I once heard someone in the writer’s room say something memorable about the difference between writing a book and writing a script. Unfortunately, I can’t recall who the person was who said it or even on what show we were working. These “potholes down on memory lane” open up with greater frequency as I enter my 24th year as a TV writer. So while I recall that the phrase about potholes comes from a Randy Newman song, the song’s title escapes me.
(Conflict at the Core—Four Types of Conflict.)
Which reminds me, I wanted to tell you the memorable thing the person said, which was this: “Writing a book is like running a sprint. Writing a play is like running a marathon. Writing for television is like writing until you die.”
They may have been quoting someone else, possibly David Mamet, who could have said something like it, and probably did, though I cannot find proof of it. The 12th century scholar Maimonides, who definitely did not say it, wrote that truth is truth regardless of the source. There is truth in the quote about the effort required of different projects.
I have authored three books. I have written one play, which, having been produced several times, is the exact number of plays anyone should write. Mostly, I have written hundreds of TV scripts that have been produced, as well as several hours of movies that haven’t been. I’ve created and been the head writer and showrunner of my own TV shows (most of which were canceled) and worked as a hired gun for other people’s shows (several of which were hits). In my misspent youth, I was also a newspaper reporter for three years, a speechwriter for longer than that, a contributing edtor for The Ring (“the Bible of Boxing”), and during one glorious fall in the late 1980s, a fashion reporter for United Press International in London.
Writing itself is a pleasure and privilege, a ticket to adventure, and a hoot. Perhaps because I was a slow-starter as a child and a poor student, I have never quite gotten over the wonder of being able to express myself on the page. To move someone through the choice and ordering of words is magic. I’m not great at it, but good enough to be paid to do it, which is nothing to sneeze at or take for granted. I’m lucky.
While each type of writing offers its own challenges and rewards, writing a book is much, much better than writing a script. Not because it pays well. TV work has paid the bills, taxes, education costs, and obtained health insurance. The money I earned from four separate productions of my play paid for one mid-priced electric bike. Book money covered the cost of a helmet, light, and lock with enough left over to buy a car rack and gas to Laughlin, Nevada, should I ever want to go there (I don’t.).
The older I get, the less I seek pleasure, and the more I seek to avoid pain. What makes writing a book better than writing a play or script is that book writing hurts less.
Check out Jonathan Shapiro’s How to Be Abe Lincoln here:
(WD uses affiliate links)
As a lifestyle, book writing is hard to beat. You set your own hours, live a selfish, solitary existence of your own making and liking. There is no dress code, time clock, or “helpful” outside input. You may speak in your own voice in the first person or assume the perspective of the Godly third. No character is beyond your potential reach. No situation is too small or grand to defy evocation. You have no budget restrictions or creative restraints. Along with being the most pleasant way to spend a day, writing a book is also the most free and freeing form of written expression. Proust can write a whole book describing what the smell of a cookie reminds him of without leaving his apartment.
While it is true that writing a book may take a short or very long time, narrow is the way and straight is the path. One may get lost in the thicket of plot, get bogged down in character, fail to achieve greatness of style, and never get published. But if you keep at it, you can at least finish a book.
One never finishes writing a play.
One rewrites for producers, original investors and those who enter the Ponzi scheme later; for theater directors and their dramaturge, during pre-production, during previews and after the opening. All with the false promise that one day, the play will be “locked,” and no further changes allowed. Indeed, it is locked. But only for that one production. The next production starts the whole process over again.
And while the talent and imagination of theater people is vast, it is not endless. My play, a two-hander, is meant to be a small, intimate, economical, and produce-able affair. No crashing chandeliers, no large chorus numbers, just two people talking. And talking. They walk, sometimes, and sit, and mimic more strenuous action. But, in the end, while the words and ideas in a play may soar, only Peter Pan flies. If Proust wanted to write a play, one character would either have to describe what the cookie reminded him of to another character or address the audience directly.
Anything can happen in a television show. And yet nothing is worse than writing for television. As with much in America, the problem is other people.
I am, by nature, an extrovert, often to the point of being obnoxious. Yet what I cherish about writing is that it is a solitary endeavor. Television writing is a team activity, akin to running a mid-sized business. Like an Applebee’s. It is a seven-day-a-week job that goes from sunrise to sunset.
One falls asleep with work left undone, only to wake up knowing that no matter how hard you work, the day will end with more work to do. There are concept meetings, tone meetings, advertising meetings, production meetings, conferences with lawyers over employee issues, mandatory sensitivity training, casting sessions. Worst of all, there are notes calls with “creative executives” who are not creative, but who hold the ultimate power over a show’s fate.
And there are questions. Endless questions. What can be evoked in a book or expressed in words on stage must be made explicit on screen.
TV Proust cannot simply think about a cookie. The prop department and set decoration department need Proust to tell them precisely what cookie he is thinking about. If it’s homemade, what kind is it, how does it look, will it read on screen? Is it a brand cookie? If so, the lawyers need to get involved, along with the clearance department, and possibly the corporate product placement folks.
Then the director and increasingly the actor need to weigh in. They will argue with Proust over the cookie, accuse him of being wrong about what the cookie is and means, then advocate for a different, more truthful cookie.
The creative executives who have to sign off on which cookie will be used may side with the director or actor over the writer. Ultimately, the cookie may be replaced with a bowl of soup or piece of fruit. Proust may end up getting fired. It’s happened to me, and not even over anything as specific as a cookie.
The arguments between writers, actors, directors, and executives are ugly because the egos are so fragile. And because, unlike academia, the stakes are very high. Millions of dollars are spent on each episode of a TV series. Tens of millions are spent on a series. Over a hundred artists, production crew, drivers, etc., earn their living through the production. That executives get the final say—but the writer gets the final blame—is the business of show. They don’t pay us to write. They pay us to rewrite. And to take the fall if the show tanks.
Come to think of it, the problem with TV writing isn’t really other people. It is the executives, the ones in better clothing and safer jobs who neither write nor direct nor act nor hang a light. They are the external voice of doubt, the fear-based and unhelpful opinion, the great, soulless null. When you are canceled or run your course, as all shows must, they are the ones who keep their job.
What was the question again?
I’m going back to writing books.