Novelists: A Risky Bet that Just Might Be a Sure Thing… For You

I’m about to recommend a movie to you.  That alone is a risky bet, but there is rationale behind my madness.

I’m talking about “The Gambler,” starring Mark Wahlberg, one of the major holiday releases out now.  Critics are not hating it, but to be honest they’re comparing it to Applebees on a street full of fine steak houses.

I get that.  It’s not a perfect movie.  But I found it perfectly entertaining, and, as a novelist and especially as someone who is in touch with thousands of  other novelists (via this site), it’s my job to alert you to this opportunity.

The Gambler

See it for the script. 

See it for an in-your-face wake-up call.

The elegant, rapturous, too-true dialogue in this film could only come from the mind of a true writer – writing about writing – as spoken by an actor who embellishes it with the grit and emotion and angst that writing fiction with professional ambitions culls from us.

He speaks the truth.  And he nails it better than anything I’ve ever heard.

If you want to know why so many writing teachers (present company included) seem grumpy and impatient, go see this movie… if nothing else than for the second scene, in which Wahlberg gives his students a stark lesson in writing reality.

The hero – Wahlberg – is one of us. 

His day job is teaching “the modern novel” at a major Los Angeles university, with a well reviewed and under-achieving “first novel” under his belt.

Maybe now you understand why I related to this guy.

He has an attitude and a point of view on it all.  And that‘s why you should see this.  It just might shift you into a higher writing gear.

Like an alcoholic driven to drink to drown out his anxieties, Wahlberg is driven into the dark world of high stakes gambling (where the odds are significantly better than trying to crack the bestseller code), populated with organized crime factions and loan sharks who make the horrifying stakes abundantly clear.

The film is inspired by the 1962 classic of the same name starring James Caan, which was written by the legendary James Toback (who also wrote “The Player,” which you should rent tonight if you’ve never seen it).

That’s part of the problem for the reviewers who aren’t loving it, it doesn’t compare in terms of overall cinematic art (not all of the risks the director takes pay off).  But there is much here to enjoy, and much to learn in terms of character arc, structure, story world and all things visual (stunningly artful).  John Goodman, in particular, gives the performance of his life as a loan shark who could go monologue for monologue with Aaron Sorkin .

Here’s a link to the Rotten Tomatoes page for this film, where you can read the critics bashes and also see the trailer.

If you write fiction, the first twenty minutes are worth every dime and every minute of your time.  The opening shows Wahlberg behaving recklessly in an underground gambling club, but it’s that second scene – Walhberg lecturing to a room full of wide-eyed, terrified college writing students – that just might give you the wake-up call you need.

I frequently tell writers who come to me for coaching that they’re not thinking big enough, deep enough, artfully enough.  If you’re one of them and aren’t quite sure what any of that even means… here’s a film that will explain it better and more powerfully than I could ever hope to.


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11 Responses to Novelists: A Risky Bet that Just Might Be a Sure Thing… For You

  1. shelley

    I’m having trouble finding The Player. Looked on my library catalog and on Amazon. Is this the correct title by this author?

  2. Kerry Boytzun

    The Player (1992)

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Larry and everybody. I had a long rant about the meaning of life relative to story development but deleted it. Seems in general that people want to skip to the part that says “how to do it” and ignore the learning and understanding of the why.


  3. Here is the scene if you would like to read it:

    It begins on page 15.

  4. Larry, Thanks for the tip to read the critics, we can learn a lot from where they felt disappointed and where they felt satisfied.
    Talia, thanks for the link to the script, it always helps me to see it on paper, then see it enacted.
    Can’t wait to see this movie.

  5. Kamela

    Another awesome post! Oh..just an idea..have you ever thought about podcasting? Just a New Year wish from a HUGEvfan! Happy New Year!!

  6. LCF


    Maybe I’m misunderstanding the lecture scene. But the prof seems to be telling the students that it (writing or any other endeavour) isn’t worth the effort unless you can be among the top few.

    As a beginner, I fight this feeling all the time since there are plenty of really good writers out there, and while in some ways I think my writing’s great, I have lots to learn regarding structure and “all that”. So if I’m not already one of the best, then I should give up??

    Unless there is a different takeaway from this scene, I find it much less than helpful.

  7. LCF

    Whoops, I was trying to quote this –
    — “it’s that second scene – Walhberg lecturing to a room full of wide-eyed, terrified college writing students – that just might give you the wake-up call you need.”

  8. MikeR

    “It’s a damned-strange scene,” he said, diplomatically withholding further comment.

    To my way of thinking, there are only two attitudes that can keep you from getting anywhere you want to go. The first is to think that you’ve already got it – which means that you never try. The second is to think that you’ll never get it – which means that you never try.

    Every person who I’ve ever met who was really-good at anything spent a lot of self-motivated time patiently learning it. She never sought anyone else’s affirmations or ego strokes, but she was a compulsory observer of what everyone else was doing. She never asked, “am I there yet?” But one day she looked up and noticed she was there. Shrugging her shoulders, she simply went back to work.

  9. Pingback: A Follow Up to My Previous Post -

  10. For those of you who didn’t find that little monologue in “The Gambler” as profound as I did, if you found it a bit of a downer… I hear you. I’ve posted a response in a new post today, if you haven’t seen it. Hope it clarifies.

    Also, the actual performance in the film is a little different – it plays a little softer – than how it appears in the script, which was linked in one of the comments.

    Thanks for reading my stuff. I do appreciate you being here.

  11. Clark

    Hey Larry,

    I just went to see the film on your suggestion and I loved it. I’m happy to see Hollywood make a film like this. It had it’s weaknesses, but, over all a very well told story and every character/actor was so invested in the material. It clearly connected with them, which I feel speaks to your comment Larry. Everyone struggles, jeopardy shadows successes and we rarely win. Like Jamar the basketball players bum knee, how long will he last? And he’s one of the best. Just because someone has something, it doesn’t mean they can keep it, even if they feel they earned it. That unavoidable reality makes many people uncomfortable.

    Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) expresses the existential angst in class and his life through rage/ego, forever trying to match up in the world to others (metaphorically, in the safety of a university.) The polarity of complaining about life in the classroom, transitioning into self-destruction by design or default and finally engaging something real/greater than himself (which is all he ever really wanted) is in my mind the journey of all true artists (which, I think, he discovers.) My take away from the film was this, if you want accolades, fairness and money especially in writing, you’re a dilettante.

    Genius is born out of necessity. Passion creates talent, passion=suffering. If it hurts enough, you really need to get something out of you then you will go deep and come back with that message that connects. Jim Bennet/Wahlberg’s character wasn’t willing to do the direct soul diving himself, so he chose a Henry Miller-esque route.

    As the tagline suggests, “The only way out is All in.”

    I love the self-destruction metaphors, clearing maya, drinking, gambling, limits, soft spots and breaking points. Jim Bennet is a writer forces to go all the way. Which speaks to your point.

    Yes, we all get wounded out there. We hope for help or wish some stroke of luck will come our way, change our stars. But rarely does that happen and, unfortunately, nothing is convenient.

    There is a bit of magic we can employ.

    I’ve had some writing successes of late. All have come from extremes in effort, but more so acceptance of costs. Working the double shift, the real job and the writing job for 20 years. My only suggestion for starting writers, take the work seriously, not yourself – it makes it easier when you fail, cause it’s not about you, it’s never been about you.