnership revealed themselves. Not only did the three OLTL characters take up minimal air space in Port Charles, General Hospital’s fictional town, but the two – longtime GH fans from the Gloria Monty era – brought back many fan favorites from bygone eras and shoved the show-eating mob to the background. Ratings exploded, and longtime fans who’d abandoned the show years ago, such as this writer, returned in droves.

Then Prospect Park returned from the dead, and they wanted their characters back. It turned out that McBain, Todd and Starr had only been loaned to GH, and now that OLTL had come back to life after all, Prospect Park saw these three characters as vitally important to the show’s online success. But Easton, Howarth, and Alderson are all under contract to GH, and, understandably so, did not want to leave a very successful daytime drama and their new lives in California to gamble on a lower-paying, on-line entity.

There should have been a way to work this out. ABC and Prospect Park should have been able to come to some kind of agreement to share these actors, maybe even offering some GH actors to visit OLTL as well. After all, who wouldn’t want to see Natalie and Sam go head to head over John? Such visits would encourage GH-only fans to tune into these shows online.

Unfortunately, as it now stands, it looks like OLTL will be recasting these characters, which are pivotal roles in OLTL’s Llanview. This will hurt OLTL’s viewership, as fans are always disappointed when shows are forced to recast favorite actors. And GH, which wants to retain the three actors, will be creating three new characters for them. Because of the lack of licensing agreements, the new characters cannot have any relation to the former ones – i.e., no sudden, secret twins.

Despite the proven talents of the Frank/Ron partnership, this decision has the potential for disaster. At the least, it’s a head-scratcher. While McBain, Todd and Starr all fit in nicely in Port Charles, each only really impacted one character – Sam, Carly and Michael. Their goodbyes were well scripted and the GH characters will be able to live their lives smoothly without them. GH has so many characters on its canvas now – and the promise of more legacy returns – that their absences won’t be that keenly felt.

So why the three new characters? Of course I feel bad for the actors caught in the middle, but they have roles in New York waiting for them and presumably some ability to work out an agreement to play their characters on both shows. All three actors are talented, charming and attractive. But to bring in three new characters in a non-organic way and then either ignore or play up their resemblances to three other characters who just left town are not the ingredients for storytelling magic. Indeed, GH fans just had to sit through another storyline that was based on Easton and Kelly Monaco playing against each other on the long-defunct show Port Charles, and there was a lot of headscratching about why McBain and Sam looked so much like Caleb and Livvie, respectively. (And the show never did resolve who Livvie was, since Kevin denied ever having a daughter.) To see that times three sounds like a headache, yet to ignore the resemblance seems impossible.

Yes, actors have been brought back to shows they have left in new characters many times. It’s almost always been an actor who was extremely popular in the show he left, playing a never-before-heard-of long-lost twin. And these stories almost always fizzle out, leaving the actor once again without a job or playing the original character. Now imagine this happening, times three. Even more complicated, none of these characters will be allowed to have any connection to the original character due to the licensing agreement (i.e, Howarth will not be allowed to play his presumed-dead twin, Victor, or a newly created triplet, Lord.) Simply put, Easton, Howarth, and Alderson are not that important to General Hospital to justify jumping through all those storytelling hoops – but they are on OLTL.

Yes, Ron/Frank are geniuses and if anyone can pull this off, it would be them. But I’d much rather have the genius happening at the higher administrative level, and for ABC and Prospect Park to work out a deal where the characters can appear on both shows. Otherwise, I think it makes more sense for General Hospital to cut its losses and let Sam, Carly and Michael find new love interests who don’t look like the people they just said goodbye to.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (but that’s impossible in today’s economy)

My DVR decided to make it especially difficult for me to watch the season finale of Girls, refusing to record it at least three times before I gave up and hunted it down on OnDemand (props to HBO for getting it up there so quickly). I was shocked to see such a typical Hollywood ending for the show, even though it was most definitely a season, not a series, finale (it was renewed by HBO weeks ago and notes about casting are already floating around). The final scenes reminded me of a combination of “Love, Actually” and “When Harry Met Sally.”

This observation is not meant as a compliment. For me, what was so appealing about Girls was how anti-Hollywood it was. New York City has always been Hollywood’s version of Oz (see “When Harry Met Sally” again) – all big and shiny, a place where women are thin, heels are tall and dreams are as big as you can imagine. The stories taking place there since the city cleaned up its act are modern day fairy tales – “Sex and the City,” “Working Girl,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Spiderman,” even “Smash.” If Hollywood ever decides to remake Mary Tyler Moore, she’ll be throwing up her hat in Times Square, not Minneapolis.

And then there’s Girls. Granted, the show takes place in Brooklyn, rather than Manhattan, and Park Slope and other chic neighborhoods not withstanding, to many people, New York City is Manhattan and Manhattan only. That may be the show’s first crime, albeit a minor one. And it’s a crime that hints at the show’s biggest injustice – it portrays New York, and its young citizens, as they are, rather than as audiences want them to be.

