Celebrating the Word of the Day: Siren

[The Black Tail celebrates the word of the day from Anu Garg‘s mailing list – subscribe to his mailing list here A.Word.A.Day]


  1. A beautiful and seductive woman, especially one leading others to disaster
  2. Something attractive that is potentially dangerous.
  3. A device that makes loud sounds, used for warning signals. 

[etymology] After Siren, a group of sea nymphs, whose enchanting singing lured sailors to shipwreck on the rocks around their island. Also see femme fatale. Earliest documented use: 1340.



Screenshots from <Clash of the Gods>, the History Channel


Karl Iglesias gets at Pixar’s Emotional Core

Karl Iglesias is an MFA Screenwriter and instructor; he teaches Writing for

Karl Iglesias

Karl Iglesias

Emotional Impact at the UCLA Writer’s Program.  His books have made the top 3 list on Amazon’s screenwriters books. His course can also be found on Writer’s University online. At the Screenwriter’s World Conference in Hollywood recently, he divulged how Pixar creates cartoon characters everybody loves (advocating character-driven stories):

According to Iglesias, there is only one rule in story-telling…

EmotionalCoreAt Pixar, John Lasseter talks about the emotional core. He’s coming from $7B at the box office, 13 movies, 26 Oscars, and 6 Best Animated Features. This is the power of storytelling. Pixar is obsessed: they spend years developing the story reel, honing it down to the emotional core.

The emotional core, according to Iglesias, comes from a mixture of character connection, emotional stakes, and worthy motivation. He has a webinar of it here.

On character connection, and building empathy, he quotes Frank Capra (America’s pre-eminent filmmaker during the Great Depression… think Turner Classic Movies): “The whole thing is you’ve got to make them care about something“.  If you care about them [a story’s characters], you’ll follow them through their emotional journey.

PixarPostersIglesias would take you through a range of movie posters from Pixar’s cartoons and ask you to notice that all Pixar cartoons have eyes. Human-like eyes. Eyes, the windows to one’s soul. Through these posters, relationships are telegraphed to audiences. You know there’ll be a satisfying emotional aspect to the story.

Reader engagement comes from caring for the characters and then conflict – this means we have to hope, and worry for the characters, and this is how tension gets built up. Iglesias chunks down how:

Caring + Conflict = Hope + Worry = Tension

  • Make us feel sorry for your characters
  • Give them humanistic traits (make us care: make them care for something other than themselves)
  • Give them qualities we admire

Sorry for:

  • Undeserved mistreatment, injustice (esp. if it’s a defenseless character) : Forest Gump, The Elephant Man
  • Undeserved misfortune (tragedy, bad luck)
  • Physical and/or mental handicap
  • Frustration or humiliation
  • Abandonment: Ratatouile
  • Betrayal
  • Loneliness and neglect

Humanistic traits:

  • Show humanity in private moments (esp. if privacy is invaded and there is humiliation)
  • Show them helping a friend or the less fortunate
  • Show them relating to children, and liking them
  • “Patting the dog” (saving the cat)
  • Risking their life for another
  • Self-sacrificing or dying for a just cause
  • Any nurturing act (display kindness, caring, generosity)

Qualities we admire:

  • Power and charisma (a leader)
  • Courage (physical, mental)
  • Passion
  • Skilled at what he/she does (this happens a lot in romantic comedies)
  • Wit and cleverness
  • Sense of humor
  • Active rather than passive
  • Surrounded by others who adore him/her (again, see romantic comedies)

Emotional Stakes: We care about somebody if they have a worthy motivation (we want them to succeed, so we worry when there is an obstacle in their way – if this obstacle insurmountable, you have high emotional stakes). What would happen if they failed to accomplish their main goal? Hint: It should always be “Death” (physical or emotional). Each sequence/scene should have emotional stakes. Most of the time, especially with Pixar, emotional stakes are so high that characters live a miserable, lonely, life.

Worthy Motivations: It’s not the act itself that is important, it’s why the character is doing it. Some examples:

  • survival and security
  • love
  • duty
  • justice
  • honor
  • patriotism
  • dignity
  • redempton
  • self-respect
  • doing something good for another character
  • Toy Story: save a friend
  • A Bug’s Life: save a village
  • Monsters, Inc. : save a city, girl
  • Wall-E: love, save the earth
  • Up: fulfil a promise to a dead wife

Iglesias urges us to look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and use this as a guide for ways to increase emotional stakes. He points out that stakes are naturally higher with survival (physiological needs).


He would play the first five minutes of Finding Nemo, and compare and contrast it with the first five minutes of Shark Tale, to show you that nobody does it better than Pixar.

Iglesias argues that a good (character driven) story has three spires: the External Spire (Goal – Objectives), the Inner Spire (Need – Inner Conflict) and Relationship Spire (Central Argument).

He reminds us: Do not be boring.

Navigating Hollywood, strategies from Christopher Lockhart

Christopher Lockhart is a story editor, filmmaker, and educator at William Morris Endeavor (WME), the largest talent agency in Tinseltown. He has an active blog-site and runs a Facebook community called The Inside Pitch for a community of budding screenwriters.  Having read more than 30,000 screenplays, he essentially looks for scripts for actors.  His client list includes Denzel Washington, Christian Bale, Ben Affleck. At the Storyworld Conference in Hollywood, he shared some strategies for selling your script in Hollywood.

  • Externalize the internal: character’s development as he/she struggles through insurmountable obstacles, psychological growth, and emotionality needs to be externalized. Apply the Aristotelian arc of dramatic structure to the plot, extrapolating from the characters’ change process.

  • Develop strong villains: Villains need to be as strong as protagonists
  • Have lots of conflict: If your scripts lack conflict, you’re in the wrong business. “Go write poetry!”
  • Pitches start with simplicity… like a log line. Pitching anything in Hollywood is like a game of telephone – you get passed from Person 1 to Person 2 to Person 3. Therefore, simplicity is important. In Hollywood, meetings don’t last longer than 5 minutes. Prepare your log line and your pitch very well so that you don’t end up throwing up all over the person you’re talking to.
  • Have no mysteries in a log line: Of half the loglines sent to him, he understands the movie, but misses the conflict.
    • What is the movie about?
    • The log line is not a tagline. It is very specific.
    • Who is the protagonist?
    • What does he/she want?
    • What is in his/her way?
    • Phrase a log line so that the protagonist sounds active.
  • How to get a pitch in the door:
    • A pitch is never in the door (Do you realize just how many people want to write in Hollywood?)
    • You can differentiate yourself by being Top 10 on the Nicholl Fellowship for Screenwriters
    • Go for managers, write to them. Your job is to get at least 5 managers interested
    • With Hollywood script agents, 50% is about who you know and interrelationships…
    • Hollywood makes two to 300 movies a year. The sheer supply of scripts far outstrips demand
  • Understand structure
    • Trust the folks in Hollywood to know what works and what doesn’t work. A playwright is like a shipwright. A screenplay has architecture (like a ship, or a house).
    • You have to understand the structure of a screenplay, the juxtaposition of one scene to another, the ebb and flow of drama, and conflict.
    • A lot of novelists just don’t get the concept: you need to have setup and payoff down.
  • Bullet points:
    • Winnow all the details out and have bullet points in your pitch
    • What is the through-line that we can film?
    • What is going on in this movie?
  • The Exec has to want to read the script. You’re in the movie business, so pitch with Fade in and Fade out. Show them that you understand all about movie-making.
  • The Concept is your Angelina Jolie
    • It makes you stand out in the room
    • Your concept must be Cinematic
    • Dramatic
    • and Particularly interesting
    • (Movie-making is very expensive)
  • Actors are always looking for romantic comedies
  • Brand yourself, write in a genre you love

The Black Tail – Inception in Paris

PQ + EQ + IQ at the Paris Summer Institute

PQ + EQ + IQ at the Paris Summer Institute

In the summer of 2009, this little Malaysian found herself playing with a startup in Paris called the Paris Summer Institute. This startup was propagating Advanced Intelligence tools; I helped develop content for roll-out across various platforms. In exchange, I learned a little bit about elevating my own levels of Physical Intelligence PQ, Emotional Intellinge EQ, and IQ, and this went a long way towards liberating the writer inside me. 🙂 The founder did everything to encourage me. Foremost, by changing the way I perceived my own potential: “You were born to be a writer”, she said, “you just need to find your voice. Go journalize for an hour everyday over breakfast!”

Paris is a wonderful place to begin identifying with yourself as a writer. I mean, what a stupendous gift from the universe. It has a thriving expat community who participate in all forms of the arts. And rich settings for getting into creative-flow-states. And a cafe on every block. Every Wednesday, I went to a writer’s group workshop (The Other Writer’s Group) at Shakespeare and Company. This is a quaint little bookstore located bookstore-paris-shakespeare1right across from the Notre Dame, on the site of a 16th century monastery on 37 Rue de la Bucherie. This used to be the epicenter of Anglo-American literary culture and modernism in Paris. Meeting place of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein…it was nicknamed “Stratford-on-Odéon” by James Joyce, who used it as his office.

