Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Process

 

The first draft of the work-in-progress is as done as it’s going to get.

 

Let me explain.

 

There is a chapter—maybe two—I might decide to add. One, almost certainly. I know where it belongs; I know what has to happen. What I don’t know well is the context, as the idea came to me when I was well down the road from its eventual residence. I could read the preceding chapters and knock it out now, but that seems inorganic compared to my approach so far, and all my good feelings about this first draft derive from trusting the new process of letting things flow as much as possible when I sit down to write. When the time comes I’ll pause—knowing what’s to come—and let it roll. Worst case, I have to rewrite it. Or throw it away. Even throwing it away would show I have enough confidence in what I have to know what doesn’t fit.

 

Back to the first draft. I’ve been posting about my process’s evolution, and how I think it’s for the better. So far I have no reason to change that assessment. It’s possible I might when I come back in a few weeks for a fresh look and find it’s a steaming mass of covfefe. The big thing is I’m not worried about it.

 

“Worried” might be too strong a term for how I often feel during revision. It’s a sense of how much remains inadequate, all the things I was unhappy with in the first draft but left in because that’s what first drafts are for: digging up the raw material the edits smelt into something useful. I still have all of that to do. What’s different is I’m looking forward to it. I’ll approach the edits the same way I did the first draft. Try not to think about them until right before I go into the office to write, when I’ll sit quietly for anywhere from two to twenty minutes to let my mind sort itself out. Then I’ll go in and see what needs to be better.

 

The first pass at revision won’t improve the writing much. That’s fine. The purpose is to smooth out the story so it flows. Get the pacing right. Scenes in the right order. Cut what I don’t need. Scrivener is good for that.

 

The next revision is where the real writing takes place. I’ll export everything to Word and give it all a hard look. Does it flow? Does it have the tone I want? Does the humor work? Does the violence work? Is there enough description? Too much? Does the description detract from the pace? Does the dialog fall on the ear how I want? It’s still the same attitude as the first revision, though: nothing is wrong. Things just need to be better.

 

Then I’ll let it sit again before doing my version of line edits. There’s a detailed and OCD process I use before I’ll let myself type “THE END.” I tend to call it the “final” draft, and it comes after I’ve fixed all the stuff that catches my eye. Some books it’s Draft Seven. This time it will be Draft Four.

 

I used to put off sticky problems by telling myself, “You’ll catch that in the next draft.” Then I’d keep cranking out drafts until I didn’t say that anymore, after which I’d set the book aside before the final OCD draft.

 

Not this time. This time I want to keep a little pressure on myself. I want that turn of phrase, that banter, to be just how I like it in Draft Three, understanding that it probably won’t be. It just has to be close. The final pass will be to tidy things up. A proofread as much as anything else.

 

Will it work? So far so good.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Movies I'd Watch Forever

 

We all have movies we’ll watch time and again. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but if I had to pick a dozen movies to watch for the rest of my life, I’d be happy with these. (In alphabetical order.)

 

Animal House (1978) A film that speaks to me. I graduated college in 1978, and a guy lived in my first off-campus dorm parked his motorcycle in his room. I would vote for John Blutarsky in a heartbeat if he were running against either Mitch McConnell or Lindsey Graham. Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son.

 

The Big Lebowski (1998) How The Beloved Spouse™ and I spend two hours of every New Year’s Eve. The Dude abides.

 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Greatest buddy movie ever. Who are those guys?

 

The Drop (2014) As perfect an exercise in storytelling as I have ever seen. They never see you coming, do they, Bob? (Honorable mention: Gone Baby Gone.)

 

The French Connection (1971) I date all crime movies as pre-French Connection or post-French Connection. You pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?

 

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) Maybe the best film ever made about the side of mob life no wants to think about. Life is hard. It’s even harder when you’re stupid.

 

Get Shorty (1995) What I watch on my birthday, and still my favorite Elmore Leonard adaptation. I’m not gonna say any more than I have to, if that.

 

Hell or High Water (2016) Sicario probably gets more attention and Wind River might make this list on a different day, but Hell or High Water is as well-constructed a crime story as you will ever see. What don’t you want?

