Writer’s Desk: What Does Mark Bowden Think?

Sure, Mark Bowden is a bestselling author (Black Hawk Down, Hue 1968, among others). But for many years, he was also a regular journalistic scribe trying to spin gold out of hay. So he knows something about the daily grind and making it work for you, your editor, and your audience.

To wit, here are some tips he gave to Publishers Weekly:

  1. Know something — “Try coming up with 800 words when you have nothing to say; then try when you have just had a new experience. When you’ve learned something—anything—you’ll struggle to stay under the word count.”
  2. Understand what you are trying to do — “A clear answer to that question will help you avoid confusion and cliché.”
  3. Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite some more — “I still listen closely to my editors and usually take their advice. They are your first readers, and they get to talk back. They can tell you if your prose is confusing, boring, boorish, or simply wrong. A writer who doesn’t listen is a fool.”
  4. Be yourself — “Young writers in particular try to sound more learned or sophisticated or official. It’s the fastest way to make a fool of yourself on the printed page.”
  5. Scenes are gold — “Think about your experience as a reader. Pages turn swiftly when we’re reading action or dialogue, while exposition and description can slow things to a crawl.”

Screening Room: ‘The Brink’

In Alison Klayman’s new documentary The Brink, she follows ex-Trump strategist and burgeoning nationalist power broker as he trots the globe fomenting populist revolt.

The Brink just opened in limited release and should be expanding soon. My review is at Slant:

To paraphrase Fran Lebowitz on Donald Trump, conservative firebrand Steve Bannon is a nitwit’s idea of an intellectual. A semi-book-smart gadfly with a decent sense of humor, the vainglorious Bannon thinks in century-spanning terms that always involve him and his cohorts standing heroically at the barricades defending Western civilization. This portrait of Bannon comes through with sharp clarity in Alison Klayman’s immersive documentary on the Republican party’s new Lee Atwater—or maybe their Sun-Tzu, as Bannon would likely prefer…

Writer’s Desk: Outlive Them All

They say everyone is their own worst critic. A quick glance at the Internet will confirm that that is not, and never will be, true.

Criticism is all part of being an artist. You write, you record, you paint. Then you put it out there into the world and see what people think. Sometimes the feedback is good, sometimes it’s terrible, and sometimes (per Bull Durham) it rains.

There are reasons to listen to critiques of your work. No artist comes out of the gate fully formed. But it’s one thing to take in critical reactions and another to define yourself by them.

Ultimately, you are the creator and you have to follow what you want to do. Because it’s your name on the thing.

An unlikely source for advice on this matter comes from David Bowie, by way of Gavin Rossdale, who talked to Rolling Stone about dealing with people who just hated the work he was doing:

… you’ve just got to keep going. Back in the Bush days when I was getting slaughtered, I asked David Bowie how to deal with it, and he said, ‘Outlive your critics.’

So keep writing. But eat healthy, too.

Screening Room: ‘Us’

Lupita Nyong’o in ‘Us’ (Universal Pictures)

In the latest horror/satire/commentary from Jordan Peele (Get Out), a family on vacation faces a terrifying threat: themselves, only not. It’s early, of course, but there is already some, likely justified, award buzz for star Lupita Nyong’o.

Us opens wide this week. My review is at PopMatters:

Us takes pieces from a few different genres, particularly home-invasion thrillers and subtext-laden George A. Romero-esque zombie movies, and stitches them together into a uniquely weird and hammer-intense experience….

Writer’s Desk: Let Your Characters Talk

Occasionally some notable literary discussions take place in less-notable places. Take, for one example, the MidAmeriCon, 34th World Science Fiction Convention, which took place over a few days in 1976 at the (historic) Muehlebach Hotel in downtown Kansas City. There, the great science-fiction author Alfred Bester (The Demolished Man, The Stars My Destination) was doing the sci-fi-con circuit that kept the genre afloat and buzzing in those pre-Internet days.

Bester took some time to talk to an eager fan for the noted genre magazine The Tangent about writing:

You know, Robert [Heinlein] said to me once—we were talking shop, writing techniques and stuff like that—and Robert said I’ll tell you what I do, Al. What I do is get a bunch of characters together and I get them into difficulties, and by the time I can hear them talk they’ve solved their difficulties and I’m finished.

I was absolutely flabbergasted! I can’t even start a story until I can hear my characters talking. I’ve got to know who they are, what they are…I’ve got to identify with them completely…

“I’ll tell you what to do Al…”

It’s likely that more writers are like Heinlein than Bester. For some of us, characters are stubborn things. If you waited around for them to talk, you might never get anything written.

Screening Room: ‘The Inventor’

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Drew Kelly)

The latest documentary from the ever-prolific Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Going Clear) digs into the dark, weird, and ultimately all-too-familiar story of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who promised a miracle.

The Inventor premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will be broadcast this Monday on HBO.

My review is at Slant:

Elizabeth Holmes, the Steve Jobs-aping wunderkind who launched the radically innovative and radically deceptive blood-testing company Theranos when she was just 19, claimed to have a thing for Thomas Edison. Most inventors do. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This Edison quote is one that director Alex Gibney puts on the screen in his substantively hard-edged, if somewhat generically constructed, documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, to remind his audience of at least one source from which the dogged Holmes drew her inspiration…

Screening Room: ‘Ash is Purest White’

(Cohen Media Group)

The latest release from the great director Jia Zhang-Ke (A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart) is an ambitious modern-day Chinese crime epic.

Ash is Purest White opens this week in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

When Qiao (the everyday elegant Tao Zhao) sweeps into the grey and smoky mahjong parlor at the start of Jia Zhang-Ke’s downbeat epic Ash Is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü) she’s greeted by the thronged kibitzers and gamblers as both a being apart and yet just one of the guys…

Here’s the trailer: