The Pen is Mightier than the Empire!

I just wanted to wish everyone a happy and reflective Independence Day.

We often forget the extreme bravery it took for those 56 colonists to sign the Declaration of Independence and tell the most powerful man in the world;

“Take your British Empire and stuff it! – Oh, and by the way, King George, here’s my name, you know where I live.”

British Troops hunted many of the signers down and tortured them to force them to renounce their pledge. Not one of them renounced their conviction to liberty or the commitment of their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the cause of freedom, even though for some it was a horrible death.

Before the Declaration, everyone who was living on Earth or had ever lived did so at the pleasure and under the tyrannical yoke of a King, Potentate, Dictator, Emperor, Pope, or other “Men” who granted rights to their subjects and solely decided how the masses lived, and how they died.

America, as declared on July 4th 1776, broke with that worldwide, centuries-old practice of oppression by declaring the radical notion that people had the right to be free. In today’s terms, the Declaration instilled a “firewall” into the human program, namely the idea that rights come from above, be it God, the Supreme Judge of the world, the creator, the Laws of Nature, and of Nature’s God or whatever else you hold it to be, but not, repeat NOT, another man or men. And no man or group of men can take those natural-born rights away from any human.

This year, it is crucial for all of us to reflect on our Declaration’s firewall and the message our Nation was founded on.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

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Here follows a list of the First Americans. They who mutually pledged to each other their Lives, their Fortunes, and their sacred Honor.

FYI, the youngest was Edward Rutledge, 26, and the eldest Benjamin Franklin, 80.

Georgia: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton 
North Carolina: William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn
South Carolina: Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr. Arthur Middleton 
Massachusetts: John Hancock 
Maryland: Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton
Virginia: George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton 
Pennsylvania: Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross 
Delaware: Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean 
NewYork: William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris 
New Jersey: Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark 
New Hampshire: Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton
Massachusetts: Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry 
Rhode Island: Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery 
Connecticut: Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott 

Life (and everything else) is a movie…

From my first book, The Eighth Day, to my current release, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, many readers emailed me or commented that “they could see it as a movie.” Or that “it should be a movie,” or “it would make a great movie.” My favorite is, “Why didn’t you make it as a movie?

At some level, these well-intentioned comments bristle my literary soul. After all, a published book is the same achievement, relative to process, as a produced movie. They are both the end-product of creative inspiration. And each is the pinnacle of its art. (My card-playing Uncle Guido would say, “It’s da Pinochle a de art.” Uncle G always put his cards on the table.)

Last week I attended a very fancy dinner in a chic Manhattan restaurant. The check was more than my monthly rent when I was 35. Luckily, this time I was the guest. I’m no kid, but I was the youngest guy at the table. The purpose of the dinner meeting was to discuss a “big investment deal.” More money than the entire block I lived on back then costs. This was serious stuff. Four hours of exquisite apps, salmon, Delmonico steaks, wines, martinis, and “to the moon” desserts. All for three people!

But the amazing thing was we all had movie stories. It seems the movies were a common drug we were all addicted to. By mid-dinner, we were suddenly all teenagers, speaking of our hits and near misses in the movie biz, fueled by celluloid enthusiasm and cinematic verve, it was the most energetic part of the evening.

Orson Welles, in describing what it was like to be making his, (soon to be classic film), Citizen Kane, is quoted as saying, “It’s the biggest electric train set a boy ever had.” Well, the ‘little boys’ sitting around the table agreed.

The big, eight-figure deal may or may not happen, but that night, we all got to dabble in “the dream.”

P.S. Every time, and there are many, that some reader says my books should be a movie, I always ask, “You know anybody?

May the Force be with you…

Photo by Venti Views on Unsplash

Okay, so by now we have all chuckled over the unofficial holiday name of May 4th. So here’s my, MAY THE FOURTH BE WITH YOU writing tip.

Unless you were living on Alderon… (Sorry, too soon?) You know that THE FORCE is a tappable energy source that puts the physical in metaphysical. Well, for we who chose to wield a pen over a lightsaber, there is a force many of us have had with us all along. I am speaking of what can also be defined as being in the zone. Now, I can’t scientifically prove this, but I believe when we are really comfortable with our CRAFT, our ART is free to wander through the universe. To drop in on past lives, current lives, or future lives. Suddenly, if we are deep in creation, an out of the box thought comes to us. It may be a small detail or major plot point. Other authors have used terms like, out of nowhere, all of a sudden, then it came to me, and a few other synonyms for that ‘Aha’ moment when a missing piece or needed next piece comes to us. Another term maybe the MAGIC of writing. I love it. I have tons of moments of synchronicity when what was in my head, and on the page was suddenly standing before me.

