Toss a coin to your Witcher

Listen: I am not one of those people who watches movies or shows to find 23 hidden easter eggs in Baby Yoda’s bowl of bone broth or whatever. I DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR THAT.

In fact, I have about five minutes to write this, and no, I did not play the Witcher game, or read the novels, so we are not diving deep into whatever Witcher craziness you’re into.

HOWEVER: If you own some form of Glowing Screen, whether it’s (1) a supercomputer in your pocket that was once used to make these things called telephone calls or (b) the lastest 120-inch, 8k television that cost more than my car, even though there is no 8k content to play on your expensive toy, then you should (c) fire up Netflix and watch all of THE WITCHER.

The whole thing. Start to finish.

Skip through the boring bits, though there aren’t many.

Here’s what I think they did right, what they could’ve done better, and why I’m looking forward to SEASON 2: THE WITCHER GRUNTS SLIGHTLY MORE DIALOGUE WHILE KILLING EVERYTHING.

What they did right

All the actors. Seriously. 

All. Of. Them.

You may not know the name Henry Cavill right off, though you will remember the last actor who played Superman in a couple of movies, and the bad guy in the last Mission Impossible, and yeah, it’s that guy.

He’s amazing.

I won’t name all the other characters. The bard is funny, the sorceress is cool, the bad guys are sufficiently bad and scary. It’s well done.

Also good: sets, costumes, special effects. You know, all the things.

What they really did well: building up to a climactic battle where the good guys lose. 

What they could’ve done better

Honestly, the only real flaw is jumping around in time.

I didn’t take notes, because nobody was making me write a term paper on this thing. 

Halfway through, though, I’m wondering if all the queens in this thing are brunettes, and is this other queen related to the one I remember dying? Then five episodes later, I figure out oh, that’s not the dead queen’s sister or cousin, ruler of some other land, that’s the same dead queen, just earlier in time.

It’s not super clear. And honestly, the story would’ve worked chronologically, which is just a fancy way of saying, “Without jumping around in time like a rabid squirrel.”

Why I’m looking forward to Season 2

Not just because of the good acting, writing, sets, effects and all that.

Mostly because the showrunners had the guts and wisdom to put their heroes up a tree and throw rocks at them.

They really do lose the battle at the climax of the season. Things are not Good.

I like that.

It makes for better storytelling.

If the Witcher killed every monster and won the battle at the end of Season 1, why would you worry or care about what happens in Season 2? You’d expect him to keep on kicking butt. It would be a romp, and yes, romps can be kinda fun, like when your favorite football team absolutely smokes the Patriots, or when the hero of an action movie punches and kicks his way through 492 bad guys armed with meat cleavers and such.

Romps, though, aren’t actually that interesting or fun to the audience.

The Witcher was plenty of fun. 11/10 would watch again.

And just for kicks, here’s the cast of the show talking about it.

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

Photo by Nic McPhee

As is my custom, and habit, and my Bobby Brown prerogative, I’m going to go with the first page — as printed.

You know, printed with ink at these places we used to call “stores full of books,” where you handed the nice folks who live there paper decorated with dead presidents and they let you walk out with ALL KINDS OF YUMMY BOOKS.

So if you read the first page of this thing on a Kindle or iPad or Atari 2600, your page 1 will doubtless look different and such. Please give my regards to the Complaint Department.

After a line edit of Page 1, we’ll talk about our general literary impressions — about how metaphors are like similes, only different; about how my hatred of semi-colons runs deeper than my loathing of A-Rod; and how somebody wrote a mainstream and incredibly successful novel about sexy nonsense without putting any sort of sexy nonsense whatsoever on page 1.

Note: I’m striking out text, with any replaced text or notes in red, because my version of this novel would be called ONE SHADE OF RED after all the red ink we spill on this thing. Also, I don’t know what happened to this post. A friend wants to use it as an editing example, so I’ve resurrected it and updated the piece a little. Enjoy.

Also: If you have a famous novel with a brilliantly awful first page that needs serious red ink, send me your nomination.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.  (This may be a world record: bam, in the first sentence, she breaks a cardinal rule of fiction writing: don’t tell readers what the hero or heroine looks like by having them stare into a mirror, gaze upon their reflection in a pond or, I don’t know, whip out their driver’s license and say, “Huh, five-foot-ten, a hundred and twenty pounds, red hair, green eyes and a few freckles. Howbout that?” Ugh. This is not exactly “Call me Ishmael.”) Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. (Unless the heroine’s hair is crucial to the plot — unless she starts out with unruly hair in Act 1, switches to a bob in Act 2 and shows how much she’s grown and changed by rocking a purple Mohawk in Act 3, the hair, it is Boring, and a Distraction. Also, nobody refers to friends and such by their full name. If she’s your bestie, you say “Katherine.”) I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. (Enough already with the hair. Seriously. The only two words with any kind of real conflict and potential are “final exams,” and unless she flunks those, and therefore gets kicked out of university and has to live under a bridge in a cardboard box, it does not matter for the story.) Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. (More about the hair? MORE? Not necessary, not interesting and not entertaining, unless her hair is secretly a sentient being, organizing a plot to take over the world, one follicle at a time. I’m guessing Bruce Willis, being immune from such attacks, will foil this plot.) I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. (Back to the staring-at-the-mirror trick, which has to go. Find another way to describe the heroine.) My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable. (Now we’re beating the Dead  Hair Horse on its way to the glue factory.)

Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu. Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never heard of, for the student newspaper. (Awkward. First reference is Katherine Kavanaugh and now she’s Kate — just call her Kate both times, and let’s clean this whole thing up. Also, how many student newspapers score interviews with “mega-industrial tycoons” … who you’ve never heard of? If they’re really mega, then you have herd of them. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and so forth. If they you haven’t heard of them, they aren’t mega at all. Edited text follows in red.) Kate is my roommate and she’s chosen today, of all days, to succumb to the flu. That means I’m stuck interviewing some industrial tycoon for the student newspaper. So I have been volunteered. (Redundant.) I have final exams to cram for, (already said that) one essay to finish, and I’m supposed to be working this afternoon, but no – today I have to drive a hundred and sixty-five miles to downtown Seattle in order to meet the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. As an exceptional entrepreneur and major benefactor of our university, his time is extraordinarily precious – much more precious than mine – but he has granted Kate an interview. A real coup, she tells me.

Damn her extracurricular activities. (The last sentences were brought to you by the letter E: enigmatic, exceptional entrepreneur, extraordinarily, extracurricular. There are other modifiers that start with the letter E: extraneous, excruciating and ejector seat. I am looking for the handle, because it’s time to pull it.)

Kate is huddled on the couch in the living room.

“Ana, I’m sorry. It took me nine months to get this interview. It will take another six to reschedule, and we’ll both have graduated by then. As the editor, I can’t blow this off. Please,” Kate begs me in her rasping, sorethroat (compound modifier) voice. How does she do it? Even ill 

(end of page 1)

Editing notes

Are you kidding me? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

So this the first bit of a novel that sold a gazillion copies and rocked the literary world. It starts with an extended riff about wet hair and ponytails, as the author tells us how the heroine looks by having her look in a flipping mirror, goes back to the hair, uses every adjective and adverb in her dictionary that starts with the letter E and sets up the incredibly high stakes of whether or not a college student can tame her unruly hair and cram for her finals when she is forced — FORCED — to drive to Seattle and interview some billionaire for her friend.

I thought THE FOUNTAINHEAD was a bad Page 1, but Ayn Rand is flipping Shakespeare compared to this first bit. Related: The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

God bless anybody who sells a ton of books or movie tickets. I adore books and movies, and the more people read books, and see good movies, the better.

HOWEVER: the first page of a book is a lot like the trailer for a movie. You start out with your best stuff, and it’s a rock-solid guarantee that the writing doesn’t get magically better ten pages or 100 pages later. The first page, and the first chapter, get polished and polished until they are a shiny diamond made of words.

Maybe you could argue this book is the one exception to that rule. From the reviews of this book, though, that’s not the case.

Why did it sell so well?

I believe, deep in my soul, that packaging matters more than the product.

The title of a book — or a movie, or a TV show — can save your bacon or kill you dead.

The cover of a book, or poster for a movie, is the next most important thing, because it’s what people see when they decide what to buy in Barnes and Noble or what to see on Friday night at those giant buildings where popcorn costs $9 a bucket.

You can’t pitch quality.

If you gave this a more typical title for the genre, and a more typical book cover, you’d probably end up with a title like A BUSINESS AFFAIR and some kind of Ryan Gosling looking guy wearing a suit on the cover with the heroine nearby, messing with her ponytail while she wears the highest of high heels and a business suit with a skirt that is just this side of immodest. Or the cover would feature a blindfold and a pair of handcuffs. That sort of thing. You know, something like this:

See? Here we go. The cover above isn’t just a good representation of what I’m talking about. I bet it’s a far, far better book. If you gave FIFTY SHADES OF GREY a more normal title like this, and more typical cover, I would bet you my house, my car and my first-born son that the book would not sell like hotcakes and get turned into movies.

The unusual title and cover isn’t a side issue. I believe it’s the entire reason this book went viral.

True story: guess what the author of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO wanted as a title for his novel? Go ahead. Guess.

Here’s the answer: MEN WHO HATE WOMEN.

Raise your hand if you think that title would have set the world on fire and led to hit movies.

The title and cover — the packaging — are 90 percent of the battle.

The packaging matters more than the product.

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is an interesting, literary title. The cover photo of a grey tie is also atypical of the genre and really stands out. The combined effect gives the book a literary veneer.

Some people might feel embarrassed getting on Flight 435 to Frankfurt and pulling out a paperback with A BUSINESS AFFAIR on the cover with a blindfold and handcuffs on the cover. And you can bet the male audience for such books is hard to find with a microscope.

Give it the gloss of lit-rah-sure, though, and that makes it okay for some people to read what they might never do: romance and erotica. 

And hey, I respect the hell out of romance authors. Have learned a ton from them. So I’m not talking smack about the genre here–I’m specifically talking smack about the first page of this specific book. There are far, far better examples of romance out there. Amazing writers. Go support them.

