Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Speed Racer and Editing

Okay, let me just start out by saying that Speed Racer is pretty much exactly what everyone is saying.

Here are some quotes that I think some up the movie, both good and “bad.”

“There is something freeing about watching this movie because it establishes early on that it's not playing by certain cinematic rules.” Eric Melin, http://www.scene-stealers.com/

“The brutal sensory overload is coupled with a plot that starves the brain, a recycling of the silliness of the TV show unleavened by any saving hint of postmodern irony.” Frank Swietek , One Guy's Opinion

“The arty blockbuster has arrived, and it's as flashy, accessorized and auto-erotic as can be. Which creates a strange sensation indeed, that it's not just the cars that are smoking, but those Wachowski brothers as well, and whatever's in their pipes too.” Prairie Miller,

“Speed Racer may very well give your brain diabetes, and I state that as compliment.” Rob Humanick, Projection Booth

Now my take. I loved it. My kids, ranging in ages from eight-year-old son to twenty-year-old daughter loved it. My wife even loved it. Why? Because we didn’t go into the theater looking for a “hint of postmodern irony”—whatever the heck that is. We didn’t go to the movie looking for a deep and meaningful plot.

Speed Racer was a cartoon that lasted for one year. The very fact that so many of us Boomers remember it says something about the show. But it was a silly cartoon. It didn’t have deep meaningful messages. It had car races. It had bad guys. It had fights. It had cool car crashes and neat stuff on the race cars.

The producers of Speed Racer the movie could have taken the tack of trying to turn it into a “serious” movie. After all, these are the guys that brought us The Matrix movies. But they knew that would have ruined the show. Instead, they take a tongue-in-cheek view of the old cartoon and combine it with some effects that literally are so incredible they almost make you sick. (Brian, don’t bring your little brother.) If you go in looking for “sensory overload”, “flash”, and a movie that will both make you laugh and have you gripping the edge of your seat, you will love this movie. I, personally, have never seen anything like it before, and I will definitely go see it again.

My only compliant was that they didn’t play the original theme song until pretty much the end of the credits.

Now to answer the second part of Deren’s question.

I know that many authors hate working with an editor. Writing a book is such a personal thing. You do it privately, struggling to get the scenes that work so well in your head onto the paper. Then it sees the light of day and everyone who reads it finds flaws. For writers with thin skin, that can be almost unbearable. It’s worse than someone saying your kid is ugly. It’s like someone saying your kid is ugly, and she got her looks from you. Ouch!

But here’s the thing. Would you want to watch a movie in which the same person was the director, the writer, the main actor, the editor, sang the theme song, and did the lighting? No. It would be terrible. An artist can get away with doing a painting by himself because it is one scene. And even then it doesn’t always work.

But an author has to deal with multiple characters both big and small, many interlocking scenes, plot, dialog, new creatures and civilizations, grammar, flow, sentence structure, and a million other things. How can you possibly look at all of that objectively when you’ve seen it both in your imagination and on paper hundreds of times. It’s impossible to see your story with completely fresh eyes even if you put it on a shelf for six months.

So you know you need outside people to look it over. But not all readers are created the same. I like paintings. I have purchased paintings. I’ve been to art museums. I could look at two paintings and tell you which one I like better. But I could not at first glance tell you which painting is worth millions and which is worth a hundred dollars. (Good thing I’m not an art investor huh?) So it would be foolish for a painter to bring me her work and ask for my opinion. All I could really say is whether I like it or not. I couldn’t give the artist the feedback she needs to know even if it is a quality piece of work or not. And I definitely couldn’t point out what areas need what type of work.

That’s where a good editor comes in. Now let me give you an overview of what Water Keep has been through since its inception. First I wrote it. I don’t recommend beginning writers edit as they go. Some author or the other said you can’t edit what you haven’t written. So get the thing done first. With that being said, I do edit while I write. Every day, before I begin writing, I read over what I wrote the last day and make changes until it feels right.

