Posts by grandpa

Grandpa Hank’s Writer Interview – Molly Gross (Part I)

Posted by on Jun 10, 2014 in Writer Interviews | 0 comments

Grandpa Hank’s Writer Interview – Molly Gross (Part I)

What time is it? Well as I’m writing this it’s 11:03AM. Ah, crap, now it’s 11:04. And most likely it’s a completely different time for you as you read this. (Although if it’s indeed 11:03 or 11:04 for you as well, what an insane LIFE CHANGING COINCIDENCE!) Nothing you thought you knew about the world makes sense anymore. Chaos is your only reality, an unsettling freedom that causes you to toss your underwear into the sky and yell to the heavens, “It’s all finally, gloriously come together!”

No? No? You’re still just sitting there reading? Ok then.

What time is it? It’s writer interview time. This week, we’ve got a very insightful interview from an incredibly talented playwright who got her BA in acting and directing from the University of Arizona and followed it up with an MFA in playwriting from the University of California-Riverside. She is currently the Assistant Professor of Learning Support Reading at Andrew College in Cuthbert, Georgia. Her plays have been seen all over central and southern California, and most recently her mystery “Murder at Buckhorn Manor,” was produced in Fort Gaines, Georgia. Grandpa Hank welcomes to the shack – Molly Gross.

GRANDPA HANK: What tends to inspire you? Do you get plot ideas first or do you find characters and figure out a way to revolve a plot around them?

MOLLY GROSS: Ah, we’re starting with the tough one, eh? To answer the first part, it sounds hokey, but anything can inspire me. I’ll drive by a lonely tire swing and want to work it into a play, or I’ll see a woman with a tear in her purse and imagine how she just used it to fend off a rabid Chihuahua, or one of my kids will shout “Get to the spankery!” and out comes the lap top.
 
To answer the second part, I think I have just as many plot-driven ideas as I do character-driven ones – it just depends on where that initial spark comes from. The image of the tire swing on stage, for instance, makes me think about how it became lonely more than who is involved, while the woman who sacrifices her purse to a rabid dog will make me wonder who she is. I’m pretty forgetful, so I carry around these little notebooks in my bags and in the car and jot down anything interesting to me. That way, I can flip through my inspiration when I’m ready to write, and I find the plot and character get mixed up pretty quickly as soon as I start outlining. With two kids and working full time, I unfortunately don’t write as often as I’d like.
 
GH: What is your favorite character you’ve ever created?
 
MG: How does a writer narrow that one down? Aren’t we all in love with our own characters?
 
Some characters are my favorite because of their voice, like a re-invention of Juliet in a play of mine who speaks in iambic pentameter but with a contemporary, sassy flare. Other characters I love because of what they do, like Rowan, a hermit-like teenage boy who breeds flies in corpses. It was kinda neat being in his head for a while. (Hmm….I don’t know what that says about me) I guess my favorite might be a little girl from a one act, who looks up to her parents and tries to keep them from getting divorced, because creating her made me laugh and broke my heart at the same time.
 
GH: What play or production do you consider your biggest success as a playwright?
 
MG: I wrote a one-act in grad school called “Wish of an Almost Widow” that got produced at a local theatre in Redlands, CA. It’s a drama set during the Dust Bowl that I later developed into a full-length play, but I felt I never quite captured what the one-act did. Towards the end of its single performance, there was a woman in the audience behind me, crying. It was one of the best sounds I’ve ever heard.
 
GH: How is your life as a playwright the same or different than you envisioned when you first got accepted to your MFA program?
 
MG: Picture a thin, long-haired blonde sitting alone outside of Starbucks in Hollywood, dressed in Ann Taylor, a sleek lap-top and a latte that’s being temporarily ignored while she finishes a phone call with a director in New York who’s about to begin rehearsals for her newest play. Her desktop is crowded with dozens of completed plays and screenplays, many of which have been produced or recently submitted to theatres or competitions around the world. She is waiting for the other members of her weekly writing group to show up, and wonders if she has time to book her flight to NYC before they arrive.
 
Now picture a not-so-thin, scraggly-haired brunette, sandwiched between a three and a five year old on a couch in her living room in Georgia, dressed in her pajamas, a scratched-up lap-top and cold coffee that’s being temporarily ignored while she finishes a phone call to her husband who is about to pick up the milk and bread they need from the store. Her desktop is crowded with dozens of ungraded essays, many of which will be filled with grammatical errors like “He would of seen it,” and “The facts shows its true.” She is waiting for the dryer buzzer to go off, and wonders if she can squeeze in an hour today to outline an idea for a play that’s been nagging at her, but before she can give it another thought, her son plants a big wet kiss on her shoulder.
 
