Tuesday, April 20, 2010

7 Pursuits To Teach Yourself Writing Part I

My posts are always too long, so this time I'll try an experiment. I'm going to post this one in 2 parts, Part I and Part II, posted a week apart, even though it's a single long piece. How many of you who want to read Part II will forget to?


Is a comment on a review I wrote of SAVE THE CAT!

The review I wrote has drawn 3 marvelous compliments from readers (and from Blake Snyder when he first published the book). This third comment though asks for a list of (currently available) books on screenwriting that would teach what you need to know before SAVE THE CAT!

Any list I could give you would probably be useless in a year or so because many of the titles would be out of print unless they were e-books. And even then, they would likely be out of date in some way because the entire field of "commercial entertainment" is always morphing. I will put a list though at the end of Part II.

And the truth is, though I've read countless books "on screenwriting" (started in grammar school and High School too, reading every book on playwriting the library would stock - inter-library loan books too) I've never read a screenwriting craft book that actually taught how to write a STORY.

Writing a script (stage play or screenplay) is a secondary skill.

You've seen any number of screenplays "based on a story by" -- screenplays have to be based on a story! Before you can write the screenplay, you must craft the story itself or find one already crafted.

Creating that story is actually a separate craft from screenwriting, and it is best learned by studying books on novel craft.

Yet a novel is structured differently than a play.

You have to learn that difference in order to write a story that would be useful to a screenwriter, yourself or someone else.

There is a way to teach yourself that difference and how to leverage that difference into a blockbuster screenplay based on a story by you.

So I'm going to give some examples of where to look, and how to identify a writing textbook that can help you -- but with a focus on what to do with those texts and how to do it.

The reason there are so many books on screenwriting is twofold.

a) there is no "one thing" to master and then you can do it. No two writers are alike, no two people master any performing art the same way, or in the same order. The ones who will sell scripts generally go this route, selecting a few courses, reading a lot of books because multitudes of approaches are needed.

b) there are multitudes of people who want to "become" screenwriters and will read books to dream about it, but will likely never finish any script. They keep buying books and paying for courses so the field grows. The ones who will sell scripts generally don't do it via this route, taking lots and lots of courses and buying lots and lots of books.

How do you teach yourself writing craft for storytelling in any medium?

Story craft is a huge subject. To master it, you must understand that the subject is bigger than you are.

Marion Zimmer Bradley had a 3X5 card tacked over her desk saying nobody ever told you not to be a plumber.

There are more efficient ways of making a living. Writing is the hardest work and the most underpaid except maybe ballet dancing.

Except for the top 1 to 5% of writers, the best paid working writers make less than minimum wage if you add up all the hours spent at it over a lifetime.

Writing is a vocation not an occupation.

It's a Calling.

You must dedicate your whole life to it and be willing to sacrifice everything else (sometimes your sacrifice isn't accepted and your family will miraculously stick by you no matter how you neglect them; but you must be willing, often savagely willing).

Read a lot of biographies. You'll see every really famous writer's biography includes a myriad occupations, all apparently disconnected. The career of writing is composed of odd jobs and a life of study.

So I'm going to list some of the pursuits that might lead through that myriad occupations to a career in writing. And from all this you may discover how to find the books on writing craft and screenwriting craft that will synthesize these pursuits into a sellable screenplay or novel (or both).

1) What is storytelling?

The first pursuit is to define what you are pursuing.

There is a craft called "storytelling" which is a theatrical discipline, and a folk-art.

Storytelling specifically refers to a person who stands up before a live audience and creates with words and dramatic delivery a story usually with a moral or lesson. It is perhaps the most ancient form, and most respected. The original objective may have been cultural continuity, bringing the young into the community.

It isn't exactly what I'm referring to as "storytelling," but all of its craft disciplines are very specifically relevant to learning to teach yourself the craft of commercial fiction writing for text or dramatization.

The most important lesson you can learn from storytellers is audience awareness.

A person who simply mouths off about their own internal fantasies is not story-telling. The "telling" part involves connecting emotionally to the audience and that means being aware of the audience's main fantasies. More about that later.

So the first "pursuit" on our list is to study storytelling from shamanistic origins through Broadway stageplay, even perhaps including folk music performances and today's popular rap forms until you understand exactly what you are aiming to master.

