Why was FREE GUY fun but unfulfilling?

Yes, my name is Guy, and I watched FREE GUY the second day it hit theaters, as required by Guy Law.

Is it worth watching in a theater? Sure. This is a fun summer movie. But that’s not the most interesting question.

The acid test for a movie, even a summer action film or comedy, is simple: Would I watch it again?

And listen, we can make that test far more accurate and meaningful. Here’s how:

  1. How much would I pay to watch it again, and again?
    versus
  2. How much would you need to PAY ME to watch the thing one more time?

There are plenty of films that are worth watching once and never again. The movies that are rewatchable are golden nuggets of cinema worth treasuring forever.

Here are two examples, both somewhat similar to FREE GUY:

BOSS LEVEL is worth watching again and again, because I have literally watched it five-point-seven bazillion times.

Why is it worth two hours of your life, repeatedly? Because it mixes action with comedy so well, and has moments–like the sword training and fight scene–that never get old.

Similarly, THE EDGE OF TOMORROW is a movie that you can watch again and again. The more you hate Tom Cruise as an actor, the more you like this movie, seeing how you get to watch him die a ton of times in a war zone before he redeems himself. Also, Emily Blunt is a total badass in this thing.

FREE GUY is thankfully an original script and not a movie based on an actual video game or ancient board game like BATTLESHIP, which they actually got Liam Neeson to do a movie about, for the love of all that is holy.

Yet despite being fun, there’s something missing when you walk out of that theater after watching FREE GUY.

Here’s what I think that missing thing is: you can’t buy the ending, no matter how much bubblegum ice cream they pile on it.

Spoilers galore from here out.

So the key relationship is between Guy and Millie, with Guy not realizing he’s in a video game and Millie looking like a supermodel inside and outside the game.

In the end, they do NOT get together, because Guy is just an AI with a pretty digital face, so Guy becomes single and Millie gets together with…Annoying Tech Dweeb.

Listen, this doesn’t work on a number of levels. The audience WANTS Guy and Millie to get together for real. They do not, in any part of their popcorn-munching bodies, want Millie to hook up with Annoying Tech Dweeb.

Honestly, real-life Millie is beautiful enough to get pretty much any man she wants. It’s not believable that she settles for a man she ignored for years despite his blatant crush on her.

How could we fix the ending and the movie?

First, we don’t need three Tech Gurus — Annoying Tech Dweeb, his sidekick, and Millie are all coders.

You need one coder in this movie, and that’s Millie, so we can safely axe the other two characters. I mean, put a gun to my head and I cannot remember either one of their names. THAT IS A SIGN, RYAN REYNOLDS AND SCREENWRITING PEOPLE.

The other stakes were whether Millie and Annoying Tech Dweeb won their intellectual property battle with Korg, and listen, I didn’t not care about that at all.

Second, there’s only one true romantic question built up in this movie, and that’s whether Millie and Guy get together.

Third, how do we give the audience what they want–Millie and Guy actually getting together–in a way they don’t expect?

Here’s how: you go MATRIX or TRON LEGACY.

The MATRIX path has Neo take the right pill (I don’t know if it’s red or blue and do not care, sorry) and enter the Matrix so he can hang out with Trinity.

If he stayed in what he saw as the real world, there’d be no future with her. Zero. None. Nada.

The TRON LEGACY option means going the opposite route and taking somebody (Olivia Wilde!) from the digital world to the real world.

So let’s pick one of those options: you make Guy a real Guy or bring Millie into the digital world.

Turning the digital Ryan Reynolds into a real-life Ryan is the easy and expected choice. The more surprising and deep thing would be making the stakes more real for Millie and going digital for her.

Give her a ticking clock–a deadly cancer, say–and have her desperately needing the servers and such to upload her consciousness into FREE CITY to survive.

High stakes now, right? And that would be an ending that stuck with audiences.

Writing secret: What two-sentence stories can teach us all

Maybe you’re writing a 140,000-word epic about a time-traveling Wookie who kills Hitler and invents the polio vaccine. Or you’re cranking out 500-word stories for a Paper of News.

Doesn’t matter.

Less is always, always more.

Nobody complains about a speech being too short, or a movie ending too soon. Always leave the audience wanting more, and always cut whatever you can. A word, a sentence, an entire scene that’s repetitive because we already saw the Wookie find that double-bladed lightsaber which she used to impress the British major-general and let her board the first landing craft at Normandy.

It works in the opposite direction, too. Headlines and hooks can’t be 100 words–you’re talking a sentence or two. Pitches, blurbs, dialogue, just about everything you can think of benefits from stripping away the fat to reveal sleek, practical, essential muscle.

Once you strip it all away, it becomes clear how great writing works and bad writing falls off the Cliff of Despair and tumbles into the Pit of Absolute Rubbish.

The easiest places to see this? Two sentence stories.

Check out these five, then we’ll chat.

Number 1, The Classic

I begin tucking him into bed and he tells me, “Daddy check for monsters under my bed.”

I look underneath for his amusement and see him, another him, under the bed, staring back at me quivering and whispering, “Daddy there’s somebody on my bed.”

Author unknown, and yes, this version is a little wordy. Let’s cut it down.

 

“Daddy, check for monsters under my bed.”

I peeked under the cover and my son stared back as he whispered, “Daddy, there’s somebody on my bed.”

 

Every father’s nightmare. You’ll do anything to protect your sons and daughters. How would you handle this impossible choice?

Number 2

“Now be careful, that line of rock salt is the only thing keeping them out,” the man said, welcoming my group into his refuge.

“Sea salt,” I clarified, “sea salt keeps us out.”
https://www.reddit.com/user/bookseer/

This is good, right? A great setup for a horror movie. Bring it.

Number 3

Bullets flew through the mall, ripping clothes to shreds.

In the chaos, no one noticed the mannequins bleeding.
https://www.reddit.com/user/proffessorbiscuit/

Did not see this coming. At all. Well played, Professor Biscuit.

Number 4

The sound of my son calling for my help grew fainter and fainter.

As the batteries in my hearing aides died, I realized it would soon be impossible for me to find him in time.
https://www.reddit.com/user/minithemermaid/

 

The first three are fantasy and unrealistic.

This one is quite real, and I believe it’s scarier because of it.

Number 5

“I forgot to grab something, I’ll be right back,” said Mom.

As she rounded the corner, out of sight, the cashier began ringing up our groceries.
https://www.reddit.com/user/undflight/

Here we go: comedy instead of horror. We’ve all felt that stab of panic as our wife, husband, son or mother leaves you in line at Safeway or Costco “to grab something real quick,” then you stand there, waiting forever as the person in front of you finishes checking out and you empty your cart onto the belt slower and slower as there is absolutely no sign of them, and the checker starts giving you the side eye because there are four people waiting behind your slow butt, so what is your problem, so where are there, did they get lost or kidnapped, and should you leave the line to save them from a serial killer only to get embarrassed when they show up with that bottle of white wine they were looking for? WHERE ARE THEY, AND SHOULD WE CALL THE POLICE?

So yeah, this one is funny, and a little horrific, because we have all been there. And will be there again.

What two-sentence stories can teach us all

Every genre of writing tends to get wrapped up in its own pet jargon, theories, practices, and templates.

A news story has to use the inverted pyramid. Every press release needs a first-graf lede, then a quote in the second graf. Detective heroes are alcoholic loner rebels paired up with a square sidekick who has a family.

Two-sentence stories toss all of that and return us to the basics.

The first sentence is a setup, making us curious about what happens next.

In the second sentence, we get the payoff.

That’s it.

Comedians are doing the same thing, which is why most jokes are two-sentences. All you need is a setup and a payoff.

Sure, it helps to add more flourishes, and a longer story–or joke–can have a greater payoff.

Look again at those four examples. There isn’t a single name to any character, no description of their age, hair, face, body, backstory. Zero.

Because you don’t need those things to generate interest.

Homework

Do some two-sentence stories. A joke, a horror story, a shocking idea. Whatever.

Then take whatever you’re writing and boil it down to two sentences. Setup and payoff.

Note: making each sentence 400 words is not okay, Cheaty McCheatypants.

Writing secret–emotions are everything

I believe our natural instincts–to write not to fail, and follow all the rules–tends to strip our ability to evoke emotion in readers. And no matter type of writing you do–poems, screenplays, speeches, novels, newspaper articles–the trick is getting something to resonate with the reader.

That doesn’t happen with facts or logic, though both of those elements have their place.

It happens emotionally.

Viscerally.

