Grease is the Word

Reading TIED IN brought back fond memories for UK blogger/author/gamer Jonny Nexus of his favorite tie-in of all time: the novelization of GREASE.

This might sound like a bizarre choice, but you have to understand that the novel is so much more than the film. The film’s fun, I’ll not deny that. But it’s a musical, not perhaps frothy, but not that deep either. How the hell do you take an ever-so slightly camp and over-the-top musical and turn it into a novel?

Well in this case, [Ron]De Christoforo took a minor character from the film, Danny’s best mate Sonny, and turned him into the engaging narrator of a gritty but fun, first-person novel. He also gave Sonny a girlfriend, Marsha, who joined the Pink Ladies, so that she could later tell Sonny things that had happened when the girls out of the boys’ sight. As for the songs, at least one that I recall (Greased Lightning) was re-imagined as an impromptu rapping sessions, with the rest just left out altogether.

Some novels draw you in, making you feel like you’re peeking into another world. That was how it was for me, with Grease: a young teenager in early 80s Britain feeling like he’d learned what it was to be a slightly older teenager in late 50s USA. It was full of detail: Polar Burgers, the pre-chain dump of a fast-food restaurant they used to eat at; the ‘57 Chevy pickup Sonny borrows from his cousin so he and Danny can go and visit Sandy; the zip gun Doody makes in shop that all the others laugh at.

It’s my favourite tie-in novel of all time. But more than that, it’s just one of my favourite novels.

I loved it.


Another Ruthless Interrogation

Hank Phillippi Ryan interrogates me today at the Sisters-in-Crime blog. Here's an excerpt of what she beat out of me:

HANK: When you watch TV now, or read a book—can you just relax and, maybe, enjoy? Or is your editor-writer brain always assessing? What do you see as the flaws and gaps and missteps? The successes?

LEE: With a mystery, no, I can't just read or watch. I am always very aware of the construction of the mystery.

But you're not supposed to be passively entertained by a mystery. You are expected to track the clues. Part of the fun is that the mystery is there to be solved, and if the author (or writer/producer) has played fairly, then you can and should participate along with the detective.

If a movie is really good, I can stop looking at the construction of *the story* and just be swept up in it. But if the movie is flawed, it pulls me out, and I start seeing the work/structure/component parts and then it's hard to be entertained by what I am watching. I begin to watch it like a producer watching a director's cut and thinking about what he's got to go into the editing room to fix…


Mysteries, Margaritas, and a Grilling

There’s a long Q&A interview with me over at the Mysteries and Margaritas blog. Here’s an excerpt:

Mary: You write books and you write screenplays. I’ve heard they are completely different animals. Do you find it hard to do both? Or in your mind do they complement each other?

Lee: They do compliment each other. I was a reporter first… and that taught me how to write tightly, to say more with less, and to craft strong leads. It also trained me to meet deadlines and to be a ruthless editor. I became a screenwriter when one of my books was optioned for film and I got hired to write the script.

I think that being a screenwriter, particularly for TV, has made me a much better novelist. You have to write outlines for TV, so it has forced me to focus on plot before I start writing my books. I’m not figuring things out as I go along as some authors do. I know exactly where I am going…though I may change how I get there along the way.

Being a TV writer has also trained me to focus on a strong, narrative drive, to make sure that every line of dialogue either reveals character or advances the plot (or both), and to cut anything that’s extraneous or bogs the story down. I also suspect that being a TV writer has given my books a faster pace and more of a cinematic structure.


I also talk about what I wear in bed, so you really don’t want to miss it.

The Mail I Get

Here's just a sampling of some of  the "offers" and questions I've received lately. I've changed the names and other identifying info to spare the senders any embarrassment…

Hi,  I came across your site while surfing the web. I've decided that episodic TV is where I need to be. I have written an original pilot, including title bible and summaries of every episode of the first season, as well as a couple of spec scripts.[…]Panelists at a seminar I attended suggested I get a mentor or three. Is there any chance of me talking with you for a few moments one day, just to pick your brain on the industry? Hope to hear from you. Please call.

Here's another:

I can't write but I have a terrific idea for a book that I have outlined in detail. I have selected you to be my co-writer because I am such a fan of your work. I love MONK! Please contact me at your earliest convenience so I can tell you more details (I don't want to share this great idea in an email for obvious reasons!!!).

Here's another:

I am a writer with two self-published books that are under the radar but would make great movies. If you would be interested in making them into movies I will send them to you.

That was the whole message, by the way. Here's another:

Mr. Goldberg, I'm not asking a favor really-at least I don't think so. I'm asking because I enjoy your MONK and DIAGNOIS MURDER so much. I stumbled on an interesting investagation when I got hold of an old newspaper that was in the bottom of a box I bought at an auction sale […]This is just a brief bit of info I've collected etc. Question: any suggestions on doing a story about this by changing names etc?

