The Mail I Get — What Happens After You Turn In Your Book?

Charmi congratulated me on turning in MR. MONK AND THE DIRTY COP and asked:

Out of curiousity, how much work will you still have to do on it? At this point in writing Monk novels, do you get many change requests from the editor? Or, can you pretty much consider this "done"?

I'm sure that's a question a lot of you have, so here's what I told her:

I usually don't get any major notes from MONK creator Andy Breckman or my editor, so the next step will be to go through the copy-edited manuscript. That's basically my own manuscript sent back to me, all marked up, after my editor and the copy editor have gone through it, spotting typos, punctuation errors, inconsistencies, awkward phrases etc. They will make suggestions on the page for corrections,  changes and clarifications. They will also suggest trims or places where I might want to go into more detail…but the choice is mine. For the most part, it's very minor stuff and I get through it very quickly. It's also my last chance to do any rewriting that I want to do for creative reasons…which usually only amounts to a line or two, here and there.

A month or two after that, I will receive the typeset galley, also known as the advance proofs, which is basically an unbound version of what the final book will look like. The editor, copyeditor and I read through it for errors (although we inevitably miss two or three big ones, much to my embarrassment) and send it on to production.

At that point, my job on the book is done…if you don't count promotion (like going to book signings, attending conferences, speaking at libraries, etc.)

Become the Next Norman Lear

This November, Emmy Award winning comedy writer Ken Levine is hosting another one of his phenomenal SITCOM ROOM writing classes:

With all the writing classes and books around, I realized there’s one thing none of them teach – what it’s actually like being in a sitcom writing ro>Practically all sitcoms are “room written” these days (even single camera shows like 30 ROCK). That’s
when a dysfunctional group of funny, creative people somehow manage,
collectively, to craft a brilliantly funny (or at least not
embarrassing) script while suffering from incredible time pressure and
personality clashes.
[…]I found myself imagining a weekend workshop that gives you the hands-on
experience you could only get in a professional writing room […]A cross between a seminar/workshop and comedy writing fantasy camp.

If you want to be a TV comedy writer, you've got to take this class. There are still a few spaces left, so sign up fast.

How to Throw the Pitch

I'm going in to a major studio next week to pitch a TV series.  In advance of the meeting, the studio wants you to send them a very short log line of the concept, sort of the equivalent of a TV Guide listing. Assuming that they like the log-line, a few days before the meeting they will send you the "Drama Series Pitch" format that they expect you to follow for your verbal presentation. Here it is:

THE TEASER—Pitch out a tease that grabs your audience, that is visual, gives a sense of the world, tone and set up of our show.

THE WORLD—After you have grabbed our listener, tell us what the world is and why you want to do a show about it.

our characters in order of importance, allowing what makes each one distinct to
shine through (quirks, traits, backstory). Also discuss character dynamics, how each character relates to each other and what their point of views are about each other. Tell us about triangles, rivals, love interests, etc.

THE PILOT—Broad stroke the rest of the pilot. Do not go beat by beat or act by act. This should really just be broad strokes and key plot points which help establish character and set up. Also, your pilot needs to serve as an example of what a typical episode would look like (i.e. an example of a closed-ended story and examples of character conflicts).

THE SERIES—discuss what an episode of your show looks like, where you want to go in series, potential storylines and character arcs and entanglements.

THE TONE—You want to make sure you have clearly established the tone of your show and may want to hit it again in the wrap up at the end. It is often helpful to use shows that people are familiar with.

I've been in the TV business for a while, and I have done hundreds of pitches, but this is the first time anyone has ever given me a required format.  I guess that the studio has been hearing a lot of meandering, unfocused, boring pitches lately.

In general, I have no problem with their format, and would certainly have included most of what they want in my pitch anyway, though perhaps not in that order. 

Doing it their way is fine for me and has actually helped us focus our pitch and tighten it up. But I think there are some cases where rigid adherence to their format could kill a pitch. Not all series ideas are best told with a teaser and the pilot story…nor do all ideas lend themselves to comparisons to previous series ("It's HANNAH MONTANA meets THE SHIELD with a touch of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA").

Also some writers just have a natural, entertaining way of  pitching that suits their personality and thinking that might not follow a template…but still gets the key points across that the studio is looking or. Asking those writers to adjust to a particular template might throw them off and undermine what otherwise would have been a great pitch.

Our Worst Script

I published the post below on this blog in July 2006…and forgot all about what I said I’d do at the end. Now I am following through…

Ken Levine writes today about the worst script he and his partner ever wrote.

