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My One-and-Only Beautiful Baby

“I have been working on the screenplay for 10 years.”

Few screenwriters and playwrights earn a living, and even fewer do so with only one or two produced works. To make writing a career, you must be receiving residuals and royalties from a larger collection of works that are being seen by audiences constantly. Yes, there are stories of one-hit wonders, able to survive for years on a single movie deal (few plays are that big, outside of Broadway musicals), but those are outliers.

The more scripts and manuscripts you have in your portfolio, the more likely you are to have the type of play or movie a producer wants.

After you complete a work, you should begin another project. After you type fadeout, curtain, or the end, take only a short break before beginning the next story. I do not wait to edit and refine the first work before starting the next.

Since a good writer often asks other writers and editors to review a manuscript, use the time while others have your work to brainstorm and plan the next. You might be surprised at how many ideas that did not fit in your first story will fit in a future work.

Do not let perfectionism getting your way. The more works you do write, the better each new work will be.

I cannot tell you that a screenplay, stage play, or novel should only take a year to write. I understand that many authors have full-time jobs and other obligations unconnected to writing. However, it should be painfully obvious that 10 years is much too long for finishing a screenplay.

An approach that works for me is to set a clear and realistic goal for producing more than one work per year. I attempt to complete four plays or screenplays each calendar year. Many of these will never be produced, but each script improves over previous works. When time permits, I do go back and update unproduced material, applying lessons that I have learned since the first draft was finished.

Blogging weekly and writing a monthly published column help me develop good working habits. Find a way to write on a deadline. Discipline is essential.

Most poets I know write dozens or hundreds of poems each year. They fill notebooks, experimenting and learning as they write. For many years, I filled one or more notebooks every two years with mediocre poetry, and that routine improved all my writing.

Likewise, short story authors, essayists, and other writers practice their forms and genres regularly. Again, my own experience is that blogging on a weekly basis and more frequently when possible improves all the writing on which I am working.

Unfortunately, I have met many aspiring screenwriters, playwrights, and novelists deeply attached to a single work. This is their “one and only beautiful baby” problem.

I cannot explain why these long form authors become stuck on single projects. If anything, I have far too many projects and struggle to focus on refining and marketing my works. For me, the thought of working on a single story day after day, year after year, is frightening. Familiarity breeds contempt, and I am certain I would begin to hate any work that demanded my attention day in and day out.

Writers should have more discipline than I demonstrate. Even my finished drafts should be polished and submitted to producers and publishers, but as I finish one work I am likely to begin two or three others. Therefore, a part of me does admire the writer able to focus single-mindedly on one manuscript.

The beautiful baby problem is not constructive. Spending months and years refining a single screenplay, stage script, or novel seldom results in production or publication. I have met many writers who optioned a script or had a play produced that wasn’t the work they intended to pitch to a producer. The cliché is true, producers will ask “What else do you have?”

I lose track of what I have written. When I go through my computer directories or the stacks of handwritten pages, I rediscover old works. Some writers don’t understand how I can do this, but I write so much that I could never remember it all. (I have tried to keep an inventory of projects, so I can return to old works later.)

Write, write, and write some more. Do not let your one-and-only get in the way of earning a living. Do not allow yourself to become “stuck” emotionally on the success of that one great story you need to share. Move forward and keep moving.

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Writing is… Business. Art. Craft.

When someone casually states, as if revealing a deep and universal truth, that writing is a (take your pick) business or art form or craft, I shake my head and attempt to move far away from the wise sage and the lecture that is about to begin.

What is meant by “writing” in any situation? Poetry? Literary novels? Short stories? Business plans? Copywriting? Textbooks? You cannot make a universal statement about writing without clarifying the form and genre.

Yes, writing can be a business. If you do receive or seek to receive payment for any written work, then of course your writing is a business. Anyone calling his or herself a professional writer is in the business of selling a particular skill set. Though we might not enter the profession for purely financial reasons (and who dreams of vast wealth from writing), once we begin seeking payment there is no denying writing is a business.

Professional writers need all the skills of any business person. We must be able to promote our ideas, secure contracts, interact with clients, anticipate trends, and collect payments. This is not news to any writer trying to survive on words alone. Granted, many professional writers are forced to earn supplemental income teaching, consulting, and serving lattes at coffee shops.

Writing is an art form when it seeks to express abstract concepts and emotions. As a creative writer, I certainly hope that my plays, essays, and stories have some literary and artistic merit. I am not afraid to admit that financial support is important if I want to continue pursuing creative writing. The starving artist dies, or at least leaves the pursuit of art for the pursuit of survival.

When created for small audiences, or no audience at all, writing creatively and artistically is divorced from the business. My poetry journals aren’t a business. I’m not seeking to publish the poems, nor do I use the works to promote my other writings. Writing sometimes is personal art. Yet, pursuing artistic writing for myself and a few other individuals provides practice that also improves the writing I compose professionally.

