Category Archives: Stephen Jay Schwartz

7 UP

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

David’s blog got me started. Thinking of that “evil” little boy at the mercy of all those repressed nuns and priests. “When sister or I enter the room, you don’t just stand up. You leap up. LEAP! I mean, Jesus, like that’s not going to have some kind of negative effect on the REST OF HIS LIFE.

It ain’t right, I tell ya.

His blog came to mind again last night when I was clicking through options on Netflix and came across a documentary called “49 UP.”

Do you know the “UP” series? It began as “7 UP” back in 1964, the year I was born. It had a simple premise – “Give me the seven year old and I’ll give you the man.” (Maybe they should have said, “…and I’ll give you the adult,” since half of the kids interviewed were girls. But, hey, this was 1964 and people weren’t particularly PC at the time.)

The idea was to interview fourteen seven year olds (half from lower, working class backgrounds and half from the privileged class) and ask them about their beliefs and dreams for the future. There was a lot of emphasis placed on the socio-economic backgrounds of the kids, with the assumption that each child’s social class would determine what he might or might not be able to achieve in life.

So, the kids were interviewed when they were seven and then seven years later they were interviewed again.

The series has been a life-long project for film director Michael Apted (“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Gorky Park,” “Gorillas in the Midst,” “Nell”), who has been the interviewer and organizer since the kids were interviewed at fourteen. No matter what’s happening in his career, Apted always returns to “UP.”

I was introduced to the series when it was “21 UP.” I was riveted, watching each interview juxtaposed to the next, seven and fourteen years apart. For the most part, the kids held to their dreams, but their socio-economic backgrounds did in fact determine the level of difficulty involved in accomplishing their goals.

Another seven years, and another set of interviews. “28 UP.” Another seven years and the kids were 35. Then 42.

I watched them last night turning 49. It didn’t occur to me until this very moment that a new installment is about to be released, and that the participants are now 56.

I find this hard to digest. It’s both beautiful and horrifying. The participants seem to feel the same and some have stopped participating in the project altogether. The ones that remain are aware of the social import of this life-long examination, but they remain troubled by the fact that their lives are ripped apart every seven years and presented to the general public to devour and judge.

It freaks me out to see the progression of their lives. I remember when I was in college I saw a copy of Life Magazine with pictures of people growing from babies into senior citizens.  One picture to the next, each taken approximately five years apart.  I was fascinated, I couldn’t put the magazine down. But it was also like watching a horror film–you want to turn away, but you’re glued to every frame. I just can’t get over the fact that it’s happening to all of us. That it’s happening to me.

As difficult as it must be to be a participant in the series, I wish I’d had the opportunity. I’m an incredibly nostalgic person — I make every effort to document even the most difficult and personal experiences of my life. I remember making tape recordings of my teenage years, recording my feelings about life, my political views, my dreams and my sorrows. I told myself I did this for the children I would some day have; to show them that their father had the same fears and concerns that they themselves might have. But I really did it for myself. So that I can look back at my teenage years as an adult and map the way my life evolved.

It would have been hard, I know, but I would have endured it. I imagine what Michael Apted’s camera might have seen…

Age 7. Deciding to become a vegetarian after my older sister visits a meat-packing plant on a sixth-grade field trip. My mother thinks I’ll last two weeks. Who knew it was a life-long decision? I’m sure I’ll become a veterinarian. I carry around a little, black doctor’s bag filled with gauze, band aids and surgical instruments. Ready for the next run-over dog. My mind is set.

Age 14. I wake up and join my mother for breakfast. She is tired, her eyes puffy. She tells me my father has left, he’s gone to live with another woman. Other children. I am pissed, I say the joke isn’t funny. I run from the table. She calls after me, “I’m not joking! Your father is gone!”

Age 21. Bouncing around different bars in San Francisco with a girl I met in Santa Cruz. Celebrating the fact that I can drink. My father killed himself the year before. I am confused, depressed, angry. I just finished writing my first screenplay and a couple short stories. Everything is influenced by the loss of my father. And I’m headed to Hollywood.

Age 28. “Out of college, money spent, see no future, pay no rent.” The Beatles remain a huge force in my life. Been with the same girl now for three years. I’m working in the international marketing department at Disney Studios, as an assistant. I’m still trying to finish the 35mm film I made with my friends. I’d shot the thing on cash-advanced credit cards, loans and donations from people who wanted to see me succeed. Chuck Connors had a role in the film, donating his time. He used to say, “Schwartz, are you going to finish this film before I die?” And then he died.

Age 35. Married now with one little boy and another on the way. Working for film director Wolfgang Petersen. It all seems great except it isn’t. I haven’t become the big screenwriter or film director I dreamt I’d be, and it’s becoming clear it won’t happen as long as I remain where I am. There just isn’t any room for more than one story-teller, and Wolfgang is it. Meanwhile, I’m living a secret life; gentle father and husband by day, street-cruising sex addict by night. I wonder if Michael Apted’s lens captures the chromatic duplicity.

Age 42. Two beautiful boys and a marriage barely saved. The cameras see me attending twelve step meetings and sitting in counseling sessions with my wife. They missed the total chaos that unraveled just a few years before. My wife and I are struggling to work things out, and we’re growing closer in the process. I started writing something new and it helps keep me sane. I call it “Boulevard.”

Age 49 hasn’t come, but it’s just around the corner. If the camera was here it would capture a man content with his life, at last, after finding success as an author. Creativity setting him free.

One thing I noticed after watching those kids turn 49 was that the Sturm und Drang of their lives had subsided. They seemed to have settled into themselves, content with where their lives had led them. Many had not realized the dreams they had at seven, fourteen and twenty-one. They found other dreams to pursue and pursued them.

At 47 I’m no longer the angry young man. I’m not exactly where I want to be, but I’m pretty happy where I am. I’ve been through a lot and the worst of it wasn’t that bad. I appreciate the good fortune I’ve had. And I’ve made good friends along the way. Which, I’ve learned, is the crux of it all.

My voyage to this point looks a lot like the ones I observed in the “UP” series. It makes me wonder if we’re all destined to follow the same path. Maybe it’s the human condition, universal.

I used to think that growing old meant I’d lose my passion for life. I treasured my anger because it showed that I cared, deeply, about being alive. I realize now that the anger was mostly wasted energy. Too many years spent gnawed by anxiety. What did my anger provide? Maybe it lit the fire that wrote my books. There was anger in my books.

Perhaps I don’t have to live the anger to write it.

I’m ready to be content, like the forty-nine year olds I saw on TV.

And Corbett seems to have turned out all right, despite the attack on his spirit by the fathers and nuns.

Still, I haven’t seen “56 UP” yet.  Maybe things fall apart and it’s Mahler all over again. Maybe there’s a post-midlife crisis I haven’t considered. 

I guess I’ll stay tuned to find out.

THE FESTIVAL OF BOOKS

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

There’s nothing quite like the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. It’s a two-day extravaganza that was for many years held at UCLA, but has now found its home at USC.

