Writing in a Different Way

I've written over thirty novels, and my process with all of them was pretty much the same. I had an idea, I wrote a bullet-point outline, and I started writing the book, revising my outline along the way (I call them "living outlines," since I usually finish writing them a few days before I complete my manuscripts). But the process of writing KING CITY, my new standalone crime novel, was entirely different.

KING CITY began as a TV series pitch that I took all over Hollywood four or five years ago. It generated some interest but ultimately didn't lead to anything.  So I put it in a drawer and moved on.

But the idea nagged at me anyway and I began to think KING CITY might make a better book than a screenplay. So, between MONK novels three years ago, I wrote 200 pages and a broad-strokes outline for the rest of the book.  

I sent the proposal to my agent and began writing my next MONK book. The first place she sent KING CITY to was Penguin/Putnam, my MONK publisher, because she felt certain they'd snap it up. Between DIAGNOSIS MURDER and MONK, I'd written twenty-some novels for them. We knew that they liked me and my work, which had been successful for them, so we didn't think they'd see KING CITY as much of a gamble.

But they passed, surprising us both. My agent felt the rejection was less about me or the book than the way the business had changed. Mid-list authors were being dropped, editors were being fired, and the days of selling book proposals was over. If I wanted to sell KING CITY, I'd have to write the whole book and then shop it around.

I wasn't wild about that idea. If editors who knew me and my work well didn't find the first 200 pages compelling enough to merit an offer, I doubted that reading the whole novel would change their minds. And if these editors, folks I'd worked with for years, weren't willing to gamble on me, why would someone else?

Moreover,  after years of having contracts before I started writing novels, I was spoiled. The idea of writing a book entirely on spec made me uneasy, especially given my experience with THE WALK and WATCH ME DIE. Both of those books were written "on spec" and, after years bouncing all over New York, were finally published by Five Star, who paid a pittance for them. They got wide acclaim but not wide distribution. From a financial standpoint, they seemed to be a bust. I wasn't willing to go through that again.

So I tabled KING CITY and went back to writing one MONK novel after another. 

But then something amazing happened — the ebook market took off, and I started earning tens of thousands of dollars on my out-of-print backlist, like THE WALK. It changed my thinking entirely about the publishing business. About the same time, my TV agent started nagging me to write a spec pilot.

Which got me thinking about KING CITY again.

So, last November, when I was once again between MONK books, I re-read the 200 pages and realized I had the makings of a great spec pilot. I stripped the story down to the bare elements, reordered events, dropped some characters, and  rethought everything. Over the holidays, I adapted my unfinished novel into a screenplay.  Actually,  it ended up being two of them:  the one-hour pilot and the second episode.  I sent both scripts off to my TV agent and began work on my next MONK.

The scripts got me some exciting meetings at studios and networks…but didn't pan out into any options on KING CITY or a series staff job (at least not yet).  But I realized I had more than just two strong scripts — if I put them together, I had a remarkably detailed outline for the book.

So I decided to write it during my next MONK hiatus.

Along the way, I made lots of changes. I liked most of the choices I'd made for the screenplay, which tightened the plot and gave the story more of a narrative drive, but I missed some of the more "novelistic" elements that I'd dropped. So instead of novelizing my screenplay adaptation of a novel, I found myself writing KING CITY all over again…for the third time.

It's been a very unusual experience for me. I feel that KING CITY has improved with each draft, whether in novel or screenplay form. Adapting the original, 200 pages into a script forced me to take a hard look at everything, to sharpen the characters and tighten the plot, stripping away all of the fat in favor of narrative drive.  That relentless and mercilous focus on character and lean story-telling may be great for a script but not so much in a book, where taking the time to establish a sense of place, and to explore the internal thoughts of a character don't slow things down, they enrich the experience. Adapting KING CITY back into a novel again allowed me to see where I might have cut too deep, over-simplified the characters, or moved events along too rapidly.

I finished the first draft two days before I had to begin writing my next MONK novel (which I am in the middle of right now) and sent it off to some close friends for their comments. They gave me great notes, and by that, I don't mean enthusiastic praise. They told me what worked…and what didn't. I've been revising the book a little bit each day and will send it off this weekend to be copyedited. 

I like to think this is the best version yet of KING CITY. But you'll have to be the judge of that…and, hopefully, that will be very soon. If I have my way,  KING CITY will be published before the end of 2011.  

