A Recent Interview

I recently signed with a new literary agency, the Seymour Agency in New York. I’m now represented by the terrific Lynnette Novak. I couldn’t be happier. We share a vision for my work, and she has a background as an editor, which I love. As much as it sometimes hurts, every writer needs someone in their corner who will tell them the hard truths: what’s not working, what needs to change–and why.

We found each other through a great site called Query Tracker, which every writer who is seeking representation should know about. It’s essentially a one-stop shop for all your efforts in finding an agent. They list everyone. They make it easy to coordinate your email campaign, to keep track of every query, how long it’s been out, who else is having luck and with what, etc.

Once I signed with Lynnette, they did a brief interview with me, which is posted below. If you’re languishing in the “query trenches” believe me, I know how it feels …. it sucks. This is my attempt to offer some small bit of advice.


Film Friday: The (minor) Genius of Tombstone

I love the movie Tombstone. Good thing too, because it seems like it’s on just about every week. At this point, I must have seen all or part of this film a few dozen times, so clearly I’m not the only one who enjoys it.

So let’s take a brief look at why it’s so good. Why it worked so well originally and why it’s held up so well over the last few years.

If you recall, Tombstone is one of two Wyatt Earp bio-pics that were made in the early nineties. The other one you might remember was actually called Wyatt Earp. It was one of a string of Kevin Costner post-Dances with Wolves epic failures. Today that version of the Wyatt Earp story is almost forgotten (although there are rumors it’s been used in some hospitals to anesthetize patients). It’s a sprawling three-plus hours long, and it strives for a high degree of historical authenticity. It just happens to suck.

Tombstone, on the other hand, is blatantly and rather un-apologetically inaccurate. I say that because it not only plays fast and loose with the facts of Wyatt Earp’s life (and the lives of his friends and family) it even goes so far as to begin the film with faked-up black and white newsreel footage. An accompanying Robert Mitchum voice-over informs us that the movie takes place in 1879. You don’t need a degree in film studies to know that showing newsreels from the 1870’s is more than a little anachronistic.

And that’s just the beginning. The entire movie is a fantasy-version of Wyatt Earp’s life. The film omits members of his family, alters the timelines of significant events and treats actual historical figures as almost fictional characters. Two quick examples: the town Marshall Fred White killed by Curly Bill Brosius is played by an elderly man. The actual Marshall White was in his twenties. John Ringo is portrayed (brilliantly, by the way) as a well-educated sociopath regarded as the fastest gun since Wild Bill. In truth he was probably something of a coward who was no better educated than anyone else, who might not have killed anyone and who didn’t die in a gun-battle with Doc Holliday, but probably committed suicide.

Then why is it so good?

For one, because it isn’t tethered to the facts. Where Costner’s vision tried to show a complete picture of the man Wyatt Earp, Tombstone may as well be a work of complete fiction. It has little regard for the actual chronology of all but a few iron-clad details, which is great, because life doesn’t really work like the movies. It’s messy and illogical and doesn’t always make sense. By abandoning the real events to some degree then, Tombstone is free to tell an entertaining, if not totally true, story.

If you watch it closely, it actually works kind of like a stage play on film. The Cowboy Gang is introduced in a fast sequence right after the opening that establishes their brutality in about 30 seconds. Then, in short order, we meet Wyatt and his whole family at a train station where Wyatt rebukes a man for whipping a horse, showing his good-nature in even less time. A few minutes later we find ourselves in Tombstone itself, where Wyatt meets up with: Doc Holliday, the Sheriff, the Marshall, two of the men who will eventually join Wyatt’s “gang” and the entire acting troupe from which Wyatt’s love interest is drawn – all in one street scene.

Now, there’s no way all of those people would have a “meet cute” like that in real life. And we know enough about the real people that we can say for sure that it didn’t happen that way at all. But it doesn’t matter, because it works. We meet every major character and learn one or two key things about them in the time it takes to get the wrapper off of your box of Snow Caps.

A scene a few minutes later puts Curly Bill and Ringo face-to-face with Wyatt and Doc in the Earps’ casino, where Bill and Wyatt size each other up across the Faro table, as Doc and Ringo do the same in a clever display of Latin proverbs and hand-eye-coordination. Another great scene that is at once completely unrealistic and yet totally effective. From there, only a half hour into the film, every major conflict is not only well established, but is already well underway.

