Tag Archives: Novel

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.

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Are vampires your guilty pleasure?

29 Mar

Mine too. But not the sparkly teen variety. I’m more a Bram Stoker fan. My contribution to vampire literature is now available on Amazon and you can be one of the first to download, read and review. If you do offer a review, (good or bad) let me know and if you’re a blog follower, I’ll send you one of my favorite books to say thank you. Sanguivorous means blood-eater, by the way. And you’ll want to know that my dear friends who’ve read it have said I gave them nightmares. Did I mention the first volume is only 99cents? Barely a bite.

Question for My Dear Readers Who are Writers…

23 Mar

Oh the Horror!

20 Feb

“Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.”  Paul Auster

I came across this quote the other day somewhere in my reading.  I don’t remember where I saw it, only that it hit me across the head like the proverbial sledge hammer.  It says, so elegantly and succinctly, what I’ve been trying to tell my students in every one of my writing classes; that writers are born, not made.  And I just have to write about that.

You can learn all the techniques for composition and how to write a grammatically correct sentence, of course.  You can learn how to properly format a screenplay or a play, for instance.  You can certainly learn clarity and how to get your point across without its real meaning being muddled or misconstrued.

But the drive to write, the compulsion to report, the urge to arrange words for the simple desire of communicating your thoughts, is natural only to born writers.  Really – who would wish to spend their time alone most of the day, locked in your head, trying to accurately describe the visions you see that seem to exist somewhere between your eyes and the computer screen…?  Isn’t that like schizophrenics trying to accurately describe the voices they hear?

Perhaps all writers should be medicated, if only to free them from their terrible Muse.  (God knows, I’ve tried the entire pharmacy.)  But the medications – booze, pills, dope, whatever – get in the way of the words and so I have to rid myself of pain killers.  The words rule.  The words dictate.  The words sap and diminish.  The words destroy.  The words kill.

I can’t remember being without the compulsion to write.  My first writing award came in third grade, when I was seven years old.  Later, when all the others in class moaned aloud whenever confronted with an essay question, I rejoiced.  (I hated to write greeting cards, however – absolute agony.  I wanted to write stories, not “keep in touch” – that’s what the telephone was for.)

Whenever I find such students in one of my classes, I look on them with recognition and pity.  “You’re a born writer,” I tell them.  “God help you.”

As Paul Auster says, you realize that you’re just not fit for anything else.  Yes, I can do a lot of other things well.  Producing, for one.  I loved to galvanize teams and get everyone to the finish line on time and on budget.  I had a talent for it; in fact, I was promoted to a Vice Presidency of Production because I was that good at it.

Ultimately, however, it was just a cover.  A beard.  By becoming a producer I was simply putting off being a writer because I was so scared of it.  There’s no one to hide behind when you’re a writer, no one to whom you can deflect the blame if it doesn’t come out so well.  When you’re a producer (or even a staff writer) you always have some dumb executive in the business office to blame, or any number of people in the marketing department.  When you publish a book, though – that’s you out there, naked, exposed, and alone.

Really – who would choose to do this?

Yet I had to leave producing, no matter what satisfaction it gave me and how lucrative a living it provided.  (Let’s face it, the real reason I put off writing for so long is that I knew I’d go through a lot of lean years.)

Ultimately, however, I couldn’t put it off.  There’s a line in “Cleopatra” that Richard Burton says, uttered directly after he shoves the sword into his guts:  “How could I have missed what I must have aimed for all my life?”

Writing had been, always was, what I was aiming for all my life.

And since I’ve become a full time writer it’s been every bit as scary, as impoverishing, as awful as I had imagined.  It kills you as slowly and insidiously as an inoperable tumor.  (And a tumor is exactly what this compulsion to write feels like – it’s always there, a deadening pain that forces you to forgo all other pleasures until you get those pages written.)

A friend of mine, Steve, has recently given up writing.  He can’t stand the lugubrious pace of the work, or the setbacks, or the 99 disappointments for every single success you have.  “It’s different with you,” he says.  “You like writing.”

No, I don’t.  I don’t think that anyone likes to write.  I like having written.  Writing “The End” on a novel you’ve just completed is the greatest orgasm of relief and joy that anyone can ever feel.  Everything that occurs prior to that is just so much horror.

Yet I have to keep doing it.  God knows, if for nothing else, my retirement plan can be summed up in three words:

Write.  Best.  Seller.

