Posts made in November, 2013

Collaborative Writing – 70 Hours to Glory

Posted by on Nov 27, 2013 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

Ok, so in a previous blog, I promised a hilarious real life story about getting cheesed by some slimy Hollywood shuckster. And I’m not one to break promises, so here it is. (Wait, I said it’d be coming next week nearly two weeks ago? Ok, so I am one to break promises. I’m sorry already. I’m sorry! Please, I beg you, put down the pitchfork and disband the angry mob.) This story highlights how little most writers have to go on for certain projects as well as the complete and total absurdity that is the current state of the motion picture industry.

Just a few weeks after I’d graduated with my MFA from UC-Riverside, I got what I thought would be at least a minor break in the industry. An acquaintance of one of my professors sent him an urgent email asking if he knew any young comedy writers who were good at quickly cranking out scripts. The email my professor forwarded me was titled, “Eh, might be worth checking out,” so I thought to myself, “Eh, might be worth checking out,” and looked up the company that sent it. Turned out they’d helped produce a bunch of straight to DVD classics starring actors like Tom Sizemore, Breckin Meyer, and Tara Reid. So they seemed like a pretty legit (albeit low budget) production & distribution house. I decided to call. In a couple minutes, the intern answering the phones put me through to a desperate producer, a guy I’ll call Lenny.

“Yeah, this is Lenny.”

“Hi, my name is Cramer,” I said. “My professor at UCR said to give you a call because you’re in need of a comedy writer?”

“Oh yeah, yeah,” he said. “Great. So yeah, my partner and I sold a concept to a bunch of investors a couple weeks ago. Project is fully funded and ready to shoot this summer. And we’re meeting with the investors in two weeks to go over the project.”

“Ok,” I said. “So what can I help with? You guys need the script polished up or…”

“Oh no,” he said matter-of-factly. “We don’t have a script. That’s what we’d need you for.”

I nodded silently to myself for a few seconds before answering. “Aaaah. So, you don’t have a script… at all?”

“Like I said, we sold the concept,” he answered. “Then things get busy. We’re wheeling and dealing, meeting and greeting, living the fast life, and now here we are. What we need, Cramer from UCR, is a movie that’s like the Will Ferrell classic Old School but set on the beach. Can you do that?”

I squinted at the wall. “Yeah, I don’t see why not.”

Cue the “Shape of the Juice.”

“Great,” he said. “What we’re looking for is a comedy with some guys trying to recapture their youth that’s heartfelt… but with like lots of gross-out humor and like, there’s a big party scene with lots of boobs and like cracking jokes and like hot chicks running around topless but it’s like heartfelt ya know?”

“Uh… yeah, I can… uh… yeah,” I replied.

“Great! We need it by this time next Friday. Can’t wait to see what you come up with.”

I hung up and stared at the wall for a minute. I was sort of excited and sort of terrified at what I’d just signed myself up for. I looked at the clock on my desk. It was 3:00 on Friday afternoon. I yelled into my roommate’s bedroom.

“Hey Rob!”

“Yeah?”

“Wanna help me write a terrible straight-to-DVD movie this weekend?”

“Sure,” he yelled. “Let me hit the bathroom first.”

And so we went out and bought a case of beer, came back home, and sat down to outline our movie. Rob graduated from the MFA program at UCR that same year so we knew each other’s work very well. We decided that with such a short time frame, we’d spend the first night figuring out the characters and the direction of the story and the rest of the time actually writing. It was going to be an interesting exercise.

After outlining the script, we sat down and wrote the first twenty pages or so together, then divided up the remaining scenes to work on at our own pace. When a new scene was done, we’d get it to the other guy for edits so that each of us knew what was happening in the other parts of the story. By Sunday morning we realized that with a good push we could conceivably have the full script on Lenny’s desk by Monday. We chugged a few more beers and typed our asses off.

Fifty-seven hours after I’d hung up the phone with Lenny, we typed “FADE OUT:” I stayed up that entire night doing edits, emailing it to him at 1:00PM on Monday afternoon. Seventy hours after our initial conversation, he had the script on his desk.

For a mediocre script, it was actually pretty damn good. We followed the campy 80’s teen comedy template and updated it for adults, adding boobs and a party and boobs and it was kind of heartfelt. And here’s the logline…

When a high school teacher finds out his wife is an international Dominatrix, his buddies try to cheer him up with a summer of breasts, beer, and bikinis. And it might be the best summer ever if they can just get past the lesbian biker dykes, football playing sorority girls, ruthless condo developers, old loves, and one pissed off koala.

