Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Girl Buried Beneath the Pine Trees

Robert Ellis
In the past I've written about some of the experiences I've had that may have contributed to the writer I'm still learning to become, particularly a writer working in crime fiction. One of the kicks to writing THE DEAD ROOM is the novel's setting in Philadelphia and the suburbs about fifteen miles out from Center City. This was where I grew up. In the novel, a young civil attorney, Teddy Mack, is forced by his boss to represent a man who may have committed multiple murders. Because Teddy is essentially broke, he still lives with his mother. In one chapter, Teddy stands at the end of the driveway gazing at the falling snow and the garish development of oversized houses across the street. It's the dead of night and he can remember a time, just as I can remember a time, when open fields and country roads snaked through the rolling hills all the way to the horizon.

One day when I was a young boy a rumor began circulating among my friends. Apparently, a girl's body had been found in a shallow grave beneath a small grove of pine trees. The gravesite was on a lonely road a mile or so from my house. The man who found the girl's body had been collecting pine cones with his dog. The dog caught a scent in the earth, became excited and started digging. I have no facts on this murder. I was way too young, eleven or twelve. But in my mind I can still see the girl's hair strewn through the soil. For whatever reason, I see long reddish brown hair. I can see it as if I was there.

Later that night I spoke with my parents and learned that the rumors were in fact true. A girl had been murdered and buried under the trees. A teenage girl, I believe. The news had an incredibly heavy impact on me, and I remember becoming terrified. The road where the dead girl had been found ran between two grass fields with no signs of barns or other homes for a good half mile. Worse, I traveled on that road every day. I rode my bicycle everywhere, and the only way to get to my friend's house was to ride past that grove of pine trees. My mother drove on that road everyday as well because that was the only way to get to the post office.

I can't tell you what it was like to ride past the crime scene and look beneath those trees with big, wide open eyes. The things that I made up in my head, seeing it all happen from a boy's imagination, the fear and panic that the world wasn't the safe place I had always thought it to be. Worse, there was a sexual component to the crime, or at least to my memory of the crime. My guess is now that she had been raped. At the time, the sexual implications were too deep for a boy my age to fully comprehend. All they seemed to do was make the crime more mysterious and more horrific.

It took me almost a year before I finally hit the brakes on my bicycle, lifted the tree branches, and went in for a look. I can remember being alone, my hands shaking, my heart beating. I can remember the shock I took when I noticed that the form of the shallow grave was still there. Still undisturbed. Images of the girl's hair radiating through the soil hit me again. I couldn't see her face, or the face of the killer. But I could feel the killer's madness, his sickness, just as I could feel the girl's last moments, the fear and terror she must have gone through. I could feel it in the air and all around me. The darkness lingering beneath the pine trees on this lonely road.

It was late afternoon and the sun was going down. My bike ride home was on the fast side. I didn't feel much like eating dinner that night, and went up to my room. I was too old to believe in ghosts, and yet, when the lights went out, there they were, hovering over my bed and keeping me from my sleep. I couldn't wait for dawn.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Tough Guys

Robert Ellis

I can remember sitting in a movie theater in Universal City waiting for what seemed like twenty minutes worth of film trailers to end so that the film I'd come to see might finally begin. The barrage of ads appeared endless. And then a trailer for a new movie called DIE HARD hit the screen. Everyone in the audience started laughing and booing and throwing popcorn. The movie starred Bruce Willis, an actor who was known for playing a smooth Beverly Hills PI alongside Cybill Shepherd in a popular TV series called MOONLIGHTING. People had forgotten that Willis made his debut on TV as Tony Amato, a ruthless drug dealer on MIAMI VICE. It seemed pretty clear that the light and cozy, too cute for comfort MOONLIGHTING, had poisoned the well.

Bruce Willis' remarkable performance in DIE HARD
But then, much like the detonation of a nuclear weapon, DIE HARD  was released nationwide. Before you could probably say, "I saw the moo- ," everything in the world of film and storytelling changed forever. First and foremost, the screenplay was absolutely perfect. Based on Roderick Thorp's novel NOTHING LASTS FOREVER, and scripted by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, we're talking about a written work so exciting that others would try to mimic and rip it off for the next twenty years. (It should be noted that no one ever succeeded.) Just as crucial, the film, directed by John McTiernan and produced by Joel Silver, was perfectly cast. Every single role in the entire film was exactly as it needed to be. Within the first half hour of the film, any memory of Bruce Willis on MOONLIGHTING had burned up in the nuclear fireball. Bruce Willis as NYPD Officer John McClane would be a guy who could take the toughest challenges, the hardest blows, and still carry the full set of human emotions that have made Willis, the actor, so watchable for so many years. Curiously, his opponent in the film is just as tough and just as human. Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber was so much more than just a bad guy. Somehow he made evil delicious, even elegant, yet I couldn't wait to see him die!  (The harder, the better.)
Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in DIE HARD

And that's the reason why I'm writing this post. So many writers today, no matter what the format, prefer to draw their characters in black and white. So many writers today work with caricatures, exaggerating their personalities and skills, their emotions and minds to the point where both the story and the character lose their meaning and become irrelevant.

