Seeing It a New Way

In my teen writing class at the Mount Horeb Public Library last week, we segued into discussing Catcher in the Rye, and one of my students made the following observation (which I'm paraphrasing): Some of my friends have said that, since the characters in the book were rich, Holden's problems weren't that significant. But in so many other books I've read, Read more

A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You're Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank). When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind Read more

For Halloween, Try EXORCISMUS

Every year around Halloween I try to recommend a horror movie you might not have seen, something off the beaten path and all the better for it. You can read previous recommendations here and here. This year, I worried that I wouldn't find anything. Then I discovered the 2010 film, Exorcismus. No, I can't explain the title, either. Yes, it's an exorcism movie, Read more

The Great Rock and Roll Secret

Suppose the great rock single had flickered over the airways just once, on the night you had passed out in the back seat?  Probably not, but still...rock and roll has always had this sense of possibility.  --Dave Marsh, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, page 93 I originally read the above quote in the 1980s, when the first edition of Read more

Review: The Making of Day of the Dead

When I heard there would be a book entirely about the making of George A. Romero's third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, I was surprised. The movie had not been a financial or critical success at the time, and while its reputation has risen since its 1985 release, it's still nowhere near as well-known as its predecessors, Night Read more

Writer’s Day #7: A walk through the world of pirates

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, pirates, video trailer, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writers, writing | Leave a comment

 

For this edition of The Writer’s Day, I share this summer’s visit to the Whydah exhibit, featuring artifacts from the only confirmed pirate ship so far recovered.

Rant: the high cost of low quality

Posted on by Alex in creativity, fiction, James T. Kirk, movies, originality, pop culture, self publish, Star Trek, writers, writing | 2 Comments

Last night, the wife and I saw Skyfall. I’ve seen every James Bond movie in a real movie theater since Live and Let Die, so my streak continues. I thought Skyfall was an adequate spy thriller and action film, but not much of a James Bond movie. Perhaps, given how this one ends, the next one will be more of a return to the Bonds that had an element of distinctiveness. You’d never mistake a Bond for a Bourne back in the day, the way you can now.

But we also saw previews for Jack Reacher, Django Unchained, and A Good Day to Die Hard, none of which did their job and convinced me I needed to see them. In fact, both Jack Reacher and Django Unchained reinforced my prior decision not to see them. And that, along with the trailer for the new Star Trek Into Darkness (which might as well be called Star Trek Jumping on the Nolan Bandwagon) hitting the internet, got me thinking seriously about something.

Why are we, as fans and consumers, satisfied with this?

JJ Abrams’ Star Trek was loud, noisy, and funny. It also had plot holes big enough for the Enterprise itself, and reduced one of SFs great heroes (James T. Kirk) to the status of a punk with a chip on his shoulder. I go into more detail here, but it’s the kind of movie that diminishes in retrospect, or with repeated viewings. Now there’s a new one, with a villain Abrams is playing coy about, only letting slip that it’s a “canon” figure. Khan? Gary Mitchell? Harry Mudd? Who knows? And more importantly, why should we care? Those stories have already been told, and told well. Yet here we are, as a demographic, getting excited about this movie when we should be ignoring it until someone comes along with some real, genuine new ideas.

The original “Django”

Similarly, Django Unchained, by virtue of being a Quentin Tarantino film, is practically guaranteed to be made up of parts of other movies, most obviously the spaghetti western Django series. More so than any other filmmaker working today, Tarantino has been praised for what is essentially sampling: taking bits and pieces of original creations and recombining them. He has yet to really create anything on his own, and it seems likely that this one will also have knowledgeable film buffs nudging each other and going, “You know where that’s from?”

The new “Django,” “unchained” from originality.

I understand completely the corporate mentality behind this: they’re known quantities, they’re existing properties, and most of the heavy lifting of creating them has already been done. What I really don’t get is why fans are excited about it. Another Star Trek movie that retreads vast swaths of the existing canon instead of “boldy going,” as its own damn catchphrase says? Bruce Willis, looking really old, in another Die Hard movie?

Then again, maybe I do get it, and just wish I didn’t. We’ve devalued our artists to the point that they can only make a living cranking new versions of old things. As a popular internet meme says, we’re willing to pay more for coffee at Starbuck’s than we are for music and literature. We justify piracy as entitlement. Girl of the moment Lena Dunham gets $3.7 million for this, while many formerly published authors are having to self-publish their own ebooks now.

