Mar 032014

Jeff Cohen

You never know who may be listening to you--Paul McCartney, "Take It Away"

How about those Academy Awards, huh? Were you shocked? I was stunned.

I'm lying. I wrote this a week before the Oscars. Hey. Life gets in the way sometimes.

Still, thinking about the glamor and silliness of Hollywood--and the best thing about the Academy Awards is how silly they are--got me to wondering. My writing has certainly not made me a household name, and I'm perfectly fine with that. But if I'm being accurate (to the best of my knowledge), my books have, in the past few years especially, sold conservatively in the tens of thousands, and that's probably an underestimate. 

So after a while you start thinking that maybe one or two of those mass market paperbacks has made it into the hands of a famous person. 

It's sort of a cool thought. Who might be a fan of the Haunted Guesthouse series? There's no way of knowing, really, unless said celebrity were to reach out and communicate with the author (that's me). And so far, they haven't, with one exception, who was a friend before the series started and has blurbed a couple of the books.

Erin posted a while back about the impression an author leaves when making public his/her thoughts about politics or some other sensitive topic. The flip side of that is wondering whether someone whose positions I support might be reading my work.

Or what if it's someone with whom I disagree vehemently? What would that say about my novel?

So in order to prevent myself considerable embarrassment (after this display of undigestible hubris), I've decided to provide a list of celebrities whom I hope are or will be fans of my work. Because you never know.

My Hoped-For Famous Fans

  • Mel Brooks: Always at the top of my list, unless Harpo Marx is resurrected. If someone knows how I can get Mel a copy of any of my books, don't hesitate to get in touch;
  • Jon Stewart: The smartest comedian at work for the past 15 years. Can take an incredibly obvious joke and still make it hilarious. I don't even care if he likes the book; I just want him to read one;
  • Queen Latifah: Hey, a fellow alum of 8096523-standardFrank H. Morrell High School and multitalented performer. Jersey girl with attitude, someone I'd be proud to have as a reader;
  • Ringo Starr: The People's Beatle and funniest of the bunch;
  • Steven Spielberg: Let's face it--if he were a loyal reader, Josh and I would have heard from him by now;
  • Derek Jeter: Not only an unparalleled athlete entering his final campaign, but an aspiring publisher--someone get this man a book!
  • Bette Midler: Because she's damn funny;
  • Craig Ferguson: Doing the funniest, most subversive talk show on the air, and a fan of crime fiction who books authors on his show. Yeah, you could do worse;
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Simply the coolest guy in any room he enters. A superstar astrophysicist? You know if Dr. T. likes your work, you must be smart;
  • Bill Murray: I'm not sure why, because I don't think he'd like my work, but I want to hope he would;
  • George Clooney: This generation's attempt at Cary Grant, falling a little short but way closer than most of us get. Smart, talented, committed; what's not to like?
  • Tina Fey: She's really funny, and if she publicly said she liked my books, my wife would be impressed with me for the first time this millennium;
  • Gene Wilder: The best comic actor of the past 50 years, and an author in his own write.

To be fair, of course (or even not to be fair), it's probably right to list a few celebs who, if they are fans of my work, I'd appreciate keeping it to themselves:

Thanks-But-No-Thanks List

  • Ted Nugent: Yeah, and his music is lousy, too:
  • Mel Gibson: I hold a grudge. Move on;
  • Rush Limbaugh: You shouldn't have to ask why;
  • The Duck Dynasty Guy: I'm almost ashamed to have a beard because of you;
  • The Boston Red Sox: Nothing personal. It's a religious thing;
  • Alec Baldwin: Luckily, he's getting out of public life, so that will never become an issue;
  • Vladimir Putin: Keep your shirt on, Vlad. I didn't watch your Olympics, either, so we're even;
  • John Travolta: If he can't get my name right, he's not going to be much help anyway; *
  • Justin Bieber: Get help, man--or just get better advice, and listen to it;
  • Isabel Allende: You know why.

For the record: I doubt any of these people has ever been in the same room with one of my books, but this is a fantasy league sort of thing, where you get to choose the names and assume they'll go along with you--or not. So that's my list. What's yours?


P.S. Recently the world of comedy has lost its grandfather and its funny uncle. Rest in peace, Sid Caesar and Harold Ramis. It doesn't matter how old you were; either way, it was much too soon. This is a world that can't afford to lose the laughs.

*Added after the Oscars

Feb 242014

Jeff Cohen

BALTIMORE, MD--It's not about baseball. Not this time of year, although there are stirrings in Florida that can cause a fan's heart to hope. It's not about the impending retirement of the noble Derek Jeter or the welcome relief from the year-long sabbatical imposed on Mr. Rod. No, I'm not in Baltimore this weekend, staying within spitting distance of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, for the baseball. It isn't here yet.

I'm here because a Mad_squirrelsquirrel got into my attic.

