Category Archives: Guest Blogger

Guest Blogger: Alison Gaylin

A huge Murderati welcome to Alison Gaylin who’s sitting in for me today. Her new hardcover from NAL debuted in September and it sounds absolutely tantalizing:

From Publishers Weekly
Gaylin’s giddy hardcover debut follows young reporter Simone Glass on her short but shocking infiltration of Hollywood’s sleazy side. Simone, a recent Columbia journalism grad, heads for L.A. to work for a slick weekly that goes out of business almost immediately. She grabs a position at the L.A. bureau of the trashy tabloid Asteroid and plunges into the world of celebrity gossip. Reluctantly rummaging through TV superstar Emerald Deegan’s garbage, Simone discovers a shoe belonging to the recently murdered comeback kid Nia Lawson. Then Emerald becomes the next victim, and one of her bracelets is found in another future victim’s trash. When Simone carelessly wears the bracelet to a party, she catches the killer’s eye as a potential target. Gaylin (You Kill Me) has tremendous fun with stereotypical tabloid fodder, from a closeted gay superstar and a desperate, underage stripper to wild Hollywood parties and car chases. The hectic pace and huge cast of extras keep the reader guessing right to the end.

And now for Alison’s fun blog:

The best thing about promoting my new book, TRASHED, is that I get to talk about what inspired it: the wacky nine months I spent – after college and before graduate school – as a reporter for The Star. This was not the glossy Bonnie Fullerized Star you see today. It was a serious, down-and-dirty supermarket tabloid whose main competition was the National Enquirer, and encouraged its reporters to do anything and everything to get celebrity scoop.

So, these days, when I’m doing speaking engagements, I don’t really spend a lot of time discussing my writing schedule or how I come up with ideas or my relationship with my editor or what it took to get published… Instead, I get to go into the specifics of posing as an extra on the sets of bad TV movies. I can talk about chatting up bouncers and sneaking into celebrity weddings and funerals and the waiting rooms of plastic surgeons offices. At most of these engagements, I like to detail my first night on the job, driving through Beverly Hills, feeling terrified and amazed — and sort of nauseous – the backseat of my car filled with Roseanne Barr’s fresh, stinking garbage bags.

Here’s what I find most interesting about all this. At every single speaking engagement I’ve done where I’ve mentioned my trash-stealing exploits, no one has asked me, How could you do something like that? No one has said, Did you have trouble sleeping at night? But the one question I’ve gotten every single time is this: What was in Roseanne’s garbage?

During that whole strange and smelly ride back to The Star’s West Coast office, I was thinking, Why am I doing this? And now, all these years later, I finally have my answer. People want to know.

Well, most people. There are those who tell me they couldn’t care less about celebrities… but they usually follow that up with a caveat involving Britney or Lindsay (not that they care or anything, but what is up with those girls?)

I look at my own books – all that time I spend trying to invent interesting characters and surprising plot twists and scary, dramatic murders, all in the hopes winning over a few thousand new readers… and then I look at the 1.5 million people who buy the magazine I now work for every single week, just so they can find out why Angelina snapped at Brad in an elevator.

I wish I could get to exactly what it is that fascinates people about certain celebrities. If I could, I would bottle it and pour it all over my manuscripts and watch the money and fame roll in. And here’s the best part:  Since I’d be a rich famous author, no one would care about what was in my garbage.

Are there certain celebrities you want to know everything about? I’d love to hear which ones, and why (and, since I’m still in entertainment journalism, I might be able to provide you with some information!)

— Alison

PS The most surprising thing we found in Roseanne’s garbage was several copies of the National Enquirer. It really pissed off my boss.

Alison Gaylin is the author of the Edgar-nominated HIDE YOUR EYES and its sequel YOU KILL ME. Her first hardcover, TRASHED, is out now on NAL/Obsidian. Her website: www.alisongaylin.com. She regularly blogs at First Offenders. www.firstoffenders.typepad.com.

Writing Programs

(from Toni)… While I hold my brand-spanking new granddaughter, Angela Grace (a whopping 4 lbs., 9.5 oz., born 3 weeks early but doing fantastic), I want to encourage you all to pick up Derek Nikitas’ amazing debut, Pyres, out this week. Here’s a little about it:

When a folklore professor is shot dead in his car, the crime smashes together the lives of three disparate women: his anguished teenage daughter, a detective facing her own family’s collapse, and the pregnant former-junkie girlfriend of the killer. These three women must choose where to aim their last shots at redemption, even as they face a gang of barbaric thugs who torch homes and lives for a thrill.

But don’t just take my word for it — Derek’s got some fantastic writers singing his praises here.

Derek’s guest blog is terrific as well:

THANKS TO THE MENTORS

Hey, Derek Nikitas here.  Thanks to the Murderati regulars for inviting me to write this post on the week my first novel, Pyres, is released.  In the spirit of thanks, I’ll blog about college creative writing programs, by way of thanking those writer/teachers who made me.  Much of what makes my writing “mine” is owed to those who have nurtured me over the years.

Writing programs are more ubiquitous and popular than ever.  They can be expensive, and, if we’re talking grad (MFA) programs, they can take years to complete.  And for the genre writer, the most egregious complaint is that such programs denigrate genre writing, even ban it from workshops in favor of “literary fiction.”

Yes, writing programs take time and money, but choices abound.  You can do what I’ve been doing: spend four years as an undergraduate creative writing major, three more years as an MFA student, five more years toiling in relative isolation, and then four more years in a creative writing PhD program.  But I wouldn’t recommend such a course to anyone unless s/he were absolutely sure s/he wanted to teach creative writing at the college level, as I do.  In that case, a dozen years of writing instruction is pretty much a necessity, and still not a guarantee of employment.

But even a few writing courses can be a great benefit for a fiction writer.  Who knows?  One course might be all you need, especially if you get the right instructor.  There are community writing course all across the country, or university courses that allow non-matriculated enrollment.  For the more adventurous, there exist intensive, immersive writing retreats like the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, etc., where you can work in a close-knit group all day for two-week stretches.  In “low residency” MFA programs, student writers can study with instructors from a distance, exchanging manuscripts and comments via email (once or twice a year, you travel to a central location for a few days to meet with your fellow “low res” students and instructors). 

In short, there’s nothing to suggest that a traditional three-year MFA program is exactly what every writer needs.  But personally?  I needed it.  I’ve benefited immensely from a wide variety of instructors because I’ve learned something valuable for all of them.  My first teacher, Wendy Brenner, taught me that good writing is not utilitarian and cliché, but conscientious of poetics—hungry for the fresh image, the striking figure of speech, the moving evocation of mood. 

Clyde Edgerton taught me all about structure and revision and theme threads, everything I needed to successfully construct a novel.  He also taught me to view my characters from the inside out—to be more like a method actor, to become my characters—instead of judging them analytically from the outside like a Victorian omniscient narrator.  Bob Reiss, a sometimes-genre writer himself (under the pseudonym Ethan Black), taught me harsh lessons about adherence to story logic, outlining, suspense and momentum, and focus.  Josh Russell, my most recent teacher, has given me valuable instruction about narrative economy and maintaining consistent voice.