The Festival consists of hundreds of small and large press publishers as well as booths for popular book stores, newspapers, comic book publishers and just about everything else related to books. There are stages for poetry reading, performance art, musical acts and children’s story-telling. Dozens of lecture halls hold author panels that run dawn to dusk.

Thousands of authors appear at tables to sign copies of their books. Every genre is represented. It’s a huge celebration of the written word.

In years past I’ve had the opportunity to rub shoulders with the likes of James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, Michael Connelly, TC Boyle, Buzz Aldrin, Barbara Eden and Bernadette Peters, among others. A couple years ago Bono poked his head into the Mysterious Galaxy tent and stared me right in the eye. We smiled at each other and he walked away. I’m still kicking myself for not stuffing a copy of Boulevard into his hands.

This year the celebrity guests ran the gamut: John Cusack, Julie Andrews, Rodney King, Betty White, Marilu Henner, Ricki Lake, Sugar Ray Leonard, Anne Rice, Molly Shannon and Tori Spelling.

This is my third year at the Festival and each year I’ve been blessed to be on a panel. Last year I sat with Miles Corwin and Marcia Clark, and this year my panel included April Smith, Ned Vizzini, Jerry Stahl and John Sacret Young. Our panel was actually featured in Sunday’s issue of the L.A. Times.

 

Everybody’s experience of the Festival is different. There are just too many cool panels, parties and events for anyone’s experience to be the same. Between my panel and the booth signings I did I was only able to attend two other panels. My wife and son split off to see their favorite YA authors while I caught Gar Anthony Haywood and Kelli Stanley at a crime panel.

(YA panel)

 

(Crime panel with our Murderati member Gar Anthony Haywood and Kelli Stanley)

 

Saturday evening featured an author bash at the Los Angeles Central Library, a beautiful Art Deco backdrop for the literati crowd.

 

I caught dinner before the event with authors Lee Goldberg, Boyd Morrison, Lissa Price and Barry Eisler. It was the best “panel” on non-traditional publishing I’ve ever attended.

 

 

My son Noah has become quite the event photographer and I let him go hog-wild documenting the event. Noah might not have had such an interest in photography if it hadn’t been for the encouragement of one beautiful woman who no longer walks among us.

Publicist Diana James, the late wife of author Darrell James, gave Noah his first paying job as a photographer, hiring him to take photos of authors at last year’s Festival of Books. She gave him a wonderful letter telling him to follow his dreams and continue taking pictures, something we’ve framed along with a copy of that first check. Her kindness had an impact on our lives.

The following are images of the Festival from an eleven-year old’s point of view. It’s not everyone’s experience at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, but it was ours…

(Denise Hamilton and Cara Black)

 

 (Tough Guy Gary Phillips)

 

 

(YA author Maggie Stiefvater)

 

 

(Ned Vizzini and his wife at the library party)

 

 

(Naomi Hirahara)

 

 

 (Jerry Stahl)

 

 

(Lissa Price, YA author of Starters hanging out with my lovely wife)

 

 

(Kelli Stanley and Gary Phillips)

 

 

 

(Eric Stone)

 

 

(Darrell James)

 

 

 (The wife and me at the library bash)

 

 

(Boyd Morrison)

 

 

(Stuart Woods and Tom Epperson)

 

(Moderator Tom Nolan and Barry Eisler)

 

 

 

(YA author Maureen Johnson)

 

 

(The Green Room and the back of Kelli Stanley)

 

 

(Mark Haskell Smith)

 

 

(Ceiling of the L.A. Central Library)

 

 

(Patty Smiley smiling)

 

 

 

(Music in the air…)

 

 

ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

It’s interesting how quickly one goes from “Hey, everything’s great” to “AAAAHHHH! I’m spiraling out of control!!!”

And then, after a bit of trauma, one bounces back.

That’s kinda how my last year has been. I left my day job to take a screenwriting assignment and write novel number three. I rolled the dice on the notion that I could support a family of four on my writing income alone. I hedged the bet by cashing out my 401k. Things looked so good that I took that trip to Ireland with the wife and kids, all the while thinking there’d be opportunities to come. There was another screenwriting assignment or two in the wings. And that TV option for my novels would soon become a network sale, really, it was just a matter of time. And I’d finish that third novel and it would be a six figure acquisition. Yep, it was glory days ahead, for sure.

All the while watching the numbers in my bank account dwindle away.

And then, boom, there it was. Last dollar. Rock bottom. Permission to flip out.

Oh my God…did I leave my day job for this? Was I really going to have to dredge up that old resume and start over again? And how would I revise it? I had been the vice president of a national lighting company–that’s the gig I left when I left. I had written both my novels when I had that job. And yet I couldn’t complete my third novel when I had all the time in the world. Maybe I needed the pressure of not having any time, maybe that’s how I worked.

Well, I didn’t have a choice anymore. Writing would have to take a back seat again.

But how would I sell myself? Would I mention that I was a best-selling author? List all the panels I’ve been on, the awards I’ve received, the reviews? What kind of message would that be to my potential employer? “So you left your last job to pursue a career in writing, and now you expect us to believe that your writing is a hobby?”

I would have to face that question when it came, and I hoped I would be ready.

I decided to de-emphasize my creative side. I wrote my new resume as a two-page story of success in the lighting industry, and I included the period of time I spent as a development executive for film director Wolfgang Petersen. That little bit of “creative” content focused on the success of the films I helped develop. It didn’t really relate to my own creative aspirations. I was working for someone else.

At the very bottom of the resume, under “Special Interests,” I noted that I was an L.A. Times bestselling author. I felt I was taking a chance, but I wanted to land at a place where they understood my creative passion. I hoped they would see my creative drive as an asset.

It takes months to land an executive position; even longer during uncertain economic times. My resume went into circulation, but things weren’t happening quickly enough. I had waited too long, stepped too close to the edge. I didn’t have time to wait things out.

Things got desperate and I found myself taking embarrassing interviews at local restaurants and grocery stores, temp agencies, and even a dog grooming salon. As if any of those options would support my family. I invested time and money into getting a taxi driver’s license, thinking it would be the perfect job for a writer. All that time alone in the car, thinking of ideas, mapping character studies of the strangers I met. I saw Travis Bickle in the mirror, pissed off and ready to set the world on fire. I’ve had just about every crap job in the world and I figured I won’t “make it” until I’ve spent some time behind the wheel of a taxi.

I took all the tests, paid my dues, went through drug-testing and background checks (the most trustworthy guys you’ll ever meet are taxi drivers – no drugs or alcohol and they haven’t been convicted of a felony for at least three years) and then, finally, found a car owner to lease me his vehicle for $350 a week.

After two miserable seven-day weeks, ten hours a day, I ended up making a couple hundred dollars (went right into groceries) after paying off the lease (I still owe the car owner $50). I quit immediately, before I could rack up another $350 debt. I would’ve made more money working part-time at Starbucks.

