Archive for May, 2014

2013-08-26 23.14.45

© 2013 G.N. Jacobs

Who is Hannibal Tabu? A quick web search might get you an answer like oh, he’s that guy with the Buy Pile column on Comic Book Resources who kicked over an anthill busting Marvel on the crappy portrayal of Cage in 2009. I know him as the entertaining, highly acerbic guy standing near the New Comics box in our shared comic book store, Comics Ink in Culver City (Overland near the Sony lot), who always has something to say about our shared passions of comics, books, movies and the writing that makes them possible.

In strict point of fact, I frequently miss the Hannibal Tabu Show, which is part of the greater show called Wednesday Shipping Day at the Comic Book Store. The truth for this is two-fold: I either don’t have the budget for a graphic novel that week, or since I personally gave up on comic books versus collected trade paperbacks and graphic novels, which don’t require me to be Wednesday Current, it means I can skip the crowds for a more relaxing time on Sunday. But, as I frequently say about many things “when I rewrite this for the movie,” I will say that I had an attack of “Gentlemen now abed in England shall hold their manhood accursed…” (Not entirely true, I’ve got my own writer’s ego, but in this case it’s a nice bit of hyperbole for a writer I respect) when I found out what his discipline and writing days are like. You see it’s because I started reading his book…

So when we sit down at a Starbucks both of us foolishly not checking the business hours so that we barely get our food before we have to repair to a nearby outdoor bench, my first question was tell me the story of how your parents came to name you Hannibal?

“My mom was part of Fred Hampton’s Illinois Black Panther chapter before he was assassinated by the Chicago Police Department,” Hannibal said. “Some quirk of fate transpired that she’d been sent away just before the raid…”

I prompted him with the history of the original Carthaginian who was just about the only black man in history with an army ripped enough to scare European powers enough into committing genocide during the Third Punic War – “They make a desert and call it Peace (Plutarch).”

“Yeah, I’m sure that was part of it, which at the time would’ve been her only frame of reference for the name. It was well before either George Peppard or Anthony Hopkins,” Hannibal continued.

Hannibal moved to California with his family soon after with a stop for a few years in Memphis. He grew up seemingly the smartest person in the room until the age of 18, which fed his self-described deep-seated misanthropy.

“This is at the core of my writing,” Hannibal said.

He cited several mentors who directly aided him on his journey from brash student to working writer, including some teachers from high school: Georgia Newhart and Mike Coe. During that time, he found in acting class that he wanted to be behind the camera where there is more control, though there have been tentative attempts at voice acting.

He also specifically mentioned mentors at the Los Angeles Sentinel, one of the oldest black-owned newspapers in California, from when he started work there in 1993, including Marsha Bray, James Bolden and, the now deceased, Dennis Schatzman.

“When I started work there, Dennis said to me ‘you can’t beat being me, I F— with people for eight hours a day and then go home to my family,’” Hannibal said allowing the glint of fond memories to light up his eyes. “That made him one enticing role model.”

And like a lot of writers he cites a laundry list of literary influences whenever he gives an interview from which other interviewers can crib. He cheerfully admits to loving Star Wars, even the prequels (no accounting for taste there). J.R.R. Tolkien gets a nod for the thoroughness of how Middle Earth was realized and Hannibal just can’t stop talking about Christopher Priest and his work on Black Panther.

So how did this man go from expert commentator to soon-to-be-published comic book writer? He entered the 2012 Top Cow Talent Hunt, a free contest, and won with a script for their series Artifacts, featuring Michael Finnegan as an Irish archeologist of the weird. However, he doesn’t recommend joining any contest that requires paying an upfront entry fee.

“I have a policy I take checks, I don’t give them out,” Hannibal said.

Winning the contest brought more attention from all around the comics industry. Steven Grant, co-writer of Two Guns, approached him for a guest writing stint on Watson & Holmes, a black take on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle classics. Both issues are winding their way through the editorial process as of this writing.

Asking Hannibal about his writing schedule was eye opening for me (see above to the semi-facetious Henry V reference). He blocks out three to four hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday after 8:30pm, where if his girls have a reason to still be up the wife has been delegated to deal with it because it’s Daddy’s writing time. He chews through the many tweets, comics (Wednesdays) and articles that inform his various columns and then the remaining time is given over to whatever project is at the top of his many lists. I gulped to hear the assertion of 50,000-60,000 words per week completed factoring in both columns and creative work. Like many writers, Hannibal supplements the output from his scheduled writing times with mobile apps and stealing writing time whenever it presents (usually in a slow-moving line). He uses Textastic, which most people use to write HTML code, on both his iPhone and his iPad, because he releases most of his work directly to the web.

“My girls can’t stand how protective I am of my iPad, but I say to them ‘this is my iPad, get a job and get your own,’” Hannibal said.

When this writer got over the output issue, I was less surprised to learn that Hannibal approaches his craft in a highly methodical and detailed manner. He sketches out his characters and plots to the Nth degree in that he probably can tell you what the guy in the back of the bar hitting on his female protagonist had for lunch three days previously. The same goes for his plots, which allows him to know where he’s going even if he needs to take a long digression and later come back.

“I mostly had to do it this way, even if I don’t need most of what I create because I was always thinking that I would write in collaborative media like comic books where an artist tells half the story,” Hannibal explained. “We all have different cultural reference points and it wouldn’t be fair to say ‘make this guy like Michael Jai White’ and make the artist look things up, so I just give him everything I have and set him loose.”

