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admin —  June 30, 2014

Taglines can be cool.

But how necessary are they?

A good one distills your core business objective as well as resonates a feeling for your audience. A bad one usually tries too hard or is too opaque leaving your audience dissatisfied or confused.

A tagline is not a throwaway saying or simply a cute phrase. It’s also not a mission statement or a long diatribe about how wonderful you are.

At its best, a tagline is a succinct advertisement for who you are. It’s uniquely you. That’s why it stands out. People will often remember your tagline before they remember your company. But that’s not necessarily bad. If your tagline reverberates in someone’s mind as they silently repeat the organic statement of your company’s personality, then you’ve already planted a seed that will grow with time. Usually in the short term.

Along with your company’s name, a tagline should be a summation of your character, why you’re here and in some way what you offer, whether subtly or directly. All in one line.

Most importantly creating a tagline (either through a writer, agency or in-house) may prove to be the best money (re:relatively inexpensive) you can spend on any kind of advertising. Taglines carry a shelf life that can last a long time (It’s the Real Thing, Have it Your Way, Just Do It…) and have a way of digging into the psyche of your audience as few things can.

So the next time you’re thinking of spending some ad dollars, think first about a tagline. Do you have one or do you need to reinvent the one you currently have? Coke went through four iterations from the early seventies with all those fresh faces singing, I’d like to Buy the World a Coke to Bill Cosby saying you can’t beat The Real Thing in the nineties.

A tagline can open up your business to a new audience. And it will mostly likely make your current clientele appreciate you even more. It’s a critical part of your brand, especially in today’s crowded advertising space.

But remember; short and sweet, defining the essence of who you are.

Oh, and you probably don’t want to leave home without it…

The Reality of Fiction

admin —  April 27, 2014

Fiction deals with imagination.

But that doesn’t mean the tale is not based in reality.

For me, and I think for most other writers, short stories or novels spring from a place of deep impression. By that I mean the germ of the idea and often times even the things that take place in a story, are often formed from real events in an author’s life. I believe that’s where the resonance comes from, the relatability. I believe it was Robert Frost who said, “No tears in the writer, no tears, in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” Fiction is not a documentary. But it is based on a reality that gives imaginative life it’s grit and breath.

I’m offering  a short story here as an example. This story, Kindred Spirits, an ode to my dog. Actually to two dogs I’ve owned. One growing up and one I just had to put to sleep this week after a very close and faithful companionship of fourteen years. Dogs have played an important role in my life and it seems like the hardest times I’ve had to endure have been with a furry faithful companion at my side.

My dog’s name was Sam and because he was so important to me, this is a small way of paying tribute to him.

Some of the circumstances in the story happened, some did not. But the emotion that flows from the story is very real.

KINDRED SPIRITS

A Voice in the Wilderness

admin —  April 1, 2014

She was older than my other college teachers, with a smoker’s cough, thick glasses and a cackle for a laugh. She also had an accent that suggested British or even Australian heritage.

Her name was Sheila Juba and I was in her playwriting class my sophomore year in college. I’d never taken a playwriting class before as I was an acting major but had also been writing stories and screenplays since I was in high school.

She was coming down the rows, passing out our first assignment which was an extended scene of dialogue between two characters. The setting, characters and theme was completely of our choosing. We just needed to try and have the characters engage each other and have a beginning, middle and end to the scene. I had chosen two older characters, something akin to Waiting For Godot, with one man gentle and sentimental while the other was irascible and tired of living. I’d had fun writing it. The scene came out fairly quickly and I turned it in, forgetting about it until this particular morning when Mrs. Juba began passing back our assignments.

She’d make an observation or dry comment as she passed the scenes back to us. As she approached me she met my eyes, holding my scene out in front of me. Her expression was serious and for a moment I though maybe I’d completely blown the assignment.

“Yours is quite a remarkable little scene, Mr. Kelly,” she said. “Splendidly done.”

