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