A few months ago, we woke up one morning to a nasty scratching sound in our bedroom wall. This is not something you want to wake up hearing, but it was undeniable and just as unmistakable. Something was living inside our walls, and that something was larger than a mouse.

You can be all anthropomorphic about squirrels and how "cute" they are if you want, but when one has taken up residence in your attic, it's just a rat with a fuzzy tail, and one that can do a good deal of damage. So we had an "animal control expert" come by, and he determined exactly how Rocky was getting inside our house. There was a hole in the soffet next to our attic window.

I asked him if the hole could be plugged, and Mr. Ranger shook his head. "You need a roofer for that," he said.

Well, the time had come. We'd been living in this house for just about 20 years, perhaps to the day, and had not addressed our roof except for a few patches after Hurricane Sandy had her way with the entire state of New Jersey and its neighbors. So the roof now had to be replaced.

That's not why I'm in Baltimore. Hang on.

After batting around the idea of a new roof for a few days, Rocky_the_flying_squirrelJessica and I decided it was best for a number of reasons, not the least of which involves our partners in all endeavors the IRS, to take our a home equity loan to pay for the roof. And if you're taking out a loan, you might as well get a few other things done. So we had a number of windows replaced too, just to experience the thrill (once this interminable winter, um, terminables) of opening a window and not having to prop it open with a book (I know, book lovers, but it's a cruel reality).

Still not the reason I'm in Barry Levinson's backyard. I'm getting there. Here. Wait.

Besides the roof and the windows, we had to prioitize the 15-million things that we could have chosen to fix in our ramshackle abode. And the one area (besides that roof) we'd been working hard not to discuss all these years was the staircase.

Our stairs, which go from the living room up to the bedrooms, were in desperate need of replacement. We'd talked to our contractor friend who lives across the street some time ago about repairing them because of the hideous, cacophonous creaking that caused us to pause the television anytime someone would walk up or down, or put the phone on mute because of the noise. And our contractor pal had informed us that repair wasn't an option. These stairs had to be ripped out and new ones put in. And he intimated, without actually coming out and saying it, that it was best we do so before someone were to head for the living room taking the local and end up there via the express. If you know what I mean.

So this weekend, two gentlemen (including our across-the-street neighbor) ripped up our Imagestaircase and installed a new and--since I can now verify it--vastly improved one. But it took the better part of three days, and there was no way to get up to our bedrooms while that was happening.

We decided on this particular weekend because it was one of the few coming up during which we had no plans, and initially assumed we'd book a couple of hotel rooms (one for us, one for our son the budding filmmaker and job seeker) and wait out the devastation. And then it occurred to me that if you're going to have a couple of hotel rooms anyway, it might be an idea to, you know, go somewhere.

It had to be within driving distance, and given the kind of weather we've been having since roughly Halloween, cancellable if necessary. And it might be a nice idea if we had an event, a destination, in mind for at least one day. So I started searching around.

And it turned out that this weekend, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was playing a series of themes from science fiction film and television, featuring our host, SuluGeorge Takei. And since we're all big Takei fans in this house, the deal was done. 

We returned Monday, before Josh's shift at the movie theater was to begin, to a lovely new and completely functional staircase, having enjoyed some film music presented by a distinguished group of musicians and an iconic actor and Internet personality. (Alas, there was no time to see Edgar Allan Poe's home as well.)

So greetings from Baltimore, Maryland, everybody. Except we're back in New Jersey now, and supposedly things will (sigh) return to normal. Sort of.

There's still painting and maybe a new floor in the kitchen to discuss. 

Damn squirrel.


*No squirrels were harmed in the posting of this blog.

Feb 102014

Jeff Cohen

There was much hoopla in the past few weeks about the date, 50 years ago last night, that a rock and roll group from England appeared on an American television show and "changed history." (You can't actually change history; you can make history. Once it's history, well, that's history. If you know what I mean.)

Nonetheless, I was not as ambivalent to the overblown festivities as I would normally be. I'm a lifelong (pretty much) fan of the ImagesBeatles, still think their music is fresh and amazing, and enjoy watching them be appreciated by those of all generations. So although the coverage was certainly disproportional to any event ever, it was not as irritating--to me--as almost anything else would have been.

This is not going to be another one of those this-is-how-the-Beatles-changed-my-life stories, I promise. I was all of six years old when Ed Sullivan put them on a bill with Tessie O'Shea, Myron John-lennonCohen (no relation) and a very young Davy Jones, in the cast of Broadway's Oliver at the time. Frankly, I wasn't all that impressed that night, and wasn't until I got to hear the studio recordings, on which there was no hysterical screaming by teenage girls. (After all, I was six. Girls? Ugh.)

No, my appreciation of what those four men accomplished goes in another direction, and I think somewhat deeper than most. What the Ed Sullivan performances show me are four guys who were just starting, who were used to the spotlight but not the United States, and who could have easily been exactly what the adults in the suits and ties were saying they were--a passing fad fueled by silly children.