Here’s hoping that my latest, The Stand In, can do it for me.  But, really – who would choose to do this?

Five Essential Steps to Beginning Your Novel

24 Jan

Ah, that most terrifying of all things in nature – the blank page.  Contemplating it is like looking at the vast and empty universe from Mt. Palomar.  It is Sisyphus’ stone, hell’s bottomless pit, the dank moat in front of the castle – and your dwelling place for the next year or so.  In this edition of my blog, I’ve composed a few suggestions that will help you start writing your novel, and the first thing you must know is that all success lies in preparation.  As the adage goes, if you want a good ending, make a good beginning.  This includes your novel’s original concept.  Obviously you’ve been telling yourself the story of your novel in your mind for some time.  It’s nagged at, thrilled and inspired you.  You’ve thought about it in the shower.  Perhaps you’ve dreamed about it.  You might even have written a page or two just to get the juices flowing.

Stop!  Write no further.  There may be some steps that you’re forgetting.

1.     Ask yourself whether or not your idea is original (enough)?  Do your homework.  Check out the competition.  Find out if there are already other books in the marketplace that echo, resemble, mirror, or baldly resemble yours.  If there are, determine whether or not yours is sufficiently original to set it apart from the rest.  If not, go back and make sure that it is.  You might even want to read those other books, just to make sure you don’t trespass too far on their territory.  Find out which of their ideas work – for as Chekhov said, “Great artists don’t plagiarize – they steal!”  (In other words, repurpose and rewrite those ideas that you admire, but use your own voice; don’t slavishly copy them, particularly to the point where they will be recognized.)  Find out, too, which ideas do not work in those other books – repudiate clumsiness and banality.  Embrace sublimity.  Don’t be intimidated by either.  Yet, don’t be too original, either.  Originality, something that has never been seen before, seems to scare and intimidate editors because they won’t know how to sell it.  If your book comfortably fits into an established genre, all the better.  If not, make sure it points to one.  (I’m speaking to the ordinary working writer here and not to writing prodigies who write literature; I’ve nothing to tell the latter, and rarely read them anyway.)

2.     Identify your audience.  If you are working in a genre, as I work in the mystery/thriller/historical fields, find out your readers’ median age and make sure you can reach them through your prose.  For instance, mystery novels are usually read by people over fifty years of age.  That’s why I could set my latest book, “The Stand In”, in Hollywood of the 1950s.  Most of my readers grew up then and can remember what it was like, and I can therefore refer to people, events, and places that the audience will know and respond to.  If your audience is young adult, you would naturally eschew such details.  But remember, that your first audience is your agent, the second your editor, and finally your readers.  In other words, your idea must have commercial viability.  If you don’t write with an eye toward sales, I can safely predict that yours will be a solitary and lonely career.

3.     Do your research on your subject matter.  If yours is a contemporary or historical work, you must write convincingly about the subject; this is called “verisimilitude”.  If you’re writing about Washington, D.C., for instance, I would recommend that you go there.  There is no substitute for describing the smells of a place until you have smelled them yourself.  What does the sunlight look like?  How does it slant in the summer breezes?  What is the atmosphere like – is it heavy, clean, revitalizing, smothering, what?  If writing about a distant time and place, read the firsthand accounts of people who were there at the time.  When I wrote about ancient Egypt, I made sure to not only read the history of its kings and queens, but also books that included such mundane things as ancient laundry lists.  For instance, I found out what the Egyptians called their underwear.  (It was “underwear”.)  There is no substitute for this kind of research.  Make notes.  Pull historical incidents out that will make great action sequences.  But then do this, too – don’t make your prose sound like you had a thousand note cards at your disposal.  Remember that you are writing fiction – you don’t have to be so accurate that you lose the thread of your story.  Verisimilitude means the “appearance of truth”, and not the truth itself.

