Tag Archives: plot

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.

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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.

Excuse Me, Are Those Your Fangs in My Neck? Part Two

8 Apr

 I’ve just released the first half of my vampire book, The Chronicles of the Sanguivorous – The Rising as an eBook.  I had started the book almost two years ago after reading Charlaine Harris’s “True Blood” series.  Inspired, I knew I could write about vampires through the lens of my own specialty, historical fiction, and actually tell the history of civilization (albeit through the eyes of vampires) in the seven volume series.  I did enormous amounts of research about vampires’ historical/mythological origins and discovered they were first mentioned in early Mesopotamia, around the time that the city of Ur rose to prominence (or “Ur of the Chaldees” as the Bible calls it.)  This was a fortunate turn of events, because I had already versed myself in Mesopotamian history for my second novel, Day of the False King.

I had long been a devotee of Egyptian history, and the one thing you discover about ancient Egypt is how consistent its historical flow was when compared to other civilizations.  Protected by its deserts, Egypt developed slowly, always in the service and celebration of its God-Kings.  But the study of Mesopotamia (called Assyriology) is a heartrending hodgepodge of invasions, battles, and massacres.  The people of the river plains between the Tigris and Euphrates did not deify their kings; rather, whoever was in charge was simply called the Big Man; and these men changed with stunning swiftness.  Armies of invaders would sweep in, establishing a turbulent new culture, only to be swept away again a few generations later.  Egypt possessed regularity in abundance; Mesopotamia was all chaos and confusion.

So, getting back to the vampires, I had a good head start on my first historical locale.  I wrote about 150 pages of the book and then made the mistake of going to my public library and seeing the array of titles in the New Books section.  Every other one of them was about vampires.  Disheartened, I put my writing aside – though all my friends who had read it loved it and pleaded for more.

One of the most fun things about attempting to write this series is creating a new mythology for my own vampires.  It seems  one of their first mythical Big Men, Lugal (actually the father of Gilgamesh, the greatest semi-divine hero in Mesopotamian literature) was known for his incredible licentiousness.  In other words, he’d sleep with anything.  Wind Demons who populated the river plains wanted a corporeal body, so they offered themselves up to Lugal.  Their mating indeed produced offspring with bodies that resembled humans, but they also came equipped with a terrifying appetite for human blood – i.e., vampires.

So MY vampires are actually a form of super-predator that have been around for as long as humans have been; one of their powers is that they can actually utilize telekinesis that enables them to control the winds (which is where we get the myth that they were the offspring of Wind Demons.)   In my books, when the winds blow – watch out, for that is how they hide their rising after years of hibernation.  They do NOT get burned by the sun, nor do they sleep in coffins.  Their aversion to light, however, exists because they hunt humans only at night and their keen vision enables them to see as clearly in the dark as we do during the day; they avoid strong light simply because it’s agony on their eyes.  They are immortal, in the sense that they do not age, but the CAN be killed by several methods.

Their main defense, however, lies in the fact that after a few generations of terrorizing the countryside, they are driven by a hibernation instinct to burrow into the ground and disappear.  During the time they are gone, mankind forgets about them and turns them into myth.  Generations later, the vampires rise again – by this time merely shriveled bags of bones and leather – to once again maraud and terrify and feast.  The blood they ingest enables them to “read” the cellular memories of their victims, allowing them to understand the current language and to know what has occurred while they slept.

In my first volume, The Rising, the vampires discover that mankind has developed something fairly new – organized religion.  Their great predatory powers of swiftness and strength can convince humans that they are gods, and they begin to co-opt the temples.  They no longer have to hunt, you see, for they invent a new ritual – human sacrifice.  Thus their prey is driven to them.

Each book ends with the vampires once again “going to ground”, and in the next volume they rise into an entirely new historical era.  (In the second book they will become the gods Homer’s “Iliad”; the Trojan War, you will discover, was an internecine struggle between various tribes of Vampires, who utilized humans in their own civil war.)  And in the third book, set in Jerusalem about 2,000 years ago, we will see how Christianity itself was their product, too.  Surely you’ve heard of all that “blood into wine” stuff…well, now you know why.

