S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: Welcome back to Working.
S3: I’m your host, Ramon Alarm, and I’m your other host, Isaac Butler.
S2: Isaac, I hope you and your family are thriving in this weird period that I feel like there’s no applicable now for you.
S4: And I keep abreast of each other’s movements on Twitter. And so I know that like so many people, you’re not letting this larger crisis interrupt your cultural diet. You’re still reading and watching movies and television.
S3: Yeah. You know, at the beginning there at it, it kind of did I sort of felt like I didn’t have the brain space to focus on anything that was more than maybe 22 minutes long just cause of the world. Like, the only thing I really have to compare it to is maybe the first six weeks after Iris was born. You know, only this time, instead of sleeplessness, it was, of course, anxiety and just, you know, the world creeping in. But now I really am trying to read books and watch a lot of movies and stuff. I mean, some of that is just book research, because the part I’m gearing up to write about right now is like how method acting changed American film in popular culture. So I have to watch a lot of 20th century film in popular culture, but I’m also trying to find time to do it for pleasure and to be connected to other human beings, real and imaginary, and understand the world and the human condition and society in new ways. I mean, all that stuff, you know, that we want culture to give us all those kind of incredible gifts are still there. You know, they might read differently or feel differently now, but it still serves all of those purposes. I don’t know about you, but I find that my own and looking at other people’s cultural habits are changing, though, like lots of people for some reason wanted to watch Outbreak and Contagion when this all started, which just seemed bizarre to me. But like, who am I to judge? Whatever gets you through it, it’s fine. And, you know, like, you can’t go see live theater. So now people are streaming recordings of old productions or they’re zoomed table readings of plays. And, you know, some people love that stuff. Some people just can’t deal with it. You know, for me, I find that I just really want to be captivated by something that is not always my first priority with art. But right now, it’s like I just want it to encircle me and for me to, like, not want to focus on anything else.
S4: But it I think there’s an audience that goes to things like outbreak and contagion during a period of outbreak and contagion in search of sort of catharsis because reality can’t quite provide that. And I think that the inverse of that is there’s an audience that wants to watch 30 Rock and somebody diverted and entertained. And I think that they’re both valid and I think they both speak to the solace that arts and culture can provide. And I think that’s so important. And I’m so glad that we have writers and filmmakers and the makers of television shows who, you know, out in the world giving us that ability to transport us from this reality into another. This week, you actually talked to one of those people, Megan Abbott.
S3: Yeah. And I thought it was a really fun conversation. Meghan is a wonderful and beloved crime novelist who’s written around nine novels. She often writes about female adolescence. In fact, my favorite book of hers, You Will Know Me, is about a young gymnastics protege and every one of her books. There’s just this really wonderful controlled intensity to her writing. And I was really interested to talk to her for a few reasons. First, because I think there is something that happens on a process level as you become really experienced at making the thing you make. That process might be really different from your process when you’re just starting out and just trying to figure out, you know, what a book is and how it works. But I was also interested in talking to her because she’s recently shifted gears and started writing more for television. She wrote for David Simons The Deuce, and she recently co created and was the co showrunner with Gina Fitri of Dare Me, which is a TV adaptation of one of her novels. And I should mention here that in between my talking to her and this interview airing USA Network announced Dharam, he wasn’t being picked up for a second season, which is an interesting reminder that in the midst of all of this, the companies that produce culture still have to figure out how to make money. But, you know, like how they make those decisions in the midst of all this, which involves making some predictions about people’s watching habits a year from now is totally beyond me.
S4: I’m really excited to eavesdrop on the two of you. So let’s do that.
S5: All right. I am here with Meghan Abbott, novelist and the co creator and co showrunner of the TV show Dare Me, Meghan. How are you?
S1: OK. How are you doing? Okay, thanks.
S5: Obviously I’m recording this in my bedroom. You’re recording your end in a closet. You know, the the the corona virus has affected our process here at working. And I thought I’d just ask, you know, how is it affecting your process of writing right now?
S6: Yeah, it’s been I tell you, it has been challenging. Just you always want to get in that cocoon, or at least I do when I’m writing. A lot of it has been reaching out to people. I know that other writers and trying to talk about stuff other than current events that has helped.
