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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

No, Seriously, Just F*ng Entertain Me

Good afternoon, everybody! And now...bite those fingernails...the quarterfinalists have been narrowed down significantly to the contenders for the top spots. I just had the scripts printed and labeled and took them to my office. So now I gaze upon the pile of scripts in which I will find my winner.

The title, writer's name and genre are written on each. Who will it be? This is the fun part, this is the part I love. I know of the hundreds of scripts received that these are the cream of the crop. Is the grand prize winner the script with the hilarious title that I can't wait to read? Or is it the script with a very unassuming title? Which genre will it be? I'm like a kid in the candy store; I love the anticipation. I wonder what the writer's like? I wonder if this will kick off a career?

Amidst all of this, life continues to roll on. As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, I went on vacation in Key West and Miami for a few days. While on that trip, I met a young, aspiring writer who took my business card. A few days ago, he emailed me a few pages of his novel, wondering why he cannot get any interest in a read from editors or agents. I'm too busy for this, I thought! Gah! I have a competition to run! But - I'm in a good mood so I read the few pages he sent.* And because I don't want to leave you Wavers hanging for entertaining distractions to read today, the slightly modified (for privacy and entertainment) email I sent the writer is below. I figured there's a kernel in here for everyone, screenwriter, novelist or short fiction writer though you may be:

*What is the lesson there? If your email is polite, not too ass-kissy but with just the right amount of flattery, the recipient might just be in a good mood, have a free five minutes and read what you sent. You never know, right? I get emails like this all the time -requests that are rude, blunt or demanding go straight to the deleted folder. If you've ever sent me a question or some pages and you never heard back it's because I'm busy up to my eyeballs and your email did not move my spirit to stop what I was doing and read your unsolicited question, script or manuscript. Hint: I like flattery and cupcakes.


Hey Young Writer X - wish I could look at this material much more in depth, alas, I am way too swamped with the competition right now. I did read over it very quickly though and my very surface comments would be that the premise - where this is all going - is unclear as heck and the main character is not very likable or relatable. That's all fine; many fine main characters in fiction have been less than charismatic but that said, a reader needs something they can hang onto - something they can relate to, and some reason they would want to read on.

Now, you know that I primarily work in entertainment, i.e, film scripts, but in my travels I was also frequently hired to read novels for possible adaptation. I have a book coming out this spring called Just F*ng Entertain Me and the main tenet is that material needs to be fundamentally engaging and entertaining. While literature has a lot more room for wheelie-popping, character development and reflective musings, at the end of the day, as attention spans are growing shorter and shorter and the demands on our time have become crowded with things like Twitter, You Tube, gaming, television and movies, you have to be particularly adept at grabbing your reader immediately and keeping them reading your pages. And for that, your premise must unfold and present itself fairly quickly and the main character, even a dissolute anti-hero as yours, must be relatable in some way.

Now, a story about an anti-hero who gets sick to death of it all and hatches some plan or other is not a new premise. What do you bring to the table that is fresh? The beginning pages (including prologue) do not yet highlight or showcase why I should read on. Read the first 10pages of The Lovely Bones and tell me you're not completely hooked. Hell, the first two sentences of the book hooked me: My name was Salmon; like the fish, first name, Susie. I was 14 when I was murdered on December 6, 1973. This is brilliance, just FYI. She was murdered at age 14?? Then - who's narrating the book?! Hooked solid.

Put yourself in the shoes of an editor who receives piles of manuscripts each week. Read the first few pages of several authors whom you admire. Reread your first few pages. Why should I read on? What am I going to learn from a bitter, dissolute character that I haven't already read before? Your job as a writer is to ENTERTAIN your audience - writing a novel is not an exercise in gazing at your navel and picking the literary lint out of it while showing me what pretty words you know - your job is to entertain me. It's bread and circus. Thumbs up or thumbs down.

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Anonymous said...

Then again, all writing is subjective, so who knows, this guy could be the next William Faulkner (who had some awesome anti-heroes) to another reader, or not.

Either way, at least he had the moxy to approach you with a few pages. That's pretty gutsy in my book.

JPSmith said...

Hey Julie, just an FYI, but when one writes a novel, "premise" (as we know it in screenwriting) just isn't on the table. A novel is in itself a premise, not a landscape built around one.

One of the great luxuries of writing an extended work of fiction (and remember that the novelist Henry Green called the novel "a long intimacy between strangers") is that you can go for the slow build, so that those opening pages don't have to own the punch that the opening pages of a script require.

