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Notes from a Caretaker

24 Jun

Last night I made dinner as I usually do, cooking baked macaroni and barbequed pork sandwiches because the menu is one of my mom’s favorites. Then I set the table, calling her into dinner from her bedroom at the back of the house.

“Who’s missing tonight?” she asked cheerily as she came into the dining area on her mobility scooter, surveying the dinner table.

“What?” I asked.

“You’ve set the table for only two. What about Rosie and Daddy and Jackie…?”

It was as though she had thrown freezing water into my face. Because those people – her father and two sisters – had died a couple of decades ago.

If you want to know the reason I haven’t been writing my blog lately, that’s why. My mom recently turned ninety and she seems to be rapidly dropping all her marbles. I’ve taken care of her for ten years now because she suffers from arthritis in most parts of her body, particularly in her knees, and she has become almost immobile. I moved back from New York City to care for her because she had suffered a debilitating fall, and when I thought about it back then I never imagined that I’d be doing it a decade later.

Ten years.

Ten years of being butler, driver, parlor maid and cook. Ten years of being turned into that most woeful of professions, not to mention one of the least paid – the care-giver. Ten years of being estranged from my friends (she doesn’t like visitors), ten years of making beds and cleaning toilets, of eating at five o’clock in the afternoon (because she has always eaten at five o’clock in the afternoon), and going to bed at 7:30 from sheer boredom. Worst of all I’ve been years out of the job market, neglecting my own retirement needs. I used to be able to go into town and stay overnight with friends, or go away for a weekend. Not anymore.

Recently I went to the movies. I was gone for no more than three hours. When I returned home, I found her terrified. “Where were you?” she demanded. “I was alone all afternoon, and no one called me – not even Mother.” Do I need to mention that her mother died in 1971? Does this mean that I can’t even go to the movies now?

The only thing that made the situation remotely tolerable in these last ten years was the fact that she had remained witty, sharp and intellectually stimulating. She read a book a day and devoured the news magazines, all the while railing vigorously against those bastard Republicans. She swore like a sailor – in fact, she was a sailor, having been in the Navy WAVES during World War II.

I convinced myself that the situation was good for my writing career, and indeed produced two modest best sellers during this time, all the while supplementing my income with museum and exhibit design – work I could do from home. But recently, along with the economy, my writing career has lost its traction. It seems like I am being slowly strangled here at home and my concentration suffers because of it. My life used to be a rich tapestry of color and design; now it’s a gray, disheveled bathmat. As a result, I go through bouts of resentful anger and depression that almost kill me, because now that she’s losing her mind, the only pleasure I could take from the situation is disappearing along with it.

As Stevie Smith might say, “…not waving, but drowning.”

And I’m terrified.

Starting Out– My First Time Being Published

22 May

Fair warning – when other writers hear my story they sometimes scream and throw themselves out their windows.  It’s the tale of how I got my first writing contract, and I don’t think anyone had ever had so easy a time of it.

When I was living in New York City, where I was VP of Production for a special effects house, I purchased a loft near Washington Square.  Instead of Escrow, as they have in California, a buyer and seller must instead use real estate lawyers to draw up the contracts.  My realtor recommended an attorney he usually worked with, a woman by the name of Judy Levin.  When I went to her offices to sign the papers I noticed that her walls were hung with posters from the New York Stage.  Some of the productions I had even heard of.  “Wow,” I said, “you must really love the theater!”

 Judy, who was both the most laconic person I’d ever met and, perversely, the most loquacious, merely said, “Oh, those?  I produced them.”  It turned out that she had started her career as an entertainment lawyer, and handled the legal affairs for a variety of theatricals.  When you do that in New York you also get a producing credit.  But, as happens to many who work in entertainment, she got burnt out and retired from the fray to become a real estate lawyer.

Well, it just so happens that I was looking to option a book to turn it into a stage play.  Judy got me the book in very short order and for a very reasonable price.  Having tasted the thrill of the theater again, however remote, she then asked me, “Do you have anything else I could look at?”

  Did I?!

