The difference between selling a TV pilot and selling a novel

…is that one will eventually see the light of day. The other may not. Ever.

Last year, for the first and maybe last time, I did both. I sold a novel to Penguin, and a TV pilot to CBS.

In both cases, the sale is only the end of the beginning of the process. You get paid, partially; the rest comes in increments, after you hand in the next draft, et cetera. You and your people edit the hell out of the thing. You prepare. You strategize. And you wait.

In the case of my novel, “Pastors’ Wives” (pre-order now on Amazon!), we have a publication date: May 2013. Since we sold the manuscript in February 2012, it’s gone through two edits by my main editor, a copy edit, and something called a pass, which is kind of like a proof. We rejected two cover designs before we landed on one we loved. I begged other authors for blurbs. We’re currently circulating it among book bloggers and reviewers. Next week I meet with my agents, editors and publicists to devise an all-out marketing strategy.

And whatever happens, it will publish in May. If the only people who buy it are related to me by blood, it will still exist in the world.

Not so my pilot.

So far, the 66 pages I bled over have been read by under two dozen people: my manager, my agents, our producers, our studio execs, and our network execs. I made my husband read it. Also a very few people with expertise in my topic, for fact-checking purposes.

That’s it. And that may be it, ever.

In a couple of weeks, we’ll know if mine is among the seven or eight drama pilots CBS will decide to shoot, among the 60 or so it has bought this season. I mention this so you know my odds are loooong.

If it should happen to hit the jackpot, then, yes, many more people will read the script. And if it should happen to win the whole lotto and get sent to series, even the tiniest broadcast TV audience would dwarf a bestselling book’s.

And in the likely event it doesn’t? Then into the bin it goes. No chance of selling it elsewhere, as the studio now owns the rights. The Writer’s Guild stages readings of unproduced teleplays, but that would just be weird.

So here I send my two babies into 2013, their fortunes already set. I love them both. I hope they make it.

How I met my book agent

I walked up to her at a journalism conference.

Books by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

How I met the agent who sold these books.

I don’t actually remember this. I could swear I cold-queried her after finding her name in the copy of “Guide to Literary Agents 2000,” which I still have on my office shelf.

No, she says, I walked up to her after she spoke on a panel about nonfiction books. I just waltzed right on up to this A-list superagent who reps some of the bestselling authors on God’s green earth, apparently, and introduced my unimpressive self.

There’s no way I would do that, I tell her. I don’t have the balls. But she insists. And she’s always right.

I do remember she said my pitch sucked.

That was after the conference, over lunch, after I had with great excitement pitched this idea I had about a reported memoir of my parents. And she didn’t actually say it sucked, because she doesn’t use that kind of language. But I got the message.

Crushed, I went back to my job as a staff writer at Money magazine. Then I did this fellowship, after which I became a Tokyo correspondent for Time, after which I transferred to Time in New York. Through it all, I kept in touch.

I mailed her copies of my splashiest stories. Occasionally, I dropped her an e-mail. Sometimes she responded; sometimes she didn’t.

Then I got a call from a publisher.

It was when I was back at what we call the Mother Ship, or Time headquarters in New York. I had written a feature story about how Baby Boomers were reinventing funerals as celebrations of their lives. A young woman called to ask if I had considered turning the article into a book.

I had not. But now I did.

I told the agent. She read the article, thought about it, and agreed it could work as a book. I can’t remember ever signing anything. But at some point, the agent became my agent.

And, at some point much later, she became my friend. More than that: she’s the big sister I don’t have, my sista from anotha mista.

That’s how I met my book agent.

How to ask a famous author for a blurb

You know, a blurb. Those quotes you see on the back of a book (or, if it’s from someone super famous, the cover) that tell you it’s “brilliant” or “insightful” or “the best thing since the invention of EZ-Pass.”

Among the many steps involved in preparing a new book for launch is the gathering of blurbs. (Not to be confused with reviews from newspapers and magazines; those come later.) A lot of authors prefer to let the publicity department handle this. With good reason. No one likes to grovel.

