Ciao, Lizard

2/01/2016 11:00:00 AM Lexie Dunne 2 Comments

This will make sense, I promise.1 
Though I’m a technical writer now, my start was in video editing. Or rather, I dabbled in video editing for a few years, majoring in it and working for two different TV stations, before I realized that I would rather organize my closet than edit even a simple video. The very thought of editing video exhausted me. Obviously not the right career path for me.

(The fact that I found a stash of old call sheets last night and every margin is absolutely covered in whatever story I was working on at the time should be a giant sign about where my heart’s desires lay)

It did teach me a lot about writing, though! Several painful things that still make my beta reader Max lay down on the ground and cry if he thinks about them for too long. So I’m gonna talk about two of them today and how they relate to what I’m doing now, years later, as a writer.

Bye-Bye, Lizard

In college, I had this cool professor (how cool, Lexie? So cool we called him Fred) who taught the intro courses for video production. Two stories stuck with me: how he blew all the fuses in his apartment building, which happened to be full of senior citizens, in Arizona in the summer—and the lizard shot.

The story goes that he and his wife were shooting a movie in the desert when they found a dead lizard sitting on a rock that perfectly encapsulated the tone they were going for. So they spent a full day setting up a gorgeous jib shot that panned up from this lizard to the main action, doing it over and over again until they got it right. And from the way Fred talked about it years later, the shot must have been absolutely stunning. Only…it threw off the pacing. It didn’t fit.

All that work, and the shot they were proudest of, it just didn’t work. So, Fred said as all of us cringed in sympathy, we cut it.

me: "I'm talking about the lessons I learned in video editing. It involves dead lizards."
I didn’t really understand the pain of that until I began working on my own projects. I did a lot of news magazine pieces, as that was my primary job as a producer/editor, which meant you’d go somewhere, talk to your subject matter expert, get them on camera, and then shoot as much b-roll as possible in whatever time you had. Some shots it was “point the camera at it, get what you hope is a steady shot, onto the next.” Some shots you drag out the special equipment for, do your best to look for anything that might ruin said shot, record, and pray. These are the shots that are your bread and butter for the finished product. You take them back to the editing bay, import your clips, sort them by whatever filing system you’re using, and get ready to assemble the project. During the pre-editing review, you mark whatever shots you like, and they could be the ones you thought were great from the start, or they could surprise you. Either way, you form an emotional attachment to these shots. So you fiddle and rearrange and try your hardest to get them into the finished product.

And sometimes they just don’t work.

I can think of six or seven of these shots off the top of my head, and that’s several years later with a minuscule career. Sometimes I might take a risk and restructure the entire project to get the shot in, but more often than not I had deadlines. So the shots I loved sometimes got yanked off the timeline, never to be seen by anybody but me. This taught me a sort of brutality that makes Max cry; if a page isn’t working, I’ll shrug and drop it into what I call my dumped footage file.2 If I can retool it for later, great. If not, I’ll likely be the only one that ever sees it. Holding onto a scene just because I love it, nine times out of ten, is detrimental to the story, and I have deadlines to worry about.3

An Hour in Preproduction Saves Eight in Post

This one is less painful to Max and more painful to me, if that makes any sense (it doesn’t). This was a phrase my boss hammered into my head when I worked in New York. One hour in pre-production saves eight in post. I worked in the Hamptons, which were very pretty and I had a lot of great experiences, but one thing they also had was traffic.4 Which meant that if we forgot a piece of equipment, sending an intern back for it cost us an extra hour, minimum, for them to go 12 miles. And I, being somewhat scatter-brained in nature and not good at predicting disastrous outcomes, was great at forgetting equipment. Me showing up actually fully prepared for a shoot was basically a miracle.

One that never actually happened. I was guaranteed to forget something.

But at any rate, I learned. Instead of throwing equipment into the van, I began to compile lists and check them off. Sometimes I would actually go scout locations. I learned to throw granola bars and extra food in my bag to fight off low blood sugar. Spare batteries. Setting up my project and necessary bins in Final Cut. Even taking twenty minutes to just stop and think and plan would spare me a couple hours when I was editing.

It’s a lesson I carried into my real life, to be fair. Life can’t be planned for entirely, but things can be anticipated (I’ll be hungry around lunch time, fast food makes me feel terrible and should be avoided, and those two facts put together means I probably should cook something). But in writing, it’s doubly-effective. My instinct is always to dive into a story and work out the details later, then I get sixty thousand words in and I discover: I’ve forgotten something. A lot of somethings. And this is a feeling I hate.

My solution to this—and I’m not saying it’ll work, writing is an ever-evolving source of stress and confusion—is to arm myself in pre-production. For SUPERVILLAINS, I did prep a little by rereading SUPERHEROES and plotting out my fights, but for GAIL 3, I’m going a step beyond that and working, for the first time ever, off of an official outline. I’ll of course keep everybody updated with how it’s going. Probably not intentionally, but if you see a bunch of Tweets from me about how I’m probably going to die in a hole, I feel like that’s pretty indicative of my general level of wellbeing. I have other techniques (using the Pomodoro technique is a favorite) and spending ten minutes summarizing what I hope to write that day, but the outline is the biggest change.

Caption: one other big change in my life that’s helped out the past year is this: my bullet journal. I got a little sticker-happy but whatever, this is a great thing Kelly Sue recommended. I keep notes, shopping lists, tasks, and other various and sundry items in it and it’s helped me out so much.
So yes. An hour in preproduction saves eight in post. Even if you’re a pantser, prepare yourself somehow.

Anyway, here’s to all the dead lizards in our closets. I guarantee you, every writer’s got a few.

Stay sexy!

PS — Starting today I'm taking part in the #AuthorLifeMonth on Instagram. While I work to hammer out a draft very quickly. Here's my instagram, if you're interested in watching the spiral.

PPS — Also I moved my Tumblr last week. I'm now dunnewriting! Come say hi!

1 All of these great photos are from Richard Seaman’s awesome website, go check him out
2 Supervillains Anonymous clocked in at 84k. The dumped footage file wound up being about 19k.
3 And yes, there is a line about being too eager to cut things. Unfortunately, that’s one of those things where experience and a good editor are your best bets.
4 No joke, I came up with the plot of SUPERHEROES ANONYMOUS sitting on I-27


  1. Hooray for outlines
    I used do have to rewrite procedural manuals (so soul killing the only thing I ever write now is poetry) so I know what it's like to miss something. Even something you rewrite every six months.
    In the early stages it can help to outline on three by five cards so you can rearrange things when you find something new has been added to the mix you started with.

    1. Luckily I don't have to do too much writing on procedure manuals at work—they usually let the subject matter experts write them, and I format them and work MS Word magic—but yeah, that sounds pretty soul-killing. I chose to work with various colored post-its in this case, as index cards just kind of will never get used. :)


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