Where’s the Guacamole, Jules? The Importance of Detail in Story

The InternWhen writing, I often think of a scene from Steve Martin’s L.A. Story. In the scene, Marilu Henner looks into a mirror and turns around. She tells Steve Martin:

“[T]he best thing to do is, right before you go out, look in the mirror and turn around real fast, and the first thing that catches your eye, get rid of it.”

Sometimes writing is like that. If it stands out too much, and there’s no reason for it, it might be better to leave it out. Details, even small ones, can hurt. Maybe not enough to kill, but just enough to take the audience out of the story.

When I went to see The Intern this week, I expected nothing more than a bittersweet comedy about the modern corporate life, getting older, and finding a decent work/life balance. And the film delivered.

Where it falls apart, however, is in the details.

Robert De Niro plays Ben Whittaker, a 70-year old retiree who is looking for something to fill his days. Anne Hathaway plays Jules Ostin, a young entrepreneur, trying to juggle the responsibility of running a successful online company with managing her personal life. Ben applies for the senior internship program at Jules’ company, and becomes a friend, confidant, and mentor to many of the employees.

But the story is really about Jules, whose professional and personal lives are at a crossroads of sort. Writer/director Nancy Meyers tells a good story, but a few details could have used some extra attention.

1. The Guacamole

The Setup: In an early scene we see Jules dropping off her daughter, Paige (JoJo Kushner), at school. The other moms tell her that there’s some event on Friday and Jules is supposed to bring the guacamole. The moms are snarky and tell her she doesn’t have to make it, she can buy some. In a very sweet moment, Jules promises Paige they will make the guacamole together.

The Problem: The scene never pays off. No more mention of the guacamole at all. When Jules has to go to San Francisco on Thursday, I thought there’d be some conflict. But there was none. Continue reading

My Ultimate Halloween Playlist

Three Skeletons Playing MusicWhat makes the best Halloween music? Is it spooky music? Halloween-themed lyrics? Or maybe it’s just creepy music that you associate with that movie that scared the crap out of you as a kid.

While I am certainly no expert in music, I wanted to be a disc jockey when I was a kid. Back in the day, I might have made a mix tape, but the times and the vernacular have changed. Now, after years of exhaustive research, I have compiled the ultimate Halloween playlist.

Before I delve into the playlist itself, I want to mention a few of the particulars that went into my selection.

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The Zombie Apocalypse Is Over

I Want You to Stop Writing About ZombiesIt’s October, which is my favorite time of the year. This month has everything: my birthday, falling autumn leaves, crisp cool air, scary movies, ghost stories, costumes, and trick-or-treating. It also means writers like me tend to flex their horror-writing muscles.

This year, I would like to make the following pledge: I will not write any zombie stories. Not now. Not ever.

As a writer, my desire is to find new and compelling stories to tell. Lately, the horror genre has been over-saturated with zombies. And it needs some (wait for it…) fresh blood.

Zombies (like the sparkly vampires before them) have had their moment in the sun. It’s time to lay the undead to rest.

The Rise of Zombies

Until a few short years ago, no one really dared to tap the zombie genre. It was sort of George Romero’s personal playground, and other filmmakers and writers gave it wide berth. Sure, there were some movies (like Sam Raimi’s classic Evil Dead series), but zombies weren’t really a thing. With the advent of video games like Resident Evil and films like 28 Days Later, zombies started shambling—or running—into the mainstream consciousness.

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Banned Books Week 2015

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” —The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America

Banned Books WeekThis week, the American Library Association (ALA) celebrates our freedom to read with Banned Books Week (September 27 – October 3). This annual event challenges Americans to consider their most basic freedom, the Freedom of Speech and Press, and honor the literature that has made an impact on our society.

I first became interested in Banned Books Week back in the early 2000s, when I was working at a university. I didn’t know the first thing about banned or challenged books, but the more I read the more I began to see the complexity of this sensitive subject.

For many people, the idea of banning books seems distant and remote. It conjures images of book burnings during Hitler’s Nazi regime. Yet, the idea hits closer to home. Some wonderful pieces of literature, including Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, and even Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax have been the center of censorship debates in the past.

Since 1990, the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has received reports of 9,500 attempts to remove books deemed by some as inappropriate.

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Artist Spotlight: John Anealio

This week I’m starting a new segment that (I hope) will become a regular entry on my blog. Instead of talking about myself or my work, I’m going to talk about someone else whose work has made a difference in my life. It may be a writer, filmmaker, musician, designer, or illustrator. But I promise that these won’t be names you’ve likely heard of, even though they mean a lot to me.

Laser Zombie Robot Love by John Anealio

Laser Zombie Robot Love by John Anealio. Artwork by Len Peralta.

To get this party started, I’m going to talk about John Anealio. Since 2010, John has been co-hosting The Functional Nerds podcast with Patrick Hester. But what introduced me to John was his eclectic style of music.

Trying to categorize John’s music difficult. Some of his songs have an alternative sound, some have an acoustic sound like folk music, others have a pop hook that makes them very memorable.

But no matter the style, it’s John’s lyrics that captivated me. John calls it “nerd music.” I call it inspired.

John writes songs that appeal to the geek in me. His album Laser Zombie Robot Love (and isn’t that the coolest title?), includes beautiful tunes inspired by a “Steampunk Girl,” an “Angry Robot,” and the fact that “George R.R. Martin is Not Your Bitch.”

In each song, John tells a micro-story. And while some are clever or silly, many give a poignant look at the life of a geek. For instance, with “Steampunk Girl,” he tells of a young girl adopting a new fandom and leaving her goth days behind.

“So, she’s putting on her goggles and a bowler hat
She checks her pocket watch, adjusts her rocket pack
She laces up her boots and puts her makeup on
She grabs her leather coat and her Tesla Gun

Cause she used to be a Goth Kid but now she’s a Steampunk Girl”

On his album Seasons Geekings, John writes a sad (but very-relatable) tale in “The Millennium Falcon for Christmas.” As one might imagine, it’s the story of a child obsessed with getting his favorite Star Wars spaceship as a Christmas present in 1979.

“I just wanted the Millennium Falcon for Christmas
and a season full of cheer
I just wanted the Millennium Falcon for Christmas
but I didn’t get it that year”

It could be easy to dismiss his music as novelty songs, the type that Dr. Demento might have played on his radio show back in the day. Yet, John’s music transcends the campy, transforming his words and stories from mere goofiness to heart-felt and beautiful poetry. Whether he’s performing his own songs or covering favorites like “Mr. Roboto” or the “The Transformers Theme,” he always brings something personal and different to the music.

In 2013, John re-directed his creative energy to focus on his podcast. But he still puts out new music now and then. His 2014 Works in Progress, includes the song “Nerds Arguing About Spaceships.” It’s a melancholy tune that belies the playfulness of the lyrics. Even though it’s not yet available as a download, it’s a nice treat to listen to on his site. And hopefully it’s a sign that John’s musical muse is not completely finished with him.

You can find out more about John:

His music: johnanealio.com

His podcast: The Functional Nerds

Twitter: @JohnAnealio