Sunday, June 29, 2008

Economy of words

Here are some tips which may improve your writing. I use these tips myself because my first drafts are gut-wrenchingly awful.

"To be" or not "to be". In most cases, you can convert present progressive tense (I am seeing) to present tense (I see) with little effect to its final meaning. I'm all for nuanced writing, but being shorter and direct is usually more powerful.

The "I"s have it. How many of your sentences start with "I"? How many of your paragraphs start with "I"? Can you rework the sentence? Dare to be clever... but not too clever that you're writing in Esperanto.

Starting to try. Why say, "he starts to walk" when you could say, "he walks"? Why say, "he tries to drive" when you can say, "he drives"?

Boil it down. What are you really saying? How many extra, empty words are crammed into each sentence? Harrison Ford's long speech in The Fugitive was pared down to, "I didn't kill my wife!" and Tommy Lee Jones' reply, "I don't care."

Terminate your qualifiers. Much lost verbiage is in adverbs and adjectives. Do you need "quite", "very", "actually", or "really"? For specific adverbs like "honestly" or "stupidly", migrate those descriptions into the action and describe that with verbs instead.

Terminate your articles. Do you really need to use "a" or "the" all the time?

Specific action. Why say "move" when you could say "transfer", "migrate", "nudge", or even "insinuate"? Each word is a chance to push your story closer to the end... so use each chance judiciously.

Keep tempo. Writing words is like writing music, and—like good music—we know good writing when we read it: long movement, long movement, short movement. Long long, short. Long long. Short. Short. Loooooooong. Short short short. Ever wonder why they taught us poetry in high school?

Punctuate. Ellipses (...), em dashes (—), [as opposed to en dashes (–), used for spanning years like 1986–2008, and hyphens (-), used for compound adjectives like 'heart-rending'], semi-colons, colons, and apostrophes are all useful in spicing up flaccid paragraphs.

Write as you say, or as you think. Be true to mimicking your inner or outer voice and others will "hear" your words better.

Using these simple tricks, here's a random passage to illustrate my points. First draft:
I saw the kids yesterday in the park. They were playing some sort of silly game which I could not remember. I walked down to get a closer look and they didn't seem to mind. I love watching kids play. They have such freedom of expression. They rejoice in simply being.

Wow: ulcer-worthy. Here's the next draft:
Kids in the park yesterday. Some silly game—couldn't remember. I got closer and they didn't mind. When kids play, they're free... they rejoice in being.

It's not Fawlkner, but it's more efficient and less stilted. A few passes more and I might concoct this svelte passage:
Kids in the park yesterday... watching them, my epiphany: they rejoice in being.

Final tip:
Leave them laughing. When the story is finished, get off the stage!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Touch typing pays off

I taught Lucy how to touch type... and now look who she hangs with!

Thursday, June 19, 2008


There are maybe 25–30 blogs on my Google Reader, but only one blog inspires me to read every single post and you'll soon see why.

I've been a faithful reader of daisy's blog for over two years, maybe three. daisy's tone is typically whimsical and irreverent, but occasionally insightful, too. And it is always extremely well-written... unlike the scores of mediocre bloggers/writers out there, daisy has a gifted ear for pacing—none of her blog posts drone on in perpetuity because she knows pricisely when to stop.

The following is a long post for daisy, but so moving that it brought me to tears. I repost it here in its entirety because it is just that damned good. Thanks, daisy.

Hodge: A Damn Fine Name for A Damn Fine Cat

I was in a wretched mood yesterday. It started with an annoying email first thing in the morning and just progressed from there. It seemed no one was listening, even fewer people were understanding, and I was on the verge of a full-fledged meltdown. When a co-worker mimicked the way I said "Hi-eee" when I passed him coming into the office, I almost through my 6" Subway sandwich at his head. And he's really a nice guy. Who absolutely does not deserve spicy mustard and pickles slammed into his face. Or shredded lettuce in his hair. Or slimy turkey stuck to his t-shirt. (Plus, I was hungry.)

And no matter what I did, my day just keep getting worse. After the MUNI driver kicked me off the train ("THIS IS THE LAST STOP! PLEASE EXIT THE TRAIN!") and then drove back in the direction I was going (I get on at the last/first stop), I seriously started crying. It was all just too much.

I was sending text messages that only a crazy girl would send. "Sorry I took my bad mood out on you." followed less than five minutes later with, "Not that you GIVE A SHIT anyway!" I saw the mental hospital in my immediate future. I was on a one-way train to Crazy Town. Except the FUCKING TRAIN LEFT WITHOUT ME.