So, yeah, it’s pretty different. But aside from needing to create more writing time, I wouldn’t change a single thing.

End of Part 1

Grandpa Hank here once again. Picture him running around with his arms over his head like Kermit the Frog backstage at the Muppet Show yelling “THIS IS WHY WE DO WRITER INTERVIEWS!”

Stay tuned for Part II coming up later in the week.

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It’s Time to Play Everyone’s Favorite Game, BAD NOTE/GOOD NOTE!

Posted by on Jun 6, 2014 in Creative Writing, Stories | 0 comments

It’s Time to Play Everyone’s Favorite Game, BAD NOTE/GOOD NOTE!

“And welcome to the show everybody. I’m your host, the handsome and impeccably dressed Grandpa Hank. You know the rules by now. I’m going to give you a typical note you’re likely to hear about your story or screenplay. Your job is to tell me if that note is worth a damn. Let’s meet our contestants. Marcy is a homemaker from Yumblestown, New Jersey. Tell us a little about the stories you write, Marcy.”

“I write mysteries about dead lumberjacks.”

“Wow, that sure is a niche. Next we have Brad, a homemaker from Stinkputter, Louisiana. How about you, Brad? What do you write?”

“Well, uh, it’s kinda hard to describe. They’re sort of these metaphysical, slapstick films about Uruguay. And like mugs sometimes. I write a lot about mugs.”

“Fantastic. And our third contestant, Pat is a homemaker from Dumptruckville, Oregon. Tell us a little about….”

“Graphic novels about a team of alligator repairmen.”

“Right on. Well, let’s get right into it. Round one, each correct answer is worth a cool $7.25. Hands on your buzzers. Your first note is….”

I DIDN’T LIKE YOUR MAIN CHARACTER.

“Marcy, you buzzed in first!”

“Grandpa Hank, that’s a bad note.”

“Correct for $7.25. To double it, tell us why.”

“Because it’s a vague statement most likely based on personal preference and not on an actual flaw in the story.”

“Marcy, you’re in the lead with $14.50. Our second note is…..”

YOUR MAIN CHARACTER FELT A BIT INCONSISTENT, ESPECIALLY IN THE BOAT SCENE.

“Pat!”

“That’s a good note, Grandpa Hank.”

“You are $7.25 richer. And why?”

“Because it was specific. Someone noting that a character is inconsistent often means they gave your story more than a cursory glance. This gives you, the writer, the ability to go line by line, action by action through the boat scene to see what doesn’t quite gel with the character’s actions in the rest of the story.”

“And we have a tie at the top of the leader board. Marcy and Pat both with $14.50 and Brad sitting there like a nincompoop with nothing.”

“Hey, that’s a little harsh this early in the game.”

“Story notes are harsh, Brad. Buck up and deal with it. Your third note is…”

YOU SHOULD DITCH THE CAR CHASE SCENE AND INSTEAD HAVE THEM LIKE SITTING IN A CAFÉ WHEN THE BAD GUY SWINGS DOWN FROM A TREE AND LIKE THUNDERPUNCHES THE GROUND SO HARD THAT LIKE ALL THEIR COFFEE GOES ALL OVER THE PLACE. AND THEN THEY LIKE END UP IN THE SEWERS UNDER THE CITY AND IT’S ALL DARK AND DANGEROUS…

“Brad, thanks for buzzing in.”

“That’s a good, specific note.”

“Brad, you truly are a nincompoop. You’re at negative $7.25. The answer we were looking for is ‘that’s a terrible, god awful note.’ For Brad’s $7.25, Pat and Marcy, tell us why. Anyone… anyone… Marcy.”

“Because the note giver is telling you how THEY’D write your story. They’ve gone off on a completely unusable tangent. Not to mention that Hollywood has created this myth where you can just go traipsing around through the sewer systems of every major American city and that’s clearly not the case.”

“And Marcy with another $7.25.”

“Sewers are not that roomy.”

“Thank you, Marcy. No extra credit in round one. Note number four is…”

I REALLY THINK YOU MISSED AN OPPORTUNITY FOR A CONNECTION THERE BETWEEN WANDA AND HER FATHER.

“Pat.”

“That’s a damn good note.”

“That IS a damn good note. Pat, you’re tied with Marcy. To take the lead, tell us why.”

