WRITING: My Pilots and Their History II: Learning to Crawl

In the first part of this series, I recounted the stories of my first attempts at pilot writing, and the general level of fail within them. This second part picks up a good three years later, once I’d finally gotten over my fear of pilots, to write Darken House and Lifeblood

Darken House
January-March 2010 

After the two undeniable failures of The Grey and Villainous (the latter, failing again and again…), it wasn’t until three years later that I finally completed another pilot script. And, in fact, this project isn’t exactly that. Though the page count runs somewhat similar to an hour-long television series, it is actually the opening sequence of a webisode series, made up of seven shorter parts.

Darken House itself was a property with a long gestation period. I’d had the world in my brain for years before I ever pitched it to TEN, having outlined it as a miniseries for MZP previously. Originally, it was a miniseries for 4-6 parts, telling a completely different set of stories with the same leads it would eventually premiere with, Travis King and Kanna Kyo.

Having seen consistent failure with my attempts at full-length series, and intimidated by showrunning a full virtual series, I decided I could see the show working in webisode-sized bites. So, in January 2010, I pitched Darken to the one virtual series network I knew that accepted webisode script series, TEN. The fact that one of the heads of the site was a good friend of mine from MZP, Tom East, didn’t hurt.

I felt freer, writing in the webisode format. I wasn’t afraid of screwing it up, and was able to tell stories at my own pace. I finished the first draft of sequence one, Walls, soon after that; and, thanks to notes from another MZP writer, JT Vaughn, I went back and revamped the back half of the sequence so it was much improved, and lengthened it to add a webisode fleshing out the supporting characters. I don’t think anyone knows the title to episode 5, “Buddies”, comes from Vaughn’s sequence one notes – in which he lamented, “Kanna has buddies? BUDDIES!?”. Ultimately, I can tell it helped, because his response as a reader months layer was much more positive.

Darken House was a fantastic opportunity to create a show that wasn’t plot-based or character-based, though it had healthy dollops of both. It’s world-based. Though I love these characters (now more than ever, having written two stories with them), my favourite times are digging into this weird world and exploring what makes it tick. It was also a great example of why writers should never be afraid of experimentation: I’d never written a dramatic webseries, especially one so tricky to navigate, and it succeeded. I’ve since released the first and second sequences at TEN, as well as a third sequence of what can be seen as ‘bonus scenes’ to tide folks over in the long wait before the next release.

Darken House can be read here.

August 2010

Oftentimes, ambition is the enemy of success. Such it was with Lifeblood.

I’d faltered at my first attempt at MZP’s Pilot Season, and I had an exciting concept for a pilot that I wanted to pin my second round of hopes on. A dystopian superhero drama set in a refugee bunker, meshing procedural elements with mythology and character. The scope of it was exciting, an anthological approach bouncing around this community while keeping on strands from previous stories. I loved what I was doing.

Unfortunately, something went horribly wrong. I suspect the main problem was that I rushed it. In order to get it in for the September Pilot Season, I blew through a first draft, got a few cursory passes from beta readers, and submitted it despite so-so (if that) reviews. It’s also a fact that the story told in the pilot, of ex-lawyer Henderson stalking a serial killer inside the walls of the community, was both too dry and too complicated to kick the series off with, especially for a 60-minute pilot. I didn’t give myself time to feel out the world and wrap the story in layers of delicious dialogue and intrigue. Instead, it was a snorefest that was soundly, and unanimously, rejected.

I still love this concept, and the characters, and the story I was planning for the first season. I just need to find a way to dig into it to make it rich and fascinating, rather than dull and lifeless. Recent attempts to revive it in webisodes also faltered, making me question whether my lead is too boring to live. Ultimately, though I’m sad it isn’t he best work I’ve done, I’m ultimately very happy I attempted it; after all, lessons I learned here would be dark reminders of my bad habits for future pilots, and may be why they were received much better.

The pilot for Lifeblood, as submitted to the Pilot Season, can be read here.

After the collapse of Lifeblood, it wouldn’t have been surprising if I’d again withdrawn from pilot writing. However, being knee-deep in university, realising my future was nearer now than it was far, and having tasted limited success with Darken House, I can see why I didn’t. In Spring of the following year, in order to force myself to write, I took on two university courses that would require me to write a pilot. And that’s exactly what happened, as I wrote Timeless and Black Dog inside of a couple months. And that is when things started to look up. The story of those two pilots will be told in the forthcoming Part III: Playing To My Strengths.

However, there may be four parts to this series by then. After those pilots, for example, I completed at least one more pilot: Characters, a comedy that would allow me to redeem myself a small bit after the debacle of Villainous. Other subjects of this post may include The Inhuman Condition, the dramatic webseries due midway through December, and/or Wreckage, a pilot that I’ve begun writing after a bizarrely quick outlining process. We’ll see. Until then….


One response to “WRITING: My Pilots and Their History II: Learning to Crawl

  1. Pingback: WRITING: Looking Back on 2011 | The Diversionist

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