It was difficult this past week to hear of the death of Leonard Nimoy. Like so many others, I was a pretty serious fan of Star Trek from its first airings (yeah, I'm old), and Spock always appealed more than the other characters to me.
He had that conflict between his natural tendency to see everything in terms of cold, objective logic and the need to understand his human side, which would react to things more emotionally than the character might want to admit. He was a beautifully conceived character, but he wouldn't have worked half as well if he'd been played by another actor (as we've seen in recent years).
The need to keep raging emotions in check while understanding their importance was what kept the character interesting. And Nimoy, who must have understood him on a basic level, once told director Nicholas Meyer (Wrath of Khan and Undiscovered Country, among others) that he never played Spock as a character with no emotions.
Instead, he played the alien as a man trying to keep his emotions in check. That makes all the difference.
Yes, some of the plots were downright silly and the special effects on a TV budget and schedule in the 1960s could be laughable. But Spock was never anything but dignified and in the parlance of the time, cool. He could outperform humans on almost every level, but was content to live among them and observe.
Leonard Nimoy brought that to the role. Did he bristle at being thought of as Spock and nothing else? On occasion, he did; it's true. But he did not disparage the role or the people who had embraced it, sometimes to the point of embarrassment.
Hey. I was nine years old and it was Star Trek. Cut me some slack.
Many years later when I was going through my unsuccessful screenwriter phase, I wrote a screenplay that had some connections to Star Trek, although it took place in contemporary America and didn't use any of the original characters because I wasn't stupid. I'd probably shudder to look at that piece of work today, but at the time I thought it was pretty good and I was hoping to get it noticed somewhere in Hollywood.
So I sent a letter to Leonard Nimoy asking if he'd like to consider directing the script.
To my astonishment, I received a letter (this was back when there were letters) from Mr. Nimoy's company saying he'd very much like to read the script. And you can believe that a copy was in the mail that very day.
I don't remember how long it took to receive a response, but I'm sure at the time I thought it was an eternity and I did my best not to pester anyone at Nimoy's company about it (I'm sure Josh can picture me waiting by the phone, only younger). But eventually another letter did arrive.
It's probably not a huge surprise that Nimoy passed on the script, since when you scan my IMDb page, you'll see I don't have one. But he did send a personal note.
He wrote, "I read your script with great interest, and your fondness for the material is evident. Although I am not going to proceed with it, I'd advise you to keep writing." I quoted that from memory.
It was a time when I needed any little bit of encouragement, and getting Mr. Spock to tell me I should keep writing did the trick. It was something he didn't have to do--most other Hollywood types would have sent a form letter or gotten an assistant to write the note--but he clearly saw that the script meant a lot to me, and wanted to connect personally.
I never forgot that, obviously.
Rest in peace, Mr. Nimoy. You were a good actor who had one iconic role, which is more than most get. You were a talented director, a good writer and I don't know much about photography, but I'm willing to bet you had some talent there too. You were kind to me at a time I needed it, and even though I tried to explain that the one time we met for about a half a minute, I don't think I sufficiently communicated that thought. Thank you. You will be missed.
by Paul D. Marks
I don’t think I have an “ideal” landscape, but I do like to see something appealing and engaging outside the window, whether a busy cityscape from a high-rise or a view of the hills or a country scene.
That said, I’ve written in places where there wasn’t much of a view. Just the stucco wall of the apartment next door or even worse the inside wall of my apartment and no view of anything. But I didn’t like that much. Don’t like having nothing to look at, and when that was the case I would put pictures on the walls that would “inspire” me. In our last house, we had a pretty nice view...but it was on the back side of the house and my office was on the front side, looking out at the street. So the walls there were decorated largely with Edward Hopper prints – good for writing mysteries and noir. But some of the time I’d write on the laptop in the kitchen or family room where I could look out at the view. Which was nice...except for the time the hills across the way were blazing and smoke was furling up. And then hoping the fire wouldn’t jump over to us.
