Archive | December, 2011

“Happy Birthday! This is for Christmas and your birthday!”

28 Dec

Today is my birthday – that’s right, three days after Christmas. I also share this day with Denzel Washington, Maggie Smith, and President Woodrow Wilson. Not bad company, but I bet every one of us would say that we’ve been overshadowed by Jesus. You know that expression, “Give it over to the Baby Jesus” – ? Well, those of us born around this time have given away any hope of making our special day into a something special. I mean, the biggest holiday of the year just occurred three days before. Everyone is exhausted by gift giving and rich meals and merry-making. Our birthday becomes, at best, an afterthought. At worst, it’s just forgotten. The good thing is that you learn very quickly just how insignificant birthdays really are – which is admittedly a difficult concept to grasp when young, but when you’re turning 61 – as I am – it’s wonderful. You just don’t get bothered all that much by the number change. Of course, there are the usual complaints that any of us born around the holidays have – the single present syndrome, to name the first. So often you’d hear, “This is your Christmas AND your birthday gift.” Sometimes even your grandparents try to get you to fall for that one. The philosophy behind this concept is the implication that a great deal of extra money has been lavished on your gift, and that is why there is only one. But that seldom happens; it’s usually the same old crap you would have gotten anyway, with the difference being split between you and Christmas. There may be a winner in this, but it seldom is the birthday boy or girl. There was one time, however, when even my aunts and uncles got together to furnish my new bedroom in our new family house. For some reason (probably because it was the cheapest thing in the store) my mother had bought a twin bed that had a wagon wheel headboard. Consequently, everyone decided that this was to be the theme of my birthday. I received a pair of fringed parchment lampshades which were set upon buffalo horn lamp bases, a pair of bronze bookends depicting ranch hands sitting on a split rail fence (it still gives me the shivers), and sundry other Western-themed pillows, bed-linens, and toys. However, even at so tender an age my tastes ran to the sleek lines of Eero Saarinen or Charles and Ray Eames – never to “Wagon Train”. It was hard work for a five year old to conjure up a grateful smile for that stuff, not so much because of the what it was, but for the vivid demonstration of the complete misperception my family had of me. I had never once indicated a preference for six-shooters, cowboys, or rodeos. (Indians were another matter; on my mother’s side we had Choctaw blood, and I was quite proud of that fact. But even them my personal inclinations ran to the Meso-American cultures like the Aztecs, Toltecs, and Mayas. I suppose that you can’t furnish a child’s bedroom around sacrificial daggers designed to rip beating hearts out of sacrificial victims – more’s the pity.) My mom tried in her way to make my birthday special, using it as an excuse to rip down all the holiday décor, saying that she wanted my birthday to remain separate from Christmas. I suspect, however, it was her own loathing of the holiday season (see my previous post, “Two Christmas Trees”) that prompted the swift denuding of our house. In the twinkling of an eye gone were the lights, the tree, the tinsel, the garlands. Other families on the block sometimes kept their decorations up for a month. Not ours. Come December 26, Hurricane Mom had swept it clean. But you know what? I’m glad that my birthday falls at this time, for you learn quickly to lower your expectations. Consequently, anything that happens remains totally unexpected. These days, my birthday extends to almost the end of January. The only thing I really want is to spend time with my friends anyway, and that’s the gift they tend to give me. “Let’s wait until after the holidays,” they say, “and we’ll take you out to dinner.” Fine with me. My actual birth day may be long past – but who cares? Life has taught me from the earliest age to be nothing if not flexible. And if nothing happens, I’m flexible with that, too. Birthdays are highly overrated affairs – and at my age, they’ve become redundant anyway. Been there, done that – sixty-one times.


Two Christmas Trees

20 Dec

We have only a very few Christmas traditions in my family.  The first, which begins without fail the day after Halloween, is my mother’s lament – part wail, part whine, and pitched to a particularly ear-rending note – “Don’t you just hate this time of year?”  Her lament lasts until January 2nd , and is heard with inescapable repetition after every television commercial featuring sleigh bells, holly, reindeer, and the jolly old elf.  (Her lament for Valentine’s Day will start soon thereafter.)

