Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"My Liar"

Brooklyn native Rachel Cline lived in Los Angeles from 1990 to 1999. During that time she wrote screenplays and teleplays, designed interactive media, and taught screenwriting at USC. Her first novel, What to Keep, was published in 2004.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, My Liar, and reported the following:
In the case of My Liar, page 69 puts us between a scene that sounds too important out of context and a new scene that doesn’t get going until page 70. So, let me start somewhere else: Early in my adult life, I decided my career goal was to become a screenwriter who specialized in adapting novels, thus combining my two great loves into a trade at which I could presumably make a living. Needless to say, this was a ridiculous fantasy, but I did get one shot at it: the assignment was Alice McDermott’s wonderful novel That Night. (And if you have not read it, please, skip the rest of this column and get on that immediately.) The book is so cinematic (self-contained, emotionally vivid, visually striking) that the producers who hired me figured even a rank amateur couldn’t f*ck it up too badly.

I, however, was not so sure, so I went shopping. What I purchased was a book called How to Write a Screenplay in 21 Days by Viki King. It explained what one needed to have going on pages 3, 10, 33, 69, and 91 of any screenplay and that made the rest seem easy, or at any rate possible to me. (I had already been schooled in the notion of Freytag’s pyramid by a former professor of mine, a Czech named Frank Daniel). So I became a firm believer in page numbers, even though my version of That Night was never made.

Most movies aren’t — and that’s where My Liar comes back into the picture, fifteen years later. From the outset, I knew I wanted it to be about the kind of people I’d known in Los Angeles — the film nerds and music geeks who never went to awards shows and rarely got paid even four figures but, in their love of the work itself, kept the whole thing going. I also wanted to write about storytelling as a behavior among friends, and, obviously, about telling the truth vs. lying. But none of that sounded “important” enough to me when I was looking at blank pages, so I came up with an elaborate narrative strategy involving Freytag’s Pyramid: an early draft had chapter titles like “peripety” and “exposition.” Later on, I had Annabeth, a film editor, trying to organize her footage according to the same rubric. Finally, my agent said, “Is there some reason why you keep coming back to this? Am I supposed to be ‘getting’ something I’m not getting?” And I realized there wasn’t, it was just a talisman, and it had outgrown its usefulness.

All that remains of Viki and Frank and Freytag in My Liar, is the Polish film editor Annabeth used to work for before the story starts — one of many absent father figures in the book. One of the smartest things he tells her is, “you come looking for Hollywood, but you wind up in Los Angeles. And this is another thing entirely.” But she doesn’t remember that until page 139.
Read an excerpt from My Liar and learn more the author and her work at Rachel Cline's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue