Monday, June 25, 2012

Interview with Eric Elfman

Eric Elfman is the award-winning author of twelve books, including three offbeat almanacs published by Random House, one of which, Almanac of the Gross, Disgusting & Totally Repulsive, was named an “ALA Recommended Book for Reluctant Readers” and is now in its sixth printing. Eric also wrote three YA X-Files novels for HarperCollins and two collections of scary short stories (Three Minutes Thrillers and More Three Minute Thrillers) for Lowell House. Eric is now co-writing Tesla’s Attic with Neal Shusterman, a series of three middle grade novels that will be published by Hyperion starting in 2013.

Also a writing coach, Eric has worked with more than a hundred writers, many of whom have since had their books published (including four so far in 2012). For the past seven years, Eric has been on the faculty of the Big Sur Children’s Writers Workshop, sponsored by the Henry Miller Library and directed by Andrea Brown.

Many of Eric’s books have been optioned by Hollywood. His Three Minute Thrillers series was optioned by Merv Griffin Enterprises, and The Almanac of the Gross has been developed as a magazine-style TV show for kids. Also a screenwriter, Eric wrote a movie for Intersound Pictures, and with Neal, co-wrote an adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It for Walden Media. Eric and Neal sold CLASS ACT, an original pitch based on a true story, to Revolution Studios. After they wrote the screenplay, the project was set up at Dreamworks with Halle Berry attached to star.

Since this blog is about offering inspiration to writers, my first question for you is, do you have a favorite quote? If so, why is it your favorite?

“Dream the scene.” It’s a line of dialogue from Pat Hobby: Teamed With Genius, a TV movie based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It starred Christopher Lloyd as a hack screenwriter teamed with a hot young British playwright played by a very young Colin Firth. “Dream the scene” is how the young playwright describes his writing process to the older screenwriter. Lloyd’s no-nonsense has-been has no idea what Firth is talking about, because it’s too poetic, too deep. But it always speaks to me: when I’m having difficulty writing a scene, I “dream” it, taking myself out of it and imagining the moment as fully as I can, watching the sequence of events between my characters and their environment. Only then can I write it down, describing the actions and exploring the feelings of my characters.

What piece of advice do you find yourself offering most to writers?

Aside from “avoid the passive voice,” it’s this: make sure your protagonist is driving your story. Time and again I read manuscripts from my coaching clients where the protagonist is, essentially, a passenger in the story. Perhaps this comes from the writers not fully committing to the stories they’re telling. Or maybe it’s because most writers are by nature observers, so it’s easy to fall into the trap of building a story around an observer. It won’t work.

The essence of story is this: your protagonist urgently wants something, and someone or something stands in their way. That’s it. That’s story. Drama equals conflict. If your protagonist simply floats through the manuscript, describing events around them and being handed the things they need -- then you have a travelogue, not a story. Your protagonist has to earn the reward at the end of the road.

I’ve heard many rave about your world building skills. Could you take us in your mind for a moment and show us how you build a world?

This is hard to answer because every situation, every world, is unique. My writing partner and I were hired as World Builders (the actual job title!) for a Dreamworks film and a Disney project. And of course every screenplay, every novel, even those set in the “real” world, require world building.

It helps to have a good imagination, that’s for sure. If you’re creating fantastic other worlds, they better be fantastic! But it ultimately depends on how you layer in your details. As the writer, as the creator of the world of the story, you need to know that world in intimate detail -- but you also have to decide which are the relevant details, the ones that best reveal the world to the reader. Because the real world building occurs in the reader’s mind. (Oh, and remember your own rules for the world you create. Nothing shatters the reader’s delicate suspension of disbelief more quickly than violating the way you’ve told us your world works!)

In your career who’s had the biggest influence on you? What did they do to inspire you?

I have been fortunate to have had many wonderful teachers, friends and business relationships over the years. But I would have to choose my friend and writing partner, Neal Shusterman. He helped me get my first book contracts; we wrote a spec screenplay together, UNDERWHERE, which led to pitch meetings with every studio in Hollywood and three film deals; and now we’re writing our book series Tesla’s Attic together. Every time I sit down to write with Neal, it’s like taking a Master Class in creative writing. I am able to discuss story problems, characters, conflict with a master who understands these things almost instinctively. If the pace is sagging, we solve it by adding more tension; if the story goal becomes too easy, we add more obstacles. I try to take back everything I learn to my own writing.

If you could send your younger self one tweet, what would you say?

Be good in the room. Writing biz not just words on page, u also have to sell yourself.

If at all possible, could you pick one book that has deeply affected you? If so, what was it that moved you about it?

Wow. This is such a tough question! When I was in junior high, I was such a voracious reader it became a running joke that I would bring a different book to school each day. Usually mysteries. In all the books I read when I was younger, there are so many meaningful ones, from The Count of Monte Cristo to The Princess Bride to Winter’s Tale. (Ha! I slipped in a few extra!) But if I had to pick only would be The Hobbit, simply because it was the first book that I quite literally didn’t want to end -- there was a sadness permeating my being as I reached the closing chapters, from knowing that I was going to have to say goodbye to people who had become friends of mine, a feeling that I still feel to this day when I think about it.

When you're having moments when nothing seems to fit, how do you find what you are looking for and make a story come to life?

When my “dream the scene” technique above doesn’t work, or I’m having a difficult time working out a knotty story problem, I go for a run. It sounds almost too simple, but the physical and mental reaction as blood starts bringing much-needed fuel to my oxygen-starved brain -- it’s about the closest thing I’ve found to actual magic. After a two mile run, I’m able to see my way through thickets of story problems that once seemed insoluble.

If you could pick a word to describe yourself, what would it be?

Another toughie! How can you ask a wordsmith for a single word (optimistic)? I waded through dozens (observant, persistent, patient), and I don’t know if this one is perfect (insouciant, supportive), but it will have to do: Happy.

Thank you, Eric! You're definitely a skilled wordsmith and I completely agree with the one word you picked! Your happiness in life and writing spreads into many, thank you for that! 

For more information about Eric’s coaching, visit his site:
For Eric’s book:
He tweets (when he has something to say) at @Eric_Elfman


  1. Ha Ha, I love how you slipped in extra books and words to describe yourself. It's interesting, the "Dream the scene". I have always wished to portray my dreams and daydreams to paper, and it makes so much sense. I suppose that's where the challenge comes in - putting it to paper! Its a refreshing way to approach a new idea.
    Along with that, I am glad you pointed out that in building a world, continuity is so important. I recently watched a movie (based on a book) and the world wasn't consistent with its own rules and the movie lost its appeal as soon as the world violated its own rules. I'm glad you pointed that out.
    Thanks for the interview Eric and Naomi, encouraging as always.

  2. Thank you, Bob! Lovely having you stop by, I always love your comments!

  3. Great interview! I also have to dream the scene, or rather, watch it in my head like a movie. Then I can write it. Sometimes that gets confusing because I usually have multiple "camera's" going at once, a wide angle, a close up, a mic implanted in the head of my protagonist...

    As someone who's been on the receiving end of Eric's coaching, I have to say, he's great!!! In a matter of minutes he can sort out a tricky plot problem and get me right back on track.

    Thanks for a great interview with a great editor/writer!

  4. One of the loveliest men in the business. Thanks, Eric, for all you do to help other writers get their stories on the page!

  5. Eric is the best writing coach around. I recommend him to anyone.

  6. Wise advice from an outstanding writer. Thank you both for the valuable reminders.

  7. Eric was my coach at the Big Sur Children's Writers Workshop and he gave me amazingly insightful and valuable feedback on my work. He's a brilliant writer and it's a great interview, thank you!

  8. Thank you, Birgitte, Meg, Kathryn, Nancy, and Suse! I've learned so much just from this interview, I couldn't image what I'd learn working with him! It's great that most of you have, what a gift!

  9. I love the reminder to avoid letting the protagonist become merely a passenger in the story. He must have a goal and a plan for how to get achieve it, even if that plan has to change.

    I have a soft spot for The Hobbit, too. That sense of dread and pre-emptive mourning as I approach the end of a really good read has become a more rare experience now than when I was a teenager. I wonder why that is?

    Thanks for the interesting interview!

  10. Thank you, Lia! I think your experience has changed because you are now creating that story people will love. And I think it also has to do with the old adage that ignorance is bliss. You’re such a wealth of writing knowledge now that’s it’s hard to ignore all the things you see wrong with a book--just my thoughts :)