Category Archives: Stephen Jay Schwartz

OPTIONING YOUR BOOK

AN INTERVIEW WITH FILM & TV MANAGER DAVID BAIRD OF KINETIC MANAGEMENT

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

I’ve known David Baird for over fifteen years. In a way, we grew up together as D-Boys in the entertainment industry. We met when I was a development executive for Wolfgang Petersen and David was a development executive for Marc Shmuger at Sony Studios. We hit it off right away and, in time, ended up traveling to different screenwriting and book conferences talking about the process of developing films for Hollywood.

When we left the development world, I went off to pursue a career as a writer and he launched his own management company. Last year, when my literary and film agents started talking about a TV option for my novels BOULEVARD and BEAT, I found David’s knowledge of the Hollywood landscape indispensable. I chose to bring him on as my manager and he chose to accept me as one of his clients. David is the person who put me in the meeting with the producers of GRINDER, the film I wrote last year, and the rest is history.

I’m very happy he could join us today to give us a little perspective on how books are optioned for TV and film.

First of all, what exactly is it that you do? What does your typical day or week look like? Is there a “seasonal” nature to your work? When are you busiest, and why?

I spend a pretty big portion of my time any given week talking with clients about their current or next project. That might mean anything from discussing ideas for TV “specs” (sample scripts of existing TV shows) to discussing feedback on drafts of current projects. I spend the remaining portion of my time meeting executives, doing recon on what buyers are looking for, following up with executives on client sample submissions, and reading client material and material from potential new clients. I have a number of TV clients, and so TV “staffing season” (the period where new fall shows on the broadcast networks do the majority of their writer hiring — .i.e. March to June –is the busiest time of year for me.

What does a manager do that isn’t typically done by an agent or entertainment lawyer?

Every manager/agent/lawyer relationship is a bit different of course, but the traditional breakdown of responsibilities is that the agent focuses on identifying job opportunities, and then along with the lawyer handles negotiations and contracts. Managers are often part of those processes, but also typically spend time helping out on a week to week basis with the selection and generation of new sample material, giving feedback on spec projects or projects the client is working on for a buyer, and strategizing with a client about short and long term — anything from planning for an upcoming meeting to helping map out priorities and a schedule when a writer is involved with more than one project at once.

What do you look for in a novel?

The business is motivated very, very strongly by the need to be able to effectively market new projects. Studios tend to have confidence that an adaptation will be marketable if it is either a bestseller (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), or it has at its heart a very big idea—a provocative and unique central idea which can be conveyed effectively in a blurb, or billboard, or 30 second spot. (Fight Club)

Books tend to be closed-ended stories, and therefore a slightly better match for film adaptation, since film by its nature tends to be about closed-ended stories as well. TV by contrast tends to be an episodic medium, or an open-ended serialized medium, so often the same characteristics that make a character viable for a book series will make that same book series viable as a TV series. Often that means really unique characters whose jobs bring them repeatedly and regularly into unusually dramatic situations.

When I look at material that hasn’t been out in the marketplace already, I think about possible film adaptations in terms of whether the central idea is unique, provocative, and conveyable, and about possible TV adaptations in terms how unique the central character is, and whether she inhabits a world which is intrinsically dramatic, such that stories beyond the one in the novel are relatively easy to generate.

What do you look for in an author?

Most managers, myself included, spend a lot of time with their clients, either on the phone or in person. So in addition to wanting to work with writers who are great storytellers and strong declarative writers, I like to work with folks I feel compatible with; to me that almost always means writers who are confident in their vision, but also welcoming of feedback.

Take us through the process: How does an author get his novel optioned and what are the steps that lead from the option to a successful TV series or film?

It’s the old cliché: There are just as many ways of getting there as there are writers and authors. What most adaptations will have in common is a piece of material with a big idea or a big character at the center; and an agent and/manager who is excited and able to get the material into the hands of a lot of potential producers or buyers. A good book agent will often have a strong sense about whether a piece is a good candidate for film or TV, and will also often have relationships with agents or managers in LA who handle book-to-film or book-to-TV sales. A writer can occasionally navigate those waters herself, but I think it’s extraordinarily difficult. I always encourage authors to spend their time trying to find representation, rather than trying to find a buyer themselves.

What are the obstacles that keep an optioned novel from making it as a series or a feature film?

In TV, success tends to revolve around the quality of the pilot script. If a good pilot script is generated, a network will usually opt to “go to pilot”; if the pilot shoot then goes well — i.e. the production values and performances are good, the cast has good chemistry, the shoot stays more or less within budget – then getting a “series order” (i.e. having your show put on the air) often comes down to whether the network needs your particular type of show for its schedule in the upcoming year, and how much competition there is from other new pilots the network has shot. The TV process is nice in the sense that it is fairly quick; with some exceptions, optioned material doesn’t tend to languish for years and years. It either gets moved forward relatively quickly from one step to the next, or it tends to be dropped. Film is very different; a film project likewise has to start with a great script, but a film studio is often more than willing to go through many iterations over many years to get that script right. Once a good script exists, the factors that really tend to push a film adaptation forward quickly are the attachment of a director and the attachment of an actor or actress who the financier considers “big” enough to justify the budget of the film. A strong film script might sit for years before the right combination of director and star come aboard and the studio decides to greenlight the film.

What are the pitfalls in the option process, and how do you protect the author’s interests?

With an option, my goals for the writer include getting a reasonable amount of money up front (and “reasonable” can vary widely, depending on the book’s sales, the number of other buyers who are interested in optioning, etc); ensuring that the producer who options the books stays motivated to put the project together (which in practice means limiting the time period of the initial option to 12 or 18 months, and building in additional payments to the author for option periods beyond that if the producer wants to keep a property under option); and most importantly perhaps, constructing a deal so that the author is fairly compensated in any number of possible eventual scenarios. No one ever really knows in advance how a particular adaptation will perform commercially, so particularly in film, there should be some mechanism by which the author’s compensation rises in some direct proportion to a film’s success. (On a TV series, success is measured in number of episodes produced; the author will be entitled to a certain fee or fees on a per-episode basis in most book-to-TV adaptations, so that the author will automatically make a larger total fee on a successful TV series than on a series which is cancelled after a few episodes.)

If an author has a choice, should he go with a feature film option or a TV option? Why?

It’s rare in my experience that an author gets a practical choice, where she is approached by one producer interested in film, and a second interested in TV. Should that happen, I think the choice comes down to which medium the author and her reps feel is a better match for the content, and which producer the author and her reps have the most confidence in. Most of the time, a given producer will have film or TV in mind when he approaches an author, but will nonetheless offer an option which allows him the right to eventually develop the project for either film OR TV.

