Beware the Allure of Sharp Turns
While I made the leap to streaming TV last year, my wife and I still watch some shows that have a traditional 24-episode arc.
Recently we watched two season finales of series we have enjoyed for years. Both of them used the plot twist of bringing back old characters who had been written off years earlier. One show did so in a believable fashion that stayed true to the character and her motivations, but the second attempt was much less successful (in my eyes at least). The latter featured a storyline about a couple who rode off into the proverbial sunset after years and years of romantic tension but when we checked in with them today, their (and our) hopes and dreams had been dashed on the harsh rocks of reality.
While the technique worked (it wasn’t like they had been abducted by aliens and just returned to Earth to save the hero), it was so unfulfilling that I have taken to choosing the “reunion” never happened. I simply erased it from my mental hard drive and reverted back to the previous version of the story.
I admit this is a radical step for TV show fan and perhaps a rude one for a fellow writer with nowhere near as much experience. But I was reminded of a valuable lesson: writing is not merely an art but a responsibility.
It is easy to introduce more and more complex twists and turns in your narrative. The problem is we can just as easily forget we write for an audience of more than just ourselves. A series of movies or a long-running TV show has developed a loyal following and, as have we learned from the Game of Thrones ending (well, others learned, as I am apparently one of a dozen Americans who is not a GoT fan), pleasing, or at least respecting, the audience is the number-one goal of a writer.
Let’s just hope I get it right with my own script. Thankfully, I have a fellow scribe much better at the craft to keep me on the straight and narrow.
Write, Edit, Repeat
Now that I have finished writing the core of my latest manuscript, the time has come for the editing process. Several friends are reviewing the work to offer their critiques and then 2–3 rounds of editing will occur. While this step may sound boring, and a few years ago I would have agreed, I have come to enjoy the editing process.
The most important reason editing is necessary is to improve the quality of the work. When I write, I do so quickly, performing scant editing along the way. Some days I feel like a 5-year-old trying to paint a house. I probably used the right color, but you can be sure there are several spots that need to be redone before I show my work off to others. Similarly, to get the best manuscript possible takes time and, quite often, the insight of others. In addition to removing the grammatical and typographical errors, I want to cut out extemporaneous verbiage and rework tired phrases. My question is not “Did I say it well?” but “Is this the best way to say what I have to say?” Obviously, these queries often elicit radically different responses.
Roman poet Marcus Fabius Quintilianus spoke to this issue in AD 65 when he said: “Prune what is turgid, elevate what is commonplace, arrange what is disorderly, introduce rhythm where the language is harsh, modify where it is too absolute.”
One of the hidden benefits of the editing process is it reminds me I am not as good a writer as I imagine myself to be. Revising a work again and again is an exercise in humility. Your initial thoughts may have been sounded good in your head, and seemed fine upon early review, but when you look at a work again and again you learn how much you have to grow, as a writer and a person. You have nightmares about mistakes infesting your work like termites in an old attic. Not surprisingly, Quintilianus had something to say about this as well.
“The best method of correction is to put aside for a time what we have written, so that when we come to it again it may have an aspect of novelty, as of being another man’s work; in this way we may preserve ourselves from regarding our writings with the affection we lavish upon a newborn child.”
I suppose there is another similarity between writing and newborns – both need to be changed from time to time to keep them fresh.
Listening to the Smart One
I recently was invited to deliver a message about the themes in my book to a locally based charitable group. As a teacher, I talk for a living and, armed with a seminary degree, I figured I could prepare my comments without much difficulty on the Saturday before the mid-week event.
Spending several hours on my remarks, I handed them off to my wife for proofreading. With us both being former reporters, I have learned well that not having her look over my work can lead to disaster.
Well, what I thought would be a few recommendations here and there turned out to be an admonition to re-structure the entire message. What she thought was the best part I considered a mere afterthought and what I loved she felt was disjointed.
I wish I could have said I absorbed the advice quickly and went back to work, however it took some time of reflection to realize that, as usual, she was right.
Eventually I returned to the keyboard and spent another half-day rewriting and pruning the 20-minute message. The final product was a couple minutes longer than the original draft but the tone was significantly different.
When the day came, the event went off without a hitch. While my delivery could have been improved, the content was spot on. People expressed their appreciation for the way I presented my ideas in such a concise format.
While it would be easy to take complete credit, I know better. Without my wife’s help, my words would not have been as well organized and their impact not nearly as great.
Through this experience I was reminded again of a lesson I learned long ago but I frequently manage to forget—Always listen to the smart one.
A Lesson in Humility
If you have ever written anything from a Post-it Note to a full-length book, you know all composition is fraught with the possibility of error.
We all chuckle when we see a text message or social media post with a typo in it. Such quick communication is prone to error and the mistakes often garner more attention than the original message ever would.
When writing something of greater length and importance, giving it more than a cursory glance is critical. When I wrote Chasing Deception, for example, I went through several rounds of editing for content and grammar. Since it is a self-published work, changes were being made even on the day of submission, making the work that much more prone to mistakes worming themselves on to the pages.
Two months after original publication, I realized I should take advantage of the self-publishing format and correct any typos I could find. Knowing the best way to catch errors is to read your work out loud, my wife and I spent a 3-day weekend taking turns reading through the entire 81,000-word manuscript. I discovered two very important things in this process: 1) about 97% of the book was just fine, 2) but the last 3% requiring improvement was not insignificant. We made changes here and there and brought the work as close to 100% as we could.
Throughout this process, I learned three valuable lessons. First, I am so thankful to my friends and family who purchased a book with errors but have been gracious enough to still say nice things about what I did with the story and characters. I tell them it is like having one of those stamps with the upside-down biplane on it and the errors improve its value. They’re even nice enough to laugh at that one.
Second, I have been reminded of the wellspring of wisdom residing within my lovely wife, who constantly seeks to reign in my enthusiasm with a full measure of patience. She firmly believes if you can find the time to make something good, you should take just a little more time to make it better. She embodies the Lexus slogan of having a “Relentless Pursuit of Excellence”.
Finally, I think I am becoming more sympathetic when I see typos on billboard, fliers or signs as I drive around streets and freeways of Southern California. While I still notice the errors, I might be a little less likely now to comment about them. Something about throwing stones while living in a glass house comes to mind.
And, of course, the next time I am ready to submit a final draft to an agent or publisher, I think I’ll start warming up my reading voice.
I've been writing stories and taking photos since I was old enough to hold a pencil and stand behind a tripod.