After I finish it, I take my writing to a seven person critique group. They often read it in pieces on a weekly basis. But after it’s done, they read it as a whole. Usually there is at least two weeks of rewrites there. Then I gave it to Lisa Mangum. It was through her that my manuscript was given to Chris Schoebinger. But before Lisa gave it to Chris, she gave me a bunch of suggested changes. Then Chris gave me his changes. Then he passed it to a group of kids to read, and gave me even more changes.

Once I’d made all of those changes, I sent it to some author friends who had never read it in any earlier stage. These are authors who read the genre, are comfortable giving me honest feedback, and that I know well enough to trust. After their changes, it went to the committee, and then actual editor. (Lisa had been sick and fallen behind on other projects.) Again more changes.

Reading how many times the manuscript had to be changed, you’d probably think the original writing was a piece of garbage. But the thing is, almost nothing in the main storyline changed at all. There were zero key plot changes. Stephen King compares writing a book to uncovering a fossil. What all the feedback did was give me clues to places where I had not uncovered the fossil as completely as I could have.

Now don’t get the idea that I took all of the advice everyone offered. Or even that most of the advice included actual fixes. It didn’t. The feedback I got was far more likely to be of this sort. “I don’t understand why character A was able to do x,y, and z without a wand.” Or, “I was really hoping that when the [creature name] attacked character a, he would have used a, b, and c.” Or even just, “The beginning of chapter 13 was a little slow.”

As an author, it is my job to look through the feedback, decide was has merit, and then—and this may be the hardest part to do well—figure out what the real problem is. Does my character really need a wand, or did I just forget to include a key piece of information about magic back in chapter 3? Does it help make the story more exciting or detract from the pace if I add more to the battle?

In general, the fixes I tend to look for the most are: overuse of certain words, phrases, or sentence structures, anything even remotely boring, issues requiring more clarification, and any point where success is achieved to easily. It’s hard to catch yourself when you start using one word a lot. It’s like it gets stuck in your brain. It’s also hard to know whether you communicated clearly what was inside your head. Many times I’ve had a reader complain about one thing only to realize the real problem was something else entirely.

For example, let’s say the reader tells me he doesn’t believe my unicorn would really be that unkind to my princess. (These are all just examples by the way. There is no unicorn or princess in my book) When I look at the scene, the unicorn seems very nice. I could make the unicorn sickeningly sweet, I could ignore the comment, or I could reread the scene trying to figure out why the reader thought the unicorn was mean. Upon rereading the section, I discover that I never made it clear that the Unicorn can only speak in riddles at night. That’s why it appeared the unicorn was being rude. The reader found a problem, but I had to find the actual fix.

One other thing I focus on a lot is anything to make the story more compelling. The “wow” factor in fantasy is huge. Think of all the cool scenes you remember from Harry Potter. Almost all of those are “wow” scenes. If I can make a creature just a little nastier, a battle just a little more intense, or a magical item a little more fantastic, I’m all over that.

One thing I have found is that most editors don’t care how you fix the problem. They just want to make sure you recognize that there is a problem and that you address it. For me personally, I like all the qualified feedback I can get. I’m about to put 40,000+ copies of my book out before the public. I want it to me the most highly polished gem it can be. There are plenty of things people can find to dislike, why give them more?

Okay, everyone. I'm out of questions. What would you like to talk about?


Anna said...


Mesa has a question for you....something I've just kind of started wondering about. Saturday night, I got these two great scene ideas.
Sunday I sketched them out. Sunday night I wrote a longer draft of them. I thought they were pretty cool...I don't know that I've written anything as bold as those.

A lot of the time, I just get scenes in my head. I don't get the whole story at once, and I sure don't get it in order! How do you connect them? How do you fix it so that they can go together?

Like....for example. Let's pretend I'm writing a fantasy story (I actually am, but a DIFFERENT fantasy story).

I have a scene flash for the end of the book of a person dying.

Then I have a scene flash for the middle of the book where two kids meet, and then at the first, I have this image of a couple of bad guys plotting something.

Those are completely ridiculous examples, but you get the point right? How do you connect all of those scenes? Do you just make yourself think really hard, skip over those boring parts, or wait until you get yourself inspired to write the whole thing?

