Tuesday, February 28, 2023

I gotta be Me, and You gotta be You by Gabriel Valjan

Besides manuals, which books do you think make good masterclass material for crime writers?


When it comes to gifts, parents fear the words: SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED. I feel the same way about HOW TO advice vis-à-vis the books that made me the writer before you because it would be disingenuous on my part.

            Remember the Pritchard Scale in the movie Dead Poet’s Society? If you do X and Y as a Writer, there is this desired effect in the Reader. Robin Williams as Professor Keating calls BS on Pritchard because the academic approach is devoid of passion or individuality, and yet there will always be that one student in class who’ll raise his or her hand and say, “What do I have to do to get an A in this class?” I don’t know about you, but I had one of them in every one of my literature classes. The takeaway here is don’t think that if you follow Dr. J. Evans Pritchard’s advice, you will create Literature.

            Let’s do the roll call of contemporary masterclass materials: Lawrence Block’s Spider, Spin Me A Web; George V. Higgins’s On Writing; Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones; Lamott’s Bird by Bird; Snyder’s Save the Cat; Vonnegut’s Pity the Reader; Zissner’s On Writing Well; and King’s On Writing.

            None of them did a thing for me as a writer because I’m gonna be me. Let me explain.

I was an only child, which means two things. One, I was left to my own devices and I figured out things on my own.  I’m self-reliant, in the Emersonian tradition. Two, faced with the choice of pleasing others or being contrarian, I’ll choose anti-authoritarian. The reason why is that I learned long ago that the education system and society are all about conformity. It’s one massive game of Whack-A-Mole. As education is no guarantee for success, neither is having read everything. Maya Angelou, Ray Bradbury, Charles Dickens, and William Faulkner never graduated college. I’ve known doctorates whose writing is as dead as a wet match.

What’s a latchkey kid to do?

Read and read some more, but analyze why you enjoyed book X. Don’t do this the Pritchard way. Do this as if you were Frank Sinatra singing “My Way.” The nuance to analysis here is to uncover the less obvious beneath the surface. Writing is like learning a foreign language, you can drown in endless resources, or you can jump in and start talking, learn along the way, and make mistakes.

Context helps. Literary works are not monoliths. Chandler was a frustrated poet, which is why he was besotted with similes and metaphors. Most of them worked, some were roadkill. Both Hammett and Hemingway created a style in reaction to the never-ending paragraphs of writers such as Henry James. A less obvious observation is that, while Chandler is more poetic and Hammett is spare, Marlowe is far more cynical than the Continental Op. Marlowe is world weary and tired of the grind (think of all those scenes when he eyes his razor in the morning) while the Op sees his gig as a job. Observations like these lift you up from mere imitation and put you on the road to writing your way.

The list of crime fiction authors I have enjoyed is simply too lengthy. Burke. S.A. Cosby. Highsmith. Higgins. Hughes. Lehane. To cite a WHY, let me cite the example of Leonardo Sciascia’s The Day of the Owl because he showed me that for organized crime to work, it needs cooperation at all levels of society. That was a profound insight to me. I learn something from every writer, but I don’t want to write like them. On that note, my other advice is to read bad literature. Like that famous judicial pronouncement on what defines obscenity: you’ll know it when you see it.

When I hear writer advice or writing masterclass, I’m thinking that wannabee writers want a coach, someone who will inspire them to write every day. It’s not that I can’t appreciate how another mind thinks, but I don’t need a cheerleader. Some people need to feel the boot in the can. Neil Gaiman and Walter Mosley have interesting things to say in their Masterclasses online, but if you listen carefully, they discuss what worked for them.

I like what I like. I can try to explain why, but it’s indigenous to Me.

I can’t explain how I write the way I do because I simply do it. Homo faber.

For better or worseevery author I have read has influenced me. I latched onto the fact that attention spans have dwindled, so I read the Hemingway and Fitzgerald of journalism, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill. If there’s one book that helped me the most, it was Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers because I needed to teach myself how to line-edit, which is a different skill from proofreading and developmental editing. The chapters in his book are a tour of the kitchen and you learn how to take a knife to your prose. What you teach yourself, you never forget.

