Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage


Sep 25

Yes, Investigative Journalism CAN Pay. And Pay Well.

Posted: under Digital Migration, new media, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mediapart in France is profitable because it gives readers what they are willing to pay for.

Imagine that.

mediapart.fr front page

The Mediapart organization makes its living by doing hard-hitting investigative journalism that its audience is willing to support. They also make a point of including lots of video on their pages.

Quick hit here for my students, who are increasingly upset about their job prospects after graduation.

I shared an article from Neiman about the upheaval in the newspaper business in France. Apparently, the same problems that plague the French economy at large are at work, writ small & exceedingly acerbic, at the major newspapers. They are tech-phobic, rely on business models that no longer fully function, and react angrily to anyone threatening the promise of a cushy work situation with guaranteed employment and 1/4 of the year spent on vacation.

Can’t imagine why that can’t cut it in a world increasingly dominated by the internet work ethic of, “If you eat lunch … you ARE lunch.” Somehow, I don’t think this will fit in with a languid afternoon at a sidewalk cafe with a nice burgundy and a baguette slathered with brie. With accordion music wafting in the background.

But about 2/3 of the way down the article, there appeared these grafs, which I am going to excerpt here, although I do urge you to go to the Neiman site & give them some traffic-love, ’cause @petergumbel did a damn good job with this write-up:

Edwy Plenel, for one, is incensed by the conflicts of interest inherent in the French press. But then that’s not entirely surprising, since outrage is Plenel’s mojo.

He has come a long way since his revolutionary youth, which he wrote about in a 2001 memoir. He made his mark as an investigative journalist at Le Monde; one of his most celebrated scoops was uncovering the role of French intelligence in the 1985 sinking in New Zealand of the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior. He made the Elysée so nervous that it illegally bugged his phone during the presidency of François Mitterrand. He spent a total of 25 years at Le Monde, including a stint as editor in chief, but he left in 2005 during one of its sporadic crises, after attacks on his management style.

He launched Mediapart as a subscription site in December 2007. Three years later it was at break-even. Today, it’s racing toward 100,000 subscribers, each paying the equivalent of about $12 per month. This year he expects the site to make about $2 million net profit on just over $10 million in revenue. It has a staff of 50, 33 of whom are journalists. It now outsells Libération, which has almost six times as many staff members. [Emphasis mine – dlf]

The secret: a laser focus on exclusive news, especially revelations of high-level political and financial skullduggery. Mediapart’s subscriptions soared in 2010, the year it broke the story about a convoluted political and financial scandal involving France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt. They leaped again in 2013, after it revealed that the then-budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac, whose job included fighting tax evasion, himself had an undeclared Swiss bank account and had transferred funds to Singapore. After denying the allegations for months, Cahuzac eventually resigned, acknowledging that he had lied to parliament and to President François Hollande.

Work the numbers, folks. $10 mill in revenue-$2M profil = $8M in expenses. $8M/50 employees = $160K/yr per employee. Figure about 40% of that per-employee allocation is insurance, pension, and building/maintaining the site & gathering news costs, and you still get a salary of $64K/yr on average. For a journalist, that ain’t bad. Plus you’ve got a warchest of $2M that you can throw at a big story, should one come up, and to use to build out the site & extend its reach.

So. There’s a lot going on here. I’ve written in the past about how I disagree with the authors of The Death and Life of American Journalism, who called for exactly the kinds of government subsidies for newspapers that are allowing them to continue to try to deny reality, and live in a fantasy-bubble. At the time, I was reacting to what I’ve seen in Latin America, Georgia, Kazakhstan and other places where allowing the government to get its hands on the revenue stream is akin to letting criminals loop a choke-chain around your throat. They can lead you around by it, and if you start getting out of line, all they need to do is give it a quick, sharp yank, and you fall back in line, suitably docile.

I’ve seen that happen. First-hand. In Venezuela, when I was a very young editor.

Government subsidies are kinda like this. Nothing really sticks until you try to do something that the person holding the leash doesn’t like.

The solution that Mediapart has come up with here may not last. It may not work everywhere. But it’s something that makes a lot more sense to me than journalism that exists as a kind of state-supported performance art piece. Because I’ve seen that as well: journalists who are completely disconnected from the concerns of their audience, sporting paternalistic, condescending attitudes, producing self-indulgent “investigations” that nobody really reads, and that don’t really threaten the people who give them checks each month.

