Why you must love your editor

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This is a follow-on from a blog post I wrote way back in August of 2018. I still get emails about it, asking to write a little more on the subject. Well, you asked for it, so here it is. Fill your boots, as they say.

I know. It’s like giving your child away to another person. Probably someone you hardly know. Are they going to take care of her? Treat her right? Let her become all that she could be? Or will she just be abandoned, and left to linger with a load of other kids in squalour?

Okay, that got dark very quickly. Let’s back it up a little. And deploy fewer metaphors.

When you’re writing a book, it’s a wonderfully selfish pursuit. Assuming you’re writing it on your own in the first place of course. It’s just you and the text. It’s your baby (ah, there goes that hackneyed metaphor again, sorry). This is all you, and no one else.

But let’s take a reality check: You can’t do it all by yourself. You need a second pair of eyes. The best second pair you’re going to come across is an editor.

Editors are experts at understanding what works for audiences. Their whole careers are based on that. They are dedicated to making your book the best it can be. It’s the only thing they care about. But they have an advantage that you don’t: They didn’t write the thing in the first place, and can look at it in a dispassionate way, and therefore will be less afraid to suggest changes that you might not otherwise countenance.

Letting go of full control of your novel is not fun. It never is. It’s so hard to trust someone else with your darling project. But it’s needed. Great books have lived and died by the relationship between an editor and a writer.

I know it’s hard, and yes, sometimes it just doesn’t work out between you and an editor. Maybe you’ve tried, but they just can’t see it the way you can, and you know 100% that you’re right. You might have to look elsewhere, but never decide that you’re going to do it all yourself. I would guess that nine times out of ten, the relationship between a writer and an editor broke down because of a failure on the writer’s part, not the other way around.

A way of avoiding this happening to you once you get the privilege of working with a good editor (and yes, it really is a privilege) it to change your mindset. Once the book has been written, and you have completed your first draft, try and think of the book as something that was written by someone else. Your job now is to work with the editor to make sure that book is perfect.

And once the work between you is done, and it goes out there into the world, guess what? It becomes your baby, all over again.

Stephen King and George RR Martin: A meeting of minds

Well, I don’t know how, but we made it to the end of another year. Here we are, and 2020 is on the horizon. May 2020 bring you the clarity its name suggests, and I wish you every success – be it in things writing-related or not.

As we’re quickly approaching the festive season, I appreciate that it might be hard to take some time for yourself for a little indulgence, but I thought that if you do have time, why not watch something interesting?

This is a little over three years old, but I found it to be a really sweet conversation between the legendary Stephen King and the (nowadays) equally loved George RR Martin. It’s interesting when writers “interview” writers. As with this piece in places, they might not always get around to an actual question. It’s sometimes an observation about something that they do themselves, and then they try and see if the other writer does it too. It’s fun for writers to discover our commonalities I think.

Anyway, here it is. Happy Holidays, and enjoy!

 

People vs Plot

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Ah, the age-old battle of many a writer. What matters most to a book or short story: the characters and the world they inhabit, or the story that they happen to find themselves in? I’m actually surprised at how definitive people’s views are on this: even by really well established writers. Will you indulge me for a few hundred words? Let’s dig into it a little.

A common misconception is that all the “best” novels, (however one decides what constitutes best, personally I think the notion to be a bit silly), are canonised because the characters are so brilliantly written. The idea being therefore that good characters trump a good plot.

Now look, that’s true of many a fantastic author. Heck, maybe even most of them. People from Elmore Leonard (who I often consider one of my favourites) to James Ellroy to Stephen King. But I can also think of many, like say the late great Michael Crichton, who are totally the opposite, and are proud to say it.

I’m proud to say it: I’m a concept/story guy. My characters are there to serve that. I like to move at a pace, and a solid concept serves that. My characters are caught up in it. I think they’re rounded and three-dimensional, but for me, the story is the thing. I love stories and authors where the opposite is true, but to place one above another to me is a bit silly.

I mentioned James Ellroy in my list of “people more than plot” writers. James Ellroy’s plot in the superb novel LA Confidential was mostly thrown out by Curtis Hanson (writer/director) and Brian Helgeland but the characters preserved. Not a surprise. The plot is wonderful in the book, but it’s too dense, intertwined and convoluted for a movie. But really, for LA Confidential, it was the characters that made it. A personal favourite from work is the protagonist in Clandestine. Highly recommended.

But don’t forget, excellent films based on books also often change characters around and make them fit the narrative, and the characters are secondary. It works either way.

I guess what I’m trying to say in this poorly-worded drivel is don’t get too held up on what sort of writer you are. You might be character-focused and that’s great. But don’t let anyone tell you that plot-focused writers are any less worthy. Not unless they’ve sold more copies of any one of their books than Dan Brown did when he released The Da Vinci Code.

Shattering the “every character must want something” rule

writing notes idea class

Time for another article in our occasional series about ignoring rules about writing.

Okay, that’s a little flippant, but you get where I’m coming from here. This one, I think, is easier to ignore than the rest. I’ve written about it before, but I’ve heard it so much again this year that I wanted to return to it as an issue. You will hear in writing classes that on every page, your protagonist (or other characters) must want something. In my humble opinion, this is another sure-fire way of guaranteeing that you’ll get stuck, right while you’re in your flow of writing something brilliant.

I can’t think of anything more destructive to a writer’s native talent that have them stop mid-flow and go “oh, hang on: that’s a beautiful piece of prose, and it really ties in well with the narrative I’m going for here, but I just realised, it’s not suddenly clear to the reader what the main character wants at this moment.

