The Shooting Script

dm3fullTwo copies of THE SHOOTING SCRIPT, the third Diagnosis Murder book, were delivered by UPS today. I was thrilled to get them, of course… but the real shocker was seeing the “sneak preview” of the first two chapters of THE WAKING NIGHTMARE at the end of the book.

What was so shocking was I only turned the manuscript in last week. Then I remembered that a couple days after my accident (the one that left me with two broken arms), I had my wife email my editor the first two chapters of my incomplete book so they could publish the tease.

Even so, it was jarring to see portions of a book I’d finished writing only last week already in print.

You can see’em for yourself on Aug 3 when THE SHOOTING SCRIPT comes out in bookstores everywhere…


I’m supposed to be concentrating on writing my next MISSING script, which preps in a week. But I made the mistake of picking up Harry Whittington’s A MOMENT TO PREY and couldn’t stop reading it until I was through. Wow. What an amazing book.

I stumbled on Whittington and this classic noir tale thanks to a posting on Ed Gorman’s blog:

I had to get my car repaired so I grabbed A MOMENT TO PREY by Harry Whittington to take along. I’d nominate this as Harry’s best. I’d forgotten how good the monstrous villain is. This is Max Cady (Cape Fear) country, Cady played by Robert Mitchum, not Robert DeNiro (though I’m generally a huge DeNiro fan–he had a terrible script). This may be (and I mean this in a reasoned, thought-through way) the spookiest villain in crime fiction outside of Hannibal the Cannibal. He is a sexual psychopath unlike any I’ve ever encountered before. And the plot is sensational. There are three perfect twists in the storyline, each marking the curtain in the manner of a three-act play. Though it doesn’t offer the depth of John D. MacDonald in backstory, it does, I think, equal MacDonald is sheer storytelling power. And I’d certainly put it above any of the Travic McGees which, much as I like them, were never JDMs best work. Harry cranked them out, never had an agent who tried to move him up, and I don’t think had the faith in himself he deserved. This is a first-class book that merited hardcover publication and many, many, many paperback reprint editions. What you would call a minor masterpiece or cult classic.

He was right.

The Mail I Get…again

I got an email today imploring me to write a SEAQUEST novel….

You should write Seaquest books because they will be HUGELY SUCESSFUL and that will bring back the series for TV or as a movie. They brought back Thunderbirds, why not SeaQuest, only without Darwin, because a talking fish is stupid. If you need blueprints of the SeaQuest, I made some I can send you. I think they should make the Seaquest submarine for real, too. The books could help that happen. Wouldn’t that be GREAT!!!

After reading that, I think I’m gonna do it. Right after I finish writing my MANIMAL novel…

Creating a TV Series

I was a guest at Sleuthfest in Florida a few years back and after one of my panels, a woman approached me saying she had a great idea for a television series. Even better, she already had 22 scripts written and a list of actors she felt were perfect for the parts.

All I had to do, she said, was sell it and we’d both be rich.

I get this a lot.

So I asked her, what if I was an engineer from General Motors? Would you approach me with a sketch of a car and expect me to manufacture it?

“No, of course not,” she said. “That would be stupid.”

So was her suggestion that I run out and try to sell her TV series.

And I told her so. Politely, of course.

The thing she didn’t understand is that networks don’t buy ideas. They buy people.

Or, as the old saying goes, ideas are cheap and execution is everything.

Take NYPD Blue, for example. It’s about a bunch of cops in a precinct in New York. Not the greatest, most original idea in the world, is it? But that’s not what ABC bought. They bought Emmy winning writer/producer Steven Bochco doing a series about a bunch of cops in a precinct in New York.

The network was buying Bochco’s track record and experience in television. The idea was a distant second.
When the network buys a series, they are investing $50 million. They aren’t going to hand the kind of cash to somebody who hasn’t proved they can write, produce and deliver 22 episodes a season.

So, that’s what I said to her.

She told me I wasn’t listening. She already had the idea and the scripts. All she wanted me to do was sell the show. And produce it. And send her the big bags of money for her great idea and brilliant scripts.

I could see it from her point of view. She wanted a short-cut into television and finding a producer to hitch herself to seemed like a good one. A lot of other people have had the same idea, which is why I get pitched series all the time. From my mother. My gardener. My pool guy. The rabbi at Bill Rabkin’s wedding.

I even got pitched during a proctology exam. In middle of a very delicate procedure, the doctor started telling me his great idea for a TV show: the thrilling story of a proctologist who’s actually a suave, international jewel thief.


