I’m so sad to hear about Sue Grafton‘s death. Not only was she incredibly talented, she was also a very nice woman.
I’m so sad to hear about Sue Grafton‘s death. Not only was she incredibly talented, she was also a very nice woman.
Here’s the main title sequence for SABLE, an awful series that only lasted for a month in 1988. William Rabkin & I wrote an awful freelance script for this awful series that thankfully wasn’t shot — but it had a lasting impact on us.
The show had a terrible, expository character, an African-American tech wizard in a wheelchair, named Cheesecake. We hated that character…because it wasn’t a character. It was a painful cliche. So “Cheesecake” became our shorthand, and is to this day, for a cliche character who exists only to provide dull exposition.
It’s amazing and depressing how many times that EXACT SAME DREADFUL CHARACTER — the exposition/computer whiz character in a wheelchair — has been repeated in shows since then.
I’ve got lots of movie news to share that I’ve been keeping bottled up for some time. First off, my novel THE WALK is being made into a movie, to be directed by Eugenio Mira, who made the clever, stylish Hitchcockian thriller GRAND PIANO (starring Elijah Wood and John Cusack) and did some amazing second unit work on THE IMPOSSIBLE (the tsunami movie with Naomi Watts). He’s fresh off of directing the second unit for JURASSIC WORLD II… so with that big-budget, action and disaster-movie experience behind him, he’s obviously the perfect guy to do THE WALK. The movie will be produced by Paul Hanson, George Paige and John Baca for Covert Media.
Covert Media is also producing my screenplay adaptation of Victor Gischler‘s Edgar-nominated novel GUN MONKEYS , which will be directed by Simon Brand. The development history of GUN MONKEYS goes back years. I optioned the book myself, wrote the script on spec, and for a long while it was set up with actor Kevin Costner and director Ryuhei Kitamura. That project came real close to getting made…and then fell apart. A new producing team came on board, offers are going out to big-name actors now, and we’re on track to shoot in late 2017/early 2018.
Back in September, Simon shot an action scene from my script as a camera/lighting test…and I’ve just been given the okay to share it now that he’s posted it on his site. The key parts are played by his friends and it has a voice-over that isn’t in the script — I wrote it just for this so that the action makes sense out of context. I think the footage looks terrific. Here it is. I hope you like it!
Here’s an excerpt from “About Face,” the worst script that William Rabkin and I ever wrote…but before I share it with you, here’s the story behind it (which I originally shared on this blog back in July 2006)
We were working as supervising producers on the third season of SeaQuest, a scifi show about a phallic submarine exploring our oceans in the year 2032. We were a day into writing episode 14 when the series got cancelled. But studio and the network were still obligated to pay us for the script — the catch was that we actually had to write it if we wanted our money.
In other words, we had to write a script we knew would never be shot and that we were pretty certain nobody would ever read. But we weren’t about to walk away from $25,000.
So we wrote it in one day…while we were packing up our office. We amused ourselves by writing the worst scenes that we possibly could, reading them out loud to each other as we wrote. We turned in the script as we walked out the door and we assumed it would never be read.
To our horror, we were wrong.
We discovered years later that bootleg copies of this atrocity were showing up at science fiction conventions as one of the “lost episodes” of the final season. Some have even shown up on the Internet. It even became the basis for a fanfic story.
Okay, now here’s the excerpt. All you need to know to follow along is that Piccolo is a man with gills and Darwin is a talking dolphin (I’m not kidding).
EXT. SEAQUEST – CGI/STOCK
as it cruises through the sea.
INT. SEAQUEST – CAFETERIA
Lucas is at a table eating as Piccolo comes in.
Hey, Lucas, what’s the blue plate special today? I’m starving.
Wait – I thought you were starving.
I just lost my appetite.
(re: Lucas’ plate:)
You’d think the Chef could be a bit more sensitive.
The presentation may not be great, but it tastes pretty good.
He holds out a fork of trout.
Here, have a bite.
Piccolo turns away, disgusted.
Are you nuts? Why don’t you go offer Darwin some dolphin pate.
Suddenly Lucas understands.