Writer's Room, Shakespeare & Company attic

Writer’s Room, Shakespeare & Company attic

It was to this Wednesday Other Writer’s Group that I brought my poem, Tales of the Supernatural, written after a nightmare I’d gotten about fish again. Have I mentioned, that all my life I got recurring nightmares about fish? Not Great Gatsby posterjust any fish: predatory, prehistoric, black, fish, monstrous chimeras of shark, serpent, whale and leviathan creatures — an ensemble of my very own recurrent hell.  Only this time, I saw a merman with a black tail… and something about the supernatural quality of what I saw… induced me to write this poem. The Other Writer’s Group was the first official audience for the Black Tail. The criticisms and feedback I received there in the Writer’s Room  of Shakespeare & Company, under the all-seeing blue oculist’ eyes staring down from a poster of The Great Gatsby, sent me wheeling on a newfound quest.

China Cove, Point Lobos, Big Sur

China Cove, Point Lobos, Big Sur

Back at PSI, we were doing some work using Milton Ericksonnian trance induction to access resourceful states in resolving our deepest fears/issues. Someone invited me into a trance, and persuaded me to get back into the dream, as if I were lucid dreaming. He told me to look around and respond to the information presented in the dream. I was transported to a cave in China Cove (Big Sur) and I instinctively picked up a stick and drew poems in the sand. Those were exactly the words I used, so I when I came out of the trance, they asked me, “can you draw what you saw?”. I regretfully surmised that I couldn’t draw anything to save my life. And William Blake’s the Songs of Innocence was promptly produced. William Blake drew everything he saw in dreams, and reproduced them in miniature wooden etchings, before ever writing them down. “You have to tell us more about this dream. This is your black tail. Your black tale, get it?” Once again, the founder of PSI had me reeling around my newfound writerly quest. This conversation sparked the flames for the story — I knew without a doubt that Tales of a Supernatural wasn’t happy sitting in its poem form.

William Blake exposition at the Petit Palais

William Blake exposition at the Petit Palais

As serendipity would have it, William Blake’s exhibition was going on at the Petit Palais — and a colleague dragged me there the very next day. The first thing that jumped out at me was how much the devil in William Blake’s works resembled a merman. He had a trident. He had black scales, a serpentine tail. He recurred everywhere, like a prowling, seeing unseen, formidable shadow. The second thing that

The Wood of the Self-Murderers

The Wood of the Self-Murderers

gave me chills was his rendition of The Suicide Woods. It wasn’t until years later that I obtained a translation of Canto 13 in Dante Alighieri‘s Inferno. In the Petit Palais, all I could do was stare, mesmerized, at the beguiling merman-as-devil and the harpies-in-hell characters. His visions were screaming out at me, beckoning, like the monstrous fish from my dreams. Creatures that appear scary but, on further examination, are not necessarily so. Pieces of a missing puzzle. I was in need of a theme – something far, far, away from Blake’s maddening, gothic, visions of hell – to wrap them up with.

BHV Dept store, Paris

BHV Dept store, Paris

But what? The answer came somewhere between work and play in Paris, thanks to an IESE MBA classmate who had joined our team at PSI. We were sent one day to BHV in the Marais (Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville or BHV is a department store on rue de Rivoli in the 4th arrondissement of Paris, facing the Hôtel de Ville). It was the best place in Paris to pick up men, apparently. I was to troll my partner in crime through the men’s shoe store there, where rack after rack of designer shoes were on display at eye level so that strolling folks could check each other out in the guise of buying footwear. We were not to return without a few high net worth clients.

The Game

The Game

I remember being in a taxi, on the way to the Latin Quarter. My partner in crime was describing his ideas for setting up a school of seduction for men one day. He told me all about how he had studied Neil Strauss and read the Game and enrolled in a school for pick-up artists, and was convinced that like marketing in business, you could get seduction down to a science. He didn’t think people were attractive because they were born a certain way, or came endowed with something, but because they worked towards it. And he genuinely wanted to know what I thought about his business idea. Because 50% of the economy was all about it.

Barrio Latino, Paris

Barrio Latino, Paris

I ruminated in silence. We arrived to Barrio Latino, a nightclub for salsa dancers on 46 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine. My friend decided to show me what he meant. He disappeared onto the dance floor. Five minutes later, he returned with a pair of super-model-looking Ukrainian

Johnny Bravo

Johnny Bravo

twins, one on each arm. And then he line up a group of girls and chatted them up precariously, deliberately using lines he must have read somewhere, and getting their phone numbers. At some point I even got to role play. Dancing with him, apparently, helped him get even more interested girls. An onlooker said to me, “He’s like a cartoon. Have you seen Johnny Bravo?” I laughed.