I’m pretty sure my smile creased my face from ear to ear.

After class, I went to her desk and thanked her for her comments. She turned to me, eyeing me closely.

“Have you been writing long?”

Not really, I told her. “Just some short screenplays and a few stories.”

She nodded to herself and pointed at me with an unlit cigarette between two fingers.

“You need to keep writing, then. You’ve got some talent for it.”

I think I mumbled thank you. All the way home I felt a flush grow from my chest and cover my face, my ears even ringing a little. It was a feeling I’d never felt before. It was a feeling of confirmation of what I’d felt inside when the best writing came out of me…that the words were working…that they were good. But I never trusted those instincts. But now, for the first time, a woman who had been teaching writing for decades, was telling me that the joy I felt in creating characters and stories was right and good and I needed to acknowledge those feelings and keep writing.

It was something of a revelation to me. Mrs. Juba was the first writer/teacher to encourage me in such a way and I’ve always remembered her fondly for it. Grateful is more accurate.

There are a lot of negatives and high walls in the writing life. But the first time you hear a voice that says ‘well done,’ you never forget it. It’s like rocket fuel. . .and it carries you through many of those dissenting voices in the future to come.

Apprenticing

admin —  March 5, 2014

I started to write screenplays when I was in my twenties. During that time, I’d been working as a sound and lighting technician at The Oregon Shakespearean Festival. I’d gotten to know one of the actors, Wesley Bishop (terrific actor), as he was in two of the shows I worked on. I found out he was also a screenwriter, having sold a couple of scripts by that time, so I was especially keen to pick his brain.

One day before a show I nervously approached Wes to see if he had any screenplays I could look at so I could get a handle on the unique formatting. He good-naturedly said he’d be happy to lend me a couple and later that week I was looking at my first real live shooting scripts.

Fast forward a few years later and the key pounding on my old Smith-Corona Selectric had given way to a word processor. I’d published some stories and articles but was still toying with completing a full-length screenplay. I had an idea for some time that tumbled around in my head, festered and finally demanded to be written. Months later when I had a draft completed I called up Wes and asked him if he’d be willing to look at the script. He graciously said yes.

Proud that I’d fathered my first real screenplay, I thought Wes might actually be impressed by the story. I waited anxiously for his response.

He finally sent me back a couple pages of notes. He began by telling me he recognized how hard I’d worked on the script. He then wrote, saying something that drew me up short: I’d have to work even harder.

He then went through the script and gently but firmly showed me where I had fallen down. In quite a few places as it turned out.

It was a wake-up call, to be sure. Wes also said something I’ll never forget; that your first effort for producers has to be your best as you may only get one crack at it. Completing something, as wonderful as that might feel, doesn’t mean it’s any good. Your best efforts will take way more work and time than you think they will.

Malcom Gladwell is famous for saying you have to have devote 10,000 hours to a subject in order to be an expert in it. He also said something even more telling: “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.” Sage words.

Terry Rossio (co-screenwriter of Pirates of the Caribbean, Déjà Vu, Aladdin) said something to the effect that when he started writing screenplays he figured it would take him ten years to become good at it. He and his writing partner, Ted Elliott, slogged away a long time before they felt that had a script that they truly considered to be worthy of being a good screenplay.

And that’s the thing about writing. It really is rewriting. And writing. And writing. And writing some more. It’s a trade and a craft and an art. And you never stop trying to get better at it. You never stop trying to get the images in your heart and mind to be fully realized on the page. It’s usually never there and sometimes it’s not even close. But every once in a while it does get close. And that’s when the writing becomes joyful.

But it doesn’t come without apprenticeship. Over a period of time. Usually a long time.

So be patient, even though it’s hard sometimes. The work will pay off. But usually not as soon as you’d like it to. The writing will have its fruition in its own time. When it’s supposed to.

Take heart.

And write another draft.

