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.

The Mighty MacGuffin

If you’re a writer, you’ll need to use a MacGuffin now and then–and a MacGuffin generator is particularly important now, with upwards of a million writers cranking away every year on NaNoWriMo.

This is not a plot device. We’re talking about an item–and it doesn’t even have to really exist, or be seen–the hero and villain are fighting to obtain. Alfred Hitchcock was famous for using MacGuffins in his films. If the hero is on a quest, he needs to be questing for something. Really, it doesn’t matter what. It’s the journey that matters. Hitchcock has a nice way of getting into the topic.

You can see how movies and novels often revolve around a MacGuffin.

Indiana Jones always needs an item to find and fight over: an ark or a cup and so forth.

Spy movies need a microfilm containing the real names and identities of every undercover agent employed by the CIA, GRU or MI-6, with the good guys and bad guys both willing to do whatever it takes to find and destroy that MacGuffin, which the hero happens to pick up by accident in the luggage carousel at O’Hare.

Sci-fi novels need some kind of techno-babble MacGuffin, like a repulsive helix inverter, which can tweak your DNA or whatever and create an army of alien super soldiers.

Fantasy movies need a magical ring that turns you invisible but does nothing about your big hairy feet or the fact you’re the size of a smurf, or maybe an Enchanted Vorpal Sword of Infinite Sharpness that can lop off the head of the invincible Dragon of Instant Fiery Death that killed your father, uncle, grandfather, second cousin, first wife, baby sister and favorite horse.

Generator Number 1

Here’s a spiffy MacGuffin generator by Jordan McCollum.

Use it. Then visit her blog and show her some love. That’s how this thing works. Pay it forward.

Generator Number 2

Technically, this isn’t a generator. You don’t hit refresh on the browser to come up with another MacGuffin.

It’s more accurate to call this the Mother Lode of MacGuffins, with the entire history of the idea–plus with a massive list of the different flavors of MacGuffins with links that dive into each one. This site is a thing of beauty. 

What is your favorite MacGuffin of all time? And which film, TV show or novel wins the prize for Silliest MacGuffin of All Time? (Note: It’s cheating to go with Star Trek, where every other movie or episode involves dilithium crystal nonsense and the warp core.)

Writers, we are doing it BACKWARDS

Oh, it kills me to say this: we are doing it backwards.

Maybe you’re the exception to the rule. Perhaps you’re that rare writer who figured this out 10 years ago.

But I doubt it. Most of the writers that I know — novelists or journalists, speechwriters or screenwriters — go about it roughly the same way:

Step 1) Research, whether it’s six months of intense study or six minutes of looking at Wikipedia and playing Angry Birds “to let it all percolate.”

Step 2) Boil down the research into useful nuggets of meaty goodness.

Step 3) Use their secret recipe of writing methods to cook up their piece (outlining first or winging it, 3 x 5 index cards or spiral notebook, Word 2016 or Scrivener, one draft or six drafts, coffee or bourbon).

Step 4) Hand the draft to our editor, writing partner, spouse, co-worker or cousin Joey to get all coffee stained and edited. 

Step 5) Spend five or fifty minutes thinking about how to present and sell the sucker for suitcases stuffed with twenties.

Those first four steps, they’re essential, right?

Here’s the thing: We writers are incredibly talented at screwing up Step 5.

Backward is bad

Step 5 is the monster lurking under our typewriters. (Yes, I know most of you use computers. Maybe I have a magic typewriter connected to the Series of Tubes.)

It’s the troll under the bridge, snarfing our lunch and saying, “Whatcha gonna do about it, tough guy?”

Now, boiling down a novel clocking in at 100,000 pages is rough. I have author friends who’d rather leap out of a perfectly good airplane, trusting in the bouncy power of their Nike Air Jordans, than write a three-page synopsis. Tagline? Logline? Forgetaboutit.

Doing Step 5 for anything, long or short, is tough.

Tough for screenwriters, who need to boil it down to an elevator pitch.

Tough for editors in newsrooms, who have to write headlines that fit into tiny nooks and corners of the newspaper layout.

Yet nothing else matters if we botch Step 5. Because nobody will see the fruits of our labors, the hard work that went into Steps 1 through 4, if we can’t condense the whole idea into a killer pitch and hook.

Reversing course

Instead of performing the labors of Hercules before even attempting the torture of Step 5, reverse course.

Start there.

Before you invest hours, days,  weeks or months into research. Before you sweat bullets to put words on page after page.

Begin with the shortest and most important words.

The  logline (or pitch, but in a sentence, not a paragraph) — “An alien monster stalks the trapped crew of a spaceship.”

The tagline – “In space, nobody can hear you scream.”

The headline – “Alien devours spaceship crew; heading for Earth?”

Test that out, not with friends and family, who are constrained by the need to live with you, and be liked by you.

Try that single sentence on people in line at Safeway or Starbucks, neighbors you barely know, visitors from out of town, tourists, people who won’t wound you forever if they make a face and tell you the idea is stupid.

And to get inspiration, use the series of tubes to check out “movie loglines” and “movie taglines” and “great headlines.” Or head to The Onion and read their headlines, which are seven separate flavors of awesomesauce.

Don’t do a thing until you have a logline, tagline and headline that sing.

Not one thing. Don’t spend six months writing a first draft or six minutes plotting the first chapter.

Go do it. Throw ideas around on a piece of paper or whatever — and not about whatever you’re working on. Dream up a few crazy ideas and write down loglines, taglines and headlines that are shorter than short. Then kill every word you can to make them shorter.

You’re going to notice a few things.

First, the hero doesn’t matter.

Second, the villain matters a whole bunch. If you remove the villain and threat, it kills the logline, tagline and headline. Because stories — even newspaper stories — are about conflict. No villain, no conflict. But if you take out the hero, it usually makes the logline a lot shorter and a lot better.

Here’s another example I’ve used before and will use again, because it is short and sweet and the logline for about six movies that have already been made: “Asteroid will destroy Earth.”

See? We don’t need Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck (Matt Damon‘s buddy, the one who dates & marries Jennifers) in there at all. Heroes just clutter things up.

Third, shorter is better. If you can get it down to three or four words, you are golden.

A new way to write

Let’s get practical. Here’s a new way to write anything.

New Step 1) Nail the logline, tagline and headline.

One sentence apiece, as few words as possible, and yes, it is cheating to have sentences that go on and on forever, sentences with six different commas and possibly semi-colons, which are a sin against the English language in the first place and should be taken out and shot.

New Step 2) Make it work as a paragraph.

Expand it a little, but not too much. Half a page, maximum.

New Step 3) Nail it as an outline on ONE PAGE, treating each side fairly.

Whether you’re writing an oped or an opera, a novel or a speech, figure out the biggest possible difference between the beginning and the end — and do it from both POV’s. The villain and the hero.

