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Best Epic Rap Battle of History.

I know I say this a lot, but… this is my new favorite thing on the internet.  Best-ever use of autotuning.

Seven Tips on How NOT To Submit Your Writing

In addition to being a writer, I’m something of a gatekeeper myself, as the person who decides what writers join brevityTV’s writer table. (OK, so it’s a tiny, tiny gate, but it is nonetheless mine to keep.) We’re small-time, so slogging through the submissions whenever we have a vacancy is on me. It’s painful. For every brilliant writer there are ten just-OK writers, and a hundred crappy ones.

And (though it’s been said, many times, many ways) as a gatekeeper you want the process to be over, and you start looking for excuses to pass over an entrant. I’ve started collecting a checklist of the mistakes I see most commonly. I will use these guidelines to help me before I submit next time, and may they serve as a reminder to us all. (Especially to people who are going to make ME read their stuff.)

  • SPELLING. Every book you read and every panel you attend, they emphasize this. “Yeah, yeah,” I always think. Who’s going to go to the trouble of submitting their work without checking spelling and punctuation? Turns out… lots of people. So I’m really just repeating here, but evidently it bears repeating: I WANT to eliminate you from consideration. The twenty applicants I promised myself I’d get through before I allow myself to watch tonight’s episode of Big Bang Theory will go by faster if you quickly reach the three strikes I allow a writer. Every lame joke is a strike. Overly dense opening description is a strike. And each individual spelling error is a strike. That means I allow you two misspellings, and I’m probably more generous than a real reader. Meanwhile, a spelling error in the e-mail subject header? Delete!
  • COVER LETTER. Maybe you think my little organization doesn’t rate more than a message like “What up? Take a look!” But my little organization demands 20-60 hours a week of my time. It matters to me, and I want to staff it with people who care about it like I do. So casual tone is great, but failure to make an effort? You’re done. Meanwhile, in a past life I hired people to work as summer camp teachers, and sorted thousands of applicants annually. From them, I would forgive a boilerplate listing of qualifications. From a writer, however, I expect something a little more inspired, with some personality. The good covers prove the writer visited our site, maybe mention a favorite sketch. It goes miles to making me like you if you start with making me believe you like me.

Six Feet Even: My monologue turned short film

Sometimes blogging bears fruit. For example, Mary Musolino and Pete Stiles (from Australia!!!) worked with Gatecrasher Media to adapt of my monologues into this short film. Enjoy.

book review: The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes & Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes

The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and HeroinesThere is a point at the beginning every project when the writer is faced with a blank page and a need to create a protagonist out of thin air. When you find yourself working with nothing more than a spark of an idea, Heroes & Heroines is a great tool to help you fan the flame. The authors set out to define sixteen general personality types befitting a main character, wisely dividing them into a group of eight for each gender, analogous but separate.

Each archetype is described with just the right amount of insightful pop psychology, as well as sufficient examples from pop culture and literature. The book suggests probable virtues and vices for each character type. We get back story and subclasses for each type, and even probable occupations.

The best part, however, comes after the character categories have been defined. The authors then play each of the male types against each of the female types, describing what is likely to happen when such personae meet for 115 pages or so. Should you ever find yourself uninspired or blocked (which we all know NEVER happens), classifying your main characters with this system and then examining their typical interactions might be just the thing to push you through.

Fortunately, the authors are the first to admit that their system is imperfect, almost by definition. In fact, they devote substantial pages discussing hybrid characters and characters who evolve over the course of the story. Throughout their writing, the authors remind us that they are proposing guidelines, not formulae.

If there is a drawback to Heroes & Heroines, it lies in the lack of combinations with same-gender types. This book is better suited to a romance writer than a buddy cop film scribe. However, it is safe to say that this book offers insight of use to any writer.

Los Angeles: the best and the worst

This is the last of my three-day trio of posts on life in Los Angeles.  I decided to reach out to Los Angeles-based bloggers to ask two simple questions.  Here are their responses:

What is the worst thing about living in L.A.?”

“Worst thing is that people in Los Angeles relate to each other based in what they can get from each other.”
          — SillyPlatypus, from sillyplatypus.com 

“The worst: Is there even a close second? The traffic.”
          –Alexandra Sokoloff, from screenwritingtricks.com

“The worst thing about living Los Angeles is being forced to listen to everyone complain about Los Angeles.”
          Meghan Brown

What is the best thing about living in L.A.?”

“The best part about Los Angeles is that even if you leave it for a while, it’s just the way you left it when you find your way back.”
          –Jenni Powell Producer Celebrate the Web (http://www.celebratetheweb.com)

“The best thing about living in Los Angeles is all the restaurants!!!”
          Lynn Chen, actress/food blogger at theactorsdiet.com

Best thing is it is in California, where any crazy idea can become a job.
          — SillyPlatypus, from sillyplatypus.com  

“The ocean, Venice beach, the desert, the Santa Anas, the museums.”
          –Alexandra Sokoloff, from screenwritingtricks.com

“The best part about living in LA is going out in a t-shirt on a sunny February day.”
          –David August, from davidaugust.com


So, what do YOU think is the best and worst aspect of L.A. life?

Ten things I wish someone had told me about moving to Los Angeles.

Viewable from about three square blocks of Los Angeles

Yesterday I posted about whether it makes sense to move to L.A.  Ready to pack your bags?  Keep in mind it’s easy to have the wrong preconception of what life in L.A. is like, given that every movie you’ve ever seen set here announces its location with the same three establishing shots: the Hollywood sign, a girl in a bikini, and a palm tree.

So, for those almost ready to make the leap, here’s the practical perspective from someone who has now lived here five years, one day.

#10.  Really, really, really investigate that potential apartment.  I’m not making this up: a potential roommate asked me to pretend to be in a relationship with her so that she could keep her rent-controlled apartment.  As I drove across the Washington-Oregon border, she revealed that I might have to pretend to be married to her.  As I crossed the Grapevine, she remembered to mention that I would have to ACTUALLY marry her.  Fortunately, she found another husband before I could sign a lease, so the temptation was removed.  (Hey, you just don’t find a Santa Monica two-bedroom at that price.)  Then I spoke to a kind elderly woman on the phone about renting her back room, but once I got there she revealed that the house was for her AND her toothless, chain smoking partner… oh, AND six cats, 4 yappy chihuahaus, and a trio of cockatiels.  So, yeah.  Do the legowork on picking out a place.   People live with roommates here, more than other places.  Meet them.  Come back to the apartment at night to make sure you feel safe.  Test out what the commute would be like from your workplace.  The traffic is a huge part of what makes here suck, so minimize yours, for your mental health.  And if an add says “must have a sense of humor,” double-check whether that’s code for willingness to legally wed.

#9.  You have no friends.  And you never will.  Staying in touch requires effort.  In Los Angeles, staying in touch requires effort squared.  Hollywood-types carry to-do lists they couldn’t complete given a time-stopping watch and a personal assistant.  You will sincerely like people, and you will sincerely promise to stay in touch, not like all those OTHER people in this city who only SAY they’ll stay in touch.  And then you won’t.  If you live on opposite sides of town, forget it.  The upshot is that Los Angelenos don’t have friends, they have acquaintances.  I think that’s why they form such ridiculously co-dependent relationships with their dogs.

#8.  New York it ain’t.  The city that never sleeps?  That’s on the other coast.  L.A. goes to bed pretty early.  Most establishments close by 10 p.m.  Especially if you live on the West Side, finding a location for late night writing can be tough.  I found an electrical outlet at an IHOP.  (And I’m not telling you where it is.)  Meanwhile, know that CVS sells paper and toner 24 hours.

#7.  Peak hours are for suckers.  Simple errands take ridiculous amounts of time, given the intensity of L.A.  Beat the crowds by getting up early, or waiting until the store is almost closed.  It’ll help with your commute, too.  Within two hours either direction of rush hour, congestion will own you.  But at 10 p.m., L.A. freeways are downright usable.  Going across down takes me 20 minutes on a Sunday evening, and 1.5 hours on Monday.

Continue reading “Ten things I wish someone had told me about moving to Los Angeles.” »

Should I move to L.A.?

I love L.A.! I hate L.A.! If that seems like a contradiction to you, you don’t live here.

Today is my five-year Los Angiversary.  To mark the occasion, I thought I’d help any aspiring entertainment artists out there struggling with the perennial question: Should you move to Los Angeles?

The simple answer (admit it, you already know…) is yes.

pretty, pretty rows of palm treesBut let’s start with why not.  Because it’s hard, and ugly, and gross, that’s why.  It’s a town of selfish people.  They will tell you a string of pretty promises, and then never even let you know when those plans collapse.  If you don’t have the NEED to work in the entertainment industry in your blood–and if you do, you know what I’m talking about–do yourself a favor.  There are many better ways to make a living, and many nicer places to live.  Lots of cities have this much sunshine. Just want the nice weather?  Consider San Diego.

But, if you are cursed with an inability to be happy doing anything else, the benefits will simply outweigh whatever’s keeping you away.

Could you succeed in entertainment from somewhere else? Probably. (Could you change a tire without a jack? Sure. But it’s a lot harder.)

It depends in part on exactly what you want to do. If your career aspiration is YouTube celebrity, you probably have the tools for success available to you in non-L.A.  Perhaps digital technology will decentralize entertainment eventually.  And if you want to write screenplays, a great script gets read no matter where it comes from (However, I recommend keeping your address close to the chest. Consider a virtual address service in L.A.  I wasn’t able to find work down here until I set up a 310 number for myself.)  Meanwhile, if your truest aspiration is to write television, there is no other place where you can do it.  Unless you live in New York (and, most likely, even if you do…) the aspiring TV writer should move here.

Continue reading “Should I move to L.A.?” »

Question: How awesome is it that there are this many pictures of babies being eaten comically?

On sparse stage directions, part two: If it’s good enough for Shakespeare…

Some WriterLast week I mentioned the need to keep your screenplay free of unnecessary stage directions, for the sake of the overworked reader.

There’s another factor: trust.  Let’s say I’m a hotshot director considering letting you attach me to your screenplay.  I flip through your pages, and you’re giving ultra specific descriptions of every last thing I see–when the camera pans; how the actor moves or talks; every detail the green, flowered china teacup resting on the polished mahogany credenza, it’s handle turned 90 degrees away from the protagonist.

Wait a second.  Some of these things (all of them) are MY job!  Now, do I want to do your project?  Or do I instead want to do the other one I neglected to mention I’m also considering?  (I SAID I was a hotshot director.)  The one where the writer left performance choices and mis en scène to MY imagination?  Hint: That last question was rhetorical.  The same goes for art directors, directors of photography, actors and virtually everyone who works on a film.  They’ve all chosen their profession in part because of their love of working creatively, and they don’t want you robbing them of their opportunity to contribute.

So in many ways, it’s a sign of an experienced writer that s/he understands that filmmaking is a collaborative art.  You write the parts you have to write, and you trust some–or even much–of the detail to your team.

If the part of writing you really love is verbally painting all those little details, that’s fine.  You’re a novelist.  Switch your focus.

As my headline suggests, one need look no further than Shakespeare for an example of economy of stage direction.  I doubt you’d  need to take of your socks to count the number of times the Bard uses a stage direction other than Enter, Exit, or Dies in his entire collected works.

And his work has turned into more movies than any writer in history.

On sparse stage directions, part one: No one reads

Will they read your script?A consensus is trending among screenwriting gurus that visual description should happen as little as possible.  The underlying theory is that readers are busy, and more and more they will skim past visual description anyway, deciding from your dialogue alone whether yours is a good project to undertake.

Shouldn’t we be able to depend on a producer, director, or other gatekeeper to consider every last morsel of our writing?  Sure.  But.

Visual descriptions make your script look denser.

And gatekeepers are busy people.  They have dozens more scripts on their desks.  And if they prefer to skim, mostly reading dialogue, then it’s your job to deliver skimmable work, with mostly dialogue.

Not convinced?  Read someone else’s script.  See how long it takes you skip past a visual paragraph to get to the next spoken words.

In meetings for brevityTV, our actors read our scripts aloud to our directors and producers.  One of them will read the stage directions as well.  You don’t have to do that too many times before you realize the potential of overdone stage directions to stifle the flow of an otherwise hilarious script.  Try it for yourself.  My best rewriting advice is to say your words out loud.  You’d be surprised how much different reading your work is from hearing it, even if you’re also the one speaking it.

At the end of the day, if a visual description isn’t ABSOLUTELY necessary to make the reader understand your intent, cut it.

Yes, this advice is as annoying as being told to draft your business presentation with more bullet points.  However, learn this secret: No one wants to read.  Not even (especially?) professional readers.