What Is The Bad Guy Doing?

Lee, Steve Cannell & William Link at Santa Barbara Book Fest
Lee Goldberg, Stephen J. Cannell, and COLUMBO co-creator William Link at the Santa Barbara Book Festival

Creating a strong antagonist in a crime novel can be the key to the success or failure of your story. I’m a firm believer that “the bad guy” has to be as smart or, preferrably, smarter than my hero…and someone whose personality and actions will highlight all the weaknesses and conflicts that make my hero who he is.

I also make sure my “bad guy” is more than just a bad guy…he’s someone with his own agenda, his own demons, his own needs, someone who has more going on in his life than whatever criminal act he is engaged in (or that he has already committed). And that’s very important. Rarely is anyone just pure evil for evil’s sake…except in cartoons, Batman episodes, or James Bond movies.

I always try to look at the story from the bad guy’s point of view and ask myself what he’d be doing if he was the hero of the story…and if my protagonist was, in his view, the “bad guy.” I have to invest as much thought in my bad guy as do in my hero if the story is going to work.

You can learn a lot about making bad guys rich characters by watching THE SOPRANOS, a show that’s ostensibly all about the bad guys. Sure, they killed people, but they also had mortgages to pay, worried about their kids, read the morning paper, had all the responsibilities, hopes, dreams, and anxieties that “good guys” have. They didn’t wake up each day and ask themselves “what evil can I do today…mwa-ha-ha.”

I learned to make my bad guys fully-rounded characters, with lives and goals of their own, from watching COLUMBO…and later working for Stephen J. Cannell…and reading Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry.

On COLUMBO, we spent the first half-hour of each episode watching the bad guys, getting into their lives, understanding why they had to kill. But what ultimately made COLUMBO such a pleasure was that he was always outmatched by the bad guys…and beat them anyway. The smarter the bad guys were, the smarter he had to be to beat them. Or, to put it another way, the best bad guys brought out the best in Columbo.

It was Steve Cannell, one of my mentors, who taught me to always ask myself “What is the bad guy doing?” “What does the bad guy want?” “What is the bad guy thinking about?” in every scene where the bad guy wasn’t on screen. The bad guy always had to be doing something, not sitting around waiting for the detective to catch him or simply throwing obstacles in the detective’s way.

Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry (in his westerns) made their “villains” as likeable, layered and interesting as their heroes…in fact, some times they were even more compelling. Leonard and McMurtry excelled at creating likeable, funny, believable psychopaths and killers.

The bottom line: having a strong antagonist makes your hero stronger and your story better.

(This post was originally written for April’s The Big Thrill Roundtable)

Writing is Rewriting

My writing ritual is simple. I do my best writing from 8 pm-2 am…and I usually start my day at 10 or 11 am by rewriting what i did the day before. When that is done, I start writing “the new stuff.” I repeat that process until the book is done.

I’m a big believer that writing is rewriting…and that it’s always easier to rewrite crap than it is to fill an empty page…

Get. Something. On. The. Page.

That is my writing mantra.

But that often means that what I end up with at the end of the day is terrible or just the broad strokes of what I am going for. I know I will go back, sharpen the dialogue and color between the lines, adding the character or details left out in my eagerness get something down. Or it can go the other way…I’ve written endless reams of exposition and dialogue that I need to trim with an ax. Ten pages of blather becomes three pages of tight, lean writing. If what I’ve written doesn’t further the plot and reveal character then it has to go. I am also very aware the beat of my story, the pace…it’s almost like tapping my foot to music. If i lose that beat, cuts or revisions need to be made to move things along.

I typically go through the pages with an eye toward cutting all the exposition that I possibly can,all the unnecessary details that slow the pace, and taking whatever clever lines I come across in prose seeing if I can put them into my characters’ mouths instead. I strike out any cliche phrases, which were left as place-holders for actual writing that I’d do in the revisions.

I will often rewrite a scene four, five or six times before a book is finished. So when I complete my first draft, it’s pretty close to done. Anything I do at that point, before turning it in, is more about tweaking and polishing.

