Monday, November 19, 2012

Losing My Religion, Prologue: General Misconceptions About Writing

Writing is really hard.  Making a living as a writer is even harder.  The hardest part is overcoming all of the harmful misconceptions that have attached themselves to writing.  In this series, I’ll summarize many of the misconceptions I started out with, and what I know now... 

What I Used to Think: First and foremost, writers should listen to their inner muse.  
  • What I Now Realize: There are two types of writers who work to please their inner muse, those with tons of clout and unserious beginners.  If you’re anywhere in between then you have to work to please an audience. Your inner muse is way too self-satisfied.  Only an audience will reliably tell you know if you’re on the right track and doing good work.
What I Used to Think: Writing is like prospecting for flecks of gold in the wellspring of your imagination. When you’ve collected enough gold, you sell it and get rich. 
  • What I Now Realize: Professional writing is more akin to alchemy than prospecting.  You either have to create gold from scratch or from the hunks of lead that other people give you.  And you have to be able to do it on cue, everyday, so you have no time to wait for inspiration to come flowing by.  The only way to be a working writer is to be able to create new stories on a moment’s notice according to pre-determined specifications.   
What I Used to Think: Anybody can write anything at any time and expect others to want to read it.
  • What I Now Realize: You can write anything you want, if you only want to please yourself.  But if you expect others to want to read it, you have to be willing to write what your audience is willing to read and you have to write it according to their standards of what makes a good story.  
What I Used to Think: You should seek the widest possible audience for everything you write. 
  • What I Now Realize: At first, you should share your work with your peers and enter it into contests, if they aren’t too expensive. Only after outside peers (non-friend, non-family, non-paid-instructor) tell you that they are impressed with your work (or you win one of those contests), then you should try to get it seen.  Even then, you should try to make sure that you get it into the hands of a specific gatekeeper who will be impressed by that specific story.
What I Used to Think: The person judging your story will be excited to read it and eager to discover a good story.
  •  What I Now Realize: The person judging your story will not want to read it at all, and will read it with a strong presumption that it will suck.  This person has been forced to read twenty submissions in a row, and the first nineteen were all insultingly bad, so why should yours be any different?  Picture a traveling salesman on an airplane, who desperately needs to take a nap, but the person next to him insists on telling him a long, rambling story instead.  How good does that story have to be to make the salesman overcome his annoyance, forget all about his nap and listen with rapt attention?  That’s how good you have to be. 
Next question: What makes for a good story?  I was even more misguided about that...


j.s. said...

It's no surprise that 'll have to disagree a bit about your characterization of what following one's muse means and how successful or not you'll be doing it. The only successful peers I know are the few who bring a unique passion and point of view to the admittedly commercial material they are pitching. If they didn't love the genres they were writing in, connect deeply with their stories and bring forth the inspired visions in their hearts and minds, their scripts would not be as good.

Isn't the trick not so much ditching your muse as finding that Venn diagram sliver of space where one's inspiration, talent and skills overlap with the stories that audiences want to see and that buyers are looking to purchase?

It seems like you truly enjoy writing thrillers. You've written a new spec this year. If it's a thriller is it because you were following your muse? Or because you had succeeded in killing it? Is it ever that simple?

Matt Bird said...

I totally disobeyed my own advice about knowing your range, in that I just wrote a broad comedy!

Part of it is that, being a new dad, I'm tired of all the death and dying, so I had to lighten up for a while.

I'd only written one broad comedy feature before, many years ago, but Peter Farrelly was a fan of that one, so it's not entirely outside my wheelhouse.

The script I'm starting next Monday (It keeps getting pushed back! Floods, illnesses and Thanksgiving are to blame), however, is back in my normal wheelhouse. It's a supernatural action-thriller.

Of course I agree that a script must be something you're personally inspired to write, but I still think that you should write for an imaginary hard-to-please audience, not for your easy-to-please self.

You've cautioned against "writing for the market", and I agree that that never works, but I think that there's a difference between writing for an audience and writing for the market. When I picture "the market", I picture suit-wearing slicksters and number-crunching marketers, and you certainly shouldn't try to guess what would please them, but when I picture an audience, I picture a bunch of people sitting in a movie theater, and I certainly want to please them.