Monday, May 31, 2010

I am writing Monster Mash-Ups.

Gonna get me some of that "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" money.

Coming soon:

A Farewell to Arms and Legs and Torsos and Brains, by Ernest Hemingway and Daniel Friedman

Rabbit, Run Away From The Zombies, by John Updike and Daniel Friedman

The Naked and the Undead, by Norman Mailer and Daniel Friedman

Afterlife on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain and Daniel Friedman

The Beautiful and Damned II: Revenge of the Damned, by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Daniel Friedman (Film rights already optioned to Michael Bay)

Ethan Frome The Black Lagoon, by Edith Wharton and Daniel Friedman

Extremely Loud and Incredibly
Close To A Werewolf, by Jonathan Safran Foer and Daniel Friedman

A Tale of Two Cities Destroyed by Godzilla, by Charles Dickens and Daniel Friedman

A Heartbreaking Work of Steampunk Zombie Apocalypse, by Dave Eggers and Daniel Friedman

Writing Rituals

Because writing is a sacred and mysterious art, its practice should be accompanied by certain somber rituals.  This is mine:

Before I sit down at my battered and well-used typewriter, I like to pour myself a nice glass of bourbon, the real kind, aged in sturdy oak barrels. I only use ice made from distilled water, so as not to introduce impurities that can taint the nose or the flavor.

I prefer to enjoy it out on my porch in late afternoon, or at least in a room with lots of natural light, so I can appreciate the fine deep caramel color of the whiskey, and watch it turn amber as the ice begins to melt into it.

Good bourbon speaks to me of warm spring breezes and old-growth forests, of rich Kentucky soil and clean, honest labor. The taste and the smell of it grabs hold of me, shakes me, and presses me close against the bosom of a profound and irreducible truth.

That's when I'm ready to craft a sentence of perfect prose; something unambiguous and authentic, in muscular, economical language. That's when I approach my workbench. That's when I begin hammering.

"Did someone fart in here?" she asked, wrinkling her nose with disgust.

I read it, afterwards, at least three times. I can barely believe I've written it, and I am filled with pride and awe. My God, I think. I've torn out the very soul of the thing, and committed it to the ages.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

James Franco: Super Genius

"Wanna blaze one, Marina Abramovic?"

After starring in "Freaks and Geeks," the "Spider-Man" movies and "Pineapple Express, actor James Franco is doing an extended stint on "General Hospital" while he gets MFAs in film and fiction from NYU and Columbia. The soap gig is actually a form of performance art, he explains, because his appearance in something so transparently ridiculous is, in itself, an artistic statement.

Franco also appeared on "30 Rock" playing himself, in a storyline where he was trying to conceal his sexual/romantic relationship with a large pillow.

Franco believes that, by fusing high-concept self-referential performance art with a heavy dose of irony, he can vaccinate himself against bad-movie blowback.

So when he appears in the doomed-from-conception "Rise of the Apes" he's not just a movie star appearing in a bad film; he's an artistic genius making a challenging statement about gorillas.

This is the latest technology in image-management for people involved in bad-movies.

Other approaches:

1. Revisionist history. Here, the people responsible for "X-Men: The Last Stand" congratulate themselves for making a movie everyone hates.

2. Biting the bullet. Not advisable. Chloe Sevigny was damn near crucified for admitting the latest season of "Big Love" was not the best thing to come along since the invention of sex with multiple partners.

3. The qualified apology: Roger Ebert is a man who has endured pain that is difficult to comprehend during his battle with cancer. Yet he found "Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen" so unpleasant that he described it as "a horrible experience of unbearable length."

Consider that for a moment, and think about who Roger Ebert is. As one of the world's most prolific film critics, Ebert's basis for comparison is every other movie ever made. He's sat through everything, so when your movie is a "horrible experience" for him, you know you've really outdone yourself.

And Ebert lost a significant percentage of his face to cancer. This man has been disfigured, and he has lost the ability to speak, and yet he has come through his ordeal with his wit mostly intact, and a positive outlook.

Roger Ebert's definition of "unbearable," the thing this man cannot bear, is "Transformers 2."

When you have created a thing like "Transformers 2," when you committed an atrocity of this magnitude and released it on 4000 screens, how do you respond to the charges? Here's star Shia Lebeouf sort of admitting, without stepping on any toes, that the movie might not have been "Citizen Kane" with giant robot testicles.

4. Learn to stop worrying and love the bad. Val Kilmer loves that "MacGruber" is gross and makes no sense. Val Kilmer is awesome. He can be my wingman anytime.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"Lost" is different from other kinds of stories

"Don't tell me what I can't do!"

"Lost" ends Sunday. Everyone is wondering what the "alterna-verse" is, and what secrets will be left unrevealed as the show narrows its focus and whittles its cast down toward some kind of finale.

