How pitching a TV show is like jumping from a plane

The comedian Steven Wright said, “If at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence you tried.” Which is probably smart advice for the sake of dignity or whatever and I really should heed it instead of sharing my failures again and again, like now: my NBC pilot got spiked.

This one got reallyreally close, and we’re told it just missed the last slot, and no, there’s no medal for fourth place. (Here’s the Deadline piece about it.) It was my sixth pilot deal, of which one has gotten produced. Pros will tell you this is not a bad ratio, especially for a relative newbie, and that most TV writers never even get that one. But most TV writers have perfectly good careers staffing on other people’s shows. All I do is development so sometimes it feels like all I do is fail.

Steven Wright also said, “If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving isn’t for you.” I’ve never jumped out of a plane, but in my head it feels like pitching a TV show. So then of course the question a not insane person like you might wonder is why I keep doing it. Yes. It’s a good question. I wonder, too.

One reason might be that I’m actually pretty good at it—the jumping part, if not the landing. Another reason is that I get paid. Another is that I look around and realize just how rare and lucky I am, as a not white not guy, to get to pitch TV shows at all.

A thing I do in the miserable weeks following a killed pilot is cry-read the scripts of the pilots that made it. Every year I keep track of who wrote the picked-up pilots, their genders and their races. This year, having nothing but time and sadness, I made a spreadsheet. I also tracked the gender and race of the pilots’ leads, as well as this weird thing: how the writers refer to their characters’ race.

Let me explain. In a script, a character is introduced in all caps, typically followed by a short description, often including age and race: say, “JUAN VALDEZ (40s, Latino).” There are other, subtler ways to indicate race; one I’m seeing more is a living actor as reference (“think Lin-Manuel Miranda”). But I’d noticed a while back that many scripts identify only their non-white characters by race. As if you’re supposed to presume that if “Asian” or “black” isn’t specified, then of course the character is white*. (*Some writers might argue that by not identifying the races of their leads, they’re open to race-blind casting for those roles. But then why specify race at all?)

This is what my 2018 spreadsheet shows. Of the 36 picked-up drama pilots I read from the big four networks, 11.5 were written (one co-written) by women. That’s 41%…which is not bad. But just 2.5 were written (one co-written) by non-white** writers (**going by their photos and bios). That’s 9%. Which sucks. You may be surprised and/or pleased to hear that 43% of picked-up drama pilots this year have at least one non-white character as a lead. That’s good, right? More diversity on screen? But 36% identified only the non-white characters by race.

To me, that last stat is a tell. It indicates that to that writer, non-whites are “other.” And I think that matters! I recently read an interview with a renowned TV creator, a white man, whose new show features diverse leads. He waved away questions about how he researched those roles, saying without apology that he didn’t know anything about those people’s lives, and his solution was to hire a diverse writing staff. I’m all for a diverse writing staff. But creators of shows are creators of worlds. What if creators actually knew the worlds they were creating?

Anyway. I guess the reason I keep sharing my failures is that many of you, my friends, are not white not guys. Many of you are writers. Some of you may be nursing ideas—book ideas, article ideas, TV or movie ideas. But maybe you’ve decided skydiving is not for you.

So I guess I’m here to tell you that you can fall 1,000 feet face first into the dirt in front of an audience, and get up and try again. It’s painful and humiliating and dirt tastes terrible and why do they keep giving me a defective parachute? But I think it’s important that we try. So I’m going to keep jumping. I hope you will, too. xoxo

Essay about an ugly-ass clock

When I think of all we lost that year — our parents, our home, our homeland — a clock shouldn’t really come up at all. It was made of green glass, angular and abstract in shape, about the size and weight of an iron. It had scant beauty or worth. I’m not sure it even kept time.

I wrote about it for Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn on their website HiLoBrow for their cool project on the significance of objects. Their words:

One in a 25-part series of nonfiction stories about lost objects. We asked 25 writers to tell us about a significant object they’d lost (or thrown away, or destroyed), then assigned these stories to 25 illustrators. We’re thrilled with the results. This is the fourth volume in the PROJECT:OBJECT series. Please subscribe to the P:O newsletter; and purchase P:O apparel and accessories — all profits will be donated to the ACLU!