Teachers can help you confront more quickly, more consciously, the hurdles you must overcome as a writer.  The same is true for great books on the practice of writing (and great works of fiction), but there is something to be said for the personalized commentary you get from your instructor. 

Some writers are concerned about becoming too influenced by formal writing instruction.  But all writers are themselves a bundle of influences drawn from what they’ve read and enjoyed and carried away with them.  The great thing about teachers is that they’re an interactive influence; they keep track of your specific progress and guide you through your specific hurdles.  All my instructors have become a part of who I am, but the variety of their approaches has given me a range of ideas and practices.  Hell, some of them have vehemently disagreed on fundamental issues like whether or not a novel should be meticulously planned ahead of time.  This is just another argument for taking several classes with several instructors, all of whom will have different approaches.

Genre writers are often skeptical of writing programs because the programs tout literary fiction much more loudly than genre fiction.  True enough, mostly.  I’ve taught a few introductory, undergraduate creative writing courses and noted that, like me, most novice writers are interested in writing genre.  Compare this to the students who actually graduate from creative writing programs, the vast majority of whom are “literary” writers—either because they’ve been convinced to abandon genre or because the diehard genre writers had abandoned the program. 

For better or for worse, I’m not about to scold creative writing programs for ignoring or sidelining genre writing, especially in introductory classes.  I’m a genre writer, but I’m now a published writer because I was forced to write literary fiction for several years.  It’s not because I think literary fiction is better (or worse), but because writing literary short stories kept me focused on those elements of writing that I truly needed to practice: language, depth of character, mood, point of view, etc.  Novice genre writers tend to be all “story,” all “setting,” or, worst, all “philosophy.”  They don’t seem to want to write so much as they want to be J.K. Rowling or Philip K. Dick.  They become so maniacally focused on their clever plotting or fantasy world-building that they simply can’t focus on the formal and aesthetic skills that will make them better, more unique writers on a sentence-by-sentence level. 

Forcing apprentices to practice new and difficult skills, I believe, will allow them to eventually return to their genres with a much greater ability to tell a clever story well and with a fresh approach.  And, hell, if they come to appreciate literary fiction too, I don’t see a problem.  The world regularly produces great writers whose stories haunt their readers, but who don’t get wide exposure because their books are not easily marketable inside a genre niche.  In the last couple weeks I’ve read two amazing new books—Joshua Furst’s intense The Sabotage Café and Jeff Parker’s hilarious Ovenman—both of which tell great stories outside of any defined genre. 

I didn’t spend too much time writing mystery stories in grad school, but that’s because I was working on other skills.  I wrote an unpublishable “literary” novel for my thesis.  It took me years of working on my own, toiling in my basement, to write a novel that truly reflected everything I’d learned and everything I’ve wanted—including an appropriation of mystery and horror genre conventions, because such books are what made me want to write in the first place. 

This is not to say that my MFA was a waste, not in the least.  In my writing courses I was given the essential raw materials I needed for the years following my MFA when I learned how to re-integrate them with my interest in genre writing and mold them to my own personal specifications.  Writing programs offer no guarantees—in fact, most of the folks who enroll in them will never publish a book.  You have to meet them halfway with your own vision and your own drive—but they’ll show you how to get there faster.  Either that, or they’ll lead you to a destination you never dreamed you could find. 

Who knows—maybe I didn’t need to learn all that stuff about language and atmosphere and depth of character—or maybe I would’ve learned it all over a longer stretch of time, like many writers do.  Maybe I still might’ve figured out how to write a marketable novel.  Most successful mystery writers—almost every last one of them—never got an MFA and couldn’t be bothered because it never seemed necessary (Dennis Lehane, with his degree from Florida International University, is the only one who comes immediately to mind).  I even sometimes wonder if what I’ve learned has somehow handicapped my chances for fame and fortune because, as the Library Journal review of Pyres said this week, my debut novel “may not appeal to readers of formulaic crime fiction.” 

A criticism?  I don’t know: the rest of the review offered more praise than I deserve, and concentrated on what I’d done to “take risks” with the genre.  I certainly don’t think I’d want to be told that my novel is perfectly formulaic, like a paint-by-numbers poster.  Sure, formula can be great: I enjoy the fact that no matter where in the country I buy my Wendy’s square cheeseburger, it taste exactly the same.  But who finishes a books and says, “ahh, that was beautifully formulaic.”  For that matter, who writes a book and says, “Eureka, I’ve discovered the perfect formula!  The cash cow! The lowest-common-denominator blockbuster!” 

Wait—don’t answer that.

When I first started writing, I wanted to imitate my favorites and I wanted to get rich doing it.  If my writing instructors didn’t teach me anything else, they taught me to first accept the fact that almost nobody gets rich writing fiction.  More importantly, they taught me that the deeper, more lasting writerly wealth is the knowledge that I’ve given a piece of my soul to create something that satisfies my need to express myself uniquely, not formulaically.  Is it wrong for a writer to want readers to ask themselves, “What the hell is this wacko up to?  What is this?” 

I love genre, but I love it not as an end in itself.  I love it as a boundary within which a good writer can create something rich, surprising and fresh—like James Ellory and Ken Bruen do with style and language, like Marcus Sakey and Dennis Lehane do with moral and character complexity, like Denis Johnson and Tom Franklin do with imagery, like Joyce Carol Oates does  and Dave Goodis did with character psychology, like Hammett and Chandler did with voice.  I don’t know whether I’ve succeeded at anything or not, but if I’ve taken any tentative steps toward such an achievement, it’s because of what I learned from my teachers, and I thank them for everything.

Bizarre Questions

I’d like to welcome Dave White and thank him for guest-blogging for me today. Dave’s debut, When One Man Dies, just came out this week. Here’s a quick peek at a description for this detective novel; I know this is going to be one to savor:

When Gerry Figuroa is killed in a hit and run, his pal, Jersey P.I. Jackson Donne, is hired to investigate. Donne soon discovers that Figuroa may not have been quite the innocent he seemed. A second case leads Donne to a dead body on the steps of Drew University. As he digs deeper, Donne uncovers a drugs connection, and it quickly becomes clear that certain people would rather he dropped his investigation. Soon his ex-cop partner shows up bent on shattering everything, and Donne finds his past hurtling towards him with a vengeance.

And here’s Dave’s guest entry:

I wanted to take the time to thank Toni for giving me a chance to post her on Muderati. 

This week has seriously been one of the best weeks of my life.

But a lot of little bizarre things started happening this week.  Things I didn’t exactly expect, but in retrospect I feel like I should have seen coming.  Strange people come out of the shadows when you publish a book.

There was one woman who approached me.  She apparently worked in publishing.  She felt the need to tell me that publishers only buy bestsellers these days and if the book isn’t a bestseller, that person will never get a book deal again.  I think she was trying to be helpful, but she really wasn’t.  In fact, I felt like she had just given me the kiss of death.