Writing so that characters constantly tick a rule box will produce boring content. Everything will be boring because it just moves the story on and nothing else. It ends up being just about the destination rather than the journey. If the destination was all that mattered, you could skip the book and go directly to the last page. Where would the fun be in that?

The madness of these rules. It’s almost like some of them were created just to make a writer’s jobs harder. And believe me, it’s hard enough!

Okay, so seriously, as with other “writing rules”, this one has come about for fairly good reasons. You don’t want your story – and indeed, your characters – to start meandering off into pointless areas. Your readers will get bored, and frankly, so will you as you’re writing the thing.

But to start suggesting that on every page your characters have to want something and that this needs to be clearly expressed is just going to lock you into a difficult corner creatively.

I have a better rule. And this is just a rule of thumb, one to ignore whenever you feel it’s right to: The READER wants something on every page. Give the READER an excuse to want to keep reading. That’s no way near as creatively stifling. It’s not specific about any given thing. Maybe there’s a plot twist, or a really powering piece of dialogue, or an question raised that demands an answer.

Deliver for your readers, not your characters. The characters are designed to serve you and your intended audience, not the other way around.

Sorry, rant over! 😉

Redundant words to delete from your writing

toys letters pay play

This is a quick one to plug a short Medium article by Benjamin Dreyer. When I’m editing my first draft of a novel, I find that the thing I’m doing the most is removing unnecessary words. These are the words that you can get rid of, yet the sentence still makes perfect sense.

However, sometimes certain words which are not strictly necessary, help convey something else that the “simpler” phrasing doesn’t do on its own. A simple example: I could say something was “the best result”. It’s more ‘waffly’ to say something was “the least worst result”. There’s a whole extra word there, but I’d argue that the second phrase conveys something else: that this result was the best result out of a series of bad options. Does that make sense?

Anyway, this is (ironically) a ridiculously waffly way of introducing you to an article about removing redundant words. Here’s the article.

Do you agree with Benjamin’s assessments here? Either way, it’s food for thought.

In praise of Highland 2

highland2

The industry standard NLE (or Non-Linear Editor) for the TV drama/feature film industry is Avid’s Media Composer. It’s been around for many years, and the film industry’s entire post-production ecosystem is built around it. It’s complex, sophisticated, professional, and rock-solid. And as dull as hell.

It’s really clunky piece of software, that abandoned real innovations to filmmaking years ago. Arguably the most innovative alternative in the professional NLE space is Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. (the “x” is pronounced “ten”. It’s a roman numeral.) But it’s almost too different and radical for Hollywood. Only a handful of big-budget feature films have been cut on it. But its refreshing approach has been embraced by the rest of the industry outside of the conventional TV/feature film world. And by revenue, the corporate/communications/weddings/etc market is overall WAY bigger than TV/features.

So if you want to to be a feature film editor these days, do you need to learn Avid? Sure. But that doesn’t mean you have to use it to make your own films. There’s loads of great – and sometimes even free – alternatives.

The same goes (even more so) for screenwriting applications. I mean, you can use anything to write a screenplay, and there’s even some brilliant free applications that will help with industry-standard formatting, etc.

Final Draft is very much the Avid of screenwriting. It’s the industry standard. Whole pre and post-production workflows are built around it in the film/TV industry. If you work in that business as a screenwriter, there’s a strong chance you’re going to have to use it. It’s expensive, complex, sophisticated, and yes, like Avid, dull as hell. Unlike Avid, I wouldn’t describe it personally as “rock-solid” though.

However, just like the NLE world, there’s other great – and even free – alternatives. One that’s cheap and – for me – just like the Final Cut Pro X of the screenwriting world is Highland 2.

It uses the Fountain language. This is a version of markdown for screenplays, and if you have any knowledge at all of writing to industry standard screenplay formats, you’ll get this easily.

Check it out if you can. I’m no good at reviews, so you’re best getting those elsewhere. I will say this: worry about getting Final Draft once you’ve sold your screenplay, and need to start collaborating with others. Or if you need to work with others using industry standard tools for whatever other reason. Until then, you only need to get it on the page. And for me, I haven’t found anything as good for that as Highland 2.

Theme vs Plot

black and white people bar men

Just a quick post today about theme and how it’s different to plot. Writers way smarter and way more talented than me have ideas about this, but here’s my perspective.

First of all, yes, these things are quite different. Most people agree with that. I find that often a poor short story by a new writer has no theme. It’s just a story. In a good one there’s maybe a few nice emotional beats but overall, it’s quite flat.

In some ways, the theme is what you’re left with as a reader. The story comes and goes, but there’s a wider idea – emotional or otherwise – that you’re left with as a result. To put it in embarrassingly simple terms, the plot is what you’d describe when someone asks, “What’s your story about?” … The theme is what you describe when that same person’s follow-up question is, “Yeah, but what is it really about?” Does that make sense? Or any I being too simplistic?

A story with a really good theme will often influence the end of the plot, but also it can make the end of the story less important, and not in a bad way. Often the real climax of a story is just a bit before the end. Maybe – though obviously not always – the end of the penultimate chapter is the end of the plot. But the final chapter – possibly an epilogue – is there and feels really necessary because of the theme.

If there’s no consideration to the theme, then you might be only interested in nailing that ending and getting out. Nothing wrong with doing that. But if the theme is strong, then that can dictate when the ending occurs. It can be before or after the end of the actual plot.