Rob was once my editor at Money magazine. Rob is an author and journalist, and if you don’t know his work, you should. I don’t know why Rob asked me to contribute, except maybe he remembered me as someone who’d lost a lot of stuff. Look at the list of fancy writers:

LOST OBJECTS series: INTRODUCTION | Kate Bernheimer on MULLET WIG (ill. Amy Evans) | Dan Piepenbring on COLOGNE (ill. Josh Neufeld) | Doug Dorst on STRATOCASTER (ill. John Holbo) | Paul Lukas on VANILLA BEAN (ill. Alison Bamcat) | Mimi Lipson on DODGE DART (ill. Mister Reusch) | Luc Sante on CLUB CHAIR (ill. Kate Bingaman-Burt) | Nina Katchadourian on FOUNTAIN PENS (ill. Lisa Congdon) | Matthew Sharpe on BAUBLE (ill. Glenn Jones) | Claire Lehmann on PEANUT-BUTTER CRACKERS (ill. Karen Kurycki) | Jessamyn West on ENGINEER RING (ill. Amanda Clarke) | Mandy Keifetz on ORGONE ACCUMULATOR(ill. Emory Allen) | Molly Sauter on DESKTOP DOG (ill. Shayna Piascik) | Amy Thielen on DOG-FUR SCARF (ill. Heather Kasunick) | Stephen O’Connor on HUNTING HAT (ill. Oliver Munday) | Alice Boone on COLLEGE NEWSPAPERS (ill. Rick Pinchera) | Dante Ramos on ROAD ATLAS (ill. Joe Alterio) | Alex Balk on SHOOTING GALLERY (ill. John Lowe) | Chelsey Johnson on NOTEBOOK (ill. Rubi McGrory) | Susannah Breslin on SILICONE VAGINA (ill. Jennifer Heuer) | Seth Mnookin on .22 REVOLVER (ill. Alex Eben Meyer) | Dan Fox on CONKER (ill. Linzie Hunter) | Lisa Takeuchi Cullen on GLASS CLOCK (ill. Rose Wong) | Michael Tisserand on WALKING SHOES (ill. Jackie Roche) | Jeff Turrentine on BASEBALL MITT (ill. Andrew DeGraff) | Randy Kennedy on SNAKE RATTLES (ill. Max Temescu).

Anyway, mine is a very short essay about an ugly-ass clock, but it’s really about my mother. Please read it if you are so inclined. (Also, and this is spooky: the drawing below by the artist Rose Wong, whom I’ve never met or spoken to, somehow replicates the damn thing EXACTLY. 😳)

How I met my book agent

I’ve been wondering: how do we even be right now without unhinging our jaws and just SCREAMING for the next four years? How do we do normal when the world is burning?

I think the answer is we don’t. Do normal, I mean. But I thought maybe one thing we can do—because I’ll be damned if they take our sanity too—is share praise about the people and issues we care about.

Me, I’m going to focus on diversity in storytelling, because I believe with all my heart that if more people from more backgrounds get to tell our stories in print and on screen, fewer Americans will think of us as “other.” So what’s stopping those stories? What I hear over and over is: access.

Any working writer will attest that the first question they get from aspiring writers is: “Who’s your agent?” The second is: “Can you introduce me?” And maybe because we working writers worked so, so, so hard to become working writers, we don’t usually like to share.

So I’m sharing. My book agent is Theresa Park of Park Literary & Media. This is the story of how she became my agent. (If you want to skip this part: scroll down for info on how to reach her agency.)

In 2001, I had a brilliant book idea. I bought a copy of “Writers’ Market” and found a profile of her: the Asian-American agent who had discovered an aspiring writer named Nicholas Sparks by digging “The Notebook” out of the slush pile and recognizing it for the monster it would become.

Then I stalked her. I pitched her my idea. She said it was dumb (not really, but she did hate it). Still she took me to lunch. And she let me keep calling her with more dumb ideas. Until finally, YEARS later, I had an idea she liked.

She sold two books of mine, one nonfiction and one fiction, and got me nice advances that I have absolutely not earned out. I am absolutely her charity client. If you click through to the website, you’ll see the other superstars besides Sparks she represents, and you’ll wonder how in the devil I wormed my way in. I could not explain.

So here’s the plug. Park Literary is a boutique agency with a very selective clientele (except for me), and it’s got something others don’t: one foot in Hollywood. Theresa is also a producer, and shepherds her books’ transition to film and TV. (She’s also the one who introduced me to my first TV agent.)

Three PLM agents have agreed to let me post their “wish lists,” in the event you’re their next superstar. I’m setting this post on public so you can share, if you like, with the writers in your life. I hope you’ll understand I can’t read or recommend your ms or query, mainly because I’m hustling so, so, so hard to remain a working writer myself. If you’re a personal friend, you can pm me with questions or whatnot. Otherwise, please follow the links below. Good luck.

