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Archive for the ‘screenwriting’ Category

Certified Copy Certified Copy

Posted by metaphorical on 4 February 2012

Is a perfect copy of The David as good as the original, if you think it’s the original?

Is the Mona Lisa just a copy of the woman it is a painting of?

Is a memory a copy? What if it’s not really a memory? And what if we simply don’t know? How does our knowledge—or lack of knowledge—change something?

In Certified Copy, an author, James (William Shimmel), has recently published a book in which he asserts that copies have their own integrity. As proof, if someone doesn’t know it is a copy, he is filled with all the same feelings of beauty and artfulness as is the person who looks at the original. In the opening scene, he gives a reading, eagerly (though only briefly) attended by a woman, Elle (Juliette Binoche). What is her interest in him? We wonder.

The thesis seems wrong, maybe even a bit absurd. At one point James looks at a newlywed couple and says they ought to know what lies ahead for them, that their happiness is an illusion they should be disabused of. What is the harm, Ellie asks him. And hasn’t he just repudiated the thesis of his book?

Partway through the movie, the two, having traveled to another town to look at a work of art—a copy, naturally—are mistaken for being married to one another by an old woman who runs a café. Elle, does not correct the error. For the rest of the movie, the couple—on their own, far from the café, continue the charade. But what if it isn’t a charade? Our understanding of the couple, our feelings for and about them, change depending on whether we think they have just met, or have been married for 15 years.

As far as reality is concerned, it makes all the difference in the world whether they are married or strangers. But this is a movie, a work of art. How we regard (look at) it determines how we regard it (assess it as a work of art). Is a perfect copy of as good as the original, if you regard it that way?

IMDb / Box Office Mojo / Rotten Tomatoes (88%/69%)

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Hugo – short for huge letdown

Posted by metaphorical on 30 January 2012

Hugo’s ratings at Rotten Tomato—94% for the critics, but only 83% for audiences—is the first clue that all is not well inside this giant clockwork of a movie.

Look inside, and you’ll see a lots of gears that need oil—David Edelstein’s review for New York Magazine, for example, is counted as favorable, but to read it is to find more green splattered on the page than red. He concludes it by noting that Hugo tells his young friend Isabelle that

machines have no extra, unneeded parts, and if he were a piece of a machine he’d have a reason for being. We know, of course, that he is a piece of a machine: Scorsese’s Colossal Stupendous 3-D Thrill Generator. It’s not clear if the irony is intentional.

That hints at what Joe Morgenstern says directly, over at The Wall Street Journal:

thematic potency and cinematic virtuosity—the production was designed by Dante Ferretti and photographed by Robert Richardson—can’t conceal a deadly inertness at the film’s core.

That’s it exactly. The movie’s dialogue is so entirely on the nose, from beginning to end—as if it isn’t enough have Hugo explicitly say that people are machines and need to have a function, and he says it several times—with Isabelle finally replying, gee, maybe that’s what’s wrong with my dad. Doh! Marty, we got the point an hour ago when you made an automaton a central character in the movie.

Even the 3-D didn’t work for me. As it was supposed to, the effect heightened the distance between them when one person was closer to the audience than another, but the people themselves, especially the front person, looked like a cardboard cutout—two dimensional, in other words. And throughout, the 3-D was just plain distracting.

Then there’s the matter of the movie’s tutorials on the history of cinema. I can think of no one I would rather hear lecture on the subject than Martin Scorsese—and if he would deign to teach us, a thousand at a time in a big lecture hall at NYU for twelve bucks a night, sign me up for all of them. But I didn’t take the subway in the other direction to a theatre in the middle of Queens to watch Marty at his most didactic, channeled through the character of Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg). You know that public service commercial that Scorsese does for film preservation? That’s most of the third-act plot in Hugo.

Finally, speaking of film school—Screenwriting 101 isn’t too early to learn a handy little rule of thumb: The protagonist has to resolve the biggest conflict—the crisis—by his own actions. James Bond can’t just sit there enchained by Blofield until Felix Leiter comes to rescue him, he has to escape by his own devices. But Hugo’s final salvation—I’m not really giving anything away, because it’s inconceivable that this movie not have a happy ending—comes as he stands hopelessly in the middle of the train station until Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) saves him.

I have no doubt that Hugo will enter the pantheon of great films, as The Departed did. If only the Academy had given Gangs of New York the Best Director title it arguably deserved, we wouldn’t have to keep rewarding Scorsese for the disappointing movies that have followed.

IMDb / Box Office Mojo / Rotten Tomatoes (94%/83%)

Shortlink: http://wp.me/p2947-eH

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We Need to Talk About We Need to Talk About Kevin

Posted by metaphorical on 15 January 2012

The opening scene of We Need to Talk About Kevin involve a bizarre giant mosh pit filled with buckets and buckets, barrels worth, of tomato sauce. It goes on and on. The viewer becomes impatient. Still, it continues.

When the scene finally ends, it gives way to not one, but a series of flashes of very different scenes, none long enough to make any real sense. Eventually, like a child being disciplined, it becomes clear that you need to sit still and take it. You’re not going to get any quick or clear explanations. You settle in for the long haul. You hope the payoff will be worth it. It is.

Tilda Swinton is just extraordinary, in a role that can’t have seemed even possible to play when reading the script. She’s the mother of a teenage boy who has done about the worst thing a teenage boy can do.

The other performers, notably Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller as the child and teenage Kevin, are exceptional as well. John C. Reilly is also excellent, but we don’t see as much of him, though it’s hard to know whether, or how much, that contributes to what finally happens.

The movie has no easy answers, no answers at all in fact, for questions that almost surely have no answer. How much discipline? How much love? How much is nature, and how much nurture? Can a boy be born bad? Can people living in the same household live in different realities?

Instead, it spends its time exploring these people, giving substance to things that can ordinarily only be talked about and never embodied—this particular boy, this particular mother, these other family members, and those other mothers, whose children were the victims of this particularly horrific event.

There is nothing wasted, nothing extraneous, in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Events unfold in three chronologies, shuffled like decks of cards (once the three stories sort themselves out, you’re never confused about which you’re watching): Kevin and his mom, from his birth onward; mom, and eventually Kevin, on the horrific day; and mom, and eventually Kevin, in the frozen, undead days and months that followed.

Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of a woman dragging herself through one day after another, in the shell of her former self, has to be seen to be believed. This story needs to be seen, not to be believed—nothing can make the unbelievable believable—but because it at least makes it it seeable. Few movies try something this hard. A very rare fewer still, succeed.

IMDb / Box Office Mojo / Rotten Tomatoes (82%/86%)

Short link: http://wp.me/p2947-er

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The Big Heat: Fritz Lang’s Serpico

Posted by metaphorical on 11 January 2012

Straight-as-an-arrow police sergeant Dave Bannion has no truck with the corruption that surrounds him, until he finally has to team up with kept woman Debby Marsh (Gloria Grahame) to solve a crime and extract revenge.

The Big Heat, 1953

Police sergeant Glenn Ford is tough as nails, but has a heart of gold. Gloria Grahame is a kept woman, but has a heart of gold. Everyone else is a crook and a louse, except for the woman who works at the auto repair shop, and you can tell she’s a good egg because she walks with a cane.

The plot of The Big Heat is a straight line from the first scene to the end, with a single I-can’t-believe-they-did-that moment in the middle that’s telegraphed so thoroughly the they should save their money and put a first class stamp on it.

Still, even on an off day Fritz Lang can create eye candy out of nothing but lighting and camera angles. If you want to see Gloria Grahame when she has some real material to work with, go straight to In a Lonely Place. As for the other principal, he’s quite good here, but has there ever been a truly great Glenn Ford movie?

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Posted by metaphorical on 26 December 2011

Directed by David Schwimmer; Written by Andy Bellin and Robert Festinger; IMDb / RottenTomatoes / BoxOfficeMojo

“Trust” is a hard movie to watch; it isn’t so much enjoyed as experienced.

A 14-year-old girl, Annie, falls into a relationship on a teen website with a boy, Charlie, who’s 16, then 20, then 25, then, when they finally meet and end up in a motel room, 35. The police get called in fairly quickly, but it takes much longer for Annie to see him for what he is, a sexual predator of adolescent girls.

Roger Ebert’s one-liner in his top 20 films of the year, on which it occupies number 17, is “The bravest thing about David Schwimmer’s ‘Trust’ is that it doesn’t try to simplify.” That’s a fair statement. It doesn’t try to simplify Annie, nor her father Will (Clive Owen, brilliantly playing a role that has almost no place to go), nor even Charlie, who is all the more creepy for how normal he appears, and is never demonized even as the audience, like Will, wants to kill him for what he’s done to Annie and her entire family.

Nor does “Trust” take a simple path even in its structure. It has a plot point number 1, of sorts, but not a plot point number 2, not least because it doesn’t really have a protagonist (nor an antagonist, beyond the demons in Will’s mind and, eventually, Annie’s).

“Trust” strikes something like false notes only occasionally, as the characters all too often are able to articulate exactly what’s going on with them in a preternatural way, but when it happens in the climactic scene, the words fit the characters like gloves and they give the entire film a prefect resonance.

“Trust” is eminently worth enduring. I don’t see nearly as many movies as Ebert, but for me, too, it’s one of the best of the year.

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Non Company Mentis

Posted by metaphorical on 24 January 2011

The Company Men
109 minutes
Written and directed by John Wells

The dictionary defines “non compos mentis” as “not of sound mind.” How else do you explain the release a movie that’s missing the last twenty minutes of the story?

It’s impossible to talk about this movie without talking about, well, the movie, so, fair warning: spoilers ahead.











From the trailer, the story line is clear: Ben Affleck is laid off from his white-collar job, others (Chris Cooper, Tommy Lee Jones) are as well, they band together and start a new company of their own.

And, indeed, that’s what happens. It’s a little disconcerting that Chris Cooper doesn’t lose his position until a second round of layoffs, roughly at the movie’s midpoint. When are they going to get around to starting this new company? Tommy Lee Jones is still with the old company until plot point #2. Actually, I’m not sure there is a plot point #2. But we’re at the 90 minute mark or so. The new company doesn’t get started until the last 10 minutes or so. And then Tommy Lee Jones hires Ben Affleck. And then the movie ends.


In other words, we never see Ben Affleck stealing away his old company’s big account, or, stealing away that new contract the greedy CEO-antagonist was counting on, or, well, do anything. So there’s no satisfying feeling of revenge. And there’s no real success—yes, his character’s fundamental desire is met: he has a job again now, and it’s not just hanging sheetrock for his brother-in-law the housebuilder. But does he have great success, or just a job that pays better than carpentry? Doe he have a job he loves?

More importantly, the movie violates perhaps the single most fundamental rule of movies (and all fiction, and in fact, all drama): the protagonist has to do the thing that achieves the movie’s outcome. Ben Affleck’s character does nothing—he passively accepts the job that Tommy Lee Jones’s character offers him.

There’s no question what the shape of this movie should be. The inciting incident is getting laid off—this should happen within the first ten minutes, ideally the first five. Chris Cooper should get laid off between minutes 30 and 40, Tommy Lee Jones would be laid off (or, for my money, quits) at the midpoint. The new company is started soon thereafter, and cannot survive unless Ben Affleck gets a big account, a task that will take us to the climax.

Yes, this would make for a very conventional three-act, two-plot-point Hollywood structure, but after all, this already is a conventional Hollywood movie. The trailer promises us one, and the movie is otherwise constructed as one. They just dragged out some of the middle parts, and forgot the third act. It’s pretty astonishing, the number of people of people who had to not notice there’s a quarter of a movie missing here—the screenwriter, the director (oh, wait, they’re the same person), the producer, and the studio. I don’t think the audience won’t notice though. Despite a great cast, the movie scores a mere 59% at Rotten Tomatoes. (Inexplicably, 71% from the critics. Maybe some of them are non compos mentis as well.)

