I've talked about Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian on this blog before, not only for my love of the novel, but because there have been several attempts to adapt it into a film (most recently by James Franco)--something that many in the industry feel is an impossibility to do well, given the novel's immense violent nature. In fact, Ridley Scott, who once tried to get the project off the ground, famously said that "It would have been rated double-X."
A few years ago, William Monahan (who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for The Departed), was given the chance to adapt the novel. I've long wanted to read his draft, and thanks to a nice redditor, was finally able to get my hands on it.
Monahan's first act was written extraordinarily well. I fell into the story as quickly as I did the first time I read the novel. Although no one could match McCarthy's vivid description of mid-1800's Texas, Mexico, and California, Monahan does a serviceable job to say the least, especially with the limited amount of space he had to work with. The Kid's travels down to Texas, the Glanton gang's move into Mexico, the initial battles with the Apaches--it's done well.
Then the Judge is established, and it's clear where Monahan diverges from the book--to the detriment of the story. The master-craftsman McCarthy brilliantly layered the Judge within the multitude of members of the Glanton Gang, The character is slowly established, and it's not until deep into the novel that we realize his true significance, not only to this story, but to the world as a whole.
Monahan was restricted by time, so he hacked out most of the other character's dialogue. He gave the Judge much more prominent of a place in the story--right from his establishment. This ruins the whole character, and frankly, does immense damage to the story as well.
However, with the exception of this unfortunate fact, the Monahan script is relatively strong, specifically in the first act, and first-half of the second. The end of the second act and the entire third act do need some work. But, this is a very workable script, much to my amazement.
Monahan changes the ending (one of the greatest endings in fictional history, in my opinion), and absolutely crashes and burns with it. One has to wonder what the hell he was thinking. It's bizarre that he would even attempt to alter such a brilliant end to an amazing story. But he does. Probably an ego thing, but when you're adapting arguably the world's greatest living writer, don't fuck up the ending. Is that too much to ask?
I think with a bunch of work, which would definitely include the removal of (perhaps) 70% of the Judge's dialogue, and with the beefing up of some of the side characters (such as Toadvine and the Delawares), this script could be made to work to the level of our high expectations attached to McCarthy adaptations. Above all, that ridiculously bad ending would have to be changed back to McCarthy's original intention. (The greatest scene in the whole book is removed for some reason).
So, overall, I was impressed with Monahan's attempt. This is truly a near-impossible project. He took a hard shot, and it ended up being decent. In fact, the first third of the screenplay is pretty incredible. As it stands, however, I'd hate to see this script shot. The magic of who the Judge character is would have to be added back in, and that addition would certainly be made through substantial subtraction.
Crossed another classic off my list recently, as I finished the Douglas Adams book that everyone in the world seems to love. I had on numerous occasions over the years thought about reading it next, and then it just always fell down my reading queue. I think that was a mistake.
I don't want to give away any spoilers because the big revelation in the story was ruined for me by someone when I had mentioned that I had started reading the book. Sucks when that happens.
Hitchhiker is a very well written novel in certain aspects, and not so well written in others. I understand why it hooked so many readers when it did. What it excels at is style. Adams has a very intriguing way of writing his sci-fi story that connects it to the banality of everyday life. This is what's so special about it. He gives what certainly was a unique perspective on the universe, and in a humorous way because we can all relate to it.
Where Hitchhiker runs into trouble is in its characters. Yes, they have funny, fancy names like Zaphod Beeblebrox and Slartibartfast, but they've mere devices to bring us the humor that was in Adam's brain. On their own, they're all pretty flat, obviously geared toward younger readers.
That being said, it was a fun read. I kept thinking to myself, how much would I have enjoyed this if I had read it when I was twelve years old? I'm sure much more than I did at forty-five. Will I continue on with the series? Probably not.
Yes, Hitchhiker deserves its place in literature lore as a unique sci-fi comedy that made us laugh with exceptional style. For that reason, I give it high marks. As a middle-aged man, however, it wasn't exactly my cup of tea.
My Goodreads.com rating: 4/5.
There's a fascinating article at theverge.com entitled "Does 'Unfilmable' Really Mean Anything Anymore?" The author, @TashaRobinson, makes a fascinating claim: Cormac McCarthy fans say that Blood Meridian is unfilmable, but they know their claim is untrue. In fact, they don't want the movie to be made because they're afraid that it'll never live up to the greatness of the book.
Tasha then goes on to state other projects that were once thought to be unfilmable, such as Blue is the Warmest Color and Game of Thrones. She claims that there are very few books which are truly unfilmable today, and goes on to state Lolita and House of Leaves as examples.
This is a fascinating argument to me. There's a lot of truth to it. Tasha states that most of us would be frightened by the casting of The Judge because it would be hard to find someone who would live up to that role. I agree with her that it would be hard but not impossible to cast that iconic character. She implies the tone would be hard to capture and that the visual medium would be different, but not necessarily a letdown. Perhaps that's true as well.
I'm torn on this because I see both sides of the issue.
Yes, we're afraid to have this movie made. In our minds, it is near impossible to be as good as the book. If it's butchered, it will butcher our hearts. We can truly be hurt if it goes South, and we're afraid it will affect the legacy of the book. I'll admit all of that.
