Thursday, January 28, 2016

Book: Writing the Novel from Plot to Print to Pixel, by Lawrence Block (2016)

The first edition of Lawrence Block’s book was simply called Writing the Novel from Plot to Print. 1978, the year of its publication, was a different era; watch the Johnny Carson reruns now airing on Antenna TV for a taste of those bygone days. (The other night, Carson reeled off a list of do’s and don’ts for singles bars. Talk about your time capsules.)

Block’s book served as this nascent novelist’s first Bible. I read it over and over, primarily because I responded to his crisply professional approach. WNPP wasn’t full of inspirational, follow-your-bliss advice. It treated writing as a job, which made sense given’s Block background in the paperback trade of the 1950s and 1960s, and was resolutely practical. He suggested subjecting several novels in your chosen genre to detailed outlining, and I broke down more than one of Block’s own books to study the mechanics of story.

It’s no surprise Block updated his book for the modern age, given the forward-thinking approach he’s had for his entire career. He was ahead of the curve on audiobooks, embraced e-books early, and of late has self-published several titles including this one and the most recent entry in his Burglar series.

That breadth of experience is brought to bear on the new and improved WNPPP. What surprises is how little revision the first fourteen chapters required. For all the technological innovations, the nuts and bolts of writing haven’t changed. Block’s counsel has weathered well, and he smartly peppers the text with interjections updating the content. Plenty of material that has served me in good stead for decades remains intact, like Block telling the story of how novelist John D. MacDonald made use of a chance meeting with a friend’s father: “By the time the evening was done, my father didn’t know too much about John D. MacDonald, but MacDonald sure learned a lot about hotel management.” I still hope to work a reference to a “tobbo shop” in somewhere. In the chapter on outlining, Block is finally able to quote an uproarious example from Donald E. Westlake’s Adios, Scheherazade that he’d previously only left to the imagination. Thanks to an assist from Duane Swierczynski a while back, I was able to read Westlake’s original, but reprinted in this context, it’s even funnier.

As for the book’s Pixel portion, Block wisely observes that the field is changing so fast the best he can do is offer tips on where to find the most current information. But focus your energy on what precedes it. Writing a good book is always your best first step, and Block will put you on the road to accomplishing that.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Movies: 15 for ‘15

First and foremost, here’s wishing a happy new year to all my loyal readers. Great to see both of you here!

I’m hoping to post a bit more frequently in 2016 – be warned that more than a few of those posts will be about my debut novel Design for Dying, co-written with my wife Rosemarie under the pen name Renee Patrick and being published in April – and, figuring there’s no time like the present, decided to get things started right away. Herewith, a survey of my favorite films of the year just ended, in a somewhat vague order of preference.

Mad Max: Fury Road. Throughout college, I’d argue with all comers that George Miller’s post-apocalyptic films made a better trilogy than the original Star Wars. In a year when both franchises came roaring back, my heart remains true.

The Big Short. The biggest surprise of the year. Righteously angry, richly funny.


’71. Ceaseless white-knuckle suspense as a British soldier spends a harrowing night trapped in Catholic Belfast during the height of the Troubles.

Spotlight. You don’t have to be an Irish Catholic former altar boy from the Northeast who went into journalism to appreciate this film. But it helps.

Saint Laurent. Bertrand Bonello’s sprawling, hallucinogenic biopic of the designer (not to be confused with the more sedate, authorized version which preceded it by several months) casts a spell.

Office. Johnnie To directs a musical about the financial collapse of 2008. Also the strangest moviegoing experience of the year, in that Rosemarie and I were the only people in the theater.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Maybe never seeing a minute of the TV series helped. When every other movie seems to be about building or protecting the brand, it was a relief to see one hell-bent on feeling gleefully offhand. (The boat chase is a thing of wonder.) A stylish movie that is about style – Henry Cavill wears a blue 3-piece windowpane plaid suit that’s like a special effect – and Daniel Pemberton’s soundtrack is one of the year’s great accomplishments. If they won’t make any more of these movies, I hereby volunteer to write a series of tie-in novels featuring the Cavill/Hammer/Vikander/Grant team.

