Killer Year–The Class of 2007

diagnostic vs. prescriptive
September 18, 2007, 5:53 pm
Filed under: Killer Year Members, Toni McGee Causey

(cross-post with Murderati)

This has been making the rounds lately–what work-in-progress feedback can sometimes look like:

Which is a radically different experience than what I have now in publishing. (Thank God.)

The best way of phrasing how to deal with notes that I heard once was given by a young writer, a big 6’6″ football-player-sized man who’d just had his first hit movie (an Adam Sandler comedy) and was one of the featured authors at the Austin Film Festival–Steve Franks. Steve sat sprawled in a chair clearly not designed to hold a man so large and I half-expected to hear him discussing the shot-gun formation or defensive end stats. The other members of the panel Steve was on discussed receiving notes from studios: how they dealt with the hell of having sometimes upwards of twenty execs and assistants hand them copious notes, many contradictory, often not clear as to who gave what note (so no way to put them in a hierarchy). They commented on how the studio expected the writer to incorporate all of the notes. Steve laughed, a little embarrassed, and when they asked him why, he explained he hadn’t realized at the time that the studio had expected him to do the notes. Instead, he thought everyone was just trying to be helpful when they first gave him the piles of suggestions. He’d never received studio notes before–he’d been working at Disneyland the day before his script sold as one of the “ride engineers” — the guy who made sure you were buckled in before hurtling you past your own brain cells.

He had looked through the notes they’d given him and, since they were contradictory, realized there was no way to do all of the notes. And, since these were relatively smart people, he concluded (you’ll see how naive he was) that they clearly hadn’t meant for him to do them… they were just trying to give him the tools to determine what needed to be done. He decided that these notes were diagnostic tools, not prescriptive. He mentioned, for example, how several people noted the story slowed too much in a certain section and wanted him to change only that section. Others had wild ideas about how to change the beginning of the story which resulted, ultimately and most specifically, in that slow section being changed. Others had problems with the characters or reactions… somewhere a little after that slow section.

Steve, though, used the notes not to change the section, but to analyze what was making that section slow to begin with. And the problem, he discovered, had actually occurred in a decision he’d made about twenty pages earlier. The readers hadn’t realized this, because it took them a few pages for the cumulative effect of that one decision to start resonating through the story–and the readers were reacting. Had Steve made all of the changes they requested–which was impossible anyway–he’d have had a mess and they would have ended up having the same disquiet, only now they would attack something else (probably whatever he’d changed the section to). Instead, Steve changed the earlier section, left the old one as it stood, and when the execs received the script back, they were enthusiastic (it was greenlit at that point) because they were convinced he’d done all of their notes. And he’d done almost none of them.

Now, I’m not claiming Steve’s a great writer–I’ve never read anything of his, and judging a writer by the finished product of a movie is a bit like judging an alligator by the shoes a woman’s wearing. He did, however, manage to stay on the film, get the credit, get the back-end production bonus and start his career. Not bad for a guy who’d been pushing a lever to send people up a rollercoaster just a few weeks earlier.

One last (possibly apocryphal) story. John Sayles has had a quiet-but-successful career in Hollywood as a script doctor and (from what I was told) often did not ask for arbitration in order to take credit away from the original writer; he would, instead, just ask for a fee, do his job, make the original writer look better in the process, and walk away so that the writer got the credit (and back-end). An exec who worked with him closely on a couple of projects told me the following story, swearing it was true.

One day, John was hired to fix the characterization of a woman. This character, let’s call her Mary, came off as extremely bitchy and unlikeable, even though later on, the audience was going to have a great reason for liking her and rooting for her. The problem was, the execs couldn’t get any actress of any stature to read that far because the character started off so mean. They hired John to rewrite the beginning of the script, (with permission to toss out everything there), and to change her character throughout so that she was still the tough-as-nails type of character she needed to be to accomplish whatever it was that was her goal… but to be more approachable and likable. So John took the script, kept it about a month, and turned it back in. The execs loved it. Raved. He’d solved the problems, they were ecstatic. They paid him and went on their merry way.

Now the executive telling me the story said he’d had a copy of the original script and when he started reading John’s rewrite, he couldn’t see what was different between the two versions. (He was not an exec on the project.) Since John was a friend, and since his curiosity got the better of him, he called the man and asked him, “What the hell did you do here? It works, I like Mary now… but I can’t see any major changes.”

John (reportedly) said, “Notice when you first meet Mary?”

The exec flipped back to the beginning, and read the line (something like):  Mary, a stubborn woman, sometimes, bitchy, but you’re really going to like her later…

And that was it. The first few times Mary was introduced, he simply changed her description, point blank telling the reader what their reaction to Mary was going to be. Clearly, that bit of directness won’t usually do in prose, but it amuses me that he dealt with it so simply, instead of tossing out the script. He went to the root of the problem: Mary hadn’t been introduced well.

Sometimes, we get feedback during the writing process and it seems on the surface to not be helpful. Maybe like the YouTube example above, it’s so contradictory as to lead nowhere. Sometimes, the person reading just does not like the genre of your material and when that’s true, that’s just all there is. There’s almost nothing a writer could have done to change that sort of natural individual preference, and the writer shouldn’t try. (You cannot please everyone, nor should you.) I respect reviewers / commenters who shy away from something that they know ahead of time just isn’t their cup of tea because they don’t wish to do harm to a work-in-progress.

If the response you’re analyzing is true of only one person, and everyone else universally feels differently, then toss the aberrant opinion as just that–a random opinion–and go with the general responses. But if the general consensus is confusion–when it’s clear that the note-giver means well, likes you, likes the story, but has vague or non-helpful or even contradictory suggestions–line those suggestions up and use them as a diagnostic tool to see if you can’t ferret out the real problem.

I have been exceptionally lucky with my editor–she’s smart, funny, and thorough, and it is crystal clear from everything she does that her goal is to help make the book–my vision of the book–better.  She asks questions, doesn’t impose (except when I’m loading the gun to shoot myself in the foot), and her ability to push me to be a better writer is one of the single finest gifts I’ve received. That isn’t to say I agree with her 100% of the time, or that I always accomplish the ideal, but she’s a joy to talk to and receive notes from because I know I’m going to come away with a better book.

Then again, I love the editing process. For me, that’s when a work really starts to form into a whole, a final image.

What sorts of helpful advice have you ever received when editing your manuscript? Or, heavily disguised as to the culprits if you like, what was the worst advice?

1 Comment so far
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This actually sounds like a lot of the conversations I’ve been having with MYSELF lately.

Comment by patry

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