However, Tasha gets some things wrong in her assessment. For starters, whereas Lolita is truly unfilmable, it's not because of child pornography laws. A movie adaptation of Lolita wouldn't be hampered severely by lack of explicit sex scenes. Lolita is unfilmable because the beauty of the story is within the wicked thoughts inside of Humbert Humbert's head, and even with v/o, this could never be effectively translated onto the screen (the two adaptations failed horribly at this).
In the same vein, the absolute brutal nature of Blood Meridian wouldn't translate well without unspeakable violence committed on the screen. This would make it nearly impossible to reap significant box office returns. No studio is going to give someone $100M or $150M to make this Western (a genre that almost always does poorly in the international markets) and allow an NC-17 rating. Remember, the remake of Lolita, which was only an R rating, had an enormously difficult time securing a distributor. It was released in the U.S. on Showtime before getting a very limited theatrical release and bombing at the box office everywhere.
So, yes. I do agree with some of the thoughts in this article. We are afraid to see someone try to adapt Blood Meridian. It would just be too hard to pull off. It could never live up to our expectations.
But, part of this is because in the current marketplace for films, realistically speaking, the story is 'unfilmable.' That might change in the future, but as it stands today, I see no way that this could be pulled off to the satisfaction of most Cormac McCarthy fans, fear or no fear.
An old adage regarding writing fiction is that you should 'show' instead of 'tell.' The idea, which Hemingway was a big proponent of, is that if you have characters reveal something through interaction, it's more powerful than simply have a writer reveal it through exposition. Recently, there's been a backlash of sorts against the rule, by writers who think that a mix of showing and telling is better for pacing and dynamic range of action within a narrative. Most fiction teachers stick by the rule, however.
I belong in the latter camp. Exposition is extremely efficient, and many times works well, especially when describing backstories or large amounts of information that needs to be laid down as a foundation for the narrative. Sometimes, however, I find myself leaning too far on the telling/exposition side of things.
I was writing a scene this weekend on the medieval fantasy novel that I'm working on, and established a mercenary group called The Triad, via exposition. It worked well in the course of the scene. But after thinking about it for a day, I decided to add another scene, one that takes place in a tavern, that establishes the group via a conversation that takes place after a very tense conflict between two characters. The result: a very tense added scene and an added character that helps fill out the chapter in a much more intriguing way than what I had. The description is far more veiled as well, as I decided to hold on to a few cards to play later on in the game.
I like to break the rules--a lot. Sometimes too much. Because I favor going against the grain, I have to keep myself in check at times, by thinking to myself: By breaking the rule, am I engaging the reader as much as if I followed the rule?
It's definitely something that rule-breakers like myself need to keep in mind.
I've blogged before about writing retreats. Many authors swear by them, both official retreats (where you meet other writers) and unofficial retreats (where you just get away from your daily life for a few days and focus on getting those next few chapters down).
Last summer I spent three days in a cabin in Big Bear, and I had planned to do a lot of writing, but ended up spending most of the time learning how to use Scrivener. It was time well spent, and I totally fell in love with the idea of getting out of town to focus on the novel. Instead of spending my credit card points on Starbucks, which I've done for years, I've been using them recently to save up Orbitz points, specifically to get out of town three or four times a year, for brief excursions, to get away from the distractions of home.
Having worked a ton of overtime over the holidays (including a twelve hour shift on Christmas and on New Year's Eve), I'm itching to get out of town for a bit. I've been focusing on improving the writing space in my apartment so I'll be more apt to spend a couple of hours a day writing at home every morning. But I think getting out of town for an extended weekend to focus on my fantasy novel would do me some good.
Big Bear is not an option this time of the year because I don't want to put chains on my 300 and drive through the snow. So I'm thinking of going to Pismo Beach or San Luis Obispo for a few days at the end of the month. The only problem is that we're starting our El Niño winter here in Cali, so if I plan it too early, I might be spending time at a beach during a downpour.
I truly want to get to Austin either this October or next to check out the city and the film festival. It's the festival for screenwriters, so it's a must to get to at some point. I think in the early summer I'll take a long weekend and drive back to Big Bear or up to the Sequoias for a quick writing getaway. And hopefully I'll be able to squeeze another one in sometime late in the year.
Maybe in 2017 or 2018, I'll try to get to a writer's conference. For now, I'd like to just keep to my commitment of getting a few writing getaways in a year. It seems to help a lot of writers in their process, I think it'll help me as well.
Keeping the focus is a big part of my 2016.
During my recent trip to MI, I talked about GOT with some friends and got their take on how the series will end. I've talked to many people here in Los Angeles about it, and I think there's a consistency in people's thoughts. It goes something like this:
A mix of characters, including perhaps Daenerys, Tyrion, Arya, Bran, and maybe Jon Snow somehow, will band together and defeat the White Walkers.
I don't buy this ending. Not with George RR Martin writing this thing.
This is how I think that RR will end, and must end, his fantasy tale:
First of all, I think people are confused by a major piece of the puzzle: who is the protagonist and the antagonist of this story? Once you understand who they really are, the story falls into place.
Is the protagonist Daenerys? No. Tyrion? No. Any of the kings, or those vying for the Iron Throne? No.
The protagonist is Jon Snow.
So what is his goal? Is it to take the Iron Throne? No. Save his family? No. Find love? No.
