is two guys collaborating to write on writing and collaboration.

2009 Archives

Sunday
Sep 27, 2009

Dreams and Reaching Them posted by Martin

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I’m extremely proud to announce the achievement of a long-held goal of mine: publication by McSweeney’s. Even better, it’s an ongoing deal.

A few months back I entered the McSweeney’s column contest and was beside myself with excitement to learn that I was a runner-up in the contest. Which means that McSweeney’s is running my column.

It’s titled “Letters From the Hellbox” and looks at typography and type designers. The focus is entertainment and teaching to non-designers why typography is important, even when not thought of that often.

The first column “Gutenberg and How Typography is Like Music” just went up a few days ago. I invite you to read.

Comments (0) — Category: writing

Monday
Jul 20, 2009

Building Trust Out of Nothing At All posted by Martin

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In every industry where there is a large pool of people wanting a career there is a system of gatekeeping. Without it any jerk on the street could walk in and claim to be an insider. With it the people who think they may be deserving but don’t have the talent can be sent away, the people with genuine talent can be allowed in, and the people who have possibility but are not yet professional enough to gain entry can be rebuked with advice in the hopes that they’ll keep storming the gates.

The danger, from the outsiders perspective, is to view this as a monolithic estate, when it’s more like a city. It has risen through the uncoordinated and selfish actions of thousands of people. The human mind, always seeking patterns and simplification, groups that city into one unit in order to make sense of it. This has the unfortunate side effect of making whatever industry the outsider aspires to appear as if it is conspiring against them, when in reality the different parts of the city are relatively unaware of the actions in the other part, and rarely collude on who should be kept outside the gates.

But despite the many ways of gaining access, each point of entry has its own gatekeeper. Internships, mailroom, workshops, convoluted submissions processes — ways to pay your dues.

This gatekeeping is a matter of trust. The reader picking up a book or magazine trusts that certain editorial standards are met. That certain hoops have been jumped through. That the author has been vetted and, even if you don’t like the work, can string sensible words together into meaningful sentences.

This matter of trust is born from professionalism. You could publish a book or magazine all in Comic Sans and laid out by monkeys running Windows Me, you could print two million books with Stephenie Meyers name on the front and inside a transcript of the OJ Trial, but you’d be wasting a heck-of-a-lot of money. Professionalism means creating works that amateurs can’t easily achieve. It means delivering the promise of the book cover. Or, at the very least, delivering a really cool cover.

Stubborn outsiders will sometimes take matters into their own hands, and historically this has been a sign that the quality of their work is suspect. Ask any agent or publisher in the industry just how well self-publishing works for the majority of authors. It’s exactly because that level of trust is missing because more than likely, the quality is going to sub-professional. We all can list exceptions, but the advice has always been against the desire to DIY if you want to make a living at it.

But now we’re at one of the most crucial times in history in terms of ease of access. Distribution of textual matter to a worldwide audience is completely trivial. Whether you do it in longer form or 140 characters at a time, everybody who lives in a reasonably well-off country can publish any of their own work at any time where the majority of the educated world can easily access it.

The problem is not distribution, the problem is getting found, and trust. We need a trust system.

The cost of a traditional trust system is high. The percentage of cost to authors higher still. While the publishing industry is traditionally better than the music industry, the publisher of a bestseller will make out better than the author when it comes time to balance the books. Of course, there is a business built on that margin. Hard and soft costs, distribution and promotion, public relations, returns, rent on a New York city address. There are agent’s and lawyer’s percentages for the role in gatekeeping, much of it well-deserved.

In the graphic design world of mid-to-late Twentieth Century, the labor was distributed across many professions. The designer was in charge of vision. She would layout the advertisement and order the copy block from the typesetter. She’d order the photographic separations from the imagesetter. She’d paste the whole thing up and give it to be photographed and printed. Now, one designer does all of those tasks, and more, on one computer.

I think the same will be true of the writers. Today’s writers need to be editors. They need to be marketers. They need to think of the whole project not just in terms of the words, but every aspect of it. Which is not to say that editors and marketers and agents will disappear or be made unnecessary, but as the revenues from publishing are less, so the cast of characters that it supports will be lesser still.

But less money to the industry does not necessarily mean less money to the author. A self-published author, who has a reasonable following, has all the distribution they need. The payment systems are nascent, but emerging. The one-author empire age is dawning.

But we’re lacking the trust system. The trust system that will allow readers who are willing to buy the confidence to invest in authors they’ve never heard of. The trust system that a reader who is unfamiliar with a particular writer is willing to take a risk of a few dollars and try their work.

The answer, seems to be, in publishing and word of mouth. Publishing yourself and publishing often. Yes, a thousand authors do this already, many using blogging as a marketing and promotion tool — a way to build an audience before or after they approach traditional markets.

But I mean authors who publish their work online in defiance of the old gatekeepers. Authors who are willing to forgo traditional routes to success in experiments towards future potential success. If they’re good enough, people will find them and recommend them. They’ll build an audience. Maybe they’ll publish traditionally, or maybe they’ll find a way to keep everything self-controlled. Someday, some author like that will get a lot of attention and make a decent amount of money. Then, it will become the new norm. Thousands will copy their model. A new gatekeeping will arise.

When that happens, the idea of the systems created for the current distribution will be unnecessary, and remembered only as we remember mimeograph machines or metal type. So long as the world of words and ideas continue — and it will — the infrastructures of publishing can follow the business model it spawned into a slow, decadent decline.

