Being a prolific writer is part of a showrunner’s job description.
But for some, steering the production of a dozen or more hours of primetime television a year just isn’t enough. Some are so captivated by the writing process that they pen novels in their spare time.
TV-trained authors are getting a warm reception in the publishing world, where editors are only too happy to work with scribes who come to the table with a finely tuned sense of story and pacing, as well as deadline discipline and a collaborative mindset. And the marketing advantage of being able to promote a new fiction title to a targeted group of TV fans doesn’t hurt, either.
“Showrunners are uniquely equipped to be good novelists,” says Richard Abate, a manager at 3 Arts Entertainment, who runs the management company’s lit division in New York.
The past few months have seen a flurry of genre-fiction books published by people with day jobs in television.
Neal Baer and Jonathan Greene, formerly of NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU” and now exec producers of CBS’ “A Gifted Man,” in January released “Kill Switch,” the first of a three-book series for Kensington Publishing.
Howard Gordon, exec producer of Showtime’s “Homeland” and NBC’s “Awake,” in January published “Hard Target,” the second title in his two-book pact with Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone imprint. Nick Santora, a veteran of Fox’s “Prison Break” and A&E’s “Breakout Kings,” sees his second novel, “15 Digits” hit retailers on April 24.
The list of other TV titans now toiling on fiction includes J.J. Abrams and Dick Wolf. “CSI” creator Anthony Zuiker has been active in the book biz for several years, blending new and old media with his “Level 26” series of “digital novel” thrillers published by Dutton. “Heroes” creator Tim Kring co-wrote with Dale Peck the JFK conspiracy thriller “Shift: A Novel,” published in 2010. Noah Hawley, who steered the short-lived ABC drama “My Generation,” just published his fourth novel, suspense thriller “The Good Father.”
“Showrunners are involved in all facets of the production of a TV show. They understand what needs to go into creating a fully realized finished work. And they are becoming household names now,” Abate says. “That makes them someone who has a platform, and that’s a big advantage over a writer who may not have that platform. It helps get them on NPR and the ‘Today’ show.”
Writers with showbiz connections also can give publishers an advantage in setting up options for film and TV adaptations. But scribes say that turning around material for the small- or bigscreen is not a prime motivator.
“There’s something about having your name on the cover of a book that’s much different than seeing it on TV,” Greene says. “You know this is something that people will have on their shelves for a long time. It’s almost surreal.”
For even the most accomplished TV and film writers, the achievement of publishing a novel is a professional milestone that adds luster to any resume. And the ability to cross media platforms is a feather in the cap of publishers.
“It’s always great when a publisher has something adapted into another medium, but at the beginning you’re trying to publish great books with great storytellers who are invested fully in becoming an amazing novelist,” says John Schoenfelder, senior editor for Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown, which published Santora’s “15 Digits.” (Schoenfelder is making the leap to film himself, with plans to segue as a senior VP with Scott Rudin’s shingle as of May 1.)
Baer and Greene first developed the concept that became “Kill Switch” a decade ago, and it was initially envisioned as a screenplay. As the two got busy on “SVU,” a 35-page outline of the book sat in a drawer for years until Baer was approached by book agent Lydia Wills, then with Paradigm, asking if he had any ideas for a medical thriller.
After writing a few chapters based on the screenplay outline, they landed the deal with Kensington. “Kill Switch” is on track to come back full circle as a feature, with movie rights optioned prior to publication by producer Kevin McCormick. Katherine Heigl is attached to star as forensic psychologist Claire Waters. The second book in the trilogy, “Kill Again,” is slated for release in December.
The forced downtime during the writers strike of November 2007-February 2008 was the catalyst for both Gordon and Santora.
Tackling a novel was something Gordon had wanted to do since he wrote his first manuscript in college. He made a choice to stick with the high-intensity drama milieu he knew well from his years on “The X-Files” and “24.”
After he got started on the first 150 pages during the strike period, it didn’t take long for his then-agent Abate to set him up at Simon & Schuster. Gordon’s political conspiracy thriller “Gideon’s War” was published in January 2011, and followed a year later by “Hard Target.”
“I had the confidence to try something in that wheelhouse because I’d become familiar with it in all my years on ’24,’ and thought I probably wouldn’t crap out halfway through,” Gordon says. “If I tried to do ‘Ulysses’ or something more ambitious, I might not have completed it. I wanted it to be something entertaining to write and to read. I wasn’t gunning for the Pulitzer.”
Book editors like working with TV scribes because they’re accustomed to collaboration. Conversely, for writers, even those who thrive in the give-and-take of a writer’s room, the appeal of doing a book is being able to call the shots without having quite so much input from others.
“I don’t have to worry about budgets and weather. I don’t have to worry about who I can cast. I don’t have to get notes from 17 executives at once,” Santora says. “You’re confined to 53 pages in an hour drama. You’re confined to 110 pages in a feature. In a book, you have 300-plus pages, and you can do all the incredible description you would love to put in a script.”
Working on “Kill Switch” gave Baer and Greene renewed appreciation for the creative contributions that go into telling a story on the screen compared with writing it for the page.
“It does start with the script, always, but you embrace the actors to embody these characters, to bring nuance to the story,” Baer says. “You depend on your director and d.p. and editor and composer and wardrobe. Now, Jonathan and I are props, wardrobe, hair, makeup,” Baer says. (“And catering,” Greene adds.)
But writers still have to keep focused on pacing and plot, even with more pages to work with. That’s where the TV training of working fast and economically becomes invaluable.
“You can have so much fun writing about a character’s background or describing the beat-up jalopy that the character drives that you suddenly realize you’ve gone on for two and a half pages,” Santora says. “Just like I don’t want people changing the channel at the end of the act, I don’t want people putting the book down at the end of a chapter. I end each chapter with a mini cliffhanger or teaser or conundrum by design.”
Santora, who left his job as a lawyer a dozen years ago to pursue a writing career, had his first novel, “Slip and Fall,” published in 2007. He wrote the outline for “15 Digits” during the strike. His deal with Mulholland was quickly set up by the Gotham Group management agency as they were wooing him to sign on as a client. Santora completed the manuscript during the break last year between the first and second seasons of “Breakout Kings.”
The challenge of finishing “15 Digits” on a tight schedule was good motivation for Santora, as he’s used to running and gunning on a TV series, not to mention making time for his wife and children, ages 2 and 7.
“A lot of authors take years to write a book. I don’t have time to write an opus. I have enough time to write a good book,” Santora says. “If you lock yourself in a room with no windows and write 12 hours a day, you finish it.”
For his next tome, Santora has veered from his thriller speciality to a children’s chapter book, a fantasy-mystery in the vein of “Goosebumps.” “I really wanted to try to flex a different muscle,” he says.
Gordon echoes Santora’s sentiment about the importance of a ticking clock to getting words on page. He wrote “Gideon’s War” in the months after “24” ended and before production began on Showtime’s “Homeland.” “Hard Target” was completed while Gordon was juggling “Homeland” and exec producer duties on NBC’s moody fantasy drama “Awake” as well.
“The only discipline I’ve ever had is a deadline,” Gordon says. “I’m someone who in the absence of a contract would probably still be writing the first page I ever started on.”
Although a novel can feel like a weightier accomplishment for a writer, it’s eye-opening for showbiz scribes to learn the limited reach of the publishing world. These days, sales of 40,000 or so are considered successful for new fiction.
“You really have to promote your book tirelessly and shamelessly for what would be a rounding error in one small market on your Nielsen rating,” Gordon says. “It’s a humbling process.”
While the pool of readers vs. viewers may be smaller, the pressure to perform feels heightened, Santora says, because writing a book is such a solitary endeavor.
“Having a book come out is scarier than having a film or TV show come out,” Santora says. “There are thousands of books you’re competing against. Getting it into someone’s hands is harder than getting someone to show up to your TV show. When you make a TV show, you live and die as a team. If my book fails, it’s my fault.”