Monthly Archives: June 2019

“A Fistful of Dynamite”: Director Sergio Leone’s Overlooked Masterpiece

Fifty-five years ago, in 1964, Italian film director Sergio Leone took the film world by storm with the release of A Fistful of Dollars. In the process, he singlehandedly created the spaghetti western subgenre and established Clint Eastwood as a screen icon. Initially panned by critics in Italy, Fistful nonetheless found a cult following; American critics, on the other hand, got the joke, and the rest is history.

Fast-forward to 1971. After three more westerns (For a Few Dollars More; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; and the glorious, epic, Once Upon a Time in the West) a tired Leone once again took to the dusty hills and arroyos of Andalusia, in southern Spain, to make the final, and most mature, of his western masterpieces.

I’d known of this film for many years, but somehow — despite being a lover of the subgenre — never got around to seeing it until this week, when I found it on Amazon Prime*. If you’re also a Leone fan, I can’t recommend this film highly enough: it’s jaw-dropping, spellbinding, and hugely entertaining.

A meditation on and a critique of both oppression and revolution, the film is visually sumptuous, with many sequences of sheer art — if you’ve seen Once Upon a Time in the West, you’ll get my drift. Coburn and Steiger’s (the latter fresh from In the Heat of the Night) acting is flawless. And Ennio Morricone’s score contributes a perfect, teasing, brilliant counterpoint to the action and the dynamic tension of the film, which balances tongue-in-cheek and sober social commentary.

Set in 1913 during the Mexican Revolution, the film, whose main themes are friendship, the dawning of social conscience, and class struggle, opens with a quote from Chairman Mao**:

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery; it cannot be so refined, so leisurely and gentle, so temperate, kind, courteous, restrained and magnanimous. A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another.”

Enter Rod Steiger as Juan, a raggedy-assed and apparently illiterate Mexican peasant; he soon turns out to be a wily bandit, modeled on the character of Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, with a gaggle of bastard sons for a gang. The first scenes of the film see an increasingly feverish, near-surrealist scene in which Juan is degraded and humiliated by a stagecoach full of rich upper-class Mexicans, who soon get their comeuppance.

As the bandits loot the stagecoach, an explosion up the trail interrupts their business. Moments later, James Coburn appears on a vintage motorcycle from a cloud of dust, very much in the manner of The Man With no Name. The initial face-off between these two is priceless, and Coburn soon reveals himself as Irish Revolutionary John Mallory, a man not to be toyed with on account of the fact that his duster coat is lined with enough dynamite and nitroglycerin to reshape large parts of the landscape.

As the plot develops, the continuing tension between the two protagonists develops into a strong, if unacknowledged friendship, and the initially simple story grows around them. One of the movie’s set-piece scenes, depicting a massacre of revolutionaries by the army, is straight from World War II… as is the German colonel who is the film’s rather surreal antagonist.

The movie’s name went through some interesting changes. In Italy, it was released under the title, “Giú la Testa,” which in English approximates, “Get your head down.” Originally titled, “Duck, you sucker!” in the U.S., the title was later changed to “A Fistful of Dynamite,” to tie in with Leone’s Dollar films. In France, where the film did very well, it was named “Once Upon a Time… the Revolution.”

The genesis of the film was equally tortuous. The screenplay was originally written for Jason Robards and Eli Wallach, who’d respectively starred in Leone’s previous epics, Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but ended up with James Coburn and Rod Steiger in the leading roles. Additionally, Leone didn’t want to direct the movie himself, but after three other candidates (Sam Peckinpah was the second) didn’t pan out, and at Steiger’s insistence that Leone direct the movie, he finally acquiesced.

The review site Rotten Tomatoes gives A Fistful of Dynamite 91%. Brilliant, thoughtful, visually rich, and immensely entertaining, this is a film that deserves to be seen.

Are you a fan of Leone’s work? Have you seen this film?

