Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Making of a Good Movie

As yourself this;  What makes for a good movie?  What separates a truly good movie from the also-runs?  Is it plot?  Car chases? Action galore?  Photography?  Great actors?  A great director?


I'm going (raising my hand meekly in front of a ruler-armed matriarchal dominatrix) for a great plot.  The story telling. . . in both the said and unsaid, makes the best of stories.

Yes, Veronica dear;  the silences one can encounter in a movie can be as loud, and as needed, as the verbiage or the beautiful imagery.

Take for instance the Alan Ladd movie, The Blue Dahlia.  Filmed in 1946 and starring Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix and Howard da Silvia, it is one brilliant cinematic masterpiece of hardboiled noir.  And guess who wrote the script . . . the noir master himself; Raymond Chandler. (I won't bother you with a detailed description of the movie.  But trust me . . . you'll like it.)

What makes the movie so delicious is both the pacing, the photography and the quality of the writing displayed.  There's nothing flashy about the movie.  There's no explosions.  No recklessly insane (and unbelievable) car chases.  No incredible escapes from imminent danger.  But there is a story.  There is palpable emotion.  There is a genuine mystery.

There is imagination.

Maybe that's it.  It's not so much story telling as it is imagination.  Figure out a way to run some high voltage through one's imagination and you have a hit.  You have that proverbial 'captive audience.'

Let me me give you a couple of examples.

Here is the sci-fi movie, Elysium.  Came out this year (2013).  About an Earth that is bereft of any resources now solely occupied by the poor and downtrodden while the super rich reside in paradise on an orbiting space colony large enough for everyone planet side to see with the naked eyes day or night.

A simple story, really.  Told so many times it should be boring.  But the pacing, the visuals, the story itself, gripes you and doesn't let go.

Above everything else . . . it's the imagination that captures you  and doesn't let go.  Here perhaps it is the visuals that tell more of the story and the words do.  (I'm thinking of the shots of the modern day slums of Mexico City used to portray Earth in the 22nd Century). 

People.  People everywhere living in squalor.  Absolutely stunning to behold.

Another current movie (2013) it's directed by the South African, Neill Blompkamp (the same guy who wrote and directed District 9), the movie has Matt Damon and Jodie Foster in it.  It's a wonderful movie that should be seen by everyone.

My third example of imaginative story telling is this one.  2Guns.

Not a big movie.  Not a blockbuster.  It won't see the super crowds a lot of other movies will see this year.  But the story telling is superb.  Superb in a different way if compared to the one just mentioned.

This one relies not so much on imagery as it does in a complex plot.  You have to pay attention, especially with the opening sequence, to understand what's going on.  There are twists and turns and double-crosses and treachery galore.    Who can you trust?  Who is the bad guy?  Or is everyone the bad guy?  Just the stuff to jack up a noir fan from the get-go.

Back to that ole' frying pan again:  Imagination.

Capture the imagination and you capture the audience.  And to capture the audience means to tell a great story.  In whatever mode you choose to use.

But there is an addendum to this expose I should throw in.  And it's this.  Could the three pictures above be as good as they are IF the original actors were replaced with someone else?  Would the chemistry, the chutzpah, the believability be as real?

Good question, Maynard.  Maybe that's for another blog, eh?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Good Story, Good Art . . . and Luck

Let's talk a little about three of the many components you need to write something that sells.  That is in itself something of a contradiction in terms since, if I wanted to be honest, I would have to admit very little of my writings have sold much.

So let me rephrase my opening statement;  Let's talk a little about my theories on three of the many components needed in order to write something that sells.  Take the theories as you like.  Accepting them as genuine, viable concepts.  Or take'em as nothing more than BS and throw'em in the toilet bowl and flush.

(Hmmm . . . I believe I can hear the disturbing sounds of flushing now across the entire globe.)

One;  Ultimately you need to write an excellent story.  What a reader is basically looking for is a story that they can sink their teeth into.  That gets their imagination fired up.  One that presses all kinds of emotional buttons internally.  Without a story that plucks the strings of at least one or two of these emotional buttons, the writer has failed and the reader is going to find something/someone else.