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2010 Movie favorites to date

Posted by metaphorical on 16 January 2011

Without picking winners or trying to predict how the Hollywood Foreign Press Association will pick ’em, here are some favorites, out of the movies I’ve seen to date. Interestingly, two of my favorite performances were by teenagers.

Inception, The King’s Speech

Inception, The King’s Speech, The Town

Christian Bale in The Fighter
Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone
Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right
James Franco in Howl (I haven’t seen 127 Hours yet)
Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit
Colin Firth in The King’s Speech

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Golden Globe nominations

Posted by metaphorical on 13 January 2011

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association doesn’t award separate Golden Globes for adapted and original screenplays. Of the 2011 nominees two are adaptations, 127 Hours and The Social Network.

According to a November article in the UK Telegraph about screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s writing process,

he decided to write the script after reading a 14-page proposal submitted to publishers by Ben Mezrich, whose subsequent book, The Accidental Billionaires, became a bestseller.

Though Sorkin was undoubtedly inspired by what he had read – he knew by page three that he wanted to bring the story to the big screen – his script and Mezrich’s book were written simultaneously and independently of each other. If Sorkin has produced an adaptation rather than an original screenplay, it’s an adaptation of an idea (albeit highly developed) rather than a finished work.

In an article in the Jan/Feb issue of Script magazine, which doesn’t seem to be online yet, screenwriter Charles Randolph said his screenplay for Love and Other Drugs bears a similarly loose relationship to the book it’s nominally based upon, Jamie Reidy’s 2005 nonfiction book, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman.

As his script came into focus, he confesses, “I didn’t really use much of the book.” Reidy’s anecdotal tales quickly became “more of a background resource than story points. It’s not really an adaptation in that sense.”

The original work was similarly disregarded when it came to David Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of Rabbit Hole. Here, though, the original work being disregarded was a play and a the original author being disregarded was himself. Again from Script magazine:

I had to re-imagine the play fairly entirely to turn it into a movie. When I decided to turn it into a screenplay, I put the play aside and thought, “Okay, if this never existed as a play, how would I tell this story as a movie?”

Lastly, what’s also interesting about the Golden Globe nomination list is the many movies with acting or other award nominations that are not on the Script magazine list of potential screenwriting Oscar nominees. I may have to expand the also-worth-seeing list. Here’s the list of major Golden Globe nominations for film.

Best Motion Picture, Drama

    The Fighter
    The King’s Speech
    The Social Network

Best Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical

    Alice in Wonderland
    The Kids Are All Right
    The Tourist

Best Director – Motion Picture

    Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
    David Fincher, The Social Network
    Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
    Christopher Nolan, Inception
    David O. Russell, The Fighter

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama

    Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
    Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
    James Franco, 127 Hours
    Ryan Gosling, Blue Valentine
    Mark Wahlberg, The Fighter

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama

    Halle Berry, Frankie and Alice
    Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
    Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
    Natalie Portman, Black Swan
    Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy

    Johnny Depp, Alice in Wonderland
    Johnny Depp, The Tourist
    Paul Giamatti, Barney’s Version
    Jake Gyllenhaal, Love and Other Drugs
    Kevin Spacey, Casino Jack

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy

    Anne Hathaway, Love and Other Drugs
    Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
    Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
    Emma Stone, Easy A
    Angelina Jolie, The Tourist

Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture

    Christian Bale, The Fighter
    Michael Douglas, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
    Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
    Jeremy Renner, The Town
    Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech

Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture

    Amy Adams, The Fighter
    Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech
    Mila Kunis, Black Swan
    Melissa Leo, The Fighter
    Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

Best Screenplay – Motion Picture

    127 Hours
    The Kids Are All Right
    The King’s Speech
    The Social Network

Best Animated Feature Film

    Despicable Me
    How to Train Your Dragon
    The Illusionist
    Toy Story 3

Best Foreign Language Film

    The Concert
    The Edge
    I Am Love

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The Ghost Writer—2.5 of 5 stars, and that’s being generous

Posted by metaphorical on 8 January 2011

The Ghost Writer (IMDb, Netflix)

Written by Robert Harris & Roman Polanski, based on the novel, The Ghost by Robert Harris

It’s astonishing that this mediocre movie makes Script magazine’s list of potential Oscar nominees for best adapted screenplay—its mediocrity is deeply rooted in screenplay’s weaknesses.

The fundamental problem is that the movie violates the standard Hollywood understanding of a movie’s story. Drew Yanno, in his book The 3rd Act,, puts it this way:

Somebody wants something badly and goes after it against great odds.

The only thing the protagonist wants at the start of The Ghost Writer is to make a lot of money doing a quick rewrite of a former UK Prime Minister’s memoir. Later, he stumbles upon a secret and tries to unravel it. To be sure, doing so imperils his life, but it serves no interest of his beyond idle curiosity. It also puts at risk the only thing we him wanting.

A post at the blog Complications Ensue says much the same thing at far greater length and disgust, and includes a detailed spoiler-laden summary of the movie’s plot.

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Screenplays, 2010

Posted by metaphorical on 8 January 2011

The current issue of Script magazine handicaps the Oscar races for best screenplays. Some of their picks are still in theatres here, some are available on Netflix, the rest we’ll have to rent from iTunes or Amazon. Those with loglines I’ve seen.

Original Screenplays

1. Another Year (Lincoln Plaza, Angelika)
Written by Mike Leigh
  The happiness of her older friend from work eludes a middle-aged woman struggling through another year alone.