Another woman wanted publishing advice and figured if she bought a web domain that was her in to being published.  I answered her questions kindly. 

But it also made me think of other things that seem to come out of this great situation for me.  What is it about this little bit of success I’ve had that makes people come to talk to me?  Why am I suddenly an expert in the field?  In both cases, I explained to the women that I’ve been incredibly lucky and it wasn’t an in depth research of the market that got me my deal.  But that didn’t seem to be enough for them.  I had to fall back on the old standard of luck, talent, and networking.  Hopefully, I’ve had at least two of the three, if not all three.

It’s an odd situation to me, talking to these people, when sometimes I just want to be left alone.  I don’t mind it exactly, but I’d much rather talk to my friends.  I feel like I’m just being polite to these people and they’re seeing right through my façade.  It feels false and that’s what I don’t want.  They want me to have all the answers, and I definitely don’t.

But—as for politeness–it’s all I have.  Hopefully it’s enough.

What about you?  What are you stories about people approaching you?

Evil Rat Sitiing On Hind Legs

by Guyot

If you didn’t read last week’s post, please go back and do so.

Okay, so about three weeks after you and the studio hammered out the network pitch, you show up at the network offices, along with one of the studio’s young beauties, and sometimes (depending on who you are), your agent shows up.

You walk in and realize they are eerily similar to the studio offices you originally went into. An assistant – looking exactly like the studio assistant – tells you that they’re running behind and will be with you in a few. They offer you bottled water, and if you say yes, they ask if you’d like it cold or room temperature. Or… if your meeting is scheduled near the end of the pitch season, they will tell you they only have room temperature.

About twelve minutes after your scheduled meeting time – it’s always twelve minutes – the assistant tells you they’re ready for you. You and the studio’s young beauty, walk through a mouse maze to the network executive’s office. There will always be one or two more people than you expected, and they are eerily similar to the studio’s young beauties. Often, the network’s young beauties will know your studio’s young beauty and they will all hug and laugh and talk about who had to wear a fake mustache at club Play the other night.

So, you go into the office and choose your seat, and about two to four minutes of small talk ensues – network beauties are much busier than studio beauties, and therefore have limited time for small talk. And then your studio beauty does a little introduction, saying how excited they are about you and your idea, and how they think it’s perfect for this particular network.

And then you pitch.

The network beauties nod, and put interested look masks over their faces, and occasionally write things down on their notepads. When you’re done – if it went well – they ask you questions. Their questions differ slightly from the studio’s questions. The network beauties’ questions will all sound different, and all seem different, but they are all the same question: Can we get 100 episodes out of this idea?

Then the network beauties tell you how great it was, how much they loved it, and that now they’re gonna talk internally and get back to you.

No, “Rati faithful, I am not kidding. It is exactly the same as the studio pitch process. Except that you have your own young beauty with you. Which is always comforting.

The major networks hear about 100 pitches each, so figure the total number of pitches heard by all the major networks and bigger cable nets, is anywhere from a low of 600 to a high of about 1,000.

Out of those, the majors will buy maybe as many as fifteen. The cablers maybe five or so. Of those, the major networks will shoot (actually put on film or DV) anywhere from six or seven, to the record eleven ABC shot a year or so ago. The cablers are much more prudent, usually shooting no more than three or four tops.

Of those pilots actually shot, each major will put as few as two on the air, or as many as five, depending on how badly they need product. The cablers anywhere from one to three.

So, those are the odds just to get on the air. Then to stay on the air… yeah, right. Every year the show’s that debut with the most hype ALWAYS FAIL. Always. The years that shows like CSI, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, and ER premiered, other pilots had all the hype. And those are long gone.

So, the network says yes to your idea. Now you know you’re going to get paid to write! And after a few hellish weeks “breaking the story” with your studio beauties, you write an outline of the pilot. This is for the network, but first, the studio must sign off on it, so you send it to them. Then, they tell you all the things wrong with your outline – all the things they know the network is not going to like about the outline. So, you make the changes because who knows better, right? See previous post.

Then your outline goes to the network, and they call and tell you that the very things the studio had you put in are what they hate. And when they tell you what they want, you realize that 75% of it is what the studio had you take out.

So, you rewrite. Another outline. And another. And this – both in features and TV – is where outlines get a bad name. See, the outline itself, used by the writer for his/her own purposes, is not a bad thing. It’s not counter to the creative process, or confining, or any of the other things people who bash outlines say they are. But this outline, the studio/network outline, this, this, this COMPLETE FREAKING WASTE OF TIME THAT SERVES NO PURPOSE OTHER THAN TO ALLOW SOME PUNK-ASS LOW LEVEL EXECUTIVES A REASON TO JUSTIFY THEIR JOB EXISTENCE, is not the most productive thing in a screenwriter’s life. This is where your wonderful locomotive of an idea can begin to derail. In television, what a writer must do is survive the outline phase. Give them whatever the hell they want so they will utter those three glorious words: GO TO SCRIPT.

Because once you start writing the script, you can do anything you want. So long as the structure, at least vaguely resembles the outline. And again, the more Emmys you have (within the last 15 years) the more you can adopt a Fuck-You stance during the outline phase.

So, you go to script. You write your ass off, you create the single greatest pilot since DOPE, or FREAKS AND GEEKS, or BOOMTOWN, or MY SO-CALLED LIFE, or any of the other absolute genius pilots that have been written over the years, and you type THE END or FADE OUT or whatever, and you’re actually happy with it. You survived the outlines and the silly notes and God smiles on you and the network says they’re shooting your pilot! Yes, now, you can pop the champagne.

And drink up, because hell is on its way.

Next, you go through endless meetings about locations – can we make Toronto look like the Nevada desert? True story: I had a pilot set in St. Louis – all about the mindset, etc., of the Midwest, and the network asked me to rewrite it for New York, saying it wasn’t even a rewrite really… “All you have to do is change the sluglines from Ext. St. Louis to Ext. New York.” Yes, they actually said that.

So, you figure out location, and then it gets fun. You nearly wet yourself because they send you lists of the directors they want to go after. Steven Soderbergh? PT Anderson? Ang Lee? Are you kidding? But then you start to hear a phrase uttered way too often: “So-and-so won’t do television.”

Then they go to the next list, which is still not bad. Michael Apted? Walter Hill? Anyone who ever directed an episode of The Sopranos? But Mike’s in Europe, Walter’s pissed off, and the others are all booked. Eventually, you settle on someone you like, but don’t love. Trust me, it could be way worse. It can always be worse.

Next, you nearly wet yourself again when you see the list of actors they have in mind for your pilot. Andy Garcia? Brad Pitt? Charlize Theron? Are you kidding? But then you hear it: “So-and-so won’t do television.”

So, you go to the next list. Casting directors have tons of lists. And the next one ain’t so bad. John Cusak? Sandra Bullock? Jennifer Lopez? Ah, but Sandy’s tied up on a feature, and Jenny’s cutting an album, and John won’t do TV.