Storytelling is the core origin of "entertainment" - the kissing cousin of the Bardic Craft (traveling living newspaper and history book all wrapped in poetry and a rousing well lubricated singalong).

And all of these living person delivery systems are bundled up today in the "Classroom Teacher" from Kindergarten through 16th Grade. The school librarian or public children's librarian is another manifestation of this. Some even play guitar and sing to the tots!

These teachers are usually our first contact with live entertainment, the first ignition of the desire to share our fantasies, our inner lives, with others.

Teaching is entertainment at its best.

So to teach yourself, you must entertain yourself.

Learning is something else altogether.

I have held elsewhere that there is no such thing as "teaching" -- that one person can not convey either information or a world-view by force into an unwilling or disinterested mind. Even indoctrination doesn't work very well without an entertainment aspect.

But there is "learning" -- and "learning together" as a group activity.

As in "The King And I" -- "by your students you'll be taught" -- if you don't open yourself to absorbing lore from your students, they can not and will not absorb anything from you. So be careful who you set out to teach.

The English words "teaching" and "learning" imply one-sided activity, each disconnected from the other, each able to exist in isolation.

This is a property of the English language, a way of dividing the world into compartments that is distinct from the way languages from other Language Families divide the world.

The formal study of Linguistics, especially neurolinguistic programming, is highly recommended as a pursuit under this first category of pursuits. If you are to use language to tell a story, you might be more successful if you know how language works and why it works that way.

Screenplays are "a story in pictures" - and pictures are also language. See my blog entry on the new iconography:


It's about a new Iconography of the modern action-romance, images reveal theme: TOUCHED BY AN ALIEN DAW Books Cover image vs. a still from the movie FACE OFF. 
So if the concepts teaching and learning are actually just artifacts of the English language, what really does happen in a classroom or when you read a book about how to do something? How are skills transmitted in real life?

A real life transmission situation is better described in terms of music and resonance.

A classroom is more like an orchestra than it is like a mother bird feeding chicks.

I think those who participated in Blake Snyder's screenwriting workshops got that impression of playing in an orchestra he was directing. And orchestral directing is, like writing, a performing art.

In the transmission of an artform from generation to generation, the vast majority of what is transmitted is non-verbal, even sometimes spiritual. And that's true of a verbal artform, so transmission is best done in person.

My own hands-on, in person, orchestra leader was Marion Zimmer Bradley.

No two writers could possibly be more opposite in nature and function than Marion Zimmer Bradley and Jacqueline Lichtenberg, but I absorbed things from her that can not be put into words.

I was recently reminded of all she ignited within me by a query that came to me on twitter after a #scifichat,

(for how to participate in twitter online chats see
http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2010/02/strange-benefit-of-social-networking.html )

@All_Day_SCIfi asked me if I knew of any good books on literary analysis.

Since High School, I've had many encounters with "literary criticism" and none have been informative or useful - perhaps because I'm an originator of the "literary" that others "criticise."

The query did say "analysis" which is what I do to stories, but not just to "literary" stories -- I devour stories delivered in any medium and analyze what makes them work, or not work, and what I would choose to do to the story to make it work or work better.

Many years ago, I was a Guest at The Conference On The Fantastic that Margaret Carter reported on this year:


I attended several memorable panels, talks and paper readings at that event, met Stephen King, and had other remarkable experiences all in the space of a few days.

One of them was a paper on Marion Zimmer Bradley - of course I couldn't miss hearing that so I was one of the first to arrive, and got a front seat and listened with absolute attention.

At that time, the Conference was new, and Professors didn't write papers on mass market original novels, nevermind SF or Fantasy. The Conference on the Fantastic has changed my world in that regard.

This particular paper drew some very deep and searching conclusions about Marion, her work, her worldbuilding, and the substance of the themes she was working with. Almost all the conclusions and assumptions in the paper were based on the final paragraph of one Darkover novel.

As it happened, I knew something the writer of the paper did not know, and according to the rules of literary criticism was forbidden to research and discover. What I knew, invalidated everything in the paper resoundingly.

I knew that the final few lines of that novel were not written by Marion, but by an editor. I knew because I'd seen the original and Marion told me how the ending got changed, not because she was incensed about it but because she was illustrating a point about how to work with themes, how to craft a beginning and an ending that match (just as in a symphony -- she was a student of opera, another pursuit I'd recommend).