Understand that what works for you won’t for someone else.

Trust your instincts.

At the close of day, You gotta be You.


Monday, February 27, 2023

Writing and life Advice


Terry Shames here, not in my usual spot, but filling in for fellow 7 Criminal Minds author Susan Shea. Susan’s newest book, Murder Visits a French Village, launches next week on my usual day to post. I’ve surrendered that day to Susan so she can tell you about her book. 

This week’s topic: Besides manuals, which books do you think make good masterclass material for crime writers? There are many good books on writing. I don’t n think they have to be focused on crime writing to be useful to crime writers. Also, the books don’t have to be a “masterclass.” They can be dipped into for advice when a writer is stuck on an element of craft. 

Here are a few of the books that I’ve consulted again and again for inspiration: How to Write A Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey. There is no mystery to why this book has been popular for years. The subtitle is: A step-by-step no nonsense guide to dramatic storytelling. When we moved 18 months ago, I had to weed out my books on writing, and Jim Frey’s was one of the first ones in the “keep” pile. I took Frey’s course on writing many years ago and still remember some of his writing advice.
A couple of examples: “Your main character must always perform to the maximum of his or her ability.” Or this, “There are contradictions to be found in everyone. Readers delight in seeing them in your characters.” 

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. If you haven’t read this, you’re missing out not only on writing wisdom, but life wisdom. The title of the work comes from an incident in the author’s family in which her brother had only one day to write a report on birds that had been assigned months ago. He was in tears at the impossibility of the task. Lamott’s father’s advice: “Just take it bird by bird.”
One tidbit from the book: “One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description can’t.” 

Save the Cat Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need, by Jessica Brody, Based on the books by Blake Snyder. Probably not the last book you’ll ever need, but it’s got a lot to recommend it. The book include such chapters as Creating the Story-Worthy Hero, a chapter on plotting, a chapter called Whydunnit: Detectives, Deception, and the Dark Side, Victory of the Underdog, etc.
Here are a few sentences I underlined to remind myself: “Your hero’s problems should be affecting their entire world: their work, their home life, and their relationships.” And another: “Original is not an achievable goal in novel-writing…What is achievable is fresh.” I’ve just put down a novel that bristles with the same old tropes, deciding not to continue reading it. Why? Not because it felt tired, but because the writing felt tired. I picked up another with many of the same tropes…but it was fresh. ”Save the Cat” addresses how to do that. 

Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein. The cover declares: “A master Editor of some of the most successful writers of our century shares his craft techniques and strategies.” In his preface Stein endeared himself to me immediately by stating: “If there are writers in America who do not have several hundred pages of a would-be novel in a drawer or at least in mind, I have not met them.”
One of my favorite chapters in the book is entitled: Thwarting Desire: The Basics of Plotting. Plotting is my biggest challenge. Stein says, “The more urgent the want (of your character), the greater the reader’s interest.” He states, that the essence of plotting is, “putting the protagonist’s desire and the antagonist’s desire into sharp conflict.” And, “The want and the opposition to the want must be important, necessary, and urgent.” 

One more, this one narrower in focus, but just as valuable: The Art of Character, by David Corbett. Bestselling author Sheldon Siegel says, “(the book) should be on every serious writer’s shelf next to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and Stephen King’s On Writing.
One of my favorite lines: “There is perhaps no more crucial discipline in writing than acquiring the intuitive sense of what’s necessary and what’s not.” Note the word “discipline.” Corbett expands on this by warning, “For all but a lucky few, writing requires more than taking dictation from imagine beings.” I loved that line. His point is that writers have to work at the job of writing. It isn’t some casual occupation to be done in spare time; but a discipline that requires working and reworking. 

These are books intended for writers, but I would suggest that even readers who never took up the pen might enjoy them. If you’ve ever wondered why a particular book grabbed your interest, while others seemed ho-hum, it’s instructive to discover how writers accomplish the best writing—for your reading enjoyment. 

