is two guys collaborating to write on writing and collaboration.

Fastball! for all of 2009

Dec 06, 2009

Book Learning — Martin Ball

Deborah Solomon interviews Jeff Bezos for the New York Times Magazine.

Is it true that you add digital books to your holdings on the basis of their popularity and their sales rank in paper form?
Yes, that’s basically true. We also have a self-service platform where small publishers or even self-published authors can put their books on themselves.

How does that work?
Basically you submit the book, you set the price for it, we charge the customer and then we give you 35 percent of the revenue.

And Amazon keeps 65 percent? That sounds like a lot.
Does it? You’re an author, what does your royalty check look like? Are your royalties 35 percent?

No. Let’s not have that conversation.
O.K., I think we’re done.

Solomon’s Amazon page doesn’t list any Kindle titles yet.

Dec 01, 2009

No Country for Old Typewriters: A Well-Used One Heads to Auction — Martin Ball


Cormac McCarthy is auctioning his typewriter.

“It has never been serviced or cleaned other than blowing out the dust with a service station hose. … I have typed on this typewriter every book I have written including three not published. Including all drafts and correspondence I would put this at about five million words over a period of 50 years.”

Oct 29, 2009

Alternatively. — Martin Ball

Mr. Merlin Mann on rejection:

It’s not your fucking allowance, guys. It’s business. Keep writing, keep submitting, paper your walls, and cowboy up forever. The only person who owes you anything is you. Maybe. If you’re lucky.

He used the Exquisite Corpse as an example. I submitted poems to the Exquisite Corpse when it was publishing its oddly-sized, snide and wonderful print edition, probably about the same time that Merlin was submitting to Esquire (he had higher aspirations than I, no doubt).

I used nice stationary, naïvely thinking that this would somehow dress my work up. My rejection letter said “Keep at it, but use cheaper paper. It’s just not worth it.”

Oct 23, 2009

Nearly Universal Literacy Is a Defining Characteristic of Today’s Modern Civilization; Nearly Universal Authorship Will Shape Tomorrow's — Martin Ball

Nearly everyone reads. Soon, nearly everyone will publish.

Seems about right to me.

(via @shirky)

Oct 08, 2009

Sarah Vowell on Rachel Maddow — Martin Ball

Sometimes it’s just fun to watch video of writers you love.

Visit for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

Sep 30, 2009

Stacey Levine named 2009 Stranger Literature Genius — Martin Ball

Before she was a MacArthur Genius, Heather McHugh was Stranger Literature Genius. Other past literature geniuses have included Sherman Alexie, Jonathan Raban and Rebecca Brown. I mention this only to say that The Stranger is damn good at picking geniuses.

I’m not familiar with Ms. Levine’s work, but with a recommendation this high, I’m certain to pick up her book now.

Sep 30, 2009

When Writers Speak — Martin Ball

From the Sunday New York Times, Arthur Krystal asks if writers should be good conversationalists.

Like most writers, I seem to be smarter in print than in person. In fact, I am smarter when I’m writing. I don’t claim this merely because there is usually no one around to observe the false starts and groan-inducing sentences that make a mockery of my presumed intelligence, but because when the work is going well, I’m expressing opinions that I’ve never uttered in conversation and that otherwise might never occur to me.

This reminds me of the old William Zinsser quote “Writing is Thinking.”

My personal experience has been that writing takes very different muscles than good conversation. Focusing on the former, sadly, has meant that the latter is under-exercised.

But I want to be a good conversationalist, so I work at it. The difference is in intention. Being a good conversationalist means listening more than talking. It means asking a person to draw out their stories, and when you share yours you are sharing them in relation to theirs. Disjointed conversations talk over each other. Good conversations feel fluid and connected.

I rarely know what I will say when I talk, I follow the flow of conversation. I occasionally know generally where I’ll go when I write, but never exactly how I’ll get there. When talking, what I say will have to be enough. When I write, it will be reworked and analyzed until it conveys exactly what I want as clearly as possible.

Sep 24, 2009

Let us now praise editors — Martin Ball

An older piece by Gary Kamiya, which I noticed on clusterflock today.

The art of editing is running against the cultural tide. We are in an age of volume; editing is about refinement. It’s about getting deeper into a piece, its ideas, its structure, its language. It’s a handmade art, a craft. You don’t learn it overnight. Editing aims at making a piece more like a Stradivarius and less like a microchip. And as the media universe becomes larger and more filled with microchips, we need the violin makers.

If Antonio Stradivari had an editor, he certainly didn’t give them a signature line inside his violins.

I think editing is a noble, and necessary art. Used to be that designers hired typesetters to lay out their type correctly. To worry over the punctuation and spacing, the ligatures and em-or-en dash decisions. Now designers are responsible for this as the typesetters of the computer age.

So too must writers become editors, or at least better editors. They must be self-reliant. Design has both suffered and exploded with new creativity over the loss of typographers, so too will writing suffer and explode with the loss of editors.

Who, it should be pointed out, have every opportunity to explain to writers their value, and why a self-publishing small business person who is making their way as a writer should hire an editor to work on their texts.

Sep 24, 2009

The No. 1 Mistake Self-Publishishers Make — Martin Ball

Looks like the tide is turning on the opinion of self-publishing online. Here’s a post by Maria Schneider, former Editor-in-Chief of Writer’s Digest, arguing that you might want to forgo hard-copy publishing and put your work online. The goal is to build an audience so that you’ll be more salable to a publisher.

If you have a platform — a blog with a big following, regular speaking engagements, a known expertise — trust me, you won’t have to go looking for publishers. They’ll find you.

Ms. Schneider, like many of the people I link to here, are still working inside the traditional publishing system, so their advice is geared at becoming (that most elevated of writerly goals) “A Published Author.”

