Mar 09 2009
In order to gain a greater understanding of professional writing as a career, I interviewed two writers of my acquaintance: Barak Goldman and Martine Leavitt.
Barak Goldman is a faculty professor in the Film and Television department at De Anza college. He’s worked as a Production Assistant for HBO’s The Chris Rock Show as well as written and produced television shows for Columbia-Tristar, Dish Network, The History Channel, and USA Network. He wrote two feature films for “A-list” talent. He has an MFA in Screenwriting from UCLA.
Martine Leavitt is a writer of children’s and young-adult novels. Her book Tom Finder won a Mr. Christie’s Book Award, Heck Superhero was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, and Keturah and Lord Death was a National Book Award finalist. She earned an MFA in writing for children from Vermont College and is currently teaching there as part of a low-residency program.
For brevity and an approachable tone, I will refer to them by their first names in the text.
How Not To Make A Living
Writing is a notoriously bad way to earn money. When I asked Martine if I could interview her about making a living as a writer, she responded, “I might not be your ideal candidate because I have never been able to support myself with the money I make from my fiction. I couldn’t have lived without this money, but I couldn’t have lived on it, either.”
Barak had heard some stark numbers from the scriptwriting industry:
As I remember hearing it, there are an estimated seventy thousand scripts written every year and only four hundred movies made. Yes, more scripts are bought than are made, but not many more… Of prospective writers, people with Hollywood aspirations who’ve written scripts, it’s something like half of one percent that are able to make their living from their writing.
New writers need day jobs, period. So I asked which ones would be good, and, more importantly, which ones would be terrible.
Barak thought any job in the movie or media industry, no matter how low-level, would be a good place for an aspiring writer to start. The only really bad day job he could think of would be as a professional boxer, “because you might bust up your hands too much to type, or take so many blows to the head you couldn’t think in complete sentences anymore.”
Martine loved her teaching job, and would recommend it to other writers. But she admitted that her low-residency adult education was a lot different than teaching elementary school every day, with the time and energy it takes to work with the kids in class, and prepare outside of class. While elementary school teaching might not be ideal, the day job she really worried about was… technical writing. “If you’ve been writing all day, probably the last thing you would want to do when you got home would be write more, wouldn’t it? You’d really have to be good about doing your novel writing before you went to work.”
As a technical editor, I certain feel some of what Martine is talking about, but it’s not as bad a situation as she fears, at least in my experience. Writing and editing technical materials for standardization and clarity is sufficiently different from inventing believable scenarios to try to explore deep subjects that I don’t feel as though I’m overworking the same part of my brain with both activities.
The Patient Craft
Barak believes the one screenwriting skill his students most undervalue is patience: the willingness to put in the time and effort it takes to bring an idea to completion. He’ll see students frantically typing their homework in the computer lab in the minutes before class and know they haven’t been putting in the hours that developing the craft really requires.
As a graduate of UCLA film school, Barak has taken to heart many of the principles and ideas espoused by well-known UCLA professors like Hal Ackerman and Richard Walter. Based on their teaching and his own understanding of the craft, he created a method of planning a screenplay. To plan a screenplay according to the method, a writer would begin by crafting a 37-word concept statement for the screenplay, called a logline, then a beat sheet, a few pages summarizing the main plot points, then a scene list, which identifies and briefly describes each of the 40-50 scenes that will make up the final screenplay. Barak advises aspiring writers to work and rework the story at each stage of this process, all before they type the first words of draft one.
Barak believes that after patience, the quality he most wishes for his students to acquire is self-confidence. I found this a doubly surprising pick: surprising first because it seemed a touchy-feely sort of problem for an advocate of such a hard-nosed craft method, and surprising again because I’d never thought new writers had a problem with confidence. Much to the contrary! To me the picture of the amateur is someone who submits a work to a movie house without knowing anything about what the house has produced, without having had anyone else review the script, and without having attended a writing class or read so much as a single craft book.
But Barak didn’t mean to advocate arrogance or false confidence; he summarized the problem thusly:
Lack of confidence leads students to get too caught up in perfectionism—they have to get everything right, so they can’t enjoy the process. Instead of plowing through the first draft, just getting it down and being satisfied to make it to the “Fade Out,” they get hung up trying to make everything just right, which leads to writer’s block and frustration.
Martine’s early process seems alike to Barak’s only in how long it takes. I asked her about the dreaded blank page: that moment when she first begins writing a new novel. Does she do intensive preparatory work, creating the novelistic equivalents of loglines, beat sheets, and scene lists? “Not at all,” she said, “For me, it’s almost as if the story is inside the pen and I have to write it down to see what it ends up being.” She estimated that it takes her about a hundred pages before she knows, and of those hundred pages, she saves about three or four and the rest go in the trash.
Even when I spoke with Martine and Barak about other topics, the need for patience and persistence came through in the subtext—for example, look for what they said about drafting when they were talking about manipulating character.