 It just so happened that I had the first hundred pages of a novel to show her, a mystery set in Ancient Egypt, which I had called generically “Ancient Egyptian Murder Mystery”.  She took it and a couple of weeks later told me, “I really like it.  Do you mind if I show it around?”

 What do you think I answered?

Judy had brittle bones – this is not a segue, by the way – and had broken her foot.  She would hobble down to the courtyard of her building in Chelsea and – as I might have mentioned – Judy could talk to anyone in that same even monotone she used with me; a stranger, a dog, the clothes dryer.  A gentleman was also in the courtyard that morning, someone from her building who she had never before met.  He too was ill and was staying home from work.  In the course of their conversation he happened to mention his wife, Carol, who happened to work at Simon & Schuster, where she happened to be secretary to the legendary Michael Korda.  Korda, for those of you who don’t know, ran the editing staff of S&S since the 1950s.  “Do you mind if I give you a manuscript?” Judy asked Carol when she met her for the first time a few days.

Carol accepted the manuscript in their laundry room.  “It takes a brave woman to take a manuscript in a laundry room,” Judy said to me.  I could only agree.

But the good news was that two weeks later I had a contract not only to finish my novel, but also to write its sequel.  The first novel, Year of the Hyenas, went on to be named one of the five best mysteries of the year by Library Journal, while the second, Day of the False King, debuted on the LA Times Best Seller List.

And all because I bought a place in New York City.

Luck like that can happen only once in a person’s life, but it is also a story that could only have happened in New York.  It’s a city where you run into people you know all the time, thrust together as you are on sidewalks, in buses and subways, or by frequenting the same restaurants.

The luck began to change when Michael Korda retired, but I always knew that I had gotten to know him at the end of his extraordinary career.  When I was assigned to a new editor, she frankly told me she was not “into” historical fiction and was I interested instead in the chick-lit field…?

We severed our relationship on the spot.

I’ve gone on to write another mystery, but not set in ancient times – instead it takes place in 1957 Hollywood.  What would you do, it asks, if you were a studio mogul and your leading man happens to be a serial killer?  How would save your studio, your film – and your leading lady?

I’ve decided to go explore the self-publishing route this time; the new publishing industry is as unchartered as the wild west, but I’m game for anything.  I guess this is where the REAL work begins.

Interview on Curling Up by the Fire’s Blog

17 May

We just passed 6000 unique views and with nearly 1000 followers between WordPress and Twitter– I thought I’d reintroduce myself. Head on over to Curling Up by the Fire‘s blog for an author interview we did last January.

How to Write for Television and Film (Revisiting an Earlier Post on Writing)

7 May

I wrote this when I first began blogging months ago and wanted to share with new readers. Let me know what you think of the advice, or if you have any specific questions. I’ll be happy to elaborate!

While I wait for my newest novel, The Stand In to be available via BookBaby on Amazon and iBooks and eBooks… (It’s available now, you can buy it here…) I thought I’d give you a taste of what it is like to be in my classroom. I teach writing at Mount San Antonio College and have been astounded at the degree of talent in my students. This was the last lecture I delivered about Professionalism in the Entertainment Industry…

As a writer you will have two tasks of equal importance – writing something, and then selling it. Both are difficult.  Each are equally important.  Because if you don’t have an audience, you may as well be whispering in the dark.  Both take different skills.  Both are creative. BUT, of the two skills WRITING IS THE MORE IMPORTANT.  Because there are so few truly great writers, if you become one agents will fight to represent you, and producers will pay you gobs of money to produce you work.  If you are a magnificent sales person, but only a so-so writer, you’ll maybe sell one or two screenplays at best.

What are the characteristics of a PROFESSIONAL WRITER?

First of all, no one asks to see your diploma.  No one cares if you went to college.  Your diploma is actually the screenplay they are reading.  They will quickly find out if you know your field, are intelligent, well-read, unique.

How do you become a GREAT WRITER?  Not in classrooms.  I’m only here to teach you the fundamentals, format, structure, character and dialogue.  The rest is up to you.  YOU LEARN WRITING – BY WRITING!

