My debut novel is about to come out and, and, like so many writers before me, I’m uneasy. Okay, anxious. In just a few weeks, my work, for better or for worse, will be out there in the world to be enjoyed (hopefully) and judged (certainly).
The ironic thing is, I should be used to it.
I’ve been writing professionally for years and my work has always been for public consumption. You might even be familiar with some of it. Maybe you enjoyed an interview with Stephen King or Ellen Degeneres. Maybe you followed a “film noir” true crime story about cheating husbands and lethal wives through every delicious twist and turn. Or maybe you learned the dirty truth about the health code violations of a restaurant near you, or how a new kind of designer drug stays one step ahead of the law.
I've been a writer for both a morning news program and a primetime news magazine and have written for at least a dozen household name anchors.
But you’d never know it. Because in this kind of writing, the writer is for all intents and purposes, invisible. My name is well below the radar and I betray almost zero of my self, my sensibility, or my psyche in my work.
Why? Mainly because I make very few choices in the stories I help tell. And the ones I do make, which are creative ones that relate to style and rarely substance, are subject to extraordinary constraints.
In news, first of all, we start with the story. Facts. You do not get to mess with these; we play them as they lay. (Contrary to the low opinion some people have today of journalists, there is an extraordinary effort to discover the truth and tell it.)
All we can do is decide the way we’re going to tell it. As a writer, it’s my job to make you want to watch what we’re about to show you. I try to think about what makes each story unique, and how best to highlight that to intrigue you. But between my typing fingers and your ears is a long, bumpy road.
Before you hear anything I’ve written for a correspondent or anchor to say, I must obtain written approval of every syllable from at least five people: our executive producer, a lawyer with our legal department, a representative from standards & practices, the producer of the story, and the show’s anchor.
This chain of command is vitally important. It’s how we ensure what gets on the air is of the highest quality and accuracy. Each of these people is a seasoned professional who wants the best for the show, but they don’t always agree on how to get there. For my words to run the gauntlet from my computer to your television screen unscathed is pretty much unheard of.
I always start with my best shot, something I believe that’s going to grab the viewer while also being scrupulously fair. I spend the rest of the day accommodating the wishes of everyone else, hoping to preserve what I like best about my original version. Very often, because of time constraints – if my intro to a piece is supposed to run twenty seconds, that’s all I can write – the thing I like best, the little flourish that made it fresh and, well, mine, is what goes.
The best thing about writing for television is that it’s collaborative. You work with so many smart, caring, funny people. I adore my colleagues.
The worst thing about writing for television?
Same answer: it’s collaborative.
When I first started writing fiction, I felt like I was throwing off heavy chains. There were no facts to adhere to, no legal department fretting that anything I wrote was libelous. Within my novel, I could create my own world, my own rules, from the inside out.
I felt like writing about a ghost? I did. (Try that in TV news.) I wanted to write an extra chapter to fill out a character’s back story? Fine, we’re not cutting to commercial break. I wanted a rude character to say something off-color? Totally cool, there’s no F.C.C. to worry about.
Another thing about TV news? Credits rarely run; there usually just isn’t time. Executives, producers and editors may see their names on screen but writers, almost never.
Now my name is on the front of a book. It looks odd to me, and loud: like a trumpet’s blare, demanding everyone look in my direction.
This time, there’s no one to hide behind. Though I’ve had a dream team of fabulous people help me with this book, including my agent, editor and fiction workshop, the choices in my novel are all mine. For the first time in my professional life, I stand alone.
Lorna Graham was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and graduated from Barnard College. She has written for Good Morning America and currently writes for Dateline NBC. She also wrote a short film, “A Timeless Call,” honoring America’s military veterans, that was directed by Steven Spielberg. She lives in Greenwich Village. The Ghost of Greenwich Village is her first novel.