Friday, April 20, 2007

Writing What You Learn

We're sick of hearing "write what you know". Maybe we should say "write what you learn". Otherwise, there's a finite number of things that can be written by any one person. People will also tell you to write what you like. I'm not okay with that -- unless it's something you also know or you happen to be very good at or are willing to learn.

Yeah, I made a mess of that. Let's go back.

When I was a wee lass, I wrote a fancy tale on my Big Chief tablet about a magic serpent that churned around in the sea looking for love and finding only rejection. Very cliche. Romance has never been my strongest suit.

My serpent sang with a British accent and wore a kilt in honor of the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy dreams of Fred and Ethel as a two headed dragon except my serpent only had one head and his name was Davy Jones because what else does a first grade girl in love with the Monkees name her singing serpent? Okay, I had also considered naming him Jimmy (Puff, the Magic Dragon) but come on, who calls a serpent Jimmy?

And yes, I know serpents don't need clothes but my story had illustrations. Stop right now and picture a first grade rendering of a serpent in a Davy Jones haircut. Got it? Yeah. My grandmother said the drawings were obscene and threatened to trash my work.

Did I mention the serpent only had one eye?

The story was tragic -- tragically without plot. My slithering hero simply used his magic powers to make all the beautiful mermaids in the sea love him and then he married the most beautiful-ist one of them all and the rest cried. Serves them right. They were meanies.

The end.

Don't say anything.

I was a kid writing what I liked. It worked because I was a first grader. Or, it didn't work if you were my grandmother. But merely liking something is no longer enough to sustain my stories.

Man, I miss being a kid.

Or, do I?

My seventh grader is trying to enroll in a videography class next year. I didn't even know they HAD videography classes in middle school. The classes are small and the process for getting in is very selective. Basically, you gotta know somebody. Fortunately, my kid knows somebody. Still, he has to write a paper on why he wants to make films and get three teachers to sign off on it. Then he has to write a short script, make a mini film, and submit all this stuff BEFORE he can even be considered.

He's TWELVE! Okay, he'll be thirteen in a month.

He first thought of adapting one of his short stories into a screenplay but ultimately decided that he's a much better writer now than when he wrote any of his old stuff. That sounds familiar. Anyway, adaptation was out. He'd write something new. But what?

That brought up a long discussion about writing what you're good at versus writing what you like.

Here's the thing. Even though I'm all growed up and writing with sharp objects now, I still don't have a knack for writing fantasies. I've tried, but my stories aren't whimsical. They're silly. And my mermaids still cry. The meanies.

I know my niche and I know my shortcomings. Sure, I'm branching out from drama because I also know that the cheese doesn't stand alone and I'd better learn a little something about all genres. In screenwriting, genres inbreed. But I don't write without research and I know where my strengths are.

But, back to my kid.

Know your strengths, I told him. Don't write what you like unless it's also something you already know, are willing to learn, are very good at, or are willing to work hard to get good at.

His answer -- what the?

I used American Idol as an example. Every year, it's the same thing. Most of the contestants don't know how to pick the right music. The only good answer to "why did you pick that song?" is "because I kick butt when I sing it" (and maybe "I want to make David Hasselhoff cry"). Reasons like "it was playing when I proposed to my wife" or "it touches my heart" or "it reminds me of my daughter" don't ease the pain of a weak performance.

Same thing with writers. You can't just write what you like. You can't. It's not enough. You gotta back it up with something substantial. Can't back it up? Then learn it, research it, study it. Every time we hand in a spec, we're asking somebody to spend a whole lot of money making our film. We are asserting that we are the experts in our own story realm. And, we should be.

Example: How many pirate screenplays have you read where the writer doesn't know his way around a ship, map, or history book? He's just tossing out stuff he's heard in the movies or stolen out of other scripts. Yeah, I know, everyone loves pirate tales right now. Everyone. EVERYONE! But, if you have never read a David Cordingly book ... what? You don't know who David Cordingly is? Then, don't write a pirate story! Don't.

Research. Research. Research.

Some people even lack the capacity to learn about certain subjects. I'm not insulting anyone. This is true. Trust me on this one. If I was good at math, I might have the capacity to understand more about the accomplishments of Fields Medalists. I'm fascinated by the Fields Medal and would love to research Grigori Yakovlevich Perelman who declined the honor in 2006. But you don't want me writing a screenplay about Perelman. You know why? Because of Riemannian geometry and geometric topology. Perelman proved Thurston's geometrization conjecture and solved Poincaré conjecture, which is about the characterization of the three-dimensional sphere amongst three-dimensional manifolds.

And that's when my head exploded.

I lack the capacity. Seriously. Can't do it.

But, I can write about complex legislature, zoning regulations, ordinances, election codes, municipal laws, and stuff that would make some other heads explode. But not math. Never math.

Oh, and I like baseball.

So, what's the boy gonna do? Well, I figured by the way our conversation ended that he didn't have a clue what I was talking about. Then this morning, when my middle son was whining about how much he disliked studying for his SAT, the little guy retorted, "Yeah but when you're actually taking the test, it's not really gonna matter what you like, is it? All that matters is what you know."

Okay, not exactly the context I was going for, but the kid is smart.

He'll be just fine.

The seventeen year old, on the other hand, called him a "douche".

The meanie.


Unk said...

"Romance has never been my strongest suit."

Hmmm. Sounds like a quote to me... LOL.

Interesting post. It's good to know your limitations and then deal with them.


Suburban Screenwriter said...

Good post, MaryAn. I remember when I was a teenager and just getting into writing and being frustrated by that statement also...but I am a big fan of research too(even though sometimes that can detract you from the actual writing) This blog is becoming my fav--keep it up!

Moviequill said...

there is something very Freudian about that whole serpent thing...

E.C. Henry said...

Best post ever, Marry Ann, you really over did yourself on this one.

Fantasy ROCKS! You have way-way to limited a view on this realitively unexplored genre. Don't let your first grade foray into the genre spike your current abilities.

What is SO COOL about writing in a fantasy world is that you get to add in elemments that don't exist or aren't accented currently on Earth. Monsters can exist. Magic can exist. Different speices can exist. No limits, you just have to ground them in truth in a working construct so they are belivable.

Don't let anyone ever tell you what you can and cannot write. All you have to do is apply yourself and do the stories in your head justice. Everyone has instrinisic applitude towards comedy, romance, and serious stuff. What seperates the elite from the novice is simply a matter of DEDICTATION TO CRAFT.

Anyway, rockin' post, Marry Ann. Good work. Go treat yourself to an ice cold sasparilla.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Laura Deerfield said...

I was impressed when Terry Rossio told me how much research had gone into the original Pirates screenplay. About pirates, British naval law, and a LOT about ships.

It impressed me because, watching the movie, it doesn't jump out at you. There's never any unnecessary insertion of information to show off their knowledge, but then - there's never any intrusion where something just feels wrong, either.

I think you only get that kind of effect when you know a subject backwards and forwards and inside out - so that it just becomes part of the toolbox while writing the story.

That's not an easy level of knowledge to achieve - whether it's a subject, or a genre - but it is essential.

Rosie said...

This is such an excellent writing article though it thoroughly depresses me that you gotta know people in seventh grade now.

I really struggled with that whole write what you know thing for a's true, but mistated. You need to write what you are really interested in and committed to because you are going to be slogging away at it for a long time.