And it’s not like it was exciting. There was no danger involved. I spent all that time taking little old ladies to their eye appointments. My passengers were the perfect cozy demographics. Although I’ll always relish the ride I had with the narcotics dealer whom I picked up at the Torrance Police Station. I milked him for everything I could. I still can’t believe he’d never seen “Breaking Bad.”

Days of panic, disillusion and depression followed. Borrowing money from friends, family, business associates. Taking an early payment on the screenwriting assignment (foregoing the production bonus that would have come if I had waited), eking out a little more time, a rent payment, an insurance payment, groceries, then back to the bottom again.

And all the time spent on my computer–Monster.com, Indeed.com, Careerbuilders.com, Linkedin…and all the lighting industry head-hunters, and the shylocks with their promises, and the scheisters with their schemes, consultants wanting me to pay for their job-hunting services…

I sent out hundreds of resumes. I called execs I knew from different companies, put the word out that I was looking, looking, looking.

Then all at once a few hits. Phone calls that turned into Skype interviews. I had to pull that suit out of storage. I had to buy a tie. And I faced those question about my writing.

“Writing screenplays and novels sounds so glamorous. Why are you coming back to this industry?”

I had dust off an old joke – “Do you know the difference between a writer and a pizza? A pizza feeds a family of four.” Rim-shot. It took the edge off. I’d continue – “I’m fine writing evenings and weekends. I wrote two novels with a full-time job. No problem.”

Skype interviews led to interviews at corporate headquarters in Florida, Arizona, Ohio, New York.

And then, just a month ago, the right one came through. They looked at the whole package, saw the writer and the salesman as one.

They told me I could lose the tie.

“Really?”

“And the suit.”

“What about…the hair?”

“You can keep the hair.”

They made their offer and I accepted.

Sometimes the magic happens. A good job, good pay, good products, good people. They were out there looking for me, and I was out there looking for them.

It’s a tough balance, making a living and struggling as an artist. I’ve spent much of my life living one or the other, hiding one from the other. When I wrote “Inside the Space Station” for the Discovery Channel I had a full-time day job. I couldn’t tell the day job that I was writing for the Discovery Channel and I couldn’t tell the Discovery Channel I had a full-time day job. I had to live two lives. I don’t ever want to live such a lie again.

And, now that I actually have a good job, with health insurance (it’s been over a year), 401k, expense account, car allowance, company credit card…I can’t just up and leave it for another writing gig. Which means I’m going to have to fit all my writing into that small window of after-hours time. It’s not hard to do if I’m writing a spec novel on my own time. But what if I’m offered another screenwriting assignment, with producers expecting my attention and an immediate turn-around? When I was young I would leave whatever job I had for an opportunity like that, and it would’ve been worth it. That was when I could live on $30,000 a year. Those days are gone.

So I have to make prudent decisions now. And I’ll have to pass on opportunities that don’t meet my needs. Thankfully, I’ve earned a little credit. I don’t have to chase things down as much as I did when I was young. I have work that producers can read–my novels and screenplays–and they can decide if they want to work within my time frame, with my restrictions. They’ll have to accept that I have responsibilities to another employer, and that I value the day job at least as much as I value the opportunity to write on assignment.

Because the truth is, the day job saved my ass.

What’s great about the whole thing is that I’m writing again. I had trouble working on the novel when I was looking for a job. It felt like my writing was taking time away from my search for a job. I began to resent it. My writing, my passion, became the thing that was keeping me from finding a way to support my family.

And now that I’m working, I’m writing. The pressure is off. I don’t have to try to anticipate the market; I don’t have to write something commercial enough to pay all my bills. I can write what I want. Which is how I wrote Boulevard. And how I wrote Beat. Which is not how I’ve been writing my third novel, worrying all the time if it’s commercial enough to “launch my career.” But the truth is that most authors don’t support their families with their writing until they’ve published a half-dozen books or more. Often many, many more.

So, I’m looking at a different time-line now. I’m seeing what I managed to accomplish with just two novels. I’m recognizing how far I’ve come.

Accentuating the positive.

I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. Things are good. I might not be Michael Connelly, or Lee Child, or Dennis Lehane, but then again, I’m not Joe Schmo. I’m in the game, I’m on the journey. I’m paying the bills and I’m practicing my art.

I think this is the sound of happiness.

 

On another note, if you’re coming in for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at USC this weekend, I’ll be speaking on a panel with Jerry Stahl, April Smith and Ned Vizzini, moderated by John Sacret Young, on Saturday, April 21, at 10:30 am, in the Andrus Gerontology Center. The panel is called “Page and Screen.” They left my name out of the on-line schedule, but it’s in the printed schedule. I’m also signing Saturday at the Mysterious Galaxy booth at 2:00, the Sisters in Crime booth at 4:00, and on Sunday at the Mystery Ink booth at 11:00, with Gar Anthony Haywood. There will be a ton of talented authors present, so get your books and get ’em signed! Thanks!

 

I LIKE YOUR FACE

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

I was writing in Starbucks in Hermosa Beach one Friday night and the town was hopping. A number of ultra-hip, Hollywood type dance clubs have opened in this little village, devolving what had once been an organically cool jazz/blues biker scene into simply more of the same L.A. bullshit. Cafe Bugaloo still brings live blues bands in from the Mississippi Delta, but they go DJ techno-pop starting at 11:00 pm. Then it’s long lines, bouncers and attitude.

The cafe was busy with marauding twenty year-olds popping in to add a little caffeine to their drunk. A group of four guys sat down in leather arm chairs beside me. They had come from one club and were headed to the next. They spoke extra loud – I could hear the music from the last place pounded in their heads.

“I’ll tell you something,” one said to the other three. “When I see a chick I want to pick up I say, ‘I like your face.'”

The friends nodded sagely. “Yeah. That’s good,” one said.

“Try it,” the first one encouraged.

“Yeah,” the others agreed.

I like your face.

Really? You don’t even want to pick a particular feature to emphasize? How about…her eyes, for instance?

“I like your face” is like saying, “Hey, we both have arms!”

How about something like…”Man, I’m sorry, but I can’t stop staring at your eyes. I hope it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, it’s just that…I’ve never seen eyes so blue. They’re just, really bright, and blue, and sharp. They’re gorgeous.”

Now you might have her attention. Put a little effort into it, asshole.

Or maybe she has one of those arcing, Roman noses and you catch her looking longingly at the pinky-noses of her friends. So maybe you try something like this:

“You’ve got a real exotic look, you know. And your nose is just…elegant. Don’t ever change it.”

Listen, anything I put down is going to sound like a shallow pick-up line. That’s why I never went to dance clubs to meet girls. Every conversation sounds exactly like this:

Guy – “(Garbled noise)”

Girl – “What?!”

Guy – “I said (garbled noise)”

Girl – “What?!”

Guy – “I like your face!”

And come on, girls…if you look at him and think, “God, that was sweet, he’s so sincere,” then you deserve what you get.