Illustration by Christine Marie Larsen

Comments (0) — Category: Publishing

Saturday
May 30, 2009

Collaborative Unblocking posted by Aimee

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Friend of Spitball! Aimee Larsen lives in Oakland, and was kind enough to talk about her process for your amusement, which is usually the state I find myself in whenever interacting with her thanks to her wicked sense of humor. She’s on Twitter as @valkyreez, and can be reached — Martin


During a long-overdue shoot-the-shit session with man-scribe Martin McClellan (which was so goddamn felicitous, in many, many ways, not the least of which was that it took place by way of Facebook chat — I’m eternally grateful when someone, anyone, jerks me out of an FB-induced coma/zombie state by introducing some topic of actual interest and importance), I rambled at length about my semi-regular meetings with a certain Alison of my acquaintance, an unassuming pixie-genius whose brilliance lends itself to, amongst many other worthy pursuits, painting. Our (kind-of sort-of) weekly collusions — which are decidedly non-sinister but slightly secretive — involve the location of a green, relatively quiet space where we talk about our progress on the work outlined in a book called The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. This book lays out techniques that it asserts will “clear the channel” between what (Alison and I call) our Higher Powers and ourselves. It’s pretty damn critical to note that our Higher Powers (hereafter referred to as HPs) are decidedly respective — hers is hers and mine is definitely mine. They are (I’m assuming) different and, for the most part, private in conception. I really have no idea what Alison’s HP looks like or acts like, how it smells or dresses, or what it does on its days off. Damn, I can’t believe I just wrote that. It is bizarre and, frankly, embarrassing for a former punk-rock, dyed-in-the-wool, down-to-the-bone religion-hater like me to admit. (Come to think of it, I’m still fairly antagonistic about religion.)

What, you may rightly ask does this whoo-whoo, California-type spiritual practice (“channel clearing” and all that) have to do with writing and collaboration? Well, here it is, kids. We are operating on the principle that creation is a divine act. That our HPs are innately creative. And that they want us to create. That we were, in fact, created in order to create. This is, in my collaboration with Alison, the keystone of The Artist’s Way.

It’s a surprisingly powerful book. People have been telling me about it for years (from which you may rightfully infer that I’ve been blocked for years), and I finally got desperate enough to try it after discovering and accepting that not writing fucked with my health. Yes, really. I did write a 200-plus-page first draft of a novel during last November’s NaNoWriMo. When it was done, I printed the whole thing out, tied it up with rubber bands, and put it on my coffee table. The manuscript’s bulky, stolid presence was supposed to motivate me to revise it. A few of my foolishly generous friends asked to read portions of it, but I just could not relinquish it. And could not bring myself to revise it. Earlier this year, though, I finally shoveled out big heaping piles of the extraneous bullshit that was absorbing my attention. And I knew, without doubt or hesitation, that I had to write or continue to be unhappy and unwell.

You traversed the introductory metaphysical thicket. Now, bravehearts, let’s prepare to navigate the clear, sweet waters known as “the particulars.” Let’s dive right the fuck in to what the book outlines as practices essential to smashing the artist’s block.


Morning Pages

Just like it sounds: every morning (sort of), we write three pages. Of whatever. Generally stream of consciousness-generated material.


The Artist’s Date

Once a week (sort of), we go somewhere and do something (all by our lonesomes) that piques our creative interest.


Exercises

The book is broken up into process-specific chapters (e.g., Week One, we’re “Recovering a Sense of Safety” and Week Two, we’re “Recovering a Sense of Identity,” etc., etc.). Each chapter ends with a series of exercises (e.g., “List five things you personally would never do that sound fun.” Chapter 4, “Recovering a Sense of Identity,” pg. 86.)


So there it is. A little tiny bit of it. Three essential parts: morning pages, artist’s date, exercises. Oh yeah, and, in our case, sitting down once a week (or thereabouts) with the other person to share the details of the last week’s odyssey and the fruits of the exercises we’ve completed.


Chapter the next. In which I describe how these practices have worked for Alison and for me, and how we actually collaborate in the deconstruction of one another’s reluctance/fear in the face of the creative process. ‘Til then.

Illustration by Christine Marie Larsen

Comments (0) — Category: Collaboration

Thursday
Apr 23, 2009

Ethan Coen and Walter Savage Landor posted by Martin

Ethan Coen’s recently released book of poetry The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way (the titular poem can be read, and an author’s interview heard, over on the NPR website) has one of the greatest “About the Author” sections that I’ve read in a long time:

Ethan Coen lives outside of Marfa, Texas, on the ranch he won arm wrestling Lady Bird Johnson in a cantina in Ensenada in 1962 (the ensuing love story was celebrated in his memoir Don’t Tell Lyndon). He is an expert on the poetry of Walter Savage Landor and many other subjects which he travels the world to lecture upon, unsolicited. Coen is Poet-in-Residence at the University of Big Bend and hosted its “Fire in the John” poetry readings until they changed the open bar policy. Under the pen name G. Willard Snunt, Coen is the author of the Moe Grabinsky mystery stories, detailing the adventures of the wily toll-taker/sleuth. In his spare time he is shot from cannons.

Walter Savage Landor was a real poet. And, he once rhymed “Tennyson” with “venison”


I Entreat You, Alfred Tennyson

I entreat you, Alfred Tennyson,
Come and share my haunch of venison.
I have too a bin of claret,
Good, but better when you share it.
Tho’ ‘tis only a small bin,
There’s a stock of it within.
And as sure as I’m a rhymer,
Half a butt of Rudeheimer.
Come; among the sons of men is one
Welcomer than Alfred Tennyson?

Comments (0) — Category: inspiration

Sunday
Apr 19, 2009

How We Collaborate on a Screenplay posted by Martin

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Mr. Beeson and I are working on a screenplay to enter in the Nicholl Fellowship this year. When I tell people that I’m collaborating on a script they often are curious about the process and how it works, so I thought I’d talk about just how we do it.