Writing is like a muscle.  The more you write, the stronger the writing muscle becomes. And discipline is key.  You set aside time, preferably the same time every day, and you just write – even if it’s only staring a blank page, get into the habit of discipline.  Remember, good writing is probably the hardest work you will ever do.  Bad writing is really easy.

Rules of the game:  Watch films, old and new, learn what works and what doesn’t.  There’s a real reason I force you watch these films in class – they are inspirational.  Never be afraid to copy another film’s technique or style.  YOU WILL LEARN YOUR OWN UNIQUE STYLE SOON ENOUGH.

And, most importantly, READ, READ, READ – Magazines, newspapers – tomorrow’s headlines or features are the basis of excellent stories.  But most of all READ BOOKS.  When you read, you read sentences, and when you read a lot you will begin to think in sentences, and then you will be able to write both by example and by mimicry.  Soon you will find your own style.  And chances are that if you run into a problem with your writing, Homer probably solved it for you three thousand years ago.  Be curious.  Find out about people.  Ask them questions.  Remember, a writer is a spy, a psychologist, and most of all – a thief.  Everything is available to you to use.

And go to IMSDB and read other screenplays.  Study how the writers constructed them.  See what works – and what does not.

But take heart from one piece of advice – good writers are so rare that they will almost always prosper.  So for those of you so inclined, keep writing every day, including Sundays.

FINDING AN AGENT –What does an agent do?  He or She is your go-between in your relations between a studio, a producer, and all the rest who will read and consider your scripts.  They are the ones with the contacts, they know who is the best producer or team to send your work to, and they will protect you when the shit starts coming your way.  They really earn their ten percent. Unfortunately it’s hard to get an agent.  They usually want experienced writers.  How do you get experience?  Sell a script.  But to sell a script usually requires an agent.  And to get an agent you need to have sold a script.  You can see the conundrum.

WGA signatories – look up those who will take unsolicited inquiries.  Write them a glowing letter describing your background and an even more glowing synopsis of your work.  Remember how I said that the first ten pages of your screenplay were the most important?  Forget what I said – your inquiry letter is the most important.

WRITING FOR A TV SERIES

Don’t do it.  TV series have writing staffs.  They have years’ worth of scripts already written, and they know how the series will arc years from now.  You do not.  But if you must…

Write a sample script.  Rarely will it get bought.  But it might impress the staff enough to hand you an assignment, or to buy your concept.

NEW SERIES – DON’T.  First year is hell.

MOVIES OF THE WEEK:  Your best market.  Market size unlimited.

THEATRICAL MOTION PICTURES:  Your second-best market.  Lots of prestige, but market size is limited.

ADAPTING A NOVEL:  The scared producer.  William Goldman says that nobody in the industry knows anything.  Thus, if a novel has been a success, they at least know one thing – that it sold in another medium.  They like that.  But legalities are involved.

Successful writers are goal oriented.  They know how to take constructive criticism well, learn from it, and they also know how to ignore rejection or unconstructive criticism.  REMEMBER, No one Knows Anything.  If someone didn’t like your work, someone else might.  In spite of everything, you must persevere.  And remember, it’s a numbers game.

Feverish… Restless Writers and Spring Fever

23 Apr

I’m in a brief lull– one book, The Stand In, is launched, (garnering great reviews yet sales are quiet) and the second,  Chronicles of the Sanguivorous, The Rising, has been published as a teaser.   (The Amazon reviews are quiet so far, but sales are solid.) Chronicles is only the beginning of a novel and a series. That means that I must soon find the guts to finish it.  But writing a novel, I’ve discovered, is like jumping down a well.  At the bottom of it, you’re on page one and each succeeding page is but one laborious step upward toward that distant light at the top.  Only when you write “The End” can you consider yourself safe from the cold and watery dark.  It’s so dispiriting to realize that I must again hurl myself down that well, and – let me tell you – I’m mightily resisting the urge.   As I’ve stated repeatedly, I love writing but don’t particularly like doing it.  What I really like is having written.

