Monday, September 3, 2012

Nice Writers Finish Last

A psychological trait makes many decisions for the average American. On the moment we are told something is wrong, the immediate instinct is to turn to the exact opposite end of the spectrum for the answer. Like the joke about the “rebellious” teenagers who all look the same, it leads to a lot of unoriginality in our uniqueness.

This pattern is a deciding factor in choice, especially for writers. Whether is the question on the ending  – the lovers finding perfect bliss or being left dead in a ditch  – or a more simple problem of what hair color the female lead should have (a perfect brown or a perfect blonde), this temptation to do the opposite of what we assume the cliche is affects many stories. It even deals with the writer’s reputation, and how we present ourselves. As being an author, to some extent, is about being a unique and irreplaceable vessel, it is reasonable to hope that we are not of the common ilk.

So what is the most presumed character flaw of The Writer? What are authors known for that people can’t stand about them? The ego. The argent insistence in not changing work. Aggressive resolve that their story is perfect. Aggravated attacks on anyone who would suggest he knows better.

Those who know of this stereotype don’t want to be a part of this stereotype. We want to be “better” than these narcissistic artistes. So we make nice. We play nice. We are a nice person.

But, like men, nice writers finish last.

I once was given the piece of advice, “Be willing to compromise and don’t look like you are.”

Readiness to negotiate represents an artist who puts his project before his own ego. An easier person to work with, a nicer writer to be around, an author more enjoyable to work with, the man or woman who takes other people’s opinion into consideration will be a fresh of breath air to those who constantly need to deal with megalomanic jackasses.

So what’s wrong with admitting to that willingness? What’s wrong with saying, “We can change my title if you don’t like it,” at the top of the query letter? Why shouldn’t an author illustrate that he is not going to be a gigantic pin cushion on an agent’s chair?

Because eagerness to change your work indicates three things: 1) Desperation. 2) Insecurity. 3) Inexperience.

Saying outright, “I am willing to adjust my book,” doesn’t say to an editor, “I am open minded.” It tells them, “I haven’t done my work”/“I don’t trust the work I’ve done.”

The truth about fiction is that it is a fantasy. The reader needs a reason to be more interested in the author’s fantasy over than their own. What is the main thing a writer can offer them? A book has more thought, more continuity, and resists giving in immediately into the desires of the fantasizer. It is the job of the author to present his world as real and be as convincing as he can. Especially during the pitch.

Because, though the editor and agent will make changes and don’t expect it to be perfect, the writer is still trying to convince them that her fantasy is the best one out of the slush pile, the one that needs the least amount of change. The one they won't have to spend too much time making choices that should have been made long ago.

But, more importantly, an experienced author knows changes will be made, so telling them that it is okay would be redundant. It’s a part of the process.

Novels and short stories don’t seem to be victim to this mentality. I've never seen a book that reads, "He has blonde hair, but if you don't like that, then he can have brown hair." Most authors try to write a novel with the assumption that it won't be changed. The query letter, on the other hand, will often haggle its ideas in a desperate manner.

Plays, however, are the worst to fair.

After a script meant for the stage goes through the process of editing, publishing, and even being preformed, it can still be changed by the director for each and every production it goes through. Now, there are specific rules about this that are a little vague and strange. For instance, all stage directions (the physical actions) are allowed to be ignored, altered, and completely contradicted. This is due to the size of the stage, the direction of the vision, the actors casted, the props and set pieces available. Yet, it is not within the contract’s rights to change a single word of dialogue. Even if the director wants to switch the gender of a character, he must get written permission. Cutting lines is a stranger concept and is one of those categories that the regulations often vary on. In any case, theatre directors are not notorious for respecting the writer's vision, and, hell, rights.

No matter how much a director is not supposed to change lines, people do it anyway. They go against the script, they think they have a better idea (which is arguable), and they change not only meaning, but the words and the intention of the entire show.

So many potential playwrights who are involved in the theatre realize this and have heard stories about writers such as the maker of Doubt who demands signing a specific contract which reads not a single word be altered, not even due to memorization mistakes. So, for those authors judging that sort of mentality, it is common to go the opposite route. They give the director many options when it comes to doing whatever the hell it is that he wants to do.

I will admit that this is a preference, that some people believe a script is meant to be seen, not read. But to me, it is to create an illusion, while being either read or staged, and having any jarring phrases like "If  you don't have a couch, they may stand," hinders thad. To have a lot of stage directions that the author explicitly states are optional takes the reader out of the world. The logic is that it won’t take the audience from it because, frankly, they won’t see it. But it is important to remember that the director still needs to be convinced to pick the play in the first place. Options make the read hard and a little tedious. It’s similar to why no one wants to follow a story that’s all a dream or a lie, or having extra and misleading pieces to  mixed in with a puzzle you’re trying to solve. We want to trust the information we’re getting, and it’s hard to do when we have a choice.

And here’s the gist of the matter – a director who is going to make changes is going to make changes with or without permission. Giving him allowances will just allow him to take the playwright’s vision even less seriously. If she doesn’t care, why should he?

Like everything, stubbornness and compromise requires a balance. When trying to improve a project, it is important to remember that the author is the one knows how he wants it, but he doesn’t necessarily know how to get it there. Learning when to hold ground and when to let go is the most important part of taking criticism. The writer needs to respect his own opinions just as much as anyone else's, because they're just as likely to be wrong, to be pigheaded, and to bulldoze right over any nice guy who gets in their way.