The script we’re working on is titled “Stray.” Old timey Spitball! readers will recognize it as one of the fifty prison planet plot ideas (first presented here, inspired by the Shannon Wright song Black Little Stray). We’ve been honing the story and exploring it for nearly two years now, including Mr. Beeson writing a prose adaptation for the 2007 NaNoWriMo.

Deciding to enter the Nicholl Fellowship competition, we had a pretty solid first act, lots of character story and an idea of what the end-goal is, but very little of the action and connecting tissue. We spent a number of weeks having story sessions where we would hash out exactly what the story is.

For us, this means spitballing. We get together every week, sit in a room and go over story ideas in as much detail as possible. We talk about what we like, what we’ve been focusing on, and we find scabs that need picking. We present problems and try to solve them. This is done entirely verbally (Spitball! endorses the Socratic Methodtm) and then we write down the salient points for institutional memory.

In this case, the story took shape into four acts: the first establishes the norm on a prison planet. The second introduces the Stray character and the complications therein. The third is some prisoners disturbing the status quo, and the fourth which is a final quest and resolution.

Those notes would be turned, mostly by Mr. Beeson, into fifty or so ideas for scenes that could happen during the act, and that propel the characters towards the larger goals we arranged for them.

From that list, posted on our Basecamp account, we wrote it out in prose, what we call our “white papers.” It was four plaintext documents that we share using Dropbox (an amazing tool for collaboration). They’re terse prose versions of the story, to flesh out themes and make sure the plot, motivations and throughput are defined.

We brought those together Saturday morning at my studio, and read them out loud tip-to-stern, interrupting as we went to clarify things or point out problems. It’s a matter of refinement. That which was great a month ago now might pale and need work. We align actions between character and plot. We solve problems that have been nagging at us. Some areas were either roughed in or not quite done, but the bulk of it was there. All together, those four documents were just a bit shy of 12,000 words. Essentially, it’s a terse and insidery treatment.

The read through is mostly good natured, although occasionally we slip into a more sniping tone. This usually indicates its lunch time, which Saturday just happened to be Piroshky.

When we were relatively happy with the look of it, we broke the scenes out into an OmniOutliner Pro document broke down all the acts into scenes.

Mr. Beeson took that document and assigned the scenes to each of us. In the past we’ve had team selection sessions, like playing pickup baseball. But we wanted to write today and I was out seeing my lovely niece play a princess named Vapid in a musical last night, so Mr. Beeson kindly shouldered the responsibility and evenly divided the scenes between us.

He also added milestones to Basecamp and assigned them. The scenes are written using Final Draft (which I’d be happy to be without, but the other alternatives I’ve tried slow me down during the writing process). The Final Draft documents are named for the scene number and put into Dropbox so that it automatically backs up, creates versions with every save, and syncs our computers with the latest work.

When we have a solid first draft of the scene, we post a message in Basecamp marking the milestone as complete. The other person can then make notes in the script or in the Basecamp message.

Once the scenes are complete and we’re happy with them, we’ll assemble them into a single Final Draft document, and do many read-throughs to look for issues, typos and make sure the voice and flow is consistent.

In our experience, at this point it’s really difficult to decipher who wrote what. Our voices and humor tend to be similar. Also, it’s difficult to decipher who-came-up-with-what-idea. Sometimes I remember, but mostly they’ve been turned and worked so much that there’s a lot of both of us in every idea that makes it onto the page.

If our past experience holds, we’ll find major flaws down the road and we’ll rethink certain things. Will that be true this time? I’d like to think we’re on the right track, but a process like this can be run a million times with a million different outcomes. I suspect we’ll never really be able to stop tweaking it.

Illustration by Christine Marie Larsen

Comments (2) — Category: writing

Friday
Mar 27, 2009

What To Do After Your Heart Gets Bored With Your Mind posted by Martin

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The way we brand ourselves is to buy the t-shirt with the attending graphics of the group to which we claim membership. I’m a writer, so I’ll put paperclips and manuscript brads on my website. This will tell the world, and other writers, that I’m one too.

The cliché comes first, and the expression comes with the repeated use of the cliché. In design school, our instructors castigated us for going to the easy solution. They demanded fifty variations, from whence the strongest would make itself known. The class would groan in unison, but I was secretly excited by this. Walking this path means madness but also reward and work that pays returns by surprising its author.

Our mind will convince us that the easy is the best. That the first move is the strongest. But just like chess where the first move opens a door but engages no opponent, so does the first draft need continued attention. Like a carving, it needs to be held up, turned around, and viewed from every angle to discover flaws. Which we may find beautiful and worth leaving in place.

Then we make another mark, another cut, another hand deep in the bag to pull out the next pretender.

As a writer I’m enamored with what I most recently wrote. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t want to write. That self-blindness is the mark of the desire to create. If the beginning violinist could hear themselves the way that others do, they would back slowly away from the bow and never return. Becoming mature at your craft is when you have the ability to see the flaws. Like that time in life nearly everybody has when a potent self-realization presents itself and will not be ignored. Like John Prine said:

Say you drive a Chevy. Say you drive a Ford
You say you drive around the town ‘till you just get bored
Then you change your mind for something else to do
And your heart gets bored with your mind and it changes you

The art of writing is in persistence and quality. Refining the work until it is the best it can be. How do you know when to stop? Walter Mosley says

When you see the problems but, no matter how hard you try, you can’t improve on what you have.1

So the dedicated writer says to herself “I know that my writing is not good yet, but I will work and make it the best that I can.” In doing so, she iterates over the possibilities until the choice of narrative presents itself. Until that narrative has been styled in a way that will be ambiguously referred to as her “voice.” And maybe, if she’s good, she will present this work to the world with a smile and an attention that will lead people to believe that the work itself was no big deal. That it was easy for her.