Whatever it is, a lot of long-term fans will be disappointed. Long-running threads will be left unresolved. We probably won't find out how the Island magically heals people. We probably won't find out why women can't bring pregnancies to term on the Island. We probably won't find out who was shooting at the time-shifting Losties from the outrigger canoe in early Season 5. And the time-travel story arc is beginning to look like a sort of red herring, since its diversion to explore the Dharma Initiative didn't teach us anything about the dynamic between Jacob and Smokey that's apparently been going on for so long.

Loose ends are the consequence of a narrative form that is as distended as American series television, and every very long-run television show about mysteries ends up going off the rails, from a narrative perspective. In the first season, the show's writers are just trying to pack in more trippy stuff and more threads that tease you along to the next episode, so they won't get cancelled.

People just don't get how this works. The show feeds you clues, but they cannot really be clues. If there were "clues" that led logically to "answers," people would figure everything out. The show promises tantalizing "answers" week-to-week, but if there are no more questions, people stop watching.

Lost has been really masterful at big revelations that don't reveal anything. We're going to learn about the Others (who don't know anything). We're going to learn about the Dharma Initiative (who don't know anything). We're going to learn about Jacob (who doesn't know anything). OMG! We're gonna learn about RICHARD (HE DOESN'T KNOW ANYTHING). We're going to find out what the Smoke Monster is (Holy shit! He's a smoke monster).

If somebody could figure out from logical evidence seeded into previous episodes what the Island is, or who the Final Five Cylons are, or who killed Laura Palmer, then the answer could be deduced years in advance. Think about how you might be able to predict the third-act twist in the first twenty minutes of a movie, and imagine how crippling that would be if you could "call" a show like "Lost" in Season 2.

The answer structurally has to be something that comes in from outside the story or from new information that's introduced at the very end of the run. That's why it always ends up being ghosts or magic or angels or something. It feels like a cheat, and it is one. Anyone expecting the final episodes of a show like "Lost" to provide answers that justify years of viewing is going to be disappointed.

And Lost has been cavalier about introducing crazy new elements; the donkey wheel, time travel in S5, and Jacob and Smokey appearing as players for the first time in S6. It's always boxes within boxes; whoever seems to be running things is getting run; there's always some mysterious dude on the horizon who might reveal the answers (tune in next week).

And at the end of the day, you get an EZ-Bake hobbit hole in a mysterious waterfall that nobody has ever been to for some reason.

You just have to kind of enjoy the ride.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Opening your novel with action

"...and then I woke up."

I think a lot of writers have been led to believe they need to open on an action beat. This is a misinterpretation of the rule that you should start with the beginning of the story, with the things that happen, rather than with backstory, world-building, info-dumping or exposition.

Opening on an action beat is often a bad idea, because it focuses on the mechanics of the action rather than introducing the characters. If your action beat reveals something about the characters, it can be a fine opening, but a lot of times it doesn't.

An unhelpful action opener looks like this:

MC is fighting somebody. The opponent punches, MC blocks. MC counters, but the opponent dodges. Then MC sweeps his leg and knocks the opponent down. MC smiles.

We don't know anything about the characters, so we are not invested in this fight or its outcome. And at the end of this, we don't know anything about the characters that we didn't know before, other than that they know how to fight, and that MC is maybe a little better than the opponent.

A more helpful action beginning would look like this:

Bully antagonist punches MC in the face. MC falls down, and rubs at his injured nose. MC's hand comes away bloody, so MC smears the blood on the bully's clean white sneakers. Bully, enraged, punches MC again. MC figures it was worth it.

Here, at least, we've learned that our MC is physically vulnerable, but he can be a little bit vindictive and a little bit masochistic. He's kind of dark, and that's interesting.

But the violence or the action isn't what draws the reader in; it's the conflict, it's story happening. Action scenes, like sex scenes can be exciting, but they're rarely the meat of the narrative. The story and its tension lends punch to the action sequences, not the other way around.

Consider this possible opening, which utilizes a much lower-key conflict:

MC gets on a bus. He's wearing a thousand-dollar suit, but it's all rumpled and dirty. He's got a black eye and dried blood crusted on his ear. Bus Driver says: "Exact fare only." MC pulls out his billfold, and it's stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. He peels one off and hands it to the driver. "This is all I got." Driver says: "Exact fare only." MC says: "How about you keep the change?" Bus Driver shrugs and pockets the hundred. Bus Driver: "If you've got all them Bennies, what're you doing riding the bus?" MC: "How about you keep your questions, too?"

The conflict in this scene is that the guy wants to get on a bus, and doesn't have exact fare. But that's all you need to do to put us into the story, because things are happening here. What's this guy been doing? Why is he on the bus? Where did he get the money?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

More Lord Byron: Lines Addressed To A Young Lady

"Next time, don't walk where I'm shooting!"