Perhaps this is the reason why so many viewers have switched from network television and films on the big screen to series produced and broadcast on cable TV and now as streams over the Internet.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Book Clubs

Robert Ellis
I met with a book club recently at the home of a friend who lives in Connecticut on Long Island Sound. This was the second time Marge has hosted an event dedicated to my novels, and like the first meeting, the entire evening was terrific.

I love meeting with book clubs whether I'm able to actually attend the event, or as it often happens, attend via Skype on my computer. What's so satisfying about these meetings is that I can speak freely about a story without the worry of spoiling anything. Everyone has read the novel, and in most cases, has a better feel for story details than I do!

The Black Rock Book Club
But even more important is the dialogue between the members themselves. Usually the conversation takes off in a direction of its own, and as the writer, I learn things. What works and what doesn't, what they thought would happen and what actually did. I've always enjoyed putting at least one horrific murder in my novels, set in real time. Knowing how far I can take things, testing the waters with a reading group, brings a lot of laughs and is a real kick.

But perhaps the very best part of meeting with a book club has nothing to do with talking about my work at all. It's hearing each member discuss what they're reading. It's listening to them talk about who they like or don't like, and why. This is where the learning process really begins. In this dialogue. In this discovery. Why readers think a story worked or didn't work. Why they couldn't get past a hundred pages, then picked up the next book by the same author, and read it straight through with the doors locked.

Like I said, my evening with the Black Rock Book Club was terrific. Many thanks!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Revisiting Ray Donovan

Robert Ellis

The purpose of this blog is to explore. To examine rather than criticize. To respect the fact that as writers we know the time and effort and dedication it takes to start and finish any written work, whether we're writing for the stage, the screen, or an eBook reader. In the end, what happens to the work after it's completed means less than what happened to the work when we sat down and created something out of nothing.

All the same, one of the benefits of working in a genre is that every genre has a beginning, middle, and end. But even more important, every genre has a past, present, and future. Because of this history, it's easy to pick out the good from the bad, and the great from the good. It's also easy to see what's fresh and new because it's usually so out in the open. When I spot it, I can feel it in my gut.

Liev Schreiber as Ray Donovan
We've spoken about RAY DONOVAN before, but since then I've had a chance to watch the season finale more than once. And every time I do, that feeling hits me in the gut like a shot from a .45 Glock. RAY DONOVAN is a cable series produced for Showtime. The program was created by Ann Biderman, and in the first half of the first season, Biderman took an additional credit as one of a number of executive producers. After that Biderman added a writing credit which continues, I believe, through the entire second season.

Writer, Producer, Ann Biderman
Put simply, I think that RAY DONOVAN changes everything. I think it redefines what good fiction is. I think that Ann Biderman is the cream of the cream. Biderman is the only writer in television or books who has created a true "tough guy" without turning him into a cartoon or machine or "action figure" in a real long time. Her tough guy is smart, entirely human, and equipped with a full set of emotions. Biderman's the only writer in television who can feather in background information and character detail without making it feel like melodrama. Even more, Biderman can do exposition without the audience even thinking that the story has slowed down or gone off track. RAY DONOVAN never slows and never goes off track.

Jon Voight as Mickey Donovan, Ray's father
While I watched the finale of Season 2, I have to admit that I thought about the ending of THE GODFATHER more than once. It was that good. So many loose ends were tied up. And with so much sadness, so many really great characters met their end. Wow. It took my breath away.

Obviously, there are a lot of very talented people creating fiction today. But there's no one writing in any format or in any genre who's any better than Ann Biderman. Waiting for Season 3 is going to be painful. Like another wonderful cable series, HOMELAND, so much went down in RAY DONOVAN that the show will have to be recreated almost from scratch. Trying to guess how Biderman's going to pull it off, anticipating the direction, the new conflicts, will be the best.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Writing Your Second Story

Robert Ellis

Everybody's got one in them. I truly believe that. Everybody has a story in them that's probably a story worth telling. Whether you have the ability or interest to tell that story is another question. But everyone has an idea that comes from the things they've seen, heard, and experienced in life. If you're writing novels and you're really good, it's more than possible, I'd say it's actually more than probable, that you still only had one story worth telling. From my point of view, the only thing more difficult than writing a novel would be trying to make a career as a standup comic. After that first HBO Special, very few people seem to be able to come up with something fresh and new that isn't in some way a derivative of their original act. And when we see either a novelist or a comic or any artist at all actually pull off that second effort, at least when I do, it always feels so great watching them beat the odds.

Beating the Odds, the Great One, Lewis Black
So if that first effort came out of a writer's experiences in life and everything just clicked, where's this second work going to come from if the bucket's dry? If you play music, you've been studying music since you were a child. If you make art, you've spent years studying art and seeing how it's changed and developed over time. If you design buildings, then you've studied both engineering and architecture. If you dance, you've spent years working with an instructor and studying those who came before you. If you write screenplays, you've spent years studying your art and the entire history of film. No doubt you have a good sense of exactly what comes next.

Master Story Class by a Real Master, John Truby
So if you're going to write the great American novel, if you're going to tell a story that works from the very beginning to the very end, if you're going to create an entire world that stands on its own, an alternate universe that feels complete and real, characters that walk and talk and remind your readers of someone they know in real life, if you're going to tackle the most difficult and complicated art form known to human kind, then you're going to what? Wing it? Is that what you're going to tell your readers when they show up at a book signing? It was magic. It came from the gods. I sat down and just did it.

Yeah, right ...