An Incidental Tourist

I’ve watched thousands of movies over the years, but I’ve never considered myself a fan so much as a student. I don’t gush over movie stars, though I have paid attention to how they act, the way they deliver their lines, and the characters they play. I’ve never felt any desire to see places where movies were filmed, such as the field from The Field of Dreams. (In truth, I don’t understand the attraction. The field in Iowa is not a magical field as it was portrayed in the movie. It is simply a prosaic place where the magic of filmmaking once happened.)

Still, quite incidentally during my travels the past couple of years, I’ve seen several places made famous by movies: Monument Valley, Ridgeway (where much of True Grit was filmed), the LaBrea tarpits, Bagdad Cafe, the house where Sam Baldwin lived in Sleepless in Seattle, and the Bradbury Building. I’m sure I’ve passed by dozens of other film-famous settings without being aware of their significance, so it’s amazing to me that I recognized as many places as I did.

One of the hardest things about having lost to death the person connecting me to life is that when I see such places, I can’t tell him what I have seen. He was the one I watched all those movies with, and he would have appreciated seeing those settings way more than I did. The irony is that when he was alive, we couldn’t travel due to his health, so it’s only his death that has brought the world to me (or do I mean me to the world?).

One movie he enjoyed was Wolf, and he was especially taken with the office building where Will Randall worked.  On a recent excursion to downtown LA, I stopped in to see the Bradbury Building, which had been described as an architectural marvel, and there it was — the office building from Wolf.

I thought I’ve been keeping a scrapbook of my excursions to prove to myself that I am real, but the other day it struck me that I’m really keeping it for him — my deceased mate. I can’t tell him in person what I’ve been doing (as I always did), so the photos are a way of sharing my experiences in abstentia. He would have loved seeing the Bradbury Building — it’s even more incredible than in the movie — light-filled, soaring ceilings, ornate iron grillwork, marble stairs, and cage elevators — so I marveled in his stead.

(If you don’t know the name of the building, I’m sure you still recognize it. The place has been featured in many television series, music videos, and movies, most notably, Blade Runner, Chinatown, Murphy’s Law, Lethal Weapon 4, and of course, Wolf.)

Trying to Relight My Life

When I was in high school, I participated in a thesis project for a doctoral candidate. He was trying to prove (I think) that given the right tools, anyone could teach and anyone could learn. The high school students were to teach kids from the lower grades about various aspects of science. During the first class, I handed each of my students a battery and a light bulb and asked them to turn on the light. They couldn’t of course. I asked what they needed, and one kid said they needed a wire. I handed everyone a wire. A bit of experimentation later, they realized they needed a second wire. So, I handed out another wire, and in a very short time all those light bulbs were lit.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently — not the program so much as those wires linking the battery terminals to the light bulb. It seems to me that ever since the death of my life mate, one of the wires is missing from my electrical system, and nothing lights me.

Take movies, for example.

My family didn’t have a television when I was growing up, and we seldom went to the movies, so I read to get my daily dose of stories. I wasn’t a speed reader, but was a skimmer — if there was a boring part, such as long descriptions, inane dialogue, and action scenes that went nowhere, I fast forwarded. Skimmed in other words. As a young adult, I went to the movies occasionally, but found most of them dull since I couldn’t skip over the boring parts.

After we’d been together for a few years, my life mate and I signed up for an assortment of movie channels. Back then there were only four premium channels, and those channels offered dozens and dozens of new choices every month. The two of us became entranced with movies. It was something we could share, and the enjoyment we each felt enhanced the enjoyment the other felt. The humor was funnier when shared. The tender scenes more touching. The scary scenes more horrifying. And I wasn’t bored. Didn’t need to skim.

He started taping the movies we liked, then he taped those he liked that I didn’t (such as genre westerns and war movies) then he went on to tape good parts of bad movies and finally he taped the best of the rest.

He’s gone now, but his movie collection remains. I have over 1000 movies to sort through (since I won’t be able to keep them all), so I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately, and I discovered something interesting. The movies that thrilled us, made us laugh, electrified us, the movies that radiated life — the movies that once seemed life personified — are now simply . . . movies. Films. Faded stories on a flat screen. As with the films I saw as a young adult (before I met him), these movies now seem to have nothing to do with me. I watch them. Can even enjoy them, but that’s all. Turns out, I needed two “wires” to make the stories live in me, and one of the wires is permanently defunct.

