Thursday, May 12, 2022

Who is the Intended Audience?

 Last week The Beloved Spouse™ and I watched Mel Brooks’s classic Young Frankenstein. We own a boxed set of his movies and dip into it when we’re stuck for something to watch, or have been in a slump picking films we like.

 

The point of this post is that Young Frankenstein was not our first choice that night. The plan was to watch The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a 1994 Australian flick about two gay drag performers (Guy Pearce, Hugo Wearing) and a transgender woman (Terrence Stamp) traveling across Australia with their cabaret act. The film had generally good reviews, it struck us as quirky enough to be fun, and we both wanted to see Guy Pearce in the role, as our primary experience with him is as Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential.

 

We lasted twenty minutes. It’s not that we’re homophobic (as several friends and a member of the extended family can attest) or transphobic (we also have trans friends and an MTF member of the family we don’t have much to do with, but that extends to well before her transition). It was fun to watch Pearce prance around, but almost all of the humor left us flat. Reviews tell me many people found the film hilarious, and we have active and broad-based senses of humor. What did we miss?

 

We were not the intended audience.

 

Priscilla’s creative team didn’t give a fuck how late-60s cisgendered white people viewed their movie. Nor should they. (Being Americans might not have helped us much, either.) They made Priscilla for people already immersed in that culture, or had keen interest in it. In our brief viewing time, I spotted what I imagined were three inside jokes I didn’t get, probably because I lacked the background.

 

That’s not a bad thing. No one is tuned in to everything, and anyone who claims to be is either

Lying

So superficial they don’t know much about anything

 

I doubt writer-director Stephen Elliott would have a problem with us turning off his movie. I can imagine him smiling wryly and saying, “Well, you know, mate, you weren’t exactly the blokes we had in mind when we made this.” I suspect there would be no hard feelings, either way.

 

Why am I writing about this in my blog? Because the same holds true for writers. Even within the crime genre, I don’t read cozies. (Though Colin Conway is wearing me down.) Psychological thrillers set in suburbia don’t appeal to me. Why not?

 

Cozies are too unbelievable for my police-procedure, process-oriented mind. The motivations of the suburban psychological thriller villains are too internal and perverse for me. I like criminals who commit crimes for reasons other than it gets themselves off.

 

Does that make these kinds of books any less worthy than what I do read? Absolutely not. Does that make me wrong? No again. Everyone has their happy places. While it’s never a bad idea to expand one’s horizons, life is also too short to read books you don’t like.

 

This is among the reasons I so rarely read bestsellers. The books too often make accommodations to attract a sufficiently wide range of readers, thus losing whatever focus that might have made me enjoy them.

 

Last week I noted that Edith Wharton quotes sit near my writing desk. Two come to mind here:

Know your scope (which means you need to have one)

Have a point (ditto)

 

No matter what kind of book you write, your point will not appeal to everyone; the same applies to the scope. How often have you said, “Oh, I wish she’d have…? Be honest. We all do it. Once a month I’ll turn to TBS after watching something and say, “There was a good movie here. This  just wasn’t it.”

 

What’s my point? I don’t mind that cozy aficionados and subpsych thriller readers might not read my books. You’re not my intended audience, just as I am not the intended audience for Louise Penny and Laura Lippman. A writer who tries to write for everybody writes for nobody. You’ll do your best work when you, and those with similar tastes, are your intended audience.

 

I hear you asking now: “What if that audience isn’t large enough to support me as a writer?” Which leads us back to the most important piece of advice any young writer (and most older writers) ever receives:

 

Don’t quit your day job.

 

The core question is, “Do you want to write, or do you want to get rich?” True, some do both, but if that’s your hope, save yourself a lot of pain and money and play the lottery. Your odds are better.

 

 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Surrounded in Inspiration

 Many writers have reminders or aphorisms within easy sight from their writing desks; I am no exception. Because I know some are curious about writers’ processes and habits (superstitions, even), I thought I’d pass mine along.

 

From left to right, with my interpretations interspersed:

From Edith Wharton’s “Five Rules for Novelists:”

·       Know your scope

o   Do less better

(A book that tries to be about too much will be about nothing. Decide in advance what ground to cover and stick to it.)

