Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse

“To make it in standup, you need a bucket of guts and a lot of know-how.” – Phyllis Diller

I just finished reading Phyllis Diller’s autobiography LIKE A LAMPSHADE IN A WHOREHOUSE: MY LIFE IN COMEDY. Still kicking at the age of 94, Diller has accomplished so much in her life and career. Not only is she a trailblazing female standup comic, but also a classically trained pianist and a painter. The book focuses mostly on her personal life, but includes some stories from her incredible career. She focuses a lot on her two miserable marriages and her all too brief marriage to the true love of her life later in life. It’s fascinating to read how she was able to go from being a housewife to a successful standup comedienne. I would have enjoyed the book better, however, if she had a better mix of the personal and the professional. I really love to read behind-the-scenes stories about standup and sitcom experiences and there wasn’t as much of that as I would have liked. Still, it was worth the read. Below is the lovely autograph I received from her when I wrote to her a few months ago. As with my other autograph requests, I simply sent my Wannabe flyer and asked her to autograph it with an inspirational, “don’t give ” kind of message. Instead of sending back my cheap flyer, she sent this great picture of her with Sid Caesar and Dean Martin. Beautiful!!

Phyllis Diller Autograph

Quick Review – Jeffrey Archer – THEREBY HANGS A TALE (short stories)

This is a wonderful collection of short stories that take place in an international setting. A quick and enjoyable read. Highly recommended, especially if you are a short story writer. These are fascinating stories that all have an interesting twist at the end. Many of the tales are based on incidents that are said to have actually happened, though it would probably be impossible to verify any of them for sure.

I’m not usually a fan of short stories, but I really enjoyed this book.

But Before the Story—the Back-story – Guest Post by Simon Lang

It’s interesting to find your own protagonist having strange adventures in a fanzine.

It means that these fans have found the person you created so real that they want to be part of his life, want to put him through his paces in a variety of situations, and in a sense, want to be part of his existence. Leaving out the fact that it’s patently “Theft of Intellectual Property” if it’s sold (a point that tends to make lawyers salivate), and that using someone else’s character is unprofessional and invasive, it somehow constitutes a sort of a sideways compliment.

It means someone really liked your stuff. That they read it and became engaged with it to the extent that they felt the need to add to the adventure. That they loved that character, or admired him, or cared about him as if the character were a real person.
That’s the key. Creating real characters is the name of the game.

The secret—a very public secret, actually—to good fiction is writing great characters. When you consider that Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones, Captain Kirk, Nancy Drew, Harry Potter, James Bond, The Cat in the Hat, Elizabeth Bennett, Ebenezer Scrooge, Darth Vader and Dao Marik, existed only in the minds of their creators before one word was ever put on paper, it’s easy to see that crafting real characters is vital indeed.

No matter how good the storyline; no matter with what finesse we construct the locale and setting; if your characters are wooden, they all speak exactly alike, and they’re painfully boring, your work is never going to go anywhere. It’ll just sit moldering away in your trunk, without even consoling you with a parting squeak.

When you’re having problems with your story, go back and research your characters.

Do detailed back-stories on each main character. Where did he go to school, and how well did he do? Who were her childhood friends and what became of them? What is his favorite sport, if any, and which ice cream flavor does she prefer? What kind of a pet does he have, and why? What happened in her childhood that marked her for life, good or bad, and how does he make his living? Have you researched his profession? How far will you go to “know” this person you’re creating, and… and… and, et cetera. Keep asking yourself “why?” It’s one of the most important words in the language.

Perfect your character.

A character, to use the old hackneyed comparison, is like an iceberg. You, the writer, must know the whole thing in detail, even though your reader will only see the top ten-percent. The hidden ninety-percent is what gives your character depth, helps to make him real and three-dimensional. And it provides you a vast store of resources to which you will be able refer regarding your character, time and again, whenever you may need them. Try this and see whether it doesn’t give you a way to write through your blocks and craft more real and compelling stories.

Darlene Hartman/”Simon Lang” is an award-winning screenwriter and novelist, and has written PSAs for such clients as The US State Department, The American Heart Association and the Cardinal Cooke Council on Pro-Life. She teaches an online program based on her writers’ course, “Think Like a Writer.” She can be reached at simon_lang@rocketmail.com.

Sometimes You Just Have to Kill People

It’s tough, but if you’re a writer, you gotta do it sometimes.

I’m working on a page one rewrite of my latest script. We’re talking total rehaul here. I did the same thing with the last two scripts I wrote: page one rewrite, kept the basic premise and a main character or two, trashed the rest, and started over. One of those scripts was a Finalist in a national contest. The other is currently under option with Runaway Productions. You can’t argue with results…

MACRO NOTES (or why you probably need a page one rewrite….)

In the process, some characters had to go. Sorry, it’s not you, it’s me. Well,I guess technically, it’s both…

ROBERTA- Girl, we had some laughs. I’m gonna miss you. I really, really hate to lose you, especially that great scene with you at the end. It just wasn’t working. Sorry.

CHRISTIAN – You were a part of a subplot that just wasn’t meant to be. You’ll find someone else – really! Actually, you don’t need to. As it turns out, your girlfriend, AMY, is getting cut too.

AMY – Ride off into the sunset with CHRISTIAN. You kids are gonna make it! Just not in this story.

NATHAN – You were a love interest suggested by my script analyst. Not gonna lie – I was never that fond of you. Not really sorry to see you go.

HAILEY – You were dead weight from the beginning. You contributed nothing to the script. You HAD to go.

KARY DOMINAC – You were a bitch. It’s okay! You were supposed to be. You were just too complicated. You’re just not the right villain for the story.

CAMILLE – You’re on the chopping block, but I’m just not sure yet. You may get a last minute reprieve. Depends on how the script goes from here…

And to IMOGENE, PAULA, and MATT (extends rose…) you guys are still in! Congratulations. Please do your best in the script. Be funny, entertaining, multi-dimensional, and advance your character and the plot in every scene.

Please welcome to the script LINDSAY, JILLIAN, and HANNAH. Give them a round of applause! Okay, that’s enough. Don’t be too nice to them – two of them are villains.

It’s hard to get rid of characters and scenes I once loved. However, I’ve learned from experience that over time I will develop stronger characters and better scenes that I love even more. The scenes I once loved will start to vanish until they are nothing but a distant memory.

Quick Review – Buried – Screenplay by Chris Sparling

All I knew about this script going into it was that it was about a guy who is buried underground for most of the story and that in the movie, that guy was Ryan Reynolds….It made me laugh when the character was described on page two as “physically unremarkable…”. Obviously, this was before the role was cast…

BURIED Screenplay

Anyway! I was very interested to read this script because I couldn’t imagine how they could pull it off. From what I heard, the guy spends most of the film underground. I suppose it either could be a really exciting suspense story or crushingly dull…

It started off very strong. The guy is, well, buried in a box. He awakens to realize he’s been buried alive and, after the initial and understandable freak-out, he starts trying to figure away out of this mess. There is a cell phone – not his – buried with him. It has a weak signal and is already down to half the battery life. Cool. A ticking clock to create tension. It works. He calls home and leaves messages for his wife and son.

[Editor’s note – Ryan’s…uh, I mean PAUL’S wife is named Linda. Bonus points awarded to this script.]

Ry…Paul gets a text message on the phone. It’s 10 numbers, which he dials and speaks with the terrorist, Jabir, who buried him. Even though Paul is a truck driver / contractor, he is considered an enemy American soldier. Jabir makes his demand – $5 million by 9pm from Paul’s family or the embassy or he “stays buried like a dog”.

It was about at this point that I abandoned my blog article and focused on the script. I couldn’t put it down.

It was absolutely, unbelievably brilliant. It was riveting and full of tension, suspense, politics, fear, and drama. It was probably the most exciting script I have ever read.

And the entire story took place inside the coffin.

No cutting away to tearful family members, no rushing around at the F.B.I with worried looking officials shouting into cell phones and banging on top secret computers. The whole damn thing took place inside a wooden box.

Damn, that’s good writing.

Reading this made me want to set The Kids Are All Right screenplay on fire. They called THAT brilliant writing?? Oh, hell’s no….

I don’t know what else to saw except wow. Wow.

And if it weren’t for Ryan Reynolds, I probably never even would have heard of this film.