So: if it’s a romance where the heroine ends up as a great cook who’s happy and in a great relationship, what’s the greatest possible distance she can travel? On page 1, make her  (a) the worst cook in the world, (b) unhappy and (c) alone. How can you take that up a notch? Make her a nun who loses her sense of smell (and therefore taste) in a car accident. I’m half kidding, but not really. You get the idea. 

If the ending is crazy happy, the beginning better be insanely sad.

If the ending is full of sad, the beginning should be Happyville.

If the hero is a tough guy in the end, the best story shows him start out weak. Only after he suffers and sacrifices does he prevail (THE KARATE KID), and not necessarily by wining (ROCKY).

And you’ve got to make it a fair fight. Nobody thinks they’re a villain. The other side — whether it’s an speech about taxes or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK — has a point. If you don’t give it credence, your writing will be one-sided and weak. Cartoonish.

I used ALIEN before. What’s the story for the alien creatures? Maybe they’re a dying race. Maybe that crashed ship contains the last of their kind. The stakes just got a lot higher for the alien, right? You are our only hope, little facehugger. Get in that ship and lay some eggs.

Put yourself in the shoes of Darth Vader and the Emperor, who don’t see themselves as enslaving the galaxy. They’re helping people by establishing law and order. If nobody is in charge, it’s chaos and confusion. A strong empire means safety, security and economic growth. The rebels are violent terrorists who don’t appreciate what they have and will kill whoever it takes to gain power.

Now figure out your turning points. Put in your setups and payoffs. Make it work as an outline before you move on.

New Step 4) Research only what you need.

New Step 5) Write and have a professional editor bleed red ink on the pages until the draft is A SHINY DIAMOND MADE OF WORDS. 

You’ll notice that what used to be an afterthought — Step 5 in the original way of writing — becomes the first three steps.

I did that on purpose.

Say you write a beautiful oped, 700 magnificent words about why the death penalty should be abolished or whatever. Now you’ve got to pick up the phone and pitch an editor at The Willapa Valley Shopper or The New York Times.

The first five seconds (aside from the “hello!” nonsense) will determine if they even look at the piece. Maybe six or seven words, if you talk fast. Part of that will be confidence, tone of voice and other things you can’t learn via a blog post.

Your pitch, though, will matter. A lot. A great speaker with a muddled pitch will lose out to a mumbler with a tremendous idea they can convey in four words. That’s what a logline, headline and tagline are really about, three different ways of explaining something in the fewest possible words.

Hollywood calls this five-second kind of thing “the elevator pitch.” There are websites that devote many, many words to it. Use the powers of the google and check them out. They are useful.

Bottom line: those four words matter more than all 700 words of the oped, all 3,000 of the keynote speech, all 15,000 of the screenplay or all 100,000 of your epic novel about elves with lightsabers riding dinosaurs.

Make those four words count.

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.

A tour de force of writing styles

You don’t need to read an author’s body of work to understand their writing style.

I can give you a page – or a paragraph – from a famous writer and you can probably guess who it is. Well, if they’re famous enough.

A little experiment: How would some famous authors and celebrities answer the question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?

ERNEST HEMINGWAY:
To die. In the rain. Alone.

THE BIBLE:
And God came down from the heavens and He said unto the chicken, “Thou shalt cross the road.” And the chicken crossed the road and there was much rejoicing.

ARISTOTLE:
It is the nature of chickens to cross the road.

CAPTAIN JAMES T. KIRK:
To boldly go where no chicken has gone before.

FREUD:
The fact that you are at all concerned that the chicken crossed the road reveals your underlying sexual insecurity.

RALPH WALDO EMERSON:
The chicken did not cross the road. It transcended it.

BUDDHA:
Asking this question denies your own chicken nature.

MACHIAVELLI:
The point is that the chicken crossed the road. Who cares why? The end of crossing the road justifies whatever motive there was.

KARL MARX:
It was a historical inevitability.

BILL O’ REILLY:
To steal a job from a decent, hardworking American.

DR. SEUSS:
Did the chicken cross the road? Did he cross it with a toad? Yes! The chicken crossed the road. Why it crossed, I’ve not been told.

GRANDPA:
In my day, we didn’t ask why the chicken crossed the road. Someone told us that the chicken had crossed the road, and that was good enough for us.

New bonus answers:

BILL GATES:
I have just released the new Chicken 7, which will not only cross roads, but will also lay eggs, file your important documents, balance your checkbook and compete with Apple’s Smooth Eagle.

JERRY SEINFELD:
Why does anyone cross a road? I mean, why doesn’t anyone ever think to ask, “What the heck was this chicken doing walking around all over the place, anyway? What is wrong with that chicken?

PARIS HILTON:
Huh?

Why are all writers lazy bums?

I don’t really think writers are lazy bums. I just want us all to talk about the elephant in the living room: why does writing take so long?

The average person types 50 words per minute.

And that’s slow. I type about 80 or 90. Faster, if I have coffee. Even quicker with headphones blasting, or on deadline. 

Coffee plus headphones plus a deadline? Fuggetaboutit. That keyboard is gonna sing. 

The thing is, all the speed in the world doesn’t really matter.

Here comes the math

Let’s say you write full-time, all day, every day. No day job to worry about, no cramming in writing at 4 in the morning when the kids are asleep or scribbling forty minutes a day on a yellow legal pad (are there other colors? why yes, there are, including PURPLE) as you ride the train from New Jersey to the NYC.

Say you’re not that fast. Fifty words a minute. 

Fifty words per minute =

  • 3,000 words per hour
  • 24,000 words per eight-hour day
  • 120,000 words per week

That’s a ton of words. An incredible amount.

Let’s do a little more math to see how much we should be cranking out, if we’re not surfing the net, Twittering our lives away and checking out Facebook photos all day.

Here come the word counts:

  • 200 words = letter to the editor
  • 500 words = five-minute speech
  • 600 words = news story
  • 800 words = oped
  • 1,000 words = 10-minute speech
  • Up to 3,000 words = profile or magazine piece
  • Up to 8,000 words = short story
  • 3,000 words = 30-minute keynote speech
  • 15,000 words = screenplay
  • 20,000 to 60,000 words = novella
  • 60,000 to 120,000+ words = novel

Of course, people don’t type every second of the workday.

Let’s say half your day is eaten by meetings, research and other things, and you only write four hours a day, or 20 hours a week. Even then, we’re talking about 60,000 words.

That’s most of a novel, four screenplays, 20 keynote speeches or 100 opeds.

In a single week.

Nobody writes that much. NOBODY.

Not even Stephen King, back when he was fueled by industrial amounts of caffeine, nicotine and other substances.

In fact, writers of all sorts are happy to produce between 500 and 2,000 good, usable words a day.

I know novelists who are happy to produce one good novel per year. If you divide 100,000 words by 52 weeks, you get a smidge less than 2,000 words per week and, I kid you not, less than 300 words per day.

I know reporters who crank out two stories a day, five days a week and columnists who do one or two opeds a week.