And it seems we, as the consumers and fans, are satisfied with this.

I don’t have an answer. I wish I did.

The Dickens, I Say

Posted on by Alex in authors, eBook sale, family, fantasy literature, Memphis, movies, novel, originality, tv, writers, writing | Leave a comment

The most famous Christmas story, besides the Biblical one, is without a doubt A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens distilled the holiday spirit down to its essence with his tale of the miserly Scrooge who reforms his ways just in time for Christmas dinner. I love reading the actual story at Christmas, and watching my favorite* film version:

Yet take a step back from the many versions of this story, as well as the gargantuan list of other media (TV, radio, movies) that use it as a template and look at it from a fresh perspective, and Dickens’ accomplishment becomes that much more amazing.

The first edition of Dickens’ masterpiece

I mean, think about it: it’s a horror story, with genuinely scary ghosts (I defy anyone to not get a shudder from the Ghost of Christmas Future), a protagonist who advocates imprisoning children for debt, and its most sympathetic character (Tiny Tim) dies for lack of health insurance (okay, maybe not exactly that, but I stand by the analogy). Who puts all this in a Christmas tale?

A genius, that’s who.

Whatever his inspiration (and I’ve never researched it to find out), Dickens understood something basic about storytelling: the importance of balance. If his ultimate aim was to tell a heartwarming story for the holidays, he knew he had to even that out by adding dark, sometimes twisted elements that would balance the sweetness.

(You know who else understands this? David Lynch. In his best work–Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, even Twin Peaks–he balances the genuine affection the characters feel for one another with horrific violence and bleakness. But if there was only one element without the other, his films would be just like everyone else’s.)

How important is balance in a holiday story? Watch any Lifetime or Hallmark Christmas movie and see how insipid it is when it’s all sweetness and warmth. Without the darkness, there’s nothing to make the light stand out.

Nothing says Christmas like…AHHHHHHH!

When I set out to write “A Ghost and a Chance,” one of the stories in my holiday collection Time of the Season, I had a simple conceit: I wanted to drop my own Victorian/Edwardian Spiritualist character, Sir Francis Colby, into Dickens’ tale. Since I wrote about Colby in a faux Victorian voice, I thought it would be fun to use actual text from Dickens, and see if I could hide the seams between that and my own stuff. And it was fun. But it also made me recognize just what a gigantic accomplishment Dickens had managed. He gave us both a classic Christmas tale, and a legitimate horror story. He combined two genres that shouldn’t work together at all, and made them both complement and enlarge each other.

And it takes a genius to do something like that.

Want to see if you can spot the Dickens in my story? You can find it, along with two other holiday tales, here for only $2.99!

*Not saying it’s the best, just that it’s my favorite. I grew up watching it on WREG-TV out of Memphis.

The Next Big Thing blog tour

Posted on by Alex in authors, Burn Me Deadly, Dark Jenny, dragon, Eddie LaCrosse, fantasy literature, fiction, film noir, King Arthur, movies, novel, release date, Robert B. Parker, Shakespeare, Tor Books, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writers, writing | 3 Comments

My friend from the Heroic Fiction League on Facebook, Violette Malan, graciously invited me to participate in The Next Big Thing blog series. Each author answers the same set of questions, and passes them on to five more authors, who post their answers the following week and pass them on to five more authors, and so forth.

You’ll find Violette’s answers here, and my list of invited contributors at the bottom of this post. My answers begin right here.

What is your working title of your book?

It’s currently called He Drank, and Saw the Spider. I’m batting .500 in my initial titles making it to print (for example, Wake of the Bloody Angel was originally called The Two Eddies), so we’ll see how this one does. This time, my title is both a line from the book, and also a shout-out to the source material.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

It was inspired by The Winter’s Tale, one of Shakespeare’s last and most complex plays. It’s a genre-bending story of betrayal and reconciliation, and a real head-scratcher the first time you read or watch it. It’s best known for one of its stage directions: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

My initial idea was, “What if Eddie was dropped into the Autolycus role in the plot?” The final book is considerably different, but that was the inspiration.

What genre does your book fall under?

It’s sword-and-sorcery, but crossed with a healthy dollop of pulp detective fiction; “sword noir,” I guess. One reviewer called it, “Sam Spade with a sword.”

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I’ve said elsewhere on this blog that the ideal casting for Eddie LaCrosse is Alien-era Tom Skerritt.

