Monday, November 25, 2013

What Project Runway Taught Me About Writing

My husband and I have been on a Project Runway binge lately (we've only just finished season 8 so NO SPOILERS!!!). A few days ago, I joked on Twitter that I was going to do a post on all the lessons I've learned about writing while watching the show. Things like "When someone tells you they hate your book/look, don't argue, just quietly hate them." (Seriously, Gretchen, SHUT UP. You are only digging that hole deeper when you argue with the judges!) or "Make separates and accessorize. The designer/writer who makes the same cocktail dress/book every time always goes home early."

Anyway, the whole thing started as just an excuse to make Project Runway jokes on Twitter, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wasn't actually joking...

At its heart, Project Runway is a show about being creative under pressure. It's about putting your work and yourself out there to be judged, often harshly, by a jaded and fickle industry famous for chasing trends. It's about staying true to your artistic vision even when other people hate it, because if you change your style to try and please everyone, all you end up with is boring. It's about balancing art with commercialism, drama with practicality, structure and craftsmanship with time limits, all while staying within the constraints of a tightly defined medium...

Sound like anything else I talk about on this blog?

The parallels between writing and designing are by no means perfect, but the ones that do exist are pointed enough that I feel justified in making an entire post on the subject. Please note that while I won't be referencing specific events in the show, I will be assuming at least a basic understanding of Project Runway and reality TV elimination shows. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, the Wikipedia article on the show has a great breakdown of the basic format. You can also watch several seasons for free at Lifetime. Note that I am not being compensated by Project Runway or Lifetime in any way for this post or these links. I just really freaking love this glorious, redonk, catty circus of a show.

You tell it like it is, Heidi.

Anyway, now that's out of the way, on with the post!

Art vs Commercialism, or, "You Have to be True to Yourself as a Designer"
The more I think about this topic, the more excited I get, and not just because it gives me an excuse to post pictures of Tim Gunn (though that was a definite bonus). See, as I've done my yearly "Ask an Author" thread on the NaNoWriMo forums, one of the themes I run into again and again is this idea of "What should I do to sell my book?" This question manifests in many forms, from the ever popular agent questions to "I notice there's a lot of X out there, can I write Y and still get published?" to questions about how long a novel should be in order to be acceptable to publishers. My answer to these questions is always the same: keep the restrictions in mind, but always stay true to your story and your vision. And every time I say I say this, I hear Tim Gunn in my head saying "you have to trust your instincts and be true to yourself as a designer."

I know this all sounds a little cheesy, but work with me here. On Project Runway, the ultimate goal, the Holy Grail, is an outfit that is creative and beautiful, but still wearable. A dress you can't walk in is useless, but a dress that's too plain is boring (which is the kiss of death on Project Runway). The judges always go crazy over the outfit that is wearable, but still interesting. Something that is exciting and sexy and beautiful without being costume-y or overwrought. They want something that will make them go "Wow!" but can still be sold at a department store.

This delicate balance between creativity and commercialism is also at the heart of publishing. Publishers and readers are constantly looking for the next new thing. They want a story that knocks their socks off and shows them something they haven't seen before, but at the same time it can't be too far out there. The book still has to be readable, and it has to be something that can be summed up in a 150 word blurb and make people want to buy it. Bonus points if the story's on trend for what's hot in reading right now, but it can't be too trendy or it will seem old hat before it's even published.

Just as the designers on Project Runway are scrambling to meet this seemingly impossible standard, so are writers struggling to balance their own creative vision with the needs of the modern publishing world. Even people who self publish have to meet reader expectations. Books that are too weird might be extremely creative, but readers and publishers will often pass over them because they're too strange to be taken seriously. Does this mean the book is bad? No, it simply means it's not publishable, which isn't the same thing at all.

