VALLEY WEEKEND : OUTINGS : Murder, They Write : Seminar Explores the Business of Creating and Selling Mysteries in Books, Films and TV


This weekend the rest of us will have a chance to learn what John Grisham already knows: how to make a killing in mysteries.

That's the theme of an all-day seminar Saturday in Studio City, sponsored by the Southern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), the people who hand out the prestigious Edgar awards every year.

As board member Catherine Dain explains, the local chapter's annual seminar usually deals with how to get your book published, a topic of perennial interest to new writers. But this year's program will also explore the often lucrative business of selling mysteries to TV and the movies.

"I thought the best use of the talents of this chapter would be to do the overlap of books, movies and TV," says Dain, a Chatsworth resident who recently published "Bet Against the House," the fifth in a series of paperback originals featuring Nevada sleuth Freddie O'Neal.

Giving the keynote speech on television mysteries will be William Link, who developed "Columbo," "Murder, She Wrote" and other hit series with the late Richard Levinson. A four-time Edgar winner, Link has also earned the MWA's Ellery Queen Lifetime Achievement Award and was recently named a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame.

Many of the seminar's two dozen speakers have written for TV or film, and many are published authors as well. Lee Goldberg is supervising producer of NBC's "seaQuest 2032" and recently published a raunchy comic mystery about television, titled "My Gun Has Bullets."

Goldberg's day job as a TV writer and producer pays better than his fiction and also keeps him supplied with bizarre, often hilarious material. "I can't make up stuff weirder than what I encounter in this business," he says. In "My Gun Has Bullets," for instance, the owner of a vicious canine star remarks, "Boo Boo feels betrayed." Goldberg points out that he writes dialogue for a talking dolphin on TV. "And I've actually had a note from the network saying that the dolphin wouldn't say that."

The 33-year-old Tarzana man has written for "The Cosby Mysteries," "Diagnosis Murder" and "Spenser for Hire." His agent advised him the time was right to sell that mystery he had talked of writing after he won two Edgar nominations for the short-lived Fox series "Likely Suspects." Goldberg likes the complete control he has as a novelist. He likes not having to worry about network censors. He even likes the tangible quality that a book has that a TV show doesn't. "I can put my Diet Coke on it," he points out.

Among the advice Goldberg plans to give at the seminar: Writers should do everything they can to promote their books because their publishers probably won't. Writers are capable of writing better press releases than most publicists (for a release on "My Gun" he likes the headline: "TV Producer Bites Hand That Feeds Him"). As a college student, he recalls, he wrote four action books "under the pseudonym Ian Ludlow, to be on the shelf next to Robert Ludlum. Ian, like Fleming. I figured people would say, 'I read something else by him, and it was good. ' "


A panel on mysteries and movies will feature both screenwriter Daniel Petrie Jr. and Edgar-winning novelist Michael Connelly. Petrie, who lives in Encino, wrote the original screenplay for "The Big Easy" and the Eddie Murphy film, "Beverly Hills Cop." He is currently adapting Connelly's third Harry Bosch book, "The Concrete Blonde," for the screen.

A former police reporter at the Los Angeles Times, Connelly wrote a screen adaptation of his first Bosch book, "The Black Echo," which won the Edgar for best first novel in 1992. He was surprised how difficult the process was. "It gave me a new respect for screenwriters who adapt books," he says.

Petrie is adapting "The Concrete Blonde" for producers Mace Neufeld and Robert Rehme at Paramount, the team that brought the Tom Clancy books to the screen. According to Petrie, Connelly has been "extremely gracious" to him during the potentially unsettling process of seeing his story adapted. "It does not have to be an acrimonious or adversarial thing, and it shouldn't be," Petrie says. The screenwriter was drawn to the project, in part, he says, because the book has such a strong sense of place. "I thought it gave the same kind of intimate portrait of Los Angeles that you haven't seen since Ross MacDonald."

Some mystery writers, including Sue Grafton, have said that they will never allow their characters to be adapted for movies or TV. Most writers have no such qualms. Although a few command big money up front, advances for most mystery writers tend to be as modest as $10,000.

Connelly, whose books attracted mystery buff Bill Clinton, confirms that one of the movie deals he made could bring him $600,000, if a series of conditions are met.

Renewed paperback sales following a movie release can earn a writer more than the movie deal. So says Petrie, who will direct "The Gingerbread Man" this spring from John Grisham's first original screenplay. Petrie should know. Grisham told him.

* "Making a Killing in Mysteries" seminar; at the Sportsmen's Lodge, Starlight Room, 12833 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.; 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday; $75; (818) 709-3760.

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