Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Why Writers Love "Breaking Bad"

Why Writers Love "Breaking Bad"

It's not often enough that I post to this blog, as my workload of other tasks always seems to outrank it. But as we approach the final two episodes of "Breaking Bad" it seems a good time to take a look at the series from a writer's point of view.

BB has been called the greatest TV series ever. Fans ranking it on the Internet Movie Database gave the third-to-last episode entitled "Ozymandias" a perfect 10 score. Pretty much every magazine has written articles to analyze these final episodes, and there have been some fine comedy sketches written about the show as it escalates to the ultimate conclusion.

The accolades are well deserved. This show is excellent in every aspect, from the writing to the casting, acting, editing, soundtrack...even the locations are used to reinforce the messages of the series. But it all starts with the writing.

The Genius Behind The Show

Series creator Vince Gilligan will likely be most recognized in his career for BB but he's been in the business for many years. He worked extensively on "The X-Files" as a producer of various levels. Gilligan also wrote 29 X-Files episodes and directed two of them. 

He's worked on other, lesser-known TV series, too. Movies include Hancock with Will Smith and Charlize Theron, and Home Fries with Drew Barrymore and Luke Wilson. His earliest screen credit was as sole writer of the film Wilder Napalm in 1993. Don't remember it? The sci-fi love story starred Dennis Quaid and Debra Winger, but got panned by critics and didn't do well at the box office.

Those 20 years in the business (and who knows how many more before he got his first screen credit) have shaped Vince Gilligan's talents and given him the "mad skills" (as Jesse might say) to engineer a show like BB. It's his painstaking attention to detail that literary writers love. Gilligan likes to use references to his girlfriend, whose name happens to be Holly, in his work. (Sound familiar, BB fans?) We love looking for those little insider tricks of the trade that show up in every episode of this show.

The Team Approach

What's even more amazing for writers who work solo is that teams of writers put together these episodes. While credit is given to one main writer for each episode, the storyboarding and mapping out of each show is done by a team of writers. It's a considerable effort that doesn't just happen. 

And we appreciate this. No good piece of writing ever "just happens" -- they all come with a lot of planning, writing, rewriting, editing, and refining to get to the final product. Fellow writers recognize the quality of "Breaking Bad" because we know the amount of effort it took to get to the final version of each script...not to mention everything that comes after it, on the production side.

Just as actors love BB for the acting, cinematographers for the camera angles, and editors for the editing, which are also superb, writers appreciate it for the intense effort that goes into creating the storyline, dialog, camera angles, and other aspects of a script. We learn from watching well-written shows like this, and the lessons are glorious.

Respect the Literature

It's also the literary qualities of BB that appeal to us writers. The characters are developed beautifully into rich and complex people that are believable even when you know that they only exist to serve a certain purpose in the story (e.g., Saul). 

The plot line has more twists and turns than a road climbing a craggy mountain. Just when you think it's going to zig, it zags. I've lost count of the number of episode endings that left me sitting with my mouth hanging open, saying, "Whoa! I never saw that coming!"

Colors are used to give subtle hints about a character's nature or where they are in their descent into darkness. Who could miss Marie's obsession with purple, or the repeated use of pink in sometimes disturbing ways. Insiders tell us this is all intentional, and we as writers know and understand that.

There are wonderful moments of foreshadowing and clues to upcoming action placed in every scene. Viewers are always speculating about what's going to happen next based on these clues, and the writers delight in throwing us off course.

Even the extreme violence in BB serves a literary purpose. Yes, it's shocking, and it's meant to be. It grabs our attention and tells us to watch closely because something important is happening. When Walt kills people for the first time, he changes, taking his first step down that road to becoming Heisenberg. He justifies it by saying they were going to kill him, and that they probably deserved to die, much like Dexter justifies his serial killings by only targeting killers on his show. Wouldn't any character try to find some justifiable reason to have killed someone when that's not their nature? Those moments ring true because they're excellently crafted.

Looking In The Mirror

But there's still something more in BB that appeals to writers. The protagonist of the show, Walter White, started out as a meek, powerless nerd, a geeky high-school chemistry teacher and habitual doormat for his controlling wife. Plenty of writers, who are typically bookish types when growing up, can sympathize with that position. We've been bullied, too, by people just like the cruel high school kids making fun of Walt Jr. in an early episode, when they're in a store to buy pants for him for school. We feel for both Walt Jr. and Walt Sr. in that scene. It's also the first one in which we see a glimmer of the Heisenberg to come.

