A week ago, I was at The Muse and the Marketplace writer’s conference in Boston. It’s basically the highlight of my year (don’t tell my husband that). Back in the early 2000’s, I skulked in dark corners unable to bring myself to talk to anyone. Then, I met my agent through the conference. Then, I sold two books. Then, I found a champion of my fiction writing. Then, I connected with publishers and agents for editing work. Then, I started teaching.
Now, I moderate panels, hobnob with celebrities and have an orange ribbon on my name plate that reads: “PRESENTER.” You get the picture. I love The Muse.
I could gush about how fun it was (pre-conference cocktails at 28 Degrees)…. how inspiring (new writers! successes!)… how informative (behind-the-scenes at the big six publishers)… how invigorating (chit chats with Andy Warhol’s former editor)… and so on, but, shall I tell the truth?
The best part of the conference was Alessandro Nivola.
Yes, the actor from Laurel Canyon (hear his astonishingly good British accent at 1:13) and other great movies. This rather famous Hollywood guy spent time with us lowly writers and made us feel, well, more important than we typically feel. On Saturday night at the after-party, he strummed his guitar and sang while his wife Emily Mortimer (soon to be seen on HBO’s The Newsroom) snapped pictures of us all swooning. Here’s a picture of me using the wall to prop myself up. It ranks among the best night I’ve had in years.
The next day, I listened in on a panel with Alessandro and Stephen McCauley. Here are some nuggets:
- It is not the job of an artist to be concerned with bourgeois morality.
- Likable characters don’t have to be morally good, but they do have to be dynamic.
- While filming Match Point, Woody Allen said the dialogue itself is unimportant, it’s the emotional understory that matters.
- Books rely more heavily on language than film, and so does television.
- Every scene has a rhythm and a moment. When that rhythm shifts, THAT’S where the energy is.
- “Movies mostly suck.” Yes, he said that.
- Dialogue should always have a subtext. Bury the lede.
- Every scene needs an obstacle: this prevents the person saying what they really want to say.
- The audience needs to sense what the character WANTS. That’s exciting.
- Psychologizing is a big no-no. It’s not dramatic and it’s pretentious. Show it through behavior.
- If it’s specific, it can’t be cliched. (This might be my favorite nugget of all.)
- Ask yourself, “How do I want to make the viewer/reader feel?” This forces an active voice.
- When something is tailor-made for a specific market segment, it’s never a recipe for good art.