S5: Do you have a particular way you like to get into that cocoon normally? Is there like a ritual do like a little prewriting rituals, their specific time every day you like to write or anything like that?
S6: I do have. I actually posted on Instagram today. I have all these I call them the household Saints, but above my computer I have this shelf of little totems, various good luck things I have now. They’re a gold Furby in honor of uncut gem. Just into some actual prayer candles and just so that I can see them above my desk so they help center me. That’s a big help. Also music which changes with each project, sometimes with vocals, sometimes not Santa. You know that that helps. It is almost like getting into a trance like state, like the old other magic writers of the 19th century. Without that, without the morphine or the opium.
S5: You know, you’ve written nine novels at this point. Do you feel like beyond getting the right music in the household, saying to me, maybe swearing off morphine? Do you have a kind of like process that you have down now for how you write a book?
S6: Yes, I do. I mean, it changes a little with every book. But but there there’s a lot I know, which is that I sort of have to go in with a very loose three act plan. I don’t outline, but I do have three acts.
S7: But that’s sort of giving myself permission that everything’s going to change and that I kind of have to really have that first draft to be everything, everything on the table. You know, I, I don’t stop myself. I don’t over worry.
S6: And then I revise multiple times. I just remind myself of that every time. I mean, I revise constantly. The first 50 pages of every book has probably revised one hundred times. Oh, wow. So it’s there’s I’m not fast. People think I am because I have a lot of books, but I just don’t do anything else.
S5: You know, obviously before you get to that three act structure, you have to have that initial impulse. Write that initial thing that drives you into the material. So what was it with Demi? Was that particular image or character watching cheerleader videos on YouTube or, you know, how did you how’d you get there?
S7: It was sort of all those things. It started with a news story which over half my books have even something I read about a cheerleading coach who is having an affair with a National Guard recruiter stationed in the school. And it was just sort of local scandal. And it was so interesting to me because she was so young. She was twenty five and not that far out of high school herself, and she had been partying with her squad. And that dynamic was so interesting. But that’s not a book. Right. So I originally there had been a short story and it kept sticking with me because I started to really look at cheer, as you say. I was sort of watching how it had transformed since I was a teenager when it was really just popular girls, you know, somewhat casually dancing while drinking schnapps.
S6: So. But it had become this really competitive, rather dangerous sport, really high level of athleticism and and their pride in their risk taking and their injuries.
S7: That was just so fascinating and awesome to me.
S5: And that really was the way lots of writers, and I’m sure you’re one of them, have a lot of ideas, you know, how do you figure out? This is the idea that I want to spend one to two years, maybe longer, living in and fleshing out and diving into?
S7: Yeah, I have a lot of false starts. I have at least probably twice as many false starts as I have novels. Often I’ve gotten a hundred pages and it’s terrible and realized it’s not a book. And it usually is with the boys. Sometimes it’s with the energy. I don’t usually know for sure where it’s still. I’ve reached the halfway point. I would say I got past the halfway point.
S5: Oh, wow. So you have it. There’s sort of a carcasses of abandoned books strewn around your hard drive.
S7: Yes. Yes. But one of them, like my back to and it became a book so that I always tell writers that have the one in their desk drawer that I keep it, keep it, you know, so to speak, because of the first novel I ever tried to write, became my fourth novel, a fifth novel, The End of Everything. That was the first novel I tried to write and I abandoned it for a decade and then came back to it. So it does happen.
S5: So you mentioned that you don’t go in exactly with an outline, but with some sort of I guess it sounds like a treatment of what the three acts are going to be like. Can I just ask what that looks like? Is it a three page prose is a bullet point?
S7: Yeah. It it becomes bullet points and then it becomes really elaborate bullet points. But early on, it’s usually really simple. It’s all my books tend to have this structure while I was filling my secrets. And then there’s like temptation of some kind or some kind of being drawn into something or. And then a reckoning, the paying for it or redemption, if you’d like to think of it more positively. So if I can imagine what my version of those three things stages are, then then. So that’s what I would write out like. Well, dare me, it would be, you know, ATI’s in kids a crush on the new coach who comes to town and she becomes overly involved in her life. There is a there’s a death and she has to do some covering up. Meanwhile, her best friend is trying to expose her.