The change in wording of the final sentence changed the theme drastically. It changed it to a theme she personally did not want her byline associated with but which the editor thought would sell better, and which the editor thought was what she really meant anyway.

She discussed it with me also to illustrate what it means to be a professional fiction writer working in the mass market paperback medium, as opposed to hardcover original where writers have more authority.

It was, at that time, very common for a mass market paperback editor to change a writer's words (legally, it was in the contracts that they could do so) without the writer's knowledge or consent and then print the book. Even when that wasn't in the contract, it was career death to object publically.

The reason for this is simply deadlines. Mass Market moves production faster and on a lower budget with less time and fewer people, and little or no cross-checking at every step. That makes it oddly like film production where, though there is much checking and changing, the writer is simply out of the loop after delivering the script. The pace is frantic for time is money, and decisions are made not on the basis of the art but on the basis of cost.

Objecting to such routine practices in production is the difference between an "artist" and a "commercial fiction writer."

An artist's work depends on every punctuation point and even misspelling - every paragraphing choice and every word choice. Nothing can be changed without destroying the artistic effect.

A commercial fiction writer buries the important stuff, the art, so deep these commercial changes made by many hands along the production channel don't matter.

In this particular case Marion ran into, the change in the ending mattered a lot -- but Marion settled it privately and never had that happen to her again by that editor.

The professor writing a paper about Marion based on that ending could have discovered the origin of those words by asking Marion (she was still alive then and easily reached).

But that's against professor rules. You can't ask an author what they meant to say, even if the author is still alive, and derive a point of "literary criticism" from what the author says they meant to say. You have to work from the printed text.

My personal opinion of literary criticism and scholarship in general reached an all time low at that point, and has stayed there.

Maybe I should change my opinion now that the Conference on the Fantastic has changed my world. It's possible that analyzing mass market work has caused professors to change their rules of evidence, and that would change my opinion.

But I did learn the lesson Marion was demonstrating. Master the layered construction of a story and learn what "they" will change during production, and what you can sneak past them. But also learn how to react professionally when something turns out differently than you intended.

And that's what "storytelling" really is.

The story you have inside you to tell will stay inside you unless you can master the craft of delivering that story to an audience, and Marion's experience with having her ending changed demonstrates what the writer goes through to deliver a story to an audience.

StoryTELLING - delivering - is a mechanical craft that anyone can learn.

But I've never seen anything like this lesson written down in books on writing, or screenwriting.

Many books on screenwriting are only annecdotes about personal experiences and cheerleading to inspire dreams of success. One book like that, more storytelling than instruction, is WRITING THE KILLER TREATMENT (selling your story without a script) by Michael Halperin.

From the title, you'd think it was about how to extract the working parts of your story into an outline that a skilled screenwriter could use to craft a completed script "based on a story by."

But no. It doesn't tell you how to do it. It tells you that you must do it and how much fun and profit there is when you do. It's a $15 book I found to be a total waste of time and money - not because it's a badly written book. No, it's a very entertaining, lively, and zestful bit of inspirational writing. It's the title that's misleading (to me). Others might construe it to mean something more like what's actually inside the book.

Marion's lesson to me in telling me about how the last lines of a novel got changed without her having a chance to object or negotiate was tossed at me in response to something I had said or done -- and in the context of my learning curve, because the lesson was chosen and tailored for me at that time, I learned a thousand things from it.

If you pick up WRITING THE KILLER TREATMENT at the right point in your learning curve, you may learn a thousand lessons and sell screenplay because of it.

A good book on writing craft is one you are ready for.

A bad book on writing craft is one you are beyond - or one you aren't ready for.

If you run into a "bad book" on writing craft, put it on your shelf. There may come a day you need it -- or a day you will refer a student to it because it's just what they need at that point in their learning curve.

Marion also said many times, anyone who can write a literate English sentence can write and sell fiction.

You can teach yourself. You don't need to pay thousands of dollars for classes, or hundreds of dollars for books on writing (libraries are full of craft books for free reading and the internet is replete with hints, tips, and blogs like this one, even online courses that aren't very expensive.)

So where do you start teaching yourself?

Well, once you are well launched on pursuit #1, "What is Storytelling?" you are ready to ask yourself a group of questions that will launch you into more pursuits, some of which may turn into occupations.

Question-asking is the major technique of the storyteller, and I don't just mean the Socratic Method.

