Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What if it's a great story? Part 1

Blogger Susan in comments:

Question: Because it is something I am incredibly sensitive about (grammar and punctuation) how much does that influence you when passing on a project? It has to, of course, but if something isn't too bad but the story is phenomenal, would you still go for it?

Susan, good question! I got one of my own: What's a great story? (And eventually I'll probably meander into answering your question.)

Seems to me there are three possible "greats" which we'd be overjoyed to see in one manuscript. So here's Part 1, or Part A, anyway.

A) A great story idea. Hollywood-style "high concepts" might fall under this, and notice it's entirely possible -- in Hollywood-- to sell a great idea and little else, because the idea can be given to another writer and turned into a screenplay. "Treatments," I think, are often handled that way; it's understood that the sort of person who comes up with flashy, compelling ideas isn't necessarily the sort of person who can write well. It helps to secure a big-name actor's interest. You've got a great idea and Jude Law, you've probably got a sale (heck, you can get rid of the great idea then, and I'll still go to the movie :).

You'll see these great ideas in publishing too, but there usually isn't enough money in publishing to hire a writer to finish an idea, and also the idea-generator is often far more sensitive than the film counterpart and doesn't want any other writer messing with her idea. (Or it could be that Hollywood is better at soothing wounded writer feelings with $.)

Often it's the publisher staff-- editing or marketing-- that comes up with the great idea and then chooses a reliable writer or group of writers to develop the idea. This is often done as "work for hire," and the publisher owns the idea and the copyright, and no one in the mix makes Hollywood-style money. (And Jude Law doesn't come to the release party, alas.)

So what if you have a "great idea" and don't think you have the skills to develop it well? This happens frequently, because the sort of person who comes up with great ideas isn't necessarily a great or even good writer-- two different skills. I have read manuscripts that actually hurt me because the idea was wonderful but the story was lamely told and the mechanics were excruciating. It seemed like a lost opportunity.

So know your strengths. If you're getting rejections like, "What a great idea! However...." realize you're an idea-person. And do what they do in Hollywood-- devise a "treatment" for the idea and find someone to write it for you.

(Oh, yeah, you could learn to write better, and I think that's better longterm... but if this great idea has an expiration date, as so many great ideas do, a writerly education could take way too long.)

It's possible to write up a treatment, get a Hollywood agent, and sell the idea, and let the producer hire a writer. Somehow I suspect that's more difficult than I make it sound, especially that "get a Hollywood agent" part. But there's another book somewhere in this office (spent 10 minutes looking for it, and didn't find it, but I did find a couple other books I meant to read last year): Writing Treatments that Sell, by Atchity and Wong, and that might help more than I can. (My suggestion is more useful, perhaps-- Get Jude Law involved. The movie might not be made, but think of the hours of discussion....:)

Where was I? Oh, yeah. A great idea.
Or if this is a book and not a film (and there are some ideas which are "just book"), consider a collaborator. Just as inventors often have to unite with engineers to get their invention to work, great-idea generators might benefit from a collaboration with an experienced but not flashy writing craftsperson. Now this should not be undertaken lightly. There are a lot of legal issues involved, and there are many different variations of collaboration, and all these should probably be hammered out ahead of time. There was a book a few years ago called A Marriage of Minds by the McGoldricks, that deals with a lot of these issues. (I collaborated on a book with a friend, and we were quoted in the book. I don't think we were very form-fitting collaborators, as we have exactly the same strengths... we're both writers, not idea-generators.)

(Have you ever gone to a party and when someone asks, "What do you do?" you modestly allow that you're a novelist, and the asker says, "Oh! That's great! Hey, I have a great idea-- how about I tell you about it, you write it up, and we'll split the royalties?" And you're thinking, sounds like I do all the work, and it's even more disheartening to hear the idea and learn it's not great at all, just some trite thing about how he got divorced and went skiing and met his soulmate up there on the mountain.)

It does take a surrender of ego to realize that you are not always the best person to develop a great idea and go looking for help. But it also takes the craftsperson a surrender of ego to realize... maybe I'm just a craftsperson, great at carpentry but not design. Could be a marriage made in heaven, if both collaborators respect the other's contribution.

But at least the great idea could achieve successful fruition, even if you're not the whole tree. :)

Other parts to come, but I gotta get some paid work done first!


Susan said...

Sorry, was getting covered in horse hair (they are shedding).

I see what you are getting at - are you an ideas person or a writer?

Umm. I would say I am a writer with ideas. I admit it isn't an easy process for me. I'm not a particularly linear thinker so it is something I have to work hard at - the 'whole' if you like. And I think that is where published writers and writers separate.

The ability to convey that wonderful idea and create the characters to go with it is an art. Movie-wise you can create great backdrops and sound to emphasise tension and conflict. Book-wise you have to weave that through a story.

Personally I am prepared to keep working at the writing on my own - or rather with the help of wonderful reviewers and friends - until I get it right. I don't think I am far off. I am not a masochist. Yes, I would write whether I got published or not, but I've had enough responses to know that folk enjoy what I write. I've had a couple of stories published and had good feedback from those, so...

I think, in other words, I've 'got' it, and isn't that blowing my own trumpet, but learning the craft has been a slow and difficult process for me. Actually, looking at published authors' blogs, that is always an on-going process. You get 'better' or you get complacent and I love the craft of the whole thing too much for that.

I think, too, we really don't know when we go into writing with the aim of publication, the process. Writing the story is just the beginning. The querying, the synopses, the waiting, the rejection, even the marketing and networking, we don't think about that. We just write.


Dave Shaw said...

Would it be all right if I substitute Jessica Alba or Keira Knightley for Jude Law? ;-)

Seriously, I like writing, I like learning to write better, and in my own estimation my ideas are good, but not quite great enough for that Hollywood agent to line me up with Keira (not that I'd say no if she made herself available), so I think I'll keep plugging away and see if I can make this work. At least my trash is unlikely to cross Alicia and Theresa's desks, unless they change genres...

Edittorrent said...

Dave, yes, that would be fine-- leaves more Jude Law for the rest of us.:)

Susan, that's only part 1. Or Part A. There are other possibilities. I hope I remember what they are...

makoiyi said...

I hope you do remember. Interesting conversation - thanks!