Posts made in October, 2013

Grandpa Hank’s Twitter Novels

Posted by on Oct 31, 2013 in Stories | 0 comments

OK, so Grandpa Hank is on Twitter. I know, I know, it’s something that the old man in my brain wants to throw walnuts at and yell, “Back in my day we had honest to criminy discussions without any character restrictions whatsoever! And then we went and played NHL ’94 on our Sega Genesis. Sega Genesis! The controller only had three buttons!” But it’s true. I’m on the Twitter. In the Twittersphere. Or Twitterverse. I got me a Twitternship. Whatever.

But the good news should you choose to view it that way is what’s coming up from Grandpa Hank. Starting this Friday, follow Grandpa Hank for a month-long “Twitter novel.” One sentence a day for thirty days until we have something that more or less resembles a story. “More or less” being the operative part of the description. Actually “less” is probably the most appropriate word to highlight. Most likely, what we’ll end up with is thirty days of utter nonsense. But hey, if the right people interpret my nonsense in a certain favorable way, it quits being nonsense and becomes genius. That’s how the creative world works.

Eventually I’m hoping to get suggestions from readers and followers as to the first and last sentences of these “Twitter novels” as well as characters, plot ideas, and themes. For now, though, I’m just going to wing it and see what I come up with on my own. So if you’re interested and like some of the stuff we’ve come up with here on the site so far, follow us on Twitter and see what happens.

My only expectations can be summed up in two words.
Pulitzer – worthy.

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Mistakes – Wear They Hide

Posted by on Oct 29, 2013 in Business Writing | 0 comments

So this is going to be a brief follow up to “Miskates – Why Their So Easy to Make.” This blog is going to feature some places to focus on when you’re proofreading your own work. These are places I tend to find mistakes a lot in my own work and catch (uh, most of the time).

Note: The great thing about this particular blog is that I have complete and total freedom to screw up practically everything! Yeah, yeah, see, I put that obvious brain fart in there to show all the readers how easy it is to miss something. I DID IT ALL ON PURPOSE!

Places to be extra weary of

1) Titles and headlines. These are the easiest places to miss. Why? Because you typically don’t read them again. We’re so concerned with what’s in the body of the text that we type the title or headline once and scan right over it on every subsequent read through. Unfortunately, it’s the very first thing that your reader is going to see and thus the most important line in the entire piece. Something misspelled our left out in the headline nearly guarantees that the rest of the information won’t be taken seriously– if the reader even continues at all.

2) The little red line: For instance, with a simple extra “e” in the title above, I accidentally (ON PURPOSE!) turned “wary” into “weary.” And since “weary” rhymes with “leery,” another word that could’ve easily made sense in that space, a lot of tired brains will let it slide. Most writers type so fast that we’ll often hit the wrong letters at the wrong time. Thank god for that little red squggly line that pops up to let us know we wrote “ginosaur” instead of “dinosaur.” But what about when you write “sing” instead of “sign?” No little read line. (Or little red line) Instead of signing off on the budget, you end up singing off on the budget, which is always unfair because Michelle in marketing has been working on a killer rendition of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” since high school. The little red line is like that one friend you had in college who doesn’t mind chipping in for pizza or beer but mysteriously disappears when it comes time to help you move your couch. (For no reason at all, I’m going to refer to the red squiggly line as Darren) So just remember. You can only rely on Darren some of the time. Not all of the time.

3) Spots where you edited. Any sentence you’ve changed forty times needs a serious look. In the process of adding and deleting, we tend to omit words or accidentally leave in half a phrase that was in the original version of the sentence but is no longer needed. For example, the previous sentence can easily come out, “In the process of adding and deleting, writers can we tend to accidentally omit words or leave in half a phrase that was originally in the sentence that no longer needed.” With a quick skim, that sentence can easily look correct even though it’s as mangled as an arthritic old ginosaur.

So use these tips to target, identify, and destroy common mistakes. And if that doesn’t work, figure out a forum where you can pretend that all the things you screwed up was were done on purpose as a teaching tool.