Tony, you aren’t a fish.
I have gills, Lucas. I may not be a fish, but it still feels like
cannibalism to me.
You’re a human being who happens to have gills, that’s different.
If you could fly, believe me, chicken wouldn’t look very
Chickens don’t fly.
Piccolo glares at Lucas and walks out. Lucas smiles to himself.
I just got back from The Writers Police Academy where I, and two hundred other writers, got to play “cops and robbers.” It was my first time participating in the annual event which, I am told, is as close as you can get to actual police training without becoming a cop. You can see me talking about it on the local news here and here.
The event was held this month at a law enforcement training facility in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was an amazing opportunity for authors to get hands-on experience and education in crime scene investigation, pursuit driving, arson investigation, improvised explosives, firearms training… the list goes on and on. I learned cool stuff from EMTs, arson investigators, bomb squad members, homicide detectives, uniformed cops, and other professionals that will definitely show up in my books and TV shows. Nothing beats hands-on experience when it comes to discovering those key details that make fiction come alive on the page and on screen.
The event organizers had a flair for the dramatic—the conference opened with a rescue simulation involving a gruesome car crash. Cops, fire, EMTs, and even a helicopter showed up to handle the call. Later, organizers staged a “live shooter” simulation with injuries in a crowded lecture hall. Once again, they went for full dramatic effect. Not only was it entertaining, but it was an excellent teaching/learning experience for everyone… participants and audience alike.
In one session, I got the chance to learn tourniquet techniques… and the lesson ended with me entering a dark, smoke-filled room with loud music and strobe lights to find a victim who’d list both legs and was bleeding out (water, not blood) and I had to apply what I’d learned under pressure.
I also cleared a building with an active shooter (on a simulator and in “reality” in a specialized training house), learned to fire a Glock and a rifle, pulled over speeders in simulated night-time traffic stops, and drove a police cruiser “in pursuit” in a training track.
We also got to examine up close squad cars, SWAT vehicles, urban assault vehicles, mobile command vehicles and all of the equipment in the vehicles and that the officers carry.
There were so many great seminars that I wasn’t able to attend that I wanted to… which I guess means I’ll have to go to the conference again next year. Authors Boyd Morrison, Melinda Leigh, Robin Burcell, and Kendra Elliot, who have attended many previous WPA conferences, warned me this would happen. Once you go to WPA, you’re in for life.
Like all writing conferences, I also enjoyed catching up with old friends and making lots of new ones. If you write crime novels, I strongly recommend that you sign up for next year’s conference the instant tickets become available.
Pictured: Tod Goldberg (who writes with Brad Meltzer), Robin Burcell (who writes with Clive Cussler), Lee Goldberg (who writes with Janet Evanovich), Maxine Paetro (who writes with James Patterson) and Boyd Morrison (who writes with Cussler) got together at The Writers Police Academy to talk shop and shoot big guns.
The Jew Team — Tod Goldberg & Me
I’m a sucker for TV books, even those about shows I didn’t watch or don’t particularly like…because, often, I can learn something new about the development, writing and production of TV series that I didn’t know before despite my own experience in the biz. Here are some short reviews of three recent releases.
Irwin Allen’s Lost In Space: The Authorized Biography of a Classic Sci-Fi Series Vol. One by Marc Cushman. Jacobs-Brown Publishers. This is a monumental work of TV history…one of the best TV reference books ever written. That’s no surprise, since it’s from the same people who did These Are the Voyages, the three volume, definitive work about the TV series Star Trek and that is also a stunning achievement. I didn’t think that series of books could be topped or even matched. I was wrong. This nearly 700 page paperback covers the first season of Lost in Space, and as a bonus, the development of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the Irwin Allen series that preceded this one.
I am not a fan of Lost in Space, but that didn’t limit my enjoyment or appreciation of this book one bit (though I have to admit I haven’t finished it). The book is a remarkable achievement that exhaustively covers every detail of the creation, writing and production of the show, relying on interviews, memos, scripts, letter, photos… the amount of material they uncovered and examined is incredible and, at times, overwhelming. And yet, it doesn’t feel like overkill and it’s never dull. The author has an engaging style that rises above similar books.