PS – I should also mention that I always work from an outline, I never just wing it. I need to know where I am going so that when I’m writing I’m concentrating on writing, not plotting. My plot may change (and often does) as I write, and when that happens, I revise my outline. That is a continual process. I usually finish my outline, which I call a living outline, about a week before I finish the book.

(This post was originally written for  April’s The Big Thrill Roundtable)

S is for Sad

Fellow Kentucky Colonels Lee Goldberg & Sue Grafton

I’m so sad to hear about Sue Grafton‘s death. Not only was she incredibly talented, she was also a very nice woman.

I met her for the first time in the mid-1980s at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference…shortly after her first or second book came out. I had a long, thoroughly delightful lunch with her, my Mom, and Paul Lazarus…and then I think we did a panel together. She wasn’t a celebrity then, but she made a strong impression on me and Mom. We liked her instantly. After that, I ran into Sue often on the “book circuit” and she was always so gracious and nice to everyone…and never failed to ask how my Mom was doing.
 
A few years ago, she was a special guest at the Riverpark Center in Owensboro, KY…we did a panel together during the day and I was honored to interview her at a gala dinner. She was commissioned as a Kentucky Colonel during one of the events. As the Kentucky secretary of state or whomever it was told the audience all the reasons she deserved the honor, she leaned over & whispered in my ear: “This is the third or fourth time they’ve made me a Kentucky Colonel. You’d think they’d keep track of this stuff”. But she went up on stage, thanked the politician for his kind words, and said what an honor it was for her to receive it as a native Kentuckian.
In between, those events, I got together with her and her husband at Denny’s for some nice breakfasts together, where we talked shop.Those were the special times for me.
 
The last time I saw her was at Bouchercon in Albany, where we chatted for a while at the bar and I got to introduce her to some writer-friends of mine, who she immediately treated like old friends of hers, too. That’s the kind of lady she was.

 

Sue, me and Zev Buffman at the Angie Awards in Owensboro, KY
Kentucky Colonels Sue Grafton and Lee Goldberg at Bouchercon
I wish I could remember what I did to earn this delightful inscription! 🙂

Heartbroken for Bill Crider

I was heartbroken to read this weekend that my friend Bill Crider has entered hospice care. He’s been fighting cancer for a few years now and I want to believe he’ll keep fighting it… and beat it. I treasure our friendship, which has meant so much to me in so many ways. He’s perhaps the nicest guys in publishing…and certainly one of the most well-read…a gentle, caring soul who can’t teaching others through his love of the genre. He’s certainly taught me a lot.
 
Bill introduced me to so many great books and authors who have not only entertained me, but made me a better writer. Authors like Harry Whittington, Ralph Dennis, and Dan J. Marlowe, to name a very few.
 
He edited two of my books, THE WALK and WATCH ME DIE, for Five Star Mysteries…and his advice made them better. I was thrilled when, thirteen years later, he agreed to write THE DEAD MAN: CARNIVAL OF DEATH for the series that William Rabkin and I created & edited for Amazon/47North. It was so great to be able to work creatively with him again and to share a byline.
 
And I am honored that Bill has entrusted me with his terrific western novels OUTRAGE AT BLANCO and TEXAS VIGILANTE…first to adapt to the screen (we’re still trying to get them made!) and later to republish them through Brash Books (where he was instrumental in advising me & Joel Goldman on titles we should acquire).
 
I’ve enjoyed the many hours we’ve spent over the years talking about mysteries and books…and am so glad I got to visit him at his home in Alvin, Texas a year ago and see his incredible book collection for myself 
 
I spent some time with him and his daughter Angela Crider Neary just a few weeks ago in Toronto…and he seemed so happy and energetic, that I believed he’d beaten the cancer for good. I still hope it’s a battle he can win.
 

Cheesecake

Here’s the main title sequence for SABLE, an awful series that only lasted for a month in 1988. William Rabkin & I wrote an awful freelance script for this awful series that thankfully wasn’t shot — but it had a lasting impact on us.

