Words of Wisdom: ‘Twas Ever Thus

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Jul 302014

“Why shouldn’t we be able to do as well as any Hollywood hack?”

“Because what the producers want is an original but familiar, unusual but popular, moralistic but sexy, true but improbable, tender but violent, slick but highbrow masterpiece. When they have that, then they can ‘work on it’ and make it ‘commercial,’ to justify their high salaries.”

– A 1945 conversation between Bertolt Brecht and Salka Viertel, recounted in Viertel’s 1969 memoir The Kindness of Strangers

 Posted by at 5:55 pm

Words of Wisdom: Preston Sturges

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Jul 282014

A man in possession of many bolts of woolen cloth, quantities of lining and interlining, buttons, thread, needles, and padding is not, of necessity, a tailor. A man in possession of many characters, many situations, many startling and dramatic events, and many gags is not, of necessity, a storyteller.

The crafts of the tailor and the storyteller are not dissimilar, however, for out of a mass of unrelated material, each contrives to fashion a complete and well-balanced unit. Many stories are too heavy in the shoulders and too short in the pants, with the design of the material running upside-down …

The customer walking home in his new suit is razzed by small boys as he passes. I thought I knew how to put a story together, but it might turn out I was meant to be a tailor.

From Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges (1990). Sturges’ first hit play Strictly Dishonorable is back on stage in New York City, revived by the Attic Theater.

 Posted by at 7:33 pm
Apr 022014

by Holly West

*More or less

This week, I’m finishing up copyedits on my second book, Mistress of Lies. It’s the last round of edits, which means that once it’s turned in, it’s pretty much done.

To be honest, it’s a little hard for me to fathom. For years and years and years I dreamed of writing just one novel. That was my holy grail, the pinnacle of personal success that I thought I’d never reach. That being the case, writing two books was out of the question.

And yet, here I am.

Book one, Mistress of Fortune, took me about two and a half years to write and polish (much longer to actually publish, but that’s another story altogether). Book two, my first under contract, took me about six months to write a draft suitable to turn in to my editor, meaning it was polished, but not all that shiny. Writing to a fixed deadline obviously required a lot more discipline than I’d displayed during the writing of the first book. Even so, I dawdled and complained, and generally waited until the very last minute to get that thing done.

It’s how I roll.

Initially, I’d intended to write book two “by the seat of my pants.” I’d written Mistress of Fortune with a loose outline but I didn’t write the scenes in order. I jumped around depending on what I felt like writing on a given day. This method worked, but revising it was a nightmare; going into book two I thought that writing it in order, as it came to me, would be a better strategy.

Not so much. Three months before my deadline, I had about 20,000 words written but felt directionless, unmotivated, and miserable. I had no idea how that damned book was going to get finished, let alone be even remotely readable.

I had 90 days to finish the novel. Here’s what I did:

Days 1-30: I’d sold the second book based on a synopsis and sample chapters, but the synopsis had been short and was an insufficient road map for going forward. Plus, I’d changed some major elements in the story with my editor’s blessing. Hence, I gave myself nearly a full month to write a detailed outline and synopsis.

Coming from a screenwriting background, the three-act format has always appealed to me and I stuck to it faithfully in writing the outline. I used the outline to write the synopsis (about twenty pages), then had my husband read it to make sure it made sense. He provided some useful feedback and I revised the story accordingly. In this way, the developmental part of editing the manuscript was, to a large extent, taken care of in the synopsis phase.

Days 30-60: I wrote the first draft. It was weak in some places, but I had a finished novel, gosh darn it, and that was all that mattered.

Days 60 – 90: My husband and I both read through the manuscript. I revised it based on both of our notes, taking care to polish it as much as I could along the way. I reserved the last four days to do a complete read-through myself, knowing there was no time to make any big developmental changes. It was mostly just copyediting at that point.

Day 90 (Deadline Day): I sent it to my editor and crossed my fingers.

Though I knew it still needed work, I was happy with the finished novel. The story is much more personal for my protagonist and in my opinion, has more heart as a result. And surprisingly, the first edit letter I received for this manuscript was pretty painless–there were some character motivations that needed strengthening and an important, but not too difficult, story element that needed changing, but that was pretty much it. Further edits have gone just as smoothly.

I kinda-sorta feel like I’ve hit upon my method when it comes to writing a book, though it might only work for genre novels. Do I think I can write my next novel in 90 days? Perhaps not. But having a process that works for me gives me confidence that I can do this again and again.

For those of you who’ve written more than one novel, how did your process change with subsequent books?

Aug 292012

by Gar Anthony Haywood

As the father of four children (two sets — one now in their twenties and the other in their pre-teens), I’ve seen a lot of so-called “family-friendly” movies.  Some of them good and some of them bad.  A few have been terrific and quite a number have been just dreadful.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “kids'” movie as jaw-droppingly awful as THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN.

Now usually, when an adult says something this harsh about a kids’ movie, it’s because the critic in question is just a curmudgeon.  A grown-up who’s lost touch with his inner-child and can no longer be moved emotionally by films filled with pathos and/or whimsy.   I know people like this myself and I’ve always felt sorry for them.  What does it say about one’s adult existence if you lack the capacity to feel something — really feel something — when E.T. boards that spaceship and leaves poor Elliott behind?

But in this case, I promise you, my unequivocal statement that THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN is one of the worst kids’ movies ever made, is not coming from a heartless grinch with no appreciation for flights of fancy.  In fact, it is coming from someone who had hoped it would be a fine entertainment.  My family and I saw the film three weeks ago at the behest of my son Jackson, whose birthday we were celebrating, so I truly wanted to enjoy it.

But I just couldn’t.

By now, you have to be wondering just what THE ODD LIFE could have possibly done so poorly as to earn such enmity from a big, old softie like me — someone who cries like a baby every time the credits roll at the end of BIG FISH?

The answer’s quite simple: There is not a single credible moment in the film.  Not one.  No character ever — ever — behaves the way a real person would.

I swear to you, this is no exaggeration.

“But, wait a minute, Gar,” I can hear you saying.  “This is a movie about a little boy who sprouts from a garden in answer to a childless couple’s prayers.  It’s a fantasy, and fantasies aren’t supposed to be credible!”

To which I reply, “Nonsense.”

The best fantasies are those that are well grounded in reality.  The magic in them works because, in the world in which they operate, characters abide by the very same rules of logic we do.  Fantastic things may happen to them, things that are realistically impossible, but their reactions to these things ring true.  Credibility is the lifeline a filmgoer — or reader — can cling to when everything else in a story is threatening to throw them overboard.  (Or worse, insisting that they jump.)

THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN literally defies you at every turn to believe what its characters are doing.  When all common sense suggests they turn right, they turn left instead.

You want examples?  I could give you several dozen.  But dismantling, piece by piece, a film like this — one that so clearly has its heart in the right place — would be a very mean spirited thing to do.  So I’ll just let one key example suffice for all the rest.


The film’s story is told in flashback by Cindy and Jim Green, two wild and crazy kids madly in love but unable to conceive, as they are interviewed by a pair of sober and skeptical adoption agency officials.  To illustrate how fit and well-prepared they are to become adoptive parents, the Greens tell the officials the incredible tale of their “son” Timothy: a ten year old boy they raised as their own after he unexpectedly sprang from their front garden one night like an overgrown, ambulatory carrot.

