Tuesday, March 24, 2020

What The Writer can learn from The Virus

So, here we are . . .

As I write this, we’re in the third week of March 2020 - in the middle of a developing global crisis.

Although we have hopes and expectations of better times, at present we’ve no idea how this will all resolve itself.

I’ve heard from several writers and some are struggling right now. They’re naturally afraid and unsure and many have told me that they feel a real powerlessness. Many have found it difficult to keep writing.

And, as I take the precautions I need to take to keep myself and my family safe – while trying to go on with as normal a life as I can manage – I’ve been thinking about writers and other artists, and trying to sort out how I should approach what’s happening and what I should be learning from this experience.

Let’s start with what I know for sure:

Writers have historically been the Canaries in the Coal Mine for society.  

At our best, we constantly take society’s temperature. We hold up the mirror and demand that we look at ourselves in the light of day, and then seek to make sense out of what we see.

Through comedy, we encourage and bring respite.

Through drama, we enlighten and bring insight.

We tell the stories about how we, as a people, cope with adversity and difficulty in our lives. Our works document the lives of our species, illuminating where we’ve been and seeking to prepare us all for the uncertainties to come.

So, here are some thoughts on how writers can use the situation we’re all in.

The Lessons from within yourself

Inside every crisis lies an opportunity - for growth and self-understanding: Only under pressure do we really come to know what we can accomplish as individuals. And it’s times like these which reveal what’s truly important in our lives.

Things we can write about:

Explore your own feelings in this moment: Whatever you’re going through, trust that millions of people are feeling much the same thing. The spectrum of human emotions in all its forms will be on display in the coming months.  

Catalog it. Portray it in your stories. Explore these feelings in writing and share them. There is an audience out there waiting to relate to what you have to say.

Write out your fears – use them in your stories. It’s the emotions in your writing that makes the greatest connection with your readers. 

And it’s when we confront our emotions that we are the most human.

The old saying is true – “Sometimes we don’t really know what we think or feel until we read what we have written.”

Lessons From Within Your Community

Pay strict attention to what’s going on around you: Our Continuing Story as a people is playing out as a microcosm in every community affected. The best chance for you to learn is from the people directly in front of you.

People reveal their true nature in a crisis. Heroesand Villainswill always emerge during a crisis, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. Remember, how a person reacts tells you their character.

We’re going to see the whole of human drama in the next couple of months. The best and the worst of who we are will be on display. Already we’re seeing displays of selfishness and weakness – but we are also seeing inspiring acts of kindness and sacrifice.

Find these moments and let them inspire your writing. Chronicle how the people around you are dealing with this terrible thing.

You are currently at the center of a Master Class in the complications and complexities of the Human Experience. What you learn from just discussing it in writing can make you a better writer.

Lessons From Inside This Global Story

We draw our story models in part from the paths which human life takes, and this crisis has all the components of a compelling story. Understanding it in this way can help you understand not only what has happened but what is yet to come.

So far, we have seen

  • The Normal World before the crisis;

  • The Inciting Incident in Wuhan, China.

We are currently watching… 

  • The Rising Action, when The Hero (that’s us as both individuals and as a society) tries to solve the problem as we struggle to learn the rules of this New World.

  • New allies and new obstacles emerge every day.

  • The real tension and release of our small failures and victories as we battle the growing threat and the real power of this bewildering enemy. In each case, whether it’s the empty aisles of our grocery stores to the singing in the empty streets of Paris and Rome, we will come to know ourselves a little better.

What’s yet to come

  • The “Pinch Points” - where this Antagonist will remind us of its power and determination;

  • The Midpoint Turn, where the direction of our journey changes;

  • The “Dark Night of the Soul” moments when our Hero will fear that all may be lost;

  • That Moment when we will muster all the resources at our disposal and confront the opposing force directly;

  • The Climax, when we will see the tides turn and know that we are victorious;

  • The Aftermath as when we must deal with our new reality.

As writers, you will see these factors play out in both your personal life and in our society at large.

But right now

The world is frightened and unsure – but we can take comfort and strength in the fact that we know how this story plays out. 

After all, stories were first created so the elders of the village could tell the young people what their lives were going to be like.

We can lead the reader in finding the truth and the comfort that they need.

So write.

It makes little difference what you write. The most important thing is that you’re writing and sharing with your audience.

You can give insight and hope to your readers during these tough times.

After all that’s what writers do.

So keep calm… take heart… and get back to work.


ART HOLCOMB is a writer and educator.  His most recent project is an online class entitled Mastering the Inner Journey which is available now.  He will be launching a new podcast for writers interested in how to keep their art going during this crisis.  For more information, you can email him at aholcomb07@gmail.com. He lives in Southern California.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Destructive Power of Good Enough

Today, Art talks about why first-time screenwriters have to be better than established writers, the "Hollywood No", and the importance of the re-write.