Peter Knapp represents children’s and young adult fiction, and is actively seeking to add more authors of middle grade and young adult novels to his list. Some of his favorite YA titles include “The Sun Is Also a Star” by Nicola Yoon, “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman, “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir, “The Disenchantments” by Nina LaCour and S”imon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli. In middle grade, he loves everything from standalone literary titles to commercial series. Favorites include “When You Reach Me” by Rebecca Stead, “The Thing About Luck” by Cynthia Kadohata, “Savvy” by Ingrid Law, “Three Times Lucky” by Sheila Turnage and “Ghost” by Jason Reynolds. You can find more about his manuscript wish list here.

Abigail Koons represents both narrative nonfiction and commercial fiction. On the nonfiction side, popular science, current events and anything that could be described as “stranger than fiction” would be a good fit. Some of her favorite books of the last few years include “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,” “I Contain Multitudes,” “Do No Harm: Life, Death and Brain Surgery,” “The Lost City of Z,” “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” “Born to Run” and “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace.” Occasionally, a memoir will catch her eye, but it needs to be on the level of “Wave,” “H is for Hawk­” or “Brain on Fire”—truly exceptional books—in order for her to take it on. On the fiction end, she is always looking for commercial novels that have a sense of adventure or that tell a somewhat familiar story in a new way. Anything with an international angle might appeal to her, and she is constantly on the lookout for crime and thrillers. At the end of the day, though, she has to buy into the mystery at the heart of any story she represents, regardless of the genre. Tana French is one of her favorite authors, and she thoroughly enjoyed “Before the Fall,” “The Shining Girls,” “The Passage,” “One Day” and “The Girl on the Train.”

Blair Wilson is looking for middle grade and young adult fiction, as well as adult non-fiction. Some of her favorite middle grade novels include “When You Reach Me,” “Fish in a Tree,” and “Wonder.” Recent YA favorites include “The Raven Boys,” “I’ll Give You the Sun,” “The Serpent King,” “All the Bright Places,” and “Fangirl.” In adult nonfiction, Blair’s focus is on DIY, lifestyle, pop-culture, pets, and books dealing with issues of sexuality, identity, and culture. She’d also love to find artists and designers with a visible web presence and strong point-of-view (think Mari Andrew or Maryanne Moodie).

To submit to any of us, go here for the latest instructions.

Good luck. Believe. #Weneeddiversebooks

Writing in a racially charged America

If you follow race issues, you may know the entertainment industry has a weensy little problem with diversity. You may also know the people in this photo (from left): Jelanimg_8925i Cobb of the New Yorker; Robin Thede, former head writer for “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore”; Jane Tillman Irving, CBS radio news; Jo Miller, showrunner/head writer for “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee”; David Simon, THE David Simon; and moderator Jamal Joseph, filmmaker and director.

Last night they gathered at the invitation of my union, the Writers Guild of America East, to discuss writing in a racially charged America. You know how you go to a non-mandatory weeknight work event because you think you might learn something and also because you had something small to do with its conception (I’m part of the guild’s diversity effort) and also because you RSVP’d—but then it turns out to be amazing and you’re SO GLAD you went? Yeah. I’ll link to the video when it’s up, but meantime, here are some takeaways that might be of interest to writer friends, no matter your medium:

• David Simon says we should all of us be watching “Atlanta” on FX, and everybody on the panel agreed. So: gospel.

• It’s important to bring stories about slavery and mass incarceration to film and TV. But audience fatigue surrounding these weighty issues is real. Give us middle-class problems too. Give us funny. Give us mundane.

• What kind of responsibility does a writer have to effect change? Opinions differed, but in TV, said David Simon, “I’m not writing to change a law. I’m writing to tell a story.” His responsibility is to the people he’s depicting, and to telling their stories accurately and honestly.

• How do you write about race if you’re, say, white? In news, it’s simple, says Jane Tillman Irving; if it happens, you write it. In entertainment—not so simple. “Full Frontal” does plenty on race, but Jo Miller notes they’re aware of where a “white Canadian lady” like Samantha Bee can and can’t tread. David Simon says, “If you’re writing outside your own experience, then you better get it right.” (PSA: if your show deals with race, hire a diverse writing staff.)

• That said, writers who write about race get to write about other things. Even though he’s known as “the #BlackLivesMatter guy,” Jelani Cobb lived in and wrote his dissertation on Russia—so don’t be a fool and jump on him when he tweets about it. Because he will take you down.

• Police shootings aren’t just a race problem but a systemic one. If you look at the statistics, “there are a shit ton of white people who get shot by cops,” says Jelani Cobb. We need to tell that story in the media to make Americans understand it’s in all of our best interests to address this.

• Also: Robin Thede is super funny, and super smart, and owns super fabulous shoes, and she should get her own show. My two yen.

