MWA Party

Here are some photos from last night's MWASoCal's LA Times Festival of Books party at Skylight Books last night.

Gary and Cara
Here are my friends Gary Phillips and Cara Black reacting to pearls of literary wisdom from Stuart Woods.


Christa 2

And here's Christa Faust catching me ogling her. But she's used to being ogled.

MWA Announces Edgar Winners

Mystery Writers of America is proud to announce the winners of the 2011 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television published or produced in 2010. The Edgar® Awards were presented to the winners at our 65th Gala Banquet, April 28, 2011 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, New York City.


The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton (Minotaur Books)


Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva (Tom Doherty Associates – Forge Books)


Long Time Coming by Robert Goddard (Random House – Bantam)


Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime and Complicity 
by Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry (University of Nebraska Press – Bison Original)

Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his
Rendezvouz with American History 
by Yunte Huang (W.W. Norton)

"The Scent of Lilacs" – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by Doug Allyn (Dell Magazines)


The Buddy Files: The Case of the Lost Boy by Dori Hillestad Butler (Albert Whitman & Co.)


Interrogation of Gabriel James by Charlie Price (Farrar, Straus, Giroux Books for Young Readers)
The Psychic by Sam Bobrick (Falcon Theatre – Burbank, CA)


“Episode 1” - LutherTeleplay by Neil Cross (BBC America)

"Skyler Hobbs and the Rabbit Man" – Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine 
by Evan Lewis (Dell Magazines)

Sara Paretsky


Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, Forest Park, Illinois
Once Upon A Crime Bookstore, Minneapolis, Minnesota

(Presented at MWA’s Agents & Editors Party on Wednesday, April 27, 2011)
The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)


Old Dog, New Tricks

Warner Hollywood Studios Over the last couple of weeks, I've had the opportunity to stick my big, one-hour drama toe into the sitcom world, courtesy of a friend of mine who is writing & producing a pilot for a major network. Much to my surprise, he invited me to the studio one afternoon a few weeks back to participate in the initial punch-up of the script…along with a roomful of Emmy-award winning,  comedy legends, like my friend Ken Levine and his partner David Isaacs. I figured I'd just sit in the corner, keep my mouth shut, and watch the masters at work. 

But like the lead character in the pilot, sometimes my mouth and my brain don't always work in concert. I was only there for a few minutes when I contributed a joke…which went over only slightly better than if I'd vomited on the table. I decided to keep my mouth shut. That resolve lasted perhaps five more minutes, when once again I heard myself suggesting a joke…which went over so badly, I expected security to be called to escort me out of the studio.

I know I can be funny…when I am sitting at the computer, by myself, writing. And I know I can be amusing on panels or when speaking in public. But I'd never had to be funny on-demand, to contribute specific jokes to serve a plot point or character beat. 

Who the hell was I to think that I could participate?  I decided I was going to just shut up, listen, and learn. But then, the more I listened, I realized that everybody was offering stinkers as well as winners…for every ten bad jokes someone threw out, perhaps one would stick. And before I knew it, I was throwing another joke into the mix…and to my shock, everyone laughed and my buddy put it in the script. 

I was ridiculously pleased and my reluctance to participate evaporated. I stopped feeling so self-conscious about my horrible jokes and did what everyone else was doing — sharing whatever came to mind. And to my delight, a couple more of my jokes got laughs…and found their way into the script in some form or another.

I ended up having a wonderful time and learning how a comedy writers room differed from the "drama" rooms I'd been part of for most of my career.  IMG_0266

The closest I've ever come to something approximating the punch-up experience was writing for MONK. Andy Breckman and his writing staff all came from SNL or Letterman or stand-up, not the episodic world, so they were always throwing out jokes…but we were still writing a mystery, and the room, and the plotting, felt comfortable and familiar to me. I knew I could do the job and I didn't feel any pressure to be funny. I was more likely to offer a funny situation to the room than a joke, per se.

