The Art of the Email

My main mode of professional contact is email. Sure, social gatherings are important and nothing quite beats the intimacy of getting a cup of coffee and/or vodka with someone to win them over. But that’s a luxury few can afford in a world where most people are far too busy to waste time doing silly things like sitting and drinking something.

Which means that for communication, email is king.

I recently (yesterday) accidentally sent an email invitation to “See My Photos on Facebook!” to hundreds of people who had ever received or sent an email to me. And while I pondered how many penis-related mailing lists I accidentally signed myself up for with that action, I stumbled upon the thought of how important email really is. And not just email itself but the art of the email.

There are hundreds of books that try and teach you to be charming, hilarious, attractive and socially capable — but none (and I say that with the full power of no research at my back) talk about how to be all those things over email. See, the thing with email is that, unlike meeting someone in person, people can completely ignore your emails. “Hey, want to meet for lunch?” you ask someone — and, in six months, they respond, “Sorry, just got this. Nope.”

Luckily, I’m a neurotic writer, email (there it goes again) fits my personality quite well. I have even arrogantly decided that, throughout the years, I’ve developed my email writing skills enough to declare myself a professional emailer.

Below is a list of tips that I have gone a long way in helping me further my career and, in the process, develop a few new friendships. So, without further ado, here we go…

Leave a Personality Hook

Emails should be professional, yes, but professionals get professional emails all the time. Hundreds of them. It’s dull and it means these people — who are, in fact, people and not corporate drones — have to be their boring, professional selves all day. Even in writing. Even in an art form. So, bring themselves out of themsselves — give them what I always (just thought of this) call, “the personality hook.”

Let’s say you’ve been introduced to someone who can theoretically help you. An agent, the head of a production company, someone you need in short. You send them a professional email, the body of which thanks them for their time, introduces you to them, and generally asks for whatever you were going to ask for. Here’s where the hook comes into play, are you ready? Are you taking notes? Are you rolling your eyes? Okay, good.

After your main paragraph, throw in one quick sentence that’s a very casual joke. It can be about the person who introduced you, it can be about… anything. Self-effacing, poking fun at the topic, whatever it is, just give them a little something. The key is that it should be a comment that begs for a response. An amusing question, perhaps, but it should lure them into biting.

They are the fish, you are the fisherman — what you’re doing is seeing what kind of bait they’re into.

The hope is this: once they read your email, they’ll not only respond to the body but make a joke back. Then, you’re in. What starts happening, if you’re good, funny and can pick up on their sense of humor, is that before you know it, your emails are less professional and more jokey. That seems backwards but it isn’t — people won’t help Random Guy Who Needs My Help as much as they’ll help Guy I Can Joke Around With.

I know this sounds absolutely ridiculous, mildly manipulative and kind of dumb, but in a world where we’re constantly answering emails, it’s how friendships are made. It’s how you can break someone out of their auto-response and get their personality involved.

Brevity is the Soul of Wit

You know who said that? God. No, that’s not true, it was Shakespeare — but it may as well have been God. Don’t expound. Don’t send a 30 page letter from the war. Just write what you need, keep it fast, keep it fun, keep it easy, and send it off. Trust me, you’ll be doing everyone a favor.

Don’t Write Like An Idiot

Remember all those lessons from school? Like how “u” actually has three letters in it? It’s time to use those. It doesn’t matter who you’re emailing, start getting in the habit of spelling correctly and using proper grammar. Sending a poorly written email to a higher-up is a lot like calling them a racial epitaph in person (it’s true), so take some time, proofread, and make sure you don’t write like an idiot.

This also helps for love letters, by the way. “I luv u” is all fine and dandy if you’re 14 and texting, but it’s no way to electronically please a lady.

Gmail, Gmail, Gmail

You know how getting to know someone is important? Gchat is just perfect for it. I love when I email someone I need to meet and they have Gmail. It’s the easiest thing to add them  and, after some time, shoot them a quick comment on Gchat. If they bite, you start a conversation. You can really draw someone out, connect, and do the whole personality hook much quicker.

I loves me some Gmail.

Respond a Day Later

Sometimes, really busy people take an irritatingly long time to get back to you. Don’t rush in emailing them back — every email is a reminder to them that they have to get back to you. If you email them three reminders, you get really irritating. So, say they respond to you with, “We’ll get back to you in a couple of days!” Wait a day, maybe even two, and respond to them saying, “Great! Looking forward to it.” Or something in that vein. It’s a reminder camouflaged in a simple response.