What should an author do to maximize his chances of getting a film or TV option?

If we consider that issue of marketability again, it’s really out of any author’s hands whether her book becomes a bestseller. What she can control to some degree, if it’s an important consideration to her, is whether the content of the novel will make for a good film or TV adaptation — in other words, back to our old question about whether the idea of the book is provocative, unique, and concisely conveyed, or whether the book has a big unique character at the center whose life is intrinsically dramatic. The challenge on this front is that the more specific answer to the question “What works in film and TV?” is constantly evolving. A surly, outspoken, and brilliant research doctor may seem like a great idea for a TV series by the standard I’ve described here… until one considers that HOUSE has already effectively cornered that market. So, unless an author is following the TV and film markets very carefully, or getting some feedback from someone who is, engineering appropriate content can be a very tough.

What I tend to emphasize to my clients as a result is that they will find the most success if they consider a variety of ideas that they could write enthusiastically, and then secondarily home in on a final choice based on a sense of which of those ideas the market might tend to embrace. In other words, I’ll look at the market, but only as a secondary consideration, and only with a healthy respect for the limitations of that approach. It’s a fool’s errand to write something one doesn’t have sustained passion for just because it seems commercial.

Once an author has a finished piece of material in hand which she thinks may make for a good film or TV adaptation, the big key for me, again, is getting a representative on board who knows the waters, has a good reputation, and can get the material into the hands of producers and buyers.

What is the current state of the film and TV industries and what opportunities do you see for authors in the future?

It’s good news in many ways for novelists that the studio film business has become very marketing-oriented. Studios like to pursue stories that have had a successful test run in some other medium already. So books, magazine articles, graphic comics — sometimes even game properties like Battleship and Monopoly — appeal to studios insofar as they are “pre-marketed.” This makes the film business a really interesting place for authors with “filmic” novels, and I think that trend will continue for some time.

What do you recommend for authors who want to write for film or television? How does one make the transition? What challenges should the author expect to encounter while making this transition?

On one level, a storyteller is a storyteller. That said, film, and particularly TV, are to novels like haiku is to free verse; there are real structural constraints inherent in both, and understanding those unique structural demands is critical. If an author is interested in film, I think the best chance she has of breaking in is to write sample screenplays, which she may then either sell outright, or which, more often, she may use to demonstrate to a producer that she knows the medium and ought to get first crack at adapting her own material when it is optioned.

This is far less likely to happen in TV, however. When a network buys a pilot pitch or an underlying property like a novel to be adapted into a pilot, they will almost always demand to have a very seasoned TV writer write the pilot. That said, once a TV series is put on the air, the show then hires a staff of writers to work together and share the burden of developing and writing the individual episodes over a given season. Most of these writers will have had some previous TV writing experience, but some of the “junior” jobs on these staffs will go to aspiring writers who have not yet broken into TV, but who have written strong TV samples (either samples of existing shows, original pilot scripts, or both) that suggest to a studio and network that they are worth giving a try. So while a novelist with no TV experience will rarely if ever get a shot at writing a TV pilot based on her novel, she does have a chance at getting on the writing staff itself by demonstrating, with strong TV samples, that she is sufficiently versed in the medium.

Thank you, David, for spending time with us at Murderati!

David began his career working as an assistant to the producers of the Ace Award winning television series “The Hidden Room” on Lifetime, and subsequently worked as an executive for literary manager/producer David Rotman, as well as for feature producers Marc Shmuger at Sony and Lynwood Spinks at Universal.

In 2003 David started literary management company Kinetic Management, where he works with both film and television writers.

He graduated with a B.A. in Political Science from Amherst College.

David will be checking in throughout the day to answer any questions you have. 

XENOPHOBIA

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

I tried, I tried, I tried, but I just couldn’t get a fresh new blog out this week due to the fact that I’m on an eleventh-hour rewrite for GRINDER, the film I’ve been writing.  So I’m reposting a favorite blog of mine, one that definitely speaks to me.  I’m still around to respond to comments and I’m looking forward to a lively dialogue.  Thanks for understanding!

 

Xenophobia: a dislike and/or fear of that which is unknown or different from oneself. It comes from the Greek words ξένος (xenos), meaning “stranger,” “foreigner” and φόβος (phobos), meaning “fear.” The term is typically used to describe a fear or dislike of foreigners or of people significantly different from oneself, usually in the context of visibly differentiated minorities.

I don’t know why this was on my mind this week. Maybe it’s because I’m aware of the unique opportunity we as writers have to combat xenophobic thinking. It brings up the writings of Jim Thompson, a classic crime writer from the 1950s. His protagonists always encountered xenophobic characters, yet even before the days of the Civil Rights Movement, Thompson managed to reveal the absurdity of racism and discrimination through character confrontation.

Thinking about this, I considered my own role in this process. I wondered if I had truly examined my perspective on race and culture. It brought out the moments in my life where I first observed xenophobic thinking:

Memory Flash #1: I’m in high school, with one of my very best friends. She and I weren’t romantic, but we were so close that, at times, it seemed like we were meant to be together. I knew she was a very religious Christian and, since I’m Jewish, I recognized that this was one major point of difference between us. I remember one day at lunch I saw her crying and I asked her what was wrong. She told me she was sad because someday we would pass on from this world, and she would be in Heaven, and I wouldn’t be there.

Memory Flash #2: I’m in college, at North Texas State University, in Denton, Texas. A friend of mine is waiting for the dorm-mate who had been assigned to her. It’s a week into the semester and the girl hasn’t arrived. Then one day she appears and tells my friend, “This is the imaginary line in the center of our room. I’ll stay on my side and you stay on yours, whitey.”

Memory Flash #3: I’m in college again, playing in a sixteen-piece swing band called Big Al’s Swing Dance Orchestra. I’m playing alto and I’m working through a section with the tenor player. He’s being a real jerk to me, as he always is. Suddenly he apologizes, saying that he’s just never been around a Jew before and didn’t know how to deal with someone whose people were responsible for killing Jesus Christ.

Memory Flash #4: A girl hangs out with us at the dorms. She’s mulatto, but her features are mostly African American. She’s a musician, like the rest of us. The guys she hangs out with at the Black Student Union tell her she has to make a choice – is she black or white? ‘Cause she’s acting like an “Oreo”. She is torn.

