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Sep 27, 2009

Dreams and Reaching Them posted by Martin


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

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

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

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

Comments (0) — Category: writing

Apr 19, 2009

How We Collaborate on a Screenplay posted by Martin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration by Christine Marie Larsen

Comments (2) — Category: writing

Mar 27, 2009

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration by Christine Marie Larsen

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

Comments (0) — Category: writing

Mar 18, 2009

A Place to do Your Thing posted by Martin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jun 26, 2007

Shockah's Time to Die Pitch: 1.0 posted by kza

Here’s my first try, and I’ve already failed, by the standards of the challenge: I’m pretty sure it’s too long, and there’s no blank meets blank statement. That’s what iterations are fer.

It also may seem strange, at first glance, that there’s no new information about the story. But again, that’s not what a pitch is. A pitch is an attempt to sell the idea of the story to someone who knows nothing about it. Or put it more bluntly, a pitch is an attempt to sell the sizzle, not the steak. It is not the place to tell the story — it’s simply the means to get your hook into someone so that they’ll want to read the story themselves (i.e., the screenplay).

Here’s my pitch:

What if death had a cure? What if there was a serum that you could inject into someone and, as long as they weren’t dead for more than an hour, they could come back to life, good as new? You could be with the one you love forever. September Rose has a love like that. He proposed to her on the moon, and they honeymooned aboard a personal starship, waking up each morning, literally amongst the stars.

But her husband has a job that keeps him away half the year: he works at a high-security prison on a desolate asteroid. Since no one can really die, the lifers here are more like forevers, and the stress of their existence is a simmering pot, always threatening to blow.

And then, the day September Rose arrives to pick her husband up, it does. And in the riot, he’s killed by one of the inmates. If his body is recovered, he can be revived… but the warden tells her: sorry, but I’m not sending in any more men, when the riot will burn itself out. My condolences.

Hell no. She escapes from the guards, arms herself, and ventures into the chaos of the rioting wing to get her husband’s body back and revive him within an hour. Little does she know that the body is being held by the man who killed him — the most dangerous murderer there. And he’s going to use the body as his ticket out of there.

Time to Die’s gonna be a tough one to pitch, I think, because I feel like so much real estate needs to be devoted to setting up the conflict that comes within the first ten minutes or so. To me, this feels even more like a tease than most pitches.

Then again, the pitchee — catcher? — doesn’t know that this is only the first ten or twenty minutes. But then again then again, it seems like a selling point that this is only the tip of the iceberg — that there’s more. How to get that across?

Comments (0) — Category: communications

Jun 26, 2007

Re [2]: Pitch by Example posted by kza

One thing he did well is make the reader / viewer complicit in the story. He says:

We�re gonna send him down to South America�

I think it could be a tricky strategy to do that, but it seems to have worked for him.

I don’t think that’s exactly what he’s doing here — it’s more like he’s speaking in the voice of Charlie’s church. It’s very difficult to translate into text — the use of quotations would make it more confusing — but I think it’s clear when you hear it.

Comments (0) — Category: communications

Jun 25, 2007

Re: Pitch by Example posted by Martin

I think that pitch is excellent. I think it totally carries through to reading, but I’m curious how his voice and energy made it better in person. And if Carrie Fisher didn’t snark at him, it must have been amazing.

One thing he did well is make the reader / viewer complicit in the story. He says:

We’re gonna send him down to South America…

I think it could be a tricky strategy to do that, but it seems to have worked for him.

As Shockah knows, I’ve been working on pitches lately, trying to hone the craft of them. I’ll have one for Time To Die up soon.

Comments (0) — Category: communications

Jun 22, 2007

Pitch by Example posted by kza

Here’s the pitch I was talking about in my last post. The pitch is by Andrew Hunt, and he was given the logline, “A priest meets the woman of his dreams before he is to be ordained.” I’m curious to see what you think, Burley. (I’m assuming that you haven’t seen the show.) Does it work only as text? Or does it need the excellent delivery to really make it sing? (As judge Carrie Fisher remarked aftewards, “You inspire confidence by being so confident.”)

Here it is, pretty much verbatim:

Charlie Potts has been raised through the Catholic Church in Boston, Massachusetts. This guy is gonna be the next big bishop — hell, this guy might be the first American Pope. We’re gonna send him down to South America, have him work at a missionary before we ordain him. But there’s this one girl, her name is Alex and she’s a pilot. She flies in and brings in cargo and supplies for this missionary. And what happens is Charlie and Alex start to develop this relationship. She’s wild, she’s crazy, she’s everything that he’s not. She’s teaching him things like how to dance for the first time, how to take shots of tequilia. And finally it’s getting to the point where he’s falling in love with this woman. All of a sudden it starts raining. Raining for one day, two days, three days, four days — boom! A levee breaks. A flood comes in and just rips through this village, Alex and Charlie are trying to grab all the different people and get them to higher ground. And as they’re doing it, they get separated. Next day, stops raining, everything is calm. On the roof, he sees Alex, she’s passed out, or she’s dead. He’s looking up, saying, “I have never asked you for anything, but I’m asking you for one thing right now.” And finally she coughs up water, she’s alive. We’re now in Boston, Massachusetts. A huge church. And we see Charlie standing there, about ready to get ordained. But then we pull back to see that it’s actually a wedding. We’re out.