Walt wants more out of life, and the cancer diagnosis that comes at the beginning of the show gives him an excuse to seek it. He transforms himself into Heisenberg, peerless all-powerful drug lord who's respected and feared by his underlings. As Heisenberg, he uses his knowledge to become the best at what he does, just as an author uses skills honed over time to write a book that will hopefully sell well and earn that author respect and admiration. We seize power over life by writing, controlling all our characters' lives and outcomes. We are all-powerful in their world, just as Heisenberg is all-powerful in his.

All the elements of Heisenberg were always there in Walt. The cruelty, the chutzpah, the take-no-prisoners approach, are all aspects of his personality that he's been repressing as a teacher and family man. His covert meth business gives him license to let those parts of himself emerge. They're there in all of us humans, writers or not. BB is a story about the human condition, as is all great literature at its core.

That's also why it's so tough for us to completely hate Walt: even as he's telling off his wife on the phone and saying all the worst things a husband could ever say to a wife, he's doing it through the tears of a loving husband who's trying to absolve her of guilt. We can tell that it's hurting him to say these things as much as it's hurting Skyler to hear them. And make no mistake: even though she catches onto the fact that he's performing for the eavesdropping police, it still has to be hurting Skyler to hear her husband saying these things to her. There's still a glimmer of Walt in the character, the meek schoolteacher who loves his family and only wants to provide well for them. We empathize with his hurt at losing his family, at finally freeing them from what he's been up to.

We've watched Jesse go from a loser druggie with no direction in life to a successful underworld soldier. As his disillusionment with Walt has grown and his own conscience over their actions has developed, we've come to view him more sympathetically, as well. From a character that was originally supposed to be killed off at the end of the first season has emerged someone we can root for, even though Jesse's prospects of surviving until the end seem bleak. Jesse cares about people, truly cares, and will do whatever he has to do to keep them safe. We respect him for that. Does it redeem him for everything he's done? No, but he's probably become the most moral character on the show.

As Walt watched the fruits of what he set in motion play out in the desert, I'd like to think that he realized that his true nature was not so much as Heisenberg, but more as plain old Walter White. He cut his ties to the meth-empire life, albeit with great cruelty, and tried one last time to become that person he used to be again, but it was too late. He's now lost the one thing that supposedly turned him to his dark side. As he walks away from the family he still loves, we feel a sense of loss right along with him. Commanders of the worlds in our own work as writers, we are caught up in another writer's vision and carried along like so much flotsam and jetsam on its whitewater rapids.

Anticipation

We've seen in flashes forward that Walt is returning to Albuquerque to finish something, and we can tell that end is going to be violent. We'll continue to watch to the final scene, spellbound and disbelieving. 

Thanks, Vince Gilligan, for a great ride that's lasted five seasons spread out over six years. We'll miss all these characters and the world you and your excellent team have built for us. This show will be analyzed for years to come, just as have other critically acclaimed series. But this one rises above them all. We recognize good writing when we see it, and we tip our Heisenberg hats to you for this one.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Value of Good Copywriting

How Much is Your Work Worth?

I received an e-mail solicitation this week from a woman with a foreign-sounding name. She was not anyone I know or have met, and I'm not sure how she got my e-mail address. But her offer was this:
  • Article writing - 100 words @ 1USD
  • Blog writing - 100 words @1USD
  • Free article submissions to 10 unique PR article sites, 10 directories & 10 social bookmarks
You've probably read some of those articles written by non-native English speakers. They come up in my Google Alerts on various subjects from time to time, and they're always good for a laugh.

Anybody who's worked with copywriters before, or who has paid for quality copywriting, knows that you can't get it for $1. Good copywriting requires skills and knowledge. It takes time for research, development of target audience profiles, analysis of the product/service being promoted, and a certain amount of "gel time" as the thoughts percolate in the copywriter's brain. And that's all before you even write the first word of copy itself, which requires certain skills in wordsmithing to pull together all the background work into persuasive copy that sells. It could take several weeks, at best, to accomplish. And that copy could be worth millions of dollars to the company buying it...certainly worth every penny of the thousands of dollars it should have cost them to obtain it.