There are pro speechwriters, brilliant people I’ve known for years, who take two solid weeks to nail down a 30-minute keynote speech (3,000 words).

Before the invention of word processors, writing gods like Hemingway would pound on their Underwoods and count every word, quitting for the day when they hit 1,000–or even 500–that day.

But let’s be generous and say 2,000 words a day is a good day.

Where are the missing words? Why are all sorts of pro writers–reporters, novelists, poets, speechwriters–producing about 20 percent of what the math says?

Suspect No. 1: It’s not really eight hours or even four hours

This looks like the obvious culprit, because it’s the only person sneaking away from the crime scene with a guilty look and blood on the bottom of their shoes.

Reporters have to cover stories, get quotes from sources and meet with editors.

Novelists need to do research, talk to their agent, go on book tours and so forth.

Every writer, reporter and novelist has to do research, travel and attend meetings. Nobody is chained to the desk the entire workday, pounding on the keyboard like a typist. They need to eat of the food sometimes, and drink of the wine, and have a life.

HOWEVER:  A lack of hours isn’t what’s wrong here.

Let’s say even more of the day is toast. Research. Phone calls. E-mail. Lunch with some big important person. Twittering to your buddies.

Fine, let’s go all the way down and say six of your eight hours are toast, and there are only TWO HOURS of actual banging on the keyboard.

3,000 words per hour X 2 hours = 6,000 words a day.

And yet the most writers typically can hit, day after day, is 2,000 words.

Where are the missing words?

Also, I know writers who spend six hours a day in meetings, doing research, returning e-mail and all that — and they still bang on the keyboard at least four to eight hours a day because they’re working crazy hours. A lot of writers work weekends, too. Writing is often a daily habit.

Yet 2,000 words per day seems like a kind of universal wall for writers of all stripes. Why?

Suspect No. 2: We type slower than narcoleptic turtles

This suspect doesn’t even get handcuffed and taken down to the station for a chat.

I used 50 words a minute because it’s the average typing speed of the general population.

Serious and professional writers are typically a lot faster, unless they’re hunting and pecking on an Underwood because that’s what they’ve always done since they first got published in 1926. There aren’t that many authors in that category.

If you dictate your stuff with Naturally Speaking or whatever, it’s more like 100 words a minute.

But let’s be generous again and pretend we all type really, really slow.

25 words a minute = 1,500 words an hour.

Even if we say Suspect No. 1 (Miss Most Hours of the Day Get Wasted) and Suspect No. 2 (Mr. Types Slowly) shacked up in a cheap motel and conspired to murder the creativity of all writers, it doesn’t get us down to 2,000 words a day.

Four hours at the keyboard at 30 words per minute is still 6,000 words a day. Two hours is 3,000 words, which is closer, but not plausible. Professional writers aren’t much slower than average typists–they’re a lot faster.

We need a better theory of the crime.

Suspect No. 3: Writing requires deep, deep thinking

Ah, this one is good. It’s lurking in the shadows.

It’s evil. Hard to refute.

How can you say that writing is shallow and easy?

How can you deny the art required, the creativity?

This isn’t an assembly line. It’s not a factory where we churn out widgets. Writers create something original, whether it’s a 500-word story for the newspaper or a 100,000-word novel.

Except I know better. Because I’ve been watching.

Going off my own experience wouldn’t be proof of squat. Maybe I’m an anomaly. Maybe I type 80+ words per minute (true) and separate writing from editing (also true).

But I know writers of all sorts. Reporters, speechwriters, novelists, you name it, and just about everybody who writes for money bangs on the keyboard at least four hours a day, and they’re all faster than 50 words a minute. That’s 3,000 words per hour.

Even going with four hours a day of actual writing, we should be at 12,000 words a day. Except we’re not.

Suspect No. 4: We’re creating while destroying

This is our killer. I’ve seen him at work.

I’ve helped other writers catch the evil scumbag, convict him and send him upstate so he can’t do any more damage.

We are typing away on the keyboard, and we’re not doing it at 10 words per minute. We are writing fast. It’s just that we destroy those words just as fast.

Why do we writers destroy more than we create?

Not because the words aren’t pretty. Sentence by sentence, they’re fine.

It’s because the structure is wrong.

I’ve looked at bad drafts that hit the roundfile. The sentences were pretty. It was the structure that failed.

We spend so much time trying to fix these things because we nobody teaches us structure.

Oh, they taught me the inverted pyramid in journalism school, which is the best possible blueprint for a story if you want to give away the ending right away and put people in a coma the longer they read.

Creative writing professors teach us characterization and the three types of conflict in creative writing.

Rhetoric professors give us logical fallacies and different types of arguments in speech and debate.

Journalism profs teach us hard and soft headlines and the different types of ledes.

Yet that’s not really structure. It’s tiny bits and pieces.

Building a house one room at a time, without blueprints

They way most of us write is like trying to build a house one room at a time. Winging it, without any blueprints.

Pour the foundation for the front door and foyer.

Frame it. Wire it for electricity. Drywall it. Paint it.

Now dig the foundation for the kitchen and build that.

Where should the living room go? OK, we did that, but forgot to put in stairs to the second floor, so we’ve got to tear it all down and start over.

That’s how I used to write. It’s how most writers I know do it.

You start at the beginning and work your way through it, trying to fix any problems with structure along the way.

My old friend and mentor, Robin, was guilty of this. He’d spend a week on an oped, which is only 800 words. He was a brilliant man, one of the smartest I’ve ever known, and a good example of why mixing research, writing and editing into a single process slowed everything down to a snail’s pace. He’d create and destroy thousands and thousands of words before he had 800 on a final draft.

Doing research, writing and editing all at once is no way to run a railroad. It’s building a house without blueprints, blindly hoping the beginning will magically connect with the middle and an end you haven’t figure out yet.

I’ve had houses designed and built. If a contractor tried to build a house the way we writers work, it wouldn’t take six months to finish it. It’d take six years, or forever.

So this is our killer, our time-suck, our nemesis.

Question is, how do you DO structure — and how do we, as writers, learn to draw good blueprints, so we stop spending 80 percent of our time at the keyboard destroying what we created?

Romance novelists are a secret, epic army

Let it be known: we men must rethink our natural manly instinct that romance novels are something to ignore or avoid, like SEX AND THE CITY 2, which is indeed worthy of scorn, and woe unto any man whose girlfriend or wife coerced them into wasting two hours of their life to see that stupid thing. No bribe is sufficient.

Romance novelists are not only smart and funny, but many can write circles around most writers I know. These women are more talented than many folks writing about serial killers, elves or dinosaurs in spaceships (yes, this is a thing, try the googles) simply because there is so much freaking competition with romance novels.

Are there bad romance novels out there? Sure, just like any genre. But with so many books and writers, it’s like throwing 10,000 authors into the Thunderdome, tossing in a single chainsaw and refusing to unlock the door until there’s only one woman left. That woman is going to kick tail. She will be a writing goddess.