Notes

* You can watch the movie here on Amazon Prime, or buy it here in various formats

** It’s worth mentioning that the Mao quote, along with several scenes, was cut from the initial 1972 release as they were deemed too politically sensitive for U.S. audiences. The film was banned in Mexico until 1979 as offensive to both the people and the Mexican Revolution.

 

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The Invisible Economy of Middle Earth, and Why Readers Don’t Care

When I finish a novel and I’m casting around for the next to read, I’ll often spend  a few evenings dipping back into an old favourite, one of those evergreens I like to re-read a few pages or chapters or beloved passages of. Lately I’ve been re-reading portions of Lord of the Rings, which I first encountered some fifty years ago.

Well, it got me to thinking.

Looked at critically, Tolkien’s masterwork breaks a great many of the rules that present-day writers, agents, and editors obsess over.

But readers, the people who actually matter (because they, not the writer’s critique partners or agent or publisher, are the ones shelling out the money for the book) don’t care one bit.

First, LotR is written in third-person omniscient, or “God’s eye view,” in which the author dips into each character’s thoughts at need. This  viewpoint technique is deprecated by writing mavens today as being distancing, and frequently dissed as “head-hopping.” Compounding his sins, Tolkien often employs the passive voice and uses adverbs liberally, with several on almost every page of the book. A writer trying this today would get mauled by their critique group, and I guarantee their manuscript would bounce off an agent’s slushpile faster than hail off a tin roof.

But that’s only the beginning.

As Frodo and his companions traverse Middle Earth, we discover a vast, empty land curiously devoid of any significant trade, agriculture, homesteads, or even travelers. Oh, the dwarves mine and craft metal, and we get the token farmer like Maggot in the Shire, and mentions of agriculture and crafts in Minas Tirith, but seriously, is any of this truly credible without a visible functioning economy?

I think it is. Certainly we never encounter trading caravans traveling between regions, but I suspect that – in fact, Tolkien implies it in a few places – the realms of Gondor, Rohan, and so on, actually do have agriculture and artisans, smiths and woodworkers, hide tanners and potters, glassblowers and stonemasons, thatchers and ploughmen: but other than one or two mentions Tolkien simply doesn’t bring them onstage or discuss them. Why? Because they’re not generally relevant to his story and thus he had no interest in describing them. There are occasional hints and implications of regional economies, and, before Middle Earth fell into a darker age, of a greater, interlinked economy, but no more.

One thing I stress repeatedly in my craft book and when I edit books for indie authors is that the only person whose opinion matters is the reader. An author shouldn’t be writing for their critique group, and certainly shouldn’t take all the nitpicky advice they’re given to heart. Yet sadly, I’ve seen more than one perfectly fine tale diluted and fractured by authors trying to address their fellow writers’ concerns over where the ore for the iron is mined, who grows the food, and so on ad nauseam. Some concerns may be valid, of course; but in the example I’m using here, I maintain they’re not.

For a story, a novel, a world to be credible, all that stuff doesn’t need to be told or shown on the page, it simply needs to be known to the author. The obsession for detailing and showing everything is a modern one, an industry fashion, and really doesn’t matter a whit to the reader. As generations of adoring Tolkien fans have proved, if the story flows and involves them and the author does nothing to break the spell, they will keep turning the pages.

Writing a great book isn’t so much about doing a ton of things right (and certainly not by the fashion of the day) as it is about telling a great story and simply not doing anything wrong.

Tolkien knew his world worked, and the reader senses it. I very much doubt that the vast majority of LotR readers give a thought to the details of Middle-Earth’s economy. What concerns them is the pressing matter of the ring and the imminent destruction of all that is beautiful and fair in Middle Earth, not to mention Frodo’s own dire plight.

To date, the LotR books have sold more than 150 million copies. Game, set, and match to the author.

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On Conflict in Fiction

As some of you may know, I’ve just revised and re-released my 2017 book on writing craft, formerly titled Drown the Cat, as The Fiction Writing Handbook: The Professional Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules.

The Fiction Writing Handbook takes a hard new look at common writing myths and diktats and challenges conventional wisdom with the goal of helping writers to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing.

