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Monday, January 31, 2005

The outline-Gorman

Graham Greene felt that he wasted his early writing years by not outlining his novels in advance. Wasted too much time he didn't have.

I have to say that his books did get better as he got older but whether this was due to the outling I can't say.

I wish I could outline. The few times I've managed to fix an outline on both the page and in my mind, I was more relaxed with the writing itself. I didn't wake up in the middle of the night depressed because I couldn't figure out what next day at the machine would bring.

I've thrown something like seven or eight full novels away in the past twenty-some years. And double or triple than in long false starts. And mostly because I just couldn't shape the would-be book into anything coherent.

Because I write two thousand words a day, virtually every day of the year, I'm able to to finish and revise most of my novels in a bit more than three months. So throwing whole books away isn't a total disaster.

One of my editors told me once that she thought the false starts I threw away were my first drafts. She pointed out that while I struggled with depression and occasional migraines in getting a hundred pages down--pages I'd inevitably throw away--I was actually prepping my materials the way a sculptor does before he or she begins serious work on a piece. She was right on one point. A lot of thrown away pages do help me rough about the story and the people so that when I start over on page one I write very quickly straight through to the end.

Maybe that's just my process and there's nothing I can do about it.

But damn it seems great--from afar--to be one of those folks who outlines a book and then sits down and writes with barely a hitch. Or does that ever really happen?

Sunday, January 30, 2005

From Jon Breen

Here’s something to stir things up. Take any artistic endeavor in which two very successful contemporaries work or have worked in the same general field. If one of them is slightly or somewhat more commercially successful, the other one will probably be somewhat more artistically successful.

For example, take John Grisham and Scott Turow, both associated with legal thrillers, both bestsellers, both good writers. Everyone would have to agree that Grisham has been the greater commercial phenomenon, but I think most would agree that Turow is the finer novelist.

Second example: the two major composers of musical theatre in the past few decades have been Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim. Both have had their hits, but Lloyd Webber has clearly been the more commercial. Sondheim, I venture to say, is regarded by students of the field as the greater artist.

More examples: among contemporary film directors, Stephen Spielberg more commercially successful, Martin Scorsese more artistically successful; in espionage fiction, Ian Fleming more commercially successful, John Le Carré more artistically successful. This one’s a closer call but defensible: in Golden Age British detective fiction, Agatha Christie more commercially successful, Dorothy L. Sayers more artistically successful.

Not sure about this one, but someone I know who reads everything both these writers comes out with would say Stephen King is the greater commercial phenomenon but Peter Straub the better novelist. I definitely don’t agree with this one, but many would say that between the late-night talkers Jay Leno with the higher ratings is more commercially successful but the hipper David Letterman more artistically successful.

So there’s the game. Is it worth playing or is it wheel-spinning nonsense?

Jon Breen

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Best Blog Blogging

Mark Evanier's News From Me covers popular culture, past and present, with such grace, style and wit you have to wonder how many hours a day he works at it. A lot, one would assume, especially on days when the words number 1,000 or more.

It is incomparable both because of the hard news and Mark's skill in making that news relevant to the reader. He puts virtually everyting he reports on into a context that enhances and illuminates the subject.

His week-long coverage of Johnny Carson's death and life points the reader to many other sites but in the process cover also gives us a look at his own somewhat complex feelings about the star-the man-the place in showbiz history-collective memory.

I'm told there is some kind of contest for best blog of the year. I haven't run across any e site to send my vote to.. But if and when I do, I'll bet you can guess whose name wil be n my ballot.

Friday, January 28, 2005

The Return of Terrill Lankford (sounds like a western, doesn it?)


The last time I blogged here I confessed to a terrible track record of reading (or lack of) in 2004. My movie viewing habits weren't much better. I probably hit the theaters less than ten times last year, so once again it would be ridiculous for me to have compiled a top ten list of the great movies of '04. In December I did go on a major DVD blitz, taking advantage of BLOCKBUSTER's "all you can view" service, trying to catch up on movies I had missed. Not much impressed me until a few days ago when I watched the DVD of Mario Van Peeples' BAADASSSSS. If I had seen ten great movies last year I think this would have still topped my list. It is a one-of-a-kind experience. A movie about the making of SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG thirty years ago, by the son of the man who made SWEETBACK (an independent film that would usher in the era of "Blaxploitation" films. Now some of you may wonder if that's a good thing. But without Blaxploitation you don't get a lot of today's cinema, including, obviously, most of Tarantino's work), a son who was made to "perform" in every way imaginable in said movie as a teenager. This is probably the best movie about making movies that has ever been made. It shrieks of authenticity. And the similarities between the shooting of BAADASSSSS and SWEETBACK are too numerous to mention. See it for yourself. And do yourself a favor and watch all the extras on the disc and listen to the commentary track which features Mario and Melvin. It's rich with historical importance and telling father/son dynamics.