Hannibal made an important distinction when asked if he felt his characters talked to him, “No, I rather think they talk through me, I’m not sure I would to talk to them. A lot of them seem quite crazy.”

Music plays an important role in Hannibal’s work from many reasons whether a character issue about knowing what the character listens to or if it’s just about setting the mood and tone of a piece. He also cited how musical influences as disparate as Sting and Public Enemy induced him to spend more time looking things up because he hadn’t gotten the references.

“I was nine and I didn’t know what Scylla and Charybdis were when I heard Sting sing about them,” Hannibal said. “I looked them up and it led to the wider world of Greek Mythology.”

Ultimately, I really just wanted to talk about his e-book Crown: The Ascension. I had started reading it that morning and had quickly blown through seven chapters and hadn’t read anything quite so awesome. A young man meets a seemingly young woman in the LA club scene and gains superpowers when she falls in love with him. The book came about when enough artists had backed out of an unspoken agreement to illustrate a project that finally he just wrote his books.

“That kind of thing just kind of fed my misanthropy that other people are bad,” Hannibal said. “So I just wrote the story my way.”

We discussed the book and that I thought it would be an awesome movie except for not knowing who could play the leads of James and Tonya. Hollywood hasn’t recently produced any new African-American stars in the Under 30 category, where all the big names right now are over forty too old for both leads. He mentioned Jaden Smith as being boring and so…

When speaking to Hannibal Tabu a factoid like a dearth of young African-American stars will lead to other tidbits that inform the listener that he is watching the media industry very closely to see if hiring practices will open up anytime soon. Something, I knew walking in the door when we had this exchange a few days earlier.

Q: Hannibal, how are you?

A: Insane.

Q: So is that insane, but not yet caught, which is good, or insane but caught which is bad?

A: I’m American and black, so of course I was caught.

He doesn’t hold out much hope of getting a job at either Marvel or DC citing that Marvel hadn’t hired a black writer since 2009 and at DC it had been since 2011. However, he is perfectly content to keep networking, commenting (loudly) and sending out his work all with the goal of scoring gigs with independent publishers like Top Cow, Image and the like.

“Will I reach 70-percent of the population? No,” Hannibal said. “But, stealing a quote from Robert Rodriguez ‘I have a lot of technology in my corner, I don’t have to submit.’”

Even more so than his perception of race relations, bad unoriginal writing really sets Hannibal off…

“I know Shakespeare did say ‘there’s nothing new under the sun,’ but you should at least try!” Hannibal asserted.

So after a pleasant 90 minutes I asked my closing question…

Q: You are given the power to green light one project, which because it’s a hypothetical situation, will have the resources to make it artistically perfect without drowning it in too much money. What would you use it on? 

A: Static Shock by Dwayne McDuffie, because he was far less misanthropic than I am and I was just pleased to get to know him as little as I did. I seem to gravitate towards villains, sick ones at that…

Fact checking corrections quoted directly from Hannibal:

– My mother, her boyfriend and half the chapter were sent to Joliet the night of Fred Hampton’s assassination by the COINTELPRO-hired security director for the chapter, in order to make the raid have less chances of police casualties.

– I moved to California by myself.

– Since our discussion, Marvel hired Felipe Smith for Ghost Rider, and he’s their only Black writer hire since releasing Hudlin from Black Panther in 2009.

– I don’t know if that’s a Rodriguez quote, but it’s surely his philosophy.

Additional sources: http://www.examiner.com/article/hannibal-tabu-wordsmith-wonder

2014-04-29 17.01.49

© 2014 G.N. Jacobs

Sometimes, it’s the small things that force a rethink. Until, a few weeks ago I was a devoted user of Documents to Go, the granddaddy of mobile office suites. I didn’t mind that I might pay $16 for the Premium edition. Everything worked and still generally works well, but a recent update destroyed the ability to type using a Bluetooth keyboard. And so I found Quickoffice…

When I was first searching for my writing tools, I’d looked at Quickoffice and rejected it for Documents to Go, on the theory that sometimes the more expensive system saves backend trouble. But, when the Bluetooth keyboard couldn’t type at the same time that I was modifying my work habits to actually use my Bluetooth keyboard, I was glad to see that Google had bought Quickoffice and had turned it into a free loss leader to drive traffic to GoogleDrive, Google’s cloud service. A quick read of the comments in the App Store to make sure I didn’t bite the lemon by getting something that wouldn’t work with pre-existing arrangements (I’m heavily invested in a Dropbox account) and I made the change.

On an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard, the choice will still be clear in favor of Quickoffice even after whatever update fixes the problem with Bluetooth keyboards on Documents to Go. My most used controls: bold,italics and underline are placed at the top left corner of the main writing screen. Other controls like the basic font and paragraph controls are at the top right of the same screen, waiting for the user to use a finger to fix his or her copy the way they want. And Quickoffice actually allows the usage of AirPrint, somethingstill not allowed on Documents to Go.

On the iPhone, the choice between the two giants is less clear, more like a coin toss. The layout of controls in Quickoffice iPhone is less well conceived being roughly equivalent between the two platforms in terms of how many buttons need to be pushed to do what you want. In the small screen iPhone environment where we don’t do silly things like marry a Bluetooth keyboard to the phone, the name of the game is emergency touchscreen typing. In a few cases, Documents to Go has a slight edge, but not enough to change back on my iPhone.

