Tuesday, January 17, 2006

How do you guys write?

I’ve been lucky enough to be in the same partnership for 33 years. Some time ago I got a letter from a young writer named Ken Levine saying, since we had the same name, could I give him any advice? I said, “Yes, find a partner named David Isaacs.”

Writing teams all work differently. Here’s how we work and it’s a tad unusual. A lot of teams will split up the script – one takes one scene or act and the other takes the other. Then they switch. We write head to head and we dictate the script to a secretary who takes great shorthand. We never actually see the script while we’re writing it. This forces us not to obsess over a line. It frees us to pitch out a whole run knowing we can just go back and clean it up. We can juggle beats, move things around more easily. This process also allows us to volley lines back and forth. When people ask if a particular joke was mine and I say I don’t remember I’m not being coy. We shape practically every line together.

It now takes us four or five days to write a half hour. Two or three if we have to. When we started it took two weeks. That’s where 33 years of experience comes in handy.

We work off of an outline, talk out what we’re going to do then just take a shot at it. Next day we see the typed version of what we wrote, proof it, blame the medication, and keep going. After the rough draft is finished we each take a copy, make notes, joke suggestions, cuts, etc. and reconvene for one more pass. Once that’s completed, more often than not we turn it in.

Do we have arguments? Sure. But we never let them get personal. And if we ever have a disagreement over a particular joke and can’t reach a consensus quickly we just toss it out and write something else. It takes less time to come up with a new line than to argue and have one of us ultimately pissed.

And you can't be defensive. The best idea wins even if its the other guy's.

We’re also not afraid to throw stuff out – a line, a run, a whole scene. And scripts can ALWAYS be trimmed. No matter how long our rough draft is we always look for and find cuts.

Although the head to head process works well for us (which isn’t to say it works for everybody) early on in our career we began a practice whereby once a year we took an assignment and divided it up. The purpose was to feel confident that we could write on our own if we had to. We’re partners out of choice not dependency. And it’s amazing – we’ve been writing together so long that when we do split up a script I defy anyone to tell who wrote which act. They’re equally in need of major work.

There are many advantages to having a partner. The obvious ones you know. It’s more social, you have someone to share the burden/blame with, and it’s nice to get feedback (especially in comedy) – in our case not only from each other but our secretary, Lana. On more than one occasion we’ll laugh uproariously at a pitch, I’ll say to Lana, proudly, “Put that in” and she’ll say “Really???”

But here’s the biggest advantage to being in a team -- when you have to bring your car into the shop you know you can always get a ride.

A good partnership is like a marriage except you give up half your money before you get divorced.

ADDED THOUGHT based on the first comment:

Maybe I should start my own match.com on this comment page. If you're looking for a partner leave your contact info, a little about yourself, what you're looking for and who knows? A few of you might hook up.

You must thank me if you ever win an Emmy however. And I mean before your spouses and certainly agents.


Shawn Bowers said...

I need to find a writing partner. I think it'd be a great help...because I do well with that sort of back and forth. Of course, all my writer friends are the "shy, artful" writers instead of the "let's bounce ideas back and forth and be commercial" writers. Bah. I'll keep looking...

By Ken Levine said...

Shawn, you're probably not alone.

Maybe I should start my own match.com on this comment page. If you're looking for a partner leave your contact info, a little about yourself, what you're looking for and who knows? A few of you might hook up.

You must thank me if you ever win an Emmy however. And I mean before your spouses and certainly agents.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing this, I always love to hear how other writers write. I'm still on the lookout for a writing partner. I really enjoy throwing ideas back and forth instead of banging my head against the wall all alone. It's how I used to write sketches back in high school, but I've been pretty much solo since.

Todd said...

I, too, would love to find a partner.

Or, hell, just someone to read my stuff. The only people I have are people who tell me I'm SO good. And, trust me, I'm not. I need someone to rip me to shreds.

Anybody interested in either is welcome to visit me at my link or e-mail me at ambiguousdog@hotmail.com.

Put something like "Writing partner" or "script reader" in the subject line so I don't just delete it.

Anonymous said...

Just curious -- do you ever get tired of the "how do you write" question? It's one that I've heard asked of writers over and over and over again, and it always amazes me that the interviewees don't seem to find it repetitive or terribly mundane.

