Tag Archives: Learning the craft of writing

Doses of Reality: TALES FROM THE SCRIPT, and a blog post from Scott William Carter

Peter Hanson and Paul Robert Herman have gone and interviewed 50 screenwriters to create the best (as well as the most brutally realistic) documentary on screenwriting I’ve ever seen, TALES FROM THE SCRIPT.   Even if one doesn’t write screenplays, this documentary is worth seeing as a way to understand the joys and hardships of writing stories for a living.

Here’s their description of the documentary:

Screenwriters ranging from newcomers to living legends share their triumphs and hardships in this probing, insightful, and often hilarious odyssey through the world of movie storytelling. Celebrated scribes reveal the fascinating creative adventures that gave birth to beloved classics (and notorious flops). By analyzing their triumphs and recalling their failures, the participants explain how successful writers develop the skills necessary for toughing out careers in Hollywood. Candid and unafraid to name names, they also describe their collaborations with stars including Tim Burton, Harrison Ford, Morgan Freeman, Stanley Kubrick, Adam Sandler, Joel Silver, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Bryan Singer.

Also, Scott William Carter has written a realistic thoughtful blog post on “10 Reasons There’s Never Been a Better Time to Be a Fiction Writer.” Here’s a very small taste:

When I replied that actually they’ve got it dead wrong, there’s never been a better time to be a fiction writer, that if I had a time traveling machine and could pick only one time to be a novelist, I’d pick now without question, I’m pretty sure he thought I was smoking something.
But it’s the truth. Seriously.
Don’t believe me? Here’s ten reasons why.

Go read this long post of his.  It’s better than many articles on “changing technology and the impact on writers” that I’ve seen in Writer’s Digest or Publisher’s Weekly.

Ray Bradbury and the Enthusiasm that Becomes a Writer’s Voice

Yesterday I stumbled across a 22 minute interview with Ray Bradbury done by the National Endowment for the Arts’ “The Big Read” program.   It’s well worth watching.  There’s even a loud car purr to relax by 😀

But, watching this interview, I was struck by just how vivid and alive Bradbury is compared to some people I’ve met.  He’s refused to be mocked by the world into disguising, hiding, and getting rid of his enthusiasms, and it shows.

How many people do you know go to Paris to walk the streets while stopping to read TENDER IS THE NIGHT along the way?  It’s the actual physical act of getting out into the world and colliding with it that can generate so many new ideas.

Enthusiasms can also act as road signs of what to write about as a writer.   They can help a writer find his or her voice.  For example, a passion for astronomy could turn into a science fiction story or a literary novel about an astronomer.  And I’ve noticed how “catching” enthusiasm is.  I’m not into cars, but by watching the hosts of “Top Gear” on the BBC talk with passion about cars, I’ve caught some of their enthusiasm and am starting to pay attention to the cars and trucks I see daily.

Bradbury has priceless advice to give on finding one’s voice as a writer, both in ZEN AND THE ART OF WRITING and in this “The Big Read” interview.  Check them out.

The Benefits of Keeping a Work Log of Writing Hours

In July I started keeping a daily work log of how many hours I spent either writing or editing a particular piece.  And I ended up proving to myself what many of us have long surmised–the perception of how long it takes to do a piece of work is different from the actual reality.

I’ve now got over a month’s worth of work records, and the insights provided as I flip back through the log are invaluable to me.

–I can now make a good estimate on how many hours a short story or novelette is going to take me from start to finish.

–I can make correlations between productivity and when to schedule my writing time.  Certain times of the day and situations are much MUCH more productive than others for me, and I have begun to take that into account when planning the coming week’s schedule.

–It’s much harder to stay in denial if there’s a problem in productivity, because the work log shows the trend by either lack of hours, or too many hours being spent on a particular project.

–It’s motivating to look back and see the work hours that have already been logged in.

–I can quickly tell if I’m spending too much time on “niggling little stuff” and not enough on the novel or short fiction.

–If one is saying, “writing comes first,” but it’s clear from the log hours that it doesn’t (i.e that it’s coming in last behind everything else), the data is a goad to change that.