So when I see that Mediapart is actually making a pretty nice profit, running with a lean staff, and dedicating itself to serving the interests of its audience, it pretty much makes my day, particularly in light of the grim news out of the LA Register, NBC news, and pretty much every other traditional media outlet recently.

Look, I am not hooting and hanging on the rim here, delighting in the travails of people still stuck in jobs at tottering media empires, hanging on for dear life through ownership changes, strategy changes, and promises that melt away like morning dew.

Long-term, market forces are going to prevail. If journalists produce a product that people want, and give them a means by which to support/purchase/share it, then that audience will fight to ensure that this important part of their lives is still there. The very first case study I ever did was centered around that fact. It makes me sad to see so many journalists, who base their entire journalistic ethos on pushing people and institutions to change, to adapt to the times, to leave behind (even if painful) the habits & traditions of the past … ignoring their own best advice.

Liberation may not be a cafe. But it may also not be an outlet for journalism much longer either.

 

 

 

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Apr 01

Brazilian Journalists DIY a Solution: IndieJournalism.com

Posted: under Digital Migration.

Experiments to see if there is an audience for high-value content

Pundits have long said “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” Well, this is one of them. 

A group of journalists down at the Folha de Sao Paolo (and excuse me for not putting in the various tildes & accent marks, but I’m trying to do this via the new and allegedly improved Scribefire, and special characters are giving it the vapors) are launching IndieJournalism.com in the hopes that breaking away from the behemoth media companies will give them the cred and agility to survive the next few years. 

“… the group’s members shared their ultimate goal: to create a platform for both readers interested in long-form journalism and journalists interested in producing it. More than that, the site is betting on developing a new business model and a new kind of digital journalism product.

(snip)

“The crisis is knocking on our door, and we still haven’t seen the light at the end of the tunnel,” Netto says. “It’s up to us journalists to find our own way. I’m not saying newspapers are going to disappear — in fact, I think it’s not going to be that way. But the fact is that each media format has its strength, and it has become difficult for the large media outlets to invest in in-depth reporting because their structures were specifically designed to mainly deliver hard news.”

The business model here seems to be selling stories one by one, the way that Atavist or Byliner do. I’m not sure that there’s enough of an audience base, particularly in Brazil, for this to be the main support for long-form journalism. Additionally, this front-loads the cost of doing a story. 

That is, you have to be able to support yourself for as long as it takes for you to do the research and the writing, and then hope that somehow, your piece finds enough of an audience (and that a significant sub-percentage of that audience is motivated by your excerpt to click on that good ol’ PayPal button) to recoup your costs. Maybe they will be able to sell subscriptions, but even that is going to require a massive shift in consumer behavior. 

I’d be more excited about this if they were working on a new ad model, or even a new means of supporting themselves via e-commerce. Maybe they’ll be able to take advantage of the appetite in the market for more engaging and fun tablet experiences – they do say that they want to do more “Snowfall” type immersive experiences. 

 

 

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Mar 26

If the numbers don’t lie – what shall we put above the fold?

Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism.
Tags: ,

When clicks drive coverage, what happens to hard news stories? Are we doomed to “hamster wheel journalism”?

kitteh sleeping is the end of good journalism

Sleeping kitteh, dying news industry.

Is the future only listicles and kitteh pictures?

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Oct 07

eBook Publishing Options

Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

How journalists can build their own news/publishing business

I was asked by my students if there were ways that they could publish their stories, videos and audios, without having to give up control to media companies that really aren’t all that interested in publishing new & interesting content from unknown authors. Well, not unless it is given to them free, with no obligations to pay any residuals or royalties, and they have exclusive rights to publish and market that content in all media known or unknown, throughout the universe, until the end of time.

There are a bunch of companies that have sprung up that publish multimedia books – you’ll have to do some research to see which one would offer you the best deal for your project.

1. Vook – they started off just doing ebooks with video embedded. These were interesting as experiments, but really didn’t push the form very far. Now, they’ve started publishing to all the major platforms (rather than trying to establish themselves as an alternative to Amazon, with their own proprietary standards – a losing game, if ever there was one).

The first Vooks were like the first CD-ROMs. They had text on them with cutscenes of dubious quality. Usually made from literature that was in the public domain (i.e. free for some geek to hammer on without having to pay fees to the pesky creative writer-types).