By Ken Levine said...

Since I myself am fascinated by the creative process and how different writers work, no, I don't really mind being asked how our partnership functions. The question I get asked that I can't answer is how do you come up with those jokes? I don't know. It's a gift and I just say thanks to the Gods of comedy.

Shawn Bowers said...

Ken, you have a good idea. Here's my contact information in case anybody wants to talk or share writing...I'm always happy to read and be read, give and get feedback.

You can e-mail me at bowers@ku.edu or find me on AIM as bowsernieb.

Charlie said...

My writing partner and I go with the ol' back and forth method, to great degree necessitated by us living in different states.

Its worked pretty well for us so far (we've written a couple of things together so far, one of which has sold), though we recently hit our first little stumbling block (which my partner Dave, recently blogged about on our blog).

While waiting on notes from the production that'll dictate rewrites, we decided to start on something new. We pitched each other concepts, and finally settled on something I'd come up with. We then set forth to start fleshing that concept out into a more comprehensive outline.

The problem was, we both were coming at the concept from *VERY* different angles. If the one-liner had been "Buddy Cop Movie," (it wasn't) I was thinking "Lethal Weapon" while he was thinking "Collision Course" (look it up if yer not familiar).

To your point, it took a fair amount of effort to get on the same page about a lot of things - characters, setting, even the tone of the movie. A lot of back and forth. Some negotiation. Some compromise.

Hopefully when its all said and done, the script won't be a piece of shit... I think by working through it we'll have a better product in the end.

A writing partnership's a lot like a marriage. Committment. Compromise. Consideration. The demands for sex.

For the record, a simple NO usually does the trick with my writing partner.

Anonymous said...

I'm not looking for a writing partner, just someone who could read my scripts and give feedback. Of course, I'd do the same.

Ken, the same goes for you -- I know you need another pair of eyes on those late night rewrites! ;)


Robert Hogan said...

You are reading my mind Ken. Just today I was starting to think of ways to find someone to write with.

About me...I'm a director first and foremost. I look at writing the same way I look at cooking, I'm good enough to be dangerous. I've written five features on my own and two with other writers and have found that I prefer to work with a co-writer.

Currently I'm working on two scripts which I would like to find a partner to finish, and I'm rewriting another script. Of course I'm open to putting my scripts on a back burner to work on a fresh idea with another writer.

By the way, I write scripts to direct and/or produce myself. Drop me a line at mrblue1022@yahoo.com if you're interested in finding out more. And if there are any TV writers out there, please contact me as I would like to start getting into writing for TV.


By Ken Levine said...

Like I've said before, happy to offer any tips and suggestions but I'm not in a position to read any scripts. Sorry 'bout dat.

Anonymous said...


My partner and I have been writing together for almost 20 years, which sounds impressive, except we've done it part/parttime, as divergent careers, marriages, divorce, kids and the road kept us apart. We've sold one MOW, have our first TV series in development at the CBC and our first feature about to get financed. It *is* exactly like a marriage [I've had two that were far less fun than this] except we never stay mad and we never run short of ideas in the moment.
My takeaway is this: I started out as a crime novelist and had some success, then moved into investigative journalism, where I still freelance when cash is short. I've sold my third novel and just completed it---and it's far less fun than co-writing comedy.
A writing partner is such a blessing---my partner is a terrific film and stage actor, and that combination of writer/performer is particularly strong, because really fine actors are really fine...editors. They know what will and won't work, right out of the box.
Plus we like each other enough and our work together is so damn entertaining that we'd do it even if we didn't get paid. Which is I guess your point. It's great to make a pile o' cash at the comedy game---but it's even better to be able to write what you want and still have a life. That the world will pay you to write funny is to me almost tantamount to a proof there's a God. Good plan, this comedy idea...and so much better when you have a laugh or a groan coming back at you over the keyboard.
Great blog. I'll be back.

VP81955 said...

I could probably use a writing partner, even one who's merely on-line. My forte is situation comedy, preferably intelligent, a bit romantic and decidedly not vulgar, with some fantasy possibly thrown in for good measure. (Imagine the great screwball comedies of the 1930s, brought up to date.) Sound interesting? Drop me a line at VPaterno@aol.com.