But in the punch-up room, story structure wasn't the main issue. It was making the funny stuff funnier…creating new jokes to address specific problems. I've re-written scripts before…and made funny scenes funnier…but never on-demand in front of a room of other writers. Rewriting has always been a private affair.

But one thing the punch-up experience shared in common with all of my other writing room experiences was that brainstorming was encouraged, that even bad ideas were welcomed because they could lead to good ones. In that respect, throwing out jokes was no different than suggesting clues, plot points, character beats, or any other aspect of writing a drama. 

It was a great day…it was an honor and a thrill just to be in the room with all of those extremely talented and acclaimed writers… to see how their minds worked…and how they worked with others.

The last thing I expected was to be invited back.

But I was. 

The pilot has now been cast,  a major director has been signed, the sets have been built, and it will be shot this week. Today I was invited back to help punch up the script following the final run-through.

This, too, was an entirely new experience for me. An entirely different group of comedy writers were gathered this time to watch the show on its feet, to see what worked and what didn't, then help the showrunner tweak the script to address network notes and smooth out some last-minute bumps that emerged during the staging.

So that's what we did. We watched a full run-through of the show, then locked ourselves in a conference room with a deli platter, soft drinks, a stack of scripts and lots of pencils. It was a lot like my previous experience…only scarier, because two top-level studio execs would be sitting in on the punch-up. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, what the rules were, or how this was supposed to work. But I knew if I made a fool of myself, the studio execs would certainly remember.

My friend, the showrunner, went through the script scene-by-scene, telling us what the problems were that had to be addressed and asking the writers in the room, all good friends of his, for their thoughts on any other bumps he might have missed.

People threw out new jokes and, once again, I hesitantly offered one of my own…that clearly nobody liked. It was as if I'd dropped my pants and urinated in the middle of the room. Well, at least that's how it felt to me.

More jokes flew around. I hesitantly offered another one, also D.O.A.  I was a fraud, a witless moron who had no place in a room full of professional comedy writers… so I tossed out one last joke to confirm what I already knew about my failings.

Everyone laughed.  And then they took that joke and started improving on it. So I added a tweak of my own. The joke went in to the script.

There was a young writer in the room who was absolutely fearless. Or perhaps "shameless" is the better word.  He threw out one joke after another….dozens of them, most of them lousy, and just kept doing it until he hit on something hilarious… and if that wasn't the joke that went in, it led the room to the one that did.

I learned a valuable lesson from him — I realized my biggest problem was my hesitancy. I had to commit to my jokes, or go in the opposite direction, throw them out casually, without worrying about whether they were any good or not. 

From that moment on, I contributed whatever came to my mind…and was surprised, and ridiculously pleased, by how much of my stuff either made it in, or inspired someone else in the room to come up with something much, much better than what I'd offered, but along the same lines.  We began to work as a big team, backing each other up. It was great fun.

I have no illusions about being any good at this, or that I came close to holding my own with the far more talented people in the room, but I had a great time…it actually felt good to be scared, to be challenged in new ways,  to discover new strengths as well as new weaknesses about myself.

This experience is going to make me a better writer…and for that, I owe my comedy-writing friend a big thank-you for taking a chance and inviting me into the room.

Backdoor Pilots

Jaime Weinman writes today in MacLeans about the network practice of using episodes of existing series as “backdoor pilots” for new shows. It’s a way to save money on making a pilot. Since standalone busted pilots cost millions of dollars, have no commerical value, and will never air anywhere,  shooting them as an episode of an existing series allows studios to recoup their costs from the syndication revenue of a hit series. Tonight’s episode of BONES is one such episode.

The problem is, backdoor pilots usually end up being one of the worst episodes of whatever series is hosting them. That’s because the stars of the host series, by design, have to take a back seat to the stars of the pilot…and let’s face it, people aren’t tuning in to see the pilot characters, they are tuning in to see the characters they already know and love.  Weinman writes:

Networks and producers used to disguise the fact that that was what they were doing, because it might drive viewers away if they knew they were going to be watching a new hero. The usual spot to put this kind of episode was in the last episode of the season, which before the Season Finale concept took hold was often used for filler episodes: hence, Star Trek‘s Assignment Earth was the last episode of the second season, and Mary Tyler Moore ended its second season with a failed attempt to create a new show for Bill Daily.

