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Austin Film Festival

The Austin Film Festival consists of eight days of film screenings and four days of conference sessions. The conference ended yesterday and there’s four more days of screenings left. So far, I’ve seen:

  • Serious Moonlight: Meg Ryan, Timothy Hutton, Kristen Bell, Justin Long. Entertaining
  • Godspeed: Left halfway through, way too slow, didn’t buy the character motivations
  • Simmons on Vinyl: Potts brothers 2nd feature. The first, The Stanton Grave Robbery, was made for $5,000. This one was made for $300. It’s a buy-a-6-pack-and-laugh-at-goofy-stuff kind of movie.
  • Tales from the Script: Interviews with dozens of screenwriters. Excellent.
  • The Scenesters: Entertaining, but I had to leave halfway through for the Filmmaker Happy Hour.
  • Apollo 13: Didn’t really need to see this again, but the Q&A afterward with Ron Howard, Jim Lovell, guys from Mission Control and the screenwriters was a must-see. I got to shake Ron Howard’s hand at the Conferenc Wrap party after.
  • Todd P Goes to Austin: I was supposed to see this, but Apollo 13 took longer than I thought, so I missed it.
  • The Messenger: Great film. I was supposed to see Earthwork, but when I got out of the last session I discovered my car battery had died and Earthwork started before my car did.

Still left to watch:

I didn’t get anything to write this review

Note: Pursuant to FTC 16 CFR Part 255, (more human-friendly info here) I’m happy to tell you that nobody gave me whichever book I’m reviewing, or paid me anything to review it, nor do I have any affliliate links to bookseller websites where I can make money off this review. The plain fact is that I bought this thing myself (probably from Half Price Books or Amazon) and read it for no other reason that it sounded interesting. And then I blogged about it because I’m a complusive writer. I might keep the book, which is OK, since I paid for it, or I might take it to Half Price Books, or I might give it away. Or I might use it to prop up the short leg of my writing desk.Whatever I chose to do, it shouldn’t concern the FTC, so they should just move along. Nothing to see here, folks.

Sex in books

I prefer to experience sex, not read about it. Or watch it in a movie. In my humble, but accurate, opinion, sex is not a spectator sport. Like breathing, eating and eliminating waste, it is something you do. And I don’t find much pleasure in watching people do those things, either.


Catching Up

I finally got my quota of screenplays read for the Austin Film Festival, earning a Producer’s Badge. Last year it got me into a party where I chatted with Danny Boyle of Slumdog Millionaire fame for 10 minutes or so. (Yes, that’s me shamelessly name-dropping.)

And I got my own screenplay finished (the 6th draft, at least, who knows how many more I’ll do) and submitted to the competition. And I’ve finished reading two books. (Reviews coming in due time.)

But I have to tell you where I was last night. I had a chance to chat with Roy Blount, Jr. at a Writer’s League of Texas fundraiser. (Yes, that’s me shamelessly name-dropping again!) They were taping Wait, wait . . . don’t tell me in the Bass Auditorium and his sister is on the Writer’s League board, so I guess it made sense for him to do a little talk and book signing as a fundraiser for the WLT while he was in town. He’s authored 20+ books and is the president of the Authors Guild, pioneering the settlement with Google, which, as part of its scheme of global domination, has been practicing wholesale scanning of books for the past decade or so.

I got there a bit early, having stopped by Habana House to pick up my free monthly cigar. I loaded up on refreshments and stood alone at a white-table-cloth-covered bistro table. The next thing I knew, I was joined by Roy and Susan. We chatted a bit.

Mary Gordon Spence kicked things off with a very long and hilarious introduction and Mr. Blount (as his close friends like me call him) followed with even more hilarious set of stories, interspersed with information and analysis of the Google settlement, which I signed onto and thanked him for pushing through.

Overall, the evening rocked. And I now have another book in the To Be Read shelf.

Half Price Books

As I’ve mentioned before, Half Price Books rocks.The Woman wanted to check it out on Mother’s Day, and who was I to deny her? We walked away with 15 books for $55 including tax. One of the books (a biography of Wodehouse) was $14, so you’re looking at 14 books for $40 including tax. Hot dang!Here’s the haul. My purchases ($36):

  • Wodehouse: A Life, Robert McCrum. P. G. Wodehouse is probably the most under-acknowledged writer of the 20th century.
  • John Gardner: Literary Outlaw, Barry Silesky. Gardner’s Grendel blew me away, 192 pages of genius.
  • Story, Robert McKee. It’s a screenwriting classic. I guess I better read it.
  • The World Is Flat, Thomas L. Friedman. Enjoyed Beirut to Lebanon. Can’t wait to pick this one up.
  • Marriage Lines, Ogden Nash. I’m not much of a poetry guy, but it’s only 108 pages. How painful can it be?
  • They Shall See God, Athol Dickson. River Rising rocked my world. Aching to start this one.
  • The Bookman’s Promise, John Dunning. Finally getting around to the 3rd in this very entertaining series.
  • The Miernik Dossier, Charles McCrarry. Last year I picked up 2 of his books based on the jacket copy, but wanted to get in on the ground floor (first in the series) so I’ve been holding off reading them until I got this one.

The Woman’s purchases ($15):

  • The Collectors, David Baldacci
  • Stone Cold, David Baldacci
  • Death of an Expert Witness, P. D. James
  • Shroud for a Nightingale, P. D. James
  • Devices and Desires, P. D. James
  • The Murder Room, P. D. James
  • The Lighthouse, P. D. James

She’s a Baldacci fan. (I’ve never read him.) She got the James books because they were all on clearance for $1 (she’s a sucker for a deal) and I told her I would eventually read them. Maybe when I retire, after I finish Agatha Christie. (Amazingly enough, I’ve only read one Christie. I’m saving her to savor when I have the time to lounge for a year on the deck with a refreshing beverage and read incessantly.)As you can see, she got almost half the books, but spent less than a third of the money. Maybe I’ll just count this toward Father’s Day.


Like last year, I’m reading scripts for a film festival which cuts into my recreational reading. These days, the elliptical is surrounded by stacks of screenplays, not novels.Unlike last year, I’m also entering the competition. I’m working on my third screenwriting project. I have three weeks to get the sixth draft done before the deadline. We shall see. Overall, it means I’m seriously behind in my reading.So, when you see another review from me, you’ll know that I finally submitted my entry and waded through the pile of other entries I have to read. (In case you’re wondering, I’m reading in a different category than I’m entering. Everything’s on the up-and-up.)


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.