The truth is, it’s highly unlikely that any TV producer wants to hear your ideas, whether it’s after a panel at mystery convention or while you’re shoving a camera up their rectum.


Well, for one thing, it’s rude.

For another, television is a writers’ medium. The majority of TV producers are writers first and producers second. Every one of us wants to sell a TV series of our own. It’s the dream. It’s the chance to articulate your own creative vision instead of someone else’s. It’s the chance to not only write scripts and produce episodes, but also have a piece of the syndication, merchandizing, and all the other revenue streams that come from being an owner and not an employee. It’s the chance to become the next David E. Kelly, John Wells, J.J. Abrams, Stephen J. Cannell, Dick Wolf, Aaron Spelling, Donald Belisario, Glen A. Larson, Steven Bochco, or one of the other members of that very small, very elite, very wealthy club of creator/owners.

Getting to the point in your career that networks are interested in being in the series business with you isn’t easy. You have to write hundreds of scripts, work on dozens of series, and build a reputation as an experienced and responsible producer (Or you have to write and produce a huge hit movie, which often leads to an invitation to work your same magic in television). The point is, you don’t work that hard just to share the success with someone else who didn’t have to work for it.

Which brings us back to the basic rule of television: ideas are cheap, execution is everything. We want to sell our own ideas to the networks. Producers like me aren’t interested in your idea unless, of course, you’re asking me to adapt your best-selling novel or hit movie into a TV series. But that’s different, because you’re bringing something valuable to the deal, a pre-sold commidity with commerical and promotional value.

I told her all of that, too.

She just glared at me.

“You just don’t get it,” she said to me. “I’ve got a great idea. I’ve got 22 terrific scripts. You won’t have to do any work.”

No, I said, you’re the one who doesn’t want to do any work. You don’t want to learn the craft of screenwriting. You don’t want to struggle to get that first freelance script assignment. You don’t want to compete to get on a writing staff. You don’t want to work for years on a series, moving up from staff writer to producer, gaining experience and skill and becoming someone the networks want to be in business with. You want to bypass all of that and go straight to having your own series on the air.

“Well,” she said. “Yeah.”

At that point, I gave up. I did what anybody in my position would do. I pointed across the lobby at Jeremiah Healy.
“Go tell him your idea,” I said. “Maybe there’s a book in it.”

And then I ran away.

Forgive me, Jerry!

Writing for TV vs Books

hardboiled_credit2When 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 writing in 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 episode. 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 episode. 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 become 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’m writing a series of original Diagnosis Murder novels for NAL. 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 its told, but the complex formula behind the story-telling 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.

You Gotta Love Actors…

DMX charged with attempted theft of a car
From Reuters

June 26, 2004

Rapper DMX was arrested Thursday night at New York’s JFK airport; officials said Friday that he and a friend had attempted to pass themselves off as FBI agents and steal a car.

DMX, whose real name is Earl Simmons, 33, and a man police identified as Jackie Hudgins, 41, were charged with attempted robbery, criminal mischief and criminal impersonation, airport spokesman Tony Ciavolella said.

“Mr. Simmons and the other man stopped a man in his vehicle inside a parking lot and stated that they were federal agents,” Ciavolella said. “They tried to force him out of his car with the intent of taking his car.”

After they drove through a tollgate barrier, the men were arrested by airport police, the spokesman said.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Barrel

VoyToTheBotOfTheSeaVariety reports today that Fox is mounting at VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM SEA revival…

The original show, as you may recall, was about a giant submarine exploring the sea and starred Richard Basehart and David Hedison. It was basically Star Trek underwater… with giant octopuses and algae monsters and space aliens (and, my favorite toy as a kid, "the flying sub.").

The new version, however, is going to be substantially different.

the world’s most advanced submarine is sent on a deep-sea salvage hunt, inadvertently bringing aboard a predatory organism from the ocean floor.

"They got that we wanted to jumpstart Irwin’s franchise not only with cutting-edge effects, but an intense story with a fantastic villain," Jashni said. "We were inspired by imagining what would happen if we put ‘Alien’ underwater."

So it’s two old ideas rehashed… ALIEN and VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. But is it really going to capture the camp fun of the old series? Unlikely.

This is the third Irwin Allen TV series revival in recent years. An ABC revival of TIME TUNNEL died in development. The WB’s LOST IN SPACE revival, directed by John Woo, was scrapped. The New Line Pictures version of LOST IN SPACE was a critical and financial bomb.