S5: Right, though. So how did you get from, you know, news article of the coach? Oh, it’s gonna be this 17 year old girl. Oh, it’s gonna be first person present tense, you know. How did you work that those point of view choices out?
S7: It’s probably in stages. Never comes all at once for me. But I’ve always been interested. I guess they must call it like The Gatsby structure, which is you you don’t tell the story from the point of view, the most interesting character, but then they can become the most interesting character, of course. But you tell it from Nick Carraway. Yeah. Who’s the Nick Carraway?
S5: Right. You know, I read somewhere that when you get stuck, you like to read a really good novel, not a crime novel. Right. Because you’re writing crime novels, but just a really good book. And that, you know, what struck me about that was that there’s so much of the writing process that is actually intuitive and it’s about inspiration and is about, you know, how you harness that and give yourself permission to just kind of go with those impulses have gotten better at that.
S7: I mean, I think my instincts were probably pressure impure. So you lose that, you know, you because you’re second guessing this sort of patina of voice. So this is voices in your head that just grow and grow. The more books you write, the more people you work with, the more editors you know, they go. So you lose that. But what I’ve gotten is the sort of a trust to when to shutter that out and to just go further and to take risks. You know, sometimes it means I know, for instance, I don’t show anybody a work in progress except my agent. And he he oh, it’s primarily because he was an editor and I don’t even like to show it to him until it’s finished. So probably that’s part of it, too, is I don’t like to talk in detail about it. I try to keep it in. Yeah. Hovering in that creative space, sort of untouched until it has to be.
S5: I mean, that’s so different from a TV writer’s room, right?
S7: Yeah. And the all the Hollywood processes, let me tell you, I mean, media has done a number on me because I’ve really gotten used to getting constant feedback and having to justify every choice and therefore having to make conscious what I would prefer to be unconscious, which is just the thing you’re saying like that. What you know, you don’t know why you’re doing it, but you’re following your instinct. But in Hollywood, you then have to at least construct construct some kind of believable explanation for white all the time.
S5: You really? Yeah. So like every meeting you’re in, you’re constantly justifying.
S7: Yes. Yes. Yes. And that’s a different part of your brain. It’s it’s it’s. Feels more like I always say, like pitch meetings. It’s more like it reminds me far more of defending my dissertation than anything else.
S1: Everyone has better shoes, but it’s a TV script.
S5: Even just the way it looks is entirely different from prose writing. You know, it has a specific formatting that’s totally different. Your toolset is completely limited to dialogue and descriptions of what the viewer sees and you know. How did you learn how to write for that medium?
S7: Blue is my eyes. I’m still learning, but I have learned so much. It was a multi-step process, though. I admit I wasn’t the kind of person who read hundreds of scripts. And, you know, you’re writing a pilot, read every great pilot. I read a few, but I didn’t read that many. The one thing that I would recommend to anybody, even though it’s quite specific a recommendation, is the screenplay to Michael Clayton, which to me is one of the greatest screenplays of this new century. And the writer Tony Gilroy, who wrote that it has a Q and a certain maybe more than one in the volume that you can get of it. You could actually buy it as a book. It was made into a book. And he is very great about this. Like what ever how every word that you put in the script can count it. Sneyd very different way than in a novel. You are directing the reading experience in a much more specific way. You need to find a way to do the things you can do in a novel. You have five pages to conjure an atmosphere in a nightclub. Say if you just put setting into Interior nightclub, it’s not going to do that for anybody. So how in one sentence will you talk about the low lights and the red vinyl booths and the, you know, like how they got a few didn. T details you can put into two to conjure that he has all kinds of tricks. So for me, it’s been a lot about because pilots are so much about selling selling the world of the of the show. You know, once you have a show that’s on the air and the scripts don’t look like that anymore because you’re writing them so quickly. But the pilot has to be perfect and every word, no wasted word which I buy, which I don’t mean the dialogue. Dialogue should never be wasted in any script. But I mean everything else.
