Writing Fiction about Writing: Please, Stop!

I’m mak­ing a movie about a young film­mak­er.”

My new play is about a strug­gling play­wright in New York City.”

I’ve writ­ten a great book about a romance writer.”

And then we have…

My new screen­play is about a play­wright….”

STOP IT. Please. Stop writ­ing about being a writer and assum­ing oth­er peo­ple care. Only oth­er writ­ers will tell you that a sto­ry about a writer is inter­est­ing. Generally speak­ing, writ­ers aren’t that inter­est­ing. They sit and write. They send out query let­ters. They beg friends and fam­i­ly for mon­ey to make their films, pro­duce their plays, and self-pub­lish their unsold man­u­scripts.

Write about inter­est­ing char­ac­ters. Not that some writ­ers aren’t char­ac­ters, but leave that for biog­ra­phers. Plenty of artists (includ­ing writ­ers) are fas­ci­nat­ing train wrecks. If you’re writ­ing about one of those famous drunks, addicts, or oth­er­wise inter­est­ing writ­ers with a great sto­ry, then ignore my pleas. Otherwise, get away from this self-explo­ration.

Write what you know? No. No. And again, no!

I don’t want actu­al psy­chopaths writ­ing mur­der mys­ter­ies. We don’t need police sto­ries writ­ten only by cops. It’s called research and cre­ativ­i­ty. Do fan­ta­sy writ­ers know real uni­corns and go shop­ping on the back of Pegasus? No. You write good sto­ries about inter­est­ing char­ac­ters fac­ing unusu­al chal­lenges.

Okay, I get that Murder She Wrote was about a writer, but it wasn’t the navel-gaz­ing non­sense of a play about plays or a movie about mak­ing movies. Please stop writ­ing about writ­ers. It just feels lazy to write about a writer. It feels like you’re trapped by being a writer, in a writer’s world. Escape.

Someone told me, “But I’m sup­posed to write what I’d want to read.”

When you were dis­cov­er­ing your pas­sion for read­ing, I doubt it was through sto­ries about oth­er writ­ers. Please, I hope not. I hope you were read­ing great works of fic­tion. I hope you were watch­ing epic films and beau­ti­ful come­dies. If those works you loved were about writ­ers, expand your hori­zons.

Avoid writ­ing films, plays, or books about writ­ers, unless you have some­thing beyond spec­tac­u­lar to share.

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.

Writers: Share Your Story (about Writing)

Are you a writer? We want to share your sto­ry (about writ­ing).

Susan and I have been swamped much of the last year, but we real­ly want to make the Tameri blog a great place to learn about the craft of writ­ing and the busi­ness of writ­ing. It isn’t enough to be pas­sion­ate about writ­ing if you want to be a pro­fes­sion­al. Writing is some­times the easy part.

Even if you don’t care about mak­ing a lot of mon­ey, you still need to mar­ket a book that you believe is impor­tant for oth­ers to read. You have to con­sid­er how to pro­mote your book and how to pro­mote your­self. That’s part of being a writer in our media-sat­u­rat­ed world.

If you are a pub­lished writer, and we include self-pub­lish­ing as pub­lished, then we would love to inter­view you (via email) and share your insights with oth­er writ­ers and aspir­ing writ­ers. Our goal is to have at least one new Tameri blog entry each week on the “busi­ness” of being a writer. We can’t do this with­out you, though.

We aren’t going to blind­ly pro­mote your books. Our goal is to share what it means to be a writer. Of course, if you would like us to review a book let us know and Susan or I will read it and post an hon­est review.

We are look­ing for the fol­low­ing inter­view top­ics:

  • Why I do/do not use an agent — and any expe­ri­ences with agents.
  • Self-pub­lish­ing, espe­cial­ly your sto­ries about edi­tors, cov­er artists, and oth­er spe­cial­ists you might have hired.
  • Book tours, real and vir­tu­al, are always good for a sto­ry or two.
  • Interview expe­ri­ences that went great or not so great.
  • Getting into mag­a­zines or pub­lish­ing on “big” web­sites.

Our vis­i­tors will like­ly look for your books if you share your sto­ries about the craft and busi­ness of writ­ing.