Instead, they became probably the signature musicians of the century and their music is still relevant enough that today's PaulMcCartney60sartists cover their songs. Not bad.

I write books for a living. And in those books, I make up stories. If you want to call that an art form, I'm not going to argue, but it feels like entertainment to me. That is not to denigrate what I and my colleagues do; I have long droned on here about my high opinion of popular enterainment, and will not take back a word of that now.

The admiration I have for what John Lennon, Paul McCartney, MV5BMTUyNjE0NzAzMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwMjQzMzU3._V1_SY534_SX475_George Harrison and Ringo Starr did is based in their ability to start as light entertainers and then grow into really great artists who were also fantastic entertainers. They never disappointed (unless you watched Magical Mystery Tour expecting a coherent film), but they also didn't rest on their laurels. They didn't stagnate.

George Martin, the producer of almost all Beatles recordings, has often said that one thing he loved about the group was that "they never gave me the same thing to do twice." The songwriters in the group were conscious of the danger in repetition; they wanted to progress with each new recording, and what is most amazing is that they actually did.

I have been struggling Imageslately with the feeling that I want to write something really notable, something that would stretch me into new areas, uncomfortable places (as a writer) and hit new heights for me. (Don't worry; this happens periodically. It'll blow over.) I don't want to stop writing the things I write; I love those--but I like to think there's something more as well.

Unfortunately, I suffer from a common malady among such entertainers as myself. I'm not sure what my limits are (I know; you're not supposed to have any, but we are given a finite amount of talent without an inventory of how much we have). And even such a revered writer as George Bernard Shaw, late in his life, was urged by a rather nervy acquaintance--Harpo Marx--to write something new.

Shaw looked over, stared Harpo straight in the eye, and asked, "Got any ideas?"

Yeah, I haven't hit on that yet.

And that is what, for me, is the defining genius of the Beatles. Given the opportunity to milk their success into a year or two of tremendous wealth and fame, they chose instead to push the envelope. The group recorded 13 albums of about 14 songs each. In a seven-year recording career. Writing almost all the material themselves, while touring almost nonstop for the first four years. That's astonishing.

The more they recorded, the more innovative they became. String sections in rock and roll? Why not? Backwards lyrics? Bass lines that were sung instead of played? Songs with false endings, concept albums, extended medleys of new material that didn't have anything to do with each other but managed to come together cohesively. Done, done and done.

A Hard Day's Night. Day Tripper. Yesterday. In My Life. Help! A Day in the Life. Here Comes the Sun. Hey Jude. I'm just getting warmed up.

So those of us who entertain for a living should take a hint from those four "youngsters from Liverpool," as the condescending and avuncular Ed Sullivan said. Don't rest on your laurels. Don't simply write what you've written before. Challenge the conventional. Write to entertain oneself as well as an audience. Try things that aren't supposed to be done and see if they work.

It doesn't hurt if you're a brilliant artist. Or four. But since none of us knows if that term applies to us, we must operate on the assumption that if we try hard enough, we can find out. Maybe we are brilliant artists, and we just don't know it yet.

Turned out The-beatles-0John, Paul, George and Ringo fit into that category. But ironically in the end, the love they took was not at all equal to the love they made. Countless millions were touched by the music those four men created. And they were repaid very well monetarily, no doubt. They also lost all chance at anything resembling privacy, their fame eventually drove wedges into their personal friendships, each one went through a divorce, one was shot and another died of cancer after being knifed by a madman.

Oddly, our memories of them are usually happy ones. We celebrate their work and we remember them fondly. And sometimes, when we dare to place ourselves in similar categories, we wonder, since they did it, if we can become great artists just by pushing ourselves to the limit. And maybe a little bit further.

Got any ideas?


P.S. Pitchers and catchers report in 4 days.

Jan 132014

Jeff Cohen

My beloved Garden State (that was NOT meant sarcastically!) was the focus of much news coverage this past week, when some good old-fashioned newspaper reporting revealed that highly ranked officials in the administation of Our Beloved Governor (might be a little sarcasm in there) might have purposely closed numerous access lanes to the George Washington Bridge as political retribution against a mayor from the other party who didn't endorse said Beloved Governor for reelection, of which he was pretty much assured, endorsement or no endorsement.

There's a lesson to be found here, crime fiction authors. You'll see in a minute.

At a nationally televised news conference on Thursday, the Gov took a couple hours to shoot the breeze with the press about this incident. And apologized, in his extremely imitable way, sort of. But when addressing the firing of a close aide, did he explain that it was because of the disservice to the citizenry? The flagrant illegality of what was done? The callous disregard for the citizens of Fort Lee and anyone else who wanted to get into Upper Manhattan for a few days in September?

Nah. It was "because she lied to me."

Forget the Claude Rains ("I'm shocked--shocked--to discover there's gambling going on here") implausibility of his declared amazement at what had happened. Don't even consider the possibility that the traffic gambit was the tip of the iceberg. The bit of wisdom we can all take away from this particular political nonsense is thus: 

It ain't all about you. Ever.