 

·       Lead with your characters

o   Dialog is where you learn most about your characters

(The more the characters talk, the better the reader knows them. The action is primarily important because of how it affects the characters. This is why Higgins’s description of action through characters talking about it after the fact is so effective.)

 

·       Create peaks and valleys

(Any trip that never changes its speed or scenery becomes either tedious or exhausting. Break things up. It will place the primary actions in better contexts and give time to show other dimensions of the characters.)

 

·       Have a point

(What’s the book about? Differs from “Know your scope” in that scope is how much ground to cover; the point is the reason you chose to write this particular book.)

 

Dennis Lehane

No one cares

(Except you. Don’t worry what others will think about a passage or a sentence. No one is going to notice it in the grand scheme of things except you.)

 

Wes Anderson (from the film The French Dispatch)

Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.

(This will help the prose to flow, making it easier for the reader to experience your story, as opposed to reading it.)

 

George V. Higgins (from The Friends of Eddie Coyle)

Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.

(Make every word count. In those opening 17 words, we learn that

·       Jackie Brown is a young man

·       He’s talking about his business, not something he does for fun

·       His business is selling guns

And we’re off to the races.)

 

The Sole Heir (placard purchased by her, for me)

If you were in my novel, you’d be dead by now

(If you need to have this one explained, you’re who it refers to.)

 

Bonus coverage: TSH also bought me a small notebook I always keep handy. The cover reads, “If I had a choice to have sex with any celebrity, living or dead, I would probably choose living.”

(You’re telling stories, not curing cancer. Don’t take any of this too seriously. Life is short. Have some fun.)

 

Thursday, April 28, 2022

May I Have Your Attention, Please?

 A lot has been written about shrinking attention spans. How the internet and text messages have made people unwilling – maybe even unable - to sustain interest in anything lasting more than a few seconds. This may be true. It could also be blaming the victim.

 

I have said for years that the internet needs editors. Electrons are essentially free, so there are few, if any, restrictions on the length of an article or blog post. In newspapers and magazines, the amount of space is finite and limited. You get a budget for your article and an editor trims it to fit if you run long.

 

This forces writers to make decisions. How much detail should I provide? How much history? Should I include this section at all? Now too many people don’t seem to care if a story runs thousands of words; it’s not like the internet will fill up.

 

It’s also common to blame the young for this lack of attention, likely because it’s always fashionable to blame the young for everything. I see it more as a demand to cut to the chase, as there are too many competing demands on their time to spend too much of it wallowing in the thousand words that will still be inadequate to describe a sunset.

 

I’m not young, but my reading tastes used to embrace beautifully crafted sentences (think Chandler and James Lee Burke). Now that I’ve become exposed to writers like Dashiell Hammett and George V. Higgins, I have much less patience with rhapsodic waxing.

 

A story or article should never have more words than it needs; this number varies by author and style of writing. That said, I recently read a book by a respected author I like and couldn’t help but try to edit the book in my head. “Here are three sentences when only one was needed.” “Wa-a-ay more backstory than we need on this character.” “He’s riding a horse. We don’t need the entire history of the ranch.”

 

Conscious of this, I try to keep blog posts between 600 and 800 words. (Interviews often run a little longer.) That’s not because I’m lazy (I am admittedly quite lazy), but an attempt to be considerate of my readers, who have plenty else vying for their attention. It’s actually more work, as I often cut as much as 25% from a piece, which brings to mind Mark Twain’s famous comment, “I’m sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.” I take the time, which is one of the reasons I’ve trimmed this blog to once a week. (The first draft of this post was 708 words. The final is 627, and it’s a better post because of it.)

 

No better writing advice exists than that of Elmore Leonard: leave out the parts people tend to skip. What writers don’t do often enough is wonder why people skip them. The default is to cite the diminished attention span, though it’s just as likely the author included excessive description, over-explained something, or just plain wasn’t all that interesting.

 

Several years ago The Beloved Spouse™ and I had lunch with The Sole Heir and her then boyfriend, now The Sole Son-in-Law. TSH told a lovely story that flitted from point to point and person to person like a bee collecting pollen. This put me in mind of a story I then told in my own style, which led the boyfriend/SSIL to face TSH and say, “Now that’s how you tell a fucking story.” I have few fonder memories as a storyteller.