Send a bit about your­self and why you want to be inter­viewed for the Tameri blog! Write to either susan at tameri.com or cswy­att at tameri.com and we’ll respond as soon as pos­si­ble. Interviews are pro­mot­ed on our Facebook page, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Planning with Contour

I have out­lined two projects with Mariner Software’s Contour 1.2 and remain uncer­tain about the prod­uct for sev­er­al rea­sons. The pro­gram is marred by slop­py spelling errors in man­u­script tem­plates and a rigid approach to sto­ry plot­ting that falls short when writ­ing a com­plex sto­ry or screen­play. What you are buy­ing with Contour is one screenwriter’s idea of what con­sti­tutes a “block­buster” movie struc­ture. It’s a start­ing place for new screen­writ­ers, cer­tain­ly, but prob­a­bly not suit­ed for expe­ri­enced screen­writ­ers or nov­el­ists.

Contour Screenshot
Contour Screenplay Outlining

First, let me offer some back­ground. Contour is based on the sto­ry devel­op­ment approach of screen­writer Jeffrey Alan Schechter. I can’t claim to be famil­iar with Schechter’s works (var­i­ous Care Bear movies are list­ed on IMDB) and it seems a stretch to con­sid­er him a “big name” in screen­writ­ing. He seems to earn a liv­ing teach­ing screen­writ­ing sem­i­nars and pro­vid­ing script cov­er­age to aspir­ing writ­ers. Of course, I can­not claim to be a pro­duced screen­writer, while Schechter def­i­nite­ly earns mon­ey at the craft.

I am seri­ous about screen­writ­ing, which has led me to read books, arti­cles, and to try var­i­ous soft­ware pack­ages that might help me mas­ter the craft. Contour is def­i­nite­ly at the “baby steps” or “novice” end of the spec­trum.

How Countour Works

Contour presents a series of ques­tions to the user. With each answer, a green progress bar moves a step clos­er towards com­ple­tion. You can use the progress bar to move back­wards or for­wards at any time, adjust­ing your script out­line. Moving the progress mark­er rotates through the Contour ques­tions.

On the right­hand side of the Contour win­dow, you are offered exam­ple answers to each ques­tion. The exam­ples come from a num­ber of Hollywood block­busters. Some of these exam­ples are stretched to fit the Contour mod­el, one of my argu­ments against such a rigid tem­plate.

I’m not going to offer every ques­tion from Contour, which would be unfair to the devel­op­ers. I’ll stick to the high­lights.

Four Questions

Contour begins with ques­tions com­mon to writ­ing guides. The ques­tions Contour asks are:

1. Who is your main char­ac­ter?
2. What is he try­ing to accom­plish?
3. Who is try­ing to stop him?
4. What hap­pens if he fails?

Since I’m one to make the same “mis­take,” I will con­cede that some­one will quib­ble with the male pro­nouns, which would be easy enough for Mariner Software to expand. Honestly, it’s not a big deal to me and only English speak­ers would care so much about the gen­der issue. Let’s focus on the ques­tions.

The main char­ac­ter in Contour is assumed to be one per­son. That’s gen­er­al­ly a good approach in a screen­play, but there are excep­tions. Also, there are rare movies with­out main char­ac­ters, but they don’t tend to be the block­busters. Remember, Contour is geared towards cre­at­ing a hit, which means stick­ing to a basic for­mu­la.

Next, Contour asks about the task, goal, mis­sion, or what­ev­er else you might call what the main char­ac­ter must accom­plish. Remember that the task must have a pur­pose. Why does the main char­ac­ter even care about the task?

Contour assumes an antag­o­nist is try­ing to stop the main char­ac­ter from accom­plish­ing his or her task. Again, this rep­re­sent the block­buster for­mu­la. You can make the antag­o­nist nature, inner doubts, or some­thing equal­ly com­plex, but Contour is more suit­ed for good vs. evil, two char­ac­ters in con­flict.

One thing I do like is the fourth ques­tion. It’s one many stu­dents and begin­ning writ­ers for­get to address clear­ly. Yes, the main char­ac­ter might fail, but what is the price of fail­ure?

If you read the Tameri Guide pages on Plot and Story, we have cre­at­ed a detailed chart address­ing these ques­tions and oth­ers. I’m not sure Contour is bet­ter than blank note­book paper for answer­ing such basic plot and sto­ry ques­tions. I would have stu­dents work on paper even if they were going to enter their answers into Contour.

The Journey

Contour’s ques­tions assume a block­buster script will progress through four stages. These stages rep­re­sent the emo­tion­al growth of the main char­ac­ter.

1. Orphan
2. Wanderer
3. Warrior
4. Martyr

I don’t object to fol­low­ing this plot­ting mod­el, which def­i­nite­ly aids writ­ers by clar­i­fy­ing how a char­ac­ter should evolve in 120 pages. It’s a good mod­el and one that works for a for­mu­la­ic script — which is what Hollywood likes.

