Thursday, April 20, 2017

Robert Ellis: THE LOVE KILLINGS, Writing the First Chapter

Robert Ellis
Starting a new project, whether you're intending to write a screenplay or novel, is never easy. Sitting aboard that mythical ship lashed to the dock for the past six months, taking it easy, dreaming good dreams, never having to make hard decisions or risk anything by putting yourself on the line seems pretty fine right now! But eventually, unless you're finished, that proverbial ship needs to idle through the waterways and hit sea at full sail.

I wish I could say starting to write something new gets easier, but for me it doesn't. I've written seven novels, and the start has become exponentially more difficult each time!

Two novels that tell one story: Detective Matt Jones
I think one reason might be that my storytelling abilities seem like they're still developing, so each new novel means having to learn the process of writing all over again. As CITY OF ECHOES and THE LOVE KILLINGS would suggest (the idea that these two novels are one continuous story) I'm still actively experimenting with how I do things and why.

The reason I mention this is that writing the first chapter of THE LOVE KILLINGS presented me with a unique story problem. Because I've never heard of anyone writing two novels to tell one story, I had nothing to study or fall back on, or even lift, borrow, or steal. While it's true that stories have been serialized in the past and published in newspapers and magazines or even on radio and TV, my problem was entirely different, and let's face it, way more difficult to solve. I was writing a second novel. Days wouldn't pass, a week or even a month. Readers wouldn't have access to THE LOVE KILLINGS for a year after they'd read CITY OF ECHOES. In this case, I busted through the writing, and delivered the second novel eleven months after the first. Still, by any measure, that's a long time.

But here's the writing problem: how do you provide someone who is beginning with the second novel enough to go on without slowing everything down for the reader that began with the first? Bringing the new reader in on part two of the story means there's a lot of work to do. What's that first chapter of the THE LOVE KILLINGS going to feel like?

Let's face it, exposition is as deadly as a crash to anyone who uses a computer. How does a writer use exposition to his or her advantage? Or at least, how do I?

Something John Truby (THE ANATOMY OF STORY) once told me is that conflict heals most wounds. I'll never forget reaching a point while writing my second novel, THE DEAD ROOM, when I had to fill the reader in on the hero's background. It was crucial to the story that the reader understand what Teddy Mack was running from in his past. Without this knowledge, the story would never pay out, and both the character and the story would feel thin. At first I wasn't sure what to do. I had managed to keep any exposition in the novel to a minimum and was keenly aware of how deadly it can be. Keenly aware of how many novels I had stopped reading and never picked up again because the author got bogged down in the use of exposition and failed.

Conflict heals most wounds, so here was my solution.

Defense Attorney Teddy Mack's late night drive home
In THE DEAD ROOM I decided to put my hero in an old car with bad tires. I set the scene in the middle of the night and added a winter storm. The temperature was just beginning to dip below freezing, and so much snow was piling up on the freeway that all Teddy could see were the tracks and rear lights from a single car in the distance.  I feathered the exposition in and out of Teddy's attempt to drive home. As he thought about that moment in his past still haunting him in the present, he'd come up for air, checking the temperature gauges and struggling to keep his old, broken down car on the road. If conflict heals most wounds, then I made it my business to pile on as much as I could.

And it worked. It really worked.

The story never slowed, and by the end of the chapter, readers knew how much trouble Teddy Mack was in.

Facing Chapter 1 with a plan
But what about THE LOVE KILLINGS? This writing problem is far more dangerous because we're talking about the opening of a novel, in mid-story no less! Exposition is deadly, but in chapter one, it's radioactive. I realized one thing before I even started. There was no way to succeed without blowing major revelations from the first novel, CITY OF ECHOES.

Detective Matt Jones' view of Potrero Canyon in the hills of LA
With this in mind I bit the bullet and used the same technique I'd used in THE DEAD ROOM. Remember, CITY OF ECHOES and THE LOVE KILLINGS are one story and serve as the introduction of LAPD Detective Matt Jones, so Matt has to begin part two of this narrative in a world overflowing with conflict. Again the scene is set at night. LA is hot and dry and out of water. As Matt sits on his back deck recovering from gunshot wounds received six weeks ago in CITY OF ECHOES, he's watching a wildfire on the other side of the canyon with great concern. Firefighters are struggling to save homes and contain the blaze. The air is thick with smoke and floating embers. Ash is falling out of the sky like snow, and Matt thinks his house could be next. And then, despite the late hour, the phone rings. It's his supervisor, and he has news. Matt has been cleared for duty, and there's a new murder case to be solved. A case so dark and spooky that his supervisor won't talk about it on the phone.
A view of the Wildfire in LA from the hills

All this conflict is piling up. And feathered throughout the moment is just enough detail about what went down in CITY OF ECHOES to lock a new reader in and keep him or her in the game.
And it worked. It really worked.




Thursday, April 13, 2017

Robert Ellis: ACCESS TO POWER, Part 2 Revisited

I went to the parking garage with the same shooter who had photographed the Great Lakes. We arrived around 2:15 p.m., and the black Lincoln was parked exactly where I had been told it would be. We drove up to the third floor, built the camera and framed the shot. And then we hid behind the wall and waited. After that we waited some more. It was a nervous wait, an edgy wait. Lots of time thinking about the rumors we'd heard that the man was a mobster. But then it happened just the way that shadowy political op said it would. At three sharp, the front door to the building opened and out walked the sheriff.

He got about twenty feet away from the building before he sensed that something was wrong. He looked straight up at us and froze. The camera was rolling, the lens zoomed in. We could tell from the fear showing on his face that he thought the camera had been a rifle, and he was about to be killed. Once his life passed before his eyes, once he regrouped and saw that it wasn't a rifle pointed his way but a camera, he stood there with his wheels turning. Should he run back into the building? Or should he sprint to his car?

He chose the Lincoln and sped off into the ruined cityscape. We threw the camera and tripod into the van and raced off--shaking, I remember.

That's how ACCESS TO POWER  was born. First as a screenplay entitled HIDDEN AGENDA, which was optioned and read by nearly every production house in Los Angeles. In the first year of the TV series 24, Jack Bauer's sleazy CIA political contact was named Robert Ellis. It was no surprise to me because I knew how much the heads of production at both Fox and Imagine loved my screenplay. We had spent hours together talking about the project, but also about that day in New Jersey.

Obviously ACCESS TO POWER is a political thriller, not a mob story. But in its heart is the question that arose that same day: what if you made a negative TV ad, struck a nerve, and your opponent decided to hit back with a gun? 

Writing this thriller changed my life. Once I realized the difference between a screenplay and a novel, once I realized that I could portray a character's thoughts and feelings and get into their hearts and minds, I never looked back. As my readers already know, I very much enjoy doing the research for my novels. In the case of ACCESS TO POWER everything about it is real except for the murders themselves. Every side story actually happened. I even walked through the entire climax; the tunnels underneath the Capitol, the secret rooms and staircases. If you take a close look at the dome, you'll see the ladder built into the side. I made the climb to the top from an inside catwalk just to make sure that the ending was possible.

What an ending. What a beginning. What a trip.



Thursday, April 6, 2017

Robert Ellis: Access to Power, Part 1 Revisited

Robert Ellis
I was living in Los Angeles writing spec scripts and producing a lot of TV ads. I had worked with a friend of mine for the better part of a year producing a film for National Geographic on the Great Lakes that won gold at the New York Film Festival. I had also been the last ghostwriter to work on NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4 before it went into production three weeks later. And that's when I got a seemingly innocent call from another friend of mine who ran a political consulting firm. He had a problem, a small race for county sheriff in New Jersey. Because the two candidates were virtually unknown, he needed someone to shoot surveillance footage of the acting sheriff for a negative ad. The problem was that there were rumors the sheriff had mob connections, and the city was essentially a ghetto, the poorest, most rundown city in New Jersey.

I agreed to help and spoke with a shadowy political operative who seemed to know everything about the sheriff's schedule. He told me that the man owned a black Lincoln, parked it on the side of the building, and walked out the front door everyday at exactly 3:00 p.m. Even better, there was a parking garage directly across the lot where we could hide with a camera.

The man winked and snickered. Warning shots were beginning to go off in my mind. Everything about everything seemed dangerous and wrong ...



Monday, January 2, 2017

Robert Ellis: THE LOVE KILLINGS, Adam Lanza and Dylann Roof

Matt clenched his jaws and narrowed his brow.

What struck him as he read the article a second time wasn’t the fact that Dylann Roof was an obvious racist. He was a racist and would be indicted for hate crimes on top of the nine murders. But what stood out for Matt was the role he seemed to share with Adam Lanza as a mass killer. The fact that they were almost the same age. The fact that they both lived troubled lives. The fact that they didn’t just kill people, they slaughtered them. And then the final blow. The fact that when he downloaded their photographs and examined them side by side, they could have been brothers.

The presence Roof seemed to share with Lanza was difficult to pin down. It was somewhere in the photographs. Somewhere between the lines. Not the shapes of their faces, but their blank expressions. Their attitude. They came from a similar place. A dark corner. Matt could see the hate showing on their faces, the hopelessness and rage. But nowhere was the physical match more telling than in their eyes.

Matt took a sip of coffee and pulled his laptop closer.

Their eyes, he thought. That’s where it was coming from. Both of them had the eyes of a predator—ultra-intense, completely riveting, and over-the-top psychotic. It was almost as if their eyes were no longer a window to their minds and emotions. It was almost as if the line had been snapped and their souls died off and vanished.

It seemed so unbelievable, so unfathomable, even outlandish, that no one looked at these two kids and didn’t know in an instant that something was incredibly wrong with both of them.

Dead eyes and the psychopathic stare. Both Roof and Lanza were a long way past being odd. Why didn’t anyone see it? Why did anyone have to die before they did see it?

Matt bookmarked the pages and saved the photographs. As he packed up his laptop, he wondered if the man he was looking for, the man who killed the Strattons and the Holloways, might not possess this same look. These same eyes. He wondered if the killer would show up at the funeral, and if he might not seem familiar enough to stand out.

                    – Robert Ellis, The Love Killings