Memory Flash #5: I’m driving in a heavy rainstorm in Northern Arizona, doing research in the Navajo Reservation. My car breaks down. I’ve got the hood up and a Navajo man in his twenties stops and asks if I need help. I’m freaked out, scared, having heard stories of people being held up on the road in the Res. “No, I’m fine!” I say and I instantly regret it. I see the look on his face, he shakes his head. I can tell I’ve hurt something inside him, hurt him bad. He goes back to his truck. He was only trying to help, after all.

These are experiences I’ve had and I can surely use them in my own writing, in an effort to unmask xenophobia, the way Jim Thompson did. But I wonder if these experiences are enough.

Part of my job as a writer is to walk in the shoes of the characters I depict. But I wonder if I truly understand the racially and religiously diverse characters I write. Am I writing real people or stereotypes? Is there a subtle xenophobia working behind the scenes, keeping me from capturing the nuance of characters too different from myself?

I wrote an African American detective named Wallace into my novel, BOULEVARD. Does he read authentic? Does he need to read different than any other American detective I write? I first wrote the character as white, and then, mid-stream, I changed his ethnic background. Should I have reached back further, created a new character analysis to redefine his perspective on life, based on the different forces that have influenced his life as a black man in America? I did some of this on the fly, but was it enough? I wonder if I have a responsibility to do more.

When I was in college I wrote a screenplay about a nineteen-year old Navajo boy who took a trip through the Res, encountering other Navajo characters on his way to California. I did a huge amount of research for this story and, in the end, I think I captured the characters realistically. But maybe the work was overly sentimental. Maybe it was a white, Jewish, college kid’s idealized version of the world of the Navajo.

What does it take to see the world through the eyes of another? Does our best work come when we rely on our own experiences for authenticity? We’ve all heard that we should write what we know. So many great writers have written from their own childhood experiences and their work stands out because of it. But I’ve always thought that good research would fill the gap. If I research it, I experience it, and therefore I know it. And then if I write this “researched experience,” I’ll be writing what I know.

But is that enough? Can I possibly write from the perspective of a Navajo or African American or East Indian if all I’ve done is the research? Is there a part of me that’s afraid of the differences between them and me? And, if so, will I truly be able to represent their stories on the page? It makes me wonder if I’m capable of exposing our xenophobic world through my fiction, when my own point of view might be influenced by the xenophobia that surrounds me.

It makes me admire Jim Thompson all the more.

MOTIVATION

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

I got a great opportunity recently when the film I wrote this year, GRINDER, attracted a quality actor. The screenplay came to me as a rewrite assignment almost exactly a year ago. I worked with a group of producers and the film’s director to produce a new outline, treatment, two full drafts, and two polishes. The result was an intriguing action film with intense, zombie-like creatures and a structure similar to the film “Momento.” The final draft got the film its financing as well as a number of exceptional crew attachments. The lead actor came to us and made his attachment contingent upon an additional rewrite to satisfy his notes.

The actor looked at the script through the eyes of an actor. And thank God he did. He pointed out the fact that the central characters lacked motivation. He noticed that the clever, intricate plot actually disguised the fact that the characters had not been properly developed. The plot served as eye-candy to keep the viewer (or reader) turning pages, offering no additional dimension, no “soul.” It was Story 101 stuff, and I should have caught it earlier. But the development process is complicated and a great many perspectives need to be considered along the way. We could have moved forward with the script we had, parting ways with the actor who had so generously given his time and feedback, or we could have taken his notes and worked to give the film the depth it deserves. We decided to do the rewrite, and I’ve spent the last two weeks writing a new treatment for the film. I’ll have about two weeks now to write the draft. Eleventh-hour stuff, but exciting as hell.

Motivation. Why our characters do the things they do. The challenge with the script is that it’s non-linear, so it’s very difficult to mark the “scene before” moments that guide each character’s motivation through the story. I had to pull the story apart, create a linear time-line, then restructure the puzzle in a way that made sense. In the process, I had to give the protagonist a reason to do the things he does. The actor asked a few crucial questions about his character – “Who is he now? What was he? What does he want to be?” Simple stuff. Sacrificed by a complicated plot. What motivates him to do the things he does?

The questions got me thinking about my own motivation and how it has changed over the years. I’ve noticed that I don’t have the same kind of passion I used to for writing novels. Why is this? What happened to me?

When I was writing BOULEVARD I wrote every single night after my day job. After a ten-hour day I’d go to the cafe and spend another five or six hours writing the book. I spent all my weekends, holiday and vacation time writing the book. I did this for three and a half years. What was my motivation?

I think the big motivator was a decision to change my life. The novel represented my last opportunity to prove that I had something more going for me than selling lighting products to support myself and my family. It was my ticket out. I had already spent what felt like a lifetime in and out of the film business and it left a bitter taste in my mouth. The novel seemed like the perfect way to fulfill my creative aspirations.

When I got my book deal, I was motivated to please my editor and write the best book I could. It was a two-book deal, so the motivation to write my second book, Beat, was wrapped right into the first. I expected all that hard work to pay off. I expected to support myself as a writer from that point on.

But I learned it could be a long, long road to that goal. I quit the day job a year ago, determined to write my third book without the stress and frustration I experienced while writing the first two. I had a screenwriting assignment, a little bit of cash from the books, and some savings.

I’ve been writing the book, but the motivation hasn’t been there. Why? Well, there’s no book deal, for one. I’m writing on spec with the hope that it’ll sell when I’m done. But that’s how I wrote the first book, so why was I motivated then and not now?

I think it’s because, in the beginning, the possibilities seemed wide and endless. I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry. I figured a two-book deal would net me, what, two million dollars? Seemed about right. Now I’m educated and depressed. I tend to think, “What’s the point?” All this hard work, all the sacrifice. I made a big deal of spending a lot of time with my family this year, to make up for all the time I didn’t spend with them when I had a full-time job, writing those first two books. I didn’t want to resent my writing for taking me away from my family, so I quit the day job in order to balance it all. But now I resent the writing for all that it requires of me, while not providing me with the kind of income necessary to support a family. I get tired of the dream that says, “after I finish this screenplay/novel/film/whatever, I’ll sell it and everything will be all right.” I’ve been living that dream for twenty-five years.

There is, of course, a different kind of motivation to write, and it has nothing to do with paying the bills. There’s writing for writing’s sake. I’m all for that, but it means a complete restructuring of my life. It means I write for myself and if it sells, all the better. It means I should have a real job, something I love, something that I want to do for the rest of my years. All of my day jobs have been just that–day jobs. Designed only to get me to the next film or writing assignment. Because all I ever really wanted to do was write and make films. What else do I love? I mean, love enough to do forty hours a week? The only thing I can think of involves animals. I could work at a zoo forty hours a week. Or a gorilla reserve in Uganda. Or I could do ocean animal rescue. Maybe I could work at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. I could do these things, for the rest of my life. However, they wouldn’t pay the bills.