So I did what any girl would do and asked my best friend to come into the city and have dinner with me at Zazie. I figured if my best friend and Zazie couldn't get me out of my funk, at least I would know my only other option was shock therapy. Which, frankly, was starting to sound rather appealing.

But dinner was good. And I decided to hold off on the straight jacket and padded cell for at least another day. And I was tired and sated and feeling lucky to at least have one friend who was willing to sit there and listen. Even though I was telling the same sob story for the seventeenth time.

After dinner, Maura drove me back up the hill and came to a stop in front of my building. "What's that?" she asked and pointed to what looked like some kind of bag moving in the street.

"I think it's just a bag or something," I said.

But she thought it was something else, so we drove up a few yards to investigate.

And it wasn't a bag. Nor was it a raccoon. It was someone's kitty. Who had just been hit by a driver who didn't even bother to stop.

For once, I'll spare you the excessive details, but I put my hand on him and saw that he was still breathing... but clearly he was taking his last breaths. So I did the only thing I could do - pet his warm, soft body so that he'd know he wasn't alone - until he finally stopped struggling and died.

Someone called Animal Control. And while we waited for them to show up, Maura and I directed traffic and buses around the cat's limp body. The police showed up and told us not to touch him, but just to keep doing what we were doing until someone from Animal Control got there. And so despite the exasperated looks, and the one driver who actually sped up and flashed his brights at us, we stood in the middle of the street and pointed the cars to "go around." We couldn't save the cat, but there was no way were going to let him get run over again.

About twenty minutes or so later, a neighbor came to see what was going on. They recognized the cat and said they thought their neighbor would know to whom he belonged.

Within moments, a barefoot couple in their pajamas ran out into the street sobbing. The man scooped the cat up and cradled him in his arms while they both cried. "Oh honey, oh honey," he kept saying to his wife who was too shocked to speak.

We let them grieve alone for a few minutes, but finally approached them to tell them what had happened. We apologized again and again. "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry there wasn't more we could do."

But they were grateful we'd been there with him. That someone had comforted him while he was dying. And that we'd protected his body from being hit again.

We told them Animal Control was on their way. And they sat on the sidewalk, holding their dead cat, and crying.

"I'm so sorry," I apologized one last time. "I'm so sorry there wasn't more we could do."

"You did everything you could," the man said. "And we're so thankful for that."

"What was his name?" I asked.


"Bye Hodge," I said. "You were a good cat."

And I'll admit what I'm about to say next is incredibly selfish, but as I walked away, leaving the barefoot couple in the shadows clinging to their dead cat, tears streaming down my face, it hit me how wrong it was of me to waste an entire day of my life with a terrible mood that affected everyone around me. And how it just wasn't worth it. And how every moment spent moping or pouting is a moment I'm not living my life in the way that I want to.

And it's sad that it took such a terrible accident to remind me of that, but sometimes I'm stubborn and shitty that way.

And Hodge was a good kitty. Who was clearly so loved and will be missed by everyone who knew him. And even though I met him under tragic circumstances, I just know now that I am lucky to have met him at all.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Well done, GM

Today Honda rolled out a zero emissions vehicle:

Honda's new zero-emission, hydrogen fuel cell car rolled off a Japanese production line Monday and is headed to southern California, where Hollywood is already abuzz over the latest splash in green motoring.

The FCX Clarity, which runs on hydrogen and electricity, emits only water and none of the gases believed to induce global warming. It is also two times more energy efficient than a gas-electric hybrid and three times that of a standard gasoline-powered car, the company says.

Honda expects to lease out a "few dozen" units this year and about 200 units over three years. In California, a three-year lease will run $600 a month, which includes maintenance and collision coverage. Link.

This strikes me as bitterly ironic since it was General Motors' EV1—the first legitimate zero emissions vehicle made in America—was decommissioned and shredded in 2003 because GM claimed the EV1's would never be profitable and it was "cheaper to sue the State of California to roll back clean vehicle regulations than it was to build electric vehicles." You can watch the tragic tale in the superb documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?

Amazingly, it was the EV1's unexpected success which scared the Japanese into thinking they would lose an edge in the automobile wars... so the Japanese designed the first hybrid cars. So, okay, Americans ended up buying Japanese-made hybrids instead of American hybrids. We snoozed, we lost.

But we had a second chance to get it right—because hybrids still run on gas. We had the chance to resurrect and redesign a zero emissions vehicle using no gas at all. It is, in fact, what more and more American consumers have been crying out for.

And now the Japanese have beat us. Again.

