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Archive for April, 2010

“I couldn’t get the book published, and I kept reckoning with myself, consulting with my soul.”
Paul Harding

“For three years, Paul Harding’s unpublished novel, Tinker, sat in a drawer. The writer, a former Boston rock drummer who grew up in Wenham, (MA) had tried selling it, but nobody was interested.”
Geoff Edgers
The Boston Globe

This week 42-year-old Paul Harding won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Tinker. It was the end of a long journey. He’s quoted in The Salem News saying, “I told myself, ‘You’re a writer who writes, and it may be that this never gets published and you teach Freshman Composition the rest of your life, but you have a perfect wife and kids, and that’s already cool.'”

The University of Iowa grad (MFA/Iowa Writers’ Workshop ) and current visiting faculty member told the Iowa City Press Citizen,”I worked on it for 5 to 6 years and actually tried to have it published, but couldn’t find an agent or a publisher. From the moment I saw one copy in between two covers, it was all gravy from there.”

Back in 1990 Harding helped formed the grunge band Cold Water Flat while a student at the University of Massachusetts. According to Sam Butterfield, the band toured throughout the Northeast and disband in 1996. Harding graduated from Iowa in 2000. (Wonder if he ever met screenwriter Diablo Cody who would have been attending Iowa at the same time. The Juno—Iowa Connection.)

Carole Goldberg, of the Hartford Courant says Tinker is: “A beautifully written meditation on life, death, the passage of time and man’s eternal attempt to harness it… one of 2009’s most intriguing debuts.”

The big contract for his debut novel? According to The Boston Globe, an initial run of 3,500 copies and a $1,000 advance.

Let’s review Harding assets before that killer book deal:

—1992 Olsmobile station wagon (good for hauling drums around)

—Unemployment checks

—Drum set in corner (leftover from his Cold Water Flat band gigs)

—A 191 page novel, unpublished & unwanted and in sitting in drawer

So since January of 2009 he’s not only had his book published, but it is currently the #11 bestseller at Amazon and a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot. (And now a nice meteoric rise in book sales.)

Congrats to Harding. The Pulitzer win is actually somewhere around the 50th for someone connected to the University of Iowa.

If you want to see something really unusual for these parts, check out this freaky video shot Wednesday night here in Northeast Iowa. (And be patient because the magic doesn’t start to happen until the 29 second mark.):

Check out NPR to read an excerpt from Tinker.

Trivia: According to Wikipedia, “a cold water flat is an apartment which has no running hot water.” Would make a fine title for a novel or screenplay.

Scott W. Smith

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“I kept saying to over and over to myself that God would probably lead me home.”
Nadia Bloom
(11-year-old girl who was found in swampy woods after missing for several days)

“We’re looking forward to the whole story. It’s got to be awesome.”
Jeff Bloom (Nadia’s father)

The story of Nadia Bloom’s rescue from the swampy woods in Florida gets more interesting the more we learn. It’s a little in the great adventure tradition of Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway mixed with Alice in Wonderland.  A mixture of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Robinson Crusoe,  Tarzan, Rain Man, Dorothy, and a little less known but much more contemporary literary character named Lanie. (“She’s an energetic girl who discovers the world in her own back yard.”)

Nadia’s story is also a story of faith, hope and a lot of determination by a large team of people. It’s the stuff of great stories.

It turns out that she had been missing for 90 hours and the Winter Springs Police Chief said that six more hours of searching was the point where it would have turned from a rescue mission to a recovery mission.

And though there were 150 searchers in the area, the foliage is so thick that machetes are needed to proceed and visibly at times was only 20 feet.

There were 30 dog search team that couldn’t find a trail due to knee deep and waist deep water —that at times dropped to fifteen feet of murky water.

ATV, horses, divers, side scan sonar machines, helicopters and a few days time turned up nothing. It had to be discouraging.

Then early Tuesday morning James King, a church going man with five children of his own, set out at sunrise believing that God would lead him to the girl. (Granted, when the press and many people hear that— the soundtrack to Deliverance kicks in, but in this case it appears to be just a real deal person of faith. The Blind Side kind of person who is just trying to do the right thing.)

King found Nadia near the shoreline of Lake Jesup. The lake that I mentioned yesterday that is estimated to have 10,000 alligators.  It took a team of 15 men to daisy chain carrying her out of the swampy woods.

The 85-pound girl was reported to be shoeless and covered from head to toe with mosquito bites, but otherwise doing “remarkably fine.”

Nadia said she prayed to be rescued and recalled the Bible verse,  “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

The sheriff’s office has her camera and those pictures will be sought after in the coming days as people will want to know what Nadia saw in her own version of Wonderland with skunks, snakes and such.

