Wednesday, July 8, 2015

ON THE JOB TRAINING

Daniel Klein is one of the most charming, funny and creative guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Four years younger than me, he graduated from Harvard where he received a B.A. in philosophy. After a brief career in television comedy, he began writing books, ranging from thrillers and mysteries (starting with two Elvis Presley comedic thrillers, Kill Me Tender in 2002 followed by Blue Suede Clues a year later.) In 2007 he hit pay-dirt when he and his chum from Harvard, Thomas Cathcart, wrote Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes which made The New York Times Best Seller list, followed by two other sequels. In 2012 he wrote Travels with Epicurus, which became a London Times Best-Seller in England. These became International Best Sellers.

But Danny is more than that. He’s also a playwright and did so well with these non-fiction books that “I could afford to publish two novels with The Permanent Press for their small $1,000 advance.”  The first was The History of Now in 2009, which won ForeWord Magazine’s Silver Award for Literary Fiction, followed by Nothing Serious in 2013.

Before turning this over to Danny, it’s important to tell you this. In the early 1950s, Procter & Gamble produced a boxed powdered soap called “Duz” with the tag line, “Duz does Everything!” claiming the soap worked in even in the hardest water. One doesn’t know whether the product was named because of the slogan or the other way around. Regardless, it was a very familiar radio commercial for the over 70 set.  When I read Danny’s final line I told him “nobody under 60 that I spoke with knows anything about Duz.” But rather than fiddle with it, I let it stand with this explanation.


*       *       * 
 “Several years ago I was asked to be on the jury for an art colony’s admissions.  Hundreds of writers had submitted short samples of their work in hope of winning a week or two at this rural enclave where they would have their own cabin, meals, and the company of other deserving artists.  My (unpaid) job was to read their submissions.

“The sheer volume of manuscripts I needed to read was daunting, so after a while I lightened the burden by turning the process into a game: guessing which writers had an MFA in writing. (The correct answer was in the bios on the last page of each submission.)  

“I batted 100%.  In most cases I could spot an MFA in just two paragraphs.  The dead giveaway was the tortured metaphor.

“I have been skeptical of the value of MFA programs ever since.

“Much of what I have learned about the craft of writing came in on-the-job training.  Back in the 1960s and early ’70s, I made a living doing odd jobs in television in New York; I wrote quiz questions and stunts for game shows, routines for stand-up comics, and between-song patter for singers.  At one point, the networks started to produce their own movies, then called Movies of the Week (MOWs), and they were handing out script assignments to just about anyone who came up with a promising idea – even me.  They paid very well.

 “But I didn’t have a clue of how to write a film script.  Indeed, at that point my only experience writing dialogue was a play I’d written in college in which I shamelessly and clumsily aped Samuel Becket.  So I sat down in front of my black-and-white television set and studied one MOW after another.  Then I quizzed a couple of experienced TV movie writers about their methods.

“I soon learned the single most important lesson for the job: pay close attention to the commercial breaks. There were seven of them per movie.  This meant that the movie’s two hours of air time only entailed a one-and-a-half hour script.  But more significantly it meant that the viewer had seven opportunities to switch channels. This station-flipping option needed to be discouraged big time.

“The key, then, was to construct a plot with seven discrete cliff-hangers—intriguing, unanswered questions in the story that required the viewer to stay tuned for the next ‘act’.   This applied to mysteries, love stories, historical dramas – the lot.  A viewer deeply invested in ‘What’s next?’ doesn’t switch to the middle of an ‘I Love Lucy’ episode or even to a variety show.

“I soon discovered that this actually made the construction of a script easier. I would start by dreaming up a series of ‘What’s next-s?’ of increasing consequence until the final, super ‘What’s next?’  These commercial-break dramatic moments would often be altered as I began writing, but I would have been lost without this scaffold at the beginning of the process.

“Years later, when I began to write genre novels—medical thrillers and amateur sleuth mysteries for Doubleday and St. Martin’s Press—I still had commercial breaks on my mind when I constructed my outlines.  I had learned a valuable practical lesson in craft by writing those MOWs, a lesson I somehow doubt I would have learned at the MFA program at the University of Iowa.  (Yes, I know, those programs are for literary writers, not for commercial writers like me.)

“And then there are the lessons in invention that I learned while ghost writing books for psychotherapists who didn’t bother keeping case records…but more about that after this word from Duz.  Remember, Duz does everything.”
*       *       *

I look forward to reading your comments on this blog directly and also by email. You can also reach Danny by email at deeklein2@gmail.com.

NEXT WEEK  it’s David Freed’s turn on the eve of our publishing his fourth Cordell Logan mystery, The Three-Nine Line

A Final Thought: If any of you readers want to contribute to this weekly book blog, or know someone in the industry who would like to do so, let me know by emailing me at shepard@thepermanentpress.com

Marty

1 comment:

  1. The best sort of lesson, as long as you've got the wit and humility to look, listen, and learn. Learning by doing it is also a lot more fun.

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