The Value of a Skillful Writer

A paragraph struck me while I was reading an open letter by Joss Whedon about the writers’ guild strike:

Writers can be replaced, as we are constantly reminded. But so can companies. Power is on the move, and though in this town it’s been hoarded by very few, there are other companies with newer ideas about how to make money off of – or possibly, wonderfully, with – the story-tellers.

It struck me how valuable good writers are and how much TV networks–and fans, too–undervalue them. Joss Whedon is an exception to the rule, because he actually has a fan-site. Most fans never truly appreciate how thoroughly they are indebted to the creators and writers of their favorite shows.

A Story of a Undervalued and Skillful Writer

As you know, I am a huge Gilmore Girls fan. Most shows have good episodes and not-so-good episodes. But for 6 years, Gilmore Girls had not a single sub-par episode. Yes, there were some episodes that stood out above the rest. Even these are more than I can count on my fingers. And among the rest of the episodes, there was not a single significant mistake in storytelling… until the seventh season.

You see, here’s what happened. In 2000, Gilmore Girls was created by Amy Sherman-Palladino (who by the way got her start writing for Roseanne, the same as Joss Whedon, just after Joss left that show). Actually, she probably created it in 1999, but it didn’t premier until 2000. For six years, Amy and her husband Dan poured their vision into the Gilmore Girls story. it was like a child to them. It was their life.

Then in 2006, contract negotiations broke down. The Palladinos wanted a two-year contract, instead of the one-year contracts they had been getting year after year. Now, there are many details to be worked out in a contract negotiation. Each side has a whole host of concerns that have to be dealt with. Unfortunately, the WB didn’t even want to talk about it. The network execs never even came to the negotiating table. Apparently, to them, the Palladinos weren’t even worth that. The Palladinos were told to take the contract or to leave.

So they left. And their vision left with them. Gilmore Girls was never the same again. It never had the satisfying ending we expected from Amy Sherman-Palladino. And to this day, fans badger Amy to reveal the final four words she envisioned as ending the Gilmore Girls story.

But it was more than that. Amy is a storyteller extraordinaire. She is someone who epitomizes the writing I aspire to. Most of what I know about storytelling, I discovered by analyzing Gilmore Girls. I first acutely felt Amy’s absence in the 5’th episode of that last season, with a scene that began with the following dialogue:

Rory and Logan are lying on the roof, looking at the stars.

Rory: I’m so happy.

Logan: Me too. [Kisses Rory on the head.] You know you can’t do this in London? The city lights are so bright, you almost never see the stars.

Rory: Yeah, but it’s London.

Logan: Ah.

Rory: Wait, are you tired of London?

Logan: I’m tired of not being around you.

At about this point in the scene, I actually asked myself, “Who the hell cares?” And then I realized that I had never, ever asked that question before, not a single time in any scene of any episode of Gilmore Girls. Six full seasons, and not a single time did I ever want for sympathy with the characters plights. And speaking of plights, what is Rory and Logan’s plight in this scene? They’re happy. They’re together. They’re smooching under the stars. Okay… That’s not a story. Who wrote this scene, anyhow? My 11-year-old kid writes stuff that’s better than this! (Seriously. She does. Way better.)

The following statement may contain some presumption, but I think I’ve earned the right, because I’ve studied Gilmore Girls inside and out. Amy never would have allowed a scene this boring into her story. Because she’s too good for that.

Yet, who gets the 7-year contracts? The actors do. Now most fans disagree with me, but frankly the fans are clueless. Actors are a dime a dozen. Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel are wonderful actresses. But if they had not been available, Amy would have found someone else to play the parts of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, and Gilmore Girls would have been just as good. They get all the screen time, yes, and all the fame and all the glory. But the real genius behind the show is the woman with the vision. And she doesn’t get a 7-year contract, oh no. She doesn’t even get to talk about a 2-year contract. She just gets issued an ultimatum and summarily thrown out on her ass.

