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.
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.
I’ve always needed to meet the people whose creative work has profoundly influenced or touched me. I want to see how they behave, to know what’s inside their heads, to discover how their temperament differs from mine, etc. etc. Those of you who read my blog know that the movie “Cleopatra” and its writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz were profoundly influential on my life. When I saw the film for the first time, when I was twelve, I became infatuated with the actors, it’s true, but soon I wanted to know about the man who created it. Why had the film so affected me? In film school, in my college years, I produced an award-winning thesis, “When ‘The Movies’ Went Out of Style”, in which I interviewed many members of the cast and crew, including Joe Mankiewicz, and over the years I became the person known as the “unofficial cast member of ‘Cleopatra’”. I have been a “film historian” in two documentaries about the movie, which are being packaged with the release of the blu-ray. (Talk about having a whim of iron! I now co-star with everyone!) Roddy McDowall in fact became a friend and even visited me in Washington, D.C., when I lived there.
But I had always managed to avoid meeting HER.
Truth is, I really didn’t want to meet her. I was quite content to know Elizabeth Taylor through her performances. When you meet stars and celebrities, you always run the risk of major disappointment. They can be dull and vaguely stupid a lot of the time. Or so dominated by their loathsome agents and managers that all you want to do is run screaming from the room. And, being a historian at heart, they certainly don’t want to meet me. Stars never want to be known as an artifact from another time. They are NOW, they are HAPPENING, they are RELEVANT. It doesn’t matter if they haven’t made a film in thirty years, everything is about TODAY! (Only Roddy McDowall truly had a sense of history, and knew his own place within it, and that was the basis of our friendship – he loved to talk about his days as a child star and all the famous people he had worked with. Even his Cadillac’s license plate said “EX MOPPET” on it.) The technicians and craftsmen are the interesting ones – the behind-the-scenes people always have the best stories. Stars – rarely!
In 1997, however, I finally got to meet Taylor through the intervention of Roddy McDowall. We had gotten permission from Twentieth Century-Fox to at long last mount a search for the missing footage from “Cleopatra”. Mankiewicz had delivered a five-and-a-half hour film, from which the studio removed about an hour-and-a-half. (You can learn the story behind the film’s editing on a new documentary that I’m in, packaged with the blu-ray, called “Cleopatra’s Missing Footage.”)
Though Bill Mechanic, then-president of Fox, had said “yes” to the project there was one hitch to our plans. The film was still owned in part by Elizabeth Taylor and we needed to get her permission to go forward. (This was but one of the many unprecedented clauses in her contract with Fox, and never to be seen again in any celebrity contract.) Roddy said that he would handle her, and he set a time for the meeting. At the last moment he asked me to come along, saying that I could speak for the recently deceased Joe Mankiewicz.
I was filled with trepidation, not only because of the reasons stated above, but because Taylor scared the hell out of me. Everyone I had interviewed had talked about how intimidating she could be, particularly if she sensed you needed something from her. (Stars are always being approached by people seeking money, gifts and favors and they are deeply suspicious of any stranger.) Even Richard Burton, who I talked with on the telephone, told me that she alone had taught him “how to squeeze the balls of the executives” in his dealings with film studios. I was fond enough of my balls in their current position and did not relish the idea of her being anywhere near them.
Well, anyway, I went to the meeting. Really – wouldn’t you?
We traveled in Roddy’s Cadillac up to her surprisingly small house in Bel Air, and proceeded to sit in her living room for over an hour. She was upstairs and apparently did not mind keeping her very best childhood friend waiting. I got to look at her Van Gogh up close, however, and that helped to pass the time.
Finally, she appeared. She was white-haired at that phase in her life and swept grandly into the room. I remember that she was barefoot beneath a long white caftan. Roddy introduced us and she said in a slight English accent, “It’s so-o-o-o-o gude to meet yew. Joe Mankiewicz – ” (she was the only person I knew who ever pronounced it Mahn-kuh-vitch) “ – spoke so highly about yew.”
Nervously I launched into my spiel. “Well, thank you, Miss Taylor – it’s because of his memory that I’m here. We’ve finally been given permission by Fox to restore ‘Cleopatra’ to his first cut and we need your permission before we can do it.”
Gone in an instant was the English accent. Gone was any pretense at friendliness. The sand-papery voice became charged with Virginia Woolf volume. “Blow it out your ass!” she screamed at me. “I never made a DIME off that goddamn movie!”
She had in fact made $7 million from overtime on the production alone. Later, when Fox had sued her after the film came out, claiming that her and Burton’s “immoral” behavior had proved “detrimental to the financial performance of the film”, she had actually won that suit, and another $2.6 million dollars (10% of the film’s actual budget, proving Mankiewicz’ claim that the film never cost $44 million as the studio claimed) was settled on her – with the stipulation that the books would be closed on “Cleopatra”. This is why the film is always shown as making only $26 million; it will forever be seen as only breaking even, and never going into profit. Taylor’s additional ten percent of the gross income of the film, once again guaranteed by her contract, was to be covered in the $2.6 million payment. “Cleopatra,” however, went on to make money all over the world in various international markets and later by sales to television and home video – the profits of which were denied Taylor by the court settlement. This was one of the few times that a studio had out-maneuvered her and was she bitter! Though she had “not made a dime on that goddamn movie” she had actually made almost $10 million – and in 1960’s dollars! Dimes are obviously of different value to stars of her magnitude.
So what did I do when she told me to “blow it out my ass”? I’m afraid I laughed out loud. This was perhaps the only thing that saved me, because she was not expecting it. Apparently other people cringed before her tempers – Eddie Fisher once told me that she had taught him how to scream for anything that he wanted – but I knew right then that I had a great story suitable for any cocktail party, and one that I could dine out on for the rest of time. I didn’t need her, you see – I was under contract to Disney at the time, and frankly they didn’t take too well to the fact that I was consulting to a rival studio. It was her film, and if she didn’t want to do the project, well…it was no skin off my ass.
But Roddy calmed her down. “Now, Elizabeth! Elizabeth!” he purred. He finally maneuvered her to the point where she growled, “Okay – but I’m gonna get my lawyers on it!” Once again he dissuaded her, saying that such a move would destroy any chance we had for finding the footage. He convinced her instead to wait until the work was finished before she initiated any legal proceedings.
So that was my encounter with La Liz. I never met her again. But then I didn’t want to, either. Once was quite enough. Besides, it was never my goal – as it is with so many others who get into show business – to have lunch with movie stars. I wanted to make stuff, to tell stories, to work with great talents – not hover in the celestial orbits of the rich and infamous.
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.
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.
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 –
- To reveal (or suggest) the nature of each character
- Provide the audience with essential information
- 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.
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.
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.
For the first time since I began the blog, I’ve had more Danish readers than American or Canadian! I’m thrilled to know that readers and writers across the world are finding my site and reading my blog. Thank you for reading, thank you for considering my books and thank you for leaving the impression of such a small world.