Last night I met a collaborator at a bar on the UES to discuss a potential TV pitch.
We're both in love with the concept and think it will make for an amazing cable television series (lots of patented Goldfarb cursing and intense sexual situations!).
I'd already written a pilot script and, though it was pretty good, it wasn't quite there yet. I knew it, and so did my collaborator Jake.
My background is film which is somewhat different from TV. More different than you'd think. I'd never been "in the room"--i.e. pitched something--for television. Jake had.
So I asked Jake what we'd need--what two essential "nobodies," and we are by TV standards--would need to both get invited into a pitch meeting and then to wow the network heads. And he told me.
AMC would want this and he knew FX would want that, HBO might need this, and so on. But it was all pretty much the same: a well-honed pilot script, some character bios, and perhaps a piece of paper or two detailing how season one would progress as a "leave behind."
So we started banging that stuff out.
Would the networks find the pilot boring since there was no real action in the first ten minutes of screen time? Surely. So we bumped the big surprise scene from the end of the script to the seven minute mark.
Was the older male lead written in a juicy enough manner to attract a big name actor? Hard to say. It always is. We were determined to make him funnier.
Our show isn't exactly "high concept," how could we quickly explain it? We came up with some sexy pitch lines.
It's not a show about doctors or lawyers or cops, how do we pitch that?! We thought of a way.
What other previously successful shows could we compare it to?
"Seinfeld" mixed with "The Sopranos" with a twist of Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight" At the same time, we couldn't help but additionally reference "Breaking Bad," "Mad Men," "Friday Night Lights," "Californication," "Nurse Jackie," "The League," "Nip/Tuck," and countless others. Lofty.
We began trying to restructure the pilot script to immediately wow network heads on a quick read, to get us asked into the room.
We started crafting character bios to attract the best big name talent, to give them true scene-stealing roles, like Walton Goggins in "Justified" or Aaron Paul in "Breaking Bad."
We tried to plot out seasons one and two in such a way that our show would become what Jake called an "episode factory"--a show so high concept, well-structured, and with so many conflicts it would be easy for us to constantly churn out episodes, easier for network heads to see that we could do such a thing.
Oh, but would we need a show runner I asked Jake. Of course. No way they'd let us run the whole shebang. We'd need a true pro to align ourselves with.
I was giddy with excitement at all we'd accomplished in just one happy hour.
We shook hands and parted ways, Jake heading downtown to restructure the pilot, me westward to keep thinking about seasonal story arcs.
And then, once I got alone and was walking toward the west side, only then did it hit me...
Never once had we asked ourselves:
"What will audiences think of this?"
When really, that's all that should matter with art.
The other day, my new friend Tyler Hurst Tweeted that he wanted to get on "lists" like I'm on.
By that, he meant the free shit lists.
What are the free shit lists? And how do you get on them? Why let me explain...
Despite the gangsta rap lifestyles you see all these novelists around you living, it's not necessarily the most lucrative industry. What with bad royalty breaks, slow contractual payments, "Hollywood economics," and shady publishers. But while having a book might not be lucrative economically, it does offer an abundance of riches in other ways: access to important people, a tchotchke you can carry around at all times to impress idiots, and lots and lots and lots of free shit.
Oh, I get soooo much free shit nowadays.
I spend most nights with my girlfriend and return home every morning to find a stack of boxes from UPS and FedEx. And what free shit do the boxes contain?
Usually beer, booze, and books. Sometimes books on beer and booze like "Chasing the White Dog" an awesome book on moonshining by Max Watman which I've actually been sent three separate times in three different formats. It's quite good.
This last week alone I've gotten bourbon from Wild Turkey (their barrel proof Rare Breed is some seriously delicious fire water I've been nightcapping with every single night lately), some never-before-released beers from the Alexander Keith brewery out of Nova Scotia (not bad for macro swill), and the galleys for Todd Henry's eagerly anticipated new book "The Accidental Creative" (50 pages in and it's already a corker!)
