Today Wolf Majick Reviews would like to welcome Hy Conrad to talk about making the transition from TV to Novels with everyone's favorite detective Mr Monk!
THE TV TRANSITION
By Hy Conrad
Author of “Mr. Monk Helps Himself”
By Hy Conrad
Author of “Mr. Monk Helps Himself”
For Wolf Majick Reviews
I’ve been asked this question a lot lately: “How is it different, to go from writing for TV to writing books?” The simple answer is that a book involves a lot more typing and a lot less money. Sad but true.
I began my writing career in books, not novels but collections of solve-it-yourself mysteries. I had written ten of them, with a fair amount of success, when a TV writer-producer visited a bookstore, looking for story ideas for his new show. By a wonderful stroke of luck, he happened across one of my collections and spent a day or so tracking me down. The result was eight years on Monk, probably the best professional experience of my life.
After an additional stint on “White Collar”, I decided that I couldn’t be bi-coastal anymore and didn’t want to live in L.A – or New York City, which had been my home for decades. That left me with books and plays as the main venues for my crafty, mystery-obsessed little brain. It also left me with a family and two wonderful homes in Vermont and Key West.
I had just finished my first novel (“Rally ‘Round the Corpse”) and was working on the sequel when Penguin asked me to dust off my memories and take a crack at continuing their series, starring Adrian Monk and his long-suffering assistant, Natalie.
I had a good template to start with, the fifteen Monk books by Lee Goldberg. But it took me a while to figure out how to turn a 42-minute episode of Monk into a 70,000 word book.
On the show, our mysteries were clever but simple, leaving plenty of time for our actor, Tony Shalhoub, to obsess about a light bulb or straighten a rug. A typical Monk plot would probably make a nice short story. But to fill up a novel you need more. You either have to make the stories complex, which is not the Monk way, or you have to throw in some fancy footwork. I opted for the footwork.
The Monk books often spend the first two chapters on a “starter mystery”, one that has no connection to the rest of the book but may help set up Monk’s emotional track. Then there may be a few fast cases thrown in, things that show off Monk’s brilliance but are really just there to entertain. When it comes to the meat of the book, Monk tends to solve two mysteries at once, switching back and forth until he lets loose with two climactic scenes in the last fifty pages. It’s not a formula, per se. It’s a template, and every mystery writer or TV writer uses one. Examine your favorite mystery series and you’ll see. It’s what keeps fans coming back, a feeling of familiarity, even when the plot is brand new.
Another problem; visual vs. literary. In the show, the clues we used were often visual. We even wrote them into the action lines, for the director’s benefit. Here is one, word for word: “A television plays in the bg, showing a clip of Darryl Grant breaking the home run record. The camera lingers on a man in the stands who catches the priceless ball. Not really lingers. We barely see his face. Forget I even mentioned it.” Obviously, you can’t do this in a book. You have to find other ways to sneak in your clues.
Tied in closely with this visual challenge is the subject of humor. On the screen Monk can shrug and it’s funny. Stottlemeyer can growl and do a slow burn five times a show and it works. But try ending a chapter with, “Monk did a funny little shrug and Captain Stottlemeyer growled in reply.” Okay, that’s not funny. In a novel, you have to rely on situations and dialogue, along with the voice of your narrator. It’s always a compromise to make Natalie funny but not too funny, and to keep Monk from being too talkative. Which brings me to my last point.
One of the most important differences between the show and the books is Monk’s voice. You may not have noticed, but on the show Monk isn’t a big talker. He rarely says more than two sentences in a speech, except when it comes to the solutions in Act Four where, for the sake of the viewer, he becomes practically verbose, going on for page after page and using flashbacks. Tony is an actor who does so much with his body and face that we didn’t have to give him a lot of lines. He didn’t want them. But it’s darn hard to get that kind of nuance across in a plot-driven mystery, at least the ones I write.
As a writing experience, creating a novel is rewarding in its own, very different way. You don’t have the comradery and collaboration of a TV show. Instead, you wind up having a very intense, private journey with your characters. You find them changing a little to suit your voice and your sense of humor. Luckily, I was one of people who contributed to Monk’s voice over the years, so I feel at home putting words in his mouth.
So far I’ve only written two of the Monk books: “Mr. Monk Helps Himself” and “Mr. Monk Gets On Board” (coming out in December). But my rhythm is to write them quickly, using a short outline and sitting at my keyboard seven days a week for two and a half months. I think the energy and desperation help the story. And I like having those voices in my head every day.
It’s like old times.