As a matter of fact, I don’t hate this time of year at all – I love it.  My birthday is three days after Christmas, and I have a theory that a person’s favorite season will inevitably coincide with their birth date.  I’ve never tested this theory out, of course; it is more in the nature of a personal observation because it certainly holds true for me.  I love cold weather, and the sweaters and heavy coats that go with it. The first sight of my breath curling in the air is New Year’s Day for me, the true beginning of my own personal year.

And my favorite part of winter is Christmas.  When the ornaments begin appearing in the stores, around the fourth of July, I wheel my cart slowly past the display, mentally deciding where I will use them in my home.  This year I made new wreaths for myself and some friends.  I hung mine on the front door even before Thanksgiving arrived.  My motto during these days is “Have glue gun – will travel.”

In looking back, it seems strange to me that I still have the resilience to look forward to Christmas, because my parents did everything in their power to make it a season to dread.  My mother, who never has had a single unexpressed opinion in her almost ninety years, will begin her aforementioned lament early on.  She was the banker in the family, you see, and dreaded the expense of the holiday.  My father, who died at 53, was (we now believe) bi-polar.  You just never could guess what would come out of his mouth next.  One minute he was the cheeriest of Santa Clauses, the next moment the Grinch.  His emotional mutability caused my childhood face to be set in a kind of permanent wince.  But it was great fun when he was in his manic phase – he’d decorate the house like it was Macy’s window, and we’d buy brand new Christmas ornaments for the tree.  But if he was in his depressive phase, watch out – he and my mother became two halves of a single pair of scissors, snip-snip-snipping at all the good cheer and merrymaking.

It was pure greed that saw me through those years, knowing that whatever problems my parents had with the holiday, I’d still have a good haul come Christmas morning.  When I was older, and had acquired most of what I wanted, I’d simply excuse myself and spend the holiday with friends whose families were decidedly less idiosyncratic than my own.  Nevertheless, I’d always get a bit wistful when I shared in another family’s Christmas, thinking how wonderful it would be if my own parents could just once actually enjoy the day.

Not my mom and dad.  Snip.  Snip.  Snip.

I wasn’t the only one who realized how strange they were, either.  My childhood friends informed me that my parents were known to the neighborhood as the “Witch” and the “Bitch”.  When I got home I threw this story into their faces, scornfully accusing them of souring my chances for social success.  They shrieked with laughter, mainly about the gender confusion of the epithets.  I mean – they were so hard-bitten.

And yet…and yet…there were a few times in my early years when something extraordinary happened at the holidays – like the years when we had not one, but two Christmas Trees.

I have to preface this story with the news that my parents seldom fought – they sniped.  It was rare for them to have a screaming “knock-down-drag-out”, as we used to call such fights in my family.  My mom and dad were like demented surgeons, thrusting in the scalpel to leave you bleeding to death before you even felt the incision.  We were all extremely verbal creatures in our household, and our tongues were our weapons of choice.  A witty riposte, a special bon mot dreamt up long before and saved for a special occasion, even a casual aside made in passing were what counted – the kinds of remarks that haunt you for life and leave the deepest scars.  Once when I was earnestly combing my hair in a mirror, my mother said from across the room, “Why bother?  It’s not like you’re any Adonis.”  (Of course that was very long ago; I scarcely remember it at all.)

But back to Christmas.  The big day of the season was the day we’d go to the lot and buy our Christmas tree.  It would be on the night that Dad got paid, and we’d eat a quick dinner and then bundle ourselves into the car.  During dinner, however, I noticed an uncustomary clipped quality creeping into their conversation, far different from the extravagant Sheherazadian narratives of Dad’s work day (he was the manager of a grocery store, and his stories invariably concerned all the outrageously beautiful women who’d shop there and flirt with him.  Mom would usually counter with how she, too, shopped at grocery stores and had never once encountered such goddesses in her own personal forays down the canned goods aisle.)  But there was none of this on Christmas Tree night.  They were polite.  They grew quieter and quieter.  It reminded me of those scenes in a Western movie, when the pioneers are listening to the distant war drums of savage Indians – “it’s when they stop you gotta worry!”

On the way to the tree lot the atmosphere in the car became cloudier than the cigarette smoke that filled it.  I was in my usual position in the back seat, nose pressed to the window, permitted to roll it down a quarter of an inch so that I could inhale pure ozone.  Any more than that and they’d scream at me for letting in the cold air.

It was probably around 7:00 in the evening when we arrived at the tree lot, located next door to my dad’s grocery store.  Though he was a baptized Catholic, we never went to the lot owned by the Knights of Columbus.  His loyalties were to his paycheck, I suppose.  I was first out of the car, breathing in that magical scent of pine resin and balsam that is like no other.  My parents reconnoitered at the entrance to the lot, which is to say where the chicken wire fence had been rolled back.  A small tented enclosure was at the far end of the place, where those who had the extra ten dollars could have their trees flocked in white, pink, or blue.  I could already see my father’s eyes straying towards it.  He loved flocked trees more than any other kind.  I did not love them, at least at that time, for the flocking was spewed on the trees with all the subtlety of a fireman spraying retardant on a gasoline fire.  There was something about the texture I never liked, either, for it reminded me of cotton candy; something I still loathe because of its stickiness.

My mother must have noticed the direction in which her husband’s eyes were straying, for she determinedly led him toward another part of the lot.  She hated flocked trees as much as I did, not from any aesthetic consideration, but because of the $10 surcharge.  If it were up to her, we wouldn’t even get a tree.  She had come along mainly to monitor my father’s excesses.

My own concern that night – other than getting a tree – was to avoid the area where Santa had set up his chair to ask all the children what they wanted on the Big Day.  Next to clowns, and (later) transvestites, Santa Claus scared me more than the devil himself – him being a weird hybrid between, well, clowns and transvestites.  I had long before figured out that the Santa Claus story had to be nonsense anyway.

Now, if there had been reindeer in Santa’s enclosure that night, I probably would have risked it.  I was a sucker for anything that had four feet and fur.  In fact, my parents had only gotten me to surrender my nursing bottle a few years before by saying that Santa needed it to feed his reindeer.  I had handed it over instantly and never looked back; by then I was already drinking black coffee from my own mug, anyway.

Luckily, this tree lot featured one of the poorer Santas in town, and reindeer had been deemed superfluous.  Therefore I was free to wander with my parents.  Had I known that they had saved up all their own slights and injuries and taunts for this one night, I probably would have felt safer with the cross-dressing Santa.  This was to be the night, however, when it all exploded in one gigantic meltdown, becoming one of their “knock-down-drag-outs” of all time.

“How about a Scotch Pine?” my father said in his opening gambit.

“How much is it?” my mother countered.

“Maybe we should go with a noble fir,” my father mused, seemingly distracted.  “They hold the ornaments best.”

“They’re the most expensive, too,” mother observed flatly.  “No.”

“Well, let’s just stroll around and see if there’s something that suits us,” my father said evasively.

We strolled around.

“Do you like that balsam?” offered my father.

Mom looked right past the balsam to a tree whose tag said $7.  “How about that one?” she said, pointing.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” my father snapped.  “All its back branches are missing!”

“We could put it in a corner.  Who sees the back of it anyway?”

“I want to put it on the den coffee table,” Dad said, “in front of the window.  We’ll put a floodlight on it, so people can see it from the street.”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” my mother snapped.  “What people are those?”

There was distinct drop in the temperature as they began to glare at one another, and it had nothing to do with the weather.  We strolled some more.  A few more trees were discussed and rejected.  Too full.  Too expensive.  Too scraggly.  Too expensive.  Too many brown needles.  Too expensive.  Finally it was decided that perhaps we should all split up and case the lot individually.  Three sets of eyes were better, anyway.  “Then, maybe to Christ we can get the hell out of here and go home,” my mother added.

I remember that I spent the rest of the evening moving uncomfortably between my parents, when one or the other would yell in delight upon finding their perfect tree.

“Look at this one!” I heard a shout from Dad.

I’d rush to where he was, and Mom would already be eying his selection skeptically.  “Well, it’s just about the ugliest thing you could have picked,” she said.  “And twenty dollars, too – ”

“I suppose you’ve found something better.”

