Why New York needs more TV writers’ rooms

What I wrote today in the Albany Times-Union.

A writers’ room of N.Y.’s own

By Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, Commentary

Published 5:29 pm, Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Right around now, I should be starting my job as a staff writer on a new TV series. That is, if I had a job.

Staffing, as it’s called, is the bread and butter of TV writers, and June is when shows set to debut in the fall open their rooms. Working on staff in a writers’ room means steady paychecks and interesting work. If the show’s a hit, your job might last longer than a season—plus you enjoy the cachet and thrill of contributing to a story consumed by millions.

Or so I hear.

I am a TV writer who has never staffed. The reason: staffing jobs are in L.A. And I am not.

Instead I feed my family writing TV pilots, which is cool when you sell them, and even cooler when they’re produced, as my drama pilot was by CBS last spring. But the following fall, when I failed to sell a single pitch to network, I would have given a nonessential organ for regular work.

The dearth of TV writer jobs in New York might seem puzzling, considering the boom in TV shoots. A record 15 out of 87 network pilots used New York as its set this spring, according to Variety. Non-network shows are swarming here too. Marvel Entertainment committed to shooting 60 episodes of its four Netflix superhero series in New York City.

The boom is fueled by a 30 percent tax credit introduced in 2004. The Empire State Film Production Credit has resulted in a job surge among many skilled workers in New York, from cameramen to actors, location scouts to production assistants, gaffers to assistant directors.

But not writers. Out of the $420 million tax break, exactly none is allocated to us.

So even as more shows shoot here, they don’t staff here. Only a handful of network TV dramas, including CBS’s “Blue Bloods” and NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU,” have New York writers’ rooms. Late-night shows including “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show” provide some coveted comedy jobs; daytime dramas, or soaps, no longer do. The Writers Guild of America East (of which I am a member) estimates that about 8 percent of TV writers work in New York.

Studios and networks remain resistant to staffing in New York. The argument I hear most frequently from executives, producers and agents is the lack of talent.

By “talent,” they mean not just the ability to write, but to write for TV. To work in a room, break a story, handle a network note. These are learned skills, and nothing a driven writer without TV experience can’t acquire. The problem is that for those of us unwilling or unable to move out West, those opportunities to learn are almost nonexistent.

That absence of opportunity hits women and minorities hardest. Most of us lack the social connections and educational pedigree to launch a career in TV writing, a field in which those advantages have historically meant the difference between open and shut doors. The annual Hollywood diversity report from the Bunche Center at UCLA remains a reliably depressing — if no longer shocking — read.

Hollywood has long failed to ease its diversity problem. It’s New York’s turn. A bill currently before the State Senate and Assembly in Albany seeks to to carve out $3.5 million of the current $420 million production tax credit as an incentive to hire women and minority TV writers. It doesn’t sound like much, and in fact it isn’t. But it may spur more studios to at least consider locating its writers’ room here, and to hire a more diverse staff—writers who look and sound like New York, and like America.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen is a TV writer, author, and a former staff writer for Time magazine.

 

 

Why everyone in the world should start a book group

Since my novel published this summer, I’ve gotten to visit with some book groups as a guest. There has been wine. Lots of wine.

The other day I Skyped with a book group in Dubai (wine for them, tragic morning tea for me). The local ones I’ve gotten to attend in person: a sushi-and-wine gabfest where the drunks discussed everything but my book (just kidding…I had a hoot, ladies!); a potluck notably lacking in wine but not in debate over the role of religion in marriage (correlation might equal causation, I’m thinking); a group that baked a Paula Deen casserole in honor of a joke in my book (only a stick of butter in the recipe…you’re welcome).

All of which made me pine for my own book group of 10 women and two decades. Of course, we hadn’t read a book together in nearly that long because we deteriorated fairly quickly from reading and drinking to just drinking. And we’re scattered around the country now. But our bond remains fierce.

Book Group

This is my book group a year ago.

Because we formed at that vivid, chaotic start of adulthood, Book Group always represented something more to me than the name implied. We still call ourselves that, or BG, when we’re hurried, but never Book Club, which sounds like you could just sign up, and once we formed we were ferociously exclusive.

Book Group was margaritas and poetry. Book Group was fifth-floor walk-ups and boys in rock bands. Book Group was alcohol-impaired charades in a cabin in Vermont, fire-impaired barbecuing in the Hamptons.

Then our jobs became careers and the boys we dated became men. Our weekend road trips turned into destination weddings. The photos we shared were not of each other but of our babies, then our children.

Still, in my mind, we will always be young. We will always be free. And we will always be 10.

Even though, now, we are nine.

We gathered last week for the funeral. Our Jackie was at 45 the oldest of us, but also by far the fittest. Just a year ago she told me she’d joined an underwater hockey league, whatever the hell that was. She taught naked yoga and triathloned through Austria and piloted a small plane. That last is less about fitness than fearlessness. She lived like she wasn’t afraid to die.

Jackie laughing

She had this laugh.

She also lived like she wasn’t afraid to get old. We met when I hired her as a reporter for a free weekly newspaper in Manhattan. I was 23 and its editor-in-chief, which tells you everything you need to know about the quality of the operation. Jackie was a terrible reporter. She had no idea how to gather news, although “news” was a generous name for our police blotters and Community Board rundowns. Her prose was flowery, poetic, stream-of-consciousness. I had to rewrite every last word.

But she was smart. And cool. And she had this laugh. It exploded out of her like fireworks. I invited her to meet my friends for this thing we were starting, this thing we were calling Book Group. When it works, there’s something hugely satisfying about bringing a new friend into an existing clique. When it doesn’t work, you feel like a schmuck. This time I was a proud yenta.

While the rest of us got serious about our careers and our men, Jackie stayed peripatetic. She remained the only one of us never to marry. She worked for a nonprofit, then an Internet startup, then a matchmaking company. She traveled, she sailed, she painted. Instead of starting a family, she collected them. Her triathlon-training family. Her writing family. Us.

A little over a year ago, she felt a lump in her lady parts. Melanoma, the doctors said. One in a million, the doctors said. “I always knew I was special,” she said, then erupted with that laugh. Skin cancer—where the sun don’t even shine.

Jackie in gray dressBy then our Book Group met once a year, on an elaborately planned trip that necessitated plane travel for at least some of us. We gathered in San Francisco, where Jackie then lived. We rented a row house in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. We ate in Mission restaurants. And we watched Jackie read an essay she wrote in a packed art gallery as part of Lit Crawl, six-feet tall in her heels, resplendent in a tight, gray dress.

She treated her illness in the way we expected but dreaded, eschewing Western medicine for a holistic, natural course. In our rented house, we watched over takeout from Bacon Bacon as she juiced wheatgrass and pea shoots. She gave me a sip. It tasted like dirt.

A few months earlier, Jackie had met the love of her life, a carpenter and avid sailor with a name I plan to use one day in a novel or script. She moved back East to an achingly perfect little town in Massachusetts and into the house he was renovating for her. She signed up for a memoir-writing class. She created yet more families of neighbors, yogis and sailing enthusiasts.

Jackie at cafeBy then she had consented to a medical treatment that left her both drawn and swollen. Or maybe that was the cancer, rampaging unchecked through her organs. It was then all her families drew around her, via a dedicated group on Facebook, where we posted updates, photos, encouragement. Scrolling back through the posts, as I’ve done countless times, I can see our hope building merrily until the day we are jolted by her own acceptance of the coming end. After that, shock and denial (“if anyone can beat the odds…!”). Then, a slow fade to sorrow.

You don’t want a death of a loved one to be about you. But of course in the end it is. What did that person mean to me? What will my life be like without her? David Sedaris wrote this in an essay in the New Yorker about his late sister:

How could anyone purposefully leave us, us, of all people? This is how I thought of it, for though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else. It’s an archaic belief, one that I haven’t seriously reconsidered since my late teens, but still I hold it. Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of, so I couldn’t imagine quitting.

Jackie didn’t quit us, of course. She would have liked nothing better than to stay, to keep sailing and reading and laughing. To remain one of our 10, to remain among the rest of her families. As she will, always, in our hearts.Funeral lei

Writing the TV pilot, step 1: the idea

Ah, September. The crisp in the air, the apples on the trees…the panic in my gut as I try to sell another pilot pitch.

In 2012, I sold a pilot I’d written on spec. (Here’s how that craziness happened.) It got produced. (Read about that insanity here, here and here.)

And because that happened, this pitch process is very different from the last.

After we learned in May that my pilot wasn’t picked up for fall series, I allowed myself a few days (weeks) of disappointment (despair). Then I picked myself up (wallowed in tears), dusted myself off (wallowed some more), and prepared for what’s next (lay awake nights in wretched fear).

Coming up with the idea is tricky (diabolically difficult). It’s one thing to come up with a magazine story, something I did for many years. In journalism, for the most part it’s one and done: you publish your groundbreaking investigation (crappy trendicle), and then it’s on to the next.

It’s a whole ‘nother bag of chips to invent a brand new TV drama with a potential audience—and budget—of millions.