2. Get Low (available for Amazon online purchase 2/22/11)
Written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell (screenplay), and Chris Provenzano & Scott Seeke (story)
  A hermit hires a funeral home to gather the entire community to tell, Tom Sawyer-like, stories about himself before he dies, but really, it’s for him to tell his a story from his own dark past.

3. Hereafter(available on DVD 3/15/11)
Written by Peter Morgan

4. Inception (Netflix DVD)
Written by Christopher Nolan
  Haunted by his own dreams of his wife, Dom Cobb assembles a team of dream-stealers for one last act of corporate espionage—to plant an idea in the subconscious mind of a rival of his industrialist client.

5. The Kids Are All Right
Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
  When a lesbian couple’s children contact their biological father, the couple’s relationship begins to fracture.

6. The King’s Speech
Written by David Seidler
  King George V’s younger son can keep his stutter hidden from the world until a number of events thrust him in the limelight: his father’s death, his older brother’s abdication, the inception of WWII, and the new importance of radio. Can eccentric self-trained speech therapist Lionel Logue cure the newly crowned George VI in time for him to rally a complacent nation?

7. Somewhere (Clearview 1st & 62nd, Lincoln Square, Angelika)
Written by Sofia Coppola
  A Hollywood star is surprised by how much meaning his 11-year old daughter brings to his aimless existence when she comes to stay with him for a couple of weeks.


1. The Ghost Writer (Netflix DVD)
Written by Robert Harris & Roman Polanski, based on the novel, The Ghost by Robert Harris
  A ghostwriter, hired to complete the memoir of a former UK Prime Minister when the first writer dies suspiciously, pursues a secret despite putting his own life in peril.   (I didn’t think much of this movie, and briefly explain why here.)

2. Love & Other Drugs (AMC 84th St, Regal 42nd St, AMC 19th St, AMC Village 7)
Written by Charles Randolph and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz, based on the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy
  Jake is a happy-go-lucky born salesman—now in pharmacuticals; Maggie, a talented and gorgeous artist suffering from Parkinson’s, refuses to commit to a relationship because drugs can only hold off her symptoms somewhat and only for so long. They’re perfect for one another, until they fall in love.

3. Never Let Me Go
Written by Alex Garland based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (available on DVD 2/1/11)
  A love triangle at a boarding school where cloned children are being raised for their body parts raises the question: will we understand life better – and will we live it better – if we know when we’re going to die?

4. 127 Hours (Landmark Sunshine)
Written by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, based on the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
  It takes a hiker 127 hours to bring himself to a point where he can save his life by sawing off his arm with a dull knife.

5. Rabbit Hole (Clearview 1st & 62nd, Landmark Sunshine)
Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the play by David Lindsay-Abaire
  After the death of their 4-year-old son, a couple can’t get on track with their lives—nor with each other.

6. Shutter Island (Netflix Instant)
Written by Laeta Kalogridis, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane
  A U.S. Marshall’s investigation of the disappearance of a murderer-patient at an island hospital for the criminally insane is too zealous for the hospital’s director.

7. The Social Network (AMC 25, AMC 19th St, Quad)
Written by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Ben Mezrich
  The youngest billionaire in history is bound to have made some enemies along the way—and rightfully so. But then, some of them were assholes too.

8. The Town (Netflix)
Written by Peter Craig and Ben Affleck & Aaron Stockard, based on the novel Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan
  A young, handsome, master bank robber has trouble leaving the life, and trouble staying. For one thing, he’s fallen in love with the only person who can identify his gang, and his best friend wants her dead.

9. Toy Story 3 (DVD)
Written by Michael Arndt (screenplay), John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich (story)
  Andy is headed for college, and the toys have to figure out how best to move on—a matter they have almost no control over.

Other movies that seem worth seeing

Black Swan
Written by Mark Heyman (screenplay), John J. McLaughlin (screenplay) and Andres Heinz (screenplay and story)
  A shy, young ballerina on the cusp of greatness has to embrace her dark side or lose her first starring role.

The Fighter
Written by Scott Silver (screenplay) and Paul Tamasy (story and screenplay) & Eric Johnson (story and screenplay) & Keith Dorrington (story)
  A Lowell, Mass., boxer with one more shot at the top is torn between professional management and his current manager (his overbearing mother) and trainer (his screw-up exfighter older brother).

Written by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
  Out-of-the-closet beat poet Alan Ginsberg is liberated by the publication of Howl, while his publisher—poet and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti—stands trial for the poem’s obscenity.

True Grit
Written by Joel & Ethan Coen, based on the novel by Charles Portis
  A 14-year old girl seeking justice for her murdered father hires an alcoholic U.S. Marshall (because she’s told he has “true grit”) to hunt down the killer in Indian territory—forcing him to take her along.

Winter’s Bone
Written by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell
  In the Ozark foothills, a 17-year-old girl, already responsible for her 12- and 6-year-old siblings, now has to find her crank-dealing father, dead or alive, before the law takes away their house.

Blue Valentine
Written by Derek Cianfrance & Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis.
  As a marriage breaks up, you wonder what they ever saw in each other, but as they remember, though flashbacks, the relationship’s early days, you wonder how it could go so horribly wrong.

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Books about writing—a baker’s dozen

Posted by metaphorical on 5 November 2010

I’m teaching creative writing this term at The College of New Rochelle. It’s a monster 6-credit course, 18 sessions, 4 hours each. And I’m loving it. I’m an experienced enough teacher to know, even though this is my first time for creative writing, that this is a once-in-a-lifetime great group of students. But that aside, the course is helping me put together a whole bunch of thoughts about writing, some of which have appeared on this blog, in a more coherent (dare I say, systematic?) way.

So, naturally, in my obsessive way, I’ve been angling to teach more creative writing, and this week learned the fruits of those labors. Next term I’ll be teaching Creative Writing 101, a 6-week course at Gotham Writer’s Workshop, and Creative Writing 220 at The College of New Rochelle, a 3-credit scaled-down version of the class I’m currently giving.

