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

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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.

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.

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 …”

 

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.