The line makes me think of one of my great writing weaknesses: describing people. I hate it. I can’t help making everyone sound like a caricature. “He had bushy eyebrows and big, puffy jowls.” That’s the kind of shit I start to write and then I think…what did I just write? So I try to think of people I know and how to describe them and I can’t think of anything that doesn’t sound absolutely dull. “She had a button nose and tiny wrinkles in the corners of her eyes.” Ugh. I don’t know, but to me, everyone looks roughly the same. “She had two eyes, a nose and a mouth that opened when she spoke.” That’s how I see everyone. The differences are too subtle to note.

“He parted his thin hair to the left.” What does it matter?! Does that really tell me anything about the character? Because that’s what a character description should do, in my opinion, tell me something about how the character thinks and feels. How he sees himself.

“He had a face that people liked.” There, that was easy.

Dickens was one of those writers who could nail a description. God, I love how he described the lawyer in Great Expectations – how the man was always washing his hands. The way his characters looked, how they did their “stage business,” what their mannerisms were…all this revealed character. Often they revealed something that countered the conscious efforts these characters made to impress others. Their faces revealed something else, something dark or sinister, or weak, or sick. The weight of life and difficult decisions etched in their foreheads.

To me, writing effective, multi-layered character descriptions is – and I’m talking about physical descriptions and mannerisms only – one of the hardest things I attempt.

I’m reading Walter Mosley’s “All I Did Was Shoot My Man” and his character descriptions knock my socks off. He makes it seem easy:

“Gert Longman was dark-skinned and heavy the way old-time movie stars used to be.”

“The rhyming young men were dirty, probably high, and likely homeless–but they were singing and moving to an imagined beat that men had been keeping alive in their breasts longer than there were any buildings or buses–or prisons.”

“She had amber skin with pecan brown freckles, burnt orange eyes, and an expression that had been spawned when she needed a doting parent to indulge her fears. The fact that she was near sixty had not extinguished the fears haunting her worried inner child.”

“The girl was cinnamon colored in the way of Native America after it had been raped by Europe.”

“His mottled tanned skin seemed to come from sportsmanship and not vanity. His trousers were khaki and shirt lime cotton. His feet were moccasined in red-brown leather and his hair was onyx and silver as opposed to the more pedestrian salt-and-pepper.”

Beautiful, ain’t it? It would take me a week to come up with lines half as good. Mosley’s descriptions reveal character. And, since the book is written in first person, the descriptions also reveal the character of the observer himself; the narrator, the protagonist. The way he describes people shows us that he is a poet himself. It reveals the quality of his education, it underscores his sense of disillusion and his loneliness.

All this to say that there’s more to a description than meets the eye.

What is it about her face that you like?

“Listen, writer dude, I just want to get laid, all right? And the line works, so shut the fuck up.”

The last time I was at a club with my wife I decided to give it a shot.

Me – “(Garbled noise)”

My Wife – “What?”

Me – “I said (garbled noise)”

My Wife – “What?!”

Me – “I like your ass!”

I feel I can take some liberties here; we’ve been married a long time.

She gave me a cock-eyed look then smiled and took my hand. We left the club together.

If she falls for a shallow line like that then she deserves what she gets.

SAFETY IN NUMBERS

 

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

I was sitting in the cafe and the girl with the backpack squinted at a textbook called Statistics and I asked her how the hell she made sense of it.

“I had a choice this semester,” she said. “History or Statistics. I hate essays–I never know the right answer. With math and science I know where I stand.”

I thought for a moment then responded, “Yeah, there’s safety in numbers.”

Me, I always went for the essay classes. The only time I understood numbers in college was if they were measured in ounces, pints, fingers and occasionally grams.

Most students hate essays. They want fill-in-the-blank exams. Or, better yet, multiple choice. Like what you get when you take your test at the DMV. What’s the speed limit in a school zone? How many car-lengths do I have to be from the car ahead of me on the freeway? It’s any man’s guess. Somehow, I always end up getting my driver’s license renewed.

Most students won’t commit to the cumbersome weight of the essay, with its introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, and the big close, tying everything together with a resounding punch. It sounds like too much work–and it is. But if you’re a bullshit artist, the essay offers the best chance for that last-minute save-your-ass pass.

You really don’t have to know shit to write a good-enough essay. Want a ten-page essay on the French Revolution? I can wing that. Splice together what I remember of The Three Musketeers, Les Miserable, and that article in Newsweek about Robespierre. Shazam–looks like I’ve been at it all along.

But it’s scary, making it up as you go along. I can see why the numbers people cling to their rulers and compasses.

What I mean to say is that numbers are safe. Chemistry works for a reason. If you’re a little unsure about where to place your feet in the quicksand of life, lean on the numbers. They’ll take you to the next step, and the next, and the next. Before long you’ve left a trail.

I never knew if I was going to ace or fail those essays. It really depended on my ability to read my teacher. Was he a good sport? Did he appreciate a student who bent the rules? Was she strict or old-fashioned? Did she have a bullshit meter, and did it matter?

In my opinion, everything I was taught was open for debate. It’s a good thing I didn’t study medicine.

Sometimes passion got in the way. Like the final exam I had in my Film as Literature class, which included five difficult essay questions. I can’t remember the nature of the first question, but I think it had to do with the development of “montage,” from Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” through “Birth of a Nation” and on to the works of Martin Scorsese. I had this topic by the balls. I knew it backwards and forwards and I was intent upon writing everything I’d ever learned on the subject. I remember a friend sitting next to me, seeing my frantic writing, asking which essay I was on.

“The first one,” I said.

“The first one? Get moving, man.”

Twenty minutes later he asked again.

“The first one,” I repeated.

It was like that all the way until the end of class, when we were asked to turn in our papers. I had written a ten page essay on Question #1. It was perfect. I failed the exam. The teacher told me I got an A+ on that first question, however. And, in some weird way, that was good enough for me.

I’ve had the opposite experience as well, where I’ve saved my semester grade with an inspired, last-ditch essay that even I didn’t understand. That’s the magic of the essay – you don’t always know where it’s going. It’s malleable. It’s not what it seems.

However, I failed my Astronomy final because there was simply no wiggle room in the distance between Earth and the Sun. Fudging numbers doesn’t put a man on Mars.

I did take one science class seriously, however. Chemistry. For some reason I decided I wanted to learn, really learn, what chemistry was about. I figured out the math part and did the lab work and discovered for the first time in my college career what it was like to know, definitively, something. Anything. The liquids turned the colors they were supposed to and the numbers backed it up. It was comforting. Suddenly, I could sleep at night.

I believe there are two kinds of people: numbers people and essay people. I think the numbers people are generally happier. The essay people, well, I know a lot of them. They live turbulent, ill-defined lives. They pretend to know the answers, while knowing, deep inside, they don’t have a clue. They live life without a safety net. They sometimes fall, making a terrible mess when they land.

But when they fall, they generally fall from great heights.

And, before impact, they swear they’d experienced a moment of flight.

Of course the numbers people will tell them they hadn’t left the ground. And the sensation of flight came from the rush of blood to the brain.

They’ll say the sense of being released from gravity is pure fiction.

And the essay people will say, yes, that’s it exactly.

