Relentless Forward Motion: Lee Goldberg on Fiction & TV Writing

Lee Goldberg’s prose has three masters—the story, the characters, and the reader.  Smooth, clean and fast, Goldberg’s lines move the story forward at a relentless pace without ever forgetting to tend to the other layers—like characterization, humor, and suspense.

In addition to writing for television, Goldberg writes standalone thrillers and novels based on the USA Network television series Monk.  The Monk novels are told from the first person point of view of Natalie Teeger, the assistant to the iconic obsessive-compulsive detective, Adrian Monk.

“It was my job to ease [Adrian Monk's] suffering as much as possible so that he could function in society and concentrate on solving murders,” says Teeger in Mr. Monk Is Cleaned Out.  “It was up to me to make sure that the people around him, and the places he visited, met his incredibly arcane rules of order and cleanliness.”

Teeger is pretty much talking about Goldberg’s style, here—keep the riff-raff out so the story can focus on the relentless forward motion and the reader can focus on solving the mystery.

Below, Goldberg and I talk how he came to writing novels and television shows.  He’ll be back around later to talk more about writing media tie-in fiction and about The Dead Man, the new series of action-adventure novels he launched with William Rabkin.

How long have you been writing?

Lee Goldberg: Since I was a kid. When I was ten or eleven, I was already pecking novels out on my Mom’s old typewriters. The first one was a futuristic tale about a cop born in an underwater sperm bank. I don’t know why the bank was underwater, or how deposits were made, but I thought it was very cool. I continued writing novels all through my teenage years, and they all just went into a drawer. But they were good practice. And I did a lot of writing for my high school newspaper.

By the time I was 17, I was writing articles for The Contra Costa Times and other San Francisco Bay Area newspapers. I put myself through UCLA as a freelance writer…writing for American Film, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, UPI, Newsweek, basically anybody who would pay me. I had a girlfriend at Playgirl and she got me a gig writing sexually explicit Letters-to-the-Editor for $25 each. That was fun.

How’d your first novel come about?

Lee Goldberg: I had a journalism adviser at UCLA who wrote spy novels. We became friends and talked a lot about mysteries, thrillers, plotting, etc. One day in the early 80s his publisher came to him and asked him if he’d write a “men’s action adventure series,” sort of the male equivalent of the Harlequin romance. He said he wasn’t desperate enough, hungry enough, or stupid enough to do it…but he knew someone who was: Me. So I wrote an outline and some sample chapters and they bought it. The book was called .357 Vigilante I wrote it as “Ian Ludlow” so I’d be on the shelf next to Robert Ludlum and had plenty of Letter-to-the-Editor-of-Playgirl quality sex in it.

The West Coast Review of Books called my literary debut “as stunning as the report of a .357 Magnum, a dynamic premiere effort,” singling the book out as “The Best New Paperback Series” of the year. I ended up writing four books in the series. Naturally, the publisher promptly went bankrupt and I never saw a dime in royalties.

But New World Pictures bought the movie rights to .357 Vigilante and hired me to write the screenplay. I didn’t know anything about writing scripts…luckily, I had a good friend who did, William Rabkin. We worked together on the UCLA Daily Bruin. So the two of us teamed up. The movie never got made, but we had so much fun that we were writing partners for over 20 years…and remain best friends to this day. (He writes the novels based on the TV series PSYCH).

You’ve written across the genres.

Lee Goldberg: In TV, I’ve written about everything from werewolves (She Wolf of London”) and lifeguards (Baywatch) to detectives (Spenser For Hire, Nero Wolfe, Diagnosis Murder, etc) and illegal street racers (“Fast Track”). But in books, I’ve stuck mostly to crime stories (Man with the Iron-on Badge, My Gun Has Bullets, etc.) and thrillers (The Walk). I’ve also done a lot of non-fiction about the TV business (Successful Television Writing, Unsold Television Pilots, etc.).

I’ve always loved reading mysteries…starting with Encyclopedia Brown, The Hardy Boys, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators. And before I knew it, I graduated to Lew Archer, Travis McGee, Phillip Marlowe, Shell Scott, etc. I didn’t know it then, but I think what I liked about mysteries was the strong central conflict and the relentless, forward motion of the stories. There’s always a lot at stake for the characters, always something to discover. Then again, I believe all the best stories are mysteries…whether they are called mysteries or not.

Do you prefer writing TV shows or books?

Lee Goldberg: They are entirely different experiences. Television is very much a group effort and what you are writing is a blueprint that lots of other people are going to use as the basis for their creative work, whether it’s the actor, the director, the production designer. And when you write a script it’s not locked in stone. It’s going to change. It’s going to change because everybody has notes. It’s going to change because production concerns force rewrites. It’s going to change because of actors and directors. It’s in fluid motion all the time.

A book is entirely my own and unaffected by production concerns or actors. I’m the actors, the director, the production designer… it’s entirely mine. It’s not a blueprint. It is the finished product and it won’t change much once I am done with it.  It’s not a group effort — I plot it myself and I write it by myself. It’s entirely in my head and I live it for months.

Creatively speaking, there’s a big difference between writing prose and writing a script. In a book, you are seducing the reader. You are bringing them into your imagination and holding them there for as long as they’re reading the book. You construct everything. You construct the sets, the wardrobe, the world. You’re God. You can even read a character’s thoughts. In a script, everything that happens and everything the characters do has to be revealed through action and dialogue.  In a script, you could introduce a scene like this:

INT– RESTAURANT– DAY

It’s a cheap Chinese restaurant with very few customers. There’s an aquarium with live lobsters, fish, etc. in the window. Monk is disgusted by what he sees…

But in a book, you have to describe the restaurant in detail. You have to tell us everything that’s going on. You have to set the scene for the reader. It’s an entirely different skill. That’s why some novelists are terrible screen writers and why some screen writers can’t write a book. They can’t jump back and forth.

The only thing that TV and books have in common is that both are mediums for sharing stories…in books, you tell stories, in TV you show them. That simple distinction is a difficult one for many writers to overcome when moving into one field from the other.

If books paid me as well as screenwriting, I might stick with books only because I could do it all at home and not have to answer to a lot of other people. On the other hand, I love being in a writers room plotting with a dozen other writers on an episodic TV series…it is so much fun.

What can a novelist or short story writer learn from reading your book Successful Television Writing?

Lee Goldberg: Although the book is primarily about writing for TV, there’s a strong focus on the importance of conflict in conveying character and propelling a story along. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to be reading a book, particularly a mystery, where nothing is happening, when it’s just bland exposition or pointless description without any conflict. All the best humor, drama and emotion arises from conflict. Without it, you have boredom.

And, along those same lines, what has writing for television taught you about writing novels?

Lee Goldberg: I think that being a screenwriter, particularly for TV, has made me a much better novelist. You have to write outlines for TV, so it has forced me to focus on plot before I start writing my books. I’m not figuring things out as I go along as some authors do. I know exactly where I am going…though I may change how I get there along the way.
Being a TV writer has also trained me to focus on a strong, narrative drive, to make sure that every line of dialogue either reveals character or advances the plot (or both), and to cut anything that’s extraneous or bogs the story down.  I also suspect that being a TV writer has given my books a faster pace and more of a cinematic structure.

Have you picked up any habits–good or bad–writing for television that you had to unlearn or put aside when writing novels?

Lee Goldberg: Not really, but if I have a bad habit, it may be the need to have a relentless, forward motion to the story. In TV, you cut anything that’s the least bit extraneous to keep the story moving and to keep your episode within your allotted running time. With books, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to take time out to contemplate a moment, an experience, or a place…but only if it’s a moment.

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Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.