How to Treat People When You’re Famous (Sideways & Vertical – 12.06-07)

April 16, 2012

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.


12.01 – The Lost Symbol

January 19, 2012

One of the things my wife constantly ribs me for is the fact that books bore me so easily. Whenever I read a book that focuses more on description or theme than it does on the plot, I start skimming (or, in my wife’s words, I start whining about how long it is). Sometimes we mistakenly confuse my penchant for plot-based books with a penchant for short books.

But then I read something like this, and I remember the truth.

There are two things that stood out for me, as I spent an entire afternoon finishing the second half of a 500 page book, and both of them related to telling a good story. First: create intrigue. I think there are a number of ways this can be done – in Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open (which I started reading right after I finished this book), it’s done by completely subverting our expectations in the first page. I’ll talk about that when I blog about that book. But in The Lost Symbol, it’s done by creating a mystery as to exactly what the maguffin is. We know that it has extraordinary power, is a matter of national security, etc., but we don’t know exactly what will happen when the ultimate thing they’re looking for is found. This makes us keep reading, because we want to find out.

The second thing is the rule of endings: surprising but inevitable. This is something ScreenwritingU hammers home in its Writing Great Endings class: whatever happens at the end has to surprise the audience, but needs to be set up so that when it finally does happen, we realize that there’s no other way it could have gone. This is particularly crucial for thrillers, as all the great ones follow this rule: The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects, Chinatown, The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, Memento, and so on. And in The Lost Symbol, when I got to that “surprising but inevitable” moment, it exploded off the page at me.

I’m not saying that The Lost Symbol is a literary masterpiece, mind you. There are a few moments that are more obvious than the author would hope. And the maguffin, when revealed, was highly anticlimactic and way too preachy, in my opinion. But if a book’s purpose is to entertain, to keep you wanting more, this one certainly does it. And that’s a damn good start.

Stripper-Turned-Writer (11.08)

March 21, 2011

If you’re a writer, particularly a screenwriter, you’d have to be living in a box not to know the story of Diablo Cody. Stripper in Minneapolis blogs about her life as a stripper. Producer/agent/publisher guy finds said blog, and turns it into a book, and then convinces stripper to write a screenplay. Jason Reitman gets screenplay, and they make Juno. Stripper wins Academy Award.

Juno was one of my favorite movies of that year, and I’m totally agree with the Oscar win. But I didn’t even know about the book until I saw it in some random pile at my brother’s house a few days ago. But being a fan of Juno, and of strippers in general (not to mention being someone who still has a yet-to-be-finished screenplay that’s set in that particular scene), I had to read it.

The book is called Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, and I read the whole thing in one sitting, in a marathon reading session that lasted from about 11 pm until 2:30 this morning. Rather than being a story about the “girl gone wrong,” it’s more of a “fish out of water” tale, as this desperately conservative (or so she would have us believe) 24-year-old suburbanite steps into her quarterlife crisis, and with it a seedy strip club on amateur night. Over the next year she hits an upscale gentleman’s club, an all-nude hustler bar, the peep show at a porn shop, back to a strip club, and finally a phone sex line, before it was finally time for her to call it quits for good.

One of the markers of Cody’s writing style is that it’s incredibly witty. The sort of thing I used to envy when I was … well, about that age, and convinced that the deeper you delved into the thesaurus, the more idioms you used, the more obscure and creative your analogies, the better the writing. One such perpetrator who comes to mind is the curmudgeon John Kelso of the Austin American-Statesman. (Side note: When I was in college I wrote a poem about a hyperbolically precocious squirrel. I came across that poem a few days ago digging through old boxes, and I still like it. But my favorite poem I ever wrote was called “From the Journal of a 13th Century Peasant”, which consisted of the title, my name, and a blank page.)

At some point I read an article that argued that good writers don’t need to call attention to their own writing in that way, and it cured me forever of that ambition. Every now and then I write something that violates the principle, like my recent short story, an attempt at Poe-esque American Gothic, where I literally spent hours in a thesaurus picking out every obscure word I could shoehorn into my story, and then hours more pulling all those words out. But I still like coining new words and phrases (if you can understand what it means, then by definition it’s a word, dammit!), and do so regularly.

But I no longer feel the need to litter everything I write with obscure references to popular culture or ancient classics. (In an interview with Letterman, Cody refers to herself as a naked Margaret Mead. The audience laughed and applauded. Cody mugged for them. I looked up who the heck Margaret Mead is.)

Regardless, there’s no denying that Candy Girl is exceptionally well told, because Cody has more than just a keen wit, she has an excellent grasp on story telling. This book includes every structural beat you would expect from a well-told story: solid turning points, as she goes from one club to the next along her questionable career path; a midpoint when she quits, but then just has to return because she can’t help herself; rising stakes as she does more and more, going from the partially-clothed to the all-nude to masturbating in front of fetishists, until she finally found herself as the Grade A stripper who took home the gold; and then the need to quit and exit the industry entirely.

Through all of it, the insights are candid; erotic but grotesque: the unmistakable stain spreading through the patrons’ shorts, the declining responsiveness of her genitals, the need to be better than everyone else for just one night, the power through all the objectification. And for that, we love the author, because she gives us, as all great writers should, a window into something we couldn’t possibly have known otherwise.

I like that she addresses, in the conclusion, her motives for doing this and the motives of most of the girls who take this career path. I’ve recently become fascinated with the idea of exploiting stereotypes to call attention to them and offer a contrapuntal alternative. And this book does all of the above.

So all in all, a great read, and one that has me respect this Oscar-winning writer all the more.

It’s All About the Books

November 20, 2010

Have you read more than 6 of these books? The BBC believes most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books listed here.

Copy this into your NOTES. Bold those books you’ve read in their entirety, italicize the ones you started but didn’t finish or read an excerpt. Tag other book nerds. Tag me as well so I can see your responses!

Which ones have you read?

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34 Emma -Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – A.A. Milne
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce
76 The Inferno – Dante
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Quoting Books in a Script

August 3, 2009

Great blog post from John August on quoting articles/books in a script:

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