Sunday, March 17, 2019

WHAT IT IS week ending 3.16.2019

A recap of things I've read, watched, listened to, ingested in some fashion, with a focus (hopefully) on how I can apply (read:  steal) any lessons gleaned (or tricks of the trade) to my own writing.  So, let's do this!


Columbo, "Blueprint for Murder":
This was another great episode, the final episode of season 1, written again by Steven Bochco.  In this case, an egotistical architect, Elliot Markham, murders a client of his, a rich Texas businessman, Bo Williamson, when he pulls the funding for what the architect believes could be his greatest achievement, Williamson City.  Of course, Lt. Columbo is called in to investigate.

The trick with this one is that there's no body.  Williamson's wife (second wife), a fan of Markham's architecture and who authorized going ahead with Williamson City, believes he just left on another European trip, as he does.  Markham knew this and made it seem this way.  But Williamson's first wife doesn't believe it, because Bo always notifies her when he's going out of the country.  She's the one who harangues Columbo to look deeper into this.  Which he does, because Columbo has a hunch, and his hunches are usually correct.

Columbo keeps turning up where Markham is -- at his construction site, at the college where he teaches, at his home -- and Markham knows what the lieutenant's angling at.  He pokes and prods Columbo, almost daring him to dig up the concrete pile that was filled the day after Williamson went missing.  Columbo knows Markham wants him to dig it up, but he's not sure why.  The belief is that the body's buried under those tons of concrete.  But when it's brought up and chiseled away, there's nothing.  It seems Columbo has lost.

Except Columbo doesn't lose.  That night, after having dug up the best hiding place for Williamson's body, knowing that he could never get another permit to dig up that same area (Markham's plan all along), Columbo waits at the construction site with a cadre of police officers.  And Markham, too smug in his own intelligence, obliges Lt. Columbo and shows up with Bo Williamson's body.  And the officers take him away, after the lieutenant and the murderer exchange pleasantries.

Another stellar twist, and another wonderful performance by Peter Falk, who also directed this episode.  Once again, I watched it with my 11-year-old son, and he seemed to enjoy it as much as the first one we watched.  He's already caught onto how Columbo works, and I think he enjoys the game of feint-and-parry Columbo and the murderer of the week go through.  I know I do.


Better Call Saul, season 3:
With his Breaking Bad universe of characters, Vince Gilligan found a rich field of storytelling possibilities that one might not realize, when first hearing the summary of his award-winning TV series.  When I called The Americans final season a masterclass in TV writing, I wasn't being overly hyperbolic.

But if that's the masterclass, then what the hell is Better Call Saul?  Because this is the tip top of the television heap, currently, and Gilligan and his writing staff don't seem to be approaching an end point anytime soon.

There are many brilliant aspects to this show -- as with its predecessor, Breaking Bad, the characterizations and their interactions with one another are the core of what makes this series so good.  But if there's a secret ingredient, it would have to be the ability of the writers to have a character do something that feels like a "checkmate" move, only to have a counter move that blocks the first character's move and throws the status quo to the wind.

(for example:  in the penultimate episode, Charles McGill [Michael McKean] sues his law firm for a buyout amount that would bankrupt it, after Howard suggested Charles should consider retiring, and it feels like game over.  But, next episode, Howard calls Charles's bluff, offers him a first payment on the buyout from his own personal savings and then leads Charles out to a gathering of all staff, where Howard announces Charles's retirement, forcing Charles's hand.  It's brilliant.)

And once we reach the end of the season, there's some real question as to what the status quo will be, come the beginning of the next season, despite the fact that we have seen many of these characters in the future of Breaking Bad.  It's a superb, tightrope-walking act, and something to which I aspire, with my own writing.
Don't just settle for the first big twist, let your characters fight back, amp up the drama, and keep the readers guessing.


Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys:
Last year I read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  At some point, I discovered this book, Wide Sargasso Sea, which was a response to Bronte's Jane, and I knew I had to read it soon.

