Archive for July, 2009


One would think that a post about titles would have a better title.

The title is a massively underrated part of your writing. This is especially true if you’re working with film or television. In my experience, the title is also the part of your writing that gets the least attention. The hard part is the crafting and editing and recrafting and reediting and losing sleep and obsessing over that word in the third paragraph on the eighth page that never felt right to you. The title is the thing you tack on at the end because you need a title. When I was taking my workshop classes and tutoring workshop students in college, it was pretty common that items would be turned in and presented without a title entirely and people had to be reminded to add them. Including a title seemed too “commercial” for most. Having a story without a title was edgier, more arty.

Having a title will focus your work. A well-chosen title doesn’t just have to be the primary means for a mass audience to be introduced to your work (it is, though, incidentally… films, television shows, novels, comic books… I would say that moreso than poster or cover art that your title is what will first hook or turn off a potential fan). A good title will summarize what your story is about. It will give some direction regarding the primary focus or message of the story. If you’re very good, it will do both. It will also set your audience up for the style of the work and give them an impression of what you’re about to share with them before they even start. It’s as short a preface as you can get.

The single best title I can think of is from a television show: Arrested Development. Ranting about how this is the best thing to ever hit network television aside, the title is brilliant. The show is a comedy detailing the misadventures (this is a word that I would normally tell you to run screaming from in movie synopses, but again… this is a topic for another post) of a family accustomed to wealth as they deal with the fallout after the patriarch of the family is arrested due to his shady dealings as the head of a real estate development firm. Because most of the family has never had to deal with living like “the rest of us”, they are by and large woefully out of touch with reality. You might even say that they all suffer from a case of arrested development. Bam. Two words and you have a title that expresses both a core plot element for the show as well as its central thematic element. You could stretch a bit, too, and say that the title is also a preview of the wordplay that comprises much of the show’s humor.

So what makes a good title? Try not to make it needlessly obscure. Don’t be cute with it unless you’re dealing with a comedy. Explore the double-meanings that exist in many words. Most of all, though, focus in on what the story is about in its core. Is it about a person? An event? An emotion? Your title should express that element. If it does not, ask yourself why not? If you don’t have a good reason (such as using the title to distract the reader from a hidden meaning that you have in the story), then you might want to consider rethinking the title, because your choice might be a bit too arbitrary.

Your title can also say “You don’t want any part of this”, so be careful. The Human Stain springs immediately to mind. It’s based on a novel by the same name, but the novel had the chance to succeed based on reviews and time and word of mouth. A film has its opening weekend, essentially, to make its mark or fade into obscurity. The Human Stain faded fast. A 30 million dollar budget, and it grossed around 5 million dollars domestic. Internationally, though, it pulled in nearly 20 million. How did it manage that shift? Well, most films don’t have the same name overseas. In Portuguese,The Human Stain, was released as Revelações or Revelations. This is not only far more palatable, but far more directly to the film’s point. So, while the original title might be a bit edgier and more suggestive, rather than direct, it also makes me say “Ew” and not want to learn any more about it.

Another bad choice for title I’m stealing straight from fiction, from 30 Rock, specifically. A character on the show is cast in the film The Rural Juror, and much time is spent covering what a bad title this is. Doesn’t look so bad? Try to say it out loud. Go ahead. I’ll wait……………… Pretty difficult to say, right? Exactly. You want something that people can talk about and tell their friends about.

What makes a bad title then? It’s actually sort of difficult to actually made a truly bad title. You’re far more likely to end up with a simply lackluster one. Keep your title simple. Avoid words that people can’t pronounce or just plain won’t know what they mean. Avoid trying to gross your audience out conceptually or with words that are just plain ugly.

Avoid a subtitle unless it really is needed for the flavor of your work. The Indiana Jones films are extremely well suited by the subtitle, as it frames the film as a sort of serial adventure featuring the lead character. Otherwise, they’re best left to sequels lest they seem presumptuous. Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen is a pretty decent title, regardless of what you think of the film. It sets up that it is the second film in the series, but also hints at the new content to come. Revenge of the the Fallen presumably refers to the return of the evil Decepticon robots, but it also refers to a specific character known as “The Fallen”. However, the upcoming G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra has a title that I think dooms it from the outset. The title presupposes that there will be a sequel. And I will guarantee you that this is evident in the film’s construction as well (another sign of title guiding the composition of your work). It also then shouldn’t surprise you to hear that early screening reports for G.I. Joe have been catastrophic.

You could probably talk titles forever, but let’s call it quits for now and just call this food for thought.