S5: Right. Right. You know, it’s interesting because in reading, dear me, you part of how that book works is that we’re just trapped in at his head. We see all the characters filtered through how she sees them as she tries to figure out what she thinks of them and and herself out and things like that. And, of course, you know, it seems obvious, but as soon as you’re filming it, you’re outside of her head. You’re a camera looking at her. Right. So, you know, it it’s not just about cutting the words right. It’s also about like, how do I get this interiority and make an exterior like like how did you figure out how to do that?
S7: That was that was several stages, too, you know, because first you hear they always tell you don’t use voiceover as voice. So sort of a chief. It’s sort of like one of those cliches of screams. Well, the the whole industry. That is how you write the screenplay. In some ways, first, it was framing things with a voiceover and then slowly stripping it out until it’s barely there. And but it was also about starting the pilot very much, only seeing what Addy sees. And really most of the pilot is is with her because one of the things that did that, it’s very hard when you are giving someone your script is they’re often going to be very confused of who they’re following. Tracking is the thing they always call it in scripts, but you need to be tracking someone. So in some ways, the intense close povey of the book helped. But other stuff, you know, you have to start to think of what the camera can do, which is not that you would write that into the script because you don’t ever want to do directions like that, that the camera can do so much in into sort of, you know, showing what the what the character is seeing, you know, guiding that like even in a small space, even in a small moment, we’re seeing everything through her eyes. We only know that. So there’s like it’s mean it’s it’s tricky. It was definitely the thing we worked the hardest on.
S5: The first TV show you wrote for was The Deuce, right? Yes. You had written other screenplays before that.
S7: So I had originally Demi was supposed to be a feature for Fox 2000, which is no longer exists, says nothing.
S1: Does the father.
S7: So I wrote that scripted almost got made. We had Natalie Portman attach, it almost happened. So that was so I had gone through with Fox that, you know, several drafts with them. And so I had that had really, you know, that had really prepared me for feature writing. But that is so different than TV writing, you know, in the feature world, at least then and historically has always been a producer and a director’s medium. So the writer, you know, you get your first pass and your second pass and then you’re out the door. So, you know, you’re right. You know, TV is is the writer’s kingdom.
S5: Right. Because it seems to me that, you know, there’s a real difference between making a self-contained adaptation of Dare Me and transforming it into an episodic open ended TV show here. So what was it like to break that frame? I guess that you had built for yourself?
S7: Well, it was helpful to have been on the DOS because like like us, they had always planned for like three seasons. You know, not too many shows go past that anymore. But they always explicitly planned for it. So deduces, as you know, is a very different animal. There’s 30 main characters and spans that take eight and a half an. But in terms of how like trying to figure out how to what they call a TV break story, which is really perhaps overused term, but they’re, you know, all stories and most stories on TV are broken. These series of little index cards, it’s so low fi. It’s one of the things I love about it where there’s a everyone does definitely. But there’s a different color for each character. And you figure out how to, you know, essentially how to parcel it out, how to how to move the story. And, you know, we had this book. So how much of the book do we want to get through in the first season? Especially because we’ve we’ve added storylines. We’ve added characters, because the world we need to make the world bigger. So Gina Fitri, my CO, she had worked on many shows starting all the way back with like Dawson’s Creek. So she really knew every which in its heyday I think was like twenty five episodes a season. So she really had new knew that trying to so that that was very helpful. But you know, you take it, you take it piece by piece and then you and then you change it. It changes all the time. That was the other thing to get used to is it’s I got a little bit taste. I certainly got a taste it and the deuce, because you see how the show runners will inevitably rewrite your entire script because they don’t even have that actor anymore.
S5: By the time you this race did happen to be so written on each of those four, you know, our listeners who aren’t in the TV world written on each of those index cards is essentially a story beat for a specific character.
S7: That’s right. For an episode. And then there can be other ones. You just might have won that cheer fall, which we had. But we knew there was going to be an accident. We didn’t know where it was going to go. So we had this, like, card looming. We don’t even know who was going to fall at the very beginning. But the rest, yeah, there are their color coordinated for for the actors. And they would even cut the card. So would be a half an Andy Card and half a bath card for scenes that were really so much intensely about, about the arc of both of them here. It’s about arcs. No.