I'm a noted beer connoisseur, a noted drinker, a noted voracious reader, and a shameless pimp, so it's truly no surprise this is the kind of stuff that's sent to me. If you really think about. But I get stuff on the fringes of these industries too.
Tyler wanted to know how to get on these lists, and I'm not sure I can help him with that other than telling him:
A. Get a large public profile (although, he debateably already has a larger one than me, by the pure numbers)
B. Have it be at least somewhat based around a tangible good like "stuff that gets you drunk"
C. Be quite enthusiastic about accepting, enjoying, and possibly discussing the free shit.
(By the way, while I was Googling "How to Get Free Shit" to see if it was a good title for this post--I Google all my proposed post titles just to make sure they're fairly unique, this one actually WASN'T--I found this amusingly pathetic article by a "mommy" blogger about how she believes she's mastered the way to make herself look just hot enough to always get free beers at the bar.)
What is the free shit list?
Who knows? Who cares? Is there truly a LIST?
But kind of like how the first girl to have sex in your high school (or junior high!) paradoxically becomes the girl that every boy starts talking to--assuming she's "easy"--I'm the kind of guy that doesn't turn down anything.
So I'm a free shit slut. Promiscuous. Absolutely no editing in what I accept and what I don't accept.
And why should I? How hard is it to drink free beer, drink free booze, read free books, and then discuss them online?
It's a piece of cake. It's what I do any way. And, even bad beer and booze gets you loaded, and you can surely find something worthwhile with a quick thumb-through of just about any book (along with books on drinking, I mainly get sent comic novels and works on marketing and entrepreneurship).
Then again, just like the junior high slut, I don't promise anything.
"Just because you're taking me to the mall doesn't mean I'm gonna sleep with you!"
But, of course, just like her, I'm lying. If you send me stuff, I will consume it and, at the worst, Tweet about it. That's lazy man's reviewing. And, if your free shit is the kind of free shit that gets me loaded, I'll probably soon be out of my gourd enough to Tweet plenty of positive things about your product. (That's one thing intoxicant manufacturers have going for them--most people reviewing their stuff are reviewing their stuff loaded.) But I never lie and I never overrate something just to keep the free shit gravy train flowing.
Spinning the Spam
But I don't always get e-mails that just bluntly ask me if I want free shit.
Sometimes I get e-mails that are essentially just spam with no promises of free shit (the nerve!). They say stuff like:
I'm sure your fans and readers would love to know about this exciting new summertime promotion from...
Oh no you didn't! That's not going to fly. While I'm assuming most people ignore these spams and quickly delete them with no prejudice, I don't.
In these circumstances, I usually just write back something along the lines of:
"Wow! Sounds great! Could you send some [free shit]?"
[Free shit] being replaced with whatever they're spamming me about. I sometimes, likewise, use the word "samples."
"Wow! Sounds great! Could you send me some samples?"
"Samples" sounds less sleazy on both ends--less like I'm merely trying to get free shit, less like the company is merely trying to ply me with free shit in order for me to raise their profile with some online mentions.
Samples is to free shit as a "date" with a prostitute is to dirty, dirty paid sex. Or, to put it SAT analogy style...
"Samples" : free shit :: "date" : sex with prostitute
Sounds classier. Nevertheless, "samples" always end up being the real deal: a full bottle of wine, a finished book, the entire line of a brewery's new beers.
Except in the case of this new rum, promoted by Ron Jeremy, and called, har har, Ron de Jeremy (why not "Rum Jeremy"?). I inquired whether they'd send me some "samples" and they sent me this:
I was a bit scared to drink it, but it did have a children-proof twist-off cap, and was billed as being blended by "master distiller" Don Pancho, so, late one night I figured, "What the hay?"
I'm not sure about the wisdom of associating any liquid with a porn star, but it was actually very good. So props to Ron, Don, and Ron de Jeremy.
Killing the goose
You might say, by writing this piece I'm killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
I'm telling my free shit secrets.
Now everyone of you is going to use my free shit methods.
Now the free shit purveyors are going to feel played by me.
Now I'm going to be on the free shit blacklist.
Except that's not going to happen.
