Here, let me spoil Maleficent for you


I watched Maleficent last night because I had to see something and never in a million years was I going to pay for Neighbors or A Million Ways to Die in the West. This was the only halfway decent option. I don’t normally do film criticism (or criticism of any kind, really) but this film came so close so often that I can’t stop myself from calling out the unfulfilled potential. So just a couple notes:

Angelina Jolie was freakin’ awesome. She carried the whole thing. I’ve never had strong feelings about her one way or another, but on the strength of her performance here I’m now a fan. Hello, beastie.

I could have done without the pixie trio, but I guess it wouldn’t have been Sleeping Beauty without them. But here’s the thing: Their gifts to the princess, especially the one about how everyone who meets her will love her? If you give that half a thought, it undermines the whole arc of Maleficent coming to love Aurora. That should happen naturally, on the strength of Maleficent’s suppressed good nature, not because some two-bit pixie made it so.

True Love’s Kiss. Really, they’re giving us the same twist we just saw in Frozen? I mean, it’s a great twist and all, but the audience last night saw it coming from miles away and even groaned in anticipation.

She spared the king’s life. She told him their fight was over. It was perfect. Then he attacked her again and fell to his death, even though she could have saved him. Far, far from perfect. Letting him die lowered Maleficent to his level. If the filmmakers really thought the audience demanded vengeance, they could have made this king suffer even more by living with the knowledge that he had lost his daughter’s love to the woman he betrayed.

And finally: fantastic cheekbones. Seriously. See it just for that.

I dream strange.

Last night I dreamed a poem by Margaret Atwood.

I haven’t read anything by Margaret Atwood since The Handmaid’s Tale almost thirty years ago. Does she even write poetry? I don’t know. But this one appeared fully formed in my mind as I slept, complete with her byline, so I’ll give credit where it’s due.

I won’t claim it’s any good, and I don’t agree with her stance on free range cats or TTVAR (team dog! team bird!) but here it is:

Let My Cats Roam Free
by Margaret Atwood

When I go
Let my cats roam free the grounds
above the earth
above my tomb.

Let them roam
howling and fucking and stalking,
bringing gifts of vermin
to my clay feet.

Here tabby, here tom,
here pussy, pussy, pussy.
Bring me your gophers,
your towhees, your wrens.

Let jewels of feather and fur
and small sharp bone
litter the grounds
where my cats roam free.

Upcoming events

Therese and I are excited to announce a few book signing events coming up soon.

We’ll be in Weaverville, California, on February 8 for the Chinese New Year celebrations. Look for us either at Weaverville’s historic Joss House or at Tammie’s Books. We’re still working out the details, but we’ll be at one or the other of those locations, if not both. (A few important plot points in The Long Way take place near Weaverville, a tiny town near the Trinity Alps that was home to plenty of Chinese miners during the Gold Rush era.)

If you’re in Southern California, definitely stop by the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 12-13, 2014. We’ll have a booth and we’ll be there both days. If you’re a book lover, this is a must-visit event.

We’re also working to arrange a signing at Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara, perhaps in April or May. Stay tuned for details.

Thanks, Goodreads!

I just wanted to drop a quick note here to let everyone know what a cool service Goodreads is.

I’ve been a member for years, but never really used it until I had my own new book to promote. As an author it’s a great place to find new readers, but I’m also learning to love it even more as a reader.

Their giveaway program has been fantastic for getting our book into the hands of people who never would have heard of us, and we’re thrilled with the reviews we’ve been getting.

But I’ve also tried to win a few giveaways myself, and I’ve had great luck so far. The first was Will S. Hylton’s new book Vanished, about the search for missing aircraft downed over Palau during WWII. I won it, I read it, I reviewed it … it was pretty great.

And then today I won a copy of Chaplin & Company by Mave Fellowes, which is described as being reminiscent of The Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise, but which sounds to me something like Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore. (Actually, I think what got me to read TTtZ&tT in the first place was a review comparing it to Fitzgerald.)

Anyway, those are the two things I’ve won after entering only five or six contests. Goodreads uses some sort of special secret magic to pick their winners, and I think they favor people who actually post reviews of the things they win, but who knows.

There’s some really good stuff passing through the giveaways page from both indie and traditional publishers. I would have loved to win this or this, but alas. And I’ve seen some things there that I hadn’t heard of before that I just might purchase on my own now (Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith; A True Novel by Minae Mizumura) .

If you’re not already a member, it’s worth it to sign up today. Goodreads makes winning easy!

On annotations in screenplays

I had an interesting conversation with Terry Rossio recently at the Austin Film Festival in which he told me that he has begun to include detailed endnotes in his most recent screenplays.

