Long time, no post. I have been crazy busy for the last few months. Anytime I had an idea for a blog entry, I scribbled it on a sticky note. There were quite a few notes stacked up before they all got buried in work. I have now managed to clear my desk back down to the sticky note level, so I guess it's time to start posting.

I was going to ease in gently with comments on successful sitcom titles and Oscar nominees, but last night I read a script so painful, I have to start with a rant instead.

Out of every 100 scripts I read for my agency job, figure 10% are easy recommends. They might have a few issues, but the problems can be fixed and the good outweighs the bad. About 80% of the 100 scripts have something of value, but also serious issues. One has to decide if the problems can be fixed, and if the amount of good is worth the trouble.

Then there's the bottom 10%. These are the scripts written by people who do not grasp basic writing fundamentals. As in, people who have no idea what makes a story a story at a level one isn't sure can be taught. With these scripts, you want to tell the writer, "Stop now. You do not have what it takes. Do something else." Last night's script was one of those. And the f*cker had people and money attached.

Looking up the production company, I don't feel too horrified by the state of the industry. The writer owns the company – and he's planning to direct, too! It's possible the money comes from mom and dad. (Though if they gave it to me, I could put on a piece of performance art called "lazing around in front of my TV writing blog posts for the next twenty years" that would provide more entertainment value than their baby's script. But hey, it's their money.)

In honor of that script, and the Confidentiality Agreement that prevents me from going into details, I offer a new definition:

plot prod [plot prod]

1. An occurrence in a script clearly manufactured by the writer to drive the protagonist into an action he/she would otherwise have no reason to take, and without which the script would come to a screeching halt on page 11.

1. plot point
The thing you should be writing instead.


Another pet peeve

Dear Writer,

If you find yourself typing the words "true to form," or "typically," or "as usual," or "as one might expect," or any such phrase – consider that you might be writing a CLICHE.

Then don't.


Look Who's Talking to A Beautiful Mind

Creeeeeepy baby...


As soon as she opens her mouth, the movie is over

I love Cher. And I wish Christina Aguilera all the best -- yo, Staten Island! I also love Diablo Cody, Kristen Bell, Stanley Tucci, Alan Cumming and anything with sequins and fringe. But despite the fact that I have to be the target market for this movie, I am not going to see Burlesque on opening weekend. And possibly, not at all.

I am the target market. But I've seen the trailer a few times and things don't look good. In the trailer, a plucky young ingenue heads to Los Angeles. She tries to get a job singing at a club. Cher, the club manager, blows her off. The plucky young ingenue gets onstage anyway. She's played by Christina Aguilera, so as soon as she opens her mouth, Cher is impressed. The girl gets the job and the movie is over. That's beginning, middle and end, right there in the trailer -- but not a compelling narrative filled with obstacles, conflict and stakes.

This is a problem with the entire awesomely-talented-but-somehow-still-struggling performer genre. It's one of the reasons many reviewers found
Secretariat a bore. If you never saw the actual horse win the Belmont Stakes, watch the video now. For two minutes and twenty-four seconds, it's a gas. But who wants to watch the run-up to that race for two hours? I am also the target market for every horsey movie out there, but I still haven't seen Secretariat. The horse won the race in stunning fashion, but not in dramatically compelling fashion. Secretariat was an amazing horse with previous victories and terrific bloodlines from a successful stable. Everyone knew he was going to win the Belmont Stakes. A few other horses entered because money was on the line for place and show, but we're not talking real obstacles. To make this story dramatic, one would have to saddle the poor horsey with a drug or alcohol problem, an abusive stable mate or recurring nightmares of childhood trauma -- you know, the stuff we writers shove in such movies to make the stories of extraordinary talent rewarded slightly more compelling.

Perhaps there are real obstacles in
Burlesque. There are none evident in the trailer, which seems to include the entire film. I hope this is another case of a marketing department screw-up and that the movie revolves around a different set of events never hinted at in the trailer. But I am dubious, and I will wait to see. Unfortunately, that might mean the film is gone from theaters before I make up my mind.


A great new use for Facebook

I've been happily buried in three different projects, one of which involves considerable historical research about the Civil War. The Facebook advertising engine picked up on that research – they're watching our every move! – and suggested I "like" the daily updates from this site.

Damned if the advertising engine isn't right. I do like the updates. In fact, I think whoever came up with the idea of sending around a daily Facebook post on something of interest related to the Civil War that happened on the same day 150 years ago is freakin' brilliant. Way to go, unknown fellow historian!


This is not a Paris runway

First casualties of the new season – Lone Star on Fox and My Generation on ABC. There were issues with the Lone Star pilot, but I didn't hate it. I could see they might be headed in interesting directions. I would have given it a second look. And yet – though I Tivo'd it, I didn't get around to watching the pilot until after the series had been canceled. I still haven't watched the My Generation pilot. I watch a lot of television, but neither show excited me enough to click play. Here's why –

The posters that adorned every bus shelter and many of the buildings where I live were some of the worst I have ever seen.

