Lessons Learned from Every Book I’ve Written: ‘Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted’

paperback coverMary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted is what I consider my first solo book in a lot of ways. It was my passion project. And it was the book in which I learned to write a book. I’ll try to explain that a little more here, but it was a spiritual feeling more than anything else. (Annyoingly writery, but true.) This was the book that set the course of my career for the next several years, allowing me to quit my full-time job and providing the template I would follow for the next two books. It got me good reviews in places like The New York Times. It showed I could do a special thing. And it allowed me to interview a bunch of incredible women who wrote for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, some of whom are still my friends. Not bad.

Here are some of the specific lessons I got out of it as well:

  • A book is not a long magazine article. This is the best way I can summarize the transition I made while writing this book. I wrote a first draft that was very similar in approach to the final version of Why? Because We Still Like You. It was fine. It had a lot of people telling stories in long quotes. The material was good. But luckily, I was edited by my publisher, Jon Karp, who had acquired the book. He meant to have someone else edit it, but that didn’t stick, and I am luckier for it. After I turned in my first draft, he wanted to have a phone call. He’d given me notes, and when we got on the phone, I immediately started ticking off to him how I would address each one of his points. He was essentially like, “Sure, great, whatever,” and then proceeded to say a bunch of stuff that I wish I had recorded. Something just happened while he was talking, I swear. I barely remember what he said, but I know that I got off the phone, rewrote the book, and it was good then. He taught me, possibly via psychic trance, how to write a book. The one thing I remember is that he said, “Reviewers will read this version and write respectful reviews. But it’s like a long, good Entertainment Weekly story. It can be a great book instead.” This might be what did it. Or he’s a magician. I’m not saying subsequent books were easy to write. But I figured it out here. Scenes instead of long quotes. Arcs instead of long line-ups of facts.
  • Follow your instincts. I’m giving this a separate bullet point, but it was the other huge take-away from my conversation with Jon. I had originally wanted to start my book with a narrative about Mary Tyler Moore writer Treva Silverman and how she went from piano prodigy to piano bar player to one of the first major female writers in TV comedy. But I second-guessed myself and turned in a first draft that started with the male creators of the show, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, instead. Jon said something like, “Why don’t you start with Treva? That’s where I can feel your excitement.” I switched it back, and it’s my favorite opening of any of my books. (Though I really like Sex and the City and Us, too, but you haven’t seen that yet.)
  • Titles, man.love the idea behind Mary and Lou‘s title, which called to mind both the 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and the more modern idea of those shirts that put a bunch of related names together in Helvetica font with ampersands between them. But it was always hard for, well, anyone—media, people introducing me at events, etc.—to remember the order of the names, aside from Mary being first. People who didn’t know the show constantly said “Rhonda” instead of “Rhoda.” Even internally, we started calling it just Mary and Lou. It’s a cool title, and I never came up with a better one, but I wouldn’t return to this title format lightly. Sex and the City and Us is similar but doesn’t have the same problem; no one is going to confuse the order of sex, city, and us. Plus they’re all short words and include the title of the show, which is hugely helpful.
  • A book doesn’t have to be a bestseller to be a success. I could feel my stock rise with this one. It got generally good reviews, and it got me the chance to write another book for Simon and Schuster. People who read it love it. It’s not perfect, but I will happily tell you I love it. Also, the cover is really fucking cool.

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