Uniting all this will be my central couple, Aron and Enna.  Theirs is a love story that quite literally spans five-thousand years of history.  Newlyweds separated by the rise of Vampires, themselves made victims of it, they search for one another across time.  Aron will increasingly wish to discover what Vampires really are, and why some of their victims “turn”  – the only way they can reproduce – while others simply die.  In some volumes, Aron will be on the run, for humans (particularly in that little burg known as Transylvania) soon get wise to their ways and begin to hunt them down.  But through it all, we will see how Vampires were present at every great moment of human history.  It is also my conceit that when they rise, human fascination with vampires in arts and culture rise as well.

The last time they rose, you see, was in the late 1800s – just about the time that Bram Stoker’s little novel made an appearance.  But this new modern age is also an era when religion has receded for the first time and replaced by secularism – the biggest threat to the Vampire race.

That’s my Chronicles of the Sanguivorous in a nutshell.  I’m not going to give away anything more; for that you’ll have to plunk down your 99 cents. Whether you’re a fan of historical fiction or vampires, I hope you enjoy them – and be sure to write and let me know what you think.

Dear Marilyn, Part Two

13 Mar

First, I want to apologize for the delay. My goal is to write two posts a week, but between the start of my new semester (I teach screenplay writing at Mt. San Antonio College) and finishing a screenplay, the time just got away from me.

Please keep reading, but … Have you read my latest book, The Stand In? 1957 Hollywood, intrigue and mystery for less than a latte. Now available on KindleNookeBook, and iPad. Downloading the book is a great way to support this indie-author. 

At any rate, where were we? Ah, yes, saying goodbye to the late, great Marilyn Monroe…

To recap, I was once the principle researcher on a best-selling book called, “Marilyn, the Last Take”, which dealt with Marilyn Monroe’s last film and final days. The real point of the book was to prove that the Kennedy’s had secretly killed her, making her death look like a suicide, because she supposedly was going to go public with her affairs with both John and Bobby.

How did they kill her? Well, there were two ways that were contemplated: one of the ambulance attendants, an FBI operative, purportedly gave her a hypodermic straight into her heart to cause an embolism. The other theory was that someone had given her an enema filled with seconal. When you think of it, both suppositions are equally nutty. Was the FBI supposed to plant someone on one of the many EMT services available, in the hope that they would be called in case Marilyn was in crisis mode? And the thought of someone taking the time to stick thirty seconal tablets up her ass is…well, a grotesquerie. What was Marilyn supposed to be doing all the time they were fiddling “down there”? The most logical explanation was that everyone around her knew that Marilyn staged suicide attempts for sympathy, during which she called all her friends to say goodbye, knowing that one of them would rescue her. On that last night, however, no one came. One conspiracy theory is that the Kennedy’s forbade their in-law and Monroe’s best friend, Peter Lawford, to intervene that night – and that’s the closest it ever came to murder. At best, it was a negligent homicide.

Well, as I’ve said, the book was an immense best-seller and it was fun to be associated with it. I so enjoyed working with its authors, Peter Brown and Patte Barham (true LA royalty, whose father gave his name to the famed boulevard located next to Universal Studios), and never expected to again become connected to the book. But when it was scheduled to come out in paperback, the authors once again contacted me.

It seems that after the hardbound book was published, the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries” had done an episode about “the unsolved murder” of Marilyn Monroe, and Robert Stack had asked the public to write to L.A. Supervisor Antonovich to reopen the case. The Supervisor needed something like 30,000 signatures for legality purposes, if I remember correctly, but received only 8,000 letters and the matter was dropped.

In the meantime, however, after reading the first issue of the book, other people had come from the shadows to tell the authors what they knew, and their “confessions” were to comprise the addendum that was to be included in the paperback. My job was to go to the Antonovich office to read those 8,000 letters; to see “if there were any legitimate clues” that could be found in them.

Let me say that I found no legitimate clues. But, oh my God – those letters gave me a harrowing insight into the public’s collective mind that I have never forgotten.

