The Goal of Writing

Many people will tell you the goal of writing is to tell a story. Preferably a good story. And bonus points if you tell it well.

Those people are wrong.

The goal of writing is to take a picture from the writer’s mind and put it in the minds of others. It’s done with words, but the picture is the goal.

In a sense, every writer is a cinematographer. Every writer wants to make you see what s/he sees. Artists do it with paint, photographers with cameras (used to be film, but no more), writers with words. A picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps, but what’s lovely about using words instead of paint or film is the fluidity. A painting or photograph is static, even when it gives the impression of movement. But words are always in motion. And no two people will visualize the exact same thing, not until that book becomes a movie anyway.

So if the goal of writing is to take a picture from the writer’s mind and put it in the mind of the reader . . . And yet the reader will never be able to see it exactly as the writer does . . . Doesn’t that mean all writing is a failure? Maybe. But it’s wonderfully freeing to know, as a writer, that there is no exactly right way to do your job. Only that some ways are better than others. And it’s freeing for the reader, too, to know there is no right way to do his or her job, either. (Unless you’re reading for English Lit class and your instructor has very definite ideas about things. But that’s something else again.)

At the end of the day, a writer should be trying to make himself or herself clear to the reader. If I’m picturing two people at a restaurant, it’s easy to say that much. But now everyone is picturing two random people in various types of restaurants: Is it upscale? A dive? Is it day or night? Two men? A man and a woman? Two women? Are they friends, lovers, enemies, coworkers?

When writing a script, each scene begins with a “slug” that tells the director (and location scouts, and art department, etc.) where and when the characters are. For example:


When writing prose, you can’t start every scene this way; it would be silly. But you should start with it in mind so that the reader knows where s/he is and what s/he’s looking at.

In a script, if it is the first time you’ve seen a location, there will be a description. Not too detailed—broad strokes except when something is important to the plot. What does David’s bedroom look like?

Remarkably tidy room, blank walls; looks unused, impersonal as a hotel room except for the stack of library books on the floor beside the bed.

That’s how I might write it as part of a script; in prose, I would naturally not pare it down quite so much. But that little bit already says a lot about David, doesn’t it? Readers (or viewers) suddenly know more about him in that brief bit of description than any amount of dialogue might have conveyed. (And the director, the actor, the art department all know more, too.)

Because prose changes locations without a transitioning camera, it’s even more important to make it clear to a reader where the characters are, what they are passing through. The reader can’t see it if you don’t put it on the page. And with nothing to “look” at, the reader becomes lost in a kind of void. I read a story recently that had people in a car, then in a restaurant, then going on to another location. Back in the car, I assumed, though it wasn’t clear. And when at one point a character went to set something down, I found myself thinking: Setting it down where? Where are they? I was lost. I was not seeing the picture the writer was trying to paint for me.

Every writer uses words to paint pictures. Poets, novelists, screenwriters, playwrights. In the cases of screenwriters and playwrights, the goal is to have those pictures made real, either on stage or screen. (At that point, like a painting or photograph, the screen version becomes static and definitive. The stage, however, remains fluid, as there can be many interpretations of the material, and even differences within the same production from night to night.) Admittedly, novelists may wish to have movies made of their books as well. But first things first: you have to paint a picture for your readers. You have to make them see it. When they can see it, they can feel it, they can connect. And that is the goal.

Making It Look Easy

I was teaching my kids to jig. Kind of. We were listening to Christmas music, and “Christmas in Killarney” came on, so I started to jig, and the kids tried to follow. I attempted to show them a few steps, to mixed results. Frustrated, my seven-year-old son shouted, “You make it look easy! No fair!”

Well, yes, fair. I’ve been dancing for years and years. Lots and lots of practice. That’s what’s required in making something “look easy.”

It’s the same with writing. When it’s read, the work should not be a chore. (Unless it’s a Russian novel.) It should “look easy.” But good writers take years to hone that work and their voice and craft . . . And no matter how practiced one becomes, there are always new steps to learn. If you’re willing to take the time to learn them, that is. Only you can decide whether it’s worth it—to you—to invest the effort.

What did they decide after all that research? That it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get really good at something?

After the jig bit, I tried something less cardio-intensive to cool down. (No matter how easy it looks, it’s still hard work.) “Mele Kalikimaka” came on and I taught the kids to hula. After all, not all styles are right for all people. Not in dance, not in words, and not in life.

