Try to Write Like Fred MacMurray

Whenever I watch Double Indemnity I'm reminded of what a great actor Fred MacMurray was.

MacMurray was a guy with boy-next-door looks who became a steady leading man in Hollywood. Best known as the warm-hearted dad in the sitcom My Three Sons, MacMurray was equally at home in comedy, drama and film noir, adept in both movies and TV.

How good was he? Think about
Double Indemnity. He plays a slick talking insurance man who teams up with a dame to knock off her husband. A murderer! Yet, by the middle of the film, we find ourselves pulling for him. I don't know many actors who could make that happen.

And I don't think, outside of Robert Mitchum, there's ever been a better deliverer of rat-a-tat film noir lines, like these:

"That's a honey of an anklet you're wearing."

"How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?"

"I wonder if a little rum would get this up on its feet."

Inexplicably, he was never nominated for an Academy Award. Outrage! He was absolutely robbed when Barry Fitzgerald was somehow nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor
for the same role (Going My Way). MacMurray should have been given the Actor slot (Fitzgerald won for Support). Bing Crosby won Actor that year (again, for Going My Way) and while the old crooner was fine, he didn't do one tenth the acting MacMurray does in Double Indemnity.

Though MacMurray is remembered today mostly for his light comedy (e.g.,
The Absent Minded Professor), for my money his best roles were as lowlifes, in Double Indemnity, The Caine Mutiny, and The Apartment. He could have won Oscars for all three.

In other words he was a true actor, doing his job and doing it well. He never tried to show off or chew scenery. He blended into the role and served the greater purpose of the movie.

Which is what I like in writers, too. Getting the tone just right, not showing off in terms of style, but doing what serves the purpose of the story. Even Chandler, who has flights of style that soar, never tried to transcend his plot. He didn't want to. He was a real writer weaving a fictive dream.

I can think of a few writers like that, who are reliable, book after book. Someone like Donald Westlake (aka Richard Stark). Or John D. MacDonald.

Try to do the same.
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5 Mid-NaNoWriMo Tips

What ho! You’re steaming through NaNoWriMo and are almost to the halfway point. Some of you are plowing ahead, some of you are stuck. Maybe something in between. Wherever you are, here are five tips to give you a fresh jolt of NaNo energy:

1. Go back and add words to previous scenes

One of the best ways to fill out your word count is to go backward. Read quickly through your previous scenes and, where you feel it, write in extra words to flesh out what may be scant. You’ll find a lot of scant. Then get back to the new pages.

2. Have your Lead “look in the mirror”

You’re getting to the midpoint of your novel. This is a crucial spot. In my workshops I teach the “look in the mirror” moment. It’s where your Lead looks at herself, figuratively, and sees that death is on the line (remember, death can be physical, professional or psychological/spiritual). She sees that the odds are she probably won’t make it. In
The Hunger Games, for example, the midpoint is when Katniss reflects that she’s going to die, and very soon. In Casablanca, Rick looks at what he has become (a drunken bastard) and will have to decide, in the second half of the movie, whether he stays that way. It’s a great exercise to find out what your book is really about.

3. Write three “page-long sentences”

A page-long sentence is an exercise I conduct with students, to help them get to the emotional meat of a moment. Find the three most intense sections of your book so far. Now, write a sentence that doesn’t stop (use commas only!) about what is going on inside that character. I find it best to write in first person voice here. Then take the good parts and put them into the scene. Change first person to third person if that’s the POV you’re using.

4. Do one mega day this week

Plan one big, knock down, drag out, mega-writing day if you can. If you’re in the LA area, the “
Great Train Escape” is an awesome deal. But wherever you are, create something similar for yourself. Camp out at a coffee place (but be sure to buy stuff from them every four hours).

5. Write the very, very first thing in the morning

If you’re not doing this already, try to write the first thing in the morning (or, second if you’re brewing your own coffee). Get a “furious 500” words done before anything else. If you have obligations that get in the way of that, try to do 500 extra at night.
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Declaration of Indie-Pendence

The Revolution is here, of course. The tea has been thrown in the harbor, and lanterns placed in the belfry. In many ways the self-publishing boom is like those heady days of liberation in our own country’s history, with possibilities seemingly endless, fresh territories waiting to be explored.

Plus, we have not yet settled on the “one best way of doing things,” i.e., a Constitution. In fact, we’ve barely begun our Federalist Papers.

Yet the irascible, voluble J. A. Konrath has issued a
Declaration of Independence from traditional publishing (scroll down toward the end to read it, and have your asbestos glasses on).

Note, the Konrath Declaration has not yet been ratified. There are other drafts in the pipeline, awaiting debate. In fact, I had written one up a few months ago, and now seems the perfect time to have it considered by the people and their representatives. So here goes:

Declaration of Indie-Pendence

When in the course of business events, it becomes necessary for writers to dissolve the exclusive bands which have connected them to an industry, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of creativity and of creativity's Source entitle them, a decent respect for the opinions of reading kind requires that they should declare the causes which compel them to a new way of doing business.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all writers are created to tell stories, that they are endowed by their imaginations with certain unalienable rights, that among these are writing books, getting them published and making some dough. That to secure these rights, distribution systems are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the marketplace. And that whenever an alternative system arises that provides writers with potential additional income, it is the right of those writers to choose to see what gives.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate what the best path is to pursue. But that there are different paths now is a fact, and the writer is free to further his career and earn a living in whatever way seems fittest and most just.

Let certain facts be submitted to a candid world:

- There is now no one way to publish, and there never will be again.

- The traditional publishing industry is still viable, but must become more flexible toward writers.

