What Did You Say?

By Miko Johnston

I’ve been thinking a great deal about words lately. Part of the reason is that I recently pitched a story I’d written almost two decades ago to a producer who’s shown some interest in the project. It contains language that would be inappropriate for this blog, but while the comic murder mystery at the heart of the story is meant to entertain, its satirical backdrop illustrates society’s relationship with certain words over the last half-century.

Anyone who’s lived more than a few decades has seen a loosening of standards in the media as well as in general life. While this blog – and  I suspect some of you – may eschew using certain words, I’ll bet your standards have changed along with the rest of our world. I’ve seen words in newspaper articles I’d never expect to see in print. I rarely watch TV except when I travel, but even with my limited exposure I’ve heard language in television programs – and I’m talking network TV, not cable – that wouldn’t have been permitted in the past.

Do you recall George Carlin’s Seven Words you can’t say on TV? Lately a few have slipped by. I recently heard a TV news anchor say a word I never expected to hear, having to do with bovine excrement, without a peep from the network or FCC. One of the Democratic candidates uttered another Carlin no-no during the first debate. A few words are still off-limits, and by my account we’ve added a new one to the list (hint: it starts with an N).

I’m not only thinking about obscenities. I’ve also noticed how many ‘ordinary’ words have been redefined or had their meaning augmented. Take the word average. It’s a mathematical term, yet it’s taken on social connotations. We hear about the average person and equate it with falling straight down the middle of a ranking system, not being good or bad. No one aspires to be average anymore; it has become something to avoid, either as a person or as an opinion.

As a writer, I find I must be more precise in my usage of certain words because of this. It concerns me that something I say or write could be misinterpreted. As a former journalist, my goals in reporting were ABC: Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity. Let’s not get into accuracy in news. Brevity translates into sound bites – catch phrases and such, or interrupting a speaker who takes more than a microsecond to get a point across. These days Clarity must include weighing a word’s intended meaning against what it’s perceived to mean. Social shifts, political correctness, and cultural rebranding have all contributed to this landscape, opening up new possibilities for writers as well as new dangers.

On occasion I’ve read lines of writing that could be misinterpreted. In each case I had close ties to the author, so I knew better than to take offense at what they wrote. However, readers who lack that personal advantage might not see it that way. I also worry a great deal about doing that myself and have on more than one occasion censored my work rather than risk the possibility of having someone take my words to mean something I never intended.

Have you thought about this as well? Are you concerned with the possibility that something you’ve written could be taken as insulting or offensive even if that wasn’t your intent?

 

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Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

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(Posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Late Night” At The Writers Room

Jill Amadio

JillAmadioSlogging away as we do on our mysteries, enjoying making sure we’ve planted subtle and not-so-subtle clues and fascinating red herrings, it’s a marvelous feeling to write The End and look forward to working on the second draft.

After the third or fourth draft and you’ve decided that your manuscript is publication-worthy, how often has the thought flashed through your mind of it being picked up by Hollywood? Have you sat and imagined the different scenes coming to life, your characters personified by, say, Meryl Streep and Anthony Hopkins? I’ve always dreamed of Emma Thompsonplaying my amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, but she’d have to dye her hair dark and grow it to her waist. 

A few days after I tried to picture Emma thus transformed and realized it probably wouldn’t work unless I switched Tosca’s dark hair to Emma’s blonde locks, I received an invitation to Fox Studios. Charlie, a screenwriter and author friend who lives nearby, is a member of the Screenplay Development Group at Fox. Each month the group is supplied with the script of a current movie, urged to see the film, and invited to critique both forms of entertainment. At the meeting we were to discuss and voice our feedback while comparing the two genres.

Coincidentally, our script last month was “Late Night,” a comedy starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling who produced and wrote it. Be still my heart! The first three pages of the script were evaluation sheets for discussion at the meeting. Charlie pointed out to me that the script itself was held together by only two staples, the middle hole left empty. If a third staple was added the writer would be considered an amateur and the script immediately dumped in the rubbish bin.

We decided to drive up early to LA for lunch, see the movie, and then go on to Fox.  We had both read the script and discussed it between ourselves a few days earlier over coffee and found we agreed that the premise was excellent, the execution of the idea rated a Very Good, and the dialogue was spot on and very funny.  We were to rate the character roles, settings, visuals, writer intentions, relationships, plot, etc. We also had to consider the cost of making the movie and were provided with amounts ranging from $5-200 million. Charlie and I figured we’d need only $10 million because there were very few set changes. Most of the action took place, coincidentally, in a studio’s Writers Room.

I knew that the Writers Room was where the magic happened, having seen Writers Rooms on TV shows. Reminded me of my first job in the newsroom of a newspaper. To me, both magical places. At Fox I envisioned all those creative types sitting around thinking up jokes, sex, violence, and crazy dialogue. I remember a movie wherein two writers were locked in the Room until they came up with a better script. On the other hand, I need complete silence and solitude when I write but I hoped being thrown into this new environment might spark some new book ideas.

Charlie and I drove down Pico Blvd to make sure Fox Studios was still standing, then headed off in the opposite direction to the Westside Pavilion, a large shopping mall, for lunch. We found an entrance to the parking garage and Charlie, for some reason, said it was best to drive up to the roof. We noticed no cars parked anywhere and decided the mall had not opened yet, must be too early. We proceeded blithely up the ramp, saw boarded up windows everywhere and realized the Pavilion was closed. Permanently. We turned the car around and drove down but were stopped at the exit by a large wooden barrier arm that refused to raise. Charlie pressed all the buttons and finally shouted into the ticket slot. Eventually a guard came out, shook his head at us for not knowing the mall had closed a year ago and let us out, no charge.