The networks and producers can’t really disguise backdoor pilots — because they can’t function as pilots without being pilots, introducing us to the characters and franchise of the proposed show. But it’s a practice that has worked.

Some of hit shows that began as backdoor pilots (also known, some years back, as “nested spin-offs”) include Diagnosis Murder, NCIS, CSI: Miami, Maude, SWAT, Petticoat Junction, Laverne  & Shirley, Barnaby Jones, Empty Nest, Knots Landing, and Stargate: Atlantis

The many, many shows that have hosted busted, backdoor pilots include Magnum PI, Cosby, Spenser: For Hire, Star Trek, Vegas, Charlie’s Angels, Murder She Wrote, Smallville, House, and The Rockford Files (which had at least three!)

Bill Rabkin and I were the executive producers of Diagnosis Murder with Fred Silverman, the man who once ran CBS, ABC and NBC and was known as the “king of the spin-off.” Since Diagnosis Murder was a nested spinoff of Jake and the Fatman, which itself was a nested spin-off of Matlock, Silverman was a big believer in backdoor pilots and  insisted that we do at least one every season. Diagnosis Murder tried at least six of them that I know of and they all went nowhere.

We personally did three of them, including Whistlers, basically a tame Lethal Weapon with women, and The Chief, starring Fred Dryer as the leader of the LAPD. Here’s  the main title sequence for Whistlers:

and the sales pitch for The Chief:


We were very clever with how we structured The Chief as a back-door pilot…and it was the only one of the Diagnosis Murder backdoor pilots that actually had a shot getting picked up.

We wrote it as a tw0-hour, sweeps episode of the series…but crafted it in such a way that we could edit it down to one-hour and cut almost all of the Diagnosis Murder cast out of the show for internal sales purposes 

Fred Dryer was great in the part…and newcomer Neil McDonough had real star power. We were sure we were on to something. The two-hour movie was one of the highest rated shows of the week, #12 if memory serves, and when we had the one-hour version tested, the scores were among the best Fred Silverman had ever seen. Silverman was convinced we were a lock for the fall schedule.

Unfortunately, this was one of the rare cases where ratings and testing didn’t mean as much to the network as personality…nobody at CBS wanted to work with Fred Dryer (which begs the question, why did CBS let us cast him, and why did they pay the  “pilot breakage” on his salary for the guest shot, if they had no intention of greenlighting a series with him in the lead?). 

But Silverman wasn’t concerned. With the numbers and testing we had, and with Dryer’s successful track record with the hit series Hunter, he was convinced we’d have a sale in a matter of weeks with another network.  

We took it to every network and pitched it face-to-face to their presidents (that was the power of working with Silverman), and every one of them had some personal reason for not wanting to be in business with Dryer…and seemed to take great pleasure in passing on the project in the room to his implacable face.

As it turned out, a couple of years later CBS did a very simlar show (The District) with great success and a star reportedly as difficult as Dryer reportedly was (Craig T. Nelson)…and NBC ended up reviving Hunter for six episodes and discovered, or so we heard, that Dryer was even more reportedly difficult than he’d ever reportedly been before.

I guess we dodged a bullet. 

Amazon the Bookseller meets Amazon the Jungle

Jim-16_lg My friend James Polster's out-of-print, 1987 comic novel A GUEST IN THE JUNGLE was just re-released by Amazon Encore, or as he explains it,  "Amazon the bookseller has recently decided to become Amazon the publisher and reissue my novel about Amazon the jungle." 

GUEST IN THE JUNGLE is about a Pittsburgh attorney named Whitehill who sets off on a South American vacation that he thinks will be a leisurely jaunt, hiking through the Amazon in his Brooks Brothers pants. But a sightseeing trip goes awry, leaving him stranded in the heart of the Amazon jungle…beginning a serious of outrageous, darkly comic misadventures.