Follow-Up, But Don’t Be a Douche

My “Don’t Be a Douch Rule” stretches out to not just email but every facet of life. Yes, follow-up after a week. Yes, check-in. No, don’t bother them. No, don’t expect a response. No, don’t be a douche about it. If they’re not responding, they’re not interested — give it a month, give it a couple of check-ins, if there’s nothing, well then, you don’t need them and they don’t need you.

Chill The Mailing List out

If I emailed you, it doesn’t mean I want to forever be on your mailing list. Please leave me alone, you’re becoming comparable to the guy that keeps talking about my “love hammer.”

Don’t Invite 500 of Them to Your Facebook

It struck me that while I did it by accident, I can see people doing this purposefully. It’s probably not worth it. Partly because it’s really annoying, and partly because you probably don’t want anyone who can maybe hire you in the future to see the photos of you with that prostitute that your friends thought would be totally funny to tag you in.

Finally, Don’t Be A Douche

I’d like to reiterate this. Don’t make friends so that those friends can help you. Don’t email people and play nice until you get ahead — let’s not continue to make the entertainment business a place of faux relationships and backstabbery. Don’t be a douche and good things will happen, really.

That’s all for my email tips. Feel free to add your own to the comments! I’d love to hear your own tips and tricks!


Lessons Learned Living Life in the Entertainment Industry

The last few years have been a bizarro in-between world for me. On one hand, I’m not deeply embedded in the LA entertainment industry, I don’t get paid millions of dollars, I don’t go to seventeen lunches a day and I don’t drive a hovercar. On the other hand, I’ve met with several networks, I’ve been inside the sexy onyx black cave that is the NBC Universal Film offices, I’ve pitched show ideas and I’ve had thousands of meetings that went nowhere.

So, I’m in a funny in-between place. I’ve licked the pole that is… no, bad analogy. I’ve tasted the sweet juices (okay, better) of the show business nectarine but I have not devoured the…

I’m not rich and famous yet, is what I’m saying.

But I’ve learned a lot. I’ve done things I never imagined I would and I am slowly, slowly pushing through the solid iron wall of douche toward success. I hope. The lessons I’ve learned are the lessons of someone fighting, scratching, punching at that wall — of someone not from LA, of someone taking a unique approach to film and television, of someone who doesn’t have rich parents or connections.

Of someone like most of you.

And so, without further ado, the things I’ve learned…

Set Your Sights

What do you want to do? “I’m sort of interested in editing” is not the correct answer. You need to figure out what you’re good at and what you enjoy the most and pursue it. The key is to know your own strengths well enough to make a good decision.

I absolutely adore acting (as my dad says — “You’re a writer, but if someone offered you an acting part, you’d drop everything to do it” — and he’s right), I’ve done it for years and I yearn for it. I miss it when I don’t do it for a while and it was the reason I even went into this field.

I started as an artist. I’ve taken art classes since I was 6 or 7, I’ve drawn and painted, I was an old high school friend away from going to Academy of Art College and majoring in computer animation. I love art, it’s what I wanted to do since I was a kid.

I started writing in college — and while I’ve had a decent amount of, “hey you’re pretty good”-comments toward my art and acting, I could immediately tell that writing was where my skill was. Don’t get me wrong — I’d explode if I couldn’t write, it really is one of my favorite things to do. But it came late and happened to be the thing I was not only good at, but, I thought, competitive in. In other words, I think there are plenty of actors and artists who are far more talented than I am, but I think as a writer, I can compete with professionals — which isn’t to say I don’t have a whole, whole, whole lot to learn and get better.

So, I’m a writer — and because I seem to be pretty good at organizing and getting stuff done, I’m a producer. It’s what I’m good at, it’s what I think I have the best chance of breaking into the industry with, and it’s what I had the most luck with.

Find your strength, your best skill — we all want to be Spielberg and Al Pacino, but if you’re a fantastic editor, that’s your way in.

Then, when you’re in, Spielberg it up.

Listen to People, But Also Don’t

Since I was a kid, I’ve often been told that this is how you do things. That this is the way, that you go down this path if you want A and you go down this path if you want B. To clarify — my parents never told me that — it was just a lot of other people.

And I hated it. Because, when I stubbornly refused to listen, I started realizing that generally, everyone is wrong. People tell you what they know from their experiences, but you’re not these people and your experiences will be significantly different. To be fortune cookie about it, there isn’t one path to success, everyone carves their own way. Your lucky numbers are 29, 20, 33, 29, and 9.

To break in as a writer in LA, I was always told you have to: write two spec scripts, send them to an agent, wait 7 to 10 years before an agent returns your email or letter (with a response that says, “Send me your samples” — and then it’s another 7 to 10 years, BUT STAY IN THERE!) and then wait as he tries to get you a third show that matches your strengths. At which point, if you’re lucky and better than the billions of other writers out there, you get a staff writing position on Moesha and in 20 years get a chance to pitch a script that you head write.

