Book Fest Day 2

The day started with Bagels and Goldbergs at the Borders booth, where I signed with my sisters Linda Woods and Karen Dinino.
P4300087_1Steve Cannell stopped by to pick up a copy of THE MAN WITH THE IRON-ON BADGE, which was pretty cool, since the book couldn’t have been written without him (like me, the hero learns everything he knows about being a PI from watching shows like THE ROCKFORD FILES). I  chatted again with a lot of the folks I mentioned yesterday, as well as Harlan Coben, Gayle Lynds, Kelly Lange, Rochelle Krich, Thomas Perry, Paul Levine, Harley Jane Kozak, Jeff Mariotte, and Bill Fitzhugh, among others. I also caught some more panels, including Carl Reiner’s talk and my brother Tod in conversation with Sarah Vowell (a very funny woman who is not the warmest person you will ever meet) and David Rackoff (as lively, personable and funny off-stage as he is on) in front of a packed Royce Hall auditorium.  It was another great Book Fest and I’m already looking forward to the one next year…

UPDATE 5-1-06: My Brother Tod has a more detailed, and much funnier, wrap-up of the weekend’s events on his eponymous blog.  Reading his post reminds me of a strange bathroom encounter I had (Tod’s big moments all seemed to happen while he was in the can). I walked into the bathroom at "The Green Room" and saw a guy standing in front of a urinal pissing free-style while thumb-typing a message on his blackberry. At the same time, I heard another guy taking calls on his cell while having an extreme bowel episode. I like to think this was a wacky LA moment…but I fear this scene could have happened anywhere. I also had someone say to me at the my Borders signing that his favorite books of mine were "the ones where something happens."

UPDATE 5-1-06b: My sisters Linda and Karen report on the Fest and the super secret buffet for brilliant authors…my Uncle Burl Barer stargazes outside the Borders tent…and my cousin Danny Barer discovers what he’s been missing.

Learning Howdunit

The Rutland Herald has an article today (from the Columbia News Service wire) about how mystery writers use consultants and, as an example, talks about how Dr. Doug Lyle and I work together. But if you’re a DIAGNOSIS MURDER fan, and haven’t read THE SILENT PARTNER yet, skip the article — there are major spoilers in it.

"I know absolutely nothing about medicine," Goldberg said. "But I do
know how to write a mystery. I craft situations where I need a medical
clue, then I call Doug. I simply couldn’t write these without him."

is part of a select group of plot consultants who help mystery writers
bump off characters with scientific exactitude. He shows writers how to
poison people properly, open up a skull correctly for an autopsy and
talk like a homicide detective to make the character believable.

The article also appeared in The Toronto Star and the Indianapolis Star, among many other newspapers.

Book Fest Day 1

Today, for the first time in 11 years, I was able to casually enjoy the LA Times Book Fest as a "civilian." I had no signings to do, no panels to participate in, nothing to do by browse, listen to the panels, and catch up with old friends.

I chatted at book store booths and at the "VIP" room with T. Jefferson Parker, Barbara Seranella, Michael Connelly, Kirk Russell, Reed Coleman, Jeff Mariotte, Mark Haskell Smith, Leslie Klinger, Patricia Smiley, Bob Levinson, Kevin Roderick, Patt Morrison, Rob Roberge, and 24 writer David Ehrman,  among others. I enjoyed panels on Mystery Writing (with Klinger, Roberge, Seranella and John Morgan Wilson) and writing the Short Story (with my brother Tod and A.M. Homes, among others).

For the first time, I didn’t buy a single signed novel at the fest…just a handful of pop culture non-fiction books — ALIAS SMITH AND JONES: THE STORY OF TWO PRETTY GOOD BAD MEN, GUY WILLIAMS: THE MAN BEHIND THE MASK, and two Taschen books  70s CARS: VINTAGE AUTO ADS  and 60S CARS: VINTAGE AUTO ADS. Compared to past years, that was a meager haul indeed.

Tomorrow promises to be a much busier day, with signings to do at Borders and Mystery Bookstore, and lots of panels I want to attend…

Book Award Schmoozing

I attended the LA Times Book Awards tonight at UCLA and had a grand time (Robert Littell won the Mystery/Thriller prize for, as presenter Mary Higgins Clark put it, "the best book of 205 (sic)"). Denise Hamilton, who didn’t have her ticket, snuck in pretending to be my date. It was amazing to watch Denise effortlessly drift past the eagle-eyed ticket-taker as he scanned my single ticket with a bar-code reader…and then pretend to be so thoroughly engaged in conversation with me that the second line of attendants who were double-checking tickets didn’t catch her, either.  No wonder she writes detective novels.

After the ceremony I attended the reception, where I had a chance to catch up with my friends Steve Cannell, Patricia Smiley, Walter Sattherwait, Dick Lochte (and his lovely wife), Tom Nolan, Terrill Lee Lankford (and his supermodel girlfriend Heidi),  Jan Valerio (of Barnes & Noble), and Lita Weissman (of Borders), among many others. I also met legendary author James Crumley and made a whole bunch of new friends, including bloggers Mark Sarvas and Laila Lalami. Among the highlights was watching my shameless brother Tod chat up former LA Times Book Review editor Steve Wasserman, a man he regularly trashed on his blog.   Tod has chutzpah, I will give him that.

Okay,time for bed. I need to get some rest for the book festival tomorrow!

How to Blow a Book Contract

Author John Barlow writes for Slate about the agony of writing a book for 17th Street Productions, the book packager behind Kaavya Viswanathan’s controversial novel and a number of other hit teen novels.

However, having never lived in the United States, I had no idea about what
was permissible in terms of cussing, especially in kids’ fiction. We had agreed,
previously, that I would write the thing as naturally as I could, and the people
at 17th Street would filter out the unacceptable elements. So, I did just that,
leaving in the text a modest fistful of shits, craps, a
bastard, and several fucks. I even told them so when I mailed
the finished text. Did they filter? Did they read? No; they gave the manuscript
straight to the 8-year-old son of the company president. Little Timmy saw a
shit and a fuck. He cried. He read the word bastard
and needed counseling. It was a catastrophe.

My 80,000 words were dead words. A book that I love never got published. Or
even edited. Or read by a single kid (apart from Timmy). I blew it. My chance of
Harry Potterdom, of country homes, of cars that start every time, of book
signings where enough people come to form an actual line … all down the drain.
However, it was a great way to learn that you can’t write a book by committee,
and to be paid 10 grand to learn it. So, thank you Sweet Valley boys. It was
great fun, really.

I know I’m supposed to read this and side with the author…but, I have to say, my sympathies are with the book packager. Maybe because I’ve written so many television shows (where I get input from a thousand people) and work-for-hire tie-in novels. Maybe because I’m a complete sell-out and a talentless hack. Whatever the reason, this guy strikes me as an unprofessional, self-destructive,  whiny putz. He couldn’t bring himself to do some minimal preparation like, oh, actually read some other books from the packager…or other books in the same genre.  He was an artist. He was following his muse instead of doing the job he was hired to do.

Barlow implies in his article that the disasterous experience is all his (then) agent’s fault for getting him into a deal with a bunch of talentless suits. But the truth is that the fault is entirely his own. What killed the deal wasn’t the class between his high, artistic standards and their gutlessness and lack of taste. What killed it was Barlow’s ego, laziness  and astonishing lack of professionalism.

Those Who Can Do Teach

William Rabkin and I will be teaching another session of our popular "Beginning TV Writing" online course for Writers University in May. There’s still time to sign up and a few open seats are left in our virtual classroom.

In this four week course, two established executive
producers/showrunners will give you an inside look at the world of
episodic television. You will learn—and practice— the actual process
involved in successfully writing a spec episodic script that will open
doors across Hollywood. You will learn how to analyze a TV show and
develop “franchise”-friendly story ideas. You will develop and write a
story under the direction of the instructors, who will be acting as
showrunners… and then, after incorporating their notes, you will be
sent off to write your outline. Finally, you will develop and refine
your outline with the instructors, leaving you at the end of the course
ready to write your episodic spec script…the first step in getting a
job on a TV series.

Series Pick-Ups

Variety reports that Fox has picked up the new Brad Garrett sitcom TIL DEATH and the serialized drama VANISHED.

"Vanished," from 20th Century Fox TV and
creator Josh Berman, revolves around a senator’s wife who goes missing
as part of a larger conspiracy.

Inspired by the country’s ongoing
fascination with missing women, the story behind "Vanished" will unfold
throughout the season, as told through the eyes of law enforcement,
family members and the media.

