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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Theme vs. Premise

I tried posting this last night, but alas, Blogger issues cropped up again. :-(


A steel cage match? No, just a little delineation.

But first, a brief update. So it's been nearly a week since my last post, and I'm still in a New York State of Mind, as I have not yet returned to Los Angeles. Which explains the lack of posting. My apologies, but I figured since I'm actually currently in New Jersey, at my parents' place, I had a bit of downtime in which to post. But to sum up, the trip has been great, though packed and hectic. I've caught up with tons of friends (including my bi-coastally seen friend and blogger extraordinaire Esther), imbibed plenty, and slept very little. I also neglected my work on Hell on Wheels, though I hope to get some done on my flight back. That is if I don't get too absorbed by the trivia game on Song. And I've got the rest of the week to get it done as well. Plus, I will probably be up for Warren's round robin screenplay as well, if I'm not already. I should read those emails, huh?

Okay, so on to the topic at hand. One posting topic I've had lying around for a couple of weeks now is this theme vs. premise question. It was posed to one of the panels I heard at the Writer's Faire. Someone asked, "What is the difference between theme and premise?" In honesty, I didn't really think much of the question when I first heard it posed, but then I thought more about it and found there may be some interesting material to examine more in depth here.

In brief, firstly, the premise of your film is a summary of the plot. It is what happens in the film. The theme, on the other hand, is basically the subtext of that plot -- the message you're trying to deliver. So why then are the two terms even confusing to anyone in the first place? Because in a certain way, both terms are what your film is about. When someone asks you, "What is your screenplay about?" are they asking you about your underlying points or do they want to know what they'll see on screen? Generally the latter. However:

While the premise is what the film is about, the theme is what the film is really about.

Another way of looking at it is by distinguishing between action and significance.

Premise is what happens; theme is what it means, and why we should care.

Thus, the premise for 40 Year-Old Virgin is that the character described in the title has friends who try to help him escape the film's title, while he dates a woman he likes and tries to tell her the truth about the title -- his (lack of) sexual history. The theme, however, might be seen as "take things at your own pace." Or "who you are is more important than what you've done." You might be able to come up with a better statement of theme for this movie. I'm just throwing those out off the top of my head. But the point should be clear. Those thematic statements didn't mention the details of the film's plotting. Instead they presented statements that expressed a message that the film delivers subtextually.

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Monday, September 19, 2005

A Night in Hell

I got Michael Lee's next batch of pages for Hell on Wheels on Wednesday night. This took us about half way through Act II. One interesting thing was an idea MLee came up with to make a certain action sequence more exciting. It was in Act I, but I think we'll end up finding a middle ground between the two versions of that scene (my original, and his altered) for the scene in Act I, and use it as a set-up for the scene that will lead us into the climax at the end of Act III.

So I read through his rewrites on my pages, then went through his new pages, writing in some thoughts and alterations, etc. Then we got together last night (Saturday) to discuss where things stood -- hence the "Night in Hell." It was a great learning experience and hopefully relatively productive. We discussed a lot of things, both minor and major.

For example, I noticed he and I had a few unique writing quirks, which was fun to discuss and work through. For example, though I'm not a total stickler for format, I do hate to see too many things CAPPED in the action element. For me, all I capitalize is the initial character intro (for speaking characters only), sound effects (but not "practical" sound, e.g. a scream), and camera movements (which I keep to a bare minimum, though I might write something such as "we GLIDE over the train tracks"). It reminded me of this post and the ensuing discussion in the comments, over at The Artful Writer.

In addition to our specific formatting quirks, we also had slightly different ways of writing dialogue and the like. Largely this stemmed from our disparate backgrounds -- MLee has been a writer/director while I am a pro script reader. This led to some interesting discussion, but overall I think we worked stuff out and learned some things about our thought processes.

So what did we figure out? Well, firstly, we realized that though we had done a pretty detailed outline, it still made sense to depart from it at times. We discussed one thing we hadn't thought about previously: which scene to use as our "mid-point" scene. Finding the most logical one suggested some shifting of what we already had planned or written. More importantly, we realized that an entire scene (or short sequence) we had in the outline was really unnecessary. Originally we had included it for one primary purpose (showing the gelling of the team of vampire fighters), but we subsequently realized that another scene served that purpose equally well, which allowed us to drop the second scene.

Some other points we discussed... One of the things we have been working on building up for some time now is (main character) Zane's motivation. While there was something there all along, I felt that it wasn't strong enough. It's something we've been working on. Michael came up with one idea, and I wasn't convinced I liked it, though I couldn't figure out if that was because of the motivating element itself, or just the way it was presented. But then we discussed finding a more personal way of expressing the same motivation, and I warmed to it somewhat. So I'm going to try to incorporate that a bit in my rewriting. I'm also trying to keep it to the Enneagram type we decided fit Zane's personality.

Another point I raised was something I've been talking about all along: making sure that both the Western and the Vampire elements are equally strong. I don't want this to just be a vampire story in a Western setting. I hate gimmicks, and while by its nature any genre hybrid will be somewhat gimmicky, it can transcend that if it truly melds the two. So I posed the following question to Michael Lee. If we removed the vampire element (and hypothetically changed it into some other western element like Indians or something), would the story be strong as a pure western? I posed it this way because I felt we definitely had some strong vampire elements, and I wanted to confirm that the western part was its equal.

He pointed out something that I hadn't consciously picked up, but I think it is correct. Our story structure almost works like a swinging pendulum. The first act primarily works to set up a unique western world, and subtly introduce some vamp stuff, so it is primarily on the western side of things. Then the first half of Act II swings us back the other way, towards more of the vampire stuff. The second half of the act swings back more towards western, but definitely begins to meld the two, as if they are colliding. And then Act III is truly an intertwining and collision of the two halves. And on the question of the western aspect itself, we are definitely creating a fresh world, and exposing an aspect of the old West that has not been really shown on screen before. But at the same time, we're certainly grounding it in the familiar conventions of the genre.

MLee similarly eased my anxiety over a few other elements that I wasn't sure if we handled in the best way possible. He explained why he thought they worked as we had them, and it seemed to make sense. So that's a good thing, and I guess it highlights one of the benefits to a collaboration! The bottom line is that while I'm not 100% convinced we'll hit our marks in this first draft, I do feel more confident that we're heading in the right direction with this.

So what's next? I'm going to aim to have my revision and the fresh pages done to get to Michael Lee by the end of next week (sometime on the weekend of October 1st). Though of course the trip to NYC could interfere (I do not own a laptop, which kind of sucks, but what can you do?), but hopefully I'll be able to stay on track (pun intended). My first step will be to revise and shorten the pages we have, and possibly also work in a few minor elements that we're going to need to push ahead due to the dropped scene. Then I will aim to write us through the end of Act II. We're moving along, and it's pretty exciting!

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

I Don’t Have Any Reasons, I’ve Left Them All Behind...

...I'm in a New York State of Mind!

(hat tip to William "Somewhat-Fun" Joel Martin)

So yeah, I'm heading to NYC a little later this week. I land on Wed night, then fly back out, LAX-bound on the following Monday afternoon. The impetus for the trip is some friends' wedding, and I'll also get the chance to catch up with tons of friends and see my parents (in NJ). (So I actually do have some reasons, but I love that song anyway). Should be a blast!

September is always a good month for film events in NYC, so I may see if I can catch up with anything cool. But I also wanted to post because there are a few of you who are NYC residents, so if y'all want to meet up at some point, and I have the time, that would be cool. So if you're interested, drop me an email or something.

I've got at least a few more posts in me before I head to the Big Apple, and then I may or may not post from there, depending on all sorts of things. Just giving the advanced heads-up. But later today, I'll post about Hell on Wheels' progress. But first, I have a Jets-Dolphins game to watch, and bills to pay. Fun! (He said with much sarcasm.)

