Monthly Archives: May 2011

A Rewrite too Far?

One of my colleagues has been working on a novel for decades. Yes, decades. Another writer I know has revised a script for at least a decade.

I have piles of unfinished and neglected ideas, some two decades old, but I don’t have completed works that I have rewritten or revised more than once. One revision, excluding any adaptation, is about the limit of my patience. This leads me to the question:

When does a writer go a rewrite too far?

My answer is yet another question:

Are you a professional writer or writing for yourself?

You can be both, a professional writing for yourself, but most people I meet who are in the endless rewrite cycle are not paid professional writers. When you earn a living writing, you have to accept that “good enough” is often the best you can do within the limits of the publishing or production process.

I have writing that is strictly for me. If it sells someday, I suppose that might be good, but the personal writing is for my own pleasure, reflection, development, and even entertainment. No one demands I write X poems by date Y. My essays for myself rest in notebooks no one else has read or might ever read. Writing for me is not about any other audience, and it certainly is not about earning any income.

However, the writing I do with the intention of selling it is treated as a business investment. It is the difference between the work my trusted mechanic does on my car and the work he might do on the classic car in his garage at home. He has to get my car repaired on a schedule, for a reasonable price. The personal project? It can take him as many years as necessary. It is a hobby project. (My mechanic also knows some cars are transportation, while others are more. He “analyzes” my expectations as a customer. That’s what writers have to do, too.)

I can sense my colleagues and friends with decades-old projects glaring at the screen as they read my words. They would likely tell me, “I do plan to sell this project! I only want it to be good enough to sell!”

No. You’re attached to the work. A scriptwriter I know calls this “Falling in love with the pages.” You should be moving on to other projects, one right after another, instead of seeking affirmation that your beloved work has value. I’ve got news for you: if you haven’t sold a manuscript in five or six years, it probably will not sell. Ironically, it might sell if you write something else that does sell. When a writer sells a work, the next question tends to be, “What else do you have?” That’s when you can pitch the beloved manuscript.

I have scripts I love that have not sold. I have scripts I thought were so-so that have progressed much further along the production process. I have written articles I loved that were rejected and ones I disliked that received raves from the editor. That’s part of being a “professional” writer: you never know what will sell (though you can guess what won’t sell).

If you are a novelist, short story writer, or even an investigative reporter, the self-publishing movement means you don’t have to wait five or six years. If you submit a manuscript to 30 or 40 publishers without closing a deal, then take the self-publishing route. Submit the work to Amazon, Apple, or Barnes and Noble. If readers buy it, you can take comfort in knowing you were right and the publishers were wrong. If it doesn’t sell, at least you’ve moved ahead to the next work.

Moving ahead is essential. Dwelling on a single work might produce a single masterpiece, which is fine if that’s your goal. I’m all for literary writers following their dreams. I’m not a literary writer, though. I admit it. Yes, I write about social issues, and want to “change the world” with my works, but I write for general audiences. I have to move ahead because the audience is moving ahead and changing.

Screenwriting is different. Movie scripts can take a decade or more to go from page to screen. The upcoming “Cowboys and Aliens” was written in 1997. The film is being released during the summer of 2011. Movies are collaborative, requiring the efforts of hundred to even thousands of people. But, you still hope to sell the actual script rights (“optioned” to film) within two to three years.

During the two, three, or even more, years that a screenwriter or agent is pitching the idea, the writer has to keep writing. Having one script is insufficient. One screenwriter told me that a “serious” feature film writer should complete two 90-120 page screenplays a year. Don’t keep revising the unsold script — write something else. Again, when you sell a screenplay you will be asked what else you have waiting to be read.

I know this isn’t easy advice for many aspiring writers to read. It isn’t easy to write the next novel, non-fiction book, film, or stage play if you haven’t sold the work you love. Until that first work sells, it is like a gate is closed to future works.

What writers need to remember is that the manuscript you love might not be what the market wants. Publishing and producing are businesses. A great work might not have a large enough market for a publisher or production company to risk the investment. Rejection is not always an insult to your ability as a writer. Sometimes, it really isn’t the right work for the moment.

By writing and writing and writing some more, you increase the odds that one of your works meets the perceived marketplace. This isn’t to say publishers and producers are unfailingly accurate market forecasters, but they are the men and women you need to impress. If you have six or seven “good” manuscripts, that’s better than having one “great” work that doesn’t meet any perceived market opportunities.

Finally, something aspiring writers don’t necessarily realize.