So well done, GM. Thanks for shredding all your EV1's. That was really, really smart.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Zak Penn's 8 lessons

Some useful movie tips from a guy I sat next to in 6th grade English class:

Zak Penn's Incredible Journey
by Zak Penn | Published June 13, 2008

Sure Zak Penn can write you a surefire blockbuster. He has proven that time and again with X-Men, Elektra, Fantastic Four. But that’s not all he can do. The Grand, an improvisational comedy set in the world of competitive poker that he wrote and directed, contains neither a superhero nor a highfalutin special effect, and is on DVD now. And with his long-awaited adaptation of The Incredible Hulk in theaters now, MM asked the in-demand scribe to share the “things he’s learned” in the business.

1. On the blockbuster summer movies, writing subplots that intersect with the main plot in the third act can be the difference between a good script and a bad one.

2. One of the most important qualities a director needs to have is stamina. Physical and mental stamina. Someone who knows him once commented that Peter Jackson’s ability to work effectively 16 hours a day is what separates him from his contemporaries. All the skill and intelligence in the world won’t help you if you are sick or asleep when the production needs you.

3. Comedic actors need not know they are funny in order to be funny.

4. Always stop arguing when someone says “yes.”

5. Directors are often better at taking notes than writers are. “That’s a good idea, I’ll do my best to address it” is a far more effective response than arguing.

6. Having a respected director on your set as an actor helps keep the cast and crew in line.

7. Directors should be good at firing people quicker. The faster you can pull the trigger on someone that’s not working out, the better off you’ll be.

8. The first 30 pages are the most important part of a screenplay, but the last 30 minutes are the most important part of a movie.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Be a Facebook Fan

I'm geeky, but I own it. Now come be my fan on Facebook. I can promise many pictures and silliness.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Business Plans

If you're wondering why my blackout as of late, it's because I've been incredibly busy. I'm keeping most of the details hush-hush for now, but broadly speaking, my work has involved:

  • developing a feature screenplay for production early next year
  • developing another feature script for production after that
  • writing 15 loglines, then two synopses for an WGA-affiliated agent (they loved one of the synopses, so now I have another script to write)
  • laying the groundwork for a million dollar company, including writing a 30 page business plan, carefully selecting a company name, and navigating the complexities of who does what and how much everyone gets for their work
  • editing a fundraising mini-documentary
  • finishing the editing of my last short, My Shortest Apposition (Sorry, Ana! I promise it will get done!)

I must admit, business plans are a strange beast. They're like paintings in that each one is unique and its effectiveness depends how much effort you put into it. You could spend months aggregating research and still not come close to being finished.

Last night, as I was educating myself on business plans, one thought in particular hit me like a bullet: my god, I'm studying for a final exam. To wit, when I hand in my business plan to an investor, if I "pass" the exam, they give me money.

The difference, of course, is that the date of this final exam is a time of my choosing so I get as much time as I need to prepare my final essay.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Cheating is part of the game

I just finished listening to an NPR about cheating in baseball. The scope was broad, covering things like a man in a skyscraper with binoculars relaying a catcher's signals to the batter's team, to things like moving the back fence further back to make it harder to hit a home run, and even things like painting greater numbers on the back fence to make it seem harder to hit a home run.

The gist was that cheating is part of the game, and while steroid use is explicitly illegal, most baseball players probably view sterioids as simply another way to gain an advantage over the other team given the pervasive attitude towards cheating.

The tacit implication is that the honest team, the one which refuses to cheat in any way, is destined to lose.

I'm reminded of a story Hans told me once about a bank owner. This bank was quite small and could barely make ends meet but they were installing a brand new ATM. This happened back when ATMs were still a new contraption, and new means expensive. "How can you afford to install one of those? Aren't ATMs really expensive?" they were asked. "Our competition already has ATMs. We can't afford to not install an ATM. If we don't, we'll be out of business within the month."

I'm not equating ATMs with cheating, but ATMs were a new technology to gain advantage over the competition in the same way cheating is used to gain advantage. If your competition is using a tool or technology you aren't using because you think it's "unfair" or "immoral", and your competition is winning because of it, you might want to reconsider your business strategy to take back your advantage. For example, Disney has already conceded that movie piracy is a successful business model to compete against... and in China, Microsoft doesn't sell MS Office for $150, but for $3.

Cheating is part of the game. Get used to it... or you should pre-pay your funeral costs.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

War Veteran vs. Constitutional Lawyer

He did it. I'm actually too shocked to say much else. Obama achieved what was once thought impossible—he beat a brand name candidate married to a twice-elected President more popular after he left office than when he was sworn in. Hillary Clinton was deemed invincible.

Which implies that the person who outfoxed her had to be special.

The next stage of this astonishing political epic battle is pitting a Viet Nam P.O.W. against a former constitutional lawyer.

Yes, we did. And yes we can.