Thursday, November 17, 2011


If you're a writer or an actor, or anything at all, in any profession, you've probably been rejected many times, so I think it's important to tell you that THE BURNING BED, which ended up as the highest-rated TV movie ever, was turned down in its time by all three networks.

The script was commissioned by Arnold Shapiro and Anne Carlucci, who  worked for Norma Lear, one of the most powerful producers in the business, and when we submitted the first draft to CBS, the word came back that it was "perfect".

I had no idea what bad news that was.

The way the business worked then, and probably still works, experienced writers liked to leave a few holes in their script so the Powers That Be could discover them and make some suggestions of their own -- "give notes".  That way they have an emotional stake in the script, and if the writer could incorporate the notes without doing harm to the work, things usually moved forward.

But a "perfect" script has no holes.  And THE BURNING BED explored a topic most people thought they knew all about: battered wives, and why they stay -- or kill.  The comments on the script were mostly 'We like it but other people won't."
I was shocked.  The producers were shocked.  My play about Sylvia Plath and her mother, LETTERS HOME, was opening in Melbourne, Australia, and I retreated there.  Months passed, and I submitted the script over and over as an example of my work and usually got the job.

And then, like a fairy tale, a producer, who had worked with me on other projects, and the agent who represented Farrah Fawcett, called in the same week to ask, "What ever happened to THE BURNING BED?"  In a matter of weeks it was set up at NBC, and aired the following May to glowing reviews, Emmy nominations, a Writers Guild Award, over-the-top numbers, and a kind of immortality.  Oh, yes -- I also got a few notes from the people who had turned it down, saying, basically "We're sorry."

Why do I tell all this?  Because it's something to remember when good work gets rejected over and over with: "Other people won't like it." 

Nobody knows what other people like.  Few people know what they themselves like.   Even fewer know what's good.  

I try to remember that now, when my latest novel is being read by agents who are quick to tell me I can write -- but slow, agonizing months and months slow, to tell me "I like it but other people, publishers, public..they might not like it."

So, writers, friends, anybody...I live for the day when -- like THE HELP (rejected, its author said, by multiple agents), like THE BURNING BED, like GONE WITH THE WIND, rejected, too, until it wasn't -- my new novel, THE WAY IT HAPPENED, will ultimately get out into the world and surprise and delight a huge audience who seems to have been waiting for it all along.

Don't be discouraged.  I wish the same for you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


I was the writer of THE BURNING BED, or more accurately, the TV
screenplay based on Faith McNulty's book and bearing the same powerful
title.  Some other time I'll think about titles, but in this case, Faith's has
everything: symbolism, visual quality, onomatopoeia and a stunning double
meaning: the description of an incendiary marriage, and what Francine
Hughes, the abused wife, did to end it.  In a  ground-breaking trial that
changed law, police procedure in cases of domestic violence, and, many
people's attitudes towards battered women, Francine was acquitted

Soon after the movie aired in 1984, another woman tried to burn her
husband alive, claiming that THE BURNING BED was her model.  Since
then, for twenty-five years,  in almost every report of domestic abuse leading
to murder, THE BURNING BED is mentioned.

The story it told was true, painstakingly researched by its first producer
Arnold Shapiro (SCARED STRAIGHT), Faith McNulty, and me.  What was
our responsibility, if any, for a copycat attempt by a desperate woman who
was part of the huge audience that saw, and can still see, THE BURNING
BED on video and on cable -- the biggest audience, I'm told, for any
television movie ever?  In 1984 I would have said "none." 

In those years there were three networks, their contents scrutinized by the
FCC, which licensed them.  My script was "vetted" by Standards and
Practices at NBC; every line, every event had to be justified: a quote, a taped
interview, a dated note, a printed fact.  It was not my version of the story; it
was the story, dramatized, but not fictionalized.

Of course not every program was as scrupulously researched even then. 
Producers, directors, actors, directors' secretaries, producers' wives -- all felt
entitled to suggest changes, even wrote on the script if they chose to; writers
were not usually welcomed on the set, and -- as now -- since we don't own
the copyright to our work, we could be fired or replaced if we didn't do as we
were told. 

Still, when Budd Schulberg, a well-known and respected writer (WHAT
MAKES SAMMY RUN, ON THE WATERFRONT),  learned that a script of his
had been significantly altered by others, he held a press conference, took
his name off the project, and announced that the writer would henceforth
be known as "Richard Drecksler", because the script was now "dreck."

I'm not claiming that we were giants in those days, or that everything we
wrote was "literature."  But there was, in my experience, a general feeling
among writers of responsibility to the facts, and a commitment, as with
doctors, to "first, do no harm."