Each episode is examined in-depth, from idea, through all stages of production, right down to the ratings and critical reaction to the final airing. What makes this book even more special is that, unlike Star Trek, the authors aren’t following a well-trodden path…so much of this is new and fascinating information. Yes, this show has been examined before, in documentaries and articles, but never in such detail and, surprisingly, with such objectivity. The authors aren’t slavishly devoted fans… they don’t hesistate to point out how awful some of the episodes were.
This book is a must-stock for any library and a must-read for anyone interested in the business behind the TV business. You don’t have to be a fan of Lost in Space, or have ever watched a single episode, to benefit from this great book. I can’t wait for the volumes 2 & 3.
Cop Shows: A Critical History of Police Dramas on Television by Roger Sabin & others. McFarland & Co. I had high hopes for this book because I’m a huge fan of cop shows. I was expecting to glean some new insights into familiar and obscure shows, and new details about how these shows were made, the impact they had on culture, etc. What I got instead was a very scholarly, very broad series of superficial essays about individual shows that revealed nothing new…besides the authors’ opinions, which I don’t really care about. I was also dismayed by the sloppy errors, which made me wonder if they actually watched the shows they were writing about…or were simply lazy in their research. For instance, in their chapter on Hawaii Five-O, they make a passing reference to Stephen J Cannell’s unsold reboot pilot, which was shot but never aired. They say that Gary Busey starred as McGarrett. In fact, nobody played McGarrett in the pilot…and Busey was co-lead with Russell Wong. This information is easily found on the Internet and in other reference books. Later, in their short summary on TJ Hooker, they say “CBS picked up the show’s final season, which was a marked by grittier plotlines and a location shift to Chicago. .. the changes proved deeply unpopular with fans.” That is absolutely wrong. The final episode of the ABC season was set in Chicago, and was a pilot for a potential reboot, but when the show moved to CBS, they kept the original concept, setting, and storylines (going so far as to only use car chases from previous episodes instead of shooting new ones!). The only thing that changed was that Adrian Zmed was dropped from the cast. So not only are they factually wrong, but the conclusions they came to about “grittier storylines” and the audience dissatisfaction with them is total fiction. If that is an example of their academic rigor, I grade this thesis a C-.
Seinfeldia: How a Show about Nothing Changed Everything. by Jennifer Keishan Armstrong. Simon and Schuster. I totally get why this book has become an unlikely bestseller. For one thing, it’s about one of the most popular and beloved sitcoms in TV history. But most of all, it’s because the book is so readable…so entertaining…that it almost feels more like a novel about a show than a book about TV history. Even so, there’s lots of meat here for people interested in how the TV business works, how a TV series develops and evolves, and, most of all, how a series is written. What this book is really about is the writing of a TV series and, as a writer myself, I found it irresistible and fascinating. There have been other books written about Seinfeld…but none of them are as good, or as useful, or as educational as this one. You should also grab Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, her terrific book about The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
I’m heading off next week to the Writers Police Academy, where I will be giving a talk on how to integrate research into your mystery writing…for TV and for books. In preparing my notes, I came across this old blog post about how I wrote the Diagnosis Murder books and episodes. It was great to read… because, after so long, it was as if I was reading something written by someone else. I think I gave some pretty good advice … so I’m sharing the piece again in case you missed it the first time or in the many magazines and books in which it has been excerpted or reprinted over the years.
I’ve just signed a contract for four more Diagnosis Murder books… and the next one is due in March. I have the broad strokes of the story…. but that’s it. The broad strokes. The equivalent of book jacket copy. I’ve still got to come up with the actual story. I’ve been able to procrastinate by doing research on the period… which has given me some plot ideas… but I’ve still got to figure out the murders, the clues, the characters and, oh yes, the story.
This is the hardest part of writing… the sitting around, staring into space, and thinking. This is writing, even if you aren’t physically writing. A lot of non-writers have a hard time understanding this. Yes, just sitting in a chair doing nothing is writing. A crucial part, in fact.