Notice I said ' . . . at least one or two of these emotional buttons.'  The perfect writer who has composed the perfect story SMACKS ALL of the emotional buttons.  But who the hell is the perfect writer?  When was the last time you've read the 'Perfect' story?  If you're like me, you have to admit that piece of pleasantry has been rather rare in one's life.  And getting more rare as we age.

Which, in my opinion, explains why a lot of mediocre writers become multi-national best sellers.  Somehow . . . someway . . . readers found one or two of their buttons were pressed in reading a certain writer who, for many reasons,  others of various habits think is a writer not worthy to read at all. 

You can name writers whom you love . . . and writers whom you despise.  Your list and my list may or may not have any resemblances to'em.   Two writers come instantly to mind and both sell GAZILLIONS of books each year.

And so it goes.

The second necessity for a writer is good artwork for your efforts.  In order to get the reader to cough up the price for your creation something has to catch their eye.  Lots of readers go for the artwork (be it as the cover or a traditional print cover or the cover as an ebook).  From there they may journey on to read the descriptive blurb about what's inside.  But the journey begins with the visual stimulation.

In many respects the artwork acts like a surreal mirror reflecting what the story inside the cover is going to be.  Like the story itself, the cover must activate the imagination of the reader; offering the reader the possibilities that not only the story will stimulate the imagination, but it holds the promise of perhaps stimulating the other five senses as well.

Traditionally publishers took care of the artwork.  A mistake, if you ask me.  A mistake in the sense that many publishers have no clue what good art for a cover should look like.  Some publishers are even down right pernicious when it comes to artist, willing to slap any ole' photo onto a cover and then trying to make up for the mistake by inserting large bold print across it in an effort to make it look 'Modern.'

I have always thought it was incumbent on a writer to have a very large say in both the composition of the artwork and in its approval for being the composition accepted by the publisher.  Unfortunately I suspect at least in the traditional publisher world the writer has very little say in the matter.

Finally comes the third, and most mysterious, component of all.  Luck. 

Pure, unadulterated, serendipitous LUCK.

Think of all the mega-produced books/series that have been whipped up by major publishers which have fallen flat on their faces and died horrible deaths from readers who had little, if any, interest in them.  Now think of books/series which have come out nowhere . . . literately nowhere . . . and stormed the citadels of the reading public like the hordes of Mongolian horsemen of Genghis Khan.

(Can anyone say the name,  Harry Potter?)

Sheer luck.  Inexplicable.  Unexpected.  Stunning to behold.

As far as I am concerned all the pundits who have said, "Work hard and you make your on luck" must have been on a drug overdose when they uttered such balderdash.  I haven't met a writer yet who doesn't work hard writing their material.  Yes, some writers are better salesmen when it comes to pushing their material out to the general public.  But I suspect that's more attributable to the amount of money a writer is willing to spend out of his own pocket to buy the promotional material he needs than anything else.

Writing a bad novel, as the pundits say, takes every bit as much time as writing a Pultizer prize winner.

But Luck just comes along.  It drifts in like a low lying fog late at night.  One moment its not there.  The next it suddenly has engulfed everything in sight with a white, surreal, envelope of translucence.

What are the factors which induces Luck to appear?  No one knows.

Above are the three covers I am going to use on my Agnastas Hoolia serial novel I'm writing.  I think the story line is excellent.  I think the artwork is more than just adequate.  I think it is award-winning (always open for debate, of course).  So I think I can safely say I have two of the three attributes needed to become successful.

But Luck?  What about Lady Luck?

Gosh.  I wish the hell I could bank on that persnickety woman to show up.  But I can't.  All I can do is cross my fingers and hope.

(Oh, by the way . . . look at my last blog and you can read the first chapter of the Agnastas Hoolia novel.  You tell me if the story is good or not)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Steampunk Spy; Agnastas Hoolia

A steampunk--fantasy--spy--adventure novel.  A novel broken down into a four-part serial and introducing Agnastas Hoolia to the unsuspecting reading public.

Agnastas Hoolia. 