“As a matter of fact, I have.  It’s right over there.”

We sped past startled shoppers, horribly intent on our quest.

“Look at this!” Mom said proudly.

“You mean that pile of sticks?”

“What do you mean, sticks?  Those are good firm branches – strong enough to hold all that crap you ladle on it every year!  And look at the price – a bargain at $12.”

The vein in my father’s forehead began to bulge – not a good sign.  “You are one cheap bitch, y’know that?”

The light of battle came into my mother’s eye – not a good sign.  I began to wish I was back in the smoke-filled car.

What did you just call me?” she asked, eyes narrowing.

“Cheap, that’s what I called you!”

“You called me a bitch!”

She said this very loudly, and I was conscious of every head in the place beginning to turn in our direction.  My mother’s voice was a marvel of volume.  She had been in the Navy WAVES during World War II, stationed in Hawaii.  Though only 97 pounds at the time, her voice carried so far that she was chosen to call out marching maneuvers during drill practice; even the most distant recruit on the farthest part of the field could hear her.  Later, when she would call me home for dinner in the evenings from the neighborhood park, every kid who was there with me ran home as well.

It was this voice that she began to use that night, and my father began to match her.

“How about this one?” he snarled.

“You poor bastard,” my mom said as though speaking to a mentally retarded infant.  “Any idiot knows you’d have to saw it in half just to get it through the front door!  Are you blind, or just stupid?”

“We’re getting it!”

“No, we’re not – we’re getting this one!”

“And I’ll be having it flocked!”

“I doubt that!”

“Watch me!”

By this time I had backed up to the sales tent near the entrance, not wanting to be mistaken for their child.  People soon came up to the cashier, complaining about the couple who were screaming obscenities at each other.

At that point I decided to wait in the car, but I had to tell them I was going there.  There was no trouble finding my parents again; they were still screaming at each other.  I interrupted them long enough to inform them that I was bored and was going to wait in the car, and could I please have the keys?

“Good,” my mother said, handing me her set.  “Wait there.  We’re going home in a minute anyway.”

“You stay right here!” my father said.  For some reason he always wanted us to witness his tantrums.  “It’s going to take twenty minutes to flock this fucker!”

“Can I help you folks…?” asked one of the tree vendors nervously, approaching them as though they were caged leopards, ready to rip off an arm if he got too close.  He wasn’t too far wrong.

“We’ll take this one!” they shouted simultaneously, each clinging to their own tree.

That was when a bosomy matron interrupted.  I guess she couldn’t help it.  “Look at this poor child,” she scolded them, pointing to me.  “What kind of parents are you…?”

If anything could have united all three of us in an instant that was it.  “Oh, blow it out your ass, lady!” my mother told her.

“Mind your own goddamned business!” my father said.

“You leave my mom and dad alone!” I cried.

She went away shaking her head and I took the opportunity to go to the car as planned.  Twenty minutes later my parents emerged from the lot, each trailing their own tree, mouths set in a line of stubborn defiance.

“Wow,” my friends said later in our den, gazing at both trees stationed at opposite ends of the room.  “You’re so lucky – you got two Christmas trees!”

“Yes,” I said with only a trace of condescension.  “Two.”

I dimly realized that the Witch and the Bitch had finally come through for me just by being themselves; I was a social success in the neighborhood at last.  Neither my playmates – nor their parents – had to know that my mom and dad still glowered at one another night after night, all the while sitting possessively beside their tree, or that another war had been waged when it came to dividing up the lights and ornaments.

And lest you think this was an anomaly of sorts, I’ll have you know that this event occurred over three Christmases in a row.  Their war was declared over only when fake Christmas trees came into vogue.  My parents were able to finally agree on one of those.  And the tree was wonderful – like a series of white plastic pocket combs that had been somehow epoxied into a single unit, snapped together like a set of tinker toys.   My father decreed that it should be decorated in only magenta bulbs, and there it sat on the coffee table for many a season afterward, spot-lighted in the den window by a rose-colored flood…

Just the day before yesterday, my now-aged mother laughed to herself as we sat watching television.  “Jesus,” she said, “do you remember those fights your father and I used to have in the Christmas tree lot?  Over a damned Christmas tree!”

