Interview with Trai Cartwright, by Jean Jacobsen
Can you give us a little bit on your professional background?
I have over 25 years’ experience as a professional story breaker. While in Los Angeles, I was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. Now I’m a happily-busy writing consultant and editor who works with writers one-on-one, and I teach at universities and for writers’ organizations across Colorado. I am also a screenwriter and independent film producer and founder of organizations that connect Colorado writers with their futures. www.traicartwright.com
Education seems to be an important part of your message. What educational paths do you think are most beneficial for writers?
All educational paths are beneficial to writers. From classes and conferences to working with a writers’ group, to engaging the services of an editor, to reading reading reading, and then writing writing writing some more – all of this is going to elevate not only your skills, but raise your confidence and help you deliver work that you can be proud of. It’s a lot of work, but it’s the most fun work there is.
Creatively you write across multiple genres. What advice do you have for writers who want to jump into a new genre?
My advice for jumping genres (or mediums, i.e., fiction to non-fiction or screenwriting) is to study your new element. Audiences have definite expectations, so it’s important to have a sense of what those expectations are so that you might serve—or bend them. There used to be a marketing mandate that said a writer could only write in one genre/medium, as audiences would “get confused” if a different story emerged. The truth is, readers are by nature voracious and loyal and if they love your voice and trust your taste as a storyteller, they will follow you anywhere.
This year one of the workshops you are presenting is “Building Your Novel: 6 Critical Questions.” Can we get a sneak peak?
After so many years in development, both fiction and screenwriting, it became apparent that there are most definitely two things writers need to consider when they approach their stories: 1. That a book doesn’t magically happen, that there is intelligent design (yours!) behind it, and 2. There are issues at the heart of every book that can be broken down into questions that we can consider. We’re going to look at those foundation issues and give a high-level workshop on what they are and how to make them work for your stories. I love this class because so many writers have breakthroughs when they apply these questions.
Tell us about your workshop “Top 10 Storytelling Devices Taken from the Movies.”
Hollywood, for better or for worse, has cracked the story structure code and that structural piece is now a part of nearly every movie and book in the modern marketplace. They’re also amazing at creating characters fast and efficiently – this workshop tips their hand for fiction writers so they can make use of these techniques. I love teaching this class because it combines my two writing loves: film and books!
How can writers make the most of their conference experience?
Do not rest. Rest is for Sunday. Miss nothing, go to everything. Talk. Rumor has it that writers are painfully shy, insular creatures who cringe at human contact. Conferences are filled with your people, people who get it and get how hard this is. Reach out both to agents and editors and teachers, but to your fellow conference-goers, too. They could use the boost, and you’re gonna make a new ally.
Oh! And pitch! Even if your book isn’t perfect, practice pitching to the available agents and editors! This is how you sell your work, so make those contacts now. I believe in this so much that I run an event with Link Miller called the “Ultimate Pitchfest” – we Skype in 25 agents so writers can pitch as many people as they want digitally. It was hugely successful last year, and we can’t wait to do it again this year!
Tell us about the Friday Night “What’s Right about Your Writing” panel.
It’s absolutely crucial for writers to get insight into their work. Writers groups are a great first stop, but you have to push yourself to take in the info available from professional editors and agents. They see things differently – they know what it takes to sell, and to get that info can make a huge different in your work.
What is “right” about your writing right now?
I’m finally at a skill level where I am hired to write other people’s films! This is a big breakthrough for me, and I’m thrilled to say that I’m working on two Colorado projects, Secret Ellington and Cheap Cabernet, and there’s a couple more on the horizon.
What are you reading right now?
Mostly I read client manuscripts. Just finished a divine memoir about a couple who adopted two kids from Ethiopia, and a screenplay military thriller based on an isolated island base. I love this kind of reading – all the passion and hopes of writers putting it out there, being willing to share, and then to do the work to get their work to a publishing level. I’ve been in development for 25 years, and I absolutely adore the process, even if it means I don’t have time for the new Lev Grossman book.
You also do a lot of work with young writers through the Explorati Teen Writers Boot Camp. How did you come to starting this group? Is there something you see in young writers that you don’t in adult writers?
I was a writer as a kid, as many of us were. I wrote seven books by the time I was 15 when I shifted my attention to theater. There was zero support for a weirdo like me. Explorati Teens is exactly the program I wish I’d had when I was that age. Members of our tribe, getting together to talk about the stuff that no one else gets or is interested in, a real opportunity to celebrate and affirm who we are, and to dig into the craft of our work. Teens are my heart, and it’s my honor to bring Explorati Teens back to Denver for the 8th summer in 2016.
Right now you have a campaign on Indiegogo.com for Colorado Script Exchange. What are the aims of the Script Exchange?
Without screenplay agents in Colorado or any organized way to pass scripts around, Colorado writers are left without any means of showing their work. The goal of the Colorado Script Exchange is to create a platform where writers can post info about their work and media-makers can “shop” for their future projects. In short, we’re building our own screenwriting marketplace in the hopes of starting up meaningful conversations between writers and makers – and maybe even spark a production or two.
In what little free time you seem to have you also helped found the Colorado Smart Film Investment Coalition. What draws you to these community based organizations?
Hollywood is community based, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Your network is your lifeblood, the people who support your career and even create opportunities for you. I worked with wonderful people there, and they taught me to always reach out a hand and help others. To my mind, the only way to thrive in a tricky business like the publishing world or the film industry is to do it together. Be generous or be alone.
Beyond writing and community work you also offer freelance writing, editing and consulting services. Can all writers benefit from working with an editor? What are the perks to freelancing that other writing careers don’t offer? If someone wanted to get into freelance writing and editing do you have any tips?
All writers can benefit from working with an editor – but it’s important they are the right editor. Do your homework. Make sure there’s a personal connection there. Ask for testimonies if they aren’t readily supplied. The right editor can cut drafts (and drafts) out of the development process and make you understand your own writing better.
As for freelancing, well, isn’t for everyone. But for someone like me who is extremely self-motivated and, shall we say, has a problem with authority figures, it’s terrific. I like my boss. I love my “clients” whether they are in a classroom or on the other end of a manuscript. This job is the best I’ve ever had, and I fight every day to do it well and to keep it.
Tips to go freelance? You have to be seriously passionate about this space or you won’t have the energy to sustain a business. You also have to be realistic about whether you can live with the financial ups and downs, and whether you have the temerity to constantly be looking for work. That part grinds. Try doing it part time and see if it’s a good fit. You’ll also be able to build your network during this trial period. Then go for it! We need all the great editors and writers we can get!