It doesn’t help that a bad case of spring fever has attacked me with a vengeance.  All I want to do, it seems, is work in my yard, shop and go out to have drinks with friends – usually in the middle of the day.  And afterward, I’ll want a nice nap, too.  Soon it will be dinner time and cooking will occupy the end of my day.  The last thing I’ll want to do is march myself over to the keyboard and disappear down that well.

Usually I’m very disciplined when I write.  But it’s a kind of self-imposed hibernation that you’re forced to fall into when you’re writing a novel.  It’s a lonely, anti-social process.  And I’m about the only writer I know who has tested out to be an extrovert on the Meyers-Briggs personality test.  I like people, for God’s sakes.   Is that a sin?  And like I say, discipline is usually not a problem for me – except for those couple of times a year when all I want to do is play.

            Like now.

So I’m going to do what I always do when the fever hits, which is to give into it.  My rationale for doing so is that I will accumulate so much guilt by fever’s end that the only way to atone for it is to hurl myself down the well again; it’s a tactic, you see.

At least that’s what I tell myself.

Today I have friends in town and predict that a round of mid-afternoon cocktails looms in my immediate future.  Frozen pineapple daiquiris sound good.  And then a nap.

            What can I do?  I’m feverish.

How to Write Dialogue, The Art of Being Invisible

19 Apr

Dialog for theater, for films and television, for radio and finally for novels share a lot of things in common, but ultimately they are different species of animals.  In theater, dialog is always the most effective method of conveying information; but the motion picture has brought the entire world into the theater, or rather, brought the theater out to the real world, and so dialog is used differently.  The basic rule of thumb in films and TV is that it’s better to show an action, rather than talk about it.  Film and television use their own visual grammar to tell a story, with their use of close ups, long shots, panning and dollying, etc.  But novels are just words, words, words!  (That’s a reference to Hamlet, by the way.)

Yes, there are great films with plenty of dialog that are wonderful – and I, for one, am partial to well-written dialog in a film.  Some of us love the rise and fall of good conversation, and become orgasmic about how the rhythms and stresses of speech become actual poetry in the actors’ mouths.   In fact I find good dialog every bit as exciting as any car chase or yellow explosion.  My friend and one-time mentor, the late great Joseph L. Mankiewicz, used dialog primarily to propel his films.  (There’s an old joke that Joe’s idea of an action sequence was to have one of his actor’s throw their hat on a bed.) Yet he still managed to win four back-to-back Oscars during his lifetime utilizing dialog as his chief weapon, and if it’s good enough for him…

Dialog has three purposes in all the media I’ve mentioned –

  1. To reveal (or suggest) the nature of each character
  2. Provide the audience with essential information
  3. To advance the plot

And in a novel, there is a fourth task:

4.  Get into a character’s head and actually learn what he is thinking.

These are all pretty big responsibilities – right?  But think about the reason why it’s more effective (with novels perhaps being an exception) to use actions to demonstrate the essential truth of a scene or character?

ANSWER:  Because people lie.

More to the point – people can lie to themselves.  They obfuscate, reinterpret, put the best spin on things, flatter, manipulate, and say things all the time that are not strictly true.  But actions seldom lie, at least in fiction.

Most beginning writers believe that the best dialog is the kind that most approaches reality.  But this isn’t so.  Remember that dialog in all the media I’ve mentioned should only give the appearance of reality, but should not attempt to create it.  (Leave that to the medium of soap opera, an art form as tedious as life itself).  Effective speech in all these media utilizes economy, simplicity and invisibility.  Novels can once again be the exception to this rule, because ostensibly you have pages and pages to tell a story and are not limited to a film producer’s clock watch, where productions are broken down to ½ hour and 1-hour time slots (as in TV or Radio), or 2-hour running times (motion pictures.)  That being said, the publishing industry today looks askance at anything over 300 pages and mentally calculates that x-amount of pages over this figure will result in a higher publishing cost.  Let me assure you – they like economy too.  Simon and Schuster was adamant that my mystery novels not exceed 85,000 words and edited them to fit within that page number.  That’s why it’s best to follow the rule about economy and simplicity in novels too, because more and more they have “running times” imposed on them as well.  (However, when you’re a J.K. Rowling or a James Cameron, you’ve earned the right to do anything you want; these artists are rarely known for their economy or simplicity these days, are they?)