The basic struc­ture can be expand­ed as fol­lows:

1. The main char­ac­ter is lit­er­al­ly or metaphor­i­cal­ly aban­doned and iso­lat­ed from oth­ers.

2. The main char­ac­ter wan­ders through events, look­ing for a place or role that will end the feel­ing of iso­la­tion.

3. The antag­o­nist cre­ates a sit­u­a­tion that forces the main char­ac­ter to face any doubts and fears. The two char­ac­ters engage in direct or indi­rect con­flict.

4. The main char­ac­ter con­scious­ly choos­es to make a per­son­al sac­ri­fice to accom­plish the pri­ma­ry task of the sto­ry.

Contour breaks each of these four stages into a set num­ber of plot beats. Within Contour, these are fixed beats, but there’s no rea­son they can­not be changed once you export a script out­line to your choice of word proces­sor or screen­writ­ing soft­ware.

Because Contour doesn’t force you to cre­ate detailed char­ac­ter sketch­es, con­flict maps, or oth­er plan­ning devices, I’m not con­vinced the appli­ca­tion is of val­ue to expe­ri­enced writ­ers. Contour isn’t a bad con­cept, but its sur­face flaws and lack of depth make it dif­fi­cult to rec­om­mend. Contour would help some stu­dents or begin­ning writ­ers, but after one or two Contour-guid­ed scripts I believe most writ­ers would aban­don the pro­gram.

Maybe out­grow­ing the pro­gram is the point, but I would rather have a pro­gram that has a “sim­ple” mode and an “advanced” mode. By com­par­i­son, Dramatica Pro offers far more flex­i­bil­i­ty and guid­ance for writ­ers, regard­less of the writer’s expe­ri­ence lev­el.

I hope Contour 2.0 fix­es the minor flaws and expands the program’s plot­ting method­ol­o­gy.

- Scott

Storyteller vs. Writer

I was asked a good ques­tion this week­end while attend­ing a con­fer­ence: Can you be a pro­fes­sion­al writer, but not a sto­ry­teller (or an “artist”)?

As my pre­vi­ous post sug­gest­ed, I am not sure every­one is a sto­ry­teller or “artist” wait­ing to be inspired by the right teacher. There are def­i­nite­ly those instances when a great tal­ent is nur­tured and released through dia­logue with a men­tor. I can­not pre­dict which peo­ple those will be, so I hope to always give stu­dents and sem­i­nar atten­dees an equal oppor­tu­ni­ty to find inspi­ra­tion.

But, can one be a pro­fes­sion­al writer with­out the gifts of a sto­ry­teller?

Absolutely!

I know sev­er­al jour­nal­ists who are great researchers and inter­view­ers. They are good writ­ers because they have dis­cov­ered struc­tures for report­ing. These jour­nal­ists fol­low “tem­plates” com­mon in their par­tic­u­lar fields. Sports sto­ries, busi­ness report­ing, and oth­er spe­cial­ties have com­mon struc­tures that can be learned. This is sim­i­lar to learn­ing to write aca­d­e­m­ic papers.

Many forms of pro­fes­sion­al writ­ing can be mas­tered through prac­tice. From busi­ness pro­pos­als to grant writ­ing, there are known guide­lines. The basics of busi­ness and aca­d­e­m­ic writ­ing are teach­able, if some­one wants to learn.

The divide between sto­ry­tellers and good writ­ers does exist in non-fic­tion forms of writ­ing. There are his­to­ri­ans who write books that read like great nov­els, except they are research-based works. One of my favorite writ­ers is Malcolm Gladwell, who writes cap­ti­vat­ing non-fic­tion works on psy­chol­o­gy and human nature. Without ques­tion, being a sto­ry­teller helps com­mu­ni­cate com­plex ideas to a gen­er­al audi­ence.

Writing is a skill that opens numer­ous oppor­tu­ni­ties. Many careers that pro­duce writ­ing rely on oth­er skills and tal­ents; writ­ing is the way knowl­edge is shared in these fields.

As I have admit­ted pre­vi­ous­ly, I’m not a lit­er­ary fic­tion read­er or writer, so I’m not priv­i­leg­ing “art” over craft. If any­thing, I want peo­ple to appre­ci­ate how valu­able the skills are and that any­one ded­i­cat­ed to improv­ing his or writ­ing can do so.