S5: Right. And so in both the deuce and in Dare Me, the room is kind of coming up with that outline together, right?
S7: Yes. Yes. You could you know, and I had a plan for where the season would begin in the middle and the end. But like like I do with novels. But we. But how what each episode is going to be. Because also you also have to do what they call a pitch out after you’ve met in the room for a while. You have to essentially deliver this whole season if to pitch it to the network and their parent company. So you do really have to figure it all out. Yeah, you start the first week. Usually you’re just really spit balling. It has to be free. I mean, is it like it’s nothing like exacts. It’s totally free creative space. You hope it will be where everyone can say anything and then slowly you start to put cards on the board, as they say, let’s get some cards on the board like you’ve let’s start with Adi, though, and they start to think, you know what you know, and then you and you you start to break it into episodes. What what needs to happen first? It’s it’s kind of amazing that it ever happens. But there’s something so exhilarating at the end when you have this whole room filled with note cards that looks like a carry from home.
S1: What your show is a conspiracy. It isn’t.
S5: Once you’re a showrunner or co show runner, in this case, you were in charge of that room. You’re in charge of creating the environment. We’re. People can collaborate and the best ideas come to the fore. How did you design the rooms so that that that would happen?
S7: Yeah, I mean, Gina had, like anyone who’s worked in TV awhile, has had had plenty of negative experiences or had Newt known upset. And some of us seem more senior writers had. So we knew what we didn’t want it to be like, which is in some rooms are very competitive and nerve racking. And we maybe swung a little the opposite way. We did have a really casual room, really, because it’s a story about adolescence that, you know, people would talk about their adolescence. So we really we needed that to mind that. So we would talk about their toxic friendships and their crushes on their teachers. And so we really had to create an environment where everybody would feel comfortable saying anything. And you do try to model by by how you talk and not dominating it or any of those things. And so having that juice was good, too, because it was a very Jolli room, despite the subject matter.
S5: One thing I know you’ve mentioned a few times in interviews is imposter syndrome, which I think is something we all feel. And, you know, you’re particularly with dare me, you know, you’re in charge. There’s also more experienced people in the room. You know, it’s your first time out of the gate as a co showrunner, etc, etc., so forth. How do you handle imposter syndrome? How do you work through it or push past it? Or do you name it? Do you ignore it? How do you how do you handle it?
S8: I would say that by the time you if you’ve actually gotten that far, you’ve, you sort of lose it about that.
S9: You feel like I know this story and this world better than anybody and I didn’t have it there. But certainly at the beginning, when you’re in production, that’s very daunting because you have everyone from props to costume to special effects to stunts, to the guy that takes the cars that the characters drive. And then they’re going to be on the street. The picture cars, as they call the honest they are, they need you to tell them what you want. And, you know, the director obviously has a big role in that. But but ultimately, it’s your show. So that that I really had the leg really work on. I always knew, always knowing what I wanted and saying it definitively.
S8: We know that the part that works in your favor is there’s just no time. And and he’s Frehley’s it TV works that like people with far less experience even than me, end up running shows. So I would always tell myself that there are people like, you know, it’s just a world where people come from all kinds of worlds. And if this idea is the thing, since to that, that there’s it’s democratization that’s there. I mean, it’s like a petite woman. There’s certainly with a small voice. Sometimes it was like a matter of actually literally being her head. But, you know, I guess because it’s such a long process, by the time you really get there, you’re you’re kind of a developed some tools to overcome it just that way. Right. You kind of I think they sort of lean into your strengths, which for me was a genuine excitement, creative excitement over what was happening is so contagious for everybody. And then they will carry it with you. And then you kind of create this inner circle. Iku with the deep our DP, then everyone there is an artist. But you figure out these ones who are going to be with you through the whole thing. And you all get excited about the stuff together and it’s really contagious and then everyone’s taking it more seriously. No one, no one on the show wants to work on a show no one cares about.
