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“I’m doing the outline [of my story] upfront so I always know where I’m going. I work on the outline for weeks, months, sometimes even years if I can’t get it right. But when I start the book on January the first to finish by July the first I’ve got a clear outline—I know exactly where the story’s going— I know how it’s going to end. I love John Irving books, and John Irving says he writes the last sentence before he writes the first. I’m not that smart, but I know what the last scene is before I write the first scene….It’s important to outline because if you don’t know where you’re going you can waste huge amounts of time.”
John Grisham (The Firm, The Client, The Pelican Brief)
Interview with Brian Koppelman

P.S. Grisham does say in that interview that he does have some “freedom and flexibility” to change his outline, but the reason “he can’t take a left turn for no reason” is he’s on a deadline to publish a book once a year. He didn’t outline his first book (A Time to Kill) and it took him three years to write and came it at 1,000 words (his editor cut that book by a third). And because his outlines sometimes take an extended time to complete, he can have multiple stories in play to make sure he gets one book done a year.

Related posts:
Screenwriting Quote #93 (John Grisham)
John Irving, Iowa & Writing
Postcard #48 (Oxford)
Analytical vs. Intuitive Writing
Stuart Beattie’s 5-Page Outline
Story Plotting the Harry Potter Way (It’s worth noting until J.K. Rowling came along, I believe John Grisham was the most financially successful living writer. Maybe ever. But when you look at the combined success of Grisham and Rowling and realize they both outline their stories you have to at least take notice. On the flip side, Stephen King doesn’t outline and Quentin Tarantino says “Basically, my writing’s like a journey.” )

Scott W. Smith

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I learned today that writer Jim Harrison died this past Saturday, so it seems fitting to repost this week something I wrote about him back in 2010:

“I think I wrote Legends of the Fall in about ten days.
Jim Harrison on his novella for which the movie* was based

Though Jim Harrison’s novella Legends of the Fall is less than 100 pages long and he said he wrote it in about ten days those numbers can be deceptive. In one interview he said it usually takes him about 10 years of thinking about things by the time he finishes writing his novellas.

Before Harrison became widely known as the writer of Legends of the Fall (which became a 1994 movie and helped cement Brad Pitt as a movie star) he had long been carving away at his craft in Michigan.

He was born in rural Grayling, Michigan in 1937. In Off to the Side: A Memoir, Harrison calls Reed City, Michigan where he lived between the ages of five and twelve his “golden years.”

“My background used to embarrass me. I’d think, I want to be like Lord Byron, or Vincent van Gogh. And then I’d realize, how can a boy from a little farm town do that? I think the years I spent at manual labor as a block layer, a carpenter, a digger of well pits, have given me more physical endurance for later in my life. And in an utterly corny Sherwood Anderson way, it makes you think those long thoughts. If you’re unloading fertilizer trucks for a dollar an hour all day long, and dreaming about New York City, it really means something. I remember a month before my first book of poems came out, I was working on a house foundation and the lumber truck couldn’t get close enough to the excavation, so I had to wheelbarrow 1,200 cement blocks for about seventy yards, load them and unload them. It was a cold, icy, early November day and it took me about nine hours to do it. That day I manually handled thirty-five tons worth of cement blocks, and that was for two and a half dollars an hour. When I got home I was hungry and tired, and what I had to show for it was right around twenty-five dollars. But you got a lot of thinking done. What it does do for you is, if you can hoe corn for fifty cents an hour, day after day, you can learn how to write a novel. You have absorbed the spirit of repetition.”
Jim Harrison
The Art of Fiction No. 104, Interview with Jim Fergus

It is interesting to note that Ernest Hemingway, Thomas McGuane (Ninety-Two in the Shade) and Harrison all spent time hunting and fishing in the same general northern area of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. All also came from religious families who put an emphasis on reading as well as an outdoor life. And while they all wrestled with their faith it impacted their writing. All three also gravitated to living at least part of the time in the northern U.S. region of the Rocky Mountains.

McGaune and Harrison also attended Michigan State at the same time as did fellow writer Richard Ford. In 2008, Esquire magazine listed The 75 Books Every Man Should Read and placed Legends of the Fall at #23 and Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter #60.

Harrison went on to get his M.A. in comparative literature at Michigan State and then struggled to earn a living for well over a decade existing on fellowships, grants and publishing books of poetry while writing in Michigan. In interviews he has said that he never made over $10,000. a year for the first 17 years of his marriage. Then there were some tax problems, some drinking problems, cocaine, depression, followed by suicidal thoughts.

After a hunting injury he was encouraged by McGuane to try his hand at writing a novel. The result was Wolf; A False Memoir (1971). A few years later he published  A Good Day to Day and that would open the door to Hollywood where Harrison was paid well, but produced little as a screenwriter. He wrote his first screenplay in 1975 for filmmaker Frederick Weisman (though it was unproduced) and worked as a contract screenwriter though 1997.  A side benefit was hanging out with people like Orson Welles, John Huston, and Jack Nicholson. 

