My agent got an email from a MONK fan who thinks it's time for me to make a big change in my books. She writes, in part:
I wish Mr. Goldberg in his upcoming Monk books would actually start to lay off some of the OCD aspects of Monk. I think it interferes with the detective aspects of the story which are always brilliant.
Uh-huh. Interesting comment. What would Monk be without his OCD? Certainly not a character people would want to read about. I don't think she realizes that what makes Monk so special is his OCD…how he copes with it and how it gets in the way of his detective work, his personal life, etc. Not only that, it's his OCD that allows him to see the details, the things that are "out of place," that others miss. Sorry, Ann, I'm afraid the OCD is here to stay.
I read Larry McMurtry's slim and meandering memoir LITERARY LIFE, which had some interesting anecdotes here and there, but overall I thought it was a big disappointment. I was hoping to learn a lot more about his approach to writing and the evolution his novels, many of which are among my all-time favorites. But there was one fact that he shared that I found quite surprising:
Lonesome Dove was my tenth novel, my eleventh book. I had been publishing books from the early Sixties to the mid-Eighties before producing a book that came close to selling five thousand copies, a feat nearly achieved by All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, which came out just in time to profit from the flare of interest produced by the popularity of The Last Picture Show. [Lee here: McMurtry is referring to the movie adaptation, not the novel]
My lack of rising sales might have been easier for Simon and Schuster to tolerate if I had, along the way, been producing exceptional reviews, but, in the main, I attracted no reviews. […] The lack of interest in my books continues to this day.
It's unbelievable to me that McMurtry's early books — classics and personal favorites like The Last Picture Show, Leaving Cheyenne, Movin' On, and Horseman Pass By (which became the movie HUD)— didn't sell anywhere near as well as, say, a men's action-adventure paperback like .357 Vigilante. That's just wrong.
When McMurtry says his books still don't inspire much interest, he seems to be referring to reviews from major publications and not sales (my guess is that his books sell well, if not spectacularly). You'd think an author who has won the Pulitizer Prize for his fiction, and an Oscar for his screenwriting, would certainly merit as much critical attention as typical Michael Connelly book receives. But apparently McMurtry doesn't…and I sure don't know why. Do you?
My old high school buddy Christine Ferreira sent me this hilarious email exchange, which comes frighteningly close to many that I've had with people who'd like me to work for free. Here's an excerpt:
From: Simon Edhouse Date: Monday 16 November 2009 2.19pm To: David Thorne Subject: Logo Design
I would like to catch up as I am working on a really exciting project at the moment and need a logo designed. Basically something representing peer to peer networking. I have to have something to show prospective clients this week so would you be able to pull something together in the next few days? I will also need a couple of pie charts done for a 1 page website. If deal goes ahead there will be some good money in it for you.
From: David Thorne Date: Monday 16 November 2009 3.52pm To: Simon Edhouse Subject: Re: Logo Design
Disregarding the fact that you have still not paid me for work I completed earlier this year despite several assertions that you would do so, I would be delighted to spend my free time creating logos and pie charts for you based on further vague promises of future possible payment. Please find attached pie chart as requested and let me know of any changes required.
I read Walter Kirn’s novel UP IN THE AIR not too long ago and he had some lines of description that I wish I wrote… lines that made me want start writing something, anything, just to be writing. Here are a few:
Two months ago she teased me into bed, then put on a showy, marathon performance that struck me as rehearsed, even researched […] Now and then I’d catch her in the middle of a particularly far-fetched pose and see that it wasn’t appetite that drove her but some idea, some odd erotic theory.
[…] in a suburb that might have been squeezed from a tube.
Old tailors love me. They tell me I remind them of men from forty years ago.
[…]becoming one of those women who need make-up not to highlight their features but to create them.
My call is passed from computer to computer and then to a person who only sounds like one.
She looks like a girl in her twenties who’s been aged by an amateur movie makeup artist using spirit gum for wrinkles and sprinkled baby powder to gray her hair.
His face is soap opera handsome. Full lips. Sleek forehead. A scar on his chin to remind you he’s male.
I manage to be brotherly to her merely by sitting nearby and shedding heat.
He’s reading Dean Koontz with a squinting intensity that Koontz just doesn’t call for and must be fake.
Some of my favorite book-to-movie adaptations include JAWS, GET SHORTY, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, THE CIDER HOUSE RULES… and now, UP IN THE AIR. You can learn so much by watching the movies and then reading the books (or vice versa, of course).*
What all of my favorite adaptations have in common is that the screenwriters made major departures from the source material and yet still captured the essence of the books and what made them great. Often, the movies actually improve on the source material. JAWS is a good example of that…and so is UP IN THE AIR.
Major changes from the book are inevitable and necessary. For one thing, you're telling a story in two different mediums. As a result, the biggest changes often have less to do with artistic concerns than they do with the realities of production. If you're doing a movie, and not a six hour mini-series, you're going to have to make some hard choice about what to drop and what to condense. To do that, you have to sit down with the book, strip everything away and find the true heart of the story… and then build backward from there, keeping only those characters, moments, and plot strands from the book that support the essence of the tale. Your job isn't to transcribe the book to film (which is what the first HARRY POTTER movie felt like to me), but to write a great movie. In many ways, the book becomes inspiration, rather than something you should follow with slavish devotion. That's especially hard for authors adapting their own books to pull off (read John Irving's excellent memoir of his CIDER HOUSE RULES adaptation for a glimpse at that…and he managed the feat brilliantly).
Whenever I adapt a book, I read it first for pure pleasure and then afterwards ask myself if I liked it or not…and, if so, why? What is the story? What makes it special? What are the defining moments? What is the author trying to say? What is the tone?
If I'm adapting the book for a movie, I also ask myself what are the three acts?
If I'm adapting the book for a TV pilot, I also ask myself, what is the franchise and what are the conflicts that can generate episodes every week?
Then I re-read the book and highlight the key plot moments, the best lines of dialog, and any prose that sets the tone, establishes the theme, or reveals an important detail. At the same time, I also write a broad outline of the story as it exists in the book.
Next, I sit down and decide what the story is that I want to tell. Who are the central characters? What is the essence of the book? And then I write my own outline. Once I am happy with that, I go back and pluck out key lines of dialog or description that I want in the script. And then I start writing.
With "Ella Clah," a CBS pilot, Bill Rabkin & I decided that the most intriguing conflict in Aimee & David Thurlo's series of books was in the heroine's backstory: a female, Navajo FBI agent caught between two worlds, two nations, two ways of life. In the books, she's an ex-FBI agent who leads the Major Crimes Unit of the Navajo Police… so by keeping her an FBI agent, we made a major deviation. But we didn't end there. We gave her a male, Hispanic partner with some cultural conflicts of his own. And we resurrected a character who was killed off before the story started in the first book: Ella's father, a Navajo preacher, who drove around the Rez spreading the gospel, much to the shame of Ella's brother, a traditional Indian medicine man. We did it because we thought those conflicts would give us lots of interesting stories. Ultimately, instead of adapting "Blackening Song" or one of the other Ella Clah novels, we ended up writing an entirely new story but kept the characters true to who they were in the books. The pilot didn't sell, but I'm pleased to say that the authors were as pleased with the adaptation as we were.
With Victor Gischler's "Gun Monkeys," I streamlined everything, dropped the hero's entire family (and the subplots that went along with them), condensed events, and created an entirely new third act that I hoped stayed true to everything that I, and thousands of readers, loved about the Edgar-nominated book. At first, Victor was stunned by the changes but after getting over the surprise, he discovered that he actually really liked what I did (or at least that's what he tells me).
What I'm leading up to with all this is that I think UP IN THE AIR is a brilliant adaptation, one that aspiring writers can and should learn from. And yet, in many ways, it's not an adaptation at all. Let me explain…
Walter Kirn's book is about Ray Bingham, a charming yet emotionally remote guy who spends 322 days a year in the air, going from city-to-city firing people, and is on the verge of reaching a million domestic frequent flier miles, something that only a few others have ever attained. Oh, and he's also a motivational speaker reluctantly facing the prospect of going back home for his sister's wedding. Beyond that, and maybe a dozen lines of dialog, screenwriters Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner scrapped everything else. Instead, they started from scratch with only the basic premise as a foundation.
It was a brave creative decision. And, I believe, also a necessary one.
They stripped the book down to its narrative studs — its unique voice, its attitude, and its central character. They created a much stronger narrative spine and added two new characters — a young woman at Ray's company who tags along with him on the road because she believes that his job can be done better via webcam and a traveling saleswoman much like himself who offers him no-strings-attached sex and might just be the soul-mate he never knew he was missing.
As different as UP IN THE AIR is from Walter Kirn's book, I would argue that it's a loyal adaptation, a pure distillation of the story's soul that is perfectly suited to the medium in which its being told. In many, many ways, I think the screenplay is a vast improvement over the book. The screen story is more focused, Ray Bingham is more sharply defined, and yet the message, the tone, and the unique point-of-view of the book remain the same.
In the end, virtually nothing from the book made it on the screen. And yet, I would argue that everything from the book is there. And, if you are a writer, accomplishing that contradiction is something to be admired.
UPDATE: I just saw Jason Reitman, who directed UP IN THE AIR, and his father Ivan Reitman, who co-produced it, interviewed together on Charlie Rose… and the story they tell of how the film was developed is very, very different than the one reported earlier in the press. Neither one of them mentioned the earlier scripts by Sheldon Turner and Ted Griffin, nor that Ivan was initially going to direct the movie for Dreamworks before Jason got involved. That said, it was interesting to hear Jason talk about the adaptation. His approach, not surprisingly, is to take what he needs from the source material to make a good movie…and go where-ever his inspiration takes him from there. I forgot to mention earlier that his adaptation of Christopher Buckley's THANK YOU FOR SMOKING is every bit as good as this one and is another terrific example of how to do it right.
