Friday, August 20, 2010

Hank Phillippi Ryan talks to writer/producer Lee Goldberg

Lee Goldberg is an ex-Navy SEAL, freelance Sexual Surrogate and a professional Pierce Brosnan impersonator.

Okay, that's not true. But he wants this biography to be really exciting, so pay attention. Lee published his first book .357 Vigilante (as "Ian Ludlow," so he'd be on the shelf next to Robert Ludlum) while he was still a UCLA student. .
Goldberg broke into television with a freelance script sale to Spenser: For Hire. Since then, his TV writing & producing credits have covered a wide variety of genres, including sci-fi, cop shows, martial arts, whodunits, the occult, kid's shows, comedy, and utter crap. His TV work has earned him two Edgar Award nominations from the Mystery Writers of America.

His two careers, novelist and TV writer, merged when he began writing the Diagnosis Murder series of original novels, based on the hit CBS TV mystery that he also wrote and produced. And he also writes novels based on Monk, another show he's worked on.

Freel free to visit Lee's web site and his blog.
HANK: Do you remember when you fell in love with mysteries? Why was that? Was there a book, or a movie…do you remember a moment or a time or a reason?

LEE: I don't remember a specific moment or book, though the book "Nothing Ever Happens on My Block" made a big impression on me as a toddler. It's about a kid who is miserably bored because his street is so boring...and is so caught up in himself that he doesn't notice all the amazing things that are happening around him.

I think I had my Dad read me that book every night for, oh, a year. You could argue, I suppose, that it got me interested in characters who are missing the details... sort of a reverse detective novel. I devoured the HARDY BOYS and NANCY DREW mysteries and I was reading The Saint and the Matt Helm books by the time I was in fourth grade.

HANK: What do you mean, characters who are missing the details? You mean when there are clues and they don’t see them? Or...what? And what intrigued you about that?

LEE: I have no idea...I am just guessing. In "Nothing Ever Happens On My Block," the kid doesn't see all sorts of interesting things... a thief breaking into a house, a witch peering out of different windows of her home, a house on-fire, etc. The details change on each page of the book. I'm simply theorizing that perhaps his inability to perceive the details around him... the clues, if you will... piqued my interest. Writing mysteries is all about the details, the clue, the ticks of human behavior...perhaps that book influenced me. Or not. Perhaps I was more influenced by "Green Eggs and Ham."

HANK: Oh, Green Eggs and Ham is very suspenseful! (And actually, it's about persistence, right? Which is very important for a writer.) Are you devoted to your work? Can't wait to do it? Or do you have to convince yourself to get to the computer

LEE:  I procrastinate just like every other writer I know. But am devoted to my work. When I am not writing, I am thinking about writing. I have been writing all of my life and can't imagine not doing it. However, sometimes I like the idea of writing, or of having written, better than writing itself. When writing is going well, and it’s as if you are channeling a spirit rather than working, it's a fantastic, wonderful, incomparable feeling.

But when it's work, when it's like chiseling in stone, and the inspiration has to be coaxed, begged, and surgically extracted from your mind, then it's hard to stay in front of the computer and keep at it. That's when I thank god for shooting dates and publishing deadlines. I can't wait for the right moment, I have to plant my ass in the chair whether I want to be there or not. And I am thankful for it, even as I swear at the screen and sweat blood on my keyboard.

HANK: Somehow, it’s reassuring to know that it’s not always easy for someone as successful as you are. When you watch TV now, or read a book—can you just relax and, maybe, enjoy? Or is your editor-writer brain always assessing? What do you see as the flaws and gaps and missteps? The successes?

LEE: With a mystery, no, I can't just read or watch. I am always very aware of the construction of the mystery.

But you're not supposed to be passively entertained by a mystery. You are expected to track the clues. Part of the fun is that the mystery is there to be solved, and if the author (or writer/producer) has played fairly, then you can and should participate along with the detective.

If a movie is really good, I can stop looking at the construction of *the story* and just be swept up in it. But if the movie is flawed, it pulls me out, and I start seeing the work/structure/component parts and then it's hard to be entertained by what I am watching. I begin to watch it like a producer watching a director's cut and thinking about what he's got to go into the editing room to fix...

