My brother Tod, also a novelist, and I sat down with the good folks at Thrive Global for a long, and very detailed Q&A to discuss what it takes in terms of skill, experience, and dedication to sustain a successful writing career and write bestselling novels. Here’s an excerpt:
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it?
Lee: I think it’s rejection and failure, which are inevitable in the writing business. Your manuscripts will be rejected again and again and again before they land a publisher. But some books simply won’t sell. Some of your published books will bomb and be savaged by reviewers. Not everything you write will be a winner or find the right audience. The key is not to become crippled by self-doubt and pain but to learn from the experience (Why was the manuscript rejected? Why did the book bomb?) and incorporate those lessons into your next book. The only way to overcome the failure is to keep writing.
Tod: Well, finding out what I was meant to write was a big part of it for me. When I was starting out, for some reason, I was averse to writing crime fiction and so I wrote these kind of quasi-literary books that even I wasn’t interested in reading. The public responded in kind! Once I finally decided to write crime fiction, everything sort of began to line up for me. But, too, as Lee said, self-doubt can be paralyzing. It’s odd. A coal miner isn’t paralyzed by self-doubt that prevents him or her from working, so talking about it as a challenge seems sort of silly in context. A job is a job, be it creative or physical. It’s what you do to make a living. I think once I began to think of writing as a job, as the thing that fed my family, these more ephemeral things began to fade away. Still, you have to write books people want to read.
You can find the entire interview here.
I like to listen to soundtrack music while I write. In fact, I’m just sitting down now to start working on the sequel to my upcoming novel LOST HILLS and I’ve been listening a lot to THE QUINN MARTIN COLLECTION VOL. 1 and the soundtrack to the 1975 TV series ARCHER. Both albums contain a lot of Jerry Goldsmith’s best 1970s TV work.
Enter the Dragon and Rush Hour by Lalo Schifrin
I’m a huge fan of Lalo’s TV themes (Mission Impossible, Mannix, Petrocelli, Bronk etc) and his two forays into “kung fu” cinema are pure 1970s action-score gold. A big chunk of KILLER THRILLER is set in Hong Kong and these soundtracks put me in the perfect frame of mind to write those scenes. (Yes, I know Rush Hour was made in the late ‘90s, but Lalo’s score was basically a reboot/homage of his Enter the Dragon work)
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation by Joe Kraemer & Mission Impossible 3 by Michael Giacchino
These are two pulse-pounding, soaring, propulsive, contemporary action scores based Lalo’s original themes …and evoke the foreign locales and over-the-top stunts of the Tom Cruise feature, putting me in the right frame of mind for writing the chases and fights in my book.
Hawaii Five-O by Morton Stevens
I love Morton Stevens, one of the best television composers ever (he also did the theme for Police Woman), and this classic soundtrack screams adventure, mystery and, of course, Hawaii to me. Although nothing in KILLER THRILLER is set in Hawaii, this soundtrack is always part of my playlist when I’m writing anything with action and colorful locations. It also creates a great tempo for writing punchy dialogue.
Goldfinger by John Barry
This is the iconic Bond theme song and is still the best of the Bond movie scores (though I am also a fan of David Arnold’s TOMORROW NEVER DIES score, which is essentially a contemporary rethink of Barry’s style and is also part of my playlist). GOLDFINGER immediately transports me to a world of intrigue and adventure…and puts me in a 007-frame of mind. Perfect for writing spy fiction.
The Bourne Film Soundtracks by John Powell and Moby
These soundtracks are the gold standard for the modern espionage tale…Powell’s score is dark and moody at times, thrilling and propulsive when the action reaches a fever pitch. Moby reworks his end titles / theme song Extreme Ways for each film in the series and hearing it always puts me in the mood to either see or write some kick-ass spy action.
The Wild Wild West TV Soundtrack by Richard Markowitz et al
I absolutely loved The Wild Wild West when I was a kid. If you don’t remember the show, it was a western take on James Bond starring Robert Conrad as superspy James West and Ross Martin as Artemus Gordon, his partner and a master of disguise. My sister and I used to pretend we were the two of them….I was always West, of course, and she was always stuck being Artemus. Even way back then, I had Wild Wild West music, recorded off the air on my cassette deck, playing when we were pretending to do cool stuff. Little did I know I was rehearsing for what I’d be doing decades later as a writer. Hearing the iconic themes and individual cues sparked my imagination as a kid and they still do today, putting me into the “let’s pretend and have fun” mode that I need to be in to write fiction. Although this is a “western” score, it’s still in the spy genre for me and is the perfect for writing about Ian and Margo.