His goal is to free the people north of the Wall. That is the big revelation. The Wall was built not just to keep the White Walkers away, but to keep unwanted people out of the fertile lands of Westeros. Westeros cannot be fully united (Jon finds out the hard way) until that wall comes down.
So who is the antagonist? It's virtually every person of power who lives south of the Wall who has been partaking in this ridiculous and mindless Game of Thrones, which has lasted centuries. This is why Jon Snow had to die and will have to be reanimated as part of the White Walker army—it's how he gets out of his Night Watch oath so that he can join the side he has to, in order to become the true savior of Westeros.
The biggest speculation that people like to talk about is in regards to who birthed Jon Snow. Some people claim that Ned isn't even his father. They might be right, but I think that Ned impregnated someone north of the Wall. Jon Snow himself, and in particular, his life, is literally the Song of Ice and Fire.
So how does it all end? Here we go:
Jon Snow becomes part of the White Walker army, defeats its King, and leads the army, along with the Free Folk, down into the warmer lands of Westeros, to battle the royal families. Daenerys, the Lannisters, the Starks, the Baratheons, the Greyjoys, even the dragons—all dead at the end (almost all of them).
In the end, we see Jon Snow destroy the Iron Throne (my guess is with ice and sword), thereby liberating the continent, and we see the free people burn down The Wall. Jon Snow and the White Walkers return to the North (Jon had to sacrifice his former life for this victory), while the people of Westeros stay, free at last, in the South, and begin anew. (Ah, but there's one more scene).
Who lives? Probably Tyrion. Maybe Sansa, but I'd guess not. Brienne of Tarth? I'm guessing she goes down while taking the side of the North. Bran? Definitely lives. He'll play a large role in the new free land of Westeros. Ayra Stark? Yes, but will ultimately choose a life of her dangerous desire in the Free Cities (though she will probably play an important part in the downfall of the royal families).
The last scene has to be a reveal of Varys, seeing and acknowledging that this whole tale was a plan, conceived and set forth by him—and that it worked to perfection. In the closing moments, he reveals that he now has to see what he can do with Essos (which may be the complete opposite—he might try to put one person in power, just to see if he can manipulate another whole continent). Varys's clever mind wasn't blinded by rage, desire, and the need for revenge. Tyrion's clever mind, of course, was sidetracked.
RR cleverly tricked us. He led us to believe that the Ice was the White Walkers and not the people of the North. He led us to believe that the Fire was the dragons, and not the evil royal families that fought endlessly for a ridiculous throne and who built a Wall to keep out people who they thought were inferior to them. RR told us that winter is coming, but led us to believe that it was an actual weather event and not the rise of the Northern people. He even killed his protagonist. That takes guts. But the biggest secret that was in front of our faces the whole time, is that the Ice and the Fire together, by birth, is Jon Snow. Cool, huh?
I don't know how HBO will end the series. Since the last book won't be written, they might go for an uplifting ending. I hope not. Benioff and Weiss are talented, and obviously not afraid at this point to chart their own course. But, they have bosses to answer to. That's what worries me.
RR though has a spine of steel. He won't be afraid to kill off much of the crooked world and many of the people who tried to better it. We learned that with the beheading of Ned Stark, early on.
If I'm wrong, I hope I'm wrong because the ending is superior to the one that I think it is. But I don't believe that is the case. I might not have gotten everything right, but I think I've got the correct base path to home plate.
In case you haven't figured it out, George RR Martin is a genius. Thank God we're alive in the era where we get to read his books. This tale was not easy to think out. I'm convinced he knew the ending at the start, and deceived us like only a rockstar author could. Great job, RR, and thanks for taking the time to create this wonderful tale.
So now, do you finally understand why Jon's last name is Snow?
Part of me wishes that before a movie started in a theatre, that a slide would go up that would state the film's budget, and the number of days of principal photography. It would help people appreciate the true differences between films. That doesn't happen though, so people judge each film as if they're made with the same resources. To some degree, that's unfair.
Last night, I went to see The Visit, in one of those new, fancy theaters, with the reserved, reclining seats (in Marquette, MI, of all places). Going into it, I knew that M. Night Shyamalan shot this film for only $5M. I also knew that it was a very specific genre film: a house-horror tale, which is very common: due to a limited budget, shoot 85% of a horror film in or around a house. My next film will be similar, if I can get it off the ground. Because of the limiting factors, these films are extremely difficult to pull off.
If you compare The Visit to The Sixth Sense (which was made for $40M in 1999 dollars) or Signs (which was made for $72M in 2002 dollars), you're probably going to come away a bit disappointed. But, if you compare The Visit to $5M movies (in current dollars), you'll get a more realistic expectation of how good this movie is.
The Visit does a good job of mixing horror and comedy in a limited space. The young actors (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) are superbly cast. There's an inherent danger in building a story around young people, because it's much harder to find young people who can act well (given their limited experience) than older people who can. The film also does a fine job with pacing, building up the intrigue and suspense as the story unfolds.
Is The Visit a masterpiece? No. Is it a pretty darn good movie done on a low budget that could possible signal a rebound of M Night's career? Absolutely.
I didn't hate many of the later M Night films as much as other people did. Aside from the ending, I liked The Village. Besides M Night's performance, I liked Lady in the Water. And, despite its problems, I liked The Happening a lot more than most people did. (I didn't see The Last Airbender or After Earth, and have no intention of ever seeing them.)
