Sunday, April 25, 2010

Writing -- Craft & intent

Halftime at the Blazers' Game
(Photos by Dal Perry)

Part One:

It is the nature of writing stories that you will enjoy telling some more than others. That some will be nearer and dearer to your heart, and others might be exercises in craft. They aren't your flesh and blood children, you don't really have to love them all equally, you do the best you can with what you have, whatever your connection to it.

When I first started, I used to try to work with certain tools. One story would be primarily action, another mostly dialog. I sold one piece that was probably 90% dialog just because I wanted to see if it could manage it in that form. Later sold to some German company that turned it into a radioplay.

Some of my favorite and most beloved books have done well, but some have not. Some things I dashed off without having to put much real effort into the work have sold much better than I would have believed.

As a writer, I think you have to start with the notion that you will try to serve them all equally. That you will work just as diligently on a shared-world, work-for-hire that you ghostwrite for no credit as you do an original tale to which you attach much love and affection. It's what keeps you from being a total hack, the determination to give it your best shot no matter what caliber and quantity of ammo you take into battle.

To change the metaphor: If you have a sow's ear, you can't make it silk, but you can make a good sow's ear purse.

I have always found something in every story I've written to like. Something upon which I can smile and feel proud of, and enjoy putting down on the page. Or, of late, the computer monitor.

If you can't do that, why bother? There are a lot of easier ways to make a living.

This doesn't mean that you need to produce something that is your favorite thing every time you sit down. I have written books that I probably wouldn't have bought had I seen them on the racks; scripts for shows I likely wouldn't have watched had I not been writing for them. (I have watched a lot of kidvid, and read a lot of comics, but I don't watch much or read many of those these days -- I don't have the time to keep up. But I know the forms well enough to work in them.)

You don't have to love everything about a project to write it, but you do have to find something about it that speaks to you. Keep that in mind -- it matters.

Part Two:

In this light, somebody asked me, which recent movie I've seen do I wish I'd written? Other than the obvious make-me-rich answer -- Avatar -- the one that I liked most was Crazy Heart.

Those of you who don't know it, it stars Jeff Bridges, in the role that won him an Oscar™. He plays a broken-down country singer who has fallen from the top of the charts to playing crummy bars and bowling alleys, with pick-up groups. He's fifty-seven, broke, and a drunk, and his only claim to anything is that he doesn't miss gigs. Even if he has to run off stage in the middle of one to puke. (There is a scene in which he does that. His sun glasses fall into the barrel as he is barfing. He fishes them out, shakes them off, and puts them back on. Yuck -- but great scene because of that.)

Bad Blake was somebody, but his sidemen have eclipsed him, he's divorced from four wives, and he has a grown son he hasn't seen since the child was four. He's going nowhere, and his wicked ways are apt to kill him pretty soon.

In country music, the love of a good woman is worth more than diamonds. (In the real world, too.) Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Jean, the niece of the piano player at another ratty venue, is a reporter for a local paper who comes to interview Bad Blake, and the onscreen chemistry starts bubbling and smoking right away.

There are some wonderful touches. A fan approaches Blake after a set and obviously wants to jump his bones. He puts her off, thinking that Jean is a more attractive prospect. The fan gives him her number. Later, when Jean has to go home to take care of her young son and leaves, Blake closes the motel room door after her, and within a couple of seconds, fishes the fan's number from his pocket and looks at it as he checks his watch.

You don't see them together, and you don't know if he calls her or not, but he didn't hesitate to think about it. That's the kind of guy he is.

Collin Ferrell plays Tommy, a former band member Blake mentored. Tommy's star has risen as Bad's fell, and much as Blake doesn't want to do it, he agrees to open a show for Tommy. There's a scene where they sing together onstage that is absolutely pregnant with undercurrents -- love, hate, admiration, lost hope -- and you can see it on their faces. It is as impressive a piece of acting as I've ever seen, and from both men.

There is a sequence in a liquor store that is sad enough to break your heart. Robert Duvall's turn as Wayne, Blake's friend, is a jewel. (Anything Duvall is in is always worth seeing for his part alone.)

The actors mostly sing their own songs, and some of them are pretty good.

Blake, with his new love, begins to find his songwriting abilities coming back. There is light at the end of what has been a long and dark tunnel.