I’m told I’m only a couple years away from really “making it.” Hmmm. It does seem plausible now, for the first time in my life, providing the film gets made and it becomes a success, and that the TV option I recently sold for Boulevard and Beat actually goes to series. And that I finish my third novel and sell it.

But where’s my motivation to finish that third novel? Why does it feel so much like work?

I have to find my motivation. Story 101. Without it, my life is just a clever, sometimes intriguing, oddly non-linear ride toward a zombie-like climax. But the soul, man, where’s the soul?

OLD SCHOOL COOL

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

My sense of cool is Old School. I don’t even know what cool looks like today. When I was young and cool, things like comic books were the definition of not so cool. Now comic books are IT, man, but you have to call them “graphic novels.” Comic Con is supposedly cool, and yet many of my friends say they go there to “geek out.” The pictures I’ve seen of Comic Con make it look like the height of Geek Civilization.

Cool to me is white T-shirt, blue jeans and tennis shoes (or biker boots). Tattoos add an element of cool, too, although that’s a more recent phenomenon. It wasn’t so cool when the tattoos said, “MOM,” or “Semper Fi” or when they featured images of sea anchors and raunchy, naked women.

I think the image of cool, Old School, is Steve McQueen.

I’ll also throw in Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy, both of whom I consider “Literary Cool.”

 

And I probably shouldn’t leave out the young Ernest Hemmingway.

Cool has an element of “bad” in it. Bad boys are cool. Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, James Dean. There’s usually an element of danger in the mix. Selfishness, temper, physical strength.

The Fonz was supposed to be cool, but not really. He was “television executive cool” or “Madison Avenue Cool.” Manufactured to appeal to the largest demographics. He was just Henry Winkler, really, a scrawny Jewish kid from New York. That ain’t cool.

 

Butch and Sundance were cool.

Cigarettes were supposed to be cool, but I never bought into that. If I’d been born a decade or two earlier I would have, though. And, of course, I’d be dead by now.

Oddly, however, cigars are a little cool. I’m not exactly sure why. I think it has something to do with Fidel Castro. Who isn’t exactly cool, but he’s a rebel, which makes me think of Che Guevara. Che must be cool, because he’s on all those T-shirts that cool guys wear with their bluejeans and boots.

Malcolm X seemed pretty cool, yet Martin Luther King was merely kind. He was a great man, yes, but I wouldn’t say he was cool. Mother Teresa and Ghandi weren’t cool, for that matter, either.

Fast cars are cool. They always have been and they always will be cool. Unless the Comicon crowd ends up ruling the world. With their Toyota Priuses. Yeah, I know, it’s responsible, but it ain’t cool. There’s no element of bad in it.

Cool is Porsche, Corvette, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Ford Thunderbird, Jaguar…most any car from the ’50s and ’60s. Muscle cars are cool.

So are muscles, in fact. When I was in high school, cool was a young body-builder named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Before Conan the Barbarian. And Lou Ferrigno, before The Incredible Hulk. Of course, they were all doing steroids, which we ultimately learned was not so cool.

The Matrix is cool. It reeks of cool, and yet it feels organic. It’s cool by design, yes, but it’s designed so well. Pulp Fiction, too, is cool.

Sports figures are almost always cool. In my day, Muhammed Ali was cool. I’m not a big sports fan, so I don’t know all the cool sports figures. They’re mostly football players, basketball players, baseball players, boxers. Maybe Indy car drivers. Testosterone sports. Not a lot of tennis players or golfers on that list.

I’m sure there was a day when Elvis was cool, but to me he was always an advertisement for what people who never knew cool thought cool should be. Just because he did that thing with his hips. Oh, that’s so cool. But cool came before Elvis – Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane. Dangerous cats with their reefer ways. My God, you could lose your mind listening to their devil jazz.

The Beatles were cool, for sure. They started off kinda dopey, but they got their shit together as the war dragged on.

And Jim Morrison. Scary cool.

 

For that matter….Jimi Hendrix. I mean, really. Uber cool. Backed by overwhelming, misunderstood talent. And Janis Joplin. Too bad about all that overdose shit.

Maybe I’m past my expiration date. I’m an old man already. But, old men can be cool, too. Maybe it’s just what they represent. William S. Burroughs and Charles Bukowski, old and still fighting the fight (when they were alive and fighting the fight). They were rebels. Their long lives represented the fuck you I can live my life the way I want to attitude that defines cool.

What’s cool now? Justin Bieber? Really? It can’t be.

Ask your kids, will you? Maybe your grandkids. You gotta tell me what passes for cool these days. I gotta know, because I’m too old to see it.

And, how do you define cool? What is this concept, and why are we drawn to it?

And, dare I try to relate this to novels? What would you consider a cool novel? I consider Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk the ultimate in cool. Or Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Tell me, please. Educate me. Bring me up to speed.

Thank you and now I’ll shut up.

WE UNDERSTAND, BUT WE ARE THE FEW

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

I finished the first draft of my current novel last week. Ninety-seven thousand words; three-hundred seven pages.

I’m tired. It tires me. I printed it out for the first time and there it is, a big, hulking year of my life.

A friend slapped me on the back, “Congratulations, man! Now what do you do, send it to your editor?”

What part of first draft did he not understand? First? Draft?

Fortunately, it’s a pretty solid first draft. That’s what happens when you do a year.

It’s plot to the nines. It better be, I planned every scene in advance, wrote a beat-for-beat outline and rewrote that a dozen times before writing page one. Spent months and months doing research. It’s got the twists and turns and all the psychological shit I could put into a psychological, international thriller.

But, God, if it ain’t wooden. Hollow. Sans character. But that, my friends, is what draft number two is about. Character, character, character.

Of course, I wasn’t entirely aware of its deficiencies until I handed it to my wife, Ryen, a.k.a. uber-editor, who brought out the red pen. And I realize all over again how much I fucking depend on her. I’m continually reminded that she’s the best I’ve ever seen. I used to fight it, her voluminous notes. They gave me indigestion. I hated not having the final word. But I’m more mature now and I know that she only wants the best I can deliver, and, fortunately for me, she knows how to get it.

I had my glass of wine last week to celebrate, but the next morning I went back to the trenches. Celebrate what? I’ll celebrate on pub date. I’ll celebrate when I know it’s really done. Because nothing’s done until it’s done. I would, however, find cause to celebrate if I received a million dollar advance. But that’s the Lotto dream and I’m too firmly fixed in reality to fall for that one. Again. Of course, they say the third book is the break-out…

I think it will be good, but, then again, I’ve lost all perspective. I’m drowning in words. Thank God my wife is there with a net. I’m not sure it’s for me or the words. Either will do, I suppose.