James based the book on his own world travels. The snapshot on the left is from his own foray into the jungle. 

"It was taken by the anthropologist who had first contact with the tribe.  I never met him because he was killed by a coral snake (not that easy to happen, the snake has to get a really good bite) shortly after shooting this, about three months before I was taken in- by the guy who was with him when he was bitten," James says. "The anthropologist was also a marathon runner, and when he realized what had just happened, instead of staying in the cool river where he had slipped, his instincts kicked in and he started to run.  Pumped the venom all through his system."

His experience with Amazon has been fantastic…and they will soon be releasing his entire backlist, including BROWN and THE GRADUATE STUDENT over the next couple of months. Here's a Q&A with himself that he sent me. 

Q: After your world travels, you ended up in Los Angeles, a kind of jungle in its own right. What took you to L.A.?

A: I had an offer from Columbia Pictures, and a separate offer to write the screenplay for A GUEST IN THE JUNGLE.  I got the screenwriting offer because they knew about Columbia, and I got the Columbia offer because they knew about the screewriting thing.  So, I showed up in town with two jobs, neither of which I was qualified to do.

Q: In your second novel, BROWN, main character McGee Brown is a former sports writer turned amateur detective. Are you a sports fan as well as an adventure traveler? Any detective work in that daredevil past of yours?

A: I am a sports fan….I never was a detective, but I had an office in New Orleans that looked like something out of the Maltese Falcon, and a friend kept insisting we become detectives because of this.  

Q: Your newest novel, THE GRADUATE STUDENT, centers on the bizarre world of Hollywood with a little bit of jungle mystique mixed in… Any behind-the-scenes info you can share, either from Hollywood or the jungle?

A: Hollywood behind the scenes- It's all in the book.  Where else in the world can a bunch of daft people gather in a room to figure out how to spend millions and millions of dollars?  From the studio's old, secret staircase used to sneak starlets up to the casting couch, to Stallone's jokes, to the guy who taught one of the world's most powerful computers to be a screenwriter- so much of it is true. 

NY Publishers Terrified by Self-Pubbed Authors

89ae81ad280f6c268da494c354a389bd2adeb542 The Wall Street Journal reports that cheap ebooks from self-published authors are making NY publishers wake up in a cold sweat…a notion that self-published authors used to fantasize about and that I've scoffed at (and ruthlessly ridiculed) for years.

But the advent of the Kindle, combined with Amazon  offering their sales platform to all-comers for free, has changed everything. Now that self-pubbed  fantasy has come true in a big, big way:

"[Amazon is] training their customers away from brand name authors and are instead creating visibility for self-published titles," one senior publishing executive who asked not to be identified, says of Amazon.

As digital sales surge, publishers are casting a worried eye towards the previously scorned self-published market. Unlike five years ago, when self-published writers rarely saw their works on the same shelf as the industry's biggest names, the low cost of digital publishing, coupled with Twitter and other social-networking tools, has enabled previously unknown writers to make a splash

Now it's actually possible for an author nobody heard of to become a millonaire within just a matter of months. I'm not exaggerating. Everyone talks about Amanda Hocking…but perhaps the most astonishing success story of all is John Locke.

Mr. Locke, who published his first paperback two years ago at age 58, says he decided to jump into digital publishing in March 2010 after studying e-book pricing.

"When I saw that highly successful authors were charging $9.99 for an e-book, I thought that if I can make a profit at 99 cents, I no longer have to prove I'm as good as them," says Mr. Locke. "Rather, they have to prove they are ten times better than me."

Locke earned $126,000 on 369,000 sales on Amazon in March alone. That's a huge uptick from the 75,000 he sold in January and the 1300 he sold in November.

Wait, let's think about that some more. 

John Locke went from selling 1300 books to 369,000 in four months



Anyone who thinks the e-book market has peaked isn't paying attention….and any midlist author who signs another pissant three-book contract with a NY publisher (or any publisher) should check themselves into a mental institution right away. 