Thanks to Jenna Bond, Dana Weissman-Scali, Jason Gordon and everyone at WGA East who worked so hard on putting this together. We write on.#WGAEwritingrace WGAE


Before September meant pitch season

It’s pitch season again, and I’m sweating and crying over producer notes. Here’s what I was doing 15 years and a lifetime ago:

My 9/11 happened mostly on 9/12. I was at the time a Tokyo correspondent for TIME magazine. When the planes hit, I was at a fancy restaurant in Roppongi. I was there to interview the Kano sisters, two women who had parlayed their beauty and bra sizes into a business empire. I arrived at my apartment in Minami Aoyama, flipped on NHK, and saw images that made no sense.

After a frantic night spent on the phone with my family, in particular with my sister, whose husband worked near the towers and whom she could not reach for hours, I headed off for a long-scheduled interview. It was with Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary animator. The interview was a big get; his press aide told me he would never have granted it but for the opening of his Ghibli Museum. I stood in the train-station pastry shop, scarfing down breakfast, shaking with fatigue and shock—and realized I’d forgotten my notes.

After a tour of the museum, Hayao Miyazaki and I sat down at an outdoor patio. And I drew a complete and total blank. I forgot everything about the dozen movies of his I’d watched and re-watched in preparation, everything I wanted to know about his method and inspiration. His press aide had already told me to keep the interview on his work and not on the huge, horrible thing that had just happened on the other side of the world. But on that day, how could anyone anywhere talk about anything else? I mumbled some questions. Miyazaki grunted some responses. Then he got up and left.

I’m pretty sure that in my almost 20 years as a journalist, that was the only time someone walked out on me during an interview. The press aide tapped his fingers nervously. The birds chirped. The sun shone. I thought about the people in those towers, the ones who jumped, and I tried not to cry. And then, Miyazaki came back. He had smoked a cigarette, someone had talked him down, and he returned to my awful interview in something like a good mood. Afterward, he even gave me a tour of Studio Ghibli itself, which his press aide giggled was like winning a lottery.

As an American living overseas on September 11, 2001, I felt img_8834utterly helpless. As a foreign correspondent in the opposite of a war zone, I felt utterly useless. While my colleagues in New York were risking life and limb to report the massacre of thousands, I was interviewing pre-Kardashians and a foul-tempered film director. I suppose you could say something like we need to read about art and pop culture even in dark times, maybe especially so. And maybe Hayao Miyazaki needed that tobacco time-out because he too was sleepless and traumatized. But I hope his press aide met Totoro in a dark alley and hasn’t giggled since.


How do you come up with an idea for a cable TV drama?

No, I’m asking.

Can you tell me? Because my next paycheck depends upon it.

First let me dispense with the bummer news: my network pilot did not get picked up. AGAIN.

This one hurt. They all hurt, but this one spun me around a bit. Last year, I kinda knew my network pilot wouldn’t fly. Though the characters and the world sprung from my very soul, I never quite got the pilot story to work.

This year’s try didn’t originate from inside my head. It was inspired by a real person’s life story. So it was more like an adoption. She didn’t look like me at first, but this baby became very much my own.

After much MUCH nurturing and care, she grew up powerful. Smart. She knew who she was, and she told her story well. I’m not the only writer who feels possibly delusional when she says her story works, so I’m relying not just on my questionable self-judgment but on others’ when I tell you: when there’s talk of casting, you get your hopes up.

So I waited by the phone, frantic and then frantic-er, as my network picked up one drama pilot and another and another. After its final pickup on a Friday night in February, the phone rang. If it was a go, on the call would be all my agents and my producers and my studio and my network. But no. Just my manager.

Facebook reminded me (thanks, Facebook!) that I posted the same news exactly a year ago. Which makes me wonder: why does it feel like such a gut-punch? Why am I not more prepared? I know the cycle by now, and its brutal punctuality. I know the odds. (If you’re curious, this article describes the process of the network pilot from pitch to pickup pretty accurately.)

I’ve been in this bizarro line of work for, what, five years now. This is my fifth script deal, my fourth sold pilot, third to network, one of those produced. None have made it to air. And each time one pilot dies, I feel like surely I will, too.

So before I bury this latest, please allow me a brief eulogy. My heroine was a lawyer, a veteran, a Latina and a mom. She pulled herself up from a violent past into a rarefied world of power and politics, on a mission to right old wrongs. How I wanted to see her come alive. Rest in peace, dead pilot. I loved you with all my heart.

And now: onto cable.

Got any ideas? Tweet them at me: @lisacullen. (I’m kidding. I dearly hope you’ll write your own ideas. But I’ll take your condolences, esp in the form of chocolate.)