The first Vooks were like the first CD-ROMs. They had text on them with cutscenes of dubious quality. Usually made from literature that was in the public domain (i.e. free for some geek to hammer on without having to pay fees to the pesky creative writer-types).

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Sep 03

Google’s ‘In-Depth Articles’ Feature: What Journalists Need to Know

Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

…back from summer vacation, and leaping into the school year. Well, trying to leap, anyway.

I mentioned this development in digital news to my journalism classes at Annenberg, and figured I might want to expand a bit more on it, and provide some links to related articles & research.

(Google Data Center from Wallpaperstart.com)

First, forgive me if this is old news, but I haven’t heard much about this from the usual suspects; for some reason, there isn’t much notice being taken of this by publishers, or professional journalists.

But the PR guys are all over this. Viz: How Google’s ‘In-Depth Articles’ feature could affect PR

Nut grafs:

The feature, which Google calls “In-Depth Articles,” offers up links to a set of three long-form articles, usually at the bottom of the search results page. The articles are usually detailed profiles and exposés on companies and their leadership. Companies and high-profile individuals should take notice of this development and understand that it presents a number of opportunities, as well as some perils. 

No one but Google itself knows exactly how these articles are selected, but the search engine giant has described them as “thoughtful in-depth content” that “remains relevant long after its publication date.” This is a major coup for traditional long-form publications such as Rolling StoneVanity Fair,FortuneThe Atlantic, and The New Yorker, as well as new online-only media such as The Verge,SB Nation, and Slate

The implications for businesses, prominent individuals, and the people in charge of maintaining the reputations thereof, are pretty significant, if not outright terrifying.

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Jul 17

Unfortunate Juxtapositions

Posted: under Digital Migration.

Some times, there is a bit of a lag between the loading of the headline on HuffPo and the photo. Not always as humorous as it is here.

20130717-224057.jpg

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Jun 25

Forget an MBA – Watch creativeLIVE’s “Secrets of Silicon Valley”

Posted: under Digital Migration, New Marketing.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

 How many times do you get a chance to ask spectacularly successful tech entrepreneurs anything you want?

Janine & I just completed two days of intense sessions with some of Silicon Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs at creativeLIVE’s “Secrets of Silicon Valley” sessions. And yes, that was really alliterative.  Sorry. Bear with me. Everyone talked in such catchy bullet-point laden phrases that it leaked over into my speech patterns.

dave lafontaine looking at creativeLIVE heatmap

The walls of the creativeLIVE breakroom are festooned with flatscreen monitors showing what’s on their various channels. Most fascinating of all are the real-time “heatmaps” showing who’s watching at any moment, bordered by the latest comments on Twitter and Facebook.  The “Secrets of Silicon Valley” was watched by people in more than 130 countries. In the map, you see clusters of red and white dots representing the audience through my reflection as I took this photo.

If nothing else, these two days were proof that above all else, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have mastered the talent of giving really beautifully designed and stripped-down PowerPoint presentations.

Seriously folks, if you’ve ever suffered through a “Death By PowerPointless” presentation where you were assaulted with dense bullet-point slides with hundreds of words on them … slide after slide after slide, none of them memorable, that made you fantasize about massive natural disasters, zombie apocalypse or alien invasions … these two days were not that.

Here’s what was so special about the “Secrets of Silicon Valley” speakers, who are entitled to have more than their share of ego and self-satisfaction: they didn’t just brag. Nor did they ramble on in thinly disguised sales brochures for their companies.

The most compelling speakers hardly mentioned their companies. Instead, their focus was on us, the audience. On what we needed to know.

The speakers knew what they were going to say, and they said it with humor, efficiency and – most unexpectedly, from a group of uber-nerds – humanity.

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May 29

Economic Crisis Forces Spain’s Newspapers into Digital Migration

Posted: under Digital Migration, new media, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Unemployment over 50% – banking system collapse – political instability – newspapers run out of options

When asked what are the enduring lessons of the last five years for newspapers, various pundits have opined “Don’t enter an economic recession massively over-leveraged and dependent on fragile business models.”

One by one, newspapers are falling behind.

In Spain, the problems that we are experiencing in the U.S. are even more severe. The advertising base was even more reliant on crazy real-estate bubble advertising than it was here. Anyone who has flown into, say, Barcelona, and seen 20 MILES of empty housing developments, half-built apartment blocks, and gradually eroding graded hillsides, can quite easily judge what kind of devastation was left behind when that bubble burst.

But now comes the news that digital media has overtaken print in Spain. 

There is some disagreement over just how many digital news outlets have sprung up in the past couple years:

Ahora desde la AEEPP (Asociación Española de Editoriales de Publicaciones Periódicas) reconocen que tienen 763 publicaciones digitales asociadas aunque, Carlos Astiz, secretario general de la Asociación, estima que puede haber 3.000 medios digitales.

…and exactly what constitutes a regular news publication (such as when its edition are funded via crowdfunding:

En medio de la crisis que afecta a los medios tradicionales, han surgido en los últimos meses un gran número de medios digitales con fórmulas diferentes para conseguir la rentabilidad. Desde la existencia de socios que por un módico precio acceden antes a los contenidos como en diario.es o infolibre.es a proyectos financiados por crowdfunding como la revista FronteraD.

But the trend seems to be that digital-only publications have been designed from the ground-up to be profitable on this new platform. The publishers, operating on a shoestring, find an audience, find ways to monetize that audience, and then start to methodically try to scale up.

The opposite is in action with the traditional media. They have their audience – but it is shrinking.

They have their revenue streams – but they are evaporating.

So they are engaged in a massive scale-down. Cutting coverage, cutting staff, and according to the Difusion story, only weeks/months away from re-erecting the infamous paywall around El Pais that was widely credited with destroying the paper’s digital operations before they had even gotten a chance to find their footing. I wrote an entire case study about it (and El Tiempo’s desperate attempts to re-connect with the young audience that they had alienated & lost) for the NAA. 

El Pais Spain front page

Soon to run back behind the paywall. Maybe it will work this time. Then again, with so much new competition in the digital marketplace, and with the brand discredited & distrusted by younger readers … maybe it won’t.

Meanwhile, over in the digital-only world, site owners are waking up to the trend of “native advertising” – i.e. putting posts into the middle of the flow that look a lot LIKE the news stories that readers are there to check out … but that contain sponsored content, written in a way that doesn’t conflict with the rest of the content on the site.

Check out what John Battelle has to say about this evolution of monetization: 

The reason native works is because the advertising is treated as a unit of content on the platform where it lives. That may seem obvious, but it’s an important observation. When a brands’s content competes on equal footing alongside a publisher’s content, everyone wins. Those search ads – they win if they are contextually relevant and add value to the consumer’s search results. Those promoted tweets only get promoted if people respond to them – a signal of relevance and value.  The same is true for all truly “native” ad products. If the native ad content is good, it will get engagement. The industry is evolving toward rewarding advertising that doesn’t interrupt and is relevant and value additive. That’s a good thing.

 

 

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Mar 19

Best of Journalism, Worst of Journalism

Posted: under Digital Migration.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Matty Yglesias says on Salon that online journalism means things have never been better! 

OK, there is some validity to his POV that access to unlimited sources of information has made the sophisticated news consumer (at least potentially) better-informed than ever before. Here’s Yggy on why things are so peachy-keen:

American news media has never been in better shape. That’s just common sense. Almost anything you’d want to know about any subject is available at your fingertips. You don’t need to take my analysis of the Cyprus bank bailout crisis as the last word on the matter: You can quickly and easily find coverage from the New York TimesWall Street JournalFinancial Times, and the Economist. Or if you don’t want to see your Cyprus news filtered through an America/British lens, you can check out the take of distinguished Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis on his blog. Reuters created an interactive feature that lets you try out different formulae for making the Cypriot haircut work. A pseudonymous London-based fund manager using the name Pawel Morski has offered vital, deeply informed coverage on Twitter and hisWordPress site. You can watch a Bloomberg TV interview on the situation with native Cypriot and former Federal Reserve adviser Athanasios Orphanides at your leisure.

Best of all, today’s media ecology lets you add depth and context to the news. Several sources on Twitter recommended to me a 2008 Perry Anderson article in the New York Review of Books about the broader sweep of post-independence Cypriot history.

Well. Yeah, that’s all true. If you’re looking for information on what is happening in Cyprus, and why this might melt down the Eurozone and start the dominos toppling the way they did back in the fall of ’08 again, there are certainly all manner of viewpoints, neat multimedia presentations, and interactive tools that will help you understand this big, glamorous, international story.

economist cyprus banking meltdown coverage

…as is the Economist.