Guest Post – Danica Davidson’s 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far

Danica Davidson has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times and Writing It Real about her novel writing. She is currently seeking to publish a YA novel. As a professional freelancer, she’s sold articles to more than thirty magazines.

Danica’s Website and Twitter

I know what it’s like to want something. I’ve wanted to be a writer since childhood.  In fact, I’ve wanted to be a professional writer since childhood.  I didn’t want to just write stories — I wanted to share them with everyone. I’d say anyone on this site understands what it’s like to want something.  My hope is that all of you can go above wanting and reach your goals.  It takes a lot of hard work, I’ve found.  I work toward my goals every day, though sometimes it’s hard to do so.  Recently I was able to write a guest column for the very popular site Guide to Literary Agents where I talk about what I’ve learned so far in writing.  Even though it’s about writing, some of it — like not giving up — could fit anywhere.  I hope what I’ve written is helpful to those who read it.

– Danica Davidson

7 Things I’ve Learned So Far

The Blind Side: How To Suck all the Drama Out of a Dramatic True Story

As a writer, my weakest point is story structure. I can come up with a pretty good premise and strong characters, but I have trouble crafting a story in a way that continues to move forward and leads to an exciting conclusion.

In an effort to improve my story structure writing skills, I decided to analyze a film and write it down – scene by scene – to see how it builds tension. I sat down to watch THE BLIND SIDE with a stopwatch and a notebook in an effort to study the film’s structure and pacing. All I really knew about the film was that it was based on a true story and that it was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress and for Best Picture.I wrote down each and every scene to try to follow the movie’s progression to determine what makes the tension build and what makes you want to keep watching.

Instead, what I found was a film that was fairly devoid of tension and was more a lesson in missed opportunities in developing suspense and conflict.

The trick with this story is to separate fact from fiction, but not in the most obvious sense. There will always be fabricated events even in films that are “based on a true story”. This is understandable and necessary. Even in the most amazing real life tales, reality can be boring sometimes. The true story premise of THE BLIND SIDE: rich family takes in poor boy, poor boy goes on to be a famous NFL star is truly inspiring. The facts of the story are uplifting. For me, the film itself was not. Whenever I felt truly moved by this story, it was because my mind and heart was remembering that at least some of this really happened. If this film was not a true story, I doubt people would have liked it nearly as much.

Leigh Anne Tuohy did a really gutsy thing. She defied society by taking in a homeless black teenager and raised him as her own son. There’s just no way that was as easy as this film makes it look for either Leigh Anne or for Michael.

As I watched the film and studied my notes afterward, I found the following opportunities that were glossed over instead of mined for greater conflict and tension: (WARNING: Spoilers)

1. Fear that having a stranger – especially a poor, black stranger- in the house could be dangerous. Politically correct or not, it would have been more realistic if they had at least explored this a little more instead of just mentioning it in passing.

 2. Alienation by society as a result of a rich, white family taking in a poor, black teenager. This was shown briefly with Leigh Anne’s friends, but little was said about the rich, white schoolmates of Leigh Anne’s son and daughter. It was mentioned briefly, but showing this conflict would have been much more effective.

3. The idea that Leigh Anne might be grooming Mike to play for her old alma mater was not set up well at all. Had we had an inkling throughout that this could be her ulterior motive, it would have added suspense and tension. Is it true? What happens if Mike finds out? To me, it was introduced too late and it felt tacked on.

4. Leigh Anne says Mike changed her life, but we don’t really see how. Maybe if we had seen a little more of her shallow existence beforehand, we could have deeper insight into how Mike changed her life.

 5. Through flashbacks, we see clearly that something bad has happened in Mike’s past, but we don’t really know what. Knowing what terrible things happened to him would have more clearly defined his character. This is a particularly damaging omission as Michael is flunking out of school and is nearly mute. If we had a better idea of just how badly he had been abused and neglected, we could understand why he was in such bad shape. As it stands now, the film seems to indicate white = rich and smart and black = poor and ignorant. There are no positive black characters anywhere to be found. They couldn’t even toss in an intelligent black teacher at the school?