In addition to economy and simplicity, good dialog should also be invisible.  By this I mean that the writer should never call attention to how clever s/he is.  The reader/viewer must ideally be lost in your work, and when you become overly clever or self-reverential you risk losing them entirely.  Let me give you an example – the Oscar winning screenplay by James Goldman for “The Lion In Winter” was a first-rate effort with one glaring defect:  Goldman was forever complimenting himself on what a clever line he had just written.  “Oh, you’re good – that’s first rate!” the characters would crow at some particularly witticism said by another.  If I’ve learned anything – if I have an altar to which I kneel – it is the altar of invisibility.  Nothing should come between the reader/viewer and/or the page/image – not even the author.  Hemingway used to ruthlessly cut out his favorite parts of his manuscript, because if he loved them he knew they were only getting in the way of the story.  Follow his lead.

A note on trendy words – they may make our screenplays sound current, yes; but – conversely – nothing will make our screenplays (or novels) sound so dated as yesterday’s trends.  Today’s awesome soon becomes yesterday’s groovy.   Use these words judiciously if you have any ambition to write a timeless work.  There’s nothing wrong with using wonderful or great to convey the same meaning.

Talking Books with Connie Martinson

18 Apr

Talking Books with Connie Martinson

Click the link to watch a little interview on the occasion of my first book.

And in case you were wondering, I’ve only gotten more handsome with age.

Now You Can Read My Blog on Your Kindle…

17 Apr

Ah, the magic of technology. You can now read my blog on your Kindle, through Amazon subscription services. it’s only 99 cents a month and you won’t miss an update or comment or conversation.

Free 14 day trial! Click here for more info.

How to Write a Mystery Novel…

16 Apr

I’ve got a few new tricks up my sleeve this week and thought I’d revisit a topic that I posted about early in the life of this blog. I’d love to hear from the aspiring and published writers on this topic. Enjoy! Brad

How to create a mystery novel?  Of course, the answer is to read as many mysteries as possible.  There are no better models than the classics by Raymond Chandler or the modern thrillers written by Martin Cruz Smith – who I unashamedly admit to be my lord of lords, creator of the Moscow-based detective, Arkady Renko, who first appeared in Gorky Park.  (I would sacrifice a very private portion of my anatomy if I could write a fraction as well as Mr. Smith can – the left one, in fact.)  You can even learn something from Janet Evanovich, who is more machine these days than writer.  Though her plots may be thin and repetitious, they still obey certain rules that a new writer can observe, internalize, and replicate.

I never wanted to write mysteries.  I wanted to write historical novels along the lines of those written by Mika Waltari (The Egyptian) or Gary Jennings (Aztec).  But no one wants to read these epics today, and certainly no publishing house wants to publish them either.  (All those pages – such expense!)  But historical mysteries are another matter.  Mysteries, you see, rarely take more than a month to solve in a novel’s timeline.  They are never epics.  I like to tell my students that mysteries are not like symphonies, with hundreds of musicians, but more like chamber pieces with eight musicians at most.

So my first mysteries were set in Ancient Egypt and Babylon respectively, allowing me to write about history, true, but using the format of a mystery and keeping the action fast, hard-hitting, and distinctly non-epic.  My books have been called, as a result, “pharaonic noir” and my detective, Semerket, the clerk of investigations and secrets, an “Egyptian Sam Spade.”

I like it best when a detective is a flawed man, like my poor, alcoholic Semerket, so that in addition to solving the mystery at hand he must also solve part of the mystery within himself. Like the protagonists in Martin Cruz Smith novels, they also become the seat of moral authority.  All around them are crimes, official corruption, and indifference, but they remain committed to the truth, regardless of how unpleasant it is.  No matter how dark or dismal they are, they become heroic in the process – and your readers root for their success.

