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.

How to approach a book agent, how to recognize a book idea, and other things I learned on a panel yesterday

Yesterday, I sat on a panel titled, “Secrets of the Book Biz!”

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I didn’t actually know any secrets, so I was relieved to learn my fellow panelists did.

Alison Singh Gee is the author of a memoir called “Where the Peacocks Sing,” about meeting her now-husband and finding out he grew up in a palace in India. She got there in great anticipation to learn it was “a total tear-down.”

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Is that a gorgeous cover or what?! I think the subtitle is important to note: “A Palace, a Prince, and the Search for Home.” Alison said that while it’s a love story and a travelogue too, in the end it’s really a woman’s search for home.

Our moderator, Julie Dam of People magazine (and author of “Some Like It Haute”), asked how our books came about. I told my crazy story about my magazine article turning into a TV pitch turning into a disaster turning into a novel.

Alison said something far more useful: that her story made all her friends lean forward. When she updated them on the situation with the loser boyfriend and the magazine job and this prince from India, they all leaned forward, wanting to hear more. That’s when she knew she had the makings of a book.

The other person on the panel was Kirby Kim, a literary agent at William Morris Endeavor. His takeaway was basically this: when you approach an agent, be ready. Write the best damn pitch you could possibly write. Sweat over that query letter. Bleed over it.

But don’t stop at the query: be ready with your work. Because if and when the agent professes interest and asks for a few chapters, you want to send him a version polished so bright he could brush his teeth off its reflection. Biggest lame-o mistake: sending an agent a draft, and then, a couple weeks later, sending another, “better” draft. That’s sure to land your ms in the bin.

My novel published yesterday. Here’s why I wrote it

My novel debuted yesterday. Here’s a post I wrote for SheReads:

If you’d told me five years ago I’d publish a novel and shoot a TV pilot in the same month, I would have laughed.

If you’d told me they’d both be about faith, I’d have laughed so hard I’d have the hiccups for hours.

No one I know would describe me as religious. I was raised Catholic and practiced into my 30s, but Catholics—we’re private about our faith. Forget the yells and bells of more expressive denominations; we barely manage to mumble the liturgy in Mass. We don’t thumb the Bible on the subway. We don’t praise Jesus in polite conversation. We’re outed once a year by that smudge of ash on our foreheads.

And yet.

In 2008, my mother died. She died after a long and valiant battle with cancer, each step of which my siblings and I witnessed in ever heightening despair. Nine months later, our father died of a broken heart.

My parents were the root of my faith. My father was a former Catholic priest who removed the collar to marry my mother, who had in turn converted from Buddhism. They taught me all I knew of faith and love. They remained devout till their last. As I sat weeping by her bedside at the hospital, my mother said to me: “Remember this. You are not alone. You always have Him.”

When they died, I felt forsaken.

I quit my job as a staff writer at Time magazine, and my career in journalism. Inspired by an article I had written for Time, I began Pastors’ Wives, a novel about three women whose lives were defined and dictated by faith, married as they were to pastors at a Southern evangelical megachurch. I imagined their dreams and frustrations, their trials and triumphs.

After the novel sold to Penguin/Plume, I wrote a TV pilot inspired by my father called “The Ordained.” It’s about a priest who becomes a lawyer in order to protect his family, a New York political dynasty. It was bought by CBS last fall, and we just wrapped shooting in April. We’ll find out in mid-May if it will be picked up for series.

We writers have the great privilege of writing through our issues. My crisis of faith led me to write stories that, in their recording, led me to a kind of peace.

But I’d gladly trade that for just one more sunset at the Jersey shore, joking and laughing with my family, holding my parents’ hands.

Mom and Dad

This is my mom and dad. I miss them every day.