[Enjoy this column by guest contributor Libby Cudmore! — Ed.]
For some reason, we all want to be writers. It’s a romantic endeavor, telling stories for all the world to read. That is why there are hundreds, if not thousands, of movies about writers.
As it turns out, I am a writer. My debut novel, “The Big Rewind” (William Morrow), hits bookstores Tuesday, February 2. I am also a great consumer of cinema, and some of the best writing advice can be found at home right on your DVD shelf. You can spare yourself the price of an MFA by paying close attention to the advice found in these five films:
1) The Whole Wide World (1996)
I’ve never read a Conan the Barbarian yarn, but my favorite professor in the whole wide world recommended me this film, based on Novalyn Price Ellis’ memoir, “One Who Walked Alone”. It details her relationship with pulp author Robert E. Howard, who committed suicide in 1936. It’s a gauzy, beautiful film, featuring easily Vincent D’onofrio’s best performance as Howard himself. Renee Zellweger plays Price, a school teacher who tries to learn how to write from D’onofrio’s enigmatic, often frustrating mama’s boy. In real life, Price practiced her writing by carefully documenting their conversations, which became the basis for the book. Howard sums up the writing life perfectly to Price: “I figured the only way to stop workin’ was to start writing.” Good advice for anyone who’s ever complained, “I’m too busy with work to write my novel,” while playing their third hour of Mass Effect.
Writing Advice: Novels don’t write themselves. Put down the video games and the Netflix and you’ll be surprised how many words you can get on a page.
2) Sideways (2004)
Disclaimer: I am not an alcoholic, middle-aged male. Still, there was something about Sideways I connected with in my mid-20s, so much so that the poster still hangs above the desk in my office. Paul Giamatti brings such a tragic charm to writer/wine snob Miles, who, on the pages of Rex Pickett’s novel, is a pathetic, unlikeable loser. The chemistry he shares with man-slut Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on an episodic bachelor party through California wine country is a pairing made in some glorious cinematic tasting table. Miles’ complaint that the wine tastes like “leaves and sticks and mice” is still my favorite way to describe overwrought, self-indulgent prose. But despite near-promises from his agent, Mile’s novel “The Day After Yesterday” fails to sell to a publisher, and yet, he not only survives the blow, but almost thrives, sharing an adventurous wink at Jack’s wedding and maybe, ambiguously, finding love with fellow oenophile Maya (Virginia Madsen)
Writing Advice: Sometimes, you have to let a story go. They won’t all sell. It’s okay to walk away and start something new. And cool it on the adverbs.
3) Down With Love (2003)
I love my editor, Chelsey, but I knew she wasn’t going to set me up with an enormous apartment or a magazine interview with someone as drop-dead gorgeous as Ewan McGregor. If Sideways is what it feels like to be a writer, Down With Love is pure writing pornography. Barbara Novak (Renee Zellweger) pens the titular guide to life and career in the swingin’ ‘60s, and finds herself in a battle of the books (and sexes) with playboy magazine writer Catcher Block (McGregor, occasionally shirtless). Barbara faces opposition at every corner, from sexist editors to the publisher only printing one copy of her book. However, with a little pluck and some dazzling costume changes, she becomes an international best-selling author. It’s clever, charming and has a music video to boot, which has to be the greatest way ever to promote a new title.
Writing Advice: Work hard and don’t give up until you reach your goal. Also, ditch the sweatpants.
4) Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
I hear so many writers lament that they can’t make the suggested edits because “That’s not what my character would do,” and Stranger Than Fiction addresses this idiocy in the best way possible. “Aren’t writers so precious and sensitive?” Generally this is the kind of cloying garbage that I would rather eat bees than have to watch (looking at you, Ruby Sparks), but Will Ferrell’s Harold Crick, a normal man who unwittingly finds his life narrated by frustrated writer Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is so charming that I can forgive how frankly terrible her book sounds. Leaves and sticks and mice. Her writer’s block hinges on holding a man’s life in her hands, and though she drinks and frets and makes life miserable for her assistant (Queen Latifah) she finally figures out where to put that final period on Harold’s story.
Writing Advice: Your characters do not control the book. You do. Just because a character dies in the first draft doesn’t mean they have to die in the final draft. Also, writer’s block can and will be overcome.
5) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Hunter S. Thompson alter-ego Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp, in what is probably his last decent performance) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) take Las Vegas on a drug-and-Terry Gilliam-fueled bender as Duke attempts to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race. It’s weird and it’s wonderful and the voiceover comes straight from the book, which makes going back and reading it that much more enjoyable. With the brilliant opening line, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” the journey begins full-throttle, and though many imitate, but no one can match Thompson’s wild, but brilliant literary stylings as he rambles for pages about ether binges, politics and the fragility of American Dream.
Writing Advice: Find your own voice on the page and develop it into something as bold as Thompson’s.
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Libby Cudmore is the author of “The Big Rewind”, forthcoming from William Morrow in 2016. She can quote Sin City start to finish and makes a pretty good hotdish. For more of Libby’s writings, visit her on the web at LibbyCudmore.com.