5 quotes from John Logan on screenwriting

This week is the (virtual) Chicago International Film Festival, and as an associate boardmember, I’ve been diving deep into the events, screenings and activities from the safety and comfort of my couch. Yesterday I sat in a masterclass conversation on screenwriting with John Logan, who wrote films like Any Given Sunday, Gladiator, The Aviator and Skyfall, created/produced the Penny Dreadful TV series, penned lots of plays, and just yesterday received a Tony nomination for the book for Broadway’s adaptation of Moulin Rouge! (which I was supposed to see at the end of March in New York…thanks, COVID).

In alliteration, Logan is a legend.

I took a ton of notes, but here are the top five quotes I feverishly jotted down during the hour spent listening to him describe process, research and the filmmaking business in general:

1. “Our lives aren’t interesting, but the characters we write can be.” Rather than writing what you know, write what you feel, what you think, and what’s important to you. This is good news to me, a Midwesterner for Life who’s trying to craft a novel set on the Western frontier. Logan also warned that we check preciousness and over-fondness at the door. You’ve heard “kill your darlings” when it comes to paragraphs you like — this is “kill your darlings” when it comes to the memories and autobiographical elements we try to preserve through fiction.

2. “Pitching (a movie) is not an audition; it’s a negotiation.” When approaching a director, producer, or (in my world) agent or publisher, don’t perform the entire work for them and hope they like it as-is. Instead, approach it as “I have something to offer you. What about it interests you?” and go from there. Note that Logan’s first feature film was Any Given Sunday, which was one of 10 pitches he brought an agent in LA. He sold the film by calling it “King Lear in the NFL.”

3. “Remember you’re a dramatist, not a historian. You’re just painting a base-layer with research.” Logan has written a number of historical fiction films and warned against the “siren’s song of research” — he spent five years studying Howard Hughes and all the industries touched by his octopus-like reach before having to actually sit down and write The Aviator. Currently I’m working on a Western, which means I’ve fallen down rabbit holes about clothing, food and weaponry during the Western migration; how a quarter of cowboys were Black; and how Jesse James was actually an asshole. It’s my first historically-set book, so I’m learning just how appealing that siren’s song can be, especially when procrastinating on putting pen to paper.

4. “Truth of the character is all that matters.” This really hit a nerve. When I wrote Nobody’s Hero, it was a cry for help as I sank under the waves of having a successful corporate job I wasn’t (at the time) sure I wanted or deserved. I poured my imposter syndrome and jaded perspective into the main character. From what my former agent told me, publishers and editors weren’t too enamored, and I think Logan made it clear why with this final quote:

5. “It’s not about my voice. It’s about my character’s voice.This is something I struggle with sometimes more than writing action scenes (which, I was surprised but comforted to know, are also a sore spot for Logan, who wrote two freakin’ James Bond movies). All my characters either sound like Kate in Life, Kate on Paper, or Evil Villain in the Show Kate Just Watched. Logan said he tries several voices and approaches for his characters, and eventually one clicks: This is a new practice I’ll be implementing for books moving forward.

BONUS: “Writers are great weeping masses of emotion and need.” No comment. Pass the Kleenex.

I’m mad as hell, and I can’t write it anymore

Another non-creative piece this week, folks.

Originally I planned on doing a whole post about new horizons and starting fresh. As of this week, I’m officially an agent-free free agent after mutually deciding to part ways with my two-year literary cheerleader.

But this post isn’t about that. Or me.

OK, it’s about me.

The last week has led me to read and reflect on a lot of ways that systematic racism embeds itself in white artists’ work, whether or not they realize it. I’ve also learned more about “copoganda” and how popular media centers around police power — both as heroes and as the plot-drivers in anti-hero stories like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos — and fetishizes Black pain, even when trying to point out that brutality is wrong. Law enforcement has a pervasive presence in our stories: Just look at network TV lineups. At least one law procedural airs every night on every channel.