 

Hombre (1967) There are arguably better Westerns, but not many. Maybe the best Elmore Leonard adaptation, certainly the truest to the book, and maybe his best book. Mister, you got some hard bark on you.

 

The Ice Harvest (2005) The Beloved Spouse™ bought it for me and fell in love with it. Now it’s the Official Christmas Eve Movie of Castle Schadenfreude. As Wichita falls... so falls Wichita Falls.

 

LA Confidential (1997) You knew it would show up here sooner or later, right? I’ll watch this bad boy multiple times a year and never get tired of it. Was that how you used to run the “good cop – bad cop?”

 

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) My brother and I used to binge this as best we could when the only places you could see it were on PBS pledge drives and midnight shows. I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper.

 

Aw, hell. As I went through the list I realized there are two more I can’t leave out.

 

The Maltese Falcon (1941) As faithful an adaptation of as perfect a book as has ever been written. Or at least as close as the Hayes Office would allow. We didn't exactly believe your story, Miss Wonderly. We believed your two hundred dollars.

 

The Princess Bride (1987) I always forget how much I enjoy this movie until The Beloved Spouse™ talks me into watching it. Then I could watch it again the next night. The epitome of good, clean movie fun. As you wish.

 

I was going over this list with The Beloved Spouse™, who responded with some alarm, “Where’s Mel Brooks?”

 

Blazing Saddles (1974) Of all the movies that couldn’t be made today, this one is most unable to be made today, and we’re all worse off because of it. Satirical social commentary was never better. Huh, Mongo straight.

 

The Producers (1967) I liked the remake, but this is the one I’d take with me for Zero Mostel and a young Gene Wilder. Will the dancing Hitlers please wait in the wings? We are only seeing singing Hitlers.

                         

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Backstory

 

Last week I read a book by a favorite author that was, frankly, disappointing. I identified the problem about halfway through: too much time spent on backstory. I don’t remember this being an issue with this author in the past, but I imagined an editor saying, “People like characters with personal struggles that have nothing to do with the story. They eat that shit up.”

 

Not all people.

 

Backstory is like research: don’t use any more than is necessary. The author should at least have an idea, but the reader doesn’t have to know everything. The way to develop characters is in the context of what’s happening now. The backstory and research should seem to live between the lines as much as possible.

 

Several years ago a good friend or mind (yes, I have them), a sorely underrated author, was taken to task by the critic for a major newspaper because the critic wanted to know why the drug dealer had become a drug dealer. I read the book. It didn’t matter. The man was a drug dealer when the book started. Unless his background was unique and important to the story—which it was not—it’s not germane.  The book wasn’t about that. It was about what’s happening now.

        

This is among the reasons I detest serial killer stories. (The book in question has a serial killer, but that’s not what the book is really about.) I do not care about the psychological underpinnings of this asshole’s need to seduce, rape, mutilate, and kill women. It may be important to the cops, but even they don’t need to know everything. Just tell us what we need to make sense of things. You know, leave out the parts we’d tend to skip, like I did the parts of the book under discussion where the killer describes his crimes in a journal. The author had already presented him as a sick fuck. Everything else was piling on.

 

Hint at backstory. Tease the reader with it. Here are two outstanding example, both from moves, but movies where the writing was paramount.

 

In Spike Lee’s Inside Man, screenwriter Russell Gewirtz tells us nothing of Dalton Russell’s (Clive Owen) background, except that he knows things about Arthur Case (Christopher Plummer) no one else knows. How does he know these things? Doesn’t matter. He knows them and the whole story revolves around what Russell is willing, and not willing, to do about it.

 

We do get insights into Detective Keith Frazier’s (Denzel Washington) background. He’s pondering marriage but has financial concerns. He’s also under a cloud due to a large sums of money that went missing from a previous case. Both matter to the story, as the suspicion makes his assignment to thie case tenuous, and his marital dilemma provides opportunity for a peek inside Russell’s character. (If you haven’t seen Inside Man, by all means do so. It’s wonderful, start to finish.)