And the message is good. Romance novels don’t want men to be to be office drones, worried about TPS reports, or moody, over-educated basket cases like the men you read about in literary novels.

Romance novels want men of action and charm, packing swords if not guns, and sometimes guns and swords. Any man can learn this from hitting checking out romance novel covers. IT IS AN EDUCATION.

romance novels, fabio, romance novelists, rwa
Fabio and a sword is all you need. Shirts are optional.

Another bonus: romance is the largest part of the book business, which we need more than ever. If you care about books, literature and ideas instead of whatever is on the glowing tube today about the Kardashian idiots, you want to keep a healthy foundation of romance in the world’s fortress of books.

If we are truly men of action, we should band together, pool our resources and give romance novels serious tax subsidies. I’m not kidding here. Because romance authors and readers are a secret army doing a $16.5 billion public relations campaign for men everywhere. And, yes, the genre is bigger than that. It’s a big push for love of all stripes, which is a good thing, damn it. Life isn’t about having the biggest pile of dead presidents. It’s about family and who you love. As a husband and father, I get that.

So, romance novelists and readers, I am holding a mug of Belgium beer, which I raise your direction. Keep up the good work.

The Red Pen of Doom reluctantly nukes THE GREAT GATSBY

I take great pleasure in dissecting the first page of Popular Novels Which Actually Stink, or finding first pages that absolutely sing and figuring out why they’re so glorious.

The first page matters. A few examples:

The Red Pen of Doom puts a stake through TWILIGHT

The Red Pen of Doom impales FIFTY SHADES OF GREY

The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK

The Red Pen of Doom murders THE FOUNTAINHEAD by Ayn Rand

By request, today we’re taking on page one of a classic of lit-RAH-sure: THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Sidenote: There are 5,832 various editions and such, so you’re page one may end on a different sentence and such. I tried to stop at the end of a paragraph, though as this is an older book, back when paragraphs lasted longer than most CBS sitcoms, this is kinda hard.

THE GREAT GATSBY

In my younger and more vulnerable years, (missing a comma here) my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, (this feels like odd, unplanned repetition of the “any one” in the previous graf, so strike “any”) but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. (Listen, we’re on the third graf already, and I’m not inclined to reserve all judgment, seeing how you’re coming off like a veteran bore.) The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was became privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon.; for the intimate revelations (“intimate relations” twice in this sentence, so close together, doesn’t work at all) of young men, or at least The terms in which they express them, (comma deleted) are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, (here we get repetition with a purpose for once and it does work) a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. (This is an awkward mouthful)

THOUGHTS: This is 100 percent interior monologue, which isn’t required by law to be boring. Though it sure leans that way.

Maybe it sets the mood.

However: If you’re basing a tragic hero’s entire motivation for making a ton of money to become a rich snob to impress a girl he loved and lost, and you’re hell-bent on starting page one with interior monologue about backstory, MAKE IT ABOUT THE GIRL.

Not the narrator. Not the narrator’s dad.

Not boring people who tell the narrator secrets while he pretends to sleep.

Make it all about the girl and Gatsby.

A huge part of the novel is throwing fancy parties to impress each other, right? I’m going off my memory from doing my own term papers on this thing. Never saw the movies. And when I do a first page, I try NOT to cheat by reading plot summaries and such, even if I’ve read the book.

Put a gun to my head and I’d delete this first page and start with the real inciting incident, which should be Gatsby and the narrator meeting the girl at a party way back when, so you can echo that later.

Or make it about about a small betrayal, from college or back during the war, to foreshadow the bigger betrayals and tragedies to come.

VERDICT: Doesn’t make me want to read more, which I wouldn’t unless the English 101 prof gave me no choice.

Sorry, F. Scott F.–can’t lie and say I liked this. Nuke the first page and go with a better hook.

Why writing is EXACTLY like running, except for the part about words

Most of the folks who follow this silly blog are creative types–novelists, editors, journalists, photographers and other brilliant, beautiful people.

So let’s talk about creativity.

Are the arts a habit? Or does the muse randomly descend upon your noggin, so long as you make the right sacrifices and entreaties?

Though my love for the muse is strong, I’m making the case for habit.

All the way.

Because writing–and other creative work–is a hell of a lot like running. Here’s why.

1) The more you do it, the easier it gets

You can take classes about writing (or running), read books, watch videos and listen to experts.

In the end, though, there’s no substitute to getting off your duff and doing it.

And the more you write, or run, the easier it gets.

The first time you run a mile, or write something Serious, it’s painful.

Sometimes so painful that you question why anyone would do this ever again.

But then the next time, you run two miles, or write something twice as long, and it only hurts half as much.

Creativity is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

2) You can’t save up and go wild

It’s far, far easier to write 500 words a day, or run 5 miles five days a week, then tell yourself, “Hey, I’m busy this week, but on the weekend, I’ll crank out 2,500 words of that novel or run 25 miles.”

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: trying to cram it all into a weekend, or a single day, is setting yourself up to fail.

A mile a day is easy. You can walk it.

Same thing with 100 words, which you can do with a stubby pencil and the back of an envelope while hanging upside down on a roller coaster.

Two miles a day is still easy, just as 200 words a day is a breeze.

The difficulty goes up exponentially.

Famous novelists in history like Hemingway used to count their words religiously, by hand. They didn’t have a button on Word that did the work for them. And they’d quit for the day after hitting a target like 500 words.

Doesn’t sound like much. Yet that 500 a day is huge.

If you write 500 words a day, every day, that’s 182,500 words a year.

Three novels, unless you’re doing sagas about elves and dragons and such, in which case congrats on finishing that prologue. (I say that out of love.)

Sure, on good days you’ll crank out 1,000 words, and on great days you’ll hit 2,000 and if you’re absolutely on fire, congrats and 4,000.

It’s just that you can’t count on 2,000 words a day, every day, week after week.

Same thing with running. I can do 5 miles maybe three days a week, and work up to four or five days a week after a month or two.

Might do ten miles once a week, if I’m feeling it.

Ten miles a day, every day, isn’t realistic.

Resting all week and running 25 miles on Sunday? Nopity nope nope. Ain’t happening.

3) Loud music and solitude

There are writers I know who can’t write unless the door is closed, to get rid of that feeling that somebody is behind them.

Unless you have a twin, or a great friend who’s in exactly the same shape as you, it’s tough finding a running partner who goes at the same pace and is available to run whenever you can cram it in.

Writing and running are both made for headphones and solitude.

This is one area where running and writing diverge, since I don’t write anything Serious without a fresh cup of joe, while running five or ten miles while carrying a coffee mug hasn’t worked out yet.

4) Coaching, advice and gear isn’t everything, but it sure helps

It’s possible to write only using a pen and legal pads.

Somebody could run barefoot, every day, and be faster than a sedentary person running once a week wearing $225 shoes.

HOWEVER: good coaching, tips and equipment help.