When you do sell a manuscript, you usually end up making revisions or even a major rewrite. You’re really selling the original idea, not a work carved in stone. Most screenwriters I know end up doing one or two complete rewrites. The novelists I know also do major revisions before a book is finally published. “Sold” does not mean “finished.” Writing is unlike other art forms in that respect. A sculpture or painting is sold “as-is” but only the rarest of manuscripts is.

Writers Should Know Religion, Mythology, Folklore, Legends…

I have been reading The Birth of Satan, a history of Satan in the three major monotheistic faiths and the rise of Satan as a literary and artistic character. The authors emphasize the Christian and Jewish traditions, since those have had the greatest effect on the mythology of Satan in Western art and literature. Any serious writer in our culture should be familiar with the mythology of Satan. Literary “evil” usually depends on the stories associate with Satan, consciously or not.

When we state there are no new stories, what we are stating is that every new work builds on a shared canon of religion and myth. Good versus Evil is the “great plot-line,” with the traditional Judeo-Christian scriptures attributing everything from bad weather to wars to this epic battle. In this struggle between light and dark, right and wrong, humans find themselves tested. Some depictions reduce humanity to pawns (the story of Job certainly does this), while other cast us as free people able to affect this struggle (Sodom and Gomorrah, with Lot’s search for good men).

It does not matter if you, as a writer, are religious or not. The stories of Good versus Evil are part of our shared culture. The archetypes, the themes, the plots are part of our visual and written artistic traditions. We can encapsulate concepts with shorthand in our stories, assuming shared knowledge of the stories.

My personal reference library includes Bibles, the Quran, the apocrypha, The Dictionary of Angels, Religious Literacy, and numerous other guides to the great religions of the world. The stories in these texts, whether you believe they are divine or not, are the basis for much of our morality and understandings of human nature.

Most Americans profess faith. While this might not be true in some circles (e.g. academia), general society is shaped by religion and shared religious knowledge. This religious foundation is why stories with Biblical references are so popular. The Exorcist and The Omen come to mind. Even the most famous fictional serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, appears first in a book dominated by religious symbolism: Red Dragon. Fictional killers are often “religious,” from confused “avenging angels” to loyalists of Satan himself.

You want to craft a scary story? Pepper it with citations to the Revelations of John. What’s scarier than two multi-headed red dragons and the four horsemen of the apocalypse? It is in Revelations that God commands birds to descend in flocks to eat the flesh of evil-doers. Yes, flocks of birds eating people alive are from scripture, not Alfred Hitchcock. No other book has inspired as many works of fiction as Revelations has.

I encourage writers to go beyond our shared scriptural stories, too. Without understanding the origins of many of humanity’s greatest stories, a writer lacks one of the best tools he or she could possess.

Before I explain that, allow me a tangent.

I have never understood how we could craft “realistic” characters without at least some of them being religious. But, that also means knowing something about the various religious traditions found in our culture. Faith adds complexity to characters. But faith extends to cultural superstitions and myths, which we also should not ignore as writers.

We are shaped by our “official” religions and the myths of our cultures. Consider the mass migration from Ireland to the United States in the early 1900s. Irish immigrants brought not only the stories of their Catholic saints, but the mythology of Ireland. Some of the superstitions entered popular culture, well beyond the Irish. Leprechauns certainly are the stuff of both cheerful fantasy and horror.

It is not enough to know the basic stories of the Bible, a few popular myths superficially, and a folktale or two. A good writer should know, really know, the foundational literature of our cultures. Germanic, Celtic, Norse, and Gaelic mythology are rich sources of inspiration. Most people don’t realize Hel (or Hell) was a Germanic goddess — only loosely associated with Hades. Such little bits of knowledge can lead to other great story ideas.

Personally, I’m partial to Celtic mythology. The Celts had a rich religious tradition, accompanied by a complex mythology. I know one writer with a passion for Native American religion and myths. Another is an expert on Chinese mythologies. Numerous writers have used Egyptian beliefs for inspiration.

My suggestions for creative writers in the United States:

  1. The Bible, along with several commentaries. A good class such as “The Bible as Literature” can help you appreciate the literary qualities of scripture.
  2. The Odyssey, Gilgamesh, and Beowulf. These works are among the most important in Western culture.
  3. Bulfinch’s Mythology. There are other, more up-to-date reference works on Greco-Roman mythology, but Thomas Bulfinch’s work is a classic.
  4. At least one good Celtic mythology reference work.