 

Another, micro, example is from Deadwood: The Movie, written by David Milch. In a crowd scene near the end where the townspeople pelt series villain George Hearst (Gerald McRaney) with all manner of projectiles and invective, a man in the crowd hollers out, “I hope you die in the street like my father.” There’s an epithet, and a hint at why the man said it, all in ten words. Let your mind explore the possibilities. All Milch had to do was open the door. (As Timothy Olyphant said in the interview that drew my attention to this, “Wow. Backstory.”.)

 

Backstory, research, and description all exist to support the story, not crush it. Engage the reader’s mind. We all caution to “show, don’t tell” but what is it but telling to say the character was “Six-feet-one-inch tall, with blue eyes and brown hair that grazed his ears and collar. He had a well-defined nose with bumps that hinted at multiple breaks and fingers disproportionately thick for his hands.” How much of that do we need to know? He’s tall, but not exceptionally so. Unless his eyes and hair come into play later, why not leave them to the reader’s imagination?

 

 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Who Cares What King Thinks?

 

Much of this blog’s recent content involves either writing craft or the philosophy of writing, which leads to obvious question:

 

“Why should anyone care what Dana King thinks about any of this?”

 

Yeah, well, I’ll have you know I’ve sold scores of books over the past ten years, pal. Tell your story walking.

 

Back to reality. It’s a reasonable question. How can someone with my profile presume anyone else cares what he says about writing? Even I don’t often read articles about writing unless written by someone whose work I know and respect. Who am I to expect other to take interest in what I think?

 

That’s easy: I don’t. There’s an old story about a couple about to have sex for the first time. She notices his erection spans three inches, at best, and asks, “Exactly who do you plan to satisfy with that?”

 

“Me,” he says.

 

I write these for me. If you gain any benefit, that’s great. If there’s one thing I feel I was born to do, it’s teach. I love it and I’ve had enough feedback to know I’m good at it. Events and timing killed what career hopes I had, but I still get to do some on the day job. If these posts get anyone to think about something they might not have thought about otherwise, that’s great. The teacher in me hopes you’ll let me know in the comments.

 

Hearing from you is nice, but it’s gravy. I have learned over time the best way for me to refine a thought is to write about it, even if I never show what I’ve written to anyone. A personal standard allows me to see if I’m on a track worth pursuing or if I’m kidding myself. I’ve lost track of how many potential blog posts are never completed because I wasn’t satisfied with how the thoughts come together, or get a few hundred words in and realize not even I care enough about this topic to go on.

 

This is where I order my mind. I post because—well, because I can. The Internet gives every swinging dick who thinks he has something to say a venue. I work to ensure I don’t too often fall into the noise, so maybe someone else will learn something, or consider something new, or just pass a little pleasant time on a tough day.

 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Taking My Time

 

I wrote in July about the influence of David Milch on my writing and the concept of “resting transparently.” An exercise he promotes is to sit down and start typing a scene. Two characters: Voice 1 and Voice 2. Nothing but dialog. Type whatever comes to mind for no less than 25 minutes and no more than 50. Stop when you begin to think about what you’re doing. When finished, seal it in an envelope and forget about it. As Milch puts it, “Give it to God.”

 

Milch believes writers too often think about what the writing can do for us, or how it will be received, or, ultimately, if it will sell. Or how well. The point of the exercise is to pull the creative process away from that. His point is that your best writing gives you the best chance of success, and your best writing often comes from a place the conscious mind may be reluctant, or afraid, to go. Resting transparently is letting go and trusting your subconscious.

 

I don’t have much time for exercises. The day job still consumes almost half my waking hours. What I can do is to put the concept to work for me.

 

I’m writing this after supper. The work-in-progress awaits. When I finish here I’ll do something else for a while to clear my head. When I’m ready to get to work I’ll take a few seconds, no more than 30, and refresh my memory of where I am in the book. Then I’ll walk into my reading room, sit in my chair, and close my eyes. Whatever comes to mind comes to mind. I make no conscious effort to direct it.

 

Sometimes it’s a little while before the book takes over. Sometimes—and more often recently—I sit no more than a few minute before I know exactly what comes next. I about launch myself out of the chair to get to the keyboard.

