(Full disclosure -- I am quoted from interview several times in this book, and there excerpts from articles on this blog included. Alex and I have never worked together, and I have no financial share in the book)
Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box is Alex Epstein's follow up to his Crafty Screenwriting. His books are somewhat different, as he takes the "craft" in his title seriously. Where most screenwriting books focus on script structure or story theory, Epstein covers that and much more -- dealing with development execs, writer's block, specific tools a writer might use in specific situations, the problems they might expect during the actual write/rewrite process as she is practiced in the wild. Hence "craft" as opposed to "art".
In Crafty TV, he tackles no less than the standard structure of modern television shows; elementary screenwriting tools; the episodic development cycle from pitch through beat sheet through draft; getting an agent; useful freelancing techniques; writing-room politics and even showrunning. If you're thinking that's a helluva tall order for one book, you're not entirely wrong. There are chunks of this book which handwave certain subjects. However, these are usually the "writing technique" chapters, and there's no shortage of those on the shelves. Epstein can be forgiven for spending twenty pages on elementary sitcom writing when there are five books just about sitcom writing sitting on the store shelf next to his work.
No, the best value from this book lay in two areas.
First, his exhortations on research and analysis when attacking TV writing. Screenwriting takes a lot of gut, sure, but gut without craft is sloppy and worseunsellable. The biggest problem I see in most younger writers is a lack of preparation for the sheer grindwork necessary to make a good television script. How finely tuned even the most obvious sitcom can be when you tear the cover off. I've pushed a chunk of the research techniques he offers freelancers in here, and he digs out some new tricks on top of those. In screenwriting school, one may learn how to write television scripts -- how to spec television is an entirely different process.
I can testify, as the guy who's hired writers, what pulls a spec out of the stack is that it just read "right." That not only is the writer a fine writer, but they understand the process necessary in breaking down episodic TV and replicating it. Oh, sure, I've pulled the occasional fun script from the slush pile on sheer strength of style alone. But at that moment you are, as a writer, competing for a job with the writer who is both good and will save me time because I can drop them into the process on the fly. You are handicapped. This book will aid you in losing that limp.
Does this sound a little ... mercantile? Well, sure. But the one thing young writers never lack is passion. You don't need passion infusions from screenwriting books. You need to know how to beat that passion into four-act blocks. While Crafty Screenwriting explores more distinct writerly tools, Crafty TV helps you both understand the peculiar episodic process and the value of the process. Epstein may hammer you on the need for rewriting until you want to scream, but our guilty secret is that almost all of us need to be hectored about rewriting. Do you need to break out a beat sheet for your spec? After all, nobody's going to see it. But Epstein, in explaining why beat sheets are used during the actual show process, illustrates why you should develop that good habit even in your coffee-shop internship.
Second, Epstein breaks out the working setting of a series in unique detail. When I was first staffed, the military-style ranking of producers was boggling. The writer's room is a bizarre, delicate ego-system. Now, later in my career, I've seen new writers unintentionally self-sabotage in the room when they crossed lines they had no idea existed. (Not my lines -- I am unfailingly loving, forgiving and cheerful in the room. But other people's lines. Important lines)
I had no idea who these suited humans were who kept walking in and ruining our day, what the hell we were doing with that whiteboard ... back when DJ and I were teaching a stand-up class in Montreal we would always insist: "We can't teach you to be a comic. All we can do is shorten that first sucky six months to six weeks." That's what you get in Crafty TV, I think. I can pay no higher compliment than saying I wish I'd read this book before I staffed for the first time. Read this, and I guarantee you will suffer no great surprises once you actually start getting paid to type.
There are only two level criticsim I can toss at this book. The last chapter on showrunning is a bit of a waste. It's interesting for the young dreaming Spec Monkey to read about showrunning, but odds are by the time you're doing it you've been through the fire. Also, he reproduces a springboard, breakdown and beat sheet in an Appendix. The only problem is, the documents are for the show Charlie Jade, a sci fi show known for its non-linear structure. Personally, I think a spec for a more popular show would have been more helpful for the newbies than the actual documents for a more difficult show.
The occasional lack of focus can more than be forgiven for the breadth of coverage. While there are a few nice tricks in there even more experienced writers might use, it's geared primarily to the semi-pro, triple A Spec Monkey. For the aspiring newbie, however, I'd say it's required reading. There's no great "eureka!" moment in the book, but an accretion of detail you'll find both interesting and useful. There are plenty of "How to Write Television 101" books out there; Crafty TV is "How to Be a Television Writer 101". There is a world of difference between those two accomplishments.