I replied to that hapless spam e-mailer, expressing the opinion that her offer cheapens our entire industry and hurts us all. It makes prospects think, "Well, if this company is offering copy for $1, why should I pay any more?" They don't understand the copywriting process, nor do they respect the amount of work or training that go into writing truly quality copy. If this company is doing it right, they can't possibly stay in business and offer copywriting for that price...even if the writers are all working in a sweatshop environment and writing in broken English.

Writers, if you're going to enter this business, do your due diligence first. Find out what rates you should be charging. Don't put yourself out there as offering the same product as someone with years of experience, then undercut their prices. We already have enough clients who don't respect what we do because they don't appreciate the effort and training it takes. They don't recognize the difference between good and bad copy. They want to pay us less than we can afford to live on. When you come into our industry and offer bargain-basement prices because you're just starting out and don't have a lot of experience, it reinforces their perception that what we do isn't worth much. This hurts the entire industry, along with your future earning potential as a copywriter.

Do your career and the industry a favor: before you go out on your own, get a job where you're writing for someone else. Work with different types of clients and learn what it takes to write successful copy. You don't learn it all in school, even with an advanced degree. Practical experience is essential. Develop some marketing skills beyond your writing skills so that you understand how to do audience and product research. Get involved in the local chapters of some industry organizations such as the American Marketing Association, International Association of Business Communicators, Public Relations Society of America, or the American Advertising Federation to develop your professional skills, and seek additional training whenever you can. While you're drawing a salary for that work, start building the nest egg you'll need to start your own copywriting business one day. Then you'll have what you need to delivery quality copy to your clients.

If you're considering becoming a professional, self-employed writer, my series of e-books, A Professional Writer's Ladder to Success, was designed to help you. It walks you through planning for, researching, and launching a successful business as a professional writer. Each "rung" of the ladder builds on those before it to help you prepare your very own Ladder to Success Action Plan. Whether you choose to pursue being a copywriter, a book writer, a publicist, or any number of other types of writer you can be, following such a course is an important step you can't overlook.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Show Me the Money!

New Referral Rewards Program for Client Leads!

Who could use a little extra cash? Pretty much everybody, these days.

So now, instead of having to be one of our creative professional partners to earn thank-you payments for sending a client lead to Thompson Writing & Editing, everybody can!

Here's the skinny: 

If you talk to someone who could benefit from any of our book ghostwriting, editing, or author marketing services, just e-mail Lynn with the information. She'll follow up with the prospect, discuss their needs, and see if we can help them. If they hire us, as soon as we get a retainer fee, we'll send you a check for 10% of that amount.

But the money for you doesn't stop there! For each subsequent payment from the client on that project, we'll also send you a check for 10% of the total amount. Most larger projects are billed in three similar-sized payments, so you should get a couple more checks similar to your first one.

Still want more cash? 

Here you go: if the same client hires TW&E for a second project, we'll also send you a residual referral bonus of 5% on that project's payments.

Not concerned with the cash? 

Here's another option for you: you can bank your referral rewards with TW&E, so that when you're ready to write, edit, or market your own book, your payments could be much lower! Refer enough clients to us and your fees could even shrink to $0! Just note in your e-mail to us when you refer the client that you'd like to bank your referrals instead of cashing in, and we'll keep a tab running and let you know how much you have in it.

So, there you have it. Surely you know someone who should be writing a book, or who has one written and needs it edited or marketed. Your boss, a client of yours, your Aunt Edna...

We've also just launched a beta test of our new website format; check it out here and give us your feedback! There's a page on it that talks about the new referral rewards program...or just click here to e-mail Lynn with your referral right now!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Who Owns Your Work?


This is a question that has plagued writers and other creative professionals for generations. If you've invested the time, money, and energy to hone your artistic skills, shouldn't you be fairly compensated for them, just as someone who's honed their skills as a physician, accountant, or attorney is compensated for theirs? Of course you should. But when you're selling an intangible product, the quality of the work becomes a factor in determining value, and how to measure that quality has largely been left up to whoever's paying for it.

Increasingly in recent years, writers who focus on magazine articles have been faced with contracts from major publishers demanding "all rights" to an article, or they won't do business with you. These include reprints, electronic versions, and any other way they want to use your work, effectively prohibiting you from selling the same article to other publications without major revisions.