But: pssst. I learned a TV-land secret this summer: when you get a pilot produced, you don’t have to chase after own ideas for the next one. The ideas come to you! No lie!

Because of aforementioned experience, and because of the blind script deal I have with a studio this year, production companies—sometimes called pods, which makes me think of aliens—approached me with ideas. By ideas, I mean just that: an interesting character in the news, a nonfiction book the producers have optioned, a format to a foreign TV series.

If you’re a writer, you’ll agree: how freaking awesome is that?!

Well.

You still have to meet the producers, read their treatments, read the books, pitch your version, get your version rejected, meet with another pod with an idea that doesn’t quite fit, and again, and again, until summer wanes and your churning gut tells you to bleep or get off the pot.

Pitching can be heartbreak. You marry yourself so thoroughly to an idea that rejection feels like a thousand stabs in a necessary organ. If you were being dramatic about it.

Pitching can also be about dominance. You come up with an idea which may or may not suck, but it doesn’t matter because you’re an 800-lb. gorilla and you’re going to swagger in there and make them buy it. I’m not there yet.

For me, pitching is about evolution. You meet an idea, but you keep your mind open to change. You talk to your producers about it. You listen to their feedback. You think some more. A weird take on the idea comes to you in the middle of the night. You tell your producers about it. They say hmm. You discuss some more. You draft a pitch document, then you draft another, then another, then another, then another.

And finally it’s time for the studio pitch. Ready or not.

This pastor’s wife wears biker boots

When you write a book about a world to which you don’t belong, you can’t help but wonder what the people who actually belong to that world think of your fictional version. Are they insulted? Aghast at your very nerve? Shocked, dismayed, scandalized?

Recently I got a message on my Facebook author page from a pastor’s wife. Karla Akins admitted she had bought “Pastors’ Wives” with the sole intention of reviewing it online. She planned to tell one and all how I did not get even a little bit of it right. Instead, she wrote me a lovely note. We got to corresponding, and I learned she too had written a book about pastors’ wives—albeit one with a much cooler title.

Karla agreed to a Q&A that I hope will a) tell you a little about the novel, b) show you how tickled I am at her reaction, and c) introduce you to this warm, funny and wonderful pastor’s wife.

How did you and your husband meet?

We met through mutual friends. My husband was attending a church similar to Greenleaf in your book, Pastors’ Wives. I was a lot like Ruthie in that I wasn’t raised in such a church. The character Ruthie was Catholic but I was raised American Baptist. Very, very different style of worship than what my husband’s church practiced. I was terrified that first service!

Could you share the name, denomination and location of your church?

Our church is Christian Fellowship Church of North Manchester, Indiana. It is an independent, non-denominational church. I like to describe it as a church whose emphasis is on following Jesus rather than following rules.

What are five words you would use to describe life as the wife of the pastor?

1. Challenging
2. Demanding
3. Stressful
4. Rewarding
5. Faith-building

Meet Karla Akins and her hog

Meet Karla Akins and her hog

What is the hardest thing about being a PW?

Life in a fishbowl. Constant scrutiny. It’s unsettling sometimes not to have privacy.

The best?

Helping people, families, children.

As a pastor’s wife, did you have misgivings about reading a book titled “Pastors’ Wives”? (I know I would.)

Oh yes. As soon as I saw the title I was very skeptical. In fact, I bought it with the intention of setting the record straight with a review. I thought it was going to make fun of pastors’ wives or criticize them. I figured there was no way someone on the outside could possibly “get” what life is like for a pastor’s wife and be sympathetic in their portrayal of them. There’s a show on TV right now that’s about pastors’ wives and it annoys me because the women they depict are nothing like me and my lifestyle at all, so I figured the book was going to be another skewed look. And while the characters in the the book are in a mega-church, and I’m in a small rural one, I was pleasantly surprised that the emotions are very similar. You were quite often spot on.

What did you think of Ruthie, Candace and Ginger, the PWs in my novel?

I could identify very well with all their emotions. While I’m not like any of the three women, all three have something about them I could identify with. My husband’s been on staff of a few larger churches before, so there were things that happen in the book I could truly see happening. I know what it’s like to be the wife of a staff pastor, and how your identity in those situations are pretty much non-important and that while you are pretty much invisible, you have quite a lot of expectations put upon you. The expectations are very different in a megachurch than a smaller church.

In our smaller church, I’m more of a Candace. That is, the woman behind the man, making sure things run smoothly, overseeing a lot of different departments and activities. Even though I’m an ordained minister myself, I prefer the title of pastor’s wife. I do better in that role. My husband is such an excellent pastor and is very people-oriented while I’m more task oriented.