Because, now, I've just about discussed all the free shit I've received in the last two weeks. Oh, I almost forget the wonderful care packages of free shit I got from the choc Beer company and Redbud Brewing out of Oklahoma (I'm working on an article about Oklahoma City's craft beer scene). Those were truly amazing, especially choc's "Signature" Dubbel and Redbud's Cuvee Two.
All press is good press. Especially from a "famous" novelist.
What about the FTC?
Nothing screws up the flow of a brilliant curse-filled article like adding:
Pursuant to the power-mad FTC's new bullshit law, I must reveal that so-and-so sent me this free shit for review.
I've actually noticed a lot of non-prominent bloggers just love to prominently add this disclaimer. It benefits them. It's as if to say:
"Look at me! I'm important. I get FREE SHIT. And you don't!!!"
But I don't care about that, and I don't really care about the FTC.
If you respect me as a writer, respect me as person, respect my opinion, then you should respect the things I discuss and promote, whether I purchased them or they were simply...free shit.
Speaking of, you should buy my book. It's really good.
(Turnabout is fair play...if you have a blog or a decent online profile and would like to review HOW TO FAIL, send me an e-mail aaron @aarongoldfarb.com with the subject heading FREE SHIT! and I'll send you an ebook.)
(If you are a beer, booze, or book purveyor, or something altogether different and want to send me free shit, likewise send me an e-mail so I can give you my address.)
Being an Asshole, Telling Someone They’re Doing Something Wrong…and Then Them Wanting to Be Your Friend
I received an e-mail the other day that skirted the line between robotic spam and simply poor marketing spam:
I found out about this coupon that will let you download the story "Bed Green" for FREE!
It is a women's fiction about a boy that lives in the desert with his family! He learns things about his family that he never thought possible.
The story is [Redacted].
You can get the book at http://www.smashwords.com/[redacted]
Sometimes I get surly and actually respond to this kind of spam:
Seriously? That's your marketing tactic?
I don't know why I do this stuff, but it sometimes gives me a thrill to rudely engage with spammers. To his (probably naive) credit, he actually wrote back:
I thought I might email a few people to get some hits. The author is a close friend of mine and yes, I do not know much about marketing, but it got you to reply to it. Thanks
Did he just "get" me?? I followed up.
There's nothing wrong with emailing me, and I greatly appreciate it. But the best marketing is being a real person. Not sending me what looks to be a spam (falsely) telling me about a coupon you "found." It's great your friend has a new book and it's even greater you're supporting the book and your friend. But THIS is the good marketing. Writing me and treating me like a real person, and telling me why you contacted me (do you like my book? my blog? my Tweets?) and telling me why I should read your friend's free book.
But, yeah, you've got me to reply (twice) now. So, if that's the game, you are definitely winning. And you actually might just be a marketing genius!
He responded one final time:
I am sorry if I made you feel that way. That is not what I was trying to do and you are right. I should have done a better job. I just thought something short and sweet is the way to go. I will tell you this though, you've got me laughing on both replies. I'm waiting to see what you say and would love to buy you a beer some time.
Yeah. Some time.
This passage was originally the ending to HOW TO FAIL's Footchapter 2: "How to Go Insane and Garner Voices in Your Head." It would have picked up on page 41 of the paperback edition.
I was starving. I kinda wished my girlfriend was here so we could be starving.
I turned around having not noticed what had been behind me the whole time on the other side of the road. A little quaint restaurant. The View Diner.
Seemingly no one in the place. No diners, no cooks, no maitre d's (ha!), no hosts, no nothing.
By the end of 2009 the International Labour Organization had estimated that there had been twenty million lost jobs due to the global economic crisis. Over 10% of the western world was unemployed. Probably more in places like this.
Was that why no one was in this diner?
No expendable income for flapjacks?
What time was it?
I wouldn't have looked at getting laid off as a crisis. I would look at it as...awesome! I wanted to get laid off from my crummy job.
But I didn't have anyone or thing to support.
Simple people that lived out here surely did.
I felt sorry for them. I never felt sorry for any one but myself.
"Someone'll be with ya' in a sec, fella."
I turned to notice a man I hadn't noticed before. Well-dressed and well-kempt in what we in the big city would call "business casual," he sat in the large corner booth in the back drinking a cup of coffee and staring at his laptop screen. I assumed he was the owner of this joint. He smiled at me.
"Beautiful sunrise this morning, huh?"
"Yes. The best I've ever seen."
"Certainly made my top 365 for the year."
I nodded. Clever fella.
A waitress came and sat me in a small booth, a few down from the owner.
She slapped a menu in front of me. No-frills. Just crinkled laminated paper with a brief tale about how the diner came into existence ("One man had a dream...good food at a reasonable price...EST. 1964), food listings, no descriptions. I studied it.
What was the difference between a Denver omelet and a Western? They were the same, right? I liked foods with fun names. Clams Casino. What was that? I was just supposed to know?
"Originally from Narragansett, Rhode Island, the succulent cherrystone crabs are breaded and served on the..."
The old man owner was punching something into his computer as he talked aloud to no one in particular.
"...halfshell with a generous heaping of delectable smoked bacon and a brackish melody of seasonings and flavors including but not limited to: butter, pepper, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, white wine, and shallots. A magisterial tub of Tabasco, trademark, served on the side."
The old man look up and smiled at me. "Perfect."
He went back to typing. "Grandmama's Meatloaf. Hmmmm..."
I persued my menu.
"A dish dating back to ancient Roman origins, we use a tantalizing combination of ground beef mixed with lamb and pork, bound with eggs and red-wine-soaked bread before being cooked in a loaf pan and topped with our ineffably tangy homemade tomato sauce."
He looked at his computer screen. "Not bad. Could use an edit or two and I don't like that ambiguous use of 'ineffably.' But not bad."
It had never occurred to me that effort was actually put into composing restaurant menus. I mean, yeah, I suppose at fine French restaurants or something. But here, at a podunk diner in the Poconos?
And Chaucer continued.
"Country fried steak. Similar to the classic...no...classically toothsome Viennese schnitzel, we start with tenderized cube steak coated with a breaded shell before being pan-fried to create a sublime taste sensation. Slathered in an ambrosial peppered milk gravy."
Are the hicks that live around here really going to be impressed with his florid food language? Will they really want to have to employ a condensed OED to know whether they want the ambrosial gravy or the brackish seasoning melody or not?
And this went on and on as I drank my coffee, tried to enjoy my Belgian waffles.
"Yeast-levened batter ironed into the..."
It was annoying me.
"Creamy ricotta and ragu spread between sheets..."
Why did he have to talk so loud to himself?
"You know what the B stands for. And the L and T and we slap that between..."
Fucking old people.
"Cubed chunks of fresh white meat mixed with curry mayo..."
Then the craziest thing happened and I began to admire a guy for taking his job and his life so seriously. So concerned with self-improvement. Why couldn't I be like that?! So focused, so motivated, so hard-working? I sat back and watched him with great admiration, like a one-man stage show, as he off the top of his head composed each new menu item.
By the time he got to desserts...
"...and coated with a cumulo-nimbusly fluffy meringue"
...I had been in the diner for over an hour, had had nearly a whole pot of "artisanal" Fair Trade freshly-ground Jamaican coffee. I needed to go. Get on with life. Back to the cabin, back to New York, I wasn't sure. But back somewhere.
I was happy, content.
I was inspired!
I walked to the register to pay the meager bill.
"Wow. Great deal."
"You're obviously not from around here, are ya'?"
"No, just passing through and enjoying the view and the View."
The waitress noticed me looking over toward the owner.
"Oh don't mind him honey. He comes in every single day and we can't get him to leave. He's crazy. Touched. Got voices in his head."