Since no magazine publisher pays well enough to reimburse you for the many hours required to research and write a quality story, this was a major impediment to earning a living writing for magazines. The only way a writer could hope to earn a living writing articles was to resell the same article to multiple publications. But with these all-rights-or-nothing contracts, you couldn't even republish your own articles in book form without permission from the publisher that owned all rights to them! For magazines to use their muscle to bully writers in this way is, from the writer's point of view, wrong.

From the publisher's point of view, however, it was seen as a way to protect an asset for which they had paid. With e-publishing a necessity in today's online world and e-articles easy to copy and paste into other people's sites, publishers are increasingly looking for ways to protect their content from piracy. Writers who self-publish are facing the same thing. And since publishers typically have armies of lawyers to sue people, they've taken their fight into the courts. This has brought up the issue of "fair use" of published material, refining its interpretation under the law...or even provoking lawmakers in D.C. to propose new rules governing piracy -- you may have heard a lot recently about the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, currently under consideration.

One ongoing lawsuit was filed by publisher Righthaven against the Center for Intercultural Organizing, which republished an article from Righthaven's Las Vegas Review-Journal in its entirety, without obtaining permission or paying a royalty. A local judge found in favor of the CIO, and the case is currently being appealed to a higher court. Internet giants are weighing in on the case, as well as on SOPA, as these could have a drastic effect on their business. You can read about the Righthaven case here.

So what does constitute "fair use"? If you're a blogger, this could have an impact on you. Just how much of someone else's article can you republish in your blog without getting sued? Suppose someone else republishes one of your articles completely without giving you credit or paying you a royalty; should you sue them?

Interestingly, Google also comes into play in the answer to this. With the release of Google's Panda algorithms in 2011, duplicate content on a website is frowned upon. Google wants each site to offer something fresh, new, and unique. So if you blog, you may refer to another article you've read, as I did above. You may link to it, so people can read that article in its entirety. But reproducing it verbatim on your blog will actually hurt you in search results. Google has now become the Karma of the Internet.

If you want to read more about how the law views this topic, here's a link to the U.S. Copyright Office's page on fair use. Wikipedia also has a fair use entry, as well as one on SOPA, and there are numerous articles on fair use from various universities and legal organizations. Just do a search (using whichever search engine you prefer) on the terms "fair use" and "stop online piracy act" to find them. The conclusion? Definition of the term "fair use" is still pretty much up in the air. And, depending on your viewpoint, that could be good or bad for writers.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Competing for Cash

Writer's Digest magazine is running several genre-specific contests in which the winners get $1,000 in cold, hard cash. Sound interesting? Better get that manuscript dusted off and sent in; the deadlines are all coming up in October!

Contests in the Young Adult, Sci-Fi and Thriller genres have an October 1 deadline. Romance is October 15. Crime is October 22, and Horror is October 31. (Yeah, Halloween. Clever, huh?)

For all genres, manuscripts need to be 4,000 words or less, which is short-story length. Each costs $20 to enter. No time for professional editing at this point, but if you want to have manuscripts ready for future contests, there's no time like the present for getting them ready. Visit TW&E's Editing page for information on submitting a sample for editing.

Best of luck in the competition(s) of your choice!

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Wonderful Story, With a Lesson

Congratulations are in order for editing client Jacob Singer, who has just released the e-book version of his new book, The Vase with the Many Coloured Marbles!

With a title that's a metaphor for the country of South Africa, the book is actually two books in one. Book 1 is about Emma, a young woman from Cape Town, South Africa during the rise of the government's apartheid laws. It's a fascinating look at how those laws affected real people, something you won't read in the history books. But Emma wants to escape from the social norms of her class that are every bit as restrictive as the official race laws. The two are so intertwined that she must leave her home and forge a new life for herself to escape them. Emma's views on South Africa's leadership and social makeup are extremely poignant, and as relevant in today's world as they were in hers.

In Book 2 the story continues, centered around Emma's daughter, Marla. The characters are based on the author and people he knew while growing up in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Will Marla ever find out her mother's secret? Will Josh ever love anyone but her? Will she follow Emma's example and get involved in changing her country, or merely observe from the sidelines? And what will become of Emma? All are answered by the end of Book 2: Marla.

