Thursday, March 25, 2010
A Conversation with Lee Goldberg
Television script writer and author of the Monk series, Lee Goldberg gives us his honest and candid insights into the publishing and broadcast industries as well as his own industrious climb up the ladder to success.
Lee, when did you realize you were a writer?
I've always known. When I was ten or eleven, I was already pecking novels out on my Mom's old typewriters. The first one was a futuristic tale about a cop born in an underwater sperm bank. I don't know why the bank was underwater, or how deposits were made, but I thought it was very cool. I followed that up with a series of books about gentleman thief Brian Lockwood, aka "The Perfect Sinner,” a thinly disguised rip-off of Simon Templar, aka "The Saint." I sold these stories for a dime to my friends and even managed to make a dollar or two. In fact, I think my royalties per book were better then than they are now.
I continued writing novels all through my teenage years. I still have most of those novels today in boxes in my garage (some were destroyed in flooding a few years back).
By the time I was 17, I was writing articles for The Contra Costa Times and other Bay Area newspapers and applying to colleges. I didn't get a book published, but my detective stories got me into UCLA's School of Communications. My grades weren't wonderful, so I knew I had to kick ass on my application essay. I wrote it first person as a hard-boiled detective story. The committee, at first, had doubts that I actually wrote it myself--until they reviewed articles I'd written for the Times, including one that used the same device as my essay. Once I got into UCLA, I put myself through school as a freelance writer...for American Film, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, UPI, Newsweek. Anybody who would pay me. I had a girlfriend at Playgirl and she got me a gig writing sexually explicit Letters-to-the-Editor at Playgirl for $25 each.
Did you sell your first book while a student at UCLA? If so, how did that come about?
I had a journalism advisor at UCLA who wrote spy novels. We became friends and talked a lot about mysteries, thrillers, plotting, etc. One day in the early 80s his publisher came to him and asked him if he’d write a “men’s action adventure series,” sort of the male equivalent of the Harlequin romance. He said he wasn’t desperate enough, hungry enough, or stupid enough to do it. . .but he knew someone who was: Me. So I wrote an outline and some sample chapters and they bought it. The book was called .357 Vigilante I wrote it as “Ian Ludlow” so I'd be on the shelf next to Robert Ludlum and had plenty of Letter-to-the-Editor-of-Playgirl quality sex in it.
The West Coast Review of Books called my literary debut "as stunning as the report of a .357 Magnum, a dynamic premiere effort," singling the book out as "The Best New Paperback Series" of the year. I ended up writing four books in the series. Naturally, the publisher promptly went bankrupt and I never saw a dime in royalties.
But New World Pictures bought the movie rights to .357 Vigilante and hired me to write the screenplay. I didn’t know anything about writing scripts. . .luckily, I had a good friend who did, William Rabkin. We worked together on the UCLA Daily Bruin. So the two of us teamed up. The movie never got made, but we had so much fun that we were writing partners for over 20 years. . .and remain best friends to this day. (He writes the novels based on the TV series "PSYCH").
Why were you selected to write the Mr. Monk books?
I was already writing for the TV series "Monk" when Andy Breckman, the series creator and executive producer, was approached about doing original Monk novels. He immediately recommended me for the job, since I was already familiar with the character and he'd read my original Diagnosis Murder novels. He knew he could trust me to capture the character, and the tone of the series, and do a good job with the books.
Part of the fun of doing these books for me is the chance to explore aspects of Monk's character that haven't been dealt with yet on the TV series or, as is the case with MR. Monk Goes to Hawaii and MR. Monk Goes to Germany, go to places and do things that the TV series can't for various logistical and production reasons.
I believe there's one thing that stops the Monk episodes and the books
from becoming a slapstick cartoon, that prevents his character from becoming Maxwell Smart or Inspector Clouseau. It's this: amidst all the comedic situations that arise from his OCD, there's always something emotionally true about the stories...something that reveals Monk's essential sadness and grounds the character in reality. Maybe not our reality, but a reality just the same.
The hardest thing for me with the books isn't the mystery or the comedy...it's coming up with that emotional center, the heart-felt conflict that gives some shading to the broad humor. I always try to find something in the story that will put Monk and Natalie's relationship to the test, that will reveal something about who they are, and that will bring them closer together (or give them a deeper understanding of one another). I don't consciously think of a theme, but one seems to reveal itself to me along the way...and then I try not to belabor it or pay attention to it...I prefer to let it emerge on its own as a strand within scenes or in lines of dialogue.
What was really great is that it has come full circle--I was able to adapt one of my Monk books into an episode of the show. My novel Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse became the episode "Mr. Monk Can't See a Thing."
Which form do you prefer, novels or scriptwriting? And why?
They are entirely different experiences. Television is very much a group effort and what you are writing is a blueprint that lots of other people are going to use as the basis for their creative work, whether it’s the actor, the director, the production designer. And when you write a script it’s not locked in stone. It’s going to change. It’s going to change because everybody has notes. It’s going to change because production concerns force rewrites. It’s going to change because of actors and directors. It’s in fluid motion all the time.
A book is entirely my own and unaffected by production concerns or actors. I’m the actors, the director, the production designer. . .it’s entirely mine. It’s not a blueprint. It is the finished product and it won’t change much once I am done with it. It’s not a group effort--I plot it myself and I write it by myself. It’s entirely in my head and I live it for months.
Creatively speaking, there’s a big difference between writing prose and writing a script. In a book, you are seducing the reader. You are bringing them into your imagination and holding them there for as long as they’re reading the book. You construct everything. You construct the sets, the wardrobe, the world. You’re God. You can even read a character’s thoughts. In a script, everything that happens and everything the characters do has to be revealed through action and dialogue.
In a script, you could introduce a scene like this:
INT– RESTAURANT– DAY
It’s a cheap Chinese restaurant with very few customers. There’s an aquarium with live lobsters, fish, etc. in the window. Monk is disgusted by what he sees...
But in a book, you have to describe the restaurant in detail. You have to tell us everything that’s going on. You have to set the scene for the reader. It’s an entirely different skill. That’s why some novelists are terrible screen writers and why some screen writers can’t write a book. They can’t jump back and forth.
The only thing that TV and books have in common is that both are mediums for sharing stories...in books, you tell stories, in TV you show them. That simple distinction is a difficult one for many writers to overcome when moving into one field from the other.
If books paid me as well as screenwriting, I might stick with books only because I could do it all at home and not have to answer to a lot of other people. On the other hand, I love being in a writers room plotting with a dozen other writers on an episodic TV series. . .it is so much fun.
What’s your next project?
I am writing an action movie, a co-production between a German studio and a Chinese studio, that will be shot in English in Berlin and Shanghai. And I've got a new Monk book, Mr. Monk in Trouble, coming out in December and am hard at work on the one that follows that...
How has the publishing downturn affected you personally? And what’s the best way, in your opinion, for the industry to pull itself out of its current slump?
I wrote a 100 pages and an outline on a new, standalone novel. But the days when a publisher would buy a book, even from an author they know well, based on a proposal has passed. So my agent is holding on to it...and suggesting that maybe I should just finish the book. On the other hand, the market is so tight, I could end up writing the book and not finding a home for it. I have to give serious thought to whether I want to complete it or not...or wait until the publishing industry recovers and is buying manuscripts again in a big way. For now, I am happy writing my successful Monk novels.
I don't know how the industry can recover. There are so many factors that are simply outside the industry's control. You can't make people buy books if they don't have the money to spend.
How important are writer organizations and online social networking? And do you prefer promoting your books online or in person?
I think you can get way too bogged down in self-promotion and forget what's really important: THE WRITING. Word of mouth is the best promotion of all. I believe the best advertising you can do is to buy 50 copies of your book and send them, with a personal cover letter, to key reviewers, bloggers, fans, booksellers and other opinion-makers to get them talking. A successful author once told me that the biggest mistake she ever made was hiring a publicist--that she should have spent that money on books and postage.
You shouldn't join writers organizations with the intention of promoting yourself and your work. You should do it because you want to interact with fellow writers, for the support, the camaraderie, gleaning knowledge about the craft and industry, etc. Yes, you will make contacts, and you might introduce more people to you and your work...but going into it with the mercenary intent to promote yourself always leads to disaster. That said, I think writers organizations are terrific on so many levels...not just what they can bring you personally and professionally, but what they can do for writers in general. For instance, the MWA, SFWA, and RWA have done so much to generate attention and respect for their genres...and to educate people about writing and how to avoid predatory publishing practices.
You shouldn't attend conferences with the obvious intent to promote your books, either. The best promotion you can do is to be yourself, be engaging, and write good books. That will sell you better than handing out leaflets, bookmarks, and incessant huckstering. In fact, you can self-promote yourself out of sales by doing that.
That's not to say you shouldn't sent out mailings to your mailing list or let people know you have a book out...but it's very easy to cross the line into being annoying and counter-productive. I know, because I have been guilty of it myself.
Advice to fledgling novelists and scriptwriters?
For novelists, write a lot. Read a lot. Don't EVER pay to be published. Don't EVER pay an agent to read your work. As for my advice on breaking into television…you can find it all in my book Successful Television Writing, which I wrote with William Rabkin.
Everybody’s story of breaking in is unique. Most of those stories, however, share one common element. You have to put yourself in the right place to get your lucky break. And it’s easier than you think.
The first thing you have to do is learn your craft. Take classes,
preferably taught by people who have had some success as TV writers.
There’s no point taking a class from someone who isn’t an experienced
TV writer themselves.
You’d think that would be common sense, but you’d be astonished how many TV courses are taught by people who don’t know the first thing about writing for television. Even more surprising is how many desperate people shell out money to take courses from instructors who should be taking TV writing courses themselves.
There’s another reason to take a TV writing course besides learning the basics of the craft. If you’re the least bit likable, you’ll make a few friends among the other classmates. This is good, because you’ll have other people you can show your work to. This is also good because somebody in the class may sell his or her first script before you do. . . and suddenly you’ll have a friend in the business.
Many of my writer/producer friends today are writers I knew back when I was in college, when we were all dreaming of breaking into TV someday.
A writer we hired on staff on the first season of Missing was in a Santa Monica screenwriters group. . .and was the first member of her class to get a paying writing gig. Now her friends in the class suddenly had a friend on a network TV show who could share her knowledge, give them practical advice and even recommend them to her new agent and the writer/producers she was working with.
Another route is to try and get a job as a writer/producer’s assistant on an hour-long drama. Not only will you get a meager salary, but you will see how a show works from the inside. You’ll read lots of scripts and revisions and, simply by observation, get a graduate course in TV writing. More important, you’ll establish relationships with the writers on the show and the freelancers who come through the door. Many of today’s top TV producers were writer/producer assistants once.
All of the assistants we’ve had have gone on to become working TV writers themselves… and not because we gave them a script assignment or recommended them for one. We didn’t do either.
But the one thing you simply have to do is write a spec episodic teleplay. There are lots of books out there--including mine--that will tell you how to do that.
Thank you, Lee.
Lee Goldberg's website is www.leegoldberg.com.