Friday, July 26, 2019

Terriers or The Nice Guys?

A discussion on Facebook last week asked if, given the choice, we’d rather see two sequels to The Nice Guys or two more seasons of Terriers. I voted for Terriers, not because I liked it better than The Nice Guys, but because I’ve become such a fan of serialized limited run television. 

I find I watch a lot fewer movies since I got into serialized limited run TV starting with The Sopranos. The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Justified all showed what can be done when an able showrunner has the time to really examine a universe and the characters who populate it. The best of these series also seem to get less interference from the suits and marketing people that has led to so much timidity in movies, where everything has to be a blockbuster and the entire industry’s sphincters are in knots for fear their $200 million superhero/comic book/Star Wars/Star Trek/TV show reboot is the one that lays the egg that brings down the studio and makes moviegoers everywhere wonder, “Why have we been watching so much of the same shit for so long?”

I digress.

A series has an ability to become part of your life much more than a movie, where you go to the theater (or stream it; doesn’t matter) and know you’re coming out two hours later. We spent over eighty hours with Tony Soprano. We were invested in that motherfucker, which was why so many people were so upset at how the series ended. The end of The Wire left The Beloved Spouse™ and me feeling these people’s lives would continue; we just wouldn’t get to watch them anymore. The Deadwood movie really brought that feeling home, as did Justified with its skipping ahead a few years at the end. Movies are finite. Series become too much like real people to just walk away.

Obviously that’s not true of all series. The showrunner is critical. Should he or she lose their vigor, so will the show. It’s not that the showrunner is irreplaceable, but damn near. What did all the series I mentioned above, plus Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Americans, and others we think most highly of have in common? Consistency of vision. I thought Ray Donovan would be such a show until Ann Biderman left after Season 2. It’s still a good show but much more a soap opera where Ray’s family forces ridiculous situations on him for no good reason. (Really, Bunchie? Taking your settlement money—in cash—to a sandwich shop on the way to close a real estate deal across the street? Did you want to get robbed? And wasn’t it convenient that he bumps into hostage-taking robbers at that precise time of day? Who the fuck robs a Subway in broad daylight?)

Again, I digress.

That’s another reason I chose more Terriers over The Nice Guys, the ascendance of the showrunner. Directors don’t get that kind of independence with nine-figure budgets. (Editor’s Note: He knows not all movies have nine-figure budgets. He also knows that those who run Hollywood don’t really give a fuck about the those.) If a director hits it big enough with a movie to warrant a sequel, odds are the studio will want to be more involved, like sharks flocking to a rotting whale carcass. The tendency is always to outdo the original, to make the sequel more of what made the original in the hopes of revving up the audience more, forgetting that what made the original worthy of a sequel was that it didn’t do that. (Jaws 2, anyone? See what I did there with the sharks?) Sequels only work well if you had more material than could be used in the original (The Godfather, The Godfather Part 2) or the viewers are so invested in the franchise they’ll let it run and run and run, essentially making it a large-scale series with fewer, less directly connected episodes.

A movie can be a nice way to spend the evening but I’ll take a series like those we talked about here when I want to invest some time.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Where do You Get Your Ideas?

It is generally accepted—or may just be a truism—that the question readers most often ask writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Writers like to disparage this question, as anyone who has done much writing knows that we spend our days tripping over ideas hoping they don’t distract us from the task at hand. The trick is in knowing which ideas work best for your talents and which you may want to spend a year (or more) of your life on, often forsaking all others.

I am not to the point where this question disturbs me. Much of that is due to the fact that I am delighted when readers ask me anything. Another has to do with the idea of reader engagement. If this is what they most often ask, then they must be interested and people are always willing to talk about what interests them and will tend to think kindly of those who engage them on such topics, especially if some enlightenment is involved.

So let’s talk about where ideas come from, and how unique they need to be.

An idea—damn near the whole book—fell into my lap last week when an article in the “Penns River” newspaper described how one of the towns had six shootings in the past six weeks and how concerned the locals were. I live halfway between DC and Baltimore, where six shootings in six days is a slow week, but the article presents an opportunity to examine the dramatic difference in how Penns River residents view such things.

This silver platter disguised as a newspaper article handed me the premise for an entire book: Small town has six shootings in six weeks. The local police department is already stretched thin. While not all the shootings are fatal—some only result in property damage—the locals are upset. (More on this in a couple of weeks.) How this plays out is made to order for examining Joseph Wambaugh’s dictum that a good procedural doesn’t just show how the cops work the cases, it shows how the cases work the cops. Even the title sets up perfectly for a series with all two-word titles: Six Weeks.

Boom! Done. Easy, right?