In anticipation of the two new classes, I’ve put together a short (at least, as short as possible!) list of books about writing. This is about as far from being a definitive list as Sarah Palin is from the presidency, but I can certify this as a list of excellent books that I’ve found exceptionally helpful.

One disclaimer: I took classes from both Francine Prose and Susan Bell for my M.F.A., which was in creative nonfiction (at The New School, 2005-2007). Prose had just published her book and was constantly flying back from in from her book tour, which she hated, for our classes; Bell was still working on her book, and, reading the book I later came to realize, we were her guinea pigs for several of the more ambitious ideas of the book. It’s to her I owe the Berg and Ondaatje choices as well. By the way, Lopate also teaches at the New School, but only in the spring, so I had one chance to take his class and didn’t, more’s the pity.

Bell, Susan. The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself. Norton; 2008.

Berg, Scott. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. Riverhead; 1997.

Burroway, Janet, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Ned Stuckey-French. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 8th ed. Longman; 2010.

Flaherty, Francis. The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction Writing. Harper; 2009.

Franklin, Jon. Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction. Plume; 1994.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. 2nd. ed. Shambhala; 2010.

Hall, Oakley. How Fiction Works: Proven Secrets to Writing Successful Stories That Hook Readers and Sell. Story Press/F+W Publications; 2001.

(added) Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life Pantheon, 1994.

Lopate, Philip (ed). The Art of the Personal Essay. Anchor; 1995.

McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting. It; 1997.

Ondaatje, Michael. The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. Knopf; 2004.

Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. Harper; 2007.

Snyder, Blake. Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wiese; 2005.

Strunk, William and E.B. White. The Elements of Style (Illustrated). Penguin; 2005.

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Throw down your thesis

Posted by metaphorical on 24 April 2009

In my beginning writing classes, the one idea I spend the most time on is something that’s often called the thesis statement. It isn’t enough that a college essay—or any essay, or any piece of writing, or film, or play, for that matter—have a topic. It has to have a specific thesis within that topic. The thesis statement is like chess or go—it takes a few minutes to learn, and a lifetime to master.

It doesn’t have to be long or complicated, but it does have to be a specific assertion. “My summer vacation” is a topic. “My trip to Disneyworld last summer was the best vacation of my life” is a thesis. (“My summer vacation, the first my husband and I took in our twelve-year marriage, saved our relationship” is an even better one, but we don’t always have as much drama in our lives as a writing class would like!) One sign of a bad thesis, or no thesis, is boredom in the face of crisp prose and strong action—when readers don’t know where the story is going, it’s impossible to keep their interest.

Once you have a thesis, you know just what to write—what to include, and, equally importantly, what to exclude. Unfortunately, a thesis doesn’t always come to us tightly wound, whole, and perfect, like a new ball of soft colorful yarn. And so sometimes we start in, thinking we’re writing about one thing, and it turns out we’re really writing about another. I once heard the writer Liz Braverman say, writing is a product of the struggle “between the words in your head and the words that come off the page.” The path to a thesis sometimes looks like the ball of yarn after the cats have played with it all afternoon.

I tell my students that often you don’t know what an essay is about until the first draft is done. When you read the draft over, think about what the thesis of the actual essay—the essay as it exists on the page—is. Then reread the essay with an eye to what comports with the new thesis and what does not. Every section, every paragraph—and eventually, after the final polishing, every sentence and every word—ought to advance the thesis in some way, so add and subtract accordingly.

Which brings us to Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary film about a trip the musician Béla Fleck made to Africa. It opens today, but I saw it back in November at the American Museum of Natural History’s 2008 Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival.

First, let me say that it was a wonderful evening and a wonderful show to watch. And the film is destined to be popular, and well-liked by anyone who likes Fleck’s kind of music, or just the wonderful sounds that can result when one culture’s symbols are made to clash with another’s. The movie gets an astonishing 8.1 out of 10 on IMDb, though only 15 people have voted, and I notice it won an audience award last month at SXSW, among others listed on the film’s website.

How could one not love a film named for a story that when men from Africa’s interior were brought to a certain coastal port in Tanzania, from which they would be shipped overseas, never to see their families again, they were advised to “throw down their hearts.”

That said, Throw Down Your Heart fails as a film. It fails for the same reason many of my students’ essays fail—the failure to rethink and rewrite the work, after the true thesis emerges from the first draft.

The film’s original idea was apparently to take the instrument Fleck is most closely associated with, the banjo, back to Africa. It was described that way in the promotional material that drew me to the AMNH. It’s described that way in the IMDb blurb: “A film crew follows the well-known banjo player Béla Fleck on his travels to Africa, where he learns about the instrument’s origins.” This thesis is still expressed in the movie’s trailer: “Where the banjo has come from” “A lot of people associate it with white southern music,” “There’s an instrument [in Africa] that may be the original banjo,” etc., and it’s expressed in the first few minutes of the film.

And indeed, throughout, the movie contains vestiges of that thesis, including the intinerary that forms the backbone of the narrative, taking Fleck and the crew through four candidate countries for the origins of the banjo (Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia, and Mali).

In looking for the precursors to today’s banjo, some of which are instruments that are still played in Africa, Fleck encountered extraordinary musicians, some famous, some known only within a single village but of world-class caliber. It was, perhaps, inevitable, that the movie would devolve into a celebration of those musicians, and Fleck’s interactions with them, including a couple of terrific duets and other performances in which Fleck not only plays the banjo with them, but some of the precursor instruments as well. And that’s fine. But that’s a very different movie.

Worse still, there was a third thesis available to director Sascha Paladino, hinted at in the movie, and it is in fact the movie he should have made. The AMNH viewing ended with a Q & A with some of the film’s crew. In the course of describing how hard Fleck worked, we were told that he stayed up far into the night trying to learn new forms of music and getting the hang of those African instruments. Fleck didn’t allow those late-night moments to be shown.

It’s understandable that an eight-time Grammy winner wouldn’t want to be seen making bad music late at night with unfamiliar instruments he had only just been given. But the story of one of the world’s great musicians struggling to master new instruments and new musical forms would have turned a enjoyable music travelogue into an unforgettable musical odyssey.

The New York Post put up a short review of the movie yesterday that unwittingly gets it exactly right. “The movie is at least 20 minutes too long,” the Post wrote—an extraordinary thing for a review of a 97-minute musical film in which the music is called “infectious.” (Karina Longworth, in a generally very favorable review at Spout.com, agreed, calling it “somewhat overlong.”) Boredom is the inevitable consequence of a defective thesis.

The anonymous NY Post reviewer also wrote, “Fleck fails to provide any personal charisma.” Exactly. By withholding Fleck’s failings, the movie withholds its central character. Béla, if only you had thrown down your heart.

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No award for old men?

Posted by metaphorical on 24 February 2008

In the run up to the Academy Awards, Knowledge News has a nice article, “Oscar’s Biggest Snubs” (thanks Claire, for the link), describing how some of Hollywood’s best films didn’t even win best-picture in the year they were released.

Citizen Kane, often cited as the greatest movie of all time, tops the list, and two of my favorite movies ever are there as well, Chinatown, and Double Indemnity. Singin’ in the Rain, not one of my favorite movies, but surely touched by greatness, and Some Like It Hot, round out the list. There’s also an homage to Alfred Hitchcock, surely the most underawarded director in Academy history.

Singin’ in the Rain apparently lost out to The Greatest Show on Earth. Now that’s a movie that I could watch over and over again, but it’s hard to see it as better than one of a few score movies that people will remember for the next fifty years.

Hollywood has always confused entertainment with greatness, and it’s always fun to see that tension play out as the Academy votes each year. Oddly, they struggled in reverse with Hitchcock—voters obviously thought of movies like Rear Window and Psycho as throw-away entertainment, when in fact we now see their lasting value and Hitchcock as one of the great auteurs of all time.

Which brings us to this year. Of the five nominees, there’s no obvious winner, though a couple will be memorable for a long time and none of them is really disposable entertainment. (The official list is here, but you have to like ImdB’s for its linkability.)

Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

We can cross There Will Be Blood off the list right away. It’s a mess of a movie, structurally unsound, poorly plotted, and with absolutely no likeable characters. It’s hard to even see how it even got nominated, except for Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance.

Michael Clayton is a terrific movie, but not the kind that normally emerges as Best Picture. For one thing, it has no actual point, other than revenge is sweet and, at least in Hollywood, the smartest guy sometimes wins. It puts wit and charm in an action movie, but, frankly, that was true of Sneakers and The Italian Job, and no one ever nominated them for Oscars.

No Country for Old Men is a strong contender, because it captures a lot of mind-share as possibly the best-ever for its genre, which is that of Gruesome Thoughtful-Action Movie, a specialty of the Coen brothers. Unforgiven was in that genre, and did well its year, as did Fargo. The comparisons are limited, in that each of those movies had characters more likeable than Tommy Lee Jones’s. On the other hand, there’s a growing recognition of the auteur quality to the Coen oeuvre.

Juno is the kind of small picture that can, in these post-Little-Miss-Sunshine days, easily get nominated, but perhaps never win. It does have the merits of actual themes, a plot, a point of view, and funky believable characters, the central one of which has just the sort of change that a leading lady, even one of 16, is supposed to undergo. In other words, it’s a classic movie, and those are in somewhat short supply this year.

Even more interestingly, the central character in Atonement is likewise transformed and then, as the characters who inspired it die off, reverts to her earlier self. That’s a remarkably difficult message for Hollywood to deliver, and Atonement succeeds against all odds. Combine that with the luminous development of two characters we give our hearts to in the first part of the movie, and the radically different cinematography in the front and back halves, either of which probably deserves an award in that category, and I would have to pick this as my favorite movie of the year, and the one I’d like to see win the Best Picture award.

Some other quick picks:

Best Actor – I only saw two of the nominated performances, so I don’t get a vote. If anyone beats Daniel Day-Lewis, though, I will have to run out and see that movie.

Best Actress – I only saw one performance here. Normally that wouldn’t matter, because it was Ellen Page’s, and you ask yourself, is anyone good enough to beat that? Unfortunately, when the category includes Cate Blanchett and Julie Christie, the answer is yes.

Best Supporting Actor – the three performances I saw, Javier Bardem, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Tom Wilkinson, were pretty amazing. Even more astonishing, though, is that Casey Affleck is nominated for something that’s presumably even better than he was in Gone Baby Gone. Personally, I hope Javier Bardem wins, because we’ll see Philip Seymour Hoffman get nominated a bunch more times, while this was Bardem’s role of a lifetime.

Best Supporting Actress – I saw four of the performances. Ruby Dee might get it, for sentimental reasons. I hope not, because it just wasn’t that memorable a role, certainly not compared to Saoirse Ronan’s, or Amy Ryan’s. Again, the missing performance is Cate Blanchett, so anything could happen here. I’m rooting for the kid.

Adapted Screenplay – I missed two of these films, unfortunately. I just hope and trust that There Will Be Blood doesn’t win, because most of its problems as a movie, not the least of which is an ending that’s both totally inevitable and completely unsatisfying, could have been fixed at the screenplay level.

Original Screenplay – I only saw two nominees, but I hope Juno gets it. It is, truly, original, in its story and its characters, in all the best ways. As a budding screenwriter, I am in awe of the writing in movies like Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, and Juno.


Well, most of the awards I cared most about fell where I wanted them to. In many cases, I didn’t see the winner’s work, so I can’t judge how smartly the Academy vote.

One exception to that was Tilda Swinton, who won best supporting actress; it was a great little part, played with greatness, sure, but it was a little part, and surely any number of actresses would have done just as well. I thought none of that was true of Saoirse Ronan’s performance.

