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The Drowned Man

they dont make them like this anymoreIn our early 20s, my wife and I didn’t have any money or real jobs. We were going to college and doing day labor in Nacogdoches. What we didn’t have was a house we owned. The one we were living in rented for very little, but it had some drawbacks. One was an outhouse. The outhouse was a favorite hangout for snakes so big they looked as if they belonged in a Tarzan movie, not to mention spiders large enough to wear multi-legged pants. Every trip to the privy became worthy of an Indiana Jones adventure. Another drawback was no inside water. There was a pump to a well outside and a water hose, but stripping off and taking a bath with the hose in freezing weather was, to put it mildly, uncomfortable. Our heat was firewood I chopped to burn in two large fireplaces. There was a small electric heater that whined like a small child and might have blown up had we tried to warm a marshmallow in front of it.

So we wouldn’t starve, we decided to move to Starrville, where my parents lived, and stay with them while we worked and Karen went to school part-time at Tyler Junior College. So in my oil-guzzling old Ford and Karen’s truck, we headed out, like two leftover Joads from The Grapes of Wrath, and went north to Starrville, which is about the size of a postage stamp. Actually, we ended up on its outskirts, so we can’t claim actual residence there.

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Seven Things Screenwriters Should Know About Writing Novels

After the unprecedented success of yesterday’s column, I decided I would flip it around and provide you the converse list of things screenwriters should know as they switch from Final Draft to MS word to scratch that prose itch.

1.  Publishers Want To Sell Books. It’s a common misperception that screenwriting is for commercial aspirations while novel writing is a place to pen esoteric ideas and ramblings.  The truth is:  publishers want commercial books.  They want to reach a wide audience.  The same forces that drive a spec script sale drive a spec novel sale.  Will this book attract a large number of readers?  You have to write a novel the same way you would write a movie:  with compelling characters, surprising plot twists, strong dialogue, and a unifying theme that encompasses all.  Sure, you don’t have to worry about set pieces and budgets and casting, but you’re going to have a hard time if you write for a very narrow niche.

2.  The Money Is Not The Same (At First). When I received my first book contract, I called a novelist friend of mine in London.  “How do novelists make a living?” I asked.  Her reply:  “They don’t!  They all want to be screenwriters!”  Unless you are one of those amazingly successful novelists:  King or Connelly or Grisham or Clancy, the money just isn’t the same as you would get for writing and selling a screenplay.  So don’t write a novel thinking you can quickly switch careers and won’t have to deal with studios and producers anymore but will make the same money.  Unless you write THE FIRM… then you can.

3.  Publishers are Your Friends. You know how, as a screenwriter, you’re constantly wary of your status on your own project?  Like at any moment, you can be fired for seemingly no reason?  How every word you write can be changed at the whim of a junior executive fresh out of film school?  It takes a little while to get used to, but your publisher actually likes your opinions on your work.  They treat you deferentially as they suggest… key word “suggest”… edits.  They consult you on everything from chapter breaks to the book covers.  And they are pulling for you and your book to do well.  I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop but so far, it hasn’t.  Not one word gets changed without your permission.  Somebody slap me.

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An Excerpt from Limitless: Part III

In 2002, Alan Glynn wrote the celebrated suspense novel The Dark Fields. On March 18, The Dark Fields will come to theaters as the film Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro and Abbie Cornish.  Below is the final installment in our three-part series excerpting the book (generously provided by Picador from their Limitless movie tie-in edition), accompanied by stills from the film. Limitless, the author’s cut.

Missed Part 1? Part 2? Read them first.

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Outside on the street it was noticeably cooler than it had been. It was also noticeably darker, though that sparkling third dimension, the city at night, was just beginning to shimmer into focus all around me. It was noticeably busier, too—a typical late afternoon on Sixth Ave, with its heavy flow uptown out of the West Village of cars and yellow cabs and buses. The evacuation of offices was underway as well, everybody tired, irritable, in a hurry, darting up and down out of subway stations. Continue reading “An Excerpt from Limitless: Part III”

An Excerpt from Limitless: Part II

In 2002, Alan Glynn wrote the celebrated suspense novel The Dark Fields. On March 18, The Dark Fields will come to theaters as the film Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro and Abbie Cornish.  To celebrate, Mulholland Books will run a three-part series: three chapters from the book (generously provided by Picador from their Limitless movie tie-in edition), accompanied by stills from the film. As well as some forthcoming extras. Get ready for Limitless, the author’s cut.

Missed Part 1? Read it first.