In this case, her advice makes sense and is essentially “leverage the following you’ve built up to get published.”

I argue still that a time is coming where there will be other revenue streams and possibilities for writers than going for the big sell. That time is coming faster and faster, the cheaper and better digital readers become. When the best, easiest, and potentially most profitable way of leveraging that following is to do it by yourself.

But I think she has one very good thrust to this article, and especially in a some of her follow-up comments with readers:

If you were to publish hard copies, who would you sell them to? Do you have a marketing plan?

In other words, if you want to do it yourself, know what you’re doing. Asking a successful writer to be a good editor, publisher and designer is going to be the bare minimum of success in future years.

Sep 24, 2009

HOW TO: Write a Novel Using the Web — Martin Ball article by Josh Catone on organizing, writing and publishing your novel using only online tools.

Sep 10, 2009

I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script — Martin Ball

Josh Olson will not read your fucking script. 1

If that seems unfair, I’ll make you a deal. In return for you not asking me to read your fucking script, I will not ask you to wash my fucking car, or take my fucking picture, or represent me in fucking court, or take out my fucking gall bladder, or whatever the fuck it is that you do for a living.

Mr. Olson, of course, is in a unique position and doesn’t have time for amateurs. The story is about an embarrassing situation he was put into by ignorant friends who unknowingly insulted him. If the script (treatment, actually) had been great, maybe the headline might have been different.

Two other nuggets popped out at me from this piece:

It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.

(By the way, here’s a simple way to find out if you’re a writer. If you disagree with that statement, you’re not a writer. Because, you see, writers are also readers.)

And then a few paragraphs later:

...saying something positive about [the work he was asked to critique] would be the nastiest, meanest and most dishonest thing I could do. Because here’s the thing: not only is it cruel to encourage the hopeless, but you cannot discourage a writer. If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you’re not a writer.

I recommend the Josh Olson interview about A History of Violence by Creative Screenwriting editor Jeff Goldsmith.

  1. I found this link via @ColleenLindsay who had good reply from @AlexIrvine: “But you know what? At some point, someone read his script.”

Sep 08, 2009

Naming Characters With Google Adwords — Martin Ball

Robin Sloan, looking to come up with an evocative and memorable name for his new detective character, ran a Google AdWords campaign as a proof of concept.

But okay, I’ll be honest. This was mostly just an excuse to try a new tool. Any nerd will tell you that tools can provide their own intrinsic rewards. There’s an aspect of exploration to it, too: you’re pressing out into new tool-territory, learning about what you can and can’t do.

Robin’s on my radar because he is making an attempt at exactly what I was writing about previously. He’s released two short stories on his website, The Writer & The Witch and Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store with attractive cover designs. Both stories are freely available and can also be bought in Kindle format.

For a novella he’s writing, he turned to Kickstarter for funding. As of this writing, he’s fully funded at his $3,500 goal plus an extra $2,000. These are pre-sold books, with some extras if you funded at a higher level.

I loved the idea of what he’s doing, so I pledged. These kind of models are great experiments into the future of publishing, and seem to be working well for Robin. We wish him luck and are eagerly awaiting our copy of his book.

Sep 06, 2009

Neil Gaiman's Bookshelves — Martin Ball


File under library porn.

Sep 04, 2009

Special Pleading — Martin Ball

Cory Doctorow answers some of the criticism leveled at him as to why his experiments with giving away his work won’t work for other authors. Which can be summed up nicely here:

I don’t give away downloads because I’m just a swell guy — I do it because I’m a self-employed entrepreneur who needs to make as much as he can to support his family.

Sep 03, 2009

In praise of browsing — Martin Ball

Lisa Gold:

Browsing and searching are different — browsing is about the journey, searching is about the destination. Searching is focused on finding specific information quickly and often leads to tunnel-vision, which can prevent you from recognizing useful sources that don’t match your preconceived ideas and assumptions. Browsing is about slowing down, opening your eyes, feeding your curiosity, and allowing yourself the opportunity to make discoveries.

I love browsing.

When I was a teenager I would often spend time on the campus of Western Washington University, and not irregularly in the big library. One evening, while wandering the stacks, I discovered Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. A find that has paid many returns.

Such as, an old-school quote maybe hinting at what Mr. Bierce might have thought of Ms. Gold:

CURIOSITY, n. An objectionable quality of the female mind. The desire to know whether or not a woman is cursed with curiosity is one of the most active and insatiable passions of the masculine soul.

Sep 01, 2009

Dear publishers: It’s not too late to get a clue! — Martin Ball

Dave Gray, after a particularly ironic go-around with Penguin Books over the rights to an illustration, asks publishers to wake up.

The newspaper business is dying — people don’t read their local papers anymore, and maybe that’s sad. But it’s the way of the world and a familiar pattern: You gain power and authority, you do something original and the world starts listening to you. But over time you lose touch with them, you lose the link.

Aug 18, 2009

Habits, heavy lifting, and the possibility of suck — Martin Ball

John August on Writer’s Block:

You know who gets writer’s block? Non-writers. They think it’s cool and romantic to struggle to make Art. They make sure everyone knows how torturous the process is, so when they finally squeeze something out, it won’t be judged on its merits but rather the emotional anguish involved in its creation.

Writers write. Hacks whine about how hard it is.

Here’s the whole interview, but the quoted section above is from his notes which are worth reading.

Aug 12, 2009

Vast Hell — Martin Ball

In those days, there were two barbers in Puente Viejo. Now I realize that if he’d gone to Old Melchor’s he might never have met the French Woman, and no one would have gossiped about them. But Melchor’s place was at the other end of town, and I had no reason to anticipate what happened.

The fact is that I sent him to Cerviño’s place, and it seems that while Cerviño was giving him a haircut the French Woman appeared. And the French Woman looked at the boy the way she looked at all men. And that was when the bloody business started, because the boy stayed on in town and we all thought the same thing: that he’d stayed on because of her.