What I think The Visit does, is give M Night a couple more chances. That's a good thing. He tends to blow endings. He tends to ruin movies by casting himself in them. Yet, when he's connecting, he's still one of the best writer/directors around. He has a very distinct voice as an artist, and I want him to have a lot more opportunities to make films. He's only 45 years old, after all.
I'd recommend going to see The Visit, or at least streaming it when it comes to Netflix. Keep in mind that the whole film cost $5M, or 1/8th the budget of a horror movie like Final Destination 5. Hopefully, M Night gets four times the $5M budget for his next one.
A couple of days ago I flew from LAX to MQT to start two weeks of vacation in the rural Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where I was born. While at airports and in planes, I like to observe human behavior for future character creation tips. I ran into a couple of dandies on this trip.
First off, I really like small behaviors that can go a long way in defining who a person is, especially non-verbal behaviors. The more we learn who the characters are, the more satisfying the narrative is going to be.
Second off, there're two types of assholes. Asshole Type 1 is a person who realizes they're an asshole, and just doesn't care. Asshole Type 2 is a person who just doesn't realize that they're being an asshole. Both have intriguing aspects. I think each has their benefit to a story given the narrative situation.
When I entered the Delta terminal at LAX, it was crowded as all can be, as it always is. Since the check-in and security process went amazingly quick, I had a couple of hours to kill. I thought I'd sit down and have breakfast. However, every seat at every bar and restaurant was taken (the terminal is rather small for such a huge airport).
So I decided to grab a cup of coffee and to sit down and write for a bit. They now have a/c posts (of course not enough of them) where multiple people can plug in multiple devices. Not wanting to kill any battery juice before I took off, I searched for a seat near a post. There was not one.
What got me though, is that many of the people sitting next to the posts, had nothing plugged in. There were ample seats away from the posts, yet they chose to sit near the posts, seemingly to a/c block those who needed a charge. I'm assuming that the majority of these people were Type 2 assholes, not aware of what they were doing. Instantly, I can read a ton into what kind of people (or characters) they are.
I board the plane. I sit down and wait through a minor mechanical problem. The plane takes off. Instantly, the lady in front of me reclines her chair all the way back. For the duration of the flight, she's the only person that I can see that has her chair reclined back, and it's not to take a nap. She just wanted more room—at my expense. There went four hours of potential writing time because I no longer had enough room to open a laptop.
I'm guessing she's a Type 1 asshole. She's a person that just doesn't give a fuck. She'll gladly take some of what is mine in order to have more for herself.
On the second leg of the flight, I board a much smaller plane, and have a window seat. Same exact thing happens. The only person on the entire plane to lean their seat back is sitting in front of me. On this plane, however, the amount of legroom is unconscionably small. The seat drops back into my face. It was the most claustrophobic experience I've had since being shoved into an MRI tube.
I loudly discuss with the person next to me how little space I have. The man in front of me doesn't care. He's clearly a Type 1 asshole. What a villain. I plotted my revenge, but the flight was so short I didn't have ample time to carry it out.
Next time you want to efficiently establish that someone is a Type 1 asshole, have them get on a small plane and drop the seat back into the lap of the person who's sitting behind them. Small behaviors like this speak volumes about who the person is—most likely in many facets of their life.
Here's a picture of me trying to read on that second flight, with my book above the headrest of the asshole who sat in front of me, because that was the only space available:
I've been a lifelong gamer, but have never played a Metal Gear Solid game. It's more of a Playstation thing, and I'm more of an Xbox gamer. But, the new MGS game, The Phantom Pain, was released earlier this week to both platforms, and to unbelievably favorable reviews.
Metacritic names 11 perfect 100 reviews for the game, including Gamespot and IGN. This is an incredibly rare feat. Since I'm knee deep in Witcher 3, and since Fallout 4 is coming out in November (both are games that will take hundreds of hours to play), I wasn't planning on buying a game in between the two, especially not another sandbox game. But the reviews had me intrigued, so I plopped down my $65 and downloaded it.
I've gotten just past the prologue (which takes a bit over an hour to play through), and am starting Act 1, which takes place in Afghanistan. I still don't know much about the game, but here are my very early thoughts:
Immediately, you realize this is the best looking console game by far. The visuals put Grand Theft Auto 5 to shame. This is clearly the first real next-gen title. I honestly didn't think I'd see something this amazing on the underpowered Xbox One.
You then quickly realize how immensely immersive this game is. The first hour of game play (which takes place in a hospital) is one of the most immersive game experiences I've ever had. It's amazing.
It doesn't take long to then realize that the cinematography of this game is brilliant. Without the restrictions of cost and physical camera movement, video games are literally pushing cinematography into new realms that are nearly impossible in the real world. This game has some of the most beautiful camera movement I've ever experienced. It's utterly fascinating, and I'm only a little over an hour into it.
I knew nothing about the Metal Gear Solid story line. Absolutely nothing. I just figured it was a run-of-the-mill stealth shooter, light on narrative. Apparently, I was wrong. I'm already hooked strongly into the story. The prologue does a wonderful job of setting up the game in a very mysterious and intriguing way.
So, I don't want to read too much into a bit over an hour of game play. I'll write a more extensive review when I'm 20 hours in, or so. That being said, I'm impressed as hell so far, and I'm extremely excited to see the games coming down the pipe now that the next-gen consoles are finally coming into their own.