We actually have the DVD of “La Vie en Rose” in the house, I’m eager to see Marion Cotillard’s performance. She looked and sounded pretty damned good.

I’m disappointed that Atonement didn’t win Best Picture, but I’m happy that the Coen brothers won for directing. Similarly that There Will Be Blood won for cinematography; whatever that’s pictures flaws were, there were none at the level of images on the screen.

On the plus side, Javier Bardem won his gold, and gave a great speech.

Best of all, Juno won for original screenplay.

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And how would the candidates know what to say, anyway?

Posted by metaphorical on 22 November 2007

Here’s an interesting development in the Hollywood writer’s strike: it may affect the next Democratic presidential debate.

New York, NY (AHN) – The ongoing writer’s strike in Hollywood has started to have an effect on the political arena, as the upcoming CBS presidential debate is being threatened as candidates refuse to cross the picket lines should the station writers decide to join the strike.

Although CBS news writers have yet to talk of joining the strike, guild leaders are allowed to call one at any time, should they see it necessary. Candidates have been publicly announcing their respect for the strikers, as many of them have canceled television appearances for the sake of not crossing picket lines.

And not just the debates:

United Press International reported that Sen. John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth have canceled a scheduled appearance on “The View” so as not to cross the picket lines of the Writes Guild of America.

We’ve seen this before, of course. Newspaper and magazine writers had to get their digital due from the Supreme Court (Tasini vs NY Times).

What is it about digital that makes media companies think it’s any different from any other form that a work can take? Does it really matter, when it comes to paying a writer, whether you watch an episode of CSI on your television screen or your iPod?

Here’s the best statement of the writer’s point of view I’ve seen. It’s less than 2 minutes long and managest to say everything that needs to be said.

Studios, just pay the people with the talent. All of them. Just pay them and stop whining.

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Now Beowulf bode in the burg of the Hollywoodlings

Posted by metaphorical on 18 November 2007

I’m excited enough to squirm in my seat. I’ve already downloaded a copy from Project Gutenberg to re-read this week.

The kid was so excited about this movie that when she saw a preview for it this summer, she immediately called me to ask if I knew there was going to be a movie based on Beowulf?!!!? (Besides being a music geek and an art geek, she’s something of a poetry geek.)

Friday morning, when I saw it was to open over the weekend, I texted her frantically to ask if she could wait until Thanksgiving to see it, so we could go together.

A mailing list I’m on notes that Roger Ebert is back in top form in his review. (Thanks, JRH, for the link.)

Here are just a couple of the many gems:

To this court comes the heroic Geatsman named Beowulf (Ray Winstone), who in the manner of a Gilbert & Sullivan hero is forever making boasts about himself. He is the very model of a medieval monster slaughterer.

“I saw the movie in IMAX 3-D, as I said, and like all 3-D movies it spends a lot of time throwing things at the audience: Spears, blood, arms, legs, bodies, tables, heads, mead, and so forth. The movie is also showing in non-IMAX 3-D, and in the usual 2-D. Not bad for a one-dimensional story.”

Anyway, the kid and I will be going on Thursday, and I expect that we’ll enjoy ourselves immensely, at least in the same post-modern laugh-at-it-as-well-as-with-it way that she and I have enjoyed classic movies going back as far as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” when she was about 5. Maybe we can even, as we did back then, find an air hockey game for after the show.

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Vote for a girl like me

Posted by metaphorical on 8 April 2007

Back in January I mentioned the movie short “A Girl Like Me.” The filmmaker, Kiri Davis, is one of three finalists for a $10,000 scholarship sponsored by CosmoGirl.

If you haven’t watched the movie, you can see it on YouTube, here, or you can view it before voting on the Cosmo site, here.

Thanks to Susan at ReadingWritingLiving for blogging about the vote, and I’m pretty sure her wonderful site is where I first heard about the film. As Susan writes, “It’s a sad, powerful and moving piece of work.” It’ll break your heart, in fact, and then mend it again when you realize that we live in an age when an extraordinary 16-year-old girl could make a movie like this, and that we can help her keep making them for a long time to come.

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Maximum sales, circus maximus

Posted by metaphorical on 5 April 2007

What do the movies “Rhinestone” and “Turk 182” have in common with “A Christmas Story”? Not much. They were all directed by Bob Clark, who died in a car accident yesterday. Other than that, not much. The one became a classic while the other two bombed.

Yet the two that bombed, Rhinestone and Turk 182, are of a movie category I call Surprisingly Not Bad.

SNB movies are ones that turn out to be watchable, at least for “free” (broadcast or cable), but are passed over by the vast majority of people for one reason or other, almost always having to do with some impression formed in a single moment. “Rhinestone” never got past the improbability of pairing Dolly Parton and Silvester Stallone in a buddy-movie/romantic comedy, an (accurate) perception that was probably formed by taking one look at the movie’s poster:


(and even more so, the album cover:)


Turk 182 was a highly forgettable drama-farce staring Timothy Hutton as a graffiti-painting prank-playing younger brother of a fireman who was unfairly deprived of disability benefits after saving the life of a little girl in a fire. Check out it’s mixed-signals cover:


It’s hard to imagine who this movie was trying to appeal to—middle America, which by and large was happy to let the other 12,780 buildings in the city burn down, or New Yorkers who couldn’t associate the pretty-boy goody-two-shoes star of Ordinary People and Taps with a logo obviously designed to remind us of one of New York’s most daring and best-known graffiti artists.


A Christmas Story, on the other hand, has become a major holiday classic, which it was almost guaranteed to do. Any movie script that successfully weaves together bits and pieces from a dozen or so radio monologues from the greatest monologist ever, Jean Shepherd, was going to work. Clark’s main virtue as director was to not get in the way of the story.

But as the NY Times noted in its obituary of Clark today, A Christmas Story became a classic on television.