When I think up scenes, I usually go ahead and put them in one of my outline files and write a draft of them. I always have so much fun...I can hardly stop. But a lot of the narrative in the story gets to where you're bored and you don't want to go any further because it doesn't interest.

I think I'm asking you how to connect the little movies in your head together and make a plot out of it, or something. I hope I'm making sense.

natasha said...

its so depressing to see speed racer crash and burn like that..i really expected it to kick iron man off the charts..check out this crazy stand up comedy clip i found about crappy cars..wonder if speed would look just as hot riding one of these..funniest thing ive seen in months

Brian said...

Wow. I still don't really want to see Speed Racer. I still looks kinda silly. Either way, I had no clue that the book had to be edited that many times. I can't wait to read your book and Anna's book.

Anna said...

Gosh Brian, I haven't even finished it yet! But thanks for saying so. I have no idea when I"ll finish it, how long it will take, when I'll ever get it published...but SOMEDAY....I'm determined. If I have to go through more than a hundred rejections, I'll get it done. :D

Thanks for wanting to read it.

I also cannot wait to read Scott's book.

I think Speed Racer looks kind of cool, but don't think I'll go see it in the theater. I like how crazy the colors are! I think it'll be fun to rent.

patrick said...

The Wachowski bros certainly put a lot of effort into making Speed Racer... but the movie overall looked and felt like a cross between anime, a kaleidoscope, that Flintstones movie, a video game and the Dukes of Hazard

Scene-Stealers said...

Great comments--and hey, thanks for the quote! You bring up a great point. It IS silly, and the warmth of the movie is as fake and exaggerated as everything else. It's perfect for the tone of the film. It fits right in. This kitschy approach, however, alienates people who "serious" films. Thank God the Wachowskis DIDN'T do that again after the miserable failure of the last two Matrix movies. This time they consciously avoid overbearing serious narrative, and they are punished by a public whose popular culture won't accempt campy behavior. Oh ell. I'm excited to see it again in IMAX.

Worldbuilder Robin said...

Here's a question:

How far do you go in creating your world? How much do you know about how Farworld works, especially things like its history, cultures, magic system, ecology, etc.?

I'm at the point in my novel where I'm torn between creating a lush world for my story to take place in, and just writing the thing (again). My wife believes that what I have is a great start, but it needs the details to really flesh it out. I tend to agree with her, but how much is too much? Will I end up writing my world's version of The Silmarilion before I get anything decent done?

So, how much about your world do you know?

Deren said...


I trust you'd rather hear from Scott about background and world-building, but here's something to tide you over while you wait.

As with just about everything else related to writing, I think the answer depends on 1) what you need to feel confident in telling the story, and 2) what kind of story you're trying to tell.

The one non-negotiable requirement for fantasy is that you have to know the all the details of the elements in your story that go beyond reality, and always follow the rules you establish for those elements (e.g., a magic system).

Beyond that, the level of detail in your history and landscape really does depend on the story. Narnia has a mythic (some might say doctrinal) context and so we neither know nor care about the succession of kings or their border squabbles. Lord of the Rings is about specific events in specific places and so the history is crucial. And in the Xanth novels, the history and landscape are little more than stage dressing. [See Scott's article about MICE in Your Stories.]

In addition to the material your reader sees in the story, there's the question of what you need to tell your story confidently. Where writers of realistic stories can rely on common knowledge, the author of a fantasy has to work out what knowledge would be common among his characters. In my own project, I felt compelled to take my timeline back 5 billion years. I don't say that to boast, but to illustrate what I felt I needed to do to be able to tell my story with confidence.

Anna said...

like deren said: you would probably rather hear from scott than me, but here's my take:

the more details behind your world, the better. Even if you don't say a thing about it in the book, or even if it just becomes a huge pile of notes. I think it makes the world more real....and besides, someday, when you are famous, you'll have all of these goodies that people will want to read. I'm so excited about the huge stack of books about Middle-Earth that I haven't read yet! But that's just me. Some people want something easy and fast-paced. Others like to delve deep. I dive deep with Tolkien. His world is so complicated! I think it would be so cool if I could ever write my world's version of the Silmarillion.