A word about printing with AirPrint or the Android equivalent, Quickoffice has a tendency to strip out any document headers and footers that you may have added to the document on your computer. So, you won’t see them if you print directly from the mobile gear. Even though Documents to Go couldn’t print directly from the app, a document that you emailed to yourself after working in Documents to Go could be printed out headers and all if you print from the email attachment. This means that any printing you do with Quickoffice will simply be work copies good for editing with a red pen.

Even though Quickoffice has sensible defaults in the paragraph controls, where the assumption is single-space 12-point type, I still use the document templates created for Documents to Go. Documents to Go’s defaults are in favor of double-spaced 12-point type and I had to make those templates because to me double-spaced typing is an afterthought for when I have to mail someone a manuscript. I don’t edit any better on the computer with double-spaced type. Ink and paper is a different story. I don’t need those templates, but I can still use them, so we’ll call them a force of habit and move on.

Put all of this together, and my work process for books is to write the next chapter on the more appropriate of my iPad or iPhone (depending on whether I’m just writing or trying to exercise at the same time) and Cut and Paste the new chapter into the manuscript on my computer. I do a lot of fix it later on the computer, which is a quirk common to many iterations of the mobile office suite. For instance, I used to whine about how Apple products typically omit certain punctuation marks in favor of the generic versions. I later discovered that when you use fingerprint typing you can hold down keys to get the appropriate punctuation marks, as they should look in the chosen default font.

You hold the key down long enough to get the similar choices and move your finger to the appropriate punctuation mark (Open Quote, Close Quote, etc.) and that this also works for foreign words with umlauts and other wonky diacritical marks. It worked on everything I’ve ever used to write, including Quickoffice. But, it only works when you type with your fingers, not a Bluetooth keyboard. So, now I can just type and go over it again with the keyboard turned off to fix the punctuation marks with my messy grubby fingers.

While I generally like Quickoffice, it has annoying quirks. The usage of the iOS autocorrect that finishes common words for you unless you click the big X in the corner is sporadic at best. Similarly, the autocorrect from lower-case i to I doesn’t work at all despite being a feature of every other writing interface on the iOS system. The real annoyance is Quickoffice’s auto-save feature, it seems to fire off when I’m in the middle of a word and instead of being a background save is a foreground save which means I have to retype the word.

All in all, Quickoffice does the work with the same amount of fix it later on the computer as before. Verdict: awesome for being free!

© 2014 G.N. Jacobs

Normally, I’d be all over Microsoft’s recent release of a mobile (iOS and Android) version of their Office suite. Since they’ve done a great job of A) smashing all competitors (Word Perfect and possibly Pages, we’ll see) and B) finally creating a good word processor once said competition has been well and truly buried, anyone commenting on tools that writers might actually use should discuss the doings of the 800-Pound Gorilla’s monopoly product. In a perfect world with a less extractive marketing plan…sure. In the real world, there is no way I can review or use Office Mobile…ever.

The fine print on the app listing that I saw following a link from my backgammon app says that to actually use Word, Excel or Powerpoint I would have to purchase a Microsoft Office 365 account. Without this brand of cloud account, the user can only use the office apps to look at their files. I hate to break it to you fellas, but since Documents to Go (my old mobile office suite), Quickoffice (my new tool) and Dropbox all got into the mobile environment first with key pieces of the puzzle answering the question – How do I write, edit and distribute my work across my devices and to any friends with the least cost and hassle? – I don’t need yet another app to look at my files…even if the base app is free.

My objection to Microsoft Office 365 is fundamental at the level of I will use a manual typewriter before subscribing to rent tools that should be bought. If Microsoft stops supporting earlier versions (for me Office for Mac 2011) in favor of exclusively supporting Office 365, I will have some decision making to do. Luckily, I have one install left on my current disk to go on my next Apple. Why am I do down on Office 365? Money.

The older versions of Office and specifically Word may have been forced on me by the publishers with whom I occasionally submit stories, but I grew used to the interface. My work, then and now, was only limited by my imagination and typing speed. Before I figured out the dodge of buying the Student and Teachers edition, I would pay about $300 for Word, Excel and Powerpoint. After discovering the Student and Teachers version when buying my current zombie-MacBook, I paid $150 for each version of Office for Mac (2008 and 2011) that I used and/or still use. Office 365 has two yearly payment plans, a low-data in the cloud version for $70 and full yearly usage for $99.

Doing the cost-benefit analysis. I spent $300 for seven years of usage with two similar office suites. I would have spent $700 for the same word processing, spreadsheets and presentations if Office 365 had been available in 2007. I am already plus $400. Suck it!

Okay, I will grant that my savings wouldn’t have been so good, if I’d been a stickler for the fact that I’m not a teacher and am otherwise terrified of more school. But, even spending a total of $600 over the same seven years still marginally edges out the cloud service.

Why did Microsoft change their pricing plan? Well, I’m reasonably certain they saw how well Netflix, Hulu, HBO and Spotify were doing with mobile entertainment subscription apps and decided to do something similar with Office. Yes…when the intellectual property is entertainment, you do have to pay the copyright holder something to acknowledge taking a financial risk to bring you distraction. But, when that intellectual property can also be defined as a tool like a typewriter or hammer, my suspension of disbelief and willingness to pay is quite limited. Possibly, it’s a price issue that at $50/year might seem more affordable and thus more tolerable. Nah…never happen, because there are alternatives, some of which are free because the purpose is traffic that leads to cash flow in other parts of the Internet system. My current setup is Quickoffice (a recent Google purchase) married to a Dropbox account, but GoogleDocs married to Google Drive could also work and still be free.