 

The session goal is 500 words. If I hit a roll, I keep going until I start thinking too much, or I start feeling good about what I’ve done. Either of those involves the ego, and the ego is the enemy of creativity. When that happens it’s time to stop. With rare exceptions, this takes 25 – 50 minutes.

 

Where this method works best is on days I don’t work the day job and I can repeat the process three or four times. It seems to work so long as I leave an hour or so between sessions. Do that three times a day and I’ll have at least 1500 words and quite possibly more than 2500, because, once begun, every session gets easier as more comes to mind virtually unbidden.

 

It also helps that this is the first draft. There are misspelled words and mangled grammar. There are sentences I’ll look at in three months and wonder, “What the hell does this mean?” Doesn’t matter. There are no mistakes. There are only things that need to be better. That’s what edits are for.

 

First drafts were always drudgery for me. Now I look forward to the next session. This may be the best first draft I’ve ever written. I don’t know if it will be the best book—a draft often bears only passing resemblance to a finished novel—but I’m delighted with what I’ll have to work with.

 

I’ve discovered chapters I’ll need to add. Leave them for the end, then find good places for them. Sanding off the unintentional edges are what edits are for. (Scrivener’s note cards are great for this. Just create a new card, type in a slug, and I’ll get to it when I get to it.) What’s best is the lack of anxiety. Every first draft I’ve written has had several, “Oh shit” moments. Not once in this one—so far—and I’m at least two-thirds of the way through.

 

I’ve known for years I’m more left-brained than it’s good for a creative person to be. Resting transparently allows my right brain to breathe. Taking my time allows what comes next to form itself in my subconscious so when I’m ready to rest transparently, what I need is right there.

 

I never think about writing when I’m not writing anymore, which is another Milchian trademark. That doesn’t mean ideas don’t come to me unbidden. I came home from shopping recently with well over half of the plot for a new Nick Forte novel so well formed I typed out 1500 words of notes. Didn’t have to think about them. Just wrote down what was on the tips of my fingers.

 

We’re all looking for a way to open the tap in our brains that lets out the words we want in the order in which we want them. Resting transparently and taking my time will not make me more talented. They might help me to stay out of my own way.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

NYPD Blue

 

The Beloved Spouse™ and I rarely leap into the hot thing du jour. We let things breathe and gauge the reception over time before devoting any of our precious remaining hours to something. Ergo, we recently binge-watched NYPD Blue fifteen years after it went off the air. All 261 episodes. In a row. We didn’t watch anything else.

 

We don’t fuck around.

 

What a great show. Like any property that runs twelve years, it slows down a little toward the end, but not a lot. The entire cast turns over except for Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and the producers use that turnover to shift the squad’s internal dynamics so you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen, but you have an idea how events will affect the characters.

 

If I had to pick one thing that stands out, it’s how the rest of the squad, including the bosses, come to respect and gain affection for Sipowicz. He’s a racist asshole when the show starts, and he’s never cuddly. He struggles with multiple demons and keeps them at bay while understanding they are never defeated. He learns when and how to ask for help, never more touchingly as when he calls his wife to come get him in a bar. “No, I’m not drinking. But if you don’t come for me I know I will.” Not an order; a plea. Early in the show the only person who has the time of day for him is his partner, John Kelly (David Caruso.) By the end the entire squad will do anything for him.

 

All of the characters’ histories have their places, but not in a manner that the show becomes about their flaws; it’s still about the whole person. What turned me off of Rescue Me was that every episode became a test of whether Denis Leary would drink. After a while I didn’t care anymore, and there wasn’t much else to him. That’s never true of NYPD Blue. Everyone is a well-rounded person and personality. The characters never become stale because there’s always fertile ground to be worked, between New York situations (“Everything’s a situation,” said Sipowicz’s second partner, Bobby Simone) and the depth of the characterizations.

