When fantasy writers turn on TV, what turns fantasy writers on? (Hint: Breaking Bad)

On my way to the World Fantasy Convention in Crystal City, Virginia last weekend, I had a chat with an editor, who sighed with dismay that she’d initially packed only four or five books to bring with her for the long weekend. She wondered if that was enough.

I began to wonder if I just wasn’t serious about this reading thing – I’d only brought one, plus the new issue of New York Magazine.

Turns out, both of us over-packed: On arrival, everyone got a lovely canvas tote bag packed with … you guessed it, books. Why did I ever think I’d need reading material at a convention devoted to writers?

Then again, I’m new to all this and the WFC is just-turned 40. There was a lot of expertise in that hotel. In just a few brief days it packs in live readings, panels, a dealer’s room (filled with booksellers, natch), an awards ceremony, a tribute to WWI (complete with faux poppy pins) and an ice cream social. It is enough to make a word nerd’s head ‘splode with joy and overscheduling. What it tends to have almost nothing to do with is television.

Which is why I made it my mission to track down several of the more fascinating authors in attendance and quiz them all about the one thing they probably weren’t thinking about for approximately 72 hours – the small screen, and the writing that goes on there. It was a simple mission, and the answers were surprising: What’s the best writing you know of on TV today?

Here’s what I learned:


Sarah Pinsker
Author and musician Pinsker won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best short fiction of 2013 with her short story, “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind.”
Show of Choice: Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black
“The way they set about using this Trojan horse of a white middle class character to tell these stories about the other women in the jail on the show – they’re all given weight, and thought, and backstory in a way I’ve never seen on a TV show. The women all have reasons [for their plight] and are sympathetic – or not – but there’s lots of gray.”


Danielle Ackley-McPhail
McPhail’s most recent book (co-written with Day Al-Mohamed) is Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn.
Show of Choice: ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
“It’s not jut an action show; there’s depth to the characters and the situations. I’m not sure how much of that is lent from the comics and how much is the actual show, but it’s handled very well whether you care about the deeper characterizations or you like the action, there’s enough of both integrated so it carries you through the episode. You’re not left confused even if you just came in, having missed a few episodes.”


James Chambers
Speculative fiction and horror author Chambers’ latest book is Three Chords of Chaos, a Bad-Ass Faerie Tale.
Show of Choice: AMC’s Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad is the closest thing I’ve seen to a novel played out on television. It was one of the first shows I’ve seen in a long time that gave the audience credit for having an attention span that lasted more than two weeks. Character development, subplots, plotlines that played out over the entire course of the show – and some very in-depth and well-observed characterizations that made it the peak of television writing in the last decade or so.”

Heather McDougal

Steampunk writer McDougal so far has one cracking book: Songs for a Machine Age.
Show of Choice: Also Breaking Bad
“There are shows you enjoy, and ones you think are well-written. This was a show I didn’t enjoy, but it was so well-written that it actually made me watch it for a few episodes because I was so fascinated by the writing. The way the characters interact, the way they’re pulled into weird situations – not that you haven’t seen it all before, but the way it’s put together is different. They’re not afraid of silence, of filling every scene up with emotions. They leave gaps where the emotions should be and you fill it in. Which might be part of why I didn’t keep watching. Ultimately, I couldn’t stand what was happening, so I had to stop.”

And for the contrary view – the most disappointing writing on television right now:


Lawrence M. Schoen
The creator of the ongoing Amazing Conroy series has a new novella published as a standalone book, Calendrical Regression, which is part of the Conroy universe.
Show of Choice: ABC’s Forever
“The saving grace of this show is the supporting character, played by Judd Hirsch. Otherwise, the show is trying to be many other shows all at the same time. You’re seeing all these tropes of other shows, and it’s doing them all together badly. It’s not going to survive and it’s frustrating because the writing is so transparent and superficial. The writing is not helping the actors. You can tell everything that’s going to happen from the very first moment – that’s my greatest disappointment in genre shows this season. It could be done better!”

This column originally appeared in Curiosity Quills.