Don't look for Locke to follow Amanda Hocking's footsteps and take a NY publishing deal. He says he's not interested, though he has signed up with a high-powered agent to field movie offers and deal with foreign publishers. She sums up the whole ebook marketplace very nicely: "This is a Wild West of a world," she says.

The Wit and Wisdom of Jonathan Hayes

Jonathan Hayes My friend Alafair Burke has a terrific interview with my friend Jonathan Hayes up on Murderati. I first met Jonathan, a NY medical examiner and novelist, at Left Coast Crime in Hawaii and liked him instantly…he's one of those people you meet and, after about five minutes, feel like you've known them your whole life. One of my regrets about Bouchercon in SF this past year was that I didn't get a chance to spend some time with him. He's got a wicked wit, a fierce intelligence, and he's a hell of a nice guy, too. Jonathan has a new book out, A HARD DEATH, which you've got to read…

You are a fierce Facebooker.  Unlike many writers, you rarely even mention your books or your life as an author.  Instead, you really show your actual life through photos, music, and video.  What rings your bell about Facebook?

Yes, I am the bane of my publicist's existence – I'm frequently invited to comment on high profile killings on national TV, but always decline. I think it's inappropriate to hold forth on something so serious about which you only have third- or fourth-hand knowledge. All of us hate to be second-guessed; it's horrible to watch the jackals come out of the woodwork when a celebrity dies.

I've had a strong online presence for more than 20 years – I've had the same email address for all that time, and probably as many people call me "Jaze" as call me "Jonathan".

I find just about everything fascinating – seriously, I could get engrossed in an article about the history of cereal box typography design. As a result, I have the attention span of a magpie, regularly developing odd obsessions that are gushingly watered by the fountain of esoterica that is the Internet. And when I'm passionate about something, I want to share it, hear what other people think.  So I post it on Facebook, or on my Tumblr blog.

Right now, for example, I'm obsessed by a mostly West Coast niche subculture: girls and young women who've developed a style fusing psychobilly rock style (fringes, retro clothes, Sailor Jerry-style retro tattoos) with facial and body piercings, breasts plumped up by clothing or surgery, Hello Kitty-style kitschy accessories and My Little Pony hair colors borrowed from Harajuku in Tokyo. It's an odd look, a deliberate, almost angrily in-your-face miscegenation of Kiddie Cute and Hypersexualized Adult. I think it's less rock'n'roll than a new incarnation of rave style; that scene was characterized by a conscious infantilization that had kids drowning in brightly colored, deliberately oversized clothes, carrying animal-shaped backpacks and handing out candy while they chewed pacifiers. (Admittedly, those last two were to help deal with the jaw-grinding and clenching that are a side effect of the drug Ecstasy, but, still.)

Uh, here's my Facebook album for that – careful; depending on where you work, it might not be 100% safe for you.

I don't talk about my work work on Facebook because it's not appropriate; people died to make their way to me, and that should be private. This is one of the reasons I write fiction: to talk about the things I see, and the reactions they evoke, without betraying any confidence.


Bloated Writing Credit

Soul-surfer-movie-posterI've done a lot of WGA credit arbitrations and can't imagine what the committee that judged SOUL SURFER was thinking. The screenwriting credits for SOUL SURFER are the longest I have ever seen…

Screen Story by Sean McNamara & Deborah Schwartz & Douglas Schwartz & Michael Berk and Matt R. Allen & Caleb Wilson & Brad Ganin based on the book by Bethany Hamilton, Sheryl Berk, and Rick Bundshuh

Screenplay by Sean McNamara & Deborah Schwartz & Douglas Schwartz & Michael Berk

And it's not what you'd call a very complex story, as opposed to say the ten-hour GAME OF THRONES, which has this screen credit:

Screenplay by David Benioff & D.B Weiss, based on the novel by George R.R. Martin

Or, say, INCEPTION, which had this screen credit:

Screenplay by Christopher Nolan

What was so daunting and complex about the story of  a girl whose arm is bitten off by a shark that it would require a team of seven credited writers to adapt and four to write? It boggles the mind.