Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Polishing the Hollywood Crime Novel: a question of integrity

Today I welcome guest-blogger, Shelly Frome. He's a member of Mystery Writers of America, a professor of dramatic arts emeritus at the University of Connecticut, a former professional actor, a writer of mysteries, books on theater and film, and articles on the performing arts appearing in a number of periodicals in the U.S. and the U.K.. His fiction includes Tinseltown Riff, Lilac Moon, Sun Dance for Andy Horn and the trans-Atlantic cozy The Twinning Murders. Among his works of non-fiction are the acclaimed The Actors Studio and texts on the art and craft of screenwriting and writing for the stage. His latest novel is a southern gothic crime-and-blues odyssey entitled Twilight of the Drifter.  He lives in Litchfield, Connecticut.
  There are times when you have to be on guard. Otherwise writers’ magazines, interviews on Charlie Rose and even lead articles in the New York Times Book Review may start to get to you and you’ll find yourself opting for “page-turning success.”
In a recent issue of one of these guides, a “pro” insisted that readers have a limited amount of time and money, genres like crime fiction are saturated, and you better be offering immediate, highly accessible entertainment. Another “pro” advised that you need a provocative plot question at the outset if you’re going to have half a chance of snaring readers’ attention. In one of Charlie Rose’s John Grisham interviews, Grisham claimed that readers have an insatiable appetite for scandal. What they really want is to pick up a book and keep reading to find out what’s going on behind closed doors. That’s why plotting and pacing are crucial. Never use too many words, says Grisham. Come up with the best idea, nail it down in one sentence and pitch it to someone who is really savvy—e.g., “A bright young lawyer joins a high-powered firm but can never leave because it’s owned by the Mafia.”
As another example of this preoccupation with a sure-fire hook and forward motion, you need look no further than last month’s issue of Book Review. The one  featuring Elmore Leonard’s photo on the cover and the caption “Back on the Case.” Predictably, the reviewer Olen Steinhauer declared that, as a successful crime novelist, Leonard is an advocate of rat-a-tat acceleration.
Admittedly, the first draft of my Hollywood crime novel Tinseltown Riff was  either consciously or subconsciously under the influence. And then, luckily, I began to recall Dan Brown’s novels like the DaVinci Code. I remember being so upset because instead of creating characters who had a life, he simply kept them running around from here to there in search of the key to some scandalous puzzle. There wasn’t even time to care about the victims, find out who they were and even take a moment to mourn their passing. And that undoubtedly was why Tom Hanks, as the film version of one-dimensional Robert Langdon, seemed to have phoned-in his part at every outing.

And so I stepped away from my caper for a while. I had all the ingredients Grisham advocated, but soon all the missing pieces and a sense of truth began to nag at me. Ben, my central character, was too unaware. It was interesting that he was a screenwriter hack who preferred to remain ensconced in and around Hollywood and was enamored of old movies. It was also interesting to, in a sense, have the old movie sets of an abandoned studio lot champing at the bit to come alive again. And it was also promising to have Ben unwittingly on a collision course with a lone wolf tracker in cahoots with a Vegas mob—this, in view of today’s economy, causing Ben out of desperation to accept a dubious gig.
But, despite this concern with readers’ expectations, I began to have second thoughts. Once you set these forces in motion, other realities come into play. Nothing ever just holds still for the sake of your plotline. Life-like characters have a backstory and are full of contradictions. There’s also the weather, the time of year, what’s going on within this world including the surrounding areas, ever-changing relationships and their  interplay. Not to mention the widening gap between what anyone wants and the complications that ensue when you force the issue making the outcome that much more problematic.
If you work organically, that is. And put aside all the advice from the pros and  worries about the market and enhancing your platform. Depending, of course, on what you’re really after.
Confession. I was a starving actor in New York, am keenly aware of the given circumstances and what rings true, and have an abiding faith in the spirit of the moment.

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