Because grovel you must. Think about it. You’re asking someone famous, or at least way better known than you, to read your entire manuscript, and then say some flattering thing in a pithy manner. It’s a big ask. A big, honking ask.

Some people like to blurb. Take my friend Gretchen Rubin, author of the best-selling “The Happiness Project” and the upcoming “Happier at Home” (pre-order now!). She reads like I worry: constantly, by nature. Plus she has a helpful soul.

The author and journalist A.J. Jacobs blurbs so promiscuously that his editor and agent performed an intervention. He writes in The New York Times Book Review of his “blurbing problem”:

My friend, the writer Andy Borowitz, sent me an e-mail that said: “I had the strangest experience today. I went into Barnes & Noble and saw a book that you didn’t blurb.”

But the Gretchens and A.J.s are the exception. Some big-name authors are so busy churning out their own prose—Lisa Scottoline says she “starts at 9 a.m. and goes until Colbert”—that they’ve instituted no-blurb policies. (I don’t know if Lisa S. has a no-blurb policy. I haven’t asked. Yet.) And who can blame them? Easier to hand out a blanket “no” than to assess and cherry-pick and reject.

So what’s a desperate writer to do? I don’t know about you, but here’s my plan of action:

Make a wish list. I’ve been compiling one for a year. On it are some of the biggest names in women’s commercial fiction. You can probably guess most of them. They’re all writers I admire for their clever narratives and memorable characters and—let’s say it—their muscular sales. You want a name that will resonate with the readers you target: “If you like Brand X, you’ll love Brand Y!” But it’s more than that. It’s an endorsement. When Yogi Berra tells the Yankees to check out a young catcher, they listen. (I don’t know where that baseball analogy came from. I just had to Google Yogi Berra to check the spelling.)

Find a connection. Any connection. I ran my list by my agent and my editor at Penguin. They knew some of the authors, or had useful intel (“that one NEVER blurbs, but she might talk it up to influencers”). One author on my list is the friend of a friend. Another shares my agent. Another blurbed one of my editor’s previous books. None of these are guarantees by any means. But it’s like anything else in life…networks help.

Cain’t hurt to ask. Even when the author won’t know you from George. The worst she could say is no. Which brings me to the big question: who does the asking?

I do the asking. Me. Not my editor or my publicist or my agent. Because it’s my damn book. No one will represent it better. And you know what? It’s easy to say no to a rep. Not so easy to slap a no on the face of a hopeful new writer and crush her dreams forever. And yet I must—

Brace myself for No. Because it’s coming, my friend. Some are polite. Others are like the one I got for my first book from a Famous Author, who strung me along with “maybe,” “I don’t know”…and then finally told me he’d decided he didn’t like it enough. What the @#$$%#^!!! Deep breath. As writers, we’re inured to rejection. I’m kidding. We’re so totally not. Rejection blows. And yet we face it, regularly. And here we are. Still not dead. Still not throwing in the towel to go sell life insurance. When you get the No, swallow hard and accept. Or…

Ask again. Sometimes this works. Seriously! I’ll give you a fer example. I once begged the author Mary Roach to blurb my first book, “Remember Me,” about weird ways we celebrate death in America. Besides being one of the funniest and smartest science writers around, Mary had practically birthed my book with “Stiff,” her book about weird ways we use cadavers in America. She was absolutely Number One on my wish list. I got back a lovely note apologizing that she was so busy and her nightstand so stacked with manuscripts by people she actually knew that she just couldn’t in good conscience add mine. So…no. I sunk into a funk. I kept thinking about it. I couldn’t let it go. She seemed so nice. And I really, really wanted her blurb. So I asked again. And guess what? She said yes! Here’s her quote (on the cover of my book, it was that good):

A must-read for anyone who plans on dying.

And that is what makes it all worthwhile.

What End Times, McMansion and guyliner have in common

They’re all words I use in my upcoming book, “Pastors’ Wives.”

Manzanilla olives

Manzanilla olives. I prefer picholine, myself.