Fiction & Truth

admin —  January 29, 2014

By definition, fiction is the telling of stories that spring from imagination and not fact. Non-fiction deals with facts, histories and realities as they have come to be known.

But what about truth?

Are facts true? Certainly. But what about the pang a father feels as he wraps the scarf tighter around his six year old daughter’s neck before she heads off across the lawn on a cold November day to the awaiting school bus? Even though we don’t have facts and figures of the father or daughter, is the wistfulness in his eyes as he watches her board the bus any less true?

What about George Washington? We know when he was born, when he died and we even have some speeches that sprang from his own quill. These are both facts and true. But what about the despair he felt as he walked amongst his troops on the banks of the Delaware River who huddled together in freezing weather, close to low fires, some with tatters for uniforms, some with literally no boots. We don’t know for sure that he felt despair as his men who were on the precipice of defeat, but it would still ring ’true’ if a fictionalized account, wouldn’t it?

Stephen King calls fiction the ‘truth inside the lie.’ It’s a good phrase because it’s accurate and it, uhm, rings true. Good fiction is wholly made up, but when it’s really humming, it’s transportive. And it can only do that if you believe what you’re reading. You allow your mind to accept the truth of the fiction. When people put a book down and exclaim ‘I don’t believe it!’ they’re speaking both literally and figuratively. They don’t buy the ‘truth’ that’s being laid out before them and they also don’t think the writer has pulled it off because it’s unbelievable.

I run up against this time and time again when I’m trying to create a landscape on paper that has weight, resonance and truth. Life, really. To give you an idea, here are some recent examples of things I’ve been working on…

…A creature found alive in the deep basin of the Amazon sends a famed herpetologist on an Ahab-like quest to confront a childhood nightmare as well as bring validity to a long dead cause…

…Eavesdropping on a conversation between CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien as ‘Tollers’ gently uses imagination AND fact to convince his friend, Jack, of the truth of the Gospel accounts…

…A famed bounty hunter in a small Texas town wrestles with both grief and the coming realization that a piece of his history is seeking vengeance…

…A waist gunner aboard of crippled B-17 is one of two surviving members of a doomed mission. He has a parachute and his wounded comrade, who is urging him to bail out, does not. Survival or companionship; keeping his life or giving it away for others. What to do…

All of these stories have pieces of facts based on their milieus but they’re all totally made up.

But I want them to be true. So the reader will feel the ‘skin’ of the story and nod in recognition, placing themselves in the story because they are want to be wrapped in a world that takes them away for a little while.

A real world that is both true and not so much.

And there’s the rub.

Adventures in Writing, Part III

admin —  December 12, 2013

We’ve talked about writing and pain before and certainly, writing is not all tortuous, or even simply a conduit for tears.

But when pain ushers in words it may very well be that the story that comes forth isn’t just meant for you. . .

In the early nineties I was going through a difficult time, coming to grips with a delayed grief reaction that had kind of blind-sided me and at first I didn’t realize what was happening. Grief is disorienting even when you know it’s hitting you. But when it crawls out of the sub-basement of your soul to lay hold of you it can be most disturbing.

So off and on for more than a year, I was dealing with anxiety attacks, depression and sadness that for the life of me I couldn’t figure out. Eventually, very slowly, a dawning crept in, guided in my estimation, by a gentle and loving Lord who knew that it was time for me to deal with some hard things. But He wasn’t going to let me go through it alone and He also wasn’t going to let me turn back from the pain because He knew something I didn’t; that healing would come by walking through it.

And so as I wrestled with these bombarding feelings of awakening grief, I found myself over the keyboard trying to pour forth my confusion, anger, melancholy and at times, terror. But underneath it all, like a whisper and with the barest of perceptions that something hopeful was actually happening to me, I began to write a story of a desperate man who had lost everything and was crying out to a God who was a forgotten part of his past. He’s ultimately rescued by two elderly woman who bring him help and the touch of fellow human beings. But he is also rescued from himself by One who knew Him better than he knew himself.

