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Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers

the blog of Anastasia Pollack, crafts editor and reluctant amateur sleuth

featuring guest mystery authors; crafting tips and projects; recipes from food editor and sleuthing sidekick Cloris McWerther; decorating, travel, fashion, health, beauty, and finance tips from the rest of the American Woman editors; and the occasional contest 

Friday, February 25, 2011
Today we have something a little bit different for you on Book Club Friday. Paul D. Marks is the award-winning author of over thirty published short stories, but his day job was as a "script doctor," and he’s going to share a bit of that with us today.  

Paul is currently finishing a novel featuring a recurring character from his short stories.  Bobby Saxon is the only white musician in an otherwise all-black swing band at the famous Club Alabam in Los Angeles during World War II. Bobby has appeared in three published stories: The Good Old Days, in the anthology Murder Across the MapSleepy Lagoon Nocturne, which appeared in the LAndmarked for Murder anthology, and Santa Claus Blues, published in Futures Magazine.  

Paul has won several awards.  His novel White Heat took second place in the Mystery-Suspense-Thriller-Adventure category of the SouthWest Writers Annual Writing Contest and his story Netiquette won First Place in the Futures Short Story Contest.  Endless Vacation received Honorable Mentions in two prestigious literary contests: the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Competition and the Lorian Hemingway International Short Story Competition.  Visit Paul at his blog or website.

Paul has generously offered a copy of the
Murder in La-La Land anthology, which opens with his story Continental Tilt and a copy of the Deadly Ink 2010 Short Story Collection with his story Poison Heart to two lucky readers who post a comment this week. -- AP

Thank you for having me, Anastasia.

Though my background is as a writer, I come to short story and novel writing from a different perspective. After you meet someone, sooner or later – usually sooner – the conversation turns to, "What do you do?"  I'm never quite sure how to respond to that.  Not because I don't know what I do (though some people may find that arguable) but because they probably won't know what it is and then I have to explain.  Which is not the end of the world, but you know what they say, if you have to explain something to your reader (or listener), most likely you've already lost him. 

 What I do – or did – is script doctoring or rewriting screenplays.  When you see a movie there are usually one or two, sometimes three, writers' credits.  But there are often several other people who've worked on the script who don't get screen credit.  I guess I'm one of those unsung heroes, though I'm not sure everyone would consider us heroes. There are script doctors who specialize in one thing or another, such as dialogue or adding humor or action.  Others are generalists.  Some are in the Writers Guild; some aren't.  I've been both.

No one likes being rewritten.  And sometimes rewriting betters a script.  But, to be honest, sometimes it makes it worse, depending on what the producer wants.  On top of that, you can work on a script, whether as a rewrite or having written and optioned a spec script, and it ends up in "development hell," never to see the light of day or at least the light of a projector.

And even rewriters get rewritten.  Once I was hired to do a major rewrite on a comedy script.  Several writers pitched their ideas on how to go about it to the producer.  I said I thought it should be an updated, sophisticated screwball (not slapstick) comedy, like those of the 1930s. And I outlined several of the changes I would make to various characters and situations.  They loved the idea.  And I gave them exactly what I said I would.  They hated it!  So they hired someone else after me to do another draft and the first joke on the first page was a girl peeing in her pants – it went downhill from there.  Now that's sophisticated.  That's Hollywood.  That's why I'm turning to fiction, though I'm not sure I can compete with Snooki: Novelist.

As I say, the problem with being an uncredited writer on a film is that no one knows what you do.  My father still can't figure out what I do all day since he never sees my credit on the silver screen (of course, considering some of the masterpieces I've worked on, that might be a good thing).  Which is one of the reasons I decided to start writing more short stories and novels.  Both so he and my mother could see my name on something, and, well, for me, too.  But, even being unsung, being a script doctor has helped me in terms of being a better fiction writer.

Some of the tricks I use as a script doctor are also useful on stories and novels.  One of the most useful is knowing when to get into and out of a scene, a sequence or even the entire project, whether it's a screenplay, story or novel.  You've heard the expression "cut to the chase" and this is what it's all about.  Most people start scenes too early and end them too late.  I've found that often by cutting the first and last thirds of a scene you really get to the meat of the scene, (unless you're a vegetarian, but I digress).  Sometimes, of course, you need some piece of information in one of those lost thirds and it can be worked into what's left of the scene or another scene.

On one occasion, I deleted the entire first act (the first quarter to third, give or take) of a screenplay, starting it on the second act. There was some information in the deleted scenes that had to be inserted, but overall the first part of the script was back-story, exposition, etc.  And not missed.

Granted, it's harder to take a butcher knife or even a scalpel to your own work.  And I do believe that in novels one should have a bit more luxury of back-story, exposition and, of course, internal dialogue and introspection.  Still, this is a good tactic to consider if you want to make your writing tighter. 