If it comes to it, I carry pens and pads around…and have several typewriters.

A Theory of Remakes

Posted: May 2, 2014 in Uncategorized

© 2013 G.N. Jacobs

Are remakes good for movies and the screenwriting art? I suppose it depends on the movies we choose to see. Considering that I am in progress on at least two novels that are essentially remakes of two of my favorite movies of all time, Ben-Hur and Casablanca, I can’t be too negative about remakes. Okay, in strict point of fact, I’m going in more for wholesale element borrowing than direct remakes, but…

In looking at how I approach remakes and other similar adapted and semi-adapted work, one very personal rule rises to the surface: a remake will not be worth the ink and paper needed to write it if the author doesn’t use the remake vehicle as a way to explore decisions not taken in the original that may substantially change the outcome of the story.

I frequently cite the Twilight Zone episode “A Game of Pool” as my touchstone for the most awesome pairing of original and remake that follows my rule, nay, it helped define it. A pool player shoots a frame in a pool hall as it’s closing for the night and he gets a visit from a very special player: a deceased champion that no one had ever beaten with money on the table in anyone’s living memory. The players rack ‘em and play for huge stakes: the living player’s life!

In both the original version and the remake for the revival of the show in the 1980s, the champion talks about his life both as a champion and a man. A lot of emphasis is put on the man having had an awesome wife and doing things that had nothing to do with pool. The challenger clearly hasn’t seen the outside of a pool hall in ten years or more. Finally, it comes down to the last shot where the challenger must sink the last ball to win a game of Straight Pool. The champion warns the challenger that he may get more than he bargained for if he wins…

Jack Klugman (1961 version) sinks the shot to the great relief of Jonathan Winters who had also explained that the divine champion exists to inspire and encourage those who follow to be better at their field of endeavor. The champion namedrops Mozart, Bach and Babe Ruth as inspiring people long after their deaths. The zinger (it’s the Twilight Zone, the zinger is union mandated) is that the Jack Klugman as a miserable man will become the champion when he dies naturally and spend his eternity preparing to play all future challengers until he is, in turn, beaten. The audience connects to the tragedy that the challenger couldn’t enjoy being the champion while he lived because he had nothing else going for him.

Esai Morales (1989 version) blows the shot. The champion explains that the challenger is a loser who will never be good enough to be anything more than what he is now, a broken down waste of a man with nothing good in his life. The implication in the hyper-competitive 80s is that it is worth the years of struggle even after dying to be champion. The challenger doesn’t get the veiled hint that the Universe is telling him to get out of pool and racks the balls again. He wants a rematch not realizing that the champion’s face tells the tale that this type of game only occurs one to a customer.

It’s amazing to me that one simple choice changes the whole tone of the story. In the 60s which were seemingly more about cooperation, the New Frontier and progress, of course the moral of the story is be careful what you wish for. In the 80s, the moral is clearly win or die! According to Wikipedia, writer George Clayton Johnson (Logan’s Run, Ocean’s Eleven) originally wrote the 80s ending which was changed in development. The right choice being made both times.

Now let’s talk about remakes that went bad or should never have been funded. When I heard that Gus Van-Sant intended to remake Psycho by going shot for shot to the Hitchcock original I vowed to stay away. I have yet to see the movie because nothing about color film will make an otherwise shot for shot remake rise above the millions of other highly average or even absolutely blowful examples of filmmaking. Really, Mr. Van-Sant you couldn’t add your own artistic vision that made your other work worth watching? Apparently, the audience agreed with me though some pundits suggested that the concept just didn’t play with the modern audience.

I walked away from the theater after watching Star Trek: Into Darkness angry as Hell, because I had seen the movie before…Wrath of Khan. I could have avoided the whole mess because I was informed ahead of time, but it was the Star Trek movie and I had gone out on a limb with the purists liking the 2009 reboot. I had to see for myself. I was warned.

Both movies feature Khan Noonian Singh as the villain, a genetically engineered superman from the past. In Wrath and Into Darkness Captain Kirk fights a superior being and nearly loses his ship. A key character makes a fateful decision to enter a radioactive chamber in the engine room to fix the broken engines and save the ship. The first time around, Spock dies bringing down the house with tears. By the time, that Captain Kirk temporarily dies in the remake saying much the same dialog – “Ship out of danger?” – and so on I was left asking V’ger’s question – is this all there is?

Really? Did you think I couldn’t watch the first movie on Netflix? Obviously, it fails my Explore Significant New Choices test. It didn’t matter to me which member of the Kirk-Spock partnership bit the dust the second time. It was trite and I’d already been there done that. Other than leaving Benedict Cumberbatch as the equally scary John Harrison, my other suggestion for a movie that decided to have Khan was to give him the big death scene after writing him as a potential ally of Captain Kirk (it’s a new reboot universe, they can do almost anything they want). But, as a friend put it – “That’s too original.”

Which leads me to the ultimate remake question? To redo Casablanca. A friend tried to make me feel shame for trampling a classic until I told him that it’s really an homage/disguised sequel where we get to explore the one story element that matters – Rick gets the girl. The powers that be have given us Casablanca in color and Casablanca with gender switching where Rick and Victor are now women and Ilsa is now the man between them (Barb Wire). They have yet to give us the one hypothetical question – under what circumstances would it be artistically acceptable for Rick to walk away with Ilsa?