FIFTY SHADES reminds me of the early Eric van Lustbader novels, like THE NINJA, which I think were hot sellers because they slipped in naughty bits to readers — mostly men — who expected, I don’t know, ninjas sneaking around at night and fighting. It was like a James Bond movie where they didn’t fade out when 007 kissed the girl. I can tell you 14-year-old boys around the globe had their minds blown. You can print this kind of stuff without getting arrested? I can buy it at the store and they don’t ask for ID? NO WAY.

And let’s give respect where it’s due: there’s an editor somewhere who came up with this title, and a cover designer who thought up the idea, got the right photo and nailed it. 

Open up that brilliant cover, though, and you eventually get to the first page, which is a hot mess. And from the reviews, it doesn’t get better on page 2 or 152.

VERDICT

I truly thought, deep in my soul, that you couldn’t top the first page of THE FOUNTAINHEAD for a famous novel that is famously bad. But yes, we have a new champion.

Ripley sums up my mood here.

Exactly why THE MANDALORIAN crushes all three STAR WARS prequels

Listen, the short and Cheaty McCheatypants answer to this question is simple: Baby Yoda is TOTES ADORBS.

Yet the real answer goes a lot deeper than that, and there are lessons here in terms of story and structure. As somebody who grew up watching the original trilogy and hating the prequels, it gives me joy to see THE MANDALORIAN doing everything the opposite of the silly prequels.

Warning: this post is full of spoilers. I mean, completely packed with them, like chocolate chips in a gooey cookie. 

Reason No. 1: Sparse, Memorable Dialogue versus The Worst Dialogue in the History of Cinema

The Mandalorian doesn’t talk much, and The Child (Baby Yoda) doesn’t talk at all. And mostly, they don’t need to, with a lot of storytelling done through visuals.

But when there is dialogue, it’s interesting and memorable. Two simple phrases are already being spread around IRL: “I have spoken” and “This is the way.”

In the three sequels, the dialogue is wooden, long and terrible. Nobody in the office is riffing off “I hate sand” unless they’re making fun of the sequels.

Reason No. 2: Gritty and Real versus CGI Fakeness

You can’t immediately tell what’s CGI and what’s a practical effect in THE MANDALORIAN, and they’re clearly leaning hard on practical effects and settings that are real, gritty and dirty.

Mando’s cape is torn. He’s always getting muddy, dusty or shot up.

In the sequels, everything is CGI’d to death. It feels too clean, too perfect, too fake.

Reason No. 3: Atmosphere versus Spectacle

Sure, there are giant battles and amazing special effects in the sequels. George Lucas put all his special effects people to serious work. 

THE MANDALORIAN is about atmosphere, mood and characters that you care about–which makes the action smaller in scale and far more important to the audience. 

Reason No. 4: Natural Humor versus Forced Dad Jokes

I love how there’s a lot of physical humor in the new series, along with unexpected surprises like the Jawas, who are a real problem after scrapping Mando’s ship but also a great bit of comic relief. You need that when Mando is basically the Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood) in all those spaghetti westerns.

The humor reminds me a lot of what we saw in the first few Indiana Jones movies, and in the original trilogy. 

In the sequels, what passed for humor were essentially flat lines of dialogue–dad jokes–and the physical humor we got were things like Jar-Jar Binks being incredibly clumsy. No. Just no.

Reason No. 4: Making Us Care and Want More versus Telling Us Too Much and Expecting Us to Care

Exposition is ammunition. We hear just enough about Mando through dialogue from other characters and from his actions.

That taste, and the mystery about him, makes us want to know more.

In the sequels, we got lectures about senate politics and midi-chloridians. It was not pretty. 

Reason No. 5: Real Surprises versus We Know Exactly What Will Happen

There are constant surprises in THE MANDALORIAN, but each payoff has setups that make sense. 

In the sequels, we knew where the story would wind up, even when the setups weren’t really there, and there weren’t a ton of surprises on the way there. Nobody really suffered or changed except Anakin and Padme; all the other characters were flat. Obi-Wan and the Emporer didn’t really change from the first movie to the last. Neither did anybody else.

Mando is really an anti-hero. He does his job as a bounty hunter brutally and efficiently, including capturing The Child, and his decision to go back and save CUTE BABY YODA from the stormtroopers is not quick or easy. In fact, how they do it is rather neat, and done completely through visuals when he makes that decision. Beautiful.

Other characters also make surprising choices that do make sense, like the Jawas agreeing to trade The Egg for all of Mando’s ship parts. A less skilled writer would have had Mando hunt down the Jawas in their sandcrawler and shoot his way to those parts. 

Verdict

The acid test for me is, “Would I watch this again?”

If you want to get completely serious, expand on that scale with, “How much would you have to PAY ME to watch this again” compared to “How much would I willingly PAY to see this again, whether it’s in a theater or on a magic smartphone?”

I’ve already watched all three episodes again. Did not get tired of them at all, and would happily watch all three again tomorrow. They’re fun and interesting. 