Some authors are tempted, for example when a negative review is posted on a web site, to rebut the points, even inaccuracies being presented as fact. Some authors (see last week's post) can't see past their own titles when considering possible excellence in the field. Some authors believe that the agents and editors with whom they deal should be devoted strictly to the advancement of said author and his/her brilliant product.

Oh, get over yourself. Just because each of us is intimately familiar with our works, and believe what we write to be fabulous in some way or another--a healthy ego IS necessary to do this job--doesn't mean the whole publishing world comes to a halt the moment your word processor keyboard cools off.

Consider the equally well documented case of one Mr. Alex Rodriguez, until recently third baseman for the New York Yankees: Mr. Rod has been suspended from all things baseball for a year because of a list of indiscretions involving banned substances that, from the sound of it, is impressive enough to drop the most jaded of jaws.

Mr. Rod was one of 13 players caught in a particular net, and the only one who didn't just take the punishment and slink back into the shadows. Granted, his punishment was about 3.25 times that of the closest runner-up, which again leads one to wonder exactly how many smoking guns he had left behind ("Leave the gun. Take the steroids."). Nonetheless, it was his handling of the brouhaha from which we can take our cue.

First, he exhibited confidence: The charges were false and he would undoubtedly be exonerated. There was no question. Until there was a good deal of question. Compromises were offered; deals were put on various tables, and it was suggested by the head of Mr. Rod's own labor union that perhaps he would be best served by negotiating. 

No way. Mr. Rod then clammed up. For a while. For the "good of the team," which was in awful shape last year but still had an unbelievably slim shot at success, which didn't happen. Once radio silence was broken, Mr. Rod attended the hearings on his case, even finding groups to picket the building where the hearing was being held. I'm not making a word of this up.

When it was clear things weren't going his way, Mr. Rod threw a hissy fit, banged his fist on the table, left the hearing in a huff, and headed directly to a sympathetic radio program, where he looked into the eyes of the host (and because of simulcast on a TV station owned by the Yankees, the viewer) and insisted he had never done any of the things of which he was accused. Nothing. Nada. 

The suspension was handed out on Saturday, and immediately Mr. Rod announced he would appeal it in federal court. Yes, he wants to literally make a federal case of a ruling that didn't go his way.

Authors, consider: Sometimes things aren't going to go your way. Some editors will reject your work. Some reviewers will criticize it. Sometimes the book buying public will simply refuse to spend its hard-earned money on your hard-earned brainchild. 

Think about how you look when you react. Denial--the editor asking for changes just lacks vision? Your ego can be seen from space; calm yourself. Hissy fit? You're petty. Escalation of the rhetoric? You have an inflated idea of your own place in the publishing universe. Refusal to budge an inch? Yeah, you have your artistic integrity, but you're overlooking one possibility--other people may be right about your work.

With your work, be open to suggestion. With criticism, be deaf to cheap shots. With your sales figures, be blind to any criterion other than whether you wrote the book you wanted to write and did it as well as you could.

Take the high road. But you might want to divert to the Lincoln Tunnel. I hear the traffic at the GWB is a little backed up.


P.S. Pitchers and catchers report in 32 days.

Dec 302013

Jeff Cohen

Let me begin by saying that I don't believe in New Year's resolutions. Promises made to oneself, particuarly those that involve doing things like dieting and exercising, are meant in earnest and forgotten by January 3.

Besides: Why not have March 28th resolutions? What difference does it make that Augustus Caesar decided this is when the year begins (and was careful to name a summer month after himself)?

But. I do believe in reassessments, and the arbitrary date ol' Augie set down is as good a time as any to take stock. I don't make promises, but I will consider the current state of, you know, me, and ponder what I expect to happen, not what I wish will occur.

Setting goals is good. Feeling like a failure for not hitting them is destructive. So I have set a few goals for the coming year, and will try to achieve them. If I don't, that's the way it goes.

Be It Resolved that:

  • In 2014, I'll have two novels published: The sixth Haunted Guesthouse book, currently with a title that can easily not be on the cover of the book when you next hear about it; and the first in the Samuel Hoenig Asperger's mystery series, THE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD. I resolve that the next Guesthouse book will be better than the last, only because I believe in trying to improve each time. The Asperger's book can't be better than the last one, because there is no last one. No sense being silly about it.
  • In 2014, I will try to live a healthier lifestyle. Progress will not be measured in lost pounds, but in the way I feel. I feel okay now, so better would be pretty good.
  • In 2014, I'll teach my students to use punctuation properly; the difference between your and you're; that lie and lay aren't the same word. Will they learn it? Don't be silly. I'm not that good a teacher (and they should have learned all that in fourth grade).
  • In 2014, I'll do my best not to bother Josh and Danielle at HSG too often. (Note to Josh: please notice the word "try" in that sentence.
  • In 2014, maybe I'll read some books I didn't write. No promises.
  • In 2014, I'm making every effort to rewrite a screenplay I wrote back when. Yes, I know which one.
  • In 2014, I'll stop paying college tuition. (That's not a resolution; it's a fact.) Student loans? Those are forever.
  • In 2014, I will try to keep baseball in perspective. (Pitchers and catchers report in 45 days.)
  • In 2014, I will work harder on keeping my fingers pressed down on the strings.
  • In 2014, I will attend the Left Coast Crime and Malice Domestic conferences. I hope some of you will resolve to say hello when you see me there.
  • In 2014, I'll do my best to come up with a more interesting post than this one each week.