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Tech Confidential, Pt. 1

There are a pretty wide variety of IT Departments out there. They range from the singular techie to the complex team, from the cheerfully helpful to the ominously draconic, from the socially capable to the horribly inept. One thing is fairly consistent, though: You need them. Your IT Department will help you with everything from machine relocations to repair and replacement to installations to how-tos. They can be a great boon to your work or a point of critical stoppage for you.

I’ve been a tech for almost 8 years now. It’s really the only major job I’ve ever had. I’ve run the spread from being half of a two-person team to managing a department with three techs underneath me, looking to expand up to a fourth. I work at a non-profit company filled with scientists from all around the world, and we have a pretty lax set of computing restrictions. Put another way: I’ve probably seen it all. I’ve certainly seen enough to tell you how you can be best friends with your IT Department.

It doesn’t involve bribes like cookies. You don’t have to compliment them on how much RAM they seem to have. You just have to follow some very basic, more or less common sense steps. This might not ensure you get immediate service, but I guarantee that if you follow these steps, you’ll get the best service that your IT guys can provide.

Things to Avoid Doing

– Please don’t send us an e-mail, and then call us to tell us you just sent an e-mail and proceed to explain the problem outlined in the e-mail. Even worse, don’t send an e-mail and then walk over to tell us about it. Doing any one of those things is sufficient. If you walk or call, and we’re busy, we may ask you to send an e-mail… but that’s because we’re busy, not because we’re brushing you off. It may even be because we’ve been told that all tickets need to be documented via e-mail so we have some way to track them. Doing these things in rapid succession makes you an insta-nagger. It tells us that you are either clueless as to the intent of e-mail, impatient in the extreme, needy or all of the above.

– Keep asking us if the item you ordered has arrived yet. We do not control the speed of the company’s that send us products, nor do we control the speed of the shipping department to bring the item to us. When we get the item in, we do not have space to keep it, we will tell you when it has arrived. Asking us every day where your new toy is is a hassle. I understand wanting to know, but ask Purchasing if you really want a report on where it is. We won’t hold onto something out of spite. We really don’t have the room for it. We’ll let you know.

– Silly internet things. This is a nebulous category, but you can sum it up by saying “Practice Safe Internet”. This means don’t ever send anyone your password via e-mail. Don’t click the window on your internet browser that says you have a virus (how would the internet know this? Think about it). Don’t sign up for random mailing lists. Do read all the messages and links and sites you’re about to click on. Look before you leap is a great rule of internet behavior. It will save you much pain.

– Berate your IT guys. IT is a largely thankless enterprise. It’s the kind of position where all you ever hear about are problems. People come to you when something is wrong, and they frequently assume that it is somehow, someway partially the tech’s fault. Take it easy on them. You don’t have to be thrilled to be seeing your techs, but they’ll try to make things better if you let them.

– Assume we all play World of Warcraft and don’t have lives. The two items are not mutually exclusive. Plus, and this may be a shocker, many computer techs do not play video games. I know. Shocking.

Things to Do

– Send us e-mails. A variant on the first item from the “Things to Avoid Doing” list. If you call us, or talk to us in person, we 100% do not mind your sending a follow-up e-mail. Just toss a note that says “Hey, thanks for helping with my problem. I just wanted to send this little recap for your reference.” Techs tend to have six things going on at once at all times. A reminder that we didn’t have to write down ourselves is very much appreciated. Trust me.

– Read the little windows that pop up. When your computer pops up a message telling you something, you need to read it. It doesn’t just say random things because it is fun. It says important things that you need to make actual decisions about. Read those messages. You don’t need to understand them. But if you read them and then ask you techs about them, they will love you for it… because it meant that you tried. You paid attention. I had work with a woman who managed to entirely wipe a portion of her computer’s drive by not reading pop-up messages. She said “A bunch of windows popped up, but I clicked away from all of them.” Well, one of those windows said “This drive is not readable by your machine, would you like to initialize it?” In computer-speak, that means “Would you like to completely wipe this clean and start over?” And she clicked “Okay” without even batting an eyelash.

– Remember that we’re just the messenger. IT guys don’t make the policy. Well… they do… but chances are not the ones you’re dealing with. Even if you have a one person department, chances are the policy your Lone Tech is enforcing came from the company’s heads.

– Also remember that your IT guys are probably swamped. My three techs are supporting a company of 300 people. So if you assume they’re all around all day long (they’re not), they still each need to be theoretically ready to support 100 different people. Some of those people are department heads and other people that won’t wait/can’t be made to wait. They’re not taking a long time on purpose. This connects back to the first “Do this” item. Reminders can be nice.

Don’t worry, I’ll have more stories/tips/advice from the tech world as time goes on.

