Since leaving the Times-Dispatch in my various capacities — including freelance book reviewer — I haven’t stopped reading books. Hell, I read just as many, if not more . . . about one a week, I think. I’ve written the occasional book review here online, but now I’ve decided to review a lot more, and a lot more often. I read too much, and I love books too much, to not talk about books and the sheer joy of reading — and to promote reading as much as possible.
If you look over at Amazon.com, you’ll see a LOT of reviews written by Harriet Klausner. She has a simple, three paragraph formula for writing reviews — which, actually, are not reviews at all: they’re bullshit book reports we used to write in high school, doing the least work we could, reporting about books we didn’t read or understand. Go check her out. Her reviews are awful — Siskel and Ebert in kindergarten, but with less vocabulary.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have a lazy, self-indulgent book reviewer . . . whom I admire very much. At least she makes me laugh (which is more than I can say about the new Carl Hiaasen novel, which I’ll review later this week).
There is nothing like nonfiction with an attitude. That’s what great essays are all about — such as “No Offense Intended, But Fuck Xmas!” and “Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don’t Look So Terrific Yourself” both by Harlan Ellison (go ahead: find them, buy them, read them, love them) — and that’s what I tried to do in the Sunday Times-Dispatch book review section: write a mini-essay that was a little different, a little more than an average book review that, if I was good enough, actually said something, both about the book, but about . . . well, something.
Now Write! Screenwriting is a collection of short essays and how-to pieces all about writing screenplays. The pieces were written by the scripters of Mystic Pizza, Cape Fear, Groundhog Day, Raging Bull, Lost, True Blood, and a host of other movies and tv shows.
On their own, the essays are like puff pieces. They might help writers a little in terms of screenwriting craft by doling out generic advice. But gathered together in a single volume, the articles are better than their individual selves — more importantly, their comprehensive advice can help any aspiring fiction writer not only improve their stories, novels and screenplays, but perhaps even market them properly to prospective agents.
My father bought me a subscription to Writers Digest back in 1972. I reveled in it, reading all the articles, and writing, writing . . . but never finishing.
That was mistake # 1. (But, like the guy said in Holy Grail, “I got better.”)
I learned slowly, after years of reading Writers Digest and countless writing books, that books and magazines about writing are, for the most part, masturbatory. They’re jerkoff exercises for wannabe authors — not for writers who actually write, but wannabe authors, of a book, or a movie — would-be writers who want to have written something, but don’t necessarily want to put all the work in to get the job done right.
In other words, they really don’t care about stories.
They just want to be known as writers.
If films teach you anything, it’s the importance of action. And if life teaches you anything, it’s the importance of action. Of taking action.
Writing is not reading.
Writing is reading. And reading. And reading. And reading. Watching people as they shop, as they attend concerts. Listening to conversations. Reading. Going to movies. Asking yourself, Why did they do that? and Why then? And reading. And writing. Making things bad. Making things worse. Cutting. Making things better. Reading. Writing. Reading. Writing. Writing. Writing. Writing.
It’s giving yourself and your ego up to the necessities of the story that somehow sprang from your subconscious like Athena burst from Zeus’s head and writing the damn thing in the only way you know how.
Buying Now Write! Screenwriting is not going to make you a writer. Ever. But reading and doing the book’s exercises can make you a better writer. It could even, eventually — if you keep writing, if you keep practicing, if you keep trying to be better instead of being A Writer — improve your material to the point of being salable.
Writing is action, and action is what makes writing readable. Now Write! Screenwriting is a great starting point for any writer of fiction. If it does anything, it imparts from the very beginning that writers take action by the act of writing — not by saying you’re a writer.
Good words. Good book.
Now, take action. Forget formulae, forget shortcuts.
Get the job done.
It’s the only way.