Only hours before, Cindy and Jim had buried their extensive wish list for the child they can never have in a box out in the garden, and they understood immediately that Timothy — sweet and innocent and brimming with heartwarming bromides — was meant to be that wish list personified.  With living green leaves sprouting from his shins to authenticate his agricultural origins, Timothy had to be a gift from . . . Somebody.  Right?  So they kept him, and passed him off to everyone in Stanleyville as their own (adopted?  inherited?  borrowed?) child.

(The folks of Stanleyville are a simple and uncurious lot, apparently.)

Anyway, from there, the Greens’ story gets much more preposterous — and far more sappy.  In the end, after having changed the lives of everyone he’s come in contact with for the better, Timothy loses his leaves and eventually returns to the garden, never to be seen again.  The interview comes to a close and the adoption agency officials bid the Greens farewell, having just heard them relate a story only slightly more fantastic than that of James and the Giant Peach as if they’d been under oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them God.

Naturally, Cindy and Jim’s application for adoption is approved and a beautiful little girl is promptly delivered at their doorstep, just in time for Fade Out.

That THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN had to end on this cheerful note, or one remarkably similar to it, is inarguable.  This is a Disney movie, after all, and happy endings go with the territory.  I love happy endings.  But a happy ending slapped onto the backside of a film with zero effort made to support it with so much as a wisp of realism is an insult to one’s intelligence.  In this case, THE ODD LIFE ends the way it does for one reason, and one reason only: because that ending suited the man who wrote and directed it.

That’s what’s wrong with the movie throughout: Everything that happens in it only seems to happen because the movie’s screenwriter/director Peter Hedges wanted it that way.  Logic, realism, common sense — none of these things plays any part in the choices the film’s characters make.  Not in the things they say, not in the things they do.

(I suspect I’ll be encouraged to offer further examples of this in the comments that follow, should you be interested in hearing them.  But I won’t go into them here.)

I don’t know whether THE ODD LIFE is as horrible as it is because Hedges is lazy (“I don’t feel like explaining how this could happen.”) or just plain clueless (“I can’t explain how this could happen.”).  But I do know his film comes off as the work of a man who cares far more about the emotional responses he wants to elicit from people than how those reponses can be earned honestly.  When a writer, simply to achieve a desired result, puts his own best interests before those of his characters, he is doomed to fail.  In successful fiction, the Cardinal Rule is not “For every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction” — it’s “For every action, there must be a viable and perceptible reason for the reader (or viewer) to believe it.”

Defenders of THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN — and there are many, like these two little guys . . .

. . . would probably say the problems I cite are all in my head, that I just didn’t approach the film with the proper commitment to suspending my disbelief.  But demanding that your audience suspend its disbelief indefinitely, simply because the story you are telling is a fairy tale, is not a substitute for telling it in such a way that it requires as little suspension of disbelief as possible.  I saw no evidence that the makers of THE ODD LIFE gave a rat’s ass how credible its people and situations were, and that’s a shame.

Because I like a good, child-friendly fantasy as much as the next heartless bastard.

Questions for the Class: How important is credibility in fiction to you?  What was the last critically-acclaimed film or book that failed to meet your standards in that department, and why?

Aug 172012

by Alexandra Sokoloff

(I’m in Australia, teaching an all-day Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop today, or maybe that’s tomorrow, so I’ll try to comment tomorrow, or yesterday, or whatever! — Alex, jetlagged…)


A couple of weeks ago I was driving home from a “Noir at the Bar” reading here in L.A., and my favorite radio station was playing a live recording of a Sting concert at the Hollywood Bowl I’d actually been in the audience for, years ago. I always love that multidimensional feeling; it was like being in a time machine taking me back to a night I remember very well, because I’d just sold my first screenplay that month, a huge kick-start to what turned into an eleven-year screenwriting career. Now, when you’re outside the film business, a break like that feels like shattering some enormous, impenetrable glass dome atop the mythical business they call “the movies”, a dome that you’ve been circling for years, trying to figure out the entry point.  A familiar feeling for any of us who have ever experienced circling the glass dome of publishing, I imagine!

And it was a great synchronicity, being transported back to that time and that feeling… because I’ve just now broken into e publishing with the launch of my new direct-to-e thriller Huntress Moon and am feeling the same kind of exhilaration of shattering a barrier to a whole new and exciting level of my career.  It reminded me how life is a spiral like that. You come back to the exact same points of life, but hopefully you’re constantly moving UP the spiral, taking all your knowledge of that pivotal threshold with you and ascending to a both a higher and a deeper level.

It also reminded me that as writers, we are constantly reinventing ourselves. I would say “having to reinvent ourselves” but that sounds scary and ominous. Oh well, okay, let’s be real. We are constantly HAVING to reinvent ourselves.

I started out as a theater person, from the time I was a kid, really, but after college I quickly switched my ambitions and focus to screenwriting, because I was aware of the practical need to, you know, eat.  Knowing nothing about the film business, I moved to L.A. just figuring I would figure it out. And the fact is, I did pretty much just that – I got the classic entry level job into movies, a script reader for various production companies, learned the business and the craft of film writing by reading and reporting on hundreds of scripts in a very short amount of time, wrote my own script with a writing partner, got an agent by using what I’d learned as a script reader, and sold the script to Fox in a bidding war.

Now, the trouble with being a screenwriter, and with Hollywood in general, is that you get caught up in the fact that you’ve MADE IT in a profession that all the naysayers (you know the ones I mean) always told you you would never MAKE IT in, and you’re making great money for doing what you love and the people you’re working with are wildly talented and interesting, and it’s all so exciting and non-stop that it becomes very hard to see when things are not quite working out the way you envisioned.  Screenwriters have very little power over their work; the potential movies you work on are very very seldom made, and most of them don’t look like any movie you would want your name on anyway once the script has been through the process very aptly named “development hell.” Cut to ten years later and I had become so creatively miserable, without really knowing it, that it was affecting every other area of my life. And when a movie I’d written that I was truly passionate about fell through when we lost our director to another movie, I snapped. I just wasn’t going to go through that whole thing again.

And that’s how I wrote my first novel, The Harrowing.  And all the naysayers started up again, a lot of them inside my own head. “You’ll never make a living in publishing. At least in screenwriting you’re writing AND getting paid…”  (insert any profession, you know the drill….) But I knew I had to do something else, so I did, and the book got written, and it got sold, and suddenly a whole other glass dome had been shattered and I was on the rollercoaster of a whole new career, to mix a couple of metaphors. And I was lucky to make the shift when I did, because changes in the film industry have made a screenwriting career exponentially more difficult and creatively frustrating than it was when I started in the business.

But now I had to learn a whole different business and figure out a whole different way of making a living at writing. (NOT making a living was not an option – I’ve been writing professionally for so long I have no other marketable job skills). And publishing is a different way of making a living.

When you start out as an author – well, when I started out as an author, in 2006, people advised that we put our entire first book advance back into promotion. Because that’s how important the lift-off factor is in traditional publishing. I was a total newbie, and got completely obsessed with trying everything there was to try in marketing, all the things I imagine all the authors here have been doing or preparing to do with varying degrees of terror: website, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, blog, grog, blog tours, book tours – oh right, and writing that second book. (If you want a bloodcurdling glimpse into how it was, I’ve blogged about it here: Marketing =Madness).

Well, I made a good launch with The Harrowing – nominations for Stoker and Anthony Awards, significant recognition as a new and interesting female horror writer… but nothing like the brass ring, bestseller status. But I wrote more good books and got more recognition and also figured out how to create multiple income streams in my writing life –like teaching my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop, that I started on my blog and developed into an e workbook (doing the workshops for free at conferences until I was in demand, and then starting to pick and choose my venues and going only where people would pay me, which also turned into self-perpetuating and well-paying promotion, as well as a personally rewarding avocation).

