Several weeks ago I attended a book signing event with Rex Pickett, author of the novel Sideways, the screen adaptation of which which went on to win Best Adapted Screenplay at the 77th Academy Awards in 2005. Though I’d never read the book, and didn’t even want to go when the reminder came up on my calendar, it was one of those events that I knew I’d be glad I attended once I got there, so I sucked it up and went.
It turned out, I was right – I would be glad I went. The attendance was small (a few dozen at most), and as one of few (if any) writers in the audience I had no problem distinguishing myself as someone worthy of the author’s attention. Afterward I came up with an excuse to ask him for his e-mail address, to send him a poem I’d written a decade earlier, which I figured he’d like. He gave it to me, I sent him the poem, and he wrote back:
Not a bad poem, not that I’m any judge of poetry. And a well-written e-mail. I can often tell just from an e-mail if someone has the ability to even pursue writing. Now, the question’ll be: can you do it in narrative form, create believable characters and transformative, trailblazing stories. I think you can. Get to work.
I’m sure it’s a fairly standard response of his to give polite, encouraging words to the (no doubt) myriad aspiring writers he interacts with, but it’s a great practice. I printed off the e-mail and posted it onto my vision board, and soon tucked into the novel that made him famous.
I found it slow at first, a lot of seemingly unnecessary conflicts without my really connecting to the characters or the plot. It was the literary equivalent of cinematic masturbation – because conflict is supposed to be there, it was stuck in, even though each individual scene didn’t really need to be. But then, right around the midpoint, I noticed myself engaged in a dramatic question for the first time: would Jack have sex with Terra, the week before his wedding? Once that was resolved, the protagonist’s goal, for the first time, became really clear and I became emotionally involved in the new dramatic question: would Miles succeed in getting Jack to his wedding? From then on, the pace moved quickly. Every obstacle seemed to matter. Even though the characters were douchebags, I cared about them and wanted to see them through to the end. And when the whole thing was resolved, I was satisfied.
Moving on to the newly released sequel, Vertical, my assessment was nearly identical. I plowed through the first few chapters updating us on the whereabouts of our characters, only to reach a literary masturbation-thon of conflict-for-the-sake-of-conflict. It was pretty clear that a dramatic question was brewing, but we weren’t really there yet, the seeds of it just being sprinkled into a whole lot of unnecessary debauchery. But once the penny did drop (once again, at the midpoint), the entire story turned on its head and became a gut-wrenching tale of personal growth. Even though the second half lacked the sex appeal of the first, I finally felt like it actually mattered: I was engaged and wanted to see where our characters would end up, and how they would resolve a problem with no clear solution.
At the book signing, I had mentioned to Rex that there’s only one author whose books I’ve read more than three of. Later, I joked that he’s got to write two more books before I stop reading his work. Although it was said in jest, it’s amazing how quickly a writer’s tendencies become apparent, even for two novels written seven years apart. Although I feel like the juice was worth the squeeze, if I were to read another book of his, it wouldn’t be because of the writing, it would be because of the interaction we had when we met. I think there’s a lot to learn from that.
There’s also a lot to learn from the heartache that Rex endured through this process. I’ll spare you the details – you can read all about it at the end of Vertical - but it’s got something in common with a lot of other writers: he was at one point broke and suicidal, but he never gave up, and even once he at first succeeded, he still had to wade through a sea of crap and try, try, try again.
Looks like I’m on my way.