Flipping the Script by Joe Hartlaub


City of the sun








Happy 2016! I plan on having a successful one and hope that you do as well. Let me start the year off with an example of how we both might do that.

The tale concerns an author named David Levien. The name might not mean anything to you. His work will. David co-wrote the screenplays for the films Ocean’s Thirteen and Runaway Jury, as well as the less known but nonetheless riveting Rounders. He also is the author of a series of novels — a series which I hope and pray will continue — about a troubled ex-cop named Frank Behr who works as a private investigator in Indianapolis. The books in the Behr series — City of the Sun, Where the Dead Lay, 13 Million Dollar Pop (also known as The Contract), and Signature Kill, are full of rough streets, dark alleys, and grim characters with nothing to lose. They are each and all critically acclaimed, but have not had the commercial success to match.


That may change, and very shortly. Levien has in a way flipped the script with his latest project, one which has garnered a great number of well-deserved pre-release accolades.  It is a series for Showtime called Billions, and it premieres tomorrow, Sunday, January 17, 2016, though you can find the first episode online if you know where to look. Billions contains no Indianapolis, no alleys, no fisticuffs, no guys with nothing left to lose. We instead get New York and high rises, raised voices but no violence (other than that between consenting adults), and guys with everything to lose.  Billions, you see, is about winning. It pits a driven, obsessive U.S. Attorney named Chuck Rhoades against a likable hedge fund billionaire named Bobby “Axe” Axelrod. Rhoades has an enviable win record in bringing down successful Wall Street brokers and traders because, in his own words, he only prosecutes cases that he can win. Rhoades believes that Axelrod’s success is the result of insider trading. Axelrod will tell you — and he does — that he simply reads the market better than anyone else. Who is right will be played out, no doubt, over the course of the series, which gets rolling over the purchase of a house. Is it a seventy-eight room house that costs fifty-eight million dollars, or a fifty-eight room house that costs…well, things get rolling because of the purchase of a house. Frank Behr can barely make the nut on his apartment every month. As I said, Levien, with his co-creators, has flipped the script. And with that, came up with what may well be the best line of dialogue I’ve heard in years, if not a decade or two. Watch the first episode of Billions. It will jump out at you. It might also encourage you to read one or more of those Frank Behr books, which are very different from their brother Billions but are just as well-written.

What does this mean for you? And for me? Just this: try flipping your script once in awhile. If you’re writing a cop story, try your hand at a romance or science fiction. And vice-versa. I had a guy pitch a novel to me yesterday that was so different from what he’s been doing, and yet so unique and original, that I was left silent. For a whole ten fifteen seconds. That’s a new record. Anyway, give it a shot. You might not get a series on Showtime or Netflix or even Starz, but you might surprise yourself. And maybe even the world.
Can you think of an author who changed genres or styles for better or worse, for one project or more? I’ve got a couple. One is John Jakes, who wrote science fiction novels without success but wrote a series of best-selling historical novels which, among other things, were adapted for television. I can’t read Misery by Stephen King without thinking of Jakes. That’s the better. For the worse: Samuel R. Delany, a highly respected, critically acclaimed and commercially successful science-fiction author who felt compelled to write, among other things, pornography. That’s his description. I would agree. Yikes. NSFO, or anywhere else. Anyway, can you think of anyone? Have you tried the flip? And do you plan to watch Billions?

17 thoughts on “Flipping the Script by Joe Hartlaub

  1. My apologies for the late appearance…and a tip of the fedora to Dr. Steve Hooley, who, in addition to being a great and wonderful guy, alerted me to the absence of my blog contribution this morning. I still don’t know why it didn’t appear as scheduled, but it’s good to be back. Thanks, Steve!

  2. Happy New Year, Mr. H (et Al.).

    My first thought went to William F. Buckley’s (early) Cold War CIA series of Blackford Oakes novels~ maybe not hugely successful, but definitely 180° from his typical writing… I was hooked, and read, and looked for, each as they became available.


