Saturday, January 24, 2009

Spill-Chick is Not Prefect

Check it out. New President. New LOST. New rant. Has this been a great week or what?

So, boring as it may seem, I’m going to harp on spelling again. Yeah, two weeks in a row. It’s something that keeps coming up in people’s writing, so I feel the need to keep bringing it up here. Plus, for screenwriters, we’re at the top of contest season, heading into the first batch of deadlines, and in my experience at least half of those folks need to do a major draft to check for spelling errors.

And please note once again—hitting spellcheck does not count as a draft.

In fact, that’s the point I want to stress.

Y’see, Timmy, many would-be writers are soft on spelling, because they’ve got computers. As we all know, computers are godlike, telepathic machines that fix all your mistakes, never make any themselves, and have never, ever tried to wipe out humanity by starting a nuclear war. So, it’s not too surprising several would-be writers have become dependent on this popular deus ex machina.

The catch, of course, is that computers aren’t telepathic and they can’t fix all your mistakes. They’re only going to do what you tell them to do. If you don’t realize what you’ve just asked them to do, well... that’s not their fault, is it?

Let me put it this way. As prefect a sit is, smell-chick doesn’t help yew if ill the warts are spilled write but are all jest then wrong wards, doze itch? Another example of this I’ve given before is--

Inn odor two cell eh vampire yew most half a would steak.

Those past few sentences show one of the biggest problems with becoming dependent on your spellchecker. They’re called malonyms, one of those obscure grammar terms which are the written form of homophones. They’re words that sound like other words, but are spelled differently. If we’re talking about scribbling words, we’re not righting, we’re writing. If I’m carving wood, I want to take the knife to a piece of yew, but hopefully not to you (although if this disregard for spelling keeps up, I won’t make any promises...).

A computer can’t spot a malonym, and will let them through that security checkpoint without a glance (computers don’t profile, either). It hasn’t had any problems with this little rant, for example, even though I’m sure you stumbled over a word or six up above.

Now, there’s also a flipside to this problematic coin, for which I shall tell a little story...

A while back I was reading for a screenplay contest and got a borderline horrible script. What was driving me nuts as I went through it was the inclusion of random words, at least one or two per page. Sometimes they were jarring, other times nonsensical. A dozen or so pages into the story our quasi-hero (the script had other issues, too) encountered a corporeal woman behind the counter at a cafeteria. What? I thought Did I miss something? Is this a ghost story now? I went back and re-read the opening pages again, then read the rest of the scene and the scene after it. Then I read the scene again, trying to make sense of it.

Our writer, it turns out, sucks at spelling. Really, really sucks. Was just throwing letters down that kind of looked like a word he or she had heard before. So said writer typed out the script, spell-checked it, and just hit “okay” whenever the program suggested a spelling.

The problem is, again, these programs don’t know what word the writer intended—they just know what the word on the page was kind of close to. Which is why this writer ended up with a corporeal woman behind a counter (when he wanted a corpulent one), and a man leaning by a plague who was filled with sham (it’s funnier if you figure that one out on your own).

See, this is the real problem. In both of these cases, the spellchecker is working flawlessly. The writer, however, is messing up constantly, because he or she doesn’t know how to spell and doesn’t know what words actually mean. And it's this vocabulary failure on the part of the writer which is going to make readers (and editors, and producers...) look at the work with less interest and more criticism.

So, let’s do a quick little test. Pencils out, grab the envelope for that power bill you’ve been meaning to pay, and let’s begin...

Chords and Cords - one (and only one) of these words deals with music. Which one?

Very and Vary - one of these words means to change.

Peek, Peak, and Pique one (and only one) of these words means the top.

Dependent and Dependant - one of these words refers to a person.

Here, Heir, and Hear – one of these words refers to a sense.

Its and It’s – one (and only one) of these words is possessive

Their, There, and They’re - one of these words is a location

Trusty and Trustee - one of these words is a title.

Reign, Rein, and Rain – one of these words deals with emperors.

Compliment and Complement – one (and only one) of these words means that things work well together. Like some words do.

So, got all your answers? Are you ready to grade this little test?

Guess what—it doesn’t matter if you picked the right words. It only matters if you knew all the words, what they mean, and how to use them correctly. Every single one of them. Knowing one out of three doesn’t cut it.

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, there are lots of people who will try to convince others (or themselves) that the words you use and how you spell them somehow does not matter in writing. That such pedestrian things should be the very least of your worries. There are also, oddly enough, lots of writers who have never been published, produced, or made the first cut in a contest.

It’s dismissed as coincidence.

Next week I want to talk about the path of least resistance and going with the flow. Although probably not in the way you’re thinking.

Until then, go write.

And spell things correctly so I don’t have to knife yew.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Many Uses of Spam

Does this look familiar to you, my dozen or so semi-faithful readers...?


Hello Dear Freind,

I am sorry to infirm you that your distant uncle has past away while working in the oil fields hear in Angola. However, before his death he has mentioned you many time’s and it is my belief that he would have wanted you named as his primary hair. It may come as an surprise that your uncle was, in fat, a very wealth men at the time of his deaths.

I is a executive managerial from Nigeria who works with the same company as your uncle. I would like very much to send to you your inheritance, which sums to several hundred thousand’s of dollar’s. However, in order to do this, I will be requiring both your primary bank account number’s there in the United State’s and a small sum of money to cover many probate court costs here and therefore expedition the release of you’re funds...


I think most of us have received this email, or some variation of it, once or thrice over... well, probably even just over the past year, yes? If you haven’t seen this before, PayPal ten dollars immediately to the email address given with this blog and I’ll shoot you the rest of it to read at your leisure.

Y’notice what’s interesting, though? You don’t even have to go to the end of the first paragraph before you know this is a waste of your time. In fact, your brain has already made the automatic “waste of time” decision long before this executive managerial mentions money or starts asking for your account numbers, right?

Why? Because it’s written by someone who has only the barest (if any) grasp of the English language. And we all know there’s just a certain point of literacy someone needs to hit in order to be taken seriously.

This is why spelling matters so much to aspiring writers.

Now, a few folks will tell you that the strength of your writing will carry it past such things, and you shouldn’t worry about it. And, to a small degree, they’re right. Are misspelled words fatal? No, of course not. After all, there’s still a decent chance someone could finish a marathon after shooting themselves in each foot, right? Would you really want to bet on the odds of them winning that marathon, though...? I mean, you’d pretty much need to be the Flash to start with if you think you can get shot in the foot and still have a solid chance of winning, right?

If you think about it, spelling and grammar are the strength of your writing. They’re the foundation that holds up everything else. You may have the most brilliant short story, gripping screenplay, or Nobel-prize worthy novel there’s ever been, but if people are losing the flow while they try to decipher your second sentence then this little magnum opus is never going to be read.

This is also, for the record, why writers don’t get downtime. I see lots of folks who think email or message boards don’t count as “real” writing. So they don’t bother with spelling, capitalization, punctuation, or grammar when they’re online. Some try to argue that they don’t treat their manuscripts this way, but again... the “waste of time” decision has probably already been made by people dealing with them.

Now, again, this isn’t meant to make you completely paranoid. There will always be a random typo that slips through, and just because you put it’s instead of its or swapped letters in refrigreator doesn’t mean your work is gong to be tossed in the large pile on the left. Everyone makes a mistake now and then. Heck, one of my friends gleefully plays the part of phantom editor for me and she manages to catch one or two things a week that slip past me while composing these little rants.

If you’ve got a typo on every page though? Or two or three? Especially ones that show you don’t even know what the word means?

If you can’t get past that, you’ll have better luck getting your uncle’s money out of Nigeria.

Next week I’ll blather on about how simple homonyms can outwit your computer with their ayes closed.

Until then, get back to writing.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

You Know You Twist So Fine...

So, enough with the ranting about only-loosely-writing-related matters. Let’s get back to the important stuff.

A few weeks back I went on about some of the tricks to writing a solid mystery. Today I’d like to talk about mystery’s fraternal twin-- the twist.

I say fraternal twin because they look a lot alike at first glance, and share a similar DNA. It’s not uncommon for a mystery to have a solution that’s a bit of a twist. A good twist may also result in a few minor mysteries. They’re two very separate things, though, and each can exist without the other.

A correctly done twist makes a reader say something out loud (what depends on your own personal favorite interjective). It sucks all the air out of the theater as the audience takes one huge, collective sharp breath.

That’s also why it’s always apparent when a writer can’t tell the difference between the two and is using them incorrectly. Which happens far too often, in my experience. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that confuse a mystery with a twist, and a twist with someone going “HAH!!” really loud for no reason. If you’re not sure which one you’re doing, or how to do them, things can get ugly (and confusing, and pointless) very fast.

So, let’s stand the two of them next to each other and take a look.

As hinted at before, a mystery is when the main character and the audience are aware that a piece (or pieces) of information has been hidden or kept from them, and the story usually involves the search for that unknown fact. Who murdered Professor Peach in the library with the lead pipe? How did the killer get out of this locked room? What the heck does “Rosebud” mean? How did that ancient mummy come to life, and why is it so eager to get that old coin? At its simplest, a mystery is a question someone in your story is asking and trying to find the answer to.

A twist, on the other hand, is when a piece of information is revealed that your characters and the audience didn’t know was being kept from them. When a twist appears, it comes from out of the blue, a complete surprise to everyone. They don’t even suspect those facts are out there, waiting to affect the story.

That’s part two of a correctly-done twist. It’s very relevant to the story. The fact that I have a mother and father is not really a twist. Neither is the fact that I grew up within a mile of a large amusement park, nor that I like Doctor Who. They are revealed information, yes, but that doesn’t make them twists. This newly revealed information should not only affect everything that happens from here on in, it should also make the audience look back at everything that’s already occurred in a new light. As the term implies, it should twist how they see things. Stories and novels with a well-done twist are great to read a second time because all those earlier chapters take on a different meaning. The same goes for re-watching films that have a great twist in them.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense is the usual example of a story with a great twist. While it does meet every one of these criteria, for my personal taste, that twist happens too far into the story. That’s just me, but I’m the one writing this so I get to pull rank. I personally prefer the wonderfully theater-vacuum-creating Dead Again, by genius screenwriter Scott Frank and starring/ directed by Kenneth Branagh. I’m about to spoil it for you to give examples, so if you haven’t seen it you probably want to stop reading. Seriously. Just go watch it first, because it’s a phenomenal story and the reveals will make you scream.

So, two parts for a successful twist—

First, the audience doesn’t know the information is being withheld. In Dead Again, neither Mike Church (Branagh) nor the audience have any reason to wonder who Madson was as a child, so they don’t. I mean, he was just a young version of himself, right, like everyone else was?

Second, the twist changes everything. Once we know little Frankie and Madson are one and the same, every scene takes on a new light. His eagerness to help. The attempts to seperate Mike and Grace. The history of the antique scissors. Watching Dead Again the second time makes for an entirely different movie than the first time you see it.

If you’ve put a twist in your writing, just check and see if it meets these two simple requirements. It’s withheld information the character and the audience are completely unaware of. It’s also a relevant fact (or facts) that changes their perspective of all the story elements that have passed and alters the flow of the story with its reveal.

Two step process. Nice and easy. Feel free to take it on a test drive.

Next week, some important tips from this Nigerian prince who just contacted me. Until then, get back to writing.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

It's not WHO you know...

When I started this little collection of rants, what I wanted was to present helpful tips for writers. To be more specific, for writing. I see blogs and articles and courses about ancillary stuff (getting an agent, finding a market, and so on), but very few that just deal with the act of writing. So I figure that’s covered, I’ll just dole out a lot of the basic, practical advice I wish someone had given me way back when that I had to build up the hard way. Like the tee-shirt says, experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.

All that being said, a rash of recent incidents have convinced me to address one thing. Next week, back to writing tips. For now, this is going to be even more of a rant than normal...

Over the holidays I received a good double-handful of requests for me to read manuscripts or help get those manuscripts in front of people. Some here, some on Facebook, some through email. Maybe one-fifth of them came from people I somewhat know, and only two of those were from people I consider friends. A decent number of them were waves of spam, sent to every email on the Creative Screenwriting website. One guy on Facebook proudly started out declaring “You don’t know me and I don’t know you,” then proceeded to ask me to help him get his script in front of people.

Back in my day (he said, stroking his long white beard) it was simple. You went to your favorite bar on Friday and had a few drinks. You eventually became a regular. You built up casual acquaintances and maybe even loose friendships with some of the other regulars at the bar. Friday was the day you and Jason and David met up and complained about your respective offices.

Except it turns out David works for a studio. And one day, while you’re rattling on about how much better the LA Kings were back in ’97, David would suddenly say “Hey... tell me again about that script you wrote. The one about the guy with the thing and the girl with the whatsis...” You tell David. David tells his boss. David’s boss buys your script. Velvet ropes part. Champagne rains down from the heavens.