I’m a big believer in diversifying your writing career in the same way that you diversify a financial portfolio; the money is erratic in a writing career, often cyclical, and it’s a huge mistake to think you’ll earn the same income every year – I’ve seen way too many talented screenwriters and authors crash and burn by making that assumption. Invest wisely when you have the money and always keep a cushion for the lean years, because believe me, there are going to be lean years.

But still, I wasn’t published for long before I started getting that uncomfortable feeling again.  This time it didn’t take as long for me to figure out that I had to try something different – again. (Watching the publishing industry starting to crumble before my eyes with the rise of e readers and self-publishing was a pretty good clue…)

I truly believe we are in the midst of the biggest revolution since the invention of the printing press. E books, ereaders – it is ALL good news for us as writers, because we have so many more choices now. Look, I know it’s hard enough to just get through the day doing the writing you have to do and the promotion you have to do on top of that. You may be just learning the ropes of traditional publishing and here I am suggesting that you add learning the ropes of e publishing, to boot. Don’t panic! Do what you need to do at whatever step you are on in your career. But if you do find you’re not getting picked up by an agent when you know –  and enough credible people have told you – that you’ve got a great book… or you’re not making enough of a living with your traditionally published book(s)… or you are getting a nagging feeling that your publisher is not getting enough of your books out there to be bought and read in the first place… or Barnes & Noble goes bankrupt or something – there is a whole other miraculous option for you now.

In a time of diminishing publisher advances and massive bookstore closures, I and many of my traditionally published author friends who started out in publishing at the same time as I did have recently had the surreal experience of making more money in the first few weeks of an e publishing book launch as we ever got for a traditional advance. We can put a book out as soon as we finish it, rather than waiting a year and a half to two years for the publishing process to grind through its cycle. 

Given the choice between a traditional publishing deal for Huntress Moon and the tens of thousands of new readers that I was able to reach in just three days of a free Amazon promotion, plus having the force of the Amazon marketing machine behind the book (which is now an Amazon bestseller that is outselling a staggering number of high-profile traditionally published books that have a Big Six publisher behind them)…

Well, it’s a no-brainer to me.

I guess what I’m trying to say to you is: Be aware. Be aware if a small voice in your head or your gut or wherever those small voices come from tells you that you need to do something different. Be aware of the incredible sea changes taking place in publishing because of the e publishing revolution, and the incredible opportunities that are there for you.  Be aware that you can always, always reinvent yourself.

We’re writers. We make things up. 

Including ourselves.


Aug 022012

In the long-ago Hollywood of the 1980’s, I was hired as a Script & Story Analyst (think: reader) by Samuel Z. Arkoff, the legendary producer/distributor who was truly the “King of The B-Movies.”

It was Sam Arkoff, in fact, who gave the famous Roger Corman his start. Corman remained with him for many years.

By the time I came along, Arkoff had sold American International Pictures, his production company since the 1950’s, and started Arkoff International Pictures in a penthouse on Sunset Boulevard. It was a huge place, taking up most of the entire top floor of a landmark building in beautiful Beverly Hills, right at the edge of West Hollywood.

It had a view to kill for.

According to his autobiography, “Flying Through Hollywood By The Seat Of My Pants: By The Man Who Brought You ‘I Was A Teenage Werewolf’ and ‘Muscle Beach Party,’” Samuel Z. Arkoff produced over 500 movies.

His formula was simple, as drummed into our heads by the head of his story department:

  • Find a low-budget feature with enough of a hook to not require expensive ‘name’ movie stars.
  • The script had to contain action, violence and, of course, sex appeal (Arkoff called it fornication in his book).
  • The script should contain a controversial or revolutionary idea or two, and a bit of memorable dialogue.

Also, titles alone could often sell a picture: High School Hellcats, The Amazing Colossal Man, Drag Strip Girls, It Conquered The World, The Astounding She-Monster, Earth vs. The Spider, to list just a few of his earlier movies.

You get the idea.

At the time, I was living in a large house on Ozeta Terrace, sharing it with a screenwriter/director and his girlfriend, up in the Hollywood Hills. We also had a fantastic view, all the way out to the ocean and back across Hollywood to downtown Los Angeles.

Our place was straight up the street from the Whisky a Go Go down on Sunset Boulevard and North Clark Street. It was also the house that Ingrid Bergman lived in during the making of Casablanca in Los Angeles. The great Sydney Greenstreet had lived next door and he’d recommended it to her when she flew into town.

In case you’re wondering, that entire film, Casablanca, was shot at Warner Brother’s/Burbank Studios, the Van Nuys Metro Airport in the Valley, and Flagstaff, Arizona. The owner of our Ozeta Terrace home was a woman in her late 90’s who had inherited a great deal of property early in life and, according to the attorney who handled the leasing details, had also been Ingrid Bergman’s landlord.

Nice connection.

On my first day as a Script & Story Analyst (reader) at Arkoff International Pictures, I was given the rules and the forms to be used for coverage.

The entire script, regardless of how good or bad it was, had to be read.

I was to write a 1-page summary, covering all three acts, the plot points, subplots, all conflict, and the resolution. In addition, each character had to be listed and briefly described. I was to rate the premise, originality, structure, pacing and characters. This was to be included in a total of three pages. At the end, I was to give my opinion as to potential budget and whether it was a story that could ‘stand on its own’ without a name star.

Fair enough. And, it turned out, great fun.

Then I was taken to a large room stacked to the ceiling with unread screenplays. Piles and piles of them. To the actual ceiling. Seriously, hundreds or even thousands. In that room, I was told a few facts which have remained with me to this day:

  • The stacks of scripts were at least 2 years old, many of them over 3 years old (again: unread).
  • This wasn’t the slush-pile; every script in the room was submitted by an agent.
  • Between 50,000 and 100,000 scripts a year were registered at The Writers Guild; only about 400 movies a year are produced.
  • If there was even one script in the entire room worth spending the money to get produced, it’d be a miracle.

I was told, “Bob, pick out several and start reading. It doesn’t matter which ones.”

Like I said, great fun.

But not very encouraging for a screenwriter-hopeful. Yet it was sadly true. And almost every script I read was…not great.  Not even very good. Agented scripts. ‘Sam you’re gonna love this one…’ scripts. ‘This’ll be your next box office hit’ scripts.

In my many months of reading, writing coverage, and recommending or not recommending scripts to Samuel Z. Arkoff for further attention, I only highly recommended one. A seemingly good one, by someone I’d never heard of.

And I have no idea whatever happened to it. I have not yet seen it as a movie.

I also learned from the other readers that this was almost always the case. Maybe one script out of several hundred got a ‘Please check this one out…’ recommendation.  I can only imagine what it’s like getting a screenplay through the reader process at a major studio.

Not fun.

Still, it was a great experience, working with great people, and one I’d never trade. Reading literally miles of scripts, I learned a lot about how to write, and (maybe more importantly) how not to write, a screenplay.

And that’s the trick, I guess.

Learn how not to write a movie, then write one.

And I’ll admit, I’ve used much of what I long ago learned at Arkoff’s (through sheer osmosis, mainly), when I decided to write a series of crime novels under the pseudonym Parker T. Mattson.

Published by Black Mask and available as an exclusive Amazon Prime e-book before going into print distribution


Killing Liberty, through Black Mask Publishing, is currently an Amazon Prime e-book, but will  be going into print shortly.