 

Always be sensitive to your audience. Maybe their attention spans are too short. Or maybe they have higher standards for what holds their attention than you’re writing for.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Left Coast Crime: The Personal Touch

 Last week I focused on the panels at this year’s Left Coast Crime. I mentioned I might not get quite as much from them as I used to; after having been to so many, what I go for now are the people, and this year’s event did not disappoint. I apologize in advance to anyone I omitted. There was a lot going on and my ability to hold competing thoughts isn’t what it used to be.

 

So, in no particular order, thanks to

 

The LCC committee, notably Lucinda Surber, Stan Ulrich, and Les and Leslie Blatt. (Note the use, and necessity, of the Oxford comma.) They had extraordinary obstacles to overcome, not the least of which was starting things up again in the post-covid world, and they pulled it off masterfully. Kudos to everyone involved.

 

Our police procedural panel. Jim L’Etoile, T.K. Thorne, and Frank Zafiro constituted as close-knit a group of panelists as I have ever been involved with. We got together for drinks after the first day’s panels and spent time with each other throughout the week. I’m looking forward to getting together with all of them at future events.

 

Frank Zafiro (again). I mentioned him above, but we spent a lot of time talking apart from other activities. Frank is a walking library of police information, and an excellent teacher besides being an outstanding writer and a good friend.

 

Colin Conway. I’d met Colin before, but this was the first I got to spend much time with him. Great company, knowledgeable about a wide range of topics, and a good teacher in explaining why some police things are the way they are.

 

James D.F. Hannah. A fairly reserved weekend by his standard: no arrests. Jimmy takes his craft seriously, despite his reputation as a hellraiser. Talk to him about the works of Robert B. Parker sometime. You’ll learn something. Even if you’re one of Parker’s kids.

 

The residents of Albuquerque. Nicer people will not be found anywhere.

 

Lee Goldberg, who spent more time than I could have asked for discussing elements of how books become films.

 

Holly West. She was Holly West, which is high praise right there. Always a treat to see her.

 

Lindy’s Diner. On the corner of Fifth Street and Central Avenue. Only open till 3, but worth hustling over for. They even named a sandwich after me in anticipation of my arrival. (The Fat Bastard burger was excellent.) Ask for Dawn, and tell her Dana and Corky sent you. She probably won’t remember us, but I always wanted to tell someone to do that.

 

Baca Boys. Thanks to Frank for the tip. Outstanding breakfast.

 

Thicc Pizza. Another Frank recommendation. I’d never had Detroit-style pizza before, but I’ll definitely have it again. Look for it in the 505 Central food court, across the street from Lindy’s.

 

On the other hand…

 

Southwest Airlines held our plane at the gate for an hour and a half to load the baggage. Explanations ranged from “We’re shorthanded” to “It’s raining.” This made us late into Austin, but we did not have to change planes. The same was not true coming home; we had to run to make our Austin connection. Alas, our bags were not as quick as we were and took a later flight. It will be a long time before I fly again, and a sight longer before Southwest gets my business.

 

The Clyde Hotel. Formerly the Hyatt. The management change took place a week before the conference, and the new owners made no evident effort to get ready. No restaurant, the elevators weren’t fully functional until Saturday, and the bar was only open from 4:30 to 9:30. Let me repeat that. At a readers’ and writers’ conference, the bar was only open from 4:30 to 9:30. (They attempted to make up for the short hours by making everything exorbitantly expensive.) That tells you all you need to know about the hotel “experience.”

 

The good news is that those last two items will not be what anyone remembers from this year’s conference. The good programs, good company, and good cheer will linger, and there was more than enough of those to go around.

 

Thanks to everyone involved.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Left Coast Crime 2022

 The Beloved Spouse™ and I have become regular conferencegoers, so we pretty much knew the drill for our inaugural Left Coast Crime. I’ve been to more panels than I can remember, so the number of new things I hear or learn gets a little smaller with each event. Still, I am always looking to learn, and LCC did not disappoint. Here are the things that popped out at me, based on my scribbled notes. They often paraphrase what was actually said, and I was unable to get attributions for all of them. My apologies to those whose names were omitted. No slight intended.