The hardest part about writing a network TV pilot…

Maybe the part I sweat the hardest in writing a network drama pilot is the story. By story I mean the pilot story, or the A story—the main *thing* that happens in the first episode. You know: the Chinese dude in “Blindspot”; the murdered friend in “Limitless”; the rookie test in “Quantico.” Even though it typically ends in one episode, and you probably don’t even remember your favorite show’s, the pilot story matters. It requires “scale, scope and resonance,” as my producers like to say. It’s through the story you learn about the world and the characters, the tone and the pace. It matters a lot.

In the network pilot process, the very first step after selling the pitch is something called a story document, in which you detail what happens in the pilot story. Only after it’s accepted do you get to write the outline, and only after that the script.

Last year, I never nailed the story. I’d pitched and sold the world and the characters—but my pilot story never quite worked. Not for lack of trying. Holy oceans of sweat, did I try. The network finally let me go to outline in the new year, and my final script is dated January 28. But my baby had no shot.

This year, I once again pitched and sold a world and its characters to the network. I had diligently researched and prepared a pilot story—but when I pitched it to my producers, I saw that it didn’t work. Mother of Buddha. Here I was again, with a beautiful hero and great hook and cool set-up—and no story.

One night, deep in a sweaty funk, I was clicking around on Facebook. I don’t post much there anymore, but I do look. I look at the lovely families and your clever jokes and your sharp observations. And I read the links. This one was posted by my friend, a particularly smart and talented friend, who linked to an article in a publication I admire but wouldn’t think to pick up except in a doctor’s waiting room. It was a crazy, twisty, fascinating story. It had scale, scope and resonance.

I pitched a story inspired by that one to my producers, studio and network. They agreed. They approved the story doc, then the outline, and yesterday, the network sent me to script. That script will include a character named after my friend. If pigs once again take flight and this thing actually gets made, I will thank that friend in person. But for now, thank you, all of you, for being my friends, and for sharing your crazy, twisty, fascinating stories.

I sold a network pilot pitch. Here’s what happens next

Here’s what I posted on Facebook:

Pitching TV pilots is a bizarro living, not least because it’s weirdly solitary. I think alone; I write alone; and when I pitch, the couch is lined with producers and execs, but it’s just me who’s speaking (and sweating). Another lonely thing is that I’m often the only not-a-white-dude I see making the rounds.

But this year, in the network waiting room, the pitch before mine was by the hostess of a cooking show, and the one after by a female Olympic athlete. When I went to the restroom to do my science-says-confidence-boosting Wonder Woman pose, this (below) was the sign on the door. I stepped into the pitch room and looked around at my producers, studio and network execs, most of them women. And I pitched my show, starring a strong, smart woman of color from an immigrant family.

And they bought it. So here we go again. Fourth pilot’s the charm, right???‪#‎ItWasNeverADress‬


If you’d like to know about the process—wait. I should say my process, not the process, because I don’t know how it works for other people, or how much they sweat, if at all, on the pitch-room couch. Anyway, if you want to know about my lead-up to pitching a network pilot, and how much I sweat, I wrote about it last year in the New York Times.

Here’s what a pilot sale does NOT mean: that your pilot will air, let alone get made. No. Those odds remain loooong. What it does mean is that the studio will pay you to write the pilot script, which will then be considered by the network for production.

So here’s what happens after you sell a pilot pitch.

First, you cry with relief. I got the news while the guy from the car-rental place was driving me to the United terminal. I was heading home to New Jersey after pitching this year’s network try. It had not gone well. At least, that was my take. No one had bought in the room. Two of the networks had already passed. It came down to one final network, the one for which we’d thought the pitch best suited. And that network said yes.

After my producers told me, I got on the plane back to New Jersey. And as the plane took off, I started to think about the next step: the story area.

At least that’s what my network calls the first document due in the pilot-writing process. It’s basically a concise description of the story of your pilot, written out in five or six pages of prose. Like, okay, let’s take “Blind Spot,” the new drama from NBC. The story area or whatever that network calls this document would probably be about the case: how the FBI dude uses the duffel-bag chick’s tattoos to track down that Chinese guy who’s going to blow up the Statue of Liberty. Of course the bigger arc of the show is Jane Doe’s identity and what the fuck the tattoos are all about. But the A story of the pilot is that Chinese dude.

So it’s a tricky document, at least for me. You may not even remember the A story of your favorite network drama pilots. Can you recite the very first case Alicia tried in the very first episode of “The Good Wife”? Or Olivia Pope’s first client in “Scandal”? No, right? What you remember are the characters and their relationships, the world. That’s what drew you back for Episode 2. But the thing you don’t realize as you’re watching is that the A story, the case, is a vehicle to introduce the character to you. You knew from how Alicia and Olivia handled their cases that they were strong, smart, yet compassionate women. The story did that.

