Monday, April 27, 2015

The spy craft of writing

Many writers will tell you that they build their characters from people they know, have met or have observed and eavesdropped on out in the wild. 

Not long ago I had the opportunity to sit in a chain coffee shop far from home for several hours. I spent it observing the many people coming and going - discreetly, I wouldn’t openly stare as I was bent over my notebook most of the time. 

I would imagine what their lives were like based on various clues I picked up about the clothes they wore, the way they used their cell phones, how loudly they would share information with the barista - you’ll note people will either say something for which they want sympathy or praise - what method they would use to pay for their beverage, how they talked to their kids, etc. You can learn a lot about a person just by observing. 

One individual in particular stood out. 
The more I listened in on his conversation with someone he had just ‘recruited’ for his ‘how to build true wealth’ program, the more he started to sound like the archetype conman, the trickster. 

Since he had set up shop at a table behind me, I made a point of not looking around and only listening. Piecing together the clues from only sound, such as the nervous shuffling of paper when his latest recruit told him about a stint in prison. The rushed breathing and hurried talking when he realized he was losing his recruit’s attention. 

The story as it unfolded was fascinating - for a writer - and using deductive reasoning and a very active imagination, I filled in the blanks of how this story would unfold based simply on an overheard one hour conversational sales pitch. In my story things did not end well for the trickster and judging by the way he rushed out of the coffee shop I suspect he may have thought that as well. 

I imagine spies use similar techniques to piece together information and puzzle out stories, but instead of a high level, secret report, this story might end up in one of my books one of these days. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Spinning Straw into Gold

Well, that is the hope, intent and desired outcome anyway.

A renegotiation of the original agreement with my now 81-year old screenwriting client; that shrewd, hardcore minor real estate mogul, has resulted in my have carte blanche to rewrite the screenplay. 

I’ll keep the core idea, but will build a different, more engaging story around it. 

But before I can do that, I will need to go over the notes written all over the original screenplay and sort out what was good, what was deemed mediocre, and what was just plain bad. From there I learn and rebuild. As I mentioned in a previous post, the comments by Wendy Kram, Script Consultant, are like a master class in screenwriting. I just need to take them on board and learn. 

I will create more multi-dimensional characters, like I do in my books. I’ll take the story down to its essence and build out from there. Make the dialogue pop, and make sure there’s far less telling and much more showing. (Watch for future blogposts on “show don’t tell”)

My client has expressed an interest in being involved and has told me some of the things he’d like to keep in there, but I think I’ll sit him down and explain that he wants to cram in too much. We can’t save Detroit, build a new industry, go back to include an exciting chapter on WWII Flying Tigers in China, jump forward to 2020, and solve the world tensions by bringing together China and the US all in one 90 minute film. Oh, and somewhere in there have a big ‘ole Motown benefit concert and a tour of the Detroit auto show. All that tends to crowd out room for character development.

The core idea has to come through, and truly movies rarely tackle more than one issue-idea-action at a time. Unless of course you’re going for a 3 hour long production, but rarely, if ever, does a new screenwriter get that opportunity. Cut your teeth on the standard format and if they like you enough you might be able to go wide and step off the beaten path. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

April Book Review

Rather than review one book like I normally do, I’d like to pay homage to one of the greats who recently passed away: Terry Pratchett. 

I discovered his Discworld books quite by accident. Some years back I’d picked up a copy of Good Omens to read on a long flight to Europe. This book was a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and more than worth the price of a paperback. 

The back cover indicated it would be a laugh out loud social commentary. A witch from 1655 made a prophecy - right before she exploded - on when the world would end. That date is fast approaching, next Saturday in fact, so the forces of evil and the forces of good are gathering and picking their battle lines. Except things don’t quite go as planned. 

Good Omens made a long, boring flight much more pleasant, I didn’t even notice the poor, crying babies. 

In talking with the friends I visited on that trip I learned of Pratchett’s Discworld series of books  and I gradually started to collect and read them. I very much enjoy the humor, the social commentary and well-developed characters, some of which are so over the top that you have to wonder who or what inspired the author. The books are fantasy writing at its best, and no pesky chapters dividing the flow, or long drawn out descriptions, just page after page of enjoyable - and at times thought provoking - reading. 

Two standouts for me are Mort and Equal Rites

Mort because it makes the character of Death - a very misunderstood man - so human in his need for a break from it all. He finds a young man, named Mort and takes him on as an apprentice. The boy’s father is only too happy to get rid of him because he does not appear suited to anything. Mort seems to do well though as Death’s apprentice, which makes for interesting twists and turns in the story. 

Equal Rites because the story is about a young girl who wants to enter the wizard’s college - which is only for men. She was chosen at birth; a dying wizard wished to pass on his powers to the eighth son of an eighth son at the moment of birth, however he discovers too late the baby born is a girl. The book makes a truly worthy and highly entertaining treatise on women’s rights. 

Of course I also very much enjoyed Soul Music, Reaper Man and Witches Abroad
And as luck would have it, I found one recently I had not read yet. I look forward to savoring Snuff and will try to read it slowly. 

Mr. Pratchett and his awesome talent will be missed, but at least we have his books.