Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A writing lesson from the movies

So many writers think they are through when they write the story. 

Actually that's when crafting the story should begin. Like a director of a movie that takes all the raw scenes that he's shot and goes into the cutting room to weave them into a movie, the writer takes the raw chapters and starts working on the pacing and the flow, engaging the reader here and picking up the pace there. This is where the writer moves scenes to push a reader at the end of a chapter into the next one, watching to see that the story doesn't slow down at a point to where the reader loses interest. 

I get several hundred submissions a month of people wanting me to represent their work, and this is probably the greatest failing in them. The author may have a pretty good story concept, but it just doesn’t flow, it doesn’t guide the reader through it. In fact, a great number of them fail to get the reader off the very first page.

A major portion of rejections occur right at that point, I call it the “Barnes and Noble test.” If we want to learn how manuscripts are rejected, we just need to sit in a bookstore for a while and watch the patrons. They pick up a book, read the back cover and the first page, maybe sample a little more, but those two are all that we can count on. They keep doing this until one of them pushes them off that first page and down into the book. When that happens they will usually carry it to the checkout stand. 

Editors know this and judge them the same way. We can have the greatest story in the world, but if we don’t get them off that first page, it doesn’t matter. This is part of putting on that director hat and directing the book after we get the basic story written. Did you ever hear somebody tell a joke that was hilarious, then later hear someone else tell the joke using the exact same words and it bombs? The difference is delivery, the pacing and flow, knowing the timing necessary to get the laugh. George Burns told the same old tired jokes for 50 years but they were always funny, because his timing and delivery were impeccable. 

No, we couldn't possible handle as many submissions as we get. That means a good manuscript is not good enough. It has to be exceptional, it has to stand out from the crowd. A big secret to taking that manuscript past good and on to exceptional is realizing after we take off the writer’s hat and put on the editor’s hat to clean up a story once it is written, that is just grammar and copy-editing and formatting. Too few writers change the hat the third time to put on that director’s hat, go into the cutting room and think of nothing but how to make their story flow so it pulls the readers in and then subtly guides them through it. 

More writers need to be doing that – no, actually, all writers need to take that step.


marjilaine said...

I've never thought of revisions in the terms of a cutting room floor before, but you make perfect sense. Thanks for sharing.

Marji Laine said...

I've never thought of revisions in the terms of a cutting room floor before, but you make perfect sense. Thanks for sharing.

old guy rambling said...

I am a late night, bedtime reader, hate it when I plan to read a chapter and then the end pushes me to read on. I agree this is a sign of good writing but it makes me sleepy when the alarm goes off. You comment about a Barns and Nobel reader is spot on. I read stuff on the back cover and first page, sometimes only the first paragraph. Maybe all books should start off like Snoopy’s, “It was a dark and stormy night.” But what I really like is, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”