My office might be a cluttered mess, but I can block that out. Having something serene outside to look at calms me and gives me the peace of mind I need to get into that Zen writing state (he said with only a hint of sarcasm, at least about the Zen).
I do like our view here, but Robin’s view is to die for. Can’t compete with that. Very nice!
And, while I do like something to look at out the window, I also like to “shut the world out” when I write, not in a visual sense. But in a sense of quiet. I need quiet, for reasons I won’t bore you with. I’ve lived in places where there was construction going on next door or across the alley. Sometimes eighteen hours a day. Once the vibrations from the construction were so bad that when I tried to play a record the needle would skip across it, making a sound as irritating as fingers on a blackboard.
When I haven’t had quiet, I would play music to mask the background sounds. Mostly the music turned to white noise.
And unlike Susan, who thrives on external stimulation, I can’t write well or at all in public places. I’m just too distracted by everything going on around me. I want to drink and chat and have fun. So I like retreating to my clean, well-lighted place, to borrow a phrase.
There's a lot to be learned for any kind of entertainer by visiting the theme parks in Orlando, Florida. And that's exactly what I'm going to tell the IRS when they ask how a dinner at the Sci-Fi Drive-In at Disney's Hollywood Studios is a business expense.
It's true: A day spent last week at Universal Studios Orlando and then two days at Disney parks (Hollywood and the Magic Kingdom, which is a slightly intimidating name for a theme park), were more than instructional in the art of keeping a mass audience entertained, enthusiastic and wanting more. The two large corporations behind these resorts have done a great deal of research into what works and what doesn't, and it shows.
If you're a writer, a performer, a director, an editor... you get the idea... take heed. The experts are leading by example. Pay attention, and you can find a way to link the ideas to what it is you do.
First: Always create anticipation. There's a reason there are all sorts of distractions on theme park ride lines, and it's not just that the park operator wants you to forget you're on line for over an hour to get on a three-minute ride. No, the idea here is to plant in the mind of the audience the idea that this is going to be awesome, so the wait is worth it. Entertainment along the way is part of the package--it makes you feel like the host cares about you, and builds up the experience to come.
Also: Make the audience member feel special. This still pertains to the line only. Both Universal and Disney have systems in place to make the guest feel smart and privileged by passing most of the simple peons on the line to more popular attractions. The differences in the systems are significant, but they have the same goal.
Universal Orlando allows some guests to bypass most of a line at especially busy rides (particularly in the Harry Potter sections, where traffic is highest), but you have to pay more for tickets that do so. It is sometimes possible to get nearer the front of a long line if you're willing to ride by yourself (without the rest of your party), but you then often bypass the pre-show described above, and in some of the rides, that the best part.
Disney's system, as usual, is better thought out. A Fast Pass option is available to all ticket holders. Special scanners at the entrance read the card. You can (if you have the Disney World app on your phone) select three rides the day before your trip and designate them for Fast Pass. Available times will be shown, and you choose. No more than three. If you don't have the app, you can do the same thing at the park at Guest Relations or Fast Past stations, usually near the really popular attractions.
The takeaway: I can feel like a big deal and save time and I don't have to pay extra. It's about pampering (at least in their minds) the audience.
A quick last note on lines: The wait times are posted outside each ride at both parks. They are almost always overestimated, giving the guest a treat when the wait doesn't actually take quite that long. Another pleasant experience that cost nothing.
And: You have to deliver an experience. The audience is primed and ready for something to happen after all that waiting (or, not waiting). Just the build-up won't satisfy. Make sure your product is superior, because all the smoke and mirrors in the world won't mask the fact that you haven't been trying hard enough.
For the author, this means not letting plot get in the way of character. Not writing dialogue that simply delivers story points and no personality. Constantly entertain.