In 1993 my writing partner, David Isaacs and I did a short run series
for CBS called BIG WAVE DAVE’S starring Adam Arkin and David Morse. It
ran that summer, got 19 shares, kept 100% of MURPHY BROWN’S audience
and was cancelled. At the time CBS had starring vehicles in the wings
for Peter Scolari, Bronson Pinchot, and the always hilarious Faye
Dunaway so they didn’t need us.

We were given a production order
of six with three back-up scripts. We assigned the first two back-ups
to our staff and planned on writing the third ourselves. When the show
was cancelled we put in to CBS to get paid for the additional scripts.
They said fine, but we had to turn in the completed scripts. Gulp!

Rabkin and I had almost the exact same experience on SEAQUEST. We’d
already turned in the outline for  episode 14 when we got canceled.
But in order to get paid for the teleplay, we had to write it. We did
it in one day, while we were packing up our office. I still live in
fear that some sf fan will stumble on a bootleg draft at a scifi
convention, post it on the net, and people will think we actually write
that bad. I’m in Germany now, or I’d post an excerpt. I’ll try to
remember to do it when I return.

UPDATE March 8, 2007:
  Okay, here’s an excerpt from "About Face,"  the script Bill and I wrote in a day to get our script fee. We knew no one would ever read it. All you need to know to follow along is that Piccolo a man with gills and Darwin is a talking dolphin (I’m not kidding).

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How To Write a Treatment

This was originally posted back in June 2005…but since I get asked this question a lot, and I am on a plane to Germany right now, I thought I’d share it with you again.

Bryon Stedman  asked me this question in a comment to another post:

I have a situation where a broadcast entity claims they want to hear my idea for a boxing series or made for TV movie. The characters belong to my family from a comic drawn by my father.

If a narrative is they way to go, what are the key points to include? Do I go as far as dialog and cameas shots and locations or simply text with main characters CAPITALIZED? Advice requested and appreciated.

A series treatment and a TV movie treatment are very different. A series treatment sells the characters and the franchise of the show…the relationships and format that will generate stories week after week. A TV movie treatment sells a story.

If the studio is already familiar with your Dad’s comic, I don’t know why they need you to come up with a series treatment…the strip itself sells that or they wouldn’t be interested in the first place.

A series treatment isn’t about telling a story…it’s about describing the characters, how they interact within the unique format of your show. Who are they? What do they do? And how will who they are and what they do generate 100 interesting stories?

For a TV movie treatment, you’re selling the characters and their story.  At this point, you’re trying to sell the broadstrokes…they can pay you to work out the rest. Write up a punchy over-view of what happens in the story, as if you were writing a review of a great movie (only minus the praise). You want to convey the style and tone of the movie. But don’t go into great detail. Keep it short, tight and punchy.And whatever you do, DON’T include camera shots or dialogue.

Don’t fixate on treatment format, because there isn’t one. Tell your story in the style that works best for you. Don’t worry about whether the character names are in capitals or not (it doesn’t matter). Concentrate on telling a strong story.

Breaking In

I’ve been looking at my stats and I’ve noticed that there are some posts that people are repeatedly searching out. I’ll start reposting some of them for those of you who only started following this blog in the last year or so. This one is from November 2005 and is also available as an article on the Writers University website…

How do I become a television writer if I don’t have any contacts?

I get asked this question a lot…but it’s disingenuous, since I’m a TV writer/producer and whoever is asking me that is really asking me to either read their script or to invite them in to pitch. So, theoretically, they already know somebody in the business.

They’re luckier than I was when I got started. I didn’t know anybody in the TV industry. But I got in. How did I do it? Everybody’s story is unique. Most of those stories, however, share one common element. You have to put yourself in the right place to get your lucky break. And it’s easier than you think.

The first thing you have to do is learn your craft. Take classes, preferably taught by people who have had some success as TV writers. There’s no point taking a class from someone who isn’t an experienced TV writer themselves.

You’d think that would be common sense, but you’d be astonished how many TV courses are taught by people who don’t know the first thing about writing for television or who, through a fluke, sold a story to Manimal twenty years ago and think that qualifies them to take your hundred bucks. Even more surprising is how many desperate people shell out money to take courses from instructors who should be taking TV writing courses themselves.

There’s another reason to take a TV writing course besides learning the basics of the craft. If you’re the least bit likeable, you’ll make a few friends among the other classmates. This is good, because you’ll have other people you can show your work to. This is also good because somebody in the class may sell his or her first script before you do… and suddenly you’ll have a friend in the business.

Many of my writer/producer friends today are writers I knew back when I was in college, when we were all dreaming of breaking into TV some day.