Which light is, of course, an approaching train ...

If you haven't seen it, I won't detail the rest of the story, but it doesn't go exactly where most writers would have taken it, nor where most viewers would like to see it. Even so, it was a delight and it paid off, and those are more than enough reasons to have a look at it.

It's Bridges's movie. He's in nearly every scene and he's terrific, but the writing and the music are what allow him to shine as brightly as he does.

I'd be awfully pleased if I had written Crazy Heart. (Scott Cooper did the screenplay, based on the book by Thomas Cobb.)


Dan Moran said...

I guess I have to see Crazy Heart. Duvall's one of his generations great actors, and I've always liked Bridges.

The girl in your pic was the halftime act at a Lakers game a couple years back. She's quite remarkable.

jks9199 said...

Regarding craft...

The line between a professional or a true craftsman and the guy simply collecting a check to do a job isn't the stuff you see. It's not how fantastic the finished product is, nor is it the masterpieces produced.

It's the attention to the crap jobs and the stuff you don't see. A pro or a true craftsman gives the same attention to the dovetail on the back of the drawer that nobody's going to see as he does to the fit of the trim on the front. He or she gives the same attention to the job that won't have their name attached publicly or the "throw away vignette" to fill a couple of extra pages in an anthology or the like as to the runaway success novel.

Or even to what he writes in blog posts!

Yeah, Steve, I consider you a pro and master craftsman. I've never been able to identify when you grew tired of a book or series, or what you were working on at the same time. Unlike another highly published author I know (who has a whole lot of alliterative/punny book titles...)

J.D. Ray said...

Just added Crazy Heart to the Netflix queue.

Steve, I understand what you mean about the writing craft, except that I understand it from the other side of the fence. As you're aware, I'm trying to figure out how to do it, and I've got a lot to learn. Like what the heck a "gerund" is. Okay, I can go look it up on Wikipedia, understand the definition, look over my writing and see how often I end a noun with "-ing," etc., but having the "feeling" for how to write without overuse of such things the first time around is a learned skill (or a naturally occurring one for some lucky folks).

I'm reminded of James Brown, admonishing people to "get it on the ONE!" I heard an interview with him once where he elaborated on that, saying that it was hard to get people to understand soul music. You've got to move the emphasis to the first beat in the bar, he said. Grab people's attention, and keep doing it. "Unnnhh! Waaaaaa! I feel good!"

Steve Perry said...

I think the thing to realize, J.D., is that it is both necessary and okay to write a lot of stuff that doesn't work very well when you get started. Save for those rare oddities who can sit down and play Mozart first time by ear, or who have the magic touch with words, or paint or a chisel, the rest of us learn the hard way. Try something, fumble along, practice it over and over, and eventually it gets smoother and better.

If you expect your first efforts are going to be diamonds, it is likely you'll be disappointed. You have to be willing to produce a lot of dreck before you get skilled enough to produce something good.

Many new writers -- regardless of age -- don't have the patience to do that -- to write a lot of not-very-good stuff and have to live with it. But that's the path. Most of that will go into a drawer. Some of it might get published, but when you go back to look at it after a lot more practice, it will make you cringe. Ah, geez, that dialog just falls from their lips like blocks of lead. Man, I had somebody hiss the word "damn."

It's the best you can do at the time, and at the time, you will likely think it is better than it is.

It's a measure of your progress to look at the old stuff and be able to see the flaws. Expectations can ruin you.
Thinking you will hit the ground running at full speed and be a skilled pro is a killer notion. You have to be willing to be bad at it before you can get good at it.

It won't ever be perfect, but it will get better. It takes time and practice -- there's no shortcut.

J.D. Ray said...

Yup, I know just what you mean. Not that I've achieved much of anything so far, but when I compare what I write today, which isn't anywhere near "pro quality," to what I wrote as a college student twenty years ago, there's no comparison.

I've been hacking at this and that story for several years, and only recently felt like anything I produced was good enough to even show in public, let alone try to get published. Still, I have a goal of getting published, even if it's just a short story in a magazine for upstart writers or somesuch. If I'm lucky, I'll develop my craft enough so that I'll have something to occupy myself in retirement.

Thanks again for your somewhat regular blog entries on the business of writing, as well as the art. They are definitely helpful.