Author Q&A: Ross Brown, “Byte-Sized Television”
Ross Brown is the author of Byte Sized TV: Create Your Own TV Series for the Internet, published by Michael Wiese Productions. He has written and produced more than 300 episodes of network television and has created series for ABC, CBS and the WB. Brown is currently an Assistant Professor at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University where he teaches TV writing and production.
Read Ross Brown’s Expert Article on Writing a TV Spec.
What inspired you to write Byte-Sized Television?
I teach in the film school at Chapman University. In late 2006 the Dean asked if I could teach an experimental class in “creating short videos for iPods and the Internet.” I had been thinking along the same lines and even had a name in mind for the course: “Byte-Sized Television.” But when I went looking for a text for the class, I found that despite the explosion of user-generated video on the Internet, especially YouTube, there was no book dedicated to creating short-form series for the Web. The class quickly became part of the regular curriculum, but still no book. It just felt like I was a character in L.A. Story and the giant Freeway Sign was flashing a message at me that read WRITE THE BOOK YOURSELF. So I did. YouTube is now the fourth most popular website on the planet and still my book is the only one dedicated to creating Web Series.
What was your process for writing it? Getting it published?
I pitched the idea to a well-known publisher of film and TV books. The editor was intrigued and asked for a table of contents and sample chapter. I delivered these, then waited … and waited … and waited. Finally, after six months, the editor confessed that her sales staff had doubts that the Internet generation would buy a book. So I asked a teaching colleague who had published with Michael Wiese Productions to introduce me to them. He did, they asked for the TOC and sample chapter, I sent them and had an offer within a week. I wrote the book over the course of about a year.
Researching “the world of web series” was a challenge as it changed faster than I could write. But the fundamentals of story and character and visual storytelling weren’t changing—just the online marketplace and how these storytelling principals were being incorporated into the short form. So I decided to use examples of the storytelling principals from both the Web and traditional film and TV, and agreed with the publisher to update the marketplace segment on a regular basis via my website www.bytesized.tv.
What is your favorite part of being a writer? The greatest challenge?
I love creating worlds and characters and stories out of thin air … or at least out of the thin air that resides beneath my thinning hair. Then, to have an audience immerse themselves in that world you’ve created and be entertained or moved by your creation—well, that is a genuine thrill. It’s like someone telling you how great they think your children are.
The greatest challenge is staying disciplined, continuing to write and create on a regular basis despite 1) the other demands on your time, and 2) the unavoidable fact that rejection is more common than publication or purchase of your work. You have to believe in yourself and keep working at it. My book is a perfect example: I heard “no” first and had to keep looking to find the person willing to say “yes.”
Why someone should consider creating a web series?
In a word: OPPORTUNITY. The opportunity to have your work seen by a wide audience without having to wait for a studio or network to greenlight your project. The opportunity to maintain creative control—again, you are in charge, not the suits. The opportunity to see your vision executed, not just on the page, but on the screen. And for those just breaking into the world of film and TV, the opportunity to be a creative voice rather than a production assistant hoping to get the chance to be creative five, ten or fifteen years down the road.
What are the initial steps someone should take for web-series creation?
Step1: Study the marketplace. There are 9 gazillion web series about twentysomething slackers. The world does not need number 9 gazillion and one. Find a fresh concept and make your characters memorable, not ordinary.
Step 2: Make sure your concept and characters are clearly defined. “It’s about a waitress” doesn’t cut it. Too vague, too generic. Try something more like “It’s about a waitress who’s tired of taking crap from customers and decides today’s the day she’s going to say exactly what she’s thinking to everyone who comes in.”
Step 3: You need a killer title—one that “tells and sells”—that is, communicates what the series is about and makes people want to watch it. Web surfers make yes/no decisions in a nanosecond. Calling your series “Joe and Sue” is like putting up a neon sign that says “Don’t bother watching this ordinary, boring thing.”
What are the 3 main mistakes web series creators make? How should they correct them?
1. Vague, generic concept and/or title (see above.)
2. Trying to cram too much into a webisode. Remember to KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. You’ve only got a few minutes per episode. If your concept is too complicated, or you stuff it with too many characters, you will fail.
3. It has to look professional. I don’t mean big budget special effects or production values. But the sound must be better than the hollow, distant camera-mounted capture in your uncle’s Christmas videos. Use real mics and get clean sound. And find some real actors—maybe at a local theater group. Bad actors + bad sound = bad web video.
In what ways does having a series on the web help a writer get noticed?
Sadly, we live in a world where most people would rather watch a video than read. If you post a link on Facebook that said read my new short story here I suspect you’ll get precious few click-throughs. But if you post a link that said watch my new web video or series here … much bigger audience. Web series can also help performers get noticed. The Groundlings, a very successful improvisational comedy troupe in L.A. with a 99-seat theater, went out in the alley behind their theater and made a web video out of one of their sketches. They posted it on YouTube and got 6 million hits and a deal to make a series for Sony’s online Crackle channel. It would take over 6,000 years of live performances for them to get that big an audience in their theater. That’s the power of the Internet.
Additional advice for screenwriters?
Screenwriters learn volumes when they actually see their work produced. Unfortunately most screenwriters rarely get this opportunity because they have to have someone say “yes” to producing their work first. On the Internet, there are no gatekeepers. You can write it and produce it yourself. And I promise that actually seeing your words and characters on a screen will make you a better screenwriter.
Advice for non-fiction book writers?
Make a short video promoting your work. It can be as simple as a webcam shot of you talking about your book or article, or you could add some flair by incorporating video and/or stills of your subject matter. I’d bet money that after Ken Burns’ Civil War film aired on PBS, sales on Civil War books spiked across the country. Use the web to increase awareness of your work.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I wish I knew every single thing I’ve learned in nearly 4 decades of writing, 27 years as a professional. But, of course, that’s not possible. Writing is a lifetime journey. The only way you learn is by reading and writing every day, getting better an inch at a time.
That said, I will offer this: don’t limit yourself to a single form of writing. If you’re a screenwriter, read plays and novels as well. If you’re a novelist, read poetry and non-fiction. Try writing in a totally alien form—it’s liberating and instructive. Writers can learn so much from each other about craft, story, and the full range of techniques available. So support your fellow writers by reading their work and being inspired by it.