is two guys collaborating to write on writing and collaboration.

inspiration Archives

May 30, 2009

Collaborative Unblocking posted by Aimee


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.


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

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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?

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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.






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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.

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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.

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Jun 19, 2007

Fictional posted by Martin

I’ve been writing a lot of short fiction lately. While we’ve read a million books on how to write screenplays, and worked a lot of drafts into one form or another, the fact remains that a good story is a good story. Some stories are right for certain mediums, and some are better for others.

Screenplays are not, in my opinion, the medium for ideas. They are the medium for experiences. I don’t like movies that try to make me think — not because I don’t like to think, but because movies that try to make you think usually have an agenda about how you should think. They are trying to teach you something.

Unless an audience comes to us and asks to be taught, who the hell are we to assign ourselves as teachers? What makes me think that a member of the audience who believes differently than me will change their mind because I manipulate them with images and sound?

Which is not to say that films can’t raise issues and deal with themes — but films should let you experience something and draw your own conclusions from it. I don’t like films that try to make me think — I like films that make me think. The films that do leave things open. They don’t tie off every plot line neatly, they don’t sacrifice ambiguity for resolution. They let people maintain some of their human failings.

Short fiction, on the other hand, is a great medium for ideas. It’s a medium of questions. One story I wrote recently started with the question “What if foot binding hadn’t been outlawed in China, and in fact had caught in as a fashion craze in the US?” Is it so unrealistic, thinking about other things women do in the name of beauty? What about things men do in the name of chastity and controlling women?

In a short story, I was able to deal with that issue in a way that was actually very concrete and based on action, but would have been totally unsuitable for the screen.

So how do you know which medium to express an idea in? I always base it on the first flash I have. Do I see a scene, or do I see a question? If it’s the former, then it’s a screenplay idea. If it’s the latter, it’s a literary idea. I capture the idea in my little notebook and then when I’m digging for things to write, see if it sparks me.

Or, as is sometimes the case, see if I can stop thinking about it. If I can’t, time to get writing.

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Jun 19, 2007

Man vs. Wild -- No, Really posted by kza

No, this isn’t about the so-called three kinds of conflict. I’m literally talking about a new show on the Discovery channel, Man vs. Wild. There’s this British guy with the wonderful name of Bear Grylls who is dropped into some harsh territory, like the Alaskan mountain range or the Costa Rican rainforest, and he attempts to survive and make it back to civilization, usually with no more than a water bottle, some flint, and the clothes on his back. Obviously, he (and his camera crew) make it every time, but it’s always pretty gripping.

But why should it be? Again, it’s not like Mr. Grylls is going to die on camera, and if you watch the editing closely, the way the shots jump from the crew’s camera to Gryll’s personal camera, it’s clear that, while what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily staged, there’s some typical reality-show-style trickery going on. (Hey, Bear’s swimming down those rapids, but we just saw him talking to his camera and now the camera isn’t there!) I don’t mean this as a criticism, either; this stuff is what makes the show work. But while in other shows, these kinds of shots stick out like a sore thumb, I’m nearly always swept away (no pun intended) by the show. Again, why?

After watching four episodes, I think I figured it out — the show, while maintaining a documentary feel, uses the time-tested three-act structure. After Grylls is dropped into the wilderness, he’s faced with a series of obstacles to overcome, and they steadily build to a climax. Each obstacle is discrete, with a clear set-up of the problem and a clear resolution. While it’s a given that, with no food, he’s very hungry, this only comes into play during the “scene” where he tries to find something to eat. More often than not, there’s some kind of reversal, especially between “acts” two and three. In the Mount Kilauea episode, in the first act, he crosses a lava field, to make it to, in act two, a rainforest that he thinks will lead him to the shore, only to discover, at the beginning of act three, that he has another lava field to cross, only this one is jagged like glass. In the Sierra Nevada episode, he happens across some wild horses, and actually tries to snag one with a rope made from a vine. Of course, this fails, but a story wouldn’t be a story without some setbacks. In two of the four I’ve seen, the last obstacle is a body of water between him and some kind of indicator of civilization — a house or a road. I mean, that’s basic visual storytelling right there.

This use of three-act structure in a documentary form isn’t completely unheard of. While we usually think of documentaries as something unmediated, an account of stuff that “just happens” (despite all the work that goes into getting the shots and editing them together) I can think of two documentaries that brazenly adopt the three-act structure to great returns: Capturing the Friedmans and The Times of Harvey Milk. Is the use of the three-act structure “cheating”? Is placing all the events of your documentary in such of way that rising action and tension are created — is that manipulative? I’m not sure. Yeah, Frederick Wiseman wouldn’t approve, but it’s hard to dismiss the power it creates.