A writer we hired on staff on the first season of Missing was in a Santa Monica screenwriters group… and was the first member of her class to get a paying writing gig. Now her friends in the class suddenly had a friend on a network TV show who could share her knowledge, give them practical advice and even recommend them to her new agent and the writer/producers she was working with.

Another route is to try and get a job as a writer/producer’s assistant on an hour-long drama. Now only will you get a meager salary, but you will see how a show works from the inside. You’ll read lots of scripts and revisions and, simply by observation, get a graduate course in TV writing. More important, you’ll establish relationships with the writers on the show and the freelancers who come through the door. Many of today’s top TV producers were writer/producer assistants once. All of the assistants I’ve had have gone on to become working TV writers themselves… and not because I gave them a script assignment or recommended them for one. I didn’t do either.

The first step towards getting into pitch a TV producer for an episodic writing assignment is to write an episodic teleplay on spec.

By that I mean, a pick a show and write an episode for it.

Although there are some producers who prefer to read screenplays, most showrunners, agents, and network executives want to read an episodic teleplay. Even if your spec feature script has acceptable levels of dialogue, characterization, and structure, people thinking of hiring you will still wonder “yes, but can he handle my characters? Does he understand the four act structure?” An original piece can demonstrate that you have a strong voice, but it doesn’t show whether or not you blend that voice with ours. Can you write what we need without losing whatever it is that makes you unique? That’s why we need to see your talents applied to a TV episode. To someone else’s characters. To someone else’s voice.

How do you pick a show to spec? Easy. Pick a show you like. Odds are, if you’re thinking about trying to become a TV writer, you already know what show you want to spec — you just don’t know you know. It’s the one you watch every week, and when it’s over, you find yourself thinking: That was pretty good, but wouldn’t it be cool if —"
Don’t worry about what’s hot and what’s not – choose a show you feel a connection to, one that you “get.” With some exceptions:

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An Argument for Outlining

I am a firm believer in the importance of having an outline before you sit down to write. It doesn’t have to be detailed outline– it might only be a page or two.  You just need to know where you’re going and, to some degree, how you are going to get there…or what happened to author Sandra Scoppettone could happen to you:

In the course of writing today (yes, I did) I inadvertently
discovered that I have two different men involved with the same two
women who are trying to get the money everyone is after.  It has to be
one man or the other.  Pages and pages must be rewritten.  Whole
chapters.  Nightmare.

Did this happen because I took off so much
time?  Or am I losing it?  I understand forgetting the color of a
character’s eyes, but this is crazy.  And with one man I’m not sure I
even did the set-up with the women.  I think these three just happen.
The reason I don’t know this is because I couldn’t go on with this

Tomorrow I’m going to have to trace backwards and find out.  And then I’ll have to write new scenes, rewrite others completely.

"How Did This Happen?" is the headline of Sandra’s post. No offense to Sandra, but I can answer that question in two words: No outline.

That doesn’t mean that if you have an outline that the writing of your book is going to go smoothly. You could still find yourself having to go back and rewrite everything…but not because you’ve inadvertently duplicated a character. Outlines give you a path and a direction for your story, although that doesn’t mean you have follow it.

But at least the path is there.

I think of my outlines as "living outlines," since I’m constantly revising them as I write my books.  Why? Because I am always deviating from my outlines and going in new directions, so I have to replot my story to take into account these new events and discoveries.  I usually end up finishing the outline about a week or two before I finish my books.

I’ve read so many books that were clearly made up as the author went along…and I find them a lot less satisfying that a tightly plotted, tightly-written, confident narrative.

Writing Blind

Novelist John Connolly has an interesting post on researching his novels. But what intrigued me was this little nugget about how he writes:

I brought with me to the US the initial draft of The Unquiet.
I imagine it would be almost unintelligible to anyone who tried to read
it as a coherent narrative. My first draft tends to be a little rough.
There will be inconsistencies of dialogue and character. Some
characters will appear in the early stages only to disappear later,
their failure to manifest themselves once again left entirely
unexplained. Some things seem like good ideas at the start, but quickly
prove to be distractions from the main thrust of the book, and as soon
as that realisation hits me I tend to let those elements slide.

I don’t fret too much about how untidy the text may be (although,
in my darker moments, I wonder what might happen if I didn’t live to
finish the book and someone else, for whatever reason, decided to piece
together whatever was left behind. I wish them luck. I mean, I’ve
written it, and sometimes even I’m not entirely sure that I always look
forward to trying to put all of the pieces together). After all,
there’s nobody looking over my shoulder, and my main aim is to get the
plot and characters from A-Z, even if that means bypassing Q and R
entirely, and occasionally having to loop back to P just to reassure
myself that I have a vague notion of what I’m doing.