The show had a terrible, expository character, an African-American tech wizard in a wheelchair, named Cheesecake. We hated that character…because it wasn’t a character. It was a painful cliche. So “Cheesecake” became our shorthand, and is to this day, for a cliche character who exists only to provide dull exposition.

It’s amazing and depressing how many times that EXACT SAME DREADFUL CHARACTER — the exposition/computer whiz character in a wheelchair — has been repeated in shows since then.


Cheesecake came to mind today because I just watched the first regular episode of Bill Bixby’s THE MAGICIAN, from the newly released DVD boxed set, that had that same “Cheesecake ” expository character — though it was a white guy in a wheelchair and aired several years before SABLE premiered. Just goes to show how long that dreadful, lazy writer cliche has existed. 

Making Movies: Gun Monkeys and The Walk

Eugenio Mira and Lee Goldberg

I’ve got lots of movie news to share that I’ve been keeping bottled up for some time. First off, my novel THE WALK is being made into a movie, to be directed by Eugenio Mira, who made the clever, stylish Hitchcockian thriller GRAND PIANO (starring Elijah Wood and John Cusack) and did some amazing second unit work on THE IMPOSSIBLE (the tsunami movie with Naomi Watts). He’s fresh off of directing the second unit for JURASSIC WORLD II… so with that big-budget, action and disaster-movie experience behind him, he’s obviously the perfect guy to do THE WALK. The movie will be produced by Paul Hanson, George Paige and John Baca for Covert Media.

Covert Media is also producing my screenplay adaptation of Victor Gischler‘s Edgar-nominated novel GUN MONKEYS , which will be directed by Simon Brand. The development history of GUN MONKEYS goes back years. I optioned the book myself, wrote the script on spec, and for a long while it was set up with actor Kevin Costner and director Ryuhei Kitamura. That project came real close to getting made…and then fell apart. A new producing team came on board, offers are going out to big-name actors now, and we’re on track to shoot in late 2017/early 2018.

Back in September, Simon shot an action scene from my script as a camera/lighting test…and I’ve just been given the okay to share it now that he’s posted it on his site. The key parts are played by his friends and it has a voice-over that isn’t in the script — I wrote it just for this so that the action makes sense out of context. I think the footage looks terrific. Here it is. I hope you like it! 

Gun Monkeys from simon brand on Vimeo.

 

Our Worst Script

seaquesttitlecard300Here’s an excerpt from “About Face,” the worst script that William Rabkin and I ever wrote…but before I share it with you, here’s the story behind it (which I originally shared on this blog back in July 2006)

We were working as supervising producers on the third season of SeaQuest, a scifi show about a phallic submarine exploring our oceans in the year 2032. We were a day into writing episode 14 when the series got cancelled. But studio and the network were still obligated to pay us for the script — the catch was that we actually had to write it if we wanted our money.

In other words, we had to write a script we knew would never be shot and that we were pretty certain nobody would ever read. But we weren’t about to walk away from $25,000.

So we wrote it in one day…while we were packing up our office. We amused ourselves by writing the worst scenes that we possibly could, reading them out loud to each other as we wrote. We turned in the script as we walked out the door and we assumed it would never be read.

To our horror, we were wrong.

We discovered years later that bootleg copies of this atrocity were showing up at science fiction conventions as one of the “lost episodes” of the final season. Some have even shown up on the Internet. It even became the basis for a fanfic story.

Okay, now here’s the excerpt. All you need to know to follow along is that Piccolo is a man with gills and Darwin is a talking dolphin (I’m not kidding).

EXT. SEAQUEST – CGI/STOCK

as it cruises through the sea.

INT. SEAQUEST – CAFETERIA

Lucas is at a table eating as Piccolo comes in.

PICCOLO

Hey, Lucas, what’s the blue plate special today? I’m starving.

LUCAS

Grilled trout.

PICCOLO

Nothing else?

LUCAS

Scrod casserole.

