April 14, 2020
by Maggie Smith
Six Things I’ve Learned About Writing While Binge-Watching Reality TV
We writers, along with everyone else, are hunkered down at home with time on our hands and yet many of us are finding it difficult to put words to paper. Instead we're hauling out puzzles, posting pet videos, and inventing recipes based on whatever we have in the fridge. Me? I’m shamelessly binge-watching shows that highlight creative types, from Netflix’s Abstract: The Art of Design and Next in Fashion to BBC’s The Great British Bake-Off. And last week, as I watched Amazon Prime’s new show called Making the Cut (a reinvented Project Runway) I realized this fashion design competition not only provided respite from the lockdown but also had lessons to teach me about writing. So maybe you’d rather clean all the toilets in the house than watch ten hours of contestants making clothes you’d never wear, in which case I'd suggest you find an online therapist to Zoom with, but if not, here's what you can learn about writing from reality TV:
- Everyone Has a Unique Voice
Making the Cut begins in New York, moves to Paris, and then relocates again to Tokyo. Each hour begins with the contestants walking the streets, seeking inspiration in the architecture, objects, and people they observe. They grab their sketch books and scribble down visual ideas that inspire their later designs. And here’s the thing: each of them sees something different even though the location is the same. That’s true of writers as well. One person sees the breakup of a marriage as a tragic story; another sees it as a chance for a person to grow and change. One writer delights in creating rich fantasy worlds while another sees drama in everyday life on a farm. Inspiration is all around us but how each of us uses that stimuli reflects our own unique vision. Embrace that difference and stay true to your aesthetic.
- Develop a Strong Concept Before Plunging In
Once the designers return to the workroom, they spend time thinking through what they want to create, given that week’s assignment (Haute-Couture, streetwear, recycled fabrics, etc). Some jump right in with their first idea, while others spend time thinking through their designs. As writers, we need to keep in mind how all the work that comes later will not compensate for a less-than-compelling story. If we rush in before we have a solid hook and at least a viable central character, we can spend months, even years, on a novel that simply does not have a strong enough thru-line to interest a publisher or ultimately, a reader. Art Holcomb, writing guru, says he spends 75% of his time thinking through the core idea before writing a single word. You can’t fancy up a less-than-compelling narrative. Take the time to create a solid concept.
- A Knowledge of Craft is Still Essential
Inevitably one designer on Making the Cut lacks basic knowledge – they’ve never cut leather, or designed evening wear, or (weirdly) don’t know how to sew. Whatever it is, it hurts their chances because they are competing with others who have those skills. Writers who read books by writing experts, absorb advice from how-to-videos, and participate in critique workshops have a leg-up over those who think that’s all a waste of time (and by the way, this lockdown is a golden opportunity to learn more). At the very least, you need a foundational knowledge of characterization, pacing, word choice, sentence structure, grammar, setting, and dialogue if you’re going to succeed. Yes, writing is an art form, but it’s also a craft. Learn your craft.
- Time management Can Make or Break You
In every segment, there’s a designer who simply doesn’t plan out how long their design will take to execute, and winds up cutting corners, making do, and sending a shoddy product out on the runway in the hope no one will notice. Spoiler: they always do. As writers, we often have deadlines we need to meet—either for agents, editors, or contests. The ability to plan our time wisely is crucial if we want to present our best work. Everyone has their own preferred way to manage their time. Find what works best for you and use it. And always leave plenty of time for revision.
- Pay Attention to Wise Mentors
On Making the Cut, Tim Gunn is the elder statesman, the gentle guru, the source of both tough love and praise. He’ll steer a designer away from a design or a fabric he knows will not read well on the runway, but he’ll also push them to break out of their comfort zone and try new ideas. Those contestants who absorb his advice inevitably do better in the judging. Likewise, most writers have someone they trust to read their WIP, to give wise counsel, to “tell it like it is”, whether it’s a critique partner, a paid editor, or a buddy-exchange colleague. These folks will point out things you’ve missed and help you polish your manuscript before you send it out into the world. Listen to them.
- Learning How to Respond Well to Feedback is Part of the Job
Every two days, the designers go before a panel which includes the host Heidi Klum, Nicole Ritchie, Naomi Campbell and Joseph Altuzarra. They hear the judges’ reactions to the looks they’ve created, both positive and negative, and one or more of them is eliminated from the competition. Each person handles the feedback differently. Some are receptive and appreciative, others argumentative and stubborn, which makes them feel better (“I have to stay true to my brand”) but never wins them points. Sooner or later writers also go out in the wide world and offer up their creative work to agents, publishers, editors, and readers. Those who can listen to what they hear and learn from it will inevitably succeed better than those with a thin skin.
Oh, and one last thing, the winner of the Making the Cut competition walks away with one million dollars to invest in growing their brand.
That, my fellow writers, is what we mean by stakes.
Maggie Smith’s debut novel, TRUTH AND OTHER LIES, will be published in Spring, 2021 by Filles-Vertes Press. Set in contemporary Chicago, it’s the story of a young investigative reporter faced with an impossible choice—if she saves her famous mentor’s reputation, she’ll destroy her own mother’s political career. Maggie’s first short story, THE DEVIL YOU KNOW, appeared in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s 2018 anthology False Faces and she hosts the podcast Hear Us Roar, where she interviews debut women novelists. Learn more at at www.maggiesmithwriter.com.
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