Sunday, December 02, 2012

Losing My Religion, Part 8: Misconceptions About Rewriting

Okay, folks, you may notice that I’m skipping “Part 7: Tone” and going right to our two-part wrap-up. I decided that I didn’t want to summarize my upcoming “tone” series until after it runs, partly because you guys always do a great job honing my ideas. Part 7 of this series will run at the end of that series.

In my MFA program, they taught us that notes were rude, and that we should protect our vision zealously. They should be arrested for criminal malpractice.

What I Used to Think: You should revise your first draft.
  • What I Now Realize: You should re-write your first draft. Rather than merely refining scenes or dialogue, you should be focused on changing the character’s personalities (which will make you change everything else) and/or re-structuring the whole story. You should not attempt line-by-line revisions until you’ve totally reshaped your script according to the overarching notes you’ve gotten.
What I Used to Think: You don’t want to mess it up.
  • What I Now Realize: You do want to mess it up. If any part of your story is fragile or delicate, then it won’t survive the shipping process. Shake it up and pick it apart until everything that’s left is rock solid. If something comes right out, then take it out. Simplify it, or the buyers will simplify it for you, and with good reason.
What I Used to Think: Once you think it’s perfect, then it’s done.
  • What I Now Realize: It’s not up to you to decide what’s perfect. Your peers, your early readers, your representatives, your editors and/or producers will all hopefully do a better job than you of determining what the story needs, so listen to them. If you strongly disagree with a note, set it aside for now…but don’t forget the Back to the Future rule: if one person give you that note, then maybe only one person feels that way, but as soon as two unrelated people give you the same note, then you can assume that millions of people will feel that way.
What I Used to Think: There is one platonic ideal of what your story should be.
  • What I Now Realize: There are lots of great versions of every scene and sequence. If you keep trying out radically different versions you’ll find surprising new angles that serve your story better. Even after you sell it, the buyers will demand that you spend years re-writing and revising your story. Do so happily and heartily. Make them tear it out of your typewriter when they think it’s ready to go before an audience.
What I Used to Think: Those who give you lots of notes are unpleasant and/or annoying.
  • What I Now Realize: A note is a big-hearted gift. The only reason anyone will ever give you notes is because they want to improve your story.
What I Used to Think: Your early readers will tell you if your hero isn’t interesting enough or if you have the wrong structure.
  • What I Now Realize: Early readers are always willing to point out plot holes and tone problems, but they’re reluctant to point out problems they had with the characters or the structure. You have to push them to get those notes out of them.
What I Used to Think: People who care about you will give you reliable notes.
  • What I Now Realize: At first, only people who care about you will be willing to read your writing, and they will try to give you good notes, but (a) they are probably not trained writers who can identify the real problem, and (b) they will not want to hurt your feelings about the over all quality of your work. If you can somehow get notes from peers that are not friends or family, those notes will be much more reliable. But wait, you may still think that…
What I Used to Think: Paid instructors will give you reliable notes.
  • What I Now Realize: Your instructors may seem tough, but they aren’t tough enough, because (a) their income depends on your tuition, so they have a strong financial incentive to overpraise you to keep you enrolled and (b) they are evaluating your work against a platonic ideal that exists only in their head, not on how successful your work will be with an audience. (In fact, they often have open disdain for audiences, because of their own career setbacks.)
What I Used to Think: If potential buyers give you notes, that means they didn’t like it.
  • What I Now Realize: If they didn’t like it, they would ignore it. Notes prove that they have engaged with your story, and they now feel invested in making it better.
What I Used to Think: Buyers who give you notes will be happy if you make about 50% of the changes they ask for.
  • What I Now Realize: Buyers expect you to re-write everything they had a problem with and much more. Regardless of any assurances to the contrary, they do not regard their notes as optional requests or debatable opinions. Rather, they regard each of their notes as sacrosanct and symptoms of even larger problems. And don’t think that…
What I Used to Think: If they didn’t give you a note about it, they don’t want you to change it.
  • What I Now Realize: Everybody hates reading a re-write in which very little has changed. You still have the older version, and you can revert to it at any time, but for now you should keep trying new things throughout your story, improving everything, not just the things they gave you notes about.
What I Used to Think: You should focus your attention on one or two sections of your story that aren’t working.

  • What I Now Realize: If someone tells you that you have “third act problems” or that you need “a new first chapter”, don’t believe them. Treat each problem like a polyp of an endemic cancer. Notegivers almost always misidentify what the source of a problem is. They may be upset that your ending didn’t pay off an expectation that they had formed, but, perhaps, instead of adding a pay-off to the ending, you should instead go back to the earlier sections and remove the expectations.
Tomorrow, the big finale, for now: Career.

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