Here’s an excerpt on the topic of conflict. If you find this interesting, you can find the book on Amazon.

 

External and Internal Conflict

It’s a truth of the human condition that our interest is more easily sparked and our attention held by threats than by good news. We watch the nightly news and read newspapers to keep informed of threats and crises, not to feel warm fuzzies at the good fortune of others—unless they’ve been snatched, against all odds, from the jaws of death. This focus on negatives and threats is a hardwired survival mechanism from eons past when we weren’t at the top of the food chain and lived in constant fear of attack from predators and other small bands of early humans. So it’s no surprise that conflict—a condition born of clashing goals between ourselves and others, ourselves and nature, or simply our conflicting inner drives—is a core component of story.

Conflict in story comes from the presence of obstacles between a character and their goal. The conflict can be external or internal. When a rival tries to steal the heart of the woman the hero loves, you have conflict; but the conflict could equally well stem from the fact that geography and life circumstances (distance, children, jobs they can’t quit, etc.) keep the couple apart. Going more internal, if the hero’s drinking stops him from gaining the affection of the woman he loves, the potential result is the same: hero loses girl. Going deeper still, if the hero’s insecurity and lack of self-worth undermines him in his interactions with the object of his affections, he still won’t get the girl.

There’s a widespread assumption that, since conflict of some sort is an essential component in fiction if we want to have an audience, more must be better. This, like so much else, is a fallacy based entirely on the commercial drivers of the narrative and dramatic arts in the modern world. It’s nonsense.

The word conflict means serious disagreement or struggle, and we’re continually told that for a story to keep the reader hooked you need conflict in every scene, and even every page. This is idiocy. What keeps the reader hooked are questions, often of the will they/won’t they kind. Some of these may contain oppositions—a character is hungry but everything conspires to prevent them from eating. Are these conflict? You decide.

Then there’s the problem of forced conflict and melodrama.

Take the television series Downton Abbey, most of which I enjoy enormously. Despite some superb writing and often brilliant character work (Lady Mary, Mr. Barrow, et al) this hugely successful series frequently crosses the boundary into soap opera and melodrama. This is of course a subjective judgment; but I contend that though the series is compelling viewing and full of conflict, it often achieves that at the cost of being manipulative. Take for example Mrs. O’Brien, a character entirely lacking in roundness and whose sole purpose is to stir the pot; or consider the repeated and ultimately tedious crises of Mr. Bates’s plot arc, and you may see what I mean. The longer the series ran, the further it strayed over the line between natural and forced conflict.

Good conflict needs to be unforced, naturally occurring rather than engineered. The quality and dimension of conflict in a given story is important—a hero risking death will command our attention more than a hero risking a few bruises; the protagonist facing ruin engages us more than one facing a parking ticket. But when, as in so many contemporary crime novels and virtually 100 percent of TV and film detective stories, every protagonist comes literally crushed under the weight of internal and external baggage, the effect is inevitably formulaic.

I’m not saying that audiences don’t get hooked by this: the runaway success of novels like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and TV series like Breaking Bad speaks for itself. What I am saying is that manipulating your audience doesn’t equate to good fiction or storytelling. But such is the grip of suits and money on the publishing business that things have become confused.

Each era has its fashions, but the drive in publishing to expand the bottom line has led to a pedal-to-the-metal, all-conflict, all-the-time formula being applied to so much drama that it all starts to look the same. The protagonist was abused as a child, has a deeply dysfunctional family background, custody issues with their ex, struggles with drink, drugs, or both, has endless interpersonal and discipline issues at work, possibly a life-threatening condition…and that’s just their backstory.

Sound familiar?