Research is absolutely necessary when you’re writing thrillers…and it’s a part of the process I love, perhaps because I come from a family of journalists (and I was one once). The danger, for me, is that the more I learn about a topic, the more I want to learn…and it’s easy for me to end up spending far more time than is necessary on the research (it’s also a great form of procrastination.. you can fool yourself into thinking you’re working instead of actually avoiding work). I can talk to dozens of experts, and read three or four books and countless articles, for what might end up being only a few lines of dialogue or description in the book (or, OTOH, what ends up being the core of the story). But that’s always better than writing pages of exposition, description, or dialogue to show off how much research you’ve done. I’m a big believe that one sentence offering a telling detail is far better than a paragraph of description. That said, having the “extra” knowledge on a particular topic in the back of your mind as you write ends up deepening the story and the characters in subtle ways… and often, at least for me, research inspires new characters or plot twists that I never would have come up with otherwise.
Travel is my favorite part of research (and it was a lot of fun to do for KILLER THRILLER, my latest release). Sure, you can use guidebooks, watch Bourdain or Rick Steves episodes, and do a deep dive into Google Earth to fake it, and I’ve done that a few times out of necessity, but I truly believe that nothing beats “feet on the ground” to get that tiny detail, smell, taste or sound that will bring a place, a moment, or a character to life. It’s important to truly experience the place you are writing about. That means not just hitting the tourist spots, but the places where the “locals” live and work. It also means being gregarious and talking to those people — so you can create realistic characters who truly reflect the places you’ve been. I usually already have my story in mind before I travel for research… but inevitably, my story changes dramatically after what I learn from actually experiencing a place I only imagined as I was plotting.
To write my books, I’ve traveled to France, China, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, and all over the United States, among other places. But travel research can mean just stepping outside your door and seeing your own city in a new way.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles for over 30 years. In my novel THE WALK, a guy is stuck in downtown in LA when the big one hits and has to walk across a landscape of destruction back to his gated community in the San Fernando Valley. I know the L.A. well, but I still read a bunch of books and articles on the city, the architecture, and the neighborhoods that make it up, on earthquakes and what experts expect the damage from The Big One is likely to be. I had the story plotted out but then decided, if I was going to do this right, I really needed to take the walk myself. And when I did (not all at once, like my character), I saw things that made me rethink my plot and I picked up the key details of place and character that made the book come alive. When it was over, I had a better understanding, and a new affection, for the city I live in and thought I already knew.
I attended a homicide investigators training conference almost two years ago — I was one of only three civilians invited — as research for a book I was thinking about writing (and had already loosely plotted). While I was there, however, I learned about a case that I couldn’t get out of my head. I was smart enough to throw out my story and to focus instead on using this real case as the inspiration for my novel. I introduced myself to all of the detectives, forensic specialists, etc. who were there to present the case, told them I intended to write about it, and asked if they would let me talk with them in more depth in the weeks following the conference. They all agreed. The novel that came out of that wonderful research experience, LOST HILLS, is being released this fall and I’ve already signed to write the sequel. The book would never have happened if I hadn’t done the research my story…and been open to the inspiration that can come when you begin exploring the “reality” that is the foundation for our fiction.
There’s a short, new video interview with me from Amazon Publishing that talks about my shameful addiction to storytelling…and how it culminated in my new Washington Post bestselling thriller True Fiction. I think you might enjoy it.
Creating a strong antagonist in a crime novel can be the key to the success or failure of your story. I’m a firm believer that “the bad guy” has to be as smart or, preferrably, smarter than my hero…and someone whose personality and actions will highlight all the weaknesses and conflicts that make my hero who he is.
I also make sure my “bad guy” is more than just a bad guy…he’s someone with his own agenda, his own demons, his own needs, someone who has more going on in his life than whatever criminal act he is engaged in (or that he has already committed). And that’s very important. Rarely is anyone just pure evil for evil’s sake…except in cartoons, Batman episodes, or James Bond movies.
I always try to look at the story from the bad guy’s point of view and ask myself what he’d be doing if he was the hero of the story…and if my protagonist was, in his view, the “bad guy.” I have to invest as much thought in my bad guy as do in my hero if the story is going to work.
You can learn a lot about making bad guys rich characters by watching THE SOPRANOS, a show that’s ostensibly all about the bad guys. Sure, they killed people, but they also had mortgages to pay, worried about their kids, read the morning paper, had all the responsibilities, hopes, dreams, and anxieties that “good guys” have. They didn’t wake up each day and ask themselves “what evil can I do today…mwa-ha-ha.”
I learned to make my bad guys fully-rounded characters, with lives and goals of their own, from watching COLUMBO…and later working for Stephen J. Cannell…and reading Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry.
On COLUMBO, we spent the first half-hour of each episode watching the bad guys, getting into their lives, understanding why they had to kill. But what ultimately made COLUMBO such a pleasure was that he was always outmatched by the bad guys…and beat them anyway. The smarter the bad guys were, the smarter he had to be to beat them. Or, to put it another way, the best bad guys brought out the best in Columbo.