I think the thing I most identified with in your book were the emotions these women had about feeling like they were playing second fiddle to God. I had to work through those emotions early in our marriage myself. Pastors’ schedules are grueling. And the pastor’s wife has to share her husband with so many others. When the kids were small it was pretty difficult.  This excerpt says it so well:   “What’s it like when the guy you married decides to marry God?…It feels lonely…”

One of my favorite paragraphs in your book was when Candace was trying to decide how to deal with the elder, John:

“…to forgive was to run the risk of being taken advantage of. So should she turn the other cheek? Or demand an eye for an eye?”

This is something that I find myself wrestling with at times. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m a peace-maker, not a fighter, and if people see me as a pushover, then so be it.

I really, really wanted Ruthie to develop a faith, and for Ginger’s husband to make different responses. I was impressed with Candace’s backbone and confidence in her abilities. I’ve known pastor’s wives like her, and they are amazing people. However, I would find it difficult to work for someone like her.

You’re an author too! Tell us about your fabulously titled book, “The Pastor’s Wife Wears Biker Boots.”

My new release is due on shelves August 9 but it’s already on Amazon in paperback. It will also be available digitally in ebook form.

It’s about a pastor’s wife named Kirstie Donovan who gets tired of living life in a fishbowl. But when she hops on the back of a bright pink motorcycle, tongues start to wag at the conservative, century-old First Independent Christian Community Church of Eel Falls.The Pastor's Wife Wears Biker Boots

Here’s the back cover blurb:  Kirstie loves roaring down a road less traveled by most women over forty, but she’s not just riding her bike for the fun of it. Kirstie has a ministry. However, certain church members have secrets to hide, and when God uses Kirstie’s ministry to fill the pews with leather-clad, tattooed bikers, those secrets could be exposed…and some will stop at nothing to hide the truth. Join Kirstie and her motorcycle “gang”—two church matrons and a mouthy, gum-smacking non-church member—as they discover that road-toughened bikers are quite capable of ministering to others, and faith is fortified in the most unexpected ways.

Where can we find you online?

KarlaAkins.com

http://facebook.com/karlakakins

Twitter: @KarlaAkins

Blog: http://karlaakins.com/blog

Thank you, Karla!

Top beach reads of 2013, and other things I learned in a downpour

Last Friday, during a monsoon of apocalyptic proportions, I inched down the flooded New Jersey Turnpike to Princeton for a book event.

Billing it Beach Reads Night, the Princeton Public Library had asked nine women authors to discuss their recent publications and what we ourselves liked to thumb through while sitting in the sand.

Cupcake display at Princeton Public Library Beach Reads Night

If you bake it, they will come.

Now, I worship any library big or small, state-of-the-art or state-of-disrepair. But the PPL is in a class of its own. I mean, check out this presentation. In honor of the beach theme, library program director Janie Hermann arranged for Sweetly Spirited Cupcakes to supply fancy baked goods, and Cake It Up Cake Stands to design a wee little beach made of brown sugar. Will you look at that? That’s all edible.

As the deluge built outside, I understood the genius of this confectionery display: if you provide free dessert, people will show up. Guaranteed. The unholy weather forced two of the authors to bail. But readers braved hell and brimstone for a taste of that Tequila Lime cupcake. Even a reporter managed to show, and I speak from long experience that extreme weather is the assignment-shirking excuse. Here’s proof she was there for the treats. (To be fair: she’s a food reporter, so the presence of authors was merely incidental.)

Anyway, I was thrilled to be included, thanks to moderator Amy Bromberg, the teeny tiny and fabulous founder of ChickLitCentral. For me it was the opposite of Groucho Marx’s gripe about not wanting to belong to any club that would have him; me, I was somewhat mortified to find myself among writers of this caliber. The only thing I brought to the party were a gaggle of damp but determined friends (thanks, guys!).

Authors at Princeton Public Library Beach Reads Night

From left, Priscille Sibley (“The Promise of Stardust”); Beatriz Williams (“A Hundred Summers”); me, momentarily not slouching; cupcakes; Pamela Redmond Satran (“The Possibility of You”); Christina Baker Kline (“Orphan Train”); Sally Koslow (“The Widow Waltz”); Amy Bromberg (ChicklitCentral)

Here are some things I learned that night:

• “If they cry, they buy.” That’s what Priscille Sibley said about her debut novel “The Promise of Stardust.” She in turn was quoting her agent, who cried umpteen times while reading Priscille’s manuscript. Sure enough, the publishers cried too, then bought.

