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.
People are always writing me for advice about TV and publishing, not that I have any great wisdom to impart. But that doesn’t stop me from replying anyway.
Hello Mr. Goldberg:
I was referred to you by a friend of your friend XYZ…I am 64 years old and I have a screenplay that desperately needs a place to go, and your name was delivered as the unquestionable favorite. Please let me know if you might be able to provide me any guidance or wisdom. Should you not be able or interested, (she tries to put away that big pouty lip), your suggestion of someone else would be greatly appreciated.
Unfortunately, I don’t have good news for you. In fact, I have very discouraging news for you. Everybody in L.A. has a screenplay they want to sell. You are one of thousands…and you’re competing with them all, inexperienced and experienced screenwriters alike. I’m neither an agent nor a studio exec, so there’s really nothing I can do for you. I don’t know of any agents who are taking on new clients (they are having a hard enough time selling the scripts written by the experienced clients they already have).
The best advice I can offer is for you to contact the Writers Guild of America to see if they can give you a list of signatory agents who are accepting unsolicited screenplays. The other thing you should be aware of is that ageism is rampant in Hollywood…and if you haven’t already established yourself in the business by 30, you are considered elderly and out-of-touch with popular taste 🙂 I’m 54 and feel ancient when I go into meetings…and despite my extensive credits, it’s still a hard sell for me. I’m just telling you this so you realise that you’re facing a very steep, uphill battle.
I am sure you get a lot of emails and maybe this may not reach you, but here’s hoping. I am an aspiring actress/model and went to a meeting with XYZ at Culver Studios last week. He claims to have been a director/producer for NBC/Universal but the IMDB just doesn’t seem legitimate. He also claims to be married to actress XYZ but there is hardly any information on her either.
He says he wants me to come and work for him and learn the business to become an assistant producer and star in his upcoming movies, but things just aren’t adding up. I called NBC Universal and asked them if his name was on the employee list and was not. Due to all of the scams and human trafficking which he spoke a lot about, I want to be safe. Do you know how I can navigate safely through this industry and or have any advice for me on how I can obtain legitimate information and backgrounds on producers and directors?
Well, it sounds like you already checked this guy out and learned that something is very fishy. His picture on Imdb also seems amateurish to me… as if by standing beside the studio gate, which anybody can do, he’s trying to confer legitimacy on himself. I’d steer clear of him. Keep in mind, anybody can rent studio space. Just because their office is on a movie studio lot does not mean they are legitimate. In addition to imdb, you can check out producers with the PGA (Producers Guild of America) to see if they are members… or, if they are writer/producers, you can check with the WGA (Writers Guild of America) to see if they are members (or if their companies are guild signatories). You can find out if a director is legit by contacting the DGA (Directors Guild of America) and seeing if he or she is a member. If they are offering you acting jobs, check them out with SAG (Screen Actors Guild) to see if they are signatories or if there are any issues with their company that the union knows about. Lack of produced credits on imDb and non-membership in one of those guilds would raise a big red flag for me.
As some of you may know, the finale of The Chase, which I co-wrote with Janet Evanovich, is set in and around Owensboro & Hawesville Kentucky. Last week, author Joel Goldman & I trekked across the country to Owensboro for “An Evening with Lee & Joel,” a program put on by Riverpark Center and Daviess County Library. We talked about self-publishing, plotting, how we broke into the business, etc….and now you can see some excerpts from the event up on YouTube.
Here’s a clip of me explaining why I believe this is the Golden Age of Publishing for Authors…
Here’s Joel and I talking about how we broke into the business:
I’ll have more clips from that event up on my website in a few weeks.
I got an email today from a guy who says he’s been writing scripts and entering competitions for the last five years, ever since he got his MFA from York Univeristy in Toronto. He can’t get seem to get any “reputable agents” to read his work.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. So here is my very presumptuous request: I’d like to send you one of my scripts. Read it when you have a moment — even if its a year from now. If you like it good, you can refer me to your agent. If you don’t, no harm, no foul.
I assure you that it will NOT be a waste of your time.
I get this request, oh, about 80 times a month. It makes no sense to me. So, to all eighty of you getting ready to write me the same email next month, here’s why it’s a dumb idea to ask me to read your script and refer it to my agent.
1) I’m a writer, I’m trying to market and sell my own work, not yours.
2)It’s not my job to screen potential clients for my agent. Finding clients is his job. I like to think he works for me rather than the other way around. Besides, I want him spending his time on the phone getting me work, not looking for new clients who will divert his full attention from me, me,me. (That’s not to say I haven’t recommended clients to my agent… I have, many times. He’s even signed a few. But they were close friends of mine or people whom I’ve worked with and admire).
3)I’m not a studio or network development executive. I don’t care if you’ve written a good script. I’m not hiring writers. If I was, I’d hire myself.
