Sacred Cows

You remember Tootsie?  That movie that had Dustin Hoffman in it – the one when he got the soap opera gig?  Yeah, well, there’s this scene in the middle of it somewhere when he’s talking to his buddy, and they’re discussing this scene in a play the guy is trying to get produced.

“You know what’s wrong with that scene?” (I”m going from memory here.)

“What, the necktie scene?  That’s a great scene!  What’s wrong with the necktie scene.  Nothing.”

“It’s the necktie.  The necktie is what’s wrong with it  . . .”

There is some amazing law in the universe that can be put roughly this way:

The chances that a piece of writing you have done is sucky rise in direct proportion to the affection you have for it.

One of my writer buddies (wouldn’t it be fun to go ex-patriot together?) told me once about this woman in a writing group he was part of.  Writing groups are – groups of people who write – and then bring what they’ve done and somehow, everybody reads everybody else, and then they give constructive criticism – ACTUALLY, I don’t really know, as I have never been in one.  I THINK that’s what goes on at these things.  But the point is, this woman was working on a book she felt had been DICTATED TO HER BY HEAVEN.  And she was not willing to change a single WORD.  And the manuscript was – predictably – AWFUL.

Granted, all artists are a little weird.  Some are very weird, but very good at what they do (and do we all register on the autism scale?  And are some of us close to idiot-savant?).  But others—and there are so very many of these –  are very, very weird and very, very, very bad at what they do.  While managing to be absolutely confident of their own brilliance.  If you don’t believe me, watch the So You Think You Can Dance auditions episodes.

Or, as Star Trek put it: “If there’s nothing wrong with ME, there must be something wrong with the universe.”  (Which, *cough*, actually happened to be true in that episode.)

The question always has to be: is that me up there, looking like a total idiot and being taken totally by surprise that people are looking at me like that?

On the other hand, most of the brilliant artists I know do NOT think they are all that brilliant are generally surprised that anybody actually likes them, and as their popularity grows, so does their worry that they’re actually not any good and someday, somebody’s going to figure that out and they’ll be dumped and forgotten and die unknown and be buried in a mass grave in acidic ground.  Which actually happens to most famous people in the end.  Not the buried part, but the forgotten part.  I mean – not to everybody.  But – well, to the pretty ones, anyway.

(There was actually a study done a few years ago – the chance that you did well on an exam tends to be in INDIRECT proportion of your self-assessment.)

What I’m trying to say here is that EVERYBODY will have an opinion about what you are writing  – and some of them are going to be right.  If you’re working with a publisher or a professor and your goal is being published of keeping up your GPA, you have to listen.  Or no – you don’t have to listen, but you don’t get the contract or the grade.  If you write for yourself alone — knock yourself out.  But don’t stress other people by making them read you – and then telling them they don’t know what they’re talking about when they tell you what they actually think.

It really is a tough thing – telling what parts are good, and what needs to be cut.  What you need to find are intelligent readers  – two or three of them (not like my husband, who can’t tell characters apart if their names start with the same letter) – and listen.  And learn.  And keep reading the good stuff.

And when you’re finished with your manuscript, cut it down by thirty percent.

Yeah.  That’ll teach you.




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