Posts made in April, 2014

Not Everything is Exciting – How to Write About Boring Stuff

Posted by on Apr 25, 2014 in Business Writing | 1 comment

Not Everything is Exciting – How to Write About Boring Stuff

Sometimes as a freelance writer, you get to write awesome things. Occasionally someone will hire you to write a horror comedy about a swim team trapped on a space train full of aliens with chainsaws. (Which by the way, actually sounds like a freaking blockbuster. TRADEMARKED! TM! TRADEMARKED!) But more often than not, you’ll get hired to write a piece on the benefits of flood insurance or an advertisement for a company that installs bleachers. And your first thought will be…

How in the hell am I going to write 300 words about bleachers?

Jones Bleacher Company is a company that makes and installs bleachers.

Ok, sweet, that’s eleven words. Only 289 more and I get paid.

Their bleachers are nice to sit on.

And you realize you’re doomed.

Have I been in this situation before? You bet. In the last month, I’ve written articles and advertisements for a company that installs fake plastic lawns, a local insurance agent, a chandelier cleaning business, two semi-depressing fundraisers, and a company that repairs old garage doors. As you can see, it’s just a big candy circus of exciting content.

So how in the name of all things holy do you make any of those things interesting or upbeat? Here are a few tips.

Create a story around the business or situation. For the piece I wrote for the insurance agent, I spent the entire first paragraph talking about a fictional tornado. It drew people in, hitting them with a real world scenario, thus accomplishing our main goal – getting the reader to reexamine their homeowners policy. As an added bonus, it got me a third of the way though my work without actually having to talk about insurance. Any time you can realistically put something creative into a normally dry article or advertisement, go ahead and do it.

Go historical. There are a million roads you can travel here. Talk about how the product developed, the people behind the company, or even find an interesting tidbit about the area the company serves. I recently wrote an article for a large home improvement center that began by pointing out how all of the “new” homes built in northern Allegheny County the 1980’s are now three decades old. It’s stunning for most people to realize that 1984 was that long ago. This served two purposes. First, it gave people a reason to start thinking that they could probably use the services of the company I was writing for, and two – it got me about a hundred words into the article before I had to start talking about the company’s amazing home improvement deals.

Ask “What separates you from your competitors?” You’d be amazed what this question does for you as a writer. It gives you all kind of stuff to capitalize on.

“Well, uh, our bleachers are consistently rated 45% more comfortable than our competitors. Is that helpful?”

Helpful? That’s a gold mine! How many times has my ass started to hurt halfway through the third quarter because I was sitting on an inferior bleacher? Practically every time I’ve sat in bleacher seating! My god, people need to know about this! What I thought was a boring article is now going to literally save people’s asses!

This is a nice lead in to the final tip.

Find ANYTHING that interests YOU and go with it. If it’s even remotely interesting to you, it’s probably interesting to the rest of the populous as well. “Wow, you make your bleachers out of recycled velvet Elvis paintings?” Just imagine how many toxic old Elvis paintings you’re keeping out of landfills nationwide. Hire Jones Bleacher Company and you’re doing the Earth a favor! Amazing!

Now, obviously most examples aren’t that extreme. But let’s say you’re writing for an AstroTurf company and they tell you that their product makes it much easier to clean up pet waste. You can easily run with that. In my experience, people don’t particularly enjoy cleaning up pet waste. Anything that streamlines the process is something pet owners will want to know more about.

In conclusion, it’d be great if all your projects were fun, fast, and exciting like a Friday night. But as a freelancer, you have to realize that many of the projects that roll in are the equivalent of a Tuesday afternoon. Just remember that boring projects tend to pay more because nobody’s really throwing elbows to get to them. The key to completing these projects without drilling a hole in your skull is to break them down into smaller, more interesting elements. There’s something at least kind of intriguing about everything – even insurance, bleachers, and AstroTurf. But yeah, sometimes you really have to search.

And now onto my next project.