NOTHING TO SEE HERE, MOVE ALONG…

 

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

My Wild Card Tuesday interview with film director Kevin Lewis this week emphasized the fact that a screenwriter more often than not has to rewrite his work based on elements completely out of his control. Like new story comments provided by the myriad of producers involved in a project, or the actors, or the director, or financiers. A character becomes young or old and changes race or sex depending on what actor receives the submission, and that often depends on the relationships the producers have with the kind of talent that can green-light a film.

A screenwriter has to be prepared to work in a new idea at a moment’s notice, and that means tossing out previous story points that don’t gel organically with the new material. Often, to make a new idea work, old ideas must be excised. Completely. A favorite scene or piece of dialogue suddenly doesn’t belong, and it’s not going to belong, no matter how you try to justify it. When you leave these bits of tissue on the bone you create a Frankenstein from the cannibalized parts of incompatible monsters.

But this isn’t restricted to screenwriting alone. We go through the same process with our novels. Sometimes we get into the last third of our book and realize that a major plot point doesn’t work. We have to establish something new and rework it, thread-by-thread, from the very beginning. And we know what needs to be done. We might not want to toss the good stuff, but the fact is, it’s no longer relevant. Sometimes, as they say, we have “to kill our babies.”

Sure, we can fool ourselves for a while. As long as the manuscript stays in our hands, we can assume it’s perfect. That’s why we need trusted readers to tell us the truth. People who aren’t tied to previous incarnations of the story. People who can say, “Why did your character do or say THAT?” If our answer is something like, “Well, you see, in an earlier draft I had this hot air balloon fall on his house, and I liked the way he always looked for things to fall from the sky after that, and…” then you know you’re holding onto something that has no place in the new story you’ve chosen to tell.

Of course, if you really love something and can find a way to work it in organically, go for it. But, more often than not, it’s a brush-stroke meant for a painting that doesn’t exist.

I’m thinking about these things because I’m doing another pass on GRINDER, probably the final pass before the script goes back to actors. This draft addresses feedback we’ve received about elements that make the story confusing to the reader. And there is one fundamental story point that I’ve always loved, but it has managed to polarize the people who champion the project. There’s a change I’ve wanted to avoid making, but now that the success of the project hangs in the balance, I’ve had to find a way to make the change in a way that benefits the story. And what I’ve discovered in the process is that the new change strengthens the story’s themes and helps create a stronger resolution.

Once the decision was made, it became necessary for me to put the old subplot out of my head. Eliminate it from my thoughts. The director–Kevin–and I both loved the old subplot, but we also see the need to sacrifice it for the greater good of the story. The only thing left for us to do was to accept our loss and MOVE ON. Because what’s ahead is actually better, as long as we don’t try to force old story elements into the new idea. I’ve done that before with GRINDER, incorporating scenes from previous drafts, scenes that everyone liked and wanted to see realized, and it didn’t work. Each major rewrite required that I reinvent the story, and, in doing so, old scenes had to be tossed. And only then did the script begin to take shape.

What’s great is that the story is strong enough to adjust to the changes. The new ideas don’t deter from the story’s themes, but strengthen them. Stripping out the previous subplot helped identify a larger problem, and the new ideas helped solve it.

It’s amazing how things really aren’t done until they’re done. It’s true, I jump through fewer hoops when I’m writing novels. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. GRINDER has benefited from the many eyes that have scanned its pages. But my willingness to listen, borne from years of receiving project notes on dozens of writing projects, combined with my experience on the other side, as a development executive, is the key element that keeps me attached to the project on the one hand, and helps me to improve it, on the other.

In the end, the reader/viewer won’t miss the missing scenes. They don’t know what existed before. What they’ll see is a finished product, and it will either work or it won’t.

So, there’s really nothing to see here. Best just to move along…

INTERVIEW WITH FILM DIRECTOR KEVIN LEWIS

 

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

Last year I had the great opportunity to meet and befriend the talented, young film director Kevin Lewis (click to view his reel).  Kevin is the creator of GRINDER, the screenplay I was employed to write. It will be the eighth feature film Kevin has directed.

Originally from Denver, Colorado, Kevin’s early film efforts earned him a scholarship to the famed school of cinema at USC. While there he interned with such established entertainment heavies as film directors John McTiernan and Renny Harlin and producer Lynda Obst. Kevin’s first feature film after college, THE METHOD (starring Sean Patrick Flanery, Robert Forster and Natasha Gregson Wagner) was picked up for distribution by Showcase Entertainment at the Slamdance Film Festival.

His next directorial effort, DOWNWARD ANGEL starring Matt Schulze from “The Fast and the Furious,” was picked up by Blockbuster Video and continues to do well in home video and pay TV.

Over the next few years Kevin directed numerous known actors, such as John Savage, Sean Young, Charles Dutton, Jake Muxworthy and Chloe Moretz, in the films THE DROP, DARK HEART, and THE THIRD NAIL.

Kevin currently works with the 3D film conversion company, Venture 3D, located on the Sony Lot in Los Angeles. The company takes traditional two-dimensional film and converts it to 3D using a unique filmic approach that was first designed for medical and military applications. Among others, Venture 3D converted the film PRIEST and is currently converting James Cameron’s TITANIC. HyperEmotive Films is Venture 3D’s sister company, created to produce original motion picture content. GRINDER is a HyperEmotive Film.

In working with Kevin I discovered that we are built from the same stuff. We were weened on the films of the 1970s. Most of our filmic references go back to scenes from Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, Three Days of the Condor, Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather…we both agree that films from that era had guts and told stories that Hollywood is unwilling to tell today. Unwilling, or maybe unable to recognize the value. It’s a discussion we have almost every week, and it bonds us.

SS: So, first off, Kevin, thank you for joining us here at Murderati. While all of us are authors, most of us are also big film buffs, and some of us write or have written screenplays professionally. So, there’s quite an interest in learning how you do what you do. To begin with, I’d like to know your opinion of the state of affairs in Hollywood now. Why aren’t they making films like the ones we love, from back in the day? How has Hollywood changed?

KL: Thanks for having me here, Stephen. First off, things just aren’t that good in the biz. I think Hollywood wants to play it safe right now. In the 70’s nobody played it safe, the filmmakers (movie brats) were willing to explore, they wanted to kick out the old guard and take over, and that is what they did. Now, the same movie brats are the ones who have grown complacent. When I hear things about Spielberg, how when he was young he wanted to shoot on location and now he just wonders what hotel room he will get next to the filming location, well, that says it all. We have George Lucas directing in an air conditioned room with thousands of CGI artists around him making a prequel trilogy that pales in comparison to the original.