As it was with me. Oh, the dramatics of the story didn’t coincide with my own life. But the tangled inner landscape from which this man’s soul was crying out was very much like my own.

I wrote the story in one sitting, pouring out words and seeing everything as it was happening, the keyboard and world around me disappearing. I was tired and spent when I finished the first draft but also at a semblance of peace for the first time in a long while, which is why I thought I was given the story to write. It was only partly true.

The story, called ‘Fanfare,’ was published in a magazine with a beautiful painting to accompany it. My sister got a copy and gave it to her pastor to read, whom I knew. A few weeks later I received a note from Pastor Ted, telling me how the story had touched his weary heart and how desperately he needed to read that story at that time. It buoyed him, and in doing so, let him cast his gaze upward as opposed to inward where sometimes only confusion and unrest await.

I still have Pastor Ted’s handwritten note and every once in a while when the writing’s not working or I become too self-concerned, I pull it out and read it. It’s a good reminder that gifts that come to us freely sometimes offer another blessing for someone else along our path.

So be prepared to whisper thank you…as well as keeping an eye out to see who else may be touched through you.

Which, of course, is the biggest blessing of all.

 

Story As Healing

admin —  November 22, 2013

Have you ever read something simply as a means to carry you through pain?

Have you ever sought out a book, short story or essay to equalize the tumult that was going on inside you?

Have you ever come across a paragraph or a piece of dialogue that made you suck in your breath in a moment of sharp recognition. . .the air growing still because you understood, perhaps for the very first time, that you were not alone in your loneliness, anguish or despair?

So it is with words that wrap a blanket around our shoulders, giving us comfort as few things can.

I believe that stories can be healing. They have been from the very beginning.

Oh, I don’t mean to be simplistic and say reading a few pages of Scarlett riding up to Tara can alleviate years of abusive pain or deep agony from death, divorce or the hollowness that life can sometimes bring.

And yet…

I think about my own life and the waves that have sometimes crashed in. Next to the visceral knowledge of a caring Creator, the deep embrace and warm words of a cherished friend, I often pick up a book to lift me out of myself and into story. It does two things. It lifts me out of my myopic vision and at the same time helps me identify pathways or origins of pain sometimes hidden, letting clarity and relief come in.

I think of Pat Conroy’s novels, scarcely fictionalized epitaphs of his own life, that are jarring, horrifying, even. But they also bring a cleansing because the truth is laid out so lyrically, so inescapably. It must be dealt with. And we, the reader, journey along with his characters to deal with the onslaught and like them, find reconciliation and a brighter sun to lift our face up into.

There’s the other end of the spectrum where there are barely a couple hundred words to a story while still giving a momentous impact. I’m thinking of Shel Silverstein’s classic fable of love and forgiveness, The Giving Tree, and I often tear up at the so simple yet profound truth found in its few, scant pages.

It hard to ride the trail with Gus and Call and not be swept into both their mundane and epic lives. Their friendship and their perspective on life draws us in and in the end, though there’s regret and loss, there’s also a strange kind of comfort and coming to grips with all that is happened to them.

On the non-fictional front following the boys who-will-soon-be-men in Stephen Ambrose’s incredibly absorbing ‘Band of Brothers,’ from training in Georgia all the way to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest is a haunting journey. Yet it’s also one of incredible accomplishment, and once again loss. But as we’re brought into the DNA of these young lives, we see how they deal with the horror, exhilaration, pain, and escape…much in the way we would. They’re ordinary lives – and extraordinary – all at once. Just like us.

Journeys such as these, through the conduit of fiber and ink, bring experience, knowledge and I believe, ultimately comfort; a comfort as real as a cherished friend embracing us in our need.

Sense & Sensibilities

admin —  September 23, 2013

Folks are always asking where writers get their ideas. There’s no one reliable answer though I’m partial to Harlan’s Ellison’s reply which went something like this: “Poughkeepsie; there’s a warehouse there that I send money to and they send me a handful of ideas every month.”