Once you get to the third or fourth list, you start to get worried because you notice a trend taking place… the beauties seem more concerned with getting a name – any name – than they do with casting the thing with the right actor. You think about all the big name actors who have done failed pilots, and you think about all the smash hit pilots that had no big names in them. You mention this to one of the beauties and are told to keep quiet; you don’t understand the business.

This is where you will bond with your director. He/she doesn’t want a name, but rather an actor… excellent! An ally. Then the director mentions that his/her good friend is an underrated superstar, is available, and would be perfect. “It will be like Travolta in PULP FICTION,” the director says. You then spend three sleepless nights praying that the offer to Scott Baio won’t be accepted.

Eventually, all the bullshit subsides for a moment. This is what I call the gloaming of screenwriting. This amazing phase when you’ve gotten your location, your cast, and everything else set. And you show up on the first day of shooting and before you’ve even taken a bite of your breakfast burrito, your entire life has been worth it. All the shit you’ve ever swallowed and slugged through… all the humiliation you felt at the hands of Michelle Brady back in fifth grade when you confessed your love for her and she laughed at you; how your parents locked you up in that juvenile criminal rehab facility and you took the screwdriver that that guy Tony had smuggled in up his butt, and unscrewed the mesh over the window and escaped, running eleven miles back home; all the endless drivel you endured about needing something to fall back on; and how freaking right you were when your high school principal threatened to deny your diploma if you didn’t rat out your friends, and so you stood up in her office and said, “So what, I’m not going to Columbia University, I’m going to Columbia Pictures,” and walked out, never graduating… yes, yes, yes! You were right, and it was all worth it because:

An actor comes up to you, and asks YOUR opinion about a scene. You feel incredible. Even if it’s Scott Baio, you feel incredible. And it gets better when you go to the set and they have a chair for you. And the sound guy brings over your own set of headphones. And a PA asks if he can get you a bottled water – cold or room temperature? Note: Feature writers rarely make it to the sets of their films, television writers are always there.

And the scene is blocked and the scene is lighted, and the actors are called for, and everyone gets quiet, and the A.D. says “Roll camera,” and the director – sitting right next to you – says “Action,” and wham! Real actors are being filmed with real cameras, saying THE WORDS THAT YOU WROTE.

It’s magical. And you want to cry, but you don’t. You want to call your buddy back home and say, “You’re not gonna freaking believe this!” but you don’t. You wanna call Brenda Collins – your high school principal – and tell her where you are, and ask her how much she made last year, but you don’t. You sit there and try to act like it’s not your first rodeo. Not your first barbeque. Try to look like you belong.

The gloaming goes on for about two weeks. There are highs and lows, many fires to be put out, many worries, a few freakouts, but basically it’s a beautiful time. The studio and network beauties show up, and even their bosses show up, and everyone loves you. And then, on the last day, as the director yells cut, and the A.D. says, “Ladies and gentlemen, that is a wrap!” and everyone cheers, and hugs each other, you want to cry your eyes out because it’s over. But you don’t. You act like you’ve done it before.

The beauties congratulate you and say they know it’s going to be a hit, and over the next few weeks the editing process happens, and you still feel good. And your agents call and say there’s buzz about your pilot. Buzz is good. I always thought buzz was bad, thought it meant mosquitoes or something. No, buzz is good. They say it’s good. So, you’re happy there’s buzz.

But there’s a reason I call it the gloaming. The gloaming is a stunning, amazing, beautiful moment in time… and it’s always right before everything goes pitch black.

See, a few weeks later you get a DVD sent to you – the first cut of YOUR PILOT. And you call friends and family, and invite them over, and you buy the good vodka, and you pop the thing in, and you watch it.

And you wonder what the hell happened to your pilot???

You think you must have been delivered the wrong DVD. But no, you remember that scene in the restaurant. Only it wasn’t dramatic when they shot it, it was funny. But it sure as hell ain’t funny now. How did they do that?

You call your agents, and they tell you not to worry, that’s only the director’s cut. Oh… that guy. Scott Baio’s buddy. Always hated him. So you wait another week or two and get another DVD, and you watch it, and it’s even further from your pilot than the first cut. And you’re freaking out, and your agents are out of town, and the studio and network beauties aren’t around anymore, and you’re getting way too many emails from that one actor, who had like, three lines in that one scene, and he wants to know when the show is gonna premiere, and you can’t for the life of you remember giving him your email address, and you’re still freaking out, thinking your career is over the second the network sees this pile of trash.

And you have multiple sleepless nights, and your agent finally calls back and says not to worry, everyone will know it wasn’t your fault.

I sound bitter, but I’m not. I would dearly love to be able to make my living as some of you do – writing prose. But that’s not my thing. Not right now. And this silly, stupid, annoying business of screenwriting pays very well. Too well. X will back me on this – we make much more than we should, as does all of Hollywood. So, when I complain, it’s done with the slightest twinkle in my eye. Or maybe that’s a cinder I got at one of my pilots’ cremations.

How does a pilot go from being shot to getting on the air? Some pilots with big name elements have big penalties, too. Meaning, the studio/network makes a deal with big name to produce their pilot, and if it doesn’t make the fall season lineup, they will pay Big Name a penalty – usually heavy six figures. This is a big reason why you see a lot of terrible shows by big name people premiere and then die. So they don’t have to pay the penalty. Yes, I know it’s stupid.

The more traditional way is your pilot, once finished, is screened, along with the other pilots that network made, for the head honchos of the network. These are the corporate guys – who know even less about creating art, than the beauties – and they screen them, and then maybe test screen them. That’s when they show your pilot to a bunch of fire watchers out in Canoga Park, and let them decide if it’s worthy of the air. God, is that an excruciating process.

So, a show makes the air either because 1) someone had a big penalty, 2) a group of bankers think it could get certain ad revenue from certain demographics, 3) a bunch of out of work Big Gulp sippers in the Valley liked it. HBO is the exception and it shows. They decide. And they don’t have to worry about ad revenue. Unfortunately, they recently put bankers in charge, so who knows?

As stated earlier, your odds are the same as buying a lottery ticket. But I’d much rather write, and drink room temperature water, and write, and sit with young beauties, and write, and deal with stupid notes, and write, than walk into a Quik-Mart and buy a lottery ticket.

Next week: An interview with an actual working television writer: Paul Guyot!

(Part One of this series is here)

You Matter

I’m up to my ass in alligators this week, so Stacey Cochran, up and coming King of All Media,  graciously steps in…

Hey folks,
I need you.
I have recently started a new television show in Raleigh, North Carolina called The Artist’s Craft. We provide a half-hour interview format that reaches 90,000 Time/Warner subscribers. Additionally, we stream the interviews online through YouTube and Google video.
Last Friday, we had Murderati’s own J.D. Rhoades on the program with Vicki Hendricks as well.