FADE IN:

INT. SPACE TRAIN – NIGHT

CLINT and TARA, slender and athletic college swimmers steal a romantic moment in the shower. They giggle, flirt, and moan until –

A SHADOW blocks out the light from the bathroom.

TARA: Clint, what was that?
CLINT: Don’t worry, baby. Even if it’s an alien, you’re with the toughest guy this side of Gamma Quadrant. Nothing’s gonna happen to you while I’m around.
TARA: Oh Clint, you’re right. Let’s throw caution to the wind and do it right here on this space train!

The shadow creeps closer. It has distinctly alien features. It reaches for something. We don’t know what until we hear….

THE ROAR OF A CHAINSAW.

Yup, that’s a winner right there.

photo credit: szajmon via photopin cc

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Punctuation Mistakes – Stanley Cup Playoffs Edition

Posted by on Apr 18, 2014 in Business Writing | 0 comments

Punctuation Mistakes – Stanley Cup Playoffs Edition

So it’s April, which means it’s my favorite time of the year – the NHL playoffs. I love sports. All sports. I’m the type of guy that will watch a baseball game being played between two teams in two cities I care nothing about. It’s not uncommon for me to be flipping through the channels and say to myself, “Oh wow, Oakland versus Anaheim. Sweet.”

When it comes to sports, I know what I’m talking about. And trust me when I say that nothing even comes close to the skilled and brutal, fast-paced insanity of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Every game is a minor heart attack for sixty minutes and a full-fledged pulmonary embolism if it goes to overtime. Being from Pittsburgh, I’m a loyal and slightly neurotic Penguins fan. And as any Penguins fan will attest, it was absolutely brutal this week watching them desperately try to hold onto a 4-3 lead for the final eleven minutes as vulcanized rubber screamed toward our goalie from every conceivable angle. When Sidney Crosby managed to dive and knock the puck back to center ice with five seconds left, “to let the heat out of a hot kitchen” as our announcer would say, everyone in the city simultaneously pumped their fists and remembered to breathe again.

That type of excitement led our color commentator, a gritty former player named Phil Bourque, to yell in excitement after a particularly amazing goal in our first round series against the hated Philadelphia Flyers in 2012. For some reason, the phrase he shouted became a rallying cry amongst the team and the fans. To prepare for the playoffs this year, the Pens media department decided to capitalize on Bourque’s phrase, printing thousands of gold T-shirts and towels featuring that particular slogan. If you go to the CONSOL Energy Center where the Penguins play their home games, you’ll even see Bourque’s words painted in giant white letters across the glass façade of the building. It’s a great rallying cry for the team, and man, does it get everyone pumped for a hockey game.

The whole thing is absolutely perfect. Well, except for one thing. The T-shirts, bumper stickers, towels, and the outside of the building all say…

BUCKLE UP BABY!

Which is slightly perplexing. I mean, the Penguin organization is well known locally for the amount of community outreach they do, but it seems odd that they’d be so concerned about infant safety that they’d all but ignore the playoffs in their marketing strategy. It’s a good message to get out there to new parents but let’s be realistic – telling them about the benefits of proper car seats could’ve waited until after someone hoisted the Cup.

I mean, it’s almost as baffling as the playoff slogan of the San Jose Sharks…

REPORT ELDERLY ABUSE!

And the Colorado Avalanche’s …

CHECK YOUR SMOKE DETECTORS EVERY THREE MONTHS!

They’re all great messages, but to me, none of them really scream fast-paced NHL action.

Oh, wait. Wait a second. I think the Penguins really mean “Buckle Up, Baby!” As in it’s not an actual baby – it’s a cute pet name for the person you might be in a relationship with. And you’re telling them that since the Stanley Cup Playoffs are about to start, they’d better fasten their seatbelt because you’re about to step on the gas… oh, I get it. I get it now.

Ah, those silly commas. Always forgetting to show up where they’re needed.

What we’re seeing here is the same basic concept as the often cited…

“Let’s eat Grandma,” and “Let’s eat, Grandma.”