As an ex-Script & Story Analyst, I would appreciate any helpful coverage. Love it or hate it, feel free to candidly let me know what you think.



Jul 062012

Today, the film Savages, based on the Don Winslow novel of the same name, opens in theaters. Check out the trailer, if you haven’t already. Directed by Oscar winner Oliver Stone, the film’s screenplay is the product of a collaboration between novelist Don Winslow and screenwriter Shane Salerno. Winslow and Salerno have known each other for a long time – thirteen years to be exact. They have worked together, including creating the NBC TV series UC: Undercover, trust each other implicitly and often exchange early drafts of their work and talk on the phone every day, usually about film adaptations of Winslow’s work which Salerno produces. At our request, Salerno rang up his buddy Winslow who was in the middle of a cross-country book tour and interviewed the acclaimed crime writer about his life and work.

Salerno: What does it mean for you to be a writer?

Winslow: It means everything to me to be a writer. You know I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. I grew up with great story tellers. My old man was a sailor, and I used to sit under the dining room table when he had his old Navy buddies over, and he’d pretend to think that I’d gone to bed and he’d let me sit there and listen to some of the best story tellers in the world so I always worshiped those guys. And we always had books around the house. My old man came out of World War II, you know 17 years old on Guadalcanal and what he wanted to do was ride around on boats, go to every zoo in the world and sit around and read books. So there were always books around our house and we were allowed to read anything we wanted at any age. There was no censorship, no nothing and so I imagined from when I was 5 or 6 years or so that if I could be a writer that would be the best thing in the world to be.

Salerno: Tell me 5 books that knocked you out?

Winslow: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential–where am I? that’s three?–a book called A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, it’ll come to me, a really beautiful Indian novel about Mumbai, and, without question, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.

Salerno: Name some authors’ you consistently admire in the genre?

Winslow: Well, James Ellroy, T. Jefferson Parker, Michael Connelly, Ken Bruen and John Harvey, Dennis Lehane and Lee Child.

Salerno: You’ve been married for twenty-five years, and yet all of your characters are a mess. How do you access that?

Winslow: [laughs] All of my characters are a mess?

Salerno: They’re a mess!–Every single one of them.–A beautiful mess in some cases but…

Winslow: Y’know, I think methods are interesting. You know what I mean? Vulnerability’s interesting. I don’t think like ‘steady’ is real interesting in fiction, you know? I think that a character’s flaws are what give a character depth and interest. So, I’ve been married for 25 years but I had a life before I was married. It’s a little hard to remember sometimes but I did and I think I was the same kind of flawed, kind of vulnerable kind of character so it is pretty easy for me to access that .

At the same time, I think, you know any writer looks around him. You know, you look at people you look at relationships, you look at other people you know, you look at people in restaurants and cafés, you sit there and you make up stories about them you hear snatches of conversation you see little bits of behavior and that finds its way into your work. But if I was to just sit and write about myself I think we’d have some damn dull books. It would be about some guy sitting alone in a room typing. Not very interesting

Salerno: Give us a short history of your childhood, your parents and growing up.

Winslow: Oh, man. There’s no short history. My dad was a Navy man, Marine in World War II, and then into the Navy, Childhood was spent on most of the destroyer ports on the East Coast. My mom was from New Orleans, my dad met her while he was on leave during World War II. They got married six weeks later, and she came from a family of gamblers. My grandmother was a ward healer for Huey Long after the depression, and then she worked for Carlos Marcello the Mafia chief who probably had Kennedy killed — who by the way I met as a child we used to go to parties at his house in Algiers.

Salerno: Wow!

Winslow: So um, then I grew up in Rhode Island. I was born in New York City but grew up in the tiny state of Rhode Island in a Mafia bedroom community at first then we moved down to Perryville, on the coast. It was a blue-collar place, my old man would take me down to a fish factory which you could smell, and he’d say, “If you don’t study, you are going to wind up shoveling fish guts in that place.” And I go back there in August and September, but it’s the place that you’re from. And I always knew that my ticket out of the fish factory was writing stories.

Salerno: Let’s talk about, in just a couple of sentences, the genesis, the spark, the idea behind some of your books. Let’s start with Neal Carey. What was the spark, the genesis, the inspiration for the Neal Carey series?

Winslow: The inspiration behind the Neal Carey series was real easy. I was a graduate student trying to get an advanced degree in history and I couldn’t attend classes because I was working as a P.I. and I was always being sent out on cases, and that’s just like Neal Carey. A lot of the cases I was being sent out on were called in those days were called Golden Retriever work–go fetch, go get em–runaway teenagers, business men who were off on a drunken tear somewhere and it was my job to find them and bring them back. And so when I first started to get serious about writing I was doing a lot of things to make a living: I was a PI, I was a safari guide, I was directing Shakespeare in the summer’s at Oxford, believe it or not, and so I took that old thing “write what you know.” I loved the crime genre, you know I was reading John McDonald and Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler and those guys and so I said okay, I’ll write about a graduate student who can’t finish his degree because he was being sent out on cases.

Salerno: Death and Life of Bobby Z?

Winslow: Who knows where that came from? I was at a point in my career where it had just totally flatlined. I was tired of writing the Neal Carey stories–they weren’t really going anywhere–and I was working as sort of an investigator-consultant for law firms in Los Angeles but living down in Dana Point. I would take the train to work every day. The trip was an hour and twenty minutes long and I’d write a chapter going up and a chapter coming back. And, the conductor, when I heard the conductor go “Ten minutes to Union Station” then no matter what I was doing, I would wrap up the chapter. No matter what was happening in the story I would think of an end for the chapter. And I did the same thing coming home, and a few months later I had a book that was a sort of a breakout for me. But where that story came from and where those characters came from, I don’t know. But what I can tell you is that the relationship between Tim Kearney and the kid in the story was very, very similar to my relationship with my kid and it’s funny you know. I have had people say, well unfortunately say, “Well, a six-year old kid wouldn’t say that” but, yeah, well, mine did.

Salerno: California Fire and Life

Winslow: California Fire and Life was right from my own life. I’d done a series of 6 or 7 arson cases at the time in California and–well–I don’t think that I have ever talked about this before, was accused of roughing up a witness and fabricating evidence and was put on the beach, you know, I mean, my employers just suspended me and so thank God I had just written Bobby Z and it sold for some money or we would have starved. And I sat down and wrote this book about arson cases so the genesis of that was very much from my own life and it’s kind of a fictionalized version of two cases that I had been working on at the time. One was an arson murder in San Diego, and the other this arson-theft case up in Orange County.

Salerno: Frankie Machine?

Winslow: Ah, you know, Shane, Frankie Machine is an old story for me. I grew up in Rhode Island, as I said earlier, in a mob neighborhood and so I knew those guys, you know? You know I had just finished this long, long book Power of the Dog and I was tired, I was depressed, I wanted to do something different and I wanted to write a story about an old mob guy, and I wanted to write a “sunset” book instead of a “sunrise” book, I wanted to write a book about the end of things; that’s why its centered on the West Coast, and, but, look: the East Coast novel had been done and done great and I wanted to do something very different. I wanted to say the mob exists out in California and I wanted to do something in a distinctly California way, and so I started to research the history of organized crime in San Diego, and I found it fascinating and very connected to politics and all kinds of things, so I used that guy that I knew growing up that was, you know, like an uncle to me and placed him in San Diego and through his eyes tried to tell the story of organized crime in San Diego. But you know over that 30-year period.

Salerno: And Power of the Dog?