I couldn’t help but reflect on my own work. Those who’ve read parts or all of Nobody’s Hero know it’s about vigilantes, but they’re still overseen by the Federal Vigilante Agency that helps process the criminals they catch. Cops aren’t the focus, but they’re in the background, and even though my Black FVA agent has a conversation with her sister about the use of Black people as cops in popular culture, the very nature of vigilanteism is linked to violence-based responses to crime.

There’s probably a number of scholars who could better explain that, but the TL;DR version is: “I’m not sure Nobody’s Hero accurately represents my opinion on America’s law enforcement complex.”

So while I grumble a bit about being back to Square One on my journey to being a published novelist, I also thank my lucky stars that no editor or publisher wanted to pursue putting my latest project out into the world, particularly now that I’ve continued educating myself. Maybe I’ll go back to Nobody’s Hero and try to adjust it to my new view of the world. Or maybe it’ll get tucked away with so much other work.

I do know that my next project will contain no references to police whatsoever. It’s a supernatural mystery centered around journalists, and I’ve been struggling to gain the courage to write it for more than seven years now, and I think it’s time to buck up and write. No cops allowed.

Vignette: Floating chance

The body floated, bloated, down the river toward the sanitation facility where it would presumably get caught in the filter and cause a nightmare kind of day for the plant supervisor, who’d have to call the cops, then sweet-talk his team into helping guard the scene until the investigators arrived, then wait for all the photos and little yellow tent markers to be placed before he could get on with the day’s duties.

He’d act all day like it was an inconvenience, like a large tree trunk had gummed up the works rather than a former person But then he’d go home and cry into a tall glass of tequila-less margarita mix about the fragility of human life and all the regrets he had — how he’d never seen Spain; how he’d never applied for that MFA program; how he should have asked Stephanie to marry him when they were teenagers so he could be divorced with three kids by now instead of dragging the scent of sweat and sewage into his empty studio apartment next to the Kwik and Save.

And then he would fall asleep — floating, bloated, almost inches off his sheets as he dreamt of the life he’d have if he had taken all the chances he’d been offered, before he’d have to wake up the next morning and do it all over again.

Scene of the write: The last bar on the crawl

By the time we get to the final bar on our list of dives to visit on a clear but cold Saturday afternoon, none of us remember what it’s actually called. Partially this is due to four other bars that gleefully poured us shots and beers, called out the owner to give us a history of the joint, and allowed us access into their digital jukebox so we could play Celine Dionne’s “My Heart Will Go On” and all the Lizzo our liquor-loosened lips could name.

This bar is different. It’s the kind of place where, if walking in with a couple friends, you’d turn right around and leave.

The place wasn’t always a dive: The bar itself serves as the entrance to what was once a restaurant, and clearly a popular one in its heyday. Tables for two, four, six sit either in the middle of the floor or stacked on top of each other in the corner, half of them still draped in red-and-white checkered tablecloths that can be wiped down with a washcloth.

Before you can intrude on this museum, a mannequin — draped in a blanket for modesty, with a blond plastic wig and vacant, store-rejected eyes — stops you in your path. Her arms splay out like a priest’s at an alter, and before her is a brown couch that has played host to so many overnight patrons that this place might also be a B&B: Beer and bedtime.

Next to the sleep setup, you’ll notice a high top with a bag of tortilla chips and plastic tub of off-brand salsa, sitting out all day for anyone (anyone?) to munch on while they drink $3 whiskey-and-cokes and try not to think of how dirty the couch is right behind them. It’s easy to forget when you look up and see that a Svengoolie-hosted B-horror film from the 1950s is playing above the bar on a TV the size of a compact car trunk.

The date I brought with is starting to get deep in his questions for me, as if the beer and shots have made him more introspective. They’ve only made me need to pee. Again.

“So your last relationship — were you in love?” He asks.

“It was complicated,” I say, wondering if I have enough cash in my bag for another whiskey-Coke.

“Do you want to be in love again?”