Things Marti Noxon and I Have in Common

Today at the Austin Film Festival I attended a panel titled “A Conversation with Marti Noxon.” (The “Conversation” panels are really just a way to get a scoop on and pick the brains of various members of the industry.) I learned that Noxon and I have a lot in common, including but not necessarily limited to:

  • A mother who has gone through a “religious” experience
  • A love of Steven Spielberg’s work
  • Having come to screenwriting due to the fact that it was cheaper than trying to make a student film
  • An enjoyment of psychological horror but a gore threshold that doesn’t allow us to watch many horror films except through our fingers

I would like to think I could have as solid a career as Noxon one day, but she had the dumb luck of getting discovered while waitressing, and I don’t really intend to move to L.A. and waitress in the hopes of encountering someone who will take me on as an underling. Maybe that shows a lack of effort on my part, a lack of willingness to put it “all in” and suck it up or something. I mean, I got this really great feedback on my script, so I’m here at this festival to answer the age-old question: Now what? So far I’ve heard a lot of stories about how people got to where they are, but none of this really pertains to me. And of course I’ve heard a lot of “don’t give up” and “keep writing” and talk about perseverance, but I have this feeling real writers don’t need to be told to keep writing. A real writer can’t stop himself (or herself) from writing. Even when the writing is shit, you just sort of have to have that in you to begin with. So what we need is to learn what to do with the writing once we’re done with it. That’s what I want to know. But so far no one has addressed this.

Well, I’ve got a couple more days here, so I’ll see what I can find out. Maybe someone here would be interested in “discovering” me; after all, I could be the next Marti Noxon.


Head over to Christine Rains’s blog for an interview with me + a freebie!

I should add that I originally conceived of “St. Peter in Chains” as a stage play but wrote it in novella form first, then adapted a stage version and a screenplay. I was told by a couple theatre directors that it would be difficult to do on stage but might be ideal for film.

It’s funny, but I do find it easier (faster, really) to write in prose and then adapt to other media. Sitting down to write something flat out as a screenplay is more difficult for me, though I have done and can do it. For stage work, I can go either way. My reasons for doing “St. Peter” in prose first was to work through Peter’s range of emotions so I’d be able to give the actors enough to work with later.

I don’t direct in my writing. Some directors love that, and some hate it, and some are just confused by it. But we were taught in screenwriting class not to call the shots—literally. That’s the director’s job, and later the editor’s job: to make it look right in the end. As a screenwriter (and playwright), I feel it’s my job to tell a good story, and to give the actors/characters enough material to make it work. So I guess I do direct the actors in a subversive way, though I only dictate actions that are key to the plot; mostly my goal is to give them a toolbox of emotions and motivations to help them build and understand their characters.

The result is I sometimes (often, actually) get actors who are very excited by my scripts and directors who have a lot of questions about “how [I] picture” this or that, what I was seeing as I was writing, I suppose. But as a screenwriter it isn’t only my vision that counts, I don’t think, and if I’ve written something well enough, a good director will have a vision of his own as he reads the script. Though I always appreciate collaboration.

More on “St. Peter in Chains” & some K-Pro

Fellow writer Christine Rains will be posting her review of “St. Peter in Chains” on her site on Tuesday. The following Monday, July 9, she’ll publish an interview with yours truly. Thanks, Christine, for the awesome hospitality!

Now to focus on The K-Pro. I’ve given myself a deadline of July 31 to finish the draft. I’m not sure yet how realistic that actually is since lately I’ve felt kind of flat when it comes to writing, but I’m sure as hell gonna try. I sometimes forget that a draft is just that: a draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It won’t be. But if I want to try Camp NaNo in August, I need The K-Pro to be done first.

Quiet & Imagine

I recently read (and have mentioned here) Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. And now I’m reading Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works. I find them to be a good double billing for those interested in these kinds of subjects. Having studied psychology (and particularly fan psychology, but I find people and the ways they act and think fascinating in general), I am interested in these sorts of studies—and anyway, I sometimes need a break from the fiction I typically read (and write).

What’s especially thought provoking is how Cain and Lehrer use the same kinds of situations and examples to their own purposes, which are not at all opposed—the two authors are looking at two different aspects of personality, but these aspects happen to intersect in a way that causes the authors to cite similar material. And so, reading the books back to back as I have done, these things stand out. Cain uses Steve Wozniak and the Homebrew Computer Club to showcase Woz as an introvert; Lehrer uses the same to point out how cross-pollination of ideas aids in creativity.

Even something as simple as color can be looked at from both angles: extroverts are more drawn to red, which seems to echo and fuel their high levels of energy, while introverts like blue, which they find calming and soothing. Cain points out that extroverts look for stimulation; introverts often feel overstimulated and so search for pockets of quiet. Meanwhile, Lehrer shows how red backgrounds in studies cause people to focus more in a convergent thinking kind of way, while blue backgrounds aided divergent forms of thinking and free association.

It’s no surprise that extroverts and introverts are both creative and in different ways, which is what I take away from reading these two books and mentally compiling the data provided. Lehrer discusses the general idea that many artists turn toward focus-enhancing drugs (Benzedrine, Adderall). If we consider that many such personalities are likely to be introverts, and that they are perhaps given to head-in-the-clouds modes of thought, then when they’ve finally come up with that great idea for a story or poem or song, it makes a little bit of sense that they would then need something to help them zero in and do the job. Meanwhile, an extrovert might turn to a little marijuana to help him loosen up and free-associate more, allowing him to come up with new ideas.

Lehrer points out that creativity is something that can require the right mix of insiders and outsiders; that is, people with a lot of experience in a field and people with only a surface understanding of it. And Cain discusses the careful balance of extroverts to introverts in interactions and how offices should utilize both sets of skills and talents and personality types. Somewhere in this mix, then, is surely a solid equation for the perfect storm of talent, creativity and ability: the right number of extroverts tempered by the right number of introverts, the right number of experts balanced by the right number of newcomers, and the key method for using them all to their fullest potential (time alone to think and come up with ideas + cross-pollination of those ideas + teamwork/experts + newcomers = ???). It’s a tall order—more math than I’m willing to do—but find someone who can and will do it, and you’d have the formula for the perfect workplace.

As a writer, I spend a lot of my time alone, chasing ideas around my own head. And then when I find one, I have to sit down and focus long enough to get it written, edited, &c. All the mechanical bits of my trade. (I’m a writer who doesn’t use Benzedrine or Adderall, just lots of soda and chocolate.) I have to balance this with networking and attending functions, which I usually enjoy but have a difficult time getting excited about because of my painful shyness; a room full of writers is often a room full of people looking sullen and standing around the outskirts, at least until one of them has had enough to drink. Lucky for me I work a bit in theatre, so all the drama types will do the work. And, as pointed out by Cain, even introverts can have meaningful conversations once they open up, but there is a long warm-up period, and as a rule we’re terrible at small talk. In the end, I almost always end up having a good time once I find one or two people to talk to. I only want and need those one or two, though. Then I’m satisfied. More than that and I get tapped out pretty quick.

But as Lehrer explains, these networking events are very important, not only for making those connections, but for stimulating creativity via the cross-pollination method.

To summarize, these two books work together to make one very interesting read. They more or less dovetail into one another and give one a lot to think about.

As if I didn’t have enough to think about already.

Building Character

“What made you decide to make him gay?”


It took me a minute to understand the question, which was a minute longer than it should have taken, but I sometimes forget not everyone is a writer, and those who aren’t sometimes have strange ideas about how writing is done.

“I didn’t build him out of LEGOs or anything,” I said. “I don’t create characters by using a blueprint. Maybe some writers do, but I don’t.

“For me, creating a character is like meeting someone new. They’re already who they are, complete. They might be blond, they might be short, and they might be gay.

“Peter Stoller is gay because he’s gay. I didn’t ‘decide’ it. That’s just how he is.”

Open the Channel

I’ve done a few little Tarot readings—and I’m crap at reading cards, I have to use a host of resources to try and work it all out—but several of them have come up lately with this . . . I don’t know, what do readings do? Suggest? Intimate? Declare? . . . Anyway, the long and short has been that I’m somehow designed to take information from the ether and translate it for the masses. Like Moses on the Mount, I suppose. “Prophet” has come up in a few interpretations, and talk of my having “access to the Divine.”

Well, I don’t take any of that too seriously, but it does make me think of my writing. Which isn’t prophetic by any stretch, but I have noticed I have two distinct modes when writing: active, conscious effort and a sort of “other” mode. And when I’m in the other mode, it’s almost like automatic writing or something, except that I don’t feel possessed at all, I’m just tapping into something, like a jet stream of inspiration. Maybe that’s what people mean when they talk about their muses, but for me it’s more like an idiot savantism.

I wrote a poem in college (don’t know why I bothered to take poetry writing; I can write anything but poetry), and when my instructor handed it back, she’d written this note on it: “Wherever you got this, go back for more.” And I thought, If I could, I would, Sister. But the thing about these flashes or whatever . . . They’re like rides, but they can’t ever be scheduled, and most of the time I never remember them later. I wait at the station for the train. Sometimes I force the issue and jump on any ol’ train but I don’t go anywhere interesting. But when the right train comes along . . . At the end, I’m back home and can’t recall anything about the trip, but I’ve got a bunch of written work as a souvenir. That poem the instructor liked so much? I have this vague memory of being at a friend’s house when I wrote it. And most of the time after having written something like that—something that came from “out there”—I can’t even remember that much about where or when it was written. It’s like I wake up and find it and wonder where it came from.

Of course, the same thing happens to me when I’m on stage. I can’t remember any performance, and so I always feel bad when people come congratulate and thank me after a show.

Maybe I have a disorder. I probably have several, actually.

