Monday, June 3, 2013

Pixar's #22 Rules of Storytelling: Rule #18: No Writerly Fussing Allowed

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
I think something got lost in translation with the 2nd sentence there, and I honestly have no idea what Ms. Coats meant by it. However, I have quite a bit of experience dealing with the first sentence.
With one of my first novels, I spent way too much time fussing. I'd finished the draft, sent it out to people who said they wrote or read a lot, made revisions, and then spent forever fussing with the language. Sentence-level modifications that clarified actions, boosted voice, removed passive verbs, etc. A lot of it helped, but a lot of it was just messing around. I spent far too much time, and burned myself out, on tiny issues. When I was done, I'd spent so much time revising I couldn't see the forest for the trees. I needed to stop pruning the branches and step back so I could see the shape of the whole forest, but by that time, I was burned out.
My novel needed streamlining and focus. It needed to not rely so heavily on tropes. It needed to be set apart from what was already on the market. I had no idea, though, because I'd spent so much time fussing with it that I just didn't have the energy to seriously consider these things. Note: I THOUGHT I'd considered them. I'd had it beta-read and made big changes and cut big chunks. But since I was exhausted, and since I could check those things off my list, I did. Fussing with language was easier than stepping back, taking the story itself 100% seriously, and double-checking the big things. Here's the cost: my book still needs those things. It's chilling out in the corner right now.
So, from personal experience, here's what I think Ms. Coats is getting at, and here's what I should have done:
Don't mess with language until you're done with big scene and action changes. You'll burn yourself out. Sure, take along your laptop on car rides and use CTRL-F to find "that" and passive voice, but don't fuss. There's no point to messing with language in a scene if you're going to cut it or change it later. Seriously- no fussing.
Find people who you are 100% confident know what they're doing. A writer once told me as a revision note that my POV wasn't clear- things needed to be more clearly from my character's perspective. This person suggested I insert "he saw", "he wondered", etc, to show that it was my main character perceiving all this. Consequently, I littered my MS with filter words that six months later, I had to take out. This is a small, nit-pick revision, but it's a great example of why not all critiques are equal. I didn't get critiques tough enough to show me that my novel was too much like most other fantasies out there, and the advice often prompted me to harm my book rather than improve it. So get critiques from writers who have the experience and credentials to genuinely help you; you need tough critiques. (How? Check out the tabs above- crits are everywhere in this industry.) It's hard to take, but shelving your MS is even harder.
Once you have several sets of revision notes from trusted writers/industry professionals,don't revise. That's right. Don't revise immediately. I tossed out a lot of helpful advice because I was too close to my story and couldn't see how that change could work. I thought my novel had to start with the girl in high school, and I couldn't see a way around it. So, I tossed out the advice. Don't do that if it's from someone you trust. Daydream about it a little first. If you WERE going to take that advice on cutting out this character, how could you do it? If you HAD to change your opening, how could you do it? Take a few days to do this, not a few minutes. Just a few weeks ago, the answer to how to start that novel hit me. It doesn't have to start with the main character in high school, and my planned revision is much more interesting.
Know yourself. A lot of writers tend to channel their perfectionism toward fussing with language instead of really doing their best with the story itself. Use that perfectionism to be honest with yourself and your book. There's a point where your book needs you to pick over every line, and there's a point where it's just fussing. Don't burn yourself out with the latter if your time, energy, and honesty are still needed by your plot and characters.

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