The three sequels? You’d have to pay me to watch even one of them again. 

Well done, Jon F., Deborah Chow, Pedro Pascal, Nick Nolte (what?!!), Carl Weathers (yes!) and everybody else involved in this show. You’ve restored my faith in Star Wars. 

Writing should spark joy–in you and the reader

Yes, that headline is an intentional nod to Marie Kondo and her method of tidying up, where you hold up each possession and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?”

I keep seeing some writers talk about how hard, or even painful, writing can be. 

And sure, writing at a high level isn’t easy. It takes a lot of time, talent and sweat.

Yet I’m going to argue that conventional wisdom here is completely wrong. The entire process of writing and editing not only can be, but SHOULD BE, a joy. And if it’s not, you should switch things around to make it fun rather than torture.

Reason Number 1: A better product

Humans are designed, through millions of years of evolution, to seek out pleasure and avoid pain.

If your writing and editing process are inherently painful, your body and brain will rebel every time you sit down at the keyboard or pick up a pen.

That’s unhealthy and unsustainable. And it makes for a bad product, because you’ll rush through it as fast as you can, to get that pain over with.

I’m not arguing against speed here. Writing fast, and in the flow, is a beautiful thing that should be embraced.

Yet if the process itself is painful, you’re going to (a) avoid it, (b) catch writer’s block a helluva lot and (c) not produce what you’re capable of doing.

Reason Number 2: You have to make a mountain, then let things go

Marie Kondo’s key instruction when tidying up is to make a mountain–of your clothes, your books, your papers, whatever it is you’re cleaning up. Then you go through each item and decide whether it sparks joy. If it doesn’t, you give it away to Goodwill, recycle it or send it off to Never Never Land.

Writing anything important should begin the same way.

Never try to research and edit while your write a first draft. Make a mountain of your research, ideas and notes. Look at each item. Does it spark joy?

Put the ones that spark joy in a special file or folders.

Keep the marginal things in Give Away place, a scratch file. This is also a good way to let yourself edit ruthlessly, and avoid feeling terrible about possibly killing words that took you hours to research and write. You’re keeping them in a safe home. They’ll be fine, and you can recycle them for something else if needed.

Trash what you’ll never use. And surprisingly, doing all this tends to cut your mountain down to a hill that’s only 25 percent of your original pile.

When you’re only dealing with a tiny hill instead of a mountain, writing anything of length becomes insanely easier. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, you feel confident, and all the raw material’s you’re working with spark joy. 

Writing anything of length takes discipline to get through the hard parts. Which will happen.

Joy is the fuel that gets you over those speed bumps. It’s hard to crank away at something kind of boring, like proofing a document, or doing layout, if you don’t have a reward waiting on the other side. If you only anticipate more drudgery and pain, why push through it?

Cutting down your mountain of raw material to a small hill that sparks joy also helps make these tough spots a lot smaller and more manageable. 

Reason Number 3: You have to feel the emotion you want readers to feel 

This is literally the advice we give, as speechwriters, because simply delivering lines without mangling them–in a speech, a play or a movie–isn’t enough.

You have to actually feel the raw emotions you want your audience to feel.

Because an audience doesn’t feel what you TELL them to feel. They mirror your emotions.

And I’ll argue that the best writing and speaking evoke the emotions of joy and wonder.

Sure, there are times in novel, screenplay or speech when you want the audience to feel sad or angry. But you can’t write anything of length that’s entirely angry or 100 percent sad. There has to be a mixture of emotions.

What do people want? They want joy, wonder and laughter. The other emotions, like anger, fear, sadness and horror, are powerful spices you can’t pour into a dish. They need to be used carefully and sparingly.

The best writing I do is full of joy and wonder because that’s what I feel while writing it. And yes, if you’re doing a story or speech about something sad, it’s a good sign that you tear up while writing it. If I don’t cry a little when writing something profoundly sad, then I’m doing another draft. 

And if something buried in your mountain doesn’t spark joy–whether it’s a chapter in your epic novel about elves with lightsabers and the trolls who love them, a play where all the actors are hanging upside down the entire time or the process by which you edit and proof something–try something else. 

Talk to other writers and editors on Twitter, by email or in person at conferences. They’re a friendly bunch. Ask what they’ve figured out to make some of the hardest and sometimes painful tasks into activities that are fun. Personally, I find the final spell-check and editing of a novel to be a long, hard slog, so I’ve turned it onto a game to see how many words I can kill, especially repetitive words or phrases. And now it’s a kick in the paints.

So please, embrace the pleasure of writing and editing. Feel the emotions you want the audience to feel. All of them.

Because writing and reading should do always, always spark joy and wonder. 

JESSICA JONES repeats the same storytelling mistake as GAME OF THRONES

So the last season of GAME OF THRONES went sideways, according to All the Fans–and as somebody who’s now watched all three seasons of JESSICA JONES, the writers and showrunners make the same storytelling mistake with the ending.

And listen, the ending is everything.

How can a gritty, superhero series screw up in the same way as an epic with swords and dragons? 

Here’s how. (Warning: this whole post is Spoily McSpoilerface.)

