PSWA 2011 Conference

I attended the Public Safety Writers Association 2011 Conference in Las Vegas this weekend. The attendees are not only authors of mystery, suspense, and thriller, many of them are also current and former law enforcement officers. Sitting among defense lawyers, prosecutors, retired military officers, firefighters, and others who really have lived to protect and serve this nation, I feel more than a little inadequate. These men and women are real heroes practicing the “Write what you know!” theory.

Listening to their stories, I don’t have much to offer. Secret Service. OSI. Undercover narcotics. Defense security contracts. These authors have material.

Writing requires a mix of life experiences and serious research. Readers of genres such as police procedurals and military fiction know the facts because so many have personal connections to law enforcement, the legal system, the military, et cetera. If you want to write in a particular genre, you need to immerse yourself in the culture, history, and technical details associated with the genre.

Because I’m on the road, I don’t have enough time to write reviews of the panel presentations. However, when I have a moment of peace and quiet, ideally sometime next week, I’ll write about what I learned (or was reminded of) during the discussions.

If you are interested in mystery, suspense, procedurals, military, or other public safety topics — fiction or non-fiction — consider learning more about PSWA. The website is:

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.

Disappointing Books

I’ve been disappointed in most of the books I’ve read lately and I can’t figure out why. I’m hoping I’ve just run into a bad batch of books because the alternative is that I’ve lost interest in reading. And that isn’t possible.

In the last few months I’ve read Ghouls Just Haunt to Have Fun and Ghouls Gone Wild, both by Victoria Laurie. And by that, I mean to say I finished Ghouls Just Haunt to Have Fun, but haven’t managed to finish Ghouls Gone Wild. I liked this series when the first book was published, but had a hard time finishing these last two. For some reason, the main character has become annoying, shallow, and stuck in place. I cannot see any character development. To be fair, I’ll probably try to re-read the first two books in the series, and I’m hoping I won’t suddenly hate them, also. Either way, I probably will not purchase any more books in this series.

I’ve had the same problem with Victoria Laurie’s other series, Psychic Eye Mysteries. The main character, Abby, is no longer interesting and Abby’s FBI agent boyfriend is downright irritating. I especially hate his nicknames for Abby. (What kind of nickname is “Sweet Hot?”) I have no interest in reading any additional books in this series.

I’ve also had a problem with the last Mary Janice Davidson book I read in the Undead series. I’ve grown to dislike the main character. Again, she’s shallow, which was originally part of her charm, but now it has just gone on too long. After reading the first six books in this series, I have no interest in purchasing any more books with these characters. I think this may be an excellent example of milking a series that should have stopped when it was a trilogy.

Reading the GeekMom blogs led me to try the Arcane Society series by Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz/Jayne Castle. I liked the first book, Second Sight, enough to try additional books in the series, but I was also a little disappointed in the book. Maybe Nora Roberts and Linda Howard are spoiling me for great stories, but I expected better from Quick/Krentz/Castle. I did like Second Sight enough that I’m going to try more books in this series, but I’m going to purchase them from a used bookstore.

I’ve actually started reading non-fiction books after this series of disappointments. I purchased a couple of basic physics books to refresh my memory and I recently purchased some nature books that I am looking forward to reading.

I know it cannot be all me because I still love J.D. Robb’s Eve Dallas series and there are more than 30 books in the series. The mysteries are still interesting and the character development is consistent and believable. I also have read the Shirley Damsgaard “Witch” series and am still enjoying the stories.

Thoughts on Dramatica Pro 4

Before I offer my views on Dramatica 4.1, especially in light of my Contour review, I want to express an important frustration sure to vex other Apple fanatics. I’ve been an Apple user since the IIe, and an OS X user since version 10.1 shipped. So, this is the complaint of a loyal Mac user:

Dramatica has not been updated since 2004. It looks like an ancient Apple System 7 application. Heck, it reminds me of a GEOS application, going back to the old MS-DOS 4.x days. It is that ugly. It’s barely better on Windows, where it feels like a Windows 3.11 application. Seriously, the publisher wouldn’t even have to update the logic — just update the interface to something like other OS X Leopard (10.5+) and Windows Vista/7.

I realize an interface shouldn’t matter so much, but Write Brothers have been promising updates to Dramatica since 2006. The forums last discuss Dramatica 5 shipping in 2008. It’s now 2010. Write Brothers even had to post special instructions for Windows Vista/7 and Snow Leopard users. Sorry, but software should work on two-year-old operating systems without fuss.

Okay, end of ranting on the cosmetics. The interface is lousy, and I’ve warned you about it.

Before I delve into the substance, there is a Dramatica article I suggest everyone read:

How and Why Dramatica is Different from Six Other Story Paradigms
by Chris Huntley, Revised July 2007

Dramatica is at least 16 years old. The guide to using Dramatica is Dramatica: A New Theory of Story Special Tenth Anniversary Edition, by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley. There is a reason it hasn’t been updated — it works for so many writers.