So, now I’m back on PAGE ONE. Rewrite. Where it all comes together. First chapter rewritten, redone, re-conceived, re-novated. And the characters are real. Finally. They breathe and feel pain and anguish and strive to bring justice to an unjust world. That’s what’s happening in Chapter One, anyway. Chapter Two is hollow and burdened with plot. Chapter Two is tomorrow’s battle. I’ll wait for Ryen’s notes.

It’s a journey. We understand, but we are the few.

I was in a book store recently and the staff asked when my next book would be out. “You should be due for another book by now, Steve.”

Simple statement. Accurate expectations. Do they know what this entails? The hours and days and months of struggling against self-doubt to produce sentences and paragraphs and chapters of what would ultimately become First Draft Dreck, after hours and days and months of research and experimentation in style and voice and characterization, writing a hundred pages in third person close, then rewriting in first person, then converting it all again to third person close with alternating chapters of omniscient narration, only to turn those around again to third person close from the antagonist’s point of view…

And doing this unpaid. While savings dwindle. Or doing it after hours, under the whip of the deadly day job. Doing it and stopping it on account of sudden family misfortune or financial crisis. Putting it aside for weeks then returning, re-reading, re-working, re-writing.

“Won’t you have a book in 2012, Steve?”

The sheen of Debut Year has begun to fade.

I once read an interview with the great screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (Network, Altered States) where the interviewer asked about his “art.” “No one I know calls it art,” Paddy said. “We call it our work.”

It is work. If we’re lucky some will see it as art. Art is hard work. I have a hard time comparing a Rembrandt to a giant blue dot on canvas. One I would consider art, the other, not so much.

I don’t know when my book will be out. It’s going to take a solid two months of rewrites from this point forward, complete with additional research and input from specialists I know in the FBI and the Amsterdam Police Department. Then I’ll get story feedback from several authors. And, of course, never-ending notes from my wife. Put it all together and bring it to boil and there’s soup on the table.

After that it goes to my agent — thank God I’ve got one of those. If he doesn’t love it I’ll be rewriting to his notes. Then he’ll go out with it. We’ll have to find a house to pony up. If-and-or-when that happens, I’ll have to deal with an editor’s notes. That could go on for months. When said editor is satisfied, when the book is officially “accepted” for publication, it will proceed into production. Ten months after that…voila! It’s on the shelves. (Damn, Steve, where did you go these past two years? We thought we’d see a book…)

I finished the first draft.

Maybe I should celebrate now.

BECAUSE EVERYONE LOVES A CHALLENGE

 

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

I thought we’d do something a little different, a little fun.

I’ve listed thirty-six first sentences from classic novels and mystery-thrillers. See how many you can identify by the first sentence alone. Give the title of the book and the author.

And it’s not fair to Google them. No fair, no way. We’ll do this on the Honor System.

I’ll give all the answers at the end of the day. Whoever gets the most right wins a signed, hardcopy of my novel BEAT.

If there’s a tie, I’ll pick the winner from a hat.

Have fun!

                                                            * * *

1.  The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”

2.  I’d finished my pie and was having a second cup of coffee when I saw him.

3.  Call me Ishmael.

4.  I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…

5.  When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.

6.  I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper…

7.  riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

8.  Fuck you.

9.  I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.

10.  I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville.

11.  To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.

12.  The year 1866 was marked by a strange occurrence, an unexplained and inexplicable phenomenon that surely no one has forgotten.

13.  One sultry evening early in July a young man emerged from the small furnished room he occupied in a large five-storied house in Sennoy Lane, and turned slowly, with an air of indecision, towards the Kalininksy bridge.

14.  You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.

15.  The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.

16.  Howard Roark laughed.

17.  I’d been hearing about the Tennis Club for years, but I’d never been inside of it.

18.  It was good standing there on the promontory overlooking the evening sea, the fog lifting itself like gauzy veils to touch his face.

19.  It was a pleasure to burn.

20.  He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.

21.  Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the popholes.

22.  The hall ahead is dark, a tunnel of black.

23.  Foley had never seen a prison where you could walk right up to the fence without getting shot.

24.  Coming back from the dead isn’t as easy as they make it seem in the movies.

25.  When she was home from her boarding school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Halle Annexe.

26.  They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

27.  Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P—, in Kentucky.

28.  It was daybreak and the rancher, standing at his kitchen window, watched two silhouettes stagger forward through the desert scrub.

29.  Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.

30.  In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in The Times.

31.  Everybody lies.

32.  Her stomach clutched at the sight of the water tower hovering above the still, bare trees, a spaceship come to earth.

33.  Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth.

34.  “That’s torn it!” said Lord Peter Wimsey.

35.  “I am inclined to think–” said I.

36.   “Tush, never tell me; I take it much unkindly, that you, Iago, who has had my purse, as if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this.”

THE BIRTH OF AN INDEPENDENT

 

by Stephen Jay Schwartz

This is a success story. It’s the story of two individuals who rolled the dice.

 

(Owners Pete Ledesma and Rebecca Glenn at The Book Frog)

They opened an independent bookstore. Three weeks ago.

I encountered Becky and Pete at roughly the same time. Becky’s name popped up on a Google Alert when she reviewed my first novel, Boulevard. I read the review and then I read many others she had written on this brilliant little website called The Book Frog. The site links to Murderati and to Tim Hallinan’s Blog Cabin and numerous other sites. Becky’s reviews are full of insight and wisdom and her library on LibraryThing.com speaks volumes about her commitment to the written word.

Becky was the manager of the Borders Books in El Segundo, California.

Pete was the manager of Borders Books in Rolling Hills Estates, California. Pete was the one who passed my book to Becky, his girlfriend, after one of his booksellers told him it was written by a local author. In fact, the very first place I saw Boulevard on the shelves was Pete’s Borders. Pete became incredibly supportive of both Boulevard and Beat, instructing his employees to hand-sell my books to every customer who said they liked reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Gotta love Pete.

I soon discovered that Pete had also written an unpublished novel and I asked to take a look at it. I read the book, Norman’s Conquest, and was frankly blown away. It’s a charming mystery romp with such rich character description that I came away envious of his talent. He took a stab at getting it published a few years back, but met with some resistance, as most of us do. I told him to get it out there again, or to self-publish it, because the work is good and it needs to be seen.

Becky and Pete, long-time soul-mates, were also long-time Borders cheerleaders. They lived and breathed the business. And then the ax came.