“Because it lets the writer know that their scene felt a bit incomplete and could’ve been much more powerful – all while giving the writer room to figure out for his or herself how to best accomplish it.”

“Pat, you’re in the lead! And our final note of round one is…”

AT THE END OF PAGE FORTY-SIX, I THINK YOU MEANT COMPUTER PARTS BUT IT SAYS COMPUTER FARTS.

“Brad.”

“That’s a bad note.”

“Brad, you really suck at this game. Clearly that’s a great note. Marcy and Pat, tell us… Marcy, you buzzed in first.”

“Because it’s an obvious typo that’s easy to overlook and the last thing you want is to send your manuscript out to an agent or producer when it contains something so ridiculous.”

“But what if you meant to say computer farts?”

“Computers can’t fart, Brad. What universe do you live in?”

“But what if you were writing a sci-fi picture about a society far in the future where computers could indeed fart like humans?”

“Well then you should’ve made it obvious enough in the script that your futuristic computers could fart like humans that the person giving the note wouldn’t think it was a typo. If your computers are farting all over the place and the reader didn’t notice until page forty-six, then it’s still a bad note.”

“I don’t know, but what if…”

“Let it go, Brad! And so at the end of round one, we have Marcy and Pat tied for the lead with $29 each and that knucklehead Brad way behind without a prayer in the world of catching up. He’s at minus $47,562.”

“Wait, how did I lose that much? Shouldn’t I only be at minus $14.50?”

“That’s a question a knucklehead would ask, Brad. It’s time for a break but when we come back, the always exciting ROUND TWO! Uh, sometime in the future when I get around to it and can’t think of a theme for the week. But now a word from our sponsors…”

We’ll buy your old gold jewelry!
No, WE’LL buy your old gold jewelry.
Don’t go to either of them, WE’LL buy your old gold jewelry. And some of your pants!

Just kidding, we don’t have any sponsors. Maybe I should work on that.

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Writers on Set – Your Purpose Isn’t What You Think

Posted by on May 23, 2014 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

Writers on Set – Your Purpose Isn’t What You Think

So you’ve written a screenplay and by some miraculous act of a warm and loving universe, it got to the right people. Now those people have invested a bit of money, found a director, cast your characters, and hired an entire crew. My god, your words and ideas are going to be captured on tiny computer cards! And they want you on set to help out should any problems arise during filming. Awesome.

Just know this – how long they’re going to want you on set is inversely proportional to your level of intrusive brooding. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen writers melt down and destroy their own projects because they wanted to puppet master every little detail.

This subject was on my mind as I watched a short film/TV pilot that I’d written called “Reasonable Men,” come to life in a dark and dusty Pittsburgh basement last week. It was a small project that quickly blew up into something much bigger. I was on set through a majority of the filming, trying to walk that tricky line between detached and hovering – which is way harder than you might think. As a writer, you want things to turn out perfectly – just the way you saw them in your head. But unless you’re directing your own piece, you’re not the one in charge. That distinction goes to the director.

So how do you avoid Chernobyling on set? Well first of all, calm the hell down. Take a few deep breaths for the love of god. And if that doesn’t work, see a doctor. Modern science has created some wonderful pharmaceuticals.

Otherwise, all you need to do is remember one simple rule.

Unless you’re doing a one man/woman show, storytelling is COLLABORATIVE!

You want great performances from your actors? Let them make their own choices along the way. Let elements of the character burst from within them instead of playing an adult version of “Here comes the choo-choo.” Don’t spoon feed them. If they make the discoveries themselves, you’re much more likely to get the riveting or hilarious delivery you hoped for.

You want the set to look amazing? Let the producers and set designers have at it. Let them get creative. Don’t tell them they have the Beatles poster on the wrong wall or that the makeup should have more purple in it. It’s what they do. Let them do it.

Want great shots and a well paced film? Let the director/DP figure out the best way to deliver the visual narrative to the audience. If there’s one thing directors and DP’s hate, it’s anyone saying, “Are you sure that’s the best angle for this? We can’t even see his sideburns. Don’t you think we should see his sideburns?” They like you making suggestions about their shots as much as you like them making suggestions about your dialogue.

So if you’re not there to be a human hornet just zipping around from one room to the next making everyone nervous, then what exactly are you there to do? Well, I’m glad you asked. Your main job on a set as a writer really boils down to one main thing. Remember this and it will go a long way toward tempering any inclination you may have to sulk and be grumpy.

You are there to HANG OUT AND EAT COOKIES.