 

Since I brought him up, let’s talk about Bobby (Jimmy Smits). He’s only in a third of the episodes, but he leaves his mark on the rest of the show. His replacements, Sorenson (Rick Schroder) and Clark (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) are well-developed, well-acted characters, but they’re not Bobby. It’s Simone’s understanding and empathy for Sipowicz that turns the rest of the squad around. Not because Simone says or does anything, but everyone loves Bobby, and if Bobby feels this way about Sipowicz, then he can’t be all bad. The show is still good, but not so often transcendent after Simone leaves..

 

It’s a cop show and I haven’t said a word about the crimes. There’s no big deal made of stories “ripped from the headlines,” but former NYPD detective Bill Clark had a hand in breaking the overwhelming majority of stories. It shows. The weird crimes all have a “no one could make this up” feel, and the painful stories are never melodramatic. They just tell the story. Make of it what you will.

 

No show has better exemplified Joe Wambaugh’s mantra that a good cop story is more about how the cases work on the cops than about how the cops work on the cases. NYPD Blue is a procedural without much procedure. Only what you need to understand what’s going on. Nothing easy about that, and it’s more than worth your time when executed this well.

 

(I also recommend David Milch’s book, True Blue, about the first two seasons of the show, including the transition from Caruso to Smits. As good a behind the scenes book as I have read.)

 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Cold Six Thousand

My first exposure to James Ellroy was the movie LA Confidential. That sent me to the local library, where only Ellroy available was The Cold Six Thousand. It was the most unpleasant reading experience of my life. I vowed never to read Ellroy again.

 

A few years passed. Stephanie Padilla, then editor of the New Mystery Reader web site and the person responsible for many of the good things in my life as a writer, asked me to review Blood’s a Rover, which picks up where The Cold Six Thousand leaves off. I accepted as a favor to Stephanie. Turns out it was she who’d done me a solid. I loved the book, which taught me

1. The Cold Six Thousand is not a good point of entry into Ellroy’s work.

2. I needed to go back to The Black Dahlia and read him in order.

 

I revisited TC6K a couple of months ago. I revised my original assessment by the end of the first page. By Page 100 I understood why it’s a masterpiece, though I stand by my opinion it is not the place for the uninitiated to learn about Ellroy. There are no good guys, only shades of bad guys, and they’re not just bad guys, they’re bad people. Racial epithets, anti-Semitic and homophobic comments, the dialog and internal thoughts of the characters show much of the worst of human nature. The subject matter aside, the best word to describe the writing style is, “brutal.” The sentences are short and percussive.

 

The story draws heavily from the FBI’s attempts to discredit Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. The hatred for the Kennedy brothers shown by organized crime and J. Edgar Hoover in American Tabloid is now secondary to civil rights matters, but the inciting incident for the book is John Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.

 

TC6K reads like a description of what one might find after overturning a rotting stump, told in stark, unapologetic language. Human empathy is well down the list of “virtues,” and it’s most often dealt with by crushing its bearer. It’s a dog eat dog world, and the main course doesn’t need to be dead for the feast to begin.

 

And yet it’s a glorious read, as daring a book as I have ever encountered. Ellroy’s vision of America in the 60s turns a negative light on events we have struggled for years to describe either positively or as aberrations. Ellroy is having none of that. To him, the events described, factual and fictional, did not happen in spite of America’s greatness; they are part and parcel of the illusion of American greatness.

 

It’s also a much timelier book now than when I first read it. The current political climate has allowed the kinds of people depicted in TC6K as working underground to surface and thumb their noses at ideas of decency. Lots of people write of dystopian futures. Ellroy pulls the covers off our dystopian past.

 

Through all of that, the ending shows a little light. Not so much for the situation as a whole, but for how people can find a little justice for themselves, so long as they don’t hope for too much of it. Even that is eventually doled out in a brutal, too little too late, manner.

 

There won’t be any moves made of The Cold Six Thousand, though the storytelling virtues of streaming services make one wonder what Netflix or Amazon Prime could do with the material. I have no idea how TV would handle the pages of “transcripts” and “internal reports” that give the book such a documentary feel in places. Bruce Willis and Tom Hanks have both tried, and failed, to get series on the air.

 

It’s just as well. The Cold Six Thousand may be a story best saved for those willing to invest the energy to reads them. No skimming here. A proper encounter gets the reader dirty with the characters or the point is missed.