Writer’s Desk: Find Your Rhythm

If you have ever read Truman Capote (and if you have not, dear reader, why?), you know that he has produced some of the most perfectly calibrated sentences in the English language. Whether he sounded them out in his head, simply knew the music of words better than the rest of us, or learned everything he knew from Harper Lee, who is to say. The story might clunk here and there, but the words on the page always sang.

Capote knew that rhythm mattered, almost more than anything else. In 1957, he talked about style and control to The Paris Review:

Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence—especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation. Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence. I don’t mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach. I try, that’s all…

Screening Room: ‘Escape from Kabul’

The new documentary Escape from Kabul premieres this Wednesday on HBO.

My review is at The Playlist:

Jamie Roberts’ terse, painfully precise documentary “Escape from Kabul” zooms right in on one episode—the massive last-minute airlift of Afghans and remaining American personnel from Kabul in August 2021—and never looks away, even when you might wish that it did. It’s a close-quarters kind of war film that moves in tight and leaves little room to breathe. This seems an appropriate stylistic decision for a movie that is mainly about tens of thousands of people trying to escape a country as it is being reclaimed by medieval fanatics whose promises of equitable treatment were not widely believed…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Billy Wilder’s Rules

After Cameron Crowe failed to convince director Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Sunset Blvd., too many other classics to mention) to play a small role in Jerry Maguire, the two struck up a friendship. That turned into a series of conversations. That turned into a book.

That book contained Wilder’s rules for writing. They mostly involve getting attention, not letting up, and then grabbing people’s attention again. He specifies it’s for screenwriting specifically, but many if not all apply to most any kind of fiction:

  • 1: The audience is fickle.
  • 2: Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
  • 3: Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
  • 4: Know where you’re going.
  • 5: The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
  • 6: If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
  • 7: A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
  • 8: In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
  • 9: The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
  • 10: The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.

Streaming Review: ‘The Rings of Power’

The first half of the first season of Amazon’s expansion of the Tolkien universe, The Rings of Power, have streamed and as yet not a single ring in sight. This, and the heavy reliance on Galadriel (pictured) is probably a good thing.

My review is at Slant:

The pressures of trying to retain fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Peter Jackson film trilogy while attracting new ones, though, do not visibly inform the start of the series. For the most part, The Rings of Power moves ahead with the confident, measured, contemplative speed of a hobbit taking a mid-afternoon stroll. Holding true to the idealized chivalry of Tolkien’s Nordic saga-infused tales, showrunners Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne steer clear of George R.R. Martin-style bloodbaths and soap-operatic celebrations of carnality…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘See How They Run’

Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan head up the superb cast of the new mystery caper See How They Run, which opens next week.

My review is at Slant:

Set in London in 1953, the film busily corkscrews a whodunnit and a narrative about mismatched cops into the behind-the-scenes machinations around a planned movie adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, then only a few months into its 70-or-so-year run. After the adaptation’s potential director, the blacklisted and highly opinionated drunk Leo Kopernick (Adrien Brody), is found murdered and deposited on the theater stage, the police—pert and eager Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan), depressed and cynical Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell)—set about determining which of the cast or crew did the deed…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Story of Film: A New Generation’

A follow-up to his 15-part series on the history of cinema, Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film: A New Generation covers how the movies look in the 21st century (Mad Max: Fury Road to Pedro Costa essay documentaries).

It opens this Friday and is a glorious good time. My review is at Slant:

It’s hard to think of another art form, except maybe the theater, that spends as much time and effort celebrating itself as film. From the That’s Entertainment! anthology to the AFI’s “100” listicle TV specials to the creepy “We Make Movies Better” ad campaign for AMC Theaters featuring Nicole Kidman, the filmmaking industry has long seemed to suffer from an insecurity requiring constant demands from the audience to please, please like it. Fortunately, Mark Cousins’s confidently sprawling new documentary, The Story of Film: A New Generation, feels no need to bang viewers over the head with the insistence that cinema is special, damnit…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘A Compassionate Spy’

A Compassionate Spy is the latest documentary from Steve James (Hoop Dreams). This time, he tells the story of Ted Hall, the most consequential spy at Los Alamos most of us have never heard of. It’s making the festival rounds now and should be released later in the year.

My review is at Slant:

A gentle piece of work that’s about as far away from cloak-and-dagger skullduggery as could be imagined, A Compassionate Spy is in part the story of an idealistic teenager who risked the electric chair in order to keep American hegemony at bay. But even though Ted isn’t a household name, that story was largely told already by interviews Ted gave before his death in 1999 and a 1997 book, Bombshell, whose authors are interviewed here in order to fill in more background detail. Given that, James focuses more intently on Ted’s character and family…

Writer’s Desk: Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

Everybody expects writers to be, for the most part, miserable. This is particularly true of writers themselves. We are after all a cohort of people given not only to romanticizing what we do but at the same time highlighting just how difficult a task it is to write sentences one after the other.

