Author Q&A

Before I started writing novels, I spent more than twenty-five years as a writer for television. It was a great ride and one I look back on fondly —well, except for the late, late nights and meals packed in Styrofoam. Recently, my friend of 30-plus years, Diana Dempsey, who worked as a TV news reporter and anchor before becoming a novelist, interviewed me about the differences between writing novels and writing for television.

Some Frequently Asked Questions

How did a Notre Dame graduate from a small town in Ohio get into TV sitcom writing? Did you have friends or relatives in the business when you started?

Actually, I didn’t know a soul in the TV or movie business. But luckily, there were two of us, myself and the friend who would become my longtime writing partner, Jim Pond. That helped boost the confidence factor and gave each of us a sense of daring we probably would have lacked if we’d gone it alone. And we did some crazy things, like wait outside the offices of literary agencies, scripts in hand, and approach agents as they were coming back from lunch, begging them to read our material. In one such instance, we’d heard of a great agent named “Rima,” but didn’t know what she looked like. So every time a well-dressed woman passed on the sidewalk outside the agency where we knew she worked, we called out “Rima.” Eventually we did meet her, and although she thought we were beyond nuts, she agreed to read our material. Sadly, that was where that relationship ended.  

Working with a writing partner, especially in comedy, also made it easier to write the all-important “spec script—a sample script of an existing show. Spec scripts are your calling card if you’re trying to break into the entertainment industry. If you’re able to craft a decent spec script, agents and producers will have tangible evidence that you have skills. Of course, you have to get it into their hands, which involves writing countless emails or letters, getting hung up on and otherwise making a pest of yourself until somebody finally sparks to your material. 

When my writing partner and I were starting out, we were also lucky enough to have a friend who worked in video editing at Paramount Studios. He couldn’t help us make connections, but he was able to arrange passes for us to get onto the studio lot. That enabled us to sneak onto several movie and TV sets, the most notable of which was the long-running series Cheers. Once the security guard was occupied, we’d quietly slither up the bleachers that face the stage and watch rehearsals, pore over show scripts and otherwise get an inside view of how the process works. We eventually introduced ourselves to Cheers’ production assistants and became somewhat welcome. We even ended up getting invited to their end-of-season wrap party.

Not surprisingly, it was a Cheers spec script that became our entrée into the business. While it didn’t garner any interest at Cheers, it got us our first agent and a number of freelance jobs that led to a staff job on Newhart. That first spec script—forty-five pages of story and jokes that was a blast to write—was the spark that led to a twenty-five-year career in television. 

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So far, what has been your favorite job writing for television?

There were a lot of them, but my favorite was working as a consulting producer for the ABC series Hope & Faith.  First of all, it was a fun series to write, with terrific characters played by Faith Ford, Ted McGinley and Kelly Ripa. The writing staff was also a pleasure to work with, all of them talented and supportive and funny as hell, the kind of people you don’t mind spending fourteen hours a day sitting around a table with. Then there was the New York factor. Since the show was filmed there due to Kelly Ripa’s commitments with the morning show Regis and Kelly, I got to live in Manhattan, spending my off hours getting to know that exciting, electric city.

A close second was Living Single, the Fox show that starred Queen Latifah. The characters were so well-crafted that they were great fun to write, and the staff was top notch. Living Single ended up being a three-year gig, my longest in television. In such an unstable business, three years of creative and financial security is nothing to shake a stick at  

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Have you ever thought of writing for the movies?

Actually, when my writing partner and I got started, we were determined to become film writers. We wrote three spec feature scripts, which ranged from bad to slightly above average, but were unable to get an agent or sell them. People kept saying, “We’d love to see your next script,” industry lingo for “Please go away.” A few months later. when we walked on the Cheers set and watched the creative process and witnessed the fun the writers seemed to be having, we realized we were born to write sitcoms And although we wrote a few more features over the years, most notably Gipp (please read my bio for more information on that), I wouldn’t trade the experience of working on a television staff for anything. I have to admit, though, it would certainly be a thrill if one my novels were made into a movie.

