Giving Your Life to TV

I was looking for something on my hard-drive and came across this article I wrote for "Written By," the WGA Journal, back when I was an executive producer on DIAGNOSIS MURDER. At the time, I’d read a number of interviews with showrunners, boasting about how they worked days, nights, and weekends on their shows. So I wrote this piece and was inundated with letters from showrunners…and lowly staff writers…thanking me for it. I thought I’d share the article with you:

There’s a strange perception among writer/producers in TV that the quality of a person’s work increases when the quality of a person’s life suffers. Of course, no one says it that way, at least not in the interviews I’ve been reading with show-runners in Written By, TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly
and other publications the last few months. These writer/producers brag about how they work seven days a week, well into the night, to the detriment of family, health and sanity, purely to maintain the quality of their shows.

They believe the one thing that separates a true writer from a hack is a willingness
to sacrifice one’s marriage and health to the show. Quality demands absolute
dedication to the series, nothing else matters.

One writer/producer brags that when he’s in production, he has no life and that he regularly, and repeatedly, calls his writing staff over the weekend to go over story points, script notes, and other issues. Clearly, there is no escape from  quality.

Another attributes his years of drug addiction to the pressure of turning out “high quality” scripts for A-list series. Now he’s no longer on drugs, is remarried, and is content working on mediocre shows… the implication being if he returned to doing an acclaimed show, he’d be jamming needles between his
toes in no time.

The show runner of a cult hit boasts that success hasn’t weakened his resolve to do his best work, that’s why he still eats breakfast, lunch and dinner at his office nearly seven days a week. Thank God. If he ate a meal with his family, his series might never recover.

I’m a show runner, and my series is in the top 20, but now I know why it’s not a cult hit. Why I don’t have an Emmy or a WGA award. Why I’m not widely acclaimed and much admired.
Because I try to get home in time for dinner with my wife and daughter.  Because I try not to work on weekends. Because I try to put my family first and my show second.

Sure, I work late some nights, even some weekends, and so does my staff. But it’s the exception, not the rule. If it wasn’t, then I think that would make me a lousy show-runner.

I guess that means I’m doomed to mediocrity. I’ll never have to worry about forgetting someone in my Emmy acceptance speech.

Actually, I think what these show-runners are saying is ridiculous. It’s trendy, sexy and hip to say you’re suffering for your craft. It’s not trendy, sexy and hip to say you’re inept at balancing your personal and professional lives.

It’s sad, not admirable, that they are holding up their misery, and the misery they demand of others, as something to be proud of. The correlation they find between addiction, marital woes, and physical distress and “quality” is merely a rationalization for professional disorganization and personal weakness.

I’ve worked for show-runners like that, and I never will again.

These people not only work themselves to exhaustion, divorce, and cardiac arrest, but demand that everyone working for them do the same. Any staffer who puts their family before The Show (ie favors quality of his life over qualify of the work) is a coward, a slacker, a hack, and worst of all, not a team player. The truth is, these show-runners aren’t demanding enthusiasm, creativity, and devotion
from their staffs, what they are really looking for is co-dependence.

It is possible to have a hit show without sacrificing everything that’s important in life. It is possible to do “quality work” and still make it home for dinner. It is possible to win the acclaim of critics and the respect of your peers without having the numbers for a good divorce lawyer and an understanding drug counselor in your rolodex.

It just doesn’t look good. It doesn’t make you sound as tough, ballsy and dedicated. Writers, in fact, like the image. The problem is that too many of them are trying to live up to it.

The Case for Hard Case Crime

Bookgasm has a Q&A with Hard Case Crime editor/author Charles Ardai, who discusses the evolution of the imprint and the impact that publishing Stephen King’s COLORADO KID has had on their visibility inside, and outside, the industry.

this book has been very important to us. While we got plenty of media
coverage before publishing THE COLORADO KID, we got a lot more
afterwards. And with a print run in excess of one million copies, the
book was simply seen by a lot more people than our books normally are.
Far more people know about Hard Case Crime today than would have if
Steve had never written that book for us. How many of them will become
regular readers of our other books? That’s hard to say. But I imagine
some will, and we’re very grateful for that.

Coming Home

I spent my last day in NY sitting around the table with the writing staff of MONK, going over each scene in the story, looking for the humor and the heart, the little moments that will add texture to the script. I left with very detailed notes and will start writing the script on Monday.

On the flight back to LA, I sat next to David Strathairn, the star of GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK.  He was a very nice guy. He was on his way out for the SAG Awards this weekend. We talked a bit about movies and TV, but mostly we chatted about other things…the sort of stuff you might talk about with any passenger you meet on a flight. I was really struck by what a pleasant, polite, regular guy he was.

Flying Without a Pilot

I didn’t write a pilot this season, but this post from Ken Levine reminds me of what I’m missing… notes, notes and still more notes.

This conference call features eleven people – one more David and three Katies. These are the network notes but the lower tier (development department) notes. Once these are done to all eleven peoples’ satisfaction it goes up the ladder, usually to the middle tier VP’s. Writing a pilot is like playing Super Mario Brothers.

I Love L.A.

I just got back home to LA an hour ago… I’m too tired to post anything of substance. But I’ve scanned through the 87 emails waiting for me and a couple look blog-worthy. I also had an interesting experience on the flight to share.  More tomorrow. Good night, all.

Mr. Monk and the L.A. Writer

This is my last night in NY, where I am working with the staff of MONK on an episode that Bill Rabkin and I will write for the upcoming season.

As I’ve said before, the episode is very loosely based on my novel MR. MONK GOES TO THE FIREHOUSE.  We pretty much have the beats of the story/mystery nailed. So today, as a group, we fleshed out the emotional through-line, fine-tuned some of the clues, and choreographed the details of the comic "set pieces."  Tomorrow morning we’ll polish up the details a bit more and then I’ll hop on a plane back to LA. On the flight, I’ll probably work on MR. MONK AND THE BLUE FLU, my third MONK novel. 

After this trip, I have an even clearer sense of the subtle ways my "literary" Monk differs from the "TV" Monk.  Many of those differences have to do with the nature of the two mediums — how stories are told in books vs. television.  But the biggest differences was my decision to tell the stories from Natalie’s POV.  The Monk we’re seeing in the books is Natalie’s Monk, and is therefore shaped by her character and her view of the world. The Monk we see on TV isn’t from any one character’s perspective…it’s from our individual perspectives as viewers.

Speaking of the MONK novel, I had breakfast today with my editor and publisher, who tell me the book is doing very well. I have a feeling they will be greenlighting more MONK novels very soon… I’ll certainly know, one way or another, before MR. MONK GOES TO HAWAII comes out in June.

Run Screaming from the POD People

Novelist Joe Konrath has an excellent post today explaining the financial reasons why paying to have your book "published" by POD vanity press is a really, really bad idea.

Let’s do the math. You’ve got to give the bookstore a 40% discount.
So you’ll sell them the books for $11.40 each. That leaves you with a
$5.70 profit per book. Not bad. But out of that comes the Happy Press
Package fee, the printing cost, shipping the book to bookstores, and
the effort to just get the bookstores to carry you (an effort that
traditionally published authors don’t have to make.)

Also figure in a 50% return rate.

you get 1000 books into stores, and sell 500, you’ll make $2850.
Subtract the $5700 (the cost of printing 1000 books at the 70%
discount) and subtract the package cost ($5000 for all the set up fees.)

You’ve only lost $4900, selling 500 books.

If you sell 2000 (which means you’ll have to ship 4000) your total cost would be:

$5000 set-up package
$22800 book printing costs
minus $11400 profit

Which means you’re losing $16400.

What a deal!