Another tricky thing is that everybody, and I mean everybody, has to approve. Your producers, your studio, your network—everybody signs off on this thing before you can even move on to the outline. Which is a whole ‘nother level of doozy.

Anyway. So that’s where I am. I feel a little bit like those climbers at the beginning of “Everest,” without the impending-death part. It’s exciting. It’s daunting. It’s a shitload of work, and I better get cracking.

What it’s like when the network doesn’t pick up your pilot

My network drama pilot died last month.

It was 11:30 p.m. We had just finished watching “The King and I,” the Yul Brynner/Deborah Kerr original. My husband is playing one of the clarinet parts in the Lincoln Center production (currently in previews!), and so I’d found us a DVD copy in the library. The King had just died, his beringed hand flopping limp and lifeless as Mrs. Anna clasped it to her cheek. I wiped a tear; the credits rolled; I checked my email. And there it was, from my manager: “I don’t have good news.”

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

When you’re a writer, failure comes in many forms. For the author, there’s the courtly agony of the publisher’s rejection letter. For the journalist, there’s the maddening sting of opening up the paper to see the editor bumped your time-pegged article. I’ve experienced both, and man, they blow.

But the death of a network TV pilot feels like something else entirely. This is my fourth go-round, and it hasn’t gotten any easier. The death feels sudden and violent, like lunging for the finish line of the marathon only to eat asphalt.

Maybe it feels this way because there’s no afterlife for a network pilot. Unlike book manuscripts or articles, it can’t simply be shopped elsewhere. That’s because you don’t own it; the studio does. Sure, you hear once in a blue moon about unproduced scripts dusted off seasons later for resurrection—but you know not to hang your hopes on that. The network moves on, and so must you.

Its public nature heightens the sense of failure, I think. Crowds of spectators watch on Deadline Hollywood as you collapse bleeding before the finish line, tweeting or emailing their condolences.

But mostly I think it feels like sudden death because, unlike cable or movies, there’s a strict timetable that forces you to go, go, go, right until the bitter end. Here was what my fall looked like:

September: pitch. (This is the 20-minute presentation made to network executives. Here’s the article I wrote in The New York Times about flop-sweating through that process.)

October: story area. (This is the six-page document that describes the central story of your pilot episode.)

November–December: outline. (This is the 20-page document that describes your pilot episode in prose, beat by sweaty beat.)

January: script. (This is the 60-page script.)

On the one hand, this timetable can be a good thing; there’s no such thing as development hell in network TV, because a yea-or-nay decision must be made on a cold, hard deadline.

On the other, there’s a reason most of us prefer to watch marathons from the depths of the couch. If forced to run anything close to 26 miles, we’d require an occasional break to double over and throw up.

There’s no such break when you’re writing the network TV pilot. Each stage of the process has its own deadline and requires voluminous research, multiple drafts, and official approval by producers, studio and network. It’s non-stop work. Let me show you how much. In the folder on my computer desktop that contains all of the files related to this one project, these are the sub-folders and the numbers of documents they contain:

Research: 33

Pitch: 37

Potential future storylines: 48

Story area: 11

Outline: 71 (!!!)

Notes calls: 28

Script drafts: 11

Let’s take a moment here and say what is perhaps needless to say, although I tell myself all the time anyway: this is not work-work. This is not coal-mining, or E.R.-nursing, or public-school teaching. I know. It’s just writing. It’s just a story.

Mine was about an undocumented immigrant: strong, brave, scared, determined. He found himself in an impossible situation not of his own making, but whose outcome would determine the survival of his loved ones. He moved between two worlds—the money- and power-driven one of the law firm where he worked as a fixer, and the dark, lawless one in which he operated. He was my hero.

Over the previous five months, I’d spent more time with him and the other characters than anybody else in my life save my husband and kids. I knew my characters’ backgrounds, their relationships, their dreams and desires. I knew what they wanted and how they’d get it. I knew how they’d dress. I knew how they’d smell. I heard their voices in my sleep.

So I took a beat. I took a beat to mourn these lives that would never be. I took a beat to say good-bye. I let it go. Because the network moves on, and so, I know, must I.

For me, right now it’s on to another drama pilot I sold last fall, this one to a cable network. Its story and characters have battled for my brain-space with its broadcast brethren, and now has full ownership. But not for long. Before I know it, it’ll be July 4—the start of network TV pitch season for fall 2016.

Questions? Comments? Please tweet me @lisacullen.