Reason No. 1: Always save the Big Bad Guy for the finale

For five-point-seven billion years, GAME OF THRONES built up the icy blue Avatar-looking guy, the Night King, as the Big Bad of the series.

At the same time, the show served up the Mother of Dragons and her cousin/boyfriend Jon Snow as heroes, as far as what passes for heroes go in a story where everybody is a murderous nutbag.

But there’s no real protagonist in this giant cast, and Ayra is the one who offs the Night King long before the final episode.

Same thing with the last season of JESSICA JONES.

For all of Season 3, the Big Bad was this serial killer known as Salinger.

But instead of saving a confrontation with the villain for the finale, we get meh from both series.

The Night King’s death should have been saved for the last episode, with the Mother of Dragons or Jon Snow being the fan favorites to sit on the Iron Throne.

Instead, the Night King got killed and the show became a hot mess. Nobody was aching to see Emilia lose it and have her dragon fry the city, or see Kit stab his former lover, or have Bron-whatever take the throne for some random reason after Tyrion goes all Jar-Jar in the Galactic Senate on us. No. Just no.

JESSICA JONES repeats the same mistake. Salinger gets offed before the final episode.

Reason No. 2: Once the Big Bad is dead, your momentum goes buh-bye.

Let’s talk about other movies we’ve all seen for a second and play this out.

RETURN OF THE JEDI — Instead of Vader tossing Emperor Wrinkly Face down the bottomless pit and the Death Star getting blown up, all that happens in Act 2, with the entirely of Act 3 all about how Luke has to hunt down and fight Han Solo after he went nuts and helped the Ewoks slaughter and barbeque 15,000 Imperial stormtrooper prisoners.

Terrible, right? This is much better.

You have to save the Big Bad for the final act, the final episode, the last thing. Anything else makes the story out of order and flat.

Reason No. 3: If you’re going for tragedy, you have to fully commit

A mixed ending can be amazing. Some of the best movies and books have mixed endings.

CASABLANCA has the hero giving up the girl for a greater cause–beating Hitler and winning World War II.

But a mixed ending is also tough to pull off. 

When you get audience rooting for a character, and seeing them as a hero, it’s tough to see those character take a heel turn at the last minute.

In fact, audiences reject it. 

This is why tragedies fully commit.

They show the full fall from grace, from beginning to end, with the protagonist serving as both hero and villain. And the protagonist falls due to their own hand, via hubris.

BREAKING BAD did this perfectly. Sure, you saw things from Walter White’s point-of-view, and rooted for him a lot of time, but his ending felt absolutely right. He’d definitely sinned, and his downfall was deserved.

If you’re going with a tragedy, do it from the beginning with the protagonist. Not a side character like Trish.

It can work for the main character hero to sacrifice themselves for the sake of a secondary character. That’s not a tragic ending; it’s noble and heroic. See PRIVATE RYAN and ARMAGEDDON and five zillion other movies.

 

Why heavy writing requires heavy equipment

Firing up Word is fine for writing anything short. For anything big–novels, screenplays and such–you need specialized tools. 

Believe me. I’ve done it both ways, and trying to do something large and important on a word processor will drive you to drink.

Word processors don’t cut it 

Writing a big project is like building a house. To keep on track and make sure the thing doesn’t fall down, you need (a) solid blueprints and (b) heavy equipment.

Short writing projects are like the little bits you can tackle in your garage, with the tools sitting around and the scrap wood in the far corner. 

And sure, you can try to wrestle Word into doing heavy lifting by going wild with navigation options and headings. It’s sorta possible.

Sorta.

Yet no matter how hard you try to force Word into being able to handle a giant project, it’s like trying to excavate the foundation of your new house with a shovel instead of a bulldozer.

Even if you try to organize a single Word file that is organized enough to hold all three acts of a screenplay or all 100,000 words of your epic tale of when the elves rose up against the great tyrant, Santa the Claws, there’ll be all kinds of OTHER files hanging around.

A file about settings and another for characters. One for ideas and notes.

Another for loose text you cut out of a scene but might want to use elsewhere. You get the idea.

Switching between all those files is tough. Just getting a feel for things are is hard. How many words are all the chapters in Act 2 right now versus all of Act 1? Dunno. Get ready for a whole lot of highlighting and scrolling.

One tool to rule them all

I don’t care what you pick–Scrivener, yWriter, Manuskript, OneNote, Atomic Scribbler–as long as you test drive a bunch. For starving artists and writers out there, some of those choices are open source and free.

Try them all and pick one. You won’t go back.

There’s nothing like being able to see the whole project at a glance, then dive into different bits without digging around for which Word file or folder you put in all that stuff about pickpockets in Istanbul.

I just typed THE END on a novel written in Scrivener (yes! very excited about this one, and to beta readers, let’s chat). Am in the middle of transferring into Word for the final formatting and editing. Believe me, writing 80,000 words in Scrivener was a happy walk in the park compared to when I climbed that mountain using Word.

Haven’t used every single alternative, though I use OneNote at work and home and it’s both (a) pretty common and (b) pretty good. 