The use of footnotes or endnotes or other annotations in screenplays is not common. In fact, the few times I saw the idea suggested in all the years I studied screenwriting, it was shouted down as an amateurish move (usually by other amateurs).*

Rossio is anything but an amateur, however, and he ran down for me a number of reasons for this new practice, which he says has been very positively received by the producers and directors he works with.

First, a little background for those not familiar with screenwriting: The general rule of thumb is that one page of a script will translate to one minute of screen time. So if you write a 110-page screenplay, that means you’ve got a 110-minute movie.

Now, common sense will tell us that not every page is exactly sixty seconds. Some pages are mostly dialogue and can play out fast or slow. Some are dense with action sequences that the director will want to linger on. Some contain a lot of scene-setting description that doesn’t take up any real screen time.

But common sense often does not enter into the discussion when it comes to notes from the studio.

A problem that Rossio was seeing was that somewhere a studio executive wanting to trim the expenses for a film would send the command down the line that a story needed to lose three pages.

The writers would then keep the story as intact as possible by leaving the action and dialogue alone, but trimming scenery description from the script. They could cut three pages that way without ever hurting the story they had written or even effectively changing the actual run time of the film.

The trouble would come, though, when the film crew and actors arrived on set to find that critical pieces were missing—a gallows without nooses, for example—because the art director no longer had the instructions he needed to do his job. Production would grind to a halt, costing more and more money, as they scrambled for solutions.

And so detailed endnotes are how Rossio is preemptively dealing with these situations. It’s still a 110-page screenplay, but now it has an additional twenty or thirty pages of notes after the end, keyed to every little detail from the story. And it’s not just descriptions that he’s highlighting. He’ll make notes regarding even small moments that a director might be tempted to cut: “This line of dialogue on page 30 is part of the setup for a joke that pays off on page 45,” for example.

When it comes to feature film production (unlike television) the writer is often thought of as a second-class citizen, not all that important to the finished product. Endnotes are Rossio’s way of reminding people that, when a writer is good at his job, pretty much every word in a script is there for a reason. If the director or producer or actor wants to change something on a whim, at least with endnotes they’ll now have an idea of what the repercussions might be.


*Note that I’m not advising you to start including endnotes in your spec scripts. There might still be this perception of “amateurishness” out there since the practice is not widespread. If you have a working relationship with a director or producer, however, along with a complicated story that warrants it, this might be something to discuss and consider.

Matchbook is live!

We received word yesterday that Amazon’s Matchbook program has gone live. When a publisher signs up for Matchbook, they are able to offer the Kindle version of a title at a discounted price to people who purchased the print version from Amazon.

The publisher gets to set the price for the Kindle version. And since we think it’s kind of rude to charge you twice for the same book (especially when there are no costs to us for the Kindle), we’re giving The Long Way to you for free!

That’s right: Anyone who purchases (or has already purchased) the print version of The Long Way from Amazon can now download the Kindle version at no additional cost.


Austin Film Festival 2013 recap

I returned home last night from the Austin Film Festival and I’m still buzzing with excitement and inspiration. I can’t wait to get back to work. But first, a review.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Austin Film Festival is esteemed for its associated writers conference, which brings together some of the best—okay, the best—screenwriters in the business, putting them face to face with aspiring writers and filmmakers in a long weekend of panels and parties. Along with the writers there are producers and agents and studio execs and actors and every one of them is as friendly and approachable and supportive as can be.

In addition to the conference, there’s also the screenwriting competition—more than 8,000 entries this year—and the awards banquet. This year’s honorees were Callie Khouri, Jonathon Demme, Vince Gilligan, Barry Josephson, and Susan Sarandon.

As an aside, if you learned one thing at the festival this year, it’s what you heard over and over again from everyone who met him: Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, is the nicest guy in the world.

Here’s how I spent my time at the festival:


Salt Lick Barbecue

I arrived a day early for a massive meatfest with old and new friends. I think there were thirty or forty of us. The place is BYOB, so we arrived trailing coolers from our car. There are Salt Lick Bar-B-Que outlets in the city and even at the airport, but the one in Driftwood is one of the wonders of the world. The word at our dinner was that Jerry Bruckheimer has even flown Salt Lick out to California to cater his own parties. Mmmmm, pork rib.




After the opening remarks at noon, I headed over to the

Nerdist Writers Panel

Moderated by Ben Blacker (whose Nerdist Writers podcast I must start listening to), this session featured a conversation with Ashley Miller, Kell Cahoon, and Kelly Marcel.