My diary of network TV pitch season

This appeared in the New York Times on November 16, 2014. I can’t believe they let me say “belch.” And “colon.”

My piece on the horror and humiliations of TV pitch season because, I don't know, material

My piece on the horror and humiliations of TV pitch season because, I don’t know, material

Hatching a Pilot

One Writer’s Diary for Television Pitch Season

You with your feet up, remote in one hand and beverage in the other, being all judge-y about this fall’s new network dramas and sitcoms. Just take a moment, will you, and think of us writers gutting ourselves trying to create them. Think of us lumbering from lot to Hollywood lot, fingernails in our teeth and oil in our bowels, pitching what we hope you’ll be criticizing next fall.

The Big Four — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — have recently wrapped two months of listening to about 350 series pitches each. (I know what you’re thinking: Someone out there has to sit through five or six television pitch meetings a day, and there is no Nobel Prize in that category.) Each broadcast network will buy up to 60 pitches. Hallelujah for those lucky pitchers, who will then write their scripts for the pilots. At year’s end, each network will pick a dozen or so to produce. Those pilots will shoot in the spring. Next May in New York, in the ad-buying extravaganza called the upfronts, the networks will announce the precious few that will become full series.

I am a journalist and author who stumbled into writing pilots. I had an idea for a drama, called “The Ordained,” about a former priest trying to stop an assassination. I pitched it to networks. None bought it, so I wrote a script on spec.

In 2012, the script sold to CBS, which produced it. This is unusual. As Deadline Hollywood noted, by way of saying pigs are flying, I had no TV credits and live in New Jersey.

Then the 2013 fall lineup was announced — and my pilot wasn’t on it. After I stopped rocking in a dark corner, I told my clarinetist husband that we should buy a house. New beginnings, I told him. Besides, now that I had one produced pilot, surely the deals would be rolling in. We bought the house. The following pitch season, I didn’t sell anything at all. We sold the house. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.

Why would any would-be show creator suffer the agony of pitching to networks, when everyone knows cable is where it’s at these days? Because money (still way more than cable). Because audience (ditto). Because creating a hit show for broadcast television — maybe one that even the critics like — still makes you an American hero.

So here I am again. This is my diary of the 2014 network TV pitch season.

June 10 The very start of pitch season is like dating; producers need writers for their projects, and writers need ideas. Producers have ideas, but more important, they have rights: to books, to foreign TV series, to whole entire lives. This is not as awesome as it sounds. I can’t make the colossal mistake I did last fall of believing that projects originating with producers are inherently better, and that I will be able to sell them. They aren’t. And I didn’t.

And now I’m desperate for a sale. Last week, I spent 10 minutes in the cereal aisle, choosing between Kellogg’s and the nasty store brand. Let’s face it: My family’s primary source of income is a total crapshoot. And in a crapshoot, it’s better to fail with an idea of my own. For my dignity or whatever.

June 17 Topics I want to write about:

■ Race.

■ Religion.

■ The immigrant experience.

■ Death.

Ideas for the topics I want to write about:

June 18 My night stand is bananas. Ten books, from mysteries to memoirs to sci-fi.

Each of these could make a fantastic screenplay — because movies end.

But network TV? In success, they go on for 23 episodes. And that’s just the first season. So my goal is to do what I tell my children not to do: tell a story that goes on and on and on.

June 23 I hereby pledge to do my bit for mankind by not pitching anything involving the following words: covert government agency, feisty young blogger, outrageously bad mom, misfit genius, rehab, superhero, anybody who used to be dead.

June 30 Something about an undocumented immigrant. All those children, scrambling desperately across our borders, running from gangs and guns and hunger. And the country’s response? Build higher walls! That could have been me. I didn’t grow up here, either. I just happened to have an American parent. But am I really that different?

Something about that.

July 9 It’s decided. I am pitching my immigrant idea.

This is what a TV pitch looks like: 20 minutes of me, talking, in a room, in front of decision-making people. No PowerPoint. No storyboards. Just me.

Those 20 minutes will decide my career trajectory — am I a one-pilot wonder? — as well as my family’s financial well-being. I have a month to come up with a pitch.

Aug. 8 I have a pitch. Now, the next step: use my pitch to snag an 800-pound-gorilla producer.

At this point in pitch season, producers aren’t flirting; they’re proposing. Producers want fully formed pitches with solid writers to present to networks. A writer wants the backing of a producer for credibility. But first I must win one over.

My first pitch is by phone to a producer in Los Angeles who has run some of the top-rated, longtime series on network TV. Twenty minutes later, there’s a silence. “Well,” she says. “That was … well told.”

I have a feeling this means no?