HANK: I know--it's so annoying. We'll be watching TV and I'll say--oh, someone CAN'T SWIM. As if that's supposed to be subtle. You know, lots of authors read their work out loud, testing the dialogue. But lots of what you do is written to be read out loud, to be spoken. Does that change how you think?

LEE: How I write, and how I think about story, depends on the medium I am writing for. I write scripts differently than I write books. In a script, everything has to be conveyed through action and dialog. A script is a working document, a blueprint that other professionals -- actors, directors, set decorators, etc. -- have to read and interpret in order to do their work. As a result, it's created and structured differently than a book. So you also have to think of how you write, and how your characters speak, and what they say, in a different way than you would with prose.

HANK: When you need to start a new story—what is it that makes you think: “go!” And hey, I don’t mean a deadline. (Unless that’s what it is.)

LEE: Usually it's a character conflict more than a mystery, situation or a clue. What makes a mystery, or any story, interesting to me is the conflict it creates for the heroes or for them to grapple with internally... or, preferably, both.

HANK: Can you give us an example or two?

LEE: Bill Rabkin and I wrote an episode of SPENSER FOR HIRE that begins with Spenser returning to his apartment after an all-night stake-out. He hasn't slept in 24 hours. He's having a cup of coffee, glances out the window, and sees a woman standing on the ledge of the building across the street. Their eyes meet for a split second....and then she jumps. Spenser runs outside. The woman is barely alive, in a coma. He becomes obsessed with finding out why she jumped...and can't sleep until he does. The episode explored why Spenser does what he does. No one has hired him, no one has asked for his help, no crime has been committed. So why is he doing it? It was that pitch that sold the script ten seconds after we pitched it....nobody even asked what why she jumped or what the mystery was. They liked the character conflict that was driving the investigation.

My upcoming MONK book, MR. MONK ON THE ROAD, arose from a character issue. Monk's life is more balanced than it's ever been... he's solved his wife's murder, his job is secured, he's about as happy as he's going to get. But his brother Ambrose's life is as "unbalanced" as ever. Ambrose is afraid to go outside...hasn't stepped out of his house in thirty years (well, there were two very brief moments when he did, both involving attempts on his life, but that's not important). For Ambrose's birthday, Monk "kidnaps" him and takes on a roadtrip in a motorhome...with Natalie at the wheel. Ambrose doesn't have to leave the house, so-to-speak, but still gets to experience the outside world. I love the conflicts that would create...the mystery was secondary to me (not that it wasn't important)
HANK: Do you remember your first moment of MONK? Don't just say "yes."

LEE: My first moment of MONK was watching the pilot. Within two minutes, I knew it was a show I should be writing and I called my agent and said "GET ME A MEETING!" Thankfully, he did.

HANK: How bad are your first drafts? Are they better now than they used to be? What would you say about that?

LEE: Hard to say, since I rewrite as a go along. By the time I get to the end of my first draft, the book has probably been rewritten a dozen times along the way.

HANK: Putting a book on Kindle. Ebooks in general. Epublishing. How do we catch this wave? Are you excited about it? Or fearful?

LEE: I think it's fantastic for writers with out-of-print books. It's an opportunity for your books to be reborn...and whatever you earn is found money. For instance, my novel THE WALK came out from Five Star in 2004 and nobody noticed. I figured that was it. But I put it on the Kindle about 13 months ago and have sold over 8000 copies, far more than I sold in hardcover. And, incidentally, earning me far more than I earned from the book in hardcover as well. So, thanks to the Kindle, books that were gathering dust in my garage and earning me nothing are now generating income again. That's a win-win. It's also great for mid-list authors who've been dropped...but still have a completed manuscript or two that were in the pipeline that now won't be published.

It's a very easy wave to catch...and best of all, it's free. If your book is in Microsoft Word, you just upload it to, write a product description, set a price, and you're done (you also need a can do it yourself with Photoshop and stock photos/art bought off the web...or you can hire someone to design one for you). If your book isn't a Microsoft Word file, and you have the galley, you can scan it into a Word file and upload it. If all you have is your published book, you can take it apart and scan it. I have used all three methods to get my out-of-print books on the Kindle.