A writing log can be anything from a notepad to a daily planner.  To choose mine I went to an office supply store to the planner section, and pulled down planners and calendars until I found something I liked.

Why as a Writer I Envy Painters, Musicians, Stage Actors, and Comedians

There are days as a fiction writer when I envy painters, musicians, comedians, stage actors, and the like.  It’s because I’ve found from experience that the feedback loop for them on whether a creation or technique is on the right track is much less murky.

When I create a painting, when I’m done I can step back and visually absorb my creation as a whole .  And if my ego is strong enough, I can haul it off to a local show of other artists to see how I’m doing skill-wise by visually paying attention to the paintings of the artists around me.  And I can pay attention to how viewers respond when they see my work.

As a comedian or musician, if I go to try out my latest stuff live at a local venue, I’m going to know very quickly if my piece isn’t working because if I’m awful there are going to be boos and maybe even beer cans headed in my direction.

With a fiction manuscript, it’s just a stack of paper with words on it.  I can make copies of it to give out with an evaluation sheet to readers, but the returned results are so much murkier than the instant feedback of clapping or boos.   And round-robin critique sessions (unless very VERY well-run) too often turn into group-think or focus on the wrong things because the manuscript is being evaluated by writers instead readers.

One can read aloud one’s manuscript to an audience, but how a piece of fiction reads aloud versus how it sounds in the mind versus how it looks to the eye are three separate things.  Reading aloud only covers one of the three.

And even when a fiction piece is posted online with a comments section, there’s still a buffer of words between writer and reader.

And as for writing contests, I find them rather weak for getting a full sense of how readers will respond to a work.  Keep in mind that most contests are judged by those in the book industry (writers, editors, critics, agents), not readers.  The criteria by which readers choose what they want to read is different.

Don’t believe me about contests?  Then go stand in the book section of the nearest Costco, Wal-Mart, Target, etc. and watch people as they walk through.  Not a bookstore–that’s a preselected audience of people who are into books.  Talk to people who have absolutely no desire to work in the book industry.  Talk to people who rarely read books at all.

What I’m getting at is that in fiction writing, there’s a lot more “noise” and “distance” to wade through in trying to evaluate the response of readers to one’s work.  The interaction between artist and audience in writing is at a distance, unlike the intimacy of a stage actor and audience.

I can see why fiction writing is often compared to writing a message to shove into bottle that is thrown in the sea.

Perhaps the difficulty (the distance & noise between writer and reader) comes about because, as John Gardner pointed out, the writer is trying to induce a dream-state in the reader.  The action is happening in the reader’s head as they read, not on a movie screen or on a stage, and so reactions are much much harder to pin down.

Making a Game of Writing Productivity

What I’m about to discuss is a writing productivity technique I’ve heard about.  It involves turning writing into a game with points.  I’ve found the point system has the handy side-effect of making it easy to see if writer’s block or submissions block is creeping up on me.

There are two goals to choose from in this game (or one can choose to track both goals):  Writing Productivity (WP), or Submissions Productivity (SP).   I’m just going to concentrate on the Writing Productivity game.

First off, decide how many points each of the following is worth.  I’ve listed my own point system, but feel free to change it.  Points are ONLY awarded for a FINISHED piece of work.   Incomplete work gets zero points.  No exceptions.

Finished Short Story (<7500 words):  1 pt.

Novelette (7500 – 15k):  2 pt.

Novella (15k to 50k):  5 pt.

Novel (50k to 125k): 10 pt.  (I deliberately give a novel twice the points of a novella because on average mine tend to be in the 100k range.)

Second, decide on the total points goal for the year.  Make it realistic, but enough of a stretch that you’ll be a sweating to get there.  If desired, you can break the points down into smaller goals by seasons, semesters, months, whatever.

Then find a white board, and each month, tally the total points for the year so far.  Seriously consider giving yourself a prize (such as a longed-for book or album) if you meet certain sub-goals during the year.

My complaint about only giving a prize for meeting the total goal points for the year is that it’s too a long a wait for getting a reward for productive behavior.  Significant increases in productivity ought to be celebrated and rewarded as they’re happening.