Tag Archives: Writers Week

Hello, David Ellis.

NLU’s Writer’s Week came to its conclusion with a half-day workshop on Saturday, July 16th featuring mystery/legal thriller writer David Ellis. He’s reading this right now, I know, because he subscribes to Google Alerts. Quick aside to David – great workshop! Thanks for sharing.

I first made David Ellis’ acquaintance over lunch at the mystery confab Love is Murder – he was earlier in his career, but I believe his debut novel (Line of Vision) had already won the MWA Edgar.  He was a great conversationalist then, and he certainly still knows how to tell a great story.

Since Line of Vision, Ellis has written several stand-alones:  Life SentenceJury of OneIn the Company of Liars, and Eye of the Beholder.  The most recent book is The Hidden Man, the first in his series about attorney and grieving family man Jason Kolarich, soon to be followed by Breach of Trust, the second Kolarich novel.

Here’s some advice on writing a mystery, courtesy of David Ellis:

  1. You can learn to write by writing.  Read really good stuff and you’ll be inspired to write really good stuff.
  2. It’s true you should write what you know.  And if you don’t know it, you better learn it before you write about it.
  3. Humor is tricky but can be rewarding.
  4. Go with what feels right.  The first agent who called him with an offer for Line of Vision had low expectations.  He just couldn’t bring himself to sign the contract… and a good thing, too.  The next agent had big dreams… and sold the book to Penguin/Putnam.`
  5. One key decision:  Point of view.  First person?  Third person?  Second person?  (Tricky, but it can be done!)  The choice you make sets the stage for everything else.  It’s a big decision to have more than one POV in a book.
  6. Character development makes a more satisfying story.  One dimensional characters just march through the plot.
  7. Trust the reader’s imagination.  You don’t have to write every detail – just that one evocative touch that makes the scene come alive.  And that detail can be visual, or it can be a sound, a smell…
  8. Know your protagonist very well.  Ideally, the bad guy, too.  And all major characters.   Write out their backstory, their likes, their dislikes, their physical features, their strengths, their weaknesses.  This’ll keep you on track as you write the book.
  9. Can you write a book about a protagonist that the reader doesn’t like?  Yes, but you might not sell too many books.
  10. At the end of your novel, you want the reader to be surprised but not irritated at the ending.  Strive for what M. Night Shyamalan pulled off with The Sixth Sense.  He didn’t cheat – all the clues that Bruce Willis is dead were right there in the film – but there was an alternative explanation.  The audience bought the misdirection.  Need more examples?  Unbreakable.  The Usual Suspects.
  11. Make the stakes personal and raise the stakes as the book goes on.
  12. Grab the reader.  The first chapter should be the best chapter, first paragraph should be the best paragraph, first line should be the best line.  No backstory.  No lengthy descriptions.

In addition to his own work, Ellis has joined the ranks of James Patterson co-authors.  I was a little disappointed to hear this – I’m not a James Patterson fan and his factory approach to publishing may churn out a consistent product, but it’s not one I buy (or even read for free).   On the other hand, after hearing David Ellis describe what he has learned from Patterson, I can see what the opportunity would be appealing.  And nothing ventured, nothing gained!  

BTW, I did hit the library on Sunday the 17th, and hit the jackpot since all the David Ellis books published to date were right there on the shelf.  I’ve already finished the Jason Kolarich debut The Hidden Man – a great read!  I’m now going back to the start and re-reading Line of Vision.  You, of course, should get to the bookstore and buy retail.








Becoming funny with Tim Kazurinsky

100 bucks for four writing workshops over two Saturdays, with known authors/ experts, lunch included.  Who wouldn’t sign up?  Billions of people, evidently, because there were about 18-20 people in my workshops today.  And that’s okay.  More attention for me.  How else would I get the chance to act – sing, no less – the role of Nancy Pelosi in a sketch that would have been right at home on Saturday Night Live?  (After a little tweaking, of course.)  It was all at National Louis University’s Writers Week.

That familiar-looking guy is Tim Kazurinsky.  You know him from TV, movies and the stage – he was on SNL for four years (not the Lorne Michael years, though), has been active in Second City and just came off a four-month gig on stage with George Wendt in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple in Overland Park Kansas.  The home of bland beige townhomes.

He’s mostly a screenwriter these days.  Biggest titles: he wrote My Bodyguard – an excellent film which must be Netflixed by me soon, now that I remember it – as well as Jim Belushi’s best movie, About Last Night, actually starring Rob Lowe and Demi Moore.

The useful, note-taking part of the workshop featured Tim’s Six Tips for Good Writing Habits, as below.

  1. Always have paper and pencil handy.  Because ideas are heroes and you never know when they’ll show up.  And if you think you’ll remember them, you won’t.  They go away.
  2. Read, read, read.  Newspapers, magazines, other writers… it’s all grist for the mill.  Related thought:  if you want to write a screenplay, download the script for a movie you think is super.  Type it into your computer.  Pull up a new, blank page and type it in again.  In so doing, you will learn VERY important things about screenwriting that will just enter your brain, like osmosis.  (I have the script forWhen Harry Met Sally in my drawer.  I may try this.)
  3. Buy a big-ass notebook and keep it by your bed.  Because a lot of ideas come to you when you’re drifting off, or are discovered, fully formed, in your brain when you wake up.
  4. Become a writing machine.  Get a place, a time, a routine.  Just three hours a day will do it, he says.  (Although he backed it down to one hour in recognition that some of us don’t write for a living but have to spend 8-10 hours a day doing some thing else.  Sometimes with dentists.)  Remove distractions.  “That Internet is  a demon, too.  TMZ is not research.”
  5. Seek out constructive criticism.  Find readers you trust and listen to what they say.  You’re not looking for praise, so “don’t let them blow smoke up your ass.”   Don’t be defensive, and when 2-3 people are telling you the same thing, you should be thinking “hmmm….”
  6. Be a shark.  Don’t go back.  Plow through your first draft.  Don’t tinker.  Don’t look for perfection.  Just use your enthusiasm to get it done.   Then rewrite.

The fun part of the workshop:  going through everybody’s sketch, scene, or concept for something funny.  Some we just discussed, some he “cast” and were acted out.  These ranged widely.  One sketch featuring a behind-the-scenes look at super-heroes such as Iron Man, Green Lantern, and, amusingly, Rod Blagovich.  Another was a classic bus-stop sketch featuring two gay guys and their female friend – all pretty funny and a little bit bitchy.

One featured a money-grubbing pope which was evidently too deep for me, because while it made others invoke Jonathan Swift, I was mostly thinking “when is this going to get funny?”  Funny stuff in a bar.  A guy who goes into the wrong house.  Celebrity ultimate fighting featuring Kathy Griffin.

The “close stander,” who reminded me mightily of Seinfeld’s “close talker,” and led me to think of a recurring character, “the no-boundaries guy.”  He eats your popcorn in the movies, caresses the nap of your velvet jacket, talks about deeply personal things and asks embarrassing questions.  Or perhaps that’s just your mom.

Good about the workshop – gets your creative juices flowing, reinforces your good habits about writing without making you feel guilty that you don’t have more good habits, and provides some insight into what makes funny things funny.   Totally helpful.