Dec 232013

Jeff Cohen

Relax. There will be no Duck Dynasty comments made here. Some things are too stupid to merit discussion.

I am, I'm sure it is no surprise, not an Political_partiesapolitical person. I have opinions, as anyone with a working brain does. Not to worry: I'm not about to hit you between the eyes with any of my political views right now. If you want to know, feel free to ask and I'll be happy to answer.

But part of not being an apolitical person is to become involved, either as a participant or an observer, in discussions about such topics. And these days, many such discussions take place in cyberspace, because that's where we do pretty much everything now. You're reading this in cyberspace, after all.

Read enough of these things and you start to spot trends. So when I was watching one this past week about how... something or other... happens and one of the opinions expressed was that any information given was by definition suspect because "the media" distorts everything, my brain started to hurt. Again.

Man, I'm tired of people blaming the news Mediamedia for everything they don't like.

It's been a good long time since I was a legit member of a newsgathering organization, and even then I was a pretty feeble one. But the reporters and editors I've had the privilege of working with simply don't deserve the reputation they've gotten.

"The media" isn't responsible for you being uninformed or misinformed. You are. 

This particular trend, to point a finger at "the Media-spoonfeeding-cartoonmedia" and explain that the misinformed masses (meaning anyone who disagrees with you) are simply following along with whichever outlet you happen to despise (and yes, I despise at least one myself, but guess what--I choose not to get my news from that organization) once again removes the onus of getting information from the consumer. If we don't know where Syria is on a globe, or why Kim Jong Un offed his uncle, or which side of any idiotic Congressional debate we might favor, it is our own fault.

(Just as an aside: When people go on television and complain about "the media," who do they think THEY are?)

It's the responsibility of each citizen to seek out information, and if you're interested in being well-informed, one outlet simply isn't enough. Read both sides of an argument (yes, children, I said read, and not "watch" or "listen to" and certainly not "Google"). That's by design. Internet news is fine, except you only get what you ask for. A newspaper gives you what happened, and you choose or don't choose to read it. That's your job, and your fault if you miss something that's available to you.

Do some, if not all, news organizations distort some stories, intentionally or not? Of course they do. Guess what? It's up to you to analyze what you're told and see if it holds water logically. You don't just take in news and nod your head. Question. Research. Decide for yourself. 

I know; thinking, right? What a drag. But you have to do it anyway. It's not a reporter's fault if you drop the ball.

In the 1970s, Cronkite-smWalter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. Despite his strong political opinions, he kept them out of his reporting and told the viewer directly when he was offering commentary and not journalism. Have the lines blurred? Hell, yes. That doesn't mean you shouldn't be a more discerning consumer of news. 

The most trusted man in America today? Probably Tom Hanks. And he seems like a nice guy, but I'm not sure I need his reporting on Kim Jong Un.

I have my opinons. And I get my information from sources--yes, more than one--that I trust. But if they tell me something that is questionable, I question it. I do some research. I hear the opinions and the facts. And then I make up my own mind.

Stop blaming the messenger, ladies and gentlemen. We are in charge of ourselves. The buck stops here.

Oh, and Santa Claus is a fictional character. S/he can be whatever color or species you want.

Dec 152013


Darryl Wimberley has five novels with St. Martin's Press in the Barrett Raines mystery series: A Rock and a Hard Place (1999), Dead Man's Bay (2000), Strawman's Hammock (2001), Pepperfish Keys (2007) and Devil's Slew (2011). A separate, literary work, A Tinker's Damn, was published in 2000 by MacMurray and Beck; another literary novel, The King of Colored Town, was published in 2007 by The Toby Press, and was awarded the Willie Morris Prize for Southern Fiction. His script Kaleidoscope was Grand Prize Winner for Fade In: Magazine's 1998 competition. He and my husband, author and editor Ross Gresham, are former colleagues.

RG: You’ve written award-winning literary fiction, and you’ve also done a long genre series. Is it a different experience to write?

DW: If you have a dead body in your story and you are Dostoevsky, you are operating with a very different purpose in mind than if you have a dead body in your narrative and you are John Grisham or Scott Turow or Stephen King. To oversimplify-- How far would you get in a genre series if your protagonist couldn't figure out who the murderer was? And how far would your series run if your protagonist was killed in the first book? 

Purpose matters, not just for the subject undertaken, but as a determining factor in every other aesthetic decision. 