The Art of Seduction

The Art of Seduction

My friend’s pick up school idea was based on the premise that men did all the seducing. A question formed in my head — don’t women have any choice in the matter? What was the response to that?  I wanted to know what the female equivalent of a pickup artist would be. And stumbled across Robert Greene’s book, The Art of Seduction, in a bookstore. It covered a gamut of sirens, from Cleopatra to Casanova, and various victims of seduction.  And there it was, staring at my eyes. Sirens. Men and women. Throughout time. The oldest game in the universe, paraphrasing my friend.

And there it was. I wanted to read a story about sirens. Correction, I wanted to write a story about sirens. A convincing story about the art of seduction, and what this meant, in a make believe world full of mermen and harpies. And so I began to plot the storyline for the Black Tail.

The Black Tail – Taking a Page from Twilight

Stephenie Meyer, on how she came up with the idea for her bestselling tween-fantasy-romance Twilight [according to Chas Newkey Burdens’ biography “Stephenie Meyer – Queen of Twilight“], relates a dream in which she saw a vampire, and shared a… moment… with him. This experience stayed with her –  so much – she had a first draft of Twilight in just three months. I don’t think Meyer gets enough recognition for this — but her books actually beat JK Rowling’s record by topping the bestseller lists for longer than Harry Potter.

Well, the truth is, I’m a die-hard Twilight fan. In 2009 I was in a mad dash to complete exams, term papers, projects, and the recruitment process in my 2nd year at the full-time MBA program at IESE Business School (University of Navarra) in Barcelona. So, to relieve the stress, I read some Twilight. In between classes, I put it in my pigeonhole. This got noticed. (Everyone else had real business cases in their pigeonholes). And soon my well-read, significantly worn, copy of Twilight made the rounds of just about every girl I knew at the IESE Business School by spring of 2009. When they weren’t playing musical pigeon-holes with my New Moon and my Eclipse, they came on little Vespas to collect Breaking Dawn from my apartment by Playa del Mar (next to Port Vell). I only have Stephenie Meyer to thank for getting me through to graduation!!!

Stephenie Meyer, in my mind, is a genius. Writing romance sounds like an incredibly daunting thing to do (for a business major like yours truly). To successfully weave a romantic plot, you need to drag out emotional conflict between the protagonists for chapters, and at the same time, maintain a small external subplot that only takes 20-40% of the overall space. Nevermind that the external subplot is good enough for a real fantasy story world that spans more than a fantasy trilogy!!! I mean, she chose a genre that really has something for everyone, not to mention opportunities to modularize and scale up. Midnight Sun, which unfortunately never was published, took on the entire plot of Twilight, from Edward Cullen’s point of view. It’s incredible that Meyers could do that — it goes to show the work she put into creating these memorable characters — Midnight Sun would have been a stand-alone bestseller in its own right.

The three known stereotypical romantic plot lines, according to Story Plots 101, run like this: Phantom of the Opera (guy chases girl), Cinderella (girl chases guy), and Romeo and Juliet (both fall in love with each other and: doom, doom, doom!). What’s really interesting about the Twilight series is, that you get essentially all three plot lines across the books, with a nice love triangle in between, and recurring motifs from beloved books like Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet, Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables… Meyer openly acknowledges that she was influenced by Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, William Shakespeare, L.M. Montgomery, and Orson Scott Card. How could you not end up loving her books, when they are fashioned after a compendium of books we all already love, and give you a morsel of each to taste?

Michael Sheen, who played Aro in The Twilight Saga movies, said in an interview that this was a compelling story because it’s about the stages of falling in love for the first time. I’d argue that it’s a compelling story because it uses the vampire storyline as a plot device to bind love with survival, not just on a microcosmic basis with the protagonist’s inner journeys (overcoming baser instincts of fear/primal hunger), but on a macro-level, with the survival of the species. It is inherently a simple idea, and yet so universal. I think that’s how Meyer manages to escalate tensions and conflict so grippingly within the couple, the community around them, and the greater species.

I thought it was incredibly funny when boys in the MBA program decided they had to get their hands on this series and figure out what the girls were so excited about. Of course, they wouldn’t quit making fun of us. Like we care. The one thing I’ll always be grateful for, as with any good book, is the fact that while the economy was crumbling to pieces all around me, Twilight put me in such a good emotional state. I mean, isn’t that the whole reason we read, to escape real life for a bit? It was awfully decent of her to make Edward very handsome. And to give Jacob a six-pack. And to have them both take their shirts off.  And to write the first book from Bella’s POV so we could live vicariously through her!!! I read over and over!!!

