What music and movies can teach writers about listening to revision advice

You might have heard that different types of creative writing require different approaches: what makes a good novel isn’t the same as what makes a good short story, a good poem, or a good film.

While this is certainly true, I think the distinctions between different forms of creative writing are over-emphasized.  Despite differences in presentation, length, and form there is a lot in common among different forms of art, particularly in terms of process, and a lot that can be learned across boundaries.

In this context, let’s discuss what fiction writers can learn from music and movies in regard to revision suggestions from first readers, agents, and editors.

Lend Me An Example – I Am Your Neighbor

Since it can be difficult to get a peek inside the process of professional artists, to see how they take suggestions for revision, it might be better to start with an external form of revision: the musical remake.

Outkast’s Hey Ya!, which was a smash success both critically and in sales, is one of the most remade songs in history measured in remakes per year.  Therefore it’s a perfect example for exploring the value of revision.

I want to distinguish four aspects in how OutKast presented this song — all of which, by the way, are fantastic and have been highly praised by critics more qualified than I am.  The first three are all well-matched: the beat is catchy and danceable; the attitude (including the call-and-response) is very out-going and pushes a lot of energy; and the video puts a snappy, retro face to the whole package.

The core lyrics, however, are quite sober, pained, and introspective.  There is a melancholy in them that contrasts sharply with the rest of the song’s pop-snazzy production.  Stripped of André 3000’s (impressive) vocal stunts, the two verses of the song are:

My baby don’t mess around because she loves me so,
__and this I know for sure.
But does she really want to,
__but can’t stand to see me walk out the door?
Don’t try to fight the feeling,
__because the thought alone is killing me right now.
Thank God for mom and dad for sticking two together,
__because we don’t know how.

You think you’ve “got it,”
__but “got it” just don’t get it until there’s nothing at all.
We stick together,
__but separate’s always better when there’s feelings involved.
If what they say is “nothing is forever,”
__then what makes love the exception?
Why are we so in denial when you know we’re not happy here?

After the second verse, André explicitly gives up on the mood of the lyrics and gives in to the beat, literally: “Y’all don’t want to hear me, you just want to dance.”

As I mentioned, Hey Ya! has been remade multiple times, but one of the most popular is Obadiah Parker’s remake of the song.  Using only vocals, acoustic guitars, and a piano, this toned-down version captures the lyrics’ resigned mood toward social change and human nature far better than the original.

Mat Weddle, the band’s vocalist, does make a show of going through the call-and-response after the verses are finished but, without the response, “what’s cooler than being cool?” sounds more like a comment on the pretense of emotional detachment than a sly way of working André Benjamin’s other stage name (Ice Cold) into the song.

Listen to the two versions long enough, and the original starts to sound like a campy, irreverent remake.

Don’t get me wrong, the OutKast version a great tune, but it would be a great tune even without the core lyrics, even if it were nothing but the beat, the refrain, the call-outs, and the break down. In other words, there are two great tunes in there, one of them crushed under the other’s weight.

It took someone else to drag that suppressed song out and give it its own proper expression.  And, what we can take from that is that outsiders absolutely can respect and help develop aspects of an artist’s creativity.

And Don’t Call Me Sugar!

But, one might reasonably object, does this same dynamic apply to fiction? After all, taken by themselves, the lyrics of Hey Ya! are more of a musical essay than a ballad.  Wouldn’t a story-teller have far better insight into her own stories than anyone else?

We don’t have very many “remakes” of great novels; the current spat of so-called “mash-ups” notwithstanding. But, we do have adaptations of great novels as films.

The cliché (I’m using the hell out of that “e acute” in this blog) critique of a film adapted from a novel is that the book was better, but I suspect this is because people are hesitant to speak out in defense of film adaptation for a swarm of reasons: because film is considered more vulgar than books; because film adaptations are by nature derivative and therefore somehow undeserving; because Hollywood is powerful and doesn’t need defending.

However, I suspect film-makers often get things right that writers get wrong, and I can think of at least one concrete example of a line of dialogue vastly improved in adaptation, in a story for which both the novel and the film were well-received.

When we think of the film version of Gone With The Wind, there are tons of memorable lines we could use as examples (including the title of this section), but most of us quote Rhett’s iconic exit at the plantation door: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

But, in Margaret Mitchell’s original novel, this line was less climactic, lacking the dismissive “Frankly” and delivered quietly as part of an ongoing conversation rather than capping off a fierce argument.

Did the film adaptation get it better than the novel? Clearly, considering its cultural legacy: the line was voted the #1 film quote of all time by the American Film Institute for a reason.

Could Mitchell’s manuscript have benefited from the sort of revision advice that informed the film adaptation?  I would say Yes.

And, I would say this is as good an example as any of the value of such advice.  Writers should take heed, and pay close attention to what their first readers, agents, and editors have to say.

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