The truth is ideas come from everywhere. From your past, your present, even your future. From the turning of a little girl’s head, to the dancing of leaves down a lonely street. Often times the best storylines are formed when two thoughts collide and merge into one great idea.

For me, the senses play a big part in ideas that stick. Memory is a part of that but the sights, smells, tastes, and touch bring the fragments to life. Just a couple of days ago a friend posted a pretty picture of a bed of purple petunias and wrote this wonderful line: “My mom loved petunias, this is how she says hi to me.” That’s a story right there.

Some examples of stories I wrote that started as sense memories would be…

  • Feeling the heat of a summer day while taking a walk helped me recall running down a gravel path one August day when I was eight with new tennis shoes and heading for the rusty Orange Crush sign that hung from a little red store that held great, sugary treasures inside. A story formed about a man and a boy who ending up helping each other in that store.
  • Standing high up on a ledge overlooking a valley and feeling the wind slap at my face when an image of a young man dangling from the bottom of a runaway air balloon blossomed in my mind and the story was off and running.
  • The smells of a freshly carved pumpkin overwhelmed me one night and the story of a man looking back on his life and one, particular Halloween that had haunted him all of his days made me run to the keyboard.
  • Looking out over a deep lake one spring day, I saw a ripple, with tiny waves moving out from it. I stared at the otherwise glassy water and before long I couldn’t help but imagine a Plesiosaur breaking the surface to the astonishment of the tourists on the shore. I remember laughing at the wondrous but ridiculous image. But the absurdity didn’t stop me from putting the down the story over the course of the next week.

Songwriters tell great stories with only a handful of words. They bring their senses to play to immediately create a time and place. Neil Diamond is a master at this. Who can’t picture the little boy looking out his bedroom window on those Brooklyn roads or see the man in a sparse room crying out for significance with only a chair to hear his plea?

Just yesterday I borrowed an old truck from a friend and as I got inside the embedded smell of cigarettes wafted up and I actually had to get out for a second. Not because the cigarette smell was overpowering – it was, but not in a bad way. The smell instantly took me back to when I was in junior high and I’d climb into my Dad’s Ranchero when we’d go to town together and it was exactly the same smell. It was as if he was suddenly right next to me. I stepped out of the truck for a second because I was caught off-guard by the emotional power of the smell. I’m sure there’s going to be some ink on paper using that in the near future.

Because ideas are everywhere. Even right under our own nose.

Star Trek was huge for me growing up and my desire to write screenplays careened with the fact they were about to make a Star Trek feature film. This would have been in 1978 when I was sixteen going on seventeen.

Being a big fan of the show I wanted to try to write a script that I could visualize on the big screen. And I did. But it was a bit, uhm, on the short side. It was 22 pages, written in pen (first draft in pencil) on the lined paper we used in school. I thought it captured the characters and even had a BIG theme.

I titled it Star Trek: Call To Viraluss and the story centered around the Enterprise being, well, called to a sector of space, along with several other alien races (Klingons, Romulans, Gorns, Tellurites, Andorians) where they all battle it out. None of them could figure out why they were all there and it turned out a Supreme Being had called them together. They try to obliterate each other as well as the Being but things keep going wrong and it’s Kirk and crew who finally take a different tact, one in which ultimately has James T becoming the peacemaker.

Did they encounter God? In some ways, perhaps, but my sixteen year-old mind was having a hard time dramatizing such a large idea. Little did I know that a year later when Star Trek – The Motion Picture came out that it would deal with very similar issues. I think they call that parallel development. Only they had the right length screenplay and a lot more money.

I had a wonderful teacher who read the mini-script and was very supportive but also encouraged me to expand the length and delve more deeply into the theme I was chasing. The thought of writing anything longer than 22 pages (which came out to about 15 typed pages) seemed herculean and almost unfathomable.