A few weeks ago, we had another Murderati member, Alexandra Sokoloff…

In addition to the TV program, I’m an assistant organizer with the 350-member strong Raleigh Write 2 Publish Group. The group meets monthly at the Cameron Village Regional Public Library in Raleigh for a speaker-centered 90-minute discussion. We’re able to sell books through an independent bookseller (Quail Ridge Books and Music) and can usually draw an audience of 50 or more attendees.
Here are some photos from our most recent panel discussion with Dusty, Alex, and Vicki…

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

For all the writers in the house, I’d love to have you visit Raleigh this fall, winter, or even next spring. I’d be happy to line up a panel with the Write 2 Publish Group and arrange for an Artist’s Craft TV interview as well. Just let me know that you’d be interested.
And so my Murderati guest blogger questions are as follows:

1) What is the best panel you’ve ever been on?

2) What is the best panel you’ve ever seen?
And

3) if you could see an interview done with any one author of your choice (alive or dead) who would it be?

Sincerely,
Stacey Cochran
http://www.staceycochran.com

Thanks, Stacey!It was a lot of fun.

How Television Shows Are Created – Part One

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Michael Corleone

“Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.”
Emerson, Lake and Palmer

“What the hell is HE doing here?”
Robert Gregory Browne

“Huh?”
David J. Montgomery

Yes, it’s me again. But don’t fret, it’s a very limited engagement. X asked me to speak a little about the TV world, and having just returned from a crazy four weeks of it in LA, well, timing is everything.

NOTE: What follows is exclusively my personal info/experience in writing one-hour dramas. Half-hour comedies – sitcoms and single-camera – are worlds away, and if that’s your little red wagon, go read Ken Levine’s fine blog about that world: kenlevine.typepad.com.

Part One:  HOW TELEVISION SERIES ARE CREATED

Unless you’ve won an Emmy within the past 15 years, and can get the heads of studios and networks on the phone – writers with Emmys can do this – what follows is how a television series winds up on the air.

You (meaning the writer, though there are other non-writing entities that do this) have an idea for a TV series. Stop Guyot. You forgot the checklist. Ah, yes. Before we continue, there’s a checklist of things that are REQUIRED for you to move beyond simply having an idea for a TV series.

Item 1 – You must have a place of residence in Southern California. You may be able to swing a NY residence, but if you are truly starting out, it’s SoCal or nothing. X has covered this. Look it up, people.

Item 2 – You must have an agent. A legitimate agent. “Bob’s Talent & Pet Agency” in Pacoima is not legit. Your cousin acting as your agent is not legit. Some guy you met online who claims to be a manager is not legit… unless he can show you at least three working clients. Having 17 unemployed clients does not count. Besides, managers are for actors, or people who can’t get real agents. I know exactly one working screenwriter who has a manager (along with an agent), and that writer hates the manager. You don’t need to be with Endeavor (though it helps), but you must have an agent that is capable of having their calls returned.

Item 3 – You must have NO LESS than two samples of your writing. And I mean samples of one-hour episodic television writing. Three is really how many you should have, but you can get away with two if both are brilliant. Nowadays they should be original specs – meaning, they should be pilot episodes of some idea of your own. It used to be you needed specs of shows currently on the air (hit shows), but that’s more about getting a staff job, and we’re talking about how series are created. Oh, and it’s a good idea that neither of your samples are the show you are trying to sell. They can be, but it’s a slippery slope.

Item 4 – You must have the ability to check your ego. It’s okay to have an ego, but you must be able to sit across from an idiot who is telling you what’s wrong with the thing you wrote and, while you know with every fiber of your being that what is being said is complete horsepucky, you must be able to nod your head and say, “That’s interesting. I’ll take a look at that.” If you cannot do this, sell your SoCal residence, fire your agent, and burn your two specs. You will not make it.

Okay, you’ve got the checklist covered. So, here’s how a television series winds up on the air.

You have your great idea for a series. You tell your agents about it, and if they’re good agents, they say they love it regardless of their real feelings. See, agents don’t know shit about anything but agenting, and they can be deadly to the creative process. If your agent ever wants to give you notes on something you’ve written, or tells you it’s not a good idea, or that there are already three ideas in town just like it, don’t listen to them. Just tell them to set up the meetings.

So, your agents get you “pitch” meetings at the studios. Sony, Lions Gate, and Warner Television are examples studios lacking the vertical integration X spoke of. Studios having meaningful sex with networks include: Paramount (which is now CBS-Paramount), Universal (which is now NUTS. I’m not kidding. It’s: NBC-Universal-Television-Studios), Touchstone (which is now ABC Studios), 20th Century Fox, and HBO Studios.

THE STUDIO PITCH

This is where you walk in and tell the black-clad assistant with the tiny headset that you’re there to see so-and-so. Regardless of whether you are there thirty minutes early, or thirty minutes late, the assistant will always says, “So-and-so is running a little behind. He/she will be with you in a few minutes.” Then the assistant asks if they can get you a bottled water. If you say yes, they ask if you want it cold or room temperature. If you’re at a really fancy POD (more on PODs in the coming weeks), they may offer you a latte or even a Red Bull. Though, I don’t recommend the latter right before you walk into a pitch meeting.

So, you sit there, either in an uncomfortably upright chair, or on a leather couch so soft that you feel like you’re being swallowed by a jellyfish. There is always something to read while you wait, and it’s always the same thing: the Trades. VARIETY and the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, daily publications listing all the business dealings going on in Hollywood.

DON’T READ THESE.

DON’T EVEN OPEN THEM. It will kill your pitch. Why? Because you will either get so depressed by reading about the hacks doing so much better than you, or you will read about some network already developing the exact same idea you’re about to pitch, or you’ll read about how the networks are looking for anything BUT the type of idea that you’re about to pitch. The Trades… it takes you five minutes to read them, and five days to get over them.

Finally, the assistant walks over and says, “So-and-so is ready for you.” You follow the assistant back through a Habitrail of cubicles – unless you’re at Sony, in which case you’ve been waiting in the foyer of Tara – the GONE WITH THE WIND mansion – and you follow the assistant back down a long corridor – to an office where two to four people (no matter how many you were supposed to meet with), all younger and prettier than you, greet you like you’re their favorite uncle at a family reunion. And then they offer you that same bottled water thing the assistant already did… even if you’re holding one.

Then you have to make the BIG CHOICE… where to sit. They always let you choose, and choosing right is critical. NEVER sit with a window at your back – you don’t want them distracted by a passing bird, or helicopter, or cloud if your pitch is really sucking. NEVER sit in the lowest chair in the room. If you’re looking up at them during your pitch, it’ll screw with your head, and if they’re looking down at you the whole time, they’ll subconsciously feel like you’re unworthy.

So, you choose your seat, and then the small talk begins. Everyone makes small talk for five or ten minutes. Complete bullshit-nobody cares-pointless-fake small talk. Why? God only knows. Probably because they hate being there – they hear about twenty pitches a day for several weeks – and you hate being there because you’re a writer, not a freaking car salesman. So, you make small talk, trying to get the nerves out, and then someone in the room awkwardly segues into why you’re all sitting there.