  3. Thank you, George. As first thoughts go, Buckley’s Oakes’ series is a terrific one. I had forgotten about those books, which hooked me from the jump. I wish he had written more of them.

  4. Happy New Year, Joe.

    I missed your blogs during the holiday break. Glad you’re blogging today.

    As usual, I have little to contribute, but learn a lot from the discussion. As for the flip, I think that short stories are a great way to try something different, without the large investment in time and energy. Charity anthologies are place to contribute one story and a good way to give back.

    And wouldn’t it be interesting to read an anthology of shorts from published authors who were trying something totally different? I bet you could come up with some interesting ideas for the title of that one.

    Thanks for the post.

    • Hi Steve, thanks again for the heads-up this morning. And you always have plenty to contribute, and today is no exception. We’re glad you’re here.

      That’s a great point about the charity anthology. The folks putting those together are ALWAYS looking for well-written contributions on topic. They are good places for authors looking to put themselves out there to get noticed. And I have to tell you, I LOVE your idea about an anthology for better- or well-known authors stretching their creative wings and soaring into other genres. Someone will undoubtedly take that concept and run with it. I wonder if Lee Child has a western short story bouncing around inside of him?

      Thanks again, Steve!

  5. The most vivid example I can think of is Donald Westlake, who wrote under 20 or so pen names, most notably Alan Marsh for his soft-core porn. Ditto Lawrence Block who wrote some hot stuff under the name Andrew Shaw and Sheldon Lord (the latter had lesbian themes with titles like “Candy: The Girl Who Would Stop at Nothing for Thrills.”)

    My favorite influence John D. MacDonald contributed to pulps across many genres for years under various pen names — John Wade Farrel, Robert Henry, John Lane, Scott O’Hara, Peter Reed, Henry Reiser.

    As for me, I got my start writing romances under the name Kristy Daniels. And my latest book, She’s Not There, is a big departure from my series cop stuff.

    I think, as you point out, Joe, that a change of mental scenery can be invigorating for a writer. And sometimes, it can even pay the mortgage.

    • Kris, thanks for those terrific examples. Many of Block’s books under the names that you mentioned are available as e-books, and are interesting, to say the least. And yes, SHE’S NOT THERE is a huge step away from Louis Kincaid, though certainly the transition was smooth. Great book.

      Another example…andrew j. offutt (sic) who wrote everything from Conan novels and action novels to science fiction and, well, hard-core porn. MY FATHER, THE PORNOGRAPHER: A Memoir, by Chris Offutt (his son, but you all probably figured that out) will be published in February, and is an extremely interesting study about an author who regularly jumped and blurred genre lines.

    • You’re welcome, Nancy, and thank you for your kind words. I think that you will really enjoy Billions, which starts out strong (tonight!) and, I am told, gets better and better. Enjoy!

  6. I haven’t written in other genres, but I know a few who do. Matter of fact, I just interviewed an author who made the switch to crime from erotic romance, and she said the hardest part was keeping her characters from jumping into the sack. LOL

    • Ah, Sue, you always bring a smile. You might tell that author that she can keep her characters out of the sack, if you will, by providing them with a kitchen counter that’s been cleared off. Thanks for sharing!

  7. I recently did just what you’re talking about. After writing 5 military thrillers with booms, bangs, fists and guns I decided to change things up a little and wrote a novella all about my leprechauns, APPETIZERS OF THE GODS, and as it turns out it is selling pretty well. With not a single shot fired, although a puppy did get eaten by a troll. That is now turning into a series of it’s own: THE BROTHER’S FOUR. Book 2 is on its way to publishingham now!…or soon at least.

  8. Berthold!

    You promised not to mention the naked thing! Your brother Gnilli’s home made rum was the fault on that. Rum always makes me act weird and….oh man. how am I going to explain this to my friends.

  9. If the books are anywhere near as entertaining as your posts, Basil, they’ll be optioned for an HBO series in no time at all! Could I get a supporting role as a leprechaun?

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