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Collaborative Writing – Mozdarkian Death Ray Syndrome

Posted by on Oct 25, 2013 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

What in holy fun cakes is Mozdarkian Death Ray Syndrome? I’m glad you asked, interested reader. I’m about to take you on a horrific journey through the caves of a far away planet. On this planet, evil Mozdarkian death squads are ruthlessly pursuing the royal family through a series of dark and dangerous underground passages. The king and queen stumble and crawl toward their waiting spaceship, hoping for a miracle escape amid the lasers and the lizard people. It is an excruciatingly painful hour and a half.

Not for the royal family, mind you – who were space bears by the way. No, it was agonizing for the creative writing student sitting in a bland conference room at a community center with a wacky old man and his “business partners.” The student thought he’d hit the big time when he answered a local newspaper ad looking for a writer. He thought he’d struck gold by landing a real, paid gig. Now he was sitting in front of a 13-inch Zenith that sat atop a wheeled cart as he watched a glorified storyboard come to life.

“Noooo!” the queen yelled. “No, don’t kill Thorian! Don’t kill my son. Please Mozdarkian king don’t…”

LASER FACE MELT!

“Oh god, oh god, my face is burning,” Thorian shouted. “Oh god! Agony sounds, agony sounds!”

“Noooo! Thorian! Thorian is dead! Nooooo!”

And then they’d run weeping through the caves for another minute until…

“Noooo! No, don’t kill my daughter Lorian! Please Mozdarkian king, don’t…”

LASER FACE MELT!

“Oh god, oh god, I’m dying! My name is Lorian and I’m dying such a painful death!”

“Noooo! Lorian is dead! Nooooo!”

And yet more crying and running until…

“Noooo! Don’t kill Florian. Don’t kill my other son. Please Mozdarkian king!”

LASER.
FACE.
MELT.

And so on and so forth – you get the picture. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I was that unfortunate creative writing student. I’m not kidding when I say the entire twenty-three minute video was simply one royal family member after another getting violently killed before they all took off aimlessly through the caves again. Then at the end just before they were all massacred, they somehow managed to launch these two magic space cubs to Earth and now they hang out with a six-year-old named Danny. And of course, the space cubs teach Danny major life lessons about sharing and cooperation and why we don’t commit wire fraud.

When the video was over, the old guy leaned against the TV with a knowing smile. “This is a ground floor opportunity for all of us in this room,” he said with a peculiar overabundance of confidence. “An opportunity to be part of something that’s going to be sweeping the nation at this time next year. Barney, Big Bird, the Muppets… distant memories once kids discover the space bears. This is a multi-million dollar idea.”

He started going on about T-shirts, bibs, mugs, and posters. I think he may have even mentioned a theme park. On more than one occasion, I glanced around the room to try and find the hidden camera.

When he was done, people asked him all about the investment opportunity and the theme park, basically blowing an entire forest fire up his ass. People were really into it. Then after a half an hour, the room graciously fell silent.

Seeing as nobody had yet burst through the wall to tell me I’d been punked, I raised my hand. “I just have one question,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Everyone, this is Kevin. He’ll be helping me out with the writing.”

Everyone clapped. I awkwardly nodded.

I looked around. “So, this is a show for kids?”

“Yes, obviously,” he answered.

“Just an observation then. We probably don’t need all the… death.”

The old guy squinted. “But that’s the backstory of the space bears. That’s how they got to Earth.”

“Uh… OK,” I answered. “But ya know, you can just say they’re from space and leave it at that. Kids aren’t going to deconstruct their past. Also in my experience, children aren’t real fond of terrifying screams. Constant and sustained hideous torture shrieks… not really all that common in children’s programming. Just an observation.”

He stared at me for a good ten seconds before he spoke. “But that’s how they ended up on Earth. Their entire family was massacred on their home planet. So they came here.”

At that point, I seriously doubt I had it in me to generate a reply.

