Owen Egerton on Writing, SCOTUS on Selling Used Books, Valuing Your Script, Odd Punctuation – Random Things for this Week

December 24, 2012

A few random things for this week:

  • Advice for writers. Owen Egerton, Austin’s favorite author for a billion years running and someone I interviewed two years ago, recently published a list of 30 pieces of advice for writers.  My favorites are 12, 14, and 21.
  • Could selling used books become illegal? Though the title is sensationalist, this is a well-crafted article about a student from Thailand who bought textbooks overseas (where they’re cheaper) and then sold them in the U.S. at below-market rates for profit. Wiley sued, claiming a copyright violation of sorts, and has thus far has won the suit to the tune of $600,000. The case is now before the Supreme Court, and whichever way they rule, the implications their decision could have on the publishing industry could be pretty staggering.
  • How much is your film script worth? Script mag put together an article on valuing your work as a writer breaking into the industry. Most of the beginning is pretty basic and self-explanatory, but once you get to the bottom it has some really interesting points about coming in as an “investor” or a co-producer.
  • Unusual Punctuation Marks. I think the interrobang, the percontation point, the exclamation comma, and the question comma should become standard usage. What do you think?
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Interview with Owen Egerton

January 16, 2012

About a year ago I sat down with Owen Egerton, author of The Book of Harold, co-writer of the 2008 Black List screenplay Bobbie Sue, and Austin’s favorite author in 2007, 2008, and 2010. It was a great interview, but I got caught up in trying to transcribe the whole thing before uploading it, which was just a terrible idea. So here, a year late, is that most excellent interview about the life and art of being a writer.

Listen to the interview with author & screenwriter Owen Egerton

For those that would prefer to read the abridged version, below are some highlights from the interview.

On Family

One of my writing instructors, Debra Monroe had said that as humans we want to often avoid conflict, but as writers we need to make conflict happen. Take two people that you’d never wanted them to meet, you’d never put them in the same room, you’d never invite them to the same dinner party, and force them together and see what happens. I find when I do that in writing, eventually they form some kind of family. Or they kill each other. But more often than not, they form some kind of family which of course slowly kills each other.

On the Role of Fiction

I find that the role of fiction is to expand the questions and to expand the mystery, not to pat ourselves on the back for our own opinions. There’s fiction out there that does that, that says, “Gosh, I think that was injust as well, I’m so glad that I got to see this movie that made me feel good about my own opinion. Racism is bad! I agree with the hero of the movie!” Sometimes what we need more is something that troubles us, something that takes us a place we don’t necessarily expect to go and leaves us there with some questions.

On Collaboration

Working in comedy, there was always the need to collaborate, and always collaboration led to something better and grander than I could have come up with on my own. The analogy I used to use is like children playing blocks in kindergarten and each of the kids is only given so many blocks, and they all want to build a tower, each tower can only be seven blocks tall. But if the kids start working together, stacking each other blocks, then you’ve got a huge tower over twenty blocks tall. It’s a tower none of them could have built on their own. And that’s what I find when it comes to improv, or shows at the Alamo, or working with Chris and Russell, we collaborate in such a way, and we say, “Yes and” to each other’s ideas in such a way, and we’re loose enough with our own ideas that eventually a script comes out that there’s no way I could have written on our own.

On Comedy

There’s an interesting danger that happens in screenwriting where you’ve been working on a comedy script, and sometimes it can be a year that you’re working on it, and there’s some joke that’s still funny but you have to recognize that it’s funny because it doesn’t seem funny anymore. You have to have a craftsman’s eye for comedy, as opposed to a connoisseur’s eye.

On Instant Gratification

I was writing a novel which I knew was years away from being done, and longer away from being in print. At the same time I was writing sketches that I knew I could show my sketch group on Monday, we could rehearse it on Wednesday, perform it on Friday, and I was thinking, “This is immediate gratification.” And improv is even faster. I’ve gotta be careful, because I really want to do the novel, but I’m getting so much gratification immediately if I come up with something funny on stage.

On Job Security

I have some friends who have said, “Well, I don’t want to make the risk of going into being a full time artist,” whether that’s as a performing artist or as a writing artist, or whatever, “because I need the security of a job.” But if anything can be learned from the last few years of recession it’s that those secure jobs are not secure, and that’s a false security.