There is a craft that underlies most forms of writing. A technical manual can be well-crafted. Mastering the form and traditions of playwriting demonstrates the traits of a craft. The word craft refers to a learned and practiced set of skills used to generate a handmade product. Writing is learned and does require practice. The artisans are craftspeople who use their practiced skills to create individual works of expression.

Do not try to argue with the individual claiming writing is… whatever he or she wishes to claim. Writing can be a business. Writing can be an art form. And good writing is always carefully crafted.

Negative Reviews

“Doesn’t the review bother you?” I was asked following a rather harsh criticism of a musical play that premiered this summer (2014). “It didn’t even explain what the critic disliked very well.”

Yes, the review bothered me, and I certainly agreed with my theater colleague that the review could have been more helpful, but every review is helpful to some extent. Some are simply more helpful than others.

A negative review tell you that something might be wrong with a work. It might not be, but critics at regional and national publications tend to know something about their specialties. In this instance, the reviewer is a playwright, so ignoring his views would be shortsighted. However, critics also have biases, and this critic hasn’t demonstrated the greatest understanding of new work development in our small city. Shoestring theater seldom enables perfection, and even less often provides active development processes.

When you read a review, skip the snark. Reviewers seem to love demonstrating how smart they are, and how cynical they’ve become. Ignore the ego behind the review and focus on a list of concrete positives and negatives. Don’t get lost in the flourishes of someone trying to impress his or her readers.

In this instance, the concrete claims appear to be:
1. Some of the musical numbers (tune and lyrics) were good.
2. The play was too long.
3. The three-act structure was problematic.
4. Direction lacked energy.
5. The play had little new to say.

As a playwright, I can’t do much about any acting or directing issues, even with a new work. Things simply happen. Therefore, item four is beyond my control. Direction can also affect item five because a slow play without energy has no message, no passion. That means item five is likely a mix of problems with the script and the direction.

The length of the work and the structure are a problem. Reducing the snark to the core claim, that the play was long and oddly structured, I would agree that a new work usually needs more editing. As a writer, I tend to overwrite first drafts. Therefore, I can set aside the snark and admit the play needs another revision pass (or more).

I’m not sure I agree that the three-act structure is a problem, but it is if there are two intermissions in a modern play. Audiences want one intermission and quick scene pacing. The structure I wrote was applied literally by the director. I need to change the script — that’s definitely my fault as a writer.

Learning to list the concrete claims made by reviewers is a skill writers and artists need. My final works are better because of this approach to “listening” to the critics.

Breaking Rules

Students, seminar attendees, and visitors to our online writing guide have complained that my insistence on knowing (and adhering to) traditional story structures ignores “real art” in favor of production and publication.

“You can break the rules after you master the rules,” I respond. “And then, only break them when you can defend the choice.”

Imagine my frustration when a play was rejected because it lacked the “journey” of the main character.

When I decided to write a play without a complete Hero’s journey, it was an intentional act (pun), a choice to parody a genre. There are characters in myth and legend that do not change. They don’t mature. Mocking that notion of the invariable being seemed promising.

One of the readers providing coverage clearly didn’t get the joke. The comments on the coverage sheet indicated the story needed a clear journey and transformation. Oops. My choice must not have been obvious.

There are two lesson: 1) breaking the formula is risky; 2) if the reader doesn’t know the original, parody doesn’t work.

The other reader did like the script and scored it “highly recommended,” but you need to run the gauntlet to be produced.

Both reviewers liked the dialogue, the wit, yet only one got the joke. That isn’t good. I’m not sure following the traditional formula would have helped.

Will I break the rules again? Of course. But I also understand the risks.

Using a Spreadsheet to Write

Beat sheets, outlines, storyboard, and other tools help me organize my thoughts when writing. Too many writers stick with word processors as their sole “digital tools” when many other great applications exist — and “applications” for various applications, too.

How can you use a spreadsheet to write? And why might you try this?

A spreadsheet’s columns and rows, a reflection of the ledger books they replaced, make an ideal way to track your pages, words, minutes, or other metrics. My writing spreadsheets range from simple checklists to complex sheets with calculations reflecting how much I need to cut or add to parts of story. (Scrivener’s outline view is similar to this, so allow me to plug Scrivener yet again.)

My basic story sheet resembles the chart on our website page “Plot and Story”.

Some plot points should be reached at specific pages, especially early in a story, while others should be reached within ranges of pages, as a percentage of the overall work. Using a spreadsheet helps me track these personal ideas.

For example: I like to have the “perceived problem / challenge” and the “real problem” within the first ten pages of a 90 minute screenplay or stage script. In a book, I might want those within the first “ten percent” of the work. Express each plot point in 25 words or less.

Major Beat 3 -> Perceived / Immediate Challenge -> Bomb ticking in a subway tunnel
Minor…
Major Beat 4 -> Real Challenge -> Corrupt leaders creating the chaos to gain powers
Minor…

Using Excel or another spreadsheet, I include columns reflecting page counts, minutes, real time, literary time, and more. These metrics help me pace my stories.

Do you have a checklist? If not, create one. Every creative writer using narratives should have a beat sheet, because it forces you to recognize when things are missing from a story.