It’s the difference between a nice home cooked meal and cannibalism.

Since the Penguins omitted the comma, we’re actually being instructed to buckle up a baby instead of go on a crazy series-by-series ride with our favorite team through the greatest two months of the sports year. And that’s a bit of a problem.

The weird thing is that someone had to have made a conscious decision to exclude the comma. I have a hard time envisioning a world where the educated people in the Penguins media department simply didn’t notice. My guess is they spent three hours locked in a room where the following conversation took place…

“We can’t print all this merchandise without the comma! It’s not grammatically correct. We’ll look like fools!”

“Commas look like dead pill bugs. They’re weird! And it’s only three words. Nobody will care!”

“I swear to you, some idiot with a blog will notice and skewer us for this.”

“You wanna go? You wanna go? Let’s go. Let’s go right now.”

“You wanna drop the gloves? Fine, let’s go. Let’s dance.”

And then I figure the anti-comma guy was like the PR department goon so after a spirited tussle, the comma was eliminated. And they both served ten minutes in the break room before they were allowed back into the meeting.

Anyway, that’s just an example of how easy it is for even the best people in the business to make a tiny grammatical mistake. And if highly skilled people who do this for a living can make a mistake in a three word phrase that took a couple hours to paint on the side of a building, imagine how easy it is for you to overlook something in a two page press packet you typed up in twenty minutes.

And don’t get me started on the Philadelphia Flyers playoff slogan…

LETS ALL BE IRREDEEMABLE JAGOFFS THAT SHOULD REALLY BE STUFFED INTO A TRASH CAN AND NOT ALOUD TO SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY UNTIL SOMETIME IN LATE JOON.

Obviously the most glaring mistake is that Flyers fans should be stuffed into a trashcan until at least August, but I digress…

Buckle up, baby!

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Script Writing – Three Lines That Need to Go Away Forever

Posted by on Apr 11, 2014 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

Script Writing – Three Lines That Need to Go Away Forever

Urgent Alert: If you’re a writer, put down your…

Uh, well, I was going to say put down your pen, but let’s be honest nobody uses a pen anymore. Everyone types. And saying “Put down your fingers” makes even less sense. Also, it’s nearly impossible to do without a lot of needless blood loss. And you most likely weren’t typing anyway. You’re simply scrolling and clicking so…

Urgent Alert: If you’re a writer – ya know – continue reading this.

The following is an admittedly tiny list of lines you must stop using from this moment forward. Trust me, your characters will thank you.

I’m not sure why these three particular lines annoy me so much. Probably because they’re like mosquitoes – they suck and they’re EVERYWHERE. If you find any of these lines in your script, novel, or play, you have two options, eliminate them immediately or eliminate them sooner than that.

So without further rambling, I present the list…

1) Hey… be careful out there.

Oh damn, I was going to wander outside with complete and total disregard for my own safety but now that you mentioned it…

I mean, it was perfect timing too because I was about to reach for the door to head OUT THERE! And it makes sense that you’d say that to me because I was being a completely oblivious dolt IN HERE. So I totally needed the warning.

But wait, wait, wait. Run that by me again so I know we’re on the same page. There’s a monster out there destroying the city and I shouldn’t act like it’s just another typical Thursday night? I should creep around and be aware of my surroundings and like – do things to avoid being killed by the monster? That’s genius! I’m going to take your advice to heart and BE CAREFUL.

Where?

OUT THERE.

2) Little help here.

Aaaah, I’ve been scooped up into a tree by one of those pesky nets that everyone in the jungle seems to have. And I don’t want to make a big deal of it. Oh, here come my traveling companions. What do I say to both accurately relay the desperate situation I’m in while simultaneously making light of my helpless position?

Oh, I’ve got just the perfect thing.

Look at them. Look how much they’re chuckling. I bet it’s because they’ve never heard that line before from anyone – ever – anywhere. Because it’s so damned original.

Man, I should’ve really taken their advice to be careful out here.

3) I can hear you, ya know / I’m standing RIGHT HERE!