This public face confuses many nascent writers. Like a friend of mine who took a series of classes, but complained about the rewriting. She wanted to be like fill-in-the-famous-writer’s-name who doesn’t rewrite (or so she claimed). The truth is, this friend didn’t want to be a writer. She wanted to get attention for having been creative, and thought that writing might be the path to that attention. Writing was the club she wanted to join, with paperclip and manuscript brads, but she picked these symbols of the group as a flag to wave and attempt membership because the actual work of the group was too difficult for her.

You are what you do. The quality of the person you are, in my view, is intrinsically tied to the quality of what you produce. If you put mindless crap into the world, can we blame the world for reflecting those qualities back? Or, my personal issue: if I produce work that is obscure for obscurities sake, can I be surprised when the world scratches its head and doesn’t get it? My peccadillo is that by making my work obtuse, I can prove that I’m a genius because nobody will understand it, therefore they are obviously too dim to appreciate it. Which is a stupid way of managing my fear of people rejecting my work. Like the guy who breaks up with his girlfriend first because he thinks she’s going to do it anyway, so he may as well beat her to the punch.

The beneficial side of this is my drive to create work with multiple layers. Something for superficial readers, but with items that will reward attentiveness. I check myself constantly on that edge between readability and depth, and when I’m lacking, I rewrite to clarify.

The hope is that by producing clear interesting work there will be a group of people who will respond to it. Maybe differently than you had hoped for. Maybe in a way that surprises you. And maybe their voices will be few in a chorus of boos. But they will be there. And they’ll come back next time you have something to say.

So the manifesto is for words over paperclips. Content over style. For a hand digging in the bag until you pull out the most compelling thing you’ve ever seen and you work it until it’s polished and reborn under your hands. Maybe it won’t be the a thing for the ages, but it should be the best that you can do and isn’t that why we do it at all?

Illustration by Christine Marie Larsen

  1. Walter Mosley. This Year You Write Your Novel. Little Brown and Company, 2007, page 95.

Comments (0) — Category: writing

Wednesday
Mar 25, 2009

Quick Look Dictionary / Thesaurus feature in OS X posted by Martin

If you’re a Mac user, here’s a great little-known tip for quick access to the built in dictionary and/or thesaurus.

Place your cursor over the word you’d like to target and hold down command + control + d.

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A window with the dictionary definition of the word under the cursor will pop up.

At the bottom of the window is a pulldown where you can select thesaurus, or at the right more....


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This will open your selection in the Dictionary application.


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This is hands-down the most used trick in my book.

Comments (1) — Category: software

Monday
Mar 23, 2009

Writers on Twitter posted by Martin

Just a list I’ve collected over the past month or so. Not exhaustive. These are the ones whose work I was familiar with before seeing their names. Feel free to add more in comments.


SCREEN

FICTION

NON-FICTION

TECHNOLOGY

JOURNALISTS

Comments (0) — Category: inspiration

Saturday
Mar 21, 2009

Spitball! Parade of Writers #1: Ruth Gordon posted by Martin

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That Ruth Gordon? The divinely lethargic cadence, the smoke-microplaned rasp, the Tanas Root pusher, the young-boy despoiler, the best-actress-in-a-supporting-role Oscar winner, with her tiny opprobrium and hand flapping dismissal, of whom her husband Garson Kanin (fifteen years her junior) wrote: “Married to this versatile creature, I enjoy many of the advantages of polygamy without having to deal with its complexities.”1 That Ruth Gordon was also a writer.

Most famously with Mr. Kanin, she penned the Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy vehicles Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike, although she had a respectable run as a playwright before that. “Since the playwrights have been notoriously faithless this season,” said The New York Times in its 1944 review of her first play Over Twenty-One, “this season the actresses now are put to creating their own roles.”2

Another Times article a few days earlier talked about her process:3

She took to writing when she was stationed with Mr. Kanin in Washington D.C. while he served in the Army during the war.

“You start writing a play excitedly enough,” she confided, “but it’s seeing it through to the finish that takes will and energy.”

Perhaps it is because Miss Gordon is a New Englander, and New Englanders are notoriously husbanders of time, that “Over Twenty-One” was born in the first place.

Doing the daily shopping, tidying the rooms, and attending the cooking still somehow left her wanting something to fill the day’s schedule. She settled for writing a play…

“But what could I write about? Certainly not my childhood,” she said. “And then I thought of a play. How about getting something of Washington into it? No one could live in an immensely timely city like Washington and not be alive with its thrilling impact.”

Forthwith she busied herself on an outline. It would be a comedy, she was determined, and before long the play began to take shape. It emerged from her pad as the simple story of a man trying to get through officers’ training school with his wife helping him in his darker moments.

Young Ruth with Flowers

Despite her assertion that she couldn’t write about her childhood, she did exactly that in her autobiographical second play Years Ago. Set in Wollaston, Massachusetts in 1913, it dealt with her father, a former sea captain and plant foreman, and her fear of telling him she wanted to be an actress instead of a teacher as he desired. The play is written completely in first person:

MY MOTHER. Ruth, do you or do you not want your father to know you want to be an actress?


ME. No.


MY MOTHER. Well then, don’t go appearin’ before him in a hobble skirt with a slit! You’ll not only look like an actress, you’ll look downright fast!


ME. If it wasn’t for you and Papa, I’d go to Boston and be fast right this minute!

The notices from when the work was put up were good, especially in regards to her capturing the roll of her father.4

This lively free-hand sketch of a stage-struck suburbanite Bostonian derives from Miss Gordon’s passion for acting. It is a fondly amused portrait of a high-school girl in a pinched and unlovely household that is about as remote from the theatre as any environment could be.