And then you pitch. What the hell does that mean? A pitch is where you, a writer, a person used to working long hours all by yourself, a person usually socially awkward with bizarre idiosyncrasies, a person who chose writing for a living because you can’t express yourself in words, a person who is the furthest and farthest thing from any type of salesperson, must now sell your idea. You sit there, across from two to four people that you know are not writers, are not artists, and are envious of you, and you must sell them on your idea. Convince them to put their jobs on the line by going to their boss and saying, “This is the idea and the writer we should put millions of dollars behind.”

Pitching sucks. Even if you’re good at it, and I know some folks who are freaking geniuses at the art of pitching, it still sucks. It is so counter to the creative process. The closest thing to it is an actor doing a cold reading for a role. The actor may be perfect for the role, but because their cold read was weak, or not exactly what the people in the room were looking for, they didn’t get it. There’s a great old Hollywood story about a female actor that was horrible at auditions. Would go in and freeze up, or just be awful, and got a rep as a horrible actor, and couldn’t get any work for the longest time, so she started doing theater and some people saw her, and she got a job or two without having to audition. Her name: Meryl Streep. Probably not true, but a good story.

So, you sit there and, if you know what’s good for you, you pitch for about seven to ten minutes max. If you’re an idiot, you pitch for fifteen or twenty minutes. If you are in dire need of a lobotomy, you pitch for more than twenty minutes. You’re saying things like, “This is a show about…” and “Then there’s this character Joe, an everyman, but good looking…” and “And he’s in love with this woman named Maggie and she’s totally unaware of her natural beauty…” and on and on. And during this verbal diarrhea, the young beauties are nodding, wearing their interested look masks, and they will occasionally write something down on their little notepads that they’re all holding. If you laugh at something in your pitch – indicating a funny part of the idea – they will laugh, too. The young beauties are very polite.

When you’re done with the pitch, they ask questions. If they start asking questions during your pitch, it’s best to just stop, thank them all, and go home. You’re sunk. But if you can get to the end without interruption, then they’ll ask a series of questions about character motivations, relationships, machinations, story points, arcs, or whatever else it was that they all talked about at their last corporate retreat. Remember, they ain’t writers for a reason. And after everything has been asked and answered, they will tell you that they loved it. Or that it sounds great. Or, and this is the kiss of death, “Sounds interesting.” Then they’ll say, “So, let us talk internally and we’ll get back to you.” Then they tell you what a great job you did with the pitch. As I said, they are nothing if not polite.

You walk out of every pitch meeting thinking you hit a homerun. Thinking that they’re gonna be on the phone with your agents before you have your parking validated. As you take the elevator down to the parking garage, you’re trying to decide if you’ll buy property in Sun Valley or Martha’s Vineyard, once season five airs and your backend starts kicking in.

Don’t call the real estate people. Because you’re wrong. No matter how many years you pitch, and I’ve done it quite a few, your ego is so tweaked as a writer, that you always think THIS TIME they really did love it. So, then, a day or so later, when your agent calls and says they passed, you want to kill yourself.

But, let’s say you heard the kiss of life in the studio pitch. That’s where someone in the room says, “You know, this could be perfect for [insert network here] or [insert second network here].” If the studio thinks your idea might be right for more than one network, there’s a good chance they’ll buy it. If they ask you in the pitch what networks you were thinking of, it means they don’t have a clue, and you’re dead.

The young beauties have a tough job. Their job is to say no. They are required to say no to about 95% of everything they hear. Which means they must say yes to 5% of it. Ah, but which five percent? And what if they say no to an idea that some other studio says yes to, and it becomes THE SOPRANOS? Then they’re working at Bob’s Talent & Pet Agency. So, without an “element” – oh, did I mention elements? An element is when you go into pitch and you already have a big name director attached, or a big name actor, or sometimes a big name producer. The young beauties are taught to say yes to pitches with fancy elements attached. Despite the fact that very few – read it again: VERY FEW – shows ever succeed with big names attached from the beginning. So, for them to say yes to you and your silly idea, well, let’s just say it’s akin to buying a lottery ticket.

But let’s be positive here. Say you hit a homerun and the young beauties loved your pitch, and  have decided that one of the twenty or so pitches they buy out of the, oh, three to four hundred pitches they hear that development season, is yours. Woohoo! Pop the champagne, right? Uh, no… because chances are the deal they make with you is an IF-COME deal. That means that the studio agrees to pay you a certain price to write the pilot ONLY IF it is sold to a network. If/come deals are the hot thing right now because of the pending strike, and for some other boring reasons which I won’t go into here. The deal you want is a Blind deal. That means the studio loves you enough, or your idea enough that they will gamble and pay you to write the pilot whether you sell it or not. Meaning, if you don’t sell it to a network, then you are contractually obligated to write some pilot for them that year. Either another idea of yours they like, or they can tell you what to write. It can often end up being a lot of work for one set fee, but to me, money in the bank is always better than money promised.

So, now you have a pilot deal. Sony (or whomever) has agreed to pay you $150,000 to write your pilot script… IF they – meaning you and the young beauties – sell it to a network. The next thing that happens is you go into the outline phase. This is a sieve of time where you write up who the characters are, what the show is, how it will be structured, and anything else you want, and then the studio’s young beauties give you notes. During this process you may or may not discuss and develop the actually story for the actual pilot episode. It depends on the studio. Either way, once the young beauties are happy with your pages, you move on to which networks would be good possibilities, which networks would never buy an idea like this, and so on. The studios have strong opinions about exactly what the networks are looking for, because they meet with them and they ask them.

But here’s one of the hee-larious things about the TV biz: they’re always wrong. The studios have no idea what the networks will or won’t buy because the freaking networks themselves have no idea. Take this development season as an example – ABC and NBC both made it very clear to Hollywood that they were only developing “Blue sky” shows, meaning they only wanted feel good, happy, light, dramas. Everywhere I went I heard this, as did my agents, the studios, everyone.

And guess what? The first few things bought by those two networks? Not blue sky, not light and happy.

So, you and your studio figure out just what networks you’re going to pitch to, and during the two to three weeks it takes for a studio to schedule a freaking pitch meeting with a network, you all hone the pitch within an inch of its life. This is the network pitch, and though you might think it should be the same as the studio pitch, think again. See, the young beauties must get their fingerprints all over it. So, you discuss and discuss and practice and practice the pitch so much, that by the time the network meeting is set, you hate your own idea.

And, another hee-larious aspect of all this is when the studio has you alter your pitch depending on which network you’re going to. “So-and-so at NBC hates blah-blah-blah, so we need to say blah, blah, blah, instead of blah-blah-blah.” Or… “So-and-so at ABC loves it when blah-blah-blah, so make sure you blah-blah-blah.” Now, I know you smart ‘Rati readers are going, “yeah, but what about the show? The idea?” Nope, has nothing to do with the idea.