Wow, Brad and Lisa are just going on and on and on about how ugly my beard is. And it’s like they don’t even care that we’re practically rubbing elbows. I can’t believe that neither of them looked around to check my current proximity before they started verbally eviscerating my facial hair. What can I say that will both let them know I’m aware of the vile things they’re saying but that I’m also too much of a dweeby dope at this point in the story to really confront them about it?

The pressure is immense. I mean, there’s two different but practically equal ways to phrase my thoughts here – and both were SOOOOOO funny back in 1922 when Fatty Arbuckle first uttered them. Man, this is gonna be one hilarious turn of events. I can’t wait to see the looks on their smug faces when they realize that the whole time they’d been gossiping, GUESS WHO was in earshot. Boom goes the dynamite!

###

So there you go – three mosquito lines to avoid at all costs. And if you decide to ignore my advice, don’t say I didn’t warn you if your characters revolt.

Or you come down with malaria.

Seriously, be careful out there.

photo credit: Joe in DC via photopin cc

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The “How I Met Your Mother” Finale – What Writers Can Learn From Their Big Mistake

Posted by on Apr 1, 2014 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

The “How I Met Your Mother” Finale – What Writers Can Learn From Their Big Mistake

OK, first order of business is to reassure my sister (who edits this blog) that I won’t be spoiling the final season of HIMYM for her since she’s a season behind watching it on Netflix.

Kelly, I will not be spoiling the end of this series for you. The writers have done a wonderful job of that on their own over the last three years, but I personally won’t be the one to let you know how it ends. I will be speaking in generalities that will not give away the final big twist where you learn that for nine years, Ted was simply half a nacho lying on the floor of the bar, dreaming about the adventures of the surrounding humans. And Barney is an owl. And Marshall and Lily are the leg pads on a back up goalie desperately hoping for one last chance to prove himself. And Robin’s real name is Robyn. I didn’t see any of THAT coming at all. So please, continue to find and repair all of my forthcoming errors.

Even if you haven’t seen the show and know nothing about it, what you can get from this blog post is that the writers made a huge mistake in the finale. It’s a mistake that drew the ire of just about every fan of the show that I know.

Some examples from my Facebook feed include…

“What the hell, HIMYM? Are you $%^&* kidding me?”

“Thanks for nothing, “How I Met Your Mother!” I feel cheated out of the last nine years of my life!”

“HIMYM, you owe me a new television because I just put my elbow through mine!”

“AAAAAH, the HIMYM finale made me grow a third ear!”

*I don’t even know what that last one meant but we might need to get a doctor and a documentary film crew to my friend Jeff’s house stat.

The hatred knew no bounds. I mean, from my window I can see the smoldering ruins of at least five overturned cars. The terrible thing was that as a fan of the show, I was livid. But as a writer, I fully realized that their horrendous mistake actually made perfect structural sense. The writers managed to bring everything full circle, a tactic that typically leads to a satisfying ending and content viewers with no desire to flip a Nissan Versa. I mean, HIMYM did EXACTLY what the art of storytelling says they should’ve done. So why was it such a dreadful, kick to the tender bits of their fans? In the end, it’s simple. And it’s a mistake that as a writer, it’s very easy to make.

They didn’t listen to their characters.

The writers so desperately wanted to bring everything full circle that they forgot about the journey they’d sent their characters on over nine full seasons. They gave the main character (Ted) a circle instead of the arc his character yearned for. He didn’t want to be the same person hungering for the same things he did back in 2005. He wanted to move on. He wanted to evolve. He wanted to grow up. He wanted to live and experience everything that life has to offer and like most of us, find out that what you wish for at one point in time isn’t necessarily what you end up with – and that’s OK because life tends to give you what you need and not what you desire.

It was a lesson that we learned in our own lives during the nine years the show was on the air. HIMYM’s core audience went from young and carefree in a booming economy, through a major economic downturn (If you’re a fan of the show, you just saluted) to navigating marriage and kids, and divorce, and jobs, and monetary issues. By the end of it, we were desperately trying not to admit that somehow we’d ended up middle aged in a country that fundamentally wasn’t the same as it was when we’d first met the characters.