What MUST grab is the quality of the writing, and that's what agents and editors look for. They just want to know you can write well enough to sustain a narrative of 100,000 words. If the writing is uncertain or sloppy on page one, the show's over. Even if those opening pages are about a concept that is truly eye-opening. Publishers invest in a writer's future work, so if the author simply can't manage to get his or her words down with some style and, yes, elegance on those opening pages, it's not going to lead to a deal.

Also, as regards unlikeable characters, literature is full of them: to take one example, look at Beckett's protagonists in his great trilogy. We don't much want to have them hanging around our kitchen, but they're fascinating to read about. In fact, unsavory characters in fiction are generally more interesting than their more saintly counterparts.

Steve Axelrod said...

Fascinating ... and so true. It reminds me of my MFA program where the one word you couldn't use in workshops was the B word ... boring. One of my wife's favorite professors one year didn't seem to understand the rules. He'd remark, "I don't know ... this just isn't very interesting, Dave. I mean ... why would I keep turning pages, if I didn't have to?"
He was gone, pronto.
The B word is taboo for a reason. It's relatively easy to teach people grammar and the use of recurrent imagery and narrative structure and sub-plots. It's impossible to teach people how to be interesting, or amusing, or entertaining. One person's idea of a good first sentence is "Tad woke up with a splitting headache."
Another person's is "Years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia would remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
You can't teach someone to bridge that gap.

Trina0623 said...

It's true that all art is subjective. But an audience needs something to indicate that this novel or movie is worth a significant investment of their time.

I loved "The Lovely Bones" and it's a great example. Those first two sentences set up the questions that the reader will want to have answered, and thus keep reading. Who was this young girl? How did she die? Who killed her? Why? How is her family coping with it? How does she feel about all this as she looks down from Heaven?

A film or novel can certainly have a bitter, dissolute anti-hero but we need get the immediate sense that this is leading to a story that's worth telling for the demonstration of a theme, lesson, or transformation. It can't be just the ramblings of an author who wants to vent.

Thanks for sharing Julie. And kudos to the author for sharing -- that's the only way to learn and grow in your art form. Don't be discouraged -- it's a process.

Julie Gray said...

@Steve - SO true.

@JP - I know you are an experienced, published novelist, so I appreciate your sharing, very much! You know I am a literature HOUND so I'm aware, yes, that antiheroes abound, as well as the difference between premise in a script and premise in a novel, but that said, JP, speaking of landscape, it's shifting rapidly. 8 of 10 novels published 50 years ago would never be published today, it's a simple fact. Young novelists today, trying to break in, need to show very quickly (as you point out) a facility with language and story on the very early pages of the manuscript but in addition, simply HOLD the attention of the reader evaluating the material from the get go. Attention spans are down, media consumption is shifting very rapidly and the market is crowded. Young writers cannot afford to write a landscape that is a premise and hope you get it enough to publish the book. Voice, a premise around which all will revolve, as Sebold does so well and a more or less immediate entertainment factor must be present for the manuscript to compete. You refer to literary fiction, which I hate to say, is an unprofitable and dying breed.

JPSmith said...

Speaking from the inside of the business, more or less, literary fiction really isn't a dying genre. It's what the midlist consists of (as opposed to the frontlist, i.e. new books, and the backlist, already published books still in print, a subsection now a matter of history).

There is still a lot of room (and a lot of titles published annually) in the literary novel genre. In fact, most fiction published falls into that category, whether it's work by Lorrie Moore or Jonathan Lethem or even Thomas Pynchon. Most of the fiction reviewed in the NY Times Book Review is of the literary genre, and we're really only starting to see some blurring especially in the UK and Scandinavia, where the crime novel has become a literary genre all on its own, though it still has a long way to go before it's promoted as such.

I know from editors and agents that a novel doesn't have to grab with a premise from the get-go. It has to be well-written, of course, but what really grabs a reader in the publishing world is voice.

Julie Gray said...

