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Archive for April, 2008

Ever heard of a Real Doll? I beg you not to Google it, especially if you are at work. A Real Doll is a shockingly lifelike…partner…for lonely men. You might recall they made one of Kelly Carlson on FX’s demented “Nip/Tuck“…though it’s a wonder they had any silicone left over from making the actual Kelly Carlson to construct a doll! Anyway, forget everything you may know (or suspect) about these dolls, because it’s not that kind of story.

In Lars and the Real Girl our shy and painfully backward hero lives a life apart. He is an enigma to his co-workers, the folks at church, and even to his brother and sister-in-law, who live in their inherited home while Lars chooses to sleep on a cot in the garage. One day UPS unloads a crate at the house, and that evening Lars announces he is bringing a guest to dinner. Smash cut to stunned relatives staring at Lars seated at the dinner table next to a sex doll…a doll he considers real in every way.

The town shrink advises his family, co-workers and the townsfolk play along in hopes of helping Lars work through and shake this delusion. That commitment, and the healing that ensues play out in ways that constantly surprise us, because it never gets weird or hokey or over-the-top. The script by Nancy Oliver (Six Feet Under) is subtle, sweet and hopeful and truly deserving of its Best Original Screenplay nomination.

Lars is played by Ryan Gosling, seen previously in his Oscar- nominated turn as the strung-out teacher in “Half Nelson.” Other prominent names include Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson, actors who typically play pent-up, tightly wound supporting characters in pent-up, tightly wound little independent films. This, along with the bleak Canadian winter, really sets a stark tone for the proceedings. The sterile isolation of the picture’s opening presents a startling contrast to where Lars and the entire town eventually end up. Maybe too startling to be entirely believable (and not all the film critics were on board) but I found myself gladly going along for the ride.

Bottom line: A film about a guy who falls in love with a sex doll…that you could recommend to your mother? I’m as surprised as you are. So, get thee to a video store and rent the hell out of it!

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I think it’s unavoidable; whatever it is you do for a living, you observe others doing the same thing and you judge. I once had a friend who was an architect, and every building we would pass was too busy, too vertical, too…glassy-and-stony, and so on. One guy was a bartender, and the last place you wanted to be with him was a bar in his off-hours. “Geez, could you put MORE tonic in that, you hack!?”

With me it’s movies and TV. Long before I wrote for a living, I had spent 15 years in video production. So I am always noticing lighting, shot composition, camera moves, etc. Trust me, this is not a point of pride. It’s sort of an OCD thing that too often takes away from the experience.

When watching a film on a Friday night, I tend to drive people around me crazy with arcane observations (often accompanied by rewinding the DVD to illustrate) about some aspect of story structure. I once had a fantasy about doing film reviews for some alt-weekly somewhere. But you need to live somewhere large enough and cosmo enough to get early screenings. Sorry friends, Charleston is not that place.

Also, I tend to be very forgiving. I “get what the director was trying to do,” even if I don’t love the results. Real critics are paid to take a stand, however bitchy. I suppose, as Mr. Burns lamented on The Simpsons, I’m too nice.

Anyway, a small (!) circle of friends does take pity on my film affliction and asks my opinion from time to time. So I make mental notes when something really stands out, and once in a while I may share them with you. Tune in tomorrow!

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In an exciting twist that we all saw coming, the stirring conclusion to the corporate newsletter dilemma is to turn it over to a professional writer! Preferably, one based in Charleston but who serves clients nationwide!

On both the editorial and publishing sides, the professional copywriter can definitely help smooth out the rough spots. Just as importantly, the writer provides the corporate newsletter with something it rarely has…a singular voice. This may sound like something only a writer would care about but, trust me, it’s a much better read.

So, you get the gig. How do you get started? Your client probably has no idea, and is looking to you to grab the reins. Meet with the Manager and determine:

  • What kinds of stories he or she is after?
  • How will the types of stories be prioritized?
  • Who has final approval?

Then, meet with your internal…I don’t know what you call them…stringers, maybe. These are the marketing assistants who will running things on the inside. Carefully set up the responsibilities, procedures, the deadlines, etc. That’s the “publishing” side. On the “editorial” side of things, help them figure out what IS news, where to find it, and how to feed it to you in a format that is easily understood.

So, I follow all these steps and it’s instant success and universal acclaim, right? Right?

Easy Tiger. This is corporate communications. Here, the opposite of Crap isn’t “Genius!” The opposite of Crap is, “the newsletter? I guess it’s less crappy than it used to be.” In a business where the only Thanks you receive is getting paid in under 120 days, the corporate newsletter experience will seem very familiar. But, if you put on your business hat you’ll see that the newsletter provides something just as rewarding…a reliable four billable hours per week!

Genius!

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Previously on Battlestar Galactica, we learned that the corporate newsletter is dreamed up by a marketing or merchandising manager, and then immediately handed off to an assistant for execution, and that’s where it all starts to fall apart.

