Is a Story Really Necessary?

I got an email from a reader asking for a copy of this post from February 2005, so I thought I share it again with everyone…

Today,
I spoke at the San Francisco Writers Conference about screenwriting and
breaking into television. Afterwards, I was cornered by a senior
citizen who showed me his scrapbook from his days in Hollywood and
rambled on endlessly about all the stars he met. I don’t know why he
wanted to share this with me…but we had to go through every single
page, clipping and photo. Then I mingled with the attendees,  got asked
some incredibly stupid questions and had some bizarre conversations.
Here’s a sampling…

"I’ve written a novel and everyone tells me it’s a script," one woman said. "How do I turn it into a script?"

"Well, you write a script." I said.

She stared at me. "How do I do that?"

"You get a book or take a course, learn the principles of screenwriting, and then you write a script."

"That’s too much work," she said. "Isn’t there software that can do all of that for me?"

"Yeah," I said. "The same way Microsoft Word wrote your book for you."

* * * * * *

Another person came up to me and asked me if I wrote for television. I said yes.  She then asked, "How do you do that?"

"You mean, how do I write for television?"

"Yes," she said.

"I write screenplays," I said.

"Which is what, exactly?"

"The story, the action, the words that the characters say," I replied.

She stared at me. "Somebody writes that?"

"Yes," I said, resisting the urge to strangle her. "It’s like a
writing a play, only for the camera instead of a theatre audience."

She shook her head.  "No, it’s not."

* * * * * *
"I’ve written  a book but everyone tells me it s a TV series," the man said.  "How do I make it into a TV series."

"You can’t, " I said, and gave my standard speech about how ideas
are cheap and execution is everything, how networks go to people with
TV experience, or who have written hit movies, or who have written
bestselling novels, blah blah blah.  And when I got done, he stared at
me. I got stared at a lot today.

Hee said:  "How can I get around that?"

"You can’t," I said.

"Why not?"

"Because you haven’t established yourself  as a writer in any
field," I said. "Why would a network, studio or producer buy a TV
series idea from you?"

"Because I’m smarter and more talented than they are," he said.

"It’s not going to happen," I said.

"Is it because I’m black?" he said. "That’s it, isn’t it. It’s because I’m black."

* * * * * *

"Did you have to sleep with a lot of people to get into TV?" a woman asked me.

"Just my wife," I said.

"You were lucky it wasn’t someone else," she said and walked away.

* * * * * *
"I have a great idea for a movie," a woman said to
me. "What’s the market like for true stories about black lesbians in
the 1880s?"

"I don’t think studios are looking for scripts to fill that
particular niche," I said, "but there’s always a market for good
stories that are told well."

"Oh," she said. "That’s going to make it a lot harder to sell."

* * * * * *
"Mysteries are hard work,"  a man said to me. "Could
I write an episode of a mystery show but leave out the mystery for
someone else to do?"

"No," I said.

"But my talent is character and I’m brilliant with dialogue," he said. "I really don’t know how to plot a mystery."

"Then don’t write a mystery," I said.

"But that’s what’s selling," he said.

"Don’t try to write what’s selling," I said. "Write what you enjoy. Write the story you want to tell."

"The thing is, I don’t know how to tell stories," he said. "But I write killer dialogue. Is a story really necessary?"

"Yes," I said.

"You people in Hollywood don’t make it easy, do you? That’s  the
problem with the Industry. They are constantly creating obstacles so
people can’t get in."

TV Main Title of the Week

I have a real sentimental attachment to this main title from SPENSER FOR HIRE. This is the show that began my television career. Bill Rabkin and I wrote a SPENSER spec script and — to our surprise and delight — they bought it, shot it, and hired us to write several more scripts. I can’t believe it’s been twenty years already…

Vicious Lies…and more than a little truth

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I just stumbled on this old Las Vegas Mercury column my brother Tod wrote about the time I dragged him and my sister Linda to a science fiction convention in a horribly misguided attempt to sell copies of my book .357 VIGILANTE. A lot of his column is, um, fictionalized…but it doesn’t matter because it’s very funny:

  "It takes place in a futuristic L.A.," I said to the man in the "V" uniform who’d stopped to handle the book.

  "Yeah? Are there aliens?"

  "Only illegal ones," I said. When I was 14, I thought this was a pretty funny thing to say.

  "I only read books with real aliens in them," he said, setting the book down.

  "You’re an idiot," my sister said from behind her magazine. It was the first time Linda had spoken for at least an hour.

  "Pardon me?" the man said.

  "You said you only read books with `real aliens’ in them and I said that you’re an idiot," Linda said, still not looking up.

  "You’re very rude," he said.

  "’V’  was canceled," Linda said, "just FYI."

He forgot to mention in the column that both he and Linda contracted chicken pox at the convention. I came out unscathed. My brother and sister, sadly, were emotionally scarred for life.

High Profile

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I read HIGH PROFILE, Robert B. Parker’s new Jesse Stone novel, today in about three hours.  The book has got to be maybe 50,000 words, tops. No wonder he can write four books a year. It barely qualifies, word count wise, as a novel and they’ve got guts asking $25 for it.

Even so, there’s a rhythm to Parker’s writing that I enjoy, even in his bad books. This wasn’t one of the bad ones but it wasn’t one of the good ones, either. The plotting was weak, the description sparse, and the dialog less punchy that usual. But at least Jesse Stone was more or less the character he once was before Parker emasculated him in BLUE SCREEN, the last Sunny Randall novel that is, perhaps, the author’s worst book ever. 