He continued writing novels and eventually some of them found their way to getting produced as movies. Sometimes he was credited with working on the script and sometimes other screenwriters were brought in to write the scripts. Harrison’s credits include  Dalva, Carried Away, Revenge, and Wolf, along with Legends of the Fall. In 2007, Harrison was elected into the American Academy of the Arts.

These days Harrison splits his time between Montana and Arizona. When asked by The Paris Review if he had any advice for younger writers he replied:

“Just start at page one and write like a son of a bitch. Be totally familiar with the entirety of the Western literary tradition, and if you have any extra time, throw in the Eastern. Because how can you write well unless you know what passes for the best in the last three or four hundred years?”

More on Harrison tomorrow and some of his thoughts on the movie Legends of the Fall.

*The screenplay for Legends of the Fall was written by Susan Shilliday and William D. Wittliff.

Related post: Writer Jim Harrison (Part 2)

Screenwriting from Michigan

Scott W. Smith

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“I get swept away by the sincerity. I do not get swept away by what people call pyrotechnics & prose. I do not get swept away by wit. I think wit is in a lot of ways damaging to fiction. I just feel like I’m listening to a writer and not the character. When I read the writers I really love like Philip Roth and Alice Munro—and their prose is beautiful—they’re more interested in truth than in fancy clothes for their prose.”
Author Ethan Canin (Emperor of the Air, A Doubter’s Almanac)
Interview on The Moment with Brian Koppelman

Related posts:
The Shocking Truth  (Tennessee Williams quote)
Blending Truth, Spectacle & Serving the Story
Mike Nichols on Comedy, Tragedy & Truth
Hunting for Truth
Telling the Truth=Humor

Scott W. Smith

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Author Pat Conroy’s funeral was today after announcing just a month ago that he had pancreatic cancer. Here’s a quote I pulled for a post back in 2012 that’s one of my favorite illustrations of what writers do.

“On my first night in Vienna, Jonathan [Carroll, author of Bones of the Moon] walked me down to the Danube, where we sat on a flight of steps leading down to the river. The dog walkers were out in force. Greetings were exchanged with small movements of the eyes, and the dogs sniffed one another fondly. Handsome and imperial, Jonathan looked every inch the American expatriate. He exuded a serenity and a seriousness that I lack. But he kept his eye on a woman at the next bridge. She was moving so slowly I though she might be leading a dogsled pulled by escargots. After an hour, the woman walked in front of us, and she bowed her head in acknowledgment of Jonathan. With great dignity, he returned the gesture. To my surprise, she was walking two enormous tortoises, displaced natives from an Ethiopian desert. The woman walked them every night, and Jonathan was always there to admire their passage. 

 “‘That’s what writers do, Conroy,’ he said. ‘We wait for the tortoises to come. We wait for that lady who walks them. That’s how art works. It’s never a jackrabbit, or a racehorse. It’s the tortoises that hold all the secrets. We’ve got to be patient enough to wait for them.'”
Pat Conroy
My Reading Life 

Related posts:
Pat Conroy & Rehearsing for Death
Screenwriting & Cancer
What’s Your Problem?
Ralph Clemente (1943-2015) A film professor of mine who died last year from pancreatic cancer.
Apple, Steve Jobs & Dying
Don’t Waste Your Life

Scott W. Smith

 

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“I began this whole writing enterprise with the idea that you go to work in the morning like a banker, then the work gets done. John Cheever used to tell how when he was a young man, living in New York with his wife, Mary, he’d put on his suit and hat every morning and get in the elevator with the other married men in his apartment building. These guys would all get out in the lobby but Cheever’d keep going down into the basement, where the super had let him set up a card table. It was so hot down there he had to strip to his underwear. So he’d sit in his boxers and write all morning, and at lunchtime he’d put his suit back on and take the elevator up with the other husbands—men used to come home for lunch in those days—and then he’d go back to the basement in his suit and strip down for the afternoon’s work. This was an important idea for me—that an artist was someone who worked, not some special being exempt from the claims of ordinary life.”
Writer Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life, The Night in Question)
the Paris Review, interviewed by Jack Livings

Related posts:
‘Art is Work’—Milton Glaser
Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic
Honing Your Craft

Scott W. Smith

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“I was telling somebody yesterday that when I got to the airport in Cincinnati where I flew from that I ran into a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in a while. And he had seen the movie The Butler. And my friend Kevin— he and I hadn’t had the chance to talk about it since it came out— and he asked me, ‘Wil, has your life changed much since the movie came out?’ It made some money, it won some awards, it’s now played in 72 foreign countries. It became this wonderful, phenomenal hit. And I told Kevin my life is still the same. I’m still the same cat that I’ve always been. But I did make note of this little fact, that after the movie grosses exceeded 100 million dollars I heard from both of the ladies who turned me down for the high school prom. What’s up with that?”
Writer/reporter Wil Haygood (The Butler: A Witness to History)
Speaking at Valencia College on February 17, 2016
Haywood’s 2008 Washington Post article A Butler Well Served by This Election was the inspiration for the movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler written by Danny Strong.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the journey of Wil Haygood in telling the story The White House butler who served under eight Presidents of the United States.

Scott W. Smith

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“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career, that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.”
To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee (1926-2016)

Scott W. Smith

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