Here's my favorite of the bunch:

I found you on the interweb and only seek your help or therapeutic solace if you are entertained or amused by any of my efforts. I'm an Art Director for Video Games who, needing an impossible challenge, has to make a sitcom. I cast actors and shot a pilot, which you can see here: XYZ. By the later shots I was getting smarter. Editing out the 'not going anywhere self indulgent cleverness' and collecting comments taught me a lot too. Better writing and production help are next. And not casting a slacker actor. Besides writing characters you care about because they care about something, do you have any advice for me?


The Presumptuous Stranger

A successful screenwriter I know recently shared with me an experience he had with a stranger that's becoming more and more common these days among my writer friends who have any kind of online presence…

A complete stranger sent me an email informing me of the glorious news that he's coming to LA to try to sell his book as a TV series, and that he wants me to have lunch with him to tell him how the business works. He presents this as something of a treat for me.

I want to be polite, so I told him that I will be out of town that weekend, but good luck.

He writes back and asks for an agent recommendation.

I told him the only agent I know is my own, and he is not even considering taking on new clients, but good luck.

So he writes back and asks me to read his spec pilot.

Now I feel like the Terminator, running down that list of appropriate responses, from "No, but thanks for asking" to "Which part of fuck off and die did you fail to understand?"

I have had this experience so many times myself  that I now believe that being polite to these presumptuous strangers is a mistake, that it's seen as an invitation to intrude even further. So now I am very blunt. I tell strangers the obvious — that I don't know them at all, that I am very busy, and that I have have no interest in meeting them or reading their work.  I get one of three responses: 1) a polite "thank you,"  2) a nasty diatribe about how I'm an ungrateful, self-centered, selfish, insecure prick or 3) no response at all.

But I do wonder what is going through the minds of these strangers. Do they really expect me to drop everything to meet someone I have never met before, online or otherwise? It would be different if we were "pen pals" and had established a relationship of some kind… but these are complete strangers I am talking about. Do they think just because we have websites, or blogs, or Facebook and Twitter accounts, that we are at their beck-and-call?

The Lost Gunsmoke Novel

James Reasoner raves on his blog about Joseph A. West's new novel SHOOTOUT AT PICTURE ROCK which, as it turns out, was actually written as a GUNSMOKE tie-in novel. West revealed the backstory in a comment on the blogpost:

SHOOTOUT AT PICTURE ROCK began its life as the 7th novel in my GUNSMOKE series, but my publisher and Universal couldn't agree on financial terms. Finally my editor said: "The hell with it, we'll publish the book as a stand alone." Then, with many a merry quip, he added: "Big hurry, Joe. Change the names and send it back to me yesterday." Of course, there was a lot more involved than simply changing Matt Dillon to Kilcoyn. I had to saw the novel apart then rebuild it, the deadline hanging over my head like the proverbial sword. In the end, poor, ink-stained wretch that I am, I got the job done and Shootout was the result. Ah, I love the publishing business so much, just sitting here thinking about it brings a tear to my eye.

Fascinating stuff.

The House Name


Author James Reasoner, the hardest working guy in publishing, talks about what it's like to have most of his work published under "house names" — author bylines owned by the publisher — like Tabor Evans, for instance. He says, in part:

At last count, novels and stories I’ve written have been published under at least 35 different names.[…]

In the past month I’ve worked on projects that will be published under four different names, none of them my own. People have asked me, “How can you write a book knowing that your name won’t be on it?” For years my standard answer was, “I don’t care as long as my name is on the check.” Of course that’s not completely true, now or then. Writing has been my job for more than three decades now, and getting paid is important. But most writers love to see a new book with their name on it, and I’m no different. If we didn’t have egos, it probably wouldn’t even occur to us that people might want to read what we write, would it? I’ve been blessed with the ability to put those feelings aside when I’m working, at least to a certain extent. When I’m sitting at the computer, the words appearing on the monitor are my words. The book I’m writing is mine. When it’s published, my name may not be anywhere on it, but that has no bearing on the writing itself. I know it’s good, and I feel a surge of pride when I see the books in the store and know that people are reading them and enjoying them. So when you come right down to it, the answer to the question “Who am I today?” is simple and always the same.

I’m a guy writing a book, spinning a yarn. That’s all I ever wanted to be.

Mr. Monk and the Promo

My short story "Mr. Monk and the Seventeen Steps," an excerpt from my January 2011 novel MR. MONK ON THE ROAD, will be published in the December issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, which will be out in October. The editors of the magazine asked me to make a trailer for the short story. Don't ask me why. I think they were drunk. I must have been, too, because I went ahead and made it.