TOD: I often get asked what it’s like to have a family of writers and artists, and it’s hard to explain, exactly, because it’s the only way we’ve lived. Our sisters are both writers and artists, our mother, after her socialite period, became a newspaper columnist covering socialites, our father — not that I ever lived with him as a sentient human — as you noted, was a TV news journalist, and then there’re all the uncles and cousins and whatnot, too. But you were the first one, really, to make it on a national stage, which I know gave me the confidence to aim big, and which I suspect made it easier for our sisters, too. Did seeing mom’s and dad’s success and, in many ways, eventual failure — both of them had these sort of big-league dreams but ended up never quite getting there, which ended up driving them both a bit mad — provide some motivation for you?
LEE: There’s no question that dad being on television and mom being a writer shaped me in profound ways. There is a lot of both of them in me … though more of mom than dad. They were both comfortable in front of an audience, whether it was on camera or standing on front of people. Mom had a big, outgoing personality and great sense of humor. She was a deft schmoozer and a big ego. She was a profound exaggerator in her storytelling, for both comic and dramatic effect. She went after what she wanted, personally and professionally. She was a fighter. I have a lot of those same attributes, though I hope with less of the destructive flip side. For example, I know when I am exaggerating a story and, I like to believe, so does my audience. We’re in on the joke together. It’s like when an audience buys into the franchise of a TV series … no matter how ludicrous it might be (she’s a nun — and she can fly! A detective with OCD! A drug-addicted doctor who hates his patients!) … because they want to enjoy the ride. Unlike mom, I don’t believe my exaggerations are the truth and then exaggerate them the next time I tell the story, and then exaggerate that, until I am heading into something approaching clinical delusion. I know where the truth ends and the embellishment, for comedic or dramatic effect, begins. I’m deeply afraid the day will come, though, when I lose that self-awareness.
I haven’t talked much about dad because he wasn’t really in my life after I was 10 years old (though he was in my life more than you or our sisters). Dad grew up wanting to be a TV anchorman … despite coming from a small logging town and having zero contacts … and yet he achieved that dream. He eventually became an anchorman on KPIX, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco … a major station in a major market … and it should have been a stepping-stone to the national stage. Getting there had to take talent, drive, and confidence … but somewhere along the line he lost his mojo … or, more likely, his backbone. I was too young at the time to know why or how it happened, or if mom was somehow to blame. But he became a weak, wishy-washy, superficial man. He let people, he let life, walk all over him. He stood up for nothing and nobody and lost everything. He showed me it was possible to achieve your dream, but through his failure, he also showed me you had to be strong to keep it. That’s not all I learned from him. Seeing him on TV every night also made television — the industry and the medium — something approachable to me. He made the TV part of my family. He made it small and human. My father was a TV screen, and I knew that I was stronger than he was. So yeah, I could break into TV. No problem. And I did.
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.
After delivering my new novel to my editor, I treated myself to two non-fiction books about TV shows — THIRTYSOMETHING and PETROCELLI.
THIRTYSOMETHING AT THIRTY: AN ORAL HISTORY by Scott Ryan. This a fantastic book, full of insights into every aspect of the show, and told in a unique and truly compelling fashion: almost entirely in stand-alone, capsule quotes from actors, writers, directors and producers who made the series. The author acts more like a film editor, arranging the quotes in the best order to tell the story but also to maintain narrative tension. It’s brilliantly done…and is not only informative, but very entertaining, like listening in to a fascinating, Hollywood dinner party. The book tracks the show season by season, episode by episode, and goes into remarkable, behind-the-scenes detail. There’s a feast here for writers, directors, actors, producers and fans of the show to devour. Particularly fascinating and revealing for me was the story, told almost in a Rashomon fashion, behind the fifth season that the network and studio wanted…but that the showrunners didn’t…and all the emotions, creative conflicts, and politics that led to the series’ premature demise. The book even includes the script pages for the unshot, final scene of the final episode. The author clearly put enormous work into the book, engaging in hundreds of hours worth of interviews. You don’t need to be a fan of Thirtysomething to learn something from this book…especially if you’re a student of TV history, or contemplating a career in TV, or are even an established writer/producer about to embark on running your own show. This is one of the best books I’ve ever read about a TV show and should be required reading in classes about writing and producing series television. The only drawback is that there’s no index…which isn’t a problem is you’ve got the ebook edition, but if you have a print copy, it’s definitely missed.
PETROCELLI: AN EPISODE GUIDE AND MUCH MORE by Sandra Grabman. The book is thin, a mere 129 pages, because it’s really not much more than a general episode guide, despite the subtitle “and so much more.” I really wish there was “so much more,” because I’m a huge fan of the series and was thrilled when it finally came out on DVD. There’s not much information here besides random quotes from articles about the show and broad synopses of the episodes. There’s very little about the development of the original theatrical movie, The Lawyer, or what prompted the studio, network or producers to adapt the only modestly successful film into a series four years after its release. Why did it take so long to happen? Did the idea to do a series originate with the studio? What network did they take it to first? Why did they shoot a pilot rather than use the movie as the pilot (given that they had the same star)? It’s also never explained why the writer & director of the movie seemingly weren’t involved in the pilot or series, nor why key cast members from film weren’t retained for the pilot (besides Barry Newman). There’s no discussion of how the pilot, entitled Night Games, was developed creatively, or how the showrunner was selected, or what elements they decided to keep and/or discard from the movie and why. Only perfunctory is attention is given to the writing and production of the TV series, which was shot on location in Tucson. Perhaps the lack of details is because many of the key production personnel have passed away…but that obstacle hasn’t stopped other authors from doing far more thorough and satisfying books about much older shows that this one. It would have been nice if the author sought out more of the writers, directors and actors for in-depth interviews and did a much more thorough job of exploring the nut-and-bolts of the series. There’s no mention, for instance, of Lalo Schifrin’s theme or his scoring of the series. Also, very little attention is given to the reasoning behind the show’s near cancellation after the first season, or the creative changes made in the second season, or what elements, besides ratings, factored into the show’s ultimate cancellation. Again, it would have been helpful if the author had talked to studio or network executives, assuming any of them are still with us, rather than just speculating. Overall, the book comes off as a very half-baked work…worthwhile only for the most ardent Petrocelli fan who merely wants a printed episode guide to refer to. This book was truly a missed opportunity.
The Bradypedia: The Complete Reference Guide to Television’s The Brady Bunch by Erika Woehlk. There have been dozens of books written about The Brady Bunch and its many sequels, spin-offs, and reboots. This one is not the best and it’s not the worst. I’d say it falls somewhere in the middle. The bulk of the book is an episode guide to the Bradyverse… with plot descriptions of every episode of every Brady program that starred the original cast, a list that includes The Brady Bunch, The Brady Kids, The Brady Bunch Variety Show, The Brady Brides, the reunion movies, and the misguided The Bradys drama. There’s also a “character encyclopedia” with descriptions of every character who ever appeared in the shows, biographies of the core cast, and a catalog of all the Brady Bunch songs & records (as well as other memorabilia). As far as providing new information, there’s not a whole lot beyond general trivia, at least when it comes to the production, writing, directing, etc. of the various series. Nor is there much in the way of interviews to provide an inside perspective. There are some interesting projects touched on in the section about unproduced spin-offs and continuations…but that’s also where you’ll find a big error. The author states that the proposed spin-off “Kelly’s Kids,” which aired as a last season episode of The Brady Bunch, “never came to fruition” as a series beyond the pilot. She’s wrong. Many years after The Brady Bunch ended, “Kelly’s Kids” became the CBS series Together We Stand. Writer/producer Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of The Brady Bunch, talked about it at length in an interview with me…and in many other press interviews… and it’s always been common knowledge among Brady fans and followers of his career. I’m surprised that the author is unaware of it (in fact, it’s covered in detail in one of the books that I review below). That quibble aside, the book is a handy, worthwhile resource for Brady fans.
Single Season Sitcoms of the 1980s and Single Season Sitcoms 1948-1979, both by Bob Leszczak. I could swear that I reviewed Single Season Sitcoms 1948-1979 here when it came out in 2012, but since I can’t find the review, and just in case I never actually reviewed it, let me just say that I loved it. It’s one of my favorite TV reference books. Like the title says, it focuses on comedies that didn’t survive to celebrate a second birthday, a TV niche so obscure that it’s irresistable to me. I hoped, but never expected, that Leszczak would do a sequel. I’m delighted to say that I was wrong. Leszczak has returned with the marvelous Single Season Sitcoms of the 1980s…but the book is so much more than the straight-forward title suggests (though I would have been satisfied with just what the title promises). Yes, it’s a encyclopedia of every single-season sitcom of the decade…and provides all the rich details you could hope for (cast and crew, synopsis, air dates, episode titles)… but there’s so much more. The book is full of interviews with actors and key creative personnel (writers, producers, directors) who give us the surprisingly candid, inside scoop on the development, production and demise of the shows.