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Serial – Episode 3 of “20th”

Tim shook his head. Dwelling didn’t do him any good but it was a habit like chewing at the inside of your cheek when nervous. He just found himself doing it unconsciously until he realized he was in some trancelike state of self-pity and had to shake himself out of it.

There was work to do. It wasn’t yet 12:15 a.m. and while there weren’t five hours of things for Tim to do before daylight, but he wanted to be sure that he’d seen the one that got him coming, so there was no sleeping in. He didn’t want to die in some electrical fire or have a wall collapse on him while he was asleep. If Tim was going to die it would be because of something he saw coming. At least it would be something he liked to think he could avoid, even if the entire principle of the day suggested that he could do anything but.

He also didn’t want to risk waking too late and being forced to rush through his preparations. That was how accidents happened, and Tim didn’t need any of those. He took his time in everything. If his fate on that day was to be arbitrary, at least he would be deliberate.

The 20th always started with the news. Tim purchased local and national newspapers every day for the week before the 20th. He wasn’t much interested in news, but he had to know what he might be getting himself into. Not being aware that the President was visiting, for example, could lead to a disaster. Tim was convinced that his presence at any major event like that was only prelude to disaster.

Major concerts, sporting events, parades, protests. Anything that would involve a crowd of people and especially anything involving famous people that Tim might have some tenuous sort of metaphysical connection with were to be avoided. The weight of the lives of his closest family members was enough to bear.

He would skim the papers for a few hours, searching out any sort of thing to be avoided or wary of and he would take notes. After the papers had been exhausted, he’d scan through the radio, searching for news broadcasts that might give any tidbits. As he did this, he would search the internet on his phone, skimming news sites again for any late-breaking tidbits that might be relevant for his day.

Tim had to strike a delicate balance. He didn’t want to be around too many people, but nor did he want to be alone. Tim couldn’t think of any life-changingly positive things that could happen to him off on his own in the woods. It was doubtful that he’d find himself the new Lord of the Wilds, riding back into town on the back of a puma that was his new best friend. No. Being alone for Tim meant that he’d either be found dead days later with no one able to understand why he went and did such a foolish thing as traveling by himself without notifying anyone, or it meant that someone he loved would have to go instead of him to teach him a lesson. As the list of people he would say he loved was dangerously small, this option was actually less appealing to him that dying alone in the forest, which at least might mean the rest of the world was very legitimately a little bit safer.

Before he could think too hard about the futility of planning and studying and packing a backpack full of bottled water and canned food in an effort to stave off what he could only describe as fate itself, Tim decided it was time for some television. Early, early morning TV was never very good, but it was distracting. Tim adjusted the small rabbit ears on his portable television (why would he risk the electrical fire when he doesn’t have to), he settled in on an infomercial and continued his preparations.

Now came the food preparations for the day. Sandwiches made from freshly purchased peanut butter and jelly, both in plastic jars and spread with a plastic knife. Fruit, granola bars, pretzels and a variety of other snacks that he didn’t have to use fire or blades to prepare. He didn’t pack too much, and was wary to eat very much anyway, because it seemed to him that the irony of choking to death on food that was prepared in a fashion to bring about as little chance for injury as possible would be too ironic for the universe to pass up.

Once it was just past 3 a.m., Tim figured it was a good time to call in sick. Work, as school had been for many years before, was a no-brainer. Don’t go. The fact that Tim worked at a company that had labs with chemicals and germs made that decision that much more obvious. He couldn’t make it that easy. He grabbed his cell phone, worked up his best raspy, gravelly cough and called his boss. Next year he’d probably have to simply get the day off as a vacation day. Calling in sick on your birthday isn’t always very convincing. It was a Friday, though, so if Tim showed back up again on Monday and didn’t seem sick it wouldn’t be so obvious. Emphasis on if.

He wouldn’t start his day in earnest until at least 5 a.m. Enough people started their life at 5 a.m. that he considered it a bit of a safe period. His first stops, as they would be every year he imagined, would be to visit a few convenience stores. He would risk the chance of being involved in a robbery at one because it meant lotto tickets. He had already won a relatively small but comfortable sum in the lotto a few years before, but figured that there was little reason not to keep trying. For a man who has already been struck by lightning, he didn’t mind seeing if the good kind of luck might actually strike him twice.

After that, he only had a loose plan. He always felt he should have something more rigid planned out, but the back of his mind told him that would be no good. Some force was watching him and if he performed the same routine each year, time and again, it would catch on and figure out just what he didn’t want to have happen and that would be that.

It was always a quest to find some bizarre equilibrium of events that would decrease the chance of bad things happening and increase the chance of good things happening. This was the selfish way of looking at things, as it didn’t include anything that could happen to anything or anyone around him, but Tim had come to grips that there was nothing he could do about anyone else. He couldn’t have saved his father or his mother or his sister. He couldn’t afford to think otherwise. He had seen that that did to Mom in the last few years.