It can be hell… especially when you are on as short a deadline as I am. Everyone has their own method… this is mine:
Once all the thinking is done, I sit down and work out a rough outline… one or two lines on each “scene,” with the vital clues or story points in bold. It’s what I call “a living outline,” because it changes as I write the book, staying a few chapters ahead of me (and, sometimes, requiring me to go back and revise earlier chapters to jibe with the new changes I’ve made… like characters who were supposed to die in the story but don’t). I keep revising the outline right up to the end of the novel. I finish both the book and the living outline almost simultaneously.
While I’m still thinking, and while I’m outlining, and while I’m writing, I compile and maintain what I call “My Murder Book,” a thick binder that contains my outline, my working manuscript, and notes, emails, articles, clips, photographs, post-its…anything and everything relating to my story. By the time the book is done, the binder is bulging with stuff… including my notes on what my next book might be.
Now I’m in the thinking stage, which is why I have time to write this essay. What a great way to procrastinate!
In every Diagnosis Murder book, Dr. Mark Sloan is able to unravel a puzzling murder by using clever deductions and good medicine to unmask the killer.
I wish I could say that he’s able to do that because of my astonishing knowledge of medicine, but it’s not.
I’m just a writer.
I know as much about being a doctor as I do about being a private eye, a lifeguard, a submarine Captain, or a werewolf… and I’ve written and produced TV shows about all of them, too.
What I do is tell stories. And what I don’t know, I usually make up…or call an expert to tell me.
Writing mysteries is, by far, the hardest writing I’ve had to do in television. Writing a medical mystery is even harder. On most TV shows, you can just tell a good story. With mysteries, a good story isn’t enough; you also need a challenging puzzle. It’s twice as much work for the same money.
I always begin developing a book the same way – I come up with an “arena,” the world in which our story will take place. A UFO convention. Murder in a police precinct. A rivalry between mother and daughter for the love of a man. Once I have the arena, I think about the characters. Who are the people the story will be about? What makes them interesting? What goals do they have, and how do they conflict with the other characters?
And then I ask myself the big questions – who gets murdered, how is he or she killed, and why? How Dr. Mark Sloan solves that murder depends on whether I’m are writing an open or closed mystery.
Whether the murder is “open,” meaning the reader knows whodunit from the start, or whether it is “closed,” meaning I find out who the killer is the same time that the hero does, is dictated by the series concept. Columbo mysteries are always open, Murder She Wrote was always closed, and Diagnosis Murder mixes both. An open mystery works when both the murderer, and the reader, think the perfect crime has been committed. The pleasure is watching the detective unravel the crime, and find the flaws you didn’t see. A closed mystery works when the murder seems impossible to solve, and the clues that are found don’t seem to point to any one person, but the hero sees the connection you don’t and unmasks the killer with it.
In plotting the book, the actual murder is the last thing I explore, once I’ve settled on the arena and devised some interesting characters. Once I figure out who to kill and how, then I start asking myself what the killer did wrong. I need a number of clues, some red-herrings that point to other suspects, and clues which point to our murderer. The hardest clue is the finish clue, or as we call it, the “ah-ha!,” the little shred of evidence that allows the hero to solve the crime – but still (hopefully) leaves the reader in the dark.
The finish clue is the hardest part of writing a Diagnosis Murder book – because it has to be something obscure enough that it won’t make it obvious who the killer is to everybody, but definitive enough that the reader will be satisfied when Mark Sloan nails the murderer with it.
A Diagnosis Murder book is a manipulation of information, a game that’s played on the reader. Once I have the rigid frame of the puzzle, I have to hide the puzzle so the reader isn’t aware they are being manipulated. It’s less about concealment than it is about distraction. If I do it right, the reader is so caught up in the conflict and drama of the story, they aren’t aware that they are being constantly misdirected.
The difficulty, the sheer, agonizing torture, of writing Diagnosis Murder is telling a good story while, at the same time, constructing a challenging puzzle. To me, the story is more important than the puzzle — the book should be driven by character conflict, not my need to reveal clues. The revelations should come naturally out of character, because people read books to see interesting people in interesting situations…not to solve puzzles. A mystery, without the character and story, isn’t very entertaining.