I think a big reason the audience was so angry at the ending of the show was because Ted needed to experience the same twists and turns that we have in the years we’ve been paying attention to him. He needed to end up somewhere different than he imagined at age 50 and be OK with it. Because when we all get to 50, we’re barely going to remember the future we envisioned for ourselves at 25. Our real lives aren’t a neat little package. They don’t tend to come full circle. If we’re lucky, we get a well-defined arc. We grow. We change. We meet new people. We stray from the path. And we needed the ending of HIMYM, a show that often held a mirror up to our own lives to tell us that’s OK.

But in the end, Ted got both what he needed AND what he desired and that just doesn’t fit with our experience. (I mean, for everyone other than Jeff, who now has that third ear he was always jabbering on about in college) In three minutes, they ripped away Ted’s entire journey by giving him just what he wanted all along. (Or what he thought he wanted) They ripped all nine years away from the audience and even more depressingly, ripped it all away from HIM by putting him right back where he started. And it was deeply unsatisfying. It was supposed to be uplifting, but because of the reasons I mentioned above, it turned out hollow and rage inducing.

The writers’ fatal mistake was not recognizing that Ted’s character no longer fit the predetermined ending they’d imagined years ago. And the lesson here for all writers is that sometimes you may dream up a fantastic finish, the spectacular ending to end all endings – whether it be a novel, play, short story, etc. And you outline it and you feel like a genius and tell yourself, “This is where I’m going damn it. And I’m not letting anything get in my way! I’m bringing this son of a bitch full circle!”

And by the time your characters get there, the ending no longer fits. It’s amazing how often that happens. Your characters find deeper pieces of themselves. They find more than you thought was there when you wrote FADE IN or LIGHTS UP or CHAPTER ONE. Maybe they’d no longer run headlong into enemy fire and so your dramatic death scene becomes one of gentle contemplation. Maybe they don’t hit the home run that wins the game because they no longer see that moment as their ultimate redemption. It’s amazing how often your characters have more to offer than you give them credit for.

So if you find yourself with the proverbial hammer trying to pound your rectangular characters into a round ending, the key is to recognize it as it’s happening. It’s not hard to figure out. It usually involves your inner dialogue saying, “I really love the place (character) ended up, but I really need her back over there. How can I force her back on the original track?” And the result ends up being a lot like a car on a nice country road suddenly swerving to the left, crashing through gulleys and electric fences and retaining ponds and whatever’s in the way to get back on the interstate. To which your audience will most likely go, “Hey, I wanted to see where that nice country road ended up. Why did we destroy the transmission, flatten two tires, and crack the windshield just to end up in the parking lot of a Chili’s?”

That’s how I felt watching the last three minutes of “How I Met Your Mother.” In my head, I was screaming “Why are we over here? Oh Jesus Christ, look out for that cow!” And that’s not often a good thing. Unless you’ve written a kick ass car chase scene that ACTUALLY goes off road and through a pasture. If that’s the case, don’t let me get in the way. Turn the wheel and stomp on the accelerator.

The great thing about all this, Kelly, is that you have an out. When you get to the final episode on Netflix, you have the ability to completely cancel out the writers’ one giant, awful, turd monster of a decision. I have instructions for you. Follow them very carefully and don’t deviate and you can still get out of this unscathed.

There will be an umbrella scene. When that scene is over, you do one thing for your brother and all the other fans who watched it live.

You hit stop. You mentally roll the credits. And you get up and walk away. YOU GET UP AND WALK AWAY AND NEVER RETURN! And you will say to yourself, “Yup, they nailed it.”

See, not only did I not spoil the ending for you, I enhanced it. What a kick ass brother I turned out to be.

But seriously though, Ted’s been a nacho the whole time.

photo credit: vagueonthehow via photopin cc

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