As a popular comedy designed for entertainment, “Years Ago” does not plumb the soul nor utter profound observations about life. But amid its sentimental playmaking it does have a certain ethical integrity. Miss Gordon portrays candidly the environment out of which she came. It was colorless and unimaginative, hedged about and with worry about money. It was worth than genteel poverty. It was a kind of dull poverty that enclosed the family in a kind of dull, paralyzing anxiety.

[Frederic] March’s performance in [the roll of the father] is superb… Mr. March is contributing his personal admiration and respect for a human being who is doing the best he can in a world he cannot control. There is something more solid than popular comedy in the part and in Mr. March’s enlightened acting.

She adapted the play into a movie script titled The Actress, which it was released in 1953 staring Spencer Tracy and Jean Simmons (and the first film appearance of Anthony Perkins). It gained her a Writers Guild of America award for Best Written American Comedy.

Ruth with Garson Kenin

By that time, she had penned three movies with Mr. Kanin (the two previously noted and 1947’s A Double Life), all of which were nominated for Best Writing Oscars.

That recognition came despite the collaboration being difficult:5

“We began to quarrel a lot,” Kanin recalls. “We rarely quarreled in our married life, but when we were writing together, we began to question each other’s tastes and humor. ‘What’s funny about that? we would say. That’s far behind us now, because we don’t collaborate any more and never will.”

Once, in a joint interview, Ruth said: “I just think the theater’s something where all the girls are gorgeous and all the boys are cute.” Garson said: “I think the theater ought to be a place where you learn something.”

Garson Kanin speaking:

“I don’t know very much about myself; I know more about Ruth. And looking at Ruth, it seems to me that her acting gains a good deal from her writing, and conversely her writing is stylish and lively because of her acting. For example, in her playwriting, she knows how, because she’s an actress, to write a speakable line. And because she writes, she has a sense and feeling about the written word which many actors lack.” Ruth’s stories and plays are written in 20 to 30 drafts because, she says, as an actress she is used to achieving results through repetition in rehearsal.

Young Ruth

They chose one partnership over the other, and stayed married until Gordon’s death in 1985.

So why then, of all the writers in the world, did I choose inaugurate this series with Ruth Gordon?

Besides of my childhood memories of this strange lady and how much I loved her in every movie, she is a writer who started late. By the time her first play was produced in 1944, Gordon had over thirty years in the theater. She was forty-six years old. Not only that, I like reading about writers who collaborate, given what Mr. Beeson and I are trying to accomplish. How does collaboration work? How do different personalities fit together?

I don’t think there is any irony at all that the couple’s best known work is remembered for its battle-of-the-sexes fighting. They may have always made up, but we watch those movies to see Hepburn and Tracey snarl at each other in such a fun way. You have to wonder if what made it to the screen was slightly tweaked version of what was happening in their office.

Of that, Gordon didn’t speak too much (unlike her acting, of which she spoke a great deal). Maybe she took the advice of her husband: “When your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.”

  1. Marilyn Berger, “Garson Kanin, a Writer and Director of Classic Movies and Plays is Dead at 86”, The New York Times, March 14, 1999. The article also notes his love of Frank Capra, of whom he said “I’d rather be Capra than God, if there is a Capra.”
  2. Lewis Nichols, “Ruth Gordon as a Brisk Army Wife in a New Play, ‘Over Twenty-One,’ by Ruth Gordon,” New York Times, January 4, 1944
  3. Nat N. Dorfman, “Ruth Gordon’s Career,” The New York Times, January 2, 1944
  4. Brooks Atkinson, “Little Miss Jones”, The New York Times, December 15, 1946. The title refers to her full name (and the name of the protagonist), Ruth Gordon Jones.
  5. Susan Lydon, “The Faa-bu-lous Long Run of Gordon and Kanin,” The New York Times, October 5, 1969. Another gem from this article: “On Ruth’s daily five-mile walks, she practices her singing lessons, ‘because I hope some day I’m gonna be in a musical. I can let loose and sing at the top of my lungs, cause ya know, dear, in Beverly Hills, no one’s out walkin’ but me.’”

Comments (2) — Category: Parade of Writers

Wednesday
Mar 18, 2009

A Place to do Your Thing posted by Martin

Studio

I have a studio in downtown Seattle where I write. It’s in a ragged historical building — once an infamous club and now a hip hair salon. It is less than fancy. It has a window, a door, is painted funny colors. There’s power and light, and thanks to a line-of-sight neighbor, I can piggyback an open wireless that makes me sign a EULA once an hour. I have an electric kettle, a table that my grandfather and father made and which I ate nearly every childhood meal on, and thanks to Mr. Beeson, I have a pinboard and a white board.

At home, I have an office. At work, I have an office. Why did I choose to pay $175 a month on a third place? Because I want to write every day.

Of course I don’t write at work. I work. At home, I used to write quite a bit, but it’s a small apartment and that space is shared with a person that I want to pay attention to when we’re around each other. And oh crap, I have to do the dishes and when am I going to watch that movie, and I wonder if I should go and dig through that stack of bills?

What I needed was a place to go shut the door where I am the only inhabitant. A place that is solitary, but not locked away from the world.

For a while I would write in coffee shops, libraries, steal time at home. Sometimes I would be on a tear and get a lot of work done, sometimes I wouldn’t. When I read Walter Mosley’s brilliant This Year You Write Your Novel his advice hit home. Write every day. He says:

If you skip a day or more between your writing sessions, your mind will drif away from these deep moments of your story. You will find that you’ll have to slog back to a place that would have been easily attained if only you wrote every day.