Huntley writes:

“Though the six non-Dramatica story paradigms I studied are different in their specifics, I was surprised to find that most more or less fit into one of two broad categories. The first category I call the post-Aristotelian story paradigm. This category finds its roots in the work of Lajos Egri (The Art of Dramatic Writing!) who significantly expanded the function of Character in story beyond Aristotle’s Poetics. Its adherents include Syd Field, Michael Hauge, and Robert McKee. The second category I call The Hero’s Journey story paradigm and finds its roots in adaptations of Joseph Campbell’s work (Hero with a Thousand Faces). Its devotees include John Truby and Christopher Vogler. Linda Seger falls mostly into the first category, but acknowledges and incorporates the concepts of the hero’s journey as one of several “myth” forms a story may use.”

“By contrast, Dramatica does not fall neatly into either category. It appears to be a much broader story paradigm—one that encompasses elements from both categories and then some.”

“Another generalization is that each of the non-Dramatica story paradigms assumes your story has a Main Character (or Hero) who Changes and is also the Protagonist in a story with a happy ending (Success/Good). With Seger the exception, lip service was given to the idea of steadfast main characters. These structural elements seemed somewhat rigid and overly specific. I assumed that there was more to their understanding of story, so I dug further.”

Dramatica is not for the faint of heart. To really get the benefits of the program expect to spend at least 20 hours, probably more, using Dramatica to plan a screenplay or novel. You will have to answer somewhere between 50 to 250 questions, in some detail, to complete a story outline. By the time you finish with Dramatica, you have more than any traditional “outline” — you have much of the story in place and ready to go.

For screenshots of Dramatica:

When you start Dramatica, a toolbar offers a dozen options, from “Help” to “Brainstorming.” However, the program (and I) suggest you start with the “StoryGuide” process.

The StoryGuide allows three levels of Guide, from the “Level One” 50-60 question quick outline to the “Level Three” 250 question outline. I don’t agree with the software’s insistence that there are 32,768 “story forms” — that’s exactly 32K (2^15 = 16 bits), clearly reflecting a computational limit of 1993 more than writing theory of any time. I’m assuming that’s also why there are 256 actual questions (8 bits). Maybe a rewrite of the software would expand this array of potential stories, but I also can’t imagine writers need more than 32,768 possible outlines from which to create something.

The level of detail required by Dramatica forces you to consider writing in ways you might not have in the past. Dramatica isn’t for the writer who likes to sit and write, inspired by muses — or the writer who sits and waits for inspiration that never comes. This software is for those not only who want to plan, but can plan.

There are four major stages, or groups of questions, a writer works through in Dramatica, plus an optional epilogue:

  1. Setting the Stage: The basics of the characters, plot, and theme.
  2. Storyforming: The “Story Engine” guides you through the characters’ problems and choices.
  3. Illustrating: The details that propel the story, such as “time vs. option” formulas.
  4. Storyweaving: The various actions and choices of characters are “woven” together.

Comparing Dramatica to Mariner Software’s Contour 1.2 is almost unfair. Contour offers only a single, simplistic story model: the Hero’s Journey. Contour is fine for that one story template, but it seems forced when you load the sample analyses of various movies and novels. Dramatica, however, handles almost any imaginable story structure.

If you want to learn Dramatica, load the sample stories, from the film classic Casablanca to the Toni Morrison novel Sula. Loading a story and then stepping through Dramatica helps make sense of the complex theories behind the program.

I had a half-finished manuscript sitting around that I decided to fix through Dramatica. It took a week to enter the characters, their personality traits, and various plot points. What Dramatica revealed to me was a problem with the characters: they were not distinct enough. There were minor differences, but not nearly enough contrast.

That is what Dramatica does best: point to the conflicts and contrasts necessary for a compelling story. If you have a logical character, you should have an emotional character to provide contrast. If you have a guide, you also need someone trying to mislead other characters. Sure, it seems simple and obvious, but it is easy to write what seems like a great story until you discover something is missing.

Dramatica forced me to realize I had a single story, instead of the “weave” necessary to make the characters more complex and compelling. Yes, my main character followed the Hero’s Journey from fall to redemption, but the other characters were boring. The story was also predictable, a common problem with first drafts. There was never any question the hero would choose self-sacrifice and redemption, but there should have been.

When I finally reached the “Illustrating” step of Dramatica, I was surprised that there were only two forms of climactic action: “Time Clock” and “Option Clock.” However, once you read the theory guide, which is included with Dramatica 4.1, you realize that most decisions in life are one or both of these: a definite clock running down or options slowly vanishing. Either way, the character(s) making choices are facing pressures to act. Even inaction is a choice that leads to consequences.

Dramatica is not cheap, certainly not attractive, and it requires time and effort to use. It can be overwhelming. Yet, I do believe the program is valuable. While I think anyone could use the Contour outline without any software, there is no way I would try to follow the Dramatica theories without software guidance.

There are many things I would change to make the software easier to use and understand, since even the terminology is unusual, but I believe most people will be comfortable with the software after two or three complete stories.

Here’s hoping that an upgrade does appear in 2011.

– Scott