“Calculate Less”: Keynoter Derek Haas’ Message of Writing Success

You may not know much about Derek Haas as a person, but if you like westerns or action thrillers, then you know some  films he’s screenwritten: 2 Fast 2 Furious, 3:10 to Yuma, and most recently, Wanted. On the reading side, you might also know Columbus, the “protagonist” of his bestselling action thriller novel, The Silver Bear, and its two sequels.

Derek keynoted the Southern California Writers Conference in San Diego in an unusual but refreshing way: after spending 20 minutes tracing his ever-growing career, he took questions from the audience of nearly 300.  Leave it to Southern California Writers Conference directors Michael Steven Gregory and Wes Albers to march off the beaten track (after all, the tongue-in-cheek motto of this particular conference series, at which I love to teach, is “We’re going to help you suck less”) and find yet another writer who never forgets what it took to succeed — and the pearls of wisdom he gathered along the way.

A humble man, Derek possesses a genuinely caring nature for his fellow writers. Even after spending years dealing with the buzzsaw that is Hollywood filmmaking. “Most screenwriters won’t give any credit to the uncredited writers who help out on a film,” he said. “But a film is a collaborative process, and I’m happy to give credit and tell you how good any writer is who collaborates on a film I’ve been involved with.”

The writing bug first bit Derek when he was 12, and the story is as cute as full of generational clash at it gets. “When I was 12, I took a Stephen King book off my dad’s nightstand. I turned on the closet light in my bedroom — my parents thought I was asleep — and I read until I was finished. That’s when I knew that I had to do this. For my next birthday, I got a typewriter. Then, when I was 17, my dad looked at my love of writing, and my talking about writing as a career, and he said, ‘Do you want to eat hamburgers or steak?’ Look into business school.”

Derek’s career reads like most success curves of author/screenwriters. He and his screenwriting partner, Michael Brandt, met while in graduate school at Baylor and found they “liked similar things and laughed at the same jokes.” They caught a break early on, when one of their screenplays was handed to Brad Pitt and he decided to star in the movie. However, that ended when Brad joined Julia Roberts on another picture. He then co-wrote 2 Fast 2 Furious, the second of the now four-movie car action thriller franchise, followed by 3:10 to Yuma, based on a short story by his personal idol (and mine, too), Elmore Leonard. “I really liked the 1957 movie with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin,” Derek told the audience, “but when I received the screenplay to look at a remake, I realized it didn’t have a true second act.” So Derek and Brandt, along with others, refashioned the movie into a tight western with modern sub-themes that starred Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

After 3:10 to Yuma, when filming The Double (to be released later in 2011) in Detroit, Derek received a call — from Elmore Leonard. He thought at first it was a joke, but then accepted Elmore’s invitation to a barbecue. Derek had just started the popular website Popcorn Fiction, his attempt to bring back the glory years of short and pulp fiction — one of Derek’s two major nostalgia trips. (The other is radio westerns from the 1930s through 1950s, like Gunsmoke). Popcorn Fiction features short fiction from screenwriters. After getting through a little star-struck spell at the master craftsman’s house, Derek worked up his nerve. “I asked him if he had anything he could contribute. He gave me 15 unseen, unpublished stories, dating back to 1953. One was not good, one was OK, and 13 were gems. We’re working through his agent on getting them published.”

Also, unbeknownst to any of his Hollywood colleagues, Derek was working on a book. It became the bestselling The Silver Bear, featuring a contract killer lead character, Columbus — who appears in a pair of sequels, the latest of which comes out later in 2011. The Silver Bear opens with, “I don’t want you to like me.” Derek explained this by offering some of the best advice I’ve heard in awhile on characterization: “To me, the key to good characters is leaving a little gray. If you have an antagonist, make him do something good to bring the readers in. If you have a protagonist, make him do something that pushes the reader away a little bit.”

Besides answering questions about his movies, Derek received a few specific craft- or mission-based questions about the writing process. One particular exchange, which should be printed in every magazine and every blog, concerned an author’s question about keeping an eye on trends and readers’ concerns as you write your story.

“Calculate less,” Derek said. “That should be a motto for writers.”

He then elaborated. “I can’t tell you where Hollywood is going with trends. Look at 3:10 to Yuma. I thought it was a pretty good film, a great story, with great actors, including Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. It only made $60M in the U.S. and practically nothing — $16M — overseas. So they said westerns are dead … and along comes True Grit that makes $170M. They were saying the same thing twenty years ago, and then you had Dances With Wolves. You can’t write to what’s hot or not hot in Hollywood or in the bookstore.

“Write what’s in your heart. What’s in your heart doesn’t have to be a memoir. It can be an action thriller, or a romantic person, or a contract killer. Write the story that comes from your heart.”

The major craft point he gave is something that is life-or-death to screenwriters and playwrights — and novelists, for that matter: knowing when to begin and end scenes. “My screenwriting partner likes to call it the ‘cup of coffee’ syndrome,” Derek said. “Bad writing is having two people come into the cafe, look around, describe the setting, grab menus, find a waitress, be seated, look over the menu, order two cups of coffee, stir the coffee, take a sip and then start a conversation. Good writing starts with the conversation. It’s really important to not start your scene too early or end it too late.”

Finally, he talked about the polishing process. All weekend long, as we worked with authors’ manuscripts, the mantra of the faculty was the same: “polish until you can’t perfect it any more — then have someone go over it. Then send it.” So many times, unrefined manuscripts are sent to agents and publishers. So many times, writers have just lost their best opportunity. “My partner and I have one rule between us,” Derek said. “Make it better.”

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