In the My Generation posters, pretty people stare at the camera with no expression on their faces. In the Lone Star posters, a handsome young man stares at the camera with no expression on his face. Why would I want to watch shows about expressionless people? If they aren't interested in their own lives, I won't be either. Not that the shows themselves – Lone Star at least – featured expressionless people. An early line of dialogue specifically points out the importance of the lead character's awesome smile. And the actor has an awesome smile. Why didn't they feature that in the posters? I might have watched the show sooner to find out what he was smiling about.

I think I know where the blank-faced trend originates. For some time now, fashion photography and fashion runways have featured expressionless models. Here's a note for television marketing departments: this is not because we like blank faces. It's because fashion designers want us to focus on the clothes alone. Most people don't watch television for the clothes alone. Not even Gossip Girl – though how awesome were the clothes in the Paris episodes? And Gossip Girl posters are some of the best out there.


Twenty four words you can't say in Final Draft

One of the last things I do before I consider a script ready to send out is run a global search for my personal list of proscribed words. These words are not forbidden because they are naughty – it's a script, fuck that – but because I use them too often.

We all have such words. Most of them stand in for the pauses we add to our everyday speech. We want pauses in our dialogue, so we stick 'em in there too. Problem is, different readers use different words for their pauses, and most readers add the pauses in their own heads and don't need those words. Though we sprinkle our everyday speech with well's, oh's and you know's, a page of dialogue studded with those words causes pain. As I mentioned in a
previous post, dialogue needs to sound like real people talking – only better.

Everyone has their own habitual vocabulary. That's one of the ways literary forensic types determine disputed authorship. Though you should make your own list of dangerous words, here's my version:

Actually, usually, a lot, like, always, very, well, here, yeah, hey, ok/okay, maybe, just, oh, pretty, guess, more, quite, bit, you know, right, even, of course, so

Though I search for every word, I don't remove every instance. People use these words. Dialogue without them might sound strange. But it's eye-opening to skip from instance to instance and realize how often the words pop up. Though I don't remove them all, I remove enough. Sometimes I get a page less script for my labor. Hey, that's actually worth it, you know?

Here's another note. While running this search, do a quick scan of every incidence of your/you're and make sure you've got them right. No, you are not ignorant for mixing them up – it's something your typing fingers do without consulting your brain. But you LOOK ignorant if they remain wrong in your finished draft.


Technological dependency

The ridiculously cheap envelopes must have been a Luddite Trojan horse, as my Internet connection has been down since I brought them home. I am now lurking in a Starbucks, sucking an ancient cup of coffee. Last night I circled the parking lot of a closed McDonald's, fishing for a signal. The Verizon folks say all will be well soon. But they said that two days ago. I now face a weekend without Internet and all is not well.

As a friend posted on her Facebook wall, "I love my computer since all my friends live there..."
I want my friends back!


In related news

I bought envelopes today for the first time in years. They were marked down to a ridiculously low price – two dollars and fifty cents for a box of two hundred and fifty resume-quality, rag bond, watermarked envelopes. I made the salesclerk check the price twice as I was sure she had made a mistake. She hadn't.

The marked down price makes sense, as I will probably not use two hundred and fifty envelopes for the rest of my life. I'm sure there were similar sales of audio cassettes, VHS tapes and typewriter ribbons in the last few decades, but honestly – who remembers?

In a burst of synchronicity, I will use those envelopes (okay, a few of those envelopes – seriously, two hundred and fifty?) to announce to the world my latest screenplay, Postal. Though, in an even more synchronous turn, I'm announcing it here, first. 'Cause I'm a product of the Internet age, and I can't wait for my own virtual reality headset. Facebook in 3D? Awesome.



Here's a fun video of yesterday's storm excitement in New York City. Several folks in the comment section suggest these young men cannot be real New Yorkers as REAL New Yorkers would never show that level of excitement about anything.

There's truth in that.

Back in high school, I was on a harbor ferry when it was hit by a freighter in a dense fog. The boat tipped way over, one side was clearly bashed in and the PA system sounded like very nervous adults in a Charlie Brown special. As far as any of us knew, the boat was going down.

We tramped out on deck and yanked life vests out of their wooden racks. That was fun, 'cause you got break the wooden lath that held the vest in place. Breaking stuff is fun, even for blasé New Yorkers. Then we realized that the outside vests were filthy, and tramped back inside to retrieve nice clean vests from under the seats.
And then... we all stood around holding our vests at dainty arm's length, pretending that nothing exciting was going on.

Sure, the ship might be about to pull a Titanic, but that's no reason to make evident one's distress by actually PUTTING ON THE DAMN VEST.

I haven't lived in New York in some time, but I still have trouble visibly displaying the level of excitement in this video – even when I'd like to. I went to Comic Com and thought the people geeking out over their favorite stars looked like they were having fun. But I just couldn't do it. I am a fan, but I'm a fan who was born and raised in NYC. I scream on the inside.