Business week coverage of cyprus banking meltdown

Bloomberg and Business Week are all over this…

But where I start to have problems with his premise is down here on the local level. Now, trust me, I am very far from a newsroom curmudgeon. I don’t want things to go back to 1989. Hell, I make my living creating and refining digital content that is delivered across a wide variety of platforms (broadcast TV, desktop web, mobile web, native apps, online video, etc. etc.). And I am all to painfully aware of the problems inherent in making professionally produced content pay on digital platforms (see, well, pretty much the entire output of this blog for the past six years).

Here’s the deal: big international stories get lots of clicklove. The Cyprus meltdown could potentially affect billions of people. So that’s a huge potential audience right there. Many of those people are bankers, international businessmen, politicians, the investor class, etc. (READ: people who advertisers will pay to get their messages in front of.)

So the business model & incentives are there to produce all manner of content running this story to ground and microscoping all the possible permutations.

Again, this is not the problem.

The problem is this (from 2009 – and since then, it’s only gotten worse):

Only a handful of states have budgets bigger than Los Angeles County’s. NASA spends 25% less in a year. The county’s welfare and foster care departments serve the neediest, whose ranks will only grow as the economy staggers.

And the county’s purse strings are controlled by just five politicians, the Board of Supervisors, whose powerful incumbency means they almost never face serious reelection challenges.

But now just four reporters tend this turf anywhere close to full time: two for The Times, one for eight dailies controlled by newspaper baron William Dean Singleton, and one for City News Service, although that young reporter frequently gets pulled off for other duty.

Back in my day, as many as a dozen full-time reporters walked this beat, filling the row of cramped, glass-walled cubicles on the dimly lit fourth floor just above the supervisors meeting room. (The Times had at least half a dozen other reporters at its downtown mother ship, digging deep into city and county government.)

Yep, that’s right. Down here on the local level, those incentives that make it possible to provide such in-depth coverage for international stories are not (yet?) in existence. So we get things like the 2013 budget for LA County going through with barely a hiccup.

la county budget chart 2013

This is where $25 billion goes this year. I heard nothing about this – and I’m plugged-in!

That’s a lot of loot. But what really blows my mind is this other pie chart. It shows that this year, Los Angeles County gets almost half its budget – $10 BILLION – in assistance from the State and Feds.

Seriously, WTF? This county is home to an absolute massive amount of economic activity. We have the 2nd biggest port in the hemisphere. Hollywood, high tech, manufacturing, etc. And we still have to get about half our money as basically political welfare from the state and feds?

If those lifelines ever go away, this county will frickin’ implode.

What is the story with this? I’ve not seen it. It’s probably out there – but I have heard reams and reams about the fiscal cliff, the sequester, and yes, Cyprus. Not a whisper here in the LA market about a budget that has a far greater likelihood of actually devastating me and the community I live in.

LA county budget 2013 sources of revenue chart

I know the ’08 real estate meltdown devastated property taxes, but come on! This is unsustainable.

I know there are many, many proposed solutions to this problem. But I also know that none of them have gotten traction – yet.

I am working every week with my class of journalists at USC, to try to prepare them for gigs in the real world. It is my hope that they will not have to work at news outlets (and you know who you are) where they will have to use the skills I’m teaching them, to put together linkbait slideshows on celebrity sideboob. Or produce yet another think-piece on whither the Euro.

So yeah. In some situations, with some stories, things are really, really great. But down at the granular level, journalism is not in the greatest shape. Dismissing these problems as the fantasies of ill-tempered Luddites is not a path to a solution, Matty.

xxx

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Mar 07

How to Tell a Story – from Pixar, via BoingBoing

Posted: under Blogging, Digital Migration, new media.
Tags: ,

OK, this is really derivative, but I’m so impressed with the insight in this list that I’m shamelessly repeating it here. Go to BoingBoing. Click on the ads. Give them some money. They are good. I like BoingBoing.

(Please, no DMCA notice for this…)

To my journalism students – when you’re trying to construct a compelling narrative, for a story that goes beyond “On Tuesday, the Board met for two hours to consider blah-de-blah…” you could do a helluva lot worse than use these rules to challenge yourself to come up with something that grabs the reader and makes them keep clicking the “Next” button at the bottom of your page.

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling – Boing Boing

From Aerogramme Writers’ Studio, via Adafruit. My favorite is #13: “Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.”

These rules were originally tweeted by Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist. Number 9 on the list – When you’re stuck, make a list of what wouldn’t happen next – is a great one and can apply to writers in all genres.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

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