Back on the Fast Track

Today I head back  to Cologne, where a DVD of the director’s cut of FAST TRACK: NO LIMITS is waiting for me at my hotel. I’ll watch it tonight, make some notes, and then head into the editing room on Monday to do my cut. I can’t wait to get started. The movie has come in at 102 minutes and I’ve got to get it down to about 95, but that’s not going to be a problem. I’m glad I have some minutes to play with…it would have been a disaster if the cut came in on time or, worse, short.

Writing Drama

I just read a review copy of the third edition of Yves Lavandier’s WRITING DRAMA. The book was translated from the French edition by Bernard Besserglik, so I am not exactly sure who I should blame for how dull the writing is. But I can certainly point the finger at Yves for the pomposity and the sheer wordiness. WRITING DRAMA is actually a very good book about writing – whether it’s plays, scripts or books — with lots of practical advice and important lessons about story structure, character development, and dialogue to offer. Unfortunately, I’ve read software manuals that are more lively and engaging.

Yves is obviously a bright, educated guy who has seen a lot of movies and thought hard about them…and he wants to be sure you know it.  So to get to his very good advice, you have to endure lots of irrelevant digressions, pointless footnotes, self-indulgent pontificating, and lots of tiresome repetition (and far more examples and film references than are necessary). However there’s so much practical wisdom in the book that I wish he’d had a decent editor or at least followed his own good advice:   

Economy – the art of condensing a text, of conveying as much information as possible in a compact form – is highly gratifying to the spectator. […] the writer should work through it again adding stylistic features and as many touches of humour and poetry as can be managed, in other words, the literary flourishes that make it more agreeable to read, and thus improve its chances of pleasing…

If he’d taken his own advice, the book would have been a quarter of the size and much more useful, not to mention more readable (For starters, he could ditch what amounts to a 30 page introduction, in which he actually tells the reader they might want to skip ahead a few pages).

There’s a lot to criticize about the book, particularly his lecturing about what’s right and wrong about certain movies, his inane rules for writing for children, his ponderous deconstruction of comedy, and his opinions on television writing. But all that said, I would highly recommend the book to aspiring writers…and even established professionals looking for a little refresher. It worked for me. I am in the midst of adapting a book that I optioned and his book really got me thinking about my task. Reading WRITING DRAMA definitely helped me focus…to sharpen my outline and refine the character arcs. And I have been a working, professional screenwriter for a while now.

Yves begins his book by stating a few points that should be self-evident, but it’s amazing how many writers of scripts and novels today seem to forget them:

[Writers] are all without exception writing for other people, for that set of others known as the audience. A work of drama exists only for and by virtue of the public. It takes two to speak this language: writer and receiver, with the actor-character as intermediary. Indeed, however much the actors pretend to be addressing each other, everything they say is directed in just one direction: at the spectator. […] Writers who do not take the trouble to master the language of their art, in other words to find out how the public receives and perceives drama, are too often inaccessible. Perhaps they believe that it is up to the public to be curious about their work, when it fact it is up to them to stimulate the public’s curiosity. […] Drama does not exist because there are writers of drama; it is rather that writers of drama exist because there is a human need for drama. Whether he likes it or not, the writer’s role is to meet this need.

His lengthy section on conflict and emotion is particularly strong.

Conflict is at the heart of drama because conflict is at the heart of life, of which drama is an imitation. […]  Conflict is a revealer of personality, which is why the great writers of drama have used it so abundantly. […] Conflict means opposition and thus obstacle.

He later writes, in his chapter on character, that:

The action that a character adopts when faced with a conflict, either to prevent it or to overcome it, is one of the best indicators of the kind of person he is.

Those may seem like obvious points, but it’s surprising how many rookie screenwriters and novelists fail to realize how important conflict is, thinking instead that witty description in the action and expository dialogue are the best ways to reveal character. Whenever I am writing, and a scene doesn’t work, there’s usually a problem with the conflict and the objectives each character is pursuing, or not pursuing, in the scene. Yves offers a useful schematic for the basic dramatic process:


A character seeks to achieve an objective but encounters obstacles, which gives rise to conflict and leads to emotion, not just for the character but also for the spectator.

This not only leads to drama, but also to comedy. Conflict is storytelling and it is character. His chapters on the Protagonist, Objectives and Obstacles are also full of good points and interesting observations:

Some writers refuse to be cruel to their protagonists. It is simply beyond them. They identify so much with their characters that they suffer if they have to make them suffer. They fail to realize that the best way of getting the spectator to share their concern and love for their protagonists is precisely to spare them nothing.

I agree with him. And yet, he later advises:

When a writer wishes to indulge his sadistic tendencies, it is better that he should do so on a secondary character rather than the protagonist.

I am not sure from reading his book where he actually draws that line, but it doesn’t matter. I can live with his apparent contradiction. Overall, there’s a lot a writer can learn from Yves’ book and, despite the wordiness and occasional pomposity, it may be one of the best books on screenwriting out there.