But otherwise, I prefer not to lock down the images of the characters. Each reader will have his or her own ideas, and I don’t want to get in the way of that. I’ll worry about it when an actual movie deal happens.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

As a young mercenary, Eddie LaCrosse saves an abandoned baby from a bear; sixteen years later, now a private sword jockey, he has to save her again, this time from a complex plot involving magic, murder and an insane king.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It will be published by Tor in 2014.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

About eight months. A lot of that was research, reading up on Shakespeare, rereading his plays and internalizing a lot of Shakespearean scholarship. It may seem simple to take a plot or character from Shakespeare, but to do it justice you also have to understand what that character means, and how he or she functions in the play. For example, there’s a character loosely based on Caliban from The Tempest; Caliban has been used to represent everything from Irish bog people to a half-human fish monster to the plight of third-world citizens under Western occupation. If you’re going to put someone like him in your book, you have to decide what he represents for you, and how that affects the story and the other characters.

This is the same approach I’ve used for my other Eddie LaCrosse novels. Burn Me Deadly, for example, is about dragons, so I researched what people thought of them back when it was believed they really existed. Dragons were never simply animals, they were embodiments of beliefs and supernatural powers. If I wanted my dragons to carry that same weight of “believability,” I had to decide what they embodied in the world of my characters.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

My Eddie LaCrosse novels are always compared to Glenn Cook’s “Garrett, P.I.” novels and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. The influences I’m most conscious of are two Bobs: Robert E. Howard and Robert B. Parker.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

One of the consistencies of my Eddie LaCrosse series is that each book embraces a set of existing tropes; Dark Jenny, for example, is Arthurian at heart. In this one, I wanted to put Eddie into a Shakespearean story, so I looked for the best one to drop him into. I chose The Winter’s Tale because there’s a mystery at its heart.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s a fun and funny story. Eddie’s girlfriend Liz once again plays a major role, the first time since Burn Me Deadly. There’s action, suspense, magic and romance. There’s a mad king, a sorceress, and sheep. Lots of sheep.

Thanks to Violette for including me in this blog trail.  Now, here are my five awesome and talented writer friends who will be posting their answers next week.

Teresa Frohock, author of Miserere.

Kelly Barnhill, author of Iron Hearted Violet

Jen K. Blom, author of Possum Summer

Matt Forbeck, author of Amortals and Carpathia

Kelly McCullough (pending), author of Bared Blade and WebMage

Writer’s Day #6

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, pirates, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writers, writing | 1 Comment

 

The is the sixth in a series of videos showing how a typical writer (i.e., me) spends his day.  But this one is a special edition, shot on location in…well, you’ll have to watch and see.

The origin of character names: the Firefly Witch

Posted on by Alex in Firefly Witch, writers, writing | Leave a comment

Tanna Tully, aka the Firefly Witch, was my first continuing character. I had the term “firefly witch” banging around in my head ever since I first learned that witchcraft was actually religion called Wicca. That would’ve been sometime in the 80s, but it wasn’t until the 90s that I tried to create a character around the idea.

 

Because she was my first, her creation was a lot more haphazard and, in a sense, crude than some of my later characters. My choices were rather arbitrary: she had red hair because a girl I knew in college had red hair, for example. She was flirtatious because I like girls who are that way, and she had the unselfconscious sexuality I also find attractive. But I also made her a tenured college professor and a third-degree Wiccan priestess, positions you don’t attain without having your act together.

Her name Tanna, or more properly Tanita, came from an obvious late-80s source: musician Tanita Tikaram, whose “Twist in My Sobriety” was then in heavy rotation, and always sounded like a throaty whisper from a strange and unusual place. I probably, although I can’t say for certain, modeled the Tanna/Tanita diminutive after the Indy/Indiana from Raider of the Lost Ark; I say “probably,” because I was heavily into modeling things based on influences back then, as opposed to pulling them organically from the characters or the stories. Her maiden name, Woicistikoviski (woy-CHISS-tick-ko-VISS-ki) is entirely made up, a collection of nonsense syllables pounded into a name.  Again, I wouldn’t use that random approach again; the names in my novel The Hum and the Shiver, for example, have definite origins within the material itself (which I’ll explain in future post).