PICCOLO

Pass.

LUCAS

Wait – I thought you were starving.

PICCOLO

I just lost my appetite.

(re: Lucas’ plate:)

You’d think the Chef could be a bit more sensitive.

LUCAS

The presentation may not be great, but it tastes pretty good.

He holds out a fork of trout.

LUCAS

Here, have a bite.

Piccolo turns away, disgusted.

PICCOLO

Are you nuts? Why don’t you go offer Darwin some dolphin pate.

Suddenly Lucas understands.

LUCAS

Tony, you aren’t a fish.

PICCOLO

I have gills, Lucas. I may not be a fish, but it still feels like
cannibalism to me.

LUCAS

You’re a human being who happens to have gills, that’s different.

PICCOLO

If you could fly, believe me, chicken wouldn’t look very
appetizing.

LUCAS

Chickens don’t fly.

Piccolo glares at Lucas and walks out. Lucas smiles to himself.

Playing Cops and Robbers

I just got back from The Writers Police Academy where I, and two hundred other writers, got to play “cops and robbers.” It was my first time participating in the annual event which, I am told, is as close as you can get to actual police training without becoming a cop. You can see me talking about it on the local news here and here.

The event was held this month at a law enforcement training facility in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was an amazing opportunity for authors to get hands-on experience and education in crime scene investigation, pursuit driving, arson investigation, improvised explosives, firearms training… the list goes on and on. I learned cool stuff from EMTs, arson investigators, bomb squad members, homicide detectives, uniformed cops, and other professionals that will definitely show up in my books and TV shows. Nothing beats hands-on experience when it comes to discovering those key details that make fiction come alive on the page and on screen.

Rescue simulationThe event organizers had a flair for the dramatic—the conference opened with a rescue simulation involving a gruesome car crash. Cops, fire, EMTs, and even a helicopter showed up to handle the call. Later, organizers staged a “live shooter” simulation with injuries in a crowded lecture hall. Once again, they went for full dramatic effect. Not only was it entertaining, but it was an excellent teaching/learning experience for everyone… participants and audience alike.

In one session, I got the chance to learn tourniquet techniques… and the lesson ended with me entering a dark, smoke-filled room with loud music and strobe lights to find a victim who’d list both legs and was bleeding out (water, not blood) and I had to apply what I’d learned under pressure.

I also cleared a building with an active shooter (on a simulator and in “reality” in a specialized training house), learned to fire a Glock and a rifle, pulled over speeders in simulated night-time traffic stops, and drove a police cruiser “in pursuit” in a training track.

Lee in hot pursuitWe also got to examine up close squad cars, SWAT vehicles, urban assault vehicles, mobile command vehicles and all of the equipment in the vehicles and that the officers carry.

There were so many great seminars that I wasn’t able to attend that I wanted to… which I guess means I’ll have to go to the conference again next year. Authors Boyd Morrison, Melinda Leigh, Robin Burcell, and Kendra Elliot, who have attended many previous WPA conferences, warned me this would happen. Once you go to WPA, you’re in for life.

Like all writing conferences, I also enjoyed catching up with old friends and making lots of new ones. If you write crime novels, I strongly recommend that you sign up for next year’s conference the instant tickets become available.


Pictured: Tod Goldberg (who writes with Brad Meltzer), Robin Burcell (who writes with Clive Cussler), Lee Goldberg (who writes with Janet Evanovich), Maxine Paetro (who writes with James Patterson) and Boyd Morrison (who writes with Cussler) got together at The Writers Police Academy to talk shop and shoot big guns. 

Tod Goldberg and Lee Goldberg: The Jew Team

The Jew Team — Tod Goldberg & Me

Three New TV Books Reviewed

front-lis-cover-final-16-6-30_7_origI’m a sucker for TV books, even those about shows I didn’t watch or don’t particularly like…because, often, I can learn something new about the development, writing and production of TV series that I didn’t know before despite my own experience in the biz.  Here are some short reviews of three recent releases.