Say what you want about the theme parks--they're garish, some of them are getting a little ragged around the edges, the commercialism is as blatant as it can possibly get. All that is true. But do they entertain? They sure do. And if I earned in one year what one of those parks takes in for french fry sales in one day...
We can all take a lesson.
OK, most of the time I don’t talk about any specific sales I make. I like to get into more general discussions of publishing, trying to give whatever insider impressions of the industry I can from my experiences without talking overmuch about any of my clients individually. It’s kind of like when my middle daughter tries to trick me into saying that I love her better than my other kids. I roll my eyes and say “Yes honey, you are the best middle child I have.”
So, 51 clients of mine, there are no favorites (except YOU…right. You.) Now I’m going to talk about two deals I was able to announce the past week. It’s remarkable that they appeared on the same weekly Deal Report from Publishers Marketplace, since I’ve been working with them, combined, for longer than I’ve been in Publishing! So congratulations Tania Roxborogh and Paul Goldberg—I’m incredibly proud to have sold your books.
I met both of these talented writers when I was still at Writers House, learning to be an agent. Paul Goldberg, a muckraking journalist in the world of oncology, had written…a novel about four Soviet intellectuals trying to kill Stalin. Tania Roxborogh, a teacher and accomplished author in her native New Zealand, had written a sequel of sorts to Macbeth, which was about to be published by Penguin New Zealand. She wanted to cross over to the United States, and approached me to represent her. Her book, Banquo’s Son, was a top-five best seller in New Zealand and won several end-of-year awards, and the sequels also were best sellers Down Under.
Goldberg, in the meantime, co-wrote a nonfiction book about the over- and under-treatment of cancer victims with American Cancer Society Chief Medical Officer Dr. Otis Brawley, which was published successfully by St. Martin's Press. And we periodically showed editors Levinson’s Sword, as the novel was called, but while everyone recognized Paul’s writing skill, which is prodigious, it was such an odd, unconventional book that we knew it would take a particular kind of editor to take it on.
The issue with Banquo’s Son was a bit different; it had to do less with whether it would be read than where it would be placed on the shelves. That’s because it’s a coming of age story, but where the protagonist starts book 1 as a 21 year-old, he ends book 3 as a twice-married father. The series is, as we say, a Razzle: It’s not a candy, not a gum. Too old to be YA…but it feels like YA. We needed a publisher where shelf space was less important.
And in the end, right before we left for Christmas, we found our homes. For Goldberg’s cross of Lear and Pushkin, now called The Yid, we found James Meador, who’s the head of publicity for Picador and Henry Holt. James wanted an unusual, but brilliant novel to take on and edit as a special project. And getting to know James, I understand precisely why he loved and appreciated The Yid.
We ended up with Emilie Marneur at Thomas & Mercer with Banquo’s Son because of Emilie’s marvelous handling of another book I represent, Elaine Powell’s novel about a knight and a nun during the reign of Henry II. One day Tania asked me whether it would make sense to try Emilie for Banquo. I’d gone to Amazon’s children’s division when we submitted the book as YA. But it’s not a traditional thriller. But Emilie understood that Tania’s novel of politics, love and adventure could potentially find the kind of audience that Elaine’s The Fifth Knight and its sequel has.
I can’t wait to find out. Watch out in a year for The Yid and Banquo’s Son. And if you’ve been out with a book, either looking for an editor or an agent, discouraged at the wait, think of Banquo’s Son and The Yid.
WINTER GARDEN, FL--I'm taking a few days to enjoy not being in New Jersey in February with my family, so this dispatch is being typed a while early. If somehow it has become irrelevant in the interim (like if the film business suddenly vanished this week), my apologies.
So the world is going to Hell in a Buick Regal, Jon Stewart has left us bereft, Brian Williams... I don't really care... the presidential election (U.S.) is a mere 21 months away, you should just get your kids inoculated for goodness sake, and the publishing business is no doubt preparing to lose its collective mind over some new tome that is, invariably, not mine. Okay. Let's discuss what's really on our minds.