• Ideas turn up in the strangest places. Christina Baker Kline discovered her then 10-year-old son flipping through a dusty tome at his grandparents’. When she inquired, she found the book held an account of the “orphan train”—a practice around the turn of the century of sending American children off for labor to the midwest. Idea!

• Some novelists lead double lives. Priscille Sibley is a nurse who writes when she’s off her shift. Pamela Redmond Satran is behind Nameberry, the hugely successful baby-name website. And Beatriz Williams writes popular romance novels under a pseudonym. She and her alter ego snipe at each other on Twitter. Who knew?

• Man, I have the worst posture. The. Worst.

In case you’re in the market for summer reading, below are brief synopses of each author’s book taken from the Princeton Public Library’s Pinterest board on the event. Click each title for the Amazon page. Here’s a link to some more pictures of cupcakes.

The Widow Waltz by Sally Koslow tells the story of a widow who learns the idyllic life she shared with her recently deceased husband – including a plush Manhattan apartment, a Hampton’s beach house, a driver, fine art and club memberships – was built on lies. Realizing that she and her daughters have been left with nothing, the widow struggles to protect her husband’s legacy and cope with her new reality.

The Possibility of You by Pamela Redmond Satran tells the story of three women at three key moments of the past century. Three stories of independence and motherhood, love and loss, power and family that intertwine in unexpected ways and culminate in an explosive ending that shows how one woman’s choices can affect her world forever.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline weaves together the stories of two women, one a widow from Maine who as a child was among the orphans transported from East Coast cities to Midwestern farmlands. The other is a teen girl who grew up in foster care and is assigned to help the widow clean out her attic for community service. Moving between contemporary Maine and Depression-era Minnesota, “Orphan Train” is a powerful tale of upheaval and resilience, second chances, and unexpected friendship.

A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams will be released May 30 and tells the story of New York socialite Lily Dane and her heartbreak after her fiancé leaves her and marries her best friend. Kirkus Book Reviews calls “A Hundred Summers” “a candidate for this year’s best beach read – the period story of a derailed love affair seen through a sequence of summers at Seaview, R.I.”

The Promise of Stardust by Priscille Sibley chronicles a husband’s dilemma when he discovers his wife, brain dead after an accident and known to not ever want to be kept on life support, is pregnant. “Sibley does a wonderful job of exploring a complex and controversial moral issue, skillfully giving both sides of the story,” said a review in the American Library Association’s Booklist publication. “This is a gripping, thoughtful, heart-wrenching, and well-written debut …”

 

Five parenting tips from “Game of Thrones”

I know the symptoms. A dull ache in the vicinity of the heart. Fitful dreams involving imps and dragons. A tinny echo resembling the clanging of swords.

Here’s your diagnosis: “Game of Thrones” withdrawal. Yep. I’ve got it, too.

If it gets any worse, I’m going to have to break down and read the damn books. I’ve only read the first, and though George R.R. Martin’s storytelling rocks, I confess I love the TV series even more—so much that I prefer not knowing what happens next.

If I could wave a wand and produce Series 4 for you right now, I would. In lieu of me acquiring such dark magic, here’s my post on NYTimes.com’s Motherlode on what I learned about parenting from GoT.

Sunday, June 9, 2013: As we have every other Sunday these recent months, tonight my husband and I will tuck in our two little girls, kiss their sweet faces goodnight, then rush downstairs to watch men and women get slaughtered.

I speak of course of “Game of Thrones,” the wildly popular HBO series set in a mythical land resembling medieval England, except with dragons. Based on the blockbuster books by George R.R. Martin, the show is bloody with battle, sticky with sex and just plain awesome.

But let it not be said that “Game of Thrones” holds no educational value for parents! I’ve gleaned many a lesson from the show’s insanely dysfunctional families—mainly in what not to do when attempting to raise a non-rapist, non-murderer person.

Here, in tribute to the Season 3 finale, are five parenting tips from “Game of Thrones”:

1. When it comes to your child’s safety, never let your own agenda cloud your judgment. In the infamous penultimate episode that aired last Sunday, Robb Stark asks his mother Catelyn if he should pay a visit to Lord Walder Frey. Robb had betrayed Frey by marrying Talisa instead of one of Frey’s homely daughters, as agreed. But now Robb needs Frey’s army to battle the king. Catelyn wavers. She knows how treacherous a man Frey is and how dangerous such a mission will be. But then her thirst for vengeance on the king’s clan takes over. “Show them how it feels to lose what they love,” she counsels. Oh, Mom. Terrible advice!