Yesterday, coincidentally, the movie that inspired BAADASSSSS was on cable, so I just had to give SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG a look. Part social commentary. Part soft core porn. Part action film. Part horror film. 100 per cent rebellion. This movie was the cinematic equivilant of refusing to move to the back of the bus when it was released in 1971. It's a crude exercise, but a powerful one when put in proper context. Watching it after viewing BAADASSSSS achieves that goal. SWEETBACK is a raw piece of work, but it took a certain kind of madman to see it through to the end. BAADASSSSS pays tribute to that madman. And to all the dreamers who do whatever it takes to make their vision a reality against all odds.


Long ago I was involved with a movie entitled SUNSET HEAT which stars Michael Pare, Dennis Hopper, Adam Ant (!) and Little Richard (!!!!!). I don't want to get too deep into the sordid history of this flick at this time, but if you catch this cinematic lark and notice a passing resemblance to my book SHOOTERS you will note that my attorneys did as well. I had sold the screenplay to SHOOTERS (way before it was published as a book) to the producers of SUNSET HEAT. When I caught them doing some things that were outside the scope of my contract, I pulled the project away from them (at a financial cost to me that today makes me question my sanity at that time). Undaunted, they carried on without me and came up with a remarkably similar project to satisfy the people who were actually putting up the money for the movie. Attorneys were activated. Shots were fired. And when the smoke cleared we were all fairly happy (which is not how these stories typically end). I receive a "Creative Consultant" credit somewhere after the honey wagon is listed in the end titles of SUNSET HEAT. I also received a check which kept us all out of the courtroom. I would prefer that the movie remained a fading memory in my life, but technology doesn't allow us to get away from our sins that easily. As I clicked around the cable channels yesterday I stumbled upon one of its many airings. This is not a movie I would watch all the way through in one sitting, but it is enough of a curiosity that I usually watch a scene or two when I trip over it. This time I happened to catch it moments before Little Richard showed up for what was basically an extended cameo. The funny thing is, during his scene he managed to ad lib one of his favorite lines, "Honey, you make my big toe shoot up into my boot!" A few hours later, I'm watching the Craig Ferguson version of the Late Late Show (bring back Kilborn!) and the second guest is - Little Richard. Here he was 13 years later and he blasted out the same line about the toe and the boot!

Hey, if it ain't broke.......


One last note before I check out for another few weeks: The biggest problem I have with the recent Academy Award nominations is the fact that Jamie Foxx got nominated for Best Supporting Actor in COLLATERAL. As anyone who has seen that film will attest, he is the lead in the picture. Or at the very least, the co-lead. Cruise may be the bigger name (temporarily), but the story is told, primarily, from the point of view of Foxx's character. He also has more screen time than Cruise (or anyone else) does. And he's the HERO of the piece. He shouldn't have even been qualified for this award. I know this is "The Year of Jamie Foxx," but did they have to take a slot from some deserving character actor and give it to a lead performance in the supporting category? Is this a way to give Clint the faux "Lifetime Oscar" for his performance in MILLION $ BABY and still reward Foxx for RAY, for which he has also been nominated as Best Actor? I hope not. But the damage has already been done. Someone is missing their rightful nomination as Best Supporting Actor. And I can think of someone from the very same movie that did "Best Supporting Actor" caliber work and could easily have been acknowledged here instead of Foxx: Mark Ruffalo as the ill-fated narc. Ruffalo is the best thing in that movie. His few scenes in the film provide a realistic counterpoint to the over-the-top main storyline between Foxx and Cruise that give the whole movie a level of credibility that it wouldn't achieve otherwise. That's what a supporting role is. Not the guy with the lead role in the film and the equal billing with Tom Cruise.

Personally, I would have really liked to have seen David Carradine acknowledged for his work in KILL BILL 2. That was a career best performance for him, and even though his character's name is in the title, he truly was a supporting character in the movie. (And how many more shots does a 67 year old actor have at an Academy Award?) I think it's a real shame that Carradine or Ruffalo or some other deserving actor has been denied a slot because of Foxx Fever. But hey, they still haven't given me the keys to this town, so don't blame me if it doesn't run right.