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Exploding Scribosphere

When I began this blog back in late May, I had done some searching to find the other screenwriting blogs out there. I found a few big ones -- including JohnAugust.com and The Artful Writer -- and a handful of others (hard to remember the order I've found blogs in) that were written by people at more or less the same level of experience that I had. I decided to dive in with eyes open, and start attempting to impart some of my supposed wisdom, or at least my hopefully entertaining and mildly enlightening observations and experiences.

Since then, I've gradually discovered more and more blogs in the screenwriting neck of the blogosphere (the so-called scribosphere). I even happily organized a meet-up exclusively for the screenwriter/bloggers out here, and got to meet a number of my fabu peers. Some of them have slowly found their way into my blogroll, but that was long overdue for an updating.

So I finally did it. First off, you'll notice a few new categories. One is for Screenwriting Podcasts. Even though I don't really listen to any of them, I still have heard wonderful things about these, and I wanted to give y'all a heads up on 'em, if you didn't already know about them. Never let it be said that I don't look out for my readership! I also added a new category called "The Assistants," specifically for those bloggers who work as assistants and readers. These people are my kindred spirits in many ways, since I'm a reader, so I set them off in solidarity with them for their struggles.

I also removed the link for Hollywood Hack (though here it still is) since he has stopped publishing that anonymous blog. If it ever starts up again, I'll re-add it!

By the way, if you feel a blog is miscategorized, please let em know. Also, if you aren't on there, let me know as well. I've kept my links exclusive to writing, and there are a few writers' blogs that I haven't included, in the hopes that I could encourage them to post more frequently! So I might know about your blog, but didn't yet include it. I'll reevaluate next time around.

Okay, so a quick rundown of the new links (from top to bottom as they appear in the blogroll currently, though that's always subject to change):

Some of these blogs predated mine, and I didn't know about them, others started relatively concurrent to mine, but the bulk have started up since then. Which just points to the ever-expansion of the scribosphere! Welcome to you all! I look forward to more interactions, and a building community!

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Carving Time

It should be no secret to those of you familiar with my blog, that I am not the greatest at sticking to schedules. My problem is not that different than that of many other writers -- finding time to write while also trying to work and pay the bills.

So a few thoughts on that.

One suggestion I recently heard bouncing around (and actually one that makes some sense) is to schedule double the amount of writing time you will need (if you are working based on page counts or something). In other words, if you plan to write 5 pages, and you know you will need about 2 hours to do it, schedule four hours. Life always seems to have a way of intruding. This helps counteract that, by figuring in a "finagle factor" with your budgeted time.

My co-writer, Michael Lee, just mentioned something he's started doing that has been working well for him. He's recently begun a full-time job, so he now brings his laptop to work with him, and stays for about 1 1/2 hours after work just to write. By staying at the office, but not getting involved with work, he's able to get some good writing done in that time. Then he does some more at home before he goes to bed. I think this is great too, so long as your workmates won't interrupt you while you're sitting and working!

Also, as most of you know, I've been reading scripts for a long time. When I started reading, I heard from a number of other people that they had been readers and got burnt out very quickly. So why haven't I gotten burnt out yet? One of the main reasons is that I don't read script full time. I definitely read a lot, and it is one of my main sources of work, and a major consumer of time. But I also do a number of other freelance jobs, such as writing. Thus, my mind doesn't get burnt out by doing coverage all day, every day.

I think the same can be a good tool for avoiding burn-out when screenwriting. When you find your mind growing numb after looking at the same script, consider putting it aside and shifting gears to work on a second script. Then when you get burnt on that, return to the first. Obviously, this won't work for everybody. Some people have trouble shifting gears like that, and others like to obsessively work on a single project. But I know this is working for me (at least somewhat) right now. I'm shifting between Hell on Wheels and revising two other scripts in my down time. This way, when I return to HoW (later this week when I get it back from MLee), I'll be bale to approach with more freshness and zeal.

None of this is really groundbreaking, but hopefully all are things worth thinking about!