It is perfectly possible to have a fantastic, non-commercially viable book just as it is perfectly possible to make a gorgeous dress that is a work of art and yet will never be mass produced or available for sale. But publishing, just like Project Runway, isn't about art. Or, at least, it's not wholly about art. It's not a show for making dresses that will sit on mannequins in a showroom. It's about who can make the best, most interesting clothes that could potentially be sold to real women.

By the same turn, whether you're going through a traditional house or doing everything yourself, commercial publishing is about writing books people want to buy and read. This is why it's so important to know what you want from your writing career. If you want to be an artist first, then commit to that. Accept that your vision comes before sales, and don't get upset when you're not commercially successful. If you want to be a bestseller, same story. You need to commit to your decision and focus on how to make the biggest, most interesting splash while still playing within the tightly defined rules of your genre. And if you want to be both (which is what I and I think the vast majority of authors really want) then you need to commit to learning how to balance art and commercialism.

I'm not saying this is easy. Reliably creating a new, exciting, wonderful stories that are commercially viable is just as difficult as creating beautiful, interesting, new types of clothing that are still wearable and comfortable. If this crap was easy, everyone would win Project Runway, and everyone would be a mega successful author.

Personally, I take great comfort in the fact that it's not easy, because then, when I fail, I know it's not because I'm a failure, but because I've set myself to a nearly impossible task. I also know that I can pick myself and keep working, because unlike Project Runway, I don't have to worry about getting sent home and losing all my dreams forever if I have a bad day. Bonus!

The Vast Effort behind "Effortlessness"
Nina Garcia and her dreaded Death Glare.
Not to betray my endless Tim Gunn love, my favorite point of view on Project Runway is actually panel judge and Marie Clare Creative Director, Nina Garcia. Where Michael Kors is the (bitchy) voice of the pro designer and Heidi Klum fills the role of the potential client, Nina is the voice of the Fashion Industrial Complex. She is the one who looks beyond artistry, beyond technical skill, even beyond her own personal taste to see where a design can successfully go. She thinks about how a dress would be styled in an editorial spread, she thinks about hanger appeal, she is constantly asking "Who is your customer? Who wears this dress?"

These are all amazingly pertinent, professional questions that a lot of designers don't consider, especially in the beginning of a season. But if we replace the word "dress" with "book" and "designer" with "writer," all her questions are still important. It's very easy as a writer to get caught up in your own vision of the story, and having someone like Nina Garcia haul you up and ask "Who reads this book? How will this book be sold?" can be fantastically eye opening. 

If Project Runway was Project Bookshelf, Micheal Kors would be the Tom Clancy style big bestseller, Heidi Klum would be the book buyer, and Nina Garcia would be the acquiring editor. Fortunately for us, most fiction editors are not nearly as mean as she is, at least not to their authors, but it's their job to ask these same sorts of questions. And that's really important, because these are vital issues a lot of authors don't consider, or worse, don't feel they need to consider until the book is done. But just as those designers got a lot better after they started taking Nina's criticism to heart, I think we as authors can't help but improve if we start out our projects thinking about the realities of the markets our books are going to face and incorporate those decisions naturally into our writing process rather than trying to shoehorn our vision into a commercially acceptable shape later (or worse, standing on the runway and arguing with the judges about why they're wrong. No one wins that fight.)

All of that said, however, one of Nina Garcia's favorite words is "effortless." You can always tell when she really likes something because she'll trot out that word, especially if draping is involved. But when she says "effortless," she often qualifies it with the reminder that effortless doesn't mean easy or undesigned. This is because "effortless" in fashion and writing only means the appearance of serendipity. Just like Heidi Klum's ageless makeup, it is an illusion of careless grace that actually requires an enormous amount of care, thought, and work to produce. 

Illusion is the key. When all that work is visible, garments (and novels) are criticized for being "overworked" or "overdesigned." Designers (and writers) are told they're "trying too hard" for adding purposeless details like zipper embellishments or piping in their effort to show how much work went into something. Nina's other favorite phrase is "you need to edit." She is constantly telling designers that they need to step back, look critically, and edit their work down to its essence. "Less is more," she says over and over when some designer has stuck 50 bows on his dress and styled his model's hair in a big Lady Gaga style bow bun. "You need to remove, not pile on."

