Glee and My Writing Process

Posted: February 16, 2013 in Uncategorized

As previously mentioned, I like the show Glee. It’s one of the few American shows that has managed to hold my attention for longer than three weeks (the other being The Office, and I still haven’t quite figured that one out). Despite all of its flaws, I honestly like the plucky little musical. Well, actually, I like half of Glee. The other half has a nasty habit of making me want to ragequit the show and, for measure, give Ryan Murphy a nice big wedgie.

For fans of the show, no, I am not talking about the bit where Rachel and Kurt move to New York so every episode is now split between two cities and two sets of cast members that have nothing to do with each other, other than some characters having known other characters at one point in time.  Really, it feels like Glee spawned a spin off. But it is too scared to let its baby go out into the world and fend for itself, so it cleaned out the basement, put a waterbed and lava lamp down there, and told the fledgling spin off that it’s a “Real Adult” now and can pay rent and by the way, would you and your adorable friends like juice boxes now?

I’m… okay… with that part of Glee, though I would really like the show to make up its mind whether the new meathead spooning Rachel is the world’s greatest guy ever or a thoroughly evil little (er… honestly I haven’t quite decided whether there will be swearing on this blog, so, you know, fill in your favorite epithet here). The half of Glee that I hate is the first half of every season they have seen fit to air.

This is my standard pattern. New season of Glee comes on, I get excited because I remember how great the last season ended, I watch the first episode, the small Glee fan inside of me sighs miserably while I start looking up YouTube clips from the previous season. But how good are season premieres for any show, really? It’s like your first day back to school; the new clothes feel awkward, you don’t know any of your teachers, the girl you finally worked up the nerve to ask out this year has transferred to another school, leaving you with a whole new girl to spend a year pining over before some other guy asks her out right before you. And, oh yeah, you just came off glorious summer vacation where all you had to do was lie around the house and play video games and eat peanut butter straight out of the jar.

So I tell myself the show is just getting into the rhythm of things, that all the plots and new characters and other random things the writers come up with will settle down and the show can get back to being, you know, good. Then the second episode arrives, and the third, and the fourth, and almost invariably one starts to get the impression that the entire writing staff goes into each new season of Glee by taking every random idea that has ever come across their brains, sprinkling them over a posterboard slathered in glue, and squeezing in everything that is still stuck to the board after it is shaken not particularly hard. In other words, the first half of almost every season of Glee has a billion things going on at once, none of which is anything I tend to care about at all.

Then the winter hiatus comes along and I can only imagine there is a locker room pep talk going on among the creative staff at Glee HQ. All the writers, sweaty and covered in clumps of grass and mud stains, heads bowed in shame, slump on their benches as someone with half a sense of story crafting urges them to trim the fat and find the focus of the show. And usually it works. In the three most recent seasons, Glee manages to tighten up and become watchable again somewhere around the Christmas episode, but not without suffering casualties in the form of story lines that go unresolved or resolved in the laziest fashion imaginable (Marley, the amazingly bland girl that is supposed to be the new Rachel, is now just working on her eating disorder problems. Peer pressure induced bulimia was a several episode story arc that we are now being told will be handled off screen and let’s just not worry about it okay?).

I respect that TV can be a tricky medium to write for. There are lots of moving parts, and you actually get your audience’s reaction before the entire process is fully complete (unless we are talking about the overly episodic police procedurals where the only things that carry forward from one episode to the next are the paper thin personalities of the main characters), which could drive a creative team to change direction mid season. But I just don’t get the feeling that there is a lot of foresight or preplanning going on with the writing team for Glee.

This is where the unpublished author gets to talk haughtily about his own process and make himself feel superior and smug compared to a bunch of people who are currently probably sleeping in beds that cost more than my monthly rent and car combined.

In the larger projects I have completed, there was one key thing that helped me out more than others: PRE-PLANNING! That’s right, I scripted my own book(s) (we’ll discuss the parentheticals at a later date). I wrote a synopsis of the plot that I wanted, fleshed it out some more into an outline, and continued to flesh it out until I had a fairly strong structure, and then I fleshed it out even more until I had a fairly strong sense of where all the moving parts were going to go.

Now, there is a point in the writing where the characters take over. This is fine, though they can get up to mischief. Characters taking over the writing means that I’ve done my job as a writer and created people that have depth and personality, and there is no feeling comparable than to sit down and write a story and get to a place where you feel like all you have to do is present a situation to your characters and they look back at you, hold up a hand, and say, “Relax, we’ll take it from here.” This does result in aberrations from the original plan, but that is a good thing because then the reader isn’t left with this odd feeling that one of their favorite characters did something that made absolutely no sense whatsoever. When I get to that place, I feel my job is no longer to tell everyone what they are supposed to be doing, but instead to just step inside every so often and rein things in like a school teacher that has to remind his students that no we are not in fact trying to engineer a sleeker and more effective form of spitball but instead our focus is supposed to be multiplication tables.

That is my process boiled down to its most basic form. I come up with the structure first, then I build characters I think are real, and I point them at the structure and say, “Make it happen.” It is important that I trust my characters to build my vision for me.

I don’t think that is the same thing going on over at Glee. I think what happens is that they come to the table with all sorts of ideas, some good, some not so much, and then with no sense of structure at all, they just cram it all in and go for lattes. Because they have also managed to create characters that are real and we care about (except for Marley. There will never be enough excuses for Marley), those characters manage to wrestle the show from the creative malaise of the writers half way through the season and say, “No, we got this,” but not in a good way that is a symbiosis between creator and creation, and more in the way of oh my god can you please just stop the car and let me take over because if not we are all going to get wrapped around a light post.

I love Glee, and appreciate that one of its core messages is one of acceptance. As the father of two daughters in a world that loves to tell us who we should be, who we should love, what we should look like and how we should think if we want to feel valued, I am grateful for one show that focuses on the idea that we can all be great individuals the way we are. I even appreciate the fact that the show tries to empower all those kids who may feel like they are misfits, from those restricted to wheel chairs to homosexuals to those kids suffering from learning or eating disorders. And they do it in a way that doesn’t always come off as trite or forced (please see every cartoon that came out in the late eighties). I think Glee does a lot of great things, I just kind of wish a little preplanning and trust in the characters was one of them.

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