Yup, that’s it! Why? Cause your work is done. You did all your heavy lifting months ago at your laptop when you created the characters, outlined the plot, and crafted your witty dialogue. At this point, your main job is to crap around with the photographer and the extras beside the craft services table. You are there to enjoy the experience.

Now obviously that’s not entirely true. Occasionally you’ll have to do some honest to god work. But as most writers who’ve ever been on set can attest, flipping through magazines or playing games on your phone is how you’ll spend a majority of your time.

On this particular shoot, I was really only needed one time. I was taking a nap on the couch upstairs when I heard, “Cramer, we need you!” from the basement. So I sprinted downstairs trying to pretend I hadn’t just spent the last fifteen minutes drooling.

Apparently one of the actors was having trouble with a mini-monologue on page 14 and it was throwing off the scene. So the question became, “Can we change this somehow to make it a bit easier to deliver?”

As a writer, there are two ways you can react to this. The first is to start melting down and tell the actor, “It’s your damn job to learn my words! Say it the way I wrote it!” It’s America, damn it. That’s a choice you’re allowed to make without being sent to the Gulags. But what’s going to happen is the actor will keep screwing it up, the crew will blame you for the following twenty-six needless takes, the work will suffer, and the actors and director will change it without consulting you anyway. So you might as well just listen and help.

Your second option is to say, “OK. What’s the problem?” Don’t take the proposed change as a personal insult to your ability. More often than not (on good productions with quality actors anyway) it’s just that the phrasing or action you’d originally written doesn’t fit the actor’s interpretation of said character. This is fine – desirable even. Why? Because if the actor has internalized your character that fully, it means your script is jumping from the page to the camera. It’s coming to life. It’s vibrant.

Just know that if you choose this option, everyone on the crew will be cramming suggestions into your ear canal. The director, the actors, the producers – they’ll be scribbling notes in the margins of their scripts and mashing paper in your face going, “What about THIS?” Don’t get annoyed. They’re just trying to help. The solution is to simply say, “I’ve got an idea but I need a minute or two.” Then go find a secluded desk or table somewhere away from the insanity where you can concentrate on the task in front of you.

Or… and it’s going to seem like this is one of my dumb little jokes, but it’s a serious suggestion…
Go to the bathroom.

Go pee. You’re alone and divorced from all the chaos of the set. No one is likely to bust in there with a script and say, “What if he said DOG DIRT instead of CABIN FEVER!” And if they do, you’re on the wrong production.

That’s how I solved the minor hiccup on last week’s production. I took a nice long piss. By the end of it, I’d figured out how to condense six lines of dialogue into one and not really lose any of the meaning. (Special thanks to Gatorade.) And filming ramped back up within minutes.

Would I rather have had the actor say what I wrote verbatim? You bet. I wrote it that way for a reason. Was it worth sending the whole production into a death spiral over? Hell no. In a lot of ways the actor stumbling over his lines made the overall production better. It forced me to realize that his block of dialogue could easily be consolidated, which in turn kept the energy up and the flow going in that particular scene. In the finished product, will any viewers have the slightest idea there was originally more there? Not unless we’re selling autographed scripts on eBay someday, and if that’s the case then the omission of those few lines must not have mattered much.

Now obviously these types of suggestions are only valid on productions where people seem to know what they’re doing. Occasionally you’ll get an actor (or even a director) who just randomly changes things for the sake of changing things with no consideration given to the story. That’s an entirely different ballgame. I’ll have stories about that in coming blogs. That’s not what I’m talking about here.

In the end, “Reasonable Men” turned out better than I could’ve ever hoped. Amazingly enough, it did so despite the fact that not every line was delivered precisely the way I’d envisioned before showing up on set. Hell, not every line was even delivered at all. But that’s OK, because it was the COLLABORATIVE EFFORT OF EVERYONE INVOLVED that made the production so exciting to be a part of.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to do as a writer is to remember that the story isn’t yours alone. In order to become something truly extraordinary, the story has to belong to everyone on set. Because then and only then can your narrative be brought to life in the way that it truly deserves.

Ya know – the way you pictured it in your head all along.

And hey, if nothing else – free cookies.

photo credit: Mrs Magic via photopin cc

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Well That Wasn’t Helpful At All – How To React To Awful Script Notes

Posted by on May 17, 2014 in Creative Writing | 1 comment

Well That Wasn’t Helpful At All – How To React To Awful Script Notes

One of the biggest events in the University of California-Riverside’s theatre department each year is a festival called “Playworks.” People come from all over southern California and actually pay $15 a pop to see what UCR’s graduate-level playwrights have to say. It’s a great bridge between the university and the community, featuring new and innovative works from a diverse group of individuals. In the two years I was there, our plays ran the gamut from funny to absurd to heartfelt to completely off the wall. (Admittedly, the off the wall ones were mainly due to me.) My roommate Rob’s 2007 play even got turned into a half-million dollar movie.