A few lessons learned from my own silly mistakes

First, don’t get in a hurry to export your screenplay, Great American Novel or picture book about knitting hats for cats from Scrivener into Word.

You don’t want to export the whole thing right off because there’s an excellent, excellent chance you’ll have to import it all back in, which is a massive pain. Because once you look at it all in Word, you’ll spot six zillion structural things to fix that are a sweaty endeavor in a word processor and far, far easier in something like Scrivener.

And yes, I’ve made this mistake. As in last week. 

Heavy equipment, right? If you’ve got a choice between hundreds of hours with a shovel versus two hours with a bulldozer, pick the dozer.

The second thing is don’t ever export the entire project.

Seriously. Do it in pieces.

Sure, every program out there has some kind of magical option on the menu tree that saves your entire creation as a .docx, PDF or whatever. Resist temptation.

Put the first few scenes of your screenplay or novel into Word for that final editing and polishing. Meanwhile, keep on doing heavier work on the later stuff of Act 2 and 3.

Only export scenes or chapters into that Word file when they’re truly, truly ready.

The third thing is that paragraphs that seem short and sweet in something like Scrivener–especially if you have a big screen–turn ginormous when you pop them into Word on double-spaced pages. 

Finally, get religious about making backups. OneNote, Scrivener and similar programs work their magic in mysterious ways, especially in how they save all those separate bits. It’s complicated. I believe quantum particles and gravitational waves are involved.

The way these beasts save their files is nothing like a Word doc, where you can see that solitary file and copy the thing to a thumbdrive or email it to yourself. OneNote in particular is tricky with saving. I’m still not sure where, exactly, it’s saving things half the time. Be careful out there. 

But those are little tips and tricks. There are no giant tradeoffs, like a choice between a moped and a pickup truck. The switch to heavy writing equipment is always worth it. The only real question is what type and brand of literary bulldozer you should drive. 

P.S. What heavy writing equipment do you use today–and what other ones have you dated or divorced? 

Where ROBIN HOOD went wrong

Listen: I love cheesy action films and B movies of all types, as long as they don’t take themselves too seriously. Feed me summer popcorn flicks, meant to entertain, instead of pretentious nonsense.

ROBIN HOOD is meant to entertain.

It’s got a good lead actor (Taron Egerton, famous for THE KINGSMEN films), a solid sidekick (Jamie Foxx) and a great villain (Ben Mendelsohn from THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and ROGUE ONE)–plus a big budget ($100 million).

Add to that a built-in audience who loves the story and character of Robin Hood. 

This is like chocolate chip cookies, right? Hard to go wrong with those ingredients. Everybody will like it.

Except this movie bombed at the box office. A dumpster fire.

Why did this film go so wrong, so fast?

Act 1 is a good start

There’s a lot to like in the first act. see Robin’s ordinary life and get a good introduction to Marian when she tries to steal Robin’s horse…and he lets her.

His life gets upended when he goes to war during the Crusades and comes back to find his estate confiscated by the Sheriff of Nottingham, who’s taxing everybody to death.

It’s an effective start, and the training sequences with John and Robin are great.

So how does the movie go sideways? I mean, this film makes Kevin Costner’s terrible British accent look like a minor problem in an epic masterpiece.

Why the middle turns meh

Act 2 gets confused. The scenes with the Sheriff of Nottingham are decent, letting him chew up some scenery. 

Yet the middle gives us a Robin Hood movie that seems to switch time periods, as if the director wants to mash up medieval Crusades action with huddled masses working in Victorian  factories and mines along with 21st century antifa protests.

There’s a big dinner where all the wealthy people show up, with women dressed in furs and high heels (I kid you not), and a giant CGI action sequence set up with horses and carriages that feels more Ben Hur than Robin Hood.

You CAN mix things up like this–A KNIGHT’S TALE with Heath Ledger threw in modern rock songs and other craziness, and it worked. The degree of difficulty is simply really, really high.

Basically, Act 2 is a hot mess.

How the climax isn’t climactic

And then we get to Act 3, where things truly go south.

The first rule of storytelling: save your best scenes for last. 

There were great scenes in Act 1–the battles from the Crusades, the training montages with John–that simply eclipse anything offered in Act 3.

The Sheriff of Nottingham meets his end, and not at the hands of Robin, but John.

Taking his place as Sheriff is the romantic rival, the lover Marian took while Robin was believed to be dead. And hovering over everything as the Biggest Bad Guy of Them All is the cardinal, or the pope–I forget. Plus there’s a bad guy soldier, the same man who clashed with Robin during the Crusades, brought in as a mercenary to catch the Hood.

Confused? Yeah. Let’s count the bad guys: (1) O.G. Sheriff, (2) Hired Mercenary, (3) Corrupt Cardinal/Pope and (4) New Sheriff.

Here’s the deal. That’s four separate villains, and I can’t remember their actual names. 

Fixing this movie

Hey, you don’t need Michael Bay explosions to have a tense, exciting movie. The ending of Michael Clayton is one of the best Act 3 climaxes in history, and there isn’t a gun, knife or explosion in sight. Just two people talking. No amount of CGI could improve this scene. 