Inspired by Meyer, I gave myself permission to write…as a hobby at first… and I bought myself the entire set of The Twilight Journals. Every day I sat down to find my voice, journalizing long-hand in one of these delightful black hard cover books, with bleeding red seams, and images and quotes that inspired the story. I went through about 10 of these a year, so now I have 30 of these, with ideas written down towards the Black Tail!!! There is definitely something magical about creating one’s very own fantasy romance within these pages.

My Twilight Journals

Where Storyworld Meets Transmedia (Assassin’s Creed)

I’m taking an online class called “Creating Memorable Characters” through Writer’s Digest University  this term.  One of my classmates is doing a book of bio articles based on historical figures, and she explained that she was taking this class in order to learn “how to make them strut off the page, instead of standing in the wings while I recite their chronological history.” Well, I obviously recommended that she check out Assassin’s Creed!!!

Assassin’s Creed is an action-adventure packed story world where players go back in time to inhabit real historical characters and accomplish things within real historical contexts. I believe it’s a great example of how storyworld meets transmedia.

Behind every successful story world franchise, is a deliberately well-thought out narrative and an ambitious business model. Louis Pierre-Pharand, the head of Ubisoft Workshop and Brand Creative Director of Ubisoft’s Montreal studio (the biggest video game studio in the world), recently revealed what makes the Assassin’s Creed franchise such a profitable business model.

Brand Pillars

  • Historical Relevance: establishing a deep connection, Ubisoft retells its version of history
  • Coherent Mythology: battle between the order of the Assassins and the Templars
  • Community Engagement: 4 million (last count) on Facebook, fan art, fan fiction, fan videos)
  • Visual Edge: rocked the game world
  • Reinvention: sometimes Ubisoft delays game releases to ensure quality

Transmedia, according to Ubisoft/Pharand, is a storytelling world-building technique that results in a coordinated multi-platform brand.  Each platform is a stand-alone narrative endeavour connected to the universe.

Note: Transmedia the buzzword is not re-inventing storytelling.

It is about creating new points of entry into the brand by creating original, stand-alone, yet connected narrative products — for example, for the comic books of Assassin’s Creed, they went around and interviewed two artists who were also writers, to produce in-house. Given a lot of creative freedom, these artists created Nikolai Orelov, … and this became an immensely profitable project which garnered great reviews.

In Assassin’s Creed, there’s a universe, characters, plots… Pharand says of the story world, “Give everything a purpose.”  The creators were always planting seeds, but everything they create has to have a purpose… and needs to be part of the Assassin’s Creed canon.

Thinking ahead by planting seeds or opening brand gateways falls to the brand content directors, a.k.a. “puzzle makers” of Assassin’s Creed. If you look at all the narrative products under the brand since 2007, 14 titles have been developed spanning the Third Crusade, the Renaissance, and the Colonial Era for use on consoles, computers, handhelds, mobiles, wii. The franchise also includes about 5-6 books, a bunch of comics, and multiple film shorts and animations. (And now a movie!)

Michael Fassbender (Prometheus, Jane Eyre, X-Men) has been cast as a “hooded figure” in the upcoming movie for Assassin’s Creed. This is, last I checked, the biggest video game franchise at the moment, played by over 55 million fans worldwide (if unit sales are anything to go by). Scott Frank, the Oscar-nominated writer of Out of Sight, Minority Report, and the Wolverine, has been tasked to adapt the bestselling video game to script. And the Bourne series’ Frank Marshall (Back to the Future, Seabiscuit, Snow Falling on Cedars, Indiana Jones)  is also on board to produce this movie for New Regency.

Ubisoft constantly tries to push the technical convergence of its different narrative brand products. This Youtube video, Assassin’s Creed Embers, is a demonstration of how a chapter in a video game series, with all of its environments and characters, became a low-cost movie.

Ubisoft respects its brand and its fans – 4 years working on a brand forced them to have all the documents necessary to build an encyclopedia because all of a sudden, the storyworld grew so large that the players knew the games better than the developers!! They had to hire 2 of 250 applicants from a community of good writers who knew the installments well enough to write an encyclopedia to keep track of the Assassin’s Creed mythology…. they made mistakes, and fixed them. One day the brand just grew too large.  You never want to get caught with that when a brand grows. Writing a canon is a great exercise. Pharand urges us to write everything down.

Finally, Pharand notes that we should always run tests on all audiences — this is crucial because fans give great feedback.

This is the latest project Ubisoft is working on: The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot. It’s a look at the Monty Python movies with a tongue-in-cheek approach.