Because it was part of a larger collegiate festival with an absurdly long acronym I can’t remember, the university brought in a dramaturg to review all of the plays. Now you might ask me, “Grandpa Hank, what is a dramaturg?” To be perfectly honest, I still don’t know. In my experience they’re some sort of theatre-y person whose main job it is to be snooty, fixate on very trivial things within the production, and make insane suggestions that conspiracy theorists would have trouble following. Perhaps they serve some greater purpose, but if so, I haven’t yet been exposed to it. They’re like the theatre version of sideline reporters.

Case in point, the lady who was there that night (who again, was PAID by the university to show up) was so bizarrely out of touch with the plays she was critiquing that by the end of it, many of us were convinced that she’d been huffing turpentine on the way into town.

For instance, she asked my friend Molly…

“Where did this play take place? I was very confused by the setting. Was it in a mall? It really felt like it took place at the mall.”

“It was set in a kitchen,” Molly answered.

“See, I didn’t get that at all.”

Molly squinted and pointed to the stage. “The main character went to the oven and pulled out a roast.”

The lady stared at the rafters. “See, to me, it felt like it was at the mall. So that’s your first problem.”

We later went over the entire script for anything that could’ve remotely hinted that the play took place at the mall instead of a family kitchen. I believe one of the characters mentioned she’d recently bought new jeans. And that was about it. Otherwise, every single context clue available let the audience know it was set in a kitchen. Including ya know, all the props and uh… the playbill. But to hell with context clues, the dramaturg said. TO HELL WITH THEM!

But wait, there’s more! My wife’s play was centered around a precocious five-year-old with a massive IQ digging a giant hole in his front yard while his mother and grandmother sat in lawn chairs debating how to best raise the young genius currently burrowing to China in the pit below them.

When it was time for the play to be reviewed, the dramaturg lady spent a few minutes cleaning her tiny glasses and came up with the following gem.

“What if he wasn’t digging a giant hole in his mother’s front yard? What if he was digging a hole right in the middle of the grandmother’s living room? It would bring an immediacy to the situation that the play hasn’t yet achieved.”

WHAT?

The scariest thing to come out of that comment was that presumably it’s possible to get the entire way to your late forties, earn an advanced degree that enables you to adjudicate college theatre festivals and somehow NOT KNOW THE VERY BASICS ABOUT HOW HOMES ARE BUILT! Sure, he’ll just dig a hole in the floor. Cause that’s simple. There are only two scenarios where this is possible.

1) The grandmother lives in a mud hut.
2) This kindergartner has access to heavy machinery he should in no way have access to.

“Well gol-lee Bobby really tore up the carpet. Told you we shouldn’t have bought him that Bobcat.”

The worst part was that even when we pressed her further, she never understood why the suggestion was so ridiculous.

“Just imagine mounds of dirt in the grandmother’s pristine living room,” she said. “And he’s just digging away. It gives the grandmother the objective she’s currently lacking.”

Because of comments such as the one above, we had a field day imitating her at the cast party at the end of the festival.

“Ok, what if your play wasn’t set in a hospital, but rather in a small lifeboat in the middle of a hurricane?”

“What if instead of your main character being a young gay man, it was a large bucket of chicken?”

“What if instead it being a bar full of cowboys, it was a mouth filled with teeth? And instead of “A Texas Story,” you could call it “Sarsaparilla Sam Explores His Own Cavities?”

Looking back on it, I really do hope she was a drug addict who just fell off the wagon because if not, there’s a 50% chance she’s currently stuck in a canyon somewhere with no idea where she is. Anyway, whatever the reason was, none of us got a single useful note out of the entire experience.

And that’s frustrating. Why? Because decent notes from other people are absolutely essential to the process of guiding an idea through the minefield of development. As good as I like to think I am, I’ve never really gotten one of my stories to do exactly what I was aiming for on the first try. Or the second. Or the third. (Hell, I tend to get three opinions on this silly little blog before I throw it up there on the Interwebz.) With all the moving pieces in the giant creative puzzle in your mind, any writer is bound to overlook a few things. Chances are, you’re so invested in the work, you’re going to be a bit story blind. Good notes help you see your work from differing perspectives – and eventually end up with a well-rounded final product you can be proud of.