Well, yeah, except for the niggling details such as actually converting a 600-word article into an 80,000-word novel that maintains reader interest and the characters, dialog, supporting events, and more satisfactory resolutions all that requires, along with a little comic relief and some examination of the ripple effects on the town and the cops that can be used in the series down the road. Not to mention the fact I currently have a book in the series about half finished, the next fairly well planned, and another pretty good idea for the book after that, which may now get pushed back thanks to this new idea.

Sure, it’s nice when the idea falls into your lap already formed. All it does is start the work.

Let’s focus on the “How am I going to create 80,000 worthwhile words out of this?” It’s not enough to have an idea, or even a good idea. Not even a great idea. It still has to be an idea that fits your talents and interests. Give the same idea to Megan Abbott, Michael Connelly, Laura Lippmann, and me and you’ll get four radically different stories, even leaving aside the chutzpah it took to mention myself in the same sentence as the others. Giving four writers, even in the same general genre, an idea is not unlike handing four fashion designers identical bolts of cloth. What comes out will still be unique.

Doubt me? Stick around.

Premise: A mob boss has some issues and goes to see a shrink.

Results: The Sopranos. Premiere January 10, 1999
Analyze This. Premier March 5, 1999.

Both were in development at the same time; I doubt either creator know what the other was working on until the trades started talking about them. The two end results share little except for the mob boss and the shrink.

Premise: An outlaw gang with a charismatic boss in the American West sees their times are ending as the 20th Century dawns and moneyed interests create permanent posses to hunt them down. Both gangs heads south where they meet grisly demises.

Results: The Wild Bunch. Premier August 7, 1999.
Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Premier October 24, 1999

The thought of a mob boss seeing a shrink inspired different ideas in David Chase vs. what Kenneth Lonergan and Peter Tolan came up with. Walon Green and William Goldman took even more commonality and went their own ways with it. Ideas are great. Nothing good can come without them. All they are is the gas in the car. You still have to know how to drive.

Friday, July 12, 2019

First, Do No Harm

The Sole Heir™ recently graduated from medical school. (“We know!” shout the masses of readers. “Congratulations to her but it’s not like you haven’t mentioned it every day since.”) Part of the graduation ceremony is the taking of the Hippocratic Oath. While this phrase never actually appears in the oath’s current iteration, most of us know it as the source material for the exhortation to “First, do no harm.” This is good advice for way more people than just doctors. Since this blog exists to discuss writing, I’ll stick to that avenue today, though the lessons apply to all walks of life.

I’m one of those who believes a writer’s real work comes in editing and rewriting. To me, the real function of the first draft is to provide the ore from which the final product will be refined. That said, nuggets are sometimes recovered in final form directly from the stream. The trick of editing is to recognize those while improving everything else. In other words, doing no harm to what needs no assistance.

What is the surest way not to do harm to what already exists? (Short of not editing it, of course.) Accept your limitations. We all have them. If a particular phrase doesn’t read quite the way you’d like, change it, but keep the change only if you’re sure you like the edited version better. A tie should go to the original, if only because that was what you wrote in the full flow of creativity, presumably with the Muse perched on your shoulder.

Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe you were just stuck at the time. It was late, you didn’t feel well, shitty day at the paying gig. Whatever. You took what was available, maybe justifying yourself by considering it a placeholder until you could get back and fix it in the edit. Now the edit is here and you still don’t have a better way.

There are a couple of directions to go from here. The preferred method is to re-write the entire paragraph or section to create a more elegant setup or exit for the problem sentence or phrase. Here’s the key: make sure that in fixing the offending sentence you don’t fuck up the surrounding material. If a less than optimal sentence is the result of leaving alone excellent writing both fore and aft, well, ain’t no one perfect.

That’s not to say you settle. At least for me, there are always additional editing passes, including a gruesomely detailed read/edit on screen/edit on paper/read aloud and proofread sequence that marks the final draft, after which I can type THE END and move on. This comes after at least two thorough edits beyond the first draft. Sometimes more.

The prescription to do no harm allows me not to have to undo anything in the later drafts that I should have left alone in the first place. I’m not so much accepting a less than stellar segment as I’m accepting that maybe that’s all the better I can write it at this time. If I’m diligent in improving my craft, I may have absorbed what I need to improve this bit by the next time I come around to it. This is why I don’t mind reading fiction when I’m working on a project. First, I almost have a project working, so I’d hardly ever get to read fiction if I denied myself access while crafting my own piece. More important from a writing perspective, I never know when something will strike me as a better way to handle whatever is giving me trouble. I like to thinking of it as inspiration or education rather than plagiarizing, but let’s be honest: we all steal. Might as well steal from the best, and from a passage that has some relevance to what you’re stuck on rather than a book of writerly advice.