Winslow: Whew. You know Power of the Dog is a book that I never set out to write. I got up one morning and saw in the newspapers that 19 innocent people got killed in a little Mexican town that we used to go to for cheap weekends. And I just kept asking myself, “how could that happen?” And at first I didn’t start to write, I just started reading, I started reading–books about evil and the nature of evil and that kind of thing and I could never kind of read myself to an answer. So I guess when you can’t read yourself to an answer, you write yourself to an answer and then I started doing research on the war on drugs and I learned that the more I learned the more I needed to learn and that just kept going back and back in time and before I knew it I had 35 years of story to tell. I realized though that you couldn’t tell it through one character’s eyes. Yu know, just nobody saw the whole thing. Then it stretched out to five characters and seeing the whole thing through their eyes.

Salerno: Boone Daniels, the Boone Daniels series?

Winslow: Yeah, you know the Boone Daniels series I grew up surfing, albeit on the East Coast. People don’t believe that there are waves on the East Coast but there are and surfed when I moved out to California–Laguna, Dana Point and those places–and I just wanted to write about that sort of cultural bio. The language fascinated me, the jargon, the humor. Some of the funniest things I’ve ever heard have been out on the water talking to these guys and talking story and stuff like that. And, well, I thought I could find a little break from the heavier kind of stuff and it didn’t turn out that way because when I’d drive from my home down to the beach I’d pass through these strawberry fields, that were, as I found out later, the place of child prostitution. You know, the girls were brought up from Mexico to service the farm workers. And so what I was seeing was this very, very huge contrast between this beauty and all the fun of surfing and all the humor and then this horrible stuff that was happening right next to it. And I just felt that I couldn’t ignore it. You know and made it a part of the story. And then I wrote another Boone Daniels book The Gentlemen’s Hour which will probably come out in the States next year but is out in England now, ’cause I just enjoyed spending time with those characters and in that world, the language of it, so it was fun to write.

Salerno: Talk to me about the difference between writing the book, the novel, Savages, versus the screenplay?

Winslow: You know, two different experiences in a lot of ways. You know, they are, in fact, and I do understand this despite what some people say. They are two different media: one is flat and static and it doesn’t exist in real time, They pick a book up, they put it down. I do understand that a film is vertical and kinetic. You know, it’s in front of your eyes literally, and it’s moving and those demand two entirely different things. So it’s been a learning process for me, you know, in working with some great people who are teaching me about this. But what I really think about it is that you make changes for film–there are things that would work on film and wouldn’t work in the book; and there are things that will work in the book that wouldn’t work on film. The really important thing to me is that–and I think we are doing it–is that we keep the truth of the book on film. We might change some of the facts, we might change the orders of things, we might change some of the events, but as long as we hold to the truth of the book, the truth of the characters, then it’s been nothing but a delight.

Salerno: What was your reaction to Janet Maslin’s review of Savages because it shot all over the world, it’s been picked up by a number of websites all over the world, and it’s really gotten out there as a review.

Winslow: Oh, man. That review I’ve been waiting for my whole career, my whole career and I’d heard that it was coming but of course I didn’t know if it was going to be good or bad and then at Heathrow Airport at 10 in the morning my best friend in the world had left me 15 messages on my email to call him about it and then my son called me and he said, “There’s a review in the Times,” and I think he heard the terrified silence in my voice and then he said, “No, no, no it’s all good, she didn’t say a bad thing. It’s a rave.” You know that’s the kind of review that turns a career around. It could just as easily by the way, have gone the other way. She could have taken my career out and shot it in the back of the head execution style, you know, but fortunately it went my way, and it was an absolute rave, and I think she got it, I mean I think she got the sort of radical nature of the book and so that was–well the fact that I’d taken a big risk–and so that meant a lot to me.

Salerno: Let’s talk about that real quick, the big risk. The idea that this was not just a risky book in terms of subject matter, in terms of scenes, in terms of characters, but in terms of form. Can you speak to that?

Winslow: Oh, sure. You know I heard this book in my head. I saw it in front of my eyes in a certain way, and that was a very radical way. You know, so if I thought that a reader might experience a scene better as a film than as a novel, then I wrote it in screenplay form; if I thought that a scene would read better as poetry than as narrative prose, then I wrote it as poetry. Oddly enough, I mean, some of the most poetic scenes are the most violent scenes because my experience of having been in a couple of wars as an observer, was that you don’t remember it as flowing narrative prose. For good or for ill, you have vivid memories that are jagged and sudden and I tried to capture that in this book.

So it is a very, very radical style especially for the crime genre, which has a whole set of rules, but I really felt like throwing elbows to create a little bit more space for myself to create a book the way I heard it, the way I saw it. You know every once in a while, Shane–I gotta tell you the truth–I got scared writing this book, thinking, am I going too far? And then there was a temptation to pull back and then I thought no, if you start running away from it, you’ll write something really bad. And to mix metaphors the only way to do this was to jump into the deep end, you know? It’s a little like surfing. Sometimes you come out of the wave and you are faced with a huge wave, and the tendency is to try to get away from it, and you can’t, you can’t do it. The only way to survive it is to dive into the wave, into its deepest part, and come out the other side. And maybe as overly romantic as that sounds, that is what I tried to do writing this book.

Salerno: Let’s talk about Trevanian and Shibumi and your prequel Satori. This is your first time as like a “gun for hire,” for lack of better expression. Why this book, why Trevanian?

Winslow: Yeah, well, in the first place part of it was circumstance. My agent, Richard Pine also represents Trevanian’s estate, and so the opportunity was there. The reason I took the opportunity though was quite different. I had read the book as a kid and loved the book, loved that character, Nicholai Hel and I remember the character played this Japanese game called “Go.” It launched this sort of “Go” craze amongst a bunch of us, and I was terrible at it but we played it for a few months. But I remembered the book vividly and so the temptation to write that character and to pick that up was fascinating, a unique character was fascinating. Also I spent part of my career in Asia. I have high regard for Asian cultures, and so the chance to mentally spend a year researching and working with the Asia of 1951 or 1952 was very tempting to me. At the same time I didn’t want to do an imitation. Do you know what I mean? I didn’t want to do like some bad nightclub comic and say, “I am going to try to mimic this guy’s unique style and voice,” and so as a matter of negotiating that, saying can I use some of my own style, my own voice and try to blend it? And, you know, again, it was a terrific experience.

Salerno: Is that something that you are open to continuing? Is that something that if the opportunity presents itself and if the book is successful, you might consider continuing the way John Gardner did with James Bond?

Winslow: Yeah, I am open to it. I want to see how the book is received. I think creatively the book is a success. People seem to like it. I’m proud of it, by the way. And sure, I’m open to it, but I’m not promising anything and I don’t want them to feel locked down to me, you know. The publishers might want to say, “OK, let’s throw this out to 5 or 6 guys, let them take turns at that.” And that could be a fun thing too, but I am definitely open to it. I know what the next story should be, and where to pick it up, and have the story and the plot and everything.

Salerno: On Savages, you’ve been meeting with Oliver Stone. Tell me about that experience. What surprised you about working with him, what have you learned, what’s that been — the Oliver Stone experience?

Winslow: There have been a number of surprising things. First of all he asked me to co-write the screenplay. That’s surprising. I’m surprised at his sense of humor, I’m surprised at that, although I don’t know why. I’m surprised that he has let us write it, without meetings. Basically he said “Go forth and write,” and that’s been surprising as well. So, so far it’s been a really good experience.