We went to a bar over on Sixth, a cheesy retro cocktail lounge called Maxie’s that used to be a Tex-Mex place called El Charro and before that had been a spit-and-sawdust joint called Conroy’s. It took us a few moments to adjust to the lighting and the decor of the interior, and, weirdly, to find a booth that Vernon was happy with. The place was virtually empty—it wouldn’t be getting busy for another while yet, not until five o’clock at least—but Vernon was behaving as though it were the small hours of a Saturday morning and we were staking our claim to the last available seats in the last open bar in town. It was only then, as I watched him case each booth for line of vision and proximity to toilets and exits, that I realized something was up. He was edgy and nervous, and this was unusual for him—or at any rate unusual for the Vernon I’d known, his one great virtue as a coke dealer having been his relative composure at all times. Other dealers I’d been acquainted with generally behaved like ads for the product they were shifting in that they hopped around the place incessantly and talked a lot. Vernon, on the other hand, had always been quiet and businesslike, unassuming, a good listener—maybe even a little too passive sometimes, like a dedicated weed smoker adrift in a sea of coke-fiends. In fact, if I hadn’t known better, I might have thought that Vernon—or at least this person in front of me—had done his first few lines of coke that very afternoon and wasn’t handling it very well. Continue reading “An Excerpt from Limitless: Part II”

An Excerpt from LIMITLESS

In 2002, Alan Glynn wrote the celebrated suspense novel The Dark Fields. On March 18, The Dark Fields will come to theaters as the film Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro and Abbie Cornish.  To celebrate, Mulholland Books will run a three-part series: three chapters from the book (generously provided by Picador from their Limitless movie tie-in edition), accompanied by stills from the film. As well as some forthcoming extras. Get ready for Limitless, the author’s cut.

[1]

IT’S GETTING LATE.

I don’t have too sharp a sense of time any more, but I know it must be after eleven, and maybe even getting on for midnight. I’m reluctant to look at my watch, though—because that will only remind me of how little time I have left.

In any case, it’s getting late.

And it’s quiet. Apart from the ice-machine humming outside my door and the occasional car passing by on the highway, I can’t actually hear a thing—no traffic, or sirens, or music, or local people talking, or animals making weird nightcalls to each other, if that’s what animals do. Nothing. No sounds at all. It’s eerie, and I don’t really like it. So maybe I shouldn’t have come all the way up here. Maybe I should have just stayed in the city, and let the time-lapse flicker of the lights short-circuit my now preternatural attention span, let the relentless bustle and noise wear me down and burn up all this energy I’ve got pumping through my system. But if I hadn’t come up here to Vermont, to this motel—to the Northview Motor Lodge—where would I have stayed? I couldn’t very well have inflicted my little mushroom-cloud of woes on any of my friends, so I guess I had no option but to do what I did—get in a car and leave the city, drive hundreds of miles up here to this quiet, empty part of the country . . . Continue reading “An Excerpt from LIMITLESS”

Alone in a Room

Not long ago I found myself alone in San Francisco with some of the most famous paintings in the western world. One entire room was devoted to Van Gogh: Starry Night Over The Rhone, The Bedroom at Arles, Portrait Of The Artist, some of Van Gogh’s most famous works. Paul Gauguin’s self portrait (right), was also on display. And I have to admit, it reminded me of myself, his defensive expression — OK, I’ve been known to wear it, and probably for the same reasons!

I’d seen some of these paintings before, in Europe, but as they are always mobbed by the public they are hard to really experience, in the way the artists intended. But that night, because of a fluke, I got to see them up close and alone. I had a strange sense of intimacy, as if Van Gogh were standing next to me wondering what I thought. It was an unbelievable experience, and quite a moving one.

That night reaffirmed something I already knew. Art, whether in the form of paintings, music, or novels, doesn’t rely on money-worth to be valuable to humanity. In fact, Van Gogh’s work would not have reached my generation if not for his brother Theo’s intervention and love of art. It bears repeating: Van Gogh’s paintings had no market to speak of. They were worth zero francs at the time of his death, as gallery owners in Paris were unwilling to hang work they considered ugly, and certainly not fashionable.

The “Marketplace” held in such high esteem today, the Marketplace that has been elevated to the right side of God in importance, failed humanity in the most serious way in the case of Van Gogh. It has failed us before (the slave trade), and most certainly is failing humanity again as millions of people are unable to find jobs because bankers were profligate and now need our help to insure their future… blah, blah, blah. How many great works of art have been lost because they had no “cash value,” tossed into the trash by indifferent landlords looking for the real loot? Van Gogh gave the world something beautiful and important, which he could never “monetize.” Now, ironically, his work is priceless. The Marketplace is, of course, a false God, which I was reminded of that evening.

Every morning I wake up, pour my coffee, turn on my computer and get set to work. More often than not, I find an email solicitation from a well-known company in Los Angeles that sells stuff to writers. Below is an example. (I’m not sure they are your friend, by the way, as they claim in their ad.)

A new year brings a fresh start, so now’s the time to get your creative plan in motion. Fortunately, fill in the blank Store has the experience and the services you need to help you achieve your artistic aspirations. From the top screenwriting tools like (fill in the blank) to novelist’s programs like (fill in the blank), there’s something to ignite every imagination. Another great way to get those creative juices flowing in the New Year is through a writing course. Our current line-up of classes covers a vast amount of interests, and many are available to take in-store, or online for our friends who live outside of Los Angeles.

This store is part of a huge industry that preys on young writers — and older writers, for that matter — and it bothers me. Most of the stuff they sell is not going to help you with problems you’ll face when starting out as a writer of novels or screenplays. Writing novels or screenplays is not about the size of your hard drive!

