John Ostrander on Giving Your Audience Some Nasty Surprises

by John Ostrander

aandeI’ve heard it said that old friends are the best friends. That makes sense to me. Over time, you’ve shared experiences together, both good and bad. You’ve grown to know each other, to know the little idiosyncrasies that make up who we are, that make the bonds between us.

You can form that kind of relationships with books as well, especially series. The first time you read the book, it’s to discover the story, to learn what happens next. As you return to it, or read another book in the series, it’s because you want to revisit them.

For example, for me every new book in The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series byAlexander McCall Smith is like a new visit with old friends. I know the characters, the main ones and the wide supporting cast as well, and I want to learn what is going on with their lives. There are surprises in each visit, to be sure, but I now know the locale and what these people are like, I know their foibles and their virtues. They do grow but they are still the same characters I know and love.

As I mentioned in a recent column, I’ve been re-reading the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. There’s a lot of them – Stout started the series in the 30s and ended the run only with his death in 1975. In all, there are 33 novels and 39 novellas in the canon. It’s been so long since I’ve read most of them that most of the time I don’t really remember what the mystery is or whodunit.

However, I don’t really come back for the mysteries – I come back for old friends, principally the great detective, Nero Wolfe, and his intrepid assistant, Archie Goodwin. They’re a great team – Wolfe is the armchair detective, the great mind in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes. Archie is the wisecracking modern semi-hard boiled detective in the tradition of Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. (Archie also is our narrator in all the stories and he’s a damn good one.) Their relationship, their repartee, is what drives the series.

Wolfe has many well defined idiosyncrasies: he keeps religiously to his routine, never leaves his brownstone in New York if he can help it, is a gourmand (and looks it; we’re often told he weighs a seventh of a ton), cultivates orchards, is a misogynist, is paranoid about traveling in any vehicle (convinced that the vehicle at some irrational moment will kill him), loves big words and knows how to use them, and is almost terminally lazy. If Archie wasn’t there to badger him. Wolfe would probably never work at all.

Part of Stout’s way of shaking up the series is to occasionally put Wolfe in very uncomfortable positions, usually involving his being obliged to leave his dwelling. One of Wolfe’s immediate objectives invariably is to find a chair that cannot only hold him and bear his weight but in which he feels comfortable and secure; not always an easy task.

In the fifth book of the series, Too Many Cooks, Stout inflicts many indignities on Wolfe from the start. We begin with the great detective on a train; if you know Wolfe and his horrors of travel, you already know how much this will bother him. He and Archie are traveling to West Virginia, to a well known resort where fifteen of the top chefs from around the world gather for a special banquet where Wolfe will be the guest of honor and the main speaker. Needless to say, one of the chefs winds up murdered and Wolfe, if he ever wants to get home, will need to solve the case. So far so good and very entertaining.

That said, there was something that took me aback as I read it. At this resort, the staff are all African-Americans, and there is a casual use of racial slurs by several characters, including Archie. Other nationalities also get ethnic slurs used with them but, with the African-Americans, the slurs carry with them the whole bigoted attitude that those words embody.

The book was published in 1938 and will, as most pop culture, reflect the society and attitude of its day. That said, it was still startling and somewhat off-putting to me. I don’t expect something written back then to reflect sensibilities more prevalent today. I am not and never was someone who expected the word “nigger” to be excised from Huckleberry Finn.

Still, it did catch me by surprise. It’s an attitude I hadn’t seen in my old friend before and didn’t expect to find it here. I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish the book.

I did and I’m glad I did. At one point, in order to solve the mystery, Wolfe needs to question the black staff, the cooks and the servants, together. And this is where Stout provides an admirable twist. Wolfe treats them as individuals and with respect, and so does the author. They have names, they have separate identities and characters, different outlooks and goals and ways of talking. One waiter is working at the resort to put himself through Howard College. There are no “niggers” in this group. They’re people, individuals, and that’s the point Stout makes. In a book published in 1938. I find that remarkable.

This is not to paint Wolfe as a civil rights champion. He is not. Wolfe (Stout?) is an undeniable misogynist and that may be a subject for a column at some future date. Wolfe is also ruthlessly pragmatic at times and, in this case, he needs information. However, he doesn’t allow blind prejudice, such as Archie demonstrates, to get in his way of solving the murder. That being said, Wolfe treats the men as men.

It is nice when you find that your old friend is who you thought they were, whether that old friend is living or fictional. Well done, Nero Wolfe. Highly satisfactory.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. This post originally appeared in his most excellent blog at ComicMix.

All Hail Veep, TV’s Premier Silver-Fox Destination

Who says you can’t sell sex over 40?

(Should you? That’s a whole nuther story, yeah?)

02-veep-john-slattery-hugh-laurie.w529.h352by Anna Silman

Since losing Mad Men – the show that most closely approximated formative crush experiences creeping on friends’ hot dads at school pickup – TV has experienced a catastrophic decline in its silver-fox reserves.

Sure, we had Stannis and Jorah on Game of Thrones (just me, maybe?), and the various dad-show actors (Spader, Schreiber). But there was no show that came close to approximating the weekly DILF dream-team of Jon Hamm and John Slattery. Thankfully, Veep, the acerbic comedy about VP turned POTUS Selina Meyer (Julia Louis Dreyfus) and the group of high-functioning sociopaths that advise her, has stepped in to meet the needs of viewers who know that a flannel-suited Jo(h)n can be just as compelling as a shirtless Hemsworth….

Read it all at NY Magazine

Writer Glen Mazzara’s Fight to Bring True Diversity to TV

Go get ’em, Tiger!

by Susan Karlin

glen mazzaraOnscreen, TV producer Glen Mazzara shines a light on our darker natures. Offscreen, he’s trying to improve them.

Mazzara, creator of A&E’s Damien, inspired by the 1976 horror film The Omen, and former showrunner of The Walking Dead, is among the leading advocates to increase diversity among TV writing staffs, crews, and casts.

In 2002, Mazzara began speaking to minority and young writers on how to break into the system. Since 2012, he has co-chaired the Writers Guild of America, West’s Diversity Advisory Group with Scandal andGrey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes. Their mission: to educate the WGA, studios, networks, agencies, and showrunners about diversity problems and develop methods to fix them.

Mazzara’s efforts have become especially pertinent, when accusations of Hollywood racism, sexism, and age discrimination have crescendoed, from the #OscarsSoWhite campaign decrying the absence of African American actor nominees, to disclosures of gender pay disparity, to “whitewashing” roles by casting white actors to play non-white characters. The 2016 WGAW Hollywood Writers Report revealed a mixture of glacial progress, stagnation and reversals in women, minority, and older writer employment and earnings.

“People think, because I’m a white guy, I don’t have an ax to grind,” Mazzara tells Co.Create. “Friends and people I mentor are not getting access to jobs they deserve, because of a systemic racism and sexism in Hollywood. It’s my community. I don’t want my sons growing up in a world that raises them above all others, because of their gender or race. While it’s also good business to get different stories and voices onscreen, I have responsibility, as a producer in a leadership position on my show, an employer, and an artist, to level the playing field.”…

Read it all at Fast Company

Troy DeVolld on Promoting Yourself

invitefinalby Troy DeVolld

With hundreds of hours of television in the rearview mirror, you’d imagine that it would get easier for me, this business of promoting myself among my peers.  Truth is, it can still be tough.

I’m very big on gentle reminders… the occasional email here or there, a lunch invitation between shows to catch up with those I’m often too busy to connect with in person or those who are hard to connect with unless it’s over a quick bite near wherever they’re working.

Others in the business go big.  A successful Executive Producer pal of mine threw a birthday party for herself this weekend at a trendy venue designed to hold about 35 people. Many multiples of that number showed up to pack the little space, invited guests including company owners, network execs, and other busy colleagues who knew it would be a fun opportunity to reconnect with each other as well as wish the birthday gal a great night.

However you choose to stay in touch with colleagues, do it.  I moved to the outer edges of Los Angeles last year, so I find it more important than ever to remind people that I’m around, as individual gigs can take me out of social play for months.