Guillermo Martínez’s short, from the April 27th New Yorker. The hope, when I read a story this good, is that I learn something and become a better writer because of it.

Jul 31, 2009

Can Do — Martin Ball

If you’re looking for creative inspiration, Maira Kalman delivers in spades.

Everything is invented.
Language. Childhood. Careers.
Relationships. Religion.
Philosophy. The Future.
They are not there for the plucking.
They don’t exist in some
        natural state.
They must be invented by People.
And that, of course, is a great thing.
Don’t mope in your room.
Go invent something.
That is the American message.
Electricity. Flight. The Telephone.
Television. Computers. Walking on
the Moon. It never stops.

The quote is great, but it’s her delivery that truly slays. Don’t miss it.

Maira Kalman, with her late husband Tibor Kalman, made a commitment to how design and art can be agents of change without regard for personal income (Tibor Kalman’s design retrospective book is titled “Perverse Optimist”). Their fearless dedication to craft, perfection (of a sort) and work are very inspirational to me personally.

Seeing that she has a new blog post up on the New York Times is better than a birthday or Christmas present. I read them slow, and then I read them again and again.

Jul 31, 2009

Why Vampires Never Die — Martin Ball

Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan explain in the New York Times:

Vampires find their niche and mutate at an accelerated rate now — in the past one would see, for decades, the same variety of fiend, repeated in multiple storylines. Now, vampires simultaneously occur in all forms and tap into our every need: soap opera storylines, sexual liberation, noir detective fiction, etc. The myth seems to be twittering promiscuously to serve all avenues of life, from cereal boxes to romantic fiction. The fast pace of technology accelerates its viral dispersion in our culture.

Jul 24, 2009

1,000 True Fans — Martin Ball

Kevin Kelly argued last year how individual artists can aim to make a living without having a blockbuster hit.

One solution is to find 1,000 True Fans. While some artists have discovered this path without calling it that, I think it is worth trying to formalize. The gist of 1,000 True Fans can be stated simply:

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author — in other words, anyone producing works of art — needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

Jul 24, 2009

Popcorn Fiction — Martin Ball

In my last post I talked about authors publishing online. I was thinking of self-publishing when I wrote that, but of course there is no shortage of journals or online spaces where good fiction is released. One is Derek Haas’ brand new Popcorn Fiction, with a gorgeous design that focuses on readability.

Their first story by screenwriter Scott Frank is called The Flying Kreissler’s. More sites like this, please!

Jul 20, 2009

Charging for Access to News Sites — Martin Ball

John Gruber on newspaper’s plan to charge for access:

The potential revenue does not appear to be of the magnitude that will support the massive operations of existing news organizations. What works in today’s web landscape are lean and mean organizations with little or no management bureaucracy -- operations where nearly every employee is working on producing actual content....

Old-school news companies aren’t like that -- the editorial staff makes up only a fraction of the total head count at major newspaper and magazine companies. The question these companies should be asking is, “How do we keep reporting and publishing good content?” Instead, though, they’re asking “How do we keep making enough money to support our existing management and advertising divisions?” It’s dinosaurs and mammals.

Gruber is busy writing the book on new journalism right now. His one-man technology blog, Daring Fireball, has more influence than many of the mainstream tech writers. For good reason, too: he’s ethical, writes incredibly well, and offers reasoned perspective.

I would hazard a guess that he has better sources than nearly anybody else covering Apple today. And he did it completely outside of the mainstream journalism system.

Jul 17, 2009

Some E-Books Are More Equal Than Others — Martin Ball

This is all the buzz today, but Amazon has removed copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from Kindle devices, because of a licensing issue.

Forget the irony of it being Orwell, forget that it’s Amazon, and what you have is the story being about rights of digital delivery. Who own the bits on your computer?

Certainly no print author could come and revoke a book after it’s on your shelf 1. In the internet age, are we learning that this has never happened simply because it is impractical?

Amazon was getting good marks all around on the Kindle (although many copy-lefters are suffering under the weight of their massive schadenfreude and mouthing “I told you so”). Their corporate face, however, needs some work on the customer service-side. Not all publicity is good publicity. Nobody wants to the invisible hand of DRM to reach into the device they bought and monkey with the goods they choose to purchase and keep there.

The title of Pogue’s piece references the Orwell quote from Animal Farm.

All animals are created equal but some animals are more equal than others.

  1. However, just in case this becomes practice becomes popular, I’d like to pre-order Salma Hayek’s autobiography, and encourage sloppy copy-editing so as to cause a recall.

Jul 10, 2009

Gay Talese: The Art of Nonfiction No. 2 — Martin Ball

Great interview with Gay Talese from The Paris Review, including his unique material for note taking:

Do you use notebooks when you are reporting?

I don’t use notebooks. I use shirt boards.

You mean the cardboard from dry-cleaned shirts?

Exactly. I cut the shirt board into four parts and I cut the corners into round edges, so that they can fit in my pocket. I also use full shirt boards when I’m writing my outlines. I’ve been doing this since the fifties.

So all day long you’re writing your observations on shirt boards?

Yes, and at night I type out my notes. It is a kind of journal. But not only my notes—also my observations.

Here’s a picture of one of his shirt boards from his notes for “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”

Talese is notoriously fashionable. recently ran a great video interview where he talks about his love of fashion.

(via Kottke)

Jul 06, 2009 serializing Doctorow's Makers — Martin Ball

Love Cory Doctorow or hate Cory Doctorow, he’s got Dickens, Dumas, and plenty of other authors backing him up on this one. The online serialization of the novel is such a great idea that I’d be surprised if it doesn’t become more common in the next few years.

Jun 08, 2009

David Mitchell: 'I should probably be thinking seriously now about not living in a grotty flat on my own' — Martin Ball

David Mitchell interviewed by Decca Aitkenhead in the Guardian. When asked about moving to the U.S., he explained why British humor is funnier to him than American humor:

“I’ve been to LA and it’s horrible. I don’t want to live there. I think, fundamentally, the people I want to make laugh are British. I can’t ever imagine living abroad. I love all elements of how British society lends itself to comedy — you know, it’s own sort of pompousness and self-loathing and class system and cynicism and irony: all these sorts of things are strongest here. Something like Curb Your Enthusiasm, great though it is, it’s like their first faltering steps into that world of self-loathing that we, as a post-imperial power, have been in for the best part of a century. I think the Americans will be doing some amazing comedy in 60 to 70 years’ time. But for the moment I’d say we’re in the right part of the curve of the decline of our civilisation in order to be funniest.”

Jun 01, 2009

A week of the Variant — Martin Ball


We’ve been following John August’s experiments with self-publishing his story The Variant with great interest.

The story — well worth the piddly $1 he charges — reinforces the tale that reading one of his screenplays tell: the man is a damn fine writer.

More than that, as he’s demonstrated with years of effort and question-answering on his blog, he’s open with information. This post lays out just how many sales he’s had through each channel (Kindle and PDF), and how much he made from those sales.

At this point, I don’t have any big sense of What It All Means.

It’s a fine number of sales for a short story that would have likely been buried in some specialty magazine. But I’m not sure I can offer any meaningful analysis of the publishing model, partly because I started with a higher profile than many fiction writers might.

Could an established novelist duplicate (or exceed) these results? Probably. Could a talented but unknown upstart? Not as likely.

A few days ago he released a spreadsheet with data from people who bought the PDF so that numbers nerds could start making stats from the numbers (check the comments, some did).

And, of course, some other smaller publications have been watching the case as well.

May 31, 2009

Where I Write: Fantasy & Science Fiction Authors In Their Creative Spaces — Martin Ball

Neat project by photographer Kyle Cassidy looking at writing spaces.

(via @rands)

May 26, 2009

John Sayles, novelist, seeks a binding agreement — Martin Ball

So even the great John Sayles has trouble selling books. And man, this one sounds fantastic:

Some 10 years ago he began to write a movie about America’s 1898 war with Spain over the Philippines, viewing it as an eerie precursor of U.S. military exploits in Vietnam. He was also fascinated by the last gasp of Reconstruction — the era of virulent, post-Civil War racism. These two story lines fused and the script became unwieldy.

“There was no way in hell we were ever going to raise the money to make the film,” Sayles says. “I felt like I was pushing way too much stuff into a two-hour-and-20-minute format, and it would work better as a miniseries. But who gets to come in and say, ‘Oh, I want to make a 50-part miniseries about America at the turn of the century’?”

He finally decided the story should be a novel, which led to years of research and writing. “Some Time in the Sun” — like his films — blends vivid human portraits with historical events and brilliantly captures individual voices. In addition to his raucous newsboys, it spotlights African American and white soldiers fighting in the Philippines, fast-buck artists who help create the motion picture industry, and features cameos by Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, William Randolph Hearst, Damon Runyon and other historical figures.

Sayles is a tremendously good writer. He’s a goddamned MacArthur fellow, for god’s sake (granted, he won for directing…). I hope some publisher comes to its senses and soon, or he goes the way of modern media and self-publishes. I’d buy my copy either way.

May 26, 2009

William Gibson on "Atemporality" — Martin Ball

William Gibson is, unsurprisingly, one of the most interesting people on Twitter. Yesterday, he went on a tear about “atemporality.” I put the quotes together to read them in order as one thought, so please allow me to offer it here. The pound sign after each statement links back to the original toot.

Very creative people get atemporal early on. Are relatively unimpressed by the “now” factor, by latest things. Access the whole continuum. #

Less creative people believe in “originality” and “innovation”, two basically misleading but culturally very powerful concepts. #

When I look for collaborators I look for atemporality, whatever relevant kinds of historical literacy, and fluency in recombinance. #

Otherwise, result will be “now-bound”. Or, actually, for me, a non-starter. #

Your bleeding-edge Now is always someone else’s past. Someone else’s ’70s bellbottoms. Grasp that and start to attain atemporality. #

The most intelligent 21st-century fashion strives for a radical atemporality. Probably because the digital is radically atemporal. #

That week’s new Mac obsoleting as you drove it home from the dealer. Like melting ice cream. Like any imagined future. #

Tom Waits says he was never very interested in people his own age. Fascinated by his parents’ generation. #

Not that there’s no now, but that it’s someone else’s future and someone else’s past. And on that, I lapse back into Exercise Dog territory. #

The last comment was in reference to this video, which he posted earlier yesterday.

May 25, 2009

A Long Time Ago.. — kza Ball

Mystery Man on Film takes a brief look at George Lucas’ first draft of Star Wars:

Let it be said, my friends, that the early drafts of Star Wars should be a rich source of encouragement to every aspiring screenwriter the world over - because they royally sucked.

What goes unsaid is the first draft sounds an awful lot like The Phantom Menace, with a bitter dash of Return of the Jedi.

May 17, 2009

Character archetypes — Martin Ball

Over at (“Enabling your OCD. One post at a time.”) user diaskeaus has compiled an incredible list of character archetypes from, what seems, a huge list of resources. Well worth a read and bookmark.

(via @listology. Full disclosure: I gave a hand with the recent re-design of the site).

May 11, 2009

Poetry: The art of words is alive in fair Tacoma — Martin Ball

Friend of Spitball! and Tacoma local Tammy Robacker has been hard at work in the burgeoning poetry scene in Seattle’s southern neighbor. This article talks about some of those projects, and even name checks her upcoming book “The Vicissitudes,” which we personally can’t wait to read.