Okay, so, maybe I’m exaggerating — but that’s how it always sounded to me. I decided from the beginning that I wasn’t going to do that, I’m far too impatient and it just.. it wasn’t the way I wanted to take. So, we made Break a Leg when no one except The Burg was making web shows and now I’m here. Which, by the way, when we were making Break a Leg, everyone said, YOUR EPISODES ARE TOO LONG, NO ONE WATCHES ANYTHING ABOVE 115 SECONDS (oh yes, they counted in seconds) — but we ignored them. Average length now? 8-12 minutes. Which was our length.

Eat it, People Who Ran What Are Now Failed Video Sites!

That said, completely ignoring what professionals say is silly too. It’s a careful line to tread. Personally, I try to listen to what everyone says and then mangle it into what works for me. It’s like learning film structure — once you’re an expert in what a script is supposed to feel like, you can start twisting it and turning it in your own unique way.

So, listen, learn, and then do it your way — it’s the only way to succeed past “meh” and achieve the great heights of, “hey!”

Don’t Be A Douche

I know that everyone seems like a douche when you’re in LA. And they are. But you know what I noticed? Almost everyone I met who was higher — for example, the NBC executives — were like the nicest people ever. They were friendly, funny, helpful, easy to talk to and felt like real humans.

This leads me to believe, perhaps wrongly, two things:

1. While you can succeed as a douche, you can also succeed as a good person. The latter’s ladder seems more enjoyable to climb.

2. That these people in charge who I met got there because they were good people. And, since one of them helps run the comedy department and NBC Universal and the other one is charged with finding talent for NBC Universal’s film department, I feel like if I follow in their nice footsteps I’ll eventually get a nice job.

Quick story: the last douchey ‘higher-up’ I talked to was someone important at HBO Interactive. Half the conversation was him talking in a very self-important voice about what he did and what he was in charge of — a month later they closed HBO Interactive.

Don’t be a douche, it’s just so much better that way.

Don’t Wait For People To Do It For You

That seems like fortune cookie wisdom also, but this is something I really learned in the last few years. With Break a Leg, we waited for the marketing company we worked with to do something, after Break a Leg we waited on our “sort of manager, mostly friend” to get us jobs — and while both helped, nothing started happening quite as much as when I started doing it myself.

The same goes for agents, managers, friends who promise you things — whatever. The way I see it? Anyone who wants to help is completely welcome to help — but you should be working your ass off trying to push yourself further. My most recent approach has been to really follow-up on any quick ideas I have (hey, I should email this guy, why not?) and throw everything I’ve got at the proverbial wall to see what proverbially sticks.

Since I decided to do that in June or so, we’ve gotten a network deal, four or five production jobs (with plenty more coming), a blog that people read and sometimes like (hi people!), and a new show in the works that I have really high hopes for. I’m not bragging, I’m really not (I’d have to have a bank account that didn’t make African children laugh to brag), I’m just saying — the hard work is slowly paying off. I hope.

So, stop waiting for everyone, just get it done.

Periodically Leave Your Artistic Circle

Here’s what I mean — LA is bizarro world. I’m not sure if people living in it understand that and just adapt, or they think it’s like that everywhere, but I promise you, it’s bizarro world. Likewise, the web community is bizarro in its own way. The problem with constantly being surrounded by the same artistic community is you get insulated from the real world. You start forgetting what real people like, what real people look for, how real people talk. Forget the fact that it affects how you view and portray the world as an artist (our job is to show the real world, not the bizarro land in which we all live), it also starts forcing you to take the same paths as everyone else. For example, everyone is making a 3 minute web show? I’ll make a 3 minute web show! Everyone is succeeding by doing X? I’ll do X!

It hampers ideas and creative thought. So take a step back, hang out with a few normies, and then see what that does for you.

Have a Sense of Humor

Especially about yourself, your work and what you do. As soon as you start taking yourself too seriously, you’ve started becoming the douche of which we spoke of earlier.

Help Others

Not because there’s a chance they’ll get famous and help you (but who knows?!) — but because of all the people who have helped you along the way. If you’ve had the bizarre experience of having fans follow your work — answer their questions, talk to them, talk to everyone, help anyone you can within the best of your abilities. I don’t mean to be San Francisco about it, but, good karma is like totally worth it, man.

Struggling in this business creates a very jungle, everyone-for-themselves environment and it’s very easy to be selfish. Very easy to help only when it helps you. Fight that urge, selflessness never killed anyone.