See you...whenever.



Thursday, January 27, 2005

Sarah Weiman's First Bad Review

Sarah Weinman got a less than wonderful review on a piece of fiction she wrote. She talks about it on her blog today. Not surpisingly, she doesn't like the feeling a tepid review leaves her with. It's her first negative review and she wonders how her readers felt about their own first bad reviews. It's an honest and well-written reaction something all writers go through.

I've never figured out how to respond to bad reviews. There was a wanna be professor at the noted and nearby writer's workshop who called me to "commiserate" about my first bad review. He'd read it in "Publisher's Weekly." The fact that he was trying to sell his own mystery novel--and still is--was inherent in his call. He'd never called me before. Nor has he since.

My first reaction to my review was embarrassment. I am basically ashamed of everything I've ever said, done and written. I despise myself to that degree. So I spent the first few days post review thinking that no matter where I went, people were whispering about me. There goes that guy who got a bad PW review. Humiliating.(Even though fewer than 1% of the folks who live here could tell you what PW was.) Humiliating--and well-deserved. This guy--me--can't write for beans.

Kirkus on the other hand gave it a rave, Library Journal called it an "auspicious debut," Variety really liked it, and Booklist said something to the effect that I had a fresh and engaging voice. If I got twenty reviews, eighteen of them were approving.

But the PW I sulked over.

Over the years, PW has given me many favorable and several notably unfavorable reviews. Same with Kirkus, the NY Times, etc. and etc. The favorable outnumber the unfavorable. While the bad ones don't bother me quite as much as they once did, they can still ruin a nice spring day for me.

The kind of bad review that angers me is the one where the reviewer becomes the star rather than the book at hand. You see this more in the High Lit and entertainment press than you do in mystery. The most savage of genre reviewing is found in science fiction.

Every once in a while a civil, even-handed mixed review can be useful. Somewhere back there a Chicago Trib reviewer gave several paragraphs of praise (David Frost's line is that to a writer a fair and balanced review is eighteen hundred words of tightly packed praise) but then dinged me for two problems he'd noted common to all my work. I thought about it, decided that they were indeed problems, and called him next day and thanked him. He said he couldn't beieve I was thanking him for knocking me. But his criticism helped improve my craft.

During my eighteen years at Mystery Scene, I generally refused to run really nasty reviews. The few times I did I regretted it because in both instances the trashed writers called. They were devastated. I just couldn't see devastating anybody else. Mixe d reviews I ran all the time. But crash and burners, no way.

Writing is hard work. It's understandable to want that work if not praised at least considered in a respectful tone.

John Simon always used to mock the looks of stage actresses in his reviews. I was always happy to hear when somebody went after him for it. I especially felt that way when I got my first look at him one night on a Dick Cavett show. My God how could this guy rermark on anybody's looks? He should be walking around with a bag over his head. He's the epitome of the reviewer who makes himself rather than the work to hand the star. He was on Cavett show one night with Phillip Roth. Seated right next to Roth, Simon trashed some other writer and said something like He's not even capable of minor art like our friend Roth here. Wanna bet who's work will still be red a century from now--Simon's or Roth's? Roth was a gentleman and didn't deck him.

It'd be nice if there was a Bad Review pill you could take. Lie down for an hour after taking the pill and wake up refreshed. No more of all the symptoms bad reviews inspire--anger, embarrassment, self-pity, self-doubt. You're right back at the machine and doing your best work ever.

If you see such a pill advertised on some strage cable channel late at night, please jot down that 800 number for me, will you?


Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Silent films

Thanks to TCM, I've become a fan of silent films. I'm now as comfortable with them as I am with talkies.

They're a more inconic form than sound film. Last night, they showed a Garbo silent from 1926. Garbo had never done much for me. The acting was always good but the great esteemed beauty the photographers extolled just never appeared for me.

But in the silent I saw last night, the lighting was such that it de-emphasized the sharp angles of her face and softened them,, making the eyes larger and and the cheekbones softer. She looked downright sexy, a figure of dreams rather than a photography session.

A few weeks ago TCM did two minor silent Harold Lloyd pictures. The next night they showed one of his early talkies. I actually preferred him in the silents. Somehow the silence emphasized his gawky manner of walking and that rubbery face built around the nose that looks sharp enough to be a dagger.