Robb Stark, Talisa Stark in war tent

Just in general, the battleground isn’t a terrific place to be pregnant.

2. When pregnant, it is ill-advised to attend weddings populated by heavily armed men. In the same Episode 9, Robb and Talisa attend the wedding of Robb’s uncle to one of Frey’s daughters, a gesture meant to secure peace between the families. Every single guest carries a weapon. One wears chain mail under his garb. Yet Robb and Talisa eat and drink merrily (these being fictional times, let’s just assume preggo ladies can imbibe). Suddenly, the music stops. The arrows fly. The knives slice and dice. And everybody wishes Talisa would have stayed back in the war tent, singing lullabies to the heir in her belly.

3. Teach girls to fight and boys to run away. When we first meet the noble Stark clan in Season 1, mom Catelyn is exasperated that her younger daughter Arya is more interested in bows and arrows and sword fights than in embroidery. Now we’re wrapping up Season 3, and guess who’s still alive? That’s right—our little fighter girl. Meantime elder daughter Sansa, the obedient beauty, is stuck in King’s Landing, a pawn in other people’s schemes. As for the boys, Robb’s dead (see Tip 1). Still alive are Jon Snow, the bastard, who survived the decimation of the Night’s Watch by defecting to the Wildlings—then survives again but running away from the Wildlings once they get back south of the Wall. Also still alive are Bran and Rickon. Granted, Bran’s not using his own paralyzed legs to run. But his wits are keeping his little band of escapees alive—at least for now. Sensing a theme here?

Cersei Lannister

Mommy dearest: Cersei Lannister, played by Lena Headey

4. Don’t live your dreams through your children. “Dance Moms,” meet Cersei Lannister. We haven’t seen as much of Cersei in Season 3, and that might be because her power as the king’s mother has evaporated. But that’s what happens when you invest all your hopes and ambitions in your precious offspring, who happens to be a monster: the monster eventually grows up, gets engaged to a devious harlot, and stops listening to your own manipulative advice. Along those lines…

5. Avoid siring children with your sibling. King Joffrey is the product of Cersei’s incestuous relationship with her brother Jaime. Which of course means Joffrey is not the rightful heir to the throne, as he shares no blood with the late Robert Baratheon, the former king and his supposed father. This poses a political problem for the Lannister clan if ever this should be proven, but that’s probably difficult in a mythical land with no DNA labs. Even in Westeros, however, the laws of genetics seem to apply in that the brother-sister mating has produced in Joffrey a cruel freak of nature. Also? Jaime’s never around to give Cersei a hand in raising their little jerk. What do you call a deadbeat uncle-dad? A duncle?

So here we are, facing the end of Season 3. What marvelous parenting tips will the season finale offer? I, for one, will be ready with pencil and paper.

The one yoga pose all working moms need

[This is a brief essay I wrote for my Bikram yoga studio's newsletter. It's about how I suck at lying down.]

Savasana is my nemesis.

Who am I kidding? Every Bikram pose kicks my sore butt. Awkward pose was never meant to look this awkward. It took me two years of regular practice to even attempt standing head-to-knee, and I’m talking about the part that involves standing but not my head to my knee. If a pose is easy, I figure I’m doing it wrong. The day I lock my knees will be the day I eat my shorts.

Bikram yoga bow pose

Needless to say, this is not me.

But savasana is hardest of all. It’s not just the physical difficulty of emulating a corpse. For me, the Olympic-level hurdle is clearing my mind.

“Empty your thoughts,” the teacher says. “Clear your mind and think of nothing but your breath.” It’s like being told, “Stop thinking about elephants.” Now you can’t do anything but.

Savasana is when I make lists. Grocery lists, to-do lists, wish lists. Savasana is NOT when I should make lists. I have to remind myself of this every time.

Savasana, after all, is the one pose I need to master. As a working mom, and moreover as a writer, I desperately need those few minutes of meditation. And when by some small miracle I do achieve it, the results are nothing short of remarkable.

It is during those occasional moments of clarity that a line of dialogue or a solution to a tricky plot problem comes to me. When that happens, it’s like I hear a choir of angels. I want to break into a happy dance and shout, “Eureka!” But that would be weird.

Like many of us, I came to Bikram yoga at a tumultuous time in my life. I had just had my second child. I had just quit my longtime career as a journalist and embarked on a new and risky one writing fiction. Both my parents had just died.

That was three and a half years ago. In the time since, yoga has often felt like one of the only constants in my life. Three times a week for ninety minutes, my foremost focus is staying in the room and not falling on my face.

And someday, with practice and no small bit of faith, I’ll no longer consider savasana my nemesis but my friend.