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Faire Enough

This was supposed to go out this morning, but things got a little crazy. So here it is now! :-)


Attended the UCLA Extension Writers Faire yesterday, as planned. Not bad. Fun relaxed time, with some good stuff, I suppose. Got my money's worth (since it was free) and then some (since the Writers Store booth was giving out $10 coupons and I got more than one).

I attended two seminars (or 1 3/4 actually). First I caught "Crossing the Finish Line on Your Screenplay," which was alright. Got some good ideas of things to write about in here in the future, at the very least. Then a break for lunch, where I ran into my bud Rock (who if he would ever get a blog going, I'd link to), along with his writing partner. There was also a woman there with them who enlightened me about a cool new fellowship, which I will get back to in a minute.

After lunch, I attended "Writing Funny: Techniques for Comedic Screenwriting," which though again not necessarily groundbreaking stuff, was certainly full of some good things to hear or hear again. One thing that stuck with me was when Keith Giglio mentioned how Richard Curtis is known to sometimes write scenes four or five ways, from scratch, until he gets it right. I found this to be interesting, and something to think about. The panel was moderated by Billy Mernit, who "wrote the book on Romantic Comedy," since as he mentioned, it is the only one on the market! It was nice to meet him as well, and trade blog addresses. Finally, in a bit of strange serendipity (though I didn't get the chance to mention it to him), Billy Frolick was one of the other speakers on the panel. He was one of the writers on Madagascar, and I had actually read an earlier draft of the film (as a writing sample) when it was still called Wild Life.

I also got the chance to run into Emily and Shawna (who I finally got to meet), along with their buddy Bernie, who was kind enough to give me a ride to my next event in the day. We all chatted for a bit, mostly about Serenity, and other Whedonia.

Lastly, I met the lovely women of the Writer's Arc Fellowship. A 20-week fellowship that pays $10,000, and allows some excellent learning opportunities. Sounds like a great thing. And an interesting and fun selection process. Check it out! Next round of selections begins in mid October.

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Friday, September 09, 2005


So this is not related to screenwriting, but it does relate to writing. Mine specifically.

That column I wrote about my experiences after 9/11 is out. For those who don't know, I'm a Jew, and the article is in Los Angeles' weekly Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Journal. Entitled "Remembering Sept. 11 the Jewish Way," it offers just that. So I can't say it is an article with universal appeal, but I welcome any of you to read it if you're interested! :-)

Let's all take a few moments this weekend to remember all the lives we lost on that fateful day four years ago.


Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Appropriate for my Western Script?

This is one of the funnier subscripts to Hollywood life that I've seen in a while. This article from today's NY Times talks about a guy who makes "Fine Art" by firing pistols at his underperforming screenplays. (By the way, if you don't want to register for NYTimes.com, or other free websites with compulsory sign-ups, check out BugMeNot.)

I was thinking it'd be a cool gimmick to actually submit a screenplay with bullet holes going through it!

(Hat tip to Martine.)

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This Sunday (and last)

So, is anyone else planning to attend the Writers Faire at UCLA this Sunday? I'm still hoping/planning to attend (even if it means missing my Jets' opening game), so if any of you want to meet up, please let me know! Should be fun.

Also, I neglected to include one small film-related element of my weekend wrap-up. Silly but fun. You ever see a celebrity and think that he or she looks familiar because they are an acquaintance of yours, rather than someone famous? Well that happened to me while I was killing time before the movie started on Sunday night. I was at the AMC in Century City and walking around with some lovely lady was this guy. I rarely see famous people, and I never go to talk to them (hey, I'm a New Yawker!), but I always remember seeing them and think it's kinda funny. I was also at the movies with some friends, one of whose cousin was walking around too. We saw him as well. Funny stuff.

Anyway, let me know about Sunday!

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Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Then, Now, and Soon

Just wrapping up the Labor day weekend (for my American readers), and I don't know about you, but I didn't labor too hard on it. But I won't say it was neglected either. I did get some work done. And I'll also set up what's on tap.

Let's see...

Looks like the 9/11 essay I wrote for the local paper will be published next week. Did a little revision work on it over the weekend. I'll get y'all the details when it goes up.