Miller told a fascinating story about how he met his writing partner during an online Star Trek argument in the mid-90s. For the first two and a half years they wrote together from opposite sides of the country without ever meeting or even seeing pictures of one another. They’re still writing together today, having produced over one hundred hours of television, and having expanded into feature writing with credits such as X-Men: First Class and Thor.

Cahoon was very funny, doing Larry David imitations as he talked of the first success he and his writing partner had with a pitch and a story for Seinfeld. Marcel writes alone and made it sound almost as if her success came easily (selling her first two television pitches in one week) but I think she was also a bit self-deprecating about the work she must have put into her projects—especially with her chaotic writing methods.

Nerdist might have recorded this session. I’m not sure. Listen if it shows up. It’s worth it.

A Conversation with Jim Taylor

Jim Taylor is the writing partner of Alexander Payne for such films as Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and Citizen Ruth. I’m a huge fan of Election, so I was a bit disappointed that this talk didn’t spend much time on that film. And the moderator was a bit dull, too often steering the talk back to his planned questions and away from more interesting sidetracks. On top of that, Taylor’s own speaking style isn’t especially exciting, so they weren’t the greatest match.

I wished I had gone to see the Elaine May conversation (moderated by Phil Rosenthal) instead. I heard that was excellent.

Austin Film Commission Opening Night Reception

Free beer and free gourmet grilled cheese at an open air bar on Nueces. This was a nice place to make new friends and to catch up with old ones who I hadn’t seen since my last trip to the festival four years ago.

WGA West Late Night Welcome Party

Loud and crowded. We arrived on time and left after twenty minutes. We heard that other people waited over an hour to get in.

Late Night at the Driskill Bar

The beautiful old Driskill hotel is home base for the conference, and it’s where everybody congregates after hours. The conversations go on all night, but pace yourself if you want to make the 9 a.m. panel the next morning!


Quick-Witted Action

Umm … this was good? Was I late? Was I still half asleep from the night before? I wish I had taken notes because I don’t remember much. But I can guarantee you that Shane Black was a hoot, because he always is. I do remember the panelists made a few good jokes about the Chicks With Bics panel going on at the same time, referring to their own as Dicks On Flicks.

(I did hear that Chicks With Bics was very good.)

10:45 a.m.

The next session was a tough call. I passed on the Script-to-Screen: Brick talk from Rian Johnson because I wanted to go to Pixar’s Story Development Process. But that was in a small room and by the time I got there it was shut out. So I fell back to one called The Unreliable Narrator featuring John August and Jim Taylor. Okay, Jim Taylor again … but this time he talked about Election the whole time! Yay! And John August focused on his Big Fish. The moderator was good this time and it turned out to be worthwhile. But dammit, I really wanted to see that Pixar session.

1 p.m.

There was a Script-to-Screen: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with Shane Black, which I would have loved to see, but I needed lunch. So I ate and then headed over to

Deconstructing Alien

Ashley Miller and John August again, talking about and playing clips from the movie. I enjoyed this but I overheard some film students later who weren’t impressed with the analysis. It wasn’t that the analysis was bad, I think, but that the film students were young and already knew everything, or thought they did. Anyway, what stuck out for me was that both Miller and August first saw Alien on videotape, already coming to it with foreknowledge of crucial scenes, because they were too young to have seen it in the theaters when it first came out. I saw it in the theaters. Does that make me old?

Anyway, the best part of the panel was the last ten or fifteen minutes when the door opened and they brought a woman on stage. It was Veronica Cartrwright, fresh off the plane from London. We got to hear some good stories about her audition and the filming.

The Rewrite with Terry Rossio

This was pretty fascinating. Terry Rossio talked about his rewrite process, covering a number of aspects of that, but also did some script edits of scenes that had been sent in ahead of time by session attendees. “Sorry if I’m being a dick,” he said, as he made cuts and changes and told us exactly why he was doing what he was doing. His edits mostly consisted of finding ways to condense the action and dialogue to its core essence. He told me later that he had been hoping the submitted passages would be a lot worse so that he could take more drastic action, but they were all in pretty decent shape already.

I did get something out of this that I hadn’t expected. He brought up a concept he called “Performance Dialogue.” It’s something I hadn’t come across in my time studying screenwriting. Maybe this is common knowledge and it’s just a blind spot for me. It’s something that has occasionally bothered me in my own writing, but I never really knew why or even that I should do something about it. Basically there are two things:

  1. When your dialogue is a question, it forces the actor to deliver a line in a certain way. It limits the performance options. When possible, consider rewriting the line so that it’s not a question. For example, an exchange like “What’s your favorite color?” “I like blue.” would have so much more life if you did something like this: “I don’t believe in favorite colors.” “I like blue.”
  2. It can be difficult for actors to time and play a line that ends in a dash— (when that dash signifies an interruption from the line spoken by the next actor).

