Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Please Sir, May I Write Another?

John McFetridge

There’s been some talk on this blog about validation and its importance to writers.

I may have come through the other side of this issue, having signed two contracts with ‘Big Six’ publishers and been dropped by both. So, even if I wanted that kind of validation I’m not going to get it and anything I have to say about the subject is really just sour grapes.

I can tell myself the good news is that by taking that issue off the table I can just write for myself and write the kinds of books and stories I want to write and not have to worry about pleasing anyone but myself. And there’s some truth to that. In fact, I think there’s a whole lot of truth to that but I certainly understand that someone might laugh dismissively at me trying to convince myself that it’s “better this way.”

Lately I’ve been spending more time writing for TV than writing novels and it’s all about pleasing someone else. The good news, I guess, is that there’s validation every step of the way. But, wow, there are a lot of steps along the way.

Right now I’m involved in the developing of a cop show. One of the producers of the last show I worked on pitched it to the network as, “The difficulties of the personal lives of narcotics cops,” and the network liked that and I was hired (along with a co-writer) to write the pilot.

But it’s not like writing a novel, I didn’t sit down and start writing scenes. I didn’t have a theme that I wanted to explore – how do people stay professional (and sane) doing a job that not many people believe is making any difference? Recently I read a report from some American think-tank that said the ‘war on drugs’ has cost more than World War I and II and Vietnam combined and yet drugs are far more easily available, and cheaper and higher quality, in every single state than they were when the ‘war’ started.

At first I thought, wow, this is really write what you know, doing a job that makes no difference to anyone, that no one really notices – that sure sounds like writing books.

But hold on, this is a network show, not cable, so right away we’re told we need to be more positive. The show will have to be episodic, each story wrapped up each week, and not serialized like The Wire or Breaking Bad. We’re told to think about it like a murder-mystery show, like Castle, but instead of solving a murder each week our cops solve a drug crime.

And we don’t start by writing a script, we start with a “story area” a little bit longer than the “TV Guide logline” but not much. Our first attempt was, “When a young Hollywood star dies of a drug overdose while filming in Toronto the team runs into politics while investigating drugs on movie sets.” That was okayed, terrific validation there, and we wrote an outline – pretty much a description of every scene in the show without dialogue, about 15 pages.

Then there was a shake-up at the network and the development guy was fired and a new person took over and she didn’t like the movie star angle, she said that the audience wouldn’t relate to a beautiful, rich, star and the victim needed to be someone else. So, less validation there. And the whole movie set stuff was out. And she told us, maybe there shouldn’t be so much about the cops’ home lives. Even though that was the main thrust of the pitch the network had bought a month earlier.

So, the producer got to work and we were told to keep the home life stuff but make most of the cops younger. Not rookies on the police force but new to narcotics. So maybe the home life stuff would be less about marriage and raising kids and a little more about dating.

And the producer pitched another story area, one based more on things that have actually happened in Toronto (although drugs on movie sets do, shockingly, happen in Toronto). So now the story is about a few senior narcotics cops getting arrested by the feds and a bunch of younger, less experienced cops have to step up before they’re actually ready.

So, we write another outline and hope it gets validated.

And all through this I’m thinking how much I miss just sitting down and writing scenes for a book, putting in whatever I think should come next.

A friend of mine who works in the movie business said to me recently, “I’m so tired of asking permission to do anything.”

A lot of writers hope for the big publishing deal so they can quit their day jobs. One thing we never worry about is that we’ll end up doing some kind of writing that’s a day job and we’ll still have to steal time for our “real” writing.

I don’t know, it really seems to me that there’s no other way than to write for yourself and whatever happens with the finished product – a big publisher gives you tons of money or a small publisher gives you enough for a nice dinner, or if you publish it yourself or if you just keep it in a drawer somewhere – you need to be happy with it yourself.


Keith Logan said...

Wow, John, but your description of the process sure makes writing for tv seem not very fulfilling. Do you find that aspect liveable enough to see yourself doing that type of writing for a long while? Was writing novels more or less fulfilling? Do you feel that you had to make a few too many concessions while writing the novels?

If it is in any way a motivating factor, I am a big fan of your novels. They were entertaining, fun, and complex. I also watched and enjoyed The Bridge, and was looking forward to more. I'll be there to try whatever this tv project turns out to be!

Out of curiosity, do you have a contract for a new novel? I sure hope so....

Dana King said...

I've already walked away from worrying about a publishing contract. I can't imagine how I'd react to the pain in the ass that movies and TV must be.

One of my favorite Raymond Chandler lines isn't from a book. When asked about writing for Hollywood (Chandler wrote the screenplay for DOUBLE INDEMNITY, among others), Chandler said, "Had I not been so good a writer, they would not have asked me. Had I been a better writer, I would not have gone."

No offense to anyone currently working for TV or movies, but I think that sums up the frustrations as well as anything I've read.

Steve Weddle said...

I try to live a good life so that I won't have to come back as a TV writer. Damn that sounds so difficult. I muchly like writing whatever the heck I want to whenever the heck I want, then editing and re-tooling, then sending it off when I'm done. I dunno, but writing for TV sounds like too much work for me.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Perhaps every generation or clump of them have felt this way, but it's never been more difficult. Not just writing, but life. I truly believe this. And I blame most of it, including the current publishing problems, on our willingness to allow huge corporations to call all the shots--what we eat, read, drive, and on and on. I thought with cable we would be able to find small shows that cater to more tastes, but instead they just go after the big piece of pie too.

John McFetridge said...

Patti, I'm reading the book Fire and Rain now about the music business in 1970 and there are some great quotes from Bill Graham about going from hiring musicians to making deals with corporations.

Maybe it's different in the US with so many networks and cable networks. The whole TV business seems young in Canada and we only have the CBC and two other companies.

Thanks Keith. I don't know if this TV show will go anywhere, but I do have a new book coming out next year (should be around February).

Steve Weddle said...

btw Charlie Huston wrote a post last year along these same lines.


Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Great post John, very interesting. Looking froward to your upcoming novel.