Six nights from tonight, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences will hand out some trophies and there will be the inevitable overuses of words like "courage," "amazing," and "best crew in the business" in acceptance speeches.
I have no desire nor ability to accurately predict the winners of said statuettes, but I will be riveted to my couch, loving every minute of the interminable ceremony. I love the spectacle and the sheer goofiness of it all, so don't call my house during the Oscars. We're occupied. Or pre-occupied. Or something.
While I still object to the idea of more than five films nominated for the best picture category (that's just pandering and it's silly), I did make more of an effort to see those movies than I normally do. Eight films, and I saw seven, since I have no interest in the sniper thing, mostly because I've never seen a Clint Eastwood movie that didn't need a half-hour cut out of it simply for pacing.
So here are my impressions, for the remarkably little they're worth. Your opinions may certainly vary:
Birdman: I'm told that one either loves or hates this film, and I firmly fall into the latter category. What others saw as bold and inventive I saw as pretentious and showy. I didn't care about any of the characters, thought the shot-in-in-one-take gimmick was distracting, and had to take painkillers to undo the damage of the almost-all-percussion soundtrack. I have no problem with Michael Keaton winning for his performance, because I really like Michael Keaton and think he should have won for something else.
Boyhood: A snorefest of the highest order. Again, a gimmick that's impressive, but does not necessarily translate into the great film others believe they've seen. Instead, we get people just sort of hanging around for no particular reason and they get older as it goes on. Okay. The 7-Up documentaries are considerably more compelling, and those people are real.
The Grand Budapest Hotel: I am actually not a fan of Wes Anderson because there's only so much arch I can take before I go into painful withdrawal symptoms. But I liked this one better than most, the cast is came and it's nice the Academy is recognizing something that at least tries to be a comedy once in a while. Like most films, this one suffers from not having enough Bill Murray.
The Imitation Game: Biopics are a rough genre. If it's not a documentary--and by definition it isn't--the filmmakers will be criticized for inaccuracies that are inevitable when trying to make a piece of popular entrainment (in other words, a good movie). So this one is better than most, and suffers from the same problems as others: It's reverent without being absolutely accurate, is really made to show off a performance rather than a story, does so well, and ends up being fairly forgettable when all is said and done.
Selma: Another biopic. Sort of. The first movie to portray an actual human Martin Luther King Jr. and that is admirable. It tells a specific story without trying to be a one-stop-shop for the Civil Rights movement. It has a distracting cameo by Oprah Winfrey (probably to help it get made) and only pays a certain amount of lip service to Dr. King's flaws, which isn't a huge problem. It's compelling and watchable, if a bit slow in spots.
The Theory of Everything: Biopic. The last one on this list (again, no sniper here), and very much of a type. See everything I said about The Imitation Game above, and it'll pretty much be true. Eddie Redmayne gives a remarkable performance, as did Benedict Cumberbatch. He probably deserves to win an award. But Michael Keaton. And in this case, the odd thing: Not enough science. We're not really clear on what makes Stephen Hawking the phenomenon he became.
Whiplash: In my mind, the best of the bunch. I'm no fan of modern jazz (particularly when they try to play it too darn fast), and would rather face a firing squad than a prolonged drum solo (See: Birdman), but this film made me care and put me on edge. It's really a monster movie, with J.K. Simmons as the monster, and doing a remarkable job. Miles Teller as his terrified and singleminded protege is equally good in a less flashy role. I'll be rooting for this one knowing it has zero chance of winning the prize.
My family also, as has become our custom the past few years, saw the animated and live-action short films (but not the documentaries) nominated in those categories. (They're probably playing somewhere near you, and you should go.) It's not as interesting a bunch as last year's, but the consensus around the homestead here is that the Disney animated short Feast will win, which is okay but not as good as if A Single Life would. In live-action, we're rooting for Boogaloo and Graham, knowing that something more depressing like The Phone Call has a better shot.