Like when I was writing (on the subway) and offered a woman my seat. She liked the chivalry involved and we spoke for a bit. Eventually we got to, “What do you do?” She says, I used to be a trainer for Koko the Gorilla. I stopped dead in my tracks (while the train kept rolling on its tracks), opened my laptop and showed her the last thing I wrote before I looked up to offer her my seat.

“You know like that monkey on TV, you know, Koko the Gorilla.” Kronos, the kid from the Bronx said.

“Oh yes, many cognitive issues and studies have been done with her. She’s amazing, and talks to humans through sign language.” Janice, the trained psychologist said.

At which point the woman made a peace sign, tapped it below her left shoulder, and then made like she was beating her chest, she was signing “Koko the Gorilla.”

Q.E.D.

Many of us have had this experience when we are totally engaged and actually living in our writing. I once described it on radio some time back as, “tapping into universal intellect.”

So may your writing jump into hyperspace and may the force… well, you know.

The Write Place…

A booth at a diner in Jersey, the knee knocker seat on the LIRR, or on my lap sitting in a chaise on the beach in Puerto Rico, even in a hotel room at a writer’s conference. All these admittedly non-romantic settings in which I have penned much of my 6 published novels, 4 number ones, and three pending manuscripts, have one thing in common. A space that, beyond everything else, allowed me to write, compose, imagine, edit, polish, and author a manuscript. That space can best be visualized as a box with its four corners drawn from my left ear to the left edge of the screen and from the right side of the screen back to my right ear. Everything outside that “thought rectangle” dissolves away, goes out of focus, and becomes the comforting background lullaby that has underscored my “performance” whenever I wrote.

For me, when the idea is breaching in the birth canal, there’s an immediacy to getting it out, regardless of the purity or quiescence of wherever I happen to be. I have even knocked out a few paragraphs on my iPhone in the back of a funeral parlor during a wake. Even in my home, I may be out on the balcony, on the kitchen table, or with my laptop on a snack tray, usually with a TV, radio, or some other background noise that has accompanied my workspace all the way back to homework in elementary school.

I am lucky enough to have met and conversed with some of the most well-known and prolific authors on the planet or listened to them interviewed at writer’s conferences. Question 5 or 6 is always, “Do you have a place, or time or routine when you write?” and some have elaborate ceremonies and rituals and others the simple; “my desk every day from 10-2.” Some need a fresh pot of coffee or progressive jazz on the stereo, or in one very famous case, toke up on prodigious amounts of weed. (And he is at the very pinnacle of a successful author!)

Again, just last night, a vintage episode of the Dick Van Dyke show aired in black and white. The one where Rob, a head writer for a TV show, is driven to become a novelist. The setup is that he can’t get to writing because of all the domestic distractions of his suburban New Rochelle home, which are frustrating his efforts. The solution to the marital friction that this occurs results in a suggestion from his wife Laura that he go to a cabin in the woods for a few weeks and concentrate on his book. Well, of course, he winds up doing all kinds of foolish things which delay and get in the way of his writing. Finally admitting that it was him, not the setting, that is the problem, he puts the idea of being an author on the shelf having learned that his novel just wasn’t ready to come out yet.

I find that notion to be paramount amid all the reasons a writer can’t author. In my class, From Writer to Author, at the online Academy of Creative Skills.com, I address the ‘internal space’ that we need to create in order to satisfy that need to create.

Rob does write one thing in all those days, the only line he could manage, the dedication, to his wife expressing his love and admiration of her. His line after she reads it and does her trademark, “Oh, Rob…” he adds, “Now all I have to do is write a novel to hang on the end of it.”

Aw, 60’s TV, where everything works out in 28 minutes and 30 seconds, including commercials.

By the way, I wrote this at 6:30 in the morning, on a snack table, with the sun coming up over the skyline of New York splashing over the Hudson River to my right, – the iHeart radio from my iPhone on in the background.

Ready to embark on your journey From Writer to Author? Check out my online course for 15 steps to elevate your writing craft!

Character Building ala Citizen Kane

In a previous blog post, I spoke of empathetic love connectors to the reader and used the classic film Citizen Kane as a reference. Well, here’s another little gem for authors coming from the genius writing duo of H.J Mankowitz and Orson Welles. I believe they are teaching all writers by channeling this lesson through the words of their character, Rawlston.

I like the simple thing notion. Because simple means common, and usually common is not complicated because it is innate to us, simple. So, when building a Character follow what Rawlston (Mankowitz and Welles) instructs us. After all, they made a movie that many call the greatest movie of all time, all around a simple thing. Rosebud!

