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.