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Essential Authors #1: Andrew Klavan

Two years ago, I joined Liberty Island Media, a start-up book publishing company focusing on genre fiction, as their West Coast Editor and began acquiring and editing novels. I also started writing my own novels and helping other writers develop their stories. Now, in this ongoing series at Smash Cut Culture I’m going to start highlighting the authors who I’ve returned to most often in working with writers. As I’ve studied and met both fiction and non-fiction writers over the years these are the ones with the most depth, originality, and humanity. Reading their books and understanding the ideas that matter to them has helped change my life for the better and I hope it can do the same for you.

Andrew Klavan has worn many writer’s hats over the years: hard-boiled thriller novelist, Hollywood screenwriter, essayist for The Wall Street Journal and contributing editor for City Journal, longtime new media innovator in blogging, hilarious YouTube videos, podcasting at the Daily Wire, and now celebrated memoirist with The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ.

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Calliope Authors Workshop: Deadline Extended!

Writing tends to be a lonely pursuit. Hours spent writing characters and imagining storylines doesn’t exactly count as social interaction. Plus, how is a writer to know if their manuscript is even working? The answer can be found in a strong writerly community. But if you are a writer that cares about liberty, free markets and the founding principles of America, you’ll find that your options for community are quite limited. Last year, I stumbled upon a little saving grace: the Calliope Authors Workshop, a program dedicated to fiction and nonfiction authors who share an interest in liberty-oriented themes.

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Donuts and Bizarrely Unintentional Pop Art

DVHwoodImageIt is 8:20 am, with a pile of messy hair on top of my head I lurch to the most glorious of all square electrical devices, the refrigerator. With just a brief look inside, it becomes quite clear that a half bottle of sriracha and a bag of carrots will not be sufficient for the breakfast of a champion. Donning on my usual Tupac t-shirt, I head outside to the streets. Since I live in LA, you must immediately be thinking “And now she gets into her car and drives to…” but you are missing one, fairly crucial, point—I live on Hollywood Blvd, essentially the Times Square of Los Angeles. It may very well be the only place in LA where it is more efficient to walk than drive. As I step out onto the pavement a car door slams to my left with Darth Vader exiting a Toyota Corolla.

“Good Morning” he says, breathing loudly, as he sweeps past me.

“Good Morning, how are you doing today?” I reply.

“Just heading to work, pretty good thanks.” He answers, already large steps ahead of me.

My sunglasses fall to the bridge of my nose as I duck out of the camera eye line taking a photo of a wax Marilyn Monroe (she is everything here-by the way). I zig zag through the crowd to the Dolby Theatre and down the piano staircase that always sounds out of tune. I finally step inside the corner market and grab my miscellaneous array of items including the Queen Mother of all victuals–the old-fashioned donut–and exit. It is a well-known fact that the minute-to-minute movements on Hollywood blvd are more complex and intricate than those of a Rube Goldberg contraption that routinely does the unexpected. So, I am not surprised when I am suddenly faced with a wall of Ohio state fans arguing with a large group of Halo Space Fighters. Normally, I could have slipped in through the piano staircase again but 15 toddlers and Shrek are having story time so you could very well say I’m in quicksand—the more I try to move the more stuck I become. So I do something that those of us in Generation Y have only done maybe once or twice, I stand still. And I look around. And I shut up.

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Reading For Writing – Fool’s Assassin

th_b_Hobb_foolsassassinUKFool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

An entry in a long-running fantasy series, Fool’s Assassin brings us back to the story of FitzChivalry Farseer, a man who has seen enough trouble and tragedy to fill several lifetimes. His happily-ever-after is interrupted by the birth of a much-longed-for child with his aged wife. But a dark web closes in on the family and the peculiar, tiny little girl who seems trapped into the same courses of fate that have caught her heroic father.

What I learned, Part 1 – The power of exploring different facets of a character’s nature to keep a series fresh. Robin Hobb’s work is my favorite in the genre, and she has achieved something memorable, a world that keeps expanding and deepening with every book. FitzChivalry is thrust into the role of father at an advanced age (though his body seems far younger based on his use of magic), and seeing his happy home-life threatened while he struggles to connect with his strange daughter feels very different from the earlier books of the series.

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Reading for Writing – Wool

Wool hugh howeyby Hugh Howey

One of the first major success stories of the self-publishing revolution, Wool is the tale of a post nuclear war dystopia where what remains of the human race is confined underground in a giant silo stretching deep into the earth. The silo lives under strict protocols which begin to unravel when a new Sheriff investigates a recent series of murders.

A large part of what made this book compelling was its surprising twists, so SPOILERS AHEAD:

What I learned, Part 1 – Bold choices early in a story can give a reader a sense of uneasiness which can carry through the whole book. The first two main viewpoint characters, the original Sheriff and the original Mayor are both killed within the first 1/3 of the novel. Because they are both quite likable and resourceful, as a reader we can never be quite sure that our newest main character is going to survive. It was a risky choice because it may have alienated readers, but I found it to be very successful.

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Reading for Writing – Story Trumps Structure

the pawhThe Pawn by Steven James

Having read 50+ books on writing I feel this book is the third most useful I have read, after only Scriptshadow Secrets by Carson Reeves and Story by Robert McKee. It examines even basic material in a memorable way which makes you more likely to use the ideas in your work. I highly recommend it. The following ideas are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the insights the book contains.

What I learned, Part 1 – An example of Mr. James’s memorable phrasing is: “the ceiling fan principle.” Obviously any story needs to have tension, but the author posits that “things going wrong” is the prime mover of narrative. He uses as an example the common children’s assignment of “what did you do last summer?” Most children’s lists are mind-numbingly boring, because they are just that, lists. But one student in the author’s class said that “me and by cousins were having a contest jumping off my bunk bed to see who could get farthest. And there was this ceiling fan…” So if any scene you are writing feels flat, find the ceiling fan and you’ll be well on your way to improving it.

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Reading for Writing – The Neddiad

51iEr0WWlDLThe Neddiad by Daniel Pinkwater

In the late 1940’s, a boy and his quirk-tacular family take the train from Chicago to Hollywood. Along the way the boy, Ned, is entrusted with a sacred turtle and the fate of the world. Only “the guy with the turtle” can stop the machinations of a demon, present location the La Brea Tar Pits, who seeks to reverse time and bring back the age of the dinosaurs.

What I learned Part 1: It is possible to write a successful book with a passive protagonist and without tension; but brevity, wit and charm become paramount. From the get-go every line of the book lets you know that it will end well (as does the subtitle), still each moment feels so alive with fresh, weird details that it keeps you reading. An example, the family’s entire move from Chicago to Los Angeles is predicated on Ned and his father’s desire to eat regularly in “a restaurant shaped like a hat.” I would highly recommend this book as a case study of an author breaking core storytelling rules and getting away with it.

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7 Most Wanted Pilot Scripts

blacklistStephanie Palmer over at Studio System News has compiled the seven most wanted tv pilot scripts for writers to download.  One of the best, easiest, and most fun ways to refine your own writing is to read other scripts, especially if they have been produced and as well received by critics and audiences alike.

Last year, Palmer assembled a similar list of 10, which included scripts from Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and The Office. With Mad Men about to join the other two in television’s retirement home, she has compiled a brand new list of seven current television hits.  Among the collection are pilot scripts for House of Cards, Masters of Sex and The Blacklist… 

… As for how The Blacklist came about, Bokenkamp said, “I was kicking around ideas with John Fox, a friend who’s also a producer on the show. He brought up an idea. Whitey Bulger (Boston organized-crime kingpin) was in the news then. What if a Whitey Bulger-type criminal was captured? What if you had a TV show that flashed back on where Hoffa was buried, who shot Kennedy? A bad guy who knew all the secrets, hopping around in time and place. I spent about three months developing it, coming up with a pitch.” Everybody passed on the show but NBC.

At the upfronts, Bob Greenblatt of NBC said Blacklist testing results were, “better than all other 125 NBC drama pilots in the past decade.”

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Medium Hero 6

I should love almost everything about Big Hero 6.

unnamed-7I love science fiction and I love comic-book movies, and this movie is both. I love Isaac Asimov and his bright vision of a future driven by fantastic innovations in science and technology. This movie has that in spades. I love robots (who doesn’t?), but I especially love robots with innocence at their core, like Brad Bird’s “Iron Giant”. This movie has that too.