As to the plot, I like to think of it as a beautiful, decorated plate – intact and gorgeous – that has been viciously smashed to pieces by the crime at its center.  It is your detective’s task to pick up the pieces one by one, to find how they once fit together.  He or she is constantly picking up this piece and that piece in random order, until by the end of the book the plate has been put back together – irretrievably damaged, of course, but whole.  And though the mystery is solved, the denouement (literally, “untying” in French) should always resolve itself in a melancholic mood – for by solving the crime we come to know how unpleasant and corrupt the detective’s (and our) world really is.

In a mystery, the secondary characters are almost as important as your detective protagonist, because they will mostly fall into two groups – the criminal(s) and the “information passers”.  Each of these characters has one of the pieces of the plate in their possession; for reasons of their own, usually because they are implicated in the crime, they are sometimes reluctant to surrender it.  Others may be too willing to give up their piece, their information, but they are suspect, too.  Not only must your detective gather these pieces, the clues, but also perceive why and how these people who surrender them to him are connected to the crime, and how valuable their information really is.

Now, having said this, I have to confess that my latest mystery, The Stand In, violates most of these rules.  There is no real central detective; instead, the readers themselves take on this role.  This is because the story is actually a “smoke and mirrors” mirage – a special effect, if you will, something that Hollywood does so well – and Hollywood is the location of the novel, after all.  What is the truth?  What is really happening?  It’s all there in front of your eyes, yet it seems like something else is happening altogether….  Some will figure it out right away, others must wait until the very last sentence in the book…which is last piece of that plate.

Background Music–Inspiration for Writing

12 Apr

When I’m really serious about writing – when I want to completely become one with the page – my headphones are the resource I utilize first.  There is something about the lull of music that makes the writing process easier, allowing my imagination to soar and dive and rise again.  Of course, I can’t write to just any music; I can’t, for instance, lose myself in prose if the music has lyrics.  Words from other sources invariably conflict with my own (although I have been known to play Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” from time to time and it hasn’t unduly affected my output).

Classical music works, too, particularly from the Russian masters of the 20th century.  I’m speaking now of Prokofiev and Shostakovich primarily.  But perhaps some of you already know what these two geniuses have in common…?  The answer is that in addition to symphonies, concerti, and oratorios they also wrote soundtracks for Soviet films.  Prokofiev’s music from “Alexander Nevsky” has in fact become a concert staple, though it was first written as an accompaniment to Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film masterpiece.

My first choice for music that helps me to write is always movie soundtracks.  They are always highly colored, they run the gamut of emotions, and are written to go under a scene, to punctuate the film’s intent, as well as to make clear what at times the dialog and action cannot.

My first choice is always the music of Alex North.  His magnificent score for Cleopatra – which was released in its entirety about a decade ago – will instantly put me into the writing mode.  As the playwright Arthur Miller once said, “Alex North can break your heart in three notes.”  What’s also interesting is the fact that North studied under Prokofiev when he went to the USSR in the thirties.  At times he is jarringly dissonant, at other times lyrical.  But he never becomes sentimental or gauche; his supreme intelligence always shines through.  His music is everything I want to accomplish with my prose.  I’ve written many a page to his wonderful music, and I heartily encourage you to listen to all his works.  Perhaps you’ll be inspired, too.

In fact, one of my favorite tasks at the beginning of every new novel – a task that I liken to hurling myself down a well and painfully climbing back up to the light again – is to choose the novel’s music.  Each new work has its own primary background music (though I mix it up with others.)  Lately, the music of the Italian composer, Ennio Morricone, has come to my aid.  Though he’s mainly known as the composer of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, he is easily as insightful and intelligent as Alex North.  For my latest novel, The Chronicles of the Sanguivorous, I have chosen his score for Franco Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet”, which starred Mel Gibson and Glenn Close.  It’s reliance on folk song motifs is both haunting and tragic, particularly in the music he has composed for Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s themes.  The music seems to fit the hunter and gatherer culture which I depict at the beginning of the novel, for it is both simple and rural at the same time.  Another of his scores, the one for “Days of Heaven” is another great score which accompanies my forays on the keyboard.

So what music inspires you to write?  Send me your own suggestions, because I’m always desperate to discover ways to make it easier.  I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you.

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