Writing Long

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Writing Long

I was talking to a movie producer yesterday who has about eighty films to his credit, and he was telling me some war stories about how producers and directors had destroyed various actors’ careers. In one case, it was totally by accident. A child actor had graduated to his first starring role in his early twenties, and when he came on the set he acted a bit pretentious, refusing to take advice from his director, treating others with disdain, trying to steal every scene—the usual crud.

Rather than take him to task, the producer suggested to the director that they “give him his head,” the way that you allow a horse to go where it will at times, and then handle the problem in editing. The director did exactly that, and then in editing did his best to “cut the star out of the movie.” He said that he got creative, using the reaction shots from the wrong scenes, and so on. In the end, the movie worked quite well—enough to receive broad critical acclaim and land the young star in a larger movie.

But the actor’s career ended abruptly. The next producer fired the actor relatively early in the shoot, and the fallout in Hollywood was big enough so that the young star never worked again.

I was impressed with my producer friend’s diplomacy. It would have been very difficult to find yourself butting heads with the star of your movie, and then looking for ways to work around the problems that he had created.

Yet I realized that this is something that we do as writers all of the time. Very often, particularly early in a novel, you’ll find that certain characters are a bit long-winded, or you discover that they have problems that seem more intriguing than you wanted them to be, or you get in a mood to really explore a character’s inner life, or to describe a scene in such detail that it kills the pacing.

If you find yourself in one of these traps, don’t be afraid to follow your imagination. Just don’t follow it forever. We’ve all heard of authors who complain that one of their characters just sort of “took over the novel.”

I recall talking to a professional romance novelist who was on her eighth book. According to the outline she had sold to her publisher, her heroine was supposed to fall in love with a young Irish gentleman. Instead, the writer found that a stable boy became far more interesting—so much so that the heroine ran off with him in the end. The author complained bitterly when her editor rejected the novel, patiently explaining that “our readership demands that the love interest fit within the parameters we’ve given you.” She had to go back and rewrite the end.

Because I’ve seen so many people fall into this trap, I have to warn new authors against playing it completely loose. It’s easy to “turn off your internal editor” so much that your editorial skills become atrophied. That’s when you become a hack.

In other words, when first writing a scene, let your conversations go a little long. Let your characters repeat ideas. Spend some time over-describing your scene. You can cut out the deadwood in the end, leaving only the most vibrant of the living trees.

In fact, I often recommend that when you’re preparing to write a novel, that you create sketches that won’t be used in your book at all, developing a biography for your character, a background dossier.

Sometimes with major characters, I find helpful to “interview” a character. By this I mean, I sit down and visualize my character—the way he or she is pacing across the room, the tone of his or her voice, the character’s dress and mannerisms—then I fire questions at random and imagine my character’s responses. For example, in a recent novel I asked a character, “Why are you so attracted to women with dark eyes?” He explained, “When I was young, my brother found a fawn in the woods. Its mother had been killed, and it was starving, so we tried to nurse it back to health. I remember looking into its eyes and thinking, No woman has ever had eyes so beautiful. Even my wife’s eyes only come close.”

Where did the question come from? Somewhere deep in my subconscious. Where did the answer come from? Same place. Yet both the question and the answers surprised me.

Indeed, if you want to take this process one step further, one fun technique in this regard is to use the “casting director’s method for character selection.” That’s where you sit down and imagine that seven people have come to be interviewed for the role in your book. The only problem is, only one of them is just right for the role.

For example, you might be looking for the “handsome hero” for your book. But then you imagine that your heroes come. One might be twenty years too old for the job, and he’s a bit jaded. He’s looking for one last break. Another might be too ugly on the outside, yet so thoughtful and kind that he brings his own enigmatic charm to the table. The next is a sickly kid, a dreamer who is out of touch with reality.

So you interview each character, and if the chemistry is right, perhaps you pick someone that you hadn’t imagined using in the first place. Indeed, many literary writers would say that you must choose someone who doesn’t quite fit. Or maybe you take your handsome hero and give him some of the personality traits that you found in an alternate.

In any case, the point here is that when you’re writing, don’t be afraid to over-write, so long as you edit ruthlessly. In the end, your novel must display only the strongest of your work.

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