Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Book Review: "Lucky Man" by Ben Tanzer

To the extent that Lucky Man is a first-person narrative about young men coming of age, you could say it's fratire. But this is damned serious stuff, making the book much more ambitious, I think, than some of the other puke-on-my-own-shoes books in that genre.

More ambitious still--there's not one narrator here but four, each taking turns commenting on experiences they share, in interleaved chapters. Sammy, Jake, Louie, and Gabe are confreres passing from high school to college while they get stoned in every way imaginable and have encounters and even a few relationships with women. Note that they're not so much chasing girls as hitting on them (and getting hit on) like bumper cars.

In fact, that's the dynamic of their lives--drifting, smashing, and moving on. The author may have ambition, but these guys rarely make a meal more complicated than a bowl of cereal. None of them finds much direction or purpose at all (one tries religion, briefly). Perhaps they would get motivated if they could only channel their anger, which mostly stems from life's random punishments. But they turn most of their angst in on themselves as they get wasted daily, punctuated by an occasional fistfight arising from little or no provocation.

First-person narration is a bold choice because the main character can't report on events that affect him but he can't see, or might not even hear about. This challenge is partially overcome in this book by Tanzer's telling the story from multiple points of view. Then, it's a challenge to give each of the voices a distinctive character. While these boys each has his quirks, their attitudes, outlooks, and prospects are much more alike than they are different. Maybe it's a generational thing--they've all given up, bowing to the great god of Pointlessness.

This is, as the reader will guess soon enough, a last-man-standing story. In the end, the question is, "What's it all mean?" Tanzer gives no clue, but I do give him a great deal of credit for at least raising the question.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Photo courtesy Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC).

The first person who posts a comment below with the obvious answer will receive a complimentary copy of My Inflatable Friend.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Local (French) author makes good!

Meilleures felicitations to Catherine Delors, author of Mistress of the Revolution, for her premiere book signing at Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore, here in the Wild West. Madame Delors is a Parisian who survived a successful geographic transplant, swapping her noble Gallic heart for a model newly minted in the City of Angels.

Watch this space for a review of this steamy historical novel, and when this one gets sold to Hollywood--remember you read it here first!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"Rubber Babes" Sneak Preview

The renowned fratirist and author of My Inflatable Friend reads from the second whimsical book in the series of Rollo Hemphill's misadventures.

The event was at Barnes & Noble last Sunday on the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade. Also reading that day were IWOSC colleagues Regina Apigo, Bob Birchard, Dr. Diane DeLaVega, Ron Vazzano, Telly Davidson, David Groves, Stephen R. Wolcott, Flo Selfman, Dale Henderson, Gail Wichert, Christine Candland, and Marvin Wolf.

Why Talk to a Shrink? (in movies/TV)

Tony Soprano spills his guts. Fortunately, it's just talk (this time). Talking to a shrink has been a narrative device in books and movies ever since there have been shrinks. In traditional movie dialogue, you have the main character talk to his best friend to find out what he's thinking, planning, cares about. But in this postmodern age, people are more alienated, less free with their feelings. And in the action stories, the characters are all so dumb they can't form a compound sentence.

So dialogue with the shrink is a way to reveal inner thoughts, motivations that the character can't or won't share with others but the audience needs to know. Another technique used for this purpose is voice-over narration. Writing coaches used to warn novices away from it, because they would use it to explain mundane plot points instead of using engaging dialogue (e.g., argument) with other characters. But again with so much alienation and isolation, today's main character often *has no friends* and that's the core of the story. So the rule for VO now is you can use it if the character is expressing emotions and innermost thoughts that can't be said to someone else.

You don't have this problem in a novel. The omniscient narrator can get into anyone's head. That's one of the reasons why first-person narratives are so challenging.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Rollo Bugs the Hellraiser

I'll be reading from the *sequel* to My Inflatable Friend on Sunday, March 9, at 2 pm at Barnes & Noble on the Santa Monica Promenade. And speaking of book events...

Authors complain that their publishers and agents won't return their calls. So the recent experience of my friend Tom Page is a delight to behold. UK publisher Trashface was so obsessed with reissuing Tom's fantastique thriller The Hephaestus Plague that they literally tracked him down. Apparently unable to locate him via conventional means, the dauntless publisher ran a genealogy on him, which not only succeeded in finding the target but also links his bloodlines to King Edward III!

