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 ... 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014


Robert Ellis

I finally found the courage to catch up on HOMELAND. I really didn't want to watch it this season. So much of the story had been resolved in the finale last year. So many wonderful characters had seen their final days. So much emotion had been spent. For the writers and producers of this brilliant cable production broadcast on SHOWTIME, it seemed like they would be forced to start over. And from where I sat, the bar seemed to be set so high.

Claire Danes as CIA Operative Carrie Mathison

I'll admit that I thought the first two episodes were a little rough. But, that's why you write another, and now, with week three, it feels like they have found their groove and hit air speed. There's a story thread with a young medical student that's already fascinating. I wish everyone connected with this series the very best, and can't wait to see if they're able to pull it off. Magic.