4)When I am looking for writers to hire on staff or invite in to pitch for episodic TV assignments, I only read writing samples that come through agents. Why? Well, we said it best in our book, “Successful Television Writing” —
You probably think that’s because we’re a close-knit group of elitist jerks who want to horde all the money and opportunities for ourselves, and agents are just one more gigantic obstacle
we’ve come up with to keep you out.
You’re right. Sort of. Agents are the first line of defense for us. They read through all the crap to find the very best people, the writers they can make a living on. And the only way an agent is going to make a living
The great thing about this system, for us, is that the agent has a real motivation to find the best writers out there, saving us the trouble. Because let’s face it, elitist jerks like us don’t want work any harder than we have to.
But agents do more than save us extra work. They also protect us. That doesn’t mean they’ll take a bullet for us or taste our food to make sure it isn’t poisoned. But they’ll make pretty sure we don’t get sued.
We’ll give you an example of what we’re talking about. Let’s say you sent us a script a month ago in which the hero of our show loses his memory. Then you turn on the TV this week, and
what do you see on our show? A story about the hero losing his memory. You’re going to think we stole it and sue our asses.There are a lot of similar themes in stories being developed all the time, and a television professional, will understand that. A professional will also understand that the development process is much longer than a month, and that our script was probably written long before yours showed up in the mail. And a professional will figure that we’ve probably been pitched fifty amnesia stories, because it’s a terrible cliche, right up there with evil doubles and the return of long-lost siblings, that’s eventually done on every show.
But without an agent representing you, and vouching for you, we have no assurance that you are, indeed, a professional.
Which leads me to my next point.
5)I don’t want to read your script because I may be working on something similar. I don’t want to get accused of stealing your ideas.
So no, don’t send me your script. Don’t try to send it to any other professional writer, either. It’s a stupid idea.
Okay, so that’s what I told him. And here’s his response:
Your use of the word “professional” here implies that you regard me as an amateur.
Your used of the word “stupid” needs no comment. Well, it’s true that I’m not a professional
in the sense that I never got paid for my screenwriting up to now. However,
as I indicated in my (very polite) message to you, I have a long career
behind me as a journalist. I was hoping for a more mature response from you
on that basis alone — at least a response that does not belabor the obvious.
You’d think he would have put his journalism skills to use and a) read
my blog before emailing me and discovered the many, many posts where I discuss the
pointlessness of sending your scripts and series ideas to me and b) he would have
researched the industry a bit and realized sending his script to a screenwriter was not the best way to find an agent or break into the business. He goes on to say:
Would you have been so patronizing if I had a name other than
Mohamed? Or if I was not a Canadian? Perhaps not. At any rate, your comments
are duly noted and I wish you continuing success with Diagnosis Murder
and whatever else it is that you do.
Ah yes, the last gasp of the desperate… the racism, sexism, ageism, or xenophobia card. To be honest, I didn’t even notice his name or where he came from. I didn’t bother to read that part of his original email since I had absolutely no intention of contacting him about his screenplays. But you’ll notice that rather than learn from his mistake, and accept that his proposal might have been wrong-headed, he has to flail around for some other, hidden reason that I won’t read his scripts. With an attitude like that, it’s not surprising to me he’s been entering his scripts into competitions for five years instead of selling them.
I get lots and lots of questions asking for career advice from readers. Here are a few that came in recently.
Q: Wanted to ping you for some advice, if you don’t mind. I think I’m ready to live by my pen/keyboard starting this summer. My house is already paid off, I’ll have about a year’s worth of savings in the bank, and I’ve figured out the costs of healthcare and retirement already. This is a new world for me, as I’ve been in a stable job in corporate America for the least 22 years, so it’s a big jump and one that I’m excited about but also nervous as well. I’d like to make sure I understand all the pro’s and con’s to be sure my exit plan from Intel is solid. From your perspective, what are the risks/benefits and if you were about to make a decision like this, what are some of the things you’d want to have in place prior?”
I’ve been doing this my whole life… so I am probably the wrong guy to ask for transitional advice. The pros and cons are basically that you have to be entirely self-motivated and relentless about generating work & opportunities for yourself. You have no boss to drive you…and no company’s resources to back you up. It’s your own time and money. You’ll need to surround yourself with top professionals … lawyers, accountants, agents, copyeditors, etc…. that you can trust to handle your business affairs. And you will have to be a harsh task master on yourself to keep churning out material and drumming up new business. Don’t expect to succeed overnight. It’s going to take a while.
Q: Since you’re a Tv producer cant you view my Tv show script and break it into the Tv biz? I mean I’m just carious.”
No, I can’t.
Q: I’m 42 years old and live in NYC. Because of some personal issues I dealt with in my twenties and thirties, I’m a late bloomer. […] I would appreciate it if you could give me some straight talk about whether or not I am too old to consider a career in TV writing. I work as a copywriter, and I understand the next step is to work hard on specs for my portfolio. However, if the opportunity has passed because of my age, I would rather let go and focus on something else.”
Age has nothing to do with it if you write an incredible, kick-ass spec screenplay and episodic sample. But I would be deceiving you if I said ageism isn’t a issue in TV. The networks and studios do favor the young, so if you’re good, but not great, your age will knock you out of the running. But if the development execs love your scripts, they will look past a few gray hairs.
Every day I get emails from writers asking me how to break into the TV business. Most of them are looking for a short cut (namely, by using me, my agent and my friends). And most of the writers, it seems, have only a vague idea of what being a writer or producer really involves. They just like the idea of it. Take this email, for instance:
I am contacting you to ask if you can give me advice on how to be a TV writer. I discovered you on a WritersStore.com article in which you gave advice on how to break into the TV business.
My dream is to one day be an Executive Producer or Show runner for my own scripted show on television. However, I am not sure the correct route to achieve that dream. I understand that some people eventually have their own show by being a writer on many other scripted shows and working their way up. This is a path that I am reluctant to take because I am adamant about working on and putting out my vision. I am not really interested in contributing to other people shows or vision because I feel I have something unique to bring to television. Also, I have heard that some people get a TV show due to their work in the fiction world such as George R. R. Martin, the writer of Game of Thrones. I like this route better because he was able to keep his unique vision of his story without really compromising to any network or producer.
I have a lot of ideas and concepts; however, I don’t really know how to put together a cohesive story for the screen. Also, I understand to achieve any success in the film business it takes at least 10 years of hard work and networking. I was considering getting an online degree from Full Sail in creative writing or doing some kind of online writing program. What would you suggest I do considering all of this?
Do you think it is a good idea just to write a lot of short stories first as a way to get my work noticed by people? It bothers me that as of yet I have not been able to write any full length story of any kind. Can you give me advice concerning my questions? Thanks a lot.
There are so many misconceptions and bone-headed opinions in this email that I think the best thing to do is to tackle them one by one in the order in which they came up.
I am contacting you to ask if you can give me advice on how to be a TV writer. I discovered you on a WritersStore.com article in which you gave advice on how to break into the TV business.
Did you actually read the article? Because I answered almost all of your questions in it.
I understand that some people eventually have their own show by being a writer on many other scripted shows and working their way up. This is a path that I am reluctant to take because I am adamant about working on and putting out my vision.
No, that’s not the reason you are “reluctant.” You want to take a short-cut. What you don’t seem to realize is that a TV series represents a $100 million or more investment. Before a studio or network will hand you that money to “put out your vision,” you will have to earn their trust in your skill and faith in your creative vision. You earn that by proving you can write a script and produce a TV show. Which you do by working your way up. Alternatively, you can earn that trust by writing a blockbuster hit movie or perhaps writing several internationally bestselling books…but even then, they will probably pair you with an experienced showrunner…someone who has worked their way up and gained the necessary experience to run a show.
I am not really interested in contributing to other people shows or vision because I feel I have something unique to bring to television.
You don’t. There’s an old saying in TV: ideas are cheap, execution is everything. No one is interested in your ideas or your vision. Everybody has those. What’s rare is talent and skill. You may not be interested in contributing to other people’s shows or vision. Too damn bad. That’s how the business works. It’s not going to be re-invented because you a) are too full of yourself to follow established path or b) are too lazy to put in the work involved.
Also, I have heard that some people get a TV show due to their work in the fiction world such as George R. R. Martin, the writer of Game of Thrones. I like this route better because he was able to keep his unique vision of his story without really compromising to any network or producer.
You like this route better because you think it’s a short-cut. It’s not. Because it’s a fantasy. I hate to break it to you, but George did his time working on other people’s shows (ie Beauty and the Beast, Twilight Zone, etc ) before getting a shot at writing his own pilots. He eventually left television and concentrated on his books. He is not running Game of Thrones, David Benioff and D.B Weiss are. Both of them, incidentally, worked their way up writing books, movies and TV shows for other people before getting this show.
I have a lot of ideas and concepts; however, I don’t really know how to put together a cohesive story for the screen.
If you can’t do that, why would anyone entrust you with $100 million to write & produce a TV series? That is why you need experience and skill…built over years of working in the business…because if you can’t put together a cohesive story, and have no idea how, you are not a showrunner or a writer. You are a development executive.
I was considering getting an online degree from Full Sail in creative writing or doing some kind of online writing program. What would you suggest I do considering all of this?
Yes, getting an education and some training in the field you’d like to enter would be a very good idea. Go back and look at the article of mine you supposedly read for more details.
Do you think it is a good idea just to write a lot of short stories first as a way to get my work noticed by people? It bothers me that as of yet I have not been able to write any full length story of any kind.
It should, especially given your grandiose notions of your own amazing talent. No, I don’t think writing short stories are the path to becoming a TV writer and showrunner. Short stories have nothing to do with TV writing and producing.