The Gift. Classic noir in modern duds, served up by Joel Edgerton.

Trainwreck. Amy Schumer’s script is tough on her character while not skimping on jokes. Plus, Mets references aplenty!

Magic Mike XXL. The original film was my favorite of its year. The sequel is looser, more shambolic, and even funnier.

Steve Jobs. Uncut, prison-grade Aaron Sorkin and a dazzling Michael Fassbender performance.

Iris. Documentary master Albert Maysles’ final film is, fittingly, about staying curious and true to yourself – and looking good while you do so.

Love & Mercy. A daring dual turn by Paul Dano and John Cusack as Brian Wilson, with Elizabeth Banks carrying the day.

Phoenix. If I’m undervaluing a title on this list, Christian Petzold’s melodrama may be it. At times too sedate for its own good, but Nina Hoss is transcendent – and the final moments are absolutely shattering.

Mr. Holmes. A meditation on memory and regret, filtered through one of the most iconic characters of all time.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Keenan's Klassics: It's a Shane Black Christmas

From December 2009, the first Renee Patrick collaboration. As timely as ever: that’s clearly a Christmas tree behind Russell Crowe in the final scene of the hilarious red band trailer for Shane Black’s upcoming THE NICE GUYS.

There I am at my favorite watering hole, talking with the staff, when the subject of Christmas movies is raised.

First suggestion, not made by me: the traditional double-bill of Die Hard and Die Hard II: Die Harder.

Thus giving me the tenor of the conversation. This is not the time, perhaps, to mention Remember the Night and Holiday Affair, two overlooked films (with noir connections!) that Turner Classic Movies has labored to turn into Yuletide staples. Although a mention of Blast of Silence, full of Wenceslas wetwork, might not be out of the question.

So I lobby for my own Christmas favorite, The Ref. And then observe, not for the first time, that the entire oeuvre of Shane Black – Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – is set at the most wonderful time of the year. (Editor's note, 2013: You can now add IRON MAN 3 to that roster.)

Therefore, as you venture out for that last round of shopping, I offer, by popular demand, what has become a VKDC tradition. (“By popular demand” meaning Rosemarie asked, “Why haven’t you posted this yet?” And she did write most of it.) Here, once again, is Shane Black’s 12 Days of Christmas. Record your church group performing this and we’ll post the video here!

Twelve cars exploding
Eleven extras running
Ten tankers skidding
Nine strippers pole-ing
Eight Uzis firing
Seven henchmen scowling
Six choppers crashing

Five silver Glocks

Four ticking bombs
Three hand grenades
Two mortar shells
And a suitcase full of C-4


God bless us, everyone. Or else.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Me Elsewhere: Star Power

After a hiatus, my Down the Hatch column returns to Eat Drink Films. Served up in this installment: the Star, a cocktail with a long history, and a beguiling newcomer named for a siren of the silent screen, the Clara Bow.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Miscellaneous: November Roundup

Facing multiple deadlines, I look up at the ol’ calendar on the wall to notice November is in its dotage and I haven’t posted yet. I don’t update the blog as much as I used to, but I haven’t missed a month since I started it in April 2004 and I aim to keep the streak going. I swore a sacred oath years ago: The show goes on. The Stardust is never dark. It never has been. It never will be. Not while I’m alive.

Herewith, some recommendations.

Dietrich & Riefenstahl: Hollywood, Berlin and a Century in Two Lives, by Karin Wieland. Wieland’s wide-ranging, meticulously researched dual biography stems from a remarkable happenstance. Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl barely knew each other in Weimar Berlin despite living close enough for Riefenstahl to see into the windows of Dietrich’s apartment. Yet they would end up as icons of the opposing sides of the conflict that defined the twentieth century: Dietrich the imperious seductress who sacrificed herself for the boys during World War Two, Riefenstahl the filmmaker willing to glorify the Nazi regime in exchange for a budget as unchecked as her ambitions. Wieland’s book, featuring a supple translation from the German by Shelley Frisch, cuts back and forth between lives, the juxtaposition revealing surprising commonalities. It also benefits from judicious use of archival resources previously unavailable, specifically Dietrich’s letters and telegrams as well as Joseph Goebbels’ diaries, which illuminate Riefenstahl’s relationship with Hitler and the mechanics of the production of Triumph of the Will and Olympia. The closing chapters are particularly strong; decades after the war Dietrich, imprisoned by a glamorous image age will no longer permit her to live up to, retreats from the world while Riefenstahl, her films now viewed in a broader context, inhabits it more fully as she seeks the validation as an artist she believes history has denied her. A compelling look at two extraordinary women, both of whom appear in the just-completed second Lillian Frost & Edith Head mystery by Renee Patrick (aka me and the missus).