The answer to any question lies in the formulation of the question. Get the formulation wrong, and you will never find the answer.

The best place I know of to learn questioning is in the pursuit of an education in the sciences.

Philosophy is another subject area, especially religious philosophy, that trains the mind in questioning.

See my blog entry on Theodore Sturgeon's motto, Ask The Next Question for more on that:


So "What is Storytelling?" naturally leads me to ask:

2) What Stories Are You Telling Yourself?

I know of 3 kinds of writers: Deliberate Plotters, Pantsers, and Hybrids.

Deliberate plotters need to know consciously, exactly what they're doing, why and how all laid out in an outline before they do it. They make great formula mystery writers.

Pantsers (the majority, I think) write "by the seat of their pants" -- just make it up as they go along, do what the characters dictate, follow the character's nose through the story. Marion was that kind of writer; completely subconscious.

Hybrids, like me, do it both ways at once, and vacilate back and forth without rhyme or reason. But I've trained myself to be more of a plotter, and Marion often said how she admired my ability to plot.

But what is it that you are doing when you write a story? Is it just plotting?

Most writers (commercial and otherwise) have thousands of stories bursting inside their heads, dream bits in different universes every night, and have a hard time choosing one story to write and finish.

In fact, that's one way to tell if a young child is going to "be a writer."

Marion often said, perhaps quoting Robert A. Heinlein, the only reason to be a writer is that you can't do anything else.

Writers write. And if they can't write, they stare at a blank wall and tell themselves stories. Incessantly.

It is the nature of a writer to glance at a cereal package and leap off into a whole story.

Writers, like actors, sit on shopping mall benches and people-watch, guessing what soap opera each passer-by is wound up in.

Writers don't strain for story ideas. They don't hunt for them. They don't go somewhere else to "get an idea." They have to beat the ideas off with a stick.

For commercial fiction writers, that stick is made of the filter question, "Can I Sell This Story?" "What's the market for this story?"

For the screenwriter, the filter is not about the story at all -- nor even about the idea. The screenwriter searches for "High Concept" which is a wholly different animal than a novelist tames.

Here is one place I discussed the High Concept in screenwriting:


And here I discuss how concept distinguishes a novel from a screenplay


So before you can choose a filter, you have to know which kind of story your mind keeps generating. You have to inventory, contrast, compare, examine, slice and dice, what's floating around inside your mind.

Unless, of course, you're a "pantser" by nature, and looking too closely at the content of your internal stories would be like asking a centipede how it walks.

In that case, you need to focus more externally and examine closely what you do for relaxation, for entertainment. What do you do when you're doing nothing? What carrot do you put on a stick and chase through your daily chores so you can get it for a reward?

Is it a TV show, a movie, a book, all of the above multi-tasked?

Since you are selling FUN, you need to have some in stock to sell. Go have some fun. Acquire that fun, intellectually, emotionally, and/or non-verbally. Repackage it and sell it.

The pursuit of the contents of your internal stories will, most likely, lead you to the pursuit of the study of archetypes, of  THE HERO'S JOURNEY and similar insightful works.

Psychology, socialogy, and every kind of -ology listed in any university catalogue can be applied to sorting, categorizing, and warehousing your inventory of internal stories.

One or another of those thousands will have commercial potential.

Why? Because one or another of your stories actually also resides within thousands and thousands of other people.

Those stories that reside in thousands, millions, or everyone are either based in archetypes or they are pure archetypes.

That's why so very often we hear the cries of, "They Stole My Idea!"

They didn't steal it, they got it the same place you did -- "up there somewhere."

I've done twenty posts on Tarot Minor Arcana which discuss slicing and dicing archetypes and how a writer can employ these principles in the process of writing. The posts are listed in these posts:

http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2010/03/pausing-for-you-to-catch-up-with-me.html lists Suit of Swords

http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2010/03/pausing-for-you-to-catch-up-with-me_23.html lists Suit of Pentacles

All of this came out of my own examination of my internal stories.

My external stories, what's been professionally published, are very different - but not unrecognizable.

See next week, Tuesday, on this blog for part II.

This is short, right?  *sigh*

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. I like your posts split up! I read all of this one in one go, and I'm ready for the next.

    Yay! I'm a writer! (definitely not aiming for screenwriting).

    Great insight into writing here, thank you.