Mimi Leder
(who directed the pilot) and Paul Redford exec produce the drama, which
stars John Allen Nelson, John Patrick Amedori, Ming-Na, Chris Egan,
Robert Hoffman, Margarita Levieva, Joanne Kelly, Gale Harold and
Rebecca Gayheart.

"We’ve had success with epic sagas over the
last few years, and this one is delicious in the way that any great
mystery novel is," Erwich said. "There’s also a great franchise at the
center of it."

Edgar Winners

The Edgar winners were announced today.


Citizen Vince by Jess Walter (Regan Books)


Officer Down by Theresa Schwegel (St. Martin’s Minotaur)


Girl in the Glass by Jeffrey Ford (Dark Alley)


Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece by Edward Dolnick (Harper Collins)


Girl Sleuth:  Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her

by Melanie Rehak (Harcourt)


"The Catch" – Greatest Hits by James W. Hall (Carroll & Graf)


The Boys of San Joaquin by D. James Smith (Simon & Schuster Children’s Books)


Last Shot by John Feinstein (Knopf Books for Young Readers)


Matter of Intent by Gary Earl Ross (Theater Loft)


Sea of Souls – "Amulet", Teleplay by Ed Whitmore


Syriana – Screenplay by Stephen Gaghan, based on the book by Robert Baer (Warner Brothers)

Writing Staffs

Ken Levine has a terrific post today on the importance of "room chemistry" in putting together a writing staff. 

When putting a writing staff together I always think of the great line
from either Bob Schiller or Bob Weiskopf – what six people would you
like to be stuck in a Volkswagon with driving across the country?
Besides talent, so much depends on chemistry because you spend so much
time together in close quarters under enormous pressure. By the end of
the season even the closest staff starts getting on each other’s
nerves. It’s like, take a fifty year marriage and compress it into
eight months.

He is so right. Writing talent is only one part of what gets you hired on staff — just as important is how you will mix with the other writer and whether you’re someone the showrunner will enjoy hanging out with. There’s a freelancer we used a few times who was great at crafting stories and turning in a solid first draft — but in a room he was this incredible blackhole that sucked the soul right out of you. Ten minutes with him felt like ten decades… which is why he’s never ended up getting on a writing staff despite a long list of freelance credits.

Ken catalogs some of the typical writing room personalities (Dr. No, Mr. Let’s-Go-Back, etc.) and he’s spot-on.  He misses a couple, like "Mr. Out-of-Sync," the writer who is never, ever, in step with the flow of the room or the direction of the story — his suggestions, his jokes, his clues, etc. never fit. They aren’t bad suggestions, they just aren’t right for the way the story or scene is flowing. It’s like he’s doing a different episode or, worse, an entirely different series. The problem is, whenever he pitches one of his out-of-sync ideas, it knocks everyone off track (though, to be fair, some times when explaining to Mr. Out-of-Sync why his suggestion is so so  wrong, it does lead us to a clever solution).

Another one is Mr. Cliche — every one of his suggestions is so painfully familiar, so incredibly over-done, so lazy, that you just want to leap across the room and strangle him (which, in itself, is a cliche).

Mr. Cliche’s close cousin in the writing room is  Mr. Steal From the Movie I Saw Last Night.  In one case, Mr. Steal From the Movie I Saw Last Night was the showrunner. He mapped out the season on the wall with index cards. Each index card referenced a recent or classic movie. For instance, let’s say the show was called DEFECATOR. The cards read like this: "Defecator’s Dirty Dozen," "Defecator’s Deliverance," "The Defecator’s Million Dollar Baby," "Brokeback Defecator," etc.

Of course, I’m none of those people. Then again, I’m sure Mr. Out-of-Sync thinks the same thing…and my constant fear is that he is me.

You Stole My Bad Idea

E! is reporting that a guy named Jack Bunick is suing Jennifer Lopez for allegedly ripping off his idea for the flop UPN series SOUTH BEACH:

The hourlong show
premiered Jan. 11 and lasted eight episodes, proving that there is a
limit to how much tanning, nightclubbing and stereotypically snooty
behavior viewers can stand. Bunick is seeking monetary
damages and an injunction barring any further broadcasting of South
(well, that second part sounds like a given anyway).

The report has amused the folks at MediaBistro:

This shows true savvy: Suing over a cancelled show. Clearly, loads of money to be gotten there.