Total time (assuming nothing was edited out in the broadcast; it looked “whole” to me): 1 minute, 13 seconds. Word count: 263.

I’ll provide some commentary on this pitch later. Right now, I’m more interested in what you (and the readers) have to say.

Anyway, I gots to get working on me own pitch…

Comments (0) — Category: communications

Jun 21, 2007

RE: I challenge thee! posted by kza

Dude — it’s like you’re reading my mind. Like, trippy. I just picked up “Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read” from the library, for crying out loud.

I’ve been thinking about pitches for a couple weeks now, ever since the debut episode of On The Lot, that new reality show/director contest thingy. (Show’s crap, btw; it started off well, but they kept changing the format and, incredibly, skipping stuff — at the end of one episode, the contestants are given an hour to direct a one-page script, and then we never hear about it again. WTF?) Anyway, in the first episode, the contestants are given one of four loglines to build a one-minute pitch around, and after some remarkably embarrassing attempts, this one dude gets up and just throws one straight down the plate, 100 mph.

(See what I did there? I literalized the phrase “pitch”. Comedy gold!)

I have the episode saved so that I could transcribe his pitch — it really was terrific. And between that, and a book Burley and I talked about offline a few weeks back, “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” , I’ve become interested in the idea of simplicity, and how it applies to screenwriting. And the most direct way it applies is the pitch.

Burley and I haven’t really thought much about pitches, generally speaking. (Or if he has, he hasn’t been telling me.) I suspect that, for me at least, the main reason is a kind of artistic snobbery. Pitches are what those slick, know-nothing Hollywoof types do, right? It couldn’t have anything to do with art and film, could it?

Yet, I’m beginning to believe that they have everything to do with art and film. No, not every kind of film — pitches would seem kinda meaningless for a Brakhage piece, and maybe even certain David Lynch films. But that’s not what we’re trying to do here at Spitball!. I think the ideal here is for something that hits two targets that are rarely hit together: mainstream and smart. And in order to hit that first one, the pitch is absolutely necessary. Nearly every movie that’s considered mainstream (and I imagine quite a few that are considered smart) began life as a pitch. So we’ll begin there as well.

But what is a pitch, exactly?

A pitch is both an idea for a movie and the attempt to sell said movie — “sell” in this case meaning to persuade an audience that your idea is a good one. The pitch itself tells you just enough about the main character, what they want, what kind of obstacles they might face, and most importantly, why the hell you should care. This last one is key. Everything in the pitch is completely worthless if you can’t make the audience care about the main character. (Which is what makes the pitch so tricky — you don’t have time to go into detail about the protagonist’s dead dog. Time is running out! Press A! Press A!)

Note again that the pitch is just the idea for a movie — although the pitch might be based on a completed work, it will only communicate the bare essentials. It’s likely that the pitch will never detail the obstacles, or the name of the protagonist, or even how the story ends. (Note: our Time to Die pitches will include the ending.) It’s understood that the pitch will only bear a passing resemblance to the finished screenplay, in the same way a TV Guide entry only kinda looks like the real movie. There’s always going to be a sense of “yeah, but…” about the enterprise. That’s normal. Go with it.

In fact, I’m starting to think that a lot of “blank space”, so to speak, is a pitch’s secret weapon. Since a pitch is by definition just a sketch, there’s a lot of room for the listener to mentally inhabit the idea, either by imagining the rest herself, or just by enjoying the unresolved tension created by the idea. For example, I really love the idea of Fred Claus: Santa’s bitter older brother is forced to move to the North Pole. The contrast between the standard image of Saint Nick — jolly and goodhearted — with an older brother, who is probably an asshole (it’s Vince Vaughn!) — is just delicious. I have no idea if the actual movie will live up to these expectations it’s created in me, but that’s not the point — the point is to create the expectations in the first place.

(OT: Santa is gonna be played by Paul Giamatti!? Holy shit!)

Now, most pitches (barring the bad ones that go into too much detail) have blank space anyway. But I’m wondering: is there a way to, I don’t know, maximize the blank space payout? A way to create expectations, only, y’know, better? I don’t know, but it’s something I’m going to think about when writing the Time to Die pitch.

Comments (0) — Category: technique

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.

Comments (0) — Category: inspiration

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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.