Fruit of the Family Tree

Photo by Johnny Cohen on Unsplash

As we authors fill out a Character it’s always good to investigate the family. We are all shaped both positively and negatively by our familial connections, experiences, and memories. As we grow up with impressionable open minds, the right thing said by a relative can lead us down a righteous and successful path, or to prison. The beauty of enhancing Character profiles with family-borne aspects is that you can thank or get even with the people in your family.  Just joking, but I have used a Character’s family member many times to explain, rationalize or put a finer point on a Character’s predilection without needless expository verbiage. Often, it’s not a whole in-depth bio but sometimes it’s just a line, “My Uncle Joe was like that.” Or a longer description of a brother who died in Iraq as a prime motivator to enlist. These baked-in memories and trajectories are indelible and can be stated in the story or kept to yourself as a personality subtext that is never revealed to the reader but guides you where to place the character on their arc.

In my own life, I have a formula that describes my emotional, practical, and psychological makeup. I find it’s true in everything I do; from being a director on a set, a senior Vice President, an entrepreneur, or an uncle. When I am at my best, all cylinders running at 100%, and I am in touch with the universe and tapping into a white-light energy source that almost guarantees that I can handle anything and usually make it better for all concerned. When I am in that state, I feel that I am 60% my mom, 30% my dad, and 10% ESP.  When I am producing, my mom can charm a Teamster out of charging me meal penalties. When I am running a business, my dad can stand up to competition and people who wish you no good. When I am authoring, directing, or helping someone through a rough patch in their lives, then ESP (or it could be my great grandparents, or some guardian angel,) sends me a notion, a spark, or sometimes a smack on the head to ask about, or bring into the situation something random, out of the box, that opens a new door to a character, or it may point me to a course of action for a person to ponder, or for me whether to cut the blue or the red wire.

Now, I can’t prove that to anyone, but I know when I am in that ‘zone.’ When I am operating at just that right balance from the positive results I get. The whole point of this is that we are the cake our families put in the oven, what happens later is either the icing on top or the grit from falling on the kitchen floor. This should also be true of your Characters; they didn’t just pop out of the turnip patch. They can be shaped by their family for better or worse. For further proof simply look at the wholesale employment of therapists and psychiatrists who, in most cases, deal with replanting, pruning, or dealing with the fruit of a person’s family tree.

Obviously, we all have our own family stories, joys, and tragedies from our lives. This little treatise is by no means exhaustive but just a little nudge to suggest that sometimes the fruit of the family tree, whether it is juicy or rotted, could be just the thing you need to motivate your story, plot, character, conflict, or resolution.

If you liked this tip, check out my course From Writer to Author for a deeper look into character building: https://courses.academyofcreativeskills.com/p/from-writer-to-author

The way Hitchcock thinks – beat by beat.

Intertitle from silent film that reads: There isn't a decent thought in your nasty little mind!

In a previous blog, I credit Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest as the reason I write thrillers. It wasn’t until I had years of writing and learning under my belt that I discovered what his secret was.

Alfred started in film as a graphic artist making dialog cards for silent movies. Before sound came to movies, the film would show an actor “speaking at, or to, or with another character on the screen. Immediately after that, the film cut to a card that had the printed dialogue the audience just saw the actor mouthed. In the silent world of movies back then, the dialogue was very sparse. Actors had to show emotion, often with bigger-than-life gestures and posturing. A certain amount of lip-reading gave the audience satisfaction when the card that followed proved that they had guessed right about what the actor silently said. Every once in a while, a non-dialogue card would appear. This card was the narration explaining some essential notion, change of heart, or change of scene the audience needed to know to avoid confusion. A famous one was ‘meanwhile, back at the ranch…’ Usually cut in between the hero making googly eyes at the pretty girl in town while the cattle rustlers had their pickings of his herd back on his spread.

The sparsity of words in a silent film forced filmmakers to be extra judicious in the words they sparingly shared with the viewer. This beyond anything else, taught Hitchcock the power of the beat. The point of inflection, reversal, or expansion of the story or plot. It’s what separated a narrative film from the other choices moviegoers of that day had the choice of seeing*. And when you do break the story down to the most essential words, you realize very quickly what is driving the story forward and what is causing it to stall. The beats were the cards he created. The frequency and duration of the cards, both dialogue and narration set the tempo of the film – the beat. Delay the beat, and you create suspense! He was the master of suspense because he knew which beat and how long to delay it!

When we author a book it’s important to honor beats and make sure we are building our story on and around them. How do you know what a beat isn’t? Hitchcock explained it to François Truffaut once with the observation; What is drama after all but life with all the dull bits cut out? When you cut the dull bits out of life, or in your manuscript, the beats are pretty much what you are left with.

I go into the beat a little deeper in my really affordable eBook on Kindle, Intentional Thoughts from The Accidental Author, and take a deeper dive into these essential building blocks of good stories-well told in my online course, From Writer to Author, available HERE!

* Amazingly these were just motion pictures featuring 20 minutes of a train chugging along or boats on a river or a San Francisco streetcar. No plot, no story, just the fascination with the motion of the “flickers.” Thomas Edison who invented modern motion pictures was amazed that in his showing of the train movies, new-to-film audiences actually ducked or ran aside as the train came towards the camera!