*let's not forget the great TV series adapted directly from books, like DEXTER, TRUE BLOOD, REBUS and MORSE (and, dare I say it, NERO WOLFE). You can learn a lot from them, too…even the ones that aren't directly based on the books, but rather the character or the franchise, like BONES, WIRE IN THE BLOOD, and many of the episodes of MORSE. When developing a book into a pilot/TV series, you have an even bigger challenge than you would simply adapting it for a feature. Not only do you want to be true to the essence of the book, and build a three-act structure into the tale, but you also have to develop an open-ended franchise, and the strong central conflicts, that together will become the narrative engine capable of generating 100 episodes. BONES did that brilliantly…so did DEXTER.
Goldberg, whose previous books include the novel “Living Dead Girl,” a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the story collection “Simplify,” is a master of presenting the dark matter of the human psyche in beguiling, sometimes fantastic, inventive ways. This collection gleefully introduces uninitiated readers into Goldberg’s richly comic voice and his continued preoccupation with our potential for violence and self-deception.[…] The restraint, lyricism and deceptive simplicity of the story’s architecture astounds with its heart-rending resonance. What Goldberg taps into most beautifully is the impulse to retreat from the chaotic complexity of the world, the ubiquitous temptation to inhabit the pristine model-home lives of our dreams.
Is there another Los Angeles Times Book Prize nomination in Tod’s future? I wouldn’t be surprised.
It's only 12:45 and already I've encountered more incompetence than I can take in one day. First, I went to Office Depot to get a few reams of their brand of copy paper. I had a coupon for 15% off on each ream. So I picked up a box containing three reams of their brand. When I went to the counter, the clerk told me the box didn't qualify because the coupon was only good for reams of paper.
"The box contains three reams," I said.
"But they are in a box," she said.
"But it's still three reams," I said. "It says so right here on the side. There's even an illustration."
"You have to go back and bring three reams of paper to the counter."
"It's the same thing," I said. "Can't you just ring me up for three reams?"
"No, because the box is cheaper than getting three individual reams."
It turns out that, with my discount coupon, the difference in cost between the box of three reams and three individual reams was a wash.
"So, in other words, the discount coupon doesn't offer any discount at all," I said.
"It does if you were going to buy three reams separately instead of in a box."
"Why would you want to do that?"
"To get the discount," she said.
When I got home, my copy of Adobe InDesign CS4 arrived. I immediately installed it on my desktop computer. Or at least I tried. Midway through the installation, I got the error message:
Setup has encountered an error and cannot continue. Contact Adobe Customer Support for assistance.
I disabled all my antivirus software, made sure no other applications were running, rebooted the computer, and tried again. Same problem. So I went to the Adobe website to see if they had any articles or FAQs dealing with my installation problem. They didn't. So I called customer support and got a guy in India with an accent so thick that it was nearly impossible to understand a word he said. I made him repeat everything, which seemed to piss him off. On top of that, he couldn't understand anything I was saying, which pissed me off. It took us a half hour just get through my name, address, phone number, etc. When I finally told him my problem, he made me repeat the error message…which, of course, he got wrong. So we spent another ten minutes going through it, letter by letter, word for word. When that was done, he put me on hold so he could talk to an advisor. When he got back, he suggested that I go to the website for help.
"I did that already," I said. "That's why I called you."
"And that didn't resolve the problem?"
'Oh yes, it did, I just decided to call you for fun."
"I'm glad we could help, sir."
"I'm joking. Of course it didn't resolve my problem. That's why I am calling you."
He put me on hold to talk to an advisor. When he came back, he told me he had a solution. He told me to go to the Adobe website.
"I've already done that," I said.
He gave me a web address. I typed it. It led to an article on the Adobe website that had nothing to do with another piece of software on a different operating system.
"That article doesn't deal with my problem," I said.
"Have you already gone through the steps in the article?"
"No, because it's about a different piece of software on a different operating system."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I am," I said. "Do you know what software we are talking about?"
He put me on hold to talk to an advisor. When he came back, he suggested that I go to the Adobe website.
"We just did that," I said.
He gave me a different web address that led to a different article. At least this one dealt with my software…but still on a different operating system.
"Do you personally have any idea how to solve my problem or not?" I asked.
"No, I do not," he said.
"What about your advisor?"
He put me on hold ot talk to an advisor, then came back.
"No, he doesn't know either," he said. "You should try the steps in the article."
"But it's about Windows XP and I am on Windows 7."
"It's the best we can do at this time," he said. "Have I resolved your problem?"
"Oh yes, everything is much better now."
"I'm glad we could help," he said. "Have a nice day."
I gave up. I've managed to install the software on my laptop but not my desktop computer. But what is the point of calling customer support if the support personnel don't know anything about the software they are supporting?
You have to see this eye-opening compilation video that shows how inventively and frequently green screen is being used on TV, and not just for big effects sequences, but simple walk-and-talks down a residential street.