Their jobs were gone. It was liquidation time. Pete had built a loyal community of customers at his branch and no one wanted to see him go. People started asking him if he would open a bookstore of his own.

A bookstore of his own. Right. In this economic climate?

But the chorus grew loud and he and Becky started asking themselves crazy questions, like, “Should we open an independent bookstore of our own?”

They had a tiny bit of savings. They had a little bit of credit. They did not have jobs. They went to the banks and discovered that the banks were capable of great fits of laughter.

They’ve come a long way, Pete and Becky, and still they’ve just begun. They’ve got one of the largest fiction sections in the South Bay, and, in addition to their growing mystery section, they have a special spot for California Crime Fiction and a section for out-of-print, used books by the likes of Ross MacDonald, John D. Macdonald, and many others. They hope to make The Book Frog a place for book signings, book launches and author panels.

I wanted to ask them a bit about their journey into the great unknown. I wanted to celebrate their entrepreneurial spirit, their sense of adventure, their commitment to making their dreams a reality…

 

Stephen: Tell me a bit about your experiences as booksellers. What are your backgrounds?

B & P: Becky became a bookseller way back in the Clinton era. She started at Borders in Mesa, AZ in March of ’94. Back then Borders was awesomely cool, staffed from the top down by people who loved and lived books. It was like coming home. In the years to follow that home would become more and more dysfunctional, but hey–at least she got to work around books all the time. Pete started at the Brea Borders in 1996. After 11 years in Aerospace, he loved being surrounded by books instead of rum-soaked engineers.

Stephen:  What was it like when you heard that Borders would be going out of business?

B & P:  It was like receiving the diagnostic confirmation that someone you once loved and still care about is dying.

Stephen:  How did The Book Frog evolve from there?

B & P: When Pete’s store went into liquidation early this year his customers and the other merchants in the mall immediately began asking whether he would be opening a new bookstore. At first it seemed like a crazy idea, but it soon came to be the only idea. Since booksellers don’t make very much money at the best of times, and since Borders hadn’t been in a position to give any kind of raise for half a decade, and since we had made the probably ill-advised decision to purchase a home before the real estate market had hit rock bottom, the fact that we decided to pursue this crazy idea often seemed, well, crazy. But, we threw caution to the wind, made a number of fiscal leaps of faith, and six months later…Let’s just say that our decision to open a bookstore was driven almost as much by desperation as it was by our love of books.

Stephen: What was it like trying to find loans and investors to support a new, independent book store?

B & P: Awful! Nobody wants to give you money if you don’t have a proven track record, and if you don’t know how to find private investors, well, where do you find them? We were turned down for SBA loans by three different banks. An SBA counselor working out of a local Chamber of Commerce office told us our idea was bound to fail and that nobody would give us money. Luckily, on the very last day Pete’s store was open to the public an angel came into the store and offered an ungodly amount of money to get this thing off the ground. It wasn’t enough, but it was more than we’d hoped for.

Stephen: How did everything finally come together?

B & P: Lots of bickering, some crying, a fair amount of wheeling and dealing. We snagged fixtures for next to nothing from our respective closing stores, we had wonderful counsel pro bono to help us through the lease process, we got in at the end of the liquidations of the last two stores in the South Bay as buyers and were able to buy almost an entire store’s inventory at a fraction of what it would have cost even at wholesale. It was very much like being someone in desperate need of an organ transplant and when your best friend dies…

Stephen: What makes Book Frog different from Borders? What makes it different from other independent bookstores?

B & P: The Book Frog is different from the Borders of the last decade or so in that it has heart and soul, and we care deeply about books and about getting books into people’s hands. We know that selling a book is in no way the same as selling a blouse or a can of green beans. When we started with Borders it was a wonderful company. It was a chain with an independent bookseller way of doing things. We learned a sad and serious lesson from the downward spiral of our once dear employer, as we watched the company expand too rapidly and aggressively, adding product that had no business being in a bookstore. How are we different from other independent booksellers? Well, by definition each independent bookstore is different from the other. Each has its own vibe, its own feel. We’re working on ours, but we hope it will be warm and inviting and maybe even kind of exciting.

Stephen: What about Book Frog makes you most proud?

B & P: We did it! We had a vision, we chased that vision, and it’s almost come together.

Stephen: What are your plans for the future? How do you think the business will grow and change?

B & P: We are working on getting our webstore up and running (it will be www.thebookfrog.com when it finally happens, sometime within the next couple of weeks). We are going to be implementing a delivery service. We’re already starting to build our inventory based on our customers’ buying habits.

(The Book Frog, 550 Deep Valley Drive #273, Rolling Hills Estates, CA 90274.  310-265-2665)

Becky and Pete are good people. They’re book people, and they’re in the business because it’s in their blood. Let’s encourage them, and welcome them, and wish them all the success in the world. And when you’re planning your next book tour in the Los Angeles area, call Becky and Pete so they can set up a signing for you. Let’s make this a trend.

Becky and Pete will be checking in throughout the day, so be sure to say hello!

THE BICYCLISTS

 by Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

I see them as I’m about to pull in. I wonder if I should punch the gas and move on. After all, there are other cafes in the South Bay.

But this one’s my favorite, my home cafe, where a reclining chair waits by the fireplace and they’ve saved an outlet for my laptop. My cafe is my village. Everyone knows me, everyone expects me. In a moment I’ll look up from my work-in-progress and ask the lieutenant from the LAPD gang unit a detailed question about guns, gangsters or police procedure. I’ll turn to my right and ask the physicist to walk me through a complicated aspect of String Theory. I’ll turn to my left and chat with the screenwriters about story structure and character development. A city councilman will stop by and lend me a book about ATF undercover operations, saying, “I heard you were attending the Citizen’s Academy. I thought you might like this.”

All this and more has occurred in my local cafe.

There are only a few things that burn me up about the place. Two days a week a wild bunch of home schoolers arrive and turn the cafe into the Hell’s Angels version of Cirque du Soleil. I can write through some pretty hairy situations, but these little devils make the armies of Genghis Khan look like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Then there are the times when I’m finding my groove and really WRITING, having spent the previous few hours settling into my chair and creating the perfect space from which to work. Then a cafe employee plops a music stand at my side with a sign that reads, “This space is reserved from 6:30 to 10:00 for the South Bay Knitting Club.” I look at my watch and see it’s 6:25. When I look up again I see the knitters staring me down. Every night there seems to be a different group of someone staring at my chair.

