by Ellen Byron
Before I was a television writer-producer (and an author), I was a playwright. I can tell you the exact moment I decided to transition from writing for the theater to the more lucrative field of writing for TV. I had four published one-acts and a new full-length play that was a finalist at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, a contest so highly regarded that you can actually brag about losing. With the O’Neill non-credit in my pocket, that particular play, “Old Sins, Long Shadows,” garnered attention from several prestigious off-Broadway theater companies. There’d be a reading with wonderful actors–and then notes. Another reading–and more notes. Then one night after a reading at the now-defunct Circle Rep Theater, as I was getting yet more notes from the development director, this thought flitted through my brain: if I’m going to be getting all these notes, someone should pay me to take them.
Six months later, I’d relocated to Los Angeles, the epicenter of television writing, then and now. Notice I don’t use the “m” word: “move.” To this day, I can’t say it. I’m a native New Yorker. L.A. is not my natural habitat. I’ve been here since 1990; I have a family, a home, friends, a career–and I still don’t get the place. But it did give me a career in the entertainment business, with all the commensurate ups and downs.
I rarely write plays anymore, having segued from theatrical to television scripts. Instead, I now write mystery novels in my free time. People often ask me which I like better, television or novel writing. That’s kind of like asking which do I like better, my hands or my feet. Both are invaluable and I’d hate to have to choose between them. I love bouncing back and forth between different writing media. And a lot of what I’ve learned working in television I’ve been able to apply to my latest literary endeavor: the Cajun Country Mysteries.
Being a television writer requires Herculean discipline. I’ve known many mystery authors who’ve gotten extensions on deadlines, sometimes for months. That can’t happen in television. Maybe for a pilot, but not for a series in production. Missing a deadline is never an option when you’re under contract to create a season of episodes. I’ve freelanced as a magazine journalist for years, where deadlines are also paramount. But if, in some worst-case scenario I couldn’t deliver an article, a magazine can find a way to fill those pages. Sure, an emergency in the TV world could trigger a rerun in the spot where a new episode should go, but you’d better not be the reason for that emergency. Thanks to my TV career, I’m so trained to meet or beat a deadline that I’ve delivered each of my three books a month or two ahead of schedule.
As a television writer, you also develop an ingrained sense of structure. To allow for commercial breaks, network television comedy shows generally have a three-act structure, and dramas a five- or six-act structure. (Of course, it’s different for providers like cable, Netflix, and Amazon, which don’t rely on ads for income.) Each act must end with a hook that will prevent viewers from channel-surfing. I do the same with chapter endings in my mysteries. It’s the anticipation of what might happen next that makes the television audience ignore the remote and readers keep turning pages. In terms of coming up with gripping stories and twists, that’s where my author hat comes in handy. Even in sitcoms, you’re looking for unique ways to bend a story. And what is a mystery if not a series of surprises that keep the reader engaged? Television has also taught me how to write humor from character, as well as flat-out hard jokes, all of which I apply to my humorous Cajun Country Mystery series. It’s a happy marriage of skills.
And then there’s the other angle of my TV career. I’m not just a writer; I’m a writer-producer. I look at set designs, go to casting sessions, approve costumes, sit in on edits. All of these skills help me craft different aspects of my novels, from breathing life into locations to the sartorial choices of my characters. Although, to be honest, that’s my weakest skill. In Body on the Bayou, the second Cajun Country Mystery, my protagonist literally changed from a tee shirt and jeans into a different tee shirt and pair of jeans.
There are cons to a television career. A new series touted as a potential hit doesn’t live up to the hype and folds after a season–or sooner. A workhorse series gets sent out to pasture to make way for bright and shiny new shows. My TV career has spanned everything from hits like Wings, Just Shoot Me, and Still Standing to duds I won’t name. Also, television is first and foremost a business. You have to please a network, a studio, and eventually, an audience. That’s a lot of pressure to put on about twenty-one minutes of comedy and forty-six of network drama. (The actual length of the show with commercials subtracted.) And the hours can be extreme. Let me tell you, it’s hard being funny at six in the morning when you’ve been at work since ten a.m. the previous day. On the plus side, you’re in a room with funny people, which helps alleviate the stress and exhaustion–a lot. I’m basically an extrovert, so working in television gives me the chance to be part of both a duo and an ensemble. The duo because I share my TV jobs with a writing partner; the ensemble because in essence, that’s what a television writing staff is: anywhere from a half dozen to a dozen or more writers offering various levels of experience.
Then there’s the other end of the spectrum. Some days all I want is the solo adventure of crafting a mystery novel in the white cone of silence that is my home office. My mysteries are totally my babies. No studio or network notes. It’s just my computer and me until I have a draft I want to share with beta-reader friends and eventually my publisher.
Would I ever give up one writing career for the other? No. I love having the combination of both writing experiences in my life. It provides a wonderful balance, and exercises different parts of my brain. There’s nothing I love more than the yin and yang of hours in a writers room followed by hours crafting a humorous yet compelling mystery novel.
Oh, and occasionally spending a little time with my family.
Ellen Byron writes the Cajun Country Mystery series. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called her new book, A Cajun Christmas Killing, “superb.” Body on the Bayou won the Lefty Award for Best Humorous Mystery, and was nominated for a Best Contemporary Novel Agatha Award. Plantation Shudders was nominated for Agatha, Lefty, and Daphne awards, and made the USA Today Bestseller list.
She’s written over 200 national magazine articles. Her published plays include the award-winning “Graceland.” TV credits include Wings, Just Shoot Me, Fairly OddParents, and pilots. A native New Yorker, Ellen now lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband, daughter, and two spoiled rescue dogs.