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Inside the creative process of one of Buffalo's greatest exports: Writers

I had a chance to be a writer on “Deadwood.” Sort of.

Three years ago, when I visited television writer David Milch in California, he gave me a tour of his office. Milch, who grew up in Buffalo and went on to co-create ABC’s “NYPD Blue” with Steven Bochco and later HBO’s “Deadwood,” worked out of a house on a Santa Monica side street. When we walked into the room where he actually does his writing, I noticed stacks of paper labeled “Deadwood.” I had heard that Milch was working with HBO to relaunch the acclaimed series, which had ended prematurely in 2006 after three seasons.

“Is this the new ‘Deadwood’ you’re working on?” I asked.

“Mmm hmm,” Milch affirmed. When I told him I was glad he’s bringing back the show, which was set in the 1870s wild west, he made an offer. “We’re going to do it some more,” Milch said, “so weigh in if you have some thoughts on it. Write me a letter.”

“Deadwood” returned to HBO Friday — not as a series, but as a feature film. I never did write Milch that letter, but his storytelling process fascinated me. Over the next few years, as I came in contact with members of the corps of writers that Buffalo has exported to the literary and Hollywood worlds, I began collecting notes on their creative approaches.

David Milch, pictured in the Santa Monica office where he wrote the new "Deadwood" movie, verbalizes his writing for an assistant who transcribes his words. (Photo by Jenna Schoenefeld/Special to The News)

David Milch, television writer

Milch, who revealed recently that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, writes aloud. When I visited his office, where a bin overflowed with old drafts and a wall was covered with index cards of character names, his set-up was this: Milch would sit back comfortably and verbalize the words he envisioned. An assistant named Scott would sit behind a keyboard facing Milch and type whatever he said. The words would appear on a monitor that Milch could see, essentially giving him an instant view of the story or script he was creating.

“I’m a human typewriter,” Scott joked.

“I don’t know how to use a laptop,” said Milch, who likely wasn’t joking. At the time, at least, he wasn’t using a cellphone or much other technology. He preferred to eliminate the distraction.

“I feel alienated using it,” Milch said. “For better or worse, this is pretty close to human communication.”

Breaking free of his demons, David Milch stays in the Hollywood game

Before she writes, Diane English does some cleaning — which also gives her a chance to play the story out in her mind. (Jenna Schoenefeld/News file photo)

Diane English, television writer

The Buffalo native and “Murphy Brown” creator indulges her passion before she starts writing.

And that passion is?

“I love to vacuum,” said English, whose home in Pacific Palisades has an office with French doors that open to a terrace overlooking a small garden. “It just releases, and while I’m doing it, I’m thinking about what I’m going to write that day.”

After vacuuming her house “top to bottom,” answering emails and having something to eat — “all the procrastinating I can think of” — she settles in to write for four or five hours. “I don’t ever stop in a place where I’m stuck,” she said. “I force myself to stop in a place where I’m on a roll, so that it will not be difficult to come back the next day.”

The idea for “Murphy Brown,” a late '80s and '90s sitcom centered around a strong-willed television journalist played by Candice Bergen, came to English when she was sitting in Los Angeles’ gridlocked traffic. The series was relaunched last year, which put English in charge of a writers room once again. That altered her approach: English wrote the pilot episode herself on a laptop while spending time at her homes in California, New York City and Martha’s Vineyard. After that, she hired a team of nine writers and worked with them for eight weeks on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif., and then in New York City, where “Murphy Brown” was shot. The writing staff planned the episodes together, then individual writers were assigned outlines and scripts that English would ultimately shape with notes, revisions, and punched-up jokes.

After the cast had rehearsed with the script and performed a full run-through, English and her staff would make the final trims, tightens and joke improvements. The show was shot on a Friday night in front of an audience. “And then,” English said, “we start all over again on Monday with a new show.”

CBS canceled the series last month and English is hoping a streaming service such as Amazon, Hulu or Netflix will pick it up.