 6. Leigh Anne comes across as nearly perfect. She’s beautiful, smart, sassy, brave, charitable, etc. There’s little conflict in her character. The scene where she told off the scary folks in the bad neighborhood could have been rife with tension: Will she get hurt? Will they retaliate later? Is she being too haughty – not having any idea what it’s like to live in a neighborhood like that? None of these questions are raised. She just comes across as all-powerful – she can take on a neighborhood where we all would fear to tread. She also takes on the drunk rednecks at the football game. There is no fear of danger or suspense at all. In addition, she seems to know everything about football. She seems to know everything about everything. We could identify with her / empathize with her more if she were more vulnerable sometimes.

7. Leigh Anne’s son is nearly killed in an accident when Michael is driving. Instead of reflecting again on the possible danger of the situation, Leigh Anne seems okay with this as well…. I will admit that it was touching when she said “my kids are in that car!”  referring to both Michael and S.J. The accident could also have been used as a time of fear and tension on Mike’s part. He could ponder the impact that his presence has on this family, not just the other way around. Nope! By the next scene, it’s all good.

By far the greatest strength of the film is Sandra Bullock’s performance. I believe she deserved the recognition she got for the role, but I’m not too thrilled about the movie’s Best Picture nomination. Had this been an original screenplay and not based on a true story, I wonder if the film would even have gotten made. People would say it’s just not believable enough…

Quick Review – The Dilemma

I attended an advance screening of THE DILEMMA starring Vince Vaughn and Kevin James. It was a nice, kind of sweet story about the bonds of male friendship. The titular “dilemma” is that Vaughn’s character, (Ronny), finds out that his best friend Nick’s wife has been cheating on him. Ronny has to figure out how to tell him.
I doubt that this film will do very well in the theaters. Fans of Vince Vaughn and Kevin James will be disappointed because the film is not very funny. At all. It’s not that the humor fell flat; there was just very little comedy to begin with. For a large part of the film, they weren’t even trying to be funny. By far the biggest flaw is that the tone is all over the place. It goes from a little comedy to a lot of drama and then back to comedy again. Some of the moments between the two friends were genuinely touching, but there were a lot of dramatic moments that came off as heavy-handed.
It’s just one of those movies that wasn’t sure what it wanted to be so it doesn’t really come together very well. Vince Vaughn showed surprising range and was able to get at least a little bit outside his usual “Vince Vaughn” character that he plays in so many movies. Channing Tatum’s portrayal of the “the other man” was a riot and was, for me, the highlight of the film. If there had been more confrontation and interaction between Ronny and him, it would have made the film funnier. Queen Latifah makes an appearance as well, though she is also underused.
I suspect the film will do well when it opens this weekend, then will drop off substantially as Vaughn and James’ fans are warned that if they are looking for a good comedy, they won’t find it here.

Quick Review – I’M DYING UP HERE! Book by William Knoedelseder

This is a fantastic read if you are a Wannabe comic or even if you’re just a stand-up comedy fan like me.

This non-fiction book follows the rise of comics such as Jay Leno, David Letterman, Richard Lewis, Elayne Boosler, Andy Kaufman, Tim Dreesdon, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams and more. This book is a great read for Wannabes of all kinds as it recalls the days when Jay Leno slept on the back steps of a comedy club and many comics survived on less than one full meal a day.

I eagerly snatched up the book as I love to read biographies of people I admire and this book promised to deliver the goods about numerous well-known comics. The biggest surprise of this book is that it reads like a suspense novel. It chronicles the rise of the aforementioned comics at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, which was owned by Mitzi Shore (mother of Pauly….). Mitzi had a strict “no-pay” policy for the performers as she considered the comedy club a kind of training ground / comedy workshop for green performers to hone their craft. Even after the club became a huge success and Shore implemented hefty cover charges, she still refused even the meager $5 the comics requested for gas money and breakfast (this being the 70s, I guess 5 bucks was sufficient for all that). The comics organized a boycott and picketed the club, resulting in a painful split between those who thought of Mitzi Shore as the patron saint of new comics and those who felt she was cruel and power-hungry, insisting that she be able to control “her” comics.