Nearly 40 years as a writer has taught me some important lessons, one of which is that writers, whether they’re just starting out or well into their career, all need access to the absolute, straightforward truth about their craft and the journey they are taking as writers.
This is especially important for first-timers because there is so much information out there – much of it from dubious sources – which makes it very difficult to know whom to trust.
So, in this article, I will give you three points of absolute truth.
Truth One
Established successful writers – sadly – get away with mediocrity all the time.
How often have you been disappointed with a favorite author’s most recent offering? Or the follow-up movie by a screenwriter you respect?
I know I have – and often.
It’s because they already have a threshold market – a group of people whom the producer can accurately predict will buy any screenwriter’s next effort. If that number is high enough, that company will produce that writer’s next work – essentially regardless of the quality.
For example, even if a successful novelist’s next book is not up to snuff, the publisher is likely not to reject the book and risk having the author take his or her future books elsewhere.
For them, “Good is probably good enough.” And so they move on to the next project.
However, for first-timers like many of you, Good is never going to be good enough.”
Truth Two
You must be great. Your first script must be great in order to sell.

Why? Because it has two challenges that it must meet.
First, it must be better than the mass of other submissions from first-timers. Luckily, this may not be so difficult if you do a good job.
But second, your work must be strong enough to shoulder its way through the ranks of the established writers to find a place in the production budget.
Consider for a moment the conversation being held as these decision-makers are considering your work. No one is going to back your project if they’re on the fence. “I like it – it’s an interesting idea – but I don’t love it,” is not a statement that gets you a contract.
So, in the end, how do you tell if your work is great?
Simple. It’s, of course, the money.

If the producer or agent who has just read it doesn’t want to give you a contract to purchase the piece, then your work – as it stands at that moment – simply isn’t good enough.
And this sucks. Because current sensibilities exist so that these readers will either not have the guts to tell you the truth, or are scared that they will hurt your feelings, and so instead say something like “I like the concept, but characters need a little more development, and Act II is a little thin.”
It’s called the “Hollywood No” and it borders on the unprofessional, but there it is. Something that sounds like encouragement but is really a blow-off. And unless you do what it takes to make each of your next offerings great, you better get used to it.
Also, don’t buy into any posts on social media, where someone says a professional reader read their script really liked it. This is another insult offered to writers in the 21st century. For if anyone inside the industry reads your work and doesn’t instantly contract that work for production (aka they send a check), then they don’t like it enough to produce it.
In the end, you have to wow them. Anything less leads to failure. You must understand this. Make no mistake, there is no middle ground.
For there are only two types of scripts.
A work is either
  1. great-and-wonderful and anyone who reads it wants to buy it, or
  2. it’s not good enough and it gets rejected.
But here is our final truth for today, as disheartening as it may sound…
Truth Three
I have built my reputation as a teacher on this one fundamental belief:
You must spend all the time, skills and talents necessary to master your re-writes.
I repeat: your success and failure as a writer lies almost entirely on your ability to rewrite your work.
You have got to have:
  • a compelling, engaging Premise
  • correct, professional Formatting
  • great natural Dialogue
  • cut-to-the-chase grabbing Description
  • a wholly structured A-Story
  • two or three Sub-Plots
  • a superb and compelling Conflict
  • fascinating Characters
  • a fulfilling Resolution
And you do not ever find these in the first draft! They are only brought to life in the rewrite.
Robert McKee
“Secure writers don’t sell first drafts. They patiently rewrite until the script is as director-ready, as actor-ready as possible. Unfinished work invites tampering, while polished, mature work seals its integrity.”
Robert McKee

I have seen more than my share of scripts, and most writers are so relieved that they have finished an actual draft of the work (an accomplishment to be sure), that they give it a quick polish and hope for the best. This leads to a pass from the reader and time wasted because the writer did not have a process developed enough to create a great script.
The art of the writer, and their dedication to craft, is always revealed in the rewrite, where – if they have done their work well enough to have created a compelling premise, did the re-write well enough to have fully explored the concept, chosen the correct main character, and applied their knowledge of structure to make the work an easy read – they have made the nine points above shine.
It sounds like a near-impossible task, but time and time again I have seen new writers embrace what is necessary to succeed. So I know it is inside each one of you to make your script great.
Because by embracing these truths and truly learning your craft, you can develop a process you can use to write compelling, exciting and page-turning screenplays.
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This is a reprint or Art's column that appeared in Creative Screenwriting Magazine in May 2016