I type faster on an ergonomic keyboard and run faster with good shoes.

Scrivener is better than Word, which is better than a legal pad.

And in both things, there’s always something to learn. One of the wisest men I know says, “Whenever I meet somebody, I learn something.”

Never think asking for advice is a flashing neon sign telling the world you’re an amateur.

Coaching, advice and gear gets more important the better you get at writing or running.

Professional runners and writers don’t tell people, “Yeah, I do this for a living, which makes me an expert, so why would I ask people for help or advice?”

The opposite is true, with the best professionals in the world seeking out the MOST coaching and help, since even a 1 percent boost to their performance matters.

5) Mixing it up is essential

You don’t run the same route, distance and pace every time. You do a hill day, a sprint day, a distance day.

Same thing with writing. There’s great benefit to mixing up what you do and layering it all together.

Journalists should try fiction.

Novelists should give poetry a go.

Screenwriters can gain from checking out rhetoric and speechwriting.

And there’s an order to how you write or train.

Runners and other athletes do workouts in certain progressions: start slow and build up volume. Rest, stretch, massage, ice, heat. It’s not the same thing every day.

Writers have their own progressions. You can’t write and edit at the same time, just like you can’t run and stretch in the same minute. These things happen in series, not parallel.

6) Deadlines focus the mind

Without deadlines, it’s easy to meander along. There’s always tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.

Deadlines make things happen.

I’m running more and more often, and for longer distances, due to a looming deadline: a half marathon in September.

Same thing is true with writing, where deadlines rules.

For the month of August, I did a little experiment. Could I write one post on this silly blog every day, put down at least 500 words a day on the new novel–plus train for the half marathon?

Running got easier, every time. Two miles turned into three miles, then five, six, seven, nine, ten–it flowed.

Without that half-marathon coming up, I would’ve been happy doing five miles forever, and never tested myself to see if nine or 10 would kill me.

Though I missed one Friday with the blog, I doubled up on a different day for 31 posts in 31 days. NOT TOO SHABBY. Pretty sure that’s the most I’ve posted in any month since the dawn of time.

And on the novel, I cranked out 15 chapters, which works out to half a chapter a day, every day.

For structure geeks, that’s 15 chapters out of 36 total in a four-act structure, with nine chapters per act.

Three chapters shy of half a novel is a beautiful, beautiful month.

You don’t complain about that, unless you want the Writing Gods to strike you down with lightning after opening a sinkhole beneath your feet.

I raise my glass to August, for it was Good.

Not good because the muse decided to bless me.

Good because habit, discipline and dedication beats inspiration. Every single time.

The different types of coffee, explained

As a proud coffee addict, I see the humor and the truth in this.

Coffee is the sturdy foundation of the food pyramid, the baron of beverages, the high lord of liquids.

Writing and coffee go together like chocolate and peanut butter, Sonny and Cher, Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

In fact, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t write anything serious without a fresh cup of coffee. IT IS REQUIRED.

As to the common explanations for Italian coffee terms, I can see the value in translating Coffee Snob into English.

This isn’t wine. You don’t need to sniff the stuff in a decanter and talk about notes of pear and tobacco. Yes, bad coffee is terrible, and a sin against humanity. There is coffee I refuse to drink.

But good coffee should be celebrated and accessible to all, not just an exclusive few.

So: I raise my mug to the good people who work at this coffee shop and came up with this list. Thank you.

Welcome to the age of the meta-story

There’s a disturbing trend in Hollywood where studio execs would rather greenlight movies based on board games and toys from the ’80s than original ideas.

Yet I’m not overly worried about getting swamped with a sea of sequels to BATTLESHIP or RAMPAGE.

The deeper, more enduring trend in books, movies and video games? Meta-stories.

STAR WARS, HARRY POTTER, LORD OF THE RINGS, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Batman Arkham games, WESTWORLD, GAME OF THRONES–they best series are true meta stories.

Notice I didn’t list some big franchises, like the STAR TREK reboot, the DC non-universe and the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: TOM CRUISE DOES ALL HIS OWN STUNTS movies. They don’t fall in the same category.

So what’s a meta-story?

A book or movie can have sequels with the same hero (or group of heroes and sidekicks) without being a meta-story. Think of 99 percent of most shows on HBO, Netflix or this thing I called “network television.” They’re episodic. Sure, it’s the same universe and same characters. The stories being told, though, are separate and distinct.

This is why you can binge-watch LAW AND ORDER: PICK A SERIES, ANY SERIES, WE HAVE LOTS and it doesn’t matter if they skip around seasons and whatnot.

This is also why you can take all 20-some of the Reacher novels by Lee Child (my fav) and read them in any order. Because yes, Reacher is in every one of them, but otherwise, they aren’t really that connected. Separate stories each time. Different villains, different themes, different locations.

Meta-story is the difference between Marvel owning a license to print money while DC, with better characters (they have Batman, for God’s sake) struggles and reshoots and just can’t get it going.

Building the beast

It’s simple, really. Forget about the hero.

Yes, the hero is what people focus on, typically. That’s the star of the show, right?

Meta-stories often don’t have a singular hero. Think about Marvel–there are dozens of heroes.

The acid test, the way to see whether a series of books and movies is episodic or a meta-story, is to look at the villain(s).

Is it Villain-of-the-Week or does the series feature One Big Baddie?

HARRY POTTER is all about Voldemort, who’s winning the whole time until Harry literally dies and comes back to beat him.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS has a fellowship of heroes–not a singular hero–facing off against One Big Baddie who happens to be a big glowing eye.

Marvel was brilliant in planting Infinity Stones in every movie and having Thanos lurking in the background the whole time as the One Big Baddie, a villain so good they’ve managed to do what, 20-some movies as part of this arc? Amazing.

 

You get the idea.

If you’re writing a series, just remember this: Villains rule, heroes drool.

Honor your muse

Notes: So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Fellowship and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing. Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing. And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

One man’s love letter to romance authors and readers

Listen: romance novels don’t get enough respect.

Not for the amazing army of authors. Not for the editors and literary agents.

And not for the millions of loyal readers.

That should change. Here’s why:

1) The world needs books more than ever

If you care about ideas and words, you should care about books.

Newspapers and magazines are below books on the food chain of ideas and insights. I say this as a former journalist who bleeds newsprint if you cut me.

Only books give a writer enough space and time to truly dive deep into a topic.

Every library is an arsenal of liberty and each book is a foot soldier in the war against ignorance, apathy and hate.

We need books more than ever, with propaganda, misinformation and tyrants—or wannabe tyrants—one the rise around the world.

Books matter. When it comes to ideas, they are irreplaceable.

Oh, television and movies make billions. Money isn’t the same as importance. TV, movies and the Series of Tubes can’t replace the role of books.

And the foundation of a healthy book industry? Romance novels.

It’s not even close.

Crime and mystery novels are No. 2, at $728 million a year in the U.S. book market. Sidenote: there are conflicting opinions of what genre is No. 2. I’m not getting into that fight.

Romance novels lap the field with a staggering $1.44 billion a year.

2) Romance is not a fad

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.

You can make a case that YA dystopian fiction was a fad, just like a zombie movies and books were once hotter than the sun but now colder than an icy hand wrapping around your throat at midnight in a graveyard.

There are fads in publishing, just like anything else.

Romance novels, though, are eternal and infinitely varied.

There’s contemporary and historical, futuristic and fantasy, gothic and paranormal, series and suspense, straight and LGBTQ.

Sidenote: I believe a good percentage of romantic suspense novels would get placed on the mystery and thriller shelf if you reversed the genders of the protag and love interest. Switch the genders of my favorite series, the Reacher novels, and bookstores would put those on the romantic suspense section. I own every Reacher novel and they all have a strong romance subplot, with the love interest the most important character aside from Reacher, somebody who gets more time on the page than the disposable villain Reacher will inevitably outsmart before he crushes their bones into powder. The fact that the gender of the protag determines where the book gets placed on the shelves kinda pisses me off.

3) Women rule the book world, yet men dominate book reviews

Women hold 70 to 80 percent of publishing jobs and make up the majority of both literary agents and book buyers.

However: male authors and male critics dominate book reviews.

That’s upside down.

It’s smart business to pay attention to what people buy, and dumber than dumb to ignore the actual market and what your customers want.

If movie critics ignored 90 percent of action movies and only wrote reviews for black-and-white French existentialist movies, the average movie-goer would be hacked off. I don’t care what industry you talk about. Car reviewers who only write about $240,000 exotic sports cars aren’t really helping their readers, who buying sedans and pickups and minivans.

Book critics and book reviews should reflect what book buyers actually put down money to buy.

4) Romance is a story that needs to be told

Literature—and all stories—is really about what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for.

War and action movies answer the question of what’s worth dying for.

The best stories about what’s worth dying for show how tough this choice can be. CATCH-22 doesn’t say World War II was a bad war. Clearly, Hitler needed to be stopped. The question Yossarian struggles with is truly this: After the war is basically over, do you really need to risk your life flying more missions that will probably get you killed, or should you save your life by becoming a deserter, shunned by your country but still breathing?

Romance novels are about what’s worth living for.

Who should pick as a partner or spouse, to love and cherish and maybe start a family?

That’s a massive, massive question. You better get it right, because getting it wrong can be the biggest disaster ever.

Romance novels show people struggling to make the right choice. Who should you pick as a partner in love and life?

5) Romance authors, editors and readers are strong where male writers are weak

If you’re a male writer, I’d suggest getting editors, critique partners and beta readers with a romance background.

Every. Single. Time.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Romance folks are strong where most male authors are weak. Seek them out. And when you need a professional editor, hire them.

The opposite is also true. I’ve edited novels for a number of female authors, including romance authors writing thrillers (or romantic suspense), and I think we both learned a ton each time. Strengths and weaknesses should be complementary, and you won’t find that with an editor, critique partner or beta buddy who’s a clone of you.

Also: romance authors and readers have the biggest and best-organized communities, online or in person. They have their act together.

RWA is an army, folks. Do not mess with them.

6) HFN and HEA are squad goals, people

Men should push for tax breaks for romance novels. Seriously.

This is my experience: My wife reads everything. She’s a trial attorney and the mayor, basically working two jobs. And sure, we have all kinds of books in our library and all over the house: books on rhetoric, the classics, non-fiction, thrillers, mysteries. Everything. Yet the last thing she or I want to do after a hard day is to read heavy non-fiction or dense, depressing lit-rah-sure, which on weeknights makes me feel like I have to pull an all-nighter to write a 20-page term paper, and I am done with all that.

Romance novels let her relax. They make her happy, just like reading thrillers makes me relaxed and happy.

Happy wife, happy life.

There’s a reason why if there’s no HFN (Happy For Now) or HEA (Happily Ever After) that it’s not actually a romance novel. Could be a tragic love story, like ROMEO AND JULIET, but not a romance.

The message of romance novels is that despite how hard it can be to pick the right person, and build a strong relationship with them, all of that is worth the effort. That’s why the ending has to be HFN or HEA.

I like that message.

Strike that. I love it.

It’s hopeful, noble and something we all need to hear.

Because in the end, it’s our relationships—not how many digits are in your bank account, or how fancy your car and house is—that really matter in life.

P.S. As a bonus, check out this great infographic from PBS. My only quibbles: at the end, they give FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and the e-book trend too much space, though this was back when that book was huge and e-books seemed like the future. Now, readers are pushing back for more physical books. Because hey, there’s nothing like the smell and feel of a read hardcover.

Here’s why THE MEG works

The surprise hit of the summer? THE MEG, starring Jason Statham.

Here’s why this movie works, even if you know the ending. (Spoiler: I don’t need to tell you the ending. Come on.)

1) Monster in the House is a powerful and primal story

THE MEG isn’t a horror movie, actually.

In a true horror movie, the hero is actually the monster, who’s punishing society for its sins. That’s why the monster in horror movies is the star who keeps returning for the sequels.

Cineplexes around the world are littered with the corpses of horror movies that forgot this rule and let the monster lose. It doesn’t work. That’s now how the story is structured.

Monster in the House is the phrase screenwriter Blake Synder gave to stories like THE MEG, JAWS, ALIEN and FATAL ATTRACTION.

The setup: There’s a monster in an enclosed place and either you kill it or it kills you.

Nothing could be more simple or powerful. This story hits us right in the caveman feels.

And it’s a story that’ll always work.

2) Jason Statham sells tickets

There are actors like Gary Oldman who can disappear into their roles.

Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson never disappear. Neither does Chris Pratt, whether he’s saving the galaxy or saving dinosaurs.

You could send a film crew to follow Statham, Johnson or Pratt around as they did their grocery shopping at Safeway and it would still be entertaining.

Statham has a particular brand of charm and is especially believable when he does action scenes. You don’t think there’s a stunt double or CGI making it happen.

That’s box office gold.

3) Movies like THE MEG help us conquer our fears

Horror movies tell us no, humans don’t win and don’t deserve to win. The monster kills everybody, punishing society for their sins, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The message of horror movies is, “Don’t commit whatever sin we’re highlighting in this story.”

Movies like THE MEG give us the opposite message: Even if there’s a seemingly unstoppable monster out there, that doesn’t mean we have to give in to fear.

We can beat that monster–or any other monster–if we’re brave and clever and work together.

Why Facebook friends, Twitter followers and blog hits don’t actually matter

media strategy saturday meme

Hear me now and believe me later in the week:

  • Blog hits don’t really matter.
  • Most people actively trying to collecting bazillions of Facebook “friends” are wasting everybody’s time, including their own.
  • Your number of Twitter followers doesn’t mean diddly.

Just saying these things is heresy to Internet Fanboys, who believe nothing is more powerful than the series of tubes.