'Murphy Brown' creator Diane English sets sights on return to TV

Tom Fontana lives and works in a former library branch building in Manhattan's Greenwich Village neighborhood. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Tom Fontana, television writer

The Buffalo native owns a former library branch building in Manhattan that doubles as his home and office. His staff works on the lower level and Fontana occupies the main and upper floors. On the top floor, he built a writing space inspired by Mark Twain’s old office, which is now housed on the campus of Elmira College. Twain’s space, which Fontana visited, is an octagonal structure with large windows and built-in bookshelves. “When I saw it, I went, ‘I could have written Huckleberry Finn if you’d given me this place!’ ” said Fontana, whose own work (“Oz,” “Hill Street Blues”) has been pretty well-received, too.

This plaque is at the entrance of Fontana's home and office. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Before he goes to sleep each night, Fontana plays out in his mind what he will write the next morning. He awakens at 5 a.m. to begin work. “It’s dark and it’s great because New York City takes this little breath at 5 o’clock,” he said. “It’s in between the time that all the kids that are out partying have gone home and the garbage trucks start rolling.”

Fontana writes on yellow pads; he enjoys the sensation of crumpling and tossing paper.

“There are days when I’ll stop writing at 5 at night, and it’ll feel like 10 minutes has gone by,” he said. “On a physical level, you’re transported to another universe, and it’s a universe of your own creating ...

“These days, it’s a lot better place to live than the world we really live in.”

Writer Alan Zweibel, center, shown here performing with actor Tony Danza at Celebrity Autobiography at The Triad in Manhattan, was one of the original writers for "Saturday Night Live." (Derek Gee/Buffalo News file photo)

Alan Zweibel, novelist, memoirist and comedy writer

Zweibel is another early riser. The University at Buffalo alum, who went on to become an original “Saturday Night Live" writer and a noted author and producer, wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to start his workday from his home office in New Jersey, where the Manhattan skyline is visible from his window.

Zweibel is a prolific and versatile writer. Consider his current projects: He is preparing “Bunny Bunny,” a play based on the book Zweibel wrote about his relationship with Gilda Radner, for a return to the stage in New York. A feature film he wrote with Billy Crystal starts shooting in the fall. His next book, “A Field Guide to the Jewish People,” written with Dave Barry and Adam Mansbach, will publish in September, and his memoir, “Laugh Lines: 40 Years Trying to Make Funny People Funnier,” will hit print next April.

Zweibel prefers to work on multiple projects at once, but “never two things of the same genre,” he said. “I don’t want to tap the same parts of my brain. It’s like going to the gym: You don’t do your arms everyday. You alternate.” He has a different spot in his office for each project he is writing. He may write prose in one chair, a script from behind his desk, and a New Yorker article in another chair.

“I go 'til I’m running on fumes, and then I’ll go to the gym or ask my wife, ‘Do we need anything from the supermarket?’ just to get out of the house,” Zweibel said, “then I’ll come back and try to continue, or switch to something else.”

Sometimes that writing will happen when no one else realizes it. “Let’s say it’s perfectly quiet, and it’s just the two of us,” said Robin Zweibel, Alan’s wife. “He’s standing in the kitchen, staring at the window, and I’ll say, ‘Alan, did you speak to — ’ And he’ll say, ‘Can’t you see I’m writing?’ "

UB-bred comedy writer Zweibel follows this mantra: Keep on rowing

Joyce Carol Oates speaks at Canisius College's Montante Cultural Center in 2011. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

Joyce Carol Oates, novelist

The Lockport native and longtime Princeton University professor begins work “as early as possible” — preferably 7 a.m. — by writing at her desk, which looks down into her garden. She writes longhand first, then transfers notes to her laptop and structures the story into scenes, vignettes and chapters.

When asked what sparks her creativity, Oates responded in an email, “Imagination, primarily.  But I read constantly, and am always struck by random stories —  revelations — in unexpected places.”

Oates typically writes until about 1 p.m., though if that imagination runs strong, and those revelations plentiful, she may go longer. “Often I am working late in the afternoon, into early evening, and my husband Charlie drifts by with a query — ‘When do you think we might have dinner?’ ”

(Note: Oates shared these thoughts last year. Her husband, Charles Gross, died in April.)

Oates, who has published 58 novels, noted that she doesn’t work as quickly as it would appear.