S5: Right. You know, a term we’ve obviously been using a lot in this interview as show runner. And you see it in, you know, every review of a television show or every article about it, but it’s almost never actually defined. Who can you fool? Our listeners were like, I keep seeing this term. What the hell does that mean? What what actually is the difference for you now that you’re a showrunner? What is the showrunner? What do you do?
S8: So essentially your every every is it’s a script you write and the ones you don’t. But everyone goes, yeah, you are the final pass on everything. That’s the writer piece. And you’re you know, you can assign extra passes, but essentially you’re doing it. And then your you’re leading all the preproduction, production and postproduction decisions like, let’s say for a given episode, you hired a director. They’re coming in while you’re shooting the last episode before they’re doing prep on the next one. You’re meeting with them and you’re you have this what ultimately is often like a four or five hour tone meeting that you often have to break up over several days. And you go through the entire script with the director and you talk about how every scene should feel, what you know, what they might not know, because some of them have only seen the pilot and they’re directing, say, Episode four. So they really need you know, you have to help them. So there’s a lot of that. And then you’re meeting with the with the wardrobe for every episode and then the props and the you know, like all these sort, you know, and your you sort of everything is passing through you and you have to kind of decide about. And then you’re also the ambassador to the network and and beyond the larger world, beyond the executive producers, the you know, so that it’s. Yeah, you’re sort of the I guess the common denominator, which is why it helps to have two and sometimes it’s even more than two. And we also had a producing director who was directed a couple of episodes but was there to help directors and would, you know, just know the show as well as we did.
S5: But from a director point of view, you know, one thing you mentioned there is that you’re doing the final pass on the script. Was that an educational experience? Did you learn a lot about writing from rewriting other people so directly?
S8: It’s it’s I suppose what I learned most is not to take it personally when I had been rewritten. Because you will I mean, it is really so much that so you you break the story. Most TV today, I mean, some if you’re doing Netflix, for instance, you know, it’s very different because they they write all the scripts for they start shooting. But generally, once you start shooting, no matter what. Things change. Every scripts is getting whittled down. It’s too much. We can’t afford this location. We have to shoot this. And then that has a cumulative effect as the season goes on, like you’ve had to drop storylines like minor storylines or you’ve or you’ve or sometimes you’ve found something that really works and you want to devote more time to it.
S9: So you’ve had to sort of push other stuff out there.
S5: Is there an example of that from this season of Dare Me for people watching it?
S9: Yes. Yes. I tell you, we really realized that we needed to check in with the Adi Barthe relationship every episode multiple times, because, you know, it just was the way to guide the viewer. And, you know, it just was became this anchor in the episode. And then the thing I had experience on the Deuce’s, like your one of your scenes, it’s moving to another episode. And so you end up writing on another. You know, your scene has dropped in another episode, the scene, you wrote someone else’s episode. So that happens to and now and now I totally get that because you don’t have time for it or we we’re not there yet with this character. And so it gets someone put something in episode two. And you know what? We’re going to use it in episode four.
S5: Fascinating. Yeah. I mean, that sort of like ego management, part of the collaborative process is, at least for me, a challenge.
S9: Yeah, for sure. No, that’s always there. And that’s like six, you know, production. You see it everywhere you see it. You know, among the actors, of course, it’s inevitable, you know, that from directing like it’s so it’s complicated. There’s everyone no one’s sleeping. Everyone is is often air foreign plays. And there, you know, their nerves are a little raw and everyone gets, you know, gets anxious. And so, you know, there is an emotional experience that I was not prepared for.
S5: Yeah. How did so how did you adapt to that?
S9: It it was really always trying to I mean, sheer exhaustion.
S1: Sometimes I worry about fire.
S9: I need to get my five hours. But also just knowing that, like, this just is a bad day. Everyone gets a bad day, including me. And and that’s and that’s OK.
S5: So, you know, you do have a certain ritual, as you said, you have the the the saints that you have with you that you think you have to do. You weren’t carrying those saints on to, you know, the airplane and putting them on your tray table while you were writing or whatever. Right. Like, how did you adapt your process to working around this incredibly demanding more a more than full time job?