I suppose ultimately silent film resembles dance to a large degree. The eye fastens on movement. Body language and facial expression tell the story, the dialogue cards merely setting up scene and story.

Holy moley, maybe Norma Desmond was right when she said at the end of Sunset Boulevard "We had faces then." I sure can't think of any of today's faces that would rival the ones in the silent pictures.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Lee Goldberg; Steve Hockensmith

Frm Lee Goldberg on my Parker comments:

But the Sunny Randall novels take all the worst aspects of the Spenser books...and make them even worse. Can't stand Spenser's constant talk about his dog? Sunny's relationship with her dog borders on psychotic. Can't stand another scene between Spenser and Susan? Wait until you read the Sunny and Susan scenes... yeah, that's right, Susan is in the Sunny books, too.

Ed here: Sunny & Susan! You had me laughing out loud. I tried two chapters of a Sunny book and gave up. I'm sure glad I did after you said there were Sunny AND Susan scenes in the book. "Unspeakable evi!" whispered Fu Manchu.

To clarify one thing I said in the Parker piece. I meant nothing personal when I said that all of his heroes were in masochistic romantic relationships. I know nothing about Parker personally but the men-women stuff in his books are certainly masochistic.

Listen, Spenser, Jesse--believe it or not there are a lot of women out there who can be giving, tender and downright FUN!!!

But to his critiics, I still say give Jesse Stone a fair read and you'll be surprised how good the books are.

From Steve Hockensmith

Just saw this from you on Bill Crider's blog:

<Yeah, I always feel badly when a beginning writer asks
me for a blurb. When I tell him I'm nobody and that
the editor probably won't use it anyway, I always get
the same reaction--but you've published so many books.
Yes, friends, unsucccessful books. The marketplace
defines us by computers and nothing else.>>

Steve here:
I started to post a long reply...then stopped when I
remembered that my editor has asked me to keep our
blurb list under wraps for a while. I was going to say
something about how surprised I was to learn that
blurbs routinely go unused and how that makes me
appreciate all the more any established writer (such
as you and Bill) who'd keep helping out first-time
authors despite having seen their blurbs eighty-sixed
in the past. Since I didn't say it on the site, I
thought I'd say it in an e-mail.

So -- thanks again! Hopefully, it's not success in the
marketplace that defines a writer to other writers.
It's talent and class. You and Bill have both.


Ed here: Most of my blurbs are used, I guess, but for a reason--they're always "Ed Gorman, Mystery Scene"

And that's fine. Publishing is a business. The object is to sell books. Thus you do what's necessary. They're not singling us out in any way. Nothing personal there at all.


From Bob Sassone; Lee Goldberg

Bob Sassone said...

I haven't read the last 5 or 6 Spenser books. I was a huge fan but realized there are too many other writers that I enjoy more recently. Jeremiah Healy, Will Christopher Baer, Robert Crais, catching up on some Ross MacDonald's I never got around to reading.

I was also put off by Parker's comments when Robert Urich passed away. I talk about them here, if anyone is interested:

The hell with Robert Parker.

No, not the wine guy, the author of the "Spenser" books. Robert Urich passes away, and the quote he musters is this:

"This is a shock. It's too soon, and he was too young...He wasn't the perfect Spenser...Bob was not a great actor, but he was big and physical, and he looked good and he showed up to the set knowing his lines. A lot of people liked him in the role, but I can't even say in honor of his memory that he was quite right for the role. But then, who is?"

This is offensive on so many levels. It starts out well, but then turns into some mish-mash of misguided integrity ("hey, I gotta call em like I sees them!") and a backhanded compliment (or not).

"He wasn't the perfect Spenser..."

He wasn't? Sorry, whenever I read the Spenser novels (that's read as in rhyming with "red," past tense), all I could picture is Urich as the character. He was perfect. A perfect TV star in the perfect TV role (as was Avery Brook's portrayal of Hawk). That show lasted three seasons because of Urich. I remember hearing something about how Parker didn't want the the TV series to use first-person voiceovers. Funny, those voiceovers were some of the best things about the show. They gave it an elegance and mood that most shows, especially detective series, never capture. Books and TV shows are very different things. You shouldn't worry about how the book is being portrayed; the books live on. But Parker never seems to be happy with how his creation is dealt with. Except now, of course. He has Joe Matagna in those second-rate A and E Spenser flicks that think Toronto passes for Boston. I hope he's happy with them.