I tend to use those dashes often enough, but I don’t think too often. That doesn’t concern me so much since I’m writing books these days and not screenplays.

But the question thing has been bothering me for a while. It often nags me and doesn’t read correctly in my mind when I write a question. Maybe I’m subconsciously recalling my brief time as an improv performer, where asking questions was a big no-no. But this rewrite session has really given me a new way to approach this.

Film Texas BBQ Supper

Catered by the Salt Lick. We were all looking forward to this one. So when we showed up and the meat was already gone, we were pretty disappointed. Whoever organized this thing seriously undercounted the number of attendees. So it was beans and bread and potato salad and a couple bottles of wine. But the conversation was great as always.

6th Street

There was a late party scheduled for that night but we forgot to go because we were having too much fun bar hopping and watching the Halloween decadence. We spent time with a mechanical bull but mostly we hung out at Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar, which is an absolute blast. The music is non-stop and those guys can play just about any song you request.

I am not allowed to tell you who rocked the penis-shaped beer bong.

Late Night at the Driskill Bar

Here we go again.


The Neo Noir

With Shane Black and Brian Helgeland. Such a tough choice. I skipped A Conversation with Vince Gilligan for this. I heard that was great (such a nice guy!) but I’m glad I went here. Here’s a better write-up than I can give you:

10:30 a.m.

I wasn’t interested in any of the sessions, so I had breakfast in the Driskill Cafe. It’s a shame they no longer serve the awesome breakfast burrito I ate there four years ago, but they do a great Texas-shaped waffle.

Veronica Mars: From Small Screen to Silver Screen

With creator Rob Thomas and Piz (Thomas told the actor Chris Lowell, when he cast him as Piz, that “everyone will hate you” for being the guy who comes between Veronica and Logan. And I did.). Lowell showed up a bit late because he was at the awards banquet, accepting a trophy for the film Beside Still Waters, which he directed.

[Can I just say that Austin has some of the most beautiful trophies ever? I came soooo close to winning one four years ago. Seeing them again makes me almost regret my decision to stop writing screenplays. Almost.]

This was a great session. They talked about the movie and Kickstarter and they debuted a featurette, but they only said the words “Party Down” once. Come on, Rob, the Veronica Mars move is practically finished. Where’s my Party Down?

A Conversation With The Awardees

I tried to see this, but the line was crazy so I just wandered around and ended up chatting in the bar.

A Conversation With Jonathon Demme

And not just Demme, but Paul Thomas Anderson. It was a mutual love-fest, which was pretty cool. These guys are both great, and they’ve done some amazing films. The problem is that right at the start, a friend mentioned something about donuts and fried chicken and honey just around the corner. Totally broke my concentration. I couldn’t focus.

Driskill Bar

The official Conference Wrap Party was being held all the way on the other side of the river, so I just hung out at the Driskill again. More writer talk, more good times.


Hair of the Dog Brunch

Food. Talk. My writing partner saw a guy who seemed familiar, but she couldn’t place him. It was bothering her so she went up and introduced herself. He thought she looked familiar, too. Turns out he was a patient of the dentist she used to work for; he was also Nick Kazan.

Vince Gilligan Presents: A Special Staged Script Reading of 2 Face

This was at 2 o’clock, but we had to line up at 11:30 to make sure we got in, so we missed a session or two. This was the hot ticket of the day—maybe of the whole festival—because, you know, Vince Gilligan. Did I mention what a nice guy he is? Among the actors on stage: Will Ferrell, Thomas Haden Church, Linda Cardellini, Giancarlo Esposito. Rian Johnson directed. Richard Kelly stood in the aisle doing sound effects.

The script itself was something Gilligan wrote in the early ’90s. It was nothing like Breaking Bad. It was a semi-dark comedy about a man with a split personality. By day he was a redneck racist; but every night at sunset he became his loving, tolerant alter-ego—a time-traveling spaceman from the future named Rodeo Bob. The concept was fun and at times it was very funny. Will Ferrell was excellent in his role and it would be great to see him in the movie if it were to get made. But overall I thought it ended flat and too preachy.

It seems almost sacrilegious to say this, since Vince Gilligan is such a nice guy, but I came out of this thinking that, wow, my last script was better than this.

Driskill Bar

It was like Ten Little Indians that night in the bar as we watched our friends leaving one at a time. There were so many people I didn’t get the chance to talk to at all, and so many more I would have loved to meet.

But next year? Yeah, next year. We’ll be back.