27 July 2013

Let Writing Freedom Wring--er, Ring!

As I rewrite the ending of my Steampunk Nightingale story for the seventh time (don't judge. James Thurber did it) I can't help thinking how lucky I am that I don't write screenplays.

This picture has absolutely nothing to do with the
content of this article, except a cute cat picture is
always good for an extra page view or two. And
a black cat that big is pretty much free to do
whatever he wants, of course. (Yes, he's ours. Or
we're his, depending on who you ask.)
What, you say, does that have to do with this month's theme of freedom?  Plenty.  Give me a minute, and I'll to explain, probably on my first go-round.  (I can do that with nonfiction.  Really.)

It all goes back to Save the Cat, Blake Snyder's 2005 scriptwriting guide.  As noted in the recent Slate article, "Save the Movie", Snyder's page-by-page, beat-by-beat recipe for a saleable script has become a religious icon in Hollywood circles, to the point where they even reconfigured the incidents and emphasis in the recent The Great Gatsby remake to conform with Snyder's structure.  Even Joseph Campbell's eff-ing Hero's Journey couldn't manage that, no matter how hard George Lucas tried.

There are a lot of well-intentioned writing instructors who tout Snyder's formula for all kinds of fiction. There are even folks who claim to have found an analogue for commercial fiction (I'm looking at you, Donald Maass).  But the thing is, as useful as any or all of these would-be bibles can be, when it comes to writing and selling your writing, they can't cover all the contingencies.

Which isn't to say editors don't prefer to work from a limited number of templates. Big Publishing has always had a vested interest in formula. Publishers exist to make money, after all. If they could figure out a formula that would sell as reliably Coca Cola (or Pepsi--sheesh! You people a so picky!) they'd buy it in a heartbeat and spend the remainder of human history injecting it into a succession of slowly evolving covers and formats.

But with all their knowledge of structure, form, branding, platform and target markets, the majority of published titles wither on the bookstore or electronic equivalent of the vine. There might, in fact, be three inviolable rules in writing, but nobody knows what they are. 

The next big thing always comes out of nowhere, and always demonstrates--Again!--that structure and technique don't matter beans if a story touches a nerve. That ability to touch the reader (and inspire fervent hand-selling in one's friends) is the constant that unites such "unlikely" bestsellers as Hunt for the Red October, Twilight, and 50 Shades of Gray.

And there are always more where those came from, because--unlike a Hollywood movie, which is always a multi-million dollar production--writing is cheap. Thanks to the Internet and the explosion of indie publishing, all you need to join the party is a keyboard, an Internet connection, a great story, and a lot of luck.  It's the lowest risk creative investment there is.

This is freedom.  I don't have to structure my story around the Male Hero's Journey in fifteen beats, with a statement of theme from a dissatisfied superior on p. 30.  I don't have to write about the superhero flavor of the hour.  The story doesn't have to turn into a kinderschool teaching moment. I can write about women or collective heroes.  I can write about obscure historical periods and the kind of aliens even a mother couldn't love. I can send a dragon to a conference on magic piracy, and have a siren sing about strudel. My stories can be about anything in any format, as long as they work.

And have an ending. 

Back to the keyboard.

Jean Marie Ward
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