Category Archives: Blog

Tom Lehrer

From the Songs you won’t hear on the radio files:

I first ran across Tom Lehrer in 1975 while scouring through some old guy’s record collection looking for big band music for a production of The Glass Menagerie. Lehrer is not about the music, he’s about the clever lyrics.

The Masochism Tango
Poisoning Pigeons In The Park

Lehrer could be a bit of a snob. OK, a lot of a snob. But some of my favorites were done for The Electric Company. Like The LY Song, and Silent E.

Daniel Lanois – The Maker

First up from the “Songs you won’t hear on the radio” files:
The Maker by Daniel Lanois

Lanois has a moody, atmospheric sound. I find this song very moving with its themes of alienation, knowing and being known and allusions to the fall. He’s produced Grammy winning albums for U2, Dylan, and Emmylou.

The original
Willie/Emmylou/Daniel cover
Dave Matthews cover

Note on the Emmylou cover: About 25 years ago I jammed with the guitar player, Buddy Miller. Somewhere I have a tape of me and The Woman, Buddy and his wife, Julie, trading songs in his living room. With Daniel (Whittington, not Lanois) talking over one of my songs. He was 3, I think.

2008 Reading List

  1. *** The Lincoln Lawyer, Michael Connelly, 2005
  2. *** From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman, 1989
  3. *** The Maze of Bones, Rick Riordan, 2008
  4. *** The Battle of the Labyrinth, Rick Riordan, 2008
  5. *** Making a Good Writer Great: A Creativity Workbook for Screenwriters, Linda Seger, 1999
  6. *** Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger, 1990
  7. *** The Italian Secretary, Caleb Carr, 2005
  8. *** The Alientist, Caleb Carr, 1995
  9. *** Advanced Screenwriting: Raising your Script to the Academy Award Level, Dr. Linda Seger, 2003
  10. *** The Shape Shifter, Tony Hillerman, 2006
  11. *** The South Beach Diet, Arthur Agatston, 2003
  12. **Property Management for Dummies, Robert Griswold, 2001
  13. *** The Shape of Mercy, Susan Meissner, 2008
  14. **Murder on the Rocks, Karen MacInerney, 2006
  15. ** Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, B J Lossing, 1848
  16. *** The Year of Living Biblically, A. J. Jacobs, 2007
  17. ** The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley, 1982
  18. *** Demon: A Memoir, Tosca Lee, 2007
  19. ** R. Holmes & Co., John Kendrick Bangs, 1906
  20. *** Romancing Hollywood Nobody, Lisa Samson, 2008
  21. ** Texas: A Year with the Boys, by William Hoffman, 1983
  22. ** Anatomy of a Rodeo Clown, Aleta Lutz
  23. ** Burning Bright, John Steinbeck, 1950
  24. *** The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, Christopher Vogler, 1992
  25. ** A Place Called Wiregrass, by Michael Morris, 2002
  26. *** Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jane I. Smith, Kathleen M. Moore, 2006
  27. **** River Rising, Athol Dickson, 2005
  28. ***+ Straight Man, Richard Russo, 1997
  29. * The Shack, William P. Young, 2007
  30. *** Deadline, John Dunning, 1981
  31. *** Retribution, Stuart Kaminsky, 2002
  32. *** Embrace Me, Lisa Samson, 2008
  33. *** To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis, 1997
  34. ** The Holland Suggestions, John Dunning, 1975
  35. *** Finding Hollywood Nobody, Lisa Samson, 2008
  36. *** Skeleton Man, Tony Hillerman, 2004
  37. *** My Name is Russell Fink, by Michael Snyder, 2008
  38. *** Action Plan for High Cholesterol, Arry Durstine, 2006
  39. *** Sleep Toward Heaven, Amanda Eyre Ward, 2003

The Day Before The Morning After

In honor of New Year’s Day, here’s an excerpt from Jeeves Takes Charge on New Year’s Eve.

I crawled off the sofa and opened the door. A kind of darkish sort of respectful Johnnie stood without. “I was sent by the agency, sir,” he said. “I was given to understand that you required a valet.”

I’d have preferred an undertaker, but I told him to stagger in, and he floated noiselessly through the doorway like a healing zephyr. That impressed me from the start.

Meadowes had had flat feet and used to clump. This fellow didn’t seem to have any feet at all. He just streamed in. He had a grave, sympathetic face, as if he, too, knew what it was to sup with the lads. “Excuse me, sir,” he said gently.

Then he seemed to flicker, and wasn’t there any longer. I heard him moving about in the kitchen, and presently he came back with a glass on a tray.

“If you would drink this, sir,” he said, with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince.

“It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlement have told me that have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.”

I would have clutched at anything that looked like a life-line that morning. I swallowed the stuff. For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and, generally speaking, hope dawned once more.

“You’re engaged!” I sad, as soon as I could say anything.

I perceived clearly that this cove was one of the world’s wonder workers, the sort no home should be without.

“Thank you sir. My name is Jeeves.”