One of the most common pieces of advice handed to new authors is to write only for oneself. If you don't, you'll inevitably fail. The thought is that one writes his or her best work if that person is writing what they want to write.
However, in the screenwriting world, the common advice is to do exactly the opposite. Because studios look for specific product, there's an endless list of rules that one is suggested to follow. You don't want to put yourself at a disadvantage since the odds of selling a screenplay are so long to begin with.
I've started writing a medieval high fantasy novel, and even though I'm about 20% into the first draft, I'm still not sure who I'm writing it for. Here are the options that I'm considering:
1. Kids-Teens - Harry Potter level. Nothing too violent. Highly sanitized language.
2. Teens-Mid 20's - Dragon Lance Chronicles level. Fantasy violence. Minor language.
3. Adult - Game of Thrones level. Hardcore violence and language.
4. Extreme Adult - Cormac McCarthy level. Extreme violence and situations.
Each group has its pros and cons. This first two are very popular right now when it comes to fantasy fiction and are probably the safest path to financial success. They play well in Middle America. They're definitely the most likely type of novel to make it to the big screen.
The third group, because of George R.R. Martin, has recently gained popularity, lends itself to cable channel adaptations, and plays well on the American coasts.
The fourth group is by far the most limiting. Yet it's the group that I love the most. I can't imagine most people being able to stomach Blood Meridian. But for those that do, there's nothing like it. Now, that novel will probably never be adapted to film or TV, because the odds of it gaining a large enough audience to be profitable are small—very small. Cormac, perhaps the most talented living author, will never sell the amount of books that J.K. Rowling sold, and hence, will never become a billionaire. But the amount of pure joy that I gain from reading his work is so far above that of stuff written for wider audiences.
I'd have much more fun writing a fantasy novel without limits. I'd have more fun writing one with some limits than one with many limits. However, at this early stage in my writing career, I have to consider which path is the most intelligent for my future career.
So which audience will I write for? That is the question that will be on my mind for the next few weeks as I continue with my first draft. Since I'm planning on making this story a trilogy, it's a pretty big decision. Unfortunately, I think too many of us writers are keeping agents and publishers too close in our minds while putting pen to paper.
Below is a fascinating video of a presentation by Dr. Matthew McCaffrey (who is a Lecturer in Enterprise at The University of Manchester) on the economics of Game of Thrones. If you're a fan of the show, I recommend watching it.
In the video, Dr. McCaffrey talks about economic systems of the different factions in Game of Thrones and how they play into the storyline. For instance, The Dothraki earn their wealth almost exclusively through plundering. This puts a stiff upper limit on the amount of wealth they can collect, whereas the Lannisters received their wealth through gold mining, which allowed them to fight massive wars, until the gold ran out. The Iron Bank has enormous clout, and doesn't need to have huge armies because it has lent out money to so many factions, they can quickly call in favors.
This goes to the heart of why George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones stories resonate so strongly with avid readers and viewers. Although they happen in a medieval fantasy realm, they come off as real. There's many multiple connections to our world and time that make it easy for us to relate with the characters and plot lines. These connections are done well in a micro and a macro sense, and they connect us to this wonderful world of Westeros in a way that fantasy fiction is rarely able to achieve.
In the last two weeks, I've watched 45 episodes of 'Game of Thrones.' I've also started reading the first book. When I'm done with Season 5, I'll write a post stating what I like about the show. For now, I'd like to share my favorite scene. Playback is disabled for the embed, but click HERE to watch it, and then continue reading this post. It is the scene where King Joffrey, while sitting on the Iron Throne, asks his grandfather for a report on the meetings of the small council.
What a terrifically written and acted scene. In seven words of dialogue: "We could arrange to have you carried," Tywin Lannister establishes that he is in fact in charge King's Landing (if not all of Westeros), not his grandson, King Joffrey.
This couldn't have been more effectively stated with epic battle scenes or grotesque power plays that lasted episodes. It is powerful and concise, and I can't think of a better way to establish this most important piece of information.
In case you don't know, George R.R. Martin is a brilliant writer. It's not always about the grandness of the scene. Many of the best moments in the history of narrative have been delivered by a simple line of dialogue or description. It's coming up with those rare iconic lines of tremendous meaning that is part of what separates the good writers from the great.
I finally released my debut novel, The Wicked Trees, (the Kindle version) on Amazon. It was a long journey to get it finished. You can buy it HERE.
As part of the MFA program that I went through, I had to write the first draft of a thesis novel. I chose to do a coming-of-age ghost story that happened in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan because I felt that writing something familiar would be the way to go with my first novel. I've always been a big fan of theme, and having a teenage adventure story happening in the deep woods naturally lent itself to bigger life issues.
Within the story, the Yooper kids meet a downstate girl and take her on an adventure in search of a rumored haunted mansion deep in the woods. Since there's such a stark difference between the downstate city culture and rural upstate culture in Michigan, it naturally lent itself to a lot of culture-clash drama.
I've been working on rewriting the novel on-and-off for a couple years, and finally finished it a few months ago. After many re-reads and going through the torturous process of formatting it, it was a relief to finally release it. The paperback version will come out soon.
I think that people looking for a good summer adventure read will enjoy it. It certainly was fun writing it. I hope it's the first of many novels to come.