As an aside (and there are many, many, many of them in the book), he’s also a persuasive defender of, and believer in, writers as the primary creative force in film-making:

It is the writer’s role to determine everything meaningful that goes into a work of drama. In theory, the actors, director, production designer, composer or editor should not have to do anything more than recreate, using their respective skills, the meaning intended by the writer. They are servants of the writer’s vision in a sense which, I stress, is by no means pejorative and furthermore requires real talent.

So it’s appropriate to close on one of his earliest and truest observations:

[…] people talk as if the screenplay does not exist. Or no longer exists. We are told the screenplay is a transitional phenomenon, existing only  briefly, its relation to the film comparable to that of a caterpillar to a butterfly. This might be true of the object itself, the grubby manuscript that circulates from hand-to-hand on the set […] but it is emphatically not true of the text as a work of art, the product of a writer’s imaginings, the film narrative. […] it is often the key element on which the quality of the movie depends.

If you’ve got the fortitude to slog through this book, and if you can stay awake, you will be rewarded with some valuable advice that will help you become a better writer. (Now if only his publisher could come out with an abridged edition…but with some liveliness, humor and character added!).

New Criteria for MWA Membership

Last month, the board of the Mystery Writers of America adopted the recommendations of the membership committee (of which I am a member) to revise the criteria for active status membership for professional authors. The changes/additions to the current criteria  are:

1) An author of books must have received a minimum advance of $1,000, royalties of $1,000, or a combination of advances and royalties in at least that amount.

2) The initial print run for the author’s work of fiction or non-fiction must be at least 500 copies.

3)  That an author of short stories must have received a cumulative amount of $200, with only payments of $25 or more counting toward the total. Scholarly articles or chapters of non-fiction books will be treated like short stories, for purposes of Active Category qualification.

4)  That a playwright or an author of screenplays or teleplays must have received a minimum payment commensurate with the standards and practices of the Writers’ Guild (film/TV) or Dramatists Guild (stage plays), and that the work must have been produced.

UPDATE (7-14-07): The Romance Writers of America  have just  adopted new membership criteria that are very similar to the MWA’s.

UPDATE: You can find more details about the criteria for active MWA membership here.

The Numbers Game

I’ve been doing some catching up on my favorite blogs today. There have been some fascinating posts on author blogs over the last few weeks about the writing life.  For example, Tess Gerritsen talks from experience about the pros and cons of big print runs

The larger the print run, the better the chance the book will hit
national bestseller lists.  Part of it is just the visual impact of
seeing huge stacks of BIG GAMBLE in  a bookstore — customers see those
stacks, assume the book must be important, and are inclined to check it
out.  (Seeing only one or two copies of a new novel, conversely, may
make the customer think it must not be a very popular book.)  To sell a
lot of books, you have to display a lot of books, just to catch the
customers’ attention.  Also, if Borders has taken delivery of 30,000
copies, then their sales force will have an incentive to push that
title even harder and will offer deeper discounts to move the copies. 

If the simple secret to hitting the bestseller list is just to print
a ton of copies, why doesn’t a publisher do it with every book?

Because they’d go out of business fast.  That way lies disaster.

Meanwhile, Sandra Scoppettone talks about how good novels aren’t getting published because of the obsession with those numbers and the evaporation of the mid-list. Her musings were  prompted by a rejection letter that an author-friend of hers got:

is a fine piece of work, as you no doubt are painfully aware, but I’m
not sure that we could convince the big stores to buy thousands and
thousands of copies.  And that is my mandate these days.”

just makes me feel all warm and cozy.  And it definitely makes me want
to sit down in front of my computer and hit those keys.  Not that I
intend to write a book that will make those big fat stores buy
thousands and thousands of copies.  And that’s just the point.

is going to publish the books I write…the books that you write?  I know
the mid-list category for fiction is nonexistent but I didn’t think it
was happening in the crime genre.

The editor’s mandate.
Discouraging and depressing.  I’ve never sold thousands and thousands
of copies to the chains.  Most of us don’t.  We all know who does.
Ten, twenty at most.  And they’re the people who get major reviews and
big time ads.  Over and over again.

And Sandra has had it with the Numbers Game…she’s not going to play anymore. She’s just going to write. Or not.

I know the breakthrough book isn’t going to happen for me.  That’s
okay.  I had my chance.  Now, despite my wishes, which, by the way, are
for the forty year old me, I don’t have any idea if I’ll publish
again.  Or write again.  I’m inclined to think I’ll write, but that
doesn’t mean I’ll be published. That’s not okay.  But there’s not a
damn thing I can do about it.

I hope the next book I write
is good.  Still, it won’t be the kind of book that’ll make me a
household name or bring in loads of money.  That’s okay, too.  I want
whatever I write to see the light of day and make back the money I was
paid. At this point in my writing life that’s all that’s important.

On the other side of the coin, John Connolly seems to be one of those  authors on the verge of his big breakthrough. He is half-way through his international book tour and it’s catching up with him.