I asked Martine if she ever goes back and adjusts a character’s backstory—who the character is and what’s happened in the character’s life before the story begins—because the plotline she’s writing demands that the character act in a certain way. To some writers, this is taboo—as if manipulating one’s characters is as morally wrong as manipulating real people. Not Martine. She said without a moment’s hesitation that she manipulates characters, then clarified:
It’s a little paradoxical, isn’t it? In some ways it feels like you’re just channeling and this is a magical process, but in others, it’s very cut and dry. “That won’t do at all,” you think, “you can’t be like that.” You’ve got to honor the magic in the first draft, but be able to go back and do what the story demands in later drafts. The story reigns and the story wins every time.
Martine then estimated that as many as eleven of those “later drafts” might separate the first complete manuscript from the one that is ultimately published.
When I asked Barak the same question, he answered just as quickly: “Oh no, that’s way too manipulative.” Then he thought for a moment and went on: “No, what I do is I make a note of the problem, and then in later drafts I try to go through and change the character organically in the next draft.” His response was diametrically opposite to Martine’s, but after the explanation, it was almost the same: to develop good character and good story, you have to write draft after draft until they seem to work together “naturally.”
At least there’s a tangible reward for perseverance, however belated. After naming the 0.5% chance most aspiring screenwriters have of supporting themselves, Barak recalled a pamphlet he’d read a number of years before. “If I’d known then that I’d be a teacher,” he said, “I would have definitely saved it for my students.” It said that while an aspiring screenwriter has only something like a 0.3% chance of supporting him or herself from screenwriting, after two years the number rises modestly to 1-2%. And the number continues to rise, exponentially, until after 12-14 years, over 95% of the dedicated souls who are still at it can support themselves from their writing.
The Core of Story
They phrase is slightly differently, Martine calls it an “object of desire” where Barak calls it a “tangible goal,” but both believe the most important element of a story is a concrete objective that your hero will stop at nothing to obtain.
The clear goal is what drives the story forward. It’s the first thing that Barak looks for in the 37-word loglines written by students. It is the element of writing Martine will never herself forget about in her stories after seeing so many of her students struggle with it. Both are adamant that stories founder not just when the hero has no concrete objective at all, but when the hero loses sight of that objective for so much as a chapter or scene.
From this objective flow the other elements of the story. Between them, Barak and Martine described a progression that seemed to me almost like the falling of dominos. The hero wants something desperately, but cannot reach it, yet. According to Barak, the most satisfying reason for why the hero cannot reach the objective is usually his or her own flaws. Once you have the hero’s strengths and flaws, he went on, you will know what the antagonist (person, group, force of nature…) must be like. The antagonist will have strengths to match the hero’s flaws, and (smaller) flaws to match the hero’s strengths. Martine uses the object of desire to determine what obstacles to put in the way of her character. Her ultimate goal is to increase conflict, because “you learn about a characters as they face conflict. Just like with people—you may know a person for years, but you won’t really know them until they go through a crisis of some sort.”
The crisis for your hero, what Barak calls the “Rock Bottom,” will also be dictated by the concrete objective—it will be the point at which he or she seems to have failed utterly to achieve the objective. This low point will lead in a crescendo to the climax of the story: the point at which the hero confronts the antagonist and demonstrate the most he or she will sacrifice to achieve the concrete objective.
There are other important elements of the story—for example, Martine thinks her students vastly underestimate the importance of making the heroes lovable, so readers care about the hero’s struggle—but good stories are driven toward concrete objectives.
Why Would Anyone Do This?
A writer can look forward to becoming a picky and perpetually unsatisfied audience for the very books and movies he or she is trying to create. Both Martine and Barak said that as their craft has improved they’ve become so good at seeing the weaknesses in other work that they’re terribly hard to please. And that’s when they get a chance to read or watch. I asked Barak what Netflix plan a committed screenwriter would have—how many movies he or she should watch in a month—and he said, “Watch movies? You should be too busy writing to watch movies!” (He then admitted to having the same Netflix plan my wife and I have—the minimum plan of two movies per month.)
Writing is hard on a person’s family. Barak said he was much more a writing “sprinter” than “long-distance runner,” so when he was younger, he’d have some slow times, and then would work furiously night and day for weeks. Now that he’s married, he’s had to work with his wife to try to keep a more consistent schedule, something that takes a lot of effort to improve. As a married man to a married man, his ultimate advice to me was “It’s just tough.” As for Martine, she wrote her first novel when she had six young children in the house. (Six!) She found time by putting all of them in the bathtub together and writing while sitting on the toilet for an hour, until they all looked like little prunes.
So why, after all that, would a person write? Martine had the answer. She’d thought for a long time about what the least-appreciated writerly skill was, and after coming up with a number of very valuable ones, like discipline, she finally settled on love:
You have to love words and love the process, because sometimes you end up throwing the whole story away and that’s all you have. You also have to love the characters, and love this world—our world—the world you’re writing to. Books that endure have all these loves.