AN MbC MUST-READ: Ten Steps to Overnight Success… (part 5)

5) Play nice with others.


If you are trying to write for yourself — a book or a story that you are writing as some form of private psychotherapy, or just as a form of enjoyment that you never intend for anyone to read — then you can do whatever you want. But if you are writing the great American novel, or the next blockbuster movie, or next year’s bestseller, the reality is that your first draft is not going to make it through unscathed and unchanged. It will be pored over by executives whose jobs it is to find out what is wrong with your work in order to have an excuse to turn it down. This is because nothing will get an executive fired faster than backing a major flop. So it is natural that they will want something that is as commercially viable as they can make it.


This means you will be given notes. It also means that you will probably have to change things.


This is not to say that you relinquish all control. I have been in many story meetings where a story executive has made a suggestion for “a change or two.” Meaning that he thought the ghost should be less scary. Like Casper. Or a dog. In fact, the story should actually be about Lassie. But Lassie should maybe be a Leprechaun who grants wishes to orphans. And why aren’t there any orphans in this thing, anyway? Or dragons? Everyone knows that dragons sell. Or maybe not. But for sure the main character should have a scar on his forehead. But not a lightning bolt. That’s too on-the-nose.


Get the picture?


This happens more often with movies than with publishing, but it happens more the more money is involved.


And no matter how this event occurs, I have a tried-and-true method for dealing with such “contributions.” First, I calmly and sincerely thank the person for his ideas, then ask him to explain them to me. I have found that in the majority of circumstances the ideas, if not completely helpful, contain a kernel of truth that will end up improving the story. If the story exec thinks the magicians should be more like dogs, it may be because the “rules” of the fantasy have not been clearly set forth (more on this below), whereas the “rules” by which dogs live are simple and easy to understand. Message taken: clarify your magic system. And for bringing that to my attention, I thank (sincerely!) the story exec.


Occasionally, the person making such remarks will not be able to explain why he holds this point of view. In that case, I thank him (always thank people!) for his comments, then state something along the lines of “While I see where you’re going with the dog idea — and if that’s the way we all decide to go, then I can definitely work with that — I worry that it might change the novel/screenplay/story/haiku into something different…something that loses the very qualities you all loved enough to get together in this room to talk about.”


Usually this ends with the story remaining unchanged, and a story editor or creative exec who is now my friend because I just acknowledged that his idea had merit in front of his peers and bosses.


It pays to have friends. Compromise is a large part of writing for a large audience. Even Charles Dickens responded to readers’ suggestions when doing serial publications of his books.


Can we do any less?