I dedicated myself to doing just that. Christine, who has kept a painting studio in the building for over a year, recommended that I reach out and see if they’d rent to a lowly writer. Now I’m surrounded by painters. When I’m good (which, lately, has been a challenge) I come after work each day and write for an hour-and-a-half or so. It’s almost exactly half way between home and work.

On Saturdays, Mr. Beeson and I have a standing 9am meeting where we talk about our latest screenplay, swap music and read each other bits of our fiction. On Sundays, depending on what’s going on, I will spend all day locked up and dreaming up wicked fates for my characters.

I love my office. It’s a dedication to the goal of writing, and a physical space that stands for one purpose. If I were wealthy, my fantasy would be a vintage detective-style office with a name painted on the glass door, but for now I’m happy. I’m a few floorboards away from the waxing studio, and surrounded by painters. There is always a line to get your hair done. I can walk out the door and be in the city.

Comments (0) — Category: writing

Monday
Mar 16, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Spitball! posted by Martin

Welcome to sptbll.com, the new home of Spitball!

For those of you who followed us in our old digs, this is a whole new bag. New look, new structure, new content. For those of you who didn’t follow us, welcome. There’s lots of old stuff to dig through if you find it interesting, although not all of it is relevant anymore. Look up the “about” section for a quick overview.

One question you may have: “Hey! Are you guys all retro web 2.0 by removing the vowels in your URL?” Answer: No. We just couldn’t think of a better one. So, the url is disemvoweled, but the name is still Spitball!

You’re still going to find areas where the finish of the old site peek through, or you might find errors or issues. We’d kindly ask you to report them. I’m tweaking as we go, and there is always more to do.

The new system is essentially two blogs: Spitball!, our longer, digression focused pieces, and Fastball! our new link blog. They’re integrated for your pleasure on the homepage and the rss feed. Please abuse them.

Also, we’ll be opening comments on the Spitball! posts. We hope to generate some conversations around the ideas of collaboration and authorship, creativity and writing, technique and focus. You’re welcome to join in at any time. We hope you do.

Comments (2) — Category: About

Sunday
Feb 01, 2009

If Wishes Were Horses... posted by Martin

“The proverb may be used to mock a wishful attitude by pointing out the uselessness of wishing. It may be also be used with a more serious tone as an admonishment, for the same purpose.”

From the Wikipedia page of the proverb whose sentiments I couldn’t agree with more.

Comments (0) — Category: inspiration

Saturday
Jan 31, 2009

Movie Marketing posted by Martin

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The New Yorker ran a great article by Tad Friend profiling Tim Palen, Lionsgate’s co-president of theatrical marketing.

While most artists find the idea of marketing reprehensible, there would be no films to market if they couldn’t occasionally sell them to the audience. Film marketing is no less sophisticated than the marketing of any other product. Starting, of course, with identifying who they are going to sell to.

Marketers segment the audience in a variety of ways, but the most common form of partition is the four quadrants: men under twenty-five; older men; women under twenty-five; older women. A studio rarely makes a film that it doesn’t expect will succeed with at least two quadrants, and a film’s budget is usually directly related to the number of quadrants it is anticipated to reach.

The list of qualities that each segment responds to looks for was really interesting as well.

The collective wisdom is that young males like explosions, blood, cars flying through the air, pratfalls, poop jokes, ‘you’re so gay’ banter, and sex — but not romance. Young women like friendship, pop music, fashion, sarcasm, sensitive boys who think with their hearts, and romance — but not sex.

What’s the segment of death? You might expect older women. You’d be wrong.

Particularly once they reach thirty, these women are the most “review-sensitive”: a chorus of critical praise for a movie aimed at older women can increase the opening weekend’s gross by five million dollars.

Nope. It’s the lazy older guys.

“Guys only get off their couches twice a year, to go to ‘Wild Hogs’ or ‘3:10 to Yuma,’” the marketing consultant Terry Press says. “If all you have is older males, it’s time to take a pill.”

Since I’m in that demographic, but obviously see more films than two a year, we know that these things are generalizations. But, cliché’s come from somewhere. I now know I’m more likely to respond to marketing of a film if it has Clint Eastwood in it.

Comments (0) — Category: movies

Friday
Jan 30, 2009

Charlie Kaufman on avoiding movie tropes posted by Martin

When Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out, Charlie Kaufman sat down with Charlie Rose for a rare interview. The interview is great, and his honesty and straightforwardness are admirable, and very possibly why he doesn’t give more interviews.

The money quote in this is when he’s talking about his approach to writing a romance (at 5:21 in the video):

I have this adverse reaction to Hollywood romances. They’ve been very damaging to me growing up, I feel. And I had these expectations in the world of what my life was going to be like and what my romantic life was going to be like. And as I got older and I realized my life wasn’t like that that, you know, it became depressing, and then I thought that real life was more interesting and maybe I should try to explore that and not put more damaging stuff into the world.

I’m always sort of trying to think “What is true?” — I mean, true to me, which is all I know — and try to reject ideas which come from other movies. Which is a very hard to do — because you often don’t know that your ideas of a scene or relationship come from movies not from your real life. You have to sit down and go “Wait a minute. Why are these two people people acting like this? It doesn’t have to do anything with what I understand.” And so I try to sort of find those things, take them out, and put in things I understand.

Here’s Part 1:

Part 2, which doesn’t allow embedding, is available here.

Comments (1) — Category: inspiration

Friday
Jan 30, 2009

Re: What Now? posted by Martin

What now indeed. Mr. Beeson brought up a number of thoughts in his last post, which I will attempt to address here:

If it’s okay with Martin, I feel comfortable with talking about the projects we’re working on, or at least certain parts or aspects of them.

Sure, that’s fine. I trust you, sir, to judge what info should be public and what shouldn’t be. I’ll do the same.

And the link to execution-as-multiplier post on Spitball! is here.