The best writing makes you laugh and cry, smell and taste, hope and fear. It awakens something inside of you.

So: I believe, deep in my evil little soul, that every writer is trying for this, consciously or not.

Except 99 percent of pieces I read miss the target. Wide left or wide right. Not because of grammar or syntax, or breaking any of the rules you were taught from kindergarten through college. There are technically sound pieces published ten times a second that follow the rules, except none of that matters because the text utterly fails to resonate in the reader’s emotional core.

Which is a waste, both of talent and good material.

In journalism school, they drill us to be objective and factual. Spock-like, unless you’re doing a flowery feature story, in which case you’re allowed to show the subjects expressing some emotion, though you have to be invisible, My Young Reporter, invisible and unseen and unmoved by any of the joys or horrors that you’re witnessing. Fiery car crash? Give us the who, what, when, where, and why. Cute little girl with a pet turtle that plays soccer with her in the backyard? Spend the last line of the piece inverted pyramid style by telling us the color of the little girl’s house.

I’ve discovered, the hard way, that (a) emotions matter most and (b) few writers are trained in how to evoke them. Believe me, I felt plenty of emotion covering those fiery car wrecks, little kids with turtles or hedgehogs, and murder scenes. You always feel something. It wouldn’t be worth covering if you didn’t.

If evoking emotion is important to all writing, how do you do it?

My old friend Robin Boyes had the first step. He said, “You have to feel the emotion you want the audience to feel.” He was a speechwriter and coach, so that advice was aimed first at speakers. Except it applies to speechwriters, and all writers. If you’re not feeling something when you write it, the fact that you intend for the audience to feel something during that part of the text is completely irrelevant. They don’t know your secret plan. There are no album liners, no footnotes telling people “hey, be sad here” or “this is where I hope you get truly pissed off.”

True emotion starts with you, as a writer or speaker. Because you can’t fake it, or cheat your way to this. I believe this is why a lot of writers, rock stars, and other artists tended to turn to alcohol and other things.

I tell people to overdo it at first. Go wild. Let go of your inhibitions, your extensive notes, the mound of quotes and facts you planned on including in the text. Put all of that away, as George Pica taught me, and tell me the story like you’re sharing it with a good friend. “You would not believe what the city council just did. What the hell?” Write it like that.

Include the passion, the short-hand, the slang, the things you felt and why.

That’s your first draft.

Then go back and clean it up. Insert the facts, quotes, details. Take out the slang and short-hand. Fix the structure to give it a beginning and end, because we’re taking the Inverted Pyramid out behind the barn and sending it home to heaven and the angels.

This is your second draft, which you’re going to have edited by somebody else. A pro. Not your husband, cousin, neighbor, or best friend from college. A professional.

Third draft should be the final, where you want to double-check all the usual things, as a habit, while looking at the emotional arc. It can’t be one-note, entirely happy or sad. That’s repetitive and ineffective. If it’s a story about a mom and her daughter getting hit by a drunk driver, you don’t start with that and end with details about the license plate of the suspected drunk. When you’re ending is down, the beginning should be up, and vice versa. You don’t pile horror on top of horror, or stack joy on more joy until you have a mountain of happiness. Doesn’t work that way. It’s why the Marvel movies use humor so consistently–they’re cleansing your palate. More thrilling action scenes would actually detract from the movie.

Whatever you’re writing, the goal should be the biggest possible difference, emotionally, from the beginning to the end. A hero sheriff becomes a villain, stealing money from the evidence locker while arrogantly believing whatever he did was right, because he was the one doing it, and the money was being taken from criminals, so who cares? Two estranged brothers, who refused to talk to each for fifty years, forgive each other during a five-shots-of-tequila night at the local biker’s bar.

Because there’s always a beginning and an end, though you wouldn’t know it from how most pieces are written, and the audience doesn’t want to be told how to feel, or beaten over the head with an explicit message. Give them subtext and details, then let the audience decide for themselves.

So I hope this helps even one writer struggling to figure out why a piece isn’t working. I hope it helps generate a few more stories which make people laugh and cry and see things differently.

And I hope you feel more than a little something the next time you brew a fresh pot of coffee and start banging on the keyboard. Let yourself feel a lot. It’s the only way your audience will feel anything at all.