First, do no harm. Editing can be enough of a pain in the ass. Don’t make subsequent passes harder than necessary because you improved what was good in the original right out of existence in the hope of making it better. (This is also why you should keep all drafts in separate files, so you can go back.) We write as we learn, in increments. Take your improvements as you find them.

And what if you never do get that sentence exactly how you want it? Regrettable, true, but not every word of your deathless process need bring a tear of envy to Shakespeare’s eye. Pick any favorite book from your shelf. I guarantee you there will be word choices, phrases, sentences, that you look at and think, “That’s not his best effort.” Doesn’t matter who the author is. The perfect cannot be aloud to become the enemy of the good.

Friday, July 5, 2019

June's Favorite Books (Movies, Too)

What with only weekly blog entries for the foreseeable future and hoping two a month are Diversity Friday posts, most months would be no more than one post for my favorite reads of the month prior and one would be the movies I’ve seen since last I mentioned them. We all know I’m too opinionated to keep them all to myself lest I burst, showering entrails across the countryside, so today we’llo see if combining the two allays the situation.

First, the books I liked best, because though never having been a journalist, I know better than to bury a lede. (And I know how to spell the cocksucker.) (Editor’s Note: Yes, he’s watching Deadwood again. Roll with it. It’ll fucking pass. Oops.)

Deadwood: Tales of theBlack Hills, David Milch. The companion to the series, written by The Man himself. Full of insights into history, drama, characterization, human frailty, and just about any other fucking thing you can find to say about such an immersive experience. I don’t believe in saying something is a “must read” or a “must have,” but if you’re looking for a peek into the experiences and mind that drove Deadwood, you ought to take a look. More than one.

Cheapskates, Charlie Stella. My favorite Stella, full of pitch perfect dialog and well-drawn but less than reverentially depicted characters with various plots and plans coming together in ways no one expects, least of all the characters. Stella hasn’t had a book out in a while, which is a shame, but Mr. Silver Lining here seized an opportunity to look back on what’s come before and be reminded how good it is.

And the movies…

The Highwaymen (2019) Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson play Frank Hamer and Maney Gault, Texas Rangers brought out of retirement to capture Bonnie and Clyde while a thousand-man dragnet foundered. Costner and Woody are prefect, their chemistry is perfect, the other casting and performances are perfect, and every other decision made by writer John Fusco and director John Lee Hancock works, too, to create a wonderful film. (Or whatever it is we’re supposed to call Netflicks.) Highly recommended.

L.A. Confidential (1997) Yes, again. I think it’s the first time this year, so be quiet. Yes, I’m talking to you, Mike Dennis.

Bosch (2019: Season 5) True, not a movie, but it’s my blog and I’ll put whatever I want in here. Bosch is a good solid show. The writing is good, the acting is exceptional, and the production values are first-rate. Limited run series like this are now my preferred way to encounter visual stories, as they allow for scope without worrying about padding. That said, the show also lacks the same things the Bosch books lack, at least for me. I know I’m in a minority here, but while Michael Connelly tells great stories, the books don’t sing. There’s little wit in the dialog and, frankly, Harry’s an asshole I wouldn’t mind seeing get taken down a peg. Even so, The Beloved Spouse™ and are looking forward to Season 6, though not with the same fervor as we did for Justified or The Sopranos.

Vice (2018) The most disappointing movie I’ve seen since Blade Runner 2049. I’m no fan of Dick Cheney, but Adam McKay’s hatchet job tends too often to use the blunt end rather than the blade. McKay’s touch was outstanding in The Big Short, but he had Michael Lewis’s brilliant book to work with. He tried a similar approach here, but wrote it himself from scratch and it shows. All told, I’d rather have watched Michael Moore direct a Cheney film, and Michael Moore embarrasses me as a liberal.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) I occasionally let time pass before writing these capsules so my thoughts about a film can coalesce. It’s been two weeks and I can’t remember a single thing worth complimenting about this movie. So, there’s that.

Deadwood: The Movie (2019) Well, it’s about fucking time. Seth and Al and all those cocksuckers come back to add an element of closure to the series so unceremoniously ass-fucked by HBO thirteen years ago. The storytelling is a little different from the series because David Milch had only two hours to work with instead of twelve and HBO cut half an hour while adding some flashbacks for the hoople-heads who didn’t know what the fuck was transpiring back there. Still, it’s a more than worthy bow to tie off the series and an accomplishment on its own. A second viewing only enhanced its appeal and a third is in the offing as soon as we work our way through the series again.
The Choirboys (1977) This is such an execrable adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s masterpiece he completely disassociated himself from the film and sued to have his name removed from the credits. He was right to do so.