Salerno: And, you know, in your mind, when you have looked at your Hollywood experience over the past decade, sum that up. You know have there been ups, downs? What has been your Hollywood experience?

Winslow: You know, my Hollywood experience has been, let me put it charitably, uneven. And for the most part, down, and, for a couple of reasons, I lay it on myself. I think that I hadn’t paid enough attention. Well, that is not quite accurate, I think I didn’t think that I could influence the process at all, and so I kind of watched it go by, so the experience has been frustrating, and to be really honest about it, painful. I think what’s changed is starting to work with different people, particularly you, and that turned everything around, and so now I am more involved, I got educated, and I think I am on the cusp of working with people who get my stuff and who are going to attack it in a quality kind of a way.

Salerno: And that–just two last questions–and that’s really critical isn’t it? The getting your stuff, in other words, you had a book that was a very, very, very celebrated book with The Death and Life [of Bobby Z], and that wasn’t ultimately a fulfilling experience for you on the film side for a number of reasons, but, it is critical isn’t it? Can you just talk about that, to capture a writer’s tone, spirit, feel, DNA?

Winslow: Yeah, well listen I think there’s a couple of things. When we were talking about Bobby Z with the producers and directors there were a couple of things I didn’t agree with and they said, “Well, we’re film people, you’re a novelist; we know better.” And at that time, I bought that argument, because it made sense to me, and to a certain extent it still makes sense to me. What I’ve learned, though, since then is that I have to take the time, and the writer has to take the time that we get to talk about not only that book but about other books, about life, about sensibilities, about how we see things, so that there is a depth of understanding and it might not be that we agree on every detail because I think that would be boring and ultimately defeating, but that we share a common spirit, a common kind of mentality, and a common understanding of the book, of the very essence of whatever book it is that we are discussing. So that started to turn around my career, mostly because of you Shane Salerno [Ed note: Salerno produces all of the film adaptations of his books], and so now, again I feel that I will always take the time, always have the conversation first, before I sign the contract, before I make the agreement. Sit down eyeball to eyeball and talk.

Salerno: And that would be your advice for young novelists or even seasoned novelists before going down that road? Make sure you are going to walk down the road together. Because so many novelists seem to say, once my book is optioned, once they purchase my book, you know, sayonara.

Winslow: Yeah, I think there are two broad streams in that regard. One that you just mentioned, “As long as the check clears, then I’m going to stay uninvolved.” And a lot of novelists feel that way. I felt that way to a certain extent, until I saw a film of mine made, and I was surprised at how much it hurt. I gotta tell ya, I thought I was a pretty cynical, tough guy. It hurt, it hurt, and it changed me. Well, for a while it made me just not want to be involved with film at all. Now though, I see other possibilities, and so that would absolutely be my advice: take your time, get to know people, don’t just jump at the first offer just because it’s there, you know, and play the kind of longer game. You might not make as much money right away, but I think you’ll make more money over the long or medium haul. But also, there is a quality-of-life issue here, and you know, money is not the only issue. There’s satisfaction, there’s friendship, there’s the fun of doing really good work together, and there’s the satisfaction of seeing something that you can be really proud of. And I am greedy right now. I want all of those things and I would advise any writer to be similarly greedy about that.

Salerno: Great answer. Let me ask you one last question. Don Winslow today has written 13 books. When you look back on the guy who was a young aspiring writer who had no sense of whether this “writing thing” was going to work out or not, sitting in a car on surveillance or whatever in New York writing on a pad, talk to me about how far you feel you’ve come as a writer and what you would say to that guy back then.

Winslow: It’s still sometimes hard for me to believe or even accept that I make my living at this and that I’m successful at it. In many ways, Shane, I feel still very close to that guy who was sitting on stakeouts with the yellow manuscript pad and a roller pen, you know, trying to write a chapter before something else happened on the street. But, looking back on everything all those experiences have contributed to my writing, they make me who I am now. Now I have a little distance from it, you know, and it’s interesting to look back on those times and think that man, you’ve come a long, long way, but a step at a time, obviously. I haven’t been an overnight success, unless it’s one of those arctic kind of nights that lasts forever [laughs]. So I think that I bring a little maturity and a little wisdom to that and see that I’ve been really fortunate, really lucky and I hope that I’ve worked really honestly, in each book I’ve done, or in anything I’ve done. I just really tried to bring everything I have to it, you know, to give it quality, to give it heart and not just try to pen the next bestseller, but to give something of substance, something of heart at the same time. And maybe this sounds contradictory, but I don’t want to get too far from that guy you know what I mean, because I sense that this is something that we earn fresh every day. You know, every day we get up and we write and we have that in common with that young guy who hasn’t been published yet or who hasn’t had a film made yet, and I hope that I always keep that sort of “freshness” and that enthusiasm and some of that insecurity and humility, because I think that that really contributes to the work.

Don Winslow was born in New York City and raised in the little village of Perryville, Rhode Island. The author of thirteen books and several short stories, he has also written for film and television. On his way to becoming a writer, Don did a number of things to make a living – movie theater manager, private investigator, safari guide, actor, theater director and consultant. He now lives on an old ranch in southern California.

His first novel, A Cool Breeze On The Underground, was nominated for an Edgar, and a later book, California Fire and Life, received the Shamus Award.

Shane Salerno is the writer of James Cameron’s forthcoming Fantastic Voyage, executive producer of Oliver Stone’s Savages, producer and director of the highly anticipated documentary Salinger and the co-author of The Private War of J.D. Salinger with acclaimed author David Shields which will be released shortly. Salerno is also the co-writer of a number of box office blockbusters including Armageddon and Shaft.

Jul 032012

by Gar Anthony Haywood

Actually, it’s way too late for a rewrite.  Prometheus is in the can and already raking in millions at theaters across the globe (though nowhere near as many millions as its producers had no doubt hoped, for some of the reasons I’m about to go into below).

I know, I know: We don’t normally do movie reviews here at Murderati.  And technically, I’m not about to post one now.  But this is Wildcard Tuesday, damnit — the day we ‘Ratis on the masthead get to do pretty much anything we damn well please — so what I am going to do is offer a broad-strokes, spoiler-free outline of all the missteps I think screenwriter Damon Lindelof — with the ostensible blessings of director Ridley Scott — made on his way to producing the final draft of the film’s script.

Understand that this is all coming from a huge fan of the first two films in 20th Century Fox’s Alien franchise (1979’s Alien and its 1986 sequel, Aliens).  In fact, I think James Cameron’s Aliens is one of the greatest action films ever made, and its precursor, Scott’s Alien, is a horror movie masterpiece that, when I first saw it, had me seriously considering fleeing the theater only halfway through its full running time, or to be precise about it, right after this now classic scene:

The Alien sequels that followed Cameron’s were all shoddy disappointments that just seemed to get worse and worse, and the ensuing Fox films that paired the eponymous Alien creature with the extraterrestrial bounty hunter first seen in the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi thriller Predator (Alien vs. Predator [2004], Alien vs. Predator: Requiem [2007]) were a travesty made strictly to suck the last drop of box-office from both franchises.  So reasons for me to be encouraged earlier this year by the news that Prometheus was yet another film based on the Alien legend were few and far between.

Still, Prometheus was reportedly a prequel to Alien, and the director behind it was the man who’d gotten the franchise off to such a fantastic start: Ridley Scott.  So how bad could Prometheus possibly be?

Well, let me just put it this way: There’s no such thing as a rule book for screenwriters and directors to go by in making sci-fi blockbuster sequels/prequels like Prometheus, but if there were, the following are all the rules in it Damon Lindelof and Ridley Scott would have blatantly broken:

1. Don’t commit to doing a sequel if you don’t really want to do a sequel.

It’s been reported that Scott didn’t sign up to do Prometheus with the idea of making just another entry in the Alien film franchise, and if this is true, boy, does that reluctance ever show in the final product.  Everything in Prometheus that’s reminiscent of Scott’s Alien seems completely out of place, and that’s because Scott (and screenwriter Lindelof) clearly intended for Prometheus to be a much loftier, more thought-provoking film.  Which is unfortunate, because the only thought Alien provoked in most viewers was “That’s it — I’m closing my eyes until the lights come back up!”  Alien was a horror film, as I mentioned earlier, and there’s nothing organic to Prometheus‘s basic storyline to suggest that Scott had any interest this time around in scaring anybody.  My opinion?

What Scott and Lindelof were hoping to make instead of a horror film, under the guise of an Alien “prequel,” was their own answer to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In other words, a deep, complex science fiction classic that would force viewers to ask serious questions about life, death, and mankind’s place in the universe.

Does that sound like an ideal foundation for an Alien prequel to you?

2. Pay attention to the science in science fiction.

My friend Doselle Young, who writes science fiction and horror with equal aplomb, is something of a science geek, and the list of factual absurdities he found in Prometheus is longer than the guest list to a Kardashian wedding.  Most of the things he mentioned when he and I compared notes on the film were just beyond the intellectual grasp of this former C+ high school science student, but many were basic enough that, once they were pointed out to me, even I understood how ridiculous they were.  For example, consider this question: Over a span of millions of years, would you expect a life form — any life form — to physically evolve in some noticeable way, or remain completely unchanged?

Apparently, Lindelof and Scott think it’s the latter.

Also, timing is a critical element in any piece of fiction — making things happen in a way that is compatible with both logic and what is possible — and Prometheus fails this test over and over again.  Hint to Lindelof: The next time you take on a project of this kind, study up on the exact distance of a light year, and how long it would probably take a man-made spacecraft, no matter how technologically advanced, to cover one.

3. Give all your characters an actual reason to be in your script.

I won’t say much about this one except: Idris Elba, whom I greatly admire, is a member of the Prometheus cast, but I’ll be damned if I know why, other than so that his character — and I use the word “character” here loosely — can occasionally strike a dynamic pose at the ship’s helm.  Who was this person and what was the point of his existence?  The role he played in terms of the plot’s development was . . . what, exactly?

I don’t have a clue, and I doubt Lindelof does, either.

4. Give your characters a reason to do the things they do.

As opposed to just having them do things because, well, wouldn’t it be cool if they did?  Who cares why?

In the film’s most egregious example of random-shit-happening-for-no-good-reason, Lindelof has one character deliberately screw over another simply because he and Scott needed the resultant horrific death to occur, come hell or high water.  Nevermind that the offending character had no discernible motive for the act.

Why did Lindelof and Scott “need” this pointless death to be in the script so desperately, you ask?  Please see Rule #5 below.

5. Don’t populate your sequel with scenes you’ve literally cut-and-pasted from the original.

Remember that, according to my theory, Scott and Lindelof were secretly trying to make a film altogether different from the one Fox was paying them to make.  Doing Alien 5 was not in their plans.  Unfortunately, it was in their contracts, so the dynamic duo behind Prometheus took care to sprinkle their script with just enough blatantly obvious connections to Alien to keep the Fox execs dumb and happy.

Malevolent android possibly working for the Company?

Check.  Snarling Alien embryo emerging from a live human’s bloody abdominal cavity?

Check.  Overly-curious crew member gets a space-helmet facial from an Alien in a chamber full of creepy egg pods?

Check.  And so it goes.  Watching Prometheus, you can actually see where these scenes were artificially grafted on, square pegs jammed into round holes that bring the film to a screeching halt every time they crop up, so incongruent are they to what happens before and after.  This is screenwriting-by-checklist, and I’m sorry, but it blows.

6. Don’t give your character a brain in one scene only to have him behave like a blithering idiot in another.

When a character exhibits the common sense of most mature adults by fleeing from a dangerous situation, that’s good.

When that same character turns around fifteen minutes later and rushes headlong toward the identical dangerous situation — not because they’ve found the courage to do so, but simply because they’ve apparently lost their fucking minds — that’s bad.

In fiction, when a character behaves with such dumb disregard for his/her own safety that readers are forced to conclude they deserve to die, we call them TSTL: Too Stupid To Live.  With Prometheus, Lindelof and Scott have created a brand new, and far more maddening malady for fictional characters to suffer from: SOOTSTLS.

Sudden Onset Of TSTL Syndrome.

SOOTSTLS can strike any character at any time, no matter how rational and intelligent they may have appeared to be previously.  This is especially true when a screenwriter needs something to happen that shouldn’t really be in the script he’s writing at all (see Rule #5 above).

7. Avoid assigning the task of explaining something to your audience to a character who has no reason to understand things any better than your audience does.

When I said earlier that I had no idea what role Idris Elba’s character was supposed to play in Prometheus (Rule #3 above), that wasn’t exactly true.  Because near the end of the film, this character answers a Key Question the female lead — and every member of the audience — has been wondering about for almost two hours.  Or, I should say, he tries to answer it.  What he says doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

It’s not the substance of his answer that’s the problem, however.  The problem is that it’s coming from a character who a) should be as ignorant of the subject in conversation as everyone else; and b) has demonstrated, prior to this moment, absolutely no curiosity whatsoever regarding the deep, philosophical mysteries our female protag has been struggling with since Fade In.  This is the guy who understands it all?  The one who’s done little more than exude soul brother cool, scene after scene, while everyone else around him has been ripping their hair out, trying to comprehend what the hell is going on here?

Gimme a break.

Well, I could go on and on.  But I won’t.  You get the idea.  Prometheus sucked, and it didn’t have to.  Given a script equal to its mouthwatering CGI, it could have been terrific.  But its script, instead, was a slapdash affair full of holes and jaw-dropping miscues.  For fans of Alien and Aliens like me, Prometheus represents a missed opportunity of monumental proportions.

That and, on a more personal level, fifteen dollars down the drain.

May 252012

CobbleA recent, controversial  New York Times article by Stanley Fish uses the results of a 2011 psychological study to argue readers and viewers experience no negative effects from knowing the ending of a story in advance. We asked a few of our friends what they thought–check back regularly today for their responses.

Oz isn’t real because Dorothy was dreaming the whole time.

Norman Bates’ mom is actually dead – he just wears her clothes. 

Harrison Ford’s wife was the killer in PRESUMED INNOCENT.

If we were in the time of the height of the popularity of these films, and you were on the way into the theatre to see one of them and I stopped you in the lobby and told you these spoilers, you’d serve me up a well-deserved knuckle sandwich. Why? Because I would’ve ruined the movie for you. A child would understand that. And it takes a child-like mentality to believe otherwise.

The New York Times piece wins a gold medal in the Rationalization Olympics as it tries to support the notion that being pre-told the surprise/shocking/unforeseen conclusion to a story doesn’t necessarily take away from the movie-watching or TV show-viewing or book-reading experience.

As humans we’re wired to hope for ”The Surprise Ending” because we innately know that life itself is full of surprise endings.  Your life can end as soon as you step off a curb … or, as it did in my case … it can change forever as soon as you swing your fist at another.