On Sunset Blvd we found a coffee shop that sold lattes and blueberry muffins for outrageous prices.  Charlie pointed out that the meeting would be catered. In Hollywood language that meant tons of food. Slightly fortified but poorer we drove over to the Landmark cinema to watch the matinee of  “Late Night.”  We noted that the first several pages of the script had been scrapped and the action began in New York, not London. Emma, in the script, is depicted as something of a loose woman, married, with lots of lovers. In the movie she indulges in only a single one-night stand. Wonder who changed that around? Also, the ending was entirely different, so we knew there’d be lots of pro and con at the meeting.

Along Pico Blvd we spotted the Fox Studios sign. Exciting! We’d received two pages of instructions on how to enter and what to say to the guard at the studio gate, where to find the Steven Bochco Building, where to park, and told in VERY LARGE BOLD LETTERS not to enter any other building on the lot.  No sir!

Pretty soon several others arrived and we went inside to register and find a seat at the immensely-long writers table. Must have been carved from a redwood tree. My blood pressure rose, I am sure, because this was such an adventure and we were in a real, real movie studio. Despite my many years interviewing celebrities and a bit part in “Dr Zhivago” that was filmed in Spain when I lived there, this sent my heart racing. It’s one thing to be on an outside set, fun but okay, and another to be on a lot where several movies are filmed simultaneously and buildings are named after the famous.

There were about 38 of us sitting around the table, average age was, surprisingly, 40s with a few maybe in their 30s. Several older men and women were there and were veteran writers. Long-time producer Bill Taub led the discussion and we went around the table describing what we were working on. Blatant but truthful, I announced I was an author and had just finished adapting my third script to a book after my clients had been told to Write the Book First. Everyone else was a screenwriter. One person had adapted her novel to a script, and three attendees were in film school at UCLA. No one had a movie in production but three had sold to studios.

The actual discussion was lively, a little argumentative, and revealing. I kept quiet most of the time, making notes for a possible future murder in a Writers Room. The changes between the “Late Night” script and the movie, of course, were the subject of much talk as well as a learning curve and a warning that such cuts were typical. We all wondered why Emma’s persona was cleaned up and agreed that cutting the first ten pages unfortunately eliminated the set-up of how Brit Emma came to be a famous late-night TV talk show host in New York and was married to some old chappie.

Charlie and I continued our discussion driving home, me still high with excitement, and decided we would join the group again at a later date. I’m not sure if any of the talk helped me with my own writing because the genres are so different. Even so, input about dialogue was valuable as far as getting to the point of a scene and knowing that instead of a character being described in a script simply as Female Comic, 19, nervous, I can flesh her out in my book, paint word pictures, and endow her with thoughts and emotions I want her to have rather than a character re-created by a film director who probably hadn’t read my book.

Still, when all is said and done, getting your sleuth onscreen must be very special indeed.

 

Late Night – Official Trailer | Amazon Studios

 

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(Posted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin.)

 

 

 

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Four P’s for Independence Day Writing

by Jackie Houchin

Patriotism

What authors come to your mind as you think of Patriotism? First in my mind are David Baldacci and Tom Clancy for action, suspense, and adventure. I also love David McCullough (1776), and Joseph J. Ellis (Founding Brothers) for making American history come alive. For kids, who could forget Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain.

These books make me love my country and stand proud when I hear the national anthem sung or see our flag pass by in a parade.

flag.libertyWhen returning home from a recent trip in April and touching down in Washington D.C., the South African pilot announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the United States of America.”   I have to admit, I got a lump in my throat and tears welled in my eyes. So often I take the privilege of living in “the States” for granted. So many in the world would change places with me in a heartbeat!

Privilege

Along with all the abundance and freedom we have and love, come the costs. We commemorate some of them each Memorial and Veteran’s Day…. lives and limbs lost by brave young men who freely took up arms to defend our way of life.

The other “cost” of living free is not free at all. Yep, it’s all those income, sales, and property taxes that keep on coming… until we die. (There is even a death tax!) But yeah, you have to admit, highways, police and fire protection, security, courthouses, judges and jails that assure our rights all come at a cost. And we pay it, even if grudgingly, because America is the best place in the world to live.

And where else can we write what we will without fear (as long as it does no harm to others or plagiarizes).

Posterity

Those who follow us; whether our own children and grandchildren, or as writers, our faithful readers. What sense of loyalty and passion are we inspiring in them for our country? Or gratitude for our way of life?

Here’s a challenge. Why not write a short (short) story, article, or poem this week that promotes some good aspect of America. Research a monument, a funny law, one of the Rights, or interview a policeman or fireman for the reason they became what they are.

IMG_2221In a church in Florence, Italy, I discovered (along with the burial place of Michelangelo and Marconi) a statue that very well could have been the inspiration for the French gift of the Statue of Liberty. Softer, more feminine, but amazingly similar!

And for a contest, I once wrote a short story about an immigrant man who loved “another woman.” His wife was heartsick as he visited her often and sighed in admiration for her beauty. It was a happy day for her when she discovered her husband’s ‘love’ was “Lady Liberty.”

Peace

Usually, unless you are writing Literary Fiction, your stories will end with some sort of resolution, some sense of justice done or won, and things restored to a peaceable if not perfect situation.

Usually there are many struggles and conflicts that your protagonists must face in your mystery or romance or adventure. Horrible things happen to them (at your hand), but at the end? Law and order reigns, and your readers can sigh in relief. (And maybe write a cool review!) Peace in a story or in a country is worth the struggle.

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As we celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks, hot dogs, macaroni salad (Yankee Doodle called that feather in his hat, macaroni after all) and red, white, ‘n blue paper plates, streamers and clothing, remember to look around for possible story ideas or characters who would die for their country … and the villains who will try to make sure they do.

God has blessed America so much! Be a writing patriot.

 

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