Overt Intelligence: How do I manage a remote writers’ room?

Overt Intelligence: How do I manage a remote writers’ room?

Note: I received this question via the contact form above. If you have questions that you’d like addressed here, post them there! I reserve the right not to run them, but if I think that they might help other readers (as I suspected this might), I will write up my answer and post it. Unless requested, I will keep any future questions anonymous.

Question: “[A mutual acquaintance] thought you might have some tips about running [a] story summit remotely. Most of our writers won’t have met in person before, and I’m trying to figure out ways to emulate the writers’ room experience, and make everyone feel like part of the same team, despite being separated physically. Any recommendations you have would be a great help.”

First, I chose to answer this publicly because I believe that plenty of other writers and creators are dealing with this question right now, and I thought it might be more helpful to address it to a larger group.

For context, to those who might be reading this post years from now, whether as insomniacs or historians or members of an alien race sifting through the detritus of Earth (or some combination thereof), this is the year 2020, and a major pandemic is afoot. In terms of its impact, this pandemic is unlike any other since the 1918 flu. It’s a Swiss Army knife of a disease (please search your relevant dictionary of metaphors to understand this reference, Future Reader). The virus, SARS-CoV-2, lurks dormant for up to 14 days before presenting symptoms in symptomatic patients. During that time, it keyholes the ACE2 receptor, a protein receptor that lives in every major organ system of the human body, including the lungs, the heart, the brain, the pancreas, the intestines, and kidneys. Some patients experience nothing more than a mild flu. Some patients have long-term damage to the afore-mentioned organ systems. Some patients have heart attacks and strokes. Some patients can no longer walk up a flight of stairs without losing their breath. Some of these patients are elderly. Some of them are children. As of this writing, the global death toll is over one million people, although studies suggest that the number is likely much higher. It is, as Dan O’Bannon once wrote, “The perfect organism. It’s structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”

During this time, people are expected to work for money, in order to keep their bellies full, their debts paid, and a roof over their head.

I know, I know. You don’t believe me, Future Reader. How could such a thing be possible? you’re asking. What kind of barbaric civilization does this? Surely this is some bizarre sadomasochistic work of historical docu-fiction, a blog post from an invented past much darker than our own?

But no. It’s true. Your ancestors, my dear Future Reader, endured this trial and many others. They endured mass graves, and refrigerated trucks full of corpses, and conspiracy theorists, and governments that moved too slowly. They endured the sudden cacophony of home-schooled children, and the buffering video calls, the delayed surgeries and chemotherapy, the lost jobs and missed opportunities, the furloughs without pay, the empty shelves and long lines, the spiralling uncertainty and the false promises. They endured the bone-deep horror of strapping on diminishing supplies of plastic armour and facing death, day after day, hour after hour. They endured wave after wave of this.

But. They endured. If you are reading this, they endured.

One way they endured was by working. Which brings us to the above question: how the hell do you run a writers’ room under these conditions? Which at its core is actually another question: how do you bring people together across time and space to accomplish a goal?

I’m not an expert in writers’ rooms. I freely admit that. But I do have some experience, thanks to my work on continuing the story of Orphan Black for SerialBox, and thanks to working on a contract basis with a company six hours ahead in time, including the writing of a book. I do most of my creative work on a remote basis. It’s rare for me to be in the same room with any other writers, or any editors or publishers. It’s rare for me to meet my clients in person. What was common for me years ago is what many people are still getting used to: hours-long video calls, shared documents, editing in real-time, constant texts, keeping someone else’s timezone and schedule in mind at all times, committing to long-distance writing sprints and wordcount goals.

This is not to diminish the magic of working together in person. With the right people, you’ll eventually learn the difference between a sigh that means, “I’m hungry,” and one that means, “this page isn’t working.” And working together in person is inevitably faster — you can probably put down thousands of words in a day based on sheer competitive zeal and instant communication. (There’s also a lot to be said for sharing a kitchen, or a bar cart, and for having people around who will gently remind you that it’s time to down tools and eat, now. I’ve done my share of writing retreats, and they always work best when there’s a set schedule for meal times.) I look forward to returning to that kind of work, someday. But it’s impossible right now.

So, with that in mind, some tips:

Ask yourself what kind of writers’ room you want to have.

It’s not enough to emulate a traditional writers’ room experience, because a lot of traditional writers’ rooms have some serious problems. There are a lot of blindspots in those rooms, and a lot of missing staircases. Don’t focus on replicating an exact experience: no one really wants terrible coffee; they want camaraderie and creativity. Focus instead on how you can leverage the strangeness of this liminal period to create something new and innovative. Can you improve on the traditional formula? Probably! Not least because you’re no longer hidebound to the idea that everyone who’s a writer has to live in LA or New York! Remote work grants you access to people whose life experience is fundamentally different to yours, because they can come from literally anywhere. As we say on the stage, Use that.

Be realistic. Be honest.

Are you distracted by kids or spouses? Do you have anxious dogs who need frequent walks? How many people are in your remote writing space? Are you going through a crisis, whether familial or financial or physical or mental? Be up front. You don’t have to overshare, but if you’re only making writing dates in between appointments with your divorce attorney, let your team know. Normalize real life. Normalize struggle. Normalize imperfection. Normalize vulnerability. Normalize needing time and space and help. You are not asking for pity; you are showing up for your team with authenticity and self-awareness. Pretending you can handle things that you can’t is fundamentally dishonest, both to your team and to yourself. Be honest.

Know and establish your schedule.

Whether you’re using a Pomodoro system, or some other system of writing sprints and breaks, make sure that everyone in the room knows the rules. Even if you’re literally phoning it in, you should be “on” the call for the agreed-upon times, and then have freedom to step away at the other agreed-upon times. At SerialBox we used a 42/12 system for this, but you could do 45/15, or a Pomodoro system of 20/5/20/5/20/15. Pick one that’s realistic. Be realistic by being honest.