I've used this, as well as other script doctoring techniques, on most of my stories, though the transition from writing screenplays to short stories and now a novel hasn't necessarily been easy.  In screenplays, less is more – there's very little character or scene description.  And to some extent that's true in modern novels.  But in novels you can have more of some things.  The hardest part for me is writing description, as that is so bare in a screenplay.  When I first started writing fiction, people said my writing read too much like a screenplay.  It was too abrupt.  Too much shorthand.  I think I've improved in that department. 

The techniques I learned doing screenplays help me write better, tighter stories.  Though sometimes it's nice and necessary to indulge in back-story, atmosphere and description.

So next time you sit down to write, think "cut to the chase."  Now get out that scalpel and start trimming the fat.

Thanks, Paul! What an interesting post! What did you think, readers? Let’s hear from you, and you’ll be entered into the drawing for the anthologies Murder in La-La Land and Deadly Ink 2010 Short Story Collection. And be sure to check back Sunday to see if you’re one of the winners. -- AP

Posted by ANASTASIA POLLACK at Friday, February 25, 2011
Janel said...
I have a writing friend who is also a screen writer. It's interesting seeing her perspective on my writing. Getting the scalpel out is great advice!

traveler said...
Thanks for this informative post about writing. Your career sounds interesting and wishing you much success with your books. The era that you chose interests me greatly.
Julie Compton said...
I think the advice about "cutting to the chase" is right on. That was the first thing I learned from my editor. Until I saw her suggested cuts, I didn't realize how much I meandered into a scene and then meandered out. Learning to trim at each end did wonders for the pace of my work.

Great advice, Paul. thank you!
I hope your parents are proud of writing career. I've found reading books on writing screen plays very helpful when I come to revise. I can cut out so many stage directions.
Pat Browning said...
Good advice about cutting, if you don't carry it too far. I'm an old-fashioned reader who loves to read screenplays but wants something different in a novel -- namely, setting and anything else that eases me into the story. Examples: the almost-spooky opening of "Rebecca" and more currently the atmospheric opening of "Kingdom of Shadows" by Alan Furst.

As someone who lived through the 1940s, I love anything set in that time (especially the music!)and would like to read Murder in La-La Land.

Best of luck to you, Paul, and thanks for the post.
Carol-Lynn Rossel said...
I found your comments fascinating.
Please enter me in the drawing.
Kathy said...
I agree with cutting to the chase. If I'm interested in a story I don't want to read through pages of frills, I just want the meat and potatoes.
Pamala Owldreamer said...
I write fantasy and romance suspense and working on my third novel with elements of SyFy and fantasy. I love to describe settings and I do a good job. However;I am not good at knowing when it's too much description and the reader will start turning pages to get back to the story.
I think a screen writer has the advantage of showing a menacing home,dark spooky woods,snow covered mountain range,barren desert,etc. to set a mood.Writers are somewhat limited to words.Describe too much and the readers eyes cross and page flipping begins.Too little and the right atmosphere,mood and emotions are missing.I respect both of creativity.Both take sweat,blood, and hours alone in front of a keyboard or with cramped fingers curled around a pencil, cursing their vacationing muse.Most writers couldn't stop writing even if they wanted to.

Thank you all for stopping by today and a huge thank you to Paul for his interesting guest post. There's still time to post a comment to be eligible for the drawing for one of the two anthologies Paul is giving away. Be sue to check back on Sunday to find out if you're the winner.
Cafe Noir said...
Thanks everyone for your comments. I'm glad you like the post. And thanks, too, for wishing me luck with my novel.

I'm glad the novel's era interests some of you. I found it really interesting doing the research, though very distracting from the actual writing. And, as one of you said, I also love the music from that era. But to clarify, the novel-in-progress, "The Blues Don't Care," is set in the forties, not the stories in either "Murder In La-La Land" or "Deadly Ink".

Re: cutting to the chase, I know it's hard to make these cuts and sometimes editors (or producers or whoever) want changes that aren't really good so you have to stick to your guns too if you really believe in something. On the other hand, I had a former writing partner some time ago who used to say in a real sing-songy voice, "Now Paul, this bit/scene/whatever is really, really good. And we'll use it sometime, just not in this piece." So you might want to save some of your babies for something else.

Another thing to keep in mind is that if you do delete something that isn't totally necessary to your plot or character development, only you will know it's missing. Nobody else will miss it. It's easier said than done and a hard thing to do in practice, but a good habit to get into.

Thanks again for all your comments.

Wonderful post, thank you for your insights.

Cafe Noir said...
I'd like to thank everyone for their comments. And the winners' books will be on their way in the next day or so.

Thanks to all.

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