Writer’s Desk: Avoid Exclamation Marks!

Elmore Leonard said this about exclamation marks:

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

That worked for him. It should probably work for you as well.

But, as The Atlantic points out, while Leonard kept things pretty tight (only 49 exclamation marks per 100,000 words), other writers let fly and didn’t necessarily suffer for it. James Joyce, for instance, reveled in exclamation marks, averaging about 1 per every 100 words.

So listen to Leonard if you like. But then you’ll never write Finnegans Wake.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Stop

The novelist Kazuo Ishiguro said that he’d always followed the rule that said after four hours of continuous writing, the rule of diminishing returns set in. But, with the willing cooperation of his wife Lorna, he decided to try something different. They called it a “Crash”:

During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9am to 10.30pm, Monday through Saturday. I’d get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I’d not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house. Lorna, despite her own busy schedule, would for this period do my share of the cooking and housework. In this way, so we hoped, I’d not only complete more work quantitively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.

Ishiguro didn’t let anything stop him, no matter how awful the material that he was producing. He just kept at it. Four weeks later, he basically had The Remains of the Day finished.

Listen to Ishiguro. After all, he did win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Screening Room: ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’

An intoxicating blend of Greek tragedy, Kubrickian creep, and suburban satire, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is playing now. This is priority viewing.

My review is at Film Journal International:

The setting for Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest absurdist take on the violence underpinning society’s placid surfaces couldn’t be more mundane and the stakes couldn’t be higher. It could be that the movie is trying to build on the tradition of cinematic shocks to the bourgeoisie. Behind every great McMansion there must be a great crime. But it’s just as possible that, even though there are some scenes that play like an Ionesco translation of American Beauty, Lanthimos just wanted his background to be as unspecific as possible, so as not to detract from the off-kilter and walloping doozy of a story he’s telling…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Snowman’

Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman, the first of his Harry Hole detective novels to hit the big screen, comes to theaters this weekend.

My review is at Film Journal International:

Deep, deep inside The Snowman, between the permanent rictus of Michael Fassbender’s half-frown and the slow zooms of spooky snowmen, can be glimpsed the outlines of the passable mystery movie that might have been….

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘A Legacy of Spies’

The new John le Carre novel, A Legacy of Spies, is out now. And yes, George Smiley is back.

My review is at PopMatters:

It’s been about a quarter century since John le Carré appeared to wrap up his cycle of stories about the tantalizingly inscrutable spymaster George Smiley and his cabal of British spooks locked in mortal struggle with Moscow Centre. The Secret Pilgrim (1990) in which the semi-retired Smiley waxed wise about the entanglements of espionage to spellbound recruits while their trainer reminisced to himself about dark deeds from the past, was a ripping good read but felt like an excuse for le Carré to clean out some unfinished drafts from the bottom of his drawer…

You can read an excerpt here.

Screening Room: ‘Baby Driver’

So here’s the pitch for the unlikely summer blockbuster Baby Driver: There’s this getaway driver who’s creepy good at his job. Only he has this thing where he listens to music all the time and doesn’t really talk to people. This annoys the bank robbers he works with. Sound good? Well, the soundtrack is, at least.

Baby Driver is out now on DVD. My review is at PopMatters:

In the desultory extras accompanying the DVD of Baby Driver, there isn’t much to explain the movie’s genesis besides the obvious. Writer/director Edgar Wright was obsessed with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” and thought it would be a great song for a car chase. So, like the eager fanboy that Wright is, he doesn’t wait any longer than the opening scene to drop that sequence…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Mudbound’

The historical melodrama Mudbound has been making the festival rounds, from Sundance to the New York Film Festival. It’s due on Netflix and in select theaters on November 17.

My review is at PopMatters:

A surprisingly assured big-canvas effort from director Dee Rees (PariahBessie), Mudbound is adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel about two families, one white and one black, who find themselves unwillingly bound by land, happenstance, poverty, and the persistence of persecution in the Jim Crow South. The Jacksons are a family of black sharecroppers who have to adjust to their new white landowners, an unsure bunch known as the McAllans whose various missteps (intentional and accidental) lead to bloody tragedy…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Be Ready to Fail

Back in 2008, Ta-Nehisi Coates published The Beautiful Struggle, one of the great American memoirs of the past few decades. In 2015 came Between the World and Me, a tender but hard-edged book-length essay on everything his son needed to know about growing up black in America.

As one of nation’s top public intellectuals, and one whose prose style is so frequently lauded, it’s difficult to think of Coates now in the same way that most writers think of themselves: frustrated, frightened, failing. From Coates’ latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power:

[Writers] must learn to abandon appeal and expectation. Failure is the norm for writers—firings and layoffs, rejected pitches, manuscripts tossed into the wastebins, bad reviews, uninterested editors, your own woeful first drafts, they all form a chorus telling you to quit with whatever dignity you still have intact.