Stick to it.

Yes, even if you’re on a roll. Yes, even if you think you can go without a break. The on/off writing periods are there for a reason. They are the agreed-upon boundaries that ensure everyone can contribute their best. When you push past those boundaries, you’re violating them. If you do this as a manager or showrunner, it makes you a toxic manager or showrunner. It means you don’t respect your team, their time, or their needs. I had a professor who did this consistently: taking the class way past the scheduled ending, despite knowing that some students needed to pick up kids from school or take long train rides home. Everyone hated it. Everyone stopped listening to their lectures. Finally, some students learned that they just had to get up and leave when they felt like it. Boundaries are there to keep people safe. If you can’t keep your team safe, your team won’t trust or follow you. When you break your own rules, you forfeit any right you have to respect as a leader.

Outline.

This was hard for me. I was never an outliner, until I worked on Orphan Black. I had even written two masters’ theses with minimal outlining (and it showed). I felt like outlining kept my ideas rigid, as thought the outline were an ironclad contract in itself, with no room for new ideas. What I failed to recognize is that outlines are essentially to-do lists.

There’s all kinds of productivity lore out there about how to organize to-do lists. I’m a big fan of the Productivity Planner, which asks you to prioritize tasks based on the amount of anxiety they cause. They might be small tasks, like making a simple phone call, but if their emotional gravity is heavy enough, they will suck you and your whole day down with them as you procrastinate in avoiding them. But chances are that if you take that heaviest task off the list first, you’ll have an easier time accomplishing the other ones.

I mention this because asking what the priority is while creating an outline is important. Despite their inherent function as an organizational tool, outlines can be a path into the weeds. You will know you’re in the weeds when you’ve completely lost sight of the scene’s purpose in the story. A tight outline is one wherein each scene has a purpose, and those scenes add up to episodes, and those episodes add up to a season. LeGuin reminds us of this in Steering the Craft, when discussing varying sentence structures: a book is made of chapters, a chapter is made of paragraphs, a paragraph is made of sentences, and a sentence is made of words. Each word is a choice. It either advances the goal of the project, or it doesn’t.

In an episodic context, the priority or goal of the scene might be to advance the plot, to develop character, or to establish the world. The best scenes do all three: consider the first meeting between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Most of the scene is about character development, so much so that Hannibal spends most of the scene diagnosing Clarice’s neuroses (“you’re a well-scrubbed hustling rube,”) while Clarice proves her diffident disregard for his mania (“you ate yours,” she says calmly, when referring to trophies). But the end of the scene lands on a plot coupon (“Go seek Miss Mofet,”) that Clarice earns by surviving her encounter with Multiple Miggs in the next cell. Everything we really need to know about those characters and their goals is in that scene: Clarice is dignified, resolute, and ambitious, whereas Hannibal is hungry (pun intended) for attention, connection, and the chance to lead another patient in therapy. Clarice has a clear task at the end of the scene (follow up on the clue Hannibal gave her), but we also know more about who she is, and more about the emotional and professional stakes at play if she fails (washing out of Quantico and going back to the “poor white trash” Hannibal accused her of being).

One helpful way to frame this is to ask yourself and your team, What does the audience need to know by the end of this scene?  In plot-driven genre stories this is doubly important. In a team environment, focusing on the goal of the scene can help everyone focus on what’s most important. You (and everyone else on the team) should always be able to answer the question, Why is this scene here? when looking at the final outline. If, instead, you are looking at the scene’s sticky note like it’s a lava lamp you bought on Amazon after too much mezcal, you may be in the weeds. Asking this question over a big conference call is a way to check in with the entire team. Especially in a remote work context, developing and sticking to an outline is a way of maintaining a sense of cohesiveness.

Clarify.

Are you a mind-reader? Well, maybe you are, if that’s your particular cognitive distortion. Maybe you really do carry around a high-fidelity simulation of another person’s mind at all times, in part because you grew up in an unstable environment that required hypervigilance and constant threat assessment. I don’t know your life. But what I do know is that even if you’re good at guessing the thoughts, intents, and meanings of others, you can’t do it for literally everyone literally all of the time when you’re not in the same room. Which is to say, you can’t do it for people you don’t know very well. So when working remotely (and when on the Internet in general), it’s best to clarify in moments of doubt. Get really used to saying, “I ask this because…” or “What I’m hearing you say is…” or even my least favourite, “Say more?” (“Say more,” is a blunt tool, but very effective.)

Celebrate success.

None of this will matter if you don’t recognize, acknowledge, and celebrate it. Celebrate progress, even if it’s small. Celebrate the fact that you were able to focus on the room despite the distractions of kids and spouses and media and politics and a killer virus Hell-bent on destroying human life. You were creative! You put ideas down on paper! That’s huge! We grow what we feed. What we celebrate, we encourage. You can’t cultivate what you don’t celebrate.

Say “thank you.”

This is a thing I tell all my students when they’re doing work with others. Whether they’re making short films or doing expert interviews or facilitating workshops, they need to end every day with gratitude. When I teach, I often open class by thanking my students for showing up. When I facilitate workshops, I thank my participants for joining me, and for taking the risk of sharing their ideas. This goes double for remote learning. Which would you rather hear: “I’m sorry I’m late,” or “Thank you for waiting for me.”? Which actually makes you feel more appreciated?

There is always more to learn.

Is this it? No. Of course there’s more to learn about this process. One thing that will help you is realizing that and cultivating a growth mindset. Yes, you are capable of learning more. Yes, you are capable of change. You may not be an expert, but you can become one. But you have to take the risk, first.

 

 

 

 

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