Writer’s Desk: Write Like Westlake

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Donald Westlake (1933–2008), whose birthday was last week, was one of America’s most prolific writers, publishing over a hundred novels. Like a more creatively flexible Elmore Leonard, he published mostly in crime. Like any good overproducer, he concocted a number of pseudonyms, most famously Richard Stark, and even got an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters for film in 1991.

In 2006, Westlake was interviewed by The A.V. Club, and dispensed some great notes from a productive career:

  • “Years ago, I heard an interview with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The interviewer said, “Do you still practice?” And he said, “I practice every day.” He said, “If I skip a day, I can hear it. If I skip two days, the conductor can hear it. And if I skip three days, the audience can hear it.” Oh, yes, you have to keep that muscle firm.”
  • “I know people who have suffered writer’s block, and I don’t think I’ve ever had it. A friend of mine, for three years he couldn’t write. And he said that he thought of stories and he knew the stories, could see the stories completely, but he could never find the door. Somehow that first sentence was never there. And without the door, he couldn’t do the story. I’ve never experienced that. But it’s a chilling thought.”
  • On who reads his books: “…back in the ’60s and ’70s, the criminal class was still literate, so I would get letters from people in prison; they thought that I was somebody whom they could shop-talk with, and they would tell me very funny stories. I got a lot of those.”

Reader’s Corner: ’10 Things I Learned About Literature from Monty Python’

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My article ‘Proust, Hardy, and Spam: 10 Things I Learned About Literature from Monty Python’—including many handy and time-wasting YouTube links and a plethora of literary goodies—was just published at The Barnes & Noble Review:

As many gawky teens discovered in their misspent youths, there was comedy and then there was Monty Python. Exploding penguins, a crime-fighting bishop, and Karl Marx struggling to answer questions about soccer on a TV quiz show; it was all surreal grist for their mill. Fully embodying the high culture/low humor synthesis that produced the better countercultural artifacts of the 1970s, their TV series, films, concerts, and books embedded arch literary references inside a dense framework of Dada performance art-pieces, cultural satire, and broadly silly skits in a classically comedic idiom…

And don’t forget Monty Python FAQ, in finer bookstores now.

TV Room: Jason Bateman’s new Missouri Noir ‘Ozark’

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In the new Netflix family crime series Ozark, Jason Bateman plays a Chicago financial adviser forced to uproot his family’s entire life in order to save their lives.

Ozark premieres on July 21. My review is at The Playlist:

There are a few things guaranteed to strike terror into the heart of your average Chicagoan. High on that list would be having your family threatened with a cruel and slow death by a drug cartel, as happens to Jason Bateman in the first episode of his new Netflix culture-clash crime series “Ozark.” Nearly as frightening, and definitely more relatable, is the solution that Bateman’s character improvises to save his family: pack up and move to the Lake of the Ozarks in southern Missouri. Set against relocating to the shores of the artificial lake resort region that one character tartly terms “Redneck Riviera,” there would probably be at least a few Chicagoans who would look at the cartel gunmen and decide, nah, let’s play the odds…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Edit Like Hemingway

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Everybody knows you’re supposed to kill your darilings. But sometimes that’s easier said than done.

It’s summer. Shortcuts are nice. So, next time you’re having a hard time hacking your way out of the verbal underbrush, maybe just use the Hemingway Editor.

You never know. It might get rid of everything you like, and turn your beloved short story into a forlorn piece of faux-Papa prose.

Or, it could show you that less can be more and you didn’t need all that guff to begin with.

Either way, it’s free. What do you have to lose?

Weekend Reading: July 7, 2017

Screening Room: ‘City of Ghosts’

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The latest documentary from the director of Cartel Land, City of Ghosts is opening this week in limited release and expanding wider later. Expect a push for the Oscars later in the year for this incredible story.

My review is at Film Journal International:

The heroes of this riveting account are the brave men—they have woman in their number, but none are onscreen for their safety—of the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). These are mostly middle-class guys, including a math teacher and a film buff, who started documenting what was happening to “our forgotten Syrian city on the Euphrates that has become a city of ghosts…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Big Sick’

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For The Big Sick, comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon turned the story of their on-off romance and the intensive-care crisis that brought them back together, into probably the best romantic comedy of the summer.

The Big Sick is playing now in limited release and expanding soon around the country. My review is at PopMatters:

At the story’s beginning, Kumail is a typical sort for a Judd Apatow-produced romantic comedy. A standup comic who spends most of his time in career anxiety with his comic buddies, Kumail is hoping for the big break and making ends meet as an Uber driver. This is all highly upsetting to his parents. For them, as one of Kumail’s better gags in the movie goes, the hierarchy of employment for a good Pakistani son runs in descending order: doctor, engineer, lawyer, “hundreds of jobs, ISIS”, and then comedian…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘A Ghost Story’

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In A Ghost Story, Casey Affleck plays a ghost who haunts the house he once shared with his beloved, Rooney Mara.

It opens this weekend in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

A good rule of cinematic thumb is that when a ghost movie isn’t trying to scare you: Watch out. Hijinks or romance are sure to follow, and not with good results. It’s also generally best to avoid movies whose specters are visible, since what one can’t see is almost always more terrifying than what you can see; invisibility just leaves open too many possibilities. Somehow, David Lowery has aggressively flouted these rules in A Ghost Story—by first not caring a whit whether you are scared and then giving his ghosts highly unusual corporeal form—and come out the other side with a truly spectacular movie…

Here’s the trailer:

Quote of the Day: Patriotism

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From Howard Zinn:

If patriotism were defined, not as blind obedience to government, not as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one’s country, one’s fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violated those principles.

Writer’s Desk: Churchill on Brevity

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Writers can be like doctors—and no, not because both write down the things you say in ways that may or may not reflect your intent. Writers, like doctors, have a proclivity to ignore their own advice.

Take Winston Churchill. In his rather extensive bibliography, you can find a four-volume biography of the 1st Duke of Marlborough which he had originally planned to be just two volumes.

Nevertheless, during the war, Churchill became enamored of brevity, likely due to all the reports he needed to read. In August 1940, he wrote a memo that called for everyone to shorten up their writing:

Let us … have an end of such phrases as these: ‘It is also of importance to bear in mind the following considerations…’ or ‘Consideration should be given to the possibility of carrying into effect…’

Most of these wooly phrases are mere padding, which can be left out altogether or replaced by a single word. Let us not shrink from using the short expressive phrase, even if it is conversational.

He went on to write a six-volume history of the Second World War and a four-volume history of the English-speaking people.

Weekend Reading: June 30, 2017

Shameless Self-Promotion: ‘Monty Python FAQ’

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Have you any inkling what this T-shirt refers to?

Did you ever hop around on one foot while shouting, “’tis but a flesh wound!”?

Can you sing “The Philosopher’s Song” without referring to notes?

Was there a point during the United Kingdom’s recent snap election where you wondered whether there should have been a candidate from the Very Silly Party?

If you answered “yes” or asked “what’s all this, then?!” then it’s about 583% likely that Monty Python FAQ is the book for you!

Scribbled down in crayon by yours truly and his boon companions Brian Cogan and Jeff Massey, and then lovingly transcribed into proper book form by the dedicated editors at Applause Books, Monty Python FAQ is just about everything you ever wanted to know about the Python boys. That includes:

  • Words! Pictures! Lots of ’em.
  • An exegesis of every single Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode.
  • More than one could ever want or need to know about fish-slapping.
  • The deep, dark secret behind the one American Python, who hailed from the mystical, faraway land of … Minnesota.
  • Exploding penguins, dead budgies, Grannies from Hell … you get the picture.

It’s on sale now. Here. And hereAnd here. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

And now … this:

Reader’s Corner: ‘Talking Pictures’

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The new book, Talking Pictures, from Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, is in stores now and it’s a fantastic read.

My review is at PopMatters:

… even though the water-cooler factor of all this frantic locking of eyeballs to screens is at an all-time high, nobody is really talking about it much beyond “wasn’t that funny?” or “did you see that coming?” It’s almost as though people just don’t have the time or tools for talking about what they’re watching. That’s one of many factors that makes Ann Hornaday’s Talking Pictures such a vital book for this moment.

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Talk About It

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Sometimes the best thing to do is just be quiet. That’s true whether you’re a president under investigation or a writer who is trying to get their book done.

In an essay published at The Millions, Nick Ripatrazone advises the following:

…If you talk about your book, it stops belonging to you, and starts belonging to the world. You’ll have to explain it to people you sit next to on the train, distant cousins at family reunions, or people at work. When the soul of your book hits the air, it will dissipate without its physical body.

Until then, hoard your manuscripts. Keep your secrets. Delete your tweets about your work in progress. Play coy in your bio notes. Be devoted to your book, and resist the urge to whisper about your relationship to others. Stay committed to that book, and one day—when the time is right—you can tell the world.

Weekend Reading: June 23, 2017

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