HOWEVER: If you’re making an action movie, you need action in the climax, and what we get in Act 3 is a let-down from what showed up on the screen in Act 1.

A bow and arrow is a great tool for Robin Hood, and fun when he uses it for heists and hijinks. Yet it’s a terrible weapon, as a storytelling device, for confronting the villain. Which should be singular. Give us one main villain.

Which leads me to the two simplest fixes for this movie: (1) combine the four villains into one capable, scary, tough Sheriff of Nottingham and (2) end with Robin fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham, one-on-one. 

There’s a reason why the best movie fights tend to be bare-handed brawls or swordfights. 

Swordfights are just great cinema, and that’s what I expected for the climax of ROBIN HOOD.

Think about THE PRINCESS BRIDE and every STAR WARS movie ever made: the duels with swords or lightsabers are beautiful and essential to the stories. Edit those out and they’d really hurt. 

So I’ll leave you with the kind of thing ROBIN HOOD should have put into Act 3: a long, evenly matched duel. 

 

The sweetness of WHEN I TASTE TEQUILA by Dan + Shay

Most music videos are meh, and I say that as a huge fan of music and music videos who grew up watching this thing we called MTV, back when it played music videos instead of insipid reality shows.

It’s hard to find videos that truly stand out, ones that I remember and want to watch again. Even if I love the song itself.

It’s doubly tough for a country music video to hit me, for I do not speak twang. 

So when I heard this song on the radio, it was a nice surprise. Then I saw the video, which is really a short film. Oh my.

Take a peek.

Haunting, isn’t it?

What stands out are the shots. Just beautiful cinematography, scenes I want to linger over. The acting is spot-on and the musicians make the smart choice of staying in the background.

What makes it truly work is telling an actual story with a beginning, middle and end. 

There are all kinds of music videos that look impressive, paired with good songs. 30 Seconds to Mars is the king of these videos, with Jared Leto having the massive advantage of being a star actor who knows how to stage and shoot film. But you don’t see complete stories very often. You see themes and ideas, but not stories where people are in conflict and make decisions.

This music videos is full of conflict and choices. It’s a sweet love story, and it fills in missing pieces you don’t see in the lyrics (below).

Great job, Dan + Shay–I’m happy to have stumbled onto this.

WHEN I TASTE TEQUILA

I can still shut down a party
I can hang with anybody
I can drink whiskey and red wine
Champagne all night
Little Scotch on the rocks and I’m fine, I’m fine
 
But when I taste tequila, baby I still see ya
Cutting up the floor in a sorority t-shirt
The same one you wore when we were
Sky high in Colorado, your lips pressed against the bottle
Swearing on a bible, baby, I’d never leave ya
I remember how bad I need ya, when I taste Tequila
When I taste Tequila
 
I can kiss somebody brand new 
And not even think about you
I can show up to the same bar
Hear the same songs in my car
Baby, your memory, it only hits me this hard
 
When I taste Tequila, baby I still see ya
Cutting up the floor in a sorority t-shirt
The same one you wore when we were
Sky high in Colorado, your lips pressed against the bottle
Swearing on a bible, baby, I’d never leave ya
I remember how bad I need ya, when I taste Tequila
When I taste Tequila
 
I ain’t even drunk, I ain’t even drunk
And I’m thinking
How I need your love, how I need your love
Yeah, it sinks in
 
When I taste Tequila, baby I still see ya
Sorority t-shirt, the same one you wore when we were
Sky high in Colorado, your lips pressed against the bottle
Swearing on a bible, baby, I’d never leave ya
I remember how bad I need ya, when I taste Tequila
When I taste Tequila
When I taste Tequila
When I taste Tequila

The fatal flaw with zombie apocalypse movies

There are great zombie movies, and horrifically beautiful apocalyptic films.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD, WATERWORLD (hey, I’m kidding)–you get the idea.

So why do zombie apocalypse movies smash into the brick wall of failure?

Zombie comedy? Sure. SEAN OF THE DEAD. Zombie romance? Yeah, they’ve tried that. Zombie drama? Yep.

You’d think this would be like peanut butter and chocolate, two great things that taste even greater when mashed together. But I can’t think of a single zombie apocalypse movie that truly works.

The biggest such film–WORLD WAR Z–went splat, despite the star power of Brad Pitt and a big budget. Why? 

I’ve pondered this, downed a pot of coffee and consulted the oracle.

Here’s the deal.

In a horror movie, everybody dies

Not because the screenwriter and director are sadistic. The whole point of a horror movie is society getting punished for its sins by the monster, who’s actually the hero.

That’s why Freddy, Jason and all the other horror monsters never truly get killed off.

Slasher movies show teenagers breaking the rules–shoplifting, getting drunk, having premarital sex, lying to their parents about it all–and getting punished by the boogeyman for their sins.

Another big branch of horror movies is about man playing God–inventing super-smart sharks with lasers, creating hybrid genetic experiments that go wrong, or sewing together body parts from the grave and using lightning to reanimate the thing. Then those creations rise up to punish the scientists for their arrogance.

This is why horror movies can fail. If the teenagers or scientists actually win in the end, the movie confuses the message. You might start out rooting for the teeny boppers or mad scientists, but in the end, you’re supposed to see the monsters as agents of rough justice.

Same thing with a zombie movie.

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is actually about racism.

DAWN OF THE DEAD is about consumerism, which is why it’s set in a mall.

Monster in the House is a great story and a dangerous one for zombies

There’s a primal story that screenwriter Blake Snyder identifies as Monster in the House, where there’s a monster in an enclosed space and either it’s gonna kill you or you’re gonna kill it.

JAWS, ALIEN and FATAL ATTRACTION are all Monster in the House stories.

There’s a big difference between these stories and a true horror movie. The ending is completely opposite. 

The shark dies in the end of JAWS, as does the alien and the obsessed, discarded mistress played by Glenn Close. 

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD feature the same enclosed space problem, because it’s good storytelling to put characters in a cage with your monster. But they stay true to the message and let the monsters win, punishing society for our sins.

In an apocalyptic movie, tons of people die–but the story ends with hope

The storytelling bones of a good apocalyptic movie are completely different than a horror story.

Civilization goes buh-bye, and the fun of an apocalyptic movie is seeing how that happens and what replaces the status quo.

Also, you get to loot the hardware store and the mall. Who doesn’t like to see that on film? Always a good time.

The message of an apocalypse film, though, is that lots of people die because they make bad, selfish choices, while the few heroes who survive make good, unselfish choices.

It just doesn’t work to mix a true zombie movie, where everybody dies as punishment for society’s sins, with an apocalyptic film, with its message of survival if you make the right choices.

So: back to the movie, WORLD WAR Z, which is a confused beast.

If you read the novel–which you should–it’s not a horror story, where everybody gets nom-nommed by the living dead. It’s a true zombie apocalypse story that can work, with the end showing the undead almost destroying the world. They’re only beaten when society makes painful, fundamental changes to work together and win the war.

Hope and survival. That’s the right way to thread the needle and tell a zombie apocalypse story that works. Give us that, Hollywood–Brad Pitt is optional.

Storytelling insights from 3 minutes of glorious film with subtitles

tinseltown tuesday meme morpheous

Yes, I watch movies with subtitles, even if they’re in black-and-white, with people smoking French cigarettes while speaking French and watching things happen to other people in some scrappy, destitute part of Paris or, for variety, a tiny farming village in Normandy. 

We are talking about a different sort of foreign film with subtitles.

  • Bonus No. 1: This film is 3 minutes long instead of three hours.
  • Bonus No. 2: There is hardly any talking, or any need to read the subtitles at all.
  • Bonus No. 3: Most importantly, this little film can teach us all great big lessons about storytelling and structure.

Also, unless you have no soul, it will make drops of water drip from your eyes and scurry down your cheeks.

Here. Watch the clip in high definition. Or low def, it that’s your thing. Whatever floats your boat.

Okay. All done?

Let’s take it apart and see what makes it tick.

Strong bones

This little film has strong bones. The structure is a roller coaster: things are bad (son is running away), things get even worse (son nearly dies, is paralyzed), then in the climax, things get resolved and the world is forever changed, at least for this family.

The father is not sympathetic at first, right? My first thought was bad casting. No. Good storytelling. The main narrative question is, “Will they get together?” This is a love story, which doesn’t have to be a rom-com with a high-powered professional woman who eventually gets together with a chubby, unemployed virgin who owns the Largest Comic Book Collection Known to Man, because for some reason, that’s what half the rom-coms are these days.

The other half of rom-coms star Matthew McConaughey.

Back to this little film: if they’re getting together in the end, they must be split apart in the beginning.

Another narrative question is, “How do these people suffer, change and grow?”

The father moves from stern, humorless taskmaster to loving and dedicated. He’s the hero of this little film, because it’s his actions that matter most. The normal thing would be for him to let the doctors do their work, right? But it’s his turn to rebel. He carries his son out of the hospital, out of the wheelchair and back into the world. Rehab isn’t going to be nurses and machines and doctors. It’s going to be father and son, learning to walk again.

And all that suffering and sacrifice pays off. The son also transforms. In the beginning, he’s rebellious and aloof. In the end, he’s loyal and connected to his family.

The mother is a flat character. She suffers, but she doesn’t change. That’s OK. Having two characters go through all this in three minutes is plenty.

Real stories beat Michael Bay explosions

This tiny film, which is a flipping COMMERCIAL, moved me far more than bazillion-dollar CGI blockbusters involving dinosaurs, vampires or robots that transform themselves into Chevies.

You can take those $294 million budgets full of special effects and a scripts credited to five different writers. (Pro-tip: the more screenwriters you throw in the kitchen, the crazier the thing that comes out of the oven.)

Give me a story with strong bones and a tiny budget.

Give me people I actually care about, because I don’t give a hoot about Shia LaBeuf and Megan Fox fighting robots or whether the awkward teenage girl gets together with the Sparkly British Vampire vs some kid who used to be a Power Ranger.

Give me a story. A story like this.