This week marked the halfway point on the tour – 29 days down, 29 more
to go – and the shift from the US to Australia. The first half has been
an interesting experiment in how much travel, etc. a body can take
before it begins to exhibit signs of distress. The answer, it appears,
is roughly 28 days, because meltdown has begun.

[…]Too many flights, and too many 16- and 17-hour days. My body is
starting to rebel. I have managed to tear something in my neck hauling
my bags from hotel room to car to check in desk, and from baggage claim
to car to hotel room. I felt it rip the way paper rips. At the moment,
I’m freezing it with spray, but the spray wears off, and at night I
don’t sleep as well as I’d like. I’m not much good for anything after
about nine o’clock, and this weekend had to bow out of meeting some
nice people for a bite to eat in Melbourne. I went to bed instead. I
feel like an old person.


Paris and stuff

I’ve driven in a lot of U.S. cities, and quite a few European ones, but I think if you can drive in Paris, you can probably drive  anywhere on earth. It’s dog-eat-dog on the roads there, no rules seem to apply. It’s infuriating,  exciting, and exhausting.

Since I was last here five years ago, it seems as though the population has quadrupled and most of them are on motorcycles. There’s less dog shit on the streets though, perhaps because it has never  stopped raining. It doesn’t feel like summer here at all.

But Paris is still, well, Paris…a beautiful city and I had a wonderful dinner last night at  Lasserre with my wife, actress Alexia Barlier, our international  sales exec, and an exec from the French network M6, which will be airing FAST TRACK. I’ve  never been to a restaurant quite like it. Very elegant, with five waiters doing what’s ordinarily done by one. They do everything for you but pre-chew your food. In middle of the meal, the ceiling opened up…less like a skylight than SPECTRE’s hidden base in a dormant volcano. It was pretty cool.

My vacation will be ending soon… our director Axel Sand delivers his cut of FAST TRACK on Friday and on Saturday I head Action Concept studios in Cologne to do my cut. I’ve got about five days to work in the editing room…and then it’s off to Lohr to teach the principles of American TV writing & producing with writer/producer Jack Bernstein.  Jack and I worked together on DEADLY GAMES, but we’ve also both worked separately on SHE SPIES and MONK. He’s a great writer and a very funny guy, so it should be a lot of fun.

In the mean time, I have been re-reading a book that I’ve optioned, going through it with a highlighter and getting a feel for what the "screen" story will be…I hope to be able to get to work on that script (along with MONK #6: MR. MONK GOES  TO GERMANY) while I am awaiting word on whether  FAST TRACK will be picked up or not.

Publicists Who Can’t Publicize Themselves

I got this spam email not long ago from Brian Feinblum at Planned Television Arts, a PR firm (the typos are his):

I saw you and your books listed in a directory at this past weekend’s
Book Expo. The only mystery for mystery authors to solve is: How can you secure
effective publicity for your books? I am happy to say we have a solution. Planned Television Arts is the nation’s largest and oldest book promoters. As such we invite you to send info about your most recent or
upcoming book and we can customized a plan that world for you.

If their "customized plan" and PR savvy is anything like their customized emails, it’s a wonder they are still in business. Milton Kahn is another one. I got a spam email  from him recently. Here’s the first line:

I would
like to make you aware of my public relations company as I feel I could be a
perfect fit in helping you promote and publicize your current or upcoming book
on a national level.

What a grabber, huh? If that’s his idea of a compelling lead, imagine what he could do for me! My check is in the mail, Milt.

Getting off to See the Wizard

Dorothy rolling in the hay with the Scarecrow? C’mon, we all know they wanted to get naked together. That’s just one of the bizarre, fanfic couplings that Fleshbot has , um, uncovered on LiveJournal.


Dorothy looked quickly over her shoulder, but her
own movement against her hand caused to moan loudly again as her eyes
met the Scarecrow’s.

Without a conversation, or her needing to persuade him, he came over between her thighs and kissed her thoroughly.

was surprised to feel his cloth mouth feeling rather erotic on her
mouth, making her even more wet than she was before he walked in.

She grinded her hips against his straw structure, and even that felt right.

She looked up at him with frustrated eyes, "I want you inside me."

“I Don’t Think We’re in Los Angeles anymore, Toto.”

The New York  Times reports that fat is sexy is Mauritania, where women force feed themselves to put on pounds.

A 2001 government survey of 68,000 women found that one in five between ages 15 and 49 had been deliberately overfed. And nearly 70 percent – and even more among teenagers – said they did not regret it.

[…]Other cultures prize corpulent women. But Mauritania may be unique in the lengths it has gone to achieve its vision of female beauty. For decades, the Mauritanian version of a Western teenager’s crash diet was a crash feeding program, designed to create girls obese enough to display family wealth and epitomize the Mauritanian ideal.

Centuries-old poems glorify women immobilized by fat, moving so slowly they seemed to stand still, unable to hoist themselves onto camels without the aid of men’s willing hands…