  2. I like your plan of splitting up the posts, too.

    Lit-crit has changed since you attended ICFA (if it was ever really a "rule" that it had to be how you describe -- maybe so, WAY back when, because one of my professors around 1970 told me to pay no attention to what the author says about a story because "the author doesn't know what he's talking about" -- probably a reference to the unconscious processes that go into writing -- that was the attitude of the New Criticism, pretend the work exists independent of the author). Nowadays an interview with an author is a perfectly legitimate resource for analyzing a work. (Although that wouldn't be ALL you would use, because an author is likely to be "too close" to the work to see it the way a critic does.) At least, I have used such material in several scholarly articles, and nobody has squawked about it.

    DRACULA studies, for instance: Many of the beautiful theories that have been spun around that book since the early 1970s were instantly disproved when Bram Stoker's working notes for the novel became publicly available. Nobody in the field has suggested that we should ignore Stoker's own testimony (in the form of his notes, outline, and list of research materials)!

  3. Thank you Nayuleska - and Margaret has said she likes the serial-posting idea too, so the one I've concocted for May 11 will be split to run May 11 and May 18.

    It's titled:
    The Hurt Locker, Indie Films, Financing TV

    And it's all about working the problem of the prestige factor for Alien Romance by "following the money" through the Business Model.

    Before that comes Part II of this post, and then an item on the TV Show White Collar with a detailed show-don't-tell lesson in how to transform a "tell" passage into "show" -- technical writing craft stuff to bore you out of your mind, so it's a long lump.

    I'll likely be offline a lot during those weeks, so I've stacked the posts up to post themselves. If you drop comments, it may take a while to see them approved and posted (we get spam so we filter).


    Yes, wonderful addition on Literary Criticism, but I notice you didn't mention the case in point -- how do you know all the words in the novel were actually written by that particular author unless you ask?

    That's not a question most scholars would ask, and the truth is few authors will tell you the whole truth -- not because they're cheating but because of confidentiality about the tiffs they have with editors.

    You want to sell your next book to an editor, you don't embarrass them in public. So even asking won't necessarily get the answer the scholar needs.

    And then there's copyeditors who just don't understand what you wrote so you MUST change it real fast before the deadline for returning it with changes. The changes you make may be so hasty that it isn't really what you meant or wanted -- but you can't say that in public and embarrass yourself (OK, you know I would, but most people wouldn't).

    And yes, I'm well aware of the skills that can detect the hand of other writers in a text.

    What scholars do with fiction is not really of much use to writers trying to entertain a reader, or to readers who just want a good read. But if they're having fun, I don't really see anything wrong with it - as long as nobody takes them seriously.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  4. "how do you know all the words in the novel were actually written by that particular author unless you ask?

    That's not a question most scholars would ask, and the truth is few authors will tell you the whole truth -- not because they're cheating but because of confidentiality about the tiffs they have with editors."

    That's absolutely true -- normally you'd have no way of knowing if some of the words weren't written by the nominal author, and you wouldn't even know to ask unless you had some reason to suspect (such as inconsistencies in the text). Sometimes it's hard to tell even if you do know for a fact that more than one person worked on a book, e.g., an unfinished novel that was later completed by a posthumous collaborator. If the second author is skillful enough, the "seams" won't show.

    Several of Robert Heinlein's novels have had later editions published in the form he originally intended, which the publishers of the first editions wouldn't allow. For instance, RED PLANET was initially published without the details about the fluffy round Martian laying eggs. (Can you imagine any YA publisher being squeamish about that kind of material today?) PODKAYNE OF MARS had a tragic ending before the editor persuaded Heinlein to allow Poddy to survive. And then there's the uncut version of STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND released after Heinlein's death. My personal reaction was that the uncut edition added almost nothing; in that case, IMO, the original editors were on the right track.

    Thanks to the lively interaction between scholars and authors at occasions such as ICFA, people who study fiction nowadays have more awareness of what's going on with the people who WRITE the fiction. Although I don't know whether there's any other venue quite like ICFA in that respect. Wiscon, maybe?

  5. Margaret:

    Ah, yes, ICFA may still be unique in that respect, except for some conventions.

    There are academic tracks at many conventions and that may be why academics in the SF/F field (like Jean Lorrah) are much more aware of how the fiction delivery system actually works.

    I think the more interaction there is, the better results we'll get in terms of understanding the "literature of the times" vs. "the times themselves."

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg