Tag Archives: Columbus

Interview: How Derek Haas Keeps Us Watching & Turning Pages

Derek Haas (left) and co-writer Michael Brandt

Derek Haas (left) and co-writer Michael Brandt

To say Derek Haas is on a writing hot streak is a gross understatement. The 43-year-old adventure thriller novelist’s career is vaulting into the stratosphere with bestsellers like The Right Hand and The Assassin Trilogy (Silver Bear, Columbus, Dark Men), featuring contract killer Columbus, one of the more intriguing protagonists in recent years.

However, this only nicks the surface of Haas’ life. He has also become one of the hottest all-around writers in the world, currently touting a bestselling novel (The Right Hand), and with longtime co-writer Michael Brandt, one of the most acclaimed TV series (Chicago Fireand a dossier of screenwriting credits that includes The Double (2011), Wanted (2008), 3:10 to Yuma (2007) and 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003).

41O0S7VJgIL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-64,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Some great TV writers, like Stephen J. Cannell and Sidney Sheldon, graduated to bestseller novelist status after leaving television. Others moved on to write memorable movies. Some novelists have become prolific screenwriters. A great example is the indomitable Elmore Leonard, the master of printed dialogue, whose novels and short stories have been adapted into more than 20 movies, some written by himself. One of his adapted short stories is 3:10 to Yuma. 

However, very few writers have worked in all three media simultaneously.

Such dexterity is a tribute not only to Haas’ abilities, but to his work ethic. He is a throwback to the classics, such as Paddy Chayefsky (who won Academy Awards for the writing of Network, The Hospital, and Marty), who got up every day and wrote great movie scripts and teleplays during TV’s golden age – no matter what. Haas attributes this discipline, along with years of rejections and “almosts”, in forging his dogged determination to succeed.

Haas on the movie set

Haas on the movie set

All of Haas’ work is action-packed, with well-layered character development and plenty ofsurprise twists and turns. Whether it’s a chapter in his books or an episode from Chicago Fire, subtext and various narrative threads are working just beneath the main arc, providing the full experience his readers and viewers have come to expect. After reading three of his novels and watching the entire first season of Chicago Fire over a month’s time on Hulu Plus, I mentioned to Derek how one can tell an accomplished novelist wrote that series. “Well, a TV series is episodic, like the chapter of a book,” he replied.

I first met Haas at the 2011 Southern California Writers Conference, where he delivered the featured keynote speech. Now, after 2 ½ years, one movie, two books and a hit TV series later, Haas shares his experience in this special interview.

WORDJOURNEYS: First of all, Derek, you’ve been on a writing rampage the past seven years – three movies, four adventure thriller novels, and a hit TV series. How do you switch back and forth from novel writing to TV writing to screenwriting? And keep the creative energy flowing?

Derek Haas: I don’t have any secrets other than I put the time in and try not to procrastinate.  I make sure I write every day; I make sure I read every day.  I love to write, so it’s never been a drag for me.  I have a partner in screenwriting so it is easy to avoid writer’s block.  If I get stuck, I just click “send” on an email.  Here you go, Michael (Brandt).  Your turn.

Derek Haas with a composite of his TV and motion picture protagonists

Derek Haas with a composite of his TV and motion picture protagonists

WJ: Your world must be rocking this summer between The Right Hand and writing season 2 of Chicago Fire.  Which leads to process: Since every writer wants to know about every other writer’s daily process, what’s yours?

DH: For television, it’s a pretty standard process.  Brandt and I (with the help of Matt Olmstead and our writing staff) come up with a story, which we then write into about a twelve-page outline.  The outline tells exactly what is going to happen in each act.  Very detailed.  We then go through a series of approvals, after which, we write the script incorporating ideas generated from the feedback.  Michael and I then pass the script back and forth until we get it to a place we like, then we go through the same approval process.

With novels, I just write long hand in one of those good ol’ Moleskin booklets.  I don’t usually outline… I just kind of know my beginning, middle, and end.  It lets me run a bit wild.

WJ: You made a distinction to the Chicago Tribune between TV series and movies that showed your novel-writing experience. You said that in movies, you need a beginning-middle-end, but you can end TV episodes with danglers. Could you elaborate?

DH: Well, you want viewers to tune in the following week… so the episodes end up being like chapters rather than books.  We’ll close this storyline this week, but we’ll open the door on three other storylines so you’ll want to come back and see how they finish.  It’s the “cliffhanger” writing that has been around for a long time.  A lot of times, we think of things as three-episode arcs … over the course of three episodes, we’re going to tell this story.  (Three is arbitrary; it could be four or seven.)  One three-episode arc might start in episode five, another might end there.  Does that clarify it?