There hasn’t been much by way of inspiration lately. No trains at the station. So I’m doing it the old-fashioned way, which is to bully my way through the writing I’m trying to get done. Else nothing gets done at all.

M & Mr. King

Neil Gaiman has posted the raw draft of an interview he did of Stephen King, the polished version of which appeared in UK Sunday Times a few weeks ago (while I was in London, in fact, though I never picked up a copy, so I’m glad Neil posted this).

Which gives me, in turn, the perfect excuse to write about the time I encountered Mr. King in the Borders at Downtown Crossing in Boston, back when there was a Borders in Downtown Crossing, or anywhere for that matter. I think it was a game day (that’s the Red Sox for those not in the know), which would explain why “Uncle Stevie” was in town. I was just browsing; we lived on Beacon Hill and haunted Downtown Crossing when we had nothing better to do. The place was pretty empty. I spotted Mr. King in the stacks—he was taller than I expected, though then again, I really didn’t expect to see him in person, like, ever, much less in the Borders—and, after catching his eye, gave him the universal “Are you . . .?” questioning look. He gave me a little nod, which might’ve been resignation, and I left him alone. Maybe because he was really tall (though not as tall as my grandfather, but nearly), but I like to tell myself I did it because I’m not the kind of person who goes around bothering people in bookstores. Even if they are, themselves, famous authors.

Go read the interview in any case. I agree with King that I “find” my stories, and that often, as I’m writing them, they start to fit together in ways I never imagined at the outset. I’m excavating, discovering, as much as my readers do. Maybe that’s craft, but I don’t try to put any label on it. I take it like I would take a gift and thank whatever is in the cosmos handing it to me.

Also like King, I’m not happy if I don’t write. If I go a couple days without writing, not only do I suffer for it, but everyone around me does, too. I’m not pleasant to be around if I haven’t been allowed to release that pressure.

I’ll never be as prolific as King, and horror isn’t my genre, either . . . I like to read his books, though. I remember sneaking them off my father’s bookshelf, slipping a similar-sized book into the space. But my dad is no fool, and he keeps his shelves neat and alphabetized; he worked out pretty quickly that something wasn’t right. And then said to me: “Just don’t let your mother find out you’re reading that stuff.”

On a good day, I’ll get the six pages King writes about. Some days I’m struggling just for three. I try to make three my minimum, but the point is to write a little every day, no matter how little.

Lastly, I share King’s fondness for John D. McDonald. And that one is courtesy of my mother, who introduced me to Travis McGee after I’d exhausted the public library’s stash of Agatha Christie.

It’s childish, though, to compare, and ridiculous too. King is, well, King. And I’m just me. But I’ll keep writing anyway. If only to spare my family.

Balancing Work and Play

I’ve developed a kind of schedule for my writing while I’m here in London. I get up and work in the mornings, then—just as my laptop is crying to be recharged—I go out and do a little something before holing up again in the afternoon/evenings. This will work on most days, though I do have a few days (the 4th, 5th and 7th) where I have evening plans. On those days I’ll work all day (as much as the laptop will allow; there are no outlets, you see, near the table where I’m writing, and nowhere to sit near any of the outlets) and then go out in the evenings.

Yesterday I wandered down to the London Eye. I’ve been to London so many times but had never bothered with the Eye except to walk past it. So this time, the line not being long at all, I did get on for a go. ::shrug:: It was nothing special. I actually think it would be better and more impressive at night. I’d consider trying it again then.

I bought an ice cream cone from a young man in a truck who kept calling me “darling.” Boy couldn’t have been old enough for university, but there he was: “What can I get for you, darling?” And when I told him to keep the change: “Are you sure, darling?” It was too cute. Made my day. But by then it was also 5:00 and there was no way I was going to get on the tube on a Friday at 5:00. So, having walked there to begin with, I walked back, stopping at Whitehall Gardens to finish my ice cream while sitting on a bench.

Today’s outing was to Covent Garden. I’d never been to the market there. I ended up buying three etchings by a local artist. Scott and I have this tendency to buy “travel” art, which is to say we end up with paintings and pictures of places. We have two Krasnyanskys, one of Venice and one of Prague, and then a couple of pieces of art from Savannah depicting some of the lovely squares there that we bought at a gallery while visiting that fine city. So these from London will fit in nicely. I also had an Asian artist write each of the children’s names in Chinese calligraphy so we could hang those in their rooms in our new house.

Took the tube as far as Green Park after that because the Victoria Line is closed this weekend but I’m very used to the walk from Green Park to Victoria Station. Stopped at the station for some lunch; I hazarded on a burrito, though I had my doubts. But it was surprisingly good. And when I came back to the flat, I found Scott had sent some flowers to help brighten my workspace. I now have a big pot of daffodils to cheer me on as I work.

Which, incidentally, is what I’m off to do next.