Thursday, July 19, 2012

A writing lesson from the movies by Terry Burns

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, I think all writers need to take that step.


Timothy Fish said...

How few authors are we talking about here? Most of the authors I know talk about doing that, whether they actually do or not is a different story.

Jody said...

This is such a good lesson. I appreciate this post. It makes me think of what I'm learning, and how I have to dig deep to cut that sentence here and there that I love. Some things have to go if they don't get the reader where I want them to go, even if I did get a momentary thrill at my fluffy inspiration. Thanks, Terry.

Terry Burns said...

Then I guess none of them are sending me submissions, Tim, because the difference between the manuscripts that we look at and the manuscripts we take has a whole lot to do with how well the story flows. Someday I'm going to post a blog that you actually agree with and when that happens I may go ahead and retire while I'm ahead.

Timothy Fish said...


I suppose you should go ahead and retire, because I’m not disagreeing with you. In fact, what you are talking about is what I do when I create my second draft. And I’ve seen many authors talk about doing something similar. But here’s the thing: like you, I’ve seen those same authors produce some pretty bad—excuse me—not excellent stuff. Given that they are doing all the right stuff and they can’t see just how not excellent it is, I can’t help but wonder if I don’t also suffer from the same blindness to my own non-excellence. Or maybe it is a case where they aren’t doing the right stuff, but they don’t really understand what you’re talking about. And that would really be a not excellent thing.

Terry Burns said...

Don't tempt me, Tim, it wouldn't take much to get me to retire (again) - but I understand what you're saying. That's why fresh eyes are so important to our work. Often when we read over it we see what we thought we said instead of how it really is. I know I do. If I had time to write, that is.

sally said...

Yes, yes, excellent post. And yes, like Tim, I wonder if my writing is non-excellent.

I know I've sent out queries and proposals too early. I thought they were done at the time, though. Am I still sending too early? I don't think so. I've won enough contests to feel pretty confident.

But maybe. Maybe I don't know which scenes to cut or how to make the character more compelling. I'm kind of writing by ear. And by the time I've been over the book six or seven or twelve times, I've lost all objectivity.

Jennifer said...

Good advise! I'm actually on step three now. I didn't know about the importance of this until I'd shopped my novel a lot. Now it's back to the drawing board...thanks Terry!

Linda Glaz said...

One of the reasons I wouldn't trade my crit partners for gold. They do what no one else can. They are fresh eyes, objective eyes that see the slightest deviations.