All in all, it’s a great show, but if it makes me think anything, it’s: goddamn, I wish I’d seen the Moab Desert and Mount Kilauea episodes before I started writing the novella of Little Black Stray. The drama of it is just right there for the taking. I might even finished the stupid thing by now.

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Jan 22, 2007

Look Ma, I'm Blogging posted by kza

Sorry ‘bout the lack of updates, folks — we be busy. But that’s the great thing about blogs — why bother to write something original when you can just link to something else?

Check out some really great posts by screenwriter John August, at his blog:

How To Write A Scene


Scribble version, final version

(Admittedly, these are, like, weeks old, but good info and advice never goes out of date.)

I’ll see if I can scare up a conversation about these posts with Burley.

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Oct 25, 2006

Get Real posted by Martin

Both Shockah and I use 37 Signals products, and found their book Getting Real inspirational. They just released the complete book for free on the web, and in addition to the original PDF version, you can now buy a printed copy.

The focus is software design, but a lot of their advice translates to writing as well.

Here’s the HTML version for all to read.

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Oct 09, 2006

Re: [9] Round 12, Part Two [La Commune Planet v. The Scabs] posted by kza

I think you’re right. It is closer to suspense, and possibly does border on horror. But, then the questions are raised, what is the suspenseful situation, and what is horrible about it? I see it more as dramatic, but then the thing is less formed and more amorphous in my head. We’ll work on that. I’m sure we can come to terms over this. So long as coming to terms means doing exactly what I want.

It’s funny — as I’ve been working on my latest character bios, I’ve made the switch: I can see La Commune Planet as a comedy and The Scabs as a drama. The key for me on the latter was to forget about the robots and look more deeply into the human character — not to put too fine a point on it, but what’s his angst? Maybe it has to do with the robots, but maybe it doesn’t. The more I can think of this guy as the subject of a drama, the more I can take the situation/story seriously as a drama. (It’s tough, admittedly — the situation just sounds more comedic than dramatic to me, but I think I can do it.) I don’t know if that quite dovetails with your approach, but I don’t think it’s contradictory, either. If that makes any sense.

To me, that’s the heart of collaboration, and my segue into mentioning that I’m working on a few posts about collaboration and how we work, which I think is kind of interesting.

How’s that coming, btw? I’d like to read that. I might learn something :-P

I didn’t sign up for this. Well, yeah, I signed up, but not for this. I was the middle manager of a Stuckey’s Fun Station, for Buddy’s sake. I haven’t gone through the training program for running a pleasure port. You know the time and effort it takes to keep one of these things running, let alone smoothly? And one of the size of Chanel #5? Of course you don’t, few people do. Hell, I wouldn’t even know myself if it wasn’t for Wes. That bastard.

Wes called me a month ago. We came up the ranks together, but Wes was always a top dog — a little smarter, a little smoother, a little luckier. He graduated the head of his class, and was pursued by everyone. It was a no-brainer; he immediately signed up with FritoGoogle2 and got the pick of assignments. I was about twentieth or so, and only McExxon had any interest whatsoever. That’s okay; I was only pushed into this by my parents and I just wanted to skim by, without any need to put in effort. Clock in, clock out, clock dollars, spend, repeat.

And that’s how life was for a long while. It was good. And then like I said, Wes called. I hadn’t heard a peep from him since graduation, yet here he was ringing me up out of the blue. But when the top dog calls, you answer. He tells me he’s running Chanel #5, recently promoted, would I be interested in heading up Housewares & Domination?

Well, no, not really. What do I know about housewares? And I didn’t need the money. Money meant responsibility, and at the Stuckey’s, I just fill out paperwork all day, and eat at the buffet for lunch. Why change that? But Wes was persistent, so I flew over there to give the place a once over. Let him think I was interested, let him think the FritoGoogle2 charm still worked.

The place was slick, I’ll give him that. A tight ship. The employees were well-trained and well-behaved. I saw this one big fat guy come out of a room, totally naked except for a Mickey Mouse hat, and he started ripping into one of the hostesses about this and that, how the oils weren’t the right temperature and the straps didn’t chafe the right way. And this girl was just totally red star. Dude was back in his room doing whatever he was doing within a minute, smile on his face like he got what he wanted, and I’m not even sure he did. And she was like it was no big thing, totally expressionless.