Either way, after this all-too-brief sojourn into warm weather and theme parks is over, we'll be back at home, wearing lots of clothing and watching the far-too-long awards ceremony.
It's one of the best nights of the year.
P.S. If Jon Stewart's Rosewater had been nominated, it would have come in second after Whiplash. I certainly liked it better than whatever's going to win. You should find it on Netflix or elsewhere.
P.P.S. Pitchers and catchers report in four days. Spring is almost here.
His new story collection, Sweet Nothing, is on sale today. Every single story is a gut-punching gem.
In this week's New Yorker, Hilton Als reviews the stage adaptation of John Lindqvist's "Let the Right One In," saying: "if the performers had conversed in Swedish (with English supertitles) it would have created an effective difference between the audience and the play, adding to the general strangeness of the proceedings while remaining true to the story's roots."
So, Als thinks that some stories are meant to be foreign to us, to make us a little uncomfortable. His comment made me think of my recent experience reading the English translation of Norwegian author K.O. Dahl's The Man in the Window (2008). As I read, I was frequently distracted by odd bits of syntax. At the time, I thought these were errors of translation, but now I wonder if some of the strangeness of the syntax was deliberate. Either way, if Als is right, the mistakes may have added to my overall enjoyment of the novel.
For example, the text contains a number of odd uses of the word which: "His gaze fell on the front door which Ingrid, his wife, would open in a little over two hours..." (p. 9). Or: "She studied herself in the mirror on the wall, adjusted her long hair, plunged into her handbag for a lipstick which she ran across her lips" (p. 136). This commaless which appears almost once a chapter.
The little frisson one gets from noticing funny syntax is nothing, though, compared to the MORAL OUTRAGE one gets when one sees the bizarre words the translator uses in place of said. We all know it's okay to use said over and over in dialog -- but no one told translator Doug Bartlett, it seems. Or maybe it's Dahl who falls all over himself finding ways to avoid using the Norwegian equivalent of said. Characters in The Man in the Window mumble, mutter, murmur, stutter, stammer, shriek, grumble, whisper, and whinny. In one case, a character "mumbles" a 24-word sentence (p. 73), which seems rather excessive -- wouldn't someone have interrupted and to say "Please speak up"? In another case, we get mumbled three times in four sentences, as on page 51:
"The whole floor to themselves," Frolich mumbled.
"The widow -- Ingrid -- must have broken down," Gunnderstrada mumbled in a low voice.
Then Karsten Jesperson appeared in the doorway. "Come in," he mumbled softly, as though frightened someone would hear him.
Still, it's a pretty good book (she mumbled murmuringly, muttering).
Last night I began teaching my class in the Role of the Literary Agent at NYU. It’s an evening class, and after two and a half hours of talking and trying to be both illuminating and entertaining about the job I love doing…my throat hurts. It was interesting and fun, and I look forward to the next five classes to establish a rhythm and really get into the agent’s role in the life-cycle of a book.
After introducing the course and myself and finding out the makeup of the class, we went through a number of query letters—both strong and weak—discussing the characteristics of more and less successful queries.
And what we discovered by reading eight of them out loud, consecutively, is this: In almost every case, even in the good ones, the description of the plot was overlong. The student reading the query would read the first few sentences, stop, take a breath…and then there would be more. Characters would be named, secondary plot threads would be explored in detail, adjectives would fly. As we went through them, I started stopping the student at the point where the author should have ended.
Ultimately we realized this: A query letter is designed to make an agent want to read the first pages of the actual book. To accomplish this, the author really needs only to do the following:
1) Describe the genre and time period of the book (and be personally familiar enough with the agent to know that the genre and period are among those that the agent represents).
2) Say how long the book is, roughly (a nice, round, 75,000 words is just as good to us as 74,386).