A friend who was in college also read it and liked the character bits. But he had a little trouble with the science. I remember him knifing his finger through the air in short bursts, saying, “So let me get this straight; all these ships are in this small, closed section of space and they’re all going warp five and six around each other like blurred pinballs? I don’t think so…” And when he got to the end with Kirk talking to the Supreme Being he howled and looked at me saying, “You have got to be kidding? Star Trek will never meet God.” Yeah, well Shatner sure tried with Star Trek V but who am I to nit-pik?

In all honesty, it was a howler. But I learned something from writing Call To Viraluus. I learned to finish a piece of writing from beginning to end without abandoning it. This would come in handy later when I fell out of love with a piece I was working on but persevered and finished it, which almost always brought me back into the fold of the story. Secondly, writing something at such a young age and trying for scope and large meaning even though I was woefully unsuccessful, taught me to aim high. More than likely you’ll never reach all of your writing goals on a novel, script or story. But if shoot for the moon and don’t quite Fosbury Flop over the bar, you’re still stretching yourself and the story. And that always needs to be the case. Lastly, I learned that writing a screenplay wasn’t this secret, mystical thing. It was something doable. It would just take a heap-o-load of practice.

So now when I see Kirk and company on TV or in one of their films, I always think, Kirk as messenger and trading dialogue with God…that could still work. 

Which is quickly followed by the echo of my friend’s laughter which I can still hear…

Adventures in Writing, Part I

admin —  August 23, 2013

Most writing takes place sitting down, hovering over a keyboard. If you’re fortunate, you fall away into the keys and the world you’re writing about surrounds you. If you’re not so fortunate, each word is like pulling out a plywood splinter. Most of the time it’s somewhere in-between.

When I first began writing seriously, that is, thinking that I might actually submit something to a publication (for money, one hopes), I was twenty three years old. And I’d already felt like I’d gotten a late start. After all, Stephen King published Carrie when he was twenty six – I was way behind the eight ball!

I had always written plays and screenplays in high school and through college. And even though I haven’t made a career out of playwriting or screenwriting, in my hearts of hearts, I saw myself as a dramatist. Still do, actually. But in those first years I was writing short stories; mainstream, suspense, and a little horror.

I was writing on a Smith-Corona electric typewriter at the time. I liked the feel of it. The keys fit my fingertips, even if I only typed about 45 words a minute. But I remember the feeling of writing my first real short story. It was called ‘In The Drain’ and was kind of a mix of mystery, black comedy and horror/science fiction. Kind of like a B fifties film. I was reading a lot Stephen King and Ray Bradbury at the time and it was kind of a mash-up of those two styles, if you can imagine.

The story wasn’t all that good, but it had kind of a loopy, quirky, riveting narrative drive. I remember when I had a friend read it for the first time. She sat in a chair, read it and then without looking up, said that there were a lot of typos. Then she looked up, smiled wide and yelled, “But it’s great!”

It was a wonderful feeling to get something down on paper like it was in your head. Well, mostly. That’s always the trick, you see. Ideas are easy; it’s translating the tale in your head to something concrete on the page without losing it in translation that’s the hard part.

I began submitting the story to magazines and the standard rejections (‘Thank you for submitting, this doesn’t fit our current needs…’) began peeking out of my mail box with regularity. But I wasn’t all that discouraged because I felt like I had completed something and it was out in the real world trying to find a home.

I remember the day when I got another rejection and feeling a little discouraged I started to crumple it up and throw it away. But I noticed at the bottom of the paper something scrawled in pen. I unfolded the piece of paper and read it. It said : “This is good but not for us. Try us again.”

It was my first validation. Editors have no idea (or maybe they do) what a little personal remark on a standard rejection form does for a weary writer. That note pushed the discouragement aside and that night I started writing another story. I hadn’t published anything yet, but I could smell it and there was no turning back.