10.31.2006

Writing Sympathetic Characters, Never Giving Up, & the Fine Line Between Clever and Stupid: Lessons from the 2006 Austin Film Festival
Part 1 of 3

by Jay Robison

Paper Coach : Teach Yourself to Write (A Fiction Writing Course)

I didn't attend as much of the Austin Film Festival this year as I would have liked, but I still went to a good panel, and two post-screening Q&A's where I gleaned some great writing wisdom. Good advice can come from anywhere for an aspiring writer, even Bobcat Goldthwait.

PART 1 - Sydney Pollack and the Value of Rewrites (or, "There's a fine line between clever and stupid")

We all know that principle number one of writing is "kill your babies," right? We can never, ever be afraid of changing what we write, because far more often than not change will be for the better.

Consider, if you will, the movie Tootsie. It was written by Larry Gelbart, a screenwriter best known for adapting M*A*S*H from the movies to television (along with some uncredited work by Elaine May, wife and writing partner of writer/director Mike Nichols). According to Sydney Pollack, the first version of Tootsie had the main character as an embittered tennis pro who dons drag to become a female tennis player who then wins. Basically, this now-classic comedy, which had about a half-dozen Oscar nominations, was a rewrite removed from being Juwanna Mann.

It's easy to believe that what you write is absolutely brilliant from the moment you set it down on the page. On some level, I think you have to believe that as a writer—regardless of whether you intend to be published or produced—because to put a story on paper means that you intend to share it with others. But as writers, our first pass, or even our second or third, is rarely our best version of a story. I've found this to be true regardless of whether I'm writing prose or screenplays. Even the short stories I've managed to sell have gone through a minimum of two or three drafts, and that's when I've been lucky.

I'll share my experience here, limited though it is. I've had three story sales so far, all to Eric Flint's Grantville Gazette, an anthology series for stories set in the world of his alternate history novel 1632 and its sequels. My second published story started life as a sprawling epic that dealt with the invention of a press corps, the re-invention of the phonograph record, and a high-profile trial in this fictional universe where the 17th century meets the 21st. It turned out to be too sprawling. Even as I wrote the story, all my instincts were telling me that this piece was getting bigger and not really going anywhere. Paula Goodlet, the copy editor for the Grantville Gazette, suggested I make some major cuts, specifically the phonograph subplot.

I agreed. Eventually, I ended up cutting the story in two—very much to the benefit of both subplots. Part one was published in Grantville Gazette #6 under the title "Mightier Than the Sword;" part two, which I titled "Trials," will probably see the light of day at some point.

So remember: kill your babies! If you want to be published or produced as a writer, you never know what crucial change may make the difference between your story languishing in your file cabinet and appearing on the page or on screen. It is the difference between a classic like Tootsie and a turkey like Juwanna Mann. Or to quote the immortal David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap: "There's a fine line between clever and stupid."

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