… after which fans proceed to blame her for ruining Gilmore Girls. Yes, you heard me right. And this is all true. Many fans speculated that Amy sabotaged the show by leaving Luke and Lorelai in an impossible fix in the season-six year-end cliffhanger. They claimed she wanted to leave the future writers with a situation they couldn’t write their way out of. As I said, the fans are clueless.

As you know, leaving the characters in an impossible fix is what you do in a cliffhanger. Because otherwise, it wouldn’t be a cliffhanger. (Duh.) In the marrow of my bones, I know that Amy already knew how Luke and Lorelai were going to get out of that fix, even before she wrote that cliffhanger. The fact is that the writers who followed her simply were not good enough to deal with the situation, because they didn’t have Amy’s vision.

Writing Is Hard

That should be clear by now. Writers do not just sit on their arses all day and churn out words. A writer is the visionary behind every great story. You can not just replace writers. Because good writers are skilled creative professionals. Winning writers are not commodities.

The day after Joss posted his open letter, he wrote a follow-up blog post on the WGA strike. In it he said:

Writing is largely not considered work. Art in general is not considered work. Work is a thing you physically labor at, or at the very least, hate…

Writing is enjoyable and ephemeral. And it’s hard work.

It’s always hard. Not just dealing with obtuse, intrusive studio execs, temperamental stars and family-prohibiting hours. Those are producer issues as much as anything else. Not just trying to get your first script sold, or seen, or finished, when nobody around believes you can/will/should… the ACT of writing is hard. When Buffy was flowing at its flowingest, David Greenwalt used to turn to me at some point during every torturous story-breaking session and say “Why is it still hard? When do we just get to be good at it?”

I’ve been a creative professional of one sort or another for most of my working life. And I agree with Joss that you don’t ever “just get to be good at it.” Yes, there are many things you can do to make it easier, and that’s what Be the Story is about, storytelling as a professional endeavor, even if you’re still only an aspiring author, even if you’re still unpublished and unknown. Because one mark of a professional is that you’re always trying new things, always developing new skills, always getting better at your craft.

But does it ever get easy? No. It’s just that storytellers like Joss and Amy make it look easy.

-TimK

P.S. Just in case you don’t know what they’re striking over, the Writers Guild of America posted a short video on YouTube that makes it abundantly clear. (Although, I understand negotiations have moved the goal posts slightly since this video was made.) And I sympathize completely. After all, one of the reasons I’m getting out of software development is that software developers get no residuals.

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How Gilmore Girls Taught Me that Writers Are Undervalued…

Just a quick link to a post on my writing blog, about my take on the Writers Guild of America strike, and how valuable writers are to a TV show.
Even though the biggest part of this post is about Gilmore Girls, I almost didn’t link to it here. Be…

It’s definitely frustrating that the public-at-large would probably agree with the statements, “Writing is largely not considered work. Art in general is not considered work.” As Joss said, you don’t become a good writer by accident or for lack of effort. Good commentary!

Hi, Jeremy. Thanks for writing, and thanks for the kind words.

Cheers,
-TimK

I came across “The Value of a Skillfull Writer” looking for (any) information on Amy Sherman Palladino, and if possible, the Gilmore Girls. I am a huge fan of the show and even though I am just a fan, I do realize that the true essence of everything that is wonderful about a show comes from the writing. And therefore, from the writer.
And yes, it is easy to notice the changes in the seventh season of the GG. I still watched it and still enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the same. Such a pity. This could well be one of the best shows ever to be created. Kudos to the Sherman-Palladino duo.

Maria, I’ve been starting (slowly) to post again at my Gilmore Girls fansite, Gilmore-ism.com. I haven’t talked much about Amy Sherman-Palladino, but I’m a huge fan of her writing, and my dramatic fiction series, The Conscience of Abe’s Turn, draws heavily from her storytelling style.

-TimK

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