Lenny loved it. He said he’d get back to me in a couple days with a financial offer. I couldn’t wait. Only three weeks after graduating, I was going to receive actual payment for a script I’d written. I knew it wouldn’t be much, but I was hoping for at least enough to live on for a month or two. The next Friday he called. Here came the windfall.

“The money guys love it. It’s a go,” he said. “And we’re prepared to offer you five hundred dollars for the script.”

Five hundred dollars. The best part was he’d said it like it was 1873 when that might’ve been a life-changing amount of money. Five hundred dollars. Why I could buy my very own steam engine and hobnob with Cornelius T. Vanderbilt! Splitting it with Rob, I was going to receive a whopping two hundred and fifty bucks for the effort.

Lenny sent over a contract that was like seventeen pages long. And it basically said that if it took off and miraculously grossed millions we’d receive the original five hundred dollars! I was kind of leery but after discussing it with Rob, we realized that while it was a disgustingly terrible offer, the damn thing was already done and we could both really use $250. I mean, that was almost two months worth of groceries. And at least it would be a credit – something we could point to that actually got made. That’s a big deal for a young writer. So we hopefully signed it and sent it back.

I’m still waiting on my $250, Lenny. Which trust me, I could use.

In the end, the experience was invaluable in a couple regards. First, it was a really fun exercise that helped me realize I could write a semi-quality script almost absurdly quickly. In a situation like that, you don’t have time to second guess your choices. You just go with your first instinct because you have no other option. Being forced to work that quickly eliminates a lot of the over examination that mentally paralyzes a lot of writers.

Second, it seriously helped my ability to write with a partner. I wasn’t going to be able to do it all on my own. I had to rely on Rob’s ideas for half of the script. Now while he’s a really funny guy, we don’t necessarily share the same sense of humor. He’s a big fan of campy. I trend toward full out bizarre. Both of us learned to give and take on jokes, plot, and character. As a result, we wrote a much better script. Because of that experience, other projects where I’ve had to partner up were a much more enjoyable experience. Once you realize that you don’t have to fight for every little morsel of your dialogue, it frees you up to do more collaborative exploration of all aspects of the story.

Third, I found out that if your gut initially says the project is shady and the person you’re working for is shady, you best believe there ain’t no sun getting through. It’s a lesson that’s served me well in the years since.

I have another great story about the same producer and another film I later got asked to write. It involves the sanctity of your name as a writer, Jennifer Lopez, and a completely needless helicopter. And this time I won’t give a time frame so as not to be a jagoff and break another promise.

Seriously, put down the pitchfork.

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My Favorite Mistake – Thanks Ohio Trucking!

Posted by on Nov 20, 2013 in Business Writing | 0 comments

Some of you might be saying, “What’s it really matter if there’s a grammatical or spelling mistake in the email I sent out? My customers know what I mean.” And that very well might be true. Your customers may not care a lick. So why bother? I’m betting that was the attitude of a trucking company in Ohio when they placed an advertisement for a diesel mechanic in the spring of 2009. Why bother? Because if nothing else, you won’t open yourself up to snarky ridicule from jagoffs like me.

For two years, I worked as a career counselor at a large technical school in Wyoming. Part of my job was to unearth job leads for our graduates all across the country. This was easier said than done after the recession pushed the automotive job market off the edge of the world, so I was very happy to stumble across an ad that said…

DIESEL MECHANIC WANTED – OHIO TRUCKING CO.

Now the owner of this trucking company had obviously had a previous worker who annoyed the living drivetrain out of him. This led to a very specific set of characteristics he was looking for in his next employee. (The following advertisement is edited and reads as it should’ve had all the spelling and punctuation been correct. Also I completely made up the owner’s name)

Hard working diesel mechanic wanted. 3-5 years experience preferred but not necessary. Must be able to repair clutches, powertrains, hydraulic and electrical systems, and perform all other routine preventative maintenance. Tools provided by shop. Must be able to SHOW UP ON TIME! None of this getting here and THEN eating breakfast. Eat your damn breakfast before you get to work! Employees are expected to get to work at start of shifts, not hang out eating breakfast all morning. Knowledge of HVAC systems and CDL driver’s license is a plus. If interested contact owner Jim Biscuits at (440) 555-TRUK.

First off, the backstory here has to be incredible. You can easily picture the scene. Some greasy dude who’s never seen the inside of a gym comes waddling into the shop and punches in. He sits down and uncrinkles a few wrappers.

Jim Biscuits strides out of his tiny office filled with musty old hot-rod calendars. “Pudley, I need you to replace that radiator hose as soon as possible.”

“Yeah, Jim, I’ll get to it as soon as I finish this Egg McMuffin.”

I don’t know what Jim actually looks like, but I’m picturing a balding 55-year-old with a mustache who may or may not keep his shades on at all times. I imagine this same scene playing out every day for two weeks, Jim’s face getting redder and redder each day, until one morning he explodes and slaps the sandwich right out of Pudley’s hand. Egg and cheese spiral across the shop floor and smack to the wall.

“Get the hell out of my garage!” Jim yells, pointing a gnarled finger toward the door. “I don’t pay you to eat Burger King in a folding chair!”

“It’s McDonalds.”

“I don’t give damn if it’s from The Dog Dirt Shack! Now march your Sally ass out that door.”

I’m also betting that if you looked at the wall today, the remnants of dried cheese serve as a friendly reminder to the other employees that shop time isn’t to be used for pursuits outside of work.

The most amazing thing about this ad is that the experience was so infuriating for Jim that he spent nearly half the copy reiterating that all candidates who were incapable of eating breakfast before coming to work need not apply. Knowing when to eat and the actual mechanical skills required for the position were given equal priority.

And that’s not the best part of the ad. Not even close. If you’ll give careful analysis to the paraphrased advertisement in question, you’ll notice that I underlined one particular word. Why did I underline this word? Because Jim was in such a hurry to place the ad and so riled up about the breakfast villains in his shop that he made the most hilarious omission I’ve ever seen.

He left out the “f” in shifts.

Which changes the entire meaning of that sentence. What Jim needs, no demands, are employees who can get to work at the very beginning of their bowel movements. Not in the middle or near the end. At the very inception of potty time. That’s when you arrive at my shop, damn it!

Employees are expected to get to work at the start of (expletive deleted), not hang out eating breakfast all morning.

And that requires a special type of person – a person that not only understands the intricacies of a Peterbilt engine, but also is blessed with a nearly monk-like control of their own digestive system. And those people are very, very hard to find. Which is why Jim had to place a national ad. Guys like that ain’t just wandering around Akron ya know.

I taught lessons on resume writing and interview skills to all the arriving students each semester. That particular ad was a remarkably effective example of why everyone (mechanics included) should take a minute or two to proofread. My guess is you don’t want to make a mistake that’s so ridiculous it causes someone to use it as a bad example at a tech school fifteen hundred miles away. And yet I’ll bet good money that right now at this very moment, there’s a funnier mistake on someone’s business website just waiting to be found and mocked. (If it’s on this one, uh, I meant it to be there to serve as an example. You betcha)

Anyway, Jim, I’m going to go get myself some breakfast now and there’s nothing you or your dumb mustache can do about it. And afterwards, I’ll shift when I’m good and ready.

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Quick Tips: The Forgotten An

Posted by on Nov 15, 2013 in Business Writing | 0 comments

OK, time for a riveting GrandpaHank’s quick tip! On occasion, I’ll be giving small editing tips that aren’t at all based on mistakes I’ve recently noticed in my own writing because everything I do is flawless from start to Finnish. I mean finish. Damn it.

One of the most commonly overlooked errors has to do with “a” and “an.” These tiny little indefinite articles are very easy to miss as you scan through a sentence. They’re the benches between skyscrapers. You don’t notice them at all until a week after they’re removed and you think to yourself, “Wait a minute, weren’t there benches here last week? I swear there were benches here last week. Who removes benches for no reason? I bet it was vandals. Vandals love benches. Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe there were never any benches here. That’s a shame. This would really be a great place for some damn benches.”

Now most people know when to use “a” and when to use “an.” If the following word starts with a consonant, use “a.” If it starts with a vowel, use “an.” Pretty simple, right?

It is. It’s very simple. You don’t say, “Hey, give me a orange,” or “I just found an great bargain.”

Unless you’re five.
Or drunk.
Or trying to make a point on a blog.
And drunk.

So why does this get screwed up in the body of your work so often? It’s because of this…
Say you write…

These five things are a completely essential part of a balanced breakfast.

And then you think, “Hmmm, this paragraph is just a bit too long to fit on the brochure. If I could just eliminate a word or two here or there without changing the intent… but where? A-HA! I’ll just eliminate the word “completely.” There aren’t many things that aren’t COMPLETELY essential. I’ve never heard someone say, “Well, that’s kind of essential.” It’s either essential or it’s not. Yup, “completely” is gone. I’m a daggum genius.”

So what do you do? You go ahead and highlight the word “completely,” hit DELETE, pat yourself on the tummy and move on. Except now what you have is….