…unless you selflessly lose your life for someone… Just shut up and be nice.

Know Your Own Skill

It’s easy to be arrogant. It’s easy to doubt yourself. It’s easy to constantly evaluate yourself in one extreme or the other. That doesn’t help. If you can’t tell that your work is worse than other people’s and don’t try to get better, you’re not getting anywhere. If you’re too down on yourself to try and reach for the stars, the same goes for you.

Know your skill, but don’t, again, be a douche about it. Know what your truly capable of — only then can you actually get better.

Actually Talk To People

You remember what talking is like? It’s not waiting for them to finish so you can tell them about your movie idea. It’s not telling people about your successes while they struggle to stay away. It’s not even begging them to read your script. It’s actual, like, talking to people. Listen to what they say, respond in kind, show interest (and actually be interested) in their lives. Joke around, have fun, we’re all people here, we’re not just evil suits, flakey agents or insane artists — we’ve got similar motivations, similar struggles and we’re all worried that when we talk to people, they use their laser sight to note all of our imperfections.

So, just talk to people.

And don’t be a douche.

That, for now, is it! I’d love to hear all of the lessons you all have learned from your experiences! Share, please, please share!



The Greatest Channukah Video You Will Ever See

Okay, so I like grand titles.

To those of you who aren’t Jews — today is the first day of Channukah. You’ve heard of it before — it’s that one that lasts 8 days, has candles and is killing Christmas.

Anyway! In celebration of the first day, I have decided to post a video we did for Channukah a few years back that takes place in the Break a Leg world. This was a favorite among our fans at the time and one of our favorites as well. Ironically, it kind of fits the writing blog below (or at least the one about being a bad writer), so, check it out and happy candle-lighting!

Pass it on!

Oh, and by the way guys — feel free to follow me on Twitter (@YuriBaranovsky) — it’s where I update everyone about new blogs and try to be very funny about things in my life. Very, very funny.

Goodnight!

Angela Pallari

The Greatest Scriptwriting Tips You Will Ever Read

So, you’ve bought all of your How-To books, you’ve structured your idea, you’ve consumed thousands of cups of coffee while busily writing your notes and now… now you have to write a script.

So, it’s probably time to give up.

The fact is, the hardest part about writing is the writing part. Anyone can lay out a strong structure for a script — but it takes talent, patience and a little bit of insanity to actually write something good.

It also takes time. You have to learn through trial and error, and you have to figure out what tricks work for you. I’ve been doing this whole writing thing for a while now, and while I don’t pretend to be any kind of writing guru, I am trying to get my writing guru license.

Which is why I have compiled a list of writing tips that I have known to be right and true. I have, because I am, like a writing Buddhist monk, humble, I have titled it simply:  The Greatest Scriptwriting Tips You Will Ever Read.

Here we go.

1. Write. A lot.

This one seems simple, but it isn’t — fact is, much like most art, you need to be in a mood to write and sometimes these moods are few and far apart. This, however, is no excuse.

You should write every single day — it can be the script you’re working on, it can be other scripts, it can even be fan fiction for your favorite romance novel (“She ran her fingers through his sensually curled chest hair…”) but you need to write at least a page a day. Why? Because writing is a lot like playing a sport. If you play every day, you’re going to get better, you’re going to have the rhythm and timing of the game become reflexive so you can play it at its highest level without thinking. Writing is similar. You want to get into a rhythm, a frame of mind, you want your brain to be ready to open the creative gates and let the writing flow.

So write, write, and write again — it’s what writers do.

2. Don’t Edit Yourself.

I mean this in two very important ways.

The first: It’s very easy to imagine your mother or father watching the production of your script and recoiling in terror at the sexual innuendo and nude scenes that you’ve stuffed in there for plot development (and to see your actors naked). It’s even easier to imagine your friends all hating you when they recognize your characters’ odd ticks as being their own — but don’t. In fact, stop caring right now. Art can’t be censored, and if what you’re writing is good you have to be faithful to the work and ignore the consequences of it. Frankly, if you want to be a writer, the work is what’s important, and once the work is finished, then you can deal with your parents asking you why it was necessary to title your script, The Penis.

The second: My brother is a great writer — but it can take him a week to write two pages because he tries to craft the perfect script page by page by page. A lot of good writers do that, and it not only kills any love you have for the idea, it also is about as fun as chewing out your own veins. Finish your script then edit. Life is so much easier when you’ve got a beginning, middle and end. It can be awful, it can be the worst thing you’ve ever read — but you’ve got something to work with and it’s much easier to mold awful into amazing when you at least have awful.

As I would say if I was a sassy black woman — baby, if you start with nothin’, you ain’t gonna have nothin’ to work with.