A bully named Scut Farkus, a leg lamp, a freezing-flagpole mishap and some four-letter defiance helped the movie become a seasonal fixture with “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” Each holiday season, the TBS cable network runs a marathon that starts on Christmas Eve: in 24 hours the film is shown a dozen times in a row.

In the movies, it didn’t do nearly as well, and I have to wonder if it wasn’t because of the movie poster.


According to the rather amazing site Box Office Mojo, it ranked 39th in grosses among movies released in 1983 at $19,294,144. (Just slight below a confusing group of movies ranked in the low 30s and grossing about $21 million that includes the classic, The Right Stuff (#33) sandwiched between the execrable Cujo (#34) and Class (#32).Perhaps box offices grosses don’t tell us as much as I thought.)

We judge these movies, initially, in a heartbeat—a movie poster, a commercial on tv, a promo in the theatre while still settling into our seats to see something else entirely. We turn to the person we’re with and nod, or smile, or grimace, a silent thumbs-up or thumb-down that represents the only take-away. “Oh, I saw a preview for that,” we say, a week later, at the luncheon table at work. “It looked pretty good/pretty stupid.”

And that’s with a promotional budget in the millions. On Tuesday, the Times reported on an increasing phenomenon: the pre-publication book tour, in which an author travels to meet bookstore managers and employees before the book is published.

The article leads with a description of a first-time author, Steven Hall, being sent out by his publisher, Canongate U.S., an imprint of the venerable Grove Press (nowadays, Grove/Atlantic), which is putting its full weight behind the book (which is titled “The Raw Shark Texts.”) What counts as full weight here?

It goes on sale in the United States today, and the publisher has already printed 100,000 copies, a huge run for a relatively small independent publisher. Canongate has vowed to spend $150,000 on a marketing campaign to promote the book.

The pre-publication tour is described as

a ritual an increasing number of authors are enduring so that their books can have a fighting chance in an industry that issues, by some estimates, more than 175,000 titles a year.

Movie promotional budgets today often represent about half the total up-front costs a studio spends. If the movie’s total budget is $60 million, $30 million might be spent to create our one-second thumbs-up. When you compare that to a $150,000 book promotion to break out of a pack of 174,999 other books, it’s a more-than-minor miracle that any book ever captures our attention and dollars.

I happened to have found out that Rhinestone was SNB when I was cruising through the cable dial one night. I like Stallone, for all his faults, and I really like Dolly Parton, both as an actress and a singer, and I was bored enough with nothing else to do to give the movie a full five-minute trial.

Susan Cheever, who was my workshop instructor the first semester of my M.F.A. writing program, told us to picture our potential reader in the following way. This isn’t a profile of the reader, it should be said, just our challenge as writers.

She’s a soccer mom who double-parks the mini-van to run inside a 7-11 to get some soda for the kids, who are still waiting in the car. While on line to pay, the cover of your book grabs her eye. She opens it and reads the first sentence. Is it good enough to get her to read the second one? If you can get her to read the whole first paragraph, she’ll probably buy the book.

That’s life in the thumbs-up, thumbs-down Media Maximus.

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CEO greed and the commercialization of the Smithsonian

Posted by metaphorical on 3 March 2007

The Washington Post had a report last week on the over-the-top greed of the head of the Smithsonian Institution. Yet they missed the heart of the story, or willfully avoided reporting it. Congress is outraged, yet Congress is largely to blame, not that there isn’t plenty to go around. And in the ultimate irony, the conservatives who would like to commercialize the Smithsonian are the first to run afoul of the hired gun carrying that insane idea out. Let’s start with the greed.

Lawrence M. Small, the top official at the Smithsonian Institution, accumulated nearly $90,000 in unauthorized expenses from 2000 to 2005, including charges for chartered jet travel, his wife’s trip to Cambodia, hotel rooms, luxury car service, catered staff meals and expensive gifts, according to confidential findings by the Smithsonian inspector general.

In a masterpiece of understatement, the Inspector General wrote to the audit and review committee that “Some transactions might be considered lavish or extravagant.”

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Hey, what’s this bird, this falcon that everybody’s all steamed up about?

Posted by metaphorical on 13 February 2007

  Gutman: Well, sir, here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.

  Spade: Swell. Will we talk about the black bird?

In the Life-imitates-art-imitating-life department (via Boing Boing):

Maltese Falcon swiped

An official replica of the Maltese Falcon used in promo photos for the 1941 film has been stolen from John’s Grill in San Francisco. The statue was nabbed out of a locked cabinet where it was on display with signed Dashiell Hammett books and other rarities.

(For those who’d rather spend two hours reading a “summary” of the movie, there’s an exhausting exhaustive summary here. For those who’d rather just watch it, the IMDB page is here, and the fast track to Netflix is here.)

And in the neighboring Further-irony department, there’s a $25,000 reward for the replica, which of course is far more than Sam Spade ever got for finding it.

But then, this is the stuff that dreams are made of.

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Filmmaking, writing, and the imagination

Posted by metaphorical on 24 December 2006

Every writer has a different writing process, and there’s no wrong or right way to write. Still, writers are obsessed with the different ideas other writers have about how to go about it.

At my school’s reading series, mostly attended by graduate writing students, questions of process always come up. Some writers seem to write very sequentially. They can spend an hour on one sentence, then move on to the next one. Of course they revise their words, but they’re far less likely to make revisions than other writers are. And indeed, it seems that if they’re up to, say, page 185 in their manuscript, they might go back to page 170, but not back to page 25.

In an earlier post, I described the process of trying to write directly out of the imagination, and letting sentences and paragraph flow in a way that lets strange and unexpected images and ideas come out.

At a reading a couple of years ago, Mary Karr, whose 1996 book, Liar’s Club, is sometimes credited with triggering the modern fashion for memoir, and who doesn’t attend the sequential school of writers, talked about the words you put onto the page, and the words that come off of the page.

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