These five things are a essential part of a balanced breakfast.

Uh-oh. You didn’t check to see how the elimination of one word affected the rest of the sentence. And since the “a” is barely even there, you skim right past it.

It’s even worse when the opposite happens and you throw a word into a sentence that wasn’t originally there. You look at your bland sentence and think, “Ya know what, I’d better just insert some sort of modifier before “essential.” It needs more punch. Oooh, ooh, I’ll just throw in the word “completely.” Yeah, there we go. That looks GREAT!”

These five things are an completely essential part of a balanced breakfast.

See how easy it is? Your eyes are most likely focused on the word you’re eliminating or adding so you completely miss the mistake in the sentence as a whole. So that’s the quick tip of the day…

When adding or eliminating words, read the ENTIRE sentence to make sure what you’ve done hasn’t created a mistake somewhere else.

Also, take a little time to enjoy your favorite bench because you never know how much time you have before the vandals get to it.

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Collaborative Writing – Shape of the Juice

Posted by on Nov 12, 2013 in Creative Writing | 1 comment

Do this experiment at home. Fix yourself a nice cup of juice – something that’ll really hit the spot on a warm summer evening. Once you’ve done that, set the cup down on your kitchen table. Now take two fingers and place them on the lip of the cup. You with me so far? The next step is crucial. Take your fingers and push them forward until the cup itself begins to tip. Keep pushing until the cup is on the precipice of going over completely. Now let go. What happens next is a mini-miracle.

It’s the awe-inspiring process of fluid kinematics in action. Incredible.

Don’t tell me you thought the cup would just balance there. I mean, that wouldn’t even happen on the equinox. That was a really dumb thought for an intelligent person such as yourself to have.

(Note: Don’t use all that much juice in the above experiment)
Upon further review, perhaps I should’ve inserted that note slightly earlier.

So what are we to gain from this experiment that no one reading this actually did? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. But I did want to give you a visual. Say you were dumb enough to perform said experiment. Picture it. Visualize that drink all over your kitchen table. Now describe the shape of the juice.

This is essentially what many people will ask you to do as a writer. It just comes in a different form. Most times it will sound similar to this…

“Hey, so I got this idea. It’ll make a great script. It’s like about awesome cars and like they race and drive these awesome cars everywhere. Like in Paris and Stockholm and like Costa Rica and like they’re in the jungle and stuff. It’s sick.”

“Yeah,” you reply. “That’s uh… an idea all right.”

At this point, you have two choices. You can either say no and save yourself a lot of aggravation. (This is BY FAR the best option) Or you feel guilty and say yes because the person you’re talking to is probably a friend or relative and they’re so damn excited about the image in their head that they look right past the obvious dread in your eyes.

Essentially what they’ve said to you is, “Hey, I’ve got a half can of peas. Man, we can make a freaking kick ass dinner for everyone.” And you can tell in their head they see turkey and potatoes and gravy and something remarkably tasty that requires a half can of peas.

Don’t feel bad about getting cornered. It happens to the best of us. But if you do, here are some tips to keep yourself sane during the process.

1) Stall: The longer you draw it out, the more time the person has to get bored with the idea. The further away someone is from that initial spark of inspiration, the less likely they are to put in the work. Tell them you can help them, but not for a month or so because ya know, family is in town and November isn’t really your most creative month and…ya know, all the stink bugs. Push it down the road. As far as possible.


2) Ask for an outline:
Get some idea of what direction the person wants to go. Ask them to put in some work first. It will help you gauge how committed they are to the “idea.” And who knows, they might come up with something interesting that you actually do want to be part of.


3) Get paid up front:
Obviously this doesn’t apply to friends and family. But you’d be surprised how many “companies” prey on unknown writers trying to get a foothold in the genre of their choice. It comes in the form of someone from Flimsy Films or Dick Dickwards Publishing giving you their card and saying, “We’ve been looking for a story about like war or handmaidens or tigers or something. You think you could write that for us?” And you happily oblige because THEY HAVE A FREAKING BUSINESS CARD! I bet it’s a major shock that in America, uncreative and unscrupulous people make lots of promises to hopeful writers just so they can “borrow” their ideas for their own profit. (I smell a hilarious TRUE LIFE blog coming about this next week) You don’t have to get paid completely up front, but anyone who is serious won’t mind entering into a contract with you for the draft you’re writing for them.