In my experience, the best “ah-ha!” clues come from character, not from mere forensics – for instance, I discover Aunt Mildred is the murderer because she’s such a clean freak, she couldn’t resist doing the dishes after killing her nephew.
But this is a book series about a doctor who solves crimes. Medicine has to be as important as character-based clues. So I try to mix them together. The medical clue comes out of character.
So how do I come up with that clever bit of medicine?
First, I decide what function or purpose the medical clue has to serve, and how it is linked to our killer, then I make a call to Dr. D.P. Lyle, author of Forensics for Dummies, to help me find us the right malady, drug, or condition that fits our story needs. If he doesn’t know the answer, I go to the source. If it’s a question about infectious diseases, for instance, I might call the Centers for Disease Control. If it’s a forensic question, I might call the medical examiner. If it’s a drug question, I’ll call a pharmaceutical company. It all depends on the story. And more often than not, whoever I find is glad to answer my questions.
The reader enjoys the game as long as you play fair…as long as they feel they had the chance to solve the mystery, too. Even if they do solve it ahead of your detective, if it was a difficult and challenging mystery, they feel smart and don’t feel cheated. They are satisfied, even if they aren’t surprised.
If Dr. Sloan catches the killer because of some arcane medical fact you’d have to be an expert to catch, then I’ve failed and you won’t watch the show again.
The medical clue has to be clever, but it can’t be so obscure that you don’t have a chance to notice it for yourself, even if you aren’t an M.D. And it has to come out of character, so even if you do miss the clue, it’s consistent with, and arises from, a character’s behavior you can identify.
To play fair, all the clues and discoveries have to be shared with the reader at the same time that the hero finds them. There’s nothing worse than withholding clues from the reader – and the sad thing is, most mysteries do it all the time. The writers do it because playing fair is much, much harder than cheating. If you have the hero get the vital information “off screen,” between chapters, the story is a lot easier to plot. But when Diagnosis Murder book works, when the mystery is tight, and the reader is fairly and honestly fooled, it makes all the hours of painful plotting worthwhile.
That, and the royalty check.
When you sit down to write a mystery novel, there are no limitations on where your characters can go and what they can do. Your detective hero can appear on every single page. He can spend all the time he wants outdoors, even at night, and can talk with as many people as he likes. Those may not seem like amazing creative liberties to you, but to someone who makes most of his living writing for television, they are amazing freedoms.
Before a TV writer even begins to think about his story, he has to consider a number of factors that have nothing to do with telling a good mystery or creating memorable characters.
For one thing, there’s the budget and the shooting schedule. Whatever story you come up with has be shot in X many days for X amount of dollars. In the case of Diagnosis Murder, a show I wrote and produced for several years, it was seven days and $1.2 million dollars. In TV terms, it was a cheap show shot very fast.
To make that schedule, you are limited to the number of days your characters can be “on location” as opposed to being on the “standing sets,” the regular interiors used in each book. On Diagnosis Murder, it was four days “in” and three days “out.” Within that equation, there are still more limitations – how many new sets can be built, how many locations you can visit and how many scenes can be shot at night.
Depending on the show’s budget, you are also limited to X number of guest stars and X number of smaller “speaking parts” per book. So before you even begin plotting, you know that you can only have, for example, four major characters and three smaller roles (like waiters, secretaries, etc.). Ever wonder why a traditional whodunit on TV is usually a murder and three-to-four suspects? Now you know.
Then there’s the work schedule of your regular cast to consider. On Diagnosis Murder, Dick Van Dyke only worked three consecutive days a week and he wouldn’t visit any location more than thirty miles from his home. Co-star Victoria Rowell split her time with the soap opera Young and the Restless, and often wasn’t available to shoot until after lunch.
On top of all that, your story has to be told in four acts, with a major twist or revelation before each commercial break, and unfold over 44 minutes of airtime.
It’s astonishing, given all those restrictions, that there are so many complex, entertaining, and fun mysteries on television.
Those limitations become so ingrained to a TV writer/producer, that it becomes second-nature. You instinctively know the moment you’re pitched a particular story if it can be told within the budgetary and scheduling framework of your show. It becomes so ingrained, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to let go, even when you have the chance.
I am no longer bound by the creative restrictions of the show. I don’t have to worry about sticking to our “standing sets,” Dick Van Dyke’s work schedule, or the number of places the characters visit. Yet I’m finding it almost impossible to let go. After writing and/or producing 100 episodes of the show, it’s the way I think of a Diagnosis Murder story.
And if you watched the show, it’s the way you think of a Diagnosis Murder story, too –whether you realize it or not. You may not know the reasons why a story is told the way it’s told, but the complex formula behind the storytelling becomes the natural rhythm and feel of the show. When that rhythm changes, it’s jarring.
If you watch your favorite TV series carefully now, and pay close attention to the number of guest stars, scenes that take place on the “regular sets,” and how often scenes take place outdoors at night, and you might be able to get a pretty good idea of the production limitations confronting that show’s writers every week.
And if you read my Diagnosis Murder novels, feel free to put the book down every fifteen minutes or so for a commercial break.
Speaking of which, if there’s actually going to be another Diagnosis Murder novel, I better get back to work… sitting in my chair, doing nothing.
One of best parts of beginning a new Fox & O’Hare adventure for me is traveling to the locales where the story will take place. For our new, #1 New York Times bestseller THE PURSUIT, that meant heading off to Honolulu, Antwerp, Paris, Bois-Le-Rois, and Italy’s Amalfi Coast…and also drawing upon on my past experiences in Montreal and Lohr, Germany.
The Antwerp diamond heist at the opening of THE PURSUIT is loosely based on a real incident, so I read lots of articles and books on the subject, sought the advice of the U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, and visited the scene of the crime for myself. It makes it much easier for me to write about a place and make you feel like you’re there, too, if I’ve experienced it first-hand. That’s because it’s the little details that I discover, the things that stick in my memory, that make the locales come alive for me when I sit down to write..and, I hope, for you in the retelling.
For the two heists in Paris in THE PURSUIT, I scouted locations throughout the city (mostly on foot) before deciding on where all the events should take place…then took hundreds of photos, studied maps, and consulted experts, like an infamous “cataphile” who roams the city’s underground catacombs.
I also spent a lot of time in Sorrento, Capri, and Positano Italy soaking up the atmosphere (and plenty of limoncello) looking for the right location for the bad guy’s “vacation home.” I found it during a boat trip from Sorrento to Positano, then fictionalized it to suit my devious creative needs. A day trip to Capri gave me some great historical “background” for an an interesting obsession for the villain and his home. If you’ve read the book, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. I never would have stumbled on either the location or the historical nugget without making the trip.
I recently returned from a nearly month-long research trip to Australia and New Zealand for the sixth Fox & O’Hare adventure and I can’t wait to take you there on the page…
Yesterday several dreams came true all at once.
First off, you can now call me a #1 New York Times bestselling author. THE PURSUIT, my fifth Fox & O’Hare book co-authored with Janet Evanovich, debuted at #1 on the ebook bestseller list (and #8 on hardcover, and #3 on print & ebook combined). Hitting #1 is a dream come true… but it got even better thanks to some cosmic coincidences.
As some of you may know, my brother Tod is also an author. His latest book is THE HOUSE OF SECRETS , co-authored with my friend Brad Meltzer, came out in early June …the same day as the paperback edition of THE SCAM, my fourth Fox & O’Hare book with Janet Evanovich, was released. It’s a total coincidence, since we have different publishers. HOUSE OF SECRETS debuted at #6 on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list and last week THE SCAM was #5 on the New York Times mass market paperback list.
But this week we are on the same bestseller list together — THE PURSUIT is #8 and THE HOUSE OF SECRETS is #16 on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list.
We’ve both fantasized about this happening and now it actually has. We both have a hard time believing it. We owe a big thank you to Janet Evanovich and Brad Meltzer for their big roles in making this dream come true…and especially to all of YOU for buying our books.