You don’t have to cynically manipulate your reader with every tool imaginable to keep them interested. To my mind, the real craftsman strives for economy and originality instead of milking the reader dry by using the exact same template every other novelist and screenwriter out there employs. Yes, some people in real life do carry a similar and crushing baggage set, but I submit that to just throw in the kitchen sink because it sometimes works erodes our art and ultimately damages our soul. I’m tempted to use words like “cheap” and “lazy” in regard to this way of overloading a hero with conflict except for the fact that too many writers I respect do this very thing: but I stand by my opinion that the protagonist struggling to even breathe under the load of their internal baggage is a fad born of Hollywood and the ever-intensifying pressure of the bottom line rather than any requirements of story or craft. Was Homer’s Ulysses an alcoholic? Was Shakespeare’s King Lear abused as a child? While both these things are possible, the power of both these dramatic figures certainly isn’t undermined by our not being told.

We are all who we are because of our past, and it’s true that our past, and especially deep-rooted childhood experiences and trauma, can predispose us to certain behaviors; but this doesn’t mean we have to take it to excess.

Let’s take as an example John Le Carré’s character George Smiley, one-time head of the British Secret Service. A somewhat introverted, cerebral figure, Smiley is endlessly cuckolded by his wife Anne, who has taken for a lover one of Smiley’s colleagues, the suave, worldly Bill Haydon. But that’s it. Along with a sense of his growing age and concomitant vague melancholy, that’s the sum total of Smiley’s personal baggage and, my God! how much more believable and unique a character Smiley is for that. Nor do audiences balk at Smiley’s lack of inner demons: the Smiley novels have sold in the millions, been translated into thirty-six languages, and adapted for radio, television, and film.

To show that it’s entirely possible to have very successful narrative drama without resorting to crushing internal conflict, and that a perfectly normal, well-adjusted protagonist can still be at the core of a compelling and hugely successful story, consider Frodo in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. At the onset of the story, Frodo is a normal, happy, and well-to-do hobbit. Once the truth about the Ring is revealed, it’s all downhill, but Frodo doesn’t start off conflicted or struggling against inner demons.

Then there’s Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby in the hugely successful British TV series, Midsomer Murders: Barnaby has a good family life, lives in a lovely village, and is in fine health and good spirits most of the time. Or Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: other than the ordinary, everyday concerns of living with a neurotic mother, a few silly sisters, and a bookish, eccentric father, Elizabeth is a happy, carefree, normal young woman.

Do we care any less for any of these because they’re not struggling to even stand under the burden of emotional baggage? Of course not.

To conclude, the writer doesn’t have to follow the herd and pander to current cults in storytelling. One can craft powerful, resonant fiction without overloading every available slot in a character’s makeup. Like everything about your story, your characters’ backstory is a choice—your choice. Not being bound by ludicrous assumptions and conventions frees us up to tell our own story without imposing someone else’s tired template on our characters.

What do you think? Do you find contemporary genre fiction and television predictable, formulaic, and ultimately tedious in its overuse of these devices?

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Writing Dreams, Writing Delusions

About six months ago I joined a very large and well-established L.A. area writing group, with the idea of getting to know and spending some quality time with other local authors, as well as the possible side benefit that some networking would bring me more copyediting clients. Six months later, I haven’t been to a single one of their meetings, and will undoubtedly just let my membership expire at the end of its term.

Conferences and events, heralded by a breathtaking daily barrage of spam emails, are frequent and not cheap. These emails trumpet “Your Chance to Meet and Pitch One of California’s Top Literary Agents!” as if this were (and should be!) every writer’s sole and desperate goal, the only thing standing between them and riches. And of course you can save big bucks by reserving a spot today.

Seriously? This is 2019, not 1999. Get real, people.

I know whereof I speak. I’ve had my own imprint since 2009; I have five of my own books out, and have had some notable success; I’ve helped several other authors get their first novels published. I’ve written on writing craft, and I guest blog for others. I’ve participated in and moderated conference panels for almost two decades; I’m occasionally asked to beta read work for some big name authors, and have interviewed many on this same blog.

Above all, I pride myself on my approach of dealing with authors honestly, even if it makes me look like a deeply cynical contrarian, rather than trying to capitalize on their dreams. I may not be rich, but I can look at myself in the mirror every morning and see an honest man.