So how do you avoid bad notes? And more than that, how do you identify bad notes before you start having a five-year-old attempt to dig through a concrete foundation with a trowel? Here are a few tips.

Know your story inside and out: The biggest thing you can do to keep bad notes from killing your work is to fully understand what your story is and who your characters are. What are you trying to accomplish by telling the story you’ve chosen to tell? If you know and understand that Bernice’s Irish heritage is what drives her to do many of the things she does, you’ll recognize that someone saying, “I think you should make Bernice Swedish,” isn’t especially helpful. The better you know your story and characters, the more you’ll be able to tell whether the notes you receive will actually help your words and characters blossom or if they will unnecessarily gut the whole thing.

Develop a network of trusted readers: These don’t necessarily have to be professionals. The first person I have read any of my scripts is my father. He’s a retired chemistry teacher who’s never taken a script writing class in his life. But that doesn’t matter. I don’t send my stories out to anyone until I get his stamp of approval. He’ll tell me straight up whether he enjoyed the story and more than that, if there were certain parts of it he just didn’t buy. He often gives me notes that are on par with those of my former professors simply because what he tends to see is so damned obvious. My professors are asking me questions like, “What is the main character’s overall dramatic question?” and my father is like, “I don’t think she could get to Ohio and back in two hours. You should make it two and a half. Unless they live out by the airport.” And those are great notes because the last thing you want is people debating travel times in their heads while they’re supposed to be paying attention to a crucial scene.

Ideally, your trusted network should be diverse in as many ways as possible. If your network is a bunch of like-minded yes men, you’re going to get a lot of positive feedback. And while thumbs-up and a pat on the back feel great, if your script really needs some work, their notes are as useful as the ones from the dramaturg I mentioned earlier. Not only that, but the script has now been angelically validated in your mind, so you’re more likely to be resistant to the honest, helpful notes you receive down the line. In other words, be your own gatekeeper. Keep the bad notes away by finding a group of trusted readers. You’ll be a lot happier avoiding the people whose feedback is consistently bonkers.

Learn how to give good notes yourself: Obviously, if you don’t know what a good note is, you can’t differentiate between script advice that is helpful and script advice that makes as much sense as the weather lately. If you’re reading someone else’s script and you feel that Bernice should be Swedish, you need to have ACTUAL REASONS WHY. I know, crazy, right? It’s amazing how many people will read your work and throw a note out there simply because they feel guilty or dumb not having any sort of response. And they just saw a documentary on some Swedish bobsledders so now you’re stripping Bernice of her culture and heritage all to appease someone in your workshop or class who simply needed to hear the sound of their own voice on Thursday.

It seems obvious, but many people forget that the ultimate objective of giving a note is to help the writer create a better script. You can’t give a good note unless you as the reader have a conscious grasp on the story you just read (i.e., you can distinguish between a kitchen and a mall). Many people don’t realize that giving notes has everything to do with helping the writer across the table and zero to do with their own personal preferences. When people either forget or don’t realize that simple fact, you get awful, completely unhelpful notes.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring the concept of script and story notes in a few related posts that highlight the types of suggestions you’re likely to get as well as the best ways to implement them. In the first one, I’m going to talk a bit about…

Wait, what? What? I’m sorry, the dramaturg is interrupting me here.

“Instead of using words for this blog, why don’t you record a series of sneezes and assign each one a corresponding number based on their intensity? Then you can post those numbers on a billboard in eastern Kentucky. This blog is just screaming for a confusing Appalachian billboard.”

That’s a fantastic suggestion, ma’am. I’ll get right on it after I’m done digging this hole in the floor.

photo credit: theloushe via photopin cc

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Advertising Rates – The Tijuana Method

Posted by on May 9, 2014 in Business Writing, Kel's Corner | 0 comments

Advertising Rates – The Tijuana Method

When I was a sophomore in college, I spent spring break with my then boyfriend and his family at a beach house in San Diego. One morning we awoke and decided to drive to Tijuana since none of us had ever been to Mexico before. I had no idea what to expect. After crossing the border and parking, my mind was assaulted by the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. It was street after street of painted donkeys, car horns, tourists sporting awful Hawaiian shirts, large signs reading TEQUILA HERE, the smell of authentic Mexican food, and people of every age, shape, and size yelling about their product or trinket or marketplace. I was overwhelmed.

“Mamacita! You would look so pretty in this scarf!”

“Hey honeymooners! My tequila has the best worms in all of Mexico at the bottom of the bottle!”