I’m not even attempting to watch the movies we especially loved, the ones that seemed to be made just for us. Without the other electrical “wire” these movies might also prove to be lifeless streams of motion, which would be unbearably sad. And if the movies still hold up, I couldn’t bear the sadness of watching them alone, without him. I’m sure eventually I’ll find the courage to view them again, but not today.

If the missing wire only affected movie watching, I’d chalk it up to one more loss among so many, but the truth is, with his being gone, nothing seems real. It was as if his smile when I told him good news or his commiseration at bad news or his laugh at silly news grounded me, and made everything more vibrant.

I am getting back into the swing of my life, and I’m starting to feel “normal.” Perhaps someday I might even find a way to relight my life despite that missing wire.

Books Are Not Movies

Many writers see their novels as movies, picking a cast to portray their characters, visualizing scenes as they would play on the screen. But books are not movies. A movie set can be seen in an instant and does not detract from the action, while a long passage in a book describing that same scene postpones the action, making today’s readers impatient. (Action in a novel, as I am sure you know, is any forward motion that fosters change in the characters: dialogue, physical interactions, even a simple touch of the hand.)

Nor is a book a movie script. Some novelists are so enamored with envisioning their book as a movie that they omit descriptions altogether. They tell their story mostly by dialogue, which leaves readers untethered, “like water, willy-nilly flowing.”

If two characters are having an argument, for example, it is necessary for readers to know where it is taking place. An argument in a pub is different from an argument in a bedroom, but they don’t need a long description of the bar or the bedroom to get involved with the characters; a few significant details will anchor the scene in their minds. A detailed set is necessary for a movie’s verisimilitude, but those same details negate a novel’s illusion of being true. Do you stop in the middle of an argument to note the contents of the room? If you do, you lose not only your focus, but the argument as well.

Even a short descriptive passage can negate the illusion if the object or setting described has no significance to the story. A lamp may be placed on a side table in a movie set for no reason other than the set designer liked the way it looked, but if an author spends many words describing that same lamp, there has to be a reason. Perhaps it is a source of contention between characters. Or perhaps one character will bash another over the head with it.

So, if you visualize your novel as a movie, don’t describe everything you see. Describe only what is important, (what is important to the characters or to the story, not what is important to you as a writer) and then . . . ACTION!

Cool Guys are C…C…C…Cool

Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper. Hard guys with hard names. And what about Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Kevin Costner, Nicholas Cage, Clint Eastwood? More hard guys with hard names.

Is it any accident that some of the world’s best-selling authors are men with hard names? King. Would he ever have become King if he had a name like Shayne? Only if his first name was Mike. And don’t forget Koontz, Clancy, Cook.

I thought a lot about using a pseudonym, something hard like Cole Black that would immediately proclaim: here is an author with an edge. But there would be problems with a pseudonym: cashing royalty checks; explaining to a publisher that I’m not hiding anything by using a fake name; being invited to the White House as Cole Black and only having identification for Pat Bertram. Ouch.

In the end I decided to stick with my own name. It’s a good-sounding name for an author. Besides, it has the whole androgynous “It’s Pat” thing going for it. I can be the author I want without trying to live up to a fictitious name or persona.

And anyway, p’s and b’s and t’s and r’s didn’t hurt Brad Pitt any.

As the ax descended, she struggled in vain.

I’m sitting here trying to come up with a witty first line, something that will immediately catapult me into a story, but all I can think of is Billy Crystal in Throw Mama From the Train. I remember watching him struggle for the perfect first line, the perfect word until I wanted to scream “Skip the first line! Start anywhere! Or at least dig out a thesaurus.” But that was before I started to write, and now I find myself doing the same thing.

Odd that first lines are so important, yet few set the mood or do anything else they’re supposed to. And fewer still are memorable. Probably the best known line is “It was a dark and stormy night,” but it’s also considered to be the worst first line in history. Why? It seems evocative to me, and though it’s supposed to be redundant, even city people should know that stormy nights are not always dark. Maybe that’s why I haven’t yet found a publisher.  Maybe I just don’t get it.

How about this for a first line? First and last, actually. As the ax descended toward her head, the young mother struggled in vain to free her hands from the nylon rope. But that doesn’t tell us who she is, why someone killed her,  or why we should care.

And that’s not what I want to write anyway. I’ve always wanted to write the story of a love that transcended time and physical bonds, told with sensitivity and great wisdom. Unfortunately, as one agent pointed out, I have a matter-of-fact writing style, little talent, and no wisdom. So I put words to the page one at a time, and thank heavens I can always rewrite later.

Now if I can only think of that first perfect word.