Creativity is Hard: A Nita Update

I read this piece in the NYT about the Broadway show of The Addams Family, and it was so reflective of what’s happening with Nita, that I was comforted. The underlying theme of the article is that sometimes it takes awhile to get it right, and even when you get it right, sometimes it’s a long way from where you started.

The article talks about how they had this wonderfully transgressive idea for doing The-Addams-Family-But-Different-New-and-Edgy (which god knows the original cartoons were) and how it bombed in Chicago and they retooled and it crashed in NYC and they retooled, and then they took it to New Orleans and retooled . . . and now ten years later it’s still going strong, the best seller four out of the past five years of the company that licenses rights to plays (it was second the other year). The musical they ended up with was not the musical they had intended, but, as one of the writers, Marshall Brickman, says, “A piece, in a sense, tells you what it wants to be. And the audience tells you what it would be willing to accept.”

That’s what I’m looking at in Nita.

I thought the original ms of Nita was pretty damn good. It was too long, but I could fix that, what I needed the betas for was to give me that audience reaction. And all of three of them said it was the best thing I’d ever done. I mean they raved about it. Then I sent it to NYC and it closed opening night. Both agents and my editor said, “No.”

That was confusing.

So I did what Andrew Lippa, the composer and lyricist of The Addams Family did, what any smart writer doesn’t when something isn’t working: “We ripped apart our show. We looked at the central conflict, and we looked at the score, and where we could make improvements.”

In my case, I looked at the central conflict and realized there were two, and the one that was the most compelling wasn’t the one I was spending page space on. It’s the romance, stupid. This is not just because I’m considered a romantic comedy author, it’s because that’s where the juice is for me, too. I just got distracted by Ideas, which, I gather from the NYT article, is where The Addams Family people went wrong, too. Sean Penn once said on The Actor’s Studio that film was too important to waste on entertainment, and I remember hearing that and thinking, “You moron, without entertainment, the message doesn’t exist, entertainment is the delivery system for the ideas.”

And that in a nutshell is what storytelling is all about. The Addams Family had Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth and characters that weren’t just interesting, they were beloved. Rick Elice said that “We rewrote it to make the show more about the characters, not just the family characters but the new characters that we introduced to make it less bizarre and more human.” Oh, yeah, the characters. Not the ideas. (Although they cut one character I would have protected to the death: Bernice, a giant squid.)

I am not, of course, laughing at them for this blatantly obvious realization; I’ve been working on Nita for four years only to come to the same conclusion, so I do not throw stones from my glass laptop. But wading through thousands and thousands of words to dig my characters out of the rubble is not only back-breaking mentally, it’s depressing just from the amount of destruction going on. I’m not slashing through the jungle of this book just to meet a word count, I’m trying to free my characters from the vines, and I wrote some damn good vines. Too bad they’re strangling my people. (I know that’s two different metaphors: the rubble is in the jungle. Just go with it.)

It took The Addams Family five years to hack its way to wild success which it has maintained in the subsequent five. I’m just coming up on Nita’s year five, so there’s hope for her yet.

In the meantime, I’m having a little something on the side with Lily, and she is not tangled in vines (yet), plus there’s the weirdness we’re currently living through, so I am not sitting in vacant despair. The entire world is vine-covered rubble right now, so Nita can just nestle in for awhile while I cogitate and try to find bok choy.

Everything is going to be just fine. Eventually.

28 thoughts on “Creativity is Hard: A Nita Update

  1. I really enjoyed this post. (I didn’t even know that there was a stage musical of The Addams Family.) I think that the point you are trying to make about writing is really interesting, and I especially like your comment: “I’m trying to free my characters from the vines, and I wrote some damn good vines.” To switch to a knitting metaphor: One of the things I like about knitting is that you can always rip and start again, and keep at it until you get something that is both functional and beautiful. I find that the process is as satisfying as the product. I am enjoying following your thought processes as you deconstruct the writing; and I look forward to the final product which I imagine I will enjoy as much as the process.

    1. That’s a good analogy.

      I was working on a sweater last week that had a chart for the main pattern but none for the increases, and the increases were complex. I kept trying to find the pattern in the increases–it was there–and having to work the regular repeats to see how the designer had interpreted them in the raglan. Took a lot of frogging. Then somebody posted a hand drawn chart and said, “I think this is it,” and it was clear and logical. I think sometimes discovery draft is just finding the pattern, and then the rewrite is putting in the turning points/increases in the plot and character arcs.

      I do a lot of frogging when I write.

      1. I worked on a skirt once off and on for 3 years trying to figure out its complex increases. Finally found someone to clarify it for me on Ravelry, though.

  2. Oh typical. Jenny Crusie writes a post about something she thinks she did wrong and it’s so good I read to the last word with bated breath, nodding, and at the end I go back to the beginning to read it again.