The mannequin and I lock eyes.

“I don’t know,” I say. “The last time I was, it didn’t end well for either person. I learned I could be in love. He learned he couldn’t.”

Music of the Write: “Brand New City” by Mitski

I’m late to the Mitski party, but “Brand New City” came on my Spotify radio, and it struck a nerve in my writing — so much so that I added it to my “untitled fantasy bounty hunter story” playlist. But here’s the thing: I interpreted the lyrics differently than I’m sure they were written.

“My brain is rotting in places / I think my heart is ready to die…Honey whatcha take, whatcha take, honey look at me, tell me what you took, what you took…”

On the third listen — this time detached from the project I was thinking of — I realized that “whatcha take” refers to drugs: What drug did you take? What’s in your system? Do we need to pump your stomach?

But the first two times I heard it, I was in such a headspace with this potential fantasy story (as well as my current Dungeons & Dragons character, the undying warlock Axiom Thorne) that I heard them as “What did you take from me that’s making me fall apart now?” It’s a little Dorian Grey: The narrator is disintegrating, and she’s quite convinced that some asshole stole the Grimmoire or relic that has sustained her for so long.

Again, probably not Mitski’s intended meaning, but it fits this potential project…

Vignette: Slim for what

“I’m not skinny for you,” she said, bolting upright in bed. She pulled away from his fingers as if they had turned to cattle prods reaching out to trace the ribs under her skin.

Truthfully, she wasn’t doing it to look like a magazine ad or provoke even more men to buy her disgusting vodka cocktails or catcall her from their cars. She woke up at five every morning to exercise, ate small lunches, avoided the sweets aisle at the grocery store, etcetera, because she liked when people underestimated her. The pitying, hungry smiles they flashed at this bird-like creature whose skin was too tight for her bones as they assumed the least of her until it was too late — she had swallowed them whole, and she hadn’t gained a pound.

A farewell love letter written in tears and Lysol

This morning I decided to clean. I do that when I’m trying to force myself to think about things — the book I’m writing, a problem at work, what to get so-and-so for their birthday. Today it was so I could examine all of last night’s feelings now wadded up in tissues layered three-deep inside the bathroom garbage can.

The shallow layer is the fear most late-20s women fear when they find themselves having to start from scratch in finding a partner. I blame my ovaries and ticking biological clock for this one: I will be fine. My creative spirit, work ethic, long-term happiness, emotional strength, relationships, and passions will soon stand up and dust themselves off. My primal reproduction function does not believe this is important and is a finger away from dialing up a sperm bank.

Under that is betrayal: When simplifying it to the very basic core of everything, you lied to me. You let me carry on like there was nothing wrong, and you didn’t trust me enough to tell me we didn’t have a future. For a year you let me continue to fall in love with you, and never once did you warn me that my descent would end in a crash of two emails, two phone calls, and a weepy ramen noodle dinner.

And within the deepest layer lies self-anger, because in truth you didn’t lie, not even once. You told me everything from the beginning, and I refused to hear it. You told me the first night you came home with me. You took off your shirt and explained every beautiful tattoo on your skin and challenging tattoo on your soul. And then you kissed me, and I saw stars, and then we fell asleep in a cider-drunk haze before waking up to a mid-March snowstorm that failed to cool us off from one another. The next morning, and the next year, I convinced myself that if I couldn’t change your past, I could at least make your future a bit brighter.

You said I helped get you to this place you’re in now, where you’ve learned to slowly light the lamps of recovery and discovery so the dark shrinks into something less dreadful. And that’s when I learned my mistake. For the last year I’ve tried to torch the darkness, burn it all to the ground, and singed myself in the process because that’s not how it works. It has to be you wielding the matchbook, and it has to be methodical, or else you could disappear into the flames, rather than emerge in the light. If I stand around and watch, I’ll only get in your way. I love you too much to do that.