So then Wes lays out the offer, and I’ll admit, it’s a good one. But I went in with a mantra — “Thanks, but no thanks” — and kept it going through the entire tour. Thanks but no thanks. You pulled this shit all through school, Wes, this sweet talk, but we’re not in school anymore. Thanks but no thanks. So he wants my answer, and I open my mouth, and in my head I see the girl, the one with the expressionless face, and I hear myself say, “Sure thing” and my heart sinks. Bastard.

So then I’m in charge of Housewares & Domination at the biggest pleasure port in the system, and the girl, Gertrude, is my employee. What was I thinking? There are rules in place — I can’t even shake her hand. She and the others report to me every day, and every day I’m greeted by the same lack of expression. It’s a mask that I want to rip off her face and It kills me.

But I can’t worry about that now. Wes and the other department heads left for a two-day conference, leaving me in charge. Shouldn’t have been a big deal — the place can kind of run itself for awhile, even with no head, and they’d be back soon enough. Then, six hours after they left, something happened. Asceticists bombed the New Los Angeles International/Interstellar Teleport. Chanel #5 was cut off from Earth and all the other stations. It’d take a decade to fly to the nearest one, the rest of your life to get back to the planet. The reality of it hasn’t fully hit everyone, but already I can hear the murmurs: We’re alone. It might be a long, long time before anyone comes for us. Why are we working for this idiot, again?

Comments (0) — Category: inspiration

Sep 24, 2006

Re: [8] Round 12, Part Two [La Commune Planet v. The Scabs] posted by Martin

…well, you’ve just birthed a whole new genre. Congratulations! What are you going to name it? :-)

I was thinking Laura Mae might be a nice name…

I think you’re right. It is closer to suspense, and possibly does border on horror. But, then the questions are raised, what is the suspenseful situation, and what is horrible about it? I see it more as dramatic, but then the thing is less formed and more amorphous in my head. We’ll work on that. I’m sure we can come to terms over this. So long as coming to terms means doing exactly what I want.

I kid. This story is one I feel that’s worth fighting for, and to me that means it’s one worth listening to your critiques of, and accepting your ideas for, and forming it into something stronger than just my vision through collaboration. To me, that’s the heart of collaboration, and my segue into mentioning that I’m working on a few posts about collaboration and how we work, which I think is kind of interesting.

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Sep 24, 2006

McKee posted by Martin

“Hollywood is currently very much into story structure. Books, treatments and scripts are analyzed by readers in terms of plot points — points where the plot turns. Are there enough? Are they in the right place? Other important buzz words, if you’re planning to pitch, are backstory, inciting incident, progressive complications, setups and payoffs, subtext. These are courtesy of Robert McKee’s screenwriting seminar. Everyone, it seems, in the business who can’t write has taken McKee’s course to figure out what people who can write should be doing. McKee has never written a screenplay that anyone will actually produce. Back in 1988 he charged $600 for a weekend seminar, $350 of one of his staff to produce a reader’s report, $1,000 for a personal consultation on your script. So he makes quite a good living just for sounding off. There are lots of cute and ambitious young women in the audience, so presumably he gets laid a lot. And that, by almost everyone’s standards, is a pretty good definition of success.”

1993 Footnote in American Hero, by Larry Beinhart (the novel that the movie Wag the Dog was based on).

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Sep 22, 2006

Clarke's Three Laws posted by Martin

Today I found myself quoting Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It’s a very well known quote, of course, used throughout science fiction and media.

But in referencing it online, I was reminded that it was actually one of Clarke’s Three Laws of prediction. Specifically, number three. The first two are good to think about in reference to the stories on the table now, where I think they can inform us:

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. 2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Read more at Wikipedia.

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Aug 15, 2006

The Subtext of the World posted by kza

In his book, The Culture Code, Clotaire Rapaille tells us that things and concepts, such as cheese, alcohol, love, and America, have a hidden code word that reveals their true meaning.

By subjecting a group of people to a series of increasingly personal interviews (usually at the behest of corporations trying to sell something), he can, he claims, find the word or phrase that serves as a metaphor that communicates something about the culture. For Rapaille, the world is full of subtext, and through careful observation, critical thinking, and copious research, that subtext can be revealed and dealt with consciously.