Did some coverage work, and I have more of that to do over the next few days, both for Walden, and for a private client (which you should know by now that I do).

Went to see The 40 Year-Old Virgin last night, with some friends. I thought it was really funny, and fast paced enough to overcome the dangers of a primarily one-joke movie. I'm not saying it is a great film or anything, but it was very enjoyable, and I laughed a lot. I will say that the ending, which I thought was hilarious, offers a good lesson. When you have a title that is, as I would call it (and do, in my upcoming scr(i)pt mag article), a "logline title," you know that everyone sees the climax coming (no puns intended). Thus, in order to avoid an anti-climax, you need to at least be surprising in how you show it, if not in what you show. So here they at least went BIG to get some hearty laughs. And I think it works well.

This morning I had a little meet-up with Bill, from over at Disc/ontent. At the screenwriter/blogger gathering, I told him I was interested in picking his brain a bit, since I had written a direct-to-DVD type horror script, his area of expertise. So we traded scripts and agreed to give each other feedback. This was actually perfect timing for me, since now that Hell on Wheels is over in Michael Lee's court, I am planning to work on the revision of my horror script now, during this next week. I would've started on it last week, but I had those other writing deadlines. So I hope to get a lot done on that before the end of the week. Bill had some good feedback for me, and I'm going to have to mix it all with the other feedback I've received, figure out how much revision time it is worth my spending on a script of this nature, and then determine a course of action.

I think that about sums up the screenwriting-related elements of my weekend, tonight, and the week ahead! Hopefully I'll get to see The Constant Gardener at some point as well, and will update you.

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Monday, September 05, 2005

Screenplay Review: The Constant Gardener

Okay, so I can sometimes make mistakes. I can't say for sure, yet, since I have yet to actually see The Constant Gardener, but I was definitely not very impressed with the script when I read Jeffrey Caine's adaptation of John LeCarré's novel (screenplay draft dated 2/2/04). But all the reviews have been really positive, so maybe I was wrong. Who knows? I was considering seeing the film this evening, so I could sum up my feelings, but that didn't happen. So perhaps if and when I do see it, I can fill you in on things.

But let me first show you my comments on the script, then I'll fill in the gaps of what might account for the discrepancy between my feelings then and the reviews now. I read the script in March of 2004 as a writing sample for a specific project, not as a submission. Here's what I had to say, basically:

Minor Spoiler Warning!

The Constant Gardener
has high goals, but generally fails to reach them due to weak drama. The plot never meshes properly with the subject matter, the thrills are generally fake or arbitrary, and are unconnected to the plot, and the pacing is too slow to maintain audience interest. While many of these weaknesses may stem from the source material, Caine has still done nothing to improve these weaknesses in his screenplay, and thus is a PASS as a writer for XXX or other XXX projects.

The biggest problem with The Constant Gardener is that it sets out to unveil evil and corruption within the pharmaceuticals industry, but never fully makes this hit home dramatically. One reason for this is that the difference between what we know about the plan at the end of the film is not very different from our understanding of that background shortly after Tessa'’s death. Thus, all of Justin'’s digging around really uncovers very little new, and we are bored watching it.

Similarly, much of the thrills or action seem artificial at best, or irrelevant at worst. Justin's run-in with thugs in Germany, and his near murder in Canada, leading to Lara's death, are standard fare that never really make us feel the stakes have risen for Justin. The various locations around the world seem more a function of what is expected in this genre than what serves the plot well. Furthermore, Justin is a particularly passive character, and thus even when he gets involved in the hunt to finish his beloved wife'’s work, we still never get on his side. He is dry and reserved, barely ever showing emotion, and never turns the corner that is required of most protagonists in similar films; there should be a point at which he realizes this is for real, and he steps it up, showing some action and desperation. This contributes to a dragging of the script, and tediousness for the audience.

As an adapter, Caine is ultimately responsible for these weaknesses. He has done nothing to make this a more cinematic screenplay, leaves the plot as somewhat unbelievable, and worse makes as not care about the plot.