S9: You know, occasionally you end up having to write on set. And that’s the worst case scenario by far. Like, you know what, living in Toronto all those months, I really did try to create you know, you would be writing on weekends all day, every weekend. And it’s less about trying to, you know, transport oneself or sink into something because you’re in it. When you’re shooting a show, you’re a you’re in it. It’s more about a spark. What haven’t we done? How can I get excited here? You’re just trying to give us some energy and life to it. And that is that is the toughest part. Thank you. Know, you’re setting a scene like a store. Here’s some pictures of six liquor stores in Toronto. I think we could use aren’t they beautiful? And then you get inspired and then, you know, like so a lot of it the you know, using that creative network of production locations and costumes. You know, there were costumes that I wanted to write scenes, too, that our costume designer had had come up with. You know, that that helps. So it just becomes, I suppose, a different set of household saints, which are which are our wonderful crew.
S5: Incredible. And then also, your novel writing process had to change, too, right?
S9: Yeah, we have. Coming back was the really hardest part. You know, we fit wrapped in August. So coming back to the novel that I’d left sort of halfway through was a long term, like Heart of Darkness, like up the river thing to get back into that.
S5: And how did you do that? Was it getting back into the music or free writing from a character’s point of view or.
S9: Yes, both those things. Time to sort of I had, you know, we’ll work on the show. Hadn’t been able to see a movie or read a book or. I mean, I was reading. That’s not true. I hope I always have to be reading. But it was really very slowly. So I was trying to consume when it came back. I wanted to see as much live art and movies and all healthy things I miss now this week as possible and read as much as possible and just try to get all those circuits firing again.
S5: Well, Megan, thank you so much for talking with us today about all sorts of different creative processes that you’re involved with, with Demi and your other projects. I really appreciate it.
S9: Oh, it was such a pleasure.
S1: I’ve enjoyed sitting in my closet and speaking with a great. Thank you. Thank you.
S4: Isaac, this conversation was so interesting. I really could have continued to snoop on it so much longer. I’m a novelist myself, and two of the points that really leapt out at me were Megan saying that she’d resurrected an early attempt at a novel later on her career, that we should resist that impulse to burn a half finished manuscript hiding in the drawer. And that when she writes, she doesn’t use an outline.
S3: Yeah, I think that’s a reflection of the competence that comes from having done this process a bunch of times. You know, it’s the old saying of what is it? This isn’t my first rodeo. You know that to have the confidence to say I’m 100 pages into writing this book. And it isn’t going anywhere. And I need to put it in a drawer is impressive. And then it’s even more impressive to be like. But actually, I’m going to keep thinking about it because maybe sometime down the road, the idea for how to fix it will come to me. Thanks to computers, nothing we write necessarily needs to go away. And so I think it’s a good reminder that there’s all kinds of different ways of approaching material. And just because you start something and you think it’s going to work out doesn’t mean it will. But also, if you have something that you think is, you know, a disaster and it’s never going to work or whatever, that’s not necessarily true either. You just might not be at the point where you’re ready to realize it.
S4: You know, so much of what Megan went on to discuss with respect to both her fiction and writing for the screen was the way in which story itself is almost mathematical formula that it’s comprised of something she she called and and a lot of people call beats. Isaac, I feel like you know something.
S3: Yeah, it’s very funny because I was just writing about this part for my own book. But the the the term story beat, which is a big thing, particularly in Hollywood, script structure and character beat, which is a big thing in acting, actually has its origins in Russia in the early 20th century. And in the theater director and actor Constantine Stanislavski, who is trying to sort of figure out a system of acting and he came up with this term bit and a bit, is a unit of action, a unit of the, you know, what a character is doing. Right. When what the character is doing changes, essentially the bit changes. And his protege, this guy, Richard Bullis Orlovsky, who brought all of this to the United States, also used the term Beed, meaning a unit of story action. Right. Like a story is composed of beads. Like beads on a necklace. And if you go through those beads, you got the whole story, all of the action of your script. But Bullis Lafsky had a very thick Russian accent and so bit and bead became beat. Which is why we talk about character beat and story beat, even though they actually mean two different things. And so it actually has no origins in music at all. It just means like a piece of the whole it’s not rhythmic, which is a really weird thing. But in in script analysis and theatre and film, you really are trained to figure out what the beats of the story are and what causes what to happen and line all of those up in a really linear way. It’s useful because that way when you hand a script to a collaborator, they are able to immediately see what those beats are. Or if you’re in a room with a group of other writers, you have all agreed on what the action of the episode is so that when a draft of the episode comes in, you’re not all confused about way. How do how do we get here? You know, you already know what it is and then someone is going through and filling that stuff in.