Girls is not “Friends.” All the friends in “Friends” were Hollywood thin and gorgeous, living in huge, beautifully furnished apartments with no obvious source of money. And their problems were the glamorous Hollywood fairy tale type, with pet monkeys and dinosaur exhibitions, rather than anxiety and soul-killing dead-end jobs.

The biggest complaint since Girls premiered last year has been about show creator/lead actor/writer/producer/director Lena Dunham’s appearance. Apparently the actress (or her character – it’s difficult to distinguish the issue) is too fat for any man to want to have sex with her. I’m sure if you stuck her among Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis and Kim Catrall, she might have trouble getting a date. But plunk her down in Middle America, and Lena is actually thinner than the average woman. In the real world – in the real Brooklyn – there are millions of women shorter and heavier than Lena and THEY ARE ALL HAVING SEX, TOO. If you don’t believe me, watch Jerry Springer.

The second issue is the girls’ employment statuses. In the first episode, Lena’s character Hannah meets her parents for dinner and is told she is being financially cut off. A writer her entire life, Hannah protests that she is “the voice of my generation…. Or at least a voice of a generation.” Later in the episode, it is revealed that far from slacking off all day, Hannah has a writing internship that is more than happy to exploit her creativity but balks at actually paying her. To support herself and stay in New York, Hannah has to take a barista-type job – certainly not the type of employment her parents sent her to college for.

Her friends aren’t doing any better. Best friend Marnie, whom I inferred was some kind of art history major or something similar in college, has a go-fer type job at an art gallery, which she lost this season. She was then forced to rely on her looks and take a hostessing job at a high-end restaurant/bar, that only hires very attractive girls for this position and forces them to work for tips. Jessa, who does not seem to have a college degree but has traveled the world extensively, is forced to take a nanny job. And I’m not sure exactly what Shoshanna does, but she won’t be reading and marking up Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” any time soon.

This employment situation is so painful to watch because it is so real. Ten years ago, students did their internships in college and were able to find entry-level jobs after graduation that led to real careers in the industries in which they wished to work. This is no longer the case. Now students are expected to intern, for free, post-graduation, doing mostly grunt work in order to build a resume and make contacts that might, someday, eventually, get them a real job in the field they went to college to study. And in the meantime they are paying off a hundred thousand dollars in student loans and working at Starbucks in the evenings and on weekends just to have enough cash to scrape by.

This is the situation talented writers like Hannah find themselves in now. I would never recommend a talented young writer major in English, communications, journalism or any major that concentrated on writing as the final product, rather than a skill that complemented the product. No one is paying for writing any more. And as for art history, I’m not sure anyone ever paid for that.

Girls is so painful, so controversial, so talked about because it’s so real. We see Hannah and point fingers at her muffin top while ignoring the fact that it’s so much bigger than our own. We watch these post-college kids struggle with jobs and relationships and turn away because our children in fact have it much worse. Hannah, after all, did manage to get a book contract (although I’m sure her advance was not nearly as big as her portrayer’s was). Marnie’s boyfriend Charlie is now a millionaire thanks to inventing an app. Shoshanna has a nice apartment. Jess, I’m sure, has landed on her feet somewhere. Despite their money woes, no one is living on the street, or worse, returned home to the rents like so many other people their age have had to do.

I hope that ten to fifteen years from now, shows like “Girls” and the upcoming ABC sitcom “How to Live with Your Parents for the Rest of Your Life,” are seen as an anachronism from a tougher bygone time, much in the way we see grandparents from the Depression who save their tin foil. But I fear that the real anachronism will be for the days when idealistic young people were able to move to New York. And when they looked as thin as Lena Dunham.

Monday, March 11, 2013

What's Like Got to Do with It?

One of the first lessons we’re taught as writers is that our main character has to be likeable in order for the audience to sympathize with him. In a traditionally structured work of fiction, in which the protagonist has a goal, possibly involving a journey, one of the first steps a writer must take before putting the character on the journey is to establish why he’s likeable. Such a scene involves the character being exceptionally good at his job, being in an especially sad state of affairs (recently widowed, for example), or, as Blake Snyder named his series of screenwriting books, saving a cat.

Recently, though, certain television shows – mostly found on cable – have started moving away from the likeable rule and have introduced characters who can best be described as off-putting. Be it a chemistry teacher turned meth cooker, a bi-polar government agent, or a whiny 20something writer living in New York, these characters bring viewers to their shows even as entertainment reporters, bloggers and fans complain about their behavior and plotlines.

Authors have always had more latitude than writers for the big and small screens, and unlikeable main characters can be disguised more easily through the use of first person narration. It’s much easier to justify rooting for a woman to get away with killing her lover’s wife, for instance, when all her reasons and justifications are coming straight to your brain through the use of the “I” pronoun.

However, there are some genres in literature where a likeable main character is more important than in others. Mystery and suspense can get away with main characters acting like jerks a lot easier than literary fiction, chick lit, comic novels and women fiction can. In fact, I’d say that a female character has a heavier burden to be likeable in any genre. Just as in life, male characters can get away with things that female characters cannot. Men take charge; women are bossy. If you don’t know the rest of the argument, read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” It’s the latest book on how women are punished for the same behavior men receive rewards (among other things.)