While quite a few of Rapaille’s code words are a bit obvious and uninteresting (the Germans see Americans as cowboys!), a few border on poetry — the American code word for alcohol is “gun”, and the French code word for America is “space travelers”. And of course, the same word has completely different meanings, depending on the culture. For example, in France, the code for cheese is “life” (their cheese is alive, it’s kept room temperature, etc.), while the code for cheese in America is “death” (ours are kept refrigerated, like, as Rapaille says, in a morgue).

Clearly this is more art than science, assuming you don’t think it’s a bunch of phony-baloney to begin with. It doesn’t help that Rapaille only provides a few quotes to demonstrate his research — presumably, each code word involves hundreds of hours of interviews and other work, but we only see a tiny sample of that, and thus his insights seem easy and unearned.

Still, my brief overview doesn’t do justice to Rapaille’s book — his explanations and examinations of the various code words are incredibly entertaining, even as bullshit detectors occasionally go off. Read it and decide for yourself. (Preferably, check it out from the library — it’s one of those books, like The Tipping Point, you can read in a day.)

But let’s tie this in with our ostensible subject, screenwriting and movies. As I read the book, I tried to guess the code for each word that came up. Although I was close on some, I only nailed one, which, as I was drawing upon my own biases, gave credibility to Rapaille’s ideas. The word was “seduction”. Any guesses on its American code word?


The American code word for “seduction” is “manipulation”. Americans see seduction as something inherently dishonest, manipulating someone’s perception of you — and hence, their feelings — as opposed to being “truthful” and “authentic”. This, by the way, is completely different from the French code word (which I don’t remember, unfortunately), which posited it as something more like performance — it’s not about hiding, but about presenting oneself as is.

Does that jibe with you? It does for me. And it explains certain American genres. How many noirs have we seen where the protagonist is seduced into murdering someone or something equally foolish? (A: Likely all of them.) Hell, if the code word for seduction is manipulation, I’d say that the code word for noir is seduction. They’re so intertwined as to be inseparable. And have you ever seen a romantic comedy that involved intentional seduction? I can’t think of one off-hand. Instead of seduction, we get the “meet cute” — a moment when the young man and the young woman first meet that reveals their inherent attractive qualities to each other. While there may be some kind of misunderstanding present at the meeting (perhaps over their social class or some kind of role), there is never any dishonesty about their personalities — what they see at that first meeting is what they get.

Ultimately, though, whether or not Rapaille is correct about the various cultural biases he writes about is not that interesting to me. What is interesting about it is how, as a screenwriter, it provides me with a different way of thinking about subtext.

Subtext, of course, is what is meant but not overtly said. In screenplays, it usually refers to dialogue. (In fact, Grymz and I were discussing this the other day. We’ve noticed that, too often, we use subtext not only in the dialogue, but also in the action text as well — meaning, rather than coming out and saying something, like “The tower is surrounded by scientists”, we’ll say “The tower is surrounded by men in white coats”. I can’t speak for Grymz, but I know I end up doing this because it was drilled into me that screenplays should only contain what can be filmed, and over the years I’ve twisted this into meaning that everything should be described by what is literally seen, not what it is. This kinda deserves its own post, so I’ll end this anecdote with our new Spitball! slogan: Subtext In Dialogue, Not Action!)

Anyway, subtext is about dialogue. What did he really mean when he said, “I’m so glad you’re here”? What did she really mean when she said, “Oh, I don’t mind, really”? And so on. But Rapaille’s book sparked the idea that there can be more to subtext than just dialogue. People, objects, ideas, even stories can have a hidden meaning. (It should be noted that Rapaille gets his research not just by interviewing people, but having them talk about their memories — stories — about their past associations with the word in question.) This strikes me as a powerful tool in the screenwriting process, particularly during rewriting. If a scene is flat, it’s likely there is some kind of conflict missing. But conflict delivered into the script from on high is always a poor choice — it needs to come from somewhere, preferably the characters. But if it just isn’t working, why not look deeper into the characters, past their wants and needs and surface characteristics, and into the code word that holds them together?

Ask yourself: What is the code word for your story or screenplay you’re working on? What is the code word for your protagonist? Your antagonist? What is the code word for the various places or important props in the story? Do the various code words have any commonality? If so, what is it? If not, does it work as is, or does it reveal the story as being scattershot or unfocused?

I haven’t yet fully explored the ramifications of using this tool, but it seems promising. As the Spitball! Tourney of Story Ideas continues, you will likely see me bring some of these ideas to the table. Don’t know if any of it will work, but them’s the breaks.

