Screening Room: ‘The Last Duel’

Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Erik Jager’s nonfiction book The Last Duel is, well, far more than another medieval jousting movie.

The Last Duel opens this Friday. My review is at Slant:

…a film that’s not only set during the Hundred Years’ War and turns on an abstruse question of jurisprudence, but also features multiple Rashomon-esque takes on an inciting event and a blond Ben Affleck chewing scenery with Klaus Kinski-like gusto, might sound doomed to failure. But against all odds, it turns out to be a smartly acted and insightfully written look at how the intersection of power, greed, superstition, and vanity can warp and obscure even the most brutally obvious crime…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: How to Get Published

So, how do you get published? A lot of writers have thoughts about that. But it tends to derive from when they were first coming up, which is often decades ago and relevant to an entirely different industry.

In this piece from Locus magazine, science fiction author Cory Doctorow (Little Brother) talks about what he used to know about breaking in:

Thanks to online forums and writers’ groups, I could name every single major SF publication, their editors, word rates, and response times. I could tell you whether their contracts were negotiable, and, if so, which clauses could be struck out. I could name every major agent who was open to new clients and every book editor who was willing to read unsolicited novels…

But now, he acknowledges, he knows none of that. Instead, he proffers what he calls broader meta-advice:

1) Note where works that are comparable to your own were published recently;

2) Research the editorial guidelines and word rates for those markets;

3) In descending order of pay-scale, submit your stories to those markets, according to the submission guidelines for each;

4) Keep writing.

Learn the industry. Get to know people. Hope for a break. Keep trying if you don’t get one.

These principles apply regardless of the year.

Writer’s Desk: Figure it Out Later

In a famous 18th century parable, Rabbi Jacob ben Wolf Kranz (better known as the “Dubno Maggid”) relates a fantastic story about the creative process:

Once upon a time, I was walking in the forest and I saw all these trees in a row with a target drawn on them, and an arrow right in the center. At the end of the row I saw a little boy with a bow in his hand I had to ask him, “Are you the one who shot all those arrows?!” “Of course!” he replied. “How did you hit all the targets right in the center?” I asked. “Simple”, said the boy, “first I shoot the arrow, and then I draw the target”.

This may sound vaguely familiar because singer-songwriter Caroline Polachek used it as the inspiration for her album Drawing the Target Around the Arrow. Polacheck’s phrasing gets it just right: Fire off your idea first and then figure out what you were aiming for later.

Also important: insisting that that was your plan all along.

Writer’s Desk: There is Always a Mystery

There are three kinds of readers: those who have no idea who Jim Thompson is or have never read him (that’s most people), those who think he’s just about the best crime writer America ever produced, and (this last being a group that overlaps with the second) writers who wish they could do what he did.

A master of mood, detail, tension, and stories that wore the characters down to their often quite nasty and perverse essentials, Thompson was an artist working in a very specific medium who nevertheless had forgotten more about the basics of writing than most of us ever get the hang of. To wit:

There are thirty-two ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one, but there is only one plot: Things are not as they seem.

This applies no matter what you are writing: mystery, steampunk romance, multi-generational historical saga, or even nonfiction. Things are not as they seem will get your narrative moving like almost nothing else.

Writer’s Desk: Travel, Travel, and Travel More

Consider this as advice for a post-pandemic time, whenever that day finally dawns. Some writers may never need to leave their garret in order to have all that they need to generate worlds. Others work better from life. Here’s what some authors had to say about getting out and exploring the world:

  • “I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually. To leave it behind … Life is very short and the world is there to see and one should know as much about it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not to just one part of it.” (Paul Bowles)
  • “[We] need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what.” (George Santayana)
  • “Partly from passionate curiosity and partly to make a living, I kept travelling. The risky trips I took in my thirties and forties, launching myself into the unknown, astonish me now. One winter I was in Siberia. I went overland to Patagonia. I took every clanking train in China and drove a car to Tibet … All these trips, 10 of them, became books.” (Paul Theroux)

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Afghanistan Papers’

My review of the blockbuster new book from Washington Post investigative reporter Craig Whitlock ran in PopMatters:

When the last American troops bugged out of Hamid Karzai International Airport at the end of August 2021, the Beltway spin cycle churned furiously. Charges and counter-charges flew over the partisan wire. Instapundits snapped to attention at the think tanks barnacled around America’s ever-expanding foreign-policy security-state apparatus unaffectionately known as “The Blob”. Sundry hangers-on Zoom’ed in to cable news shows or flung op-eds at the last remaining newspapers and websites of note. Everyone had opinions about how the longest war in American history had been lost and who lost it…

You can read some of the revelatory leaks that Whitlock covered for the Post here.

Writer’s Desk: Let Your Characters Tell the Story

In 1987, psychedelic pied piper and one of America’s great novelists Ken Kesey taught a graduate writing class at the University of Oregon in which he and the students were to collaboratively write and publish a novel. His methods were unsurprisingly eclectic but his purpose was direct: “If we finish it and it gets published, everybody gets an A. If we don’t, you get an F.”

Much of what ultimately happened in that class, led as it was by a high-octane preacher-writer with a flair for the magical, would be difficult to reproduce in the field. However, as related in this Rolling Stone article, Kesey also had some decent wisdom to transmit:

Plot comes out of character, he explained, not the other way around. ”The trick is for us to build character in our characters,” Kesey said, ”to breathe life into them, to get them to stand up, stretch and start doing stuff. We’re not interested in pulling strings, in being puppeteers. We want these people to rise up off the page. Then we sit back and follow them through the novel.”

If you can create characters who seem interesting enough to follow around for a couple hundred pages, then what they actually do in that time may be more incidental than anything else. Person first, then plot seems like a good way to get started.

Writer’s Desk: Accept Imperfection

Despite what many might think, even the most talented writers harbor doubts about their talent. In fact, it is highly possible that self-doubt is crucial for many to succeed at their craft. A writer who just loves to death every line they slap down? That cannot be a good sign.

Still, it is surprising the extent to which some writers can only see the mistakes in their work. Ethan Canin (Emperor of the Air), who is about as precise a stylist as one can find in the modern American canon, seemed to say just that in this 2016 interview following the publication of A Doubter’s Almanac, which took him several years to complete:

Even when you succeed, you fail. Even when others think you succeed, you fail. I mean, how can anyone write a novel? Every novel is a failure.

While Canin is overstating the case (one can think of a number of at least nearly-perfect novels out there), what he says is potentially helpful for any number of writers who right now are frozen in their process because they just cannot let go of a flawed work.

No book or story or poem will be perfect. Let them go.

Literary Birthday: Martin Amis

In the time before the Internet, Martin Amis (born today in 1949) was a favored author of a certain type of cold-hearted literati. Novels like London Fields (1989) were scabrous, pitch-black satires of soulless urbanites that took no prisoners.

But Amis was almost more scathing as a critic. He once pronounced that “all writing is a campaign against cliche. Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart,” which can be argued sets a high standard in a world where the publishing business was briefly kept afloat by sales of Fifty Shades of Grey. Amis’s opinions were so hotly felt that he and his friend Salman Rushdie once disagreed violently enough about the merits of Samuel Beckett that Rushdie asked Amis to step outside to resolve the matter.

Literary Birthday: Jorge Luis Borges

The Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges (born today in 1899) has a reputation in the literary world that is almost in inverse proportion to his slim output. A painstaking stylist, he published in a wide variety of areas—short stories of various genres, poems, essays, literary criticism—but kept his pieces short: His longest story was the 14-pager “The Congress” (1971).

Nevertheless, Borges was widely revered, largely due to his influential English-language story-and-essay collection Labyrinths (1962). Highly attentive to the awards he received and did not, Borges was reportedly saddened by his failure to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (rubbing salt in his wounded pride, reporters would gather outside his door each year on the day of the prize’s announcement).

Unlike many South American writers who gain an international following, Borges’ politics were somewhat reactionary. He praised the brutal military dictatorship that took over Argentina from the Peronists and accepted a medal from the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, neither of which likely endeared him to the Nobel committee.

Writer’s Desk: Use That First Draft

Back in 2015, when he was promoting his novel Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín talked about the advantages of growing older, from a personal standpoint:

That’s one of the things you learn as you grow older. That if you don’t like someone, you never like them, and they never like you. It’s not something you grow out of, no.

While this might suggest a somewhat relaxed worldview, Tóibín in fact approaches his work like he’s on a clock:

I mean, well, there are writers who do drafts, knowing there will be later drafts, and that works for them, but I don’t do that. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be later drafts, but I write as though I will never get another chance.

This might not work for some who prefer to write long then cut. But it’s hard to argue with the practicality of putting it all down as you intended in one blaze and then moving on. Life is short. Books take a long time.

Literary Birthday: Etgar Keret

Etgar Keret (born today in 1967) made his name publishing stories of modern Israeli life that were riddled with black humor and painful absurdities.

In the title story of Keret’s collection Fly Already, a father is on his way to play ball with his son in the park when he spots a man who looks like he’s about to jump off a building. The father shouts at the man not to jump. Meanwhile his son asks whether the man can fly and begs for ice cream. Communication is mangled as the man turns out to be half-deaf. The father turns out to have suicidal thoughts of his own—guilt over the car accident that killed his wife years before. “I want to tell him … it’ll pass,” the father thinks. “I know what I’m talking about, because no one on this blue planet was as miserable as I was.”

Reader’s Corner: ‘The Passenger’

Ulrich Boschwitz first published his autobiographical novel The Passenger in 1939, basing its tale of a hapless German Jewish businessman running for his life on his own family’s refugee existence.

My review of the new translation ran in Rain Taxi Review of Books:

Silbermann is on the run in a country crawling with Gestapo, brownshirts, and Gentile citizens all too eager to volunteer their services to the National Socialist dragnet, and he is reaching the end of a rapidly fraying rope. In desperation, he riskily reveals his identity to the attractive woman sharing his compartment, setting into motion a quasi-absurdist chase narrative in which the man on the run is knocked from one dead end to another by forces not only out of his control but beyond his ken…

Writer’s Desk: Wait for the Words to Reveal Themselves

Leonard Cohen published his first poetry in 1954, later moving on to novels and then the songs that made him famous, never quite putting down that pen until his death in 2016.

Discussing an album he released in 2014, Cohen talked about the importance of not giving up on the work. He mentioned working on one song for four decades. One song.

Not seeing himself as qualified to give advice to other artists (“because my methods are obscure and not to be replicated”), he still underlined the necessity of sheer stubbornness:

A song will yield if you stick with it long enough. But long enough is way beyond any reasonable duration. Sometimes a song has to hang around for a decade or two before it finds its expression…

This is the way of the craftsperson as much as it is the artist. Inspiration is crucial. But so is the refusal to give up, no matter how little that piece of writing wants to reveal its secrets to you.

Writer’s Desk: Pull a Gatsby

Megan Abbott, whose newest novel The Turnout is out this month, had some good advice for how to find the right narrative perspective for your book:

I’ve always been interested in the “Gatsby structure,” which is when you don’t tell the story from the point of view of the most interesting character, though they can become the most interesting character, of course. You let Nick Carraway tell it…

You want a watcher to tell your story. Somebody with an exciting life may not have the time or focus to notice what’s happening around them.