16 thoughts on “Writing in a Different Way”

  1. It’s nice to be able to take a chance on ourselves, now and again instead of always needing someone else to take the chance, isn’t it?
    Thanks for the pick me up. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with so much on my plate. But I need to think about it differently. Everything on my plate I put there because I want it there. I think I can handle it. Most days.

  2. Good for you. Keep reaching. These are new times. I have no contract at all, first time in three decades. But I’m writing.

  3. Thanks, Lee, you’ve given me a lot of encouragement from this process you are persevering with.
    Sometimes I think a 4-act structure works better on tv than in a novel where a 5-act structure might allow more room for sense of place and internal character monologue.
    But I’m keeping my fingers crossed in my mind for KING CITY.

  4. A five-act structure? I’m not sure I understand how that would work.
    For the KING CITY pilot script, I used the standard four-act structure (which even shows today that are doing six and seven acts are following dramatic underpinnings of the four act structure to lay out their plots…they are just calling their lengthier teasers and tags “acts”).
    But with the novel — all of my novels, in fact — I feel I’m following the pretty standard three-act structure.

  5. I can see, Lee, how you are saying that with your novels you are following a 3-act structure. Incidentally, I bought a paper copy of “Mr. Monk on the Road” and it’s got so much heart that it’s my favorite Monk novel so far. So you are writing 28 chapters, with 7 for act one, 14 for act 2, and 7 for act 3. But I would divide act 2 into two. So act one is chapters 1 to 7. Act 2 is chapters 8 to 14, with 14 and 15 being the midpoint. Then chapters 15 to 21 being act 3 and chapters 22 to 28 being act 4. Four acts works great on tv, I think. Each act runs for 12 or so minutes, with 12 minutes for commercials, in a one-hour show. Each act has about seven scenes. Each scene has about seven parts. It seems to work well. (Aaron Spelling added in a fifth act for 90210).
    But with a novel, it seems to me that each act of a four-act structure, seven chapters long each, runs a bit too long, and so lowers the quality instead of raising it.
    With a 5-act structure, and the Spenser novels from “Potshot” on are each 5 acts, there is an extra complication in the midpoint act-3. And this raises the quality of the story above a 4-act structure, I’m thinking.
    For instance (and I’m drawing on memory here), I did a bit of a study of Parker’s 5-act novel, “Painted Ladies.”
    In act one, chapters 1 to 15, the Problem is set up: Spenser was supposed to guard Prince, who was exchanging an oil painting for money, but Prince got killed, so Spenser is after the killers, and his one clue is that the case seems to revolve around Prince’s sexuality (which is a distraction).
    In act 2, chapters 16 to 25, Spenser pursues the clue and investigates Missy, who may have been sleeping with Prince, but Spenser has to kill two shooters who were waiting in his office to kill him. As a result, Spenser asserts to Susan that he is the type of person who takes action and thereby solves problems. His client may have gotten killed but Spenser is fighting back to regain his self-esteem. So in act 2 of the 5 acts, the hero has succeeded in making progress, but has provoked antagonism.
    Now we get the payoff in an act-5 structure: in act 3 of 5, we get the extra complication that the 4-act structure can’t supply. It turns out that the two shooters Spenser killed had numbers from Auschwitz tattooed on their arms. Auschhwitz? Are you kidding me? Where does this come in?
    With this sudden and completely unexpected complication, Parker has dramatically deepened the interest of the reader in his story. Auschwitz? Now what happens?
    In act 3, we learn that Prince was Jewish, that his father was in a concentration camp. And now there’s a big step forward for the Hero at the Midpoint: Spenser follows the girl who may have been sleeping with Prince and sees her with an older man, with whom she is having an argument. And just like that, the good guys dig deep and discover something called the Hertzberg Foundation. So Spenser needs to learn less about Prince’s sexuality and more about the Foundation and the painting. So this is not a story about sex, it’s a story about a painting. This is the midpoint/turning point.
    So Spenser talks to an expert on this particular oil painting and learns that the Hertzberg family had the painting, only to lose it during WW2.
    Then the antagonists strike back—a bomb goes off in Spenser’s apartment, and he’s lucky to survive it.
    Spenser and the police figure how the bomb was planted, and while the police want Spenser to lie low, he’s a stand-up guy and will remain in the open to draw the bad guys out. So the stakes go up and the tension of the drama increases at the end of act-3.
    In a 4-act structure the Hero would have solve the problem of act-2, then go on to act-3. But in a 5-act structure, the antagonists hit back in act-3, which greatly intensifies the tension. So act-3 in this story has done its job.
    Act 4: now focussing on the Hertzberg Foundation, Spenser gets the address. He is zeroing in. He corners a lawyer for the Hertzberg Foundation, but the lawyer won’t talk (later, in act-5 this lawyer reveals the key information Spenser needs to solve the case).
    Spenser goes to the Foundation address and he confronts Ariel Hertzberg, laying out the scheme Ariel’s worked to keep the painting and to kill Ashton Prince, Spenser’s client. Hertzberg calls in a thug to beat Spenser up, but Spenser beats the thug up. And so act-4 ends with the Hero now squarely up against the real antagonist—so who will win?
    Act 4 of the 5-act structure brings the Hero and the Bad Guy face to face, with neither of them yet able to defeat the other.
    So in Act 1, the Hero has a problem, but also a clue (Prince’s sexuality).
    In Act 2, there is evidence that points to Auschwitz.
    In Act 3, the Hero learns about a hidden Foundation.
    In Act 4, the Hero confronts the head of the Foundation.
    In Act 5, the Hero gets the lawyer’s testimony which forces the Bad Guy on the run, and the Hero figures out where he is hiding, and confronts him, and, in a complicated and fascinating ending, the Bad Guy is killed.
    So how is the 5-act structure more interesting, maybe, than the 4-act structure?
    Well, it’s not always the case. But when it is, it’s because of the surprising revelations that occur in act-3, and which the Hero fights out in act-4, and then resolves, with the help of a formerly uncooperative witness in act-5.
    All of Shakespeare’s plays contain five acts.
    So I’m wondering, Lee, that maybe KING CITY will work as 4-acts in a tv script, but needs five acts as a novel.

  6. I’ll bet the publisher’s rejection had nothing to do with the quality of the pages you wrote.
    MONK and DIAGNOSIS MURDER are well-known brands that don’t need a lot of expensive marketing to attract an audience. But the new book didn’t have the “branding” of a TV show, which made it a much bigger publishing risk. It’s easy for a one-off without a platform to fall through the cracks.
    But I’m glad you’re liking the rewrite and wish you the best of luck with it.

  7. “So I’m wondering, Lee, that maybe KING CITY will work as 4-acts in a tv script, but needs five acts as a novel.”
    Maybe it had five acts and I don’t know it. You’ll have to tell me when you read it.
    That said, your definition of what dramatically constitutes an act and mine are very different. Here’s a condensed version of how Bill Rabkin and I described the four act structure in our book Successful Television Writing:
    The four act structure goes something like this:
    In Act One, we are introduced to the characters, the conflicts, and what is at stake. For example, people in a small town are dying and if a cure isn’t found in 72 hours, the entire population of the town will die.
    In Act Two, the hero (or heroes) embarks on a course of action to resolve the conflict (i.e. solve the crime, find the lost gold, concoct an antidote etc.), but new obstacles are thrown in his path. For example, the antidote the doctors came up with for the disease doesn’t cure it… it actually accelerates it. Now they’ve made their patients worse.. and not only has the disease inexplicably spread to a neighboring town…but one of the doctors has it, too. The end of act two should turn the story in a startlingly new and unexpected direction. And trust us, we’ll be talking a lot more about the end of Act Two…
    In Act Three, our hero reacts to the change in the situation, and the new obstacles it presents, and embarks on a new course of action that leads him to believe the situation is under control, but by the end of the act, he finds out he’s wrong. The situation is much worse, or a new, much more daunting, obstacle has been put between him and his goal. All the stakes have been dramatically raised. They are all going to die. There is no hope.
    In Act Four, our hero comes up with a solution, overcomes his obstacles, resolves his conflicts and achieves his goal. The killer is caught, the diamond is returned, the disease is cured, world is saved.
    Even Law & Order, with its unusual format of dividing the story in half between cops and prosecutors, follows the four-act structure. The end of act one you know who died, you may know who the suspects are, and you certainly know what obstacles the detectives are facing in trying to solve the crime. At the end of act two, the cops arrest someone you didn’t expect and turn the story in a whole new direction. In Act Three, the heroes (who are now the prosecutors) have everything they need to convict the bad guy. They’ve got the confession. They’ve got the witnesses. There is no problem at all. But by the end of act three, the judge throws out the confession, the witnesses recant their testimony and or the DAs discover they have the wrong person in custody and the murderer is still at large. In Act four, they solve the crime and, more often than not, win the case. But whether they win or not, they always solve the mystery.
    Virtually every hour long TV show follows that four act format with little variation. Some shows, for example, also have teasers and tags.
    A teaser is exactly what it sounds like, a tease, something to hook you into the show and make sure you stick around to find out what happens next. The starship Enterprise is flying through space when its grabbed by a giant hand. Gil Grissom and his crime scene investigators are called to a bakery… where a man has been baked alive in a layer cake. Adrian Monk is called to a crime scene… only problem is, it’s a nudist colony.
    A tag is a wrap-up, a final comment, or as Quinn Martin called it, an epilog. It’s the scene that lets you know the world is at peace, that order has been restored, and that the heroes are ready to embark on more adventures. It was the inevitable Spock joke at the end of every Star Trek episode. It’s Alan Shore and Denny Crane having a drink on the balcony on Boston Legal. It’s Monk, Sharona and her son playing the board game Clue at the end of a case. It’s A.D.A. McCoy and D.A. Branch talking about the long-term implications, and cruel ironies, of the murder case they just won.

  8. Advice from a master:
    Often, when I ask a writer this question I am told that it is a beginning, middle and an end. This is not the answer. A lunch line has a beginning, middle and an end. The Three-Act structure is critical to good dramatic writing, and each act has specific story moves. Every great movie, book or play that has stood the test of time has a solid Three-Act structure. (Elizabethan Dramas were five act plays, but still had a strictly prescribed structure.) The only place where this is not the case is in a one-act play, where “slice of life” writing is the rule.
    (Book or screenplay)
    In Act One the protagonist meets all of the characters in the play. We also find out what the main problem of the story is. Everybody can usually plot Act One because we have to know the problem to have the idea. The trick in Act One is to keep it interesting. Don’t just start rolling out story points. Start at the most interesting point, where there is conflict and excitement, and help the audience sort it out.
    Act One is a preparation act for the viewer or reader. They are asking who is the hero. Do I like this person? Is this guy a heavy? Do I care about the relationships? What is the problem for the hero? Is the problem gripping?
    You should try to have a quick attack on Act One. Don’t start at “Once upon a time.” Open with a hook.
    FADE IN:
    Three men are chasing a woman down a deserted alley; she is carrying a screaming infant.
    What’s going on? Who is she? Whose baby is it? Let’s go! Get the story started! Make it interesting!
    By the end of Act One you should also have introduced the heavy (antagonist) and set up all of the secondary character relationships.
    This is the most important act in the drama because you have the two most important structural moves in the story.
    The complication usually comes at the top of Act Two. The problem that we already set up in Act One, now has to become much more dangerous and difficult. A good way to design the complications is to let it be a piece of the back-story that has remained hidden until Act Two.
    The baby in the woman’s arms is not hers, as she originally thought when she left the hospital, but was accidentally switched in pediatrics by an angel nurse, who is in reality the New Messiah. Now all the evil forces on earth are trying to kill the new Christ child. (Much bigger problem!)
    The heroes must then start to try to solve this bigger, more complicated problem, while the adversaries make moves to defeat them. YOUR ADVERSARIES MUST BE IN MOTION. Adversaries should not be standing around, waiting to be caught.
    At the end of Act Two is the second act curtain. This is the destruction of the hero’s plan. At the end of Act Two the protagonist should be almost destroyed, and at the lowest point in the drama, either physically and/or emotionally. He (or she) is flat on his back and it looks like there is no way he can succeed.
    This is simply the resolution of the problem. From the rubble laying around him/her, the protagonist picks up a piece of string and follows it to the eventual conclusion of the story. Some stories have downbeat endings, where the hero learns a lesson, but dies or is defeated.
    It is always possible to alter this Three Act Structure, but remember, if you break these plot rules, you should at least know why you are doing it.
    You can see from this brief description why Act Two is so important. It complicates the initial problem and it defeats the protagonist at its end. (The two major Act Two plot developments.)
    If you have ever watched a movie or read a book where it starts out great and then, after about a third of the way through, becomes a “hummer” where nothing new is happening and you’re starting to get bored, this is almost always because there is no second act. Next time, put the book or movie to my three act test, look for the complication and the second act curtain. See if I’m not right.

  9. I read your book, “Successful TV Writing,” and found it very interesting. And I agree with your quote from it above, and Stephen J Cannell’s view of structure. But I’m focussing on his comment that “Elizabethan Dramas were five act plays” and thinking that five acts might work for KING CITY in a novel, whereas four acts would be appropriate for a tv script. The difference is whether the plot solves 5 sub-problems or only 4, with that extra problem working well for a novel but not so well on TV (with exceptions).
    In “Hamlet”:
    Act 1 problem:
    he needs to learn he is to kill his uncle.
    Act 2 problem:
    but he needs to be sure, so he waits until he gets the idea to put on a play that mimics how his uncle killed his father
    Act 3 problem:
    his uncle’s reaction to the play proves he is guilty, and so Hamlet needs to kill him, but Hamlet fails to use his opportunity to kill him and instead kills Polonius
    Act 4 problem:
    the son and daughter of Polonius react need to react, and become out of control, so that Hamlet’s uncle needs to get them under control and does so by devising a plan for the son to kill Hamlet
    Act 5 problem:
    Polonius’s son confronts Hamlet only to die, and then Hamlet’s mother dies, and only then can Hamlet kill his uncle, but he dies himself: the reason is, he could kill on behalf of his mother but not his father
    In a 4-act structure, the act-2 problem would be cut. After act-1, Hamlet would immediately get the idea of putting on the play. Act 2 would end with the proof that his uncle is guilty. And act 4 would be severely compressed. The son and daughter would immediately fall under the sway of Hamlet’s uncle.
    So if you use 5-acts in KING CITY, I’m wondering if that will make for a better novel. For with 5-acts, the Hero does not reach the turning point at the end of act-2, he or she only finds a clue that then, when followed, leads to the turning point in act-3. And then the Hero makes a mistake, and it takes act-4 to sort it out. It seems to me that 5-act stories contain more drama whereas in 4-act tv shows the drama is sacrificed or toned down a bit in order to keep the plot moving.
    But with 90210, with 5 acts, the drama was increased. The format went something like this:
    3 scenes, 3 characters have a problem
    Act 1:
    things get worse
    Act 2:
    and then they get even more bad
    Act 3:
    and then bad decisions make things even worse
    Act 4:
    and then people are screaming and yelling
    Act 5:
    but then there are miraculous solutions
    With a 5-act structure, I feel like I’m being pulled more and more into a deeper story than with 4-acts, and it’s a sensation that is pleasing and interesting. And in act-4 of 5, the Hero is more severely tested than in a 4-act story.

  10. The legendary Broadway director Joshua Logan described three-act structure this way: Act One, you drive your hero up a tree. Act Two, you throw rocks at him. Act Three, you get him out of the tree.

  11. Well, I’ve become a reader solely due to your ebook reprints and your blog. I’d never heard of your non-Monk, non-Diagnosis novels and I admit that I’ve been a tie-in bigot (too much Alan Dean Foster growing up). So I’ve read some of your standalones and I’ll buy King City. And I really love the Remaindered short story.
    Also, I want to add this on a thread where Richard Wheeler just wrote. I’m partway through his Night Medicine solely on the quality of his blog. I’d never been a western reader and had never heard of him.
    You’re both great writers.

  12. One of the joys of reading this blog is when Dan Williams tells you (and recently your brother) what writing really is. I really like it when he tells you what _your_ writing really is.

  13. For all I know,KING CITY has a five act structure. Or a 12 act structure. I honestly don’t know. I just wrote the story the way I wanted to tell it. My guess is that I unconsciously follow a three-or-four act structure in my story telling…because that would probably feel right to me. But like I said, you’ll have to tell me after you read the book.

  14. Wow, I really loved reading this post. You have actually inspired me to pick the pen up and start writing again. I quit for over a year due to family issues and depression. But after reading this, I am motivated to jump back in and start writing my novel and fictions story again.


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