I just received the copyedited manuscript of my book. If you’ve ever gotten one of these, you’ll understand why I was expecting a hard copy. A neat stack of pages printed on 8×10 paper, marked up in red and blue pencil.

What I got instead was a Microsoft Word document with tracked changes—and 19 (!) pdf pages of instructions on how not to screw it all up.

Seven of those pages were my very own style guide, based on the Chicago Manual of Style but customized for my book.

I’m familiar with style guides. I lived by a-plenty of them during my many years as a journalist. One thing I’ve learned is that while the rules of style at a given publishing house seem totally arbitrary to outsiders, within, they’re sacrosanct.

Take this one:

Capitalize/ital the in magazine titles (The New Yorker), but not in newspaper titles (the New York Times).

Why? That doesn’t make much sense to me, but fine. Or how about this:

Spell out the following:

  • all whole numbers to one hundred, as well as rounded numbers above that (two hundred, BUT 250)
  • all numbers in dialogue, unless to do so would be cumbersome
  • times in quarter-hour increments (use a.m./p.m. with spelled-out times: seven-thirty a.m.; use a.m./p.m. with figures: 7:35 a.m.)

Not sure I’ll remember that, but okay.

This particular style guide contained a pleasant surprise: the copy editor had checked all the “spellings of all names referring to actual people, places, and titles.”

Here’s a small sampling below. The words are in fact a pretty good snapshot of the book. And possibly of my psyche.


BeDazzled (as in BeDazzler)
blond (adj, masculine/feminine)
blonde (n, feminine)
blonde-wood (adj)
Charismatic (religion)
chashu pork
Chosen People
croque-monsieur (croque-monsieurs)
End Times
flutey (adj)
Good News
Holy Father
jibe (n)
manzanilla (olive)
marguerite daisy
New Agey
nine-eleven (dialogue)
One True God
pad Thai
Son of God
Ten Commandments (BUT the ninth commandment)


How do you know when your novel is finished?

Answer: when it’s due.

My manuscript is due. Like, next Monday. This explains my sudden-onset insomnia. Is it ready? What does ready look like? How do you know when your novel is finished?

Deadline quote

For true.

Like many—maybe most—first-time novelists, it took me a while to push out this puppy. I first published the article on which the novel is based in 2007. I thought at the time it would turn into my second nonfiction book, a journalistic venture into the secret lives of pastors’ wives.

Then I had an awesome idea: this would make a great TV show! Like I had a clue how to make that happen.

But the freakish thing is it almost did happen. That took another two years. Finally, when that project crashed and burned in a spectacular ball of vomit-fire, my book agent said to me: “You have over two years of reporting. You have the characters. You have the plot. Why not just write a novel?”

Like I had a clue how to make that happen.

I tried to find a clue. I took workshops at Mediabistro. I read Anne Lamott and Stephen King. I reread dozens of novels I admire to figure out how real novelists did it.

And then I sat down and started writing.

That was in the fall of 2009. I know this because I have a Word document dated September 2009. Even though it’s titled, “Pastors’ Wives Draft 1,” it consists of exactly three paragraphs.

So when I say “I sat down and started writing,” what I mean is I sat down and started writing and then stopped and made tea and went out to L.A. and came back and started again. Everything interrupted. I pecked away. A few pages here, a chapter there. My agent read a draft, then another, then another.

By the close of 2011, I had a manuscript. It sold in February 2012. My editor at Penguin turned it around with notes in mid-April. They were good notes, thoughtful and smart, not a gutting that would drive me to drink (more). I tweaked. I rewrote. I deleted.

And now, it’s due.

My friend Joe Gangemi, the novelist and screenwriter, told me that John Irving is still correcting his own punctuation at readings of long-ago works. My novel’s no “Owen Meany,” but still, I can’t imagine ever reading it without wincing.

How do you know when your novel is finished? Maybe never. But as it says on a paperweight my sister once gave me, the ultimate inspiration is the deadline.

I’m so pleased to meet you…

I got these flowers for Mother's Day. Pretty, right?