As an avid NY Book Review reader and lover, from the perspective of earnings, not worth, I respectfully disagree with you, JP, about where literary fiction writers like Lorrie Moore (huge fan) or Thomas Pynchon stand when it comes to copies sold. Books like Twilight or Harry Potter, very premise driven, SELL. I'm honored to know someone who so clearly loves and admires literary fiction but it doesn't sell copies the way genre writing does. I don't think there's any way to argue otherwise. And when an editor picks up a potential Twilight book, the premise is important, yes indeedy. Otherwise, how do mainstream publishing houses decide upon inventory? Voice is lovely but it cannot stand alone, it just can't. Now, we are both presuming to know what the writer this blog post was about is planning on as a trajectory; literary fiction or more mainstream fiction. Having read the pages, I think he's shooting up the middle. I appreciate your opinions and certainly your experience but from the standpoint of development, marketing and entertainment value, I think we have to agree to disagree.

JPSmith said...

Let me just say before I absent this discussion that when an editor receives what's obviously a commercial breakout novel (and Dan Brown, who wouldn't know a properly-written sentence if it slapped him across the face), it's judged very differently from a work of fiction that's more clearly a better fit with the midlist.

The advance for a Brown is considerably (and I speak in cosmic terms here) more than for a Moore or a Lethem, for instance, because the company knows it'll recoup its investment.

All publishing is an investment: whether the book will bring in millions of dollars, and hence help finance the publication of works that will not succeed commercially but will bring prestige to the house, or an investment in one's career. These two categories of books are handled in very different ways when they come onto the editorial floor.

These days, the typical advance for a literary novel (with a print run of, say, 7500) is half of what it used to be: around $5000-6000. What publishers are hoping for is a healthy sale of subsidiary rights (translation and paper, primarily, as the author typically retains film rights), and great press.

Even the author tour has become a thing of the past, and we all have to take care of much of our own promotion, on our own dime.

If you're speaking wholly in commercial terms, sure, all publishers (or at least most) would opt for the quick and easy seller. But many still retain that old-fashioned urge of discovery, and they make those discoveries not necessarily in the commercial stuff that comes over the transom or via agents but serendipitously.

Nine out of ten books received by agents or editors these days are incompetent. That's a fact stated by my agent and most of the other established reps, as well as editors. They're poorly-written, they can't sustain whatever promise may have glowed on the first page, the characters are two-dimensional, and the style is flat and utterly without interest.

Having known and spent a great deal of time with many editors in my career, I can say that voice is hugely important, especially if we're dealing in literary fiction. A reader can side with a narrative voice sometimes even more than with a character.

Unless it's a work of genre fiction, a midlist novel really isn't meant to grab with premise or story from page one. As I wrote before, it's a slow build: we need to know where we are, who's telling us the story, and then, seduced by that voice, we can irresistibly be drawn into the story.

There are even novels in which, after 250 pages or so, just before the end, we only then are enlightened as to what has happened. A literary novel is about journey, not end.

Julie Gray said...

Good stuff, JP! We should charge an entry fee for our rousing discussion! Thanks; your pov is greatly appreciated!

martinb said...

Two points:

First: I've been reading a lot of screenplays recently, and some of them have the writing on that first half-page amped up to an absurd extent, only to revert to more normal writing further on. It's like someone putting an insincere smile on their faces, and I don't like it. Start as you mean to continue. That first sentence or two should set the tone -- gentle and reflective, muscular and action-packed, mysterious and creepy,... whatever.

Second: I think the unlikeable protagonist has to thrill you somehow; either by having the balls to say or do what you could never do (e.g. any number of potty-mouth stoners), or the power (because of great wealth, high position, or physical strength) to do what you could never do (e.g. Gordon Gekko); to the extent that you want to stay near them to see what they will do next.

Dave Shepherd said...

This is just like the debate over on wordplayer -- what's cool (concept) vs. story.

You can have the best of both worlds... you can have a good concept with good writing. You don't have to choose between one or the other. As I said on wordplayer...

If I asked my friends to see a movie (or read a book) about racial tension, apartheid, and violence between two different cultures, most of them would probably yawn.

But every single one of them wants to see District 9.

Good concept = story that you can sell.

Good writing = story that can win awards and prestige.

Both = A classic.

And isn't that what we should all be aiming for?

JPSmith said...

As a screenwriter, you absolutely should, Dave. I was referring solely to novelists here, where, again, concept is not really something editors tend to look for or talk about. Sure, they want a compelling tale, but it's the execution that really counts.

Dave Shepherd said...

But as a novelist, shouldn't you also worry about a strong concept?

I mean, yes, you can still sell a novel if it doesn't have a strong concept (which I'd guess would be exceptionally rare for a script), but if you could have the best of both worlds, why wouldn't you?

