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 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 Time.com and True/Slant (now Forbes.com), 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.