On Specialization

The advantage, I think, is the way these different genres of expression play off each other. The playfulness with which I approach improv comedy very much affects the way I approach the storyline of a novel or short story. Also my understanding of novel story structure has really helped me when I go to a screenplay. So I find they all bleed into each other and improve each other for the most part.

On Raising Children

There’s a greater gift to give our children than financial stability. There’s an example of striving to live a full life. There is the adventure of taking steps and not knowing where your foot’s going to land.

On Optimism

I’m pretty cheerful, but I don’t know that I’d call myself an optimist. I’m pretty disappointed in a lot of the world around me, and I see life can be a pretty dark, dark experience. But with all of that, I guess maybe you’d describe me as a pessimist with hope. That’s why I smile.


10.09 – The Book of Harold by Owen Egerton

July 13, 2010

The Book of Harold: the Illegitimate Son of God by Owen EgertonI’ve been keeping tracks of the books I read,  but I got a little lost there for a couple of weeks. As I was preparing for my Nonfiction Book Workshop, I read/skimmed several books partially, including Swim with the Sharks, How to Win Friends & Influence People, and one called Break from the Pack: How to Compete in a Copycat Economy. Enter the “I’m sick of reading things I’m supposed to read, I want to read something for fun” phase, and this new book by Owen Egerton.

For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Owen Egerton is an up and coming Austin celebrity. He was voted “Austin’s Favorite Author” by readers of the Austin Chronicle in 2007, and has conquered the worlds of improv comedy, screenwriting, short stories (How Best to Avoid Dying), and now the novel with his newly released The Book of Harold: the Illegitimate Son of God, a necessarily irreverent story of the new messiah.

I attended the book launch party back in May, and got the privilege of hearing Owen, a born performer, read the first chapter of his own book. The chapter tells the hilarious story of the narrator’s unfortunate history with religion, which started with his being cast as Joseph in a botched nativity pageant for his church at the age of 9. Owen also introduced us to the religion he got to invent in the writing of this book. In his words (roughly), “If I was going to invent a religion, I wanted it to be something I’d actually want to participate in.” Amen, brother.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the story, but I do want to share a bit about the writing. Having read most of Owen’s book of short stories, I noticed a few similarities in theme. First is his fascination with the sexual and the scatological. Second, his curiosity with death, which is hard to identify exactly, except that it extends past the tired foreshadowing and memento mori of most writers and into this weird realm of the casual. Discussions of death seem to be second nature, as if talking about the weather, except that the deaths themselves are so monumental – brutal, even – that it’s jarring to read.

But the thing that most marks his work – as with the best writers – is his sense of observation. I’ve taken the liberty of quoting liberally from one of the chapters of the book:

The dinner party began, and as always, it was as if a game were commencing. We could have called it Dinner in a Deck, a must-own for any social gathering.

The directions were easy to follow. As the guests arrive, the host hands out stacks of Conversation Cards, each with its own line of dialogue.

Some cards have straightforward lines:

What a lovely home you have.

— Have you done something with your hair?

Others are multiple choice:

The weather lately has been so (a. pleasant b. rainy c. unseasonal).

— Did you hear about ____ and ____? They’re (a. having a baby b. getting a divorce c. both a. & b.).

If you’re playing for points, as we almost always were, there was a scoring method. For example, if one player uses the card reading:

— We’re thinking of going to ____ next year. We hear it’s beautiful.

Another player can counter with the card reading:

— Ah yes. We went there once, but it isn’t as nice as _____ (more expensive destination).

Improvising is discouraged, but if attempted, there are some ground rules:

Arguments should be limited to subjecsone cannot in any way affect, i.e. sports or the decisions of television characters.

Controversial statements about politics or religion may only be made if the speaker is sure the other players will all agree with the statement.

Repetition of former conversations is encouraged.

Avoid silence at all costs.

The object of the game is to keep the game going.

So simple, yet so evocative. We can all nod along, familiar with the scene, because we’ve played that game a thousand times, and yet we never thought to look at it that way.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the book. Though I felt like it lagged a bit in the middle and lost a little bit of steam toward the end, it was a joy to follow the characters on their pilgrimage – each one likeable, yet despicable in their own way – and the short chapters keep it moving quickly.

And yes – I seriously want to get together with a group of people who’ve read the book and walk from Houston to Austin now.


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