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.

Five parenting tips from “Game of Thrones”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robb Stark, Talisa Stark in war tent

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

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

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

Cersei Lannister

Mommy dearest: Cersei Lannister, played by Lena Headey

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

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

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