There are plenty of ways not to keep in touch.  Bulk emails letting people know you’re available for work actually breed resentment much of the time.  If you want to let people know you’re available in social media, do it in code.  I might announce that I’m “wrapping a project for some really terrific people” and let those I’m connected with put two and two together rather than straight hit them up for work.  If there’s something coming up, I’m sure they’ll call.

A personalized (not bulk) email with an updated resume attached is also a nice way to go.  Let people know you have an out date coming up and you just wanted to be sure they have an updated version of your resume in case anything’s brewing where they’re working.

No matter how you approach keeping your name in play, don’t just drop in digitally when you need work.  Cultivate those relationships.  The continuity of your employment depends on it.


Troy DeVolld is a Larry Brody buddy and one of the masters of the reality TV genre. This article originally appeared on his Reality TV blog. And while you’re thinking about him, why not buy his book, Reality TV: An Insider’s Guide to TV’s Hottest Market?

How writing a novel is different from writing Danger Mouse

After a decade and a half of writing children’s TV shows, Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler have written a book together. ..and in the process learned about a whole ‘nuther world:

dmby Mark Huckerby & Nick Ostler

What’s the difference between writing a script and writing a book? That was the question we were nervously asking ourselves when, after 16 years of scriptwriting for a living, we decided to embark on our first novel.

It couldn’t be THAT different, could it? Well, yes and no. We’d been lucky enough to be on the writing teams of some fantastic children’s TV shows, including Danger Mouse, Thunderbirds are Go and Shaun the Sheep. Those are some pretty fun sandboxes to be allowed to play in, so why the sudden desire to strike out into unknown territory? We’ve always believed that an idea will tell you what it wants to be.

Sometimes it’s TV, sometimes radio or even a movie – and we’d written all of those. But when we came up with Defender of the Realm – a reluctant young heir to the throne discovers that he is also a secret superhero charged with protecting the U.K. from a host of monsters and super-villains – it kept “telling us” it wanted to be a book. That way, we figured, we’d have the room to establish the world of our alternative Britain, the origin of our unique superhero’s powers, and an adventure with epic scope and endless possibilities. The only question was could we do it?

Writing scripts is a little like writing poetry. It’s all about economy of style – saying as much as you can with as few words as possible. Now, as we started writing our book, it felt like we had an ocean of words at our disposal. That was exciting and scary. Plus, there were TWO of us. Did writing partners even do books? Fortunately we had already been writing prose for years without realising it. Before a producer gives you the green light to start a script, you have to write something called a “treatment” – a few pages “selling” your story. We’d learned early on that a treatment had to be an entertaining read in its own right. Somewhere along the way we must have developed a joint “voice”, because our first Defender pages were coming out sounding surprisingly similar….

Read it all at The Guardian

How to Make Giving Up Work for You…?

WTF? Succeed by giving up? Win by losing? Or is “giving up” really a way to keep from losing?

Surrender-Captureby Matt McCue

Growing up, I had a Winston Churchill quote on my desk: “Never, never, never give up.” It served as a daily reminder to continue pushing forward, especially when things were rough.

Persevering against all odds certainly helps in the creative industry where you have to convince art directors and brand managers to buy your abstract and experimental ideas and bring them to life in the real world. However, looking back, I realize that the mentality to keep going at all costs can be an inefficient approach to work. In other words, there are merits to giving up.

I’m not saying give in at the first sign of a struggle. But what if we thought of our ideas less as precious commodities (and battles to be won) and more like stocks we can invest in and cut loose depending on how the market –project managers, clients – feel about them at given times? Things we like and feel are promising, but aren’t married to, should our position become weak or we find a more favorable opportunity.

Ideas, though, are treated with far more care. We often apply a “buy and hold” strategy to them, especially the bigger ones, like building a company or developing a new product. I think it’s because our ideas are often tied to our dreams, and what we’re really unwilling to give up on is the dream itself.

We don’t solely judge the idea – we judge it through a lens filled with beat-tired late nights, sacrificed paychecks, and all the other trademarks of building something from scratch….

Read it all at 99u