“Real Sterling Silver! No junk!”

And on…and on. I definitely wanted to buy a souvenir or two, but I could hardly get myself to make eye contact with anyone. I wanted to look around, to take it all in, but I was afraid if I did, I’d have to purchase the whole town! And good lord, if I’d bought tequila from everyone who offered, I would have been passed out by noon. I could tell that each salesperson I passed knew I was a sucker. That was it. I was done for. I really should have named this blog, “How I Nearly Bought a Mexican City.” Eep!

There was no hope until… Don, my boyfriend, took over.

Oh how my liver and wallet thank him until this day! He must have noticed my growing anxiety. Don took my hand and proceeded to show off his bargaining skills. I watched with awe as he spoke with carefully chosen salesmen. They’d start off ridiculously high, to which he’d come back with something ridiculously low. The salesperson would laugh and scoff at him but come down to a more reasonable price. After a bit more back and forth, he would turn to me with a skeptical look that said, “Go with it,” and ask me what I thought. Caught up in his confidence, I started playing the game too. I’d look concerned and say, “I don’t know, hon, that seems like a lot.”

Hearing it, he’d tell the salesperson, “Sorry. The old lady won’t let me spend that much.” And the salesman would bring the price down AGAIN! I was in awe. Little did I know he had more up his sleeve.

Don, still unsatisfied with the price, would look at the item a little bit more, sigh and say, “The guy across the street was willing to give this to me for $5.”

“HA! The guy across the street is loco!” the salesman would exclaim. “This item is worth $20 at least!”

Don would then shrug, take my hand, and we’d walk away. “Don’t look back,” he’d whisper.

Ten yards down the street, we’d hear, “OK, OK! Come back, we’ll talk.” When we returned to the stand, he’d say to us, “Listen, I can’t go any lower then $10. If I go lower than $10 I will make no money myself. $10 is my final offer.”

By now, in my head I’m screaming “TAKE IT! We win! The guy started at $75!” Don would take a deep breath, thinking it over as he looked around the man’s table. “If you throw in that painted donkey magnet, I’ll give you $10.”

“FINE!” the man would say, throwing his hands in the air, exasperated.

I never realized that this memory of my first trip to Mexico would come in handy later in life. Not because I now love haggling at yard sales, but because when it comes to negotiating advertising rates, you absolutely must use the Tijuana Method.

When I first started doing marketing, I had no idea how much things should cost, and moreover I had no idea that posted rates were highly inflated for suckers like me who didn’t know any better. In the following paragraphs I’m going to break down what we can all learn from my trip to Tijuana when negotiating ad rates.

They start high. You start low.
Everything begins with the posted rate found in their media kit. It’s basically the equivalent of them trying to take you for six times everything you’re worth. Are there companies who can pay those ridiculous rates and not care? Sure. But if you’re reading this, you’re most likely not working for one of them. When you first begin talking with your assigned sales rep, they’re going to immediately refer you to their posted rates. Let them know that that is WAY out of your marketing budget for the quarter (if not the year) and ask them if there is anything they can do to help you out. If they reply with another ridiculous number that’s still way too much, then talk with them a bit more about why you think you’d be a good fit in their magazine or television show, etc. Sell your company and product a little bit.

“We’re growing and I believe with your help we could be paying more reasonable rates in no time but we really need some help right out of the gate.”

OR

“We have a celebrity athlete who we could probably get to do an interview if you could give us a little bit of help on the ad price.”

Things like that will help. At this point they’ll probably drop the price a bit, but only if you commit to multiple months, shows, or issues. This is not a bad thing. You really want people to consistently see your ads in the same place. Your customers will then start associating your product or company with that network, website, or magazine.

Pass the blame.
Just as Don blamed the “old lady” for not letting him spend the money, you can blame a manager, boss, or financial supervisor. Stall for a bit as you ask (or pretend to ask) the person in charge if this money is available. If the person in charge won’t pay the asking price, ask him or her what their bottom line would be. Then you have a goal to shoot for in your negotiations. On the off chance they tell you to go for it… still try to get the price lower. Then you’ll get bonus points and have extra money to spend elsewhere.

When you go back to your sales rep, let them know that you just don’t have the funds at this time. Explain that you spoke with your boss and while he was willing to give a little bit extra, he wasn’t willing to give THAT much extra. Tell them how bummed you are and that you tried everything you could to get them to budge. “But it’s simply a numbers game. You’re a salesman. I’m sure you understand.” At this point there is a very good chance they will give you another offer.