The Right Hand, Derek Haas' latest novel

The Right Hand, Derek Haas’ latest novel

WJ: You’ve come off the heels of The Assassin Trilogy with a highly acclaimed action thriller, The Right Hand. I’m reading it now; it’s hard to put down. Austin Clay is incredibly intriguing, how he balances his life while engaged in very deep black ops. What is it about action, adventure, and the lone wolf archetype that captivate you so much?

DH: I don’t know… I’ve always liked stories about a lone wolf, where everyone in the world is against the protagonist.  I’m attracted to characters who are gray – an intriguing blend of good and bad.  It’s fun for me to write a despicable character in such a way that the reader cares for him or her.

WJ: You really like Europe as a setting for your novels. What do you enjoy about the European cultures, history, buildings, landscapes and people, and what are the combination of elements that make it so intriguing for you to write about, and readers to sink into?

DH: Great question!   Europe works for a lot of reasons… for one, it’s easier for an American spy or hit man to blend in – the basis for a lot of espionage.  I love the nooks and crannies and Old World layouts of cities, before there were cars and grids.  I also like to take readers out of their comfort zones and give them something new to imagine.  I like to play on perceptions of cities… for instance, Paris is usually this romantic place, but I like to take you down the darker, seedier streets.  I like to write about places I’ve been to… and I haven’t made it to Asia yet, so that’s probably a factor.  I really love Europe. When you respond to a place, when it gets in your blood, it comes out on the page.

WJ: Your readership arc for The Assassin Trilogy is almost like the viewer arc for Chicago Fire, in that some people got it right away, and then word-of-mouth caught fire and greatly increased audience as you were deepening the stories and bringing in new characters. What adjustments did you make from one book to another in The Assassin Trilogy to keep it fresh and new?

DH: I made a concerted effort to make Columbus more likable as the series went on… here’s a guy I wanted readers to want to spend more time with… so I couldn’t keep him as cold-blooded as he was in the first book.  I decided to give him a relationship that would cause him to question his role in life.  After I had Risina, I knew I could build empathy between Columbus and the reader.  I think that was the biggest progression.  I love writing him… he’s so heartless in one moment and so damned big-hearted the next.   Anyway, I hope that answers the question.

WJ: That it does. Another Columbus question: I’ve seen Columbus described as “the anti-Jason Bourne.” As his creator and storymaker, what intrigued you most about him as you wrote him out?  What background work did you do to get the hit man character right?

DH: I had spent some time with the FBI at Quantico and they talked to Michael and me about organized crime.  The world fascinated me.  I thought a hit man would make a great anti-hero, and I loved the idea of writing him in the first person, so the reader would be forced inside the head of a guy who killed people for a living.  I loved thinking about the psychological ramifications of hunting someone down, killing him, and walking away to do it again.  I wanted to make the toll of that on a man’s psyche seem real.  Then I hired a hit man to kill someone so I could shadow him and write about him.  (Just kidding about that last part.  Seriously, don’t send the FBI after me.)

WJ: You’ve worked for years with Michael Brandt on movies like 3:10 to Yuma, Wanted and The Double, and now on Chicago Fire. What are the advantages of a writing partnership – and how have you brought out the best in each other? What is your writing process together like?

DH: Michael and I have been working together now for 15 years… it’s been such a great partnership.  He’s a fantastic writer, and it certainly helps to have someone share the trials and tribulations of Hollywood with you.  There are so many ups and downs in this business… to go through it alone?  I don’t know how solo writers do it.  I’ve said for a long time… I’m really just writing to impress Michael.  We pass scripts back and forth via email (written on Final Draft) and change the colors so we know who wrote what.  We do that three or four times before we turn something in.  That’s our process, I guess.

The Cast of 'Chicago Fire'

The Cast of ‘Chicago Fire’

Chicago Fire question: This show builds on each episode – big time. It’s taut, riveting, great characters, really good mixtures of procedure, drama and action. How does your background as a novelist help you write these shows, especially showing the patience to bring out the characters over several episodes, developing subplots and individual stories, and creating dangler endings?

DH: Like I said, it’s basically the way you write chapters in novels.  You have a season – which is like a book – and then the individual episodes are the chapters in that book.  At the beginning of the year, the writing staff sits in a big room with a blank board and we arc out all the characters over the course of the season.  It’s like a giant grid… here’s what will happen to Casey, here’s what will happen to Severide, here’s where those two things will intersect.   Then, as we write each episode, we try to tie that episode into a central theme… for instance, if this episode is about the consequences of telling lies, then that theme will show up in individual character arcs and also in the accident calls.  But you have to know ahead of time where all these stories are going over the course of a season, or the audience will soon realize that you never had a plan.  A lot of the heavy lifting is in those first few weeks in the writer’s room.