P.S. I highly recommend Murder Visits a French Village. I love Shea’s new protagonist Ariel Shepard, who tackles renovation of a rundown French chateau. But only read it if you aren’t hungry, because along with a compelling mystery, and wonderful depictions of French culture, Shea includes mouth-watering descriptions of French food.

Friday, February 24, 2023

The One Where I Get Angry


by Abir 


Does a background in any other kind of business give you a head start as a professional writer? If you were designing a course of study for a budding writer, what would the modules be?


Morning. Friday again, and the weather seems to be warming up a bit – at least that’s what I tell my wife when I refuse to turn on the heating. With the longer days and first flowers in the garden, you’d expect me to be full of the joys of spring, but I’m not, and so don’t expect any uplifting thoughts from this post. Instead, I’m going to give you the unvarnished truth. 


Being a professional writer can be a tough, thankless task. For so many of us, getting published is our dream. We spend years, decades, writing, honing our craft, getting rejection after rejection, till one day, the amazing happens – we get an agent who’s willing to take us on and an editor who’s willing to publish our work. It’s a huge achievement. The relief. The vindication. At last, you feel like a proper writer (though really, you’ve been one all along), and yet, monetarily, you’re not really any better off. Chances are, you’ve been given a small advance – enough to take the kids to Disney Land or Peppa Pig World, but not much more, nothing life changing. You’re still going to have to go back to work tomorrow and listen to Kevin drone on and on about his weekend in the Cotswolds/Catskills/wherever. And here’s the thing. You’ll probably have to do it next week as well, and the week after that, and then again for a very, very long time, because a) Kevin is an arse, and b) most published authors, at least in the UK, don’t make minimum wage from writing. Seriously. The median income for authors in the UK is about £7,000. ( https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/dec/06/writers-earnings-have-plummeted-with-women-black-and-mixed-race-authors-worst-hit ). Meanwhile, Amazon and the big publishing houses record bumper profits. But it’s not just their fault. What does it say about us as a society when we place a higher value on a cup of coffee than we do on a book?


So you want to get ahead in publishing? Well yeah, business and marketing skills and a proactive attitude are all useful, but if you really want to get ahead, here are my top tips. (NOTE: Some of the below might sound like sour grapes – it’s not. I’m one of the lucky ones. Publishing has been good to me. It gives me my living, but that doesn’t mean I can’t call out bullshit when I see it). So here goes.


Top Tips for being a best-selling writer:

·      Be a celebrity – if your face is on the TV or the internet – it doesn’t matter what for – then you’re pretty much guaranteed a book deal of some sort. The really good news is, you don’t actually need any writing talent. Indeed, if you’re borderline illiterate, the publishers will bring in some proper impoverished writer who’s willing to work for twenty grand, to write the thing for you. Bingo, you watch the royalties roll in and your ghost writer gets to heat their home for another six months. Win win! (PS. You get bonus points if you’re royalty or, better still, a politician who has royally fucked the country, but you now want to explain how it was actually everyone else’s fault.) 

Note: This doesn’t mean that all celebrity writers are shit. Some can write very well, but they’re a small minority.


·      If you aren’t a celebrity or a politician, then your best bet is to be a young, attractive white woman. You can then write very average books, safe in the knowledge that your publisher will provide you with a massive marketing budget that’s pretty much guaranteed to get your face on billboards and breakfast TV; because when it comes to sales, forget starred reviews in literary magazines, it seems what the buying public really want from a book is to know it’s been penned by someone with a telegenic white face that gives them a warm, fuzzy feeling while eating their cornflakes.


·      If you’re neither of the above, then I’m afraid it gets difficult. Some people have tried being talented and writing really, really good books, but that’s hit and miss and I wouldn’t advocate this approach if you can possibly help it. (Talent is an odd thing. In most industries, being talented is a good thing, but in the world of commercial fiction, I think too much talent can be rather a hindrance to your career.)