3) Give a VERY short and pretty vague description of what the book is about (My 75,000 word contemporary young adult novel is about a spunky 17 year-old girl in LA who falls in love with the boy who plays bass in the hardcore punk band she’s auditioning for. When they are offered the chance to play in the Bumblecrumb festival the same week as final exams, her dreams of Harvard must fight it out with the chance to share the stage with Fugazi.)
4) Tell a bit about yourself, keeping in mind that all the agent cares about is relevant details: Experience as a florist—meh. Experience singing in hardcore punk bands while at Harvard—good. “This is my seventh novel, though I’m still waiting for my first publication”—Too much. “This is my first novel”—fine.
5) Then…get out of the way. We’re good. We want to read the first pages, and your writing will make the rest of the difference.
My students’ first assignment is to write query letters for famous books (Hunger Games, Murder on the Orient Express, The Fault in our Starts, and several more). I hope they remember that they need very little plot description, and that an A paper—or the path to publication!--can be much quicker than it would seem to be.
Sometimes something appeals to your sensibility. It's a piece of art or entrainment that's aimed right between your eyes, and it doesn't happen that often, so you want to jump on the opportunity when it arises.
Such it was with me and Galavant.
This combination swashbuckler/farce/musical/spoof/dessert topping was promoted as a "four-week event," which got me excited. For once, a television comedy miniseries. Something different that TV has been needing for a long time: A finite story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. When the reviews (in advance) indicated it had a "Mel Brooks-Meets-Monty Python sensibility," I settled in sure that the experience would be an enjoyable one.
For the most part, it was. Shot in eight half-hour segments, the story (with crazy musical numbers, asides to the camera, characters commenting on the plot) was presented two episodes at a time for four weeks. It started out promisingly and built nicely, giving the characters time to settle in and interact with each other.
Were the jokes often obvious? Sure. Like the campfire scene in Blazing Saddles was subtle. Did they all hit the target? Of course not. I can think of some clunkers in A Night at the Opera, too.
The songs? Usually clever. Sometimes a little overcooked, sometimes appearing a bit rushed. Alan Menken, who did the music for countless Disney movies starting with The Little Mermaid, was in charge there, alas without the genius Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS when Aladdin was being prepared. It was, as with all of Galavant, fun to see TV try to stretch a little. And most of the time it worked.
So when the last two episodes were about to air, I had a rush of anticipation. The ending would wrap up the story and provide a coda. It would be nice to see the experiment come to its logical, satisfying conclusion.
Then it didn't.
Apparently believing there would be a Season 2, the producers left any number of cliffhangers in place as the story evolved. All the characters were scattered to the four winds, quick changes in status and standing were made, and a final song indicated that you should tune in at some unnamed point to find out how this all plays out.
What a disappointment.
Just when you (or in this case, I) think someone's taking a chance on television and breaking the rules, the rules come and smack you in the face again. Convention rears its ugly head no doubt in anticipation of increased profits, Blu-ray sales and syndication deals.
The weird part is that if it hadn't done what it did so well, I wouldn't have cared. Well, it was conventional from the outset and remained conventional. That wouldn't have been so bad. But Galavant had actually exceeded my expectations, so its late decision to think inside the box was a let-down.
The audience is always secondary to what can be earned by networks and studios. Yes, there were risks taken with music and comedy in a Get Smart sort of sensibility. That's not to be discounted. But where there was the opportunity to do something really special, to do comedy for comedy's sake and show what a singular, joyful art form it can be, business won out over show.
It wasn't a huge surprise, but the specter of what could have been did loom. Well, I still hope to see you again sometime, Galavant. Good luck in your travels. Hope enough people watched you to encourage others to try and stretch the medium.
P.S. You might have noticed that I didn't mention the Super Bowl. That is because there are only four things I care about less than the Super Bowl, and I care about them so little I can't remember what they are.
What is important: Pitchers and catchers report in 18 days.