I've spent the last couple of days in Las Vegas where I came to visit family who was in town. I haven't been to Vegas in 15 years, so it's definitely been a sight to see.
I'm not a gambler. Having taken statistics, I don't think I'll ever become one. The longer you play, the more certain you are to come out on the losing end. Everybody loses in the long run—every single person. I'm also not clubber, so there's no real reason for me to be in Vegas, except for one fact—I'm a writer.
When you walk through the newer mega-casinos, you see thousands of ordinary people walking past super high-end shops: Tiffany's, Harry Winston, Gucci, etc. There's rarely anyone in the shops except for salespeople who inch around, adjusting the displays, or who simply stand still, watching the crowds meander by. It's like they're animals in a zoo cage.
You then walk to the enormous casino floors, where thousands more (many in shorts and t-shirts) sit within the expanse of machines with fancy lights, hoping they'll be the first person in history to come out ahead, even though the billion-dollar buildings around them were built on the expectation that there will never be any true winners.
This brings me to my point. Vegas might make a fine setting for heist stories or drunken jock tales, but this isn't what's of particular interest to me. What makes Las Vegas so fascinating is the juxtapositions you see everywhere you turn.
There's one word that comes to mind while seeing all the grandeur that's been built up on the Vegas Strip the last few decades: faux. Nothing comes across as authentic. It's a gargantuan, pretty trap, designed to take massive amounts of money (hours worked) away from everyone from the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich. It does so exceptionally well. This is a setting that's ripe for a deep character-driven narrative, one where the protagonist's arc ends in his realization of what Vegas really is. That protagonist may or may not be a gambler. Maybe it's someone who runs a casino. Maybe it's a smaller player. The appeal comes from the inherent contrast between the gamblers and their setting, and the arcing of this protagonist.
This would be hard to do in movie form as it would not show the city in the brightest light. A novel might be the most practical narrative form, but would lack the spectacular imagery that bombards the eye here. And I'm sure it's been done, but I don't know if it's been done well, at least not recently. These are the thoughts that have been popping through my mind as I've been strolling around this massive playground.
So while almost everyone comes to Las Vegas with hopes of having fun and hitting it big, the writer comes here and analyzes all the fish hitting the bait. It would almost be impossible not to. This setting is just too fascinating to not think about its narrative potential.
When you make a movie, like I did, and you pitch it to distributors, the first question they all ask is: "Who's in it?" The answer to that question is more important to distributors than genre. It's even more important than the story. In fact, distribution deals can be made before a single frame is shot, largely based on who is in the movie.
It's an interesting phenomenon. People tend to go to movies who have actors in them that they recognize. The level of recognition is more important than the ability to act. It's very odd to me. People don't buy books because there's a recognizable character on the cover. They don't buy video games because the main character is recognizable. But when it comes to movies, we better know the name of the main actors involved.
Whenever I watch a movie, it takes me awhile to fall into the characters—but it takes longer if I recognize the main actors. It's more difficult to dissolve into the story. If I see Leo Dicaprio on the screen, it takes my brain time to transition from: "Hey, that's Leo," to "That's an interesting character." Now, Leo is a terrific actor, so it doesn't take my brain long to get through that process. If it's a marginal actor, oftentimes I never buy them as the character.
As the marketing budgets of films have grown (oftentimes larger than the production budgets), having a marketable actor has become even more important. This is not necessarily a good thing in my book. There are thousands upon thousands of terrific actors out there that never get their big break because being recognizable is more important than having acting talent.
There is one genre of film, however, that isn't built upon who is starring in the film: horror. The crux of any horror marketing campaign is story concept and shots that are truly frightening. The film itself is actually judged and marketed on what it set out to do: scare the audience. If it can't do that, regardless of who is starring in it, it will be difficult to sell. If it can, the film will essentially sell itself. That's one of the reasons why the next film I'm looking to develop is a horror flick. They can be shot relatively cheaply, and you don't have to attach an expensive name to it. Not going the horror route was probably my biggest mistake with my first film.
I watched a movie yesterday (to remain nameless) that had a stellar A-list cast, was based off a terrific concept, and yet still fell flat as hell. It was a box office bomb. The problem was that the script was either under or overworked, and that the direction was less than stellar.
This brings me to my point. The powers that be at studios focus heavily on what they feel comfortable with, which is everything post-story creation. Looking at the general quality of movies released, it's obvious that the main decision makers aren't great storytellers and can't tell what narratives are going to resonate with audiences and which ones won't. What they can do (if they don't spend too much time hacking apart the script) is hire a hot actor.
Business + Art is always tricky. With the model that exists, it's amazing that any great movies get made at all. Not surprisingly, many of the best films released today are either based off of successful novels or are made by directors who have complete artistic control. They still take recognizability into consideration, but they're savvy enough to understand story at a deeper level than most studio or distribution execs. Typical, directors who have complete control, like Christopher Nolan, even take the time to hire actors who can act.
In the beginning, narratives were told by spoken word. Then man created books, film, and eventually television. Each storytelling approach has its strengths and weaknesses. Obviously, Casablanca wouldn't work as well as a novel, and Lolita didn't work as well as a film (either time).
Recently, a new way of telling stories has developed, and has given rise to some fantastic narratives. I'm talking about video games.