The point of this story is that sometimes as writers, we’re so happy to get paid to write that we accidentally get roped into projects dreamt up by crazy people. Personally, I call it Mozdarkian Death Ray Syndrome. There will be times in life where it seems that half the population is afflicted with MDRS. So just in case you someday find yourself at a bland looking community center, staring at a 13-inch Zenith and wondering what the hell happened to your career, here are some tips.

1) Don’t try to own the project. Seriously, you probably have a project of your own that inspires you and isn’t completely insane. The MDRS patient just needs someone to type their ideas. You are not a valued partner in this deal. Just go with it. It will help you escape sooner.

2) Raise objections, but only once. If you tell the MDRS patient that the main character can’t hop in a monster truck and take off down I-95 because that particular character was paralyzed from the neck down in a cage fight in the first scene and they say it doesn’t matter – trust me, it doesn’t matter. Just move on.

3) Jump on any remotely decent idea they have. An idea that almost made sense? Let’s go with it! Let’s explore THAT!

4) Learn to filter good projects from bad ones. The second you get that queasy feeling of, “I’m not really sure this is something I want to be a part of,” – recognize that it isn’t. Roughly translated, “Eh, maybe I can make it work,” actually means, “I am about to make a gut-wrenchingly awful decision.” (As a quick aside for all you singles out there, this very same principle applies to relationships as well.)

5) Learn to say no. This is a huge lesson. I knew the space bear project was going to be a giant pain in my ass thirty seconds into the interplanetary snuff film I was watching. Yet because I was too nice and inexperienced to politely decline, I worked on it for a month before the guy mercifully decided he didn’t need to be paying an annoying writer to point out and attempt to fix his plot holes. But when you say no, don’t be a jagoff about it. Just memorize this phrase – “Hey, I like what you have going on here, but it’s just not the type of story I’m best at telling. I appreciate the opportunity and good luck.” BOOM! You didn’t burn any bridges and you’re not stuck trying to figure out ways to kill off Blorian, Jorian, Dorian, and Quorian. Oh, a Mozdarkian Death Ray to the face? Sure, let’s go with that.

I only write this particular blog because it really sucks to be stuck in the quagmire of a project you want nothing to do with. I’m not sure I know a single writer who hasn’t experienced Mozdarkian Death Ray Syndrome somewhere along the line. Cause it sneaks up on you. Projects like that are like mountain lions. You’re just casually walking along when suddenly you’re ambushed by someone’s pitch and next thing you know you’re being devoured by the damn thing without even remembering if you ever officially agreed to help.

So remember these tips to ensure you aren’t drawn into a creative cave where lizard people are trying to death ray you. Because almost no one who ends up in that situation makes it out alive.

And look, if you’re a space bear, this lesson is not only applicable, it could save your damn life.

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Collaborative Writing – Partnering Up

Posted by on Oct 22, 2013 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

On the surface, it would seem that writing with a partner would be incredibly easy. Taken purely in terms of math, you should get 100% of the results by doing 50% of the work. But it never really turns out that way, does it? There are two ways this tends to happen. The first and best situation is when you and another writer come up with an idea together. You’re both passionate about the concept and can’t wait to get started. The second situation is when you were roped into a project based on someone else’s idea – something they themselves can see clearly but “don’t know quite how to write it,” or “need someone to help them with the specifics.” I’ll deal with this situation in a later blog.

Writing with a partner based on a shared idea seems like a dream. You have someone to bounce your ideas off of, someone to point out when you’re flying off in the wrong direction, etc. But there are, in fact, pitfalls to this type of partnership. Basically, the main problem is that until we get a more reliable brain-to-brain interface, you and your partner are inevitably going to see the same story a bit differently. Everyone is distinct. Each of us tends to find varying aspects of any story more appealing than other aspects. You may have come up with the concept together, but inevitably one person is going to want to steer the story in a direction that the other person doesn’t want it to go.

Last year, my good friend Adam and I were talking about how due to emerging technology, many shows in the future are going to be partially or completely viewer driven. As we talked, we decided to experiment and come up with a web series whereby the audience would be given choices each week – choices such as who lives, who dies, and what new characters are brought onto the show, etc. The writers would then take that data and incorporate the viewer feedback into the next episode.

This was the origin of our idea. All we needed from that point was uh, everything – a plot, a world, characters, stuff for the characters to say – ya know, minor details like that. So Adam and I sat down at the El Campesino Mexican Grille one afternoon and started shooting ideas back and forth. What we came up with was an alternate reality where the richest people in society have figured out a way to make themselves indestructible immortals. But there’s a side effect. The immortality formula gives them an insatiable craving for human flesh. They’re basically good looking, intelligent and totally unbeatable zompires who like to dine on the rest of us. It was meant to mirror the state of our current society but in a more intense, visceral way. Instead of the ultra wealthy doing crappy things like buying off government officials and raising tuition to keep us in debt if we decide to get educated, they actually just go ahead and bite through our necks. Which is nice because unlike our current reality, at least they’re direct about it.

The story takes place in an office setting where regular people go about their everyday lives. The twist is that the office where they work is the headquarters of the world’s largest body parts exporter, Human Supply Company. At this point, we knew we had a great setup. Both of us were incredibly excited and couldn’t wait to get started. What roadblocks could we possibly run into?

Well, it turned out that even though we were both very experienced writers, (he got his MFA from the well known and well respected program at UCLA) we approached the story in a very different way. I tend to slowly cultivate my characters and see how the story evolves through subtle bits of interaction. Adam is a fountain of images and big ideas that he’s annoyed about having to whittle down into individual scenes. In the first couple weeks, we butted heads a lot because he was talking about things that weren’t going to happen for ten episodes and I was being so nuanced that he felt the story wasn’t reaching its full potential.

So how did it come together into something we both ended up very proud of? We used a few very easy principles that you can also use when writing with a partner.

1) Figure out each of your specific talents and divide the tasks accordingly. Like I mentioned earlier, we found out that Adam was better at the overall concepts and I was better at creating characters and writing dialogue. So that’s how we set it up. He’d have an idea and I’d build the scene. He was constantly working out where the story was going and I was tasked with getting the characters to his destination. That way, we weren’t accidentally squashing each other’s ideas in the times we were off working on the project by ourselves.

2) Don’t be afraid to raise doubts. A lot of days, Adam would call me and go, “Ok, what if the Kershaw family has a death blimp? Cause that would show how powerful they are. And they’ve got this laser on it and they’re constantly melting people for fun.” During the first week or two, I’d respond. “Uh, ok. I’ll see if I can maybe…uh…I can work it in on page uh……” But the more we collaborated, I learned that he knew damn well that half his ideas were brilliant and half were crap. He just didn’t know which were which. This leads me to point number three.

3) Clearly explain why the other person’s ideas will work or not work. Later on in the project, my answer to the death blimp scenario was more like, “Well that’s a cool idea, but there isn’t room to cram that in if we want to quickly establish the background relationships among all of the main characters. Also, aren’t we filming this ourselves? Where are we going to get a blimp?” To which there’d be a moment of silence. “Ok then, how about they have these tigers…..” If the other person doesn’t clearly know why their ideas are being rejected in the context of the story, they’re just going to get frustrated. Consequently, they also have to know exactly why their awesome ideas are awesome so they’ll keep coming up with more.

4) Drink Beer. Beer is awesome and helps get ideas flowing. Also, when you’re writing with a partner, it helps eliminate the sad realization that you’re drinking alone – again.

Anyway, as with most things in life, the real key is communication. Don’t be vague. You should always be talking about “Well, here’s how I see the story going,” and the other person should answer with, “Well, here’s how I see the story going.” A lot of times they’ll be headed down similar paths, but if you don’t have that conversation on a consistent basis, you may just find that your stories have wandered miles away from each other. Then either someone needs to retreat or you’ll be forced to unsuccessfully cram your stories together into a poop omelet that you’ll attempt to convince each other is actually pretty tasty when it clearly isn’t.

So in conclusion, writing with a partner can be an awesome experience as long as you’re willing to give and take a bit. And in a bit of shameless self-promotion, you can see what Adam and I came up with by checking out the first episode of Human Supply here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXtdf8jEjoI

Also if you really like it, wish the rest of the pilot could get filmed, and have an extra $25,000 lying around that you don’t know what to do with…..

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The State Farm Jake Problem

Posted by on Oct 17, 2013 in Business Writing | 1 comment

OK, so this week I was going to continue on my blogs about collaborative writing, but first I need to address an issue related to both creative writing and business writing that’s been driving me insane for the last year. I call it “The State Farm Jake Problem.” If you watch TV at all, you’ve seen it. I personally have seen it five billion times and it aggravates me exponentially more each time. Seriously, I clench my fist and growl when it comes on between innings. My wife can verify this.

By now, many of us have seen the commercial in question. A sort of odd-looking guy in pajama pants is on the phone in his living room at 4AM reacting to the person on the other end as if soft seductions are being whispered.

“Yeah, I’m married,” Pajama Pants guy says. “Does it matter? You’d do that for me? Really? Yeah, I’d like that.”

Just then his suspicious wife barges down the stairs in her nightgown and flips on the light, intent on catching him in the act.

“Who are you talking to?” she asks.

“Uh, Jake from State Farm,” he answers.

Not believing him, she yanks the phone from his hand and in a cranky voice asks, “What are you wearing, Jake from State Farm?”

It cuts to this doofy looking guy in a red State Farm shirt. “Uh… khakis,” he answers in hilarious deadpan.

It cuts back to the living room where the wife turns to her husband and yells, “She sounds hideous!”

Amazing! Brilliantly done, State Farm! That is one of the funnier insurance commercials of all time. I commend you on your… what, what, wait… there’s more?

No… no, please don’t be more! Please just put your logo on screen and cut to black. Please don’t… ahhhh……

The husband comes back at her with “Yeah, well she’s a guy, so…”

NOOOOOOOOOO! AAAAAAHHHH! You killed it. It is murdered. Blood on the lampshade. DAMN YOU, STATE FARM JAKE! DAMN YOU AND PJ PANTS TO HELL!

There’s a simple lesson in the State Farm Jake commercial. If you ever write something funny and then feel the need to explain why it’s funny… DON’T.

My guess is the writer or writers of the commercial ended it at “She sounds hideous.” Because that’s where the whole thing should’ve stopped.

What most likely happened is that when they pitched it, some uncreative State Farm executive in a large, powerful chair had the following thought…

But wait… State Farm Jake isn’t a woman. He’s a guy. I’m just not sure the average TV viewer will be able to accurately distinguish between the sexes based solely on the nineteen context clues we’ve provided. I think we need another line there just to make sure.

In other words, if State Farm wrote classic old jokes, they’d come out like this…

“Why did the chicken cross the road?”

“To get to the other side. Because that’s why chickens cross roads, otherwise they’d just stay where they were. The fact that it’s a chicken has nothing to do with it. We could’ve used a dog or a donkey or a human in there and it would’ve essentially been the same joke. It’s called misdirection.”

So this is a great lesson for both creative writers and business writers. The only time it’s ok to explain why something is clever or funny is if some moron is right in front of you going…

“If I was that woman in the nightgown, I’d be furious that my husband is phone cheating with some insurance agent at 4AM. State Farm shouldn’t be exploiting people’s personal tragedies like that. Adultery is a serious problem.”

At that point, yeah. explain it. Then never speak a word to that person again because their very proximity is draining the life right out of you.

So to reiterate – for maximum impact, let the viewer or reader discover your humor or brilliance all on their own. If they’re incapable of making the discovery by themselves, they’re probably in a demographic you don’t much care to target anyway.

Another ancillary lesson here is – make a shitty commercial and you’ll get some free publicity on a tiny, virtually unknown blog.

You see, because they didn’t pay me to mention State Farm here a bunch of times and the very fact that I’m typing their name in any context triggers the reader’s brand recognition recall so…

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