The executives who run the studios want trans-media properties (ips that cross platform to video games, comic books, etc), they are more interested in “branding” than original content. We have movies that cost over $200m, based on the board games “Battleship” (which, check me if I am wrong, never had aliens in it), “Candyland” and “Monopoly”. Every comic book has either been made or is going to be made into a movie. I think the Hollywood execs have grown up in a pop culture world and this is all they know. I blame a lot of this on the success of blockbuster films like “Star Wars”. And I blame myself as well, for supporting the marketing campaigns that built the blockbusters. I was raised on Lucas/Spielberg films, and I collected the toys (still do), but once it all became about toys it was the end of the creativity. Because now you have marketing execs calling the shots. Last summer there were movies in the theatre that had the number 5 in the title. Studios care more about sequels and prequels than original material.

I also think that in the past we had creative execs who actually understood the creative process or were creative themselves. But now Hollywood has been invaded by MBAs and they do not understand or even want to understand the creative process. We have studio execs that are former agents (how scary is that?) and they have figured out a way to make sure they are “locked” in, even if a movie tanks. The MBA makes sure he gets paid.

And the foreign box office has made things worse because now everything has been converted to “genres,” since genres play cross-platform. A producer once told me that “dialogue is hard to understand in foreign countries, but a bullet speaks a thousand words.” That’s a pretty scary statement.

SS: I find it interesting that you’ve embraced 3D. I saw some footage of the work you’ve done at Venture 3D and it blew my mind. I saw scenes from what looked like a Merchant-Ivory film, it was a period drama, and it felt like I was walking the halls of the film’s castle myself.

KL: 3D stereoscopic is a great opportunity for filmmakers to make their movies more immersive. I like to call it “Story-scopic”, because the 3D has to service the story, and you need to make a good 2D movie first and then accentuate it with the 3D. 3D allows the filmmaker to bring the audience in to their world and make the movie more of an “experience” than just watching a movie. And in this day and age, where you have everything trying to grab the attention of the viewer from Netflix, xbox, ipad, etc., you need to make 3D a motion picture event. If you do it right that’s what it can be – an event.

SS: We authors often talk about how difficult it is for us to write and finish our novels while juggling the responsibilities of having day jobs, families and various other commitments. However, all a writer needs is a pen and paper to practice his craft. A film director needs a crew of fifty and a few hundred thousand dollars, just to start. How do you stay on top of your game? How does a film director practice his craft?

KL: It starts with story, story, story. You have to work on the story whether you wrote it yourself or worked with a writer. Then it becomes about the mechanics, “How do I breathe life into this and make it a reality?” You have to break down the budget and figure out your resources. I am from the Spike Lee school “By Any Means Necessary” and sometimes that’s what it takes. You can also read about directors, producers, and writers. Read scripts, listen to commentaries from people behind the scenes, from directors, producers, writers or other craftsmen. Now technology is really cheap, you can get yourself an HD 1080p camera to shoot and a lap top with Final Cut Pro and you can make your own movie, or just experiment. Practice, practice, practice equates to shoot, shoot, shoot. James Cameron said “The artist should not go to technology, the technology should come to the artist”.

My first feature I had to beg, borrow and steal and I shot on 35mm and used a moviola to cut. Now it would be pretty much all digital for less than half the cost. And that has leveled the playing field. It’s great because technology is at the artist’s fingertips and they can express themselves freely and inexpensively, but it is a determent as well because it has opened the field to pretty much everybody and so the competition is fierce. But I believe if you stick to telling your film YOUR way and use YOUR voice as a filmmaker you will succeed.

SS: By working with you I’ve been impressed with your almost magical ability to turn words into images, or to see images between the lines, so to speak. I feel that I’m a pretty visual person, but you’re a born film director, and it shows. When you read a book, do you always see the movie in your head? How is telling a story in film different from telling it on paper?

KL: Yes, unfortunately I do. My brain constantly charges up a barrage of images. I think and feel visually, always have. Sometimes I wish I could just turn the switch off, but I think it has helped me in this field. Telling a story on film is all about the visuals, that is why film is different from theater and books, it is a director’s medium. The stage is a playwrights medium and novels are the writer’s medium. But even more than that it is a COLLABORATIVE medium. Unlike novels or paintings, making movies means having a lot of chefs in the kitchen (producers, financiers, etc..) and that can make for some interesting dishes. Not all of them taste very good in the end.

SS: The following is a passage that opens one of our fellow Murderati member’s books. How would you shoot the following scene, from CEMETERY ROAD by Gar Anthony Haywood?

Winter, 1979

What I’ve always remembered most about my last day in Los Angeles is the smell of burning tar. A neighbor across the alley from O’s mother’s garage was having his roof redone and the stench of molten tar hung in the air like a hot, black cloud.

“Goddamn, that shit stinks!” R.J. kept saying.

O’ was late as usual and all through the waiting around had R.J. going through Kools like a chocolate junky through Kisses. By the time O’ finally showed up, over forty minutes after the agreed-upon hour, the floor of the garage was littered with butts, R.J. having crushed them underfoot with an animal-like ferocity to assuage his terror.

KL: I see it shot with a desaturated look, reminds me of Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” or shot in black and white (A producer/distributor’s worst nightmare unless you are “The Artist”). I see a nice long lens shot, SLOW MO of a paint brush spreading the tar down on the roof, the heat rippling off. Close-ups of cigs being smoked and then put out with R.J.’s dialogue. –very Howard Hawkesque. Then a shot behind the main character, his shoulders filling frame. The smoke back lit as it seeps out on left side of frame. A nice tracking shot when O shows up, tracking over the cigs with a low angle dolly, huge depth of field like Welles’ “Citizen’s Kane”. That’s what comes to mind when I read that paragraph.

SS: Not many people really understand what it takes to get a movie made. This past year I’ve watched you struggle and fight and persevere against enormous odds. It’s kind of like seeing what my book editor goes through when he fights the advertising department to get the book cover I want, then he turns around and fights for marketing dollars so my book gets noticed, and then he fights to get the right blurbs on the cover, and on and on and on. He does all this on top of reading, evaluating and editing my manuscript. What are the “behind the scenes” things you have to do to ensure your vision makes it to the screen? What are the obstacles? How much time do you actually spend directing the movie?

KL: Making a movie is truly like going to war. You need to prep your soldiers for battle. You need to make sure they have food, clothes, weapons and know the battle plan and, more importantly, the exit plan. Making a movie takes probably a year or more of your life. You have 2-3 months for prep, 1-2 months to shoot (unlike Mission Impossible 4 that takes 6 months just to shoot) and 3-4 months for post. That is if you started NOW with money in the bank, a finished script, cast and locations locked and ready to go. But if you are like most indies, then it will take a lot longer than that. The feature I’m doing now has taken 3 years and I have been directing it every day, whether in my head, on paper, on the phone or through the lens.

SS: What do you look for in a story? What are the things that make a screenplay work for you? What are the mistakes you see in unproduced screenplays, time and again?

KL: The first thing I look for is whether I connect with what’s happening on the page. Movies are about people watching people and you need that emotional connection for the truth. The mistakes I see in a lot of screenplays are poor, cliché dialogue, or scenes that don’t really represent how people interact in the real world. The other thing I see are “mash ups,” like “Point Break meets The Artist”. Really? Just because you take two genres and “mash” them up it doesn’t mean it’ll make a good movie. It’s like if you took two foods like pizza and turkey a la king and combined them and made “pizza a la king”, it doesn’t look pretty and it tastes terrible.