Part spy  . . . part adventurer . . . a talented wizard.  Works for twelve clans of magicians (White Magic) who have formed an organization called The Inter Dimensional Magic Bureau.
A very large organization which spans through Time and Space who combat the dark machinations of the twenty six or so clans who use Black Magic to further their devious plans. (Their plans being, of course, to dominate and rule entire worlds found in the nineteen or so known universes)

The idea is to bring out a four-part novel with each novel between 22,000 to 28,000 words.   Each part has its own cover.  I thought I'd reveal the cover and maybe share the first chapter of the novel.  Just to whet your appetite, of course.

I'm waiting for some black and white pen drawings to be completed (six in total) I plan to insert into the entire novel.  The first two will be found in the first offering.  I'm looking for dark and moody pen and ink renderings.  If they come out well it should be one hell of a reading adventure!

There's some editing to be done---and the artwork yet to come.  But I thought maybe you'd be interesting in seeing what's being stewing around in my head lately.  So without fanfare, here you are . . .

August. 1873.  New York City.

            The hottest time of the year to be in the city.  Especially this part of the city.  The inhabitants called it The Bowery.  The southern portion of the city filled with the poor and the final destination for the ever increasing masses of freshly arriving immigrants swarming daily through Ellis Island and flooding into the city.

            The Bowery was filled with Irish, Italian, and German immigrants.  A Tower of Babel environment of the poor and penniless. Because they were the poor and disenfranchised it meant few in Tammany Hall, the city's political center, thought of them.  Which meant this part of the city had little sanitation.  No running water.  And no effort to collect and wheel away the growing piles of refuse which littered the streets everywhere.           

            Underneath the hot August sun the aroma rising into the cloudless sky was an almost visible miasma of stench.  So no one paid attention to the black leather and brass trimmed two wheeled hansom, pulled by a dapple gray mare, trotting smartly down the brick street and rolling to a halt in front of tenement building.  To the ten boys standing on the sidewalk or sitting on the steps leading up to the tenement's entrance, the hansom, nor the heavy sat, jowly cabbie sitting above and behind the enclosed portion of the hansom meant anything to them.  Dressed in shabby, thread bare castoffs, with faces sooty black from all the coal dust floating in the air, the boys tossed a baseball around or smoked cigarettes and talked but didn't glance at the hansom again.

            Until the passenger stepped out and onto the curb.

            He was a compact little man with a thick mop of curly blond hair.  Dressed nattily in a three piece suit of startling white cotton.   He had on black spats partially covering the upper portion of his highly polished leather shoes.  Very expensive leather shoes.  In hand was a pair of kid gloves he held casually.  In the other a black ebony cane with an odd looking bezel cut glass orb ornamenting its top.  One eye held a large monocle in front of it with a black lanyard dropping down and looping over to one his coat's lapels.  Instead of a tie he had a mauve colored kerchief tide around his neck and stuffed inside his shirt.  The shirt was off white, made of silk, with gold cuff links.

            He was the grandest looking thing the boys had ever had the privileged be this close to in their young lives.  All of them stood looking at the dandy with mouths open and eyes wide.  When the man stepped onto the sidewalk in front of them and extended the hand holding the cane out to brace himself in a gesture of arrogant nonchalance a few of them actually thought about applauding.

            "Hey, boyo!" a voice came flying out of the air from one of the boys standing on the stairs.  "Ya got a dollar or two you can spare?  Me and the boys haven't had a drink in days."

            The man, lowering his eyes for the first time to gaze at the objects in front of him, eyed the waifs for a moment before making a decision.  Turning slightly he tossed the expensive leather gloves into the hansom and then reached inside a vest pocket and pulled out a ten dollar gold piece.  With a skillful flick of a thumb the coin went arching over the heads of the nearest and straight to the Irish lad who had just spoken.

            "My good men," the dandy said, smiling wider after seeing the big Irish kid snatch the coin out of the air with and stare at it incredulously.  "Perhaps that will procure me some needed intelligence."

            "Huh?" another voice, a younger one, piped up quizzically.  "We ain't smart, fella.  We're Irish."

            "Awh, pipe down, Ian!" the bigger kid in the back barked, shaking his head disgustedly.  "The fella's looking for some information.  Who you looking for, fella?"