It's time again for Lord Byron poetry analysis, when we dissect the beautiful verses of great Romantic poets, and find they're actually about alcohol-fueled misbehavior.

As before, my analysis and translation is the italics.


Doubtless, sweet girl! the hissing lead,
Wafting destruction o'er thy charms
And hurtling o'er thy lovely head,
Has fill'd that breast with fond alarms.

This poem is an apology. Byron was drunk, as was his usual habit, and, in that state, was discharging firearms in his garden. The lady was walking nearby, and Byron almost shot her.

So this stanza basically means: "I guess you were probably frightened when I shot at you."


Surely some envious Demon's force,
Vex'd to behold such beauty here,
Impell'd the bullet's viewless course,
Diverted from its first career.

Flattery, in Byron's time as now, helped to gloss over social faux pas, such as drunkenly shooting at people.

Surely, Lord Byron writes, some demon was so jealous of your beauty that he sent the bullets in your direction.


Yes! in that nearly fatal hour,
The ball obey'd some hell-born guide;
But Heaven, with interposing power,
In pity turn'd the death aside.

It is by the intervention of Divine Providence, dear Lady, that you weren't killed by my drunken antics!


Yet, as perchance one trembling tear
Upon that thrilling bosom fell;
Which _I_, th' unconscious cause of fear,
Extracted from its glistening cell;--

I didn't mean to scare you.


Say, what dire penance can atone
For such an outrage, done to thee?
Arraign'd before thy beauty's throne,
What punishment wilt thou decree?

Seriously, baby, what can I do to make this right? Backrub? Footrub? Whatever you got, I'll rub it.


Might I perform the Judge's part,
The sentence I should scarce deplore;
It only would restore a heart,
Which but belong'd to _thee_ before.

Even though I got hammered and shot at you, you know I love you, Baby.


The least atonement I can make
Is to become no longer free;
Henceforth, I breathe but for thy sake,
Thou shalt be _all in all_ to me.

If any students reading this are wondering what English class is good for, take note: when you can write apologies like this, you can pretty much get away with staggering around drunk and shooting guns at people.


But thou, perhaps, may'st now reject
Such expiation of my guilt;
Come then--some other mode elect?
Let it be death--or what thou wilt.

He's really laying it on here. But when you do the kind of crazy shit Lord Byron did, you really learn how to crush an apology.


Choose, then, relentless! and I swear
Nought shall thy dread decree prevent;
Yet hold--one little word forbear!
Let it be aught but banishment

Saturday, May 1, 2010

New Articles at Yankee Pot Roast

I've got a couple of new ones over at YPR:

Liberals are Ruining the World Of Warcraft

Bastards! Apparently, our nation's health care was not enough.

Also, if anyone working on a query letter finds their way here, they might find my article Novels Submitted For Consideration at a Literary Agency amusing.

There was also a fourth query letter, which was cut from that article for length. Here it is:

Dear Agent,

Please consider representing my exciting new novel, which is certain to be an international bestseller.

On the night of the Last Supper, Jesus Christ dictated his True Gospel to Saint Peter, and revealed unto him the Divine secret of unlimited weight loss, eternally tight abs, and a toned, sexy core. Tragically, Christ’s sanctified guide to fit living fell into the wrong hands during the first century, A.D., and has, ever since, been hidden away by a shadowy cabal.

But in 2009, Christina McGuire, a trained theologian who became an archaeologist after her faith lapsed, discovers a carefully-hidden trail of ancient clues, prepared by Revolutionary War heroes Paul Revere and Patrick Henry, that will guide her to the shocking truth: God so loved the world that He wanted everybody to be thin.

But Christina quickly finds out why Christ’s Gospel has been kept secret for so long. The liberal Left wants to keep everyone fat and unhealthy, so they can pass the universal health care bill that heralds the coming of the Antichrist! Soon, Christina is on the run, chased by the Left’s most fearsome assassin, a terrifying albino from an extreme sect of Secular Humanists, who engages in the shocking practice of ritual self-masturbation.

With nothing less than the world’s sculpted glutes resting in her hands, Christina has to find a way to strike back at the Liberals and get God’s word to the chubby people who need to hear it. Nobody seems willing to help her except for Jacques, a dark-eyed stranger whose sexual magnetism is matched only by his aura of mystery. But Christina is not sure if she can trust him. After all, he’s a vampire.

The Jesus Christ Plan for Weight Loss the Liberals Don’t Want You to Know About: A Novel is like an exciting combination of The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, Glenn Beck’s Common Sense, and The South Beach Diet, rolled into one action-packed 95,000 word book!

Damien Scratch