That does not mean that any given literary work has more merit than any given work of sci-fi, noir, fantasy, etc. It does mean that good literary fiction and good genre fiction develop narratives informed at their outset by parameters and purposes that are narratively distinct, and so ready comparisons can't be made. Both Daisy Miller and "The Turn of the Screw" are great fiction. But Henry James, self-consciously, knew that these works were not directly comparable.

Another over-simplification in this argument would be to say that works can always be neatly binned as genre or literary. That clearly is not true. I'd argue that a lot of Elmore Leonard's work deserves merit both as genre, and as literary fiction, and of course Tolkien is rightly cited in every convention of fantasy-lovers as an example of literary work.

On the other hand many novels that I read (or perhaps read badly), especially when touted as examples of post-modern purpose/construction, are for me simply tiresome. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is, for me, mostly unbearable. I don't have much patience with authors who disdain basic story-telling; I suspect them of being lazy because, from my own experience, developing a coherent plot is not just hard, hard work but intellectually challenging. It can't be an accident that works enduring for readers, whether the Iliad or To Kill A Mockingbird, observe the basics of story-craft -- a narrative that makes sense, a voice that is unexpected, characters whose actions are not entirely predictable, and, I would add, a concern for a world unrelated to meta-fiction. Anyone looking for a model for genre fiction or literature might profitably sit down for a season of Breaking Bad.

RG: You’ve also worked as a screenwriter. What did that teach you?

DW: It taught me how to forge a damned good plot-line. People now often joke about Syd Field's nonfiction book. The first edition is best, titled simply The Screenplay. Most of the book is derivative. Even so, the chapter relegated to "The Plot Point" is something novelists need to read along with screenwriters. It is hard to come up with a plot that will sustain seventy thousand words.

It's not an accident that most writing schools virtually ignore the business of story-boarding. Most students in those arenas write short stories—pretty hard to write a novel in a 15 week semester. But short-narrative writing can screw up folks wanting to move on to multi-hour series, feature scripts—or novels. Understanding the narrative structure that repeats and underpins well-written films and dramatic series is part of a craft that can be learned and applied to works of prose.

RG: Setting is important to a lot of thriller series, and of all the places you’ve lived, you chose northern Florida? What’s the flavor you were after?

DW: The importance and influence of setting in any well-written fiction is hard to overstate, but setting has no necessary relationship to "reality". As I Lay Dying and "A Good Man is Hard to Find" derive much of their power from an authentic evocation of an actually-extant time and place, but The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are equally powerful narratives set in settings that are almost wholly imagined.

Setting is the lens, real or fabricated. through which the stuff of writing is refracted. All settings get filtered through the author's consciousness. A writer, whether James Lee Burke or Bill Kennedy, has to know his story's period and place inside and out to be effective. A story's setting includes details of its period as well as its place, so for example when I set my novels in northern Florida, I can't take for granted that the region familiar to me from childhood was the same place in 1925 or 1965 as it is in 2013. The "flavor" changes, necessarily, with any particular place or time. I grant myself no special provenance or expertise in my setting, but I do know enough to mine that region to create those authentic encounters essential to any fiction. 

RG: You’ve been in the game a while. What’s changed in the publishing world?

DW: Technology has somewhat paradoxically created a choke-point between new writers and agents.  Anyone submitting manuscripts to agents sees the "Submission Guidelines" that populate almost any literary agency's website. Most of these sites require an electronic submission which is much easier for newbies to manage than in previous years where a hard-copy of the manuscript, or some sample of the text, would accompany the obligatory SASE.

 So much easier to send. But is this a good thing? I asked a New York agent recently if her agency even looked at submissions submitted over the internet and she freely admitted that they did not.  In the first place, easy submissions mean that agents get many more manuscripts, most of them bad, flooding into their hard-drives. And there is another factor at play. Recreating the agent's response to my question roughly— “Our offices are small. Space comes at a premium. In the old days, when manuscripts came in shoeboxes or whatever, we'd stack 'em up around the office and eventually they'd get in the way, and we'd sit down every month or so and weed 'em out, just to get some room to move around.  You'd read the first twenty pages of each submission and maybe halfway through the stack you'd find something meriting more attention. But with the computer? There's no mess. There are no boxes under your feet or stacking up the wall, so there is no incentive to actually start reading the hundred or so submissions that we get DAILY." So who gets agents now? Several contests offer a publication or meeting with an agent as incentive to submit. Those can be worthwhile. Other manqués get recommendations from writing schools whose profs often are published themselves with ongoing relationships at many agencies, or with editors. OR (new info for me) folks with manuscripts have to shell out coin to get personal sit-downs at conferences where agents pay to meet aspiring writers.  Ten minutes to make your pitch.

A lot like Hollywood, come to think of it.

In the old days.

Nov 252013

Jeff Cohen

In order to fully appreciate this week's post, you need to watch this. I urge you to buy this in order to do so because I object to copyright infringement, but if not, you might have to satisfy yourself with my description. This ends the special announcements for this week's post. 

