10 AprRaphael Sbarge: Jane Espenson Q&A Part 2

Raphael Sbarge (Archie/Jiminy, Once Upon a Time) continues his conversation with writer Jane Espenson (Once Upon a Time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Husbands).

Learn more about Jane’s career, writing for television and what those writing sprints are all about. (If you missed them, catch up on part 1 and part 3!)

Raphael: Now, in terms of the kind of writing you’ve done, I mean: You’ve been prolific. I mean, obviously, more recently, The Game of Thrones, and Buffy, Deep Space Nine, Torchwood, Gilmore Girls – obviously, you’re currently still working on Once Upon a Time.

In terms of the style of the writing, or where you feel most comfortable, it seems to vacillate between sort of sci-fi and comedy. Is that a fair assessment? … We all hate to be slotted, but in terms of where you feel your strength is, is that where you feel it is?

Jane Espenson 

Jane: Well, it’s certainly where I’ve been employed. There’s a certain truth to your impressions, I guess. Yeah, I’ve been employed in genre and comedy, and I love them both – and genre comedy is the best of all. And to a certain extent, in TV writing, you end up in a combination of where you got established and what you like to write. And they’re not always the same thing.

I worked with a comedy writer early in my career, who’s a veteran writer. He’d been writing for 18 seasons of TV, and had never once worked on a show that he would watch. And that probably happens more than you’d like to think. You can be a working comedy writer who writes shows for kids, and it’s not a show you’d ever watch. Maybe you respect it for what it is, but it’s not something you’d enjoy watching. That can easily happen. I’ve been really lucky, that the stuff I’ve been hired on is the stuff I like to watch. I actually think that’s a good recipe for a happy and prosperous career, because you can only know if you’re writing it well if it’s something where you can taste the dish as you’re cooking it, and go, “Yeah, that’s delicious. I’d watch that.” But a lot of people don’t get to do that, so I guess sci-fi and comedy are both good fits for me, and I’ve been lucky to be able to do both. But I’ve done other stuff.

Raphael: You’ve done short stories, too, right? I mean, you’ve done that, right? And you’ve edited other books as well, I guess?

Jane: Yeah. I’ve edited books of essays about shows I’ve worked on, pretty much, and I’ve written short stories – usually tied to a show I’ve worked on. And that’s all been good. Written a lot of comic books. But TV writing is really my real love. I always enjoy writing a TV script better than doing those things. Although I know someday I want to write a how-to-write-for-TV book, and I think that will be a blast.

But yeah, generally, if you’re an aspiring writer, I recommend: Write what you want to watch. If you’re trying to think of an idea for a pilot, ask yourself, “What show am I missing in my viewing lineup? What do I wish I could turn on the TV and see right now?” And write that. And the interesting thing is, I started in comedy. Spent a lot of years in comedy, and I went to hour drama. And Buffy‘s as comedic as any comedy. There’s as many jokes per page in Buffy as a comedy.

A scene from “The Replacement,” a fifth-season episode
of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” written by Jane. A funny one.

But then I worked on a show called The Inside, that was very procedural, and I worked on Battlestar, that’s quite dark. And eventually people stop thinking of you as a joke writer. I had a meeting at a very light hour, a very comedic hour, and they asked me, “So, why do you want to try comedy?” And it’s like, “I’m not just trying comedy, dudes. I’ve been doing comedy.”

But very quickly, your reputation moves to the last thing you did. So that’s a thing that veteran writers I think sometimes have to look out for, is keep your reputation fresh. I’m really happy that Husbands is a comedy, because it sort of reminds people that, like, oh, I’m not just a drama writer. I’m a trained joke writer, too.

Raphael: Right. Right. I want to get to Husbands, definitely. I had a couple more things which I wanted to hit on before we get there, which is just, for anyone who follows you on Twitter: You’re a prolific Tweeter, and …what is a “writing sprint”?

Jane: This is a little thing …

Raphael: Because I see you, like, “I’m going into a writing sprint!” And I always think, “What is that?” I guess I want a visual.

Jane: Yeah. It’s so silly. It’s the silliest thing in the world. It’s just a way for me to say, “Hey, I really need to write now. But I’m finding it hard to get started. I’m having too much fun here on Twitter. So what I’m going to do, is I’m going to announce on Twitter that I’m going to go write for an hour. And I won’t be tweeting. And you all know that I promised, right? So you’ll keep me honest.”

Raphael: That’s great! It’s like reverse-engineering the way Twitter actually, oftentimes kind of sucks your day away. In this case, you’re actually using it almost like a timer, right?

Jane: Yeah, exactly.

Raphael: That’s great.

Jane: So I need to do an hour’s worth of work. I think it really helps to do assignments by the time, not by the task. You get more done if you say, “I’m going to work with tremendous focus for an hour,” than you do if you say, “I’ll work until the scene is done.” Because then the scene will take an hour, where if you just say, “I’ll work for an hour,” you may get three scenes done.

But the innovative part of the sprint is that I say, “You guys at home, do the same thing. If you’ve got an hour right now, sit down with me. You’ll get that feeling of community, that feeling that you get when you’re sitting in the reference room at the library, working, and everyone around you is working, too. It’s like, “I’m not alone. There’s someone else out there working, too.” And so people work along at the same time I do, and people have started hosting their own sprints, so it’s them and their followers sprinting.

And I get people every day, saying, “I finished my dissertation.” “I wrote my screenplay.” “I finished my novel because of your sprints.” And it’s made me realize how rare it is these days for anyone to work for an hour without checking their email, sending a tweet, getting a text, getting a call. That an hour of focus has become something people haven’t had in years, and they’re getting huge amounts done. If there’s any spike in productivity this year, and the American economy, I think it will be because of the amazing people who have adopted my little Twitter trick to make myself work, because people are out there working. And I’m so thrilled to see people getting stuff done.

Raphael: That’s so great! That’s just thrilling.

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