I could go on, but you get the point.

Most of the rest of the film plays out just like that. Every scene has a purpose and every scene moves the story along. Not like real life at all, and almost certainly not the way the real lives of the real Earps happened, but that’s fine.

The performances are excellent too. Tombstone is one of those movies where every actor is on his or her game, no matter how relatively minor their role might be.

Michael Biehn as Ringo is my personal favorite. He plays the steely-eyed villain as an almost tragic figure, a lost soul whose background suggests wealth and refinement, but who somehow lost his humanity en route to becoming a feared gunfighter. So what if it isn’t true? The acting is brilliant and the character feels authentic.

Val Kilmer puts on a show of his own as Doc Holliday, in some ways the inverse of Ringo — a refined gentleman who is also a ruthless killer, but who, is somehow a more benevolent scoundrel, and while suffering from tuberculosis, is somewhat tragic himself.

Kurt Russell in the Wyatt Earp role plays him as the reluctant lawman, drawn into a conflict despite doing everything to remain neutral. He’s the classic hero, slow to anger, but fearsome and bold when called upon. A less demanding role than some others, but Russell holds his own with just the right mix of intensity and warmth.

Again, whether Wyatt Earp was actually like that hardly seems to matter, because this isn’t a movie about the real Wyatt Earp. It’s a story about gunfighters and cowboys in a fictionalized Old West. It’s about a group of fully-realized characters who have the same names as people who were once real. It isn’t an attempt to re-create real people that results in a bunch of poorly realized characters.

And that’s why it works so well. Real events don’t tell stories. They just happen. We sometimes tell stories about real events, but those stories are easier to follow and more entertaining to watch if they follow a few basic rules of drama, of fiction in other words – set up the characters, lay out a conflict for them, let them try to figure their way out and see what resolution they arrive at.

That’s what Tombstone does, and what Wyatt Earp the film didn’t really do. That’s why it works and why it’ll probably be on again soon.


Bluff City Law

Occasionally I’ll re-post something, and I think this is worth the shout-out. Last week I wrote a post on my former blog about Bluff City Law, a show I wish more people would watch. I believe in it so much, in fact, that I’m posting about it a second time.

I’m a tough critic when it comes to these things. I’ve been a lawyer for nearly 20 years, which means I usually hate lawyer shows. They tend to be highly inaccurate, fanciful depictions of the legal world that often convey misleading impressions to the public about what those of us in the justice system actually do.

This show does take some shortcuts. I accept that. I’ve even had some brief twitter exchanges with the creator/show-runner Dean Georgaris about them (he was very nice, by the way.) The bottom line though: they do it for the right reasons, in the right way. No legal drama is going to be 100% true to life. Life is boring and messy. It can’t be contained in 48 minutes of television. Trust me, if you’ve ever spent any time in an actual courtroom, you’ll know it doesn’t make for good TV.

What really matters though is that this show is committed to telling compelling stories, with complex characters in a setting that they largely respect–even when the demands of the narrative make true-to-life accuracy less-than-ideal.

Word is out that it’s on the brink though. There may be some hope yet, but the network did not order more episodes to follow its initial run of 10, which is usually a sign that it will get axed come spring. Georgaris tweeted yesterday that all is not yet lost–but the only way to keep this thing alive is for it to pick up more viewers.

So give it a shot–that’s my legal advice for the day.

Clark Ashton Smith – The Emperor of Dreams

This weekend I finally got around to seeing the Clark Ashton Smith documentary “The Emperor of Dreams” from last year.

That is way late for me, because Clark Ashton Smith is one of my all-time favorite writers. Among the “holy trinity” of the Weird Tales-era, Lovecraft’s flame has always remained somewhat alive in the public consciousness, and Conan is a household name, if not his creator Robert E. Howard himself. But CAS seems to be barely remembered, at least in the wider world. Within the weird fiction community though, he has his core group of rabid fans–myself included.

I know his peculiar style may not really suit everyone, and maybe that’s why he never went mainstream. But his work is unique, and it’s extraordinary. Using a combination of archaic verbiage and poetic phrasing filtered through an imagination virtually unrivaled in scope, Smith’s pages echo of ancient wisdom, of half-forgotten and long forbidden horrors.