May 11, 2009

Edgar Allen Poe and the economy of horror — Martin Ball

Jill Lepore in The New Yorker on Poe. She starts with his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” which claims he wrote “The Raven” backward.

“The Philosophy of Composition” is a lovely little essay, but, as Poe himself admitted, it’s a bit of jiggery-pokery, too. Poe didn’t actually write “The Raven” backward. The essay is as much a contrivance as the poem itself. Here is a beautiful poem; it does everything a poem should do, is everything a poem should be. And here is a clever essay about the writing of a beautiful poem. Top that. Nearly everything Poe wrote, including the spooky stories for which he is best remembered, has this virtuosic, showy, lilting, and slightly wilting quality, like a peony just past bloom.

May 08, 2009

Literary Tweets: 100+ of the Best Authors on Twitter — Martin Ball

My modest listing of writers on twitter has been handily bested by this authoritative list, that even includes avatars.

Apr 30, 2009

William Goldman — Martin Ball

What’s that? You’re in need of a fashionable writer’s picture to inspire you? Print this out, my friend, and hang it proudly on your wall. Invite Bill Goldman into your studio, and remember his adage that nobody in Hollywood knows anything. If that doesn’t make you feel better, maybe this quote will:

Life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.

Apr 24, 2009

Lisa Gold's Research for Writers class — Martin Ball

Seattle writer and researcher Lisa Gold is teaching a cool class titled Research for Writers at Hugo House May 9th.

Research is an important part of the creative process for writers of fiction and nonfiction. Research can help with inspiration, storytelling and world building whether you are writing about the past, present or future, about life on earth or an imaginary world. The instructor will share advice about research, discuss the kinds of research writers may need to do and help students find useful sources of information in print, on the Web, in libraries and in unexpected places.

Her bona fides? She helped Neil Stephenson research his Baroque trilogy, for one.

Her blog is worth subscribing to. Great stuff.

(via BoingBoing)

Apr 22, 2009

Style Yourself Like William Faulkner — Martin Ball

Or many other dapper men, on the devilishly good Nerd Boyfriend.

Apr 17, 2009

The Reality of a Times Bestseller — Martin Ball

Writer Lynn Viehl’s book Twilight Fall made the New York Times Bestsellers list. And Lynn Viehl is a woman of her word:

A few years ago I made a promise to my writer friends that if I ever had a novel hit the top twenty of the New York Times mass market bestseller list that I would share all the information I was given about the book so writers could really see what it takes to get there. Today I’m going to keep that promise…

And she did, in spades, by publishing a JPG of her actual royalty statement. If you’ve wondered about the money part of publishing from the author’s perspective, this is a great post to read.

Apr 17, 2009

#queryday on Twitter — Martin Ball

What started as #queryfail, with agents posting terrible queries as a learning opportunity for writers, is now the more positive #queryday. 1

And beyond mocking queries, the agents this time are taking questions. If you’re on Twitter, ask away with the hash tag. More details on agent Colleen Lindsay’s blog.

Please note: we have handily deleted “retweets” for your viewing pleasure in the above link.

  1. Really? Must everything be positive? Earnest people may not see the value in ironic humor, but that doesn’t mean we always have to kowtow to them. #queryfail was a much better, and more apt, descriptor of the issue. And it was funny. And referenced an internet meme. Stupid earnest people.

Apr 16, 2009

Bad Guy Plots: Not Just A Problem for Screenwriters — kza Ball

Greg Tannahill’s amazing (and on-going) critical examination of Keep on the Shadowfell, the first adventure for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition.

[The villain Kalarel] gives off the impression of someone who’s read a wide selection of magazines on being an evil mastermind, and finally decided he had to give it a try in person. Everything he does could come straight from a textbook, from such staples as “hiring goblin mercenaries” and “raiding local villages” through to “lairing in crumbling ruins”. If he was on the internet, he would have a villainy-themed MySpace page.

It gets even better.

Apr 16, 2009

The Substance of Style — kza Ball

Matt Zoller Seitz (former film critic and now a filmmaker in his own right) has made five terrific video essays for the Museum of the Moving Image about the influences on Wes Anderson’s style. The link above leads to part 5, an annotation of The Royal Tenenbaums’ opening minutes, which includes the following bit of truth:

More captioned frames: Anderson introduced this signature in RUSHMORE, and now he owns it; anybody who does it the same way looks pathetic.

Apr 16, 2009

Twister: How Tony Gilroy surprises jaded moviegoers — Martin Ball

Great New Yorker profile by D. T. Max on screenwriter and director Tony Gilroy, that gives a glimpse into his process and feelings on screenwriting.

Gilroy writes in spurts. “Dolores Claiborne” and “Duplicity” were each written in about twelve weeks. “He feels fucked up and blocked and crazy for a long time,” [Steven] Schiff says. “He tortures himself. Then, as it’s coalescing, he sits down to outline, and when he’s outlining he insists on doing it very, very fast — the whole movie he sketches out in, like, four days. I’m sure that during those four days his wife doesn’t see him and no one talks to him. And the reason he does that, he says, is it’s a movie and it has to move fast. ‘I have to write fast. I have to think fast. My fingers have to move fast.’ ”

It goes into some depth about the ideas of reversals, and how they are changing audience expectations.

