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Hiding Your Eyes From Edits?

An iconic promo shot from ‘Bird Box.’ That’s Sandra Bullock at the oars with Julian Edwards , left, and Vivien Lyra Blair. Image: Netflix

‘Don’t Open Your Eyes’

While I confess that I’ve been tempted to wear my #BirdBoxChallenge blindfold when editing other people’s copy, I was wide-eyed when Josh Malerman told me that he’d had absolutely no problem turning over Bird Box [1] to the film’s producers and to Eric Heisserer who wrote the screenplay. (No spoilers here whatever, read forth in confidence.)

You may recall that we referred to Bird Box and Malerman in 2014–his debut novel from HarperCollins/Ecco that year is the book behind the new Netflix film. In 2014, he did an onstage interview with me at a Writers’ Digest conference in Los Angeles and was having meetings at 21st Century Fox, which is where the options trail for the show started. It would move to Universal and then on to Netflix before being released on the streaming platform on December 21.

Josh Malerman

As you may know, the film has become the most-watched of Netflix’s original film debuts to date, drawing 45 million households (Netflix is in 190 countries) in its first week. And to everyone’s alarm, it has spawned a lot of not-too-safe #BirdBoxChallenge Instagram walkings-into-walls by fans who blindfold themselves in funny (or not) situations.

It’s a big hit, in other words, a great success story for Malerman and his agent Kristin Nelson, and a really intense film by director Susanne Bier, if you haven’t seen it.

When Malerman and I reconnected to do an interview for Publishing Perspectives [2], though, one of the things that struck me was that Malerman said he’d been perfectly happy to let go of the book, and hand it over to the studio people. “Basically, I had no say,” he told me, and he was flown just once to the set to see things underway. No one asked for his input, although he felt comfortable in what he found was an extremely efficient, businesslike, hysteria-free set run by Bier, a Copenhagen native. He was warmly welcomed, he said, but not … needed.

And while every part of a nearly six-year march from option to release (it was first optioned in 2013, a year before Harper published it) was probably excruciating, Malerman maintains that the letting go part–”Here, take my book, do anything you want with it”–was something he was surprisingly okay with.

He did take one precaution, which sounds really wise. He asked Netflix in New York (Malerman is based in Michigan) to let him see the film by himself in one of their screening rooms before the LA and New York premieres. “I’d prepared myself,” he told me, “to be conflicted. I understand how wonderful it is” to have the film made, “and if it’s true to the book, that’s gravy. But I was too nervous to see it for the first time at a premiere with Sandra Bullock sitting two seats from me.”

This time, it’s “the author’s happy ending,” as it turns out: Malerman loves the film, even admits to wishing that one scare you see on screen was in his book.

But, as we all know, the business is full of tales of books going sideways and authors going pretty much around the bend trying to keep some scrap of storytelling integrity in place on screen.

And that’s my provocation for you today: How good are  you at letting go of your work? Can it enter the public sphere and be understood–or misunderstood–without you coming out of your skin?

Hope for the ‘High Strung’

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

I learned something really helpful from a newspaper copy editor on one of my first newsrooms long ago. I was fuming about lots of column inches–as we measured news writing in those days–evaporating from an important story on the copy desk. And she handed me a news story from that day’s issue, about eight column inches long.

“Read it,” she said. I did. One of our best reporters had written it, it was a political news story. “Okay, what’s missing from it?” she asked me.

“What do you mean, what’s missing?” I asked her. “Looks like everything’s here to me. Reads well..”

“Exactly,” she said. “And it was twice that long when he filed it.” The desk had cut out half the reporter’s original copy in edits.

“The point is,” she told me, “is that you’re not missing anything we took out, right? Your reader has no idea what’s been edited out. You’re the only one who knows. You and those of us doing the editing.”

It was a great lesson. However deathless your prose might be, the readership–or in Malerman’s case, the audience for his film–is largely clueless as to what’s “missing.” Readers of Malerman’s Bird Box [3](it’s excellent, I recommend it) can spot a change or two, sure. But no one has a post-edit reaction at the granular level that an author does.

And it made me realize what a range of responses you can find to editing and how our work is handled, whether in book publishing settings or journalistic settings. Some are as sanguine as Malerman. Other writers are in a cold sweat every time an editor (let alone a screenwriter) gets close.

Malerman told me a really insightful thing about it. Now with 22 manuscripts completed (and more options in play), he’s a two-decade veteran of two things: writing books nobody has seen and writing lyrics for the band he fronts, appropriately called The High Strung [4]. (Did I mention that Bird Box is intense?)

“For almost 20 years,” Malerman told me, “I’ve been writing songs for the band and handing them over and saying, ‘Just do whatever you want with this.’” That, he said, he now realizes is a reason that he wasn’t freaked out by handing off his book to Heisserer and Bier’s team. He’s used to letting go.

So what about you? Hives when an editor arrives? Or are you okay with edits (or screenwriting based on your work)? How opaque is your blindfold?

About Porter Anderson [5]

@Porter_Anderson [6] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [7], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [8] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [9]