It also includes the harrowing story of Steve Lubetkin – the tragic story of his life is enough to strike terror in the hearts of any Wannabe. His life shows how thin the line between success and obscurity truly is. His career trajectory was comprised of a lifetime of missed opportunities and very close brushes with success. If something, anything, could have gone his way, his life might have turned out very differently.

How this whole Comedy Store saga has not yet been made into a film yet is beyond me. Here’s hoping someone will have the sense to option Knoedelseder’s book and get cracking on that right away.

Showing Your True Character : Tips on Writing Memorable Characters

Ferris Bueller is one of the most memorable movie characters of all time. When you think of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, do you think of the plot? Not a chance. The story was quite ordinary. A teenager skips school and spends the day having adventures and evading the school principal. If we didn’t care about him as a character, we might feel he deserved to get caught. As his sister says in the movie “Why should he get to ditch when everyone else has to go?” Maybe he did deserve to get caught, but we didn’t want him to!

Ferris was a charming free spirit, who, despite being very popular in high school, was kind to everyone and was admired almost universally. The only one who hated him was the principal, who was an uptight blowhard. We rooted for Ferris the whole way.

Though we might initially go see a movie because of what it’s “about” (the plot), we enjoy the movies – and go back again and again – for the characters. An interesting plot concept will entice moviegoers to see a film the first weekend. If the characters are dull and clichéd, word of mouth will spread and the movie will tank.

You must map out your characters as clearly as you map out your plot. Know as much about your characters as possible – far more than will actually show up in the story. You must understand what motivates your main character. Know where she’s going, where she’s been, what she believes, and why.

The most boring and obvious way to show off your character’s personality is through flashbacks and exposition through dialogue. “Boy, I just haven’t been the same since my mother left when I was two”. You might as well put up a flashing neon sign that says EXPOSITION THAT WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER. There are much more interesting ways to show off your character’s unique and carefully crafted personality.

Dialogue – What your characters say and how they say it. Quick, name these famous film characters from their lines of dialogue:

“Okay, then.”
“There’s no way I would go out with that guy.”
 “Cheers!”
“I feel the same way.”

Nobody? Didn’t think so. How about these:

“Alllllrighty then…”
 “As if!”
“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”
“Ditto”.

Movement: You can tell a lot about a person by the way they carry themselves. How does Scarlett O’Hara enter a room? How about Pee Wee Herman? Consider Kramer’s jerky movements on Seinfeld vs. Mary Poppins’ ever prim posture. Dr. Evil’s trademark is the way he raises his pinky finger to his lips. Many times an actor may add a particular type of gesture to a character, but sometimes the idea can come from the screenwriter.

Jobs: Sometimes a character’s job is a vital part of the story, such as in The Wedding Singer and Clerks. Perhaps a character’s job is not that important but is at least interesting. The father in Father of the Bride works in some kind of tennis shoe factory. The 40-year-old virgin works in an electronics store. Try to avoid a generic office environment, even when the job is not integral to the plot. Use every chance you get to be entertaining.

Hobbies – Little details, such as knowing what a character likes to do in her spare time, further add to her identity. Marge Simpson is a good painter.  Rain Man likes to drive on the driveway and enjoys People’s Court.

Names: Take your time choosing character names. The name John McClane is horrible and irritates me every time I see Diehard. He’s a kickass action hero, not an accountant. Luke Skywalker – now there’s a name. 

Props: Dr. House has his cane. Indiana Jones has his hat. Sophia Petrillo of the Golden Girls never went anywhere without her purse. She took it bed with her and brought it into the kitchen with her when she went for a midnight snack.

Memorable minor characters –Though you don’t need to spend much time on a minor characters development and backstory, use every chance you get to be entertaining.  Each character, however minor, that appears has the potential to add dimension and entertainment value to your story. Consider the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. We see him only once or twice in the film, but who could ever forget his call of “Bueller…Bueller…Bueller…”. It generates a laugh and contributes to the entertainment value of the film as a whole. How about the simple role of the secretary in Ghostbusters? Who could forget the huge glasses and her classic cry “Ghostbustahs, whaddya want?” Have fun with simple characters like waiters, store owners, and the like. 

If we don’t care about the characters – love ‘em or hate ‘em – we don’t care about the story. Take your time in developing your characters and then explore creative ways to show off their unique personalities.