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Tips for Budding Crime Writers: Dialogue

Writer's BlockNot on the nose, please.
Conflict is essential in effective crime writing. I like to create conflict in my dialogue by keeping it oblique. For instance, it’s amazing how much tension can be generated simply by banning yes and no (and their synonyms). Try it at home or work, and you’ll soon see what I mean. There’s nothing worse than dialogue that’s a series of questions and answers. Particularly in an interrogation scene!

Don’t just talk; do something.
I also like to break up speeches with action. Three sentences are about as much as I’ll allow any character to utter in one burst. I then break off to let him scratch his chin, or, better still, interact with his immediate physical environment, and only after that will I let him continue speaking. Inserting a visual cue helps keep the reader grounded, develops a sense of place, and also provides variety.

Use said.
Ideally, if a character is given the right words, syntactical choices, body language, actions, etc., there’s no need for the writer to interpret his emotional state for the reader. Consequently, I rarely use any verb other than said to carry dialogue. Also, I use adverbs with caution. If there’s a choice between telling us he’s angry or showing us how his anger manifests itself, I’d always recommend the latter. For instance,

“I don’t much care for adverbs,” he fumed, angrily.

is less effective than,

“Adverbs stink,” he said, slamming his hand on the table so hard the plate rattled.

Okay, I lied. Don’t use said.
Lately, I’ve been using constructions like this one more and more:

“Don’t move.” John aimed his weapon at the burglar. “Or I’ll shoot.”

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Childhood Obsession Turned Bestselling Novel

When I was about five years old, I became obsessed with Captain Kidd’s buried treasure. I didn’t know who Captain Kidd was, but I somehow knew he buried his treasure on Long Island, where I lived then and still live.

I also didn’t know then how big Long Island was (it’s long), so I figured that the treasure was buried on Jones Beach, the only beach I knew, where my parents took me most summer weekends. I excavated piles of sand over the years, and I don’t need to report that I never found the treasure chest.

Goonies Treasure MapAs I got older and wiser, and got a car, I realized there were lots more beaches on Long Island. Also, I did some research and discovered that the likely location of the treasure, if it existed at all, was Gardiners Island, a privately owned island that lies between the North and South forks of Long Island. Not even close to the thousand cubic yards of sand I’d already dug up. Also, it occurred to me that even a stupid pirate wouldn’t bury his treasure right on the beach. Erosion and all that. The treasure — Captain Kidd’s or anyone else’s ill-gotten booty — would be inland, maybe under a big oak tree or near a prominent rock. Obviously, I needed a treasure map. They sell them at gift shops out on the North Fork. Complete with dotted lines, drawings of rocks, trees, and a big X. About five bucks.

broken lockCaptain Kidd’s treasure is a local legend here on Long Island, but buried treasure, in general, is a universal topic of myth, books, and movies. The idea that there is a fortune buried under the ground, waiting to be found, captures our imaginations and appeals to us (little boys) on several levels. There is, first of all, the history of how it got there — pirates, buccaneers, action, adventure, and probably murder. Also, I think we’re all hardwired to unravel ancient mysteries, to journey out on a quest that will bring us honor and fame, not to mention some loot. On a somewhat higher level, we’re looking for the truth.

Ben Franklin, in his Poor Richard’s Almanack, admonished his fellow citizens to stop wasting their time and energies digging up the countryside to find buried treasure. He pointed out that if these treasure hunters stuck to their trades, they’d be better off financially and so would their families and communities.

Good advice. But like most good advice, it went — and continues to go — unheeded. Everyone wants to turn a quick buck, and digging holes in the ground is not that much work if the reward is a treasure chest brimming with gold and jewels. As long as it doesn’t become an obsession or your day job.

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The Workplace, Wet or Dry

When I first began to write as a kid, what I had in the way of an office was a notepad and a ballpoint pen and any place that was flat where I could work. This was when I was writing entirely for fun, without any knowledge of how something was marketed or sold, or that I was in need of a study or an office.
One problem I had with that method was that my handwriting was akin to dipping an arthritic chicken’s feet in ink and turning it loose on the page. In high school, I took typing. When I’m asked what I think was the most important part of my education, my answer is simple. Typing class in high school and dropping out of college.
After learning to type, my life was never quite the same. Now I could write a story more speedily, more clearly, and have it look like it would look in a book or magazine. Keep in mind, now, I’m talking about actual typewriters, where you rolled the paper into it, typed, and corrected with Wite-Out, and had to have carbons and an extra sheet of paper behind the carbon to make an impression, and therefore a copy, of your deathless prose.
The Wite-Out was messy, and the carbon pages slipped, so that you could finish an entire page, only to discover that you didn’t have an exact copy at all, that a sentence was typed over another, or that the paper had slipped in such a way that it appeared to have been typed at an angle.
Frustrating.
Also, each day I ended up with a complete trash can full of discards. steam cloud . Ah, the good old days. Who’s kidding who?

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