Baby Boom producer Charles Shyer shares, for example, that it was hell working with star Kate Jackson. “Things got so tense that Kate quit and flew to Aspen. The studio begged us to cajole her back with balloons and flowers, but we weren’t going for it.” The feelings can go both ways. One of the actors on Hello Larry says that “yes, McLean Stevenson was extremely difficult to work with. However, in light of the bad to mediocre scripts, I felt he was right.”
Hey, wait a minute, didn’t Hello Larry last two seasons? Yes, it did, which brings me to one of the great bonuses in this book. There’s a lengthy appendix entitled “Shows Invited Back for a Truncated or Vastly Different Second Season” that covers scores of comedies that returned for a second season (and in some cases many more seasons) in a very different form, either completely reformatted and/or recast. It’s like getting two books for the price of one. A good example of one such revamped series is Goodnight Miss Bliss, a comedy starring Hayley Mills as a school teacher, that was canceled after one season. The show returned with the students and minus the teacher as the Saturday morning comedy Saved by the Bell and became a big success.
But wait, there’s more. Single Season Sitcoms of the 1980s also covers many one-hour shows with comedic elements, like Tenspeed and Brownshoe, Fitz & Bones, Foul Play, and Breaking Away to name a few. It’s all written in a breezy, immensely readable tone that only occasionally gets snarky (Of The Charmings, he wrote: “The setup for this series takes longer to explain than the program lasted..”)
I love this book even more than the first one. The only downside to these two terrific TV reference books is that you might get sticker shock when you go out to buy them. That’s because they are from McFarland & Company, a fine publishing company that caters to the library market, which is so narrow that they have to price their books high to make any money. The paperback edition of the first, 250 page volume is $45, which is absurd and unjustifiable outside of the library universe, and the price for the 272 page follow-up is $38, which is only slightly less ridiculous for the general consumer. But the good news is that you can get the Kindle editions of these books for $14 each, which is affordable and worth every penny.
I hope Single Season Sitcoms of the 1990s and a book on Single Season Dramas are on the way.
I recently read the stories of two TV celebrities.. one a star in front of the camera (Jan-Michael Vincent), one a star behind it (Steven Bochco). One is a biography, the other a memoir…and both were fascinating.
Grove missed his calling. He should have been a novelist. Thanks to Grove’s vivid prose and keen eye for emotional detail, Edge of Greatness reads much more like a tragic novel than the standard biography of a mildly talented actor’s rapid rise and horrific downfall. This is the all-too-familiar story of a self-destructive actor undone by all the temptations of Hollywood — sex, drugs, alcohol — and his own hubris.
The book tracks Vincent from his humble beginnings in the central California farming community of Hanford, through his years of stardom, and up to his current squalor, which is physical, mental and financial. As Grove puts it:
“A black Mustang convertible and a patch of roses out front offer the only clues to his past life, when his aquamarine eyes, chiseled features, and sun-streaked hair sang of creamy sand and sweet sex. He has long ceased being beautiful or strong.”
Vincent today is confined to a wheelchair. He has lost a leg, the result of peripheral artery disease, and he struggles with diabetes, epilepsy, and the ravages of “countless episodes of alcoholic poisoning and toxic shock.” Grove goes on to say that Vincent “barely weights 100 pounds, his teeth dangle in his jaw, brittle and emaciated” and that the condition of his liver “has moved far beyond the simple characterization of cirrhosis. It’s a celebration of rot.”
And all of those quotes are just from page one, effectively setting the stage for the tragic story to come. Sure, he gives away the ending, but it puts the actor’s entire rise and fall into horrific perspective that haunts the book. What makes this tragedy compelling reading, as opposed to the literary equivalent of watching a train wreck, is Grove’s writing and reporting skills. Perhaps that’s due to this startling admission from the author, at the very end of the book, when he asks himself if he likes Vincent:
I don’t like myself, which is what we have in common and why I was drawn to him.
And he goes on to conclude:
It’s obvious now that he was not born; he was invented. I thought there would be more, but this is it. He got what he deserved.