Possibly, this failure of imagination may be fueled by both of the above examples tanking at the box office. Another possibility, is that Casablanca’s time has come and gone what with semi-legendary stories of people in Hollywood conducting experiments by sending out classic old scripts and putting them through the modern development ringer. The story says no one even recognized the script and none even thought it was good.

Records from the set and recollections of the cast and crew tell us that no one knew the ending to the movie until the Epstein brothers shouted “Round up the Usual Suspects!” while driving to the studio. They logically decided that one of the two men should shoot the German commander and Louis would let them go saying into the phone “round up the usual suspects.” They went back and forth until they realized that Rick as the younger man of action should do the shooting, because that’s who the audience would believe did it. Once Rick shoots the German, Ilsa goes with Victor because Rick must protect them to advance the war effort.

I realized very quickly in my ongoing attempts to try the new ending that it couldn’t be a direct sequel because our perceptions of Rick, Victor and Ilsa are so fixed that most of us couldn’t conceive of the alternate ending. In Casablanca, the enemy was Nazi Germany and the ethic was to blow the shit out of them, but an ending where Victor, the writer and newsman who becomes the inspirational key to the war, gives up the girl requires a different villain that fought with propaganda more than bullets. Thankfully, history provides…the Soviets.

So, now I’m in Cold War Espionage territory where the CIA is paying conservative Italian parties to crush the Communists at the polls. The story now hinges on an analog to the Soviets attempting to hide the truth from the great writer that helped win the war against the Nazis and get him to endorse the Party. When he finds out the deception he offers to stay behind to give Rick and Ilsa time to escape. Obviously, this is the plot of an upcoming science fiction novel that I’m writing.

2014-05-02 12.54.39

© 2013-2014 G.N. Jacobs

Documents To Go by Data Viz has been around awhile (I had it on my Palm Pilot, way back when) and has been a generally solid writing app that does a lot of things well. But, it doesn’t do everything, explaining why like with many apps there just ain’t no replacing the actual computer on which the user will then fix the text using their latest copy of Microsoft Office. If this review were to appear in www.booksie.com or some other novel oriented site what I have to say would seem more positive, because I really don’t write scripts, plays, or comic books using this app, but I do rock the books and shorts.

The app (premium edition $14.99 in iTunes App Store) is a third party mobile tie-in with Microsoft Office and can read and edit the big three MS Office files (Word, Excel and Powerpoint, both flavors, 2011 for Mac and the previous non-XML versions). And considering that at least eight years of development has gone into the program, the user has more than enough options for moving, saving and working with the text. I use it with my Dropbox account, but I can email a file, use the cord with iTunes or use a WiFi sync page that loads onto your computer’s home screen.

The makers stripped Office down quite a bit to make it fit for downloading and updating via an app store. They give you maybe seven fonts of which three are Arial, New Courier and Times New Roman. Of course, these are the most used fonts that I’ve encountered so it all works out. Unlike, Microsoft Word where it is fairly easy to write with italics, bold or underline just by clicking the button in the toolbar, Documents to Go seems to work best if you type your text and then go back over it using the smartphone’s native text highlighting feature to make the changes. There are a few punctuation symbols (quote marks mostly) that have to be fixed on the computer so that the manuscript has a consistent look, an easy accommodation. And there isn’t a symbol browser for anything like a copyright symbol.

My work around for most of these issues has been to make a sort of template of the document I need on my computer using it to type the text in the app and then I use Cut to get rid of the boilerplate. For my novels and short stories, I get what I need even if I only do a chapter at a time, because page breaks have to be done on the computer, no negotiating there. Pretty much any really cool, but highly complex Microsoft Office task like trying to manage the two columns of an AV script (commercials and news writing), just won’t happen, Ducky.

The main reason why I don’t do scripts with this app is that it blows chunks trying to manage any kind of tab stop other than simple indentation. In my novel and short story writing I indicate songs and poetry with small offset margins using italicized and justified text and, you guessed it, I have to fix all of that on the computer. The template that I created for screenwriting is an approximation of proper format that leaves the Character and Dialogue elements over on the left margin to be fixed when I cut and paste from Word to Final Draft on the computer.

As an app, it’s stable. It doesn’t crash, freeze up, lose data or steal credit card info. If you can manage the small screen on a smartphone, or tie in a Bluetooth keyboard with an iPad, most writers will do fine doing general writing. In short, you won’t do your magnum opus Tom Sawyer V. The Vermicious Knids 5 on Documents To Go, but you might pull off the body of the query letter.

2014 Update: The premium edition is now $16.99. I have since abandoned it for not fully integrating with my Bluetooth keyboard. My complaint about certain punctuation having to be fixed on my computer for many writing of my writing apps was fixed by Apple, when I wasn’t looking. After writing using a keyboard or Siri, turn on the touch keyboard and hold down the button for the desired keys and move your finger to the desired result. This works for punctuation and any key that has choices.

2014-05-02 15.57.20

© 2013-2014 G.N. Jacobs

Screenplay by Black Mana is one of those first draft apps that seem to get blown away by later developments (namely Final Draft creating their own iPad app in 2012) and yet seems to hang on. Realizing my other mobile writing tools wouldn’t ever give me a screenplay that looks like a screenplay, I needed to find an app. Screenplay by Black Mana came up first. I ponied up $4.99 for the iPhone version and have been pleased ever since, even if my actual usage is more like gun ownership – “it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.”