If you don't want to do any of that... or don't have the time... there are plenty of people out there you can hire to do it for you. You can get your book scanned, formatted, and a cover designed for under $600.

On the other hand, the ease of self-publishing has led to a tsunami of swill showing up on Amazon. Yes, there IS good self-published work out there. But I think it has become far too tempting for aspiring writers looking for a short cut to "publish" their work before it's ready...or any good. Just because all it takes is one mouse-click to publish your work, that doesn't mean that you should do it. You aren't doing yourself, or readers, or other "indie" writers out there, any favors by selling work that's sub-standard. It poisons the well for everybody. (And keep in mind, if your manuscript has been rejected by every publisher and agent on earth, it might be because it is crap).

It's too soon to tell if the preponderance of awful self-published work is going to make readers leery of sampling or buying self-published books. My fear is that readers, after sampling so much garbage, will associate any ebook with a low price tag on it, or that's from a writer or publisher they don't know, with unreadable crap...and that will hurt all authors, "indie" or not. Detroit turned out so many bad cars for so long that consumers stopped buying American...and bought cars from overseas instead. Producing garbage will turn off consumers.

HANK:  Practical practical advice. You said: “And I would have paid much more attention to networking.” But you’d still write first, right? And make that the priority? That’s so difficult to balance.

LEE: Of course writing is the priority... but once you've written something, you need to get it published or produced, and that's when it's important to have contacts. I got so caught up in writing, and producing, that I think I didn't do enough networking, that I didn't devote enough time and attention to maintaining the friendships and contacts that I had.

HANK: So we sit at our computer in the morning. Pull up our work in progress. And then you walk in to give your morning advice! Give us some words of wisdom.

LEE: I have no words of wisdom. I am wisdomless.

HANK: Oh, Lee, we doubt that! But here’s the latest: Lee’s newest MONK novel, MR. MONK IS CLEANED OUT, is out now. His next one, MR. MONK ON THE ROAD, comes out in January.

In the meantime, he is writing for the new A&E series THE GLADES and I'm about to write & direct a short film, REMAINDERED, in Kentucky next month that will be screened at Bouchercon in October.
Award-winning investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan is on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate. Her first mystery, PRIME TIME, won the Agatha for Best First Novel. It was also was a double RITA nominee and a Reviewers' Choice Award Winner. AIR TIME was nominated for the AGATHA Award for Best Novel of 2009 and is now an Anthony Nominee for Best Paperback Original.. Hank's short story "On The House" won the AGATHA for Best Short Story of 2009, and is now an Anthony nominee and a Macavity nominee. Hank is on the national board of Mystery Writers of America and the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Her website is


Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Wouldn't you love to watch TV with Lee Goldberg? Listen to his running comnentary? What a treat that would be..and incredibly educational.

And he was such a good guy to take the time to do this interview for SinC. I always envision him surrounded by Hollywood types!

DO you all remember the moment you fell in love with mystery? Was there a book? (Do any of you remember Donna Parker? OR Vicki Barr?)

Alafair said...

Loved the chance to eavesdrop on your chat during my lunch break. Thanks, and have a good weekend!

Leslie said...

Fave Hank quote :
"Oh, Green Eggs and Ham is very suspenseful! (And actually, it's about persistence, right? Which is very important for a writer.)"

Fave Lee Quote (he's wrong, of course, but it's so humble!) "I have no wisdom. I am wisdomless."

Norma Huss said...

I love those Monk books! And after reading the write-ups on Lee's Kindle books, I'm thinking, "I need a Kindle too." (Okay, I went to his website to do that.)

Hank great questions. Lee great answers. You have something for everyone here - the reader, the writer, AND the viewer.

Janet Bolin said...

You've hooked me - I have to read MR. MONK ON THE ROAD.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Thanks, Norma! Yes, he's terrific.

And Janet, I'm sure you have made Lee's day!'re too funny...

and Alafair--wonderful to see you here! I loved 212--absolutely loved it.