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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

on (mis)guidance

A couple of days "off". We just passed the B.C. Day long weekend, and I extended that by a day yesterday, at least as far as posting to this blog goes. Now I'm back at it.

A writer, like any other artist, any other worker for that matter, needs to know how to go about the task. There seem to be three basic components to this knowledge: tools (alphabet, words, grammar); instruction (guidance from the experienced practitioner); and examples (existing written works).

In my experience, one needs to be careful about what instruction to accept. There are "experts" in the field who will steer you wrong--not intentionally, but simply because their advice is not appropriate for you. I think about reading advice articles by literary agents, in which some stressed the importance of "writing for the market"--that is, writing things that are similar to what is selling to publishers at the moment. This might be OK advice for certain kinds of writers, but it is poison for others, in my opinion. If you follow wrong advice, it's like following wrong directions to your destination: the more time you spend following it, the farther off course you are.

The lesson, as far as I'm concerned, is this. When it comes to advice, disregard the supposed authority of the dispenser of it, and pay attention to how the advice makes you feel. Does it inspire you? Do you get a "yes" feeling somewhere in your core? Is the person giving voice to a feeling you already had in you anyway? If so, then it's probably good advice for you, and you should take it.

On Saturday night Kimmie and I watched the movie Toy Story again (for, I think, the fourth time). On our new digital TV it was especially good. As with all high-quality movies, I enjoyed it more this time than on previous viewings. After the movie we watched a couple of the accompanying "special features", one of which was a gathering of the four main guys on the creative team, 10 years after the movie's release (which was in 1995). I felt a real kinship with these guys, and their experiences echoed some of my own from my television days.

Unlike live-action films, animated movies are not simply written; the original words are sketched out as pictures before the "story" is regarded as created. Preliminary animations are done of characters and scenes, to try things out. The animators in this case, working for Pixar, were making the movie for Disney. As they developed their script and characters, Disney executives would review the work and give them "notes" (industry term for feedback). The animators, most of whom were working on their first feature film, diligently tried to follow the advice they received. When the time came to screen a preliminary version of the show for the executives, the film fell flat. It was unfunny and uninvolving.

The executives realized that a drastic cure was needed: the filmmakers would have to go over to Disney, where they could be supervised more closely by the executives. The director, John Lasseter, realizing that this would be the death of their project, begged for two weeks in which he and his team could turn the show around on their own. The execs, realizing that this was impossible, indulged him.

The team worked frantically for two weeks. They were going to roll the dice, and this time, do it "our way". They still made use of the feedback they'd gotten so far, but used it critically, following only those tips that they really agreed with. This is what reminded me of working on The Odyssey. Warren and I developed our own policy with regard to network "notes": if a suggestion improved a script, write it in. If it made no difference to the script, write it in (humor them). But if we felt that a suggested change was for the worse, we would ignore it or, if necessary, fight back.

You can guess the outcome. In two weeks the Toy Story team delivered a much snappier, funnier, more original prototype, and earned the right to keep working on their movie in their own studio. The resulting movie of course was a major hit.

An artist in training needs guidance and teaching, but at the same time, an artist must be free of authority, which smothers creativity and originality. It's a difficult balance, I think--but it must be found.

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