I showed this episode of the TV series M*A*S*H to some of my screenwriting students last week, and realized in doing so that it illustrates exactly how to create interesting, three-dimensional characters in a very short time. 

The episode, 22nd in the fourth season of M*A*S*H, was entitled "The More I See You," and it takes its name from the song playing on the radio in The Swamp at the beginning of the show. Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) and his relatively new friend Tve4165-422-207B.J. Hunnicut (Mike Farrell) are discussing how bored they are while there's no medical work to be done.

But they're not bored for long: Up pulls a jeep and out of it step two nurses. And at the sight of one of them, Hawkeye goes positively pale. He says, mostly to himself, "Don't tell me. Don't even think it." Turns out the new nurse at the 4077th is Carley Walton (Blythe Danner), formerly Carley Breslin, and as it transpires, The Woman who got away from Hawkeye when he was in his surgical residency years before.

Pardon me. Hawkeye initially says he was in his "resical surgidency." A character who is never lost for a comeback now can't control the words coming out of his mouth. This pain goes deep.

There are four key scenes in the episode, and while I'd love to, there isn't space here to discuss all of them. Consider the first, in which Hawkeye and B.J. introduce themselves to Carley and her new tentmate, Becky Anderson. At the sound of his voice, Carley, facing away, looks just as panicked as Hawkeye did when he spotted her in the opening. But she turns to face him, pretending they haven't met before. 

At one point, while Hawkeye and B.J. are being their charming selves, they hand Carley a cigar for no reason other than when Hawkeye begins to make his next joke, Carley can wiggle the cigar while saying the punchline at the same time he does. She's heard that one before. Later, when he babbles a bit, she says, "You're trying too hard. Are you uncomfortable?"

When things get more serious between them, Hawkeye and Carley talk (and television is more about talk than movies, because conversation is faster and cheaper to photograph) like two veterans of another kind of war, a painful one in which no one came out undamaged. "I hated you for a long time," Hawkeye tells her at one point. "Hate. The real thing. If I'd met you during my celebrated Blue Period, I don't know what I would have done."

They find themselves falling into old behavior patterns, and before long, they are lovers again. Problem: Carley is married, to a naval officer who has "probably got the glass on us right now," Hawkeye says. When B.J. takes note of that, Hawkeye asks if he disapproves. "You want disapproval, you disapprove," his friend tells him. "I'm not the Acme Judgment Company."

But things are not to end well. This is, after all, episodic television, and Carley is not going to become a regular cast member. Besides, a happy Hawkeye Pierce with a wife in the camp would have ended the show right there, seven years before its celebrated finale. SSN04_94moreCarley asks for a transfer, and when Hawkeye asks why, he provides the answer to his own question by asking her to marry him while walking himself into a corner.

"If you had gone into medicine with the same lack of conviction that you seem to have for marriage," Carley tells him, "you would have been a mortician's delight." She is not interested in being an accessory to a great surgeon; she wants to be a person. These two people, desperately in love with each other, can't stay together because of who they are

Larry Gelbart, who developed M*A*S*H for television and co-wrote "The More I See You," once told me that the episode came from the song itself and the feelings it evoked in him. It is a bittersweet story that illuminates a series character we've known for years and presents a fully fleshed guest star who is every bit his equal. From now on, when Hawkeye hits on a nurse for a quick one-night stand, we'll remember his words to Carley: "There's been no one since you. Faint copies at best."

And when she drives away in her jeep, he is left with the realization that "she never altogether leaves."

I showed that episode, one of 256 in the series, to a group of college students, some of whom might not have ever seen the show before. When the lights came up afterward, one was close to tears. "That is so sad," she said. "You care so much about them." You don't get that much in a sitcom.

It's because of the characters, and the characters came from the writing.

Now, consider this: Saturday night my wife and I saw UnknownALL IS LOST, the current film in which Robert Redford (looking far better than any 76-year-old has a right to look) plays a man on a yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean whose boat suffers great damage and who becomes more desperate as the situation continues to worsen for 100 minutes. It's a lovely performance, with almost no dialogue at all, and a bold piece of filmmaking. Redford is the only actor on the screen for the whole film. 

But it's not as involving as one might hope. Why? We know nothing about the character. We know he is resourceful and determined, and that's about it. We never even learn his name. You can come up with the juiciest, highest concept, the most intriguing premise in film history, but without characters who register as people, like Hawkeye and Carley, what we have is an arms-length exercise, not a human story. One man's opinion.

Nov 182013

Jeff Cohen

In 1978 (when dinosaurs ruled the Earth), I was a senior at Rutgers College, which no longer exists, technically. While devoting most of my time to the exemplary student newspaper, I still decided to place my name in nomination for the office of vice president of the senior class, and due mostly to the name recognition earned by frequent bylines in said newspaper, got elected. 

Wait. There is a story coming; you'll have to hang in for a bit.