So he’d buy lotto tickets and enter into contests if he happened to see any. He’d call radio stations if he overheard a chance to win anything at all. It was like being the world’s most boring compulsive gambler. His options for overall great things were limited, though. It was astonishing how many typically landmark items of entertainment were simply just stupidly unsafe. He couldn’t fly anywhere. Couldn’t do anything deemed in any way “extreme”. Exotic foods were right out. Large venues were a no-no.

As 5 a.m. got closer, he continued to putter around his home, packing his backpack with various emergency supplies, brushing his teeth, washing up with a washcloth (slipping in the shower? Not a dignified way to go out). Thumbing through novels or magazines and not really absorbing them. Watching television but not expecting anything from it. Then it was time to leave.

He stood up, slung the backpack over his shoulder, closed his eyes and thought something not unlike a prayer, and then froze as the doorbell rang.


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When (will) I Grow Up

I’m going to break a bit from regular form today (for those of you keeping score at home, Wednesdays are typically for reviews and commentaries about film) and talk about an item that I find myself thinking about fairly regularly.

When am I going to grow up?

In my mind now, as when I was growing up, there’s a very distinct line between adults and kids. For most children, the difference is easy to define. Adults are your teachers and your parents. As you advance through school first there are the big kids and then the just plain older kids who seem so much more mature and glorious than you. Once you’ve hit college, the line gets pretty blurry and once you’re out, well, there goes the line. I imagine for those that bypass college entirely the transition is at the same time: once you leave school the division disappears or at least fades significantly.

Leaving school is the largest schism from childhood that exists. You’re on your own, in theory, for the first time ever. Your life is intended to be in your hands at this point. You’ve worked hard, you’ve followed the rules, you know your own way and so you are set free. Its got all the flavors of adulthood that you associate with growing up as a kid. You can drive, you can vote, you can stay out late, you can get onto all the rides and into all the movies. You can drink beers and date and take vacations if you feel like it and generally do as you please.

This is all true for me as well, in as much as my means and situation can support these things. But while I look around and see my friends and make acquaintances, I find myself feeling like a kid surrounded by adults. I’ve got a job and a car. I’m married. I’m looking to spend an obscene amount of money and take on the first real debt of my life by purchasing a home. I do grown-up stuff like go to meetings and send people e-mails with “FYI” in them. But I just feel like I’m faking it.

It’s led me to start wondering what it is that makes me define what I consider to be a Grown Up (since “adult” is really more of an age cutoff than it is an impression someone has). Grown Ups are self-assured people. They will speak their minds and hold their ground. They have a sense of purpose, of direction, and they mean to achieve it (even if that purpose is to be without purpose). It’s more than these things, though. I make it sound as if the only people I consider to be Grown Up to be anyone who has attended a self-help seminar. They can be neurotic, maybe even pathologically so. They can have fears and uncertainties as well. At their core, though, I would say that a Grown Up is complete.

The incubation period is over. They have hatched and gelled and this is who they are. Their path may change and their habits may change and their lifestyle may change, but these are complete people. Fully formed and ready for action. Not I. Despite the number of criteria that I feel I meet—I believe I am a confident person, I have a career that I have goals in, I have passions that I intend to fulfill—I don’t feel like a Grown Up.

Do I feel this way because I haven’t yet hit my stride? Let’s say I was to become a big-shot IT executive, with enough income to stop worrying about it and the time to pursue my hobbies. Would I be a Grown Up then? Or if I were to become a real author with projects in the pipe, a public to share with and credits to my name… would that do the trick? I doubt it.

I get the impression that I’ll always feel a bit like a cheater. I’ve snuck into the club and I’m just really hoping that no one tries to come up to me and make me do the secret handshake, because I’ll be forced to try and make one up on the spot in a painfully sitcom kind of moment. I don’t belong at the big kid’s table. I should be in the other room with the smaller types, flinging mashed potatoes across a plastic folding table.

Maybe that’s the key, though… having a person smaller than yourself to make the distinction. Does having a child finally create that split from your own childhood? Can you no longer fool yourself into being a kid when you clearly have someone who is far more intrinsically kid than you around? I’m not sure.

I imagine if I receive feedback on this post, it’ll be that I’m not alone, and that no one really ever feels like a Grown Up. I think I’ll find that both heartening and baffling. It means we’re all in the same boat, but it leaves me with more questions. What would it take for me to feel like I’ve made the transition? Do I want to make it in the first place? And perhaps most importantly, if we’re all still just kids at heart… then who put us in charge of everything?