Her husband, Ry, was actually not named after his sense of humor (badda-BING!). Instead he was named after Ry Cooder, a musician whose soundtracks for director Walter Hill are some of my favorites. I wanted him to have a simple surname to contrast with Tanna’s, so it became Tully, which also nice alliteration for her character. And make no mistake, although these stories are mostly told from Ry’s perspective, Tanna is definitely the main character.

And the obviousness continues. They live in a town called Weakleyville, in Martin County located in Tennessee’s northwest corner. I went to college in Martin, in Weakley County, located in the same geographic place. Ry works for the Weakleyville Press newspaper.  I worked for the Weakley County Press newspaper. The University of Tennessee at Martin (UTM) is located there; Tanna teaches at West Tennessee University (WesTN).

The one place name I didn’t change was Cadillac’s bar. There is still a Cadillac’s in Martin, as least as of the last time I drove through. Cadillac himself is no longer with us, and I have no idea who owns or runs it now, but it’s vivid in my memory. It was probably the last time that I felt truly at home with a big group of people.

So as these explanations show, at the time I initially thought up the Firefly Witch, I was drawing more on the literal side of my own life than I’ve done since. I don’t know that it’s any better or worse to do it this way, but to me it now feels more shallow than digging in to find what the core concepts of something are, then creating reference points in a world where they apply. That said, I love the Firefly Witch and her world, and I’m enjoying revisiting them as I put these little story collections out.

Find out where you can pick up the Firefly Witch e-chapbooks here.

Who are the honorary Tufas?

Posted on by Alex in creativity, folk music, Hum and the Shiver, Jennifer Goree, music, Nashville, novel, short stories, tennessee, trivia, Tufa, writing | Leave a comment

How does one become an honorary Tufa, you may wonder?

The criteria is really pretty simple. You must have a song that you’ve written quoted (with your permission, of course) in a Tufa story.

So far, there are three honorary Tufas.

The first was Jennifer Goree. You can find out more about Jennifer and her connection to the Tufa here, but it’s safe to say she made a massive contribution, and she’s also been a staunch supporter. You can check out her music here.

Jennifer Goree, who composed the song “The Hum and the Shiver.”

Second, in order of appearance, is Andrew Brasfield. When I was thinking about a Tufa-themed story for my holiday collection, Time of the Season, I knew I needed a song that would be central to the plot: something that both captured the atmosphere, as well as becoming a literal presence in the story. I thought about using a traditional hymn, especially since the story features the young minister Craig Chess, but nothing really worked. So I reached out to Dale Short, Alabama author (you really should read his story collection Turbo’s Very Life) and host of Music from Home, and asked if he could recommend a song by a roots/folk/country indie artist that might work.

He recommended Andrew Brasfield, and pointed me toward his song, “Cold Wind.” It not only had the requisite atmosphere, but like The Hum and the Shiver before it, it provided the title.  You can read an interview with Andrew and learn about the song and the story here.

And finally, we have Mississippi-born singer-songwriter Kate Campbell, whose song “Wrought Iron Fences” is crucial to the story of the second Tufa novel, Wisp of a Thing. I first encountered Kate’s music way back in the early 2000s, when I was first researching what would eventually become the Tufa. I’d begun scouring the internet for examples of current roots/folk music, and came upon Kate’s website, where I won a CD. It was her first one, Lanterns on the Levee, and it’s as good a statement of purpose as any artist can make with a first album. Even the first track, “Mississippi and Me,” stakes out the territory she would explore in her subsequent work. But it was on her second CD, Moonpie Dreams, that I found two of my favorite songs of hers, “When Panthers Roamed in Arkansas” and, of course, “Wrought Iron Fences.”

Kate Campbell, who composed “Wrought Iron Fences”

Another artist prominently mentioned in Wisp of a Thing is Matraca Berg, one of the greatest contemporary songwriters in country music. Just check out the list of hits she’s written for other people. Unfortunately, she’s also a major-label recording artist, and therein lies one of the great rubs of contemporary music: many of the most famous songwriters, because they are contracted to major labels and music publishers, lack the legal standing to authorize the use of their own songs. You have to go through these other organizations, who do not grant permission lightly or cheaply. So unfortunately, Ms. Berg will remain a mentioned but not quoted presence.

The great Matraca Berg, songwriter extraordinaire

So that’s the list, so far. Hopefully you’ll check out the music by these great people, who are out there trying to do something meaningful and substantial in a world where popular music seems to consist of auto-tuned clones and divas. Because if you don’t support the cool stuff, you won’t have it for very long.

The origin of character names: Eddie LaCrosse

Posted on by Alex in Dark Jenny, Eddie and the Cruisers, Eddie LaCrosse, Sword-Edged Blonde, writers, writing | Leave a comment

One of the most common questions I get from fantasy fans is, “Why is your hero named ‘Eddie’?”

Naming characters, especially the main characters of continuing series, is an art far more than a science. For example, one of my favorite characters, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, has a first name, but in the 40 books Parker wrote (and who knows how many his ill-advised successor, Ace Atkins, will ultimately churn out), it’s never revealed. Parker said in an interview that he initially planned to name him David, after one of his sons, but he didn’t want to make his other son jealous, so he just eliminated all references to it, and it became an ongoing trope.

Similarly, the character who became Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe started out in short stories with names like John Dalmas and Steve Grayce (there’s some debate over whether or not these were the same characters, but if you read them after reading Marlowe, it’s pretty clear). Even Artemis Fowl was originally Archimedes Fowl.

So, when it came time to name the hero of my fantasy/mystery series, my original choice was…Devaraux LaCrosse.

Not, I repeat NOT, a Devaraux (art by Gene Ha)

Yes, my tough-yet-soft-hearted hero had a name better suited to a soap opera.

This began with the earliest glimmerings of the idea, back when I was a senior in high school, reading hardcore fantasy (what is now called “secondary world fantasy”) and trying to impress Ms. Burress, the new teacher (long story that you can find elsewhere on this blog). One of the rules of fantasy seemed to be that heroes could not have ordinary names like “John,” “Bill,” or “Eddie.” They had to be called “Aragorn,” or “Conan.” And they went only by one name. One of the forgotten revelations of Star Wars was that its characters had two names, a first name and a surname, like (dare I say it) real people.

So, I gave my hero his monicker, and continued to work with that name for…oh, two decades. The story evolved (although not as much as you’d think), but the real change came in the tone. Originally I worked in third person, then changed to movie-script form (because I had dreams of being the next Lawrence Kasdan, back when that was cool). By the time I changed the voice to first-person, my main reading had shifted from SF/F to hard-boiled mystery. Still, it took longer than it should have for me to realize that a genre mashup was the way to go, and even longer to comprehend that my hero, and all the other characters for that matter, should have normal names.

And why did “Devaraux” become “Eddie,” and not “Dave” or Bob”?

The main inspiration was P.F. Kluge’s novel Eddie and the Cruisers, one of the few “musical noirs” out there. In the book, Eddie is a memory to the characters, a ghost both figurative and (maybe) literal, and thus incredibly mysterious. The clincher was George V. Higgins’ novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, about a small-time crook trying to hang onto his sense of honor. There’s a great movie version with Robert Mitchum, but I didn’t see it until much later. Still, it led to a useful guideline: if your hero has a name that in any way connects to Robert Mitchum, it’s probably a good name.

Robert Mitchum in “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” Also not a Devaraux.

So when “Devaraux” became “Eddie,” a whole naming philosophy fell into place, one that I still try to use even when the influences come from somewhere else. For example, in the Arthurian-inspired Dark Jenny, the classic character Sir Kay, adopted brother to Arthur, becomes Bob Kay, adopted brother to Marcus Drake. If someone has an unusual name, such as Queen Rhiannon from The Sword-Edged Blonde, it’s indicative of character (she’s unusual, all right) rather than an attempt to sound appropriately “period.”

Is this anachronistic? Technically no, since this is a made-up world and I can do anything I want with it, as long as it’s logical and consistent. Is it appropriate? Some readers have said no, but the majority seem to not only accept it, but actively like it.

So that’s the story behind the names of my characters in the Eddie LaCrosse series. Have any other questions specific to my books? Leave them in the comments and I’ll try to address them in a future blog.

Addendum: on the same day I posted this, Tor Books (my publisher) posted a blog by an editor working from the exact opposite angle on fantasy character names.  It provides an interesting contrast.  You can read it here.

The apocryphal soundtracks to some of my books

Posted on by Alex in Blood Groove, Burn Me Deadly, Firefly Witch, Memphis, music, novel, pirates, Uncategorized, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writing | Leave a comment

It’s no secret that music is a big part of many of my novels, from inspiring the titles to influencing the plots to being part of the story itself. I’m not alone in this, I’m sure. Recently my friends at Facebook’s Heroic Fiction League, Nathan Long and John R. Fultz, posted “playlists” of YouTube videos, songs that either their heroes would like, or that captured the mood of their books.