WJ: Well, I guess I’ll unwittingly add to the theme of telling lies, because I do have a follow-up: Which Chicago Fire character(s) outgrew your original concept and expectation when Season 1 started? Who literally took off within your mind as the season progressed? Why?

DH: When we first started, we had Herrmann as this kind of death-of-a-salesman lovable loser who was always trying to get rich quick.  We kind of had him in our minds as a tragic fool.  (Executive producer) Dick Wolf told us that it was a disservice to the character, and the guy was actually the heart of the show… a family man who is just trying to put food on the table for his wife and kids.  He became a very relatable character and a bunch of storylines jumped off of that change in his character.  I love the way he turned out, and David Eigenberg does an incredible job of bringing him to life.

WJ: Final question: What do you enjoy most about creating and crafting stories? What brings out the pure fun and play element of writing for you?

DH: For me, writing is all about surprise.  Surprising the reader, surprising the viewer, surprising the characters, surprising yourself.  Zigging when they think you’re going to zag.  Misdirecting them this way and then slamming them that way.  Any time you can have a reader go, “I never saw that coming,” or better, “I should have seen that coming,” then it is very satisfying.  I get excited when I craft an intelligently set-up surprise… be it in dialogue, plot, setting or character.

The greatest part is having a viewer or reader email you and tell you his or her thoughts.  I still pinch myself when I get a nice email from someone who took the time to write it.  I can’t believe these characters who were in my head connected with people.  It’s very satisfying.

WJ: Derek, it’s been a pleasure. We’ll continue to follow what surprises come up in Season 2 of Chicago Fire … and in your books.

DH: Thanks!

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Two Weeks of Creative Madness … And a Lot of Fun

The Memorial Day Weekend is finally here! One more day of yet another crazy cycle of writing, editing and consulting, and then it’s up the coast to Ventura to run in the Mountains to Beaches Half-Marathon – my favorite distance. This is a lick-your-chops race – slight net downhill, mostly flat, starts at 6 a.m., weather 55 degrees and low clouds, finishes on the beach promenade … everyone out there who races knows the right word for these conditions: Perfect.

But now, a recap of the past two weeks, which will also serve as a commercial for the incredible authors with whom I have the pleasure of working (this work is labor intensive, but is it ever fun!):

Ray Manzarek performing in Milan, 2012

Ray Manzarek performing in Milan, 2012

• First of all, thanks for the music to Ray Manzarek and Trevor Bolder, both of whom passed away from cancer this week. I am a huge Doors fan, and have been since “Light My Fire” first hit radio in 1967. Their music and Jim Morrison’s poetry influenced me greatly, and Manzarek paved the way for rock keyboardists everywhere. He also produced the “Los Angeles” album for X, whose bass player/singer, John Doe, was featured in the spring issue of The Hummingbird Review. Meanwhile, Bolder was the bass player on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album, and, for the past 30 years, with Uriah Heep. My friend Robert Munger and I saw Trevor play with Uriah Heep two summers ago. I mean, we saw him. We stood five feet away and had low-tone deafness for a couple days as a result. The great rock band in heaven just became stronger.

• Just got added to the faculty of the Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference, which will be held June 14-16 at L.A. Valley la writers conferenceCollege. It will feature workshops and panels for four levels of writers – aspiring, active, professional, and screenplay. A half dozen literary agents, editors and plenty of writers will be on hand for this informational and networking fiesta. I’ll be sitting on panels for Ghostwriting, Beyond the First Draft, and Rewriting. Will be selling my books Shades of Green, The Write Time, The Champion’s Way, and the latest edition of The Hummingbird Review as well. Really stoked to be part of this conference. If you’re not busy, do come up – prices are very reasonable, and the schedule of events is awesome.

• Speaking of which, I’ll have two new books coming out this summer through Tuscany Publishing: The Best of Word Journeys Blogs, Vol. 1; and my newest poetry-essay collection, Backroad Melodies. Will keep you posted.

clay-marzo-011609• I’ve reached terms with Houghton Mifflin on Just Add Water, a combination memoir/biography of freestyle surfing great Clay Marzo and his life with Asperger syndrome. The book is tentatively scheduled for a Summer 2014 release, and offers a deep profile from inside the skin of Asperger, and how Clay has become one of the very best surfers in the world. Fun “creation” story to this one: my good friend, Mitch Varnes, ran the idea of this biography by me a few months ago. It sounded like a sure winner. It was. The last time Mitch and I brainstormed a publication, in 1993, we emerged with One Giant Leap for Mankind, the 25th anniversary tribute to the Apollo 11 mission and all the astronauts on the Apollo missions. There’s a lesson here: need to connect with Mitch on book ideas more than once every 20 years!

