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Stephen J. Cannell discusses his new thriller, 'The Tin Collectors'

January 8, 2001
2 p.m.

(CNN) -- Stephen J. Cannell is an Emmy-award winning writer, producer, and a bestselling author. He has created or co-created more than 38 television shows including "The Rockford Files," "The A-Team," and "Baretta." He formed his own independent production company, Stephen J. Cannell Productions, in 1979 in an effort to maintain creative control over his own productions. His newest book, "The Tin Collectors," is Cannell's sixth novel.

Chat moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Stephen J. Cannell, and welcome.

Stephen J. Cannell: Hi. I'm glad everybody is here today and I am looking forward to talking about anything that interests you, such as my work or getting an agent or whatever. I hope we have a lot of aspiring writers out there.

Question from tomahawk: What is this book about?

Stephen J. Cannell: "The Tin Collectors" is about the Internal Affairs division at the LAPD. Since police officers often refer to their badges as their "tins" and since Internal Affairs is often in the business of terminating bad cops, I chose the title, "The Tin Collectors."

Question from we: What was your main reason for writing this book?

Stephen J. Cannell: I was intrigued with the Internal Affairs division because they are cops who are basically trying and prosecuting other cops. But my preconception of what Internal Affairs really was and how it operated was all wrong. I found this out by going down to the Internal Affairs division in Los Angeles and watching many "board of rights" hearings. The "board of rights" is a trial. I was surprised at the amount of effort expended on even the most miniscule charges.

The police officers at Internal Affairs were also nothing like what I had anticipated. I had always thought Internal Affairs officers would be cops who hated other cops. Not so. They tended to be highly ambitious, upwardly mobile, good-looking sergeants -- the cream of the LAPD. Sometimes when I was down there watching it was almost as if I was sitting in a network meeting in CBS. I got fascinated, the idea grew, and after several months of plotting and research I knew I had a good novel.

Question from chuck: Why is it that the Internal Affairs people on all the cop programs seem to be portrayed as the bad guys?

Stephen J. Cannell: The reason for that is that, generally, the TV stars are police officers being tried by Internal Affairs and since the stars are the heroes, obviously Internal Affairs gets to play the heavy. This was my feeling before I went down there as well and I've written about Internal Affairs for years. Going down there and watching it was a big eye-opener. What I'm trying to do in "The Tin Collectors" is take you inside this division and let you see the culture of Internal Affairs.

Chat moderator: Did you intend to write a series, or did you start out writing just one novel?

Stephen J. Cannell: Well, when I started writing novels, I wanted to write "standalones." My first five novels were standalones. However, when I finished "The Tin Collectors," I felt that those characters were really exciting and that I might like to write a follow-up novel. I asked my new publishers at St. Martin's how they felt about it and they were delighted. I also had a really great idea for the story for that book, "The Viking's Funeral," so I wrote the second novel. And it appears that there will be more behind that.

But you guys gotta go out and buy it!

Question from Is: How different do you find writing a novel than writing a script?

Stephen J. Cannell: Writing novels is actually far more rewarding for me than screenplays. (They) give me a chance to research and learn, and the project is much more inclusive.

TV scripts, on the other hand, don't (give me) as much time to research and I don't have the additional tools of writing that a novelist has, such as (the) omniscient author ... going inside a character's head and accessing his or her personal thoughts. In a screenplay we can't do this. Everything has to come out of the character's mouth.

Also in novels, you get to be everything. There is no director to change the vision, no actor who puts his or her spin on the work. You build the sets and write the music.

Question from Kanter: Colin Higgins once remarked that anonymity was an author's greatest advantage. How do you feel your celebrity affects your research?

Stephen J. Cannell: Well, my celebrity doesn't affect it because I try not to bring a lot of negative energy in with me. And once people get to know me and find out that I view myself as just another guy trying to do the best job I can, and that I don't take myself too seriously, they look past the celebrity and I start to form valuable relationships that can help me with my work.

Question from sav: What is the best way for a young person to get involved in the business that you are in?