“Though I have a reputation for being ‘prolific,’  I actually work quite slowly, with 90% of my time spent on revisions,” she said, and added, “To me, writing is revision. ‘First thought, best thought’ — as Allen Ginsberg is said to have said — is not, to my way of thinking, good advice at all.”

Author Lauren Belfer visiting the Buffalo Seminary in 2011. (Buffalo News file photo)

Lauren Belfer, novelist

The author of the Buffalo-based “City of Light” writes in her son’s old bedroom. She shuts the door, even if nobody else is home, silences her landline and shuts off her cellphone. Belfer begins her day early — 6 a.m. is typical. “The city seems quiet and my mind feels clear and free,” she wrote in an email, “not yet distracted by email or the morning newspaper or the dozens of chores and errands we all need to accomplish in a typical day.”

Belfer surrounds herself with books and photos from her research. For “City of Light,” she positioned images of old Buffalo in her view. “Somehow their presence is reassuring and inspiring,” she said. “If I glance at a book, its contents seems to pour back into my mind.”

Before writing, Belfer creates an outline, but then she puts it in a drawer when she starts working on the first draft, referring to it only occasionally.

“In a first draft, I try to move along at a good, steady pace, to lay out the arc of the story and make certain the plot points hold together,” she said. “During the revision stage, I go slowly and examine every detail. Revision is fun, at least in comparison to the tough process of filling blank pages to create a first draft.”

Belfer can see the Empire State Building from her home office, and she takes advantage of the ability to soak in the New York skyline. “A good view is important to me,” Belfer said, “because during the course of any given day I spend a lot of time staring out the window as I think through various scenes.”

Western New York native Michele Fazekas, left, and her writing partner Tara Butters have worked out a system for planning stories together and editing each others' work.(Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Michele Fazekas & Tara Butters, TV writers

Fazekas, who is Western New York native, and Butters have an impressive resume as a writers and producers: They were the showrunners of “Agent Carter” and “Resurrection” and created “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.” Their new drama, “Emergence,” was just picked up as a series by ABC.

But the writing duo officially known in Hollywood as “Fazekas & Butters” doesn’t actually write together — not in the literal, side-by-side at a keyboard sense.

“I actually hate when someone watches me write,” Fazekas said. “It makes me really anxious.” Instead, they work together to “break” the story — a screenwriting term for figuring out the plotlines and turning points, scene by scene — and then they split up the actual writing duties. Butters will take half, Fazekas takes the other. Once finished, they trade.

“I write it shorter,” Butters says.

“Tara usually edits mine because I write too long,” Fazekas agrees. “And I’ll do a dialogue pass on hers. It works out really well. It’s a system that works.”

Patrick Hasburgh is working on the second book in his surf-themed "Pirata" series. He's pictured here in Encinitas, Calif. with his family: daughter Jensen, wife Cheri, and son Wheeler. (Jenna Schoenefeld/Special to the Buffalo News)

Patrick Hasburgh, TV writer and novelist

The Buffalo-born creator of the '80s television show-turned-movie “21 Jump Street” is now a novelist. Hasburgh and his family split their time between homes in Sayulita, Mexico, and Encinitas, Calif., which is north of San Diego.

At home in California, where his two children attend school, Hasburgh wakes up at 4 a.m., reads a newspaper, begins writing between 5 and 6 a.m. and continues for about four hours.

“Usually if it’s between five and 10 pages, if it’s a good day,” said Hasburgh, who is at work on a sequel to his surf-themed novel “Pirata,” which was published last year.

Hasburgh, a surfer himself, takes an afternoon nap, and then revises and polishes what he wrote in the morning. “I forbid myself to ever go backwards the next day,” he said. “My morning session, whatever I’m working on, no matter how much it sucks, I’m going forward and moving toward the finish line.”

That momentum, Hasburgh said, empowers him to do real revision.

“I’ve learned that all the important work is done in rewriting, but the rewriting doesn’t start until you’ve finished the first draft,” he said. “It’s a real trap — you get stuck in making that first chapter or paragraph or sentence or 50 pages perfect, as opposed to making the next 50 pages exist.”

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