I’m guessing that John doesn’t write with an outline. I know a number of authors who write the same way he seems to…just going where ever the inspiration takes him.  I’m not going to knock it because clearly it’s worked great for him.  But I don’t think I could ever write that way. That doesn’t mean that I stick religiously to my outline, or that characters don’t come and go (I’ve had characters who were meant to die in Chapter One that I kept alive through the whole book), but I need it to keep me more or less pointed in the right direction. I would find writing a book, particularly a mystery, very difficult to do on-the-fly.

Making a Living

I had lunch with a TV writer-friend not long ago, and he was lamenting how the business was letting him down lately. He hadn’t worked much in TV during the last year and was despairing about his future. He told me that he wished he wrote books, too. So write one, I said. But I could see from the expression on his face that he wouldn’t. He liked the idea of writing a book…actually doing it was something else. He was a TV writer, and that was it.

I decided long ago that I was going to be a writer first and a TV writer second. There’s no question that I make most of my living in television…but I believe it’s important to me professionally, financially, psychologically and creatively not to concentrate on just one field of writing (It probablyhelps that I started my career as a freelance journalist, then became a novelist, then a non-fiction author, and finally, a TV writer/producer).  So I write books, both fiction and non-fiction, I teach TV writing, and occasionally I write articles and short stories… most of the time while I’m simultaneously writing & producing TV shows (though the TV work always takes priority over everything else). 

While the income from books, teaching, and articles doesn’t come close to matching what I  make in TV, those gigs keep some cash coming in when TV (inevitably) lets me down, keep me "alive" in other fields,  and, more importantly, keep my spirits up.

As a result, who I am as a writer isn’t entirely wrapped up in whether or not I have a TV job or a book on the shelves. I often have both, or one or the other — but if I have neither, I have a class to teach or an article to write.

I’m not producing a series right now. But last week, I partnered with a major production company and pitched a movie with them to a cable network. I met with representatives of a European TV network that’s interested in having me teach TV writing to their writer/producers and consult on their series. I rewrote a  TV movie treatment to incorporate studio notes.  I turned in a freelance script to the producers of a new drama series. I taught an online screenwriting class. I submitted a short story to Amazon shorts. I wrote 60 pages of my next novel. Next week, I have a meeting with a studio exec who has shows to staff up, a notes meeting on the freelance script, galleys to proof on one of my novels, more pages of my book to write, and probably a whole lot more that I don’t even know about yet. 

The bottom line is, I am always writing something for pay, even if that check is miniscule and hustling for my next gig, whether it’s in TV, publishing, or something else.  Why? Because that is who I am… a professional writer. And I have a mortgage to pay, just like everybody else.

My Book is Crap

It’s nice to know that every writer, even the ones with lots of success, are still tortured by the same insecurities as the rest of us. Acclaimed mystery novelist John Connolly writes:

I can’t speak for other writers, but there is a wall that I hit during
the writing of every book. The point at which it occurs varies from
book to book, although it’s usually around the halfway stage or just
beyond it. I start to doubt the plot, the characters, the ideas
underpinning it, my own writing, in fact every element involved in the

[…] You’d think that, by now, with eight books written, those doubts would
have become less intense. After all, I’ve been through it before. I
know that I’ve had these concerns about other books and in the end
those books have been written and published without bearing any obvious
scars from the turmoil that went into their creation. But there is
always that fear that this book, this story, is the one that should not
have been started. The idea isn’t strong enough. The plot is going
nowhere. I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way and now have
to try to find the right path again.

This happens to me, too…but less often if I have a strong outline to start with (though an outline  is no insurance policy against realizing 35,00o words into your book that it’s crap and you’re a complete fraud). In talking with other writers, I’ve noticed that the ones who hit the wall the most are the ones who make up their plot as they go along, preferring to be "surprised" by their characters and the turns in the story. Of course, this means the turns may lead to a creative dead end.  I don’t know if John outlines or not, but my guess is that he doesn’t.

UPDATE:  Author PJ Parrish is nearing the end of a new book and is experiencing night terrors:

The new book is almost done. First draft, that is. I haven’t read it
through since we started the thing months ago. I am afraid to. I have
this really bad feeling that it is a heaping, stinking, fetid, rancid
pile of crap. I dream about it now, this pile of crap, almost every
night, like Richard Dreyfus in "Close Encounters." I wake up in a sweat
over it. My only consolation is knowing that I feel this way with every
book. And that I am not alone.