So finish, then mold.

3. Torture Your Characters.

A script is the time in a character’s life when something extraordinary happens. It’s the part in their life when they say, “Everything was normal until…” A script is also a time in a character’s life where they learn something, something that changes everything. How do you do this? You torture the hell out of your characters. As long as it matches your plot and idea, there’s no limit to the awful things that you can’t have happen to them. Beat them down, beat them until they’re lost, beat them until they’ve given up, beat them until every decision they make is about life or death (either literally or just to them) — beat them until they are forced to grow and change and struggle and finally, in the end, grow to a point where they can defeat Darth Vader.

4. Find a Writing Space.

Every writing book mentions this and I used to think it was one of those silly suggestions that they all have, like, “Write a note to yourself saying how proud you are of your own script!” …but finding a writing space is really good advice.  I write best when it’s raining, jazz is playing and I have a cup of coffee sitting proudly in my Break a Leg mug.  I also write well in coffee shops, but they have to be a particular kind of coffee shop — brick walls, good music, a generally cozy feeling. I learned to write from Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, et cetera — so, that might be the reason why my brain begs me to recreate New York in the winter time for the perfect writing environment.

Whatever space makes you feel writer-ey try to recreate it. It seems like fluff advice, but it makes a huge difference. It’s like you’re giving your brain a comfortable therapist chair where it can safely tell you all of its crazy.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Kill Your Babies.

This isn’t so much writing advice as it is an important life lesson… kill your babies.

Hear me out.

When I wrote my first full-length play, I put it up at my college and my drama teacher (not Carla Zilbersmith, but a gruff, old man who everyone worshipped but who I thought was a terrible, terrible director) gave me the only good piece of advice he ever gave: “Don’t be afraid to kill your babies.” Just smash their skulls against a rock.

What he meant was, don’t fall in love with your jokes, your precious moments, your plot points — anything (at least I assume that’s what he meant, he could’ve just thought I’d have ugly babies). I’ve found myself thinking of ways to wrap my script around a single scene that I love — only to find out that the script was in fact far stronger when that scene was cut. I’ve written around jokes because I thought they were too brilliant to get rid of. I’ve stuck with a plot point because I thought it was perfect only to realize that, in the end, it was the main problem with the script. Every time I have stubbornly fallen in love with a piece of my own writing at the sake of the rest of the story, I’ve been shown the error of my ways. Namely, the script is far weaker because of it.

Just remember: There’s no joke that is too funny to cut. There’s no moment too good that you can’t find a better one. There’s no line too powerful that it’s worth hurting your script for.

Kill your babies.

6. When Creativity Fails, Get Life’s Help.

Life tends to be way more interesting than art — if your brain freezes, look at life for help. Read stories, talk to friends, randomly Wikipedia things, go out and watch people. Let your brain wander and look for motivation and ideas in life — it is, after all, your muse.

7. Talk it Out.

If you’re stuck, talk to someone you trust about the script. I tend to go to my brother when I’m stuck on a script point — there are very few things that he and I can’t brainstorm through. Sometimes, you get stuck in your own brain and it becomes increasingly hard to solve a problem in there. Talk it out. Even if it’s telling people who could care less — it might get your brain working. I find homeless people are perfect for this — they’ll tell you about ‘Nam, you tell them that you’re not sure how to get the two lovers together, and somewhere in the middle, you’ll both figure out the answer to your questions. Which will generally be, “We need more crack.”

8. Know When To Give Up.

You should never give up… on writing. But, sometimes, your idea is just… well, bad. You think it’s great, you think that it’s going to change the world and you’ve already imagined the flock of women/men surrounding your limo, begging for you to sign their breast/testicle — but, somewhere in the middle you may realize that, no… your idea is just terrible.

Don’t give up immediately of course. Write different drafts, show it around, try and change what you’re writing, shake up the story, whatever. Try everything. But in the end, if nothing works — stop. Just… stop.

There are bad ideas. Not all art is art, some art is garbage (and not in that artistic way that people use garbage). So, trash the idea and start over. Perhaps, the genius moments in this script will be even better if used in a new idea, a new concept, a new page. Or maybe not.

If you’ve learned how to kill your babies, you should also learn to drown your full-sized children.

But don’t actually do any of that because it would be murder and stuff.

9. Don’t Edit Forever, Know When To End.

Because brevity is the soul of wit, because you can tinker with a script forever, because it’s only appropriate that I end this article with this simple idea:

Know when to end.

Fin.

Blackout.

Fade Out.

Whatever.


(…if you have any questions, email me or leave a comment, I’ll gladly answer!)