Gilroy believes that the writer and the moviegoing public are engaged in a cognitive arms race. As the audience grows savvier, the screenwriter has to invent new reversals — madder music and stronger wine. Perhaps the most famous reversal in film was written by William Goldman, originally in his 1974 novel “Marathon Man,” then honed for the movie version. Laurence Olivier, a sadistic Nazi dentist, is drilling into Dustin Hoffman’s mouth, trying to force him to disclose the location of a stash of diamonds. “Is it safe?” he keeps asking. Suddenly, William Devane sweeps in to rescue him and spirits Hoffman away. In the subsequent car ride, Devane starts asking questions; he wants to know where the diamonds are. After a few minutes, Hoffman’s eyes grow wide: Devane and Olivier are in league! “Thirty years ago, when Bill Goldman wrote it, the reversal in ‘Marathon Man’ was fresh,” Gilroy says. “But it must have been used now four thousand times.”

Apr 16, 2009

Creative Screenwriting Podcast — Martin Ball

An amazing collection of interviews with screenwriters done by Creative Screenwriting Senior Editor Jeff Goldsmith. The link above goes to their webpage. Here’s a direct iTunes link.

(via Andy Ihnatko, on MacBreak Weekly)

Apr 15, 2009

Be An Agent for a Day — Martin Ball

Nathan Bransford is a blogging literary agent working out of the San Francisco office of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

He’s doing an interesting thing this week. On Monday, he posted 50 book queries. Readers can respond in the comments to either reject the query or request the manuscript for up to five of them. In the pile of fifty are five books that were actually purchased. If you pick the correct ones, you may just win a prize.

Or, as I think Mr. Bransford is getting at, you’ll have a better sense of what it means to be an agent and what you are faced with in your day-to-day work.

If you’re interested, you have until Saturday to look at the entries and respond. Full rules are here. Good luck.

Apr 15, 2009

Go Ahead, Steal Me — Martin Ball

Article in Forbes about Jonathan Lethem and how he works untraditionally to get his books made into movies.

First, he’s offering the rights to his short stories for $1.00 on his website. Second, with his latest novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, he:

…all but gave away film rights to Greg Marcks, a Los Angeles indie filmmaker, whose last film, 11:14, starred Oscar winner Hilary Swank. Lethem is requiring a fee of 2% of the film’s total budget once Marcks lands a distributor. And this time the option expires in five years. If the movie doesn’t get made, Lethem can go elsewhere. The author, surprisingly, also required that five years after the book and movie come out, they must enter the public domain to become available, free of charge, to anyone; copyright protection usually lasts 70 years after the death of the author.

Good on him for trying something different. I hope it pays off. And, aspiring writers — go snag a story for $1.00 to write and produce.

(via SVN)

Apr 15, 2009

ScreenFonts: Watchmen, Sunshine Cleaning, Slumdog Millionaire, Duplicity, The Great Buck Howard — Martin Ball

Yves Peters looks at typefaces on recent movie posters. I love the whole ScreenFonts series. It reminds us that not all movie designers use Trajan.

Apr 13, 2009

TV Scripts and Bibles — Martin Ball

Badass collection of all things TV. Especially interesting to me are the series bibles, like this pdf from The Wire.

(via John “Best motherfucking screenwriting resource on the internet” August).

Apr 08, 2009

The Unfinished — Martin Ball

While I was sick with the flu last week, I finally had time to catch up on my New Yorker back issues, and read D. T. Max’s great profile of David Foster Wallace.

“One of the great pleasures in reading Wallace is to watch him struggle to give the reader her due.” He writes, and an indication of whether you will find the article rewarding is if you agree with him.

It strikes me that Wallace’s largest struggle was that he couldn’t quiet himself. That all the high-concept issues he was fascinated with and so documented were heavily filtered through his factory of examination, testing for and extraction of irony, and reconstituting into a coherent whole with his individual stamp. Fascinating to read, but obviously unbearable to live. Like a child who does something wrong, but you cannot punish because they’ve not only already punished themselves, but presented you with an essay on the history of punishment and its application.

Apr 04, 2009

Nicholl Fellowships — Martin Ball

Run by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it’s the most respectable screenwriting competition around. Five winners or so are granted $30,000 to write a screenplay within a year. Submissions are due May 1st.

Apr 04, 2009

Script Frenzy — Martin Ball

Another April, another month to write an epic screenplay. From the folks who bring you the ever-popular NaNoWriMo. What have you got to lose?

Apr 01, 2009

This Things I Believe #5: The Gap — kza Ball

Mark Waid, writing at Kung-Fu Monkey, talks about surprise; more specifically, characters making surprising choices. He uses Se7en as an example:

Up to that moment, we in the audience kind of knew where the story was ultimately headed. We didn’t know how it would happen, but we knew the cops would eventually catch and punish the criminal, the end, because that’s what happens in a procedural. And, suddenly, boom, one character kicks the game board over, and now, for the first time since the opening credits, no one in the audience has the slightest clue where this story is going.

This is the same thing as The Gap, as defined by Robert McKee and stated economically by Todd Alcott:

The Gap is simply the distance between what the protagonist thinks is going to happen and what actually happens. The wider The Gap is, the more interesting your story will be.

Mar 31, 2009

Screenplay Beat Calculator — kza Ball

No, that’s not a Stereolab song, just a little something cooked up by screenwriter Ross Mahler. I’m not an advocate of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along school of screenwriting, but if I was going to do Script Frenzy (the very nature of which requires some seat-of-the-pants plotting), I’d definitely use it as my guide. (Via Mystery Man on Film; some explanation of the jargon-heavy calculator here.)

Mar 31, 2009

"To call our film a gay film is misleading, but to call it a straight horror film is misleading as well." — kza Ball


And let’s not forget my interview with Gildark and Cogswell, conducted a few days before its premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival. This did not net me an IMDB entry, however.

Mar 31, 2009

Cthulhu Available on DVD — Martin Ball


I worked on Cthulhu in post-production. I designed the original poster (rejected by the MPAA), and also did the first website for the film (it gave me my lone, prized IMDB listing).

Congratulations to director Dan Gildark, and writer Grant Cogswell (who, if you like inside baseball, wrote a naked production wrap-up in The Stranger). I’m eager to see what they do next.

