*The following article was originally published on the excellent THe GaL iN THe BLue MaSK blog.
Writing Advice #4: The Sydney Pollack Test
The following thoughts represent the fourth installment of an ongoing series of articles featuring writing advice from a man who knows far less than others do about writing and publishing. I’m not claiming to be an expert, but I do like to be helpful, and if I help one aspiring writer with my ramblings, it will have been worth it. Since I can’t go back and speak to my younger self, I guess helping others learn lessons I had to learn later on is the next best thing.
Let me tell you about one of my favorite movies.
Tootsie clocks in at #2 on the American Film Institute list of best comedies. It stars Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange, and was directed by the brilliant Sydney Pollack, who hails from a town only five minutes away from where I now live. So there’s that.
Anyway, Pollack is not only the director of Tootsie, he’s a supporting player. Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey, who is perhaps the most difficult actor on the planet. Pollack plays George Fields, Michael’s agent. In an early scene, Michael and George have an exchange that is more than merely funny; for me, the clashing dialogue signaled a transformative moment in my writing career (exchange courtesy of the Internet Movie Database):
George Fields: Where do you come off sending me your roommate’s play for you to star in? I’m your agent, not your mother! I’m not supposed to find plays for you to star in – I’m supposed to field offers! And that’s what I do!
Michael Dorsey: ‘Field offers?’ Who told you that, the Agent Fairy? That was a significant piece of work – I could’ve been terrific in that part.
George Fields: Michael, nobody’s gonna do that play.
Michael Dorsey: Why?
George Fields: Because it’s a downer, that’s why. Because nobody wants to produce a play about a couple that moved back to Love Canal.
Michael Dorsey: But that actually happened!
George Fields: WHO GIVES A SHIT? Nobody wants to pay twenty dollars to watch people living next to chemical waste! They can see that in New Jersey!
Okay, my apologies for the profanity, and from here on out I’ll write $&#% instead of the aforementioned curse, but I included the bad word for a reason. Essentially, George Fields’s bellowed “WHO GIVES A $&#%?” runs through my mind every day I edit one of my stories.
Here’s a fact: You aren’t objective about your own writing.
Sure, you might be more objective than other writers are about their stuff, but even so, do you really believe you can dispassionately look at your work and judge its quality better than, say, an expert editor can? I say no, but as I mentioned above, I’ve been wrong before.
Moving forward, though, where does this leave you? I think it leaves you with a need to become as ruthless as you can be with your own work. My own editing process involves (at minimum) eighteen slow and laser-specific passes through a manuscript, each time examining a different facet of the story.
But there are certain global, ubiquitous guidelines that I carry with me during each one of my eighteen rounds. One of them is the Sydney Pollack Test. In other words, I’m always ready to pounce on my own work with the bellowed question “WHO GIVES A $&#%?”
See, I don’t believe in rules for writing—I believe in guidelines. Because every single “rule” can be broken if it’s broken the right way by the right writer at the right moment in the right story. One size never fits all. But one guideline I try to adhere to is to make every one of my scenes (and I’m FREQUENTLY examining specific scenes and treating them as separate entities) either a) reveal character, b) advance the plot, or c) both (this is preferable).
What this approach helps me to do is to isolate scenes, paragraphs, lines, or even words that are there for some other reason than the aforementioned a, b, or c. Maybe a dialogue exchange was really snappy. Perhaps I like a specific sensory detail. Often it was just a matter of falling in love with my own use of language (I’m engaged in a passionate, lifelong affair with words, and that sometimes leads me to cozy up to a turn of phrase when that turn of phrase doesn’t really belong in the story).
But honestly, poetic passages are pretty pointless if they bog down the plot. Or if they create an aura of stasis around your protagonist. I’ve read books in which the author’s philosophies about cars, about politics, about yak husbandry in Tibet pop up for no other reason than that the author loves to ramble on about them. But if those ramblings have nothing to do with the characters, then those ramblings have nothing to do with the story. And anything that isn’t the story needs to go.
Or, to be less artful about it, “WHO GIVES A $&#%?”
No one cares (except you) that the 1967 Corvette was the best Corvette ever, so if you include a two-page dissertation on the 1967 Corvette, it better darn well be advancing your plot or revealing a fundamental truth about one of your characters. No one cares that a particular adjective is lovely if the adjective sticks out like a sore thumb. “But I’m really proud of that adjective,” you say. “It has a poetic ring!”
WHO GIVES A $&#%? your inner Sydney Pollack needs to shout. Cut the darned thing out before your reader nods off!
And even fewer people care about the mating habits of Tibetan yaks. Unless they’re Tibetan yak owners. Or possessed of some weird yak kink.
George Meets Dorothy
I remember watching the extras on the Extended Edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring DVD and hearing Peter Jackson talk about the agonizing process of turning what was a couple hundred hours of footage into a three-hour movie. There were beautiful scenes in Rivendell, powerful character moments with Gandalf, heartfelt and tender moments between Aragorn and Arwen.
Each cut was excruciating for Peter Jackson and his editor.
Until they experienced an epiphany. The story, at least in the first film, is really about Frodo. And don’t try to tell this hardcore Ringer about Aragorn’s destiny and Gandalf’s backstory and all the other aspects of the LOTR mythos because I know about them, and I geek out about every bit of that stuff. But despite my love for the other characters and their journeys, I have to admit that the tale really does depend on Frodo. Once Jackson and company realized this, their cuts became much easier. Anything that was not Frodo’s story became expendable, no matter how great the performance, no matter how fantastic the writing.
The Ring-Bearer and Story-Bearer
So when you edit, you must find the story, and everything that is not the story must go. One of the methods by which I determine this is the Sydney Pollack Test.
Lest you think I’m just spouting off here instead of speaking from experience, earlier today I opened a file called “DUST DEVILS Cuts.” For those of you unfamiliar with this title, DUST DEVILS is my brand-new vampire western. It is a story of which I’m extremely proud, and one that has garnered stunning reviews in its first few weeks on shelves. The “DUST DEVILS Cuts” folder is over eighteen thousand words long, while the novel itself runs about eighty thousand words. So, in essence, I excised about a fifth of the story I had written in my first draft over the course of my many edits. I also changed or altered the majority of what remained. And through it all, Sydney Pollack was perched on my shoulder, bespectacled eyes aglitter, always eager to bellow “WHO GIVES A $&#%?” to prevent me from intruding on my story, to curtail my desire to hotrod around showing off my vocabulary.
Most of all, to save me from myself.
So remember to be ruthless. Remember to be sure that someone other than you will care about a scene, a paragraph, a sentence, or a word. Remember to be like Sydney Pollack.
And if any of you are in the mood to watch the glorious exchange on which this blog post is based, it’s right here. If you haven’t read DUST DEVILS yet, you can check it out here or anywhere else books are sold.