(Confidential to Grymz: You know our Italian character, from that one script? If The Culture Code is correct, then, as an Italian, he is, as Rapaille would say, off-code. That is, he doesn’t quite share the attitudes and biases that might be expected of an Italian. In fact, he seems to be — surprise, surprise — more American than Italian. I’m not saying this character should change to dovetail with some kind of stereotype — characters are individuals, after all (what an American thing to say!) — but that simply it might be something to be aware of.)

Comments (0) — Category: inspiration

Aug 09, 2006

Escape Pod posted by Martin

Who the heck doesn’t want good sci-fi stories read to them? I’m not raising my hand, that’s for sure.

I’ve been involved lately in a series of long drives from Seattle to Coeur d’Alene, ID (about five hours each way) and our constant companion along the way have been CD’s I burned from stories posted on Escape Pod, the best sci-fi podcast out there.

The stories are shortish, plot driven and “fun” (up to the definition of the editor, but so far his fun is pretty close to my fun too). Better yet, he pays his writers. Best of all, he released the whole shebang under a Creative Commons license.

When the day is long, posts to our blogs are short and inspiration is spread thin, nothing gets the mind crackin’ like a good story. Go listen to a few today.

Comments (0) — Category: inspiration

May 15, 2006

Note to self: remember the sounds posted by Martin

There was an amazing bit on NPR’s Morning Edition earlier today about some of the sounds in the dense neighborhoods surrounding the Forbidden City in Bejing. I think it’s worth a listen for the wild and varied things you hear.

I was thinking about those sounds, which stopped me dead in my tracks, and how as writers we need to shape the world of the characters. Especially in movies sound is important and omnipresent. Don’t forget to put them into worlds with noises that can confuse, startle and interact with them. Sound can be character as much as visual. In official news:

Burley, you said you had some ideas about this you wanted to go over? Cuz I’m ready to jump in with character bios.

Go man go! I’m ready too.

Comments (0) — Category: inspiration

May 10, 2006

Inspiration in a lens posted by Martin

Inspiration: I take it anywhere I can get it, although as we’ve discussed before, our problem is not so much ideas but the time to express them. Maybe that’s the basis of our philosophy that the real work is the execution. I’ll bet there are diligent writers for whom the idea part is the hardest.

If you’re one of them you might find inspiration at Big Happy Fun House, one of my favorite blogs. It’s only vintage photos—new ones every day, cherry picked and edited by a guy with a great eye.

His shadows series was particularly good, I thought.

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Apr 28, 2006

Trickster Raven Deserves a Movie posted by Martin

Northwest Coast Indians have an amazing visual art tradition—one of the most developed of any indigenous peoples in the world. Cultures like the Haida in British Columbia have an astounding history of a complex visual language. Bill Reid, the most famous Haida artist—and possibly the most famous native artist—of the 20th century said this:

Art can never be understood, but can only be seen as a kind of magic, the most profound and mysterious of all human activities. Within that magic, one of the deepest mysteries is the art of the Northwest Coast — a unique expression of an illiterate people, resembling no other art form except perhaps the most sophisticated calligraphy.

But more than a calligraphy (which, it seems references the symbology employed in his and other Haida work), the masks, carvings and work of the North Coast Indians are a full language in of themselves, acting as visual reminders for the legends and stories handed down.

The first time I saw Reid’s astonishing Spirit of Haida Gwaii at the Vancouver airport, I could swear it was moving in front of me. It’s practically alive with motion. You can sit and just watch it, which I’ve had the pleasure of doing a few times. You can imagine it alive.

So here we have a culture, long in story and rich in visuals. Why no Indian mythology movie? I would see it set long before Europeans. Instead we have a story of a man, maybe—and let’s say that he is confronted with the creation stories. He’s confronted with Raven, but Raven is created in CG, and appears as a moving, breathing Reid sculpture. His dreams or visions are alive to him. Give him this world to run around in, a quest to complete, and throw in some views of authentic life on the North Coast before the white people came in, and you’ve got a compelling film. I’d pay to see it in a heartbeat.

It seems an obvious thing to me, but maybe that’s just showing my own naivet�. Would this work? Is there any reason it couldn’t? Think of the recent slate of visual arresting films coming out of China based on Chinese mythology and history (I’m still waiting for the Zheng He movie, but I won’t hold my breath). Wouldn’t one in the same spirit about the Northwest Coast Indians be just as cool?

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Apr 27, 2006

Re: Wednesdays with Cranky posted by Martin

Ironically (in light of my post last night), today in the Stranger, Brendan Kiley took local theater critics to task.