I haven’t discussed this soon-to-be-confession with Little Brown/Mulholland Books prior to writing this piece and they’ve been incredible supporters of mine so I hope they don’t think I am blind-siding them.  And the truth is, I’ve never shared this information publicly before right now, at this very moment, as I type this.

But I believe enough time has passed that I can talk about it and I hope that readers understand that people change over the years.

Over two decades ago, when I was 18, I began an incarceration term in Fishkill Prison in New York for the killing of another teen in a fight over money.  I was young and stupid and I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, let alone take someone’s life … but I deserved the time I got. I was 17 when the fight happened, so the records have always been sealed.

I spent the first year in prison hiding.

The second year crying.

And the third through sixth year in the Rec Room watching TV and Movies.  The shows and films with twists and surprises and endings you never saw coming — those were the ones that stayed with me for weeks and months — those were the ones that were talked about and debated in The Yard.  Those were the ones that were special.

They helped get me through my bid. Because I knew I wasn’t alone.  Other people (even if they were fictional) had their lives turn on a dime as well — others were surprised by life’s fickle whimsies as much as I had been.

If I had know the endings of these stories before I watched them, they wouldn’t have been nearly as effective — not nearly as special.

So let that be my vote against spoilers.


Nick Santora (author)

(ps – I never did time in prison. Never killed anyone. Made the whole thing up. Now that you know that, go back and read this piece and see if it is nearly as interesting now that you how it ends.)

NICK SANTORA was a lawyer before his first screenplay won Best Screenplay of the Competition at the 2001 New York International Independent Film Festival. A co-creator, executive producer, and writer for the hit A&E show Breakout Kings and former writer and co-executive producer of Prison Break, Nick Santora lives in Los Angeles, California.

Check out Nick Santora’s new novel FIFTEEN DIGITS, and the paperback edition of the nationally bestselling SLIP & FALL,  now available in bookstores everywhere.

May 252012

by Alexandra Sokoloff

When I was a screenwriter, the absolute worst thing about the job was having to sell my rights. I was mostly a spec writer – although I did some novel adaptations, I made most of my screenwriting income by writing original scripts and selling them. And the first thing that usually happens when a script is bought is that after the original writer does her contractual drafts, or is bought out of them, she is fired off her own script so that the producers or execs or director or sometimes actor can hire their own writer, or a writer they want to be in business with, or just what they love to call “fresh blood.”

People don’t understand that about the film business. The writer can and most often will be fired off their own story at any time. Nothing you can do about it.

Even worse than being fired was having studios and production companies hold my original scripts hostage – the movie could be going nowhere (because you fired the original writer, you moron) but they still refused to revert the rights.  Talk to a screenwriter about this situation and they’ll mostly tell you just about the same thing: it’s like the physical pain of having a loved one imprisoned, and knowing there’s nothing you can do about it. I’ve contemplated murder more often than I like to think.

In fact there’s a story about a certain screenwriter who was in the situation of an original script being held hostage and he stormed the office of a certain studio head, brandishing a really sharp knife – and then threatened to cut off one of his OWN fingers right there on the desk if the studio head didn’t sign back the rights to him. And the story is he got the rights back, more because the studio head didn’t want the negative publicity he’d get from the incident than out of any concern for any bodily harm to the writer. Or maybe he just didn’t want to lose the desk. That’s showbiz, kid.

I’ve thought about that story a lot, recently. Because I so understand the rage, and the willingness to do ANYTHING to get your work back.

A lot, and I mean a lot, of authors now find themselves in the same position. They could be making a living income off e books, but the publishing houses they signed contracts with won’t revert the rights. (I’ll refrain from launching into a tirade about the 1%, but – really? This is okay in a democratic society?)

These days it’s critical that authors think clearly before they sign away their rights, especially e book rights. In the exhilaration of being offered a contract, it’s far, far too easy to just say yes to whatever a publisher is proposing. A mistake you may well regret for longer than you ever want to think.

Myself, I feel extraordinarily lucky that no fingers are going to have to be cut off after all. Although for a while there, I was wondering.

But I finally, finally, finally have the rights back to Book of Shadows and The Unseen in the U.S. Now I can offer these spooky thrillers as e books at the infinitely reasonable price of $2.99, as opposed to the publisher-set price of $11.99.  I mean, truly, does ANYONE pay $11.99 for an e book? Even your most highly prized authors? And I have the one-star “Protest Publisher Price Fixing” Amazon reviews to prove it. I was about to kill myself.

The whole structure of the publishing industry is changing. I’ll refrain from using Konrathian imagery featuring sexual acts with amphibians while Rome burns and all that, but this is a massive sea change we’re all experiencing. No one has any idea what things are going to look like next MONTH, let alone next year.

So why is it that writers would want to lock themselves into a contract that would mean someone else holds their e publishing rights in perpetuity? Especially given the clever ways that corporations are able to get around reversion issues?

For a large amount of money up front – sure, I understand it. A bird in the hand, etc.  But for a not-so-large amount?  Why?

The thing is, when we sign contracts, we’re speculating. We’re debating if this particular deal is better than what we could get elsewhere, or at a different time in the future. Same as choosing mortgage terms when we finance a house. Same as when we decide on an investment strategy with stocks. What’s our comfort level with volatility? Are we willing to take a risk to make a little more?

Don’t you hate it that we have to think about our writing careers as if we’re building a stock portfolio?  I know I do. But how can we not? If we are going to make a living with the writing we do, we have to make these choices, weigh the options, decide on our acceptable level of risk, and develop we believe is the best strategy for maximizing our income flow in a constantly shifting business landscape.

Half the room just stopped breathing, right?

So first things first. Breathe.

But please. Don’t ignore the fact that when you sign a contract on a book you may be limiting your income on this particular property – YOUR BOOK – to that one figure, the advance money, for possibly a lifetime.  Is it really enough, over the course of possibly a lifetime? Do you KNOW the other options? Do you know how much other people you know are making with other strategies?

Your job isn’t done when you type THE END. The job now is to do right by yourself, and by the work that you’ve just created.

So, I’m curious. DO you pay $11.99 for e books from your favorite authors? Because myself, when faced with that price I will just pay $26 for a hardcover, whether that makes any sense or not.

And – if you just want to vent about the absolute fucking scariness of the business part of writing, please feel free. We’re all there.



Now liberated and available on Kindle, Nook & Smashwords, $2.99!

Two psychology professors and two psychically gifted students move into an abandoned Southern mansion to duplicate a controversial poltergeist experiment – unaware that the entire original research team ended up insane… or dead.

Based on the world-famous Rhine parapsychology experiments conducted at Duke University.



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 Paperback/e book from Little Brown at Amazon UK

 Destined to become a horror classic.”  – Romantic Times Book Review

“Gave this reviewer a bad night’s sleep – what more could you ask of a horror novel?” – SFX


Available on Kindle and Smashwords, $2.99  (On Nook, 5/26)

A cynical homicide detective from Boston reluctantly joins forces with a beautiful, enigmatic witch from Salem in a race to solve a series of what appear to be satanic killings.

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“A wonderfully dark thriller with amazing is-it-isn’t-it suspense all the way to the end. Highly recommended.”   – Lee Child

“Sokoloff successfully melds a classic murder-mystery/whodunit with supernatural occult undertones.”  Library Journal

“Compelling, frightening and exceptionally well-written, Book of Shadows is destined to become another hit for acclaimed horror and suspense writer Sokoloff. The incredibly tense plot and mysterious characters will keep readers up late at night, jumping at every sound, and turning the pages until they’ve devoured the book.”   – Romantic Times Book Reviews, 4 1/2 stars