I got to the Antonovich office in the morning and was led to a stark, windowless room where boxes and boxes of the letters were piled. I began to read them and became increasingly appalled at what they contained – and then, after the first two-thousand had been digested, I began to realize that they were repeating themselves. I saw patterns begin to emerge, and I was soon able to catalog them into a few sub-categories.
First, I’d like to say that only the very old, the very young, the truly profane, and the certifiably crazy took the trouble to write. Why? It’s because the sane, ordinary people don’t write at all. We’re too busy leading our lives, working our jobs, raising our kids, balancing our checkbooks – we just don’t have the time.
The next thing to surprise me was that the letters came from all over the world, from wherever the show was broadcast – mainly from Australia and New Zealand but also from Europe and even Vietnam. Antonovich couldn’t have used these signatures at all, because only American Citizens could have signed the petition to reopen the Monroe murder case. The foreign letters could not be counted, which cut the number of interested parties to about half.

The sub-category I next became aware of, because they were the most numerous, was the Marilyn for Sainthood letters. There was something so evanescent about her cotton-candy screen image that people could pin any hope and belief to her memory. To these writers, she was the Tragic Victim of an unfeeling world, too pure to live in its muck, a secular saint that was too fine for this hard, hard world. “Yes,” they said, “yes! By all means eopen the case, so that her true glory can shine again!” My God, I thought after reading them, this is how saints and redeemers are created. Marilyn is becoming Our Lady of the Overdose! (I just bet that this was how Jesus came to be regarded in those first years after his crucifixion – a gossamer mannequin that you could clothe in any costume you wanted. He could be Everything and Everyman. Now the same beatification process was happening to Marilyn.) What those letter writers seemed to forget was that Billy Wilder had called her the “meanest woman in Hollywood” or that Tony Curtis had said that “kissing her was like kissing Hitler”; they had also forgotten that she was an erotic vagrant of epic proportions and that she had terrorized directors and producers with her sheer and utterly selfish unprofessionalism. Yes, she burnt a hole in celluloid like no one else, but at what a cost – to both herself and the studios that employed her. In truth she was just ordinarily insane, just like her mother, and that’s from where our pity should spring. But to these writers, she was a goddess; enshrinement was their only end.

The next category I noticed was that of the Kennedy haters. They would write to anyone who asked them to vent their spleen about that terrible family. “She was assinated!” wrote one of them. (Need I mention that grammar and spelling skills were not readily apparent in most of these letters?) “The Kennedy’s were behind it and she was assinated!” (Yes, I thought, and after that she was rectified!) One particular writer went into lengthy discussion about how he could prove that it wasn’t Teddy Kennedy who had driven Mary Jo Kopechne into the drink, but that it was actually John F. Kennedy. John, you see, had actually survived that nasty “assination” attempt in Dallas, and the family had secretly installed him – almost a vegetable – on Chappaquiddick Island. Apparently they trusted him with the car keys, however, and poor Mary Jo paid the price. Teddy had come forward to cover the entire thing up! They assinated her!
Then there were the letters that went into what I called the Sacred Relics pile. These writers wanted Monroe’s body disinterred for any number of reasons – one saying that we would find a chip on her breast bone, where the aforementioned FBI agent had nicked it when he gave her that embolism. The most plaintive came from a gentleman from a foreign clime. “Please do a DNA test on Miss Monroe’s remains. The test will prove that I am the long-lost child she gave up for adoption in 1949” – which had been a long standing rumor, by the way – “signed, Quon Duc Pho of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.”

The most bizarre grouping of letters came from what I soon called the Lonely Woman Club, which exists mainly in Australia and New Zealand, but with ancillary chapters in places like Wyoming and Montana. Long, rambling twenty-page hand-written letters would describe their bleak lives on distant ranches or farms. “People have often compared me to Miss Monroe,” went one of them, “and often remark that I, too, am sad and tragic and not fit for this life.” Then a tiny slur against Monroe: “Only I am a natural blond!” Invariably these women would send snapshots of themselves posed provocatively against the corral fence, beside their best friend in the world, their horse Fluffy. I thought the first one was odd when I read it, but along about the thirtieth (complete with snapshots), I realized that these women (and they were only women) were so pathetically lonely that they would write to just about anyone who asked them, even a stranger on a television show. Then, almost as an afterthought on the last page they would remember the ostensible reason why they wrote and add, “please add my name to reopen the Marilyn Monroe murder case.”

