Seinfeld writer Peter Mehlman on jumping from TV to novel writing

“A beautiful prose sentence usually has no place in script dialogue.”

It pays to know what you’re good at as a writer and where you’re not so hot. Just because you can build a character with more dimensions than a Doctor Who omnibus, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to make her work effectively across TV, radio, literature and theater equally.

Take it from Seinfeld writer and co-executive producer Peter Mehlman, who happened to make the move from TV sitcom to full prose, but warns that it isn’t always an easy leap.

Writing for Writer’s Digest, Mehlman says that moving from the set of strict rules and boundaries that come with a successful TV sitcom to the open-ended opportunities of literature is tough. However, for him, a history in journalism and the nature of Seinfeld itself made the leap much more manageable.

“When I took a sabbatical from script writing to focus on prose, the transition was easier than it would be for most because I started out my career as a writer for the Washington Post,” he says.

“The job required observation, interpretation and clean, grammatical (!) writing. In fact, even while happily ensconced in something as magical as Seinfeld, a part of me missed writing full sentences. Sure, Seinfeld prioritised the clever turn of a phrase more than [most] of all sitcoms ever. But there was a limit to that. A beautiful prose sentence usually has no place in script dialogue, no matter how high-falutin the project.

“However, in other ways, Seinfeld was a gateway to novel writing,” he adds. “The best Seinfeld scripts came out of small observations of people, social manners and one’s own thoughts. It made me hyper aware of all those things and that was something that translated well into writing (hopefully) literary fiction.

“The good news is, if you can get past the initial rockiness of making the transition to prose, the process can be enjoyable. With no Show Runner or “Network Head of Comedy” hovering over your every word, life suddenly feels full of possibility, freedom and fresh air.”

On another note: Mehlman says that his 350-page novel It’s Not Always Going To Be This Great is currently being unsuccessfully flogged by a literary agent. Just goes to show it’s rarely easy, whoever you are.


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