·      There was a time when being a rich, Oxbridge/Ivy League educated white man was a ticket to getting published, but this doesn’t seem to guaranteed any more, which is desperately unfair on these poor souls. To them I say, don’t worry, you’ll still be ok as long as you have famous or influential parents.


That’s about it, really. If you want to get ahead in this business, then your best bet is to be a young, white, telegenic reality TV star with an eye to making a quick buck and no more than a passing familiarity with the written word. Just turn up at your agents’ and let the machine of publishing take care of the rest. If, however you don’t fall into that category, you might want to try something with a greater chance of success, like a career in neurosurgery or being the captain of the Titanic.


Have a great weekend everyone…and turn down the heating. It’s warm enough now. I swear.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Better than a Poke in the Eye from James W. Ziskin

Which do you find harder to cope with, success or failure? In either event do you have ways to keep the world's view of your work from affecting your work?

Success is easy. At least it should be. I haven’t experienced every shade of success in my writing career, but I can’t complain. Sure, my books and stories have been well-enough received critically, and I’ve been fortunate to have won a few awards, But sales have not made me rich. Even if I’m not in the writing biz to make pots of cash, I wouldn’t mind it if I did.


Failure is another matter. It’s inevitable in this and any other field of endeavor. All star hitters in baseball only get hits a third of the time. That means they fail two out of three at bats. Yet they somehow learn to be happy with that percentage. 


When I was searching for an agent fifteen years ago, I received about forty-five “declinations.” That’s the term my former agent—the one I managed to land out of forty-five—used to refer to rejections. I appreciated his attempts to soften the sting. Or perhaps ennoble it. Anyway, one for forty-five is a pretty poor batting average for a baseball player, but a damn fine one for an aspiring writer. And, of course, it took a few years—and a second book—before my agent was able to sell something for me.


Writers fail much more often than baseball batters. At least when we’re starting out. Just ask a writer how many agents rejected their work before something got accepted. The same is true for publisher rejections. But once you break through, things can get a little easier. After my first novel, I sold six more books to my first publisher until we—the publisher and I—parted brass rags and went our separate ways and I started all over again. Lucky for me, my new agent placed my latest book, Bombay Monsoon, with a new publisher and I am happy to claim that as a success.


Success and failure are opposite sides of the same coin. And sometimes a failure is a success with a wart. Or at least a blemish. I’ve been lucky enough to see my books and stories nominated as finalists for twenty-one important industry awards. Those nominations were without a doubt successes, even when I didn’t win the day. I managed to sneak off with four of those twenty-one awards. That’s a middle-of-the-road batting average in baseball, but—again—a fantastic haul for a writer. I don’t look at my also rans as failures. That would be the height of petulance. I’m proud of those honors, even if our own Catriona McPherson stuffed the prize-winning hardware into her bulging suitcase on a few of those occasions, thereby denying me bragging rights and you all a victory dance you could never hope to wash from your eyes. Be thankful for small mercies. Congratulations, dearest Catriona.


No, I can’t complain. Rejection and failure are part and parcel of the bargain we’ve signed on for. Neither affects my work. My satisfaction, perhaps, but not my work. A success puts a smile on your face, while a failure leaves a scar. Scars can disfigure or distinguish. I like to think of my declinations, losses, and disappointments as having left marks of character on my face. For me, a black eye is a badge of honor. 


Then again, a victory is better than a poke in the eye, which, of course, can cause a black eye.




What Happened to Jack and Jill on That Hill? Twenty Writing Prompts from James W. Ziskin

Does a background in any other kind of business give you a head start as a professional writer? If you were designing a course of study for a budding writer, what would the modules be?

A budding writer in 2012, Lago di Como

Any and all business backgrounds can give you a head start as a writer. Lawyers have proven that. And doctors, academics, cops, jockeys, soldiers, journalists, and homemakers. We’ve all read great books and stories written by people who’ve escaped/juggled first or even second careers. Humans are naturally curious. We love stories and we love learning, especially when the exercise entertains us. Writers draw on their experiences to transport readers to interesting places that are foreign or new. The power of fiction lies in its variety and versatility. Any subject has potential to enthrall readers. There is an infinite number of interests and opinions out there. So writers who have particular expertise can certainly have a head start. But a head start is useless if you can’t maintain your lead. You’ve got to run fast, which, if you’re following this metaphor, means you’ve got to learn to write a thumping good story or your readers will move on.