So here’s the straight dope: a writer’s chances of landing an agent (especially a good one) today are so slim that they might as well as buy a lottery ticket. Oh, the odds may not be quite so bad, but I wouldn’t let a child of mine even think about making it their goal or dream. If, like Russian Roulette, getting picked up by a top agent carried a high risk of violent death (hmm, now there’s a story seed!), I’d tell them not to worry.

Now, there are many agents and people in publishing who care deeply about trying to give newer authors a chance; but the likelihood of anyone who isn’t already a name getting a book deal is vanishingly slim, and the road to publication time-consuming, burdensome, and peppered with potholes.

Ask yourself this: do you really want to spend years, possibly decades of your life facing rejection after bitter rejection as you struggle to shoehorn your work into  the industry’s ever-increasingly restrictive formulas in the vanishing hope that an agent will pick you up and get you a publishing deal?

And then what? If everything goes very, very well and you successfully run the gauntlet and deliver all the rewrites necessary to please everyone, including the publisher’s marketing people who think your ending may not quite please some readers, or that your brilliant magic realist subtheme makes it less easy to fit your novel into a clear category, you might eventually end up with a $5k advance for years of work, and face the very real likelihood that your novel won’t earn out its advance (because your publisher likely put zero muscle into marketing it), and a reduced likelihood of ever getting another book deal.

Years of your life, and a mountain of soul-crushing disappointment.

And yet fanning this very delusion has become an industry on the internet, with hundreds, possibly thousands of rah rah cheerleading blogs and a blizzard of stridently-titled books on Amazon promising to show you how to write a bestseller and get it published. There is, sadly, a great deal more money to be made by selling writers snake oil than by actually writing.

It’s possible you don’t care about fame and riches, but simply see being traditionally published as validation of your writing ability and the strength of your work. That ship sailed long ago: today, even publishing industry insiders no longer see themselves as the arbiters of literary quality, the thin red line protecting readers from an ocean of awful dreck.

All this said, wanting to become proficient at your craft and have your work read is a worthy and beautiful dream which I encourage every author to nurture and cherish; but getting there via the traditional trajectory of landing an agent and publishing deal — in my personal opinion — sails so close to the delusional that a visit to Vegas in the hope of returning rich seems like a great option.

Nurturing a creative’s dream (hell, I’m a creative too), is a wonderful thing. Encouraging them is their delusions and making money off them by selling them snake oil is exploitative and predatory. And, honestly, if you want to be a writer, what you need is realism, toughness and tenacity, not fairy visions and stardust sprinkles. I could make far more money telling desperate writers what they want to hear, but I’d rather keep my self-respect, thank you.

Should you want to be published? Hell yes! (Incidentally, I wrote a post many years back on why we want so badly to be published.) But today, more than ever, you should consider taking the indie route: I talk about this, and much else, in my craft book linked below. In both that volume and my work as a freelance copyeditor, my entire focus is on helping authors tell their story in a way that will please the reader rather than conform to the stifling and questionable requirements of an industry long past its expiration date.

And as I delete the last few days’ hyperbolic emails from the big writer’s group, I feel good that even if I haven’t told you what you wanted to hear — that you’ll land that trad publishing deal and soar to stardom if you just pony up the cost a few weeks’ groceries for a chance to pitch that top agent — I’ve at least told you the truth as best I know it.


The Fiction Writing Handbook* is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems. Similarly, the importance of both character and narrative voice, as well as tone, cannot be overstated.

Drawing on twenty years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. The Fiction Writing Handbook gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.

Other topics covered in The Fiction Writing Handbook include external and internal dialog, writers’ block, traditional vs. indie publishing, PoV (point of view), creating suspense, and much more.

Whether your interest lies in short stories, novels or screenwriting, The Fiction Writing Handbook shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing novel plotting formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.

*The Fiction Writing Handbook was originally released in 2017 under the title, Drown the Cat, as it directly challenges much of the write-by-numbers advice in screenwriter Blake Snyder’s cult book, Save the Cat!

 

 

 

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