SS: What are the challenges you see in adapting novels for the screen? What should authors be doing to make their books more attractive to film makers?

KL: A book is a book and a movie is a movie and they are very different. The book is almost always better than the movie because it allows the reader to picture the world, characters and story themselves rather than being told the story in the director’s voice. You need to take the “essence” of the book, the soul if you will, and start from scratch. Tolkien believed that film could never capture every nuance in fiction, and I think he was right. You have to take the soul and as long as you stay true to the core and spirit, you are on the right path. The writer has to divorce himself from being the author or it is just too painful, because liberties will be taken and your baby will get mauled. In the same way, the writer/director needs to divorce himself as “writer” once he shoots the movie and the director needs to divorce himself as the “On set director” and put on the “editor” hat once the movie is in post. Being a director means you wear many hats and being a successful director means you have to wear those hats very well.

SS: What are your favorite films and who are your favorite film directors, and why?

KL: It used to be “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, but once that shameful debacle called “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull” came out, I had to cut the ties. Raiders was the first movie that made me understand what a director does, but after Skull my love affair was over. It was a serious break-up so I had to go to my number two movie, which is “2001 A Space Odyssey”. They could never and would never make that movie today. And if they did, the dawn of man sequence would be cut out because the producers, studio and focus test groups would say it was “too slow and nothing ever happens,” and Bowman would be played by George Clooney and Hal would be voiced by Brad Pitt and there would be a huge CGI star child war at the end…anyway 2001 for sure, just because of it’s sheer brilliance and audacity. I have never seen a movie like it. I also love “Apocalypse Now”, “Trainspotting”, “Blade Runner”, “On the Waterfront”, “The Conversation” and “The Godfather”. My favorite directors are Kubrick, because nobody made movies like him and nobody ever will, Peter Weir for the emotional pull that he instills in his stories and characters, Coppola (his early work) for his way of tapping into the human condition and showing the truth. In regards to the modern directors, I love Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan and Danny Boyle.

SS: Christ, Kevin, we have exactly the same taste. “Blade Runner” (the director’s cut), “On the Waterfront” and “The Conversation” are personal favorites of mine.

Now, you’ve been working on GRINDER for years, and you’ve seen it grow from the nugget of an idea into various different screenplays, by a few different writers. What is the development process like for you, as the original writer and the film’s director? Is the film shaping up the way you envisioned?

KL: The development process is hard. You nurture it for so long, envision what it is going to sound, look and feel like and then the rug gets pulled out from under you and you change it because a producer or financier has an idea. So you try to make that work, go back to scratch, start to get excited again, thinking, “Yeah that isn’t a bad idea, yeah it’s better, it works” and you envision the sound, look and feel and…wait, another note. Now we’re going to change the female into a male, and the protagonist is going to be the antagonist…it’s like a merry go round – a battle between art and commerce and unfortunately commerce always wins – it is not show-business, it is business-show.

SS: As you mentioned above, film is a collaborative medium. This is one of the reasons many screenwriters run for the hills to begin writing novels. When I write a screenplay I feel that I am writing an outline for what is ultimately a director’s vision. I feel that this is my role in the process. How do you feel about the collaborative nature of making movies?

KL: If your collaborators share the same vision as you, it can be amazing, if they don’t then yes, get your running shoes on.

SS: What’s next for you, Kevin? Where do you see yourself in five years?

KL: I love working in film. Spielberg said “I dream for a living,” and if I can continue to make a living dreaming then I will be happy. As you know, an artist is rarely happy with himself. He strives for greatness, constantly yearning to do better. I want to continue to grow as an artist. I love working on a story, trying to make it better, more real, more human. In the end if I can make movies that touch people and make them think about the world around them, I think I will have achieved success.

SS: You’re doing it, Kevin, and I’m rooting for you. Thanks for being a good sport and spending a little time with the folks in the audience. We can’t wait to see the fruits of your labor.

ELECTRIC CIGARETTES

 

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

It’s a strange, strange world. I saw a guy in a bar a couple months ago with a fake cigarette in his mouth, this little electric light on the end of it pretending to be fire. I figured it was some kind of placebo stick to help people ween themselves off smoking.

Yesterday I picked up my own addiction placation device (a pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum) from the local gas station and saw the electric cigarettes for sale. I asked the attendant if they contained any nicotine, thinking maybe, like the “patch,” the device doled out just enough juice to keep a smoker in the game.

“Yeah,” he said. “This one holds about four packs. When it’s done you just replace the filter tip.”

Four packs? There’s no weening involved at all. It’s just a smoke-less cigarette. You might as well keep a set of works in the glove compartment and shoot the nicotine directly into your vein before hitting the bars. That’s smoke-less, too.

I don’t know, man. The world keeps movin’ along. Crazy shit keeps getting invented. Like the Internet. How long has it been around now? Eighty years? And computers? I remember using those IBM Selectric typewriters, thinking, fuck, I’m flying!

I’m really not that old, am I? I don’t know, my wife and I were in line at this local club last year, hanging out with the other club-goers, and someone said something about Justin Bieber, and one of the guys next to me said, “You could be Justin Bieber’s dad.”

Haven’t hit the local club scene since.

I idled at 1000 mph when I was young. I couldn’t get there fast enough. I’d heard rumors about people “settling down” as they got older, no longer interested in setting the pace for the rest of the world. I remember the song My Generation by The Who, with the lyric, “I hope I die before I get old.” It was my battle cry.

And, yes, I know that “old” is a state of mind. And yes, in my head I’m still in my twenties. I get all that. I even believe it on occasion. But, I just gotta say…sitting back and taking a rest sounds really good right about now. Stepping back, and out. Calmer waters. John Lennon wasn’t that old when he wrote the lyric, “I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round.”

The world changes fast. Every new thing seems vitally important at first. We all grab it, just to keep up. But, really now, so much of that is just marketing. We’re conditioned to respond. It’s the American Way.

I’m not always sure I should share the thoughts that spin through my head. I mean, this is supposed to be a blog for mystery-thriller authors to discuss the craft of writing mysteries and thrillers. But sometimes I’m just not into talking about the craft. And sometimes the craft involves pulling back and observing the world and letting these little observations filter into the stories we tell. Filter like nicotine, four packs a pop. After all, we gotta set the pace for the rest of ’em.

EASY COME, EASY GO

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

I guess the first really serious bit of writing I did was a short story called “Yahrzeit Candle,” which I wrote when I was twenty years old. I wrote it in the months following my father’s death. My writing changed overnight–suddenly I had things to say that could not suffer poor writing. And out came this story about a little Jewish boy who comes home one night to find his father stooped in front of a large candle. The boy’s grandfather has just died. The candle burns for seven days and the boy watches his father fall apart before it. The boy doesn’t understand; he thinks the candle is hurting his father. But when he gets close to the candle, when the smoke gets in his eyes, he is overwhelmed with memories of his grandfather. In the end, he tries to snuff out the candle, to save his father. His father wakes and pulls him back. They hug for the first time in years. The candle, having done its job, flickers out on its own.

I was attending a community college when I wrote it, and I entered two national short story competitions that had ties to the school. The story won both competitions, and there was a cash prize, too. I remember the day I went to my professor’s office to get the check for the awards. I remember his words. “You might not write a story this good for many years. Don’t worry about it. Just keep writing, and understand that it’s part of the process.”

We stepped out of his office onto the second-floor terrace and he handed me the check and the award letter. As soon as I took them, a gust of wind came and took them from my hands. The letter and check fluttered down into the bushes two stories below.

“Easy come, easy go,” my professor quipped.

Words to live by.

It’s interesting how I thought that first story would be the beginning of so much. It was, but not in the way I imagined. At the time, I thought the story would open doors (Eli Weisel called it “Shining, evocative and penetrating”). I thought opportunities would suddenly materialize and I would spend the rest of my life employed as a professional writer and film maker.

This life we’ve chosen, it doesn’t come easy.

I’m beginning to take a long-term look at it. It’s not just a job. It’s not just a career. It’s a life. What we write is what remains. Taken together, it marks our journey. From my very first short story (“Sammy the Dinosaur” at age 8) to this very blog post today. Every story, every screenplay, every poem, every blog. They are the atoms that define me. They are the things from which I evolve.

I might still end up supporting myself by my writing alone. It could happen. I could balance the load writing novels, screenplays and television episodes. Then again, it might not happen that way. I might have other jobs and write on the side. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. As I’ve been told, “even Spinoza spun glass.” I haven’t done the research, but I take that to mean that Spinoza had a day job, in the circus or something.

If you think about it, precious few artists support themselves by their art alone. Even the ones we consider “great,” the ones who didn’t start living until they died.

I have a friend who is a Story Editor on a very popular cable series. He’s successful enough to be a showrunner now, for the spec projects he has sold. I told him that I would probably be writing a spec script for his cable show, to use as a writing sample in case Boulevard goes to series. (Boulevard has been optioned by a major TV producer). If I want a chance to write on the series (if a series gets off the ground) I have to show the producer a writing sample — a one-hour TV script for an existing series with a similar tone to my books. When I mentioned this to my friend he said, “Isn’t it amazing how we still have to write for free? It doesn’t matter if we’ve had books published or films made from our screenplays, we still have to write for free to prove to others that we can write.”

This is it, guys. This is being a writer. This is the commitment. If the stars align, we could all be millionaires. One book could do it. One spec script. It’s the dream I’ve lived on for years. Since “Yahrzeit Candle,” which wasn’t the most commercially viable project I’ve ever written.

But, you know what? It had heart. I wrote another heartfelt short story after that. And then my first feature script, which had heart. That project won another competition, and got me a film agent. And then I learned to write what I thought I was supposed to write. I wrote crafty, slick, commercial vehicles. And I lost my way. I lost my way all the way up to the point that I ditched it all and sat down to write my first novel, Boulevard. And that had heart.

I’ve spent the past year and a half writing my third novel. It was supposed to be bigger than Boulevard and Beat. It was supposed to be a commercial vehicle. I struggled and struggled and then abandoned it, to write something small and heartfelt. And, lo and behold, my voice came back. I just started writing the new piece when my wife begged me to go back to the other one, to reinvent it so that it wasn’t such an obviously commercial vehicle, to find my heart in the story. There was too much there to abandon. I agreed, and now I’m juggling both books. And looking for the day job that will support this passion of mine.

I’m writing what I want to write, what my heart tells me to write. It will take as long as it takes to do it well. I decided a while ago that novels are where I’ll put my best. In this one realm, I won’t compromise. It’s different than writing a zombie film, which, regardless of how much heart I manage to stuff into it, remains a zombie film to the end. It’s a commercial venture.  I know that going in.

My novels, however…well, I hope they are commercial successes. I really do. But if they aren’t, so be it. I write books to make me happy. If I’m not enjoying it, I shouldn’t be doing it.

Easy come, easy go.

RESEARCH, HUH?

 

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

Yes, I’m still writing blogs about research. But this one serves a greater purpose.

I’ve got essays in two books out currently.

The first book is the new edition of the NOW WRITE! series, called Now Write! Mysteries. The book features essays from loads of outstanding mystery authors and each author includes a set of exercises designed to give the reader the opportunity to learn the skills discussed in the author’s essay.

I’ve attached a link to my contribution, so you can get a sense of how the book works. I haven’t really given anything away that cannot be found by clicking on the “Look Inside!” button on the book’s Amazon page.

Some of the many talented authors in the collection include Aileen G. Baron, James Scott Bell, Rhys Bowen, Rachel Brady, Robert Browne, Rebecca Cantrell, Reed Farrel Coleman, Deborah Coonts, Bill Crider, Meg Gardiner, Gar Anthony Haywood, Harley Jane Kozak, William Kent Krueger, Robert S. Levinson, Sophie Littlefield, Tim Maleeny, Christopher Moore, Kelli Stanley, John Lutz, Louise Penny, Lorenzo Carcaterra and many, many more. I apologize for not including every contributor; the names themselves would fill a book.

The NOW WRITE! series includes other notable publications, such as Now Write! Fiction, Now Write! Nonfiction, and Now Write! Screenwriting.

The books are edited by Sherry Ellis and her niece Laurie Lamson. Laurie took over finishing the new book after Sherry passed away unexpectedly last year. It was a terrible loss to our community. And I’m honored to have been part of her last creative effort on this planet.

 

The other book I’m in is called WRITERS ON THE EDGE: 22 Writers Speak About Addiction and Dependency.

My essay here finally answers the big question I get when I’m on panels at conferences. The question: “How the hell did you do your research for Boulevard and Beat?”

When I don’t want to get into the specifics, I go with the answer I have in the Now Write! series. I discuss the passion I have for boots-on-the-ground research, how I love to meet and interview people and learn the details of their lives.

When I get down-and-dirty, I talk about the struggles I had with my own sex-addiction, how I went to twelve-step meetings and marriage counseling and therapy and took a potentially life-threatening problem and turned it into something life-affirming and creative. My essay in this book is open and honest and, ultimately, uplifting. I discuss the things I did, how the addiction began, how it affected my psychology, my relationships, my marriage. It’s the most personal discussion I’ve had on the subject. I was actually reluctant to write the piece, but the editors, Diana M. Raab and James Brown, convinced me that my experiences should be shared with others who might be struggling with their own addictive behavior. After all, it’s Twelfth Step stuff – helping others along the path to their own sobriety.

All the essays in the book are fabulous. The authors speak from their hearts and I admire them for the vulnerability they exhibit.

The book also features a forward by Jerry Stahl, author of PERMANENT MIDNIGHT.

For those of you in the Los Angeles area, we will be launching the book from Book Soup on Saturday, February 25, at 4:00 pm.

That’s it for now, folks.

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