I really enjoyed the last three standalones Parker wrote — GUNMAN’S RHAPSODY, DOUBLE PLAY and APPALOOSA — but his last few  "series" novels have been disappointments.  The last good one was STONE COLD, a Jesse Stone novel.  I wonder if he wouldn’t do himself, his readers, and his regular characters a big favor by resting his various series for a while (and forgetting about Sunny Randall altogether) and doing a few more standalones.

Interview with Roy Huggins

My six-hour Archive of American Television video interview with legendary writer/producer Roy Huggins is now up on Google Video. The interview was conducted back in 1998, not long before Roy’s death.

Roy created and produced such series as MAVERICK, 77 SUNSET STRIP, THE FUGITIVE and THE ROCKFORD FILES…and was Stephen J. Cannell’s mentor in the business.  He was a mentor of mine, too.

I put myself through college as a freelance journalist. I snagged an assignment from a magazine to do an article on the complete history of the TV series MAVERICK. So I tracked Roy down at Warner Brothers, where he’d just been fired as showrunner of the BLUE THUNDER TV series. His misfortune was my good luck — he had time on his hands.  He invited me down to the studio and, over the next several weeks, screened every single episode of MAVERICK for me, giving me a running commentary. And each day he’d take me to lunch and tell me stories about his days in TV. I was  in TV heaven. I couldn’t believe it. 

A few years later, I interviewed him again at length for Electronic Media magazine (now known as Television Age). He was the showrunner of HUNTER at the time, working for apprentice Steve Cannell. And not long after  that, I became a TV  writer and actually ended up as a story editor on HUNTER. The first thing I did was give Roy a call to share with him my pleasure (and astonishment) that I’d gone from being a "Roy Huggins fan" to writing on a show that he’d  produced. He was very happy for me and gave me some good advice about dealing with the various people he knew who were still working on the show. I told him I hoped we’d get a chance to work together some day. Sadly, that day never came.

But we stayed in touch and I was thrilled to have the chance to interview him for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Archive of American Television.

Not Guilty

I’m heading off to Burbank this morning to tape two episodes of the TV show INSIDER EXCLUSIVE, hosted by Steve Murphy.  I’m going to be on with famed criminal defense attorney Thomas Messerau. It seems like an odd-pairing to me. I feel like I should say that I am not guilty and let him do all the talking.  Past authors on Steve’s  show include Michael Connelly, Danielle Steele,  Linda Fairstein, Joseph Wambaugh, David Baldacci, Scott Turow and Jonathan Kellerman, so I am in good company. A few weeks back, I was a guest on Steve’s syndicated radio show and had a great time, so I’m sure things will work out.

Classic Lines

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In honor of my friend Richard S. Prather, here are some of my favorite lines from his Shell Scott novels:

“He lay there with his face on the cement, in his own
blood and wastes. Lesson for would be killers: Either don’t miss with your
first shot, or else eat light, go to the john, take an enema, and be ready to
die neat.” Kill Him Twice

“She had short mouse-brown hair, rather nice full lips
and gray eyes. But they weren’t pretty eyes. Not dawn gray, slate gray or even
muddy gray. They were sort of Dorian gray.” Always’s Leave’em Dying.

“This was one lovely who looked as if she could be
grateful to excess. And some excesses I’m excessively fond of,” Darling, It’s Death

“Lita was a gal so female that she made most other
females seem male,” Take a Murder, Darling

“It was a woman, a doll, a sensational tomato who
looked as if she’d just turned twenty one, but had obviously signaled for the
turn a long time ago. She was tall, and lovely all over, maybe five-seven, and
she wore a V-necked white blouse as if she were the gal who’d invented cleavage
just for fun. I gawked, and she smiled with plump, red lips, beautiful lips
that undoubtedly had said yes much more often than no…” Always Leave’em Dying

“It was one of those rare, completely smog-free days
when you can see Los Angeles from Los Angeles. Often you
can’t find City Hall unless you are in it, but this was one of those mornings
when you spring out of bed nearly overwhelmed by oxygen,”Always Leave’em Dying

“I think they lease Rodeo Drive by the carat rather than
front foot,” Kill Him Twice

“I have looked upon death and destruction, blood and
split brainboxes and disemboweled oxen. But I have seldom looked upon anything
less appetizing than Aggie fluttering her bald lips at me,” Gat Heat

“When an unidentified corpse lands in the morgue, the
real person is long gone to somewhere or other, and all that’s left for the
police and private eyes and others to draw conclusions from is the garbage left
behind, the worm food, the soil conditioner. The gift is gone, so we study the
package, eye the wrappings…” Take a Murder, Darling

Plugging Your Book

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I thought I knew a lot about  promoting my books online. It turns out I was wrong. I recently received a review copy of Steve Weber’s PLUG YOUR BOOK: ONLINE BOOK MARKETING FOR AUTHORS and  while it told me a lot I already knew,  he provides plenty of good advice, many useful short-cuts, and lots of real-world examples drawn from all over the web. My only quibble is that he gives too much emphasis to Amazon, their reader reviews, and their sales rankings than I think they merit (Weber wisely urges authors to stay away from hiring a service to boost their Amazon rankings and gives evidence why it’s a foolhardy investment). Quibbles aside, there’s no doubt that his promotional strategies genuinely work…here I am, a blogger plugging his book online.