I caught up with Tom last Saturday at Dark Delicacies Bookstore in Burbank, where he was signing copies of the book, a creepy tale of fire-spewing bugs that threaten all we hold dear. (The story was made into the cult-movie Bug, produced by William Castle and directed by Jeannot Szwarc.)

Gerald (hatted) visits Tom Page at Dark Delicacies

Hanging out with Tom that day was another cult phenom, Peter Atkins, one of the geniuses behind the Hellraiser movies, based on the books of Clive Barker. (Peter pleads not to be confused with the Oxford professor of the same name, although that guy's popular books on the physical sciences are selling well, and a confusion about where to send royalty checks might help temporary cashflow!)

Tom Page (the Bug guy, left) and Peter Atkins (Morningstar, Wishmaster) take a break from defacing brand new books with their scrawls.

Gerald Everett Jones is the author of My Inflatable Friend: The Confessions of Rollo Hemphill. He blogs on comic fiction at Boychik Lit.

Book Review: Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies

I will say at the outset that, if you are serious about screenwriting, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies (STC! 2) is a must-have book. Mind you, it's not the only one, but if you were an economist you wouldn't have just one book on math, right? In fact, I think that this second book in the STC! series is actually more of a must-buy than the first one--because of its unique approach. The original Save the Cat! is basic screenwriting theory. Chief among these is Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing, written decades ago, a rediscovery of the dramatic principles of Aristotle's Poetics. You might say that Egri was the founder of modern-day structuralism (although his book was about playwriting and many movies before him were highly structured). Among the latter-day authorities are Syd Field and Vicki King, whom Blake Synder acknowledges as his early mentors. Others include Robert McKee, Lew Hunter, Richard Walter, John Truby, and Linda Seger. And there are many, many, many more.

But STC! 2 stands out among this group because it comes at the subject from a unique direction. Rather than stating theory and then citing examples, this second how-to book of Snyder's rationalizes examples of successful genre movies to make some generalizations about what works in terms of capturing and holding an audience. The book is mostly examples rather than rules, not the other way around. Many readers will find this format more approachable, user-friendly, and easier to apply than the theory books.

The key concepts he derives, which are the same as in STC! 1 are genre, structure, and beats. Be cautioned that he redefines genre. Synder's take on genre is more like "theme," "predicament," or even "story engine." It's the dilemma that drives the story, but it is, in structural terms, a situation and not a story. For example, "a fish out of water" is a situation--"a fish out of water grows legs and survives" is a story. As to structure, he pretty much follows accepted practice, but he goes a step further by reducing the essential, compelling structure to just 15 beats, or plot points. That's powerful stuff.

So you won't find the traditional genres "action-adventure" or "romantic comedy" here. Synder swaps those for genre-predicaments like "Monster in the House" and "Dude with a Problem." He identifies ten of them as the engines of all hits. He then decomposes the plots of several blockbusters in each genre to show how that engine operates. His insights are fascinating because, without the distinction of genre as he defines it, you might assume that "Three Days of the Condor" and "Sleeping with the Enemy" are fundamentally different. By traditional definitions, one is a spy thriller and the other is a woman-jeopardy thriller. But in the gospel according to Blake, those two movies are twins. Knowing why will not only make you a better screenwriter but will also give you a better appreciation of the high art of crafting the blockbusters that almost never win the snob awards.

Taking Synder's distinction one step further, it should be possible to do a "Monster in the House" story in any of the traditional genres--action-adventure, horror, or even romantic comedy! Getting this basic idea will help you understand why "King Kong" owes so much to "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (not one of Snyder's examples, but one I'm sure he'd acknowledge).

Do get this book if you are writing spec scripts. But if you are writing indies, proceed with caution--with any book of rules. Certainly the gurus will preach that the rules of structure can strengthen any story and that, at the very least, you should master the rules before you break them. True enough.

But you don't want to get so locked into a box of rules that you can't think outside of it. The goal in indies, in my humble opinion, should not be to make blockbusters on the cheap but to take risks and evolve the cinematic form in ways the studios won't.

I should disclose that I've met Blake Snyder, and he is as charming in person as he is engaging on the page. More important, he assured me that no cats were harmed in the making of his books!