How Lost, Dollhouse and other TV series are getting ready for fall

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Jul 4, 2015, 1:52 PM EDT

As you read these words, know that in windowless conference rooms all over Los Angeles, from Sony in Culver City to 20th Television in Century City, from Sunset-Gower in Hollywood to Universal, CBS and Disney in Burbank, writers are working to create the series you will be seeing on your televisions and computer screens this September.

Whether it's Flash Forward or Human Target, or Lost or Dollhouse, every fall series faces its greatest challenge now: filling the orders. Creating a dozen episodes that build on the promise of the original pilot, or continuing a series that is either working very well (Lost) or still finding its way (Dollhouse).

Before I ever became a writer I was fascinated by sci-fi writers' environments. Where was he or she sitting when creation took place? Most often, of course, the location was a home office. Robert A. Heinlein's pioneering Future History stories were composed in a half-basement office on Lookout Mountain in Hollywood in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Isaac Asimov, a proud claustrophile, wrote I, Robot in an attic in suburban Boston, making sure to keep the blinds closed.

Ray Bradbury composed the first version of Fahrenheit 451 on a pay typewriter in the basement of the UCLA library. Connie Willis writes her award-winning novels and stories in a coffee shop in Greeley, Colo.

Harlan Ellison has written while on display in bookstore windows.

What these locations have in common is privacy ... if not physical privacy, then a mental sphere. Connie Willis doesn't ask patrons of the coffee shop for help with story points or word choices. Even Ellison in his window eventually had to quit listening to comments and complaints and start hitting the keys on his Olympia portable.

For years now, sci-fi television has largely been written in the room—the writers' room.

The writers' room originated in television comedy, specifically the variety world of Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar. (For an amusing look at what that was like, get hold of the 1982 film My Favorite Year, starring Peter O'Toole.)

It certainly makes sense for comedy to be written by a group, the equivalent of a test audience. Most comedy is written by teams, anyway. How else are you going to know if a joke is funny? Only if the person across the table laughs. So it makes sense to put the teams together ... and if half a dozen people laugh, that joke must be three times funnier.

Television drama didn't adapt the practice until the 1980s. Rod Serling would sit by his pool in Malibu dictating Twilight Zone scripts in the morning, then going to the studio to produce in the afternoons. Star Trek and other classic shows had writing staffs, of course, who would meet with freelance writers. But aside from some initial one-on-one development—producer to writer—the work was largely done by writers alone in their offices, or by their pools.

By the late 1980s this had begun to change, largely due to the rise in serialized stories. It's just too difficult for a writer at home, or holed up alone in a studio office, to keep up with the daily changes in character and setting, not to mention the all-important time loop discussions. (Can you imagine trying to craft an episode of Lost by yourself?)

Time is the enemy, even in the pre-pilot stage. No writer is ever given the time it would take to properly develop a 22-episode arc—or a series bible—in sufficient detail to allow other writers to work independently.

And once a series starts into production, new episodes are rolling off the assembly line every six or seven working days. There are no days off in between. Show B ends on Thursday, Show A starts Friday.

With those deadlines, a writers' room is mandatory.

And what is it? You can see one by checking out the humorous video "Heroes Writers Room".

It's a conference room with a big table, a whiteboard or two. You will likely find the show runner at the head of the table, often with her own laptop. Arrayed around the edges, various senior and junior writers, likely six to 10, depending on how many teams are on staff.

At the foot, the second most vital member of the team .... the writer's assistant, the person who takes notes on a computer ... either on his own, or when the show runner dictates a decision.

In the middle of the table, various beverages, snacks, pieces of note paper, week-old Hollywood Reporters.

After the usual attempts to avoid work, inevitably words will appear on the whiteboards ... and so will story beats, then entire teasers and acts. Different characters and storylines will likely be written in different colors, too. The material is recorded, then turned over to one of the writers to be shaped into a beat sheet that will often be expanded into an outline and, finally, an actual script.

The scripting will be performed by a writer alone, but even then the material is certain to go back through the writers' room again.

The process is mechanical and utilitarian—and also, at some level, terrifying. As I wrote above, writers generally work alone. Like new plants, words, images and ideas are fragile in the early stages—it doesn't take much disturbance to choke them.

In the writers' room, you've got to think out loud. You've got to frame and pitch your concept. You've got to learn to respond to pitches from your colleagues, ideally without making them angry.

Star Trek's longtime producer Michael Piller had a rule: "If you're going to give a note"—that is, tell another writer some idea is stupid—"have an alternative."

You've got to be willing to throw that quarter-baked notion into the room. ("Okay, it's time travel, but it gets around the paradox ... ")

And the penalty for failure? A lot of extra work on a script ... and possible loss of job.

Yet it's worked for X-Files, Galactica, Lost, Heroes, so many others. (The exception is Babylon 5, written mostly by J. Michael Straczynski ... alone in his office.)

And the room can be fun, too. Imagine the thrill of seeing one of your cherished ideas for a character or a piece of action suddenly coming to life, becoming better than you could have imagined, thanks to input from half a dozen smart people—people who very likely will become friends for life.

That's what's going on in the business right now.

I've written at least as much mainstream television as I have sci-fi, and it seems that the writers' room is especially helpful in the genre. After all, on a sci-fi series, you aren't just telling stories and creating characters ... you're building a world.

God could do that in six days.

It takes a writers' room at least seven.

Snug in his home office, Michael Cassutt writes novels, short stories, articles and scripts, including episodes of Max Headroom, Stargate SG-1, Farscape and The Dead Zone.