Further reading:

The secret truth about writing

Top 10 Myths of Journalism School

Everything they taught us about stories was WRONG

The acid test for all writing

I believe, deep in my soul, that Zack Snyder-style gritty darkness isn’t bad simply because Zack Snyder directs it. Gritty Dark Dourness would be bad if the love child of Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock sat in the director’s chair.

And yes, it’s still fun to laugh at BATMAN VERSUS SUPERMAN: THE DAWN OF JUSTICE.

But there’s something smart and deeper behind the idea that the Marvel movies got things right by being (a) funny and (b) exciting, while the DC / Snyderverse went wrong by taking itself far too seriously and going Full Melodrama, with a color palette full of grays and blacks contrasted by grays and more blacks. You never go Full Melodrama, because it makes your audience feel like the movie’s being written and directed by a bipolar Michael Bay who’s crying in a corner when he’s not blowing stuff up.

And all this made me think.

Because comedy isn’t actually light and fluffy. True comedy points out how absurd and unfair the world is, and how you can’t fix it and have to laugh at the insanity of it all.

My proposition is this: adding comedy to a book or movie doesn’t make it light and lame kiddie fare. Interweaving comedy into whatever–an action movie (every Marvel movie ever), a romance (ROMANCING THE STONE and every rom-com), a mystery (SHIMMER LAKE is perfect perfect perfect, go watch it now on Netflix, kthxbai)–can make it infinitely better.

We were talking yesterday about our favorite books of high lit-rah-sure, and my favorites were CATCH-22, Kurt Vonnegut and the ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL books, because I’ll happily go back and re-read any of these. What do they have in common? They’re universally beloved, recognized as classics, and funny as hell.

But making you laugh isn’t their only trick, like a SNL skit that repeats itself 459 times in four minutes. The best storytellers serve us different courses for our emotions over the length of a movie or book. They don’t dish up sad scene after sad scene, or pile up joke after joke. You get an appetizer, a main course, side dishes and dessert. Not five appetizers in a row or a plate full of six desserts.

ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL does this beautiful. The original book and its sequels are really short stories strung together. Each one, though, makes you feel a variety of emotions. Joy, sadness, laughter, love. You see the struggling young vet and the hard-scrabble farmers, and when an animal dies, or a sick cow makes it because a poor farmer stayed up all night tending to that animal, yeah, you might tear up.

That’s what makes us come back to those books and movies.

Not the plot points–we know what will happen. Not the writing.

We want to feel.

So that leads me to the acid test for me, as a writer. It’s how I know whether a draft is working or not.

Here’s the test: If I’m not tearing up, it’s not working.

Tears of joy, tears of laughter, tears of sadness–I better be feeling something as I write the ending. If I don’t, bring on the rewrite.

So yes, we can make fun of the dour, dark Snyderverse, and relentlessly depressing lit-rah-sure like THE ENGLISH PATIENT, where the scenery is beautiful and everybody’s rich and having affairs and in the end, everybody sells out to the Nazis and dies, the end, roll credits, and THROW SILVERWARE AT THE SCREEN BECAUSE THIS IS STUPID.

What do you want the audience to feel?

That’s the real question. And you have to feel it first.

The writerly brilliance of SNL’s best skit EVER–Adam Driver’s oil baron

Skits are largely the same, mostly because of format. If you only have three to five minutes for a bit, it’s not going to be packed with revelations, reversals, and scads of character development.

This is why 99.96 percent of skits–on Saturday Night Live, Key and Peele, or anywhere else–are one-trick ponies.

Here’s a good example from another Adam Driver skit:

Not terrible, not great–pretty typical, right? You do something funny like “That’s what she said” from THE OFFICE, except instead of sprinkling it throughout a series, you pack it into a single skit.

So yeah, these can be hilarious, and they can be highly, highly repetitive.

Check out this one by Adam Driver, then we’ll talk about why it’s different for two key reasons.

Sure, there’s a central joke–“crush your enemies!”–but instead of endless repetition we actually get (1) the best acting in any SNL skit ever and most importantly, (2) beautiful writing that surprises you.

There’s so much good dialogue that it’s hard to pick the best ones.

My favorite is, “I was born seven months too early. Incubation technology was still in its infancy, so they placed me in a cast iron pot inside of a pizza oven until I was ripe enough to walk. My bones never hardened but my spirit did. Be strong and crush your enemies!”