Actually, my cost was a little more than the app’s list price because I was still using Final Draft 7 on my desktop and I needed version 8 to get the fully supported usage (.fdx). I spent about $40, though I suspect everyone coming to the screenwriting game as a new writer will just have Final Draft 8.

Screenplay works through Dropbox (it was the original reason I signed up for the cloud service). You move your Final Draft files into the Dropbox folder on the computer and then download them onto your device. The included pictures show that the user inserts the desired screenplay element and begins typing before moving on to the next.

It all works the way everything works writing on an iPhone. Tilting the phone rocks between Portrait and Landscape and the app uses the same autocorrect as every other app that uses the built-in virtual keyboard. So far, the app has never needed to be deleted and reloaded from the App Store, as has happened with a few of my other apps. If you intend on writing a screenplay (teleplays require a lot of jiggery-pokery, while their are no stageplays, or comic books scripts allowed with this app), then it’s a good place to start.

And now for the medicine. The iPhone version, which is the only version I kept when Final Draft introduced their own app, doesn’t have a key element that Final Draft (both app and software) does: Shot. I fully realize that we as writers are supposed to be doing Master Scene scripts with limited camera direction, but that rule gets fudged a bit when doing sniper movies (e.g. SCOPE-POV:). The app doesn’t read the Shot element even in an incoming imported script. The work-around is to use the Caps Lock button while in the Action element to mimic the Shot element and then fix it on the computer later.

The iPad version of Screenplay (currently $8.99) brought full capability in terms of choosing Scenes, Action, Characters, Dialogue, Shots and Transistions. But, Final Draft came out with their iPad app at roughly the same and rode the superior brand and complete functionality (screenplays, plays, comic books with a little tweaking and teleplays) all the way to the bank. Naturally, I deleted the iPad version, but kept my iPhone version, just in case I wanted to write on my phone (a big if considering the small screen, but people have to write when they get ideas).

If I had my way, Black Mana would incorporate the Shot element into the iPhone app and abandon their iPad app. They would rule the iPhone environment. However, once you figure out the tricks Screenplay for iPhone is a solid writing tool.

2014 Update: I have gone back and forth on keeping this app. I reloaded it on my iPhone and got rid of Celtx (forcing a complete re-write of that review). I still need an iPhone screenwriter and the absence of the shot element in the iPhone version can be faked, tricked and fixed because it outputs .FDX through to my Dropbox account. Ultimately, I decided that this is more important that Celtx which does not like .FDX at all. However, if Final Draft expands into smartphones with more functionality, it’s gone!

Product Review: CloudOn

Posted: May 2, 2014 in Uncategorized

2014-04-17 13.49.44

© 2013-2014 G.N. Jacobs

CloudOn cloud writer how I love thee? Okay, okay, Shakespearean hyperbole usually sticks in my throat, but CloudOn is very good at emulating MS Word on the iPad. The same can’t be said for CloudOn for iPhone.

The app works by linking the mobile device through the user’s choice of Dropbox, Box and Google Plus to the files stored on the computer. The idea is to present a fairly accurate representation of the desktop version of Word with all the buttons in the right places. The tiny quibbles about punctuation (see DocsToGo review) don’t exist because the user is actually using the device to edit the document stored in his or her cloud account (remote storage that allows the document to be in three places at once: device, computer and cloud server) that uses the full code.

Initially, when I used the app on my iPad I would see glitches where the document would crash trying to do simple tasks like using my finger to scroll to the bottom of the document. And early on, it was a bit of a chore just getting what I wanted on the page when I wanted it. But, regular updates are a sure sign that the purveyors want to keep my business. Problems have disappeared from my iPad workspace one by one, so call it a work in progress.

CloudOn for iPad performs the functions of MS Word that we’ve come to expect like various auto-correct functions and everything else the software does. When I use my Bluetooth external keyboard, I get even better results because I’m only touching the screen to change a key detail of the text. In short, I work in something that looks like Word, feels like Word and quacks like Word.

I could write in almost any font I want (I don’t. I’m a creature of habit), but to steal from certain gun nuts it’s better to have fonts you don’t need than to need new fonts and not have them. Touching the screen in the right places gives me all the Italics (overused in my case, maybe), Bold (not so much), or Underline (Almost never) and any other features I could ever want to use. Heck, when my nutrition writing partner finally drops our next book on my desk, I will even be able to do the dreaded footnotes, just like the full-featured versions of Word.

What I don’t like so much about CloudOn or any of these cloud writers is that there is a tendency for the cloud server to back-flush temporary copies of the documents I updated into my trash bin. Okay, Okay, yes, I’m whining about small things to simply have something to whine about. But, I tend to be very particular about this sort of thing because, essentially, I’m using a free-to-me pseudo-version of Microsoft Office 365 (I don’t like monthly fees). But, CloudOn gives me that connected functionality without paying, so it’s good.

So far, I’ve made the distinction between CloudOn for the iPad versus how the same app comes out on my iPhone 4S. On the iPhone using CloudOn (see screenshots), far too much of the writing space is out of view requiring me to use sliders to look at the whole page. In Portrait display, I can maybe only see six words and in Landscape display, I see perhaps half the page width. And my Bluetooth keyboard caused more problems than it solved on the iPhone version.

I initially deleted the iPhone version of the app because of my issues with the poorly used small screen. Despite being the same app download (no separate apps for tablets and phones) the iPhone version is slightly stripped down so that certain more rarified tasks have to be done on either the iPad or your computer, also a reason to delete the iPhone version. But, I recently decided to give CloudOn iPhone another chance to see if my experience will improve from getting used to and being patient with the app.

My last thought here is that like many things that emulate MS Word, you just don’t want to use it for screenwriting. In the bad old days and to this day, getting Word to deal with the tab stops of the character header and dialog paragraphs requires the ancient technique of writing a macro, or, in my case, using the mouse to monkey with the margins (paint dries faster). Other than that, CloudOn is a solid general word processor that works well for being free.

2014 Update: While I still stand by CloudOn as solid office in the cloud suite, I have since deleted it from my iPad and iPhone because upon discovering the finger gestures that give me the punctuation marks appropriate to my chosen font and diacritical marks so that foreign words are spelled correctly, my need for this app diminished. Apps like DocsToGo and later QuickOffice that allow me to write in the complete absence of a WiFi node that could also connect to my Dropbox, when I return to a node. I am giving up the full features of CloudOn’s version of Word, like footnotes (a feature that would make my mobile apps’ heads explode). But, I use footnotes very sparingly and still have a computer.

2014-04-17 13.47.18

© 2013 G.N. Jacobs

 It’s the small things that make or break the average user’s experience. Once upon a time, I drove a rental Ford Escort and dinged it to my friends based on – pretty good engine and drivetrain, but those door handles, ARRRRRGGGGH! Accordingly, I unceremoniously dumped OnLive Desktop from my precious space on my iPad in favor of CloudOn (see review).

OnLive is very similar to CloudOn, where the writer uses a cloud server account to store documents remotely so that they can be worked on anywhere we might think to bring the iPad. Graphically, this class of app is meant to emulate Microsoft Word down to the Nth detail and OnLive did very well, possibly even better than CloudOn which I kept.

On the surface, it would seem that I made the wrong decision in the cloud writer rumble. OnLive was more stable and functional coming off that first hot download. There weren’t any scrolling crashes and getting the app to recognize that I just had to have that particular phrase in italics or that a footnote was truly called for was very easy. Tap the screen and the cloud writer genie didn’t talk back (I really like it when HAL does things correctly).

My first pass at the app from several months ago came before I figured out that an external keyboard powered by Bluetooth would give me more space with which to write. The keyboard gave at least half of my ten-inch iPad screen back so I could write and see my previous sentences in context. But, before I started using the keyboard, it was still a good experience two-finger typing using the popup keyboard (see screenshots). The response time between tapping a character and seeing it on screen was an impressively short interval measured in a few less microseconds. While CloudOn helps me get things done, OnLive, a free app, initially seemed better because it works.

So what happened? It’s all in the data management. The app is free because the seller really wants the user to pay $4.95 a month for the full account. Cheapskates like me who already gave to Netflix and Hulu+ have to use a special page on OnLive’s website to manage various documents. This adds extra steps to the process of writing because you will upload a document from your computer. You then link in from the iPad do your thing. Lastly, to clean up old file versions you have to erase the old unchanged version of the document that’s still on the computer. The free version of the account has no cloud integration (no Dropbox, Box or Google Plus), whereas CloudOn does this without charging monthly fees.

The free OnLive account only gives 2gb of space (very early on, I teased 6gb out of Dropbox linked to all of my writing and most of my image making apps). Free when it happens to be a good product is always better. Another annoying lack of a feature: OnLive has yet to do the coding to support Siri as shown by the lack of a microphone symbol on the popup keyboard (see screenshots). I personally haven’t made much of the voice activated writing features built into that smug female voice, but again more for less is always better.

Of course, even if a user with the extra disposable cash wanted to pay for the integration with the major cloud server of his or her choice, OnLive isn’t much of a screenwriting program in the same way that MS Word has never been much of a screenwriting program. For laughs and giggles, I typed out a page of bogus screenplay trying to eyeball the tabs for the character headers and dialog paragraphs. Sibling, eyeballing things like that actually adds to the writer’s workflow problems.

OnLive does prose well. Query letters? Yes. Treatments? Sure. Your novelization assignment? Yes. But, you still have to buy a screenwriting program to go from Fade In to Fade Out. I dumped it because I don’t need two app that do the same thing with the same general level of quality. It’s a good idea for writers with extra money (isn’t that an oxymoron?), but not for the rest of us.

Product Review: Celtx

Posted: May 2, 2014 in Uncategorized

2014-05-02 13.11.48

© 2014 G.N. Jacobs

 I’m going to have to eat a little bit of politician crow for my mild flip flop on Grayfist’s CELTX online writing suite. In an older review, I did mildly support the app’s existence. But now, I think it’s the most ridiculous waste of time and data space. The main flaws of this online screenwriting app are that they creators have arbitrarily decided that Final Draft doesn’t actually exist as the market leading 600-pound gorilla and, in addition to a recently added $4.99 app fee, they want to charge $4.95/month for full usage as a cloud/collaborative writing system.

How does Celtx ignore Final Draft to the detriment of screenwriters? They refuse to acknowledge that Final Draft has had fifteen or more years to make friends with every Script Supervisor, Assistant Director and Production Manager (the real power when it comes to getting a script from page to screen) in town. These production departments, in order to ease their workload simply started insisting that all work product must be output in a Final Draft specific file format (.FDR or more recently .FDX). Allegedly, this saves paper on set by creating a digital production board, schedules and so forth.