Of all the advice I steal from Project Runway, this is the sentiment that translates most directly. Writers are creative people by definition, and as creative people, it's very easy to get lost in our own work. When you have an amazing idea that doesn't really fit the story but is too cool to leave out, writers will think of all kinds of wacky rationalizations why they don't need to cut the scenes they love. We often defend these decisions by saying we're adding depth and hooks to our novels when, in reality, we're doing the writing equivalent of over designing. 

To be fair, a lot of over written books do well, but then, a lot of ugly, over designed clothing gets sold for reasons I can not fathom. But just because some people get away with it is no excuse to go easy on our own editorial eye, because the best books/designs, the ones that endure, are the novels/dresses that appear effortless and natural. The end goal of all work in writing is to appear like no work at all. To give the reader a story that simply flows like it was always meant to be. 

In writing as in fashion design, if you do your job right, no one will even notice how hard you worked to do it. They will not see your struggles or your late nights or your botched scenes or how you rewrote the first paragraph 100 times. All they will see is the beautiful, effortless finished product, perfectly presented, and that is as it should be.

"Make It Work"
I couldn't possibly do a Project Runway themed blog post without talking about the show's famous catch phrase, "Make It Work." I might not be working 18 hour days, sewing and creating under enormous pressure just for a chance not to get eliminated from the show that has promised to make all my dreams come true, but it's still powerful mojo. When I am upset, the sound of Tim Gunn saying "Just make it work" is like a Pavlovian trigger for my ability to get up and press on. And that's really, really important, especially in writing, because the moment you start writing on a deadline, Make It Work becomes your mantra.

Whether you're writing for yourself or for a publisher, there are times when the book just has to get done, and you don't know how it's going to get there. Maybe you've written yourself into a corner, or maybe you went entirely the wrong direction and now you hate everything. Maybe you're just stumped on a plot point and you have no idea what to do next, but you need to figure it out pronto, because if you don't get this book ready to turn in to your editor in the next month, you're going to throw off your entire publication schedule. Your book will be late, your readers will be mad, and you won't get paid when you thought you were going to be. DOOOOM!

Okay, so maybe I'm exaggerating a little bit, but when you're in the middle of the crisis, the idea that not finishing this book on time will destroy your career feels absolutely real. More than one author has crumbled under the pressure, but funny enough, this is where Project Runway has us beat, I think. Because no matter how stressed those designers get, no matter how crazy the time limit on the challenge, when it comes time to put on the show, they always have something to send down the runway. It may not have been their best look, but in the end, the designer who can pull it out and make it work is the designer who is successful, and the same goes for writers.

I usually shy away from generalizations, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that every writer has faced a moment where they didn't know how to go forward. When this happens, especially under a deadline, the difference between writers who choke and writers who succeed is their ability to do like Tim Gunn says and make it work.

This isn't just a careless bon mot. The ability to resist panic is not a natural one. We're born panicky, wary animals who seem predisposed to jump to the absolute worst conclusion, and the ability to rise above this, to be calm and creative under pressure and get the job done, is the line that separates the professional from the amateur. Fortunately, it's also a talent that can be learned, and part of Tim's role on Project Runway is to teach this ability to panicked designers who've just realized how screwed they are.

No matter how carefully you plot or how good you are at managing time, if you pursue a career in writing, you will eventually come face to face with the "I'm totally F'ed" moment. When this happens, it is perfectly natural to freak your shit. Once that's over, though, it's your job to calm down and find a way to make it work. Because you're a professional, and professionals always find a way to deliver. The same "never give up" attitude that gets you published keeps you published, and the harder you embrace that truth, the more quickly you recover from disappointment and find your way to make it work, the more successful you will be.