4.     Outline, outline, outline.  Nothing, at least for me, is so important as this step.  Though there are some writers who can mentally keep track of their prose, their characters, their subplots, etc., and who compose their novels merely by writing them from page one to the end, I cannot.  In a mystery or thriller, which is heavily dependent on plot and the logical (and sometimes duplicitous) revelation of clues and events, an outline is especially needed.  Now, it need not be anything more than a simple step outline in which a single sentence may describe an entire chapter.  But I don’t work that way – my outlines contain everything I can think about in regard to a particular scene or chapter, from bits of dialog, to its mood, to character descriptions – anything I can dredge up at that moment when committing it to paper.  I shake the scene like a dog shakes a toy.  I chew on it.  I rearrange it.  I put down those ideas that I may not even use.  What I don’t do is worry about word choices or making it into art.  That’s for later.  Some people worry that this approach will actually constrain their final work.  But I always allow myself to diverge many times from my outline, for writing the final prose brings discoveries of its own.  You can go into places that the outline had not foreseen.  I can guarantee, however, that you will finally come to the point where you lose the thread of your original story, or have painted yourself into the proverbial corner.  That is when the value of your detailed outline will become apparent.  All you have to do is go back, find your place, and go on from there (with a few little adjustments).  If you didn’t have that outline, onerous and frustrating as the work usually is, you’d be lost.  All my unfinished pieces remained unfinished because I did not complete it.  As a result, my novel’s internal structure simply collapsed on itself.  I had been so excited that I started work too early.  DON’T DO IT!  Plan, prepare, and lay the foundation for a complete work before you write even one word.

5.     So you’ve identified your competition, found your audience, did your research and composed your outline.  The next will be your simplest step, but also the hardest.  Here it is:  Go into your office.  Plant your butt in your chair.  Raise your hands to the keyboard – and start.

In conclusion, there is one thing I can promise you – if you have accomplished the four previous steps the vast wasteland of that first blank page will not seem nearly so intimidating.  The only words I have left to say are…good luck, and please keep me posted on your progress.

Read a Chapter from My Newest Mystery, The Stand In

10 Jan

I’ve posted a chapter from my newest mystery, The Stand In here. I’d be thrilled if you would read it. And unlike other authors, I love feedback and it doesn’t all have to be five star.

Although, that’s wonderful.

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.

Hollywood Murder and Intrigue, The Stand In– The Story Behind the Novel

30 Nov

The few friends and colleagues who have read “The Stand In” prior to its publication have asked me, to a one, if it is based on a true story.  Yes, I answer, and…no.  It is actually based on an anecdote told to me by my longtime mentor and idol, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the Academy Award winning director and writer of “Letter to Three Wives,” “All About Eve”, and “Cleopatra.”  My thesis in film school was a critical reevaluation of “Cleopatra”, his film with Elizabeth Taylor, and I became acquainted with the great man when I called him up for an interview.

I have always loved stories of Old Hollywood, and Mr. Mankiewicz had plenty.  A born storyteller, he could hold me rapt for hours.  One anecdote, about a Well-Known Star whose face was destroyed in a car wreck, became the seed that germinated my latest novel.  The Star’s studio, you see, was unwilling to let go of so profitable a property, and made the decision to finish the film he was doing with his photo double.  For “The Stand In”, I extrapolated a far more lurid conclusion – so that’s why I say it is both true and untrue.

It is set in the year 1957, a time when Hollywood was reeling from two terrible blows; the Studio System was imploding and television was taking away its audience.  I have always loved the decline of an era, when everything begins to curdle. My historical novels have always been set in the sunset of an empire; and the same holds true for “The Stand In”.  Give me a story of corruption and intrigue over brave, honest pioneers any time.

When I write, I like to shut out the world with my headphones full of moody music.  I therefore listen to film scores, with their many dissonances and blessed lack of song lyrics.  In fact before I begin a book, I choose an album that becomes its own de facto soundtrack.  In the case of “The Stand In” I listened to a compendium of themes by the composer Alex North, another of my idols, who can break your heart in six notes.  Another album was the music to the film “The Bad and the Beautiful”, a picture with Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner that purported to show all the dirt attendant to the filmmaking business.   Needless to say, with its lush romantic and themes and tawdry brass accompaniments it was the perfect background music for “The Stand In”.

I loved writing this book, because I mined my own life for its details.  I remember going as a kid to the same restaurants my characters go to and traversing the same streets that they themselves walk.  Hollywood was much more splendid then – largely because it was a closed set.  The studios were fantasy fortresses that you had to storm if you wanted to go inside; they weren’t owned by huge entertainment conglomerates which today give tours of their back lots for the price of a ticket and spill all their secrets in their marketing campaigns.  Something has been lost, I think, in the total exploitation of every aspect of film making.  Glamor, I think.

Did this story really happen?  Yes, I say…and no.

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