But the thing that really gets me is when I drive into the parking lot and see fifty or so touring bikes spilling into my parking spot from the cafe entrance. The place is overrun with mannequin-shaped men and women wearing Dayglo orange and lime-green lycra jerseys and bib shorts and fingerless gloves and polarized glasses in yellow and pink and multi-colored helmets that mold their heads into the shape of H.R. Giger monsters, and there they are, hovering bent and worn in their crippling little shoes with cleats that fit into coyote-trap pedal clamps. They swarm the counter and nest in nooks and crannies and couches and even…my chair.

Maybe what bothers me is that they all seem cut from the same cloth. Indistinguishable. I’ve never seen any of their members wearing a loose, hemp T-shirt and cut-off shorts. I’ve never seen any of them ride anything but state-of-the-art Titanium metal alloy space-age super sonic shit.

As I boil with frustration I wonder what the hell I have against them. I mean, really. I know there’s an individual in there somewhere, it can’t just be hive mentality to the core.

It makes me wonder how I’m perceived in the cafe. Do the bicyclists think, “Oh, there’s a writer. They’re all the same, sitting around looking tortured and pitiful…and pale…and flabby. What they need is some exercise. A ride on a bike. Not with us, however. No, that just wouldn’t do.”

Do the cyclists look at me with those terrible, preconceived stereotypes? Aren’t they capable of seeing who I am?

I don’t know if I fit so neatly into that group of “writers,” as perceived by others who aren’t. I think I look like any other patron at the cafe, actually.

And that gets me wondering how I might be stereotyped, at first glance. Well, I’m Jewish, but you wouldn’t necessarily get that from staring me down. Most people think I’m Italian or Greek or sometimes, oddly, Native American. They know there’s a nose-thing going on, they just don’t know where to place it until I say “Schwartz.”

I have a friend who places me in the category of “bleeding heart liberal hippy.” Which, I think, says more about his character than mine. I qualify for his label for the following reasons: a) I’m a vegetarian, b) I wear my hair longer than a crew-cut, c) I’m a registered Democrat, d) there’s that Jewish thing, e) I’m not a hunter, f) I live in California, g) I’m one of those “Hollywood” types, and h) I voted for Barak Obama. Ray (that’s my friend), lives in Arizona, kills every animal he sees, belongs to the NRA, is a registered Republican, voted against Obama, endlessly listens to Rush Limbaugh, and is fiscally responsible. Whenever we email each other he finishes his message with “How’s that Hope and Change thing working for you?” and I reply, “I’m still hoping you’ll change.”

The funny thing is that I only appear as a leftist-commie-pinko-liberal-socialist to Ray because that’s what he wants to see. I’m actually pretty middle of the road politically. I find it hard to put my heart into any particular political agenda without feeling like I’m drinking somebody’s Kool Aid. I like to imagine I lean a little left of center, and I think that has something to do with my love of Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” as well as the heroic tales of Captain Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherds. But in truth I’d rather stand off to the side and observe the machinations of the world. The great thing about writing is that I can study different points of view and write characters who fight and scream and die for the things they believe in. Meanwhile, I’m “sitting here watching the world go round and round.” Geez, a John Lennon reference. Here’s another one – “Imagine there’s no countries, it’s easy if you try…nothing to live or die for…” Hell, Ray’s gotta be right.

As far as Ray is concerned, we’re polar opposites.

But then I imagine how Ray and I are perceived by people outside the U.S. Driving around in our gas-guzzling SUVs, rolling over the land we stole from the Native Americans. Bitching about the euro on our way to the spa. Looking for the next Arab nation to bomb. The Ugly Americans. This is not how Ray sees us, it is not how I see us. But it’s the way many do. People who don’t realize we’re polar opposites.

If they took the time to get to know us maybe they’d find some common ground.

And that gets me thinking. Do I really know the bicyclists? I mean, if I just sat down next to one of them (who, incidentally, happens to be sitting in my chair) and introduced myself I might discover he’s a really cool LAPD officer. Or a String Theory physicist. Or, God forbid, a writer.

Maybe there’s room at the cafe for everyone.

I SHOT THE LAW (AND THE LAW WON)

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

I was the point man, or “blocker,” in our stack of four. Our team leader asked what I could see around the corner.

“I see two open doors on the right,” I said. “The first is fifteen feet in. The second is twenty.”

“Can you see anything on the left?” he asked.

I didn’t want to push my head further into the hallway. I didn’t want to be a target.

“Maybe twenty feet in, I see some light. It could be an open door.”

The suspect was yelling and throwing things against the hallway walls, but it was further than I could see from my position.

“Joe!” I yelled. “We have a warrant for your arrest. Come out with your hands in the air!”

“Fuck you, pooooolice!” Joe yelled, and we heard a gun shot.

“Keep your cool,” team leader told me.

I tried calling Joe out again, and he repeated his mantra, slamming chairs and other objects against the walls as he yelled.

“Take the first room,” team leader ordered.

I was a bit nervous, being the guy in the center of the hallway and the last one who would step into the room. I wore a vest and helmet, but I’d never fired the Sig pistol and I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t want to be a misfire statistic.

We moved slowly down the hall, each one resting his hand on the left shoulder of the guy before him. I was in front with no shoulder to hold. After I passed the room, I felt each of my teammates slip behind me, their weapons held in front of them. “One-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three,” I whispered, then stepped backward into the room, never taking my eyes off the hallway. Our room was clear.

“What did you see?” team leader asked from the starting position behind me.

“The light does come from an opposing room. And the hallway is long, with another open door to the right, about a hundred feet from our position, and a door at the end of the hallway,” I answered.

The team leader sent another four men to join us. I stepped into the hallway again and let them slip into the room we’d taken. I stepped back in after the last man passed behind me. My eyes remained in the hallway.

“Okay,” team leader said. “We’re going to double-stack and take those opposing rooms. Point men go when you’re ready, and don’t forget to cross-cover.”

I took a deep breath. We could hear our suspect, Joe, laughing insanely from one of the rooms. We’d been told he was a felon who had broken his probation by carrying a loaded handgun. We asked what the felony was for and were told that he’d attacked a police officer. I exhaled.

I stepped into the hall and was joined by the point from Team Two behind me. Our teams walked side-by-side, then split off into the opposing rooms. The three in my group entered and cleared the room.  I heard Team Two clear theirs.

“Okay, double-stack and take the last rooms. Team Two, take the one down the hall. Team One, collapse the point and take the one on the right.”

We moved out. I heard them behind me, sharp breaths under clunky face-masks. Joe was nowhere to be seen.

As we approached our objectives I pulled back into my team, collapsing the point. I was in first position, with three other men behind me. Team Two stepped past me and took the room at the end of the hall.