"Bob was not a great actor..."

Let's kick the man when he's down (way down). Actually, I say that Urich was a fine actor. He probably would never have gone onto win an Academy Award, but so what? This guy starred in 15 TV series as a leading man, and a few as an ensemble player, over a 30 year career, so producers and casting agents and TV fans certainly found something that they liked about him, again and again and again, even if some of those shows didn't last long. You don't have to remember that Emeril was his last TV show. That show was horrible because of the writing and the concept, not Urich. Remember Spenser and Lonesome Dove and the cheesy but fun Vegas and his flair for comedy and how he worked hard and was a good guy.

"...and he looked good and he showed up to the set knowing his lines."


"A lot of people liked him in the role, but I can't even say in honor of his memory that he was quite right for the role. But then, who is?"

Maybe this guy shouldn't do interviews. A beloved human being is dead too young, and he thinks that NOW is the time for literary and acting opinions? Notice also that he gets in a little plug for his books. "The character of Spenser, as I have written it, is my too complex to be portrayed by a mere TV actor," he seems to be saying. Egads.

Perhaps this is how we'll remember Parker:

"He wasn't the perfect author...he wasn't a great writer, but he had fingers and owned a typewriter and he knew how to type. A lot of people liked his books, but I can't even say in honor of his memory that he was quite up to writing the "Spenser" books. But then, who is?"

Lee Goldberg said...

I remember that quote, Bob. It pissed me off then and it still rankles reading it again. What a profounding stupid thing for Parker to have said.

Then again, I'm biased. I worked on SPENSER FOR HIRE. Robert Urich was one of the nicest men I've ever met.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Robert B. Parker

Ed here:

A discussion on various logs of late on the relative worth of Robert B. Parker at this stage in his long and industrious career.

The consensus judgment seems to be that he wrote brilliantly early on, that in fact he rescued the entire private eye genre from malaise and cliche, and that he brought tens of thousands of new readers to the form.

I agree with all of that.

Where I have trouble is the funeral pyre so many of his critics seem to be building. Doesn't take the care he used to; isn't as inventive as he once was; writes the same book many times over.

Now I'll agree that these things are occasionally true of his last decade or so at the writing machine. But it's certainly not true in general.

Is Spenser tired and parodic? I think so, yes, in many of the books. Am I sick of Susan Silverman? Oh, my God, I wish she'd take a job at the Lifetime channel and never have time to talk let alone see Spenser again. Still, every once in a while, every three books, say, there's a return to form. Maybe not great Spenser but solid and fun Spenser.

But what I really don't understand are the harsh judgments on his Jesse Stone series.

I'm just now finishing STONE COLD and I have to say it's one of the most entertaining books I've read in the past twelve months. The dialogue is prime Parker, character drives the story far more than the plot, and even though Stone's machismo gets tiresome, he comes off as a decent, complicated, beleivable middle-aged man who is a) an alcholic and b) in love with Susan Silverman's twin sister.

Now as an alcoholic myself, I can testify that Parker's take on the malady is both moving and clinically true.

The ex-wife is as problemmatic--this is my take only, not a universally held opinion--as Susan but at least not as full of cant and pomposity. But it does make you wonder if the Parker hero, in whatever guise, isn't a masochist in his romantic relationships. Parker sure does convey real pain here; there's one scene where he begins to confront his ex-wife's date that made me writhe. I'm a jealous type myself. You're right there with Jesse and sure wish you weren't.

The A plot has to do with a pair of trendy serial killers, man and wife. They do it for fun. What's notable here, and I assume Parker was aware of this, is that the marriage of the serial killers is a far more loving and supportive one than any marriage a Parker hero has ever been in.

The B plot has to do with a bunch of snotty high school bullies. The kids work fine but the magic scenes are when their prominent parents come to the station and wail on Jesse as only privileged people can. Jesse shows a whole lot of restraint.

So please don't tell me it's over for Parker because it isn't. Nobody--not even Balzac or Dostoyevsky or Dickens, all of whom wrote a whole lot of books themselves--can possibly trot out a winner every time. Impossible. And writing quickly seems to be Parker's natural pace.

As a book, a piece of writing, an amusement with the sting of truth every few pages, this novel warrants an A and is a whole lot better than many of the sudsy and pretentious novels that critics are genufelcting in front of these days.

Thanks To Bill Crider...

...I'm using a new blog spot on your radio dial. This will be home from now on.