- Writers and their agents must assume a greater and more informed vigor in negotiations. Editors and industry reps must be equally prepared to negotiate, for it is in their long term interest to nurture new writers. Without new writers, there will be no traditional industry left.

- The new term for traditional publishing should be “creative partnership.” And both those words should be taken seriously.

- Writers who are traditionally published must begin to set aside the gentle fantasy that they are better than self-published writers
by definition.

- Self-published writers must set aside their unbridled lust to set fire to the walls of the Forbidden City and bay at the moon.

- Writers of any stripe must continue to hone their craft and write the best books they can. Every time out. No exceptions.

We writers, therefore, appealing to the supreme value of independence and creativity, do solemnly declare that we are free; that we are absolved from all allegiance to one way of doing things, and that as full, free and responsible beings we have the right to enter into any deal we think is best. That may be indie publishing. That may be traditional publishing. It may be a mix of both. But it will be a free choice.

For the support of this declaration, with firm reliance on the power of the written word, we mutually pledge to each other—and the reading public—our books, our stories and our sacred calling.


This Declaration is brought to you by one of the foundational pamphlets of the revolution.

Please feel free to respond via Twitter

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The Night I Met Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury died yesterday, June 5 2012. A big slice of American popular culture went with him. His contributions to our collective imagination were huge.
A little over twenty years ago, before I was a published author myself, I went to hear Ray Bradbury speak at the Woodland Hills Public Library. This was the library I grew up in, and Bradbury was one of the writers I admired most. I’d read The Illustrated Man in junior high school, and it was one of those books you read that just blows you away. It was the imagination on fire and set free, and I knew I wanted to be able to do something like that someday.

His talk that night was full of sprightly fun and reminiscences. I took notes on some of the things he said:

• Do word associations, as a way of letting your subconscious tell you what is inside you.

• Creating is NOT about fame, NOT about money. It's about having fun.

• Just do it.

• 2,000 words a day for 57 years. That wasn't work. That was fun!

• The intellectuals want us to believe it's no good unless it's tortured. The hell with that!

• Do what you love. Let it out into the world. If you're lucky, you'll get some money. But if you don't, do it anyway.

• “I work for free. I haven't made any money on any of my plays. But I love theatre. And I put up productions around town. And when I see the actors who've been in them on the street, we embrace, because we did what we loved and we had this experience together. For free. All the money went to my actors.”

• Don't think while you're doing it. Think after it's done.

• He uses no outlines, nothing. He wakes up in the morning and lays in bed until his characters, his voices, compel him to “scramble to the typer” and record them before they get away.

He signed books after his talk, so I stood in line with my treasured copy of ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING, his essays on creativity and the craft. I introduced myself and we shook hands.

"Are you a writer?" he asked.

I quoted from the book: "'Stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.'"

He laughed and said, "Oh, you must!"

I asked him if he set himself a daily quota, and he said, “No, I let my love determine how much I write."

"Ah, so you fall in love daily?"

"That's right."

He signed my book. "Do you write every day?" he asked.

"Five days a week," I said. "Weekends are for my family."

He laughed again. "That's the way to do it!"

He offered his hand again and said, "God bless you."

And off I went into the night, feeling blessed indeed for having had the chance to talk to one of the legends of our literature.

Ray Bradbury, American original. Rest in Peace.
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A Real Writer Can Never Be Defeated

A real writer can never be defeated.

Are you a real writer?

William Saroyan was a real writer, someone born to tell stories. He was a short story writer at first, then a playwright, then a novelist and finally a memoirist. He is not much talked about today, but he should be.

He wrote one the finest collections of short stories in the American idiom,
My Name is Aram.

He wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning play,
The Time of Your Life (he famously refused the prize).

He went into a period where his plays did not play and his books did not sell. Refusing to stop, he started writing quirky memoirs, like T
he Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills and Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in Forever.

At the end of his life he wrote surely one of the oddest memoirs ever,
Obituaries. In it he took the annual Variety edition that listed all the obits of movie industry people, and he went through it alphabetically, taking each name and riffing on it. Most of the time he didn’t know the person, but used the name as a jumping of point for his stream-of-consciousness reminiscences.

The chapters have no paragraph breaks or indents.

It should not be readable, but oddly, it is.

Because Saroyan was a writer who would not be defeated. He once said, “A writer who is a real writer is a rebel who never stops.”

Preston Sturges was a real writer. Mainly, he was one of the greatest writer-directors in Hollywood history, and surely the finest purveyor of the screwball comedy. For a period of time he wrote and directed hit after hit after hit.

And then, suddenly, he couldn’t get arrested.

He did not stop writing.

And he said, “When the last dime is gone, I’ll sit on the curb with a pencil and a ten-cent notebook, and start the whole thing all over again.”

So now we are in a new age where it is possible for a writer to make real dough. Most writers in the past didn’t make much money at all, even if they managed to get published. A scant few ever made a living at it. Many quit or just gave up.

Now you can publish yourself, and if you care about your craft, if you really care and don’t just throw your undercooked spaghetti against the wall to see if it sticks, if you take this thing seriously and are businesslike about it, you can write and people will read what you write and you might even make a few bucks. Or more.

It’ll always be a challenge, but now there’s an even playing field. You can keep going. You can keep trying. You can keep getting better. You don’t have sit down with someone telling you you’re not capable, that you should just quit, that you should go away and leave your dreams to others. You don’t have to take that as long as you’ve got a keyboard and an imagination.

And, in this way, you can never be defeated.

Are you a real writer?

Then keep writing.

And don’t stop. Ever.

Please feel free to respond via Twitter
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