A TV Writer Finds His Happy Place by James Ponti
My path to becoming an author began not in a library or bookstore, but at the Royal Palm movie theater in Atlantic Beach, Florida. I could walk there without crossing any major roads, which is how it became the first “grown up” place I was allowed to go by myself. (1970s parenting at its finest.) The theater was air conditioned, which our house wasn’t, and I’d go to escape the summer heat, often remaining in my seat to watch a movie back-to-back.
It was the repeat viewing that did the trick. Because the plotlines were so fresh in my head, I began to notice the techniques filmmakers used to construct the story.
I was hooked and I wanted in.
I decided I wanted to be a writer in fifth grade, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write. Books seemed a longshot, because I was a slow reader. (One thing I loved about movies was that it took everyone the same amount of time to experience them.)
By the time I reached high school, I considered journalism and playwriting before deciding that my heart was in film. I majored in screenwriting in college and when I graduated, I found my niche writing children’s television for the likes of Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and PBS.
I was writing for The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo at Nickelodeon when Simon & Schuster decided to publish a series of tie-in books for the show. There were two writers on the staff and we both wanted to write one of the books. The network’s first reaction was some variation of “You can’t write books because you’re not real writers, your just TV writers.” We persisted and eventually they gave in.
How’s this for a punchline: the other writer on the staff was Suzanne Collins. (Turns out she was a real writer after all.)
The thrill I got when I saw that book on the shelf of my local Barnes & Noble planted a seed. Over the ensuing years, I dabbled in book writing while still focusing most of my energy on my day job as a television writer and producer. As much as I loved production, I discovered that I loved writing books for kids even more. I didn’t want it to be a side hustle any longer.
Last year, after more than twenty-five years in television, I became a full-time author.
My background in TV has shaped my work as an author in ways that are both obvious and unexpected. Here are a few:
Even though it was said in jest (I think), the “you’re not a real writer” comment struck a nerve because part of me worried that it was true. After all, the conventional wisdom was that novels were important whereas television was entertainment. Even though I’ve now written eight books, I’m still caught off guard when someone refers to me as an author. Half the time I turn to see if there’s someone sitting next to me smoking a pipe and wearing a sweater.
Despite this, I was happy to discover that I’m not alone. In addition to the aforementioned Suzanne Collins (who’s unwavering support encouraged me to make a serious run at writing books), here’s a quick list of authors in my circle of friends who worked in film and television before writing books: Stuart Gibbs, Max Brallier, Chris Grabenstein, Shannon Messenger, and Alan Gratz. That’s like half the starting lineup at the middle grade all-star game. It would also include Gordon Korman, except he somehow managed to have five novels published while still a teenager before he arrived at NYU as a freshman film major. (Overachiever.)
- POINT OF VIEW AND DIALOGUE
My first two series (Dead City and Framed!) were written in first person and I think a big part of the reason is because scriptwriting places such a premium on dialogue. A novelist’s ability to write what a character is thinking is not part of the screenwriter’s toolkit. In a script, everything has to be externalized with dialogue. And, what is a first-person novel? A 315-page speech. City Spies was the first book I wrote in third person and it terrified me throughout the process.
- SERIES WRITING
Of the eleven books I’ve been contracted to write, only one is a stand-alone novel. (An upcoming YA murder mystery.) My natural instinct is to write series, no doubt because I worked in series television. It’s an entirely different construction to write characters whose stories are completed in a single narrative than it is across multiple episodes produced periodically for years. By this point, I’m hard wired to write long-term character arcs.
I wrote and produced a series for the History Channel and have made several documentaries for NBC Sports. Thorough research was an essential part of doing both. Even though I’m now writing fiction, I try to interview as many experts as I can. For example, in the past two weeks, I’ve interviewed former high-ranking officials at the CIA and State department, as well as Moscow natives and staff members of the US Chess federation to help work out chapters for City Spies 3 that are set in Russia.
- LOCATION SCOUTING
When I produced documentaries, I scouted locations looking for the best places to shoot. I try to do the same with books. The settings I write are usually specific real-life locations and I try to visit them as part of my research. I wrote about the top of the George Washington Bridge in Dead City because I’d been there. When I was writing the chapters in City Spies that take place in the Edinburgh airport and train station, I constantly referred to the scouting photos I’d taken at both. This technique not only helps with authenticity, but the details of those places spark wonderful ideas that are organic to the setting and story.
When working on a television series, writers are invariably cornered by cast members (or in the case of children’s television by their parents) who feel they’re getting the short shrift with regard to screen time and character development. These can be awkward discussions, but the truth is that an actor’s self-interest will often shine a light on things that were overlooked in a writer’s room. As uncomfortable as they are, these conversations can help breathe new life into a show by introducing fresh plot developments.
City Spies has five main characters and takes place in locations across the world. It’s easy to lose track of one over the course of several chapters and I find myself having imaginary conversations with them in which they protest their lack of page time much like the real actors did.
- CINEMATIC TECHNIQUE
In film school, it was drilled into us to write with pictures. “Show don’t tell” was the mantra. We also learned the three-act structure of feature films and the need for cliffhangers before every commercial break in television. Invariably, these techniques work their way into my books. I try to keep an eye out to where they aren’t a good fit, but I think it’s part of the reason people often tell me that they read like a movie. Sometimes, when I’m stuck, I ask myself how I would solve the problem if I were making a film and then try to think of an appropriate analogue for fiction writing.
Today is the book birthday for my eighth novel, City Spies Golden Gate. I get so much joy and happiness from writing books for kids. Even though it took me a while to get here, it really is the best job I could imagine. Still, old habits die hard, and while I’m firmly committed to books, I couldn’t help but make a movie style trailer for this one. Take a look and see what you think. But I’ll tell you something, it’s just like they say, the book is so much better.
James Ponti is the New York Times bestselling author of three middle grade book series: the all-new City Spies, about an unlikely squad of five kids from around the world who form an elite MI6 Spy Team; the Edgar Award–winning Framed! series, about a pair of tweens who solve mysteries in Washington, DC; and the Dead City trilogy, about a secret society that polices the undead living beneath Manhattan. His books have appeared on more than fifteen different state award lists and he is the founder of a writers group known as the Renegades of Middle Grade. James is also an Emmy–nominated television writer and producer who has worked for many networks including Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, PBS, History, and Spike TV, as well as NBC Sports. He lives with his family in Orlando, Florida. Find out more at JamesPonti.com.