Written as a feminist, anti-colonial response to Bronte's novel, the book is separated into three sections:  a moment in the early childhood of Antoinette Cosway, Mr. Rochester's first wife, that includes a traumatic episode that colored her life from that point on; the time in Antoinette's life when Rochester (told from his point of view) came to know and marry her and the troubling relationship that quickly ensues between them; and a short coda, told again from Antoinette's point of view, during her time in the attic of Rochester's mansion.

Maybe a quarter of the length of Bronte's Jane Eyre, the novel that inspired it, Sargasso Sea isn't as immersive or all-encompassing as Eyre, offering snapshots, really, from important moments in time in the life of Antoinette Cosway.  But even with that, the novel is moving and rich, utilizing the knowledge of Eyre to inform its own narrative, while fleshing out a relatively minor character from that earlier story to make her far more realized, as well as sympathetic.

The novel moved along briskly, and Rhys's confidence in her subject matter and her writing showed through in her ability to paint a full picture of Antoinette Cosway with an economy of words and settings.

I worry, at times, that my own writing can become bogged down in the minute actions and reactions of characters, that maybe I become too enamored of their conversations and possibly do not give enough over to setting the stage.  Rhys's ability to set the table without lingering too long is something to strive for, and something to give me hope that maybe I'm not going as far off course as I might believe.


Once more, I look to Warren Ellis and his Orbital Operations newsletter, for a bit of inspiration, from the sign-off of his latest:

A lot of you are people who make things.  A lot of you are just trying to get through the day while still remaining yourselves.  Feels like wading through mud sometimes, right?  Exhausting, dispiriting.  All starts with one step.  And then one more step.  At your own pace.  One step a week is victory.  One step is victory.  Lean into the wind.  The handrails are there for a reason, and, trust me, they're there, even if some fucker turned off the lights.  Hold on tight.  See you next week.  

I do love how Ellis always signs off with a positive message for all those reading, urging them to keep pushing ahead, even as the world threatens to crush us all.


I.  Love.  Clint.  Mansell.  

Certainly, the fact he's worked so closely with my favorite contemporary film director, Darren Aronofsky, has a lot to do with my affection for Mansell's music.  Without that symbiotic relationship (if I may call it that), I probably would not have been introduced to Mansell's genius, or maybe not introduced to it as early.

Mansell's scores for The Fountain and Moon, Requiem for a Dream and Pi, are all amazing, and the additional music I've discovered on spotify, are all brilliant collections to listen to while writing.  The range of emotions evoked by Mansell are broad, and even when there's a melancholy tone it is still beautiful to the ear.

If you're looking for some great music, check out Clint Mansell's film scores, you will not be disappointed.


A great writing blog, focusing on crime fiction with a rotating collection of authors, is Do Some Damage.  This past Monday, Dharma Kelleher, had a great post on "Essential Principles of Storytelling."  I would heartily recommend you hit the link and read the whole thing, but if you're short for time and want the Cliffs Notes version, here you go:

  1. Don't bore the reader --- one particularly great example she shares is to "describe characters in ways that reveal who they are, not just what they look like."  It's a two birds-one stone thing, and it's brilliant. 
  2. Don't insult the reader or their intelligence --- Basically, do your research so that you don't misrepresent something that could have easily been fixed before publication. 
  3. Don't confuse your readers --- This is a tough one, to offer enough information that readers are engaged but not too much that they feel overwhelmed.  Use beta-readers to help find out if you reached that balance.
These are lessons I certainly plan on applying to my writing, especially the revisions for the latest novel, which I have started.  This is great stuff.

Revision of the novel continues apace, and my streak of writing days has reached 40 and seems unlikely to abate any time soon.  I am loving, so far, what I've got, as far as a skeleton for this novel goes, while also taking comfort in my ability to shift and cut and adjust what is in this first draft to create a clearer and cleaner narrative.  My latest time at the keyboard, I managed to cut 1500 words to a bit over 1000.  This is good.  And I look forward to what comes next, because having let this sit for a while (over a year, at least), a lot of what I'm reading feels brand new, and that's pretty exciting.


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