Conflicts

Volunteering as a reader for a screenplay competition has seriously cut into the amount of reviewable material I can read. I’m doing tons of reading (have to wade through 80 screenplays) but I can’t write about any of it, and even if I did, you wouldn’t be able to get a copy, so it would be pointless.All that so say that until I get through them, posting will be a bit sparse. On the upside, for all my trouble I get a full-access badge to the festival. Of course, when you do the math for the benefit on a per-hour basis, it would be cheaper to buy the badge. But for me, someone who is navigating the journey from novelist to screenwriter, the experience as a first reader is very valuable. I’m getting to see first hand what it is like to evaluate random stuff that comes in, just like somebody will one day evaluate a screenplay I send in.

The main thing I’ve learned so far is that I have to up my game. If I got my first project, currently in fourth draft, to read, I’d drop it in the No box.

The Elliptical Test

Last year I started reading while working out on a NordicTrack elliptical. Reading while working out really tests the quality of a book. The workout, 40-60 minutes of steady, heart-pumping effort, is unpleasant enough. The book has to engage me to the point that I forget I’m working out. That’s a tough standard. I’m not as forgiving of lazy writing when I’m sweating and gasping and looking for something to take me away from it. I keep a stack of books nearby because I am known to toss books that fail the workout test across the room.

The Best Kind of Books

I am addicted to words. As a kid, I read the dictionary. Seriously. It has shaped my writing and what I love about reading.

I am drawn to writers who are masters at the art of using words. There is nothing quite like a fine bit of writing, that sentence or phrase that seems to express the essence of a thing in a way that is at once fresh and obvious. In a way that makes you wonder why you never thought of it that way, because now that you’ve heard it, you can’t imagine a better way to express it.

Combine that with engaging characters and a nice plot, and you can’t lose.

Most good stories have the four main components of characters, plot, dialog and narrative. All are important, but they occur in varying degrees of presence depending on the type of book. For example, a spy novel might depend more on plot and less on characters. A travel book might rely heavily on narrative and have little or no plot. It may or may not have interesting characters, depending on who’s writing it and why.

Many modern readers are plot junkies. They want to keep the action going and are willing to accept two-dimensional characters that act according to type as long as the plot twists keep coming. A completely unforeseen surprise ending is the acme of this type of book.

For me, a really great book, regardless of type, is built around characters. The plot is simply what they do, the dialog simply what they say, the narrative providing the infrastructure in which they do and say those things.

Do you know any really clever people, fun to be around? It is fascinating how a mundane setting or experience can be transformed by such a person. I find it the same with books. If the characters are riveting, it really doesn’t matter what they do (the plot). If the characters are really well done, it might take you a while to realize there IS no plot! I once read a brilliant paragraph by Nabokov that described a screen door. A screen door, for crying out loud! Which has nothing to do with characters, but I just remembered it so I threw it in.

This is not to say I enjoy reading books about screen doors. I like a good plot as much as the next guy, and clever dialog can be a thing of beauty, even in the presence of formulaic plots, as Damon Runyon and P. G. Wodehouse have demonstrated.

In the end, for me, it comes down to the writing itself. Whisper a well-turned phrase into my ear, and I’ll follow you anywhere.

The Whodunit

Like a lot of other folks I know, I can’t resist a good whodunit. Of course, we all have our standard of what exactly a good whodunit is. As you might expect, I’m about to tell you what I think makes a good whodunit.

First of all I use the term whodunit as a broad term to include what is normally labeled mystery in the bookstore. It includes novels about private detectives (Sherlock Holmes), police detectives (Harry Bosch), regular cops (Jim Chee), CIA operatives (Emily Polifax), private citizens (Miss Marple), investigative reporters (Fletch), wealthy playboys (Lord Peter Wimsey), medieval priests (Caedfel), medieval samurai (Sano Ichiro), bookstore owners (Cliff Janeway), burnt-out musicians (Kinky Friedman), aged barristers (Horace Rumpole), have I gone on long enough, yet? Yes, I believe I have.

A good puzzle is table stakes. You can’t even get into the game without one, so we will take that as a given. A good whodunit has memorable characters to go along with the puzzle. The main characters should have some mysteries of their own. They should struggle with more than just the case; they should have to wrestle with themselves as well.

Disqualifiers: see Murder by Death for the initial list. In addition, I get extremely annoyed when the main character does something extremely stupid, like getting romantically involved with the suspect, especially if he/she already knows the suspect is probably guilty. Even worse is going to bed with the prime suspect. Just how stupid can you be? I also get annoyed when I can see the obvious clue but it takes the protagonist multiple chapters to figure it out. The author should be better at hiding the solution.

I prefer a minimum of sex, profanity and graphic violence. A good whodunit depends on the quality of the puzzle and characters and doesn’t need to highlight the sex lives of the characters to tittilate the readers. (You know, that’s a pretty weird word.)

Even with these self-imposed restrictions, there are so many good books out there that it would take me years to read them all. So what am I doing sitting here writing this? I think I have a good one on the shelf right now!