Bochco is one of the most talented, influential, and deservedly celebrated writer-producers in the history of television. It’s not hyperbole to say he has reshaped the medium, not just through the ground-breaking dramas that he wrote and co-created (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue), but also by virtue of the many amazing writers that he discovered and nurtured (like David E. Kelley and David Milch). I’m among his biggest fans, speaking both as an appreciative viewer and a TV writer/producer who was inspired by him (and yet never rose to anywhere near his level of success, creatively or otherwise). That said, while there is much to learn from his revealing memoir, this self-published book is difficult to read, not because of the subject matter, but because of crippling editorial issues.
But let’s talk about the pluses first. The memoir works not just as the story of one writer’s rise through the television industry — from Universal Television staff writer to a celebrity show runner — but also as insider’s look at the massive changes that have happened in the industry and how it has affected programing. It’s also an in depth, inside look at how television shows are conceived, developed, written, and produced from the creative, business and political sides. Bochco not only examines how his shows succeeded… but also how and why they failed. And he can be brutally honest about it.
He goes into detail about his working and personal relationships with actors, directors, network and studio executives…and doesn’t always come out looking very good himself (more about that later). There are many memorable stories in the book — one of my favorites is the one about why he fired actor Daniel Benzali from Murder One. All I’ll say is that it comes down to when and where Benzali wanted to take a crap. Another favorite is the story of his encounter with William Paley, who ran CBS. Those are just a few of the great anecdotes in book that, as far as I know, haven’t been shared before. But Bochco also goes into more well-known controversies, like replacing David Caruso on NYPD Blue, and talks candidly about his intimate working and personal relationship with writer David Milch, who he discovered on Hill Street Blues and who battled with many demons, including a gambling addiction.
Now let’s go into the negatives, which are substantial and detract from what otherwise could have been a great book, perhaps one of the best ever written about the TV business.
The book is amateurishly produced on every level. The title of the book, at least on the cover and on the spine, is Truth Is a Total Defense. The title of the book on the two title pages, however, is Truth is a Total Defense: My Fifty Years in Television. That’s a minor quibble, but it’s your first clue that this is not a professionally published book (it’s also missing a copyright page, which is pretty astonishing in itself).
Bochco is a very wealthy man, as he often mentions in the book. So I don’t understand why didn’t spend the money to have the book professionally edited. For a guy who prides himself on his attention to detail in his shows, he doesn’t exhibit the same care when it comes to his book. He appears to have done little or no copyediting. For example, titles of shows are not italicized or in quotation marks… though sometimes, for no reason at all, they are in all-caps. It’s a very strange choice and makes it difficult to read the book.
Typos and other errors abound. He refers to John Wells, executive producer of ER as “John Welles.” He even misspells the names of characters he created, alternating between “Goldblume” and “Goldbloom” when talking about the character from Hill Street Blues.
There are also a lot of factual mistakes. For instance, Bochco was a story editor on McMillan and Wife, which he describes as Rock Hudson playing “the D.A. of San Francisco” when, in fact, he played the Chief of Police. He mentions releasing David Caruso from a clause in his post-NYPD Blue agreement, one that prevented him from doing another series for five years, to let him do a CBS pilot. He says the CBS pilot didn’t sell, but that the next show Caruso did was CSI Miami, and it was a big success. Actually, the CBS pilot did sell. It was called Michael Hayes, and the series ran for 21 episodes before being cancelled. There are errors like this throughout the book that could have been easily avoided if he’d hired a professional copy editor.
There’s also an interesting omission. He talks about nearly every show he worked on at Universal Television… and says the first show he ever created was Griff in 1973. And yet he never mentions that in 1969 he co-created The New Doctors segment of The Bold Ones, the most successful series spoke in that drama wheel. I wonder why he completely skipped over that.
He does something in the book he would never do on his TV shows — he uses lots of cliches, like “moved so fast our heads were spinning,” “it was no day at the beach,” “I didn’t want to rock the boat,” “necessity is the mother of invention,” etc. It’s laziness he would never tolerate in a script but lets slide in the book. I mention it not to be petty, but because its a sharp contrast to what he says throughout the book about his standards of good writing.
Structurally, the book is mess. He starts with the moment, a few years ago, that he learned that he had leukemia, and then goes into his disappoint and anger that his sister wouldn’t donate bone marrow. From there, he shifts into the story of his TV career, jumping forward, backwards, and sideways so it’s often hard to keep track of where you are in his career and personal timeline. And then he returns to his leukemia, and his difficult battle over the disease. As part of that story, he shared the emails he wrote to his family and friends while he was being treated…some of them cringe-inducing, particularly those where he rips his sister yet again for not giving her bone marrow to him. Is this his autobiography? A book about his career in television? Or a book about his battle with leukemia? He can’t seem to decide. This is where a strong editor would have really helped the book.