Irwin Allen’s Lost In Space: The Authorized Biography of a Classic Sci-Fi Series Vol. One by Marc Cushman. Jacobs-Brown Publishers. This is a monumental work of TV history…one of the best TV reference books ever written. That’s no surprise, since it’s from the same people who did These Are the Voyages, the three volume, definitive work about the TV series Star Trek and that is also a stunning achievement.  I didn’t think that series of books could be topped or even matched. I was wrong. This nearly 700 page paperback covers the first season of Lost in Space, and as a bonus, the development of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, the Irwin Allen series that preceded this one.

I am not a fan of Lost in Space, but that didn’t limit my enjoyment or appreciation of this book one bit (though I have to admit I haven’t finished it). The book is a remarkable achievement that exhaustively covers every detail of the creation, writing and production of the show, relying on interviews, memos, scripts, letter, photos… the amount of material they uncovered and examined is incredible and, at times, overwhelming. And yet, it doesn’t feel like overkill and it’s never dull. The author has an engaging style that rises above similar books.

Each episode is examined in-depth, from idea, through all stages of production, right down to the ratings and critical reaction to the final airing. What makes this book even more special is that, unlike Star Trek, the authors aren’t following a well-trodden path…so much of this is new and fascinating information. Yes, this show has been examined before, in documentaries and articles, but never in such detail and, surprisingly, with such objectivity. The authors aren’t slavishly devoted fans… they don’t hesistate to point out how awful some of the episodes were.

This book is a must-stock for any library and a must-read for anyone interested in the business behind the TV business. You don’t have to be a fan of Lost in Space, or have ever watched a single episode, to benefit from this great book. I can’t wait for the volumes 2 & 3.

bc8420Cop Shows: A Critical History of Police Dramas on Television by Roger Sabin & others. McFarland & Co.  I had high hopes for this book because I’m a huge fan of cop shows. I was expecting to glean some new insights into familiar and obscure shows, and new details about how these shows were made, the impact they had on culture, etc. What I got instead was a very scholarly, very broad series of superficial essays about individual shows that revealed nothing new…besides the authors’ opinions, which I don’t really care about.  I was also dismayed by the sloppy errors, which made me wonder if they actually watched the shows they were writing about…or were simply lazy in their research. For instance, in their chapter on Hawaii Five-O, they make a passing reference to Stephen J Cannell’s unsold reboot pilot, which was shot but never aired. They say that Gary Busey starred as McGarrett. In fact, nobody played McGarrett in the pilot…and Busey was co-lead with Russell Wong. This information is easily found on the Internet and in other reference books. Later, in their short summary on TJ Hooker, they say “CBS picked up the show’s final season, which was a marked by grittier plotlines and a location shift to Chicago. .. the changes proved deeply unpopular with fans.” That is absolutely wrong. The final episode of the ABC season was set in Chicago, and was a pilot for a potential reboot, but when the show moved to CBS, they kept the original concept, setting, and storylines (going so far as to only use car chases from previous episodes instead of shooting new ones!). The only thing that changed was that Adrian Zmed was dropped from the cast. So not only are they factually wrong, but the conclusions they came to about “grittier storylines” and the audience dissatisfaction with them is total fiction. If that is an example of their academic rigor, I grade this thesis a C-.

Seinfeldia: How a Show about Nothing Changed Everything. by Jennifer Keishan Armstrong. Simon and Schuster. I totally get why this book has become an unlikely bestseller. For one thing, it’s about one of the most popular and beloved sitcoms in TV history. But most of all, it’s because the book is so readable…so entertaining…that it almost feels more like a novel about a show than a book about TV history. Even so, there’s lots of meat here for people interested in how the TV business works, how a TV series develops and evolves, and, most of all, how a series is written. What this book is really about is the writing of a TV series and, as a writer myself, I found it irresistible and fascinating. There have been other books written about Seinfeld…but none of them are as good, or as useful, or as educational as this one. You should also grab Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, her terrific book about The Mary Tyler Moore Show.