    Way to go!

    1. Not thinks she did wrong, did do wrong.
      All part of the process. Mistakes are how we learn! (Said in a cheery, positive voice that makes me want to throw things at myself.)

      1. A dear friend used to say “Great! Another f**king growth opportunity” which was eventually shortened to AFGO. Because he kept needing to say it.

        I know you will make the book better. I still want to read the long, rubble and vine filled version at some later point. Please please please keep a draft and when all the dust (paper?) has settled, sell it under the table to the people who are more interested in vines than plot. Please.

        1. I know. I just want Jenny to publish Nita so I can buy it and read it. Then gloat about it and reread it about 6 times in 3 weeks. Possibly even make allusions to it being ‘my precious’…

  3. Having two such polar opposite views of any of my work would make me nuts.

    Figuring out when to stop working on a resin piece and call it done is often the hardest part for me. I’ve had times when I thought I’d add just a little more and loved the result and times when it ruined the piece for me.

    Good luck! I hope you finish Nita soon and are happy with the end result. And personally, I hope if your publisher keeps saying no that you’ll just self-publish the book. I’d buy it that way. I’ve got authors that do both traditional and self-published books and I buy them all.

  4. This is such a great meditation on the *work* of creativity. Thank you!

    I saw the Addams Family musical in Chicago and it was a uniquely frustrating experience of watching great actors and great source material material and interesting new material not telling. There was no magic spark to pull it together and bring it to life, just a frustrated shambling corpse.

    Learning about how they kept evolving it until they got it to work, and then combining it with the work on Nita that we’ve gotten to watch you do in real time is just so danged useful. You’re a great teacher.

  5. I still adhere to the principle that there comes a time for any product when you “shoot the engineers” and turn it over to the marketing department. Engineers will always be ready to add one more bell; design another whistle; trim a few grams of weight. It’s what they do.

    Bok choy. Chinese cabbage. Is it imported or grown stateside? If imported… I haven’t seen it at my grocery store, lately. Good luck.

  6. I ordered Bok Choy seeds and started them. They are growing like weeds in their tray. I am afraid to put them outside yet, but they are going to be too big soon. Never grew them before. I followed the instructions on the packet, but maybe I should have seeded them directly when the ground got warmer.

    I would be happy to try to mail you some if I got a crop. We mailed a carrot cake to NYC successfully, so it could work…

    1. Oh thank you, but I can get it here. It was just sold out. I’m going to try growing my own, too, but since I have a black thumb . . .

  7. It boggles my mind that publishers don’t automatically accept a Jennifer Crusie manuscript. Your voice is so unique and delightful and your books so much better than most that I wade through.

    1. Me too, betsyh.

      If they reject a Crusie, what hope is there for me? Yes, I’ve had stuff published, but …

      Okay, okay, I’m not whining. We are not all slated to be brilliant. If I wanted to be brilliant I should have become a costumer, not a writer. (Costumer = maker of costumes in George speak. It really is a word but Grammarly doesn’t like it.) I can do things with fabric most of the time. And yes there is a lot of seam ripping even now.

      And if I could design fabric too – I’d be in heaven. I’d have clothes with dancing dogs, and ice cream and ponies. Just for a start.

      AND I’m off topic again. Surprise, surprise.

      1. I once took a paper making class, Kate, and one of the women was a lawyer who changed careers to be a fabric designer. She had an agent who marketed her designs. She worked with collages to create the designs and batik stamps and butter mold stamps and just anything that would make an impression. And one day she came to class just beyond thrilled because she had just seen a photo of Princess Diana on the beach and the pattern on the swim suit was a design she had sold to Jantzen.

      2. When we’re all rolling in dough, you should check out the sites that let you design your own fabric.

  8. Hi, Jenny. I’ve been reading what you’ve put up about Nita for ages, and I’ve loved every vine-strangled word. If your agent and editor didn’t appreciate it, have you ever considered trying a new agent and/or editor? Sometimes writers get typecast, and a fresh eye is needed to look at projects in a different way.

    1. Oh, no, I love my agent. Definitely a new editor, but not because this one isn’t great. It’s just the way things work in publishing.

  9. Another great line from the NYT article: “If you’re going to play in the big leagues, as it were, you have to learn how to tune out the voices that you don’t necessarily want to listen to.”

    Even as you stand in the rubble, Jenny, you seem attuned to the right voices.

  10. I loved the original Nita and I’m sure I’m going to love whomever she transforms into. Whoever? Well, you know what I mean.

    Still hating the pop-up thumbs up, BTW.

    1. I told Mollie. It’s 243rd on her list of things to do (after all the stuff for her business and home schooling three elementary kids). She’ll get there.

Comments are closed.