In many ways Nadia is an average elementary school girl who likes Webkinz. She or her younger sister was reading the American Girl book Lanie. (Either way I bet the story was familiar to her.) I found this description of the book at Amazon:

Ten-year-old Lanie loves science and nature, but she has a problem: she’s an “outside” girl with an “inside” family. She longs get out and go camping, but they all want to stay home. It wouldn’t be so bad if her best friend was around, but she’s halfway around the world, living out their dream of studying wildlife. Lanie feels she never gets to have any adventures-anywhere. But when her favorite aunt comes to stay, Lanie discovers that the wonders of nature are everywhere-even in her own backyard.

An adventure in her own backyard? Sound kinda familiar? Nadia’s younger sister and father at the time of her disappearance were actually on a camping trip with a Brownies troop in the Everglades.

Lanie was written by Jane Kurtz and just published at the end of 2009. Kurtz has a website and a blog and it sounds like she has had an interesting and adventurous  life as well. She was born in Portland, Oregon but moved to Ethiopia with her parents when she was just two. Speaking engagements have taken her to Uganda, Nigeria, Romania, Indonesia and many other places, and she lives in Lawrence, Kansas. (Here in the adventurous Midwest.) She also helped start Ethiopia Reads, a nonprofit group that is “planting the first libraries for children in Ethiopia.”

But what may have led Nadia into the woods more than anything was her mild Asperger syndrome. Something that can lead to a preoccupation with one subject of interest. A simple desire to take a picture on the edge of the swampland could have led to another step, and another photo, and another step until she was deep in the woods.

Nadia is not the first child for this to happen to in Florida.  Back in 1996 the NY Times reported a 10-year-old autistic boy named Taylor Touchstone disappeared four days in a black water swamp area in the Florida panhandle. That search included “Army Rangers, Green Berets, marines, deputies with the Okaloosa Country Sheriff’s Department and volunteers.”

The NY Times article said the boy went for a swim and “just felt compelled to keep moving” and was found unharmed four days later by a fisherman farther down the river than search teams imagined was possible. One thing that both Taylor and Nadia have in common other than great adventures is they both share mild forms of autism which has been reported can make them hyper-focus and times and be fearless. Perhaps the things that both led them into their adventures and helped them survive.

I’m glad James King didn’t do the sensible thing Tuesday morning and sleep in or perhaps Nadia wouldn’t have been found in the dense brush. But know from the public’s fascination to this story, as well as the literary output of the “lost in the woods/stranded on an island/on the yellow brick road” themes that it is fertile ground for writers to explore.

P.S. To add to the odd connection file, I just saw online a video at CBS News with Rev. Jeff Dixon who is the pastor at Covenant Community Church where Nadia and her family attend church. I know Rev. Dixon from my days in Central Florida and once used him as a cameraman for a video I was producing.

One last thing, if you’re ever in Central Florida and want to get a taste of Florida before Disney, visit the Black Hammock Restaurant located just a couple of miles from where Nadia was rescued.

Scott W. Smith

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The story of the missing little girl who was found yesterday in Florida has caused quite a stir in the news the last few days. Eleven year old Nadia Bloom has Asperger’s syndrome and wandered off into the woods alone and wasn’t rescued until four days later.

Having grown-up in Central Florida, the area she was rescued is very familiar to me. And this is one time when the press has not given to hyperbole. Calling it the woods doesn’t do it justice—there is a reason why this area is not just another Orlando area subdivison. It is rugged swampland complete with dense foliage, muck and snakes. While I don’t know the exact area where she was rescued, I do know nearby Lake Jesup in Winter Springs is estimated to have an alligator population of over 10,000.

Bloom was thankfully carried out alive with just bug bites and dehydration and I bet one heck of a story to tell. Her father said she, “is a nature lover. She went on a bike ride and stopped and went off to take some pictures.”

The first time I ever heard of Asperger’s syndrome was in a book by playwright/screenwriter David Mamet, Bambi vs. Godzilla;

“I think it is not impossible that Asperger’s syndrome helped make the movies. The symptoms of this developmental disorder include early precocity, a great ability to maintain masses of information a lack of ability to mix with groups in age-appropriate ways, ignorance of or indifference to social norms, high intelligence, and difficulty with transitions, married to a preternatural ability to concentrate on the minutia of the task at hand. This sounds like a movie director to me.”

Mamet goes on to say that the highest prevalence of Asperger’s syndrome is among Ashkenazi Jews and their descendants, which historically just happens to make up the bulk of American movie directors and studio heads. (The Jewish lineage, of course, is not a requirement to be in film industry Mamet points out, but one that includes Goldwyn, Mayer, Spielberg, Mamet himself, and a long list of others.)