4) If all else fails, have fun:
Dive into the story headfirst. Make it awesome. Challenge yourself to take “there’s some cars in Paris and the jungle and stuff” and make a genuinely good script. What a great learning exercise! The cars are a metaphor for big oil and the jungle represents the tangled inescapable mess to which they’ve committed the rest of us! Yes, yes, brilliant! Because the idea is so insanely vague, you have complete run of the place. Write whatever you want, just make sure there’s a few cars and they semi-magically end up in the rainforest. Your partner will love it. Let them add a line or two every once in a while so they feel like a part of it and see where it goes. And if the idea is so ludicrous that you absolutely can’t make it worthwhile, simply embrace the awfulness. See how cheesy and dumb you can make it. Find a reason to make it an enjoyable rather than a dreadful experience.

What I’ve found in my career as a writer is that other writers don’t often approach you with a vague, juice-blob of an idea. Most people who actually know what they’re doing will approach you with a much more crafted and sculpted concept. The key is being able to tell the difference.

We can’t always avoid working on a non-idea. But if you do in fact get roped into that situation, hopefully these tips will help.

I’d write more but I’m afraid someone actually did spill juice all over their kitchen and I’d better let them get to it before the ants show up.

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Apostrophe’s for Everyone!

Posted by on Nov 5, 2013 in Business Writing | 0 comments

Sometime during the summer of 1998, a shipping crate from Asia arrived in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Stowing away in that crate were an unknown number of brown marmorated stink bugs, an insect species non-native to the United States. They hopped out of the crate, had a bug orgy, and went off exploring. If you haven’t seen one, (first off, you’re obviously not a resident of Pennsylvania or Maryland) they kind of resemble what you’d get if you crossed a beetle, a dinosaur, your nightmares, and a very tiny coffee table. If you squish them they secrete an odor that smells like a middle school locker room, so the only way to safely get rid of them is to trap them and flush them down the toilet. They’re magical creatures that show up right in the middle of your desk without you actually noticing them walking or flying to the point they presently occupy. As soon as you get rid of one, you’ll sit back down only to notice another one across the room that wasn’t there when you trapped his stinky little cousin.

Why do I mention the stink bugs in a blog on business writing? Because in much the same way, non-native, invasive apostrophes have a habit of showing up in words they have no business in. How many times have you seen something similar to this?

Come on down to The Bargain Shack! We’ve got ton’s of new merchandise!

What that actually says is “Come on down to The Bargain Shack. We’ve got of new merchandise belonging to 2,000 pounds of something!”

How a unit of measurement can own or possess merchandise, I have no idea.

What’s that, milliliter? You have an extensive antiques collection? Well then, I stand corrected.

The amount of times I’ve seen people write things like…

“You won’t believe the amount of turtle’s I saw today on the beach!”
and
“Get down here immediately, these pancake’s are amazing!”
and
“Jesus Christ, the Steeler’s really suck this year.”

While these gaffes might be casually snickered at by your friends on Facebook, imagine these scenarios…

“Our financial planner’s are the best in the business!”
or
“If your computer’s are acting up, let us be the one’s to help.”

This isn’t good because it makes your business look unprofessional and punctuation infested. So listen closely apostrophe abusers because this next part is critical.

JUST BECAUSE A WORD ENDS IN “S” DOESN’T MEAN IT NEEDS AN APOSTROPHE!

The good news here is that there’s an incredibly easy way to tell whether the word needs an apostrophe or not. Ask yourself these three questions.

1) Is the “s” present simply because there are multiple people or objects involved?
2) Is the “s” present because someone or something is taking ownership of something?
3) Is the “s” present because there are multiple people or objects involved AND they’re taking ownership of something?

If you answered yes to option number one, then congratulations, no apostrophe needed! If you answered yes to option number two then go ahead, throw caution to the wind and slam an apostrophe in there! If you answered yes to option number three, then uh-oh, earthquake coming.

When dealing with option number three, the apostrophe is most likely going to go after the word all together. (Most of the time) It shows up in places like….

“The red kickball is the kids’ favorite.”

This implies multiple children take ownership of the red kickball as their favorite kickball. Because let’s face it, the green kickball sucks and everyone knows it.

However, if it was written like this…

“The red kickball is the kid’s favorite.”

…it would imply that the red kickball is the favorite of one singular child and the rest of the kids were raised by idiots because they all preferred the crappy half-deflated green kickball instead. Morons.

And that’s it. That’s how you defeat the apostrophe invasion. No traps, no sprays, none of your neighbor’s super secret potions in a bowl on the window sill making your kitchen smell like gasoline. It’s a mistake that’s much, much easier to get rid of than the damn stink bu…
And there’s one on the smoke alarm. Hope you like swimming, buddy.

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