What to Write?
Should I write that? Markets.
I encourage people to write. It's the only way to discover if you have the talent, patience, and endurance to put together a major project, and the discipline to go back and rewrite it so that it's something an audience will enjoy. Most writers write because they have to, not because they see an opportunity. Positive feedback helps, but writers get very little of it. Writing sometimes is a profession, most often a pursuit, and rarely a hobby.
I don't set people up to fail. Writing, publishing, and making movies are very tough businesses, and very few succeed. It's tough to be in a meeting and have people bemoaning the fact that they haven't gotten published after years of trying, and some literally crying... and along the way, many giving up in frustration. You should start out writing about something you are interested in and passionate about. That's likely the only thing you will finish and that will represent you well. You probably should never take on projects that you have no interest in. Notice that I used an "ly" word, "probably." There are no absolutes.
The most often overlooked part of writing is, "Is there a market for my creation?" After that first passionate book is out of the way, if you are a serious writer, you have to look at the business of writing, or you are setting yourself up to fail again and again. The market for your book or movie is one of the first things a potential publisher or script agent will look at, and will always want to know where you see your creation fitting in the marketplace and with your other offerings, with the question, "How is your book or script different than all the others?"
"Different" is called product differentiation. It implies that there is an existing good market for this type of work, and it asks how your work provides something different and therefore attractive to an audience. Audiences don't want repeats of something that has been a best seller. They want "unique." If you wait until your bombshell is finished before exploring that question, you have already lost.
"But wait, wait, wait," the wizard next door wails, "You should only write what interests you. Otherwise you fall into the trap of being a writing hack, a market slut pandering to the market, and never respecting yourself or liking your writing career." And yes, you should write what interests you. But that doesn't mean excluding your audience from consideration. Serious consideration. Without an audience, you are shouting into empty space. I explain it this way. It's like set theory in mathematics, but you don't have to be a mathematician to picture this. There is a set of topics or characters that you enjoy writing about. There is a set of topics or characters that audiences like. Where these two sets overlap is your sweet spot. If you're going to sell, it's probably in this overlap.
Before looking at marketing, I have to say, I recommend self-publishing (for books, not movie scripts). I read some self-published writers. In the corporate publishing world, the competition at the top for those few cherished positions held by best selling authors, and those promoted by bookstores, is intense and very hard to crack. This doesn't mean you shouldn't try them - please do. But here is publishing reality. Don't take rejection as a comment on your work - it's a comment on that publisher's or producer's take on the market for your work, and how it fits in their catalog. If you do get published (which is amazing and congratulations), the first run is usually around 5000 books, not advertised, and if the books don't catch on (sell) the book drops from publication. However, if you self-publish and self-advertise and build up a strong, sizeable following, you have more leverage in the corporate publishing world, or with producers.
Assuming you have finished that first wonder that you were very passionate about, how do you determine what to write next? Maybe you are full of ideas - pick a favorite, and then do some market research. If not, I'll explain more down the page. But let's understand market research.
When you look for a book or movie, do you randomly pick one and start reading? Or do you look for a specific genre(s), and start reading. Well, that's really telling about your book or movie script in front of your audience. We are all very selective. Something about what we pick has to stand out above the hundreds to thousands of other selections. That is where the story begins.
A few tech companies reinvent the wheel. It's costly. It's very risky. Most products in any industry build on an established group of products that address customer needs. This means you look for genres or best sellers as a guide to what kind of movies or books are popular among audiences. If you choose to write in a niche market, that's a very small market.
Don't just look to see what types are best sellers. Look at how much money they bring in. For movies, look at how much they cost to make. For books, look at length. A 125,000 word novella is much different than a 500,000 word novel, both to make and to sell. A 90 minute screenplay works for some genres, and 120 works best for others.
Exceed those standard amounts for those genres, and the cost of creating them and audience interest will bomb out. Comedy, action, horror, and romantic comedies have 90 minute movie audiences. First novels should be in the 150,000 word range (check online for the range). There are standards in any industry for a reason. Look for them and don't try to be an exception, because exceptions present unacceptable risks. For example, movies may run a million dollars a minute - going over the 90 or 120 minute mark costs much.
In self publishing, start small and try to gauge the size of your potential audience. Advertising is essential or you get nothing. One of my series, similar to SNL, bombed. It was relatively inexpensive to shoot, so I took a chance and didn't do enough market research to know that sketch comedy is dead. Based on SNL and Comedy Central, it looked like it was booming. Wrong! On Too Stupid to Live, much more promising audience. So be thorough.
Know the life cycles of programs and audience interest. Nothing goes on forever. The vampire craze still has a dedicated audience, but it's dying. Cracking that market will be especially tough. Zombies still attract, but probably because nothing new has come up, so writers continue developing that myth. Maybe there is room there, but doubtful. By the time you write a book or a movie and go through the process of getting it accepted or optioned, the craze is likely to be on the waning side and you're going nowhere.
Look for market saturation. When there are too many players in a market, no one can succeed. And in reality, you won't be able to squeeze in. Look and see how much these books or movies are making, and ask yourself, is there room there? Keep in mind that many markets, like intrigue, are small markets.
The biggest thing you need to address, I've already mentioned. "Different." "Uniqueness." This is not a "me too" book or movie that is on the $1.00 shelf at the supermarket. Make sure your creation is able to stick up above all of the others, and that the quality is there.
Where do ideas come from?
There is no instant answer. Sometimes people are full of them. I have six series in various phases of development. I'll tell you about my own experience.
For me, sometimes there is inspiration and an idea I just have to write. But usually it isn't so much inspiration, but a slow gathering of interesting ideas and facts over a period of time. At some point a kernel of an idea emerges, some of that collection of facts coalesce around it, and I bring these various ideas and facts into the story. One story involving a psychiatrist took longer to research than to write, and I already knew half of the facts. The medical research was fun and made the story.
There are certain types of fiction that I enjoy. If I feel I have a unique and interesting slant on it, I write it.
There are certain nonfiction topics I'm interested in. If I feel I have a unique and interesting perspective, I write it. It is less a voyage of exploration than revealing part of it.
In fiction, the characters are most important. So I create a character set which I think will create a clash of ideas and purpose, and engage an audience as well.
On this Visual Writer Web site, you can find all of the information you need to guide you, from beginning writer, to professionals who want to improve. For screenwriters, you can also find information on screenwriting on MSP Insider, on my Movie Stream Productions Web site.
- Dorian Scott Cole
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