Whoah! So not a very good review, eh? So what am I to make of all the glowing word of mouth about this film? The way I see it, there are many potential explanations for this discrepancy.

1. The most likely explanation, as I see it, is that I simply didn't get this script when I read it. I don't have the script around anymore, so I can't go back and check. But what I can say is that I saw LeCarré's name and I was imagining it as a mainstream thriller of the style of The Bourne Identity or something. And while I have yet to see this film, and though I also have not seen City of God, also by director Fernando Meirelles, I have a feeling that this is a bit more artistically minded than I was picturing. Thus, it is possible that had I been thinking of this in different terms, I might have come to a different conclusion about it.

At the same time, however, I must point out that the advertising is pitching the film as a mainstream thriller as well, which surprises me. It definitely did not read as one, or at least not as a good one. I am willing to accept that it might be a good film of a different variety, but if it is actually a pretty straightforward thriller, there would've had to have been some major work done on it! What seems more likely to me is that they are marketing it that way because they don't know how else to market it. But when star Rachel Weisz was on Letterman last week, she seemed equally uncomfortable describing the film. And her last words on it tried to sell the film as a romance!

2. A second possibility is that the script changed drastically between the draft that I read and the one that was finally filmed. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but it could certainly explain a lot!

3. It is also possible that I will disagree with all the reviews, and actually think that the film is pretty poor as well. But I do still intend to see it, because I'm really curious.

4. The explanation I'm leaning towards, and I'll let you know after I see it, is that the script isn't actually very good, but that the film is that rarity in which the director has made a good film out of a poor script. It is possible that through Meirelle's solid direction and the excellent acting talents of Ralph Fiennes and Weisz (and though I can't remember how sizable his role is, I'll also mention one of my new fave character actors, Bill Nighy), the film was able to raise the quality of the story overall, and transcend the 2nd rate script. This is rare, but I've seen it before.

I remember seeing Meet the Parents, and loving it, but then thinking as I left the theater how the script wasn't really that great. As it happened, I was working as a reader for Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Productions at the time. They produced Meet the Parents. I asked my boss over there about it, and he agreed -- it wasn't such a great script. The way I saw it, what made that movie so funny and so successful was the excellent chemistry between DeNiro and Ben Stiller.

Perhaps the same thing happened here. Maybe the script wasn't so great, and perhaps the film is still really good. My guess is that there was some combination of all these things going on. I'll get back to you once I see the film, and if any of you have seen it, I'd love your feedback as well!

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Sunday, September 04, 2005


I'm going to finally repost about The Constant Gardener later on tonight, but first, let me catch y'all up on my articles. Finished the article on Titles and Character Names. Pretty happy with it, so y'all can check it out in a couple of months when it comes out. But, until then...

Check out the new issue of scr(i)pt, with The Corpse Bride on the cover. You can check out an interview with John August (the title story). And then, when you're done, you can find my article on overused storytelling devices and clichés, "Easy as Pie or a Tough Nut to Crack?" I'm on page 24, and he's over on 42. Maybe my future paycheck will be the mirror image of his as well. I'd gladly take that!

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

Law, Jude Law

I just want to cast my vote for Jude Law to become the next James Bond. I think he'd be perfect in the role. 'nuff said.

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A Brief Question...

So, I spent much of today, after I got over my anger at Blogger from this morning, dealing with another irritating computer issue. My Internet inexplicably went down, and tech support (somewhere in India, I believe) spent about an hour with me and then told me they had no idea what to do. Oddly enough, it started working again without warning another couple of hours later. But this all set me back on my article, so yes, I'm still working on it. Thus, my post on The Constant Gardener will still have to wait.

But I did want to post briefly to ask an irrelevant question that popped into my head. We always here of talentless writers being described as "hacks." But what is the origin of that term? I'm sure I could dig it up somewhere on the 'net, but I'm too lazy at the moment, and I have other things to do (see above). Besides, who knows if my web access will hold up long enough for me to find the answer! So if you know, enlighten us, please.

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