“But your competitor gives me similar ad space for less.”
This is actually a really good strategy. Just make sure you’re telling the truth. If you exaggerate too much, they’ll know you’re just blowing smoke and the deal will be dead right here. All your work to this point will be lost. Maybe you negotiated your face off a few months back and got an INCREDIBLE rate with one of their competitors. If so, use this to your advantage. There is a good chance they will do what they can to price match. They don’t want potential business going exclusively to their biggest rival.

This tip can really be used at any state in the haggling game, but I suggest creating a rapport with your sales rep before tossing this one out. Most of the sales reps I’ve worked with are very friendly and the more they like you the more they seem to want to do what they can to work with you.

Walk away.
But understand that they may not offer you a better rate when you do. There’s a chance that they’re already negotiating with several other similar companies and might not need your business. On the other hand, they might have a quota to meet and be willing to go above and beyond. Either way, if the final price they offer is significantly out of your budget, you need to be willing to turn around and not look back. Ask them to keep you in mind in the future, especially if they have any last minute remnant space that they can give to you at a better price. This is your final sign off and depending on their situation, they may never call you again. Then again, they may indeed call you about remnant space in the future, OR they may holler down the road at you begging you to come back.

Ask for added value.
At the end of the negotiating it’s unlikely either side is going to feel like they got what they wanted. One way to ease the pain of paying a little more than you hoped is to ask if there’s any added value you can get from the transaction. Whether that’s a full article talking about your product during one of the six months you’re ad is running in their magazine, a banner running on a television show’s web page during the month your commercial airs, inclusion in a weekly e-blast, or a few extra shout outs from the radio morning show, you can typically get just a little bit more than what you are being offered. (This is your painted donkey magnet.) They aren’t going to offer these things on their own. You have to ask… and have suggestions! These added value items may seem so easy to the sales rep that they’ll happily throw them in just to officially close the deal on your business.

So those are my tips for getting more reasonable advertising rates. Just like with anything, you may not need or want to use all of these with the same person. I’ve said this in other posts of mine, but it’s imperative that you pick up the phone and talk to your sales reps if you can. This will help you get a read on their mood, their personality, etc. It will help you to know if you should start off blaming your boss or telling them that you got a better rate a few months back from their competitor. It also might let you know if it’s worthwhile trying to haggle at all. Basically, what I’m saying is to mix and match these tips based on your needs and your situation. Sometimes all of these tips will work. Sometimes you might only need one, and sometimes you might have to walk away and be OK with it.

OH! BONUS TIP! Who doesn’t love a bonus tip, right?

Speak their language.
On our way back to the car carrying a few bags of souvenirs, we must have really looked like suckers. Little did these guys know I had a superhero haggler on my arm! But by the end of the day, even Don was tired of playing the game. One particularly pushy sales guy started following us down the street despite Don’s frustrated reassurance that we were done shopping. Finally he stopped, turned around and started to speak… in Spanish. I knew Don could speak Spanish fairly well, but because of the demographics of the rural, mountain town where we lived, I never really got to experience his language skills first hand. The sales guy’s demeanor totally changed when the first syllable left Don’s mouth. Suddenly, they were both laughing like old pals and before I knew it, he handed Don a gold chain. Don inspected it and bought it for an absurd discount. The salesman patted Don on the back and walked away.

“What was that?!” I asked.

“I told him us gringos were tired and just needed to get home. He thought it was so funny that he offered me the chain for free. I told him I’d give him a few bucks for it. I think he was just happy to be speaking his own language for once today.”

Basically, the point of this story is to learn what you’re talking about. If you don’t have much experience with radio advertising, get some info from someone who does. Then you can speak the right lingo. If you are talking to a video production company and they say they need to shoot a few extra hours of b-roll and you’re clueless about what b-roll is, they will be annoyed at having to waste their time explaining such a simple concept. Having a little bit of knowledge for WHAT you should be discussing will save both you and the sales rep a lot of unnecessary aggravation.

One of my old bosses had worked for years in magazine advertising. When I felt I was being ripped off, I would often get him onto the phone for a conference call. He could speak to them in a way I was still learning about. Similarly, given my history within the video production world, he would make sure I was in the loop any time we were doing anything involving video. Use your resources. People love helping out, especially when it also gives them a chance to feel like an expert for a few amazing minutes in the day.

So that’s it. Go haggle your bottoms off! I hope you get great rates… and if you’re lucky you might even get a free gold chain or a painted donkey magnet out of it. Eep!

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