The chief reason I had decided to seek the nomination was that, as a graduating senior, I knew the class officers had some input into the choice of the commencement speaker and could nominate candidates for honorary degrees. And I wanted in.

The person I first chose to nominate, Mel Brooks, was not going to accept. I came thisclose to talking to Mr. Brooks that year, calling his office to see if he'd be interested, and was told by his assistant that the great man had "already turned down Harvard." 

But my second choice was not at all a compromise. I would have nominated both given two choices. 

I forwarded the name of William H. Cosby Jr., who at the time had just completed his doctorate in education and seemed an excellent candidate. The fact that I first knew him from a television special in which he'd performed almost all of his comedy album 0000130850_350For Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With, was secondary. That's what I told people.

Having learned from the Brooks experience, I did not attempt to contact Bill Cosby to gauge his interest in coming to speak at the state university of New Jersey. I just put in the forms and attended the meetings. It wasn't even close.

The speaker at my commencement the following May was John Kenneth Galbraith, whom I introduced at the ceremony. He was about nine feet tall and didn't so much shake my hand as he shook my right arm and levitated me off the stage after my paltry introduction. Then he went on about the economy, I think, for quite some time and afterwards, I was an alumnus of Rutgers College.

I admired Bio_bcosby_highres_articleBill Cosby for any number of reasons. He was the first comedian who really seemed to be speaking to me. Even at the age of 10, I got his stories and related to everything he expressed. He was, after all, talking about being a kid. I was a kid. It was a perfect match. 

Before that, comedians to me were the guys in the tuxedoes on the Ed Sullivan Show who always seemed to be complaining about their mothers-in-law, often punctuated their jokes with a rim shot, and told jokes. They didn't tell stories. They weren't kids. They were irrelevant. 

Cosby, after I'd devoured every stand-up album to the minute, was my idol. I went to parties in high school and recited whole routines verbatim (it's a wonder I wasn't more popular with the girls). I watched I Spy because he was on it. I even watched the first sitcom in which he starred, which lasted about sixteen minutes before being cancelled, and his variety show (which featured Groucho Marx in his last television appearance for one episode). I had a connection to 462776-g-ent-120712-bill-cosby.blocks_desktop_mediumBill Cosby before America rediscovered him in his iconic 1980s sitcom. I felt like the Beatles fans who knew them from the Cavern must have felt during the Sgt. Pepper period. Yeah, sure we knew they could do that. Why are you so surprised?

Now Dr. Cosby has a new standup special (although I'm willing to bet he sits down) coming next weekend on Comedy Central, and it's called Far From Finished. I can hardly wait. Is he the same comedian from 1967? Of course not. On an interview on the Merv Griffin Show decades ago (I remember everything that won't help me in life), Cosby explained to the audience that he had to keep changing his act, saying that if he'd simply rested on the success of his early years, he'd have been doing Fat Albert forever.

This year, my daughter is a senior at the 1362435153_4120_bill cosbyRutgers University School of Arts and Sciences, which if we were being honest would be called Rutgers College. And not having to get herself elected to class office, she noted that any student or staff member can now submit forms to nominate a person for an honorary degree at her commencement, which will take place in May.

Unprompted, she enthusiastically wrote an excellent essay whose purpose it is to nominate Dr. William H. Cosby, Ed.D. I have never been prouder.

Oct 062013

Jessy Randall




Broadchurch started off with such promise. A small town full of suspects in a young boy's murder. Many people with secrets to hide. Sinister surprises at every turn. We knew this because the camera kept zooming in on suspicious things, and DUN-DUN-DUN type music played to show us that characters were up to no good.

The whole fun of mysteries is figuring out who's guilty, usually one step ahead or one step behind the detective(s) on the job. We have to trust the mystery to trick us a little, give us unexpected twists. But a mystery can't be STUPID. It can't trick us so much that we no longer trust the mystery itself. And that's what happened with Broadchurch.

David Tennant's seasoned detective keeps telling his partner (played by the excellent Olivia Colman) that she's too trusting. We know she's going to be upset to find out that anyone in her town could commit murder. We know she's going to learn her lesson, but good, by the end. And that we too should distrust everybody.

But the show does us a disservice when it pounds this lesson home to Ellie. At one point, she self-righteously claims that no woman could be unaware her husband was abusing their child. We're all in her shoes at that moment in the show: we, too, distrust the woman she distrusts, and for good reasons (the DUN-DUN-DUN music, etc.).

We're, therefore, meant to be as shocked as Ellie is to learn that Ellie's husband is the murderer. The lesson for the viewer is supposed to be that we can't ever really know anyone, that we shouldn't trust our own best beloveds.

Thanks, Broadchurch, but the lesson I took away is that I should never have trusted the writers of this show. You can't play scary music and zoom in on every tiny hand gesture and manipulate your audience like that and then expect us to nod and smile when we take our punishment for believing what you were telling us.

In other words, this would have been a better ending:


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