Mar 31, 2009

Directional Deer — Martin Ball

For those who have trouble generating plot ideas.

I could see a novel that starts with this observation of deer under power lines and goes on to explore the nefarious forces at work.

Mar 31, 2009

Cerebus: A Diablog — kza Ball

Laura Hudson and Leigh Walton go to town, an issue a week, all the way to #300. (Current topic: issue #8.)

I’ve only read the first phonebook, so I’m hoping to follow along once they reach High Society.

Mar 30, 2009

The Phantom of Heilbronn Unmasked — Martin Ball

For those who have trouble generating plot ideas.

Mar 29, 2009

The 360 Degree Character Review — kza Ball

John Rogers, on using an unusually-expansive job review technique to develop characters for screenplays (and presumably, other fictions):

I started doing this as a way to develop characters, and I have to admit I kind of dig it. How does Indiana Jones’s boss at the university feel about him? Other archeologists? His students? How about the bad guys? “Major Arnold Toht is the best commandant I’ve ever had. He never sends us into dangerous situations without also taking the same risk. He is very organized and makes sure we have the tools and resources necessary to serve the Fuhrer. We always go to interesting places, and he really encourages individual initiative. His determination is an inspiration to us all …”

Mar 29, 2009

Jack London: On Writing — Martin Ball

Just a few gems on this page, this among them:

Don’t loaf and invite inspiration: light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.

Mar 27, 2009

Columbine — Martin Ball

Great bit by Henry Sene Yee about his design process for producing the cover of Columbine, by Dave Cullen.

A few amazing things: first, the author’s name isn’t on the book front. Quite a brave choice for author and publisher. Second, the choice of the light type on the cover, which Yee covers in his post, is also brave, given my experience with design clients is that they tend towards nervousness when contrast isn’t cranked up.

I think the final image is quite moving and compelling. Much more so than the revision rounds he shows in his process work.

I’m writing a piece that touches on design, and this great blog post shoehorns perfectly with it.

(via Khoi Vinh)

Mar 26, 2009

Obsession Times Voice — Martin Ball

John Gruber and Merlin Mann are huge inspirations for me and why I want to do Spitball!. And Gruber especially is influential in the form of this website.

His post, which goes over the SXSW talk they tag-teamed (and, includes a link to the audio, which I recommend spinning), reiterates the biggest points of the talk.

I love this bit:

There is an easy formula for doing it wrong: publish attention-getting bullshit and pull stunts to generate mindless traffic. The entire quote-unquote “pro blogging” industry — which exists as the sort of pimply teenage brother to the shirt-and-tie SEO industry — is predicated on the notion that blogging is a meaningful verb. It is not. The verb is writing. The format and medium is new, but the craft is ancient.

Mar 26, 2009

Peeled — Martin Ball

Who says you need words to tell a story?


Mar 26, 2009

Strange Loves, Magic Christians, and So Much More: An Appreciation of Terry Southern — Martin Ball

When I watched the atrocious War, Inc. last year, I couldn’t help but miss Terry Southern and his magical touch with satire.

Christy Rodgers says he was much more:

Southern was and is primarily known as a satirist, I suppose, but that’s like saying the guys who designed the atom bomb were “just” mechanics.

She claims that Southern was at his best in print. I recommend this article, despite this sentence:

Southern’s fecund sexual fantasies are always so over the top as to be self-satirizing—which this feminist critic at least would say is quite an apt way of looking at bourgeois male heterosexuality.

Mar 24, 2009

Christine Marie Larsen's Sketchook — Martin Ball

Friend of Spitball! Christine Larsen has an awesome series of writers portraits going, including Don DeLillo, Flannery O’Connor, H.P. Lovecraft, Octavia Butler, and our personal writing mentor, Walter Mosley.

delillo.jpg flannery.jpg lovecraft.jpg octavia.jpg mosely.jpg

Her previous Film Noir series is also well worth digging through the archives to find if you’re a fan of the genre.

Mar 23, 2009

How I Write a Novel — Martin Ball

Tobias Buckell on his writing process.

First off, the man has some statistical chops, as shown in some of his other posts. At Spitball! we respect people with stat magic. Second, he’s a published author and Clarion graduate, so his word counts. Third, he uses Scrivener, which is the official Spitball! writing package of choice (he used to use OmniOutliner, which we also endorse and love).

Mar 21, 2009

The Devil's Own — Martin Ball

Congrats to friend-of-Spitball! Pete Mesling who just released issue 0 of The Devil's Own, a comic written by him and drawn by Brian Beardsley.

Mar 21, 2009

Speculative Fiction Older Writer's Grant — Martin Ball

This is cool — the Speculative Literature Foundation is giving an annual grant of $750 to any writer age fifty or over who is just beginning to work professionally.

Let’s hear it for writers who get rolling at a later age.

(via BoingBoing)

Mar 20, 2009

Speaking of William Gibson... — Martin Ball

He’s been doing something interesting on his blog. He’ll occasionally post short passages of the book he’s writing. All of them seem related to the world created in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. They’re out-of-context, strange little floating snippets. He likens them to visiting the set of a film:

The scene you see shot, and remember, may not be in the film when it’s released. Or, owing to the editing process, or even reshooting, it may be there but not remotely resemble what you saw shot.

Mar 20, 2009

Field Notes Notebooks — Martin Ball

Their motto: “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.”

I carry one of these with me everywhere, and one of their branded Bic pens as well. They’re less fussy then Moleskin, and durable with a good sense of humor. Plus, William Gibson likes them. How could you go wrong?

Mar 20, 2009

Top Ten Topics for Writers — Martin Ball

Poets & Writers magazine’s list of resources for writers.