S4: It’s so funny to me. First of all, the misperception is related to music is really amusing. But I also think this is a bit like some insight in that misperception. But it’s also just funny to hear the nebulous, exalted arts discussed as almost like algebraic equation, that it’s it’s just about putting together A, B, C and D and creating a story which is sort of greater than the sum of its parts. Megan mentioned the screenplay for Michael Clayton as something that she felt was particularly instructive as she was trying to learn this new medium. I am so lowbrow personally that when I teach writing and I don’t teach screenwriting, I teach fiction writing. I usually talk about television scripts. I talk about pop television, talk about Frazier, which is one of my favorite sitcoms. And I also talk about friends and the way the episodes of sitcoms are structured in this way that’s so clever and that you remember them years later and that it’s a really extraordinarily high level of writing. And we call television the idiot box of dismissively. But I do think that there’s a lot of art that goes into making those twenty two minutes confections.
S3: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, most episodes of Frasier are incredibly delite. All three act French farces, you know, boiled down to their 22 minute essence, which if you’ve ever seen a bad farce or tried to write farce yourself, doing that is incredibly difficult to do. Farce is incredibly mechanically complex. And then within that, you also have to have character development and revelation and all the other things we want from drama.
S4: Yeah. Isaac, you have recommended dare me to me very highly. Is there anything else that you’re watching right now that you’re getting lost in the moment that’s helping you through these difficult times?
S3: You know, it’s interesting. I love Columbo and Columbo has recently become street mobile. You couldn’t stream it for a really long time, I think, because of a rights dispute. But you can actually stream it on. I am DBI of all places. And, you know, talk about perfect structure, you know, and talk about worlds that you can just enter and live in for 75 minutes. It’s it’s so delightful. And the formula of it is so comforting. And the variations they find within that formula so inventive. I really find that deeply pleasurable. What about you, Ramon?
S4: That’s wonderful. I’ve been doing so much cooking. I have two children, so we like seven meals a day, really. And so it’s been a lot of time in the kitchen and in that period because I just turn on murder, she wrote, which is one of my truly, truly favorite television shows from the 1980s and stream lable via this very weird thing called Sling TV, like it sort of reruns on Hallmark Mysteries and Murders Channel or whatever that channel is. And anyway, I find it extremely entertaining, extremely transporting. And Angela Lansbury is truly just an extraordinary performer. It’s so much fun to watch her every night as she cracks the case.
S5: Yeah, absolutely. Although how is there anyone left alive in that town? The murder rate is so high for a town that small.
S4: She does she does travel quite a bit.
S2: And and in the later years, like many great novelists, she becomes so financially successful that she maintains the piano here in New York City, which is the murder capital of the world in that period.
S3: Right. That’s true. That’s true.
S4: Well, television is really comforting. And it was really lovely to hear this conversation with somebody who is involved in the making of television. So thanks for that.
S10: Absolutely. Thank you, Ramon.
S5: One of the things we’d love to do with this show is help solve your creative problems. So if you have any questions about writing, whether you’re trying to write a novel or a great e-mail or any other aspect of this strange thing called creativity, please send them to working at Slate dot com. And if and when we can, we’ll put those questions to our guests.
S2: And if you enjoy this show, please consider signing up for Slate plus Slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only thirty five dollars for the first year and you can get a free two week trial now at Slate dot com slash working plus.
S5: Thank you to Megan Abbott for being our guest this week and enormous thank you’s to our producer, Cameron Drewes.
S2: We’ll be back next week for a conversation between our co-host John Thomas and the actor Allison. Right. Thanks for listening. Now get back to work.