He was truly “a magician with words.”

T3 – Why the Stakes Always Matter

The new Terminator movie tanked at the box office the last two weeks. I’ve read a fair amount of speculation about why: genre fatigue, changing actors, etc.

I haven’t seen the film and have no plans to. So I can’t comment on any of that.

However, there is one thing that has jumped out at me from what I’ve read that I think is important enough to call out—even without seeing the film.

The stakes have to matter.

By that I mean, the thing the characters are (or were) fighting for has to be important, and it cannot be undone later without consequences. Spoiler alert if you’re planning to see it and/or avoiding all coverage: apparently the basic premise is that T2 was the last actual entry in the series, clearing the decks on the later sequels. Fine. That means that the efforts made by Sarah Connor & company were a success. Skynet was stopped and the future was saved.

Here’s the rub: the new movie apparently takes that one step further, and in my view one step too far. In order to keep the franchise chugging along, the idea is that although Skynet was stopped, another artificial intelligence appeared anyway. In the vacuum, it arose and did basically the same thing as Skynet originally had done.

In other words, they’ve reduced the Terminator franchise to that scene in Groundhog Day where Phil repeatedly saves the homeless man’s life, only for him to die each time. It traps the characters in a potentially endless loop, a video game that keeps sending you to another level after you win each boss fight.

By doing this the writers are saying that everything the characters accomplished the first time around didn’t really matter. In fact, it never really mattered, because whatever they did, however much they sacrificed or endured, something else was always going to come along and destroy humanity anyway.

That effectively makes everything that has gone on before meaningless. The stakes matter. Once you undo them, there is no going back.

I may catch the movie at some point down the line, when it’s streaming, just to see how it all finally did play out. But just knowing that little bit about the premise, I won’t spend a dollar to see it in the theater.

The Lovecraft-iverse?

It appears this recent trend toward the “shared universe” film series is finally reaching back to one of the first great proponents of that theory: H.P. Lovecraft himself.

His work has always been notoriously hard to film. What played as sinister, creeping dread in print often came off as campy or even just straight up laughable in prior attempts. The eldritch horrors reduced to cheap and cheesy special effects.

Clive Barker’s early fiction (The Hellbound Heart, Cabal) was praised as elevating horror fiction to a literary level. The Washington Post said of his writing in Cabal that it touched the “rarefied and chancy domain of artist” — yet the film adaptations, hampered by 1980’s limitations, devolved into schlock-ridden camp-fests (full disclosure: I love them anyway).

The 1970 Dean Stockwell-led adaptation of the “Dunwich Horror” is almost too cringe-worthy to sit through. It uses essentially the same level of effects Sid and Marty Krofft employed on “The Lost Saucer” for Saturday morning kids viewing.

In any event, a company called Spectre Vision is apparently putting out an adaptation of “Color Out of Space” in January, with plans to adapt some of Lovecraft’s other works going forward. Now, in the right hands, with the proper budget and with respect for the source material — I’m talking Peter Jackson LOTR type reverence — this could be amazing. Then again, the whole Universal Monster-verse crashed & burned pretty fast, so we’ll have to wait & see.

Exclusive: Lovecraft Trilogy in the Works at SpectreVision!



Dr. Sleep

The long-awaited sequel to The Shining opens this weekend.

I’m very curious to see this. King famously disliked Kubrick’s take on his book, feeling it diverged from the source material in several significant ways. Was Jack a sane man who slowly lost his mind, surrendering to his demons inside (and maybe outside too)? Or was he already borderline sane to begin with? Maybe he was always at the Overlook, as the photo at the end suggests.

In any case, ol’ Stanley’s unique approach has now become cemented in cinema history as one of the greatest horror films of all time (and a personal favorite of mine). This is billed as a sequel to both the book and the movie. I can’t wait to see how that plays out.

Welcome to the Future

As of this month, Blade Runner is no longer set in the future.

Blade Runner 2019When the film came out over thirty years ago, the present day seemed so very far off. Flying cars. Dystopian levels of crime, poverty and pollution (although we do have plenty of these issues in real life, they’re nowhere near as acute as the movie made them out to be). Plus, no off-world colonies or human-like replicants — that we know of.