Tuesdays with Morrie is pap and the critics know it… But instead of indicting the play, the critics indict themselves. Why is this play tying them into knots?

I’m no reviewer or critic, and certainly not one of the ones he’s talking about, but I couldn’t help laugh when I read that. I did exactly what he said.

Although, my point ended up being more about the elitism of many critics, his is really about the nature of the play and why it incites such responses.

Still, it’s a good point to make—I think I tempered my harshness because of my interest in not being an asshole critic, but strove instead to let people be who they are and make their own choices in what to like and what not to. That said, I should really just get with it and remember that my opinion will likely mean little to anybody, and those that might be insulted by it will: 1) not likely read this blog, and 2) it’s goddamned egotistical of me to assume that I’m influencing anybody.

In the end, though, I guess I strive to at least be entertaining in my wrath—succeed or not. I’ll name my next review The Punches Less Pulled. Oh, and just for the record: we were season ticket holders. Morrie was the last show of the season.

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Apr 26, 2006

Wednesdays with Cranky posted by Martin

Let’s just make it bitch night in general around here. I just got back from seeing the Seattle Rep staging of Tuesdays with Morrie. The acting was fine, the staging was impressive, the story just interesting enough. I spent the hours it was unfolding in front of me trying to figure out exactly how they were moving all the props around. Occasionally I’d remember there were people on stage too.

They say that movies are about emotions, books are about ideas, and plays are about conversations. So, here we have a conversation of aphorisms between a wayward student who is unhappy (but here’s the rub: he doesn’t know it yet) with his successful career and new bride, and a happy nub of a man who is all charm and joi d’vivre—oh, the irony, she is a cruel mistress—for this man who loves life is dying.

Let’s watch him die, shall we? Gather around, ye in the expensive seats, and ye in the cheap sets—you shall all witness together. Did you remember your hankies ladies? The darkened room will be lifted by the sniffing of many noses—anonymous people shedding bodily fluids in amazingly close proximity—while on stage this man—a man who was a sociology professor for 30 some years, who published three books, who taught some of the Yippies before they got radical we are told, who influenced thousands of students over many years—this man seemingly quotes chicken-soup-for-the-soul for his student who — maybe he never watched Hallmark theater? — has never heard anything so profound as “Love always wins.”

Am I a total asshole for even approaching it so cynically? I mean, here’s a book that has moved millions of people, and tonight all of our friends that we went with were incredibly touched.

And now here’s the part where I talk about the movie Crash. I liked it. More than I liked this play. I know that I’ve just committed total hipster suicide, but just in case any of you are thinking there’s hope, I’m coming out completely un-ironically. I didn’t like Crash the same way I’m supposed to remember liking Night Rider (or so the Family Guy keeps reminding me, anyway), I just accept it. Why? I mean, this movie isn’t worth debating to many people I know, but I just didn’t think it was all that bad. I didn’t think it deserved best picture, but you know what? It moved a lot of people who credit the film with making them think about racism. That’s not the reason I like it, but that’s not a bad reason to like it—if it honestly moved you.

And here’s where I talk about media effects. You know, how media desensitizes us, children exposed to it for long times are more prone to do bad things, etc. etc. I had this conversation recently with somebody (hey D!), and what it always boils down to is: “I like playing violent video games and watching some violent movies and television shows and I’ve never been in a fight in my life,” and the other person says something like “Yes, but you’re….” smart, or thoughtful, or well-balanced, or not clinically insane or something—but implicit in the argument is this idea that I’m okay, but the other people that the media effects are not, and we know they’re not because research shows that media effects people in abstract ways that psychologists extrapolate from as metrics for real world violence, which everybody confesses they don’t fully understand or know how to predict. I think it’s an elitist attitude, however well-intentioned. It essentially puts you in the position of being able to save humanity from some evil, but the humanity you’re saving is unable to save themselves. The laws we pass are never for ourselves, they’re for the other jerks.

Now—to be fair to the conversation I was having, her argument was much more nuanced before I pigeoned it into this tiny hole for my own manipulative purposes, but my attitude towards bashing Crash or bashing Morrie is essentially the same argument: I think it’s elitist. What’s the harm in letting people make their own decisions about what they like and don’t like. Where the hell do I get off being so cynical and egotistical about my privileged opinion on the thing?

Which is why I asked: am I a total asshole for even approaching it so cynically? The answer? Hell, I don’t know. I can only say what I would have wanted.