 

THURSDAY, APRIL 7

Police Procedurals

I got my panel out of the way right off the bat, and it gave the rest of the conference a tough act to follow, if I do say so myself. James L’Etoile moderated T.K. Thorne, Frank Zafiro, and me in a discussion of the tropes of police procedurals, for better or worse. The four of us hit it off right away, Jim set things up expertly, the audience was into it, and a good time was had by all. So much so that the panelists had a “reunion” in the lounge later in the day.

 

I was supremely chuffed to be included on a panel with actual LEOs, and by the people who approached later to ask questions or pass along a compliment. Maybe my most rewarding panel ever. Thanks to all who were there.

 

Writing a Series: Keeping it Fresh

William Kent Kreuger will write a standalone when an idea speaks strongly enough to him.

 

Glen Erik Hamilton set out to write  a standalone but had so much fun world building he decided to turn it into a series.

 

Matt Goldman – If you pick the right time and place, things will take care of themselves.

 

Kreuger spoke of “Domestic Exotica,” stories set in the US but in places no one knows much about.

 

Kreuger was advised to “Write what you know.” He knew Minnesota and the dynamics of farming and people, so he ran with it.

 

These authors generally write for themselves and trust the readers will follow. They also don’t worry about things from past books. What’s done is done.

 

Celebrating the Short Story

James D.F. Hannah says many of his stories deal with “death by sporting goods.” He goes into Dick’s and looks around wondering “Could I kill someone with this?”

 

Robert LoPresti mentioned a writer who goes through each page and kills the weakest sentence. “Why is this sentence here?”

 

Stephen King has compared unfinished short stories to cups with no handles. He sets them aside until a handle comes to him.

 

FRIDAY, APRIL 9

Thrillers

All books must be readable as standalones. Repeat the descriptions of continuing characters. Regular readers will just skip over.

 

The longest continuous occupation of an American city after a race riot is Cambridge MD.

 

Writing for the Screen

Lee Goldberg – Advice to authors: If offered an option, take the money and run. Tell the producer/showrunner you’re willing to be as involved, or uninvolved, as they want.

 

Lee Goldberg - The upcoming film Fast Charlie (Pierce Brosnan) is based on Victor Gischler’s novel Gun Monkeys. Apparently very loosely, though Gischler is good with it.

 

Lee Goldberg – Many things that are changed from a book to screenplay are due to budget or scheduling considerations.

 

Lee Goldberg – The key to a screenplay is to capture the essence of the book, not to create a slavish recreation.

 

Lee Goldberg – A screenplay is a blueprint for the director, cinematographer, etc. to work from. The writer’s job is to tell the story through action and dialog.

 

Lee Goldberg now writes the first drafts of his novels as screenplays, then fleshes them out. Says it gives him a better idea of the pacing and how well the story holds together.

 

The best pilots feel like Episode 7 on the screen. Best pilots ever: Justified, Magnum, Hill Street Blues, though many excellent pilots never get made.

 

SATURDAY, APRIL 9

Hardboiled

Matt Coyle – Everything that happens to a character has to matter.

 

The Contradiction of Humor and Crime: How do you know what’s funny?`

Cynthia Kuhn – Common advice for thrillers is to make things more serious for the protagonist all the time. In comedies, make it more absurd.

 

Location as Character

Johnny Shaw & Craig Robertson – If you only have a few days to research a place, go to bars. (Audience member asked about where else to go if they (or their character) didn’t feel safe in a bar. Other places were discussed, but the takeaway I got was if you or your character don’t feel safe in a place, maybe that’s not the kind of case/story they should be working on.

 

There was lots more, but some wasn’t as new to me, and much of the truly entertaining stuff fell into the category of “You had to be there.”

 

Next week, individual callouts for those who helped to make this a memorable conference.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

1883

 The Paramount+ series 1883 is the story of how the Dutton family came to found the ranch that is the cornerstone of the popular series Yellowstone. 1883 does a good job of showing why the Duttons have such love and devotion for the land. How the show does it leaves a lot to be desired.

 

The set-up has the Duttons (Confederate veteran James, wife Margaret, daughter Elsa, and son John) hooking up with a party of German immigrants on their way from Fort Worth to Oregon under the direction of Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott). Mishaps and drama ensue.