            The dandy cradled the odd looking black cane in the crook of one arm but didn't answer immediately.  Glancing to his right his eyes swept across the wide expanse of the Hudson river, noted the three fat looking tugboats chugging their way up stream, laying down heavy curtains of sooty smoke in the process.  A quarter of a mile downstream he saw the massive stone monuments of what would be, a few years from now, the freshly completed Brooklyn Bridge rising up out of the river waters.  But today the construction was still in its early stages.  The river site for the two massive edifices surrounded by steamers and wide barges riding low in the river due to their heavy loads.

            Most impressive, he thought to himself.  Most impressive indeed!  The last time he had been in New York the Dutch were still negotiating with the local Indian tribes for additional land.  But now, now humans were building a megalopolis!  They were constructing in stone and steel!  Using steam power instead of muscle power to do their heavy work.

            Progress, by god!  That's what it was.  Progress!

            Maybe the Elders of the Eight Clans were right.  Maybe humans in this dimension did have a future ahead of them.  Breaking into a rakish dimpled grin he turned his attention back to the big Irish kid who seemed to be the group's natural leader.

            "I am looking for a large framed gentlemen by the name of Mordecai Bloom.  Does he live in this building?"

            "Who?" another dirty faced waif blurted out, lifting a hand and scratching his head.  "Ain't never heard of'em."

            "He means The Mad Hatter," the Irish spokesman said, shaking his head irritably as he lifted a thumb up and pointed to the building behind him.  "You know, the fat guy with the funny hair and the bug eyes.  Yeah, fella.  He lives up on the sixth floor.  Apartment 61."

            He started to thank the Irish lad but a flash of bright bluish-white light above caught his attention just before an ear splitting explosion ripped through the late afternoon heat.  Glass, wood, pieces of furniture, and shreds of ripped clothing were ejected violently out of what once had been a sixth floor window.  The thundering explosion reverberated across the river, sending up a curtain of pigeons which had been nesting on the building's roof, as the flotsam and dendrites of what once had been the furnishings for an apartment rained down upon them.

            The moment the explosion announced itself the boys in front of the dandy ducked, covered their heads, and fled all in one motion.  Seconds later the tenants within the building came screaming in terror out of the building and began running as well.

            Through the pandemonium of fleeing tenants the dandy fought his way up the stairs and into the building.  Eyeing a steep set of wooden stairs leading up to the next floor he began taking two steps at a time as he dodged around descending, screaming residents.

            Billowing gray black smoke began filling the third and forth floor stairwell.  The unmistakable crackle of flames about to turn into an out of control inferno emanated from above.  Nevertheless the well dressed stranger continued this assent as fast as his legs could move.  By time he reached the fourth floor the occupants of the building had fled.  On the fifth floor he stopped suddenly in his tracks, turned, and stared down the long narrow hallway toward the far end apartment.

            He felt her aura.  Felt her pain.  Lifting the cane in his hand up the blue tinted glass orb adorning it began to glow white and expand outward in a translucent white bubble.  In the direct center of the orb an image snapped into reality.   The image of an old woman, well into her sixties, hobbling toward the apartment door on crutches.  One of her legs was missing.  She was racked with pain.  With panic.  Desperate to get out of the burning building.  Watching her arthritic old hands trying to clasp the doorknob to her apartment door he knew she would never make it.  Above the top floor was a hungry conflagration teetering on the edge of sweeping through the entire building and consuming everything in its path.  If the fire could not be extinguished immediately the woman would have no chance for survival.

            Resisting his first urge to rush to her and use a little magic to whisk her away from danger instead he leapt forward and began charging up into the roaring flames above.   Throwing an arm across his face to ward off the incredible heat he moved into the middle of the sixth floor hallway and assessed the situation.   Flames were everywhere.  Howling jets of fire were bellowing out of apartment doors.  A rolling carpet of bubbling flames danced across the hallway's ceiling.  Glass from window panes were violently shattering out into the street below like shotgun blasts in six or seven different apartments.  The scorching heat was hot enough to make his own clothing begin to emit curling trails of smoke from his jacket's arms and cuffs.   Seconds, that's all he had.  Just seconds before the fire was out of control. 

            A mask of determination settled across his youthful, handsome face.  No one was going to die today.  No one.  Gripping the cane in hand he lifted it up and then brought the gold tip of the staff down hard on the wooden floor of the hall.