To the next story writing competition, The Big Game, I say yes. I loved that process, and it worked well online. As the kids say, bring it.

Now then, how often will I post to the site? Remains to be seen. I’m not going to set goals for myself, since my schedule is unpredictable and inevitably something will get in the way, but my goal is fairly often. Subscribe to our feed and let it tell you when something new is on Spitball!

Comments (0) — Category: About

Thursday
Jan 29, 2009

What Now? posted by kza

So yeah, what now? What does Spitball! mean in 2009?

First, my personal goal is to put up three posts a week. That’s probably not a lot by most blog’s standards, but that’s about what I can do and still have time for other work. If Martin could do the same, that’d be a post for every day except, say, Sunday. That’s good enough for me, but I’ll let Martin decide what’s doable for him.

Now — what is Spitball! 2.0 going to be about?

I’d like to talk more about our writing process — how we work together, how we build our screenplays and novels and short stories, why we’re juggling three screenplay ideas at once instead of focusing on one, why we make certain choices in our stories, that kind of thing. But only if the readers — y’all — are interested.

One thing we need to talk about is Todd Alcott and wadpaw. Martin and I are recent Alco-lytes in the church of Wadpaw, and what we’ve learned from him has completely revolutionized our thinking about screenplays and, seriously, made us better writers overnight. If you’ve never read his blog, What Does The Protagonist Want?, then please start doing that now. (This is especially true if you’re a fan of The Venture Bros.)

If it’s okay with Martin, I feel comfortable with talking about the projects we’re working on, or at least certain parts or aspects of them. We’re firm believers in the Execution-as-Multiplier Theory of Good Ideas (I’ll let Martin post the link, since I have no idea who the author is), so the notion that someone could steal our ideas doesn’t trouble us — if you can take one of our ideas, put the work into it to make it successful, then a) you deserve your good fortune and b) the result would be completely different than what we’d do with the idea, so it’s not like it’s the same thing anyway. But lemme check with Martin on that.

Speaking of ideas, another thing I’d like to do — not immediately, maybe in a few months or so, when this blog settles into its new voice — but what I’d like to do is have another March Madness-style Story Idea competition. The first one was incredibly fun, and successful to boot — we got a bunch of great ideas out of it, and three of them are Official Spitball! Projects (tm). That aint half bad in my opinion. Not to mention, the non-winning ideas are always there, either to be promoted to a working project or exist as spare parts for another story. It’s just a good thing for Martin and I to do anyway, so why not put it on the blog?

I even have an idea for this year’s Genre/Theme/Organizing Principle. If you recall, the first one was “prison planet” — all of the stories had to be about or take place on a prison planet. We ended up with a lot of SF ideas, of course, but what was important about the theme was that it could be interpreted metaphorically as well (which was reflected in some of the entries). So I wanted something like that, something where the first ideas would be obvious, and that’s okay, but open enough for some interesting interpretation. And I think I have it. And I think (based on what Martin has said in the past, and a few of the ideas we’ve worked on in the past year) he’ll approve.

I submit that this year’s Big Idea for a Story Competition be:

The Big Game.

What do you think, sir?

Comments (0) — Category: About

Thursday
Jan 29, 2009

17 Months Off posted by kza

Wow -- we're really doing this, huh? I really have to learn how to use Ecto again?

Actually, I'm very excited to restart Spitball!, or as I think of it, Spitball! 2.0. The original Spitball! had a great premise, but one that simply wasn't going to live up to its potential, at least not with me. Or more accurately, not that me at that time. As Martin said earlier, in 2006 and 2007 we were still learning how to work together, and one thing we learned definitively is that I (and maybe Martin, but definitely I) need to work face-to-face. The written word is a great form of communication, but there's still too much ambiguity and too much time delay this way, causing problems that are easily solved (or wouldn't exist) when talking directly to my writing partner. So fuck this wack experiment in my opinion. (Apologies to the Cinemasters crew.)

So here's what's been happening lately.

Martin and I meet every weekend to go over our projects, something we've been doing for ... I don't know how long, but certainly since the last Spitball! post, maybe earlier. So about a year and a half. Technically, we don't live very far from each other, but getting together can be difficult, so this standing meeting time ensures contact with each other. I really think our writing, our communication and our work in general have increased ten-fold in quality since we started doing that.

But what have we been working on? Right now, we have three screenplay projects we're juggling, and one of them is the Spitball! Story Idea 2nd Place winner, known at the time as Black Little Stray, now known as Stray. That's right, not unlike Clay Aiken, winner of American Idol's second season, the runner-up has eclipsed the winner (in this case, Time to Die.) Time to Die is on the back burner -- it hasn't been forgotten, simply put on pause until we deal with these other three that, in our parlance, have "the energy" about them. In fact, Time to Die is next on deck as soon as we finish one of the other three (or if one of the three is shelved for intractable structural problems, which is always a possibility).

Along with screenplays, Martin and I have also jumped into the dark deep waters of prose fiction writing. (Martin moreso, but I'll let him talk about that.) I've started my first novel, which, wouldja know it, is based on one of our Story Idea contest entrants, The Atmospherist. (I'm gonna make it work, dammit.) I suspect that, despite this site's usual focus on screenwriting, we'll talk about the fiction side of things as well.

So basically, 2009 is all about the writing. Early last year, I was hired by the comic book website ComiXology to pen a column about comic book movies called The Watchman. It was a tremendous opportunity, and I think I did some of my best non-fiction writing ever there. But after doing it for almost a year, and finding more and more of time devoted to it (meaning more and more of time sucked away from screenplays and fiction), I had to make a hard decision. I decided to give up The Watchman. It hurt to do it, and it depressed me for a bit, but ultimately I think it was the right move. I have a kid now, Laura, who's almost two (!), so my time and my priorities are different. Everything that isn't about her has to go to, oh let's just call it all "storytelling". That's what I am now -- a storyteller.

