Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Importance of Being Flexible

My mother just sent me a cartoon by Dave Coverly that reminded me very humorously what it means to be a writer, not just of fiction, but in any sense of the word. It shows a poor, hapless author sitting across the desk of an editor who is obviously reviewing her work. He says, "We loved all the words in your manuscript, but we were wondering if you could maybe put them in a completely different order."

Whether it is a news story, a script for a corporate video, or a manuscript, it isn't easy to have someone make changes to what I've written. After all, I labored and sweated and agonized over whatever it is that I wrote. It should be perfect. I want it to be perfect. I want my editor, reader or viewer to find it equally perfect.

And that so often is not the case.

Many years ago, when I began in television news with my cocky "I'm a Mizzou Journalism Grad" tattooed all over my ego, it led to some explosive outbursts of artistic temperament. (Translate that into kicked trash cans and arm cleared desktops and you'll get the picture.) My first lesson in biting my tongue and making changes was in writing to please a client when I worked on my first corporate video. I believe it was draft 10 of the script that finally gained approval... After all, if I didn't please them, I didn't get paid. Starvation is an incredible motivator in the art of flexibility.

In television news, deadlines often inhibit just how much perfection can be attained. "Just crank it out" is a common refrain. But working under deadlines did teach me to write fast and write right, if not always as poetically as I would like. Having the opportunity over the years to write and produce several specials and documentaries was the dessert after a steady diet of meat and vegetables.

Now, writing fiction, I have that luxury to take my time, to find just the right word, to rework a sentence or a scene until it flows as I like it. And guess what? It's still not perfect. But I now know that I can change what I've written. I am capable of it, and I'm willing to do it. And God bless the technology that now makes that infinitely easier than the days of typewriters and carbons!

But can flexibility go too far? Yes. The cartoon is a prime example of that. While I like to take the attitude that I can make almost any change for which an editor asks, there are times when I believe I must stand up for my characters. (Okay, yes, they are make believe people I have created from my own imagination, but they do take on a life and personality of their own). If I feel that a change is fundamentally in opposition to how a reader would expect this character to act, then I must defend my writing. Flexibility should work both ways. It is the give and take between an editor and an author that I believe results in the best product possible.

So ultimately, the important thing to remember is to be flexible, but not breakable.

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