“You weren’t fighting about any Christmas tree,” I muttered.

She thought about that for a moment.  “Yeah,” she answered.  “You’re probably right.”  Then she turned again to me, saying, “Don’t you just hate this time of year?”

The Stand In “More Than Just a Killer Smile”

19 Dec

“The Stand In” has debuted. My third novel is a noir mystery set in 1957 Hollywood was inspired by an anecdote from Joseph L. Mankiewicz about a Famous Movie Star. What would you do if you discovered your leading man was a serial killer? It’s available on Kindle, eBooks and iTunes Books for only $4.99.

Kindle lovers buy it here for $4.99.

eBook fans buy it here for $3.99. 

And MacAddicts may buy it on iTunes. 

Be the first to review! And thank you for reading and supporting this writer. 

Reaching Into the Past; Interview for “Year of the Hyenas”

15 Dec

The ancient era in which you’ve set the book is not necessarily the traditional setting for mysteries. What made you decide to choose Ancient Egypt? 

Ancient Egyptian archaeology has been a love of mine from the time I was ten years old. I’ve come to enjoy reading ancient laundry lists far more than other literature. Historical fiction was also a great love — books like “The Egyptian,” “Aztec,” and the Angelique series. Therefore, when I cast about for something to write, I thought it would be fun to do a “film noir” set in Ancient Egypt, with a kind of ancient Sam Spade at its center. I could thus write about the history that I love, but keep it short and fast-paced. In other words, I decided to write chamber pieces instead of symphonies.

Additionally, I find that I relate more to people and events from other eras. The study of history simplifies things, too, giving us a mirror to hold up to our own age. As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” I find it comforting to know that the problems of being human were addressed five-thousand years ago, and in much the same way as they are today; only technology changes.

Finally, I believe that history in this country is being taught as an elitist subject. I remember taking a senior course in college when I was just a freshman — “Roman Republic.” I was appalled at how it was taught – the professor leached everything exciting out of it. Here was a fifty-year time period when Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Augustus, Jesus Christ, et al, breathed the same air at almost the same time, and he was gassing on and on about “the agrarian reforms of the Gracchi Brothers.” These reforms were important, of course, but not to the exclusion of what makes the era interesting to us today. I marched up to him and demanded to know how he could take such interesting times and turn them boring…? Witheringly, he said, “Oh, Brad, you just belong to the ‘gee whiz’ school of history” – a school to whom he relegated Edith Hamilton and the Durants, by the way. I was insulted for about fifteen seconds, but then responded with “Damn right I do!” And that, literally, is what I’ve been attempting to do ever since — put the “gee whiz” back into history. 

How much research did you need to do to make this book historically accurate? How long did it ultimately take you to complete the book?
“Year of the Hyenas” is the result of lifelong research into Egypt. I have been reading about Ancient Egyptian society for almost forty years, and my book has put all my research and passions together. Surprisingly, though, I had to check and re-check my facts. For instance, one of my characters is a potter. Did they throw or hand-build their pots? Finding the answer to that was a morning’s research. In the end, however, this is a work of fiction; sometimes I chose to deliberately blur historical fact, in order to make something clearer to a modern audience. To cite an example, I mention the use of gems and jewels in royal jewelry. Though the Egyptians possessed gold and silver in abundance, their use of rubies, emeralds, diamonds, etc., was extremely limited; they used colorful stones like carnelian and turquoise instead. These are considered semi-precious at best in today’s jewelry market. Nevertheless, to show how extremely valuable these pieces were to the ancient mind, I had them encrusted with such cut jewels.

As to how long it took me to write the book…I’m a fairly fast writer. I began the book in 1994, playing with the plot while I flew on endless business trips back and forth across country. I had finished the first 100 pages by 1998, writing it in dribs and drabs. But my producing work for Disney always interfered; it was not until I got the contract from Simon & Schuster in 2002 that I finished the book (I do better when someone is holding a whip over me!) So the answer to your question is that it took me 8 years to write the first 100 pages, and six months to finish the next 400 type-written pages. 