Let’s start with introductions. I’m Lisa Takeuchi Cullen. You probably have some burning questions for me. Because I am the type of person who hates to start sentences with “I am the type of person who,” I’d like to begin our relationship with candor and TMI. Here, below, are some queries I imagined you might have for me, and, also below, my answers:

Q. All so-called writers who have websites are trying to sell something. So. Are you? Selling something?

A. True! And yes! Sometimes, what we’re selling is a book. Other times, it’s our services as writers for hire. Yet other times, it’s what’s fashionably known as a personal brand. Like: “swashbuckling war reporter.” Or: “charming romance author.” Mostly, these days, it’s a relationship. You know…writer + reader = besties. I know. Creepy.

Q. I’ll say. On the off chance I want to know you better, I’m going to have to know you better. Is it true you’re from Japan?

A. True! I was born and raised in Kobe, which is a port city in the southwest. You know how the main island of Honshu is shaped like a sock? Kobe is located around the ball of the foot. You’ve heard of it for our beef, but as I learned only recently, the “Kobe beef” you think you’ve been splurging your annual bonus on isn’t even from Kobe. It’s illegal to export. Which begs the question, what is the stuff we’ve been savoring in our $28 burgers? Pink slime?!

Q. Red meat is gross. What brought you to America?

A. College! But I stayed for your world-class television programming. I love Japanese TV, but it’s pretty bad. Oh, and my husband. I stayed for my husband. (Hi, honey!)

Q. Oh…kay. You never did say what you’re selling.

A. A book! I’m selling a book. It’s a novel called “Pastors’ Wives,” and it’s about pastors’ wives. It’s going to be the lead title (!) from Plume, an imprint of Penguin, for summer 2013. It’s a beach read!

Q. Are you a pastor’s wife or something?

A. Nope! I’m married to a classical musician. He plays the clarinet. Real good, if you ask me, but then again I can’t tell Mahler from Mozart. Strangers assume I’m a musician because a) I’m married to one, and they tend to intermarry, and b) I’m Asian. Though my Tiger Mom made me take piano lessons for like 12 years, I can’t even bang out a decent set of Chopsticks. Isn’t that tragic?

Q. So what in heaven’s name moved you to write an entire novel about pastors and their wives?

A. An article! My article, so you don’t think I lifted the idea. Which would be a terrible thing to do. To back up: in 2007, I wrote this article for TIME magazine, where I was a longtime staff writer and foreign correspondent. (I say “longtime” because my friends who still work there get irked when “TIME writer” gets thrown around by, like, summer interns. But now that I think about it, maybe what it really says is that I never got promoted.) It all began when my editor, Jan Simpson (who now writes this wonderful blog about Broadway), told me to cover a convention of pastors’ wives. (I’ll write a lot more about all this in future posts.)

Q. So you already wrote an article. What’s the novel about?

A. Here’s what it said in Publisher’s Marketplace:

DEBUT: Time magazine writer Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s debut novel PASTORS’ WIVES, following three women whose lives converge and intertwine at an Atlanta evangelical mega-church, a dramatic portrayal of the private lives of pastors’ wives, caught between the demands of faith, marriage, duty and love, inspired by her magazine reporting.

Q. I can’t wait. No, really. What will you be writing about here?

A. Stuff! I love blogging. Truly. I blogged extensively for and True/Slant (now, but I quit over a year ago to concentrate on writing books and TV pilots. I’ll post here with news about “Pastors’ Wives” as we prepare it for launch next spring. I’ll post about the swirling slop bucket of frustration that pretty much defines my so-called career as a TV writer. I’ll post anything I think might be useful to other writers out there looking to a) publish books, b) get into TV writing, and/or c) work in journalism. I’m not gonna lie: I’ll promote friends’ books and projects. I’ll post the deep thoughts of a New Jersey mom who every morning marches into her attic office to write something she hopes does not altogether suck.

I’m so very, very happy to meet you. Please come back. And next time you see Kobe beef listed on a menu for the price of a tank of gas, call the manager over and very sweetly demand an explanation.