How pitching a TV show is like jumping from a plane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I posted on Facebook:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My network drama pilot died last month.

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

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research: 33

Pitch: 37

Potential future storylines: 48

Story area: 11

Outline: 71 (!!!)

Notes calls: 28

Script drafts: 11

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

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

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

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

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

Questions? Comments? Please tweet me @lisacullen.

My diary of network TV pitch season

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

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

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

Hatching a Pilot

One Writer’s Diary for Television Pitch Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 17 Topics I want to write about:

■ Race.

■ Religion.

■ The immigrant experience.

■ Death.

Ideas for the topics I want to write about:

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

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

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

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

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

Something about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have a feeling this means no?

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

The phone rings. It’s my manager.

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

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

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

I want to hit myself really hard in the face.

I say, “I’ll come up with an alt.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

No pressure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sept. 24 The pitch is at noon.

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

It’s time.

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

Then 10 pairs of eyes turn toward me.

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

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

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

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

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


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.



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?!


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.

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’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.

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.

What I learned naming characters in my novel and TV pilot

Owen Meany. Daenerys Stormborn. Katniss Everdeen. images

As a reader, I love a great character name. When they’re done right, the name infuses the role so completely in my mind that they’re forever inseparable. How can Jane Eyre be anything but?

When I became a fiction writer, it dawned on me that I’d be the one who’d have to come up with the names. I’d be inventing a person, after all: the color of her eyes, the way she talks, her earliest memories. Of course I’d have to give her a name.

You know how you agonized over the naming of your children? Yeah. It’s like that. A terrifying responsibility, if also a joyful opportunity.

In writing my novel, “Pastors’ Wives,” I turned for inspiration to the Bible. That made sense to me, as the story is set in a church and is about what it’s like when the man you married is married to God. Also, the Bible is a great source for names, as parents the world over can tell you. Bible Book of Ruth

“Ruth” is named after the Ruth in the Bible who pledges loyalty to her mother-in-law. Like her, my Ruth is helped by an older, wiser woman who counsels her on matters of love and marriage.

“Candace” is mentioned in the Bible as queen of the Ethiopians. Scholars surmise that it may derive from a Nubian word meaning “queen mother.” My Candace is indeed that of her megachurch flock.

“Jeremiah” is a Hebrew biblical name meaning “appointed by the Lord.” The Jeremiah in my novel, called Jerry, hears a calling to serve the church.

“Aaron” means teacher or mountain of strength. I thought that was an appropriate name for the charismatic leader of my fictional megachurch.

Not all my characters’ names have such lofty origins. Some I threw in for fun. For instance, in my story, the megachurch leader forms an alliance with a local imam. The wife of that imam is a blue-eyed American named Kristin Chaudry. That’s the name of my bff growing up (though her real husband is a telecom exec…you’re welcome, Kuri!).

Naming characters in my TV pilot, CBS’s “The Ordained,” was in some ways harder. Those names had to have a certain ring and resonance when spoken aloud. And what I learned when my pilot was produced is that every single name—even those scribbled on a white board in a law office—have to be vetted by the network. They check exhaustively for living people who bear the same name.

Interestingly, if there are a lot of people with the same name—say, John Smith—you’re fine. If there’s only one, you have a problem. Why? Lawsuits. That one person could decide to sue for defamation or some such. I lost out on some of my beloved character names because of this. One name had become so ingrained in our minds of our crew that they refused to remember the new one.

It’s okay. I got to keep the most important name of all: Tom Reilly, the main character. He’s named after my late father, who also inspired the character and the story.

Our CBS pilot is finished. Now we wait.

The pilot for “The Ordained” is edited. It’s been cut and tightened, sound-mixed and color-corrected, tested and noted. It’s possible I’m slightly biased, but it. Looks. Great.

Now, we wait. Some images from the past couple of weeks:

The editing happened in Studio City, on the CBS lot. We didn’t get out much. One time I took a walk here, near my hotel. But mostly we spent a lot of time in the dark.

Universal City Walk

The mixing happened on the Paramount lot, in the Technicolor building. People get around on these golf cars because the lots are freaking huge. Also, in L.A., it’s against the law to walk. That’s a joke.


The lots have a bunch of sets and equipment from other shows.

Glee set

How cool are these control boards? The veteran sound engineer showed me how each column controls a different sound: every actor’s audio, including background; street sounds; music. With one punch of a button or tweak of a dial, he can emphasize a word of dialogue or the bark of a faraway dog.

Mixing room

One important part of post-production was obtaining ADRs, or automated dialogue replacement. In the editing process, you might realize a word sounds garbled, or maybe you need a new line to clarify a scene. The actor then goes to an ADR station where he or she records that line again. There are tricks to keep it from looking like a badly dubbed kung fu movie—like cutting to another actor during the line, or maybe to the back of the speaking actor’s head.

So now we wait. We hear nothing, nothing at all, until the upfronts in mid-May. That’s when the networks hold big parties in New York to announce their line-up for the coming fall. If we get picked up, you’ll hear me hooting and hollering from wherever you are in the world. If we don’t, you’ll hear nothing, nothing at all, until I emerge from my deep, blue funk.

(If you like, please follow me on Twitter at @lisacullen or friend me on Facebook for more frequent updates. And please check out my novel, “Pastors’ Wives,” debuting from Plume/Penguin on April 30!)