I grew up on video games. I had an Atari, a Commodore 64, numerous PC's (starting with an 8088), and all three Xbox's. At first, video games focused on strategy and skill. By the '90s many had developed wonderful characters. And in the 2000's, several had very engaging full-fledged narratives.
There's a major choice involved in the design of the games that I believe has a substantial impact on narrative-heavy games: that of perspective. First-person games are much more immersive than third-person games.
I've played third-person games that have had terrific stories that I've loved. Read Dead Redemption comes to mind. But I have to wonder how much better the story would have felt if it had been first-person in nature.
In the last couple of weeks I've starting playing two games that are third-person: The Witcher 3 & Lifeless Planet. The first has had terrific reviews. The second has reviews that are okay. I'm enjoying both. Lifeless Planet is mostly a puzzle game, but with a clever story to it. I'm not minding that one being third-person. But The Witcher 3 is a vast game that is character and story heavy, and although I'm having fun with it, I'm sure I'd love it more with a more intimate point-of-view.
There have been many terrific first-person games that have had engaging narratives. Most notably the Elder Scrolls series. But my favorite of all time were the Bioshock games. When Bioshock first came out, it blew me away. I had never had an experience that was so movie-like in nature. The writing was excellent. The characters were fantastic. I thought it to be the pinnacle of game making, until the third game in the trilogy came out: Bioshock Infinite.
Bioshock Infinite is the story of a man who is sent to a city in the sky to rescue a girl. It moved me as much as any movie I had ever seen. Its characters weren't just well-developed, they were world-class. I played the entire game through twice, and the last fifteen minutes through at least half a dozen times. It was that great.
For some reason, video games don't bring you in as well as they could in third-person. Movies and tv series are almost always shot in third-person though, and that tends to work great, I think in part due to composition and editing.
This brings me to two points:
(1) I wish that well-written narrative-style games at least gave the player the option of switching between perspectives.
(2) I think first-person perspective in film and television has been underutilized. In the right narrative, the results could be amazing.
This last week I took a mini-vacation up to Big Bear which is a little resort community nestled in the mountains a couple hours outside of Los Angeles. My plan was to get out of the city and do some writing. I rented a cozy cabin for three nights and worked away in front of a roaring fire while it snowed outside (yes, there are places in SoCal that get snow this late in the year).
I went through my proofreader's suggested changes (she's great by the way, I highly suggest hiring her: @ChristieStratos) and then started the process of getting my novel from MS Word into Scrivener. I did enough research to realize that there's a steep learning curve with Scrivener, but since so many novelists are switching to the program I thought I'd give it a shot. It took me a bit, but I did get the novel into the program and was able to send it to my Kindle, which I'll use for one final test read.
Two things of note:
1. Getting out of town, just for a few days, helped me focus on the work at hand. Next time, hopefully, I'll be doing more writing and less figuring out of how to use a non-user-friendly program. But the benefit of getting away from the city was clear. I'm hoping to do many more of these mini-writing vacations in the near future because I believe the productivity boost will last far beyond the time off.
2. I really dig Scrivener so far. I'll try writing my next novel in to see if the pretty extensive organization features help out. It appears that the Mac version has many more features than the PC version. I'm not a Mac guy by any stretch of the imagination. The last time I owned one was when I edited my movie years ago. They just seem too expensive and limiting for my tastes. But it's something that I'd at least consider, even knowing that I'd probably never use it beyond novel writing.
Working to get this whole first novel out has been a big learning experience. I'm hoping with the next one I'll have to spend less time with the technical aspects. Can't wait to get going on that one.
"The Wicked Trees," at least in Kindle format, should be out in a matter of a couple weeks or so. The paperback will be released shortly thereafter.
Having handed my novel to the final proofreader a week ago, I told myself that I'd take severals days off from writing to allow my creative brain to rest, catch up on some reading, watch a few TV shows, maybe watch a movie or two. The next day I started fine-tuning a screenplay that I had written for one of my MFA classes.
On a typical workday, in true Los Angeles form, I wake up at 5:10am. I start the commute at 6am, start working at 7am. I leave work around 3:30pm and get back home around 5pm. If I choose to exercise, I take an hour to do that, shower, cook dinner, and then I have about an hour a night to write before I'm checked out. It's such a valuable, small piece of time, that I feel guilty if I don't use it towards what I love to do most. On my days off I usually write for a few hours, but don't go overboard with it.
I'll be releasing my novel soon, and am excited to do so, not only to get it out to the world, but so I can move on to writing other projects (including novel #2). A short-term goal of mine is to adjust my work situation so that I can get rid of my commute and add a couple more hours to my day. I think if that happens, I'll feel a bit less guilty about taking off a day during the week to do stuff that's not writing-related. I think finally releasing the novel will help with that too.
I'm sure for most fiction writers, characters dance around one's mind throughout most of the day (as is necessary to work out who they are and what their conflict is). At some point you need to write stuff down that you've been working on for fear of forgetting it. When you have a non-writing related day job, getting something down on paper every day after work becomes all the more important. It's almost painful not to write.
Of course the dream of dreams is to one day make a living solely of one's writing. At that point the guilt of not writing every day has to weaken because the precious hours of being able to write have become more available. For all of the wonderful things that Los Angeles offers writers (could there be any place on Earth that give writers more to pull from?), the daily time lost to the inherent commute is definitely a downside. It significantly takes away from what you enjoy the most.