One of the most amazing things about being a professional artist, or professional anything, is discovering that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The pressures of being a commercial artist vary wildly from industry to industry, and yet the core remains unchanged. Designers, writers, graphic artists--we all face the same struggle to produce creative yet salable work under pressure while not sacrificing the vision that makes this art our own.

My situation is very, very different from the contestants on Project Runway, and yet I can still learn from their mistakes, and that's a lot more than I ever expected from a cheesy reality show about making high fashion dresses on ridiculous deadlines out of random crap. So thank you, Project Runway. I learned a stupid amount about myself from your ridiculous programming.

I hope you enjoyed this absurdly long blog post about a television program! Thank you for putting up with my waxing rhapsodic over reality TV personalities, and as always, good luck with your writing!

It is, Heidi, it really is.


Kristen S Walker said...

Wow, this comparison had a lot of great insights. I think the analysis that you gave of art vs. commercialism is pretty spot on. You're probably right that most authors want to balance somewhere in the middle between pure art and pure commercialism, but that's a difficult balancing act. And thinking about, "Who is going to enjoy this?" is an important question. I've heard people say "Write the book that you want to read", but you do need to think about who else will want to read it, or else why bother giving it to someone else? You could write a book full of your favorite things, memories, in-jokes, etc., and no one else would ever get it. If you want it to be readable, you have to think about your reader, too.

Also, no arguing with the judges. That should be the #1 rule of these reality competition shows. Arguing with the judges does nothing but make you look like a pompous jerk. You're not going to change the judges' opinions after the fact.

I don't watch Project Runway, so I tried to think of parallels in my favorite reality TV competition, Chopped on Food Network. Hm. Some possible suggestions: make sure every ingredient/plot element ends up on your plate/story. The food/story needs to be good, but it also needs to look pretty (so put some thought into presentation, aka editing/cover design/etc.). Don't call it a mole/steampunk novel if you just threw chocolate/airships in at the last minute, because people who like mole/steampunk will know the difference and hate your food/book for not living up to the real thing.

I think the biggest thing from Chopped, though, is know your audience. So many chefs come on Chopped and say, "I'm a vegan organic chef who only cooks with natural, locally-sourced ingredients from co-op farms!" and then inevitably, the basket contains Bacon Bits, a can of lard, a whole fish, and processed cheese. Then they have a melt-down because they "can't work with these ingredients". Well, hello, Chopped routinely challenges chefs with all kinds of unusual ingredients. I've seen exactly one episode in 17 seasons where there wasn't some kind of meat in the basket. If you're not prepared to work with it, this ain't the show for you, sorry.

So if you want to be artistic, avant garde, and totally out there, don't expect to have mainstream success. You might get picked up by a small or university press who specializes in experimental literature, or you might have more luck self-publishing and advertising directly to your niche audience. But you're not going to be on NYT Bestseller Lists, and you shouldn't expect to be and throw a tantrum when you weren't invited on the talk show circuit. It's just not your audience.

Thanks for the great, thought-provoking post! It certainly will make me examine other things that I enjoy for parallels to writing.

Judith Smith said...

Great post! Design is design, whether it is software programs, gardens, books, fashion... And an audience is an audience, whether it is the commercial market, or whoever you want to enjoy your garden.

Make It Work is a basic truth of the world. It is when we know we are adults, we have a job to do, and somehow, we are going to figure it out.

Rachel Aaron said...

Thank you both for the lovely insights! And Kristen, I LOVE your comment and think you are absolutely right. I also totally need to start watching Chopped, because it sounds right up my alley. Thank you!

DC said...

Great show. (pun intended)

Ani Gonzalez said...

Great post. I don't watch Project Runway, but I feel the same way about Next Food Network Star. All the "What's your POV" talk also applies to writing.

Desert Sea Design said...

I agree- the weird isn't always mainstream successful.