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What’s the single biggest difference between writing a half-hour of TV comedy and writing a novel?

When you’re writing half-hour television, virtually everything is expressed through dialogue. Sure, there are the occasional nods and sighs and furtive glances, but just about every element of the story happens as a result of characters talking to one another, usually within a handful of locations, for reasons of budget and practicality. Your soundstage is only so big.

In a novel, dialogue is important, but equally important is internal thought—what’s going on inside the heads of characters. Description is also important. A room that might be described in a sentence in a half-hour script might take a page to describe in a novel. And of course, you have the freedom to take your characters to an unlimited number of locations. If you can describe it, you can place them in it.

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It seems as though a screenplay would be structured very differently than a novel. But is there more in common between the two forms than one might think?

There are certainly differences, but in my mind both mediums are essentially about setting up a good story, then telling it compellingly. From my background in screenwriting, I know that screenplays are told in three acts: setup, confrontation and resolution. Both novels I’ve written follow that structure as well.

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When you write a screenplay, you’re mostly writing dialogue. Does that mean you find writing dialogue for your novels really easy?

Too easy sometimes. At first, my novels looked like screenplays dumped into a novel-writing program, which wasn’t far from the truth. There were large passages of dialogue with very little insight into what was going on in characters’ heads and very little description or internal monologue. Thanks to the blunt critique of an accomplished novelist friend, I learned to begin expanding my sequences so there was often as much going on internally as externally. It was hard at first. I felt like I was forcing it. Also, being an impatient person, I often felt like, “Let’s just get to it,” rushing through description to get to the heart of the scene. But over time, I learned that getting there is often as interesting for the reader as being there, and my style improved as a result.  

Another essential learning tool for me has been other people’s novels. I always make sure I’m reading something when I’m writing. It can be inspiring or intimidating, but ultimately it’s valuable. And I rarely read in the genre I’m writing in. I read to immerse myself in the craft of writing, not to pick up shortcuts.  

By the way, my favorite contemporary novel is The Stand by Stephen King, and my favorite classic is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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What’s been the biggest challenge for you transitioning from writing sitcoms to writing novels?

There are two. The first, which I detailed earlier, is learning to strike a good balance between dialogue and internal thought.

The other is the difference in how the two products are put together. Once you’re a working writer in Hollywood, the writing process becomes very collaborative. While you still come up with jokes and story ideas on your own, you’re working on a staff with an average of ten other writers, so the final product is usually the result of a group-think process. Somebody comes in with an idea that everyone agrees would make a good story, and you work as a group to “break” it, fleshing it out scene by scene, before sending a writer off to do an outline, followed by two drafts of a script. At each stage, the group, led by the executive producer, gives the writer feedback or “notes” on the script. Then, when the script is handed in for good, the executive producer leads the group in taking a pass at it, known as “tabling.” During this process, jokes can change and whole scenes can be pulled out and replaced. I’ve occasionally been in situations where no more than a couple of my original lines have remained. Not the most secure feeling in the world, but a reality of the business.  

When you’re writing a novel, you’re on your own. You’re coming up with your story and dialogue while sitting in front of your computer, running on a treadmill, sipping coffee or walking the dog. It’s all you. That might seem like a huge amount of freedom, but for me it was intimidating at first. After twenty-some years of working with a writing partner, most of those years with a writing staff, too, I was suddenly all alone looking at a blank screen. Some days, I’d start writing with no particular plan, just to assure myself I was still a writer. But because most of those days went nowhere, I learned to brainstorm on my own. Not that I haven’t leaned on my friends and fellow novelists for ideas, but by and large I’ve learned to do it alone, without the safety net of another creative mind.  

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What do you like best about writing for sitcoms, and what do you like best about writing novels?

In both cases, I love the joy of creating something original. That doesn’t mean it comes easily. There were days in comedy writing when the jokes didn’t flow and many, many days as a novelist when I couldn’t get a plot point right or make a passage read as anything other than hopelessly awkward. But when it comes, when you finally make a piece of writing sing, it’s an amazing feeling of joy and accomplishment.