I know some writers worry about making a daily word count. 500 words, 1,000, 3,000. None of that bothers me. If I rewrite even a small scene for the better, I've felt like I've accomplished something. My daily goal is done.
Stephen King, who writes every single day, including holidays, famously said: "Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink."
I think King summed it up pretty good. As we writers near completion of a project, we fantasize about how great it will be to take off a bit of time after that project is finished. Then we try to take a break, but it rarely works. For some reason, we continue to create, because we must.
J.D. Salinger spent much of his life in a small shed on his New Hampshire property, pounding away on a keyboard, creating novels that he knew would never be published in his lifetime. That is what fulfilled his life. At times, I can understand why.
The revelation I had as a fiction writer is that at the core of almost all great stories are great characters. That's not to say that everything else isn't important. It's just that everything else is less important. Characters trump everything.
They're so key, in fact, that it often makes sense to start a narrative by developing characters first, before throwing them together into various spaces to see what happens.
The most prominent character tends to be the protagonist, who through the course of the narrative chases a goal and changes along the way via a character arc. The antagonist attempts to prevent the protagonist from reaching his goal, and the conflict between the two creates the core of the drama in the narrative.
The conflict is what keeps the reader or audience interested. Which brings us to our lesson: the more developed and interesting the characters are, the more interested the audience will be in their conflict.
An often stated example of this is the comparison of the Star Wars trilogies. When Episode IV: A New Hope was released in 1977, it captured world-wide audiences arguably unlike any movie before it. Talk to any person who saw Episode IV, and they'll be able to give rather extensive descriptions of who Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, C3PO, R2D2, Ben Kenobi, and Darth Vader are. The characters are developed to the point where they catch and keep our interest. Ask the same person to describe characters from the Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. Qui-Gon Jinn? Padmé Amidala? Jar Jar Binks? It's hard to care when those characters are engaged in conflict because we don't know who they are. The characters in Episode 1 are flat. In fact they're so poorly developed, it's hard to even remember their names. The major difference between the Star Wars trilogies, why one works so well compared to the other, is that one has highly developed characters and one does not.
With few exceptions, the best narratives of all time have some of the best-written characters of all time. Casablanca is not primarily a story about a town on the Moroccan Coast in the midst of WW2. More significantly, it's a story about a nightclub owner named Rick, a hardened man with a strong shield over what we know is a good heart. What made him that way? Can he find his former self? The amazingly well-developed, written, and acted character Rick, and the conclusion of his character arc, is what makes the last scene in Casablanca one of the most iconic of all time.
The Godfather isn't so much a mob movie, as it is a story about Michael Corleone and his incredibly fascinating arc as he takes over the family business. Citizen Kane is the story of Charles Foster Kane and his rise to power—but most importantly about what caused his soul to strive for that power. Lolita, one of the most beautifully written novels of all time, isn't so much about a man's obsession with a nymphette, as it is about that man, Humbert Humbert, and his intriguingly strange mind. Take Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With Dragon Tattoo and drop her into any story, and that story instantly becomes more interesting.
All the other dimensions of writing are important as well. What I've learned as a writer though, is that the foundation of any great narrative isn't story structure, or even conflict. It's well-written characters. That is what we as writers should be primarily focused on as we develop our narratives.
I've been talking to a close friend lately about what makes a quality story. It's made me reflect on how I've progressed as a writer. When I started writing screenplays (many years ago), I made the same mistake that traps many unseasoned writers: I focused primarily on story structure.
I did so for good reason: that's what the screenwriting books told me to do. There's been a long-time emphasis on structure, and in particular on a very tightly structured three-act paradigm. This concept was voraciously sold for years by the late Syd Field. It has its merits and is actually a pretty important thing for young writers to learn.
The problem is that the various forms of the three-act structure have essentially become screenwriting rules in Hollywood—rules that are assumed to never be broken. When you show a script to many industry people, they will point to what they deem as structural discrepancies (i.e. this plot point doesn't happen on the page it should) as if that's what is of prime importance.
There are a couple reasons why this overemphasis on structure has become so ingrained in our screenwriting culture. Movies are expensive to produce, and therefore studios want to maximize each film's potential audience. A bad risk or two could sink a studio. Readers are taught to look for what has worked in the past—for broad audiences. Structured paradigms fit this bill.
Added to this is the shine of the entertainment industry that lures many people to it, many who dream big, of becoming successful screenwriters and of receiving all the glory that naturally comes with. The reality, however, is that most people who dive into the screenwriting realm aren't natural writers, never will be, and are too easily drawn to whatever technical advice that they feel will improve their craft.
The quantification of the art of screenwriting does help produce the dozens of mediocre movies we see every year. It helps the large studio system stay solvent. It isn't the cornerstone of quality writing, however—not by a long shot.
I’m glad I wrote so many sub-par scripts while having the wrong blinders on, because you have to get so many hours in (regardless of your craft) to improve to the point where you're actually pretty good at what you're doing. It wasn't until I got a good chunk of the way through the MFA in Creative Writing program that I attended until the light bulb went off in my head.
Sure, structure is important. It's not what separates the best written narratives from the rest, however. That comes down to something else. My focus was misplaced. It should have been on what matters most: the characters.
Jon David Rosten, author of
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