The questions this book will raise for you, however, are many. What do you really know about apartheid? For most Americans, the answer is probably little more than the name of Nelson Mandela (with only a vague idea of his role), or a foggy view of really ugly racist attitudes. But it went much further than that, dictating where people could live, the types of employment they could seek, where they could travel, and the type of education they could get. Entire cities were structured around the country's racial profiling. People arrested for violating the apartheid laws spent real time in prison, just for trying to live their lives in freedom and seek a better life for themselves and their families. Those who worked to overturn the laws were often the targets of terrorist tactics, as you'll see in the book. It was a fearful, brutal time, yet also one when a good person's true character could soar to greatness. The racism that existed in America during the Jim Crow era was mild in comparison to South Africa under apartheid.

So if you want a good story that will open your eyes to life at another time in another part of the world, download a copy of The Vase with the Many Coloured Marbles for your Kindle, iPad, or computer. And watch for the printed version of the book, soon to come. I certainly enjoyed editing it, and you'll enjoy the read. (You've gotta love that British spelling in the title, too!)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Panda Changes Everything!


Those of you who remember Cyndi Lauper's song from the '80s about money changing everything probably have that tune running through your head after reading that headline. (Well, okay, I have it running through mine.) But if you have a website and you want to get traffic to it, Panda is most definitely something you need to learn more about.

Do you write your own website copy? If so, and if you've been to any SEO seminars in the past few years (that's "search engine optimization" for the uninitiated), you've probably been given the advice to cram as many keywords as you could into your website copy. It didn't have to be particularly interesting or well-written, just as long as it contained bunches of the keywords people would search on to find whatever you were selling. You didn't even need to write any text yourself, or pay anybody to do it for you; you could just get it all from article banks where professional writers posted content you could pick up for free! How easy was that?

Well, all of that changed when Google rolled out its Panda update. While Google's always tweaking its algorithms that determine which sites get to the top in search results, Panda was a major change. Companies who had learned how to play the SEO game well enough to consistently rank at the top have been reeling from the penalties Google imposed on them and trying to figure out the new system ever since. You probably heard about the penalties imposed on J.C. Penney's site for using what Google deemed "black hat" techniques to game their search algorithms.

One of the big changes with Panda was that sites started getting penalized for using copy picked up from "content farms". This is great for good copywriters like me, because it means that now your site needs to have unique, fresh content. You can't just use the same article that countless other sites may have also picked up from the same article bank. And it can't just be a bunch of mediocre copy with keywords stuffed into it, either. The content needs to be interesting, relevant to your site's purpose, and "shareable". If it's something people would post a link to in their Facebook or Twitter update, you're golden (in Google's eyes, at least).

Sites that were making a lot of money from advertising, but had minimal original content, were penalized, too. An entire industry seemed to have sprung up in recent years of sites with not much to offer but a bunch of advertisements. Those sites aren't getting to the top of the search engines any more. Got to have that good content to get SEO mojo these days.

Also considered a black-hat technique was what some companies were selling as link-building services. They'd add links to your site from all sorts of unrelated sites, just to boost the number of other sites linking to your site and raise your profile in search results. Now, if you have a lot of inbound links from sites that aren't related to what your site's about, it subtracts from your Google ranking.

Next, Google rolled out its "+1" button. This is similar to the "Like" button on Facebook, but for search results. It enables people to have input into the search results they see. And, Google hopes, it will increase the popularity of "good" sites. But if people were gaming the system before, surely some will do the same with this. Companies will start selling the service of having a bunch of people hit the +1 button for your site (if they haven't already). So I'm not sure of the impact this will eventually have on search rankings.

The latest enhancement to search results is that now you see several sub-pages of the main domain ranking first in search results. If your site has up to 12 relevant pages other than your home page that are often visited by people, they'll show up in a two-column list underneath your main URL link when someone searches on a keyword where you rank #1-10. So it behooves you to create quality content that will draw traffic to several of your site's subpages, not just lump it all on your home page, so you'll have something to display in those "12-packs".

Panda includes many more changes than these, and since Google is pretty secretive about their algorithms, not all of the new factors are well known. But the game has definitely changed. Bottom line: you need new website copy. And it had better be well-written, interesting and relevant to your site's purpose. So, anybody need a good copywriter? ;-)