It was Steve Cannell, one of my mentors, who taught me to always ask myself “What is the bad guy doing?” “What does the bad guy want?” “What is the bad guy thinking about?” in every scene where the bad guy wasn’t on screen. The bad guy always had to be doing something, not sitting around waiting for the detective to catch him or simply throwing obstacles in the detective’s way.
Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry (in his westerns) made their “villains” as likeable, layered and interesting as their heroes…in fact, some times they were even more compelling. Leonard and McMurtry excelled at creating likeable, funny, believable psychopaths and killers.
The bottom line: having a strong antagonist makes your hero stronger and your story better.
(This post was originally written for April’s The Big Thrill Roundtable)
My writing ritual is simple. I do my best writing from 8 pm-2 am…and I usually start my day at 10 or 11 am by rewriting what i did the day before. When that is done, I start writing “the new stuff.” I repeat that process until the book is done.
I’m a big believer that writing is rewriting…and that it’s always easier to rewrite crap than it is to fill an empty page…
Get. Something. On. The. Page.
That is my writing mantra.
But that often means that what I end up with at the end of the day is terrible or just the broad strokes of what I am going for. I know I will go back, sharpen the dialogue and color between the lines, adding the character or details left out in my eagerness get something down. Or it can go the other way…I’ve written endless reams of exposition and dialogue that I need to trim with an ax. Ten pages of blather becomes three pages of tight, lean writing. If what I’ve written doesn’t further the plot and reveal character then it has to go. I am also very aware the beat of my story, the pace…it’s almost like tapping my foot to music. If i lose that beat, cuts or revisions need to be made to move things along.
I typically go through the pages with an eye toward cutting all the exposition that I possibly can,all the unnecessary details that slow the pace, and taking whatever clever lines I come across in prose seeing if I can put them into my characters’ mouths instead. I strike out any cliche phrases, which were left as place-holders for actual writing that I’d do in the revisions.
I will often rewrite a scene four, five or six times before a book is finished. So when I complete my first draft, it’s pretty close to done. Anything I do at that point, before turning it in, is more about tweaking and polishing.
PS – I should also mention that I always work from an outline, I never just wing it. I need to know where I am going so that when I’m writing I’m concentrating on writing, not plotting. My plot may change (and often does) as I write, and when that happens, I revise my outline. That is a continual process. I usually finish my outline, which I call a living outline, about a week before I finish the book.
(This post was originally written for April’s The Big Thrill Roundtable)
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.
The good folks at the Classic TV History blog are doing God’s work. They’ve just done their second, in-depth interview with TV writer-producer David Levinson, whose many credits include THE BOLD ONES: THE SENATOR, SARGE, CHARLIES ANGELS, HART TO HART, NIKITA and scores of other shows. It’s a long, detailed, terrific interview filled with fascinating anecdotes about the writing and production of the various series that he’s been associated with over his long, varied career. It doesn’t matter whether you know the shows that he’s worked on or if you liked them — this is gold for anybody interested in TV history or in a career in television. I loved every word of the interview. Levinson has been around a long time and he’s got some great stories, like this one about an episode of THE VIRGINIAN…
Oh, this is good. By the way, I was a total asshole about this. This is my second season on the show as a producer. I’m like 27 years old. I’d done like four episodes the season before, and I wanted desperately to do a show about black cowboys. I talked to a writer by the name of Norman Jolley, and we’d come up with a really good story about a cowboy who had worked his whole life to save up the money for his son to go to college, and then he got ripped off. In order to get his money back, he falls in with a bunch of rustlers to steal the cows from John McIntire’s ranch, and bad things happen.
Nowhere in the script did it mention that the father and son were black. Just the character names.
Everybody liked the script, and I go in to see the executive producer, and he says, “Who are you thinking of casting?”
I said, “I want to cast James Edwards.”
There’s this long pause, and the executive producer – who, by the way, was the nicest fellow you’d ever want to meet: Norman Macdonnell, who had produced Gunsmoke all those years – looked at me and said, “Isn’t he black?”
I said, “He was the last time I saw him.”
Very gently, he explained to me that we had a primarily redneck audience and you just couldn’t cast a black man as the guest star in one of the shows. I said to him, “Well, listen, you’re the boss, and if that’s the way you feel, that’s what we’ll do. But I feel it only fair to tell you that I’m going back to my office and calling The New York Times and The L.A. Times to tell them about this conversation.”
He came up from behind the desk, and he was a big guy. His face was totally flushed and he looked at me and said, “You little cocksucker.”
I said, “Yes, sir.”
And we cast Jimmy Edwards. The show went on the air. There were no letters. Nobody fucking noticed that there were two black actors playing the leads in this show. But shortly thereafter I left The Virginian.
No surprise. But the real pleasure of the interview with Levinson aren’t dramatic moments like that but the meat-and-potatoes stuff about the making of TV. I strongly recommend the interview… and everything else on the Classic TV History blog, especially their incredible Oral History of THE SENATOR, which is better than a lot of TV books that I’ve read.