I suspect it's because most of us can't choose what we write... some stories just aren't high concept, but you really want to write them.

Fight Club wasn't really high concept, neither is most of Chuck Palahnuik's work (of what I've read).

Curious as to your opinion, JP. I mean, eventually you still have to sell a novel, so you're still going to need something to put on the back flap, something that stands out, aren't you?

I have my doubts as to how much mainstream audiences care about quality of writing. Of course, if you're not looking for mainstream success, that's irrelevant.

JPSmith said...

Dave, selling a novel is very different from selling a movie, and of course the relationship between the audience and the creator is also very different. As I quoted before, Henry Green defined a novel as "a long intimacy between strangers," something very unlike the way a movie is presented in a blackened theatre before 40, 50 or even 100 viewers.

If you look at most midlist novels published today, yesterday, and over the past hundred years or so (midlist meaning "literary fiction," as it's called), you'll see such titles as Henry James's The Wings of the Dove, The Great Gatsby, Ulysses, Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Ford's The Good Soldier, and most literary novels published today.

None could be said to have a strong concept as you'd see in a screenplay or finished movie. All are about character, and are built out of character, something that the novel can handle exceedingly well.

I recently was pitched a concept by a respected production company in L.A. They'd read some of my work and felt I could write the story. Though the concept is very strong--as it should be for a thriller--they wanted me primarily because I'm good at character, and well-drawn characters attract top talent.

So my approach to this, now that I've blocked out a plotline we're all happy with, is to concentrate on character and (hopefully) to give this thing wings.

When I write a novel, rarely do I know explicitly where it's going. I have a basic idea of the ending (which, in the case of my latest work, shifted in my mind forty pages before the end), and a much stronger idea of the characters I'll be dealing with.

JPSmith said...

Part 2 of my post to Dave:

The "sell" for a novel, at least these days, is concentrated more or less thusly:

1. the author is a celebrity (and not necessarily a writer); hence the curiosity factor. The book will go out of print in six months after an initial buying surge. As it will for most novels, midlist or otherwise.

2. the author has a following. This is key. Someone like Paul Auster (full disclosure: I know someone high up at his publishing house who knows Paul as a friend) sells poorly here, but is a superstar in Europe. So his publisher can count on recouping expenditures through foreign sales and deal with the 30,000 copies he's guaranteed to shift in this country.

Other authors have a built-in audience: thriller writers, for instance, mystery writers, and mainstream writers such as Philip Roth and Don DeLillo.

3. the writer is good to look at. Yes, this matters, alas, and a glance at the author's photo will reveal what really counted towards the cost of the advance.

4. the writer is damned good. A true stylist with a distinctive and original voice that draws the reader in no matter how thin the actual plot (and many literary novels have very thin plots). This is at the heart of the midlist; this is what editors build lasting reputations on.

This is a high-risk area, believe me, as I speak as a soldier in the midlist skirmishes still on active duty.

Sure, we try to break out of it (hence the publishing term "breakout" novel), and it takes a publisher of great faith to attempt to do so, especially in this publishing climate.

But to answer your question in a personal way, if you'll permit me, a few years ago I reread my third novel, something I abhor doing (my mentor used to say that rereading one's own published work is like eating one's own vomit: it's a meal you've already digested), for the intention of adapting it for the cinema.

It had been optioned once, talent was attached, a director hired, financing put in place, and it all fell apart when the major money backed out. (I was not the author of the script, by the way.)

But I felt it was strong enough for another look, as I still think it is. I was surprised to see how very thin the plot is: based on a Greek myth, though set in the present day, it had a strong armature, but not much actually happened. What it was made up of--what gave it its texture, what people liked most--was the atmosphere I'd created, and the mix of characters and how they played off each other.

The book garnered very good reviews and didn't do badly at all, but what people liked about it wasn't the narrative line but what I'd hung on it. So my style, at least that time, carried the day.

As you can see, it's a whole different mindset, and though I can work on a novel in the morning and a screenplay in the afternoon, it demands a psychological shift. And when I'm a screenwriter I talk about story, story, story.

Pot Lin said...

"My name was Salmon; like the fish, first name, Susie. I was 14 when I was murdered on December 6, 1973."

That reminds me of the famous animation, The Grave of the Fireflies by Isao Takahata about World War II. The first sentence spoken was, "In 1945, on the night of September 21, I died."