Celtx naively assumes that it’s okay to not have an output feature like Email as .FDX, instead going for Email as Text (.TXT) or Email as PDF (.PDF). Yes, PDFs are an acceptable format for emailing associates a script that they then print out and take to the set with them. Writing contests also accept PDFs as digital entries, because there is no production intended. Nobody but those intending to shoot their own movie in the backyard goes anywhere near .TXT or .RTF formats. The cut and paste into an FDX is a stupid amount of extra work. This becomes a reason for all gatekeepers to simply say…NO!

I won’t go too much into my objection to monthly fees for writing tools. It remains the same whether I trash the recently released Microsoft Office Mobile, or other cloud-based writers like OnLive. Over the long haul, the writer will pay more than if they had bought the app or desktop software. Pay for good tools once.

The mobile app version also doesn’t play well with other apps, as there is no usage of the Open In Feature. I use Open In to move files between Dropbox, Quickoffice and Final Draft Mobile. And Celtx doesn’t go anywhere near this forcing the writer to email files back and forth.

However, in my several attempts to decide whether Celtx is a good way to write screenplays and related media scripts using a mobile device, I’ve found that it does at least write. The interface is stable, uses features common to all Apple products (spell check, auto-correct, etc.) and doesn’t crash. I quick check of the screenshot included with this article suggests integration with the SIRI voice to text feature or for those of us that still type, a Bluetooth keyboard (I tested both before finishing this sentence, they work).

Like quite a few screenwriting programs, the writer can also write prose if they really had to. Using the text button in the interface one can simply start typing a book. Unlike other features like those in Final Draft Mobile there is a default towards double-spacing after hitting the return key (I write prose in single-space and use tabs and/or first line indent), but for some any sort of text writing will do.

I wanted to like this software, but the data management is just all messed up and doesn’t acknowledge the annoying truth that Hollywood is famous for insisting that everything be all tickety-boo. Remember this is an industry where a script must not only be in screenplay format, but that the font must be in Final Draft Courier, or that the middle brad on the paper script should be omitted, despite the truth that the pages turn better with the third brad. A writer trying to navigate such professional superstition and to give it a name neurosis, will always do better applying the First Law of Capitalism – Give the customer what they want! – and should just pay the extra money for one of many screenwriting suites that the production departments will accept. Verdict: decent writer that professionals can’t use.

2014-05-02 14.33.05

© 2013-2014 G.N. Jacobs

Final Draft 8 as the latest version in a long line (twenty years at least) of software designed to automate the process of getting our words into proper screenplay format would seem nearly so ubiquitous that pack your bags, fellas, it’s all over but the shouting would be the phrase of the day. Believe it or not, but there are still competitors lurking out there (Movie Magic, Celtx, etc.), so perhaps this review is required. Actually, I mostly want to talk about the iPad app version and how it integrates with the desktop software.

Final Cut became the screenwriting analog of how MS Office left WordPerfect broken by the side of the road wondering who was that masked writing program that just slashed my jugular by making nice with the Assistant Director, Script Supervisor and Production Manager. Legend has it that it was these departments that developed modern screenplay format in the first place before the writers could unionize and complain, but I digress. When the production people started using Final Draft to do their jobs, then various writers went along because if the script file had to be in FDR or later FDX on set then you might as well go to the source. The competitors made their programs Final Draft compatible to stay in the game.

There isn’t much to say about the desktop Final Draft that hasn’t already been said, it works because the creators have had a long time to make it work for everybody, writers and ADs. The desktop version can manipulate a script in any way required and export that information to software used by the various departments on set. They thoughtfully included a lot of templates for currently popular shows, comic books, plays and comic books. You can even write a novel from the desktop version. For $300, the desktop program will do almost everything, except AV scripts.

Final Draft 8 came about when certain app makers started finding ways to write screenplays on our mobile tech. It started with Black Mana’s two versions of Screenplay that Final Draft initially supported, but others jumped in. Final Draft decided that it would be easier and more profitable to update everyone that wanted to work on a mobile device to a new version as a way to solve coding problems. My upgrade was $40. When they had the experience from working with Black Mana, they then built their own iPad only app. At $10/app, they haven’t looked back, because Final Draft is still the source.

The app is awesome for lots of reasons starting with the fact that the coders thoughtfully give the four templates we need most – Screenplay, Play, Hour TV and Sitcom with all the elements included (no omitting Shot from a certain other iPhone app, say). True, I’m sure the sharp-eyed reader has read my bio and asked “aren’t you also a comic book writer?” My comic book template is just a simple tweak of the Screenplay template; I’ll live.

The primary limitation of any mobile writing app is that the pop up touchscreen keyboard uses up so much of the visible writing space. But, my iPad has been paired up with an external Bluetooth keyboard allowing me to Rock n Roll as I type. The font specific quote marks don’t translate from the app to the computer but then they don’t do that on most of my other apps, either. I fix them later on the computer. And I’ve learned not to start certain types of scripts on the computer based on some of those templates in the desktop version because I ended up hitting more keys than I should to make the script look right.

I have yet to break what seems to be the unbeatable combo of Final Draft with an awesome app that pretty much behaves as advertised. Part of me would like to see if they come out with an iPhone version and complete the mugging done on Black Mana’s Screenplay, but since the current app can be used offline and synched with Final Draft upon reaching a WiFi node there isn’t much that it won’t do in terms of writing movies.

2014 update: The Final Draft Mobile App now costs $29.99. It has also been updated to be compatible with Final Draft 9, software that requires iOS Mavericks (and a new computer) for me to run.