Of course, every main character needs to have flaws, and by the end of the book, she needs to resolve one major flaw that’s keeping her from getting what she wants. But it’s the other flaws that make her human, someone worth relating to. As readers, are we more likely to smile and say, “Of course, I do that too,” about a woman who eats two pieces of cake in order to deal with her problems, or the woman who goes for the five mile run? (I already hate that second woman.)

The reason this is coming up for me is because last week I received notes from a freelance editor I hired on how to improve my novel, “Keeping Score.” One of the things he said was that my main character, Shannon, was the prototype for the self-help book, “Smart Women, Foolish Choices” and she needed to be strong and confident at all times. I’m not sure about that one. On one hand, I truly believe a character’s weakness is what makes them worth rooting for. On the other hand, am I falling into the “Lean In” trap, seeing behavior that is practically required in a male character as being off-putting in a female character? Simply put, I don’t want to write about a strong and confident woman. Strong and confident women tend to be the villains in women’s fiction and chick lit; not the heroines. Our heroines are Bridget Jones and her sisters; constantly worrying about her weight, dating men who can’t commit, and dealing with their children’s issues with friends, homework, etc. And while these behaviors are endearing in a first person novel, in real life, they would be exasperating.

So where does this leave those of us who write fiction for and about women? Can we break out of the “Bridget Jones” mode and deliver a female heroine who is strong, confident and relatable? Or is the only way we can identify with her is if she’s stuffing her face with that second piece of cake?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Planning versus Pantsing

There are two types of writers when it comes to creating a new piece of work: There are the “planners,” who outline and summarize and plot out the entire piece before getting into the actual writing, and there are the “pantsers” who write by “the seat of their pants,” just sitting down with a general idea and letting the muse flow out of them. These latter writers often claim that their characters talk to them directly, telling them where the story should go, and sometimes they are basically just taking dictation. I hate these writers. And I’ve always wanted to be one. Yet with my current work in progress, it’s not going well at all.

Before I wrote my novel “Keeping Score,” I had written screenplays for over ten years. Writing a screenplay pretty much requires you to be a planner. Every screenwriting guru out there – Blake Snyder, John Truby, Michael Hauge – breaks down scripts into 22 or 15 or 10 major scenes, and screenwriters are encouraged to figure out those plot points before writing the script. After that comes the white board, where notecard descriptions of each scene leading up to those plot points are supposed to be organized, pinned, rearranged, etc., until the writer has every last detail figured out. Then, and only then, is the actual writing of the script supposed to start. (That isn’t to say that nothing changes during the actual writing process.)

That system worked pretty well for me. I liked to start at the beginning, come up with my ending, then fill in the major plot points. Only when I had a 60-scene beat sheet that laid out the entire story did I open up my Movie Magic Screenwriter software and begin the script.

The only thing that didn’t work was the whole “selling the thing when you’re done with it” part. After a while, I realized the stories I wanted to tell weren’t the stories that Hollywood wanted to buy. And I had no interest in making my own movie. So a novel seemed the logical next step.

“Keeping Score” took about two years to write, edit and rewrite. (and I’ve hired a professional editor to help me do one more pass, so technically I’m not done yet.) While I didn’t do a formal outline or beat sheet, I knew the inciting incident and I knew the story would end after the last baseball game of the summer season (what I didn’t know is that it would take me 106K words to get there; a little long for women’s fiction). I wrote by the seat of my pants, but since I knew all the major plot points would center around the summer tournament games, I always knew what was coming next.

My current Work In Progress (WIP) has no such natural milestones. What’s worse, I’m struggling to find my protagonist’s purpose. It’s one of those novels where the inciting incident is an extreme upheaval in my main character’s life, and the book is about everything that happens as a result of that incident. I know this is a common type of plot in women’s fiction, but I’m having trouble making sure the plot points all build on each other. The story feels episodic to me; a series of events happening without any obvious link between them. I find myself thinking in terms of discrete scenes rather than story points as a line of dominos, with the inciting incident being that first felled rectangle. And yet, I know how the novel ends, and I’ve planted set ups to help me get there. It’s just that all the stuff in the middle isn’t necessarily all that relevant to the ending.

I blame all this angst on the fact that I “pantsed” this WIP. I completely pantsed it. I had an idea for the beginning, sat down and wrote it, and fell in love with the words. This is probably not a good sign. Falling in love with your writing too soon keeps you from killing your babies. Already I know I have a long sequence about Christmas that doesn’t do anything but establish what I’ve already established and I could kill it without anyone in the book noticing. But I loved writing it, so getting rid of those pages will be very hard.

I’ve thought about going back to the drawing board and creating an outline based on the scenes I’ve written and the ending I want, but I’m scared that will leave me with a lot of scenes that can be cut and very little that actually drives the novel forward. After all, a story isn’t “This happened, and then that happened.” A story is “Because this happened, then that happened.”

For writers out there who are “pantsers,” what do you do when you realize your characters have left you with a series of episodic events that don’t flow the way a story should?