As I scrub down my dining table with Lysol, I notice that another puddle has appeared in the northwest corner of my apartment. The tenants upstairs must have left their windows open again during a rainstorm. The last time this happened, I asked the landlord to repair where the speckled plaster had crumbled, and he did. Except now that replacement plaster is on the floor in varying states of dust and chunks that I have to sweep up and add to the trash can.

Shattered plaster. Crumpled up tissues. They all look the same — not quite white, but trying to be. All the emotions that gushed out of my eyes and nose the night before, mixed with the broken shell of where I tried to secure you in my heart, convinced you’d find the light you needed inside.

That broken shell doesn’t mean you’ve left, though. You’ve just moved somewhere else inside it, and it’s going to take me some time to find you again. I’ll keep looking, but first I have some cleaning to do.

Vignette: Smoking in the running lane

He tried to shake the image of her standing in the kitchen, her tiny frame draped in the XXL Absolut Vodka T-shirt she had been handed the night before by an overzealous liquor promoter. She had taken the shirt, laughing as she sipped her gin and tonic, and loudly disclosing that she didn’t even drink vodka but was always up for free swag.

One oversized shirt, pair of plastic sunglasses, set of Mardi Gras beads and beer kookie later, and they had rolled out of the club and to her place until the sun rose three hours later. They hissed against its glare through the curtains, which she hadn’t remembers (or bothered?) to shut.

She asked if he wanted breakfast — a fried egg, a Clif bar, a cup of coffee, anything — and he had refused, his stomach churning at the thought of anything but a beer joining the alcohol still sloshing inside of it. Snatching the plastic Absolut sunglasses from the side table in the hall, he waved goodbye with the promise of calling her, even though he wasn’t sure he had her number.

Wind blew down the lakeside block, but not the kind that had torn the window out and thrown its sash javelin-style into his leg. It was the pleasant kind that he used to use as either a challenge or a support system on his long runs. He had a hard enough time walking these days, let alone jogging mile after mile.

When the physical therapist released him from his daily sessions, she had warned that running was going to come harder, if it came back at all. A few failed starts and embarrassing crashes, and he had decided that if he couldn’t enjoy what he once loved, he might as well take pleasure in the exact opposite. Weekly cheeseburgers, ten-hour TV binges, club-induced one-night-stands like this one. She was a nice woman, really, even if she relied on the word “actually” too much. And sex had to count for some kind of cardio.

He had even picked up smoking, and as he approached the lakefront path, he pulled a pack of Benson Hedges from his jacket pocket and tapped one out, lighting it with the Bic that was on its last clicks. This had become his favorite past time: If he couldn’t run in the fast-paced pedestrian lanes, he would saunter along them, filling his lungs with tar and nicotine, and exhaling the smoke as runners passed him, almost taunting him.

Today the path was busier than usual. The marathon runners were out training on the last weekend before the big race, and he resented each one as they swerved around him, shaking their heads at his ignorance — or was it arrogance? Depending on the person, he was labeled as either.

Eventually the running path leveled off with the beach, and he took pleasure in cutting across in front of a man going at a particularly heavy sprint and forced to splash through a puddle to avoid him. He tossed the spent cigarette into the sand and walked straight into the waves, letting the water crash into the jeans covering the scar from the window sash. Not this year, the therapist had said, but maybe next year. Maybe next year he’d run the marathon, if he didn’t smoke his lungs out first.

He lit another cigarette and belched. It tasted like vodka.

Scene of the write: The Music Box Theater

The street festival outside is closed, shrouded in thick white plastic sheets held down with duct tape so the midsummer breeze doesn’t pick them up and fly them like Halloween ghosts down the road. The emptied racks and tables underneath brace themselves for another 90-degree day.

Inside the century-old Music Box Theater lobby, it’s cool — the kind of dried and seasoned air that comes out of an aging air conditioner. Indie acoustic music plays over the speakers, and the Manhattans served in plastic cups taste worth the $13 even though they don’t look it. A dark luxardo cherry burrows under the ice, a secret treat to whoever finishes the booze part first.