I turned right into the room, my weapon raised. I could barely see through the foggy visor, but I saw a man crouched on the floor with a gun in his hand.

“Drop it, Joe!” I yelled. He raised the weapon and I did what I was trained to do. I put two rapid shots in his stomach. The marks appeared quickly on his shirt.

He dropped his weapon.

“Don’t shoot anymore,” he said, still crouched on the backs of his heels. I got him just below the vest, where it hurt.

“Can’t you fuckers ever aim for the chest?” he asked. There was a yellow stain on the back of his head from where he was hit in the last simulation.

“Sorry,” I said, feeling proud as hell. They were just sim rounds, but I heard they left a welt. I wouldn’t know, having avoided being shot myself.

“Wear crappy clothes!” our PIO had said the week before. “You will get hit, all of you.”

This is my fourth week in the ATF Citizen’s Academy. I fucking LOVE IT. This is Disneyland for crime writers. It’s three or four hours a week for eight weeks. And then we graduate. I want to fail so I can do it all over again.

The ATF Citizen’s Academy is the pet project of Special Agent in Charge John A. Torres, a soft-spoken, well-respected leader who has been with the ATF since 1984. It’s the only one of its kind in the country, and its success has spawned plans to duplicate the Academy in other states across the U.S.

The first couple weeks were filled with lectures. The kind of lectures you never got in college. With footage of undercover operations filmed from the lapels or buttons or sunglasses (the agents won’t tell us all their secrets) of the agents involved. Real Donnie Brasco stuff. These agents put their necks on the line every day, and we got to see it. We were taken through the details of infiltrating a simple counterfeit cigarette smuggling ring in Los Angeles and watched as it grew into an international undercover operation involving the ATF, FBI, Secret Service, ICE, LA Sheriffs, CHP, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Hong Kong police, and more. An Asian gang in Los Angeles led to a Russian car-stealing operation in New York and climaxed with a deal to smuggle military weapons to the U.S. from China. Called Smoking Dragon, the operation netted 95 million dollars in seizable assets.

I think that was the first night’s class.

Then we got into undercover operations with the local motorcycle gangs. Most of this stuff had to do with illegal weapons sales. Our PIO is a Special Agent himself, and he’s mostly known at the agency as the guy who’s crazy enough to do anything he’s asked to do. His name is Special Agent Christian Hoffman, and Author Andrew Peterson brought him to the Romantic Times conference in Los Angeles this past year. Together with an outstanding team of other special agents, Christian ran a panel on ATF tactics, weapons, and operations. The event ended with Andrew Peterson being attacked by a german shepherd from the ATF weapons division. What a climax.

Last week we were wired and sent into a local, outdoor shopping center to spy on a Confidential Informant, another ATF agent. He was approached by several different suspects intent upon selling him a stolen Glock pistol. I was team leader in a group of eight classmates, and we were all paired in twos. Our job was to watch the CI and everyone he came in contact with, while trying not to be “made.” I sent classmates off to follow each suspect he met, which led some of the students into dark parking structures where they witnessed “hand-offs” and were forced to record license plate numbers on the palms of their hands. I found the psychological strain of Surveillance Day much more exhausting than the more physical day we spent catching bad guys with paint-ball guns.

But I love it all. Next week we go to the range. Yes. Fully-automatic assault weapons with live ammo. We even get to fire a Tommy Gun.

After yesterday’s exercise I asked our instructor what the cut-off age is for joining the ATF.

“Thirty-seven,” he said.

Damn. I’m almost the age where I can’t do everything I want to in life. But I’m never too old to write about it.

WRITE TIGHT

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

“If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.”

– Either Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal, Hemmingway, Cicero, Voltaire, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln.

It doesn’t matter who said it, it’s still a great quote.

I used to love the long, epic tomes, the Micheners (let’s get into the formation of the volcanic rocks before we get into the backstory of our protagonist’s great-great-great-great grandfather, shall we?), the Urises, the Haleys, the Tolkiens, etc. You can really get lost in those worlds, you can dive down deep and disappear for months at a time. There’s something magical and escapist about it and I know a lot of readers who wouldn’t want it any other way.

Over the years, however, I’ve come to appreciate the sharp, spank on the ass I get from a tight, lean, bitch of a novel. I think it began when I discovered Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, The Grifters, The Getaway, After Dark My Sweet, A Hell of a Woman, etc). He gives you everything you need without any of the fat. His characters are deep, psychologically disturbed and very, very real. Thompson gives it to you in tiny little brushstrokes on the page.

A couple months ago David Corbett recommended “Bellman and True,” by Desmond Lowden. He shared compelling examples of Lowden’s exceptional, tight prose, and it sent me to my Amazon button to have a copy sent from London. I read the book and was impressed with how much action, drama, social critique and psychology he managed to pack into such a small space. Lowden’s characters come off the page fully-realized and as real as any one I’ve ever met, and yet they’re stream-lined, compressed, tight.

We often hear the line, “Don’t write the stuff that everyone skips.” It’s a good line, though somewhat daunting when you feel that all your lines are worthy of being read. The truth, however, is we tend to over-write our work.

When I worked in film development I often helped guide screenwriters through multiple drafts of the same project. Sometimes it was necessary to remove large sections of story in order to reduce page-count or make room for new ideas. I once had a screenwriter complain that his character wouldn’t come across as real if so much of his backstory was lost. But I realized something–you can cut a significant amount of your work and, if you do it right, the “ghost” of what you’ve done remains. You don’t need the full story; what’s left behind is often exactly what is right.

I continue to learn how to write tighter and leaner. The screenwriting assignment I just completed gave me a real-world, professional opportunity to practice this task. At only 110 pages or so in length, screenplays have to pack a punch. The best screenplays are as tight as a good poem. Each word should be chosen with special care. Each word an image. I’m bringing that experience back to my current novel – trimming everything back to its bare essentials. I like it, it feels good, it feels right.

But, God, it takes a hell of a long time to write a short novel.

In other news, I recently connected with a wonderful poet whose work provides a great example of how to pack a whole lot of story into an itty, bitty space. Alan Berecka’s poems are little life-stories with brilliant epiphanies that turn on a word or phrase. He shows us that less is more, that words are precious and beatific and ought to be used sparingly.

 

Also, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention that my novel, BOULEVARD, just released in mass market paperback this week. Go out and buy three dozen to fill the pumpkins on Halloween!

And, lastly, I haven’t even touched on the wonderful trip I took to Ireland and Scotland with the family. I could write a book on it. I hated missing Bouchercon, but…come on, man, I saw Ireland and Scotland! Instead of over-writing the experience, I’ll leave you with a few beatific images to ponder….

 

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