If they can only find a way to implant a USB 3.0 socket in the back of their skull, they’ll be able to jack into the Matrix, do insane kung fu kicks and stop bullets JUST BY THINKING ABOUT IT, but they’re too busy looking at the woman in the red dress that they never leave the keyboard, go out in the real world and, I don’t know, kiss an actual girl.

Am I saying unplug from the series of tubes entirely? No. The internets, they are useful for many things.

I’m saying the real world is ALSO useful for many more things.

Why blog hits don’t matter

Everybody wants to be read. I mean, it’s sad to start a blog, put time and effort into writing great posts and have virtually no traffic.

However: let’s get practical.

When I started my old blog, it was to serve a specific purpose: a permanent home for the craigslist ad to sell the Epic Black Car.

WordPress is free. My sister, who is a flipping genius, told me that she loved working with the WordPress, that it was easy and fun. So I popped the ad on there, threw some photos in the craigslist ad and thought nothing of it.

Did it really matter whether I had 50 visitors a day, 500 or 5,000?

No. Not at all. Really, I wanted to sell one car to one person. Once.

The fact that silly ad went viral didn’t matter. Fun? Sure. But that’s all.

Now, our brains aren’t wired to be that logical and practical. We all have egos, which like attention and get all sad if nobody shows up. WHO WILL PAY FOR OUR THERAPY? Continue reading “Why Facebook friends, Twitter followers and blog hits don’t actually matter”

Hey there

Here’s the deal: I’ve been crazy busy with Other Things, and did not post to this silly blog much lately. And I missed it.

Missed dissecting the first pages of novels, the full three minutes of insane music videos and the reasons why the Series of Tubes will always, always be awash in videos of cats.

Missed talking smack with writers, editors and creative types scattered on every continent.

Missed the whole damn thing.

It’s good to be back here. Am writing a post every day for the month of August (so far, so good) and it’s made writing other things, for work and fun, much easier and faster. A happy snowball.

So: thanks for reading, thanks for commenting or tweeting at me–and thanks to many of you for teaching me a lot.

P.S. Just shout if you have suggestions for posts, such as which novels, music videos or movies (a) desperately deserve to get bled on with a red pen, (b) need to be taken apart to see why they work so well or (c) are so godawfully bad they circle back to good. I may open this thing up for guest posts, even. YOU NEVER KNOW.

Four reasons why COBRA KAI completely obliterates THE KARATE KID

Unless you live in an ice cave, you’ve seen THE KARATE KID—and by that I mean the classic from the ‘80s, not the remake with Will Smith’s kid and Jackie Chan which had the same title, and sort of the same plot, except it was set in China, was about kung fu instead of karate … and was just an achy breaky big mistakey of a movie.

COBRA KAI isn’t just another cheesy remake or TV spin-off.

It’s actually better than the original movie.

Let’s say that again: COBRA KAI is better.

Here’s why:

1) A dark, gritty treat for adults

Go back and rewatch the original movie, even for five minutes. Daniel LaRusso is the good guy and Johnny Lawrence and his buddies are the bad guys. There are no shades of gray.

What makes the film work is this isn’t a traditional action movie where the hero is tough and sexy from the first minute of the movie and doesn’t really change or grow by the time the movie ends. The only thing that changes is the pile of dead bodies created by the traditional action hero in the process of saving the world.

ROCKY and THE KARATE KID are the rare exceptions where the hero is a loser in the beginning, a total underdog. The joy in both films comes from their struggle and sacrifice to climb up from that gutter.

COBRA KAI isn’t simple. It’s dark, gritty and complicated, and that’s what makes it great.

2) It’s much, much funnier

Sure, there are cute moments in the film, and some jokes that’ll make you laugh.

COBRA KAI, though, will make you snort milk through your nose.

3) Even minor characters shine

THE KARATE KID doesn’t give minor characters much to chew on. They’re part of the scenery. Pop quiz: can you name any of Johnny’s gang? I can’t. Interchangeable thugs.

 

COBRA KAI fleshes out as many characters as possible, and it does this with efficiency and grace.

4) Crossing character arcs, as rare and beautiful as a triple rainbow

In most movies or novels, the hero suffers, sacrifices and grows. The mentor, the love interest, the villain—everybody else typically stays the same. They serve as catalysts and examples (good or bad) but they don’t change.

Back in THE KARATE KID, Daniel definitely suffers, sacrifices and grows through the catalyst of Mr. Miyagi’s teaching, but Mr. Miyagi doesn’t go from nasty curmedgeon to sweetie pie. Same thing with the evil sensei who runs the Cobra Kai dojo in the movie: he’s bad in the beginning and bad in the end.

COBRA KAI tries something bold and amazing with multiple crossing character arcs. They’re juggling chainsaws here, and they pull it off.

Season One shows us the redemption of Johnny Lawrence as he moves from bad to good. You root for the man.

His protégé Miguel actually moves from good to bad, and it hurts you to see a good kid turned into a jerk. In the final episode, Miguel winning the tournament should be a moment of triumph. It’s what Johnny wanted and worked for—yet it’s ashes in his mouth. And the writers know they don’t need dialogue to do this. It’s all there in Johnny’s face and it slays you. Miguel gets what he wanted, too, and finds out he cares less about the championship and more about the girl that got away.

There’s a similar contrasting journey with Daniel LaRusso, a fallen hero turned villain, using his power and money to torment his old high school karate rival.

It’s only through teaching Robbie, Johnny’s son, that Daniel finds his balance again and returns to acting like a hero.

Robbie has the opposite journey, suffering and sacrificing to move from bad to good through his new relationship with Daniel and the LaRusso’s.

The writers and showrunners went further by giving minor characters real, meaningful arcs. The best example is Hawk finding his confidence, then taking it too far and becoming a villain, while bad girl Moon finds redemption by ditching the mean cool kids to hang out with Hawk and the dorks.

Finally, it’s a nice tough that the big bully at the start of season one, Kylar, falls from Big Man on Campus to loser after being beat down in the cafeteria by Miguel, his previous victim.

The only other show I can remember with this many deep, crossing arcs for major and minor characters alike is BREAKING BAD, a tragedy where Walter White is the hero and the villain, going from good to bad while meth cook Jesse climbs up from the gutter to redemption.

VERDICT: Put a gun to my head and I would have never expected the folks behind HOT TUB TIME MACHINE to pull off an amazing series like this. The structure of episode one is strong, supple and fascinating. Just a thing of beauty. If you haven’t seen it, give it a shot. Here is episode one, which you can watch for free.

How to raise the stakes

There are always public stakes and private stakes.

Public stakes: If the villain wins, so what? How does that affect the public at large–you, me and the good people of Cleveland?

Private stakes: If the villain wins, how does that affect individuals, typically the main characters in the story?

Bad stories are often bad because they’re out of balance, entirely focused on private stakes (soap opera) or public stakes (disaster movie with cardboard characters).

Character problems and what to do about them

So my genius sister, Pam, won a Nicholl Award and does this series on the YouTube, which is worth watching no matter what you write: screenplays, regular plays, novels, newspaper stories or speeches.

First, because we need to tear down the artificial walls between different disciplines of writing.

Second, because screenwriters are the absolute best at structure, which is the secret to any sort of writing.

And third, because she’s insanely good at cutting through the nonsense and getting at what really matters, which isn’t comma splices and the proper use of gerunds.

Plus she’s funny. Thanks for doing these, sis. Hugs. 🙂

Bonus story of Pam & Guy: As a kid, I didn’t talk except to whisper to Pam, one year older, and she’d act as my interpreter and diplomat. When hungry, I’d stand in front of the fridge until Pam showed up to open it, then I’d point at food and she’d get it. Totally relied on her. And little three-year-old me must have planned for the worst, an apocalyptic world without Pam, because I remember finding petrified carrots under my pillow, stashed away in case of emergency.

Sweep the leg, Johnny! The genius of COBRA KAI

For good reasons, THE KARATE KID is a classic movie—not just in terms of the perfect casting. To be clear, we’re talking about the ‘80s original starring Ralph Macchio, not the remake with Will Smith’s kid and Jackie Chan set in China with kung fu instead of karate… and yes, that begs the question, WHY????

Structurally, the classic movie runs circles above your typical action blockbuster where Tom Cruise, Dwayne Johnson or Charlize Theron play a hero who’s tough, sexy and amazing the first second you see them on screen…and that hero doesn’t suffer or change one flipping bit after two hours of mayhem and blood.

THE KARATE KID gave us real characters with actual character arcs. Daniel Larusso is a loser in Act 1 and keeps getting his butt kicked by the gang from the Cobra Kai dojo. He’s a skinny underdog. And if you really watch, the real villain isn’t blonde tormentor Johnny, but his evil sensei.

So it was a fun surprise to learn about a new series, COBRA KAI, catching up with Johnny 34 years after that kick to the face in the All Valley Karate Tournament.

I watched the first episode before seeing the trailer, and it’s fun to see things from Johnny’s point of view. You don’t get a glimpse of Daniel Larusso until the end, where his eternally young mug pops up on in a TV commercial for the Larusso chain of auto dealerships. Seeing this makes Johnny trash his old tube-style television.

It’s a great scene, making me smile to think, “Hey, they got Ralph Macchio to do a cool cameo on this series. It’s like like Walter White showing up to buy a Cinnabon from Saul.”

Except if you watch the second episode (also free on YouTube), or check out the trailer, it becomes clear that Ralph Macchio isn’t popping in to shoot a few seconds of cameo goodness, just for old times.

Ralph is co-starring in this thing. I KID YOU NOT.

And he is glorious.

Here’s the series trailer:

The first episode is a slow burn. Yet those early setups are worth the payoff.

What’s interesting, in terms of the writing, is how complicated and gritty they’re going with this. Even though Johnny is the villain again, he’s sympathetic. You feel for him and understand his motivations. I kept rooting for the whole time. Daniel Larusso’s life couldn’t be more different, with money, a beautiful wife and a giant house–yet he’s not presented as perfect, either.

Making these two characters complicated and deeper than you expect is a smart choice.

This entire series feels like an extension of the old Funny of Die video that made fun of Ralph’s ageless looks and scandal-free history. His family on this series feels a lot like the wife and family in this fake mockumentary. (Warning: this clip contains some bad words, if you avoid that sort of thing, and it will also make you snort milk from your nose.)

VERDICT: If you watched THE KARATE KID and have a pulse, check this thing out. DO IT NOW.

Why the USS CALLISTER worked so well while METALHEAD turned meh

BLACK MIRROR is a beautifully strange British sci-fi series playing on this thing called Netflix, except they call it “streaming” now and you can do it on your phone, PC, iPad, Nook or 65-inch plasma wallscreen.

Each episode is different, and the showrunners take massive, massive risks. They’re not afraid to fail.

This season, everybody seems to love USS CALLISTER, which is a genuinely great episode starring Meth Damon from BREAKING BAD.

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s that same actor rocking the role of Todd in BREAKING BAD:

The other episode I truly, madly and deeply wanted to see this season is METALHEAD, an entirely black-and-white story about an apocalyptic world. Check out the trailer:

So: why does USS CALLISTER work so well while METALHEAD fizzles out at the end?

There’s nothing here about the acting, the sets, the special effects or the directing. All are top notch.

What’s different is the writing.

The trick is, every episode in this series is a horror story. You can say it’s sci-fi, but that’s the setting, not the story.

Horror stories are about punishment. The monster is really the hero, and everybody dies in the end except for the monster, who comes back for endless sequels.

Good horror movies show the people who die first, committing sins they’ll get punished for later. In slasher films, it’s teenagers typically drinking and carousing and breaking the rules. In other horror movies, scientists (and society) get punished for being arrogant enough to think they could invent some insane new technology that, of course, turns on them in the end.

Bad horror movies reverse this and make the regular actors into heroes and the monster into a villain that dies in the end. Doesn’t feel right. That’s a different kind of story with different beats and twists.

The type of story where good guys kill the monster is what Blake Snyder nicknamed Monster in the House, where there’s a monster in an enclosed place, and either you’re going to kill it or it’s going to kill you. That’s a primal story, something that touches us deep in our caveman souls, and you can see the same essential beats in movies that seem dramatically different: JAWS, ALIENS and FATAL ATTRACTION aren’t really a horror, a sci-fi and a domestic drama–they’re the same story in different settings.

USS CALLISTER is actually Monster in the House instead of horror. There’s a monster in an enclosed place–the starship–and the crew is either gonna kill him or get tortured and killed, forever, by an all-powerful bully who created this world. It takes a lot of creativity and guts for the crew to beat him in the end, and it feels right. They deserve their freedom and he’s a monster who deserves his fate.

METALHEAD is a horror story where everybody dies in the end, except the monsters. Where it goes wrong people don’t get what they deserve. The monster is punishing everyone for a sin you never witness, which makes all the deaths caused by the killer robots feel senseless.

This is why horror movies always start by showing the sinners running around, committing the sins they’ll be punished for later. It doesn’t matter how good-looking and wholesome the teenage actors in a slasher film are, they’re going to die for their sins. Same thing with horror movies with scientists trying to play God: they might be great actors, and the entire team may not be evil, but the whole lot of them get punished for the sin of thinking they could (a) make an army of robots to do all the work, (b) genetically engineer a way to life forever or (c) create super-smart sharks with lasers.

If we had seen the original sin in METALHEAD, and the characters who all die were somehow associated with that sin, then it would feel right for them all to get punished. Instead, the killer robots seem off. It feels like the most likely explanation is whoever created and programmed security robots for warehouses did waaaaay too good of a job. Now if that man and his team got killed by his own creations, the audience would swallow it.