Which is: My Dying with Andre. Instead of pitting a life that is slowing down against a life that is speeding up and having them grate against each other, present us with threads of this man’s research. You know: engaging ideas. Here—off the top of my head: I just finished a great book by Seth Lloyd called Programming the Universe, that talks about the amazing realities of quantum physics in relation to computation. I’ll bet if Lloyd is dying in bed and has students come to him, that what they speak of will be viewed through the prisms of their education and learning. Here’s what Lloyd might say, in my fantasy play of Tuesdays and Not Tuesdays with Seth:

Lloyd (on death bed, weakly): I remember today when I first really understood the amazing notion that a particle could be in two places at the same time, until measured—at which time, the particle must decide where to be. We’re all like that particle.

Student (checking watch): I don’t understand, coach. I can’t be here and at my expensive, privileged job at the same time. I’m sacrificing for you because I thought that’s what you wanted.

Lloyd: But the particle only chooses when being monitored. Where would you be if you weren’t being monitored? What’s your choice if I wasn’t watching?

Student (Cries, grab hands of his teacher): Here coach. I choose to be here because you teach me so much about life. I want to learn. Please don’t die.

As it is, Morrie could have been Patch Adams, or Father McClusky who saved the parish, or Fireman Pete who taught us the lesson of giving back to the community, or motivational speaker Tony Snow, now dodging reporter’s questions while providing a well-marketed message that ignores reality on a screen near you….I mean, there was nothing of his career in there. To believe the play (and, maybe the book—which I have not read), Morrie only taught because he liked being around people. Not because, you know, he was particularly interested in the topic he received his PhD in.

But, maybe this is not moving to me because of going through my own father’s death, which I confess moved me more than watching a stranger pretend to die playing another stranger who did die. And maybe I feel that this play should have been informed more by Morrie’s career because my own father’s death was very informed by his own career as a minister. But just today I was tremendously moved reading Jeffrey Zeldman talk about his mother’s death. Much more than by the play. Zeldman was more honest, more vivid than this play, and not only did it not try to manipulate me, but he published it for free and didn’t make it into a made-for-tv-movie and play after selling millions, so I can trust that his heart is truly in his words.

Comments (0) — Category: inspiration

Apr 25, 2006

Getting Real posted by Martin

Both Shockah and I have been quite inspired by reading the book by 37 Signals titled Getting Real. It’s about designing web applications, but really is good general advice as well for creatives and creative pursuits. This quote, from CD Baby founder Derek Sivers, particularly struck me, especially considering that the sentiment is similar to our Statement of Purpose:

Be An Executioner

It�s so funny when I hear people being so protective of ideas. (People who want
me to sign an nda to tell me the simplest idea.)

To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier.
Execution is worth millions.


Awful idea = -1
Weak idea = 1
So-so idea = 5
Good idea = 10
Great idea = 15
Brilliant idea = 20

No execution = $1
Weak execution = $1000
So-so execution = $10,000
Good execution = $100,000
Great execution = $1,000,000
Brilliant execution = $10,000,000

To make a business, you need to multiply the two.

The most brilliant idea, with no execution, is worth $20. The most brilliant idea
takes great execution to be worth $20,000,000.

That�s why I don�t want to hear people�s ideas. I�m not interested until I see
their execution.

-Derek Sivers, president and programmer, CD Baby and HostBaby

I think it’s also worth noting that Derek was a musician who was fed up with the current distribution systems, so created his own—and it totally kicks ass as a marketplace for indy musicians.

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Apr 16, 2006

Could 1024 Japanese Schoolchildren Be Wrong? posted by Martin

I would guess not:

Click for a larger view and check out the little uniforms!

Make your own at

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Jan 23, 2006

Reading List: The Real Prison Planet posted by Martin

We make jokes of the ethical and philosophical implications of a prison planet, but this today on Morning Edition I heard Renee Montagne interview author John Tayman (audio of program available at link) about his book “The Colony” in which he describes the real history of lepers on the Hawaiian Islands, and how they were banished to Molokai during the 19th Century.

It also raises the issues of plot that I hadn’t thought about: in this case, lepers who wanted to avoid banishment would act out, murdering doctors, or hiding somehow. If they were caught, they were sent to Molokai where they were banished on a volcanic beach with a hoe and told to make a life of it. This makes me think of our screenplay with a more human aspect—plot ideas about the person being banished, and the fear that this must strike. We are, after all, social animals. What’s a stronger punishment than banishment? Isn’t that essentially what prison’s are?

For these new arrivals on leper Molokai, previous colonists would often work to scare and intimidate them. The buying and trading of women and children were common. Interestingly, though, the colony grew into a very tight cooperative community, and when it was broken up, some chose to stay behind and continue to live there.

I’m putting this one on my reading list—it will likely be most informative to our cause. Depending, of course, on what plot we decide.

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Jan 16, 2006

Brief Moment of Inspiration posted by Martin

I was flipping through an online book on the programming language Python, and came across this great quote. It may be about computer programming, but it applies to writing, plots and other logics:

There are two ways of constructing a software design: one way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies; the other is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies.
C. A. R. Hoar

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Jan 12, 2006

Reading List: Alfred Bester posted by kza

“Reading List” is a new feature I just made up because I need to get my Spitball! quota out of the way. Whether or not it’s a continuing feature is up to time and tide. Also, the link to the forum will take you to the “Books” section of the forum, because, well, that makes sense.

Alfred Bester (1913 - 1987) was a SF writer, best known for two seminal novels, The Demolished Man and The Stars, My Destination. Check out the Wikipedia entry for more info cuz the Shockah aint about no biographical sketches. Instead, Reading List is about how these books might inform The Screenplay.

The Demolished Man takes place in a world where the police force is made up mainly of telepaths, and they’re powerful enough that they can tell when someone’s going to commit a crime, and can stop them before they do it. (Yeah, it’s kinda like Minority Report but with telepathy instead of precognition.) Anyway, the plot is about a billionaire businessman who decides to murder his closest rival, and the steps he takes to get away with it and not get caught by the lead telepathic detective. (Supposedly the guy who did Chopper was going to do a film version; I don’t know what happened to it, but I saw it in my head with Michael Douglas and Denzel Washington in the leads. Of course, that would be hideous typecasting.)

The Stars, My Destination is about Gully Foyle, a grunt on a spaceship who survives the destruction of the ship when everyone else dies, and vows revenge on the passing spaceship that neglects to pick him up. Like everyone says, it’s basically a riff on The Count of Monte Cristo, as this illiterate, violent man remakes himself into faux-royalty in order to get closer to his object of revenge. (It’d be perfect for Ving Rhames or that guy who played Kingpin in Daredevil. Or even the Rock, come to think of it. But not Vin; he’s played out. Sorry, Vin.) Oh, did I mention that, along the way, he ends up on a Prison Planet?

Well, I don’t recall the whole planet being a prison, but it’s an interesting idea for one: it’s a huge cavern network without any lights whatsoever, so the prisoners are functionally blind. And naked, as well. (Wait, maybe that’s why Vin would’t be such a great choice — too much like that Riddick guy.) I don’t remember how he gets out (I remember he has help from a woman prisoner — it’s coed), but that’s kinda what both these Bester books are like — impossible situations that could only exist in their SF worlds, and the remarkably clever solutions the protagonists devise to solve them. (How do you keep a telepath from learning you want to murder someone? Does “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” mean anything to you?)

So now I’m realizing that it’s pretty damn hard to talk about these books in any detail without spoiling them, and they’re too good to spoil. One thing, tho, that might be worth stealing being inspired by: Bester’s visual imagination. Well, thing is, I don’t remember a whole lot of expository description in his books, but I’m left with a definite look in my head. It’s kinda Gilliamish, like maybe if Gilliam did Dune. Slightly comic-booky, with vibrant primary colors and basic geometric shapes — ah! I just realized the look it makes me think of: Moebius. Anyway, for the time being, that’s the visual sensibility I think I’ll be bringing to Prison Planet. No doubt it will evolve into something else, but that’s what I’m starting with. Oh, another thing possibly worth stealing borrowing: The style of his names. Some examples: Gully Foyle. @kins. Peter Y’ang-Yeovil. Presteign of Presteign. Robin Wednesbury. Keno Quizzard. It’s like a cross between Dickens and Vonnegut.

Anyway, that’s my Public Service Reading Announcement for the day, from a guy who reads like maybe five books a year. Look for my next Reading List installment in about a month — it’ll probably be Alistair Horne’s book about the Paris Commune. That could provide a lot of interesting inspiration!

Comments (0) — Category: books

Jan 10, 2006

The Suggestive Title Inn posted by Martin

Picture of Motel Oral

Oh please, oh please, Mr. Shockah—can we write a scene that takes place here? (found on Motel Hell)

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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.