He likes to depict himself as a nice guy, someone who is supportive of other writers and who strives to bring out the best in everyone around him. Often, he probably is the person he describes…and there are plenty of examples of that kindness and supportiveness in the book. But he also clearly delights in trashing people, particularly network and studio executives, some of them by name, who had the temerity to disagree with him or pass along notes from their bosses. Many of the people he trashes are small fish, individuals far less powerful and wealthy than he is….and, as a result, he comes across as a bully taking advantage of his stature to beat on those who aren’t able to defend themselves.
He repeatedly claims he doesn’t carry a grudges, but he clearly does. He rips into his first wife’s boyfriend, actors Kiel Martin, Daniel J. Travanti, and Daniel Benzali, writers Mike Kozoll (co-creator of Hill Street Blues), Terry Louise Fisher (co-creator of L.A. Law), Eric Lodel (co-creator of Murder in the First) and David Milch (co-creator of NYPD Blue) to name just a few of the people who get singled out for his righteous and often brutal wrath. Some of them undoubtedly deserve his harsh words, and this is his memoir after all, but he doesn’t come out looking particularly good himself in many of these stories. He also repeatedly savages, perhaps rightfully so, his sister for not donating bone marrow to him when he needed it (also trashing her husband, actor Alan Rachins, in what can best be described as collateral damage).
So when all is said and done, yes, Truth is a Total Defense, is a fascinating book for anyone interested in Steven Bochco and the business of television. There’s is much to learn from the book about writing, show running, and the television business. But it’s also a deeply flawed work that’s in desperate need of professional editing.
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 Murderbooks… 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 Murderbook, 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. Columbomysteries 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 Murderbook – 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 Murderbook 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 Murderis 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 Murderbook 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 Murderstory, 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.
I’m delighted that my book The Best TV Shows That Never Werewas published this week in slick ebook and trade paperback editions. But it’s not a new book. It was originally published back in 1991, following the enormous success of my big, fat hardcover Unsold Television Pilots 1955-1989 (which is coming out very soon as an ebook, for the first time ever, and for the first time in a new, single volume trade paperback edition). The original plan by Citadel Press back in ’91 was simply to release that book as a paperback. But when that proved too costly, the publisher decided they wanted a slim “Best Of” edition instead. I thought it was a mistake, but reluctantly went along with the idea, figuring it might be the first in a series of books. A pilot of its own, so-to-speak…
They gave the book the unwieldy and misleading title Unsold TV Pilots: The Almost Complete Guide to Everything You Never Saw on TV, 1955-1990. Even so, the book was a big success and established the format for the two, hour-long network TV specials that would follow: The Greatest Shows You Never Saw on CBS and The Best TV Shows That Never Were on ABC. I figured TV specials made much more sense than book sequels, and were also a lot more lucrative financially, so that was where I focused my energy (that said, the section in this book on TV series revivals did inspire me to write a spin-off book on the subject, which was published in 1993, and that I’ll soon be re-releasing, updated and revised, as Television Fast Forward).
There have been hundreds of great … and truly terrible… unsold pilots in the years since this book was first published, but I haven’t added any of them to this edition, though I’ve added some new information here and there. Perhaps I’ll do a new, sequel volume some day…or, more likely, another TV special. Until then, I hope you enjoy the 300 pilots in this book!
A year ago, I published a blog post here titled “Easily Fooled” about being on a TV writing panel at a mystery conference with a guy whose writing credits were all fake. I omitted his name to save him embarrassment. I was being too kind, because the guy is still hoodwinking conferences and the paying attendees with the same scam. So here’s the post again… with his name included this time.
James gets gigs teaching screenwriting courses based on his experience writing episodes on the TV shows HOUSE, DEADWOOD, SAVING GRACE and ENTOURAGE. The problem is, according to the Writers Guild of America and writer/producers on those shows, James Strauss never worked as a writer on any of those series. So beware. If you run across any conference or seminar programs where he’s fraudulently claiming those credits in his biography, please alert the organizers and have them contact Lesley McCambridge in the WGA West credits department. Okay, so here’s the April 2013 post that tells how I first encountered this fake, James Strauss:
The First Clue: Strauss Didn’t Know What He Was Talking About
Recently, I was a guest at a Love is Murder Conference in Chicago and one of my fellow speakers/panelists was James Strauss, who claimed to have written for scores of acclaimed network TV shows, like House, Deadwood, and Entourage, and a big upcoming movie, The Equalizer. Based on his experience, he’d been invited to speak at writer’s conferences, seminars, and libraries from coast to coast, including some nice paid gigs in Hawaii and Mexico. I’d never heard of him…and the instant I met him, I knew something was off.