Who’s reading “Pastors’ Wives”?

I ask myself this.

When you’re an author with a new book out, you think about who’s reading it. I mean, maybe not if you’re Stephen King. Or Anna Quindlen. Or someone else who’s at this very moment headlining a panel at BookExpo America jam-packed with her quazillion fans. I’m not bitter.

Me, I sit at home in New Jersey and wonder who’s reading my book. I’m particularly curious in the case of this baby. Because it’s a quirky little thing. It’s women’s commercial fiction set in an evangelical megachurch. Yet it’s not a quote-unquote Christian book (more about that here). And I’m a former journalist whose line of faith is best described as—to borrow my friend Desa’s term—devoutly tolerant.

I wrote about women married to men married to God because I found their predicament complicated, poignant and fascinating. At the time in my life when I wrote “Pastors’ Wives” and my TV pilot “The Ordained,” I struggled mightily with religion. I found fiction a way to write about it without bludgeoning readers and viewers over the head with theology dogma.

So who are the readers of “Pastors’ Wives”? Are they Christian or pagan? Churched or mosqued? I asked a few friends and readers to let me introduce you to them (thank you, dears!).

This small and highly unscientific survey proves “Pastors’ Wives” may be consumed safely by parties of any faith. Side effects include a very slightly heavier beach bag.

Shari

Shari, Louisiana
I am: mom of three, nurse, sports fanatic
Religious views: Baptist

Desa Philadelphia

Desa, California
I am: working mom, lover of all things literary
Religious views: devoutly tolerant

Amy Sullivan

Amy, Washington, D.C.
I am: Journalist, mama, and semi-professional beach reader
Religious views: Baptist

Helen Mitternight

Helen, Virginia
I am: a PR leader, mom to one human and two canines, writer, aspiring world leader
Religious views: Lazy Wiccan

Rebekah Sanderlin

Rebekah, Florida
I am: Mother of three, amateur (and unwilling) wrangler of turtles, frogs and lizards
Religious views: Christian (Protestant, non-denominational)

Bee Ridgway

Bee, Pennsylvania
I am: English prof, novelist, good eater
Religious views: Methodist as a child, minister’s daughter for life

Emi Dantsuka

Emi, California
I am: Mom of one, wife of a football fanatic, subcontract manager
Religious views: Non-denominational Christian

Reader of "Pastors' Wives"

Carla, Indiana
I am: Business owner, executive leadership coach, mom of triplets
Religious views: Catholic until six months ago, now attending evangelical church with my formerly Jewish husband

 

What it’s like to launch a debut novel in 2013

Hard, is what it’s like. Hard. It’s hard.

My first novel, “Pastors’ Wives,” debuted April 30. You already know that if I’m on your Facebook or Twitter feed because I WON’T SHUT UP ABOUT IT. My sister says I’m turning into the Amway lady, pushing dish detergent and hand lotion on increasingly weirded-out acquaintances.

It’s true. Launching a debut novel in 2013 is all about sales.

Pastors' Wives at Barnes & Noble

My friend Gerry sent me this snap of my book at Barnes & Noble. But many folks these days buy online.

You know who’s bad at sales? Writers.

Marketing a new book is a monstrous task. It’s made harder in my case because mine belongs to a genre called women’s commercial fiction, and we simply get very little traditional press. When’s the last time you saw a major newspaper review of a novel with a beach towel or flower basket on the cover?

Here’s another tricky fact: my novel is set in a Southern evangelical megachurch. Yet it’s not a quote-unquote Christian book. This is an important distinction. Christian books have their own publishers (mine is Plume/Penguin, a secular house) and their own set of rules.

For instance, characters must spend a lot of time in church. Given the setting, that’s a check for me. There can be no language or sex scenes. Um, mine has mild PG-13 content. Characters must also be or become believers; in “Pastors’ Wives,” a conflict arises when a main character’s husband becomes an evangelical pastor just as she realizes she doesn’t believe in God.

We knew all this going in, me and my team (my agents, my publisher, and a wonderful marketing company called Litfuse—I highly recommend them if you have a book like mine). So we decided to focus our marketing strategy online.

This is new for me. In 2006, when my first book was published, the marketing was all about radio interviews, newspaper reviews and personal appearances. What’s changed is how people buy books.

Check out this graph from Bowker:

Book sales chart

The portion of books bought online went from a quarter in 2010 to 44 percent in 2012. In just two years!

It’s desperate enough attracting notice in a bookstore with thousands of titles. So how do you get the attention of readers in a space whose edges you can’t even see?