Aug. 9 It’s a Hollywood truism that when it’s good news, everyone gets on the phone; when it’s bad news, it’s just your manager.

The phone rings. It’s my manager.

He explains: The producer declined, the political story line in my pitch was too close to that of a current hit show. I went online and watched it. Holy mother of Buddha, I pitched the same damn story.

“We could try other producers,” my manager says. “Or we could come up with an alt.”

An alternative. Now. Only weeks before the networks open their doors to start hearing pitches. An alt to the plot I’d sweated out this past month. An alt to characters I’d fallen in love with and for whom I’d invented entire lives.

I want to hit myself really hard in the face.

I say, “I’ll come up with an alt.”

Aug. 10 My little one learned to swim today, or so I hear. This is the second day of our long-planned family holiday down the Jersey shore. My siblings and their families are here, some from Japan. My sister found a fabulous house that fits all 22 of us, right on the beach.

Then I remember an article I read earlier this year about an undocumented immigrant with legal troubles. Huh.

They took a photo of us. This is how I write: in the playroom, with kids in my lap (NOT REALLY)

They took a photo of us. This is how I write: in the playroom, with kids in my lap (NOT REALLY)

Aug. 15 For a time the pitch felt Frankenstein-y, two distinct shows stitched together. Ugly. Clumsy. It kept opening its gross mouth, shrieking, “Raaargggh!”

But somehow, it starts to fuse. I drop the political story line and replace it with a high-stakes investigation. I kill characters, add new ones, bring some back. I send a draft to my manager. He gives me notes. I send another draft.

This — dare I say it? — is starting to feel like a show.

I pitch this new version for the first time to a top producer. It goes well. Even I can hear through my usual foghorn of pessimism that it goes well. I have answers to his questions, even ones I hadn’t prepared. (“The procedural element necessarily, sometimes helpfully, gives us a framework,” I say, from my colon.) Afterward, the producer says things like “awfully smart” and “timely” and “the stakes feel real and personal.”


Aug. 19 A letter from the screenwriters’ union: If I don’t meet the guild-required minimum income by Sept. 30, my family’s insurance will run out. Meaning if I don’t sell this pitch, we will lose our health coverage.

No pressure.

Sept. 2 With some producer interest, I need my other partner, a studio. Each network has a sister studio from whom they buy most of their pilots. Along with a producer, having a studio on board can be crucial in selling a pitch to a network.

I pitched to the drama development executives at CBS Studios today. They want it!

Sept. 4 By now I’ve pitched this new version seven times to producers. Some got it and want in. Others, not. A comment from the latter: “Does it have to be about an immigrant?”

One final producer pitch today, this time to a pod of four movie-writing superstars whose combined box office I can’t even. What they want with my pitch, I have no idea.

But they do! Now with producers and a studio on board, the next obstacle is also the last: the network pitch.

Sept. 22 On the flight to Los Angeles, I jam in my earphones and click: sports, sports, Lord help me, more sports. Movie! “The Fault in Our Stars.”

Mistake. Soon I’m a hot mess of tears, ugly-crying into a dinner napkin. Without a word, the flight attendant slips me a wad of tissues.

Sept. 23 My meeting is delayed. I pace my hotel room all day, waiting, prepping. I watch a TED talk on YouTube by a social scientist named Amy Cuddy. Her research shows that doing a “power pose” before an important meeting can trick your brain into confidence. So off and on today I stand at the window in my underwear, doing the Wonder Woman. You’re welcome, Burbank.

Sept. 24 The pitch is at noon.

We congregate on the studio lot, in a lobby large enough to hold several sweaty writers and their entourages. My team consists of four producers and two studio execs. I see a famous actor among one of the other groups. I do the New York thing and pretend not to recognize him.

It’s time.

We arrange ourselves on the sofa facing the four network execs. Oh, no: The seating is low. How can I do the Wonder Woman if I’m crouched like Gollum? What’s more, the base of my throat feels tight. I’m 94 percent sure that when I next open my mouth, I will belch.

Then 10 pairs of eyes turn toward me.

I open my mouth. I do not belch. I pitch. It’s an out-of-body experience, but somehow I’m also totally there. I talk about this world of my creation, its characters, their stories. I keep my eyes locked on one of the execs, who registers dramatic facial expressions — surprise! delight! fear! — that pull me back from the edge of terror.

Twenty-three minutes later, I finish. We wait.

Silence. Then, the boss speaks. “We love it,” she says. “We’d love to do it.”

I don’t remember the rest. People said words, and then other people said words. Only after we returned to the lobby could I ask, “So what just happened?”

“What just happened,” my studio exec says, “is you sold a pitch.”