It’s a bracing reminder of the everyday struggle. But then Coates reminds us how to muscle past it:

If you are going to write, you must learn to work in defiance of this chorus, in defiance of the unanswered pitches, of the books that find no audience, and most of all, in defiance of the terror radiating from the blank white page.

Remember that failure is not just an option, but a likelihood. If you can’t acknowledge that fact, then maybe writing is not for you. If, however, you are the person who can put their shoulder to that always-closed door and keep pushing, then maybe you have what it takes.

Screening Room: ‘Human Flow’

Ai Weiwei’s new documentary expands from his earlier efforts—provocative artmaking in China under political persecution—to take in the massive subject of refugees, more of whom are now coursing over borders than at any time since the end of World War II.

Human Flow opens in limited release tomorrow. My review is at Film Journal International:

Human Flow is possibly the most visually resplendent piece of nonfiction cinema you will see this year. With this movie, multidisciplinary artist and occasional political enfant terrible Ai Weiwei has made a crucially important visual and philosophical document of the modern refugee crisis…

Here’s the trailer:


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Screening Room: ‘Voyeur’

Back in 1981, Gay Talese made a splash with Thy Neighbor’s Wife, a controversial study of America’s sexual proclivities. He received an interesting letter not long after publication from a guy in Colorado with all sorts of stories about spying on people at his motel.

The new documentary Voyeur follows what happened next, as Talese spent years trying to turn that man’s story into yet another splashy book. Voyeur premiered at the New York Film Festival and will be released in theaters and on Netflix later in the year. Here’s my review.

Writer’s Desk: Work in Groups

The writer’s life is a solitary one. That’s true, until it’s not.

Take the example of Aleksandar Hemon. The Bosnian writer had always followed the expected path:

[My writing] had taken place in the self-imposed isolation of my head. I don’t take part in workshops or writing groups; I don’t share ideas or drafts with my fellow-writers for feedback; I make all the decisions and am responsible for every word in the book that I am writing, acknowledgments included.

But then, like many writers out there in a world of hundreds of television shows needing scripts, he joined the collaborative workforce of televisual scriveners. Working out scripts for the sci-fi series Sense8, he discovered a new process:

… my role was to make proposals that would be taken up by the other people in the room and spun around a few times. The version of the proposal that emerged would have little to do with the original, yet belonged to me as much as to everyone else … I’d never experienced the pleasure of temporarily losing my intellectual sovereignty—of watching my bright idea be destroyed, only to be transformed into something entirely different.

Sometimes a writer has to hew closely to their original vision, come hell or high water, for it to be worth a damn in the end. More frequently, another pair of eyes, or five or ten, can make all the difference in the world.

Screening Room: ‘Una’

An adaptation of David Harrower’s play, BlackbirdUna is about what happens when a young woman tracks down the older man she had a relationship with when she was far too young and wants … well, it’s not sure precisely what she wants. But he thinks she’s about to burn his whole world down. and she just might.

Una opens this week in limited release. My review is at PopMatters.

Here’s the trailer.

Screening Room: New York Film Festival, Part One

The 55th New York Film Festival started up last week and runs through October 15. It remains to be seen just how much of a bellwether it will be for showcasing the year’s most likely award contenders. But so far, it’s off to a strong start. Here’s some reviews of what’s been showing so far:

  • The Florida Project (pictured above; opens in theaters October 6) — Kids run rampant in a down-at-the-heel Florida motel in the shadow of Disneyworld in this Oscar-likely bittersweet comedy with Willem Dafoe from the director of Tangerine. Review here.
  • No Stone Unturned — Suspenseful true-crime documentary from the director of Going Clear and Zero Day about a long-unsolved politically motivated multiple murder in Northern Ireland. Review here.
  • The Rape of Recy Taylor — This bluesy, ghostly documentary uses a harrowing decades-old crime for a powerful look at racial and sexual exploitation in the Old South. Review here.

Writer’s Desk: Be Tenacious

When Tim O’Brien, one of the great living American novelists, was asked for some writing advice, here’s what he told NPR:

I try to preach to students tenacity and stubbornness—to be a kind of mule walking up the mountain, to keep plodding. Inspiration is important, but you’re not going to get it on a bowling alley or on a golf course or all the other things you could be doing. If you’re not sitting there inspiration is simply going to pass…

Sticking with it can be misery. You sit and stare and fiddle and fidget and Nothing. Comes. But, eventually, every dam breaks. Just make sure you’re there to ride the wave when it does.