Tuesday, August 7, 2007

What We Writers Gotta Do

August 8, 2007

My wife and I--and hell, my kids, age 9 and 13--have had this discussion often enough: what's the best film Pixar has ever done? Of course, we all have our favorites, but I wander off the reservation a bit and bypass my favorite (The Incredibles) and throw out what I think is probably Pixar's best film--Monsters, Inc.

Here's why and it has real relevance to writers. And maybe it does to readers, too.

It is generally accepted that in terms of movies, TV shows, novels, stories, whatever, originality is pretty hard to come by. Everything we produce is pretty original because, ahem, WE are unique, and therefore everything we bring to our ideas and their execution is going to be original.

More or less.

But let's face it. With 180,000 books published every year in the US, most of us aren't really blazingly original. A mystery is a mystery is a mystery, etc. Somebody dies, somebody solves the crime, blah, blah, blah. Somebody does something awful and threatens to do something awful-er and our hero has to prevent it from happening. It's all our little nuances that make them original. It's like a car, I suppose. Four wheels, it gets you from A to B. Anything else, no matter your level of creativity--purple paint, rearview cameras, GPS, etc.--is just so much icing on the cake (and yeah, I'm aware I'm mixing metaphors).

So, why do I think "Monsters, Inc" is Pixar's best movie? Well, let me say that I think every single one of Pixar's feature-length films to-date are brilliantly executed. In fact, I think the screenplay for "Toy Story" is one of the finest scripts ever written (not that I have read every script or seen every movie ever made, but you know what I mean). I think "Finding Nemo" is an absolutely wonderful story, beautifully produced, lush and, etc, etc.

"The Incredibles" is just fun and it does what it does--a spin-off on super heroes, complete with suburban mid-life crisis--just about as well as anything out there.

But "Monsters, Inc." This movie is just plain original. There really ARE monsters in kids' closets, and they come from a different universe/dimension, they're mining the screams to power their world...

My point is that execution of a decent to good idea can carry us a long, long way. Most of Pixar's feature films are decent to good ideas executed brilliantly, and from what I can tell, you don't have to be a genius to execute something brilliantly. You just have to work hard and hone your craft. (It helps to keep your personal standards high, too).

Now, having a brilliant, original idea... that's a much, much harder thing to come by. And I suspect that the way to do that is, as multiple Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling famously said, is "have a lot of ideas and throw out the ones that aren't good."

Because if you can combine your brilliant execution with a brilliant, original idea, you get something like "Monsters, Inc."

And, of course, let's just point out that there was a gentleman doing some writing a few years back by the name of Bill Shakespeare, and most of his stories were NOT original. In fact, he was constantly ripping off other source material about family feuds and treacherous royalty and then executing his stories in his own, unique, brilliant fashion. And I guess he did okay while he was alive and even better, probably, after his death.


Mark Terry


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great post, Mark. And a wonderful point about execution carrying us a long way. How often have we all read stories with great possibilities only to have them fall flat because of execution? And how often have some of our own pet ideas fallen victim to that and so are shelved until we are ready to spend the time and gray matter necessary to bring them to life in a way that will make them sing on the page.

I have several book ideas in the initial draft stage that aren't quite up to snuff. Maybe I'll never have the inner spark to execute them well, so maybe they will never be published. But then again, one day they just might stand up, wave their little make-believe hands and say "it's my time ... now" and I will be able to see the full vision. But until I do see that vision and spark, it's on to other things.

Bill Cameron said...

Since you mentioned going on the reservation, I'd like to toss out a question that's off-topic but brought up by a comment you made.

How many books are REALLY published every year? And more importantly, how many of them are new fiction?

I mention this because you quote 180,000 books. I've seen that number before. I've also seen 150,000 and 220,000 and just about every number in between.

And I also think the same thing: huh? I mean, what do those numbers really mean?

I don't doubt that there are a lot of books being published, and I'm willing to accept that the number of new books each year is in excess of a hundred thousand. But details are important.

How many of those books are self-published non-fiction? How many are commercially published non-fiction? Of the fiction, how many are new editions of existing titles? (When Barnes & Noble publishes a "classics" edition of an existing novel, that would technically be a "new" book.) How many are actually published within the genres to which our potential readers might reasonably be attracted?

I mention this because whenever I see that giant number, whatever it happens to be that day, I feel like it's used to make a big scary point that isn't necessarily valid. "Jerbillions of books, oh my! How will I ever get noticed?" But I don't really hafta be noticed by people who are only looking for Beanie Baby price guides, or scholarly bibliographies of original sources relating to the English Civil War. Or whatever.

180,000 books is a lot, but I'm only concerned with a narrow subset of them.

Anyway, sorry for the digression. This has just been a peeve of mine for some time now.

Mark Terry said...

That's very reasonable. The 180,000, give or take, comes from, I believe, BookScan, which is the Nielsen's, the same folks who give us TV ratings. I imagine most of those 180,000 are nonfiction, and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of them are based entirely on ISBN numbers issued each year, which becomes an interesting subject, then.

Early this year I had published by Washington G-2 Reports a booklength business report called the "Laboratory Industry Strategic Outlook 2007." It runs approximately 200 pages or so, it has a copyright, an ISBN and sells for, I think, $1050 or so per copy. (Yeah, blows my mind, but there you go...). Does BookScan count this type of thing as a book? I think so. And does is count the numerous publications cranked out by the Federal government that are booklength? Quite possibly.

And does it count the Beanie Baby Buyers Guide and "189 Ways to Make Money Utilizing Belly-Button Lint"? And possibly company reports? And every piece of dreck that comes out of iUniverse and Lulu, etc.

Quite possibly.

I've heard the number of 500 mystery novels/year. I think that's low, but I would think that the number of legitimately published mysteries and thrillers published each year in the U.S. probably wouldn't number more than say, 2000 or 3000. Romances might be higher. SF is probably similar.

Felicia Donovan said...


Good question. I found the numbers at Bowker.com

Bottomline for 2006: 291,000 new titles published and 42,000 adult fiction titles. It did not delineate between traditional publishers and self-published or PODs.


Bill Cameron said...

291,000 is the biggest number I've yet seen.

It's hopeless!

But actually, without context, it's just a meaningless number. Even 42,000 fiction titles is meaningless without breakdowns.

What we know:

- a lot of books get published
- it's not easy to be noticed

But, getting back to the topic of the post, I'd say that what we can do to GET noticed among the many is write the best book we can. Originality when we encounter is almost always special, but even considering that there are:

- only 7 plots
- only 15 plots
- only 11 plots

(I've seen all three numbers cited as gospel.)

Anyway, given that there are only X number of plots, what makes our own stories special and distinctive (if not always unique) is what else we bring to the endeavor. Voice, theme, character. Old ideas can be seen in a fresh light, and drama and comedy found in new ways from old stories. As you say, Bill Shakespeare did exactly that. (I call him Bill because, well, I just assume he was a casual dood like me.)

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Great post, Mark. You know I've read that Shakespeare created a LOT of new words, but it's funny...most editors are NOT interested in that sort of creativity. Sigh.