Yet the best part about this is the storytelling and writing. Unlike your average skit, there’s some real interpersonal conflict underneath it with real depth and a payoff at the end after multiple setups–the fact the entire class thinks his son is weak; the introduction of H.R. Pickens, his nemesis that he crushed; and finally the revelation that his weak son, rather than being a disappointment, is a rousing success in his eyes.

It all pays off in a few short lines: “I killed you Mr. Pickens! I crushed you into the ground and now your bones turn to oil beneath my living feet! I married your granddaughter, filled her belly with my festering seed and sired a boy! He is my final revenge, H.R.!”

VERDICT

I like it, I love it, I want some more of it.

Seriously. Give us a full two-hour movie about Adam Driver’s oil baron, shot on a budget of “Yo, the director sold his Kia, so here’s the cash we got” and people would watch the hell out of it until there was no hell left.

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. 

The careful genius of COBRA KAI’s season 2

The last season of GAME OF THRONES went out in a fiery train wreck packed with dragons and stupidity–but here we have the opposite, a low-budget show on Netflix about dueling karate dojos.

Roughly 28 gazillion people are watching COBRA KAI, and they’re loving it. Shockingly, the critics are all over it, too.

Because unlike the Season that Must Not Be Named that Did the Night King and Mother of Dragons Wrong Wrong Wrong, the writing and plotting of COBRA KAI is carefully and horrifically good. (Warning: spoilers spoilers spoilers.)

Building on Season 1

In the first season, it’s really the story of Johnny’s redemption. He rises from the depths and finds a purpose again, and truly tries to reform Cobra Kai to give kids like Miguel some help. Not that Johnny becomes a complete goodie-goodie. 

By comparison, Daniel struggles, and its a bit of a rich jerk. But he’s not a complete villain, either.

I kid you not, the series feels a bit like BREAKING BAD in that most major characters aren’t heroes or villains. They’re beautiful shades of gray.

Season 2 doesn’t try to continue the character arcs in the same direction, which would have been the easy narrative choice.

The showrunners and writers went bigger. They raised the stakes and added twists, reversals and revelations throughout the season that changed everything around again.

This season, Daniel is the underdog and Cobra Kai is the big, dominant dojo, the winners of the All-Valley Tournament.

Except it gets more interesting than that.

Setups, payoffs and echoes

Though the show is funny, it’s not a comedy. 

Comedies poke fun at an institution–sitcoms go after marriage and family and suburban life, MASH took on the military, THE OFFICE hit corporate bureaucracy–and in a comedy, heroes can’t succeed except by accident.

COBRA KAI is a drama, with things happening for a reason. You could argue the last season of GOT was a melodrama, with things just kinda happening and fans immediately asking each other on Twitter and Reddit why why WHY?

For every payoff, there’s a setup. And the biggest scenes feature echoes of previous scenes.

A genius ending that sets up Season 3

There’s a lot packed into the final few episodes, and what the showrunners and writers did here is fun to take apart.

The beginning of the final episode has a sweet call-back to the original movie, playing Cruel Summer on the first day of school, then you get a slowed-down, sad version of the song at the end of the episode. Beautiful. How many rock songs can rock the xylophones? NOT MANY.

There are a lot of reasons for our characters to be moping around:

A giant brawl in school happens after Miguel’s new bad-girl girlfriend, Tory, hijacks the school PA system to say she knows what Sam (Daniel’s daughter) did–kissed Miguel at a party–and is coming for her.

Everybody fights everybody, tying up a lot of relationships. Hawks gets surprisingly beaten by his old friend Demetri, Tory cheats while fighting Sam, sending her to the hospital for cuts, while Robby fights Miguel, who gets kicked over a stairwell and is in the hospital with spinal injuries.

All of that leads to the apparent end of the romance between Johnny and Carmen (Miguel’s mother) and a “no more karate” edict from Daniel’s wife as they’re in the hospital room with their daughter.

It gets worse for Johnny, who loses control of his dojo to Kreese, after (a) giving Kreese a second-chance and (b) kicking him out of the dojo.

In a great scene that echoes imagery early in the season, he chucks his cell phone and the keys to the muscle car he repainted into a black-and-yellow Cobra theme. Giving up on his old life, right? Then the camera cuts to the cell phone in the sand, showing that his old flame (and Daniel’s former girlfriend) responded to his friend request. 