 

The first few episodes of 1883 are grabbers. Unfortunately, the show can’t maintain that pace and each successive episode loses a little in both quality and interest until by the end we were talking back to the screen as though filming an episode of Mystery Western Theater 1883. We stuck with it more from a sense of duty to see how things came out than for entertainment.

 

Writer Taylor Sheridan makes his points through the eyes of Elsa (Isabel May), through frequent, and often tedious, voice-overs. Emily Dickenson had nothing on this seventeen-year-old in the areas of eloquence, profundity, and melancholy. (More on Elsa’s age later.) The voice-overs are textbook examples of why the technique has fallen into ill-repute. They’re telling instead of showing, and oh my god are they preachy.

 

That doesn’t make Elsa special. Characters will stop whatever they’re doing to utter profundities at the drop of a hat. While much of the acting is quite good (Sam Elliott is always solid, and Tim McGraw as James Dutton is surprisingly so) they too often give recitations rather than explore character.

 

Plotting and pacing are problems. Sheridan earned great acclaim for the screenplays Hell or High Water, Wind River, and Sicario. He appears to function better when he needs to wrap things up in two hours. Given ten episodes to work with, the pacing is often too slow, while at others the action jumps ahead in ways that were not only unprepared, but inexplicable.

 

This expansiveness affects the storytelling in several ways. (Mild spoiler alert.) During a treacherous river crossing, Elsa plays Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata for the cowboys on a piano the setlers must leave behind, as it was too heavy to cross the river. (The piano is in perfect tune and repair, and none of those in charge noticed how much needless ballast the settlers were carrying until it became a crisis.) The scene goes on forever, cut with flashes of a wagon foundering and a woman drowning. I understand the desire to be artistic, but, like truth, artifice should never get in the way of a good story. The drama of the river crossing dies aborning, after quite a bit of time setting it up.

 

There are also sloppiness issues with the continuity. Two episodes have an almost identical scene where James and Margaret discuss exactly the same thing, with exactly the same resolution. It’s near the end of one episode and the beginning of the next, so when binging it smacks you over the head. There’s also the matter of a western-moving wagon train approaching the camera, with the mountains in the background.

 

Then there’s Elsa’s age. Elsa notes in a voiceover that the train left Fort Worth on April 9, 1883, which is her seventeenth birthday, as she was born exactly one year after Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  Later, in an argument with her mother, she notes that now that she’s eighteen, the law says she can do what she wants. If this isn’t enough, in another scene where Margaret talks of being pregnant with Elsa while working for a sharecropper, with James in a Yankee prison camp. I’ll let you do the math on that one.

 

The series is beautifully photographed and reminded both The Beloved Spouse™ and me why we love our trips out west so much. Conditions on the trail appear to be as authentic as anything I’ve seen, and many action scenes are shot panoramically to give a sense of context.  Beautiful as they are, such images too often serve as padding, along with overlong shots of people’s faces to make sure we know strong emotion going on here. Sheridan would have done well to heed the advice of Reverend McLean in A River Runs Through It: “Half as long.” If you reall6y want the feel of moving across the prairies of the western frontier, check out Lonesome Dove. 1883 has many similarities, but provides no real competition is either story or character development.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Breaking News (1 April 2022)

I don’t vaguebook. Avoid it like The Plague. (Camus’s book is too long and depressing.) Still, today is perfect to release information I can’t go into much detail about but is too exciting to keep to myself.

 

I have an offer to write the memoir of a leading political figure. While this person and I differ in our philosophies, we both understand that whoring oneself out for suitable sums of money is as American as racial prejudice. (Which is among the things we disagree about.)

 

There are still a few details we need to work out that stem from the previously mentioned political differences, but these are all on the margins and include

·       Climate change

·       COVID prevention

·       Economic policy

·       Energy policy

·       Foreign relations

·       Hair care

·       Immigration

·       Inequality of wealth

·       Marital fidelity

·       Race relations

·       Responsibilities of a role model

·       Taxation

·       Voting

I’d love to say more, but the non-disclosure agreement I have to sign is as thick as a typical Bible, but on legal-size paper. It’s so complete it may preclude release of the completed book.

 

Such is life. I’m just trying to do my small part in making America great again.