That was what networking used to be. Real networking, the type you barely see any more, came from real connections that were built over time. Someone you’d talk to even if they weren’t the assistant to so-and-so or the head of such-and-such, and someone you’d keep talking to even if they couldn’t help you with anything.

Yes, networking used to be a good thing.

Nowadays, it tends to make people cringe.

Y’see, Timmy, in the past few years the idea of networking has been supplanted by a sort of bastard, nightmare version of what networking is supposed to be. People are going out with the specific purpose of networking, which kind of defeats the whole nature of it. I blame a lot of this on gurus who don’t have any real advice to peddle, so they preach something nice and generic that’s impossible to define and easy to deflect when it doesn’t pay off.

I think the idea of networking appeals to a lot of folks because it’s the magic bullet. You don’t actually need to be able to write a novel or screenplay—you just need to attend all the correct parties, hang out on the right message boards, or be in the right elevator at the right time. Networking implies that skill and ability are secondary traits, and that to succeed you just need to know the right people.

For the record, not one of the following things count as networking. Under any circumstances. No matter what. No exceptions.

--Spamming someone’s email account.

--Spamming someone on Facebook or MySpace.

--Going to a party with the express purpose of cornering someone.

--Joining a group (real world or online) with the express purpose of cornering someone.

--Sneaking a script to someone.

--Trading two emails with someone.

--Having a phone call with someone.


I have to be honest—I loathe networking. Despise it. Mostly because so many people have made it into an active thing. They go to parties and join blogs and sign into message boards for no other purpose but to find someone who will be useful to their career. And it shows. It really shows. I don’t like doing it, and I don’t like it when people do it to me. Usually when, after exchanging less than a handful of fairly standard pleasantries, they’re begging you to look at their manuscript and give them feedback.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with helping out friends. This past year, in between work assignments and finishing my own novel, I helped four different friends with novels and screenplays they were working on. Most of them got a few pages of notes, opinions, and suggestions. And I was happy to do it.

Let’s shift gears (nice lead in), though, and look at it this way. Would you try to find your mechanic’s Facebook page, insist he “friend” you, and then ask him to fix your car? Or would you search for clues about what bars or restaurants he frequents so you could “casually” bump into him there? Can you picture yourself slipping your car into his parking lot and hoping he just fixes it? Heck, imagine showing up at his garage unannounced and saying “Hey, I’ve got a car here I’d like you to take a look at. I’m sure you’re going to want to fix it once you get a look. If not, though, maybe you could spend a few hours giving me some tips and showing me how to fix it myself...”

A story...

Many years back, I prop mastered the pilot for a fairly high-profile and successful show on the SciFi Channel. During prep I somehow ended up talking to the creator/executive producer and somehow (I couldn’t tell you how if my life depended on it, but I remember we were in the wardrobe office for some reason) we ended up talking about monsters and an old ‘70s DC comic book called The Creature Commandos. If you don’t know what it is, don’t worry. They tried to do a “cool” update of it a few years back and I understand it fell flat on its face.

Anyway, said creator was stunned that I actually knew who and what the Creature Commandos were. We ended up talking a lot through the course of the shoot and becoming friends. We talked about things he wanted to do with the script and the points that did and didn’t work in the version we were shooting (I understand he even credits me in the DVD commentary for helping him work through some of the plot problems). We also talked about other stories, movies, television shows and what mixes better with tequila (we filmed for a few weeks in Mexico and, hard as this may to believe, there were one or two incidents of after-work drinking). To be honest, we’re still talking and drinking today. Well, not this actual day, but in the sense of “ten years later...”

Have I ever asked him to pimp one of my scripts? Nope. He made a casual offer for me to pitch to his SciFi show back in the day, and we bounced a few ideas off each other, but he had to leave the show early on for personal reasons and that was that. But, as I said, we're still sharing stories over our favorite poisons.
Here’s the secret to networking. Here’s why all those lunches and power hours and emails will always fail.

Let me repeat that, because I’m using an absolute, which I try not to do a lot here. Active networking will always fail.


Because at heart, real networking is passive. It’s true connections and honest friendships. You can’t force that kind of stuff. It just has to happen.

So stop wasting your time with half-assed, clumsy attempts to network and do something useful.

Work on your writing, for example.

Next week, more useful tips. With a twist.