Michael Cunningham (The Hours) wrote a piece for Oprah about this predilection:

I suspect that one of the many reasons we who write tend to contemplate our troubles the way nuns finger rosaries is the fact that our sufferings are entirely invisible to everyone but us…

But while Cunningham was gently ribbing his tribe of creatives and pointing out that sometimes the act of writing can be quite enjoyable (“If an author isn’t acquainted with happiness in some form or other we don’t trust him or her”), he also pointed out that whenever the writing went a little too well, that is when the writer is in trouble:

A writer should always feel like he’s in over his head. That’s part of what makes good writing compelling—the sense that as readers we’re in the company of a writer of vast ambitions, who is always trying to do more than he or she is technically capable of…

Do you have a project that you would love to write but have been putting off because you think it’s too much for you or you don’t have the skill? Make that the next thing you write.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Survival of the Richest’

In the first chapter of Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires, he describes a strange event he was invited to in 2017 where five wealthy men asked him about the impending apocalypse. They were not curious about how to stop it but how to escape it:

Taking their cue from Tesla founder Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Palantir’s Peter Thiel reversing the aging process, or artificial intelligence developers Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, they were preparing for a digital future that had less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether. Their extreme wealth and privilege served only to make them obsessed with insulating themselves from the very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is about only one thing: escape from the rest of us

Survival of the Richest comes out next week. My review is at PopMatters.

Writer’s Desk: Deadlines Help

Writers like to complain. It’s one of our favorite pastimes. We particularly enjoy griping about deadlines. How unreasonable they are, how foolish we were to agree to them, how we couldn’t possibly get everything done before them, and so on.

But, against our nature as it might be, there are times when we should embrace the deadline.

Consider Saturday Night Live. Every week while in season, the writers ponder, pitch, write, rewrite, throw ideas into the garbage can in disgust, fish those ideas out later and dust them off, and generally burn the candle at every possible end to put a show together by the end of the week. As anybody who has watched the show over the years can attest, the end product is not perfect. But it never could be. Because endless time can be its own kind of trap.

SNL founder and creative mind Lorne Michaels famously put it this way:

The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.

Be thankful for the deadline. If not for that, you might never finish writing.

Screening Room: ‘Breaking’

My review of the movie Breaking originally ran earlier in the year after its Sundance premiere when it was still titled 892. It’s getting a limited release now and is worth seeking out, particularly for featuring one of the final performances from the late great Michael K. Williams.

You can read the review at Slant:

Abi Damaris Corbin’s terse and powerful Breaking falls snugly into the genre of film centered around hostage negotiations, but it extends past familiarity with the aim of satisfying more than our thirst for thrills. Based closely on a real incident from 2017, the film tells the story of Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega), a Marine veteran suffering from PTSD who walked into a Wells Fargo bank in an Atlanta suburb and said he would detonate a bomb unless his demand was met. That demand would seem almost comically small in a fictional version of this story: $892 in disability payments that the Department of Veterans Affairs withheld from Easley, which he needed in order to pay off student debt. This is a man looking not to get rich or take revenge, but to get a little shred of his dignity back…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Deflect and Keep Moving

When interviewed by LitHub, novelist Hari Kunzru — who was one of many authors reading at the “Stand with Salman” event this past Friday on the steps of New York’s Public Library — was asked how he gets around writer’s block. His first response is what many writers say (in essence get over it):

The thing with writer’s block is that it only exists if you make it a problem. If you want to write something, you write it. If you “can’t,” it’s usually because subconsciously you don’t actually want to…

But then Kunzru gets to the heart of the matter, which is what to do when you really can’t figure out a way to move forward:

If I sit down at my desk and find I can’t generate new text, I try to do the next most useful thing: revise something, make notes for another section, work on some other piece of writing, write administrative email etc. If I’m really not able to concentrate I go for a bike ride or clean the house. Soon enough I can get back to what I was “supposed” to be doing. I’ve worked as a writer since I was in my early twenties, and I have rarely had any other source of income, so the idea that if I don’t write, I don’t eat is very deeply engrained. It’s a good motivator. In a certain sense, I’ve never really had the luxury of getting blocked…

Maybe you can’t write the next paragraph of your novel. But you can do something. Forward movement is crucial.

Writer’s Desk: Practice, Practice, Practice

Do you know Sam Lipsyte? If not, then now is the time to get acquainted. Start off with his novel, The Ask. It’s very … well, just read it. Funny, profane, true; all the best qualities. No One Left to Come Looking For You is coming out later this year and it’s a knockout.

All of which is prelude to why you should listen to what he has to say about writing fiction; which he teaches at Columbia University.

In this interview, Lipsyte talks about the need to stay connected to what you are working on:

… the main thing is always to stay connected to a project. Even if today I might not get to it, I have to look at it—even if it’s 10 minutes or 15 minutes or 20 minutes, even if I just move a comma. An old teacher of mine said, “You pray at the altar every day.” Even if it’s just for a few minutes, you have to go into the document and mess around a little bit, read it, feel it, and then you can go on and do the thing you have to do that day, but you’ll be connected for the next big writing session.

Sometimes, if you are looking for an excuse to procrastinate, not having a couple spare hours to get some pages out is a good one. But Lipsyte is right: Don’t give yourself the out.

Keep praying at the altar.