With that in mind, I’ve put together twenty writing prompts intended to exercise your writing muscles. Though not exactly a traditional syllabus, these prompts could easily fill a semester with fun and variety. Or torturous tedium, I suppose. In fact, I use some of these prompts as exercises in the middle school creative writing classes I teach, and the students aren’t always thrilled. Feel free to try some of them, borrow them, or ignore them.



1. Write me a nursery rhyme about what happened to Jack and Jill at the top of the hill.


2. Write me a thousand-word story without using the verb to be.


3. Write me a limerick. If it’s dirty, it had better be clever.


4. Write me a story with a first-person narrator. Gender cannot be your own.


5. Write me a first-person story that shows a villain as the hero of his/her/their own story.


6. Write me a story about the life of a single dollar bill.


7. Write me a story about the shortest love affair ever.


8. Write me a comedic version of Romeo and Juliet.


9. Write me an updated version of Dante’s Inferno. Who is in which circle of hell?


10. Write me a eulogy for Bertie Wooster. Or your favorite character from literature.


11. Write me a clever inscription for a tombstone.


12. Write me a list of counter indications and disclaimers for a new weight loss drug.


13. Write me a story in the second person.


14. Write me a story using only (mostly) clichés.


15. Write me a few awkward descriptions of people using really weird metaphors, laborious similes, and hyperbolic hyperbole.


16. Write me a paragraph describing a fight without adjectives or adverbs.


17. Write me a story of your last dream, sparing no surreal or illogical details. Then edit it to make sense.


18. Write me a list of names for ninety-year-old characters in a humorous story.


19. Write me a joke.


20. Write me an outline of your (completed) novel.




Wednesday, February 22, 2023

A guest post by Ken MacQueen

This week, I’ve invited fellow author Ken MacQueen to sit in. For those who don’t know Ken yet, he’s an award-winning magazine and newspaper journalist turned thriller writer. He’s traveled the globe, met with royalty, covered nine Olympic Games, reported on all manner of political events, crimes, trials, terror attacks and oil spills. Now, turning his talents from fact to fiction, he’s written his debut thriller, Hero Haters, released in October by Wild Rose Press of New York. A book that’s highly charged and highly recommended. 

Does a background in any other kind of business give you a head start as a professional writer? If you were designing a course of study for a budding writer, what would the modules be?

Ken: Answering the first of this two-parter is easy. Hell, yes, decades of journalism is the best apprenticeship imaginable for an author. The parade of characters that I came across—venal, weird, aggrieved, sad, ambitious, sweet and all things in between—stand shuffling in my subconscious like I’ve conscripted them into a police lineup.

It’s a ‘round up the usual suspects’ thing. If I want evil, I might draw on the hours I spent in courtrooms with serial killer Willy Pickton or Paul Bernardo and his twisted wife Karla Homolka. If I want sweet tinged with sadness, there’s this dear octogenarian from Victoria I spent an afternoon with. She was in reasonable health, but she was determined to die before that changed. I pointed to the flowers and plants in her sunny backyard, and leave this behind? Oh, not today, dear, she said. Weeks later, I read her obituary in the local paper.

I have the luxury of building characters from bits of this and that, like an identikit. I’m writing this with John Sandford looking over my shoulder. Beside him in the photo is me, grinning like an idiot. We met briefly at Thrillerfest. Sandford, birth name, John Camp, won a Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper journalism back in the 1980s.

I’m a huge fan of his Prey series and his spin-off Virgil Flowers and Letty Davenport characters. Sandford credits journalisms for all the strange situations he was thrust into, the research skills he applied, and the cops, crooks and characters he met along the way. Listen to Virgil and Lucas and Letty speak, they are sharp, street-smart, and a touch cynical. The humour is dark, the way cops talk, and soldiers, and journalists. It keeps the bleakness at bay, and makes for wonderful dialogue. You don’t learn that in a Masters of Creative Writing program.

Well, maybe you do. I never went to university. So, the very idea of me creating an academic course is akin to, say, turning over the presidency to a sociopathic, attention-addled serial liar. I mean, it would just never happen. Right?

But, Dietrich, you asked, so here’s my advice. My syllabus would read something like:

(Un)academic Writing, 101: Express your innermost thoughts in words of two syllables or fewer. The use of three-syllable words or greater, requires written permission of your professor. Your written request will fail if it contains words of three syllables. The use of footnotes is also expressly forbidden. 

Writing within the bounds of your ‘Lived Experience,’ 101. [Ha-ha. Put that stupid course description in to sneak it past the Dean.] The course is actually called Writing to Mess with Your Head and Those of Others. Conjoining ‘lived’ and ‘experience’ in the same sentence is an automatic fail, ibid footnote prohibition above. Also loc. cit., op.cit., infra, supra and viz. [The Dean is crazy for Latin abbreviations.]

Making Up Shit, 101. Well, it is a fiction course.

A prerequisite for You Can’t Make Up This Shit, 201. Exploring reality. Tools for the unimaginative.

The Elimination of Excessive Verbiage in Written Expressions of Thought, 101

If you corrected this to Tight Writing, 101, you have already passed.

The Financial Rewards of Fiction, 101

Explorations of poverty as a Lived Experience.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

More Than Simply Writing the Book


Terry here. This week we are talking about the business side of writing. The question is whether a background in any other kind of business give you a head start as a professional writer? If you were designing a course of study for a budding writer, what would the modules be? 

 I don’t know if a background in another business gives you a head start, but it does help to know the business of publishing if you plan to be a professional writer. To be successful in pretty much any other business you need to be organized, you need to learn the way the business runs, and what other people have done to attain success. 

 A lot of writers (most?) go into writing thinking it’s all creativity. That a writer’s job is to write the book. Period. Once the book is written, there’s this vague agenty, edity, publishy, promoty bit that somehow gets navigated, but many new writers pretend this has nothing to do with them. Alas, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The business part takes up if not as much time, at least as much mental energy as writing the book. 

 You need to know the business of publishing to make crucial decisions. If I were designing a course of study for a budding writer to dive into the business side, I’d tell them the need to consider the following:

 1) Are you going to find a traditional publisher, or go the independent route? What are the pros and cons of each? 

 2) If traditional, what agents should you query and how do you go about writing a query letter? What are you parameters for choosing an agent if more than one shows an interest? What publishers do you hope to interest? What are the pros and cons of small vs large publishers? How long are you willing to wait to see your book published? The process from getting an agent to actually seeing the book in print can easily take two years or longer. 

 3) If you are going to publish independent of a traditional publisher, you’ll need to decide whether you want to produce a printed book or e-book, or both? Will you learn how to design a book cover, format the book, choose paper and print style, procure ISBN numbers, or will you pay to have that done? 

 4) You also need to know something about the business of promotion and publicity. What’s the difference in the two things? Whether you are traditionally published or publish independently you will have to promote your book. What kind of promotion will you do? Will you do a book tour? Which social media platform will you use? How much are you willing to pay for publicity and promotion? Do you want to hire a professional, or do it yourself? I have a feeling if aspiring writers knew how much a writer had to engage in the business side, a good many of them may decide they have a sudden, burning interest in becoming a plumber or an electrician. 

 I think what an aspiring writer really needs to know is that to be a writer you need to write. But you also have to think about the business side if you hope to be a professional.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Getting a Leg Up in the Writing Field

Does a background in any other kind of business give you a head start as a professional writer? If you were designing a course of study for a budding writer, what would the modules be?

Benda here.

I think that any and all life experience helps a professional writer. Using my own working life as an example, I started out as a teacher, which helps in designing and giving presentations. Teaching gave me invaluable practice for standing in front of a group of people and delivering a talk. I also taught grammar, the building block of good writing.

My second career was in Communications. My first position was editor, and I moved on to Communications advisor, which involved writing news releases, media lines, communications plans, all great skills for marketing books. Writing under deadline, not to mention daily reading, absorbing and synthesizing quantities of material that had to be condensed into easily understandable paragraphs -- all proved good training for being an author.

In addition to these two careers, a college or university education benefits professional writers, including studying in the fields of business, English literature, journalism, film studies, criminology, and creative writing. Also invaluable is any field, such as history or political studies, that broadens someone's knowledge ... the list goes on. Many professional authors in the crime-writing field worked as journalists or in policing or forensics. 

In designing modules for budding writer courses, I'd include sessions on contracts and writing as a business, marketing, public speaking, preparing and giving presentations. I'd also have a module with a grammar refresh and some basic plot and character development tips. A module on policing, investigative procedures and forensics would also be helpful for crime fiction authors. A unit on diversity and sensitivity also will never be wasted. There's a reason the writing organizations offer workshops on writing and content, offering a wealth of information for  writers at every level.

Ultimately though, professional writers spend their entire lives accumulating information and experiences that cannot be taught in a course. Every job gives insight that can be useful down the road. Most writers are sponges, absorbing all they can from every experience to process and use in their stories. Beginning writers should draw from their own backgrounds because everyone brings something different and valuable to the table.

Website: www.brendachapman.ca

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Friday, February 17, 2023

Adapting a Book Into a Film, by Josh Stallings

Q: Why do you think so few beloved books become equally beloved films? Do you have a personal list of exceptions?

A: I started my adult writing journey in screenplays. A couple that got made had limited releases and disappeared. I have been asked if I want to turn any of my books into screenplays. NO, REALLY, NO. I have never felt I had the distance or objectivity with my books to be able to translate them into film.   

For an adaptation to work it needs a screenwriter who can discover the essence or vibe of the book, and then set the book aside to create a new work that delivers the feeling we loved into a totally different art form. 

Steve Tesich did this brilliantly with his adaptation of John Irving’s The World According to Garp. The book was personally important to me; I was worried when it was made into a film. But I loved the film. The screenplay wanders from the book but never leaves the tone. I remember certain passages from the book, and others I remember from the film. They are distinct in my mind but equally wonderful.  

William Goldman is a master of adaptation maybe because he was a novelist before becoming a screen writer. In the case of both Marathon Man and Princess Bride he wrote both the source novel and the film adaptation. His books on working in Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade, and Which Lie Did I Tell? Are must reads for anyone considering a career in screenwriting.

Why are there so many examples of great crime books becoming great films? Maybe because crime novels by nature tend to be short and use action to propel the plot. Like film. Here’s a quick and incomplete list of crime adaptations I love, No Country for Old Men, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Gone Girl, Devil in a Blue Dress, L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Cotton Comes to Harlem… and many more.

One of my favorite adaptations is The Big Sleep, premiered in 1946. The screenwriters were tasked with capturing Raymond Chandler’s absolutely unique style without relying on first person narration. William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman did a fine job of both capturing the style and making sense of the convoluted plot. They also brilliantly skirted the Hayes Code censorship with clever writing as shown in the dialogue. (Bacall and Bogart’s undeniable chemistry help to heat these words up.)

Vivian: Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them workout a little first, see if they're front runners or come from behind, find out what their hole card is, what makes them run.

Marlowe: Find out mine?

Vivian: I think so.

Marlowe: Go ahead.

Vivian: I'd say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a little lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.

Marlowe: You don't like to be rated yourself.

Vivian: I haven't met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?

Marlowe: Well, I can't tell till I've seen you over a distance of ground. You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how, how far you can go.

Vivian: A lot depends on who's in the saddle.

Some small screen adaptations have been wonderful as well. Ann Cleeves’ Shetland Novels are allowed to be both rich and languid in their story telling by only tackling one novel a season. Starting with third season, they spread one novel over six episodes. 