For one thing, I knew one of the writers of the big, upcoming movie he claimed to have worked on…and I knew writer/producers on most of the shows he said he wrote for…and when I mentioned their names to James, he was evasive or said he came on the various projects before or after my friends were there. I might have bought that, screenwriting is a pretty nomadic business, but everything he said on his panels and in his talks about writing scripts and working on episodic series wasn’t just wrong, it was inane. Even in our personal conversations, he said some pretty stupid stuff about the business.
The Second Clue: Strauss Had No Credits. Anywhere. For Anything.
So I looked James Strauss up on IMDb. No credits. I googled his name, with the titles of the series he said he worked on, to see what came up… and the results I got all came from his website and the conferences he’d spoken at. Now my B.S. meter was in the red zone.
So I contacted my friends on the shows that he said he worked on. Not one of them had ever heard of him.
So I called the Writers Guild of America’s credits department and asked for his credits. They told me he wasn’t a member and had no writing credits.
Clearly, James Strauss was fraud. And not a very sophisticated one either if a mere google search could unmask him.
Now that the Guild was alerted to the guy, they investigated the issue in more depth, and sent him a strong cease-and-desist letter.
Conferences Should Check Credentials of So-Called “Experts”
What I don’t get is how so many conferences, libraries, and seminars could have invited this guy to speak, and paid his way to tropical locales, without doing even the most basic check of his credentials. In this day and age, if a guy says he wrote for some of the most acclaimed shows on TV, you should be able to easily confirm it with a simple Google search. And if you can’t, that should be a big, fat, red freaking flag.
I alerted the conference organizers about this guy’s fraud, and they said they’d always suspected something was off about him, but he seemed very knowledgeable and was so likeable that they let it go. They won’t make that mistake again.
UPDATE 4-22-2014: They actually did! Love is Murder invited James Strauss back again this year to talk about TV writing …even after being alerted by me and the WGA that he was a fraud. But James wisely was a last-minute no-show. The WGA sent him another cease-and-desist letter, and copied the conference. There’s nothing wrong with him teaching screenwriting. What is wrong is claiming credits and experience that he doesn’t have.
Incredibly, James Strauss is still at it, claiming credits he doesn’t have. Yesterday, I discovered another conference that he was scheduled to speak at in May as an expert in TV writing. His bio listed the usual falsehoods. So I alerted the organizers about his fake credits and put them in touch with the WGA. The conference immediately disinvited Strauss. It’s discovering his continued fraud that prompted me to rewrite and repost this blog today.
When he’s asked to validate his writing credits, he claims he can’t because he wrote his scripts “under the table” and “off the books” so David Shore, David Milch, and the other producers he worked for could avoid paying WGA rates for writers. Uh-huh. That tells you how little James Strauss knows about the TV biz…or about the people he claims to have worked with. HOUSE creator/EP David Shore is on the Board of the Writers Guild of America and chairs the New Members committee.
James Strauss is not a clever fake. The problem is that the conference organizers he meets are so well-meaning, gullible and desperate for impressive guest speakers.
Here’s what James Strauss is saying today on his Facebook page about me outing his fakery:
“Ah, this day closes. I am under attack. For being what I am not supposed to be. For saying what I am not supposed to say. For attempting to live through the mythology of our phenomenal existence with little or no respect into a reality of hard truth and unacceptable demonstration of how things are. Just another day. Not so. A tough day and one not necessarily supported by those living in comfort and removed from the harshness of cold real world delivery. And so I bid you all a good night. I hope your day was better than mine but mine, even such as it was, wasn’t so bad as others have it. For them….I wish them love and acceptance. I wish them belief and tolerance. I wish them everything….”
UPDATE JAN 28. 2015
Fake TV writer and convicted conman James Strauss is back…this time expressing on Facebook his happiness that his author page is finally creeping up to top of Google search results for his name as opposed to all the posts on the web about his swindles. What amuses me about this bizarre post is how he casts himself as a victim…as opposed to the many people that he deceived and defrauded.
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.