The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy, by Kliph Nesteroff. Anyone with a passing interest in show business will devour this book by standup comic-turned-scholar Nesteroff. Starting with vaudeville and ending with the death of Robin Williams, it chronicles decades of entertainment in a style simultaneously breezy and nuanced. Nesteroff is acutely aware of influences, tracking different strains of technique through generations of performers. Along the way, he offers deft thumbnail sketches of neglected names like pioneering female standup Jean Carroll, she of the evening gloves, and acerbic radio comic Henry Morgan. Even as the book moves into the modern era, Nesteroff still finds offbeat angles on familiar names. Bonus points for mention of the long-forgotten scandal that factors into Lillian & Edith #2.

Blandings. Our new favorite show here at Chez K. We blew through both seasons in no time flat. Available on Acorn TV, this P.G. Wodehouse adaptation boasts a peerless cast. Timothy Spall is Lord Emsworth, the daft nobleman preoccupied with the health and well-being of his prize pig. Feckless Freddy is his son, played by the pitch-perfect Jack Farthing. Jennifer Saunders pointlessly tries to impose order as Emsworth’s sister. Familiar faces aplenty turn up as various relatives, bounders and braggarts. The biggest surprise was discovering that the location for Blandings Castle is in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, home to the Keenan family for millennia, in a tiny town I’ve visited several times.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

The cover of the latest issue of the Film Noir Foundation’s magazine says it all.



The women of film noir, particularly the ones behind the scenes, step into the spotlight in this edition. The result is, in the words of FNF founder and host of Turner Classic Movies’ Summer of Noir Eddie Muller, our “best issue ever.” It certainly boasts a stellar line-up of contributors.

Kicking things off is the cover story by Eddie himself on Alfred Hitchcock’s secret weapon, producer Joan Harrison. We’ve got Kim Morgan offering her defense of the femme fatale, Christa Faust weighing in on every movie based on the infamous “Honeymoon Killers” case, plus actress/hellraising advocate Rose McGowan on her top five noir films. Not to mention surveys of the film adaptations of Dorothy B. Hughes and Patricia Highsmith; tributes to Ella Raines, June Havoc and Jean Gillie; and so much more.

Getting her first-ever byline is Renee Patrick, the mystery writing alter ego I share with my wife Rosemarie. Together we look at Edith Head’s singular fashion contributions to film noir, in a piece gorgeously assembled by ace designer Michael Kronenberg.

It was my distinct pleasure to organize the women noir writers’ roundtable, posing questions to a quintet of top-flight talents: Megan Abbott, Steph Cha, Christa Faust, Vicki Hendricks and Denise Mina. I also interview Sarah Weinman about the acclaimed new collection she edited, Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and ‘50s.

My Cocktails & Crime column is in the front of the book, while in the back is a piece I’ve wanted to write for a while: an appreciation of the Joel and Ethan Coen film The Man Who Wasn’t There. Its debut on Blu-Ray finally allows me to make the case for it as the Coens’ best film, a truly chilling film noir, and one of the few masterpieces of this still-young century.

I’ll be blunt. You need this issue. So make a donation to the FNF’s preservation efforts and receive the magazine as your reward. The ladies of film noir and I thank you.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Me Elsewhere: Belly Up To The Classroom

It’s back to school season, even for yours truly. In my latest Down the Hatch column at Eat Drink Films, I recount my adventures in bartending class. Chief lesson learned: I finally crack the code of the gimlet, the cocktail Raymond Chandler made famous.