Guesses on Season 3

I don’t believe the writers will truly let Johnny and Daniel give up on karate forever. But I doubt they make a return to it in the first episode or two.

Five bucks says Kreese’s new, purely evil Cobra Kai will force them to come back to teaching–and though I’m not counting on it, I could see the end of Season 3 featuring a real truce, if not a partnership, between Johnny and Daniel to team up and beat Kreese for the sake of their kids and the community. 

Then again, they’ve surprised us episode after episode.

VERDICT

If you haven’t watched Season 2 yet, binge watch that sucker. 

If you haven’t watched Season 1, watch that first.

Back from the dead!

No, I’m not a zombie, sparkling vampire or Jean Claude Van Damme-ish universal soldier.

I simply haven’t posted in forever, and have missed the readers of this silly blog, who’ve taught me a lot and are always, always witty and entertaining.

So: with a crazy busy session at work, my evil choice was (a) come home and write a blog post, (b) hang out with the wife and son, (c) do laundry, pay the bills and possibly sleep or (d) finish and edit a novel.

I chose everything but (a) and it was the right choice. And now I’m coming up for air.

To folks who are into these things I like to call “books,” here are a few things I learned finishing a new novel, which is the most fun you can legally have as a writer.

(1) Keep switching it up and taking risks

If you keep writing the same sort of story with the same sort of heroes (6-foot-4 and Hollywood handsome) and villains (posh British accent and disfigured somehow) in the same sort of scenarios (stolen MacGuffin could destroy the world!), then hey, it’ll get stale. Same thing with non-fiction, whether it’s newspaper and magazine pieces, speeches or whatever you’re into.

Mix it up. That’s how you grow and learn.

There are endless ways to structure and execute writing. You can steal from anywhere:

  • Stand-up comics are amazing at setups and payoffs, and can do them in the most ruthless shortage of words.
  • Poets make sure every line is a magical spell.
  • Narrative non-fiction is actually a secret treasure chest of great stories that totally work as fiction except they actually happened, and they use the same structural tools as narrative fiction, also known as fiction.
  • Playwrights spell their own names wrong, yet they’re the masters of dialogue.
  • Linked movies and serial shows show you how to plot mega-stories (22 movies by Marvel that all tie together!) and how great beginnings can go completely wrong (Season Eight of GAME OF THRONES). 
  • Screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the evil secret to anything of length. And everything has SOME length.
  • Even if you write stark Nordic mysteries or spy thrillers, romance authors and horror writers show you how to do emotions right, and nothing matters without emotion.

(2) Writers are helpful souls–take the help, and offer help whenever you can

I only started this blog after romance authors found my silly ad to sell the Epic Black Car. 

And I learned an amazing amount from them. Am still learning. 

For a journalist-turned-speechwriter, writing thrillers for fun, romance is the last place I expected to look.

Look in those unexpected places.

Ask questions.

Answer questions from folks starting out.

The other person who taught me an insane amount is my sister, Pam, who won a Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriting. You wouldn’t think screenwriting has anything to do with speechwriting or novels. But you’d be completely wrong. Screenwriters are the absolute best. They’re building skyscrapers that hold up to hurricanes. Meanwhile, other books on writing tell you to build a two-story house out of drywall, then you wonder why the thing falls down after the first rain.

Also: there are authors, writers and editors I met here from around the world, folks who are continually witty, talented and interesting. I want to give a shout out to two in particular — Alexandria and Joshua the Sharp — for their help this year. You two rock.

Keep on meeting people, on Twitter, the Gram, the Book of Face or whatever new thing Silicon Valley invented last week. You never know who’ll turn out to be amazing and will change your life, or whose life you might change. YOU NEVER KNOW.

(3) Take things apart to see how they work

If you read this silly blog (and hey, you’re doing that now), it’s clear just about every post involves taking something apart to see why it’s either (a) horrifically good or (b) beautifully bad.

That’s the interesting and fun part of stories, books, movies, music videos and speeches. How do they work and why?

What could you do to fix a flawed piece or improve something that’s already amazing?

Complaining about something is the easiest thing in the world. You can throw a Nicholas Spark novel across the room (go ahead, that’s kosher any day that ends in Y), walk out of a lame movie or end a show on Netflix after 5 minutes and say, “That sucks.”

