The difference between selling a TV pilot and selling a novel

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

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

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

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

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

Not so my pilot.

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

That’s it. And that may be it, ever.

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

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

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

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

How I met my book agent

I walked up to her at a journalism conference.

Books by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

How I met the agent who sold these books.

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

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

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

I do remember she said my pitch sucked.

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

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

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

Then I got a call from a publisher.

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

I had not. But now I did.

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

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

That’s how I met my book agent.

What End Times, McMansion and guyliner have in common

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

Manzanilla olives

Manzanilla olives. I prefer picholine, myself.

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

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

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

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

Take this one:

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

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

Spell out the following:

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

Not sure I’ll remember that, but okay.

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

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


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