So after a string of Irwin Allen remake failures, why the mad rush to develop another one?

The Mail I Get…

Complete strangers from all over the world are always sending me emails asking me to “buy” or “represent” their scripts. This makes no sense to me. I’m a TV writer, not an agent or studio exec. I’m trying to sell my own work, not get other people jobs. Here’s one of the latest queries…clearly a mass mailing, since the fellow who sent it doesn’t even know if I am a man or a woman…


I am very much interested in film script writing. I
would like to send the spec. script of a original,
Psychological-thriller story-Original Psycho for your
review and possible representation.

The story’s main antagonist is also the story’s
protagonist – Joy the psycho. Tom and Joy are
brothers who live together. Tom is proud and
dominates Joy and extracts work from him. Because of
this domination, Joy one day murders Tom. He looks at
Tom’s dead body for many days and becomes a psycho.
After a few years, at the start of college Joy is
ragged by his senior – Shaw, for this Joy murders
Shaw. After a few days a girl – Mono falls in love
with Joy. When Mono visits Joy’s house, he murders
her, has sex with her dead body, and reads a poem. The
Police start suspecting everyone and the Police
Investigators start a inquiry into the murders but
they are unable to find the killer. Joy kills a
poet(Mil), a military officer(Sky) and a
painter(Silver). When a investigating officer- Rom
visits Joy’s house, Joy captures the officer and ties
him in the house. Next Joy kills a politician (White)
and buries his body along with the other three bodies
in a single graveyard. Later he creates a pot with the
mud from the grave of his murdered victims. When Joy
drinks milk out of this pot, a Police officer shoots
the pot. Rom comes and holds the neck of the Police
office and asks “ why did you shoot the pot?” and
tells the officer that Joy wrote a poem, and killed
the characters found in the poem, and out of the mud
from their graveyard, Joy made this pot. His ambition
was to drink milk out of this pot, but you broke this
pot. Now his ambition is not fulfilled and he will be
a psycho always. At last, Police officers arrest Joy
and take him away.

If this spec. script – Original Psycho looks
interesting, please contact me.

Registration Number : 975354

Thanking you,

Yours Sincerely,
Krishnapuri colony,
Andhra pradesh, India. 500026.

“The Best TV Shows That Never Were”… Will Be

GoldRetroLogoOn Monday, Aug 16 at 8 pm, ABC will air the one-hour special “The Best TV Shows That Never Were.”

For the last two years, I was convinced the show would live up to its title.

The special, which I wrote and produced with Bill Rabkin and Steve Gerbson, is based on my book Unsold Television Pilots and is a collection of clips of memorable samples episodes of proposed series from the last twenty years.

We delivered the show for May sweeps two years ago… and then ABC sat on it. They never told us why. Anyway, now it’s finally airing…and you can see clips from such memorable bombs as “A Dog’s Life,” “Samurai District Attorney,” “Higher Ground,” “Mandrake,” “Fuzzbucket,” and “The People.”

Don’t miss it!

UPDATE: Here’s an old announcement for the show…from Morty’s TV Archive.

ABC to Air Unseen Pilots!

[June 11, 2002] This fall ABC will air a special called “The Best TV Shows That Never Were,” a collection unseen TV pilots. It’s actually the second edition of “TBTVSTNW,” the first aired in the 90’s. This collection will feature “Great Day,” starring “Happy Days'” Al Molinaro, “about what fun it was to be a skid row bum in New York City,” an Aaron Spelling TV show called “Velvet,” about four aerobics instructors who are really only working for “Polly Bergen’s Velvet International” health spas as a cover for their jobs as secret agents and “Shivers,” about a divorced man (“Beverly Hills, 90210” dad James Eckhouse) who, with his two children, moves into a house haunted by a Revolutionary War-era troublemaker and his girlfriend. The special, which according to an ABC source may turn into a series, is based on author and entertainment writer Lee Goldberg’s book Unsold TV Pilots: The Greatest Shows You Never Saw , an addictive collection of the “best” of the bad high-concept TV pilots that, in most cases, never saw screen time. No date has been announced yet.
Now as much fun as all this sounds, my problem with it is that it’s a clipfest, and I want to see the whole show. Let’s hope it does become a regular series. There are thousands of hours of unaired pilots, and ABC has nothing exciting to run anyway, so why not show a different one each week? Ever see Bette Davis in “The Decorator?”