Tony Hillerman’s Dark Wind became a terrific limited series. I read the book over thirty years ago, loved it, remember it fondly, but can’t tell you if the show tracked with the novel. 

Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven would have been destroyed if it had been contained to 120 minutes. But as an HBO limited series it captures the feel if not the exact plot of the book. I loved the show, even if it was slightly less brilliant than the amazing novel.

Lastly, an adaptation of a book I haven't read. I just saw the Swedish film A Man Called Ove, so damn good that it has me adding Fredrik Backman’s book to my TBR pile. 

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Medium Fidelity, by Catriona

Reading - Why do you think so few beloved books become equally beloved films? Do you have a personal list of exceptions?

Gabriel was on the money on Tuesday, pointing out that simply because of scope and scale short stories make for good movies. "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption", "The Birds", "Brokeback Mountain". And wasn't 2001 based on a short story too?

I don't have a problem with the cutting that necessarily goes on to turn a 100K word novel into a 90min movie, mind you. If the adapting screenwiter is bold - amputating whole sections, killing (or combining) characters, nixing sub-plots - you end up with a well-shaped movie that might send a viewer to the book to be delighted by more of what they loved. Like deleted scenes in DVD extras. Catch-22 is great example of fearless cutting.

Chewed corner courtesy of a kitten

What I do find tiresome is the taming of content to chase a PG rating or to appeal to the pearl-clutchingest slice of potential audience - read straight, white, cis people, basically. When Celie and and Shug Avery were no longer lovers in the film of the Color Purple, or when Idgie and Ruth were no longer lovers in the film of Fried Green Tomatoes, or when there doesn't seem to be any reason that Holly and Paul aren't lovers in Breakfast at Tiffany's* . . . but then look at Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Why exactly didn't Paul Newman notice that Elizabeth Taylor was cutting about in her underskirt? Tennessee Williams must have been ready to spit. 

*I also felt like a chump when I read the book and found out what Holly actually did for a living.

my gorgeous edition

When a good book does manage to get turned into a good film - for me - it seems to be when the tone is preserved intact, no matter what happens to the details. (Catch-22 again.)

I Capture The Castle is a novel I adore and I dreaded seeing it on the screen. It's a triumph, translated in all its whimsy and humour and pain. 

To Kill A Mockingbird succeeds, I think, because the child's eye view happens to align with the cinema code of the day and so the story is not hobbled by the censor.

ungorgeous edition - I'm very loyal

Noir reliably seems to come off pretty well, since it was dominating crime fiction and movies at around the same time and the film noir tradition can be true to itself and to its source material. Farewell, My Lovely is pretty perfect in either medium, I reckon.

Sometimes it's really unexpected and very specific, though. I've always thought High Fidelity was brilliantly adapted from a British book to a Chicago film (except all the names were too Anglo) largely because John Cusack is so well-cast. (Also, Jack Black is in the book as far as I'm concerned now.)

And The Silence of The Lambs has to be up there. It came out when I moved from a city (with art cinemas) to a small-ish town (with only commercial cinemas). I went to see it and walked home completely blown away by how great Hollywood was, vowing never to read another subtitle in my life. Turns out, it was beginner's luck.

Jodie on the jacket - I saw the film first.

I do know The Silence of the Lambs is controversial, by the way. And I think people who abhor it have got a point. Not because it's wrong to have an evidently trans character as a monster, per se, but because when it came out it wasn't against a background of other good, bad, fun, boring, background, foregoround, unremarkable trans lives on our screens. Like how I understand why Italian-Americans get upset about The Sopranos: because the depiction of Italian-Americans in New Jersey as Mafia is pretty much all there ever is. Compare how Scots didn't get annoyed about all the Edinburgh junkies in Trainspotting: we had shed loads of representation besides Renton and Co. (Braveheart had just been the year before.) It makes a difference.

so reflective - you can practically tell what I'm wearing

Incidentally,Trainspotting was a wonderful adapation of a remarkable novel. A lot of the episodes in the book got cut, including the one about trainspotting. But they kept the title anyway. Talk about chutzpah!