Check out these other Director's Commentary and Deleted Scenes:
#1 -- "FUCK YOUS" (dedication page)
#2 -- "QUOTING BIGGIE SMALLS" (including famous quotes)
#3 -- "BLURBS" (cover blurbs)
#4 -- "CHAPTER ONE" (genesis of HTF idea)
#5 -- "THE FAILURE INTERVENTION" (deleted scene)
#6 -- "I'VE NEVER BEEN HAPPIER" (deleted scene)
#7 -- "HOW TO FAIL ON A DATE" (deleted chapter)
#8 -- "HOW TO MAKE GOD HATE YOU" (deleted chapter)
#9 -- "BENDERS" -- (deleted scene)
#10 -- "HATING NORA EPHRON" (deleted scene)
#11 -- "HOW TO PICK A BAD COLLEGE MAJOR" (deleted chapter)
"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." --John F. Kennedy
I've started picking up freelance writing gigs as of late. Now what usually happens is a magazine or a website will ask me to write something for an already established section or column. For instance, I'm currently writing a piece about Oklahoma City's craft beer scene for the "Destinations" series in Beer Advocate magazine.
I always struggle with these!
Why? Because I feel trapped in a box.
I'll get assigned the piece and the friendly editor will usually ask if I'm familiar with the particular column (I always claim that I am, even though I usually am not) before sending me a few examples of previous editions.
It becomes far too easy for me to read the previous works and just use them as a template for my own piece.
But how does that benefit me? How does that benefit the readers?!
This is C student work. (Or, rather, B or B- student work in today's grade-inflated culture.)
This isn't work that "WOWS" as Tony Hseih, CEO of Zappos and writer of the brilliant book "Delivering Happiness," asks of all his employees.
“We measure our people on one thing: Did you WOW! the customer? If they each do that, we’ve done our job; everything else will flow from there.”
How am I going to make a name for myself with C student work? How are readers going to be wowed by C student work?!
I'm reminded of my own childhood. My mother, oddly enough a disciplinarian in most aspects of life--rules were rules and laws were laws and they weren't to be broken--always encouraged me to go above and beyond in my schoolwork. Guidelines apparently weren't guidelines in her thinking, they were something to transcend.
So if I was, say, assigned a basic report on Italy, mom would encourage me to make an entire multi-media presentation. Assigned an essay on Jackie Robinson, mom would encourage me to create and bind a fully-illustrated book on the man.
This was clearly not C student work.
To some teachers, in fact, it was F student work. I had totally mocked their assignment guidelines, I had shown an unwillingness to follow their rules, I had done things the other students didn't even "know" they could do ("That's not fair!"). I clearly deserved an F for my insubordination.
But this rarely happened.
What more often happened is I got an A+. I got my work passed around to other classrooms, teachers, and students as examples of what could be done. I made a name for myself. And, I probably pissed off the lazy C students and strict C teachers.
What eliminates this desire to be an A student (or an F student) from adults and makes us simply want to be bland C students? Why do we play it so safe?
My adult "F student" idol is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Hired and tasked with adapting Susan Orlean's seemingly unadaptable book "The Orchid Thief," Kaufman battled a huge case of writer's block. I can attest, adapting prose into screenplays can sometimes feel like nothing more than robotic cut-and-paste jobs.
With no other choice, Kaufman decided to write a screenplay about his struggles adapting "The Orchid Thief," going over-the-top and creating exaggerated events surrounding the writing, even creating a fictional twin brother named Donald Kaufman who acted as his co-writer. Kaufman later explained:
"The idea of how to write the film didn't come to me until quite late. It was the only idea I had, I liked it, and I knew there was no way it would be approved if I pitched it. So I just wrote it and never told the people I was writing it for. I really thought I was ending my career by turning that in!"
If Kaufman had gone the C student route he would have created an easily forgettable film no one would have even heard of by now, nearly a decade later. And, true, going the route he did could have ended in him getting a metaphorical F from the film studio--notorious by-the-book institutions--getting fired, and having to return a ton of money.
But, instead, Kaufman got a resounding A+.
"Adaptation" would go on to be nominated for countless awards, even winning one Oscar, and is widely considered one of the best and most unique films of the previous decade.
Let's all start doing the kind of work that breaks so many rules it will surely get us an F...
...if it doesn't get us an A first.