Since our founding in 1970, Poets & Writers has served as an information clearinghouse of all matters related to writing. While the range of inquiries has been broad, common themes have emerged over time. Our Top Ten Topics for Writers addresses the most popular and pressing issues.

Mar 19, 2009

Writer's Rooms — Martin Ball

In line with my post yesterday, here is an ongoing series from the Guardian that shows and talks about the spaces where writers do their work.

I’m personally fond of Edna O’Brien and J.G. Ballard’s spaces, the latter dominated by this painting that…

…is a copy of The Violation by the Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux. The original was destroyed during the Blitz in 1940, and I commissioned an artist I know, Brigid Marlin, to make a copy from a photograph. I never stop looking at this painting and its mysterious and beautiful women. Sometimes I think I have gone to live inside it and each morning I emerge refreshed. It’s a male dream.

Mar 19, 2009

This Things I Believe #4: POTPITMOM — kza Ball

Hate to make this sound like All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Todd Alcott, but, hey, I have learned quite a bit.

What studying the act break does is reveal the journey of the protagonist — at one moment, the protagonist is one person, and in the next moment he is another, and that change is irreversible. The path of the protagonist is the meaning of the movie — that’s the important thing, everything else is in the service of the delineation of that concept.

POTPITMOM - the silver cord that binds the hero through the astral realm of the story.

(Next up: can I come up with an even nerdier metaphor for something? Stay tuned!)

Mar 17, 2009

Are Writing Groups a Good Idea? — Martin Ball

John August:

Reading other people’s writing — even bad writing — makes you think more about the words you put on the page, so it can be a worthwhile exercise even if the notes you get back on your script are less than ideal.

Kent and I have our writing group tonight. I’ve been in this one about a year, and find it valuable not only for the reason quoted, but also that having a deadline is a good outside pressure point on keeping myself writing.

Mar 16, 2009

Growing Sentences with David Foster Wallace — Martin Ball

Kottke posts instructions on how to turn any sentence into a David Foster Wallace sentence.

He fastidiously posted the details and intricate semi-ironic zero-indexed instructions — since he’s the defacto little hyper-multi-link aggregator for the bleacher sitting lit fans on this tessellating yarn-ball of Turing worship — but Kottke didn’t write, not that he couldn’t have, these devilishly phrase-making instructions on flipping any tumble-weededed clause or lilly-livered sentence into a full-stop three-ring David Foster Wallace sentence, the little blue attending details long, the delivery gregarious with asides such as “Stop here if you are a minimalist,” (did not), or “Stop here if not writing parody” (did not. Or did? You judge).

Mar 14, 2009

Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable — Martin Ball

Clay Shirky on newspapers:

To describe the world before or after the spread of print was child’s play; those dates were safely distanced from upheaval. But what was happening in 1500? The hard question Eisenstein’s book asks is “How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it? What was the revolution itself like?”

Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

Mar 14, 2009

This Things I Believe #3: The Definition of Suspense — kza Ball

David Bordwell:

For [Noël] Carroll, the reader or viewer feels suspense as a result of estimating, more or less intuitively, that the situation presents a morally undesirable outcome that is strongly probable. When the plot indicates that an evil character will probably fail to achieve his or her end, there isn’t much suspense. Likewise, when a good character is likely to succeed, there isn’t much suspense. But we do feel suspense when it seems that an evil character is likely to succeed, or that a good character is likely to fail.

(via Mystery Man on Film.)

Mar 13, 2009

Kurt Vonnegut Motivational Posters — Martin Ball

This one seems germane, but many, many more on the site.


Mar 12, 2009

This Things I Believe #2: Witchwahd — kza Ball

A slightly different but just as effective take on protagonistiary needs, courtesy of John August: Why is the Character Doing What He’s Doing? (WITCDWHD):

That said, you need to be careful not to stop at the first easy answer: Why is he racing in the Iditarod? “To win the prize money.” The better answer will likely lead to a better story. Why is he racing in the Iditarod? “To beat his ex-wife, the five-time champion.” “To catch the man who killed his brother.” “Because the ghost of his childhood dog is haunting him.”

(Note: lame “Witchwahd” moniker mine.)

Mar 10, 2009

This Things I Believe #1: Wadpaw — kza Ball

Wadpaw — What Does the Protagonist Want? The cornerstone of everything. Take it away, Mr. Alcott:

And I’m talking about this animated movie about ants and “what it means” and and what kind of world it takes place in and what its central metaphors are and where it fits in with movie history and how it reflects different levels of social truth, and after about fifteen seconds of this bullshit Jeffrey Katzenberg closes his eyes tight and puts his fingers to his temple as though he has a piercing headache and says “Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! WHAT DOES THE GUY WANT?”

The “guy” Mr. Katzenberg refers to is, of course, The Protagonist. The reason for Mr. Katzenberg’s mounting anxiety and anger toward my presentation is that I am wasting his time. I am describing the movie we’re making in every way but the way that matters. Because structurally, the only thing that matters in a screenplay is What The Protagonist Wants. There is nothing else.

Mar 08, 2009

Some Thoughts on "Annie Hall" and Romantic Comedies in General — kza Ball

Todd Alcott, droppin’ science:

…which illustrates another good screenwriting lesson: the more specific you make your characters the more universal they will, paradoxically, become. I don’t know why this works, but it’s been proven to again and again. In fact, specificity is the key to just about any successful art. Alvy Singer is about as atypical a protagonist as one can imagine for an American mainstream movie: neurotic, homely, balding, short, hostile, touchy, unhip, paranoid, self-destructive, obsessive, narcissistic. But because Allen brings him to life in such detail and with such passion, we all watch Alvy and say “You know, he’s just like me.”

Fastball! Archives

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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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Our Twitter account, where we note when longer articles are posted. While we're at it, here's Kent and Martin's Twitter accounts.

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.