While Nadia’s Asperger syndrome may have lead her into the woods to take some pictures, it is probably what helped her survive as she did not appear to panic, but was concentrating on the minutia of the swampland.

I hope her camera and pictures and/or video survived the journey as well. Don’t tell me some Hollywood producers aren’t already working an angle on this story. Nadia’s story is the real life Where the Wild Things Are.* She spent four days (and don’t forget the nights) alone in an area few of us would want to spend four minutes.

Can I get an associate producer credit for my suggested title?: How to Train Your Alligator.

And lastly, Nadia’s story is one reason why happy endings are so popular in movies. Because in real life we are used to seeing so many heart breaking stories when young boys and girls disappear.

*Where the Wild Things Are writer/illustrator Maurice Sendak’s parents were Jewish immigrants to the United States from a small village outside Warsaw, Poland. Mamet points out (via Neal Gabler’s book  An Empire all Their Own), that Warsaw (and the surrounding 200 mile radius) was ground central for those that would lay the foundation for Hollywood storytelling. Perhaps I should have called this blog Screenwriting from Warsaw.

Scott W. Smith


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“I’m not sure I’m quoting Somerset Maugham’s rule absolutely correctly, but I think it is, ‘If it should occur to cut, do so.’ That’s the first basic rule of cutting. If your reading through something and it bothers you, then it’s bad. Cut it…It’s purifying. It’s refining. Making it precise…My own rules are very simple rules. First, cut all the wisdom; then cut all the adjectives. I’ve cut some of my favorite stuff. I have no compassion when it comes to cutting. No pity. No symphathy…Cutting leads to economy, precision, and to a vastly improved script.”*
Paddy Chayefsky (Three-time Oscar-winning screenwriter)
The Craft of the Screenwriter by James Brady
Page 55

*I hope the late Mr. Chayefsky doesn’t mind my edit of his interview with Mr. Brady. I was just trying to make it a little more precise.

Scott W. Smith

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Last night I watched Michael Mann’s Heat for the first time. I’m not sure what took me 15 years to see the film starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. I should have seen this when it first came out if for no other reason that I believe it’s the first time Pacino and DeNiro faced each other in a film. It’s not your typical good guy/bad guy story. Mann exposes for the grey areas of the characters and you think that it wouldn’t take much for the good guy to be the bad guy and the bad guy to be the good guy. Similar criminal minds who have taken different paths that pit them against each other.

My favorite line in the film was said by Val Kilmer when De Niro asks him why his woman is leaving him and Kilmer says (in his ocean front house), “Not enough steaks in the freezer.”  That’s tight writing and we know he’s not talking about literal “steaks in the freezer.”

Heat screenwriter/ director Michael Mann was born and raised in Chicago and got turned on to filmmaking while an English major at the University of Wisconsin. He made documentaries in London before writing for TV shows like Starsky & Hutch and Police Story and creating Miami Vice. From there he’s gone on to write and or direct some terrific feature films including The Last of the Mohicans, Collateral, and The Insider. Along the way he’s picked up four Oscar nominations.

To get a glimpse of how Mann works here is a part of an interview that Mann did with Michael Sragow talking about writing and directing The Insider starring Pacino and Russell Crowe:

I tried to direct the subtext. That’s where I found the meaning of the scenes. You could write the story of certain scenes in a code that would be completely coherent but have nothing to do with the lines you hear.

For example, in the hotel room scene, Scene 35, when Lowell and Jeffrey first meet: All Lowell knows for sure is that Jeffrey has said “no” to helping him analyze a story about tobacco for “60 Minutes.” He doesn’t know yet that there’s a “yes” hiding behind this “no.” There’s a whole story going on that’s not what anybody’s talking about.

If you wrote an alternate speech for Jeffrey, it would go: “I’m here to resurrect some of my dignity, because I’ve been fired, and that’s why I dressed up this way and that’s why I have these patrician, corporate-officer attitudes.” And you could do the same for Lowell, and have him sitting there and saying, “This man wants to tell me something that is not about why he’s meeting me.”

Al Pacino just took over Lowell’s great reporter’s intuition to sit there and laser-scan Jeffrey with his eyes. You know, he looks at him, looks at him, and doesn’t move, until, after all the fidgeting and shuffling with the papers, Russell, as Jeffrey, gets to say his great line — “I was a corporate vice president” — with the attitude “Once upon a time, I was a very important person.” And that [Mann snaps his fingers] is when Lowell has it.

Suddenly, here’s the significance of this meeting: “He’s the former head of research and development at Browne & Williamson Tobacco Company, and he wants to talk to me.” Without hitting anything on the head with exposition, without any of that awful dialogue, like “Boy, have I got a lead which may give us the newsbreak of the decade,” you know that Lowell knows he’s on the scent of a helluva story.