Next week, I’ll take you through Phase Two: THE NETWORK PITCH.

Lat Bar

Hi!  You’ve reached Simon’s Thursday blog.  He’s not in town at the moment, so the lovely Robin Burcell is standing in for him.

PRICE CHECK ON REGISTER FOUR

By Robin Burcell

As a writer, I love the computer age.  I’m not sure I would ever have had the attention span to type out a full novel on a real typewriter. But as a shopper, sometimes I find computers frustrating. Especially those moments when the cashier isn’t smart enough to handle a transaction out of the norm, like the time I was filling prescriptions for my infant twins, trying not to have a meltdown, because the computer wouldn’t let the clerk enter the same birth date for different family members. (I would have dismissed this as a case of idiot computer programmers, up until I realized that the clerk couldn’t figure out that my twins were the same age.) I’ve actually stopped shopping at certain department stores, because they missed that whole spiel that most retailers subscribe to, that the customer is king (or queen as the case may be).

There is one segment of retail that didn’t miss the talk.  The grocery stores. They know that if they don’t treat you right, you’re going to shop across the street. It’s capitalism at its finest. Hand them your ATM card, or your Club Card, and your name comes up on the receipt. 

I don’t regularly shop at these stores, even with the Buy One-Get One Free deals, mostly because I can’t stand that whole fake sincerity thing as they circle my savings on the receipt with their pen. No doubt they’re instructed to do this so they can discreetly look at my name, then chirp, “You saved nine dollars and sixty-two cents today, Ms. Burcell,” as if they actually know my name.  It’s the so-called personal touch that some marketing whiz in some boardroom thought of. What these whizzes don’t realize is that it comes across so fake, no one in their right mind can possibly believe these cashiers really care about you.  And we won’t even talk about what happens if you use your club card on Bad Hair Days, or any other day when you’d rather be anonymous. You know darn well as you’re standing there in your throw-down clothes, hiding behind your oversized sunglasses, they’re going to say at the top of their lungs: “You saved thirty-eight cents today, Ms. Burcell.” And it will be that moment that everyone will turn and look in your direction, see the six-pack of beer and nothing else in your cart, and one of those people will be the guy you dated before you married your husband. You know, the guy that you never run into when you look good.  Or worse yet, it’s your kid’s teacher, who looks at the beer and thinks she knows exactly why your kid didn’t turn in her last assignment.

Of course, this fake know-and-care-about-your-customer routine isn’t done just at the club card stores. They do this at my usual grocery store as well. I think they realize there is a competition to bring back that old “neighborhood grocery store” feel, where the grocer knew his customers and interacted with them.  Since my usual store has “no club card required” in its advertising, the publicity department has come up with a different way of making you feel at home. And they have it down to a science. I’m just not sure they’re applying it properly, though I like it a tad better than the fake-know-your-name-because-it’s-on-the-receipt scenario.  My grocery store guys don’t need no stinkin’ computer receipt to come up with my name, because they greet me with Extreme Enthusiasm.

Cashier:  “How are you today?”

Me: “Fine, thank you.”

Cashier: “Did you find everything you’re looking for?”

Me: (looking down at full cart as cashier is unloading and blithely running each item over the computer scanner as the subtotal surpasses the hundred mark. “More than enough.  I just came in for a carton of milk.”

Cashier: “Anything else we can get for you?”

Me (If I dare ask him to run to the back of the store for eggs, would he really do it? Actually I’m certain he would. I’m also certain the ten people in line behind me would take those eggs and smash them over my head.): “No, thank you.”

In truth, sometimes I feel sorry for the cashiers, because in their Extreme Enthusiasm, they overlook the obvious, perhaps too dependent on the scanner, not really paying attention to what they’re scanning, because the computer is doing all the work.

Cashier (scanning a bottle of Motrin, a box of tampons, and a chocolate bar):  “How are you today?”

Me (looking down at what he’s scanning and glad I’m not at the club card store where they “know” my name, tempted to say: Hello? How do you think I’m doing? I’m trying to figure out how to finance a car for my daughter, pay the life insurance, pay off the new roof, help the twins with their science project, not worry about my father’s failing health, or my latest debacle at work, and somehow meet my deadline. I won’t even go into the whole Motrin, time of month and chocolate thing. Instead, I take pity on him and simply mutter): “ I’m fine, thank you.”

Cashier (dropping Motrin, etc., into bag.): “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

I’ll admit it’s rare, but it’s days like this when the Extreme Enthusiasm approach brings out the worst in me, and I think fondly of a magnet I had mounted on the control panel in my patrol car at one time: “I have PMS and a gun. Any questions?” Being a rational person, I know it’s a far, far better thing to simply smile, and say, “I’ve got it covered, thank you.”

Anybody else shop at these stores?

Guest Blogger Robin Burcell

    by Robin Burcell

    When
I was first sworn in, a rookie officer fresh out of the academy (maybe
even a year or two after that), I harbored a secret: I thought it was
cool when someone found out I was a cop–especially when I didn’t
tell them.  Almost like a voyeurism of sorts.  But more exciting
to me was the thrill of the conversation that followed
Sounds weird, but bear with me.

      Each
night, after I peeled off that uniform, I unpinned my badge and carefully
pinned it inside my wallet, which had a little flap that covered the
badge, so that when you took out the wallet at the grocery store, the
badge wasn’t being flashed to everyone. Even so, if you happened to
be looking at the right angle, you could see the finished edge of the
brass and silver badge, and there was no mistaking what that was, at
least not to me. I loved pulling out that wallet out and seeing the
gleaming metal. But that thrill was nothing in comparison to the conversation
that usually took place when someone else saw it, say the cashier at
the grocery store.

      
“Oh, you’re a cop?”

      “Yes.”

      “You
don’t look like one.”

      And
that’s where the thrill came. To me, that was the ultimate compliment.
I’m sure there’s some psychoanalytical mumbo jumbo to explain this–something
I’m sure I don’t want to hear.  But to me it was like someone
discovering I had superpowers, when in fact I really resembled the mild-mannered
bookkeeper that I was before I changed professions.

      After
a number of years on the job, I stopped carrying the badge in my wallet.
I left it pinned to the shirt in my locker. I no longer wanted anyone
to know what I did for a living, and that special little thrill of seeing
the gleaming metal in the wallet faded. I much preferred my private
life being separate from my professional life. Cleaner that way. 
Looking back at most of the officers I’ve known over the years, same
is true for them. The excitement wears off and reality sets in. You
can always tell a rookie because he’s the one wearing his basket weave
belt home on his jeans, because he knows that anyone who is up on their
TV watching will know what he does for a living. The veterans simply
shake their heads, reminisce a bit, knowing they were once there, though
few will admit it.

