I cut my teeth and learned my craft in the rough-and-tumble, three-jokes-per-page, testosterone-charged world of sitcom writing in the early 80s, the days of only three networks, NFL-worthy shoulder pads and very big hair. (In fact, I think the depletion of our ozone layer is entirely attributable to the overuse of hairspray in the 60s and 80s.) Through a connection, I had submitted a writing sample to Bill Cosby and earned a spot as a writer’s apprentice on his ground-breaking sitcom, then in its second season.
I arrived, a proud, newly minted college graduate, eager to add my literary flourishes to the lives of the beloved Huxtables. In the writer’s room, my bosses made quick work of my delusions of brilliance with a peremptory “Maybe that’s funny at Harvard.” Under their guidance, I learned the value of observing in silence, listening to those with more experience and most of all, re-writing.
Guest column by Susan Fales-Hill, who began her
career writing for several award-winning TV programs,
such as "The Cosby Show." She has freelanced for
national publications, and her memoir, Always Wear Joy,
was released in 2003. Her first novel, One Flight Up
(S&S, 2010), was praised by as "a dazzling narrative
of New York’s social diorama with wit, irony and great
humor” by Vogue. See Susan's website here.
THE CHALLENGE OF A NOVEL: UNLIKE ANY OTHER
Having survived and thrived in that world for 15 years, and gone on to publish a well-received memoir, I felt more than equipped to dash off a frothy novel about four women in their late thirties looking for love in all the adulterous places. In addition to having written professionally for 22 years, I was an avid reader of fiction. How hard could it be? The joke was very much on me.
Writing what became One Flight Up proved as challenging as climbing Everest for a novice mountaineer. Perhaps I exaggerate just a bit, after all, I didn’t contract frostbite. Nonetheless, the process proved as humbling and exhilarating as conquering one of the world’s highest peaks, though I won’t be joining Sir Edmund Hilary in the history books any time soon.
THE FREEDOM OF WRITING FOR YOURSELF
The journey began pleasantly enough with my extensive character biographies, and a sketchy outline of the plot (I intended to let my characters lead me). I dove in eagerly since for the first time in my adult life, I was giving myself the opportunity to create characters from scratch without pesky network executives, or even a publishing house (I wrote this “on spec”) looking over my shoulder, telling me what demographic to represent. I could create the world as I knew it, multiracial, multi-socio-economic, and populated with characters who spoke Claire Booth Luce’s or Noel Coward’s English.
I could delve into realms that I knew and loved: theater, law, banking, New York’s unique social melting pot. I sent my agent one chapter, then two, then three, then four. “Bravo,” she exclaimed, in one enthusiastic e-mail after another, “Keep writing!” After chapter six, I no longer felt the need for her approval and decided to go off on my own reconnaissance. What was I thinking?
"GO BACK AND ADD THE FUN"
Approximately nine months later, I proudly handed her a three-hundred page manuscript titled The Cheater’s Club. I waited with eager anticipation over the course of a weekend to hear her response. When she called, I settled in to receive what one writer terms “the bounty of praise.” Instead I heard, “The only place I can sell this is at a pet store, as bird cage liner.” No one would ever accuse my agent of random acts of diplomacy. However, no one would ever say she was wrong in her assessments either.
“This is called The Cheater’s Club,” she continued, “Where’s the cheating, where’s the fun? I don’t want to be in rehab with the main character’s mother, I want to be at a hotel having sex with the cute boyfriend. Start over!” I hung up and cried for about 15 minutes then suddenly remembered who I was: a television writer by training. I’d re-written fifty pages in a night. It dawned on me I shouldn’t think of this as three hundred pages, but as the equivalent of six scripts. I could do this.
A CHALLENGE, BUT WORTH THE CLIMB
In the end, it took me much longer than six days -- a year in fact, with many falls into crevices along the way. We eventually sold the manuscript to Simon and Schuster and published it this past July. The experience was no race to the top; it was a slow, arduous climb, but I don’t regret the journey, and every encounter with a grateful (or even disgruntled) reader is its own peak experience.
This writing finds me back at “base camp,” beginning novel number two. Let’s hope I’ve learned to avoid some pitfalls, if not, I’ll send out the distress signal to my editor and agent a good deal sooner. And if all else fails, I can see if MIT wants me to research my theory linking bouffant hairdos to global warming.
If you're writing fiction and want to
make your prose sizzle, check out
The Fire in Fiction by agent Donald Maass.