Scott W. Smith

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“There’s a difference between drama and melodrama; evoking genuine emotion, or manipulating emotion. It’s a very fine eye-of-the-needle to thread. And it’s very rare that it works. That’s why I tend to dominate this particular genre. There is this fine line. And I do not verge into melodrama. It’s all drama. I try to generate authentic emotional power.”
Nicholas Sparks

Nicholas Sparks is on a roll. A new movie that he and is in theaters now made its money back in its first week and he has the number one slot on the New York Times best seller list for Paperback Mass-Market Fiction (and the #5 slot as well).

If you’re not a 12 years old girl you may not have read or seen The Last Song or Dear John, or be aware that  most of his stories are set in the Carolinas. But Sparks spent a good deal of his youth in the Midwest and an event that happened right here in Iowa helped give him a start as a writer.

Sparks was born in Nebraska, and lived for a time in Minnesota, and eventually landed in Indiana where he received a track scholarship to Notre Dame. While running in the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa he was injured and this is what he wrote on his website:

I spent the summer icing my Achilles tendon. During those three months, in which I was instructed not to run at all, I moped around the house until my mom got tired of it.

“Don’t just pout,” she said, “Do something”

“What?” I asked, not bothering to hide my sulking.

“I don’t know. Write a book.”

I looked at her. “Okay,” I said.

He completed that first novel between his freshman and sophomore years but it didn’t get published.  A few years later he wrote another novel that also didn’t get published. He worked various jobs including waiting tables and wrote a third novel. The third time was a charm as The Notebook got him an advance of $1 million.

He since has had more than fifteen books published and, beginning with Message in a Bottle starring Kevin Costner and Robin Wright Penn, six of his novels have been made into movies. (I wonder if Sean Penn, Robin’s wife at the time, watched Message in a Bottle. And if so, did the words “authentic emotional power” come to his mind?)

Though often thought of and called a romance writer Sparks prefers to think of himself as a writer of tragic love stories. In a recent article in USA Today he stresses the differences. That’s the article that also created a little controversy when film critic Roger Ebert took Sparks to task for some of his comments about Cormac McCarthy, but he still gave the new Miley Cyrus movie two and a half stars.

And if you’re keeping score. put Sparks down as another writer who grew up poor (at least until his father finished his Ph.D.) and Catholic.

BTW—The Drake Relays (where Sparks hurt his Achilles tendon) are later this month and a big deal in these parts as it attracts some of the finest athletes in track in field including former and future Olympians.

Scott W. Smith

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“I can’t go on to page two until I can get page one as perfect as I can make it. That might mean I will rewrite and rewrite page one 20, 30, 50, 100 times.”
Dean Koontz
CNN

Writer Dean Koontz was born in Everett, Pennsylvania and raised in Bedford, PA. He was raised poor in a small four room house with a violent alcoholic father. That no doubt shaped his dramatic sensibilities. He told CNN, “There are so many demons in me I could write for another 100 years.”

After graduating from what is now known as Shippensburg University he began, like fellow best-selling author Stephen King, teaching high school English. (He happened to teach at Mechanicsburg High School which is where Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker graduated from school in 1982.)

I’m not sure how long Koontz was a school teacher but in 1968 he had his first book published and since then has written enough books to be named by Forbes as one of the top ten best-paid authors. More than ten of his stories have been made into films or TV movies.

It’s three for one day here at Screenwriting from Iowa as I’ve pulled three quotes by Koontz from his book Writing Popular Fiction.

“The theme, the ‘meaning’ of a story, is not something you can sit down and plan out ahead of time. Or, anyhow, it shouldn’t be. Theme should grow from your characters and your plot, naturally, almost subconsciously. If you sit down to deliver a Great Message to the reader, above all else, then you are an essayist, not a novelist.”

“Duty. In Shakespeare’s day, duty was a valid motive for a writer’s characters but is now dated. The masses no longer blindly give their loyalty to king and state. It is not sufficient, for example, to establish that your detective or secret agent is investigating the case because it is his job. The reader finds little empathy or escape in the exploits of a man just doing his job. Your protagonist must have a reason for his actions aside from the fact he’s paid for them. Why is he a spy or detective? What is there about him that makes him want to do these things, what need is satisfied? Therein lies your real motivation.”

“Of the seven major categories of modern fiction, the mystery and suspense forms—especially suspense—provide the writer with the greatest opportunity for financial success.”

Koontz has written thirty plus New York Times best sellers and more than 200 million books so if you’re looking for advice he’s a solid source.

FYI—Koontz has an excellent website including podcasts.

Scott W. Smith

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