How much of the story is based on historical fact, and how much came from your imagination? 
“Year of the Hyenas” is based on what is known as the oldest court transcripts in history, detailing the trials of the conspirators who plotted against the life of Ramses III, the last great Pharaoh of Egypt. I’ve used the real names of many of the true-life characters involved. In that, the book is as close to historical fact as it can be.

BUT – as PeeWee Herman says, there’s always a big but – historians never knew why the conspiracy did not succeed. What force stopped the conspirators? Why did the plot fail? This is where my imagination came into play. I decided to write about the poor fumbler who stumbled onto the conspiracy, and how he put it down. This is done through my “detective”, the ancient Sam Spade, Semerket. Though he is a work of fiction, he embodies that unknown anonymous entity who saved the throne of Egypt from dastardly villains.

“Year of the Hyenas” actually combines two historical events, which took place about fifty years apart. The first is the conspiracy detailed above, and the second concerns a series of tomb robberies that occurred in the Valley of the Kings. This second event was called the year of the hyenas by the Ancient Egyptians themselves. I chose to combine the two events for the sake of compelling fiction. Archaeologists and historians may dispute me; I don’t think the reading public will care. 

You’ve done quite a bit of work in Hollywood. How does working on a book differ from working on a motion picture? 
First of all, working in Hollywood is a team effort. When you work in a huge organization like Disney, there are so many cooks stirring the broth that it is difficult to discover the origin of an idea or who was responsible for a certain concept. This is great in one sense, since you work with the finest minds in entertainment, but ultimately frustrating because Mickey gets all the credit. (It got so bad that I was forced to have a snake tattoo put on my arm, for we all know that snakes eat mice.)

Working on a novel is delightful, because (almost) everything you do is your own creation. But it’s all the more terrifying, because there is no one to hide behind if the public doesn’t like it. Also, working on a novel is the most difficult project I have ever done; the sheer amount of time it takes to fill the pages is like falling down a well and having to crawl back up.

But there is nothing better than writing “the end” on your masterpiece. After that, you never have to be afraid of anything again. If you can complete a book, you can do it all! 

Your publisher has said that they would like this novel to become the first in a series of mysteries with Semerket as the main character. What can you tell us about the next book? 
The next book will be called “Day of the False King” and continues the story of Semerket, Egypt’s Clerk of Investigations and Secrets. In this sequel we find Semerket in Babylon, oldest and greatest city of the ancient world. He has been sent there on a secret mission by the Pharaoh of Egypt, charged to bring back to Egypt the Golden Idol of Bel-Marduk, whose magic might just cure Pharaoh of his fatal illness. Semerket’s reason for being there, however, is far more personal. Now, Semerket finds himself in a city the size of modern San Francisco and the first in history whose population was over a million.

Assisted by a mysterious and crafty slave named Marduk, Semerket penetrates into the sordid underbelly of this most licentious and sophisticated of ancient metropolises, in the process uncovering a plot that will change the course of Babylonian history.

The terrifying events culminate on the Day of the False King, a yearly festival of orgiastic abandon and revelry, where Babylon literally turns topsy-turvy. For twenty-four hours “the most foolish man in the nation” becomes King, servants command their masters, and the rule of law is abandoned for riotous discord. It is then that Semerket discovers that the fine hand of Egyptian intrigue has reached all the way into Babylon to seize him. 

Best Mystery Novels of 2011

11 Dec

What do YOU think of this list from Marilyn Stassos at The New York Times? I’m especially interested in James Sallis, noir, “The Killer is Dying”. My favorite mysteries use location and lighting as characters, twisting them into the path of the plot.

How to Write for Television and Film

6 Dec

While I wait for my newest novel, The Stand In to be available via BookBaby on Amazon and iBooks and eBooks, 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.


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.

How to Write a Mystery Novel

3 Dec

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.

Cover Art for My New Hollywood, Mystery Novel, The Stand In

2 Dec

Cover Art, The Stand In

Cover art created by Augusto Ferriols. The chalk outline, the handsome actor… “more than a killer smile.” The book will be available on Kindle via BookBaby in just a few days.

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