And maybe one day, one day soon, I'll get paid for the privilege. But until then, I gotta keep practicing.

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Thursday
Jan 29, 2009

The Collection at the Beginning of Creative Process posted by Martin

I’m always fascinated with the process of creative types. Because, of course, it might teach me something about my own process which has been doggedly formed from ignorant persistence. I long for some sort of validation that I’m doing it “right” (make of that what you will, psychology buffs).

Merlin Mann has been digging into process, and I think his Macworld presentation Towards Patterns for Creativity was interesting beyond his charismatic manitude.

He talks about Twyla Tharp and her book The Creative Habit (haven’t read it yet. Definitely on my list). Tharp starts each project with a box that she collects loose items associated with the choreography she’s creating. The box gets filled in a loose association and inspiration gathering, and then when it’s time to work it serves as muse and inspiration.

Compare this technique with Steven Johnson who, on his recent guest gig at Boing Boing wrote a post called DIY: How to write a Book. He captures information into software called DEVONthink, which acts as digital equivalents to Twyla’s Boxes (as Mr. Mann, sans external wink, likes to call them):

The first stage, which is crucial, is a completely disorganized capture of every little snippet of text that seems vaguely interesting. I grab paragraphs from web pages, from digital books, and transcribe pages from printed text — and each little snippet I just drop into Devonthink with no organization other than a citation of where it came from.

DEVONthink has the advantage of, once captured, of connecting text:

It has a very elegant semantic algorithm that can detect relationships between short excerpts of text, so you can use the software as a kind of connection machine, a supplement to your own memory.

Capture — the first step. In thinking back, all of my projects start with a single question “What if we lived in a world that was X instead of Y?” Knowing that question, capturing disparate information about that topic is how I approach it, albeit more loosely than either Ms. Tharp or Mr. Johnson (my process includes folders, Scrivener files, Yojimbo, and lost-to-the-ages software that didn’t stand the test of time).

Tangentially related to this topic is John Gruber’s talk at Macworld which gave us a maxim (Gruber’s Law?) which may or may not bear relationship to Mr. Beeson and my more democratic attempts at working together, but is still relevant to those who collaborate:

The quality of any collaborative creative endeavor tends to approach the level of taste of whoever is in charge.

Comments (0) — Category: technique

Wednesday
Jan 28, 2009

The Resurrection posted by Martin

What does it take to kill an idea? Lack of momentum, for one. Mr. Shockah and I stopped writing on this blog about a year-and-a-half ago. Why?

The answer is long and in depth, but one of us has a kid, the other has a demanding job, and we both felt that we’d rather put our time into actually writing screenplays rather than writing about writing screenplays.

Also, I think we can safely say, the experiment was a failure. By which I mean in the best sense — the Beckett sense of “No Matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The truth is, we work better in person when we’re bouncing ideas off one another. We’re still experimenting with our process, but I can safely say it will not be by writing to each other about the act of writing. See a pattern here?

So we let Spitball! lay fallow. And, the idea was, that we would shutter it. Put a page here with a “goodbye and thanks for all the fish” message. And I was starting to do just that when I went back and started reading some of our older posts.

Damn if it wasn’t fun. There’s a lot of pedantic peddling here, but there was also some great conversation and some good arguments. And, in the end, we came up with a bunch of ideas that we are currently writing.

We’ve decided, therefore, to forge on, but with a different mission. Now Spitball! will be a blog about writing. A conversation between Mr. Shockah and I, but mostly a conversation with you. We’re planning some changes — comments, for example, instead of the forums (which are shuttered, although still readable), but those might be slow in coming. And the posts may be erratic, smaller and less focused.

What the hell. It’s all good. Spitball! is back, friends. Spitball! is back.

Comments (0) — Category: About

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What is Spitball!?

Spitball! is two guys collaborating to write about writing and collaboration. We're writing partners who have worked together since 2000, and placed in the top 100 in the last Project Greenlight for our script YELLOW.

Currently, we are both working on multiple screenplay, short story, and novel ideas independently and together, and collaborate on this blog.

What Spitball! used to be

Spitball! started as an attempt to collaborate on a screenplay online in real time. From January 2006 to July 2007 we worked on an interactive process to decide the story we were going to make. A full postmortem is coming, but you can find the find all the posts by looking in the category Original Version.

During this period, we affected the personalities of two of the most famous spitball pitchers from the early 20th Century. Look at our brief bios for more info about this, and so as not to be confused as to who is talking when.

We rebooted the franchise in early 2009 in its current form.


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Kent M. Beeson

Urban Shockah pic

Kent M. Beeson (aka Urban Shockah) is a stay-at-home dad and stay-at-home writer, living in Seattle, WA with his wife, 2 year old daughter and an insane cat. In 2007, he was a contributor to the film blog ScreenGrab, where he presciently suggested Jackie Earle Haley to play Rorschach in the Watchmen movie, and in 2008, he wrote a film column for the comic-book site ComiXology called The Watchman. (He's a big fan of the book, if you couldn't tell.) In 2009, he gave up the thrill of freelance writing to focus on screenplays and novels, although he sometimes posts to his blog This Can't End Well, which a continuation of his first blog, he loved him some movies. He's a Pisces, and his favorite movie of all time is Jaws. Coincidence? I think not.

Martin McClellan

Burleigh Grimes pic

Martin (aka Burley Grymz) is a designer and writer. He occasionally blogs at his beloved Hellbox, and keeps a longer ostensibly more interesting bio over here at his eponymous website. You can also find him on Twitter.