Writ­ing for TV

Writ­ing for the small screen

Vocable (All English) - - Édito Sommaire - HENRY AL­FORD


The small screen, an in­creas­ingly at­trac­tive medium for nov­el­ists.

Mar­garet At­wood with The Handmaid’s Tale, Ge­orge R.R. Martin with Game of Thrones, Tom Per­rotta with The Left­overs... Nowa­days our most im­por­tant nov­el­ists are writ­ing for tele­vi­sion. They of­ten pro­vide their ser­vices as screen­writ­ers or con­sul­tants for the small screen. Will TV se­ries such as these even­tu­ally be treated with the same no­bil­ity as the great nov­els?

The bor­ders be­tween tele­vi­sion and prose fic­tion grow ever por­ous. At the Univer­sity of Iowa’s Writ­ers’ Work­shop — a bas­tion of lit­er­ary pu­rity for as­pir­ing nov­el­ists and po­ets, which, not coin­ci­den­tally, has been fea­tured on the TV show “Girls” — ev­i­dence of this porous­ness is some­times sub­tle: “It hap­pened a few years ago,” said the work­shop’s di­rec­tor, Lan Saman­tha Chang. “Every­one was sud­denly us­ing the word ‘re­veal’ as a noun.” 2. But such un­der­stated ev­i­dence of per­me­abil­ity be­tween id­ioms has had a chance to swell in size on the univer­sity’s cam­pus this fall, when vet­eran TV writ­ers Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green (“North­ern Ex­po­sure,” “The So­pra­nos,” “Blue Bloods”) launched a class called Writ­ing for Tele­vi­sion. “Many of the ap­pli­cants for the class that Mitch and Robin were most in­ter­ested in are stu­dents com­ing out of fic­tion,” said Alan MacVey, chair­man of the univer­sity’s the­ater arts de­part­ment.


3. In a world in which some of our more suc­cess­ful or es­teemed nov­el­ists — Mar­garet At­wood, Gil­lian Flynn, Ge­orge R.R. Martin, Sal­man Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, Megan Ab­bott and David Be­nioff, to name only a few — have writ­ten or are writ­ing for the small screen, lit­er­ary academia has less rea­son than ever to be sheep­ish about pre­par­ing its charges for the so­laces of a healthy pay­check. Green, a Writer’s Work­shop grad­u­ate her­self, said, “I hope it

doesn’t take away from writ­ers prac­tic­ing their art. There’s qual­ity work on TV now. It’s not as shame­ful to write for it as it once was.”

4. If, as Wil­liam Faulkner once put it, “Hol­ly­wood is the place on earth where you can get stabbed in the back while you’re climb­ing a lad­der,” what or who has made tele­vi­sion palat­able to Faulkner’s spir­i­tual off­spring? Many would point to David Si­mon, the cre­ator, show run­ner and head writer of “The Wire,” a show that helped put long­form, mul­ti­sto­ried episodic tele­vi­sion on the map.


5. Si­mon was a for­mer crime re­porter for The Bal­ti­more Sun who had writ­ten two doorstops of nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion ( Homi­cide and, with writer Ed­ward Burns, The Cor­ner), both of which he turned into tele­vi­sion se­ries. In 2001, while Si­mon was in the throes of cre­at­ing “The Wire,” his then-girl­friend, crime nov­el­ist Laura Lipp­man, told Si­mon about her friend, nov­el­ist Ge­orge Pele­canos. Si­mon re­cently re­counted, “She said, ‘This guy is writ­ing in the same tonal­ity and ver­nac­u­lar as you.'” Si­mon read some of Pele­canos’ work and then hired him to write for “The Wire,” telling him, in Pele­canos’ words, that the show would be “a novel for tele­vi­sion” and that “each episode would be like a chap­ter in a book.”

6. Once on “The Wire”’s writ­ing staff, Pele­canos in­tro­duced Si­mon to nov­el­ist Richard Price, who also came on board the show. Si­mon said, “Af­ter that, I said, ‘Who’s next?’ We de­cided Den­nis Le­hane.” Si­mon main­tains that nov­el­ists are par­tic­u­larly well-suited for long­form tele­vi­sion, where sto­ries un­spool over sev­eral episodes or a whole sea­son: “They can see the whole.” Cur­rently, his writ­ers on HBO’s “The Deuce,” which he cre­ated with Pele­canos, in­clude Price as well as crime nov­el­ists Megan Ab­bott and Lisa Lutz. The ex­pe­ri­ence has “re­quired us all to leave some au­thor­ity and ego at the door and en­gage in a col­lec­tive act of sto­ry­telling,” Si­mon said.


7. In­deed, for many nov­el­ists who make the tran­si­tion to TV writ­ing, col­lab­o­ra­tion — and the threat it poses to a fic­tion writer’s de­fault set­ting of soli­tary, gauzy day­dream­ing — is chief among the chal­lenges. “Hav­ing to sit at a con­fer­ence ta­ble look­ing at other hu­mans for many hours a day takes a kind of men­tal en­ergy,” said Charles Yu, au­thor of How to Live Safely in a Science Fic­tional Uni­verse and a five un­der 35 hon­orees by The Na­tional Book Foun­da­tion who has gone on to write for “West­world,” “Here and Now” and “Le­gion.”

8. An­other en­tity that nov­el­ists strug­gle with when writ­ing for TV is econ­omy. “With nov­els, I could write 15 pages on a piece of fur­ni­ture if I wanted,” said Crazy Rich Asians au­thor Kevin Kwan, who is work­ing on an orig­i­nal se­ries for Ama­zon. “But in TV, one page is one minute. You’ve got sixty pages to tell a story and make peo­ple want to down­load the next episode.”

9. Do nov­el­ists worry that their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the time-con­sum­ing but highly lu­cra­tive world of tele­vi­sion might cause them to squan­der their fic­tion ca­reers, grad­u­ally trans­form­ing them from ink-stained wretches to Mal­ibu caf­tan-wear­ers? “That is a fa­vorite topic in my ther­a­pist’s of­fice,” said At­tica Locke, who has writ­ten for “Em­pire” and Ava DuVer­nay’s up­com­ing se­ries “Cen­tral Park Five.” “But I can’t eat off books. I can’t send my kid to pri­vate school off books.”

10. Locke of­fers a ster­ling ex­am­ple of how writ­ing for TV can ac­tu­ally aid a writer’s prose. “I wrote my last book, Blue­bird, Blue­bird, in be­tween sea­sons of ‘Em­pire,’ and then dur­ing the third sea­son. When I fi­nally showed it to my agent, he couldn’t be­lieve how short it was! He said, ‘The best thing you got out of ‘Em­pire’ is brevity!’ All my other books were over 400 pages.” Blue­bird, Blue­bird went on to be a fi­nal­ist for The Los An­ge­les Times Book Prize and win the 2018 Edgar Award for Best Novel. The book is — here’s the re­veal, folks — be­ing de­vel­oped as a TV se­ries.

Si­mon main­tains that nov­el­ists are par­tic­u­larly well­suited for long­form tele­vi­sion.

(Till Lauer/ The New York Times)

The Univer­sity of Iowa, home to the fa­mous Writ­ers’ Work­shop, now has atele­vi­sion-writ­ing course.

(Zach Gib­son/ The New York Times)

David Si­mon, the cre­ator of the TV se­ries “The Wire."

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