As for these guys, native New Yorkers or not, they are a perfect example of why writers should write realistic dialogue – but never real dialogue. DUDE!? A tornado is touching down in Brooklyn and that's the best you can do? Well, yeah, in real life, that is about the best anyone manages.


Recessionary spending

I just read a BusinessWeek article about the recent Burger King sale. Guess what? The chain's "razor-like" focus on their favorite male 18-34 demographic has proved disastrous while McDonald's attempt to woo a new market has been a stunning success. What's that new market... ?


Apparently, women make money. And in the current recession, they're doing a better job of it than young men. Ouch.

Hollywood, I hope you are paying attention. McDonald's didn't just throw out a couple of poorly-prepared options to keep the ladies happy. The company reworked the menu, the marketing and the restaurant decor to the point where I am proud to tote my coffee around, in public, in a McDonald's cup. And why not – McCafĂ© coffee is pretty damn good. It sure would be nice to want to watch a recent movie as much as I currently want a Mickey D snack wrap and fruit smoothie.

Of course, the McDonald's market – even the new, money-making McDonald's market – just isn't sexy. Anyone coming to Hollywood in search of Entourage-style sex, drugs and more sex and drugs probably isn't too interested in appealing to such a market. Though at the moment, I bet there's LOTS more fun to be had at McDonald's franchisee conventions than at any such Burger King get-togethers. Scary thought for the future, huh?

Profitability. It's the new sexy.


Please nobody tell James Cameron

The waitress handed Precious Nephew a 3-D puzzle toy. We put together the puzzle and Precious gazed at it, perplexed. "Where are the glasses?" he asked. "How can it be 3-D if there are no glasses?" Uh... crap.

I am not ideologically opposed to 3-D movies. In general, I am in favor of the March of Progress and all that. My sister recently found a 1950 shelter magazine that breathlessly suggested housekeepers could enjoy unexpected benefits from modern, office machines like... staplers. I have a stapler – and a 3-hole punch, tape dispenser and copy machine – in every room of my house in which I am likely to encounter paper. Though in a few years, the use of paper could mark me as old fashioned all by itself.

I like synced sound and color movies, too. My problem with 3-D movies is selfish. I am one of the 2-12% of the population who just doesn't see them in anything resembling 3-D. This makes me the annoying wet blanket on movie night. And for that, I hold Mr. Cameron personally responsible.

Of course, my insistence on good 'ole 2-D makes me a pleasantly cheap date. Though as an adult who buys my own tickets, that's not such a great argument.


No protagonist is an island, entire of itself

In a previous post, I described a common failure in the scripts I am asked to read – the script crammed with compelling supporting characters that features an oddly unfocused protagonist. I have since decided that an opposite problem also exists.

I recently read a script in which the protagonist was a beautifully detailed creation with a gaping hole in his life and choices looming ahead. But despite all that lovely story-engine work, the script remained stuck in place.
There were needs, but no real obstacles. There were choices, but no real costs. The writer was only interested in the protagonist and had only bothered to develop the protagonist's story. Without equally needy and choosy supporting characters, the story lacked all conflict.

I would say this is an obvious point, but this is not the first such script I've read. Not by a lot. Perhaps it's obvious to me from my years as an actor. There's an old joke about the actor who played the doctor in the first production of Streetcar Named Desire. The character is barely a cameo role – the doctor only appears in the final pages to lead Blanche DuBois off to the nut house. Before the opening, a reporter who knew nothing about the play asked this actor what it was about. "It's about this doctor, see," the actor earnestly replied, "and he meets this lady who wants to depend on him. And he really wants to help, but he's torn, because..." and so on. You get the joke. There are no small parts, only small actors, blah, blah, blah. Trust me, when you're in one of those small parts, this joke is funny. But like many an old cliche, it's also true.

There are no small parts for writers, either – and we have to play ALL the parts. Every character must need something and must face choices.
They must be the stars of their own little movies, so when the protagonist's movie gets in their way – hello, conflict!


And... I'm back.

Been a while, huh?

As a follow-up to the last post, my computer did not die permanently – but it was an expensive can of Fresca. My multiple keyboards and I soldiered on and the impossible deadline turned out to be possible. The draft is finished. The trusted readers have returned their verdicts. One more quick buff and polish and I get to put this baby to bed.

But first, THIS baby needs to go to bed. Tomorrow I will post something nice and long to make up for the drought. See you then.


When troubles come, they come in pretty blue cans

I haven't posted in a few days as I'm under an impossible deadline – which caused me to knock over a can of Fresca and soak my laptop keyboard, because that's the sort of crap that happens as soon as you have an impossible deadline. I do not blame the Fresca. I blame the deadline.

It is every bit as hard as you might think to write a script without functioning DELETE and RETURN keys. The nice boys at the Mac shop were out of keyboards, of course. They swear a new one will be in tomorrow. In the meantime, I am the rock god of writing, with one keyboard plopped on top of another and hands everywhere. It's a terrible way to write, but I bet it looks cool.

I will be happy when this is over. And I may have news, to boot.