What comes onto my big screen now bears little resemblance to the dramas
we used to stay home on Saturday nights to watch.   The three original
networks are still here, but barely holding their own in a seemingly endless
sea of cable stations and "spontaneous" reality shows -- all accompanied by 
cameramen and cobbled into some kind of shape by directors and/or
writers.   Before there were dramas and series and soap operas and
newcasts; now there are Kardashians and hoarders and exhibitionists and
actors who read the "news" from monitors positioned just where we, the
viewers, sit, so that it seems they speak honestly and directly to us.

Is it just coincidence that  today the quality of life, everyday life, has
deteriorated so dramatically that those of us who have lived awhile can
hardly believe we are in the same country, the same world?  Many factors
are blamed: the huge gaps between segments of our society, an unintegrated
population, early sexualization of young people, poverty, racial inequality,
the toll of wars, widespread unemployment, and on and on.  But what about
the constant, insistent yammering of television, advertisements, unsavory
people, serial killers, vampires, all brought into our bedrooms and made to
seem justified, attractive, normal, fun?   What about the writers who
influence so much of what our world sees, thinks, desires?  Do we do no
harm?  Are we doing no harm?

Don't we have some moral obligation in our fingers -- these fingers that can 
make sex fun or sinful, make heros out of villains and villains out of heros
-- to tell our audience at least, what we believe to be the truth?

I wrestle with this, can hardly find the words to express my concern about
it, believe that others must too.  A trusted (yes, if it's in print, on TV, in the
movies; doesn't that give it a ring of truth?) writer who may indeed be doing
harm, shouldn't that writer tear up the paper or hit delete, delete, delete,
and start over?

Am I naive, or crazy?  What do you think?

Monday, November 7, 2011


It's always seemed to me that naming something, or somebody, is a tremendous honor.  Naming a child, of course, a dog, even a car -- and maybe this is the best: no bad effects, eminently changeable -- naming a character in your story.
If you're writing history, the names are there to be slipped into, given life, like air suffuses a balloon.  But in fiction, naming is demanding, delicious, and has, like real life naming, consequences.  A Serafina is not the same as a Susan.  Never mind Stacey.  What was Jonathan Franzen thinking of to name his FREEDOM heroine Patty?  (Well, I might be able to figure that out, but look what it does to her chances of being heroic?)  A Warren will have to be serious.  A Jonathan can be anything, but he is young, and maybe handsome.  A Gloria "rings"!  A Mimi sings.  An Amy cooks.  A Herman can never be President....

All right; maybe I'm going too far.  But naming a child can be accomplished even before birth; there's an ancestor to be honored, or a parental name to be juniored.  With a fictional character, so much can be implied, intuited, from a name.  Scarlett!  I wish I had thought of that.

My current heroine is, for the moment, named Anna.  What does that conjure up to you?  For me it is serious, grownup; not a kid, or she should be Annie.  Anne is prettier.  Anna is a bit more homespun, maybe stolid, maybe not as dainty as Anita or Annette.  Anna is married, and maybe not happily.  Where Anne might be carefree, Anna has problems -- at least as I imagine  her.  Anna is a woman, not a girl, unless she's a girl from an immigrant or  backward family.  You can see how different her life would be if her name was Annabelle, or how much there'd to tell be in the background of an Annabella.

In my last and current book, my heroine is Vicky, and I've stayed awake nights knowing it's the wrong name for her, not right at all.  She's the child of dumb, young parents; would they have named their baby Victoria?   No, they would have chosen a name like theirs: Rita, Roy.  Her name should have been Grace, or Marie, or maybe even Anna.  But Vicky came to me in the first lines of the book, and nothing else had quite the same rhythym, the same differentness; maybe what was right about it was that it was so wrong.

Neal, the anti-hero of STEAL ME! seems like the right name for a slick, handsome, adulterous older married man.  Neal has a shine to it; you can slip right off it.  Meanwhile, the narrator is Val -- what kind of name is that? Her parents were educated and old-fashioned, her father a college professor who did a little slipping around himself.  Valerie...not a pretty name, but a college professor's daughter?  I think so.

So the process of naming characters can take place under a writer's hands, like bread dough, sometimes after months, even years of thought, sometimes instantly, intuitively.  Those names carry with them something you will know, or maybe already do know somewhere in your subconscious, where so much of our writing is done anyway, about the person's inner life, appearance, past, qualities.

I wish I had thought up Nicholas Nickelby.  I wish I had thought up Jane Austen's Emma -- how pursed her pretty little lips are, this Emma, how bright her eyes, watching and judging everyone, knowing everything but her own heart.

But I thought up, or dreamed up, Val and Neal and Vicky and Jason and Sam and Gladys and Larry and Dina and Roy and Rita too, and Rita's sister Paula --

What name, I wonder, will Anna decide to marry, who will she turn out to be, and will she stay named "Anna" to the end?   Stay with me.  When I know, you'll know.