Rock of Ages – A Cautionary Tale of Editing Gone Bad

~ By Elle Filz

So, if you haven’t heard, the movie version of Rock of Ages flopped at the box office over Father’s Day Weekend.  Apparently, it came as a shock to everyone involved, and I’m guessing some studio execs are currently out of some jobs due to the financial disaster the failure inflicted on Warner Bros.

I’m a huge fan of the original Broadway show, so when I bought my ticket on opening day, I was excited to see how the fast-paced, totally rocking, nothing-but-a-good-time theater experience would translate to the big screen.  Short story: it didn’t.  And as the two hours unfolded, I sat back and realized that what Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo, and Allan Loeb did to D’Arienzo’s original Broadway book is exactly how so many authors manage to ruin their manuscripts during the editing phase.

Editing, the moment between the end of the first draft and turning the book in for publication, can make or break the novel in question. If you’re conservative, a few minor tweaks or a well-planned plot change can make the book sparkle like the lights in the Hollywood hills.  All too-often, though, editing quickly descends into a maddening phase called “book-licking.” Like a cat moving from spot to spot, grooming her body with no apparent rhyme or reason, book licking involves the author jumping around in the editing phase fixing “just one more thing.”  Eventually, the cat (and the book) is left with bald patches, and everyone agrees that it’s time for a cone of shame.

Nobody likes the cone of shame.

It’s too late for Rock of Ages, but it’s not too late for your next first draft to escape the same, cruel fate.    In just five easy steps, you too can ensure that you can absolutely hit your novel with your best shot…

From here on out, I’ll be referring to the two versions as “Broadway” and “Film.”  Warning, there be spoilers ahead.

1)     Keep the best stuff intact – Let’s start with the positive.  There were some good scenes in Film.  They also happened to be the two scenes lifted nearly word for word from Broadway.  Your first draft probably has some scenes that everyone who has seen it loved.  Keep those scenes intact.  Seriously, don’t change a word. Those are your anchors, and they’ll keep you honest in the editing process.  After all, if you can’t change the scene that everyone loved, you’re limited in the changes that you can make to the scenes leading up to it.

2)     Always remember the story you set out to tell – Broadway is the story of two small town kids living and dreaming in Los Angeles, and Stacee Jaxx (the character played by Tom Cruise) is a  relatively minor character who basically comes in and screws it all up for them.  In Film, Stacee is brought to the forefront of the action, and he becomes critical to the central conflict.  To be fair, I’d probably do the same if I had Tom Cruise in the cast, but beefing up Stacee’s role so significantly means that he can’t be the one note character he is on Broadway.  No, see Film now has to redeem him, explain him, and give him a backstory. And with only two hours to devote overall, something has to be dropped.  Guess what that was….

3)     Know your conflict – Overall, the central conflict of Broadway and Film are the same.  The Bourbon Room is in financial trouble, they need Stacee Jaxx to put on one hell of a show to bail them out, and there’s a third party who’s convinced the mayor to tear down the Sunset Strip (where the Bourbon Room is located).  The difference between the two is that in Film, the conflict gets personal.  The Mayor’s wife (a new character to Film) hates “hateful” music and Stacee Jaxx especially, and she’s out to get The Bourbon Room because of it.  There’s also a “big twist” related to this that 1) I had figured out thirty seconds in and 2) I really couldn’t have cared less about.  In Broadway, there’s nothing personal about it: the developer wants to tear down the strip to put in a shopping mall.  People who love the strip are opposed to the idea and begin protesting.  It’s pure, it’s simple, and it keeps the focus on Drew and Sherri.

Changes in the central conflict are the most devastating changes to the editing process because in order to change the central conflict, you have to change practically everything about the original piece. Now, if your feedback thus far has been conflict-related, yes, you’re going to have to change.  If it hasn’t, put the pen down and ask yourself why….why is it important that I change the central conflict?  And if the answer is not “I’m paying Catherine Zeta-Jones and Tom Cruise, and I have to make sure they have stuff to do…” there’s probably no real justification for doing it. Remember, trust your gut; your gut is never wrong.  If the conflict was important, it would have manifested this way during the first draft.  It didn’t.  Leave it alone.

4)     Know your characters – You wrote these people in the first draft.  You know them, you (probably) love them, they have been living with you for months. They are fictional to the rest of the world, but they are real to you.  And when you’re writing “real” people, you can’t fictionalize what they do that’s completely out of the character that you created for them in your mind and heart.  As you can probably imagine, Film did that to the characters created on Broadway.  You know what, let’s not dwell on examples.  There are too many, and it makes me sad to discuss it.  Instead, I’ll just point you to this letter ( that Ernest Hemingway wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald after Fitzgerald asked for feedback on Tender Is the Night.  As someone who is often inspired by her friends (sorry, guys!) while writing characters, reading this letter was a real eye-opener.  Read it, love it, post it on your writing wall.  You’ll be glad you did.

5)     Remember the joy – or whatever theme you were trying to go with here.  If you’re writing serious, don’t toss in an LOL moment unless you’re using it smartly.  You can be funny in a serious novel or serious in a funny one…the key is that you’re transitioning it back to the original mood of whatever it is you set out to do without making it sound like you’ve forced it into the manuscript.

Broadway is a fun, fast-paced experience that leaves you singing in the seats after the show is over.  Film is not.  Why? Because Film took itself too seriously.  For example, “Don’t Stop Believin’” is used as a semi-significant plot device in Film.  In Broadway, it’s a joyously fun way to wrap up everyone’s stories and bring the night to a rip-roaring end.  In Film…it’s not.   If you make significant changes, read through one more time to ensure that everything  feels natural.  Yes, you can have funny scenes in a serious book or serious scenes in a funny one, but their use should flow in and out of the piece without a jarring disruption.  If it feels out of place (like a rocker fronting a boy band) it needs to go.

No method is perfect, but keeping these five steps in mind will  help keep the original magic alive the next time you sit down with that red pen of yours.  Above all, the novel-writing process should be nothing but a good time, so don’t stop believing that it can be.

By day, Elle Filz is an IT geek in Baltimore, MD.  By night, you can either find her singing karaoke or jotting down notes for her next women’s fiction story.  She is also an aspiring Betty Crocker-type who thanks God every day that a fireman lives next door.

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