I realize now that this must have seemed pretty ironic, given my self-righteous grandstanding on Administrative Professionals Day. Not really, because it’s not her fault. And, no matter how much her boss “empowers” her when he dumps hands it off to her, it’s beyond her control:

  • This newsletter is only one of her eleventy-billion responsibilities.
  • She is expected to not only dig up stories on her own, but also channel stories from various other managers and directors she works with. Unfortunately,
  • She has no authority to prod those folks when they don’t contribute, and
  • She has no authority to edit their contributions.

Which brings us to one of the prime reasons corporate newsletters suck: too many cooks…or, more accurately, too many cooks and no executive chef. When you have six different people writing the newsletter, you invariably get:

  • Six different degrees of writing skill
  • Six different degrees of enthusiasm, and
  • Six different definitions of “humor.” (My personal fave!)

In the corporate world, anything cobbled together by six people means that responsibility for the thing is so diffuse that it will eventually die of neglect. So what’s the solution? That’s where the professional copywriter comes in. And it’s the topic of our stirring conclusion, coming Monday!

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The thing about corporate newsletters is that most of them suck.

Dude, don’t hold back. Give it to us straight!

Don’t worry; this statement will offend precisely nobody. Why? Because nobody writes the corporate newsletter. They only contribute to it, and obviously their part is wicked good. Somebody else, they’re not sure who, “puts it together.” And then, somehow, it ends up on the company’s intranet...where yes, they admit, it does suck.

Corporate newsletters can be valuable tools…when they are about something, and add value to the reader. Family Bowling Night, the Red Cross Blood Drive, and July Birthdays don’t count. I’m talking about useful stuff like:

  • Information on new products
  • New sales tools and collateral
  • Competitive intelligence
  • Success stories with lessons attached, i.e. Best Practices

The corporate newsletter is a great way to present a consistent message to a sales force that is spread out over a vast area like, I don’t know, North America. And it’s particularly valuable when it lives on the company’s intranet, where information doesn’t have to compete with public relations or confidentiality concerns.

The problem is that the idea of a newsletter is dreamed up by an internal marketing, merchandising or promotions manager…and then immediately passed off to some assistant for execution. It goes downhill from there, as you will read in our next thrilling installment!

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This is a touchy subject. If you wish someone a Happy Administrative Professionals Day, they will either A) thank you, or B) take offense that you consider them a “secretary.” Regardless, it’s a risk I am willing to take..but you can bet I try to be cool about it!

When you deal with the big corporate client, you are likely to spend most of your face time…or ear time… with an Admin. She routes your calls, sets up the phone conferences and, most critically, tracks down those invoices! If she is not your best friend on the inside, then you just don’t get it!

So take a moment to send her an email, or one of those dumb animated greeting cards!

Note to A: thanx for the reminder!

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inspiration

There are times I find myself impatiently, even nervously, Waiting for It. The inspiration, that is. I stare at my notes, at the client’s materials, at this pile of stuff, just waiting for the spark. And sometimes it’s slow in coming.

This can happen on my very first assignment with a new client, when that first impression is so crucial. For me, though, it’s more likely to be the seventh or eighth assignment, when I have said absolutely everything I can about their amazing product or service or patented process. When they change one detail, and expect a whole new animal.

So I have picked up a few tricks, fillers and time killers to occupy my brain and hopefully kick-start the creativity.

  • Change of scenery: Packing up and heading to the coffee shop, for a whole different set of distractions.
  • Shutting off the damn internet: sort of self-explanatory
  • Reading the job ticket: Sometimes I find a hidden morsel of previously overlooked info. “Oh, they want to SELL their product! That makes more sense!”
  • Thesaurus.com: I use this one all the time, on practically every job. “Ah, to garrote is to strangle! Good to know!”
  • Etymology: Studying the origins of words. In high school (Blackboard Jungle High ’82) I took two years of Latin, as well as Latin and Greek etymology. I’m like the dad in Big Fat Greek Wedding: “You give me word, I tell you Greek root.”
  • Reading the materials yet again: the client’s collateral stuff like their website, brochures, news clippings, or PR materials.
  • Imprinting: I don’t know a better word for it but, in severe cases, I will prop up their collateral stuff and start re-typing it word for word. The idea is to get their words in my head. I read that author Alexandra Ripley, having won the dubious honor of penning the sequel to Gone With the Wind, first copied the original novel in its entirety…by hand. The result, “Scarlett,” blew chunks, but I still like the idea.

When all else fails, just write. This is something I had to learn when I first started writing professionally. I used to think that if it wasn’t perfect on the first draft…I don’t know…that they would see what a FRAUD I was! I have since learned that you just need to give them something to react to. It’s just a first draft! It’s not meant to be perfect.

Besides, in the act of critiquing the first draft they just might actually, finally, tell you what they want.

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