One answer: book blogs. There are now thousands, maybe millions, of independent readers who have said to hell with the local paper’s weekend book review, if their local paper even has one any more—they’re going to publish their own damn opinions.

What’s more, online book marketing is far more targeted. I could sit in your local bookstore till the cows come home, but how many of its drop-in customers would be interested in my book? Yet if you’re clicking through a book blog specializing in women’s commercial fiction, you’re not there by accident. We could also target websites popular among Christian women readers who might be open to a respectful (if not “Christian”) book set in their world.

What this means for us authors is a lot of hustle—but of the kind we’re trained for, which is writing. So far I’ve written 26 online essays. I’ve participated in interviews for websites from Publisher’s Weekly to Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. My online recommendations go from People magazine to Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews.

Basset hound

On the Internet, nobody knows if you’re a dog.

Do some of these sites reach millions while others a few hundred? Yep. But as the author Cheryl Tan (“A Tiger in the Kitchen”) quotes from that New Yorker cartoon: “On the Internet, nobody knows if you’re a dog.”

Meaning: a mention is a mention is a mention.

And the hustle doesn’t end with the coverage on other people’s sites. I maintain author pages on Facebook, Amazon and Goodreads. I Tweet book news. Last week I hosted my first ever Facebook live chat event. And then of course there’s the upkeep of this here site.

Also it’s not to say you can skip out on live events. Coming up, I’m part of this fun Beach Reads Night on June 7 at the Princeton Public Library, and one at my wonderful local library, both in New Jersey.

Is it exhausting? Look at me. Is it a full-time job that leaves little room for working on other projects, among them my next TV pilot and next novel? Uh huh. Will it pay off? I have no idea. But this is the reality of book publishing in 2013. And there’s no turning back.

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

On Friday night, I drove an hour down the New Jersey Turnpike for a book event. I have a brand new book out, you see, my first novel, titled “Pastors’ Wives” (buy it today!).

I parked and checked my phone. My producers had assured me we wouldn’t hear till Sunday if the pilot I wrote, “The Ordained,” would be picked up by CBS for series. Then I saw a smattering of messages from friends.

“Such a bummer about your show.” “Does this mean what I think it means?” “Sorry, so sorry.”

My network had announced its fall lineup, and we weren’t on it.

Grumpy cat Le Miserable

I called one of my producers. He’d just heard too. But he’d also heard it wasn’t over. CBS had picked up only two dramas so far, and word was they’d choose another.

I trudged through the upscale commuter town to the bookstore. My college pal Gerry had come for support. The clerk led us to the basement event space, where rows of folding chairs stood. They were empty.

I went back upstairs and sat at a table next to the door with a stack of books and a plate of cookies. A few families wandered in to kill time in the children’s section. Their kids ate my cookies. I sold one book. To my friend Gerry.

“Maybe it wasn’t the right…demographic?” said the clerk, as I left. We looked at the cover of my novel, which has a Bible on it, its pages folded in the shape of a heart. It’s soapy women’s fiction set in a Southern evangelical megachurch. He felt terrible. I felt worse.

Saturday came and went. We heard nothing. Misery.

Then, Sunday. It’s hard to be anxious on Mother’s Day, amid the flowers and the home-made cards and little-girl hugs. But I managed.

I stayed off the industry gossip sites, same as usual, though I see now they were rife with speculation. My producers clung cautiously to their cautious optimism. We were still in the conversation! We still had a shot!

It was my husband who Googled for news exactly two minutes after the news broke: the network had picked up a legal drama…that wasn’t ours.

Jorge Garcia drawing

Jorge Garcia drew this image of his scene in the Bronx (with Charlie Cox). He calls it “our first piece of fan art.” Which kind of made me want to cry.

If you’re a writer, you know this feeling. When the manuscript you slaved over for years is rejected by the dozenth publisher. When the magazine that commissioned your cover story mails you a kill fee. When a facsimile of the screenplay you sold to a studio gets made by someone else. It’s a sucker punch.

And because we’re writers, it feels intensely personal. On our best days we feel like we might actually be kind of okay at what we do. On our worst, we are exposed as frauds.

I know what you’re going to say, and I thank you in advance. That it’s amazing I got this far. That it’s unheard of for a thumb-sucking novice like me to get a beginner script produced as a network pilot. I hear you. I hear the high risk, high reward. I hear the better luck next time. (Also, it’s not completely and totally over; there’s talk of cable.)

And someday soon, I will return your calls and we’ll have that long-overdue lunch, over which I will regale you with the gory details.

But for now I am crawling into the darkest corner of my house and just rocking.