I know there were other genres of letter, but I can’t quite remember them all. Suffice to say I had a whole new respect for our poor members of congress, city councils, and even Presidents – because if these were the kinds of people who wrote to them, just imagine what they must be thinking! We’re a nation of imbeciles, that’s what.

Perhaps the most profound thing I learned from these letters is that people are truly comforted by conspiracy theories. It is far safer to think that there was an important reason behind the death of a politician or a movie star; that cabals and conspirators with their elaborate and improbable plots are behind everything. What terrifies people most seems to be pure, uncaring randomness – because if even the likes of a protected, cocooned star like Marilyn Monroe can be doomed by chance or chaos, what hope do the rest of us have?

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?

More Books I Adore! Shirley Jackson’s, The Sundial

7 Jan

It is my policy to comment only on those books that I can enthuse about.  I dislike those who snipe at and savage a literary work; I’ve found that many times it is my own transitory mood or temperament that affects my reaction.  As Andre Gide wrote in “The Counterfeiters”, “My evening’s self would not recognize my morning’s self” and I distrust first impressions.  If I like a book, I must read it many times in order to evaluate it properly and discover just exactly why I liked it in the first place.  If I dislike it, it has already taken up too much of my time –why bother, then, to take up more time to review it?  What I strive to do with my reviews is to introduce works to other readers that have both changed the way I write, and have given me some true enjoyment.  Such a work is Shirley Jackson’s, “The Sundial”.

Like many of her works, one of the main characters in the novel is the House wherein the action takes place.  In “The Sundial” it is the Halloran mansion, a massively ornate house of perfect symmetry.  The only blot on its mad balance is the sundial itself – disjointedly out of place, an eyesore, engraved with a quote from Chaucer, “What is this world…?”

The characters, all of whom are distinctly nasty and small-minded, are the world in miniature.  And it is not pretty.  Soon after the beginning of the book, one of the characters – a neurotic spinster named Aunt Fanny, daughter of the man who built the house – suffers a dubious visitation from the ghost of her father.  He tells her that the world will be ending soon and that all who stay in the house will be safe.  The idea is as crazy as Aunt Fanny.  Imagine telling the story of Noah’s Ark and dwelling not on salvation, but upon the petty fights for predominance in the world to come among Noah’s sons and their wives.  “The Sundial” has an extremely nasty view of humanity, but it is also screamingly funny, with some of the best dialog ever created for a novel.

At the end, we are left wondering – for as the last day approaches, clouds and high winds indeed grip the house and unnatural darkness reigns.  Are we supposed to think that this is really a novel of the Apocalypse, or merely a case of mass hysteria produced by a handful of weak and self-centered misfits?  Shirley Jackson never answers.

It is interesting to know that Ms. Jackson herself suffered from a form of agoraphobia during the time she was writing this novel.  Some critics have seen it as an explanation about why she retreated from humanity – that she saw her neighbors as petty place seekers and bigots and simply wanted to be away from them.  Perhaps.  It might also portray the mind of the agoraphobic herself – that the more self-centered and narcissistic one becomes by retreating from the world, the more mean and petty are the slights and hurts that one imagines.  Who knows?

I’m probably making “The Sundial” sound like a chore to read.  Please believe me when I say that it’s not; it’s pure delight.  Just know that there are no conventional heroes in this book, and that it ends – as in Eliot’s poem – not with a bang, but with a whimper.  If you can get past this, there are riches galore to discover in it.  Just don’t expect to have a higher faith in humanity after you are done.

One of Shirley Jackson’s final stories (she died in her sleep at 48 years of age), is called “The Possibility of Evil.”  An elderly lady in a small town terrorizes the residents into submission by sending small anonymous notes to various people she considers guilty of adultery or dishonesty or secret alcoholism.  That is how I like to think of Shirley Jackson – sending out her novels and short stories, alerting us to the possibility of evil inherent in all of humanity, including ourselves.

For more of my reviews, friend me on Goodreads and Facebook (easy links are to your right) and be sure to download my new book, The Stand In. I cannot wait to hear your review.

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.

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.

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.

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