My playlist is a little different.  This is the music I wish would play when a reader first opens some of my books.

For my most recent novel, the Eddie LaCrosse pirate tale Wake of the Bloody Angel, I’d love it if readers were blasted with this upon cracking the covers:

 

 

For another Eddie LaCrosse tale, Burn Me Deadly, if you consider chapter one as a “teaser,” this would the perfect music to play between chapters one and two:

 

 

For Blood Groove, my tale of an Old World vampire unleashed in the Seventies, I’d begin with this under chapter one:

 

 

Then, at the moment you finished chapter one:

 

 

And finally, the theme for my Firefly Witch e-book chapbooks, the tune the main characters Ry and Tanna would call “their song” and that, in a perfect world, would play whenever you called it up on your e-reader of choice:

 

 

(I know, it’s the Atlanta Rhythm Section version and not the original Classics IV, but technically this is the first version I ever heard, and about half the Atlanta Rhythm Section was made up of former members of the Classics IV, so it’s not as heretical as it might seem.)

Any suggestions for some of my other books?

 

Five Great Movies About Writers

Posted on by Alex in authors, criticism, fiction, John Carpenter, movies, novel, originality, pop culture, storytelling, trivia, writers, writing | 7 Comments

Anders Danielsen Lie (l) and Espen Klouman-Høiner in Reprise.

Writers aren’t that exciting to be around when we’re working. What we do–staring into space, muttering to ourselves, typing then backspacing and typing some more–isn’t exactly dynamic. It might be why there are so few good movies about writers actually writing. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of good movies with writer characters in them; that’s fairly common. But the movies that show accurately what the writing life is like, and how it affects the writer and people around him, those are rare indeed. Here are five of my favorites (notice I didn’t say, “best”).

In the Mouth of Madness

Writers figure in a lot of horror films, most of them courtesy of Stephen King (Misery, The Shining, Secret Window).  This isn’t a Stephen King adaptation, or a Lovecraft one, but its story of writer Sutter Kane (Jurgen Prochnow), who writes like Lovecraft and has a fan base like (and the same initials as) King, carries the idea of the “best seller” to a demented extreme. With Sam Neill as an insurance investigator and director John Carpenter’s sure hand, it takes us into a world where people are willing to give up their own dreams for the common nightmares of someone else. I can only wonder, if it was remade today (which I’m sure it will be), will King be the model of success, or will it be Stephanie Meyer or EL James?

Paris When It Sizzles

Williams Holden is on deadline to produce a script, and Audrey Hepburn is the secretary who both challenges him and keeps him on task. Holden, like a lot of us, knows when his story’s gone off the rails, so the stopping and starting over becomes part of the fun. Add to this scenes from the work-in-progress acted out by those two, plus a slew of dead-on cameos, and it becomes the kind of creative process we all like to think we have in our heads.

Reprise

A masterpiece–there, I said it–from Norway about two friends who submit their first novels on the same day. One gets rejected, one becomes a best seller, but their friendship doesn’t suffer in the ways you might think.  An amazing cast, down to the smallest parts, and a perfectly-judged emotional pitch make this one way too close to comfort in some ways. But a brilliant film nonetheless. And bonus cool points for using Joy Division under the titles.

His Girl Friday

“Writing” can include reporting, and in fact, it used to: some of our best writers, and even me, started out as journalists back when that word meant something. Here it means Rosalind Russell as the ace reporter and Cary Grant as her fast-talking editor, who’s also her ex-husband determined to get her back. It’s a romantic comedy, to be sure, but director Howard Hawks also includes scenes of Russell doing her job, including an expert interview with a mousy convicted killer. And when the other cynical reporters take a look at what she’s written, their respect and silence–in a movie overloaded with the fastest dialogue you’ll ever hear–tells you all you need to know about her skill.

Chinese Coffee

You probably haven’t heard of this one. It started as a vanity project by Al Pacino, who wanted a filmed record of a play he loved appearing in. Pacino and Jerry Orbach star in this essentially two-person film, adapted from Ira Lewis’s play, about a writer (Pacino) and his friend (Orbach), who feels the writer has stolen from him: not plagiarism, exactly, but more from his real life and personality. It’s good because the actors are so good, and Pacino’s direction is unfussy and solid. Plus it’s an issue every fiction writer will encounter at some point.

Any other suggestions?