      I
have since moved on in my life. My honorary framed badge, name plate
and patch given to me when I left my first department after eighteen
years is tucked away in a cupboard, no longer displayed. I have other
mementoes on my shelves now. Awards proudly displayed next to mugs sporting
one of my book covers, each given to me by a local bookseller when I
signed at her store. It’s not a blatant in-your-face display, but
it’s much like the badge in the wallet, where I hope someone will
notice when they walk into my house and pass my office.  These days,
the only folks who pass my office on their way down the hall are neighborhood
kids, who would probably be more excited if those mugs sported Gossip
Girl
covers, assuming they noticed them in the first place.

      I
admit to getting that same thrill, when someone asks if I write. And,
still being a rookie in the book business, I’ll enjoy it as long as
I can. Though a part of me would like to get so big that hiding my profession
is the next thing, another part of me enjoys the minor celebrity status,
just as I did when someone noticed the gleaming edge of that badge in
my wallet.

      So,
‘fess up.  What’s your badge-in-the-wallet thrill?

COLOR ME BADD

By Bryon Quertermous

When Simon first asked me to guest blog here at Murderati I was pleased and since I don’t know Simon all that well I wanted to put on a good show and not make him regret asking me. I think that went well.

And then Mike MacLean asked me to fill in for him.

I know Mike. I reeeeeaaaally know Mike. But we’ll keep it nice here anyway, because we’re mostly nice people (Jim Born’s not here is he?). The characters we create though are not always nice. I’m well into the manuscript of a new novel and I’ve been thinking a lot about the "tone" and "color" of the novel. Another well-respected writer read the manuscript for my last novel and mentioned that my style is more in line with Robert Parker and not as dark as many current practitioners of the field. I agree with that assessment, but it makes me think.

My books have always had a lighter tone to them while my short stories are almost entirely dark (see Donkey Show or Alter Road). I’ve tried writing darker books, but it doesn’t work. I just turn my brain off and my writing subconscious on and inevitably what comes out every time is "light." That doesn’t mean everybody is always joking and there’s lots of scenes with exploding whoopie cushions, but in general there is an optimistic tone and I don’t dig too deep into the really dark parts of my characters. Why is this?

Laura Lippman is famously quoted as saying she wanted to be more hardboiled but, like Jessica Rabbitt, she just wasn’t drawn that way. Now Laura’s recent short story work has gone a long way to redrawing her, but her books still lean more toward the lighter side of the spectrum and it certainly hasn’t hurt her sales. Are some writers just drawn lighter than others? Is it easier to write darker characters and themes in short works instead of novels?

So here’s the question for the day: What color are you? Do you mix lighter and darker styles? And if you do write dark and long, how do you look at yourself in the morning?

Discuss…

Next week:  The talented Toni McGee Causey takes over the Sunday spot!

Dry Cleaners

By Robin Burcell

One of my favorite things to do is hunt for interesting articles in the newspaper, hoping for that spark of an idea that will lend itself into the makings of a novel.  Writing police procedurals and police thrillers definitely keeps me tuned into news on crime and the judicial system. But I also find myself increasingly frustrated over what I read, because if this stuff were in a novel, people would throw it across the room and say this could never happen in real life.

Sure, sometimes it’s a case of truth being stranger than fiction. Like this Dontay Brannon, held on two homicide charges, then being released–accidentally–on two hundred dollars bail. How the heck does that mistake happen? The authorities who were interviewed said that they were “reviewing the process.” Hello? What process is that? Did no one read this guy’s charges? Did they not question the absurdity of the bail amount in relation to the crime? (Uh, sorry, boss.  Thought he was only charged with one homicide.) And finally, does anyone charge 200 bucks bail for anything anymore?

What with inflation I’m not even sure petty theft qualifies for that amount these days. And allegedly, several people had to sign off on this guy’s release papers, which makes me wonder… did no one see the word HOMICIDE written anywhere?  (In interest of fairness, the various articles state that they didn’t see the word “homicide” anywhere, because a clerk never entered the two homicide and one attempted homicide charges into the computer. That doesn’t, however, explain why no one bothered to look at his paper file, which is supposed to follow him wherever he goes.) So if these officials “signed off” on his release, it makes me wonder what other papers they put their John Hancocks on before this latest debacle. It also makes me wonder who’ll be looking for a new job once the dust settles. 

And speaking of debacles, who hasn’t read about the Paris Hilton arrest on probation violation, her almost immediate release, and then the judge who was miffed that the sheriff overstepped his boundaries, and so ordered her back into custody? Okay, granted, the sheriff, had he been smart, should have waited a couple more days before letting her go, just to satisfy the public as well as the paparazzi who sell photos to the gossip papers sold at the check stand. (Did he really think no one was going to notice?)

Sure, Paris committed a crime, and the Hilton name shouldn’t be a get-out-of-jail-anytime ticket, but if you really compare it to the typical arrest of the populace, the little people who are only accountants or fry cooks and don’t have a TV show with their on-again off-again best friend, you’d know that the typical stay for this violation is about what she originally served. And really, if you need to use valuable bed space in the So. Cal. jails, do you want Paris Hilton filling it, or maybe some person who will probably be released on 200 dollar bail for double homicide?

Question for So. Cal. officials: What’s the dollar amount on the Paris Hilton custody/release/custody/release thing?  Next question: How many real crooks have you released due to over-crowding in the jails, even before some judge was miffed that a DUI probation violator was released in a high profile case? And finally: What’s the average stay of your basic DUI probation violator? I want to know that my tax dollars are being spent wisely, not for sensationalistic news, nor because some judge wants to prove a point.

And speaking of judges proving points, what about the nitwit judge back east, suing the dry cleaners for a gazillion dollars, well, 54 million, because the cleaners lost a pair of pants that couldn’t have cost more than a few hundred at the most, even with alterations and taxes. Hello? Is this guy insane? (Asked and answered, your honor.) This judge should be disbarred, not only for such a frivolous suit, but for the waste of the court’s time. That it even got as far as it did is a testament to how screwed up our judicial system really is.  Just because someone is a judge, lawyer, member of the bar, doesn’t mean he should be able to abuse his power. To me, he looks as bad as the fictional psychiatrist at Macy’s trying to prove that Kris Kringle was insane and wasn’t really Santa in MIRACLE ON 34th STREET.  But back to real life. This judge back east took on a small business who made a simple mistake. He’s telling this business (and anyone who keeps track of the news) that it’s not good enough to apologize and make reparations. Why allow an error to be fixed in good faith when you can gouge the business, shut them down, bankrupt the owners, and send them packing as an example that they screwed with the wrong guy?

As of this writing, two of the above cases have come to an end. Paris has been released at even more considerable expense, because the FAA has been assigned to track high-flying paparazzi, and the city had to place barricades closing off Hilton’s home street to keep everyone out there as well.  In the dry cleaners case, a more astute judge ruled against the idiot judge, finding in favor of the cleaners. A separate ruling will determine what costs the cleaners will recover.  As for the double homicide suspect released on 200 dollars bail? He’s still outstanding, but the father of one of his victims has filed a law suit for $5 million for gross negligence, because people are now afraid to come to a family business in fear he might show up there. Somehow I think that suit trumps the lost pair of pants case.  What do you think?