• I’m assisting musician-producer Stevie Salas with his memoir, When We Were The Boys, remembering his days as lead 376462_204666292995418_1130802602_nguitarist on Rod Stewart’s Out of Order Tour – and how they shaped and influenced his remarkable 25-year career that followed. I first knew Stevie in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, when he played for one of North San Diego County’s hottest cover bands, This Kids. Now, he plays and hangs with the stars (wait: Stevie is a star), having just spent a few days with his boys, the Rolling Stones, while in Southern California. Stevie’s collaborations include work with: Mick Jagger, Justin Timberlake, Daughtry, Terence Trent d’Arby, Bootsy Collins, Miles Davis, Sass Jordan, Bernard Fowler, Glenn Hughes, Matt Sorum … if you know pop and rock music, you know these names. While backstage with the Stones, Stevie dished up a special request for me – a photo of he and Stones backing singer Lisa Fischer, one of the most powerful and sultry singers anywhere. Stevie is not only a great songwriter who has sold more than 2 million solo albums, but a lively prose writer, too, as you will see next year. I’m licking my chops over working on this book, which is about to be shopped by my agent, Dana Newman.

lynne-portrait-for proposal• Just finished editing Home Free, which will be one of the most highly anticipated and well-marketed travel narratives of 2014. It is also one of my favorite editing jobs ever. Author Lynne Martin is going to win over the world with her book, in which she shares she and her husband Tim’s hopscotch life in various global destinations, with all the sights, sounds and travel tidbits you’d expect in a good travel story. However, there’s more: her personality. Get ready to buckle your seat belt for a full-on, humor-filled romp, mixed with outstanding travel writing and enough tense, serious moments to remind us that Lynne and Tim are making their homes in these places, not just going in and out as tourists. Sourcebooks has moved up the release date to April 1, 2014, to capitalize on media coverage and national talk shows – on which Lynne will surely shine.

• Also wrapped the first issue of Innovation & Technology Today, an edgy, front-line digital magazine on the latest technological additions to our world, and the people envisioning and creating these products and services. We focused on smart homes for this issue, while our summer issue will be right up my alley – sports & medical technology. Besides editing the magazine, I also write the Education column – another pet topic. Digital magazines are a blast, for many reasons … that will be the subject of a future blog. The issue will be available through Zinio and Apple digital newsstands June 5.

• Keeping this busy month of words going, also just finished working on Gary Deason’s fine novel, The Columbian Prophecy, which answers the question: what would happen if an extreme, crazed cell of the Catholic Church tied Columbus’ voyages to America to the re-discovery of the Garden of Eden – and determined that to be the End of Days and their time to take over? This is a great story that interweaves Columbian history as you haven’t seen it before, the battles indigenous South American peoples have faced for 500+ years, and the trouble a father and his two daughters get into for stumbling onto the hornets’ nest occupied by these crazed monks. Enough said. Deason is working on agent representation now, so you’ll see this book in the not-too-distant future.

'A Taste of Eternity' author Martha Halda

‘A Taste of Eternity’ author Martha Halda

• Finally, it seems the author interviews on this blog are proving to be a big hit. My recent interviews with Losing My Religion author Jide Familoni, It’s Monday Only In Your Mind author Michael Cupo, A Taste of Eternity author (and my sweetheart) Martha Halda, and Island Fever and Storm Chasers author Stephen Gladish resulted in the greatest number of daily reads in the 5 ½-year history of this blog. (Side note: Storm Chasers was set in Oklahoma’s Tornado Alley; how apropo is that novel today??) So, to follow: Guests in June will include David Abrams, author of the bestselling novel Fobbit; 2013 International Book Award recipient Matthew Pallamary; Sword & Satchel trilogy author Claudette Marco; and Australian therapist Leo Willcocks, author of De-Stress to Impress, one of the most in-depth and proactive books on dealing with and rising above stress I’ve ever seen (and I’ve read a lot of them).