Beyond that, I would say the thing I like most about writing for sitcoms is the collaborative process, the fact that great stories can come out of just-okay ones when the group is firing on all cylinders. Plus, I’m a people person, so working alongside other writers, in an office outside of my house, is a pleasure.

With writing novels, I love having the freedom to create a completely infinite world, one that’s not limited by budget restraints or an actor’s capabilities. And there is something to be said for that feeling you get at the end of the day when you can sit back and acknowledge you did it all yourself.

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Has it been difficult for you to adjust to the sheer quantity of writing involved to complete a novel?

Absolutely. There are days when the amount of work seems insurmountable. And it doesn’t matter if I’m stuck or I know exactly what lies ahead. Writing is hard. Unlike working for someone else where there are specific deadlines or the threat of being fired, you have to be a self-starter as a novelist, setting your own deadlines and making them. It’s so tempting sometimes to check out the Internet, take the dog for a walk, meet friends for lunch, etc. But I find that the days I feel best about are the days when I’ve forged ahead and upped my word count, even if that first pass is rough and verbose. And for the most part, my first drafts are rough and verbose. I’m not one of those people who spins gold every time I plop myself in front of the keyboard. For me, it’s like sculpting something out of a slab of granite. It’s in there somewhere, but you have to do a lot of carving and sweating to get to it.

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What advice would you give someone who aspires to write for television? How about to someone who aspires to write a novel?

In both cases, I’d suggest they ask themselves: “Do I love writing? Do I really, really love it?” If the answer is “yes,” then I’d tell them to just do it. If you want to write for TV, binge-watch your favorite show till you know it inside and out, then craft a story that stands with the best of them and pound it out. I’ve met so many people over the years who claimed they were working on a spec script. And every time I ran into them again, they were still working on the first script or “taking a break from it.” As someone a lot more intelligent than me once said: “A writer writes.” It’s not unusual for a comedy writer to write five or six scripts before they land on that special formula that gets them an agent and a job.

The same goes for novels. Figure out that one story you were born to tell, regardless of whether it appears to be the hottest trend in publishing, and go about writing it, knowing full well it may go no further than the tray of your printer. It was painful to set aside my first novel when it didn’t sell, but eventually I made my peace with it and embarked on my second book. This one did sell and it’s sparked renewed interest in my first book. Granted, it’s never easy to set your work aside, or in TV parlance “to kill your babies,” but you have to be prepared to do exactly that if you want to have a chance at success.  

Regardless of whether you’re considering writing for television or novels, you have to have a thick skin or develop one quickly. Unless you’re the most secure person in the world, you’re probably going to ask a few friends or fellow professionals to read your material and tell you what they think. And while there’s a childlike part in all of us who just wants our readers to grin and say “You done good,” that’s most likely not going to be the case. Some people aren’t going to like your material. Others are going to pick it apart, hopefully in the interest of helping you put it back together in better form. And it can be demoralizing.

A friend of mine said he follows what he calls “The 48-Hour Rule.” He allows himself to feel lousy about the proposed changes to his manuscript for that period of time. Then he takes a deep breath and studies the notes, trying to decide as objectively as possible which notes are good, regardless of how much work it’s going to take to implement them. In my experience in both television and novels, the work has almost always improved when trusted colleagues, editors or bosses weigh in with changes. And if I wasn’t up to the task of rewriting, I wouldn’t be able to call myself a writer, would I?

Of course, the thick-skin part doesn’t end with the completion of your book or script.  

I queried nearly 70 agents to try to get representation for my first novel. Most rejected it sight unseen, many more never got back to me, some read a portion of the book but didn’t respond and others turned it down for marketing reasons. But I kept at it because I knew I’d written something good, and eventually I landed a great agent who also happens to see eye-to-eye with me creatively and businesswise. And when he was unable to sell the book, I didn’t give up, I kept on writing.

Okay, I gave up for 48 hours, but I dusted myself off and got back to it.

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