From my seat in a chair that was once maroon but is now a dusty mauve, I watch the employee sliding the letters off a sign above Theater 2. The words change from “Paris is Burning” to “Paris is Bu” to “Paris i” to “Pa” to muted white light.

The projector could be illuminating the screen with anything, and I wouldn’t know it until I peeled my sticky legs from the grip of the vinyl seat and waddled across the floor, plucking the shorts from their bunch between my legs, and walked under the ladder and through the door. No longer would it be the story of Harlem’s drag queens. It could be a grim noir with revolvers, running boards, stocking dresses and hats with little netted veils. Or maybe it’s a new experimental film hand-drawn by someone coming down from an Adderall high courtesy of their college roommate’s drug dealer.

Overhead a white girl strums her guitar and sings Rihanna’s “Desperado” in a voice trained for honeysuckle country and straining for grit. And in a blink, the Theater 2 sign says “Escape from NY.”

Time for a refresh: Blogging becomes routine

Most nine-to-fivers’ weeks revolve around Friday afternoon — that unavoidable feeling of temporary freedom from work when there’s a couch and a movie or friends and a drink waiting after 5 p.m. and two blissful days of no meetings, no deadlines, no mass-batch coffee that gets steadily more bitter throughout the week.

But for me, there’s something else that happens: Kellye Whitney blogs.

I met Kellye when she hired me in February 2014 for my first journalism job. It was one of the coldest Chicago weeks on record — nothing close to this year’s negative-40s, but at that time we didn’t see climate change plunging us into an Ice Age that quickly, so negative-teens was a catastrophe. For a year and a half, she put up with my New Grad Smell and how I, in her words, would “dance in her doorway” with a story idea or just another music recommendation she’d pass up because the artist didn’t sell physical CDs she could play in her car. I became a stronger writer under her editor-ship, and I became a more open-minded, critically thinking white woman under her mentorship. “Woke,” the young libs say these days, but more inclined to do something about it instead of just tweet about it.

We’ve remained friends after she lovingly nudged me out of the niche-magazine nest toward my next adventure and left our old company for her own odyssey as an independent consultant and content developer (hire her!). Except this time, she invites me to dance in her text messages on select Fridays with the same question: “What should I blog about this week?”

The text comes like clockwork in the morning, and most weeks I’m prepared with a list of things I’ve seen on Twitter that either made my blood boil or heart soften. My suggestions don’t always hit the mark, but when they do, Kellye never fails to acknowledge the source. Last week’s topic: Nike’s Betsey Ross shoe. This week’s topic — TBD. If asked, I think I’ll recommend some of the coverage of the U.S. Women’s National Team, as “A Life Not Grey” looks at diversity and media. Or maybe I’ll get her to ruminate on how if country cross-over “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, a gay Black man, spends three more weeks at No. 1., it will become the longest-running No. 1 in history.*

*On second thought, she won’t pick this one, as I don’t think there’s a CD version of OTR available yet…

But coupled with the satisfaction that I can still pitch a good story comes the guilt of knowing I haven’t blogged on my own site for more than a month. Then add in how WordPress just sent me confirmation that my domain name has been renewed for another year to the tune of $18, and I guess I should put at least $18 of effort into “Convincing the Muse” again.

So yesterday I texted Kellye that I was going to take a queue from her and make Fridays my “pub day” for blog posts. Her response was what she’s told me for years as we’ve continued our separate second-lives as fiction writers: “Schedule and routine are wonderful writing tools.”

So even though today is Monday, I’m kicking my newfound routine now and committing myself to at least a post a week. Fair warning: There are going to be some anemic ones in there, as well as some egregious typos, half-baked stories, shallow characters and blatant self-promotion.

So nothing too different from what already gets posted here. Just on a weekly, regimented basis.

So thanks, Kellye, for continuing to be the editor I need — a total boss, in more ways than one.