I really, really want to love “Big Hero 6.” But alas, I only kind of liked it.

There’s a lot going on in the movie that is really cool on a conceptual and visual level. And yet its whole script is surprisingly weak. With 3 credited screen writers and 2 ‘heads of story”, perhaps it was a problem of a film being written by committee.

Note: I can’t make some of the points I’m going to make without giving away plot details and a few hints and minor spoilers. You’ve been warned.

It’s a pretty good set-up for a while, but even within the first major scene, I started to wonder about some of the writers’ choices.

unnamed-1We meet 14-year old Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) and his big brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) right away.

Tadashi is an engineering student at San Fransokyo University, and Hiro is a brilliant robotics prodigy more interested in hustling for money at illegal robot fighting tournaments with his home-built robot than doing anything more important with his talents. In a really short amount of time we get to see who each of these guys are, and how much they care about each other.

The problem is, all this would be a lot better if the writing during this set-up wasn’t also pretty bad.

Take the way in which we learn that the brothers’ parents are dead and that they live with their aunt Cass. There are numerous subtle and emotionally compelling ways to convey that kind of information in a film, but Hiro literally blurts it out to his brother while riding a Vespa, as if it was news to the both of them.

Sadly, this was just the first of what will be several instances of aggressively on-the-nose exposition stated from one character to another, including one moment toward the twist reveal where T.J. Miller‘s character, Fred, loudly announces that “This is a revenge story!”

Thanks for clearing that up, Fred.

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Truthfully though, what bothered me the most about the first act was the introduction of the most cliched and underdeveloped character in the movie, Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk), resident nefarious tech-billionaire, and his supposedly good-guy nemesis, robotics pioneer Dr. Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell) – who also happens to be Tadashi’s mentor, and a celebrity crush for Hiro.

Callaghan tells Hiro that his students “go on to change the world”, and to get in to the program, he must invent something amazing.

Enter Hiro’s microbots.

Hiro creates tiny robots controlled by a neural transmitter that magnetically link together to form any shape or do any task the user can dream up. It’s a huge breakthrough for construction, transportation, and literally any field that you could imagine. It’s one of those incredible concepts buried in the movie.

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But what happens next is where things go wrong again.

Like any reasonable person with a successful technology company would have done, Alistair Krei offers Hiro “more money than a fourteen year old boy can imagine” for the patent. But when Dr. Callaghan angrily paints Krei as a villain motivated “only by his own self-interest” (a truly ironic statement in this case), Hiro turns down the sale so he can go to college instead.

I guess in this world, making billions of dollars from an incredible product you invent when you’re fourteen and also studying robotics is impossible?

It’s an especially odd choice coming from a kid who, minutes earlier in the movie, waved a wad of cash around excitedly after having cleaned up at robot fighting. Not to mention the fact that in reality, the only way to really “change the world” with your invention is for millions of people to know about it and use it every day – which is the one thing that will never happen if you keep to yourself in a workshop.

unnamed-10For me, though… The way that the evil businessman trope is so clumsily pushed the into the first act was really an early signal of a script filled with heavy-handed cliches, just like the dozens of bits of flatly expository dialogue.

Still, the worst part about this kind of writing is that it telegraphs way too much about the rest of the story.

Shortly after Hiro’s presentation, a fire breaks out that supposedly destroys his microbots and kills Tadashi, setting up for his real journey to begin. When Hiro and Baymax discover that someone had actually started the fire to steal his microbots, the film has already tried so hard to make everyone assume it was Krei that the plot contains no real surprises from then on. Even the “twist” was so obvious by the time it was finally revealed that I was just annoyed that Disney went down such a cliched road in the first place.

All that said, there are some things to absolutely love.

After we make it out of the first act, the movie gets really good. It’s got a ton of wonderfully fun moments.

The action sequences and the richness of the world of San Fransokyo are really well crafted, as is the supporting cast of Hiro’s friends.

Baymax (Scott Adsit), a healthcare robot invented by Tadashi who befriends and protects Hiro, is worth the price of admission by himself. Especially when he goes bobbling around like an almost-human bouncy castle through the streets of the city. Baymax is both the movie’s heart and its comic relief, and somehow the balance is perfect.

It’s just too bad that all these great characters and concepts didn’t get a plot built on a stronger narrative foundation.