            "Extinguishio Finalis!" he exclaimed with a harsh voice of authority.

            Something amazing transpired immediately.

            A shock wave, powerful and devastating, of frigid cold air filled with a fine mist of water, expanded out exponentially from the glass orb of his cane and swept forward and backwards from his position.  Apartment doors were blown open and ripped from the hinges.  Individual pieces of hardwood flooring in the hallway peeled off the floor as if they were nothing but cheap cardboard slats.  So cold the blast not only extinguished the flames at the snap of one's fingers but a fine layer of frost covered the walls, ceiling, and the flooring of the hallway.

            Fire no longer ravaged the building.  Replacing the hungry consumption of a ravaging beast an unearthly, even eerie, silence settled into the building's interior.

Slowly he around in the hallway and gazed toward one blackened gaping hole that once had been a furnished apartment.  Mordecai Bloom's apartment.

            He found himself staring at the devastated apartment but reluctant to move toward it.  The cane in his right hand was irritably tapping the floor with a nervous staccato twitch.  He knew he had to investigate.  It was his job.  He was a Inter-Dimensional Magician's Bureau field agent, for the Love of Diddly!  But he didn't want to.  Didn't want to face the possibility of finding the charred, blackened body of one of his oldest friends lying in the consumed ruins.  Nevertheless, rubbing a hand across his lips in anticipation of finding the worse, he took a deep breath, forced his mind to clear the dreadful images filling it and ordered his feet to move.

            And that's when he saw it.  Saw the faint mist of green dust hanging in the doorway of the Mordecai Bloom's doorway and an even fainter trail of tracker-dust  floating in the cold but motionless air in an unbroken trail all the way down the length of the hallway itself!

            Mordecai Bloom was alive!  Alive!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Something Old, something New, coming out soon

Coming soon.  A collection of 21 Turner Hahn/Frank Morales short stories I hacked together over the last two years.

I have to admit (again!) Turner and Frank are my two most favorite characters.  I dunno . . . there's something about their personalities and their chemistry which makes me smile every time I start writing a story with them as the main ingredients. They're like two old friends.  You just like being around them as much as you can.

As you know they're homicide detectives.  Two cops dropped down into a city filled with bad guys who look upon the act of murder as a day-to-day occupational hazard.

No big deal.

So there's twenty-one stories.  Murder . . . puzzles . . . damsels in distress . . . damsels who will slit your throat twice before you can bat your eyes.  There are killers who are bat-shit crazy.  Killers who are as cold as ice.  And there are killers who get away with their crimes. 

And humor.  Dry . . . almost droll . . . humor.

I have a theory about writing in the mystery/detective genre.  The best stories are the ones which have three major ingredients.  A Plot.  Interesting Characters. And Humor.  Not necessarily in equal measures, mind you.  But each one absolutely essential.   We can quibble about which of the first two ingredients are more important:  plot or interesting characters.  I, for one, think they are absolutely equal.  Don't mix enough of an attention-grabbing plot . . . or make the characters cookie cutter wannabes . . . and the story is going to suffer.  Suffer to the point of not working at all.

But humor is absolutely vital.  Yet it is the ONE ingredient so many writers fail to plug into their chemistry set.  I call it the Ying-Yang theory.  You can't have blood and mayhem without off setting it with a measured amount of laughter.  Or at least a sardonic little smile.  Humor does two things in a story.  First, it makes the trauma of murder more poignant.  Secondly, it settles the mind back into a neutral position for the next big slap in the face.

Ying and Yang.  Life and Death.  Light and Darkness.

Turner and Frank are interesting characters.  Each as their own little quirks.  Each has their own brand of humor.  Just happens the two separate characters work very, very well as a team.  They are synergistic in nature.

And the stories . . . the plots . . . are not bad at all.  Remember now; we're writing short stories.  That means you've got to pack the whole works into a rather tight frame and hope to hell they work.  I happen to think they do.

In the next few days I hope to get them out in ebook format.  Yes, I'm the one bringing them out.  No publisher seems interested.

As they say about the Jamaica bobsledding team winning the Winter Olympic event;  maybe someday . . . .