Except there’s behind those words. Zero intellectual weight. Anybody can kvetch about something that stinks, or gush about artistic things that are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.

It takes no talent to do those things.

Figuring out HOW things rock or stink–that’s the fun and difficult part.

The best part.

And I hope this blog helps you do that.

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? 

Gertrude Stein is a literary train wreck

I know the name Gertrude Stein, and understand that she is a Giant of Literature, so if you did your master’s thesis on Stein, or otherwise like her work, good on you. HOWEVER: For the first time, I truly read some actual words Stein wrote and published. And not something she dashed off on a napkin to pay the restaurant bill, but one of her most famous poems. And listen, she’s a literary train wreck.

Stein isn’t somebody I’d tell a student or new writer to emulate. If I actually cared about the new writer’s sanity and career, I would tell them this: read her words, then do the opposite.

Sacred Emily starts like this:

Compose compose beds.
Wives of great men rest tranquil.
Come go stay philip philip.
Egg be takers.
Parts of place nuts.
Suppose twenty for cent.
It is rose in hen.
Come one day.
A firm terrible a firm terrible hindering, a firm hindering have a ray nor pin nor.
Egg in places.
Egg in few insists.

Here’s another chunk:

All the time.
A wading chest.
Do you mind.
Lizzie do you mind.
Ethel.
Ethel.
Ethel.
Next to barber.
Next to barber bury.
Next to barber bury china.
Next to barber bury china glass.
Next to barber china and glass.
Next to barber and china.
Next to barber and hurry.

This goes on and on. It doesn’t get any better.

It just gets weirder. Here’s another section:

Cunning piler.
Next to a chance.
Apples.
Apples.
Apples went.
It was a chance to preach Saturday.
Please come to Susan.
Purpose purpose black.
Extra plain silver.
Furious slippers.
Have a reason.
Have a reason candy.
Points of places.
Neat Nezars.
Which is a cream, can cream.
Ink of paper slightly mine breathes a shoulder able shine.
Necessity.
Near glass.
Put a stove put a stove hoarser.

And here’s my favorite part.

When a churn say suddenly when a churn say suddenly.
Poor pour percent.
Little branches.
Pale.
Pale.
Pale.
Pale.
Pale.
Pale.
Pale.
Near sights.
Please sorts.
Example.
Example.

Notes

Listen, I get that Stein was being avant-garde, and purposefully deconstructing the stodgy old nature of poetry. I’m not ideologically opposed to literary and artistic craziness, if done well.

This poem isn’t done well.

If you told me a high school freshman turned this in and got an F from their English Comp teacher, I’d say yeah, that’s about right. Because it’s random, like they threw a bunch of words into some kind of spreadsheet and programmed javascript or whatever to compose sentences. Back in the old days, maybe they’d open random pages of the dictionary, pick a word, then riff off that word while stealing from Grandpa’s favorite bottle of gin and replacing whatever got drank with water so he never caught on.

When you’re already famous and you commit this sin against humankind, simply because you can, it’s seven separate kinds of self-indulgent.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: The fact that nobody can understand you doesn’t make you a genius.

Sure, you can become famous by going to extremes, then hopping on waterskis to jump the shark guarding the Outer Fringe of Extremes before you reach the Neutron Star of Complete Insanity.

The first man to paint a canvas black made some news. The second, third, fifth and 30th artist to paint a canvas black–or white, or whatever monochrome shebang you like–doesn’t shock us. And yes, the artist Banksy just had a painting sold that shredded itself as the sale concluded. New and shocking. What’s not shocking is now others will copy him, or come up with twists on the same idea, though none of those attempts will work half as well, or at all, because the surprise factor is gone baby gone.

I read that some of Stein’s later work is more accessible, which is literary jargon for “you might like this better, since it makes A LOT more sense.” That’s cool. I get that she was experimental. Here’s the thing, though: you do all kinds of experiments knowing 99 will fail and hoping for one to just rock. This doesn’t rock. Sure, it’s kinda interesting as a train wreck, in that you can see the pieces strewn about and think about why it’s a mess, and speculate on what she’s trying to say amidst all the wreckage. Yet when you really drill down on it, Stein’s poem is a lot like Bansky’s latest stunt: its only power is shock value, and only because Stein was rich and had all kinds of famous literary friends like Hemingway.

If a student or unknown writer had done this, we would never had known.