So that’s the past two weeks. I wish you all a fun Memorial Day weekend, remember what we’re celebrating and who we’re honoring, and make it a point to write or do something creative. Outside as well as inside. The next two-week cycle starts Tuesday …

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Feasting on Words: Billy Collins, Southern California Writers Conference, and New Books in the Making

A few odds and ends while feeling very inspired and energized by the past ten days, which have included a wonderful Southern California Writers Conference, starting to put together what will be a smashing Spring 2013 issue of The Hummingbird Review, watching editing clients get one deal and opportunity after another, and Tuesday night’s superb event with Billy Collins, the former Poet Laureate of the United States…

The Billy Collins program at Point Loma Nazarene University was truly special. Billy has drawn hundreds of thousands of otherwise non-poetry fans into the world of poetry through his easily accessible, humorous, poignant and endearing takes on life’s otherwise ordinary moments. On Tuesday night before a standing room-only crowd of more than 400 at Crill Hall, he read 17 poems spanning his career (10 collections, plus several anthologies), including a couple from his latest, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems 2003-2013, which will be released October 22. He also sat with PLNU journalism faculty member and Writer’s Symposium coordinator Dean Nelson, himself the author of a dozen books, for an excellent hour-long discussion.

One of Billy’s many funny lines? Check out this succinct take on science fiction: “There are only two directions for all of science fiction: We’re going there, or they’re coming here.” Priceless.

Discussing poetry with former Poet Laureate of the U.S. Billy Collins (photo by Martha Halda)

Discussing poetry with former Poet Laureate of the U.S. Billy Collins (photo by Martha Halda)

A couple hours earlier, I interviewed Billy at his bayside Shelter Island hotel for The Hummingbird Review. It was fun, lively, full of wisdom and humor – typical of Billy’s take on the world. We had a wonderful discussion about his poetics and vast contributions, a part of which I will share in this blog on Friday. For the rest, you’ll have to pick up The Hummingbird Review.

A really funny moment popped up during the interview. When my sweetheart, A Taste of Eternity author Martha Halda, and I told Billy how Carlsbad High School teacher Tom Robertson turned us onto poetry in our freshman English class, Billy looked at Martha and quipped, “So you were one of those mean girls!” He was referencing the fact that he (like me) was painfully shy in high school, and not on the radar screen of the school’s most beautiful girls. We informed him that Martha was one of the nicest (and best looking, and still is) CHS beauties, to which he replied, “So you were the nice one!” Gotta love this man.

• • •

I’m still pouring through notes from the Southern California Writer’s Conference, so I want to share a few comments that famed science fiction writer David Brin made that are great takeaways for writers and readers alike (with very special thanks to Alicia Bien for emailing her notes as well):

On the bad guys we all love to hate (or maybe root for) in novels: “Give the villain great dialogue so they are tempted. Make your villains so powerful that the U.S. government can’t beat them.”

Bestselling science fiction author David Brin (photo by Gayle Carline)

Bestselling science fiction author David Brin (photo by Gayle Carline)

On the purpose of writing: “Convey your sense of joy on the page. Control your ego, but believe you can write material that people want to read. Remember: writing is the only true form of magic.”

How to write a first page that hooks readers: “The first page must sing. Copy the first page of writers you respect, see how they move the story, and find that within your own voice, your own story.

Four keys to getting published and drawing your readers:

1)   You need an ear

2)   Bring on the criticism because you can be even better – and you know it

3)   Hard work

4)   Luck

• • •

Have been having a blast editing and/or writing proposals for some truly wonderful books that have made their way onto my computer in the past several months. Will rattle off their titles and authors now, so that you will grab them and share the experience when they hit bookstores in the next 12 to 18 months (as I am fully confident they will):

• A Taste of Eternity, a memoir by Martha Halda

• Home Free Adventures, a travel narrative by Lynne Martin

• Island Fever, Mustang Fever and Storm Chasers, an adventure romance trilogy by Stephen B. Gladish

• Who Will Cry for Us? a memoir by Davion Famber

• The Columbian Prophecy, a novel by Gary B. Deason

• Changes in Longitude, a travel narrative/memoir by Larissa and Michael Milne

• Red Hand, a novel by Seamus Beirne

• Forgoing Stress, a prescriptive book by Leo Willcocks

Next week, I will talk more about a couple of books coming from yours truly, including my forthcoming novel, Voices. We’ll also hear from authors Larissa and Michael Milne, Martha Halda and Stephen B. Gladish. Stay tuned.

• • •

Speaking of March, two events are coming up in the next two months that I hope you will participate in, if you are suitably located geographically: the Tucson Festival of Books March 9-10 at the University of Arizona in Tucson; and the L.A. Times Festival of Books April 20-21 on the University of Southern California campus. Between the two, more than 100,000 people will be in attendance. These events are a paradise for readers, a chance to meet and talk with hundreds of authors and publishers in all genres. Check them out.

 

 

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“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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