Stephen J. Cannell: If you're talking about writing, the first and most important thing -- and this will sound silly but I mean it with all my heart -- is you must write every day. Very often I meet writers and ask them, "What are you working on?" And the answer frequently is, "Nothing, my agent hasn't gotten me a job and I don't write for free." I find that to be a ridiculous response.

By way of example, my first novel, "The Plan," I wrote 100 percent on spec, and this book, "The Tin Collectors," I also wrote without a contract because my deal was up and my last book written under contract had yet to be published. I just went ahead and wrote another one. Had I not sold it, I would have been disappointed, but I would have been better for the experience of having written it.

Question from Is: When writing one of your novels, do you ever have it in the back of your mind that you might be able to turn it into a movie or TV project?

Stephen J. Cannell: No. When I write books, I am trying to write books. I have adequate opportunities to write TV and motion pictures. However, if somebody buys one of my novels, I won't shoot the postman when he delivers the check.

Question from patti: What's next on your agenda?

Stephen J. Cannell: Well, I've already written the sequel to "The Tin Collectors," which will be out a year from now. Beyond that, I've also written a novel behind that one which has yet to be sold to anybody and which I'm very excited about. So you can see I practice what I preach. I write every day for five hours. I write ideas that intrigue and excite me. And the joy is in the doing.

Question from Kanter: Does your dyslexia pose a bigger problem for you when you are writing a novel?

Stephen J. Cannell: No, writing (is) writing. One of the misunderstood ideas about dyslexia is that if you have it, it should, or would, hamper your ability to communicate on paper. The only place where this is true is spelling. But as I am thinking up these sentences and speaking them to you this afternoon, so can I think them up and put them down on paper when I'm writing screenplays and novels. They just aren't spelled very well.

Question from salv: Did you encounter many obstacles when you first started out with your dyslexia?

Stephen J. Cannell: I don't think I encountered more obstacles than most writers encounter. I knew I couldn't spell but I knew I could write, (so) I hired a typist when I really couldn't afford (it). I asked her to clean up my spelling but not my syntax.

I once had a typist take all of my incomplete sentences (sentence fragments) and contractions and straighten them out The result was the dialogue read like textbook writing. Obviously sentence structures that are incomplete, run on ideas, contractions, broken thoughts, are all the tools of writing dialogue. Once I got that straightened out the only problem I encountered was that I couldn't afford a typing service.

Question from toni: What is the best way to "pitch" a television show concept? What is the best way to protect the idea?

Stephen J. Cannell: The best way to pitch a television idea is face-to-face in the room, with the studio executive or at the network. Obviously, in order to do this, you need an agent to set these meetings up.

As for protecting the idea let me advise you not to worry about theft. When I speak at writing schools, this seems to be an overriding concern. "I don't want to send out my work," students tell me, "because I'm afraid people will steal my ideas." Well, guess what? There is no way to sell something without taking that chance, so I would reccommend that you stop worrying about it and view it as a slight risk to your writing career.

Let me add that almost every writer that I know has never had something really stolen. What often will happen is we will find ourselves working on similar ideas and very often those ideas were suggested to us by the media. For example after Patty Hearst got kidnapped, I can't tell you how many "Rockford Files" pitches I took where a billionaire's daughter was kidnapped by urban terrorists. Had I been working on a similar idea, and shot it, some of those writers might have felt I stole the idea. But it wasn't theirs, either. That is the kind of thinking that that creates this paranoia about idea thefts. Let it go. Don't worry about it. My guess is you'll never have a problem.

Chat moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

Stephen J. Cannell: I'm in a terrific place right now. I am still able to interact with all my friends in (television). I've been fortunate enough to have this new career as a novelist and even my acting career has continued to thrive. And without a studio to run, which consumed hours of my time thru the '80s and '90s, I'm able to concentrate on these creative parts of my life which I enjoy far more than the executive work. I hope all of you who are interested in this kind of a career will have the same rewards. But you must write every day to do it.

Chat moderator: Thank you for joining us today.

Stephen J. Cannell: Goodbye, and don't forget to pick up your very own personal copy of "The Tin Collectors."

Stephen J. Cannell joined the chat room via telephone from New York and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Monday, January 8, 2001.

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