Hollywood Veteran, Writer, and Professor Trai Cartwright Talks Craft and Career

by Lindsey Lewis Smithson

originally posted on Castle Rock Writers

Colorado based writer Trai Cartwright has taught, produced, and learned her craft from nearly every aspect possible. She started her career at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, spent time working for Leonardo DiCaprio, founded a youth writing camp, and happened to work in Hollywood for nearly 20 years.  The Castle Rock Writers are proud, once again, to be able to bring Trai, her talents and her enthusiasm, to the Annual Conference at the PACE Center in Parker on November 7th.

Can you give us a little bit on your professional background?

I am a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, I was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. I currently teach creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor. www.craftwrite.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.

You mention genre and sub-genre when talking about finding power in your writing, how does writing, say Young Adult novels, play into this? Isn’t writing for teenagers the same as writing for adults?

This question leads me right to theme in writing. Theme works in stories in a number of ways, beginning at the general genre level (action = good vs. evil), and then at the subgenre level in even more specific ways (coming of age = rebelling against society until one finally takes one’s place in society), and so on.

So while teens can absolutely read at the level adults do and often there’s cross-pollination between these demographics, chances are stories geared toward teens, for example, are focused on issues that concern them, like rebellion, like first love, like identity.

The same can be said for the differences between, say, a Political Thriller and a Family Drama.  Political thrillers are, at their thematic heart, deeply concerned with politics and institutional corruption. Family dramas tend to peer into the history of the betrayals within that family. Oh wait, turns out Political Thrillers and Family Dramas have a lot in common!

This year you are presenting on genre, voice and tone as three key craft elements. If you could pick one area that many writers seem to overlook which would it be? How can aspiring writers avoid some of those common pitfalls?

Genre, voice and tone are all integral to the machinery. Genre tells you what kind of voice and tone is required. Voice informs your tone. Tone helps you make choices about your genre and voice. The lecture I’m presenting is about building the right voice for your book – it doesn’t happen accidentally. The best books feel like there’s an intelligent design powering them, and there is – a writer who knew the themes of her book well enough to be able to design all the elements to serve that theme. What could be more exciting than writing your book on the most subtextual, cellular level?

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. Be brave and 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.

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.

At the moment you have a campaign on Indiegogo.com for the 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.

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!

Cartwright-Headshot-259x300

www.craftwrite.com

www.cosfic.com

www.coscriptexchange.com

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