save it for the stage
Give ’em the old razzle-dazzle
Give ’em an act with lots of flash in it
And the reaction will be passionate
Give ’em the old hocus-pocus
Bead and feather ’em
How can they see with sequins in their eyes?
–Billy Flynn, Chicago
People put so much thought into their work. A handful even put work into their work. That’s fine, within reason, but becoming a better writer means learning when not to put the effort in.
I didn’t stay in the theater for very long before switching to a “career” in publishing—those quotation marks are required by the Chicago Manual of Style—but I learned valuable lessons being limelight-adjacent for a time. The most valuable one: Make every dollar count. “Count” meaning “visible to the audience.” Theater is all about appearances. If you’re going to invest effort in doing anything, it had better make a difference to the audience’s experience of the show or you’re wasting your time. Save the blood, sweat, and/or tears for something else that will. You don’t clean a costume stain no one can see from the front row. You don’t paint the backs of the sets. And Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t actually have to be murdered in a duel at the end of Hamilton. (Spoiler alert.)
That’s the gift of an audience—or a reader: The clarity of knowing who will look at your work, and, crucially, how they will look at it. It allows you to prioritize your efforts. You can choose to fight only the worthy battles. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to fritter away the lion’s share of your energy and inspiration before you get to the part where you really could have used them.
People tend to read novels they enjoy all the way through. In the world of business and self-help books, however, they tend to enthusiastically recommend before chapter 2 and stop reading entirely after chapter 3. (Scoff all you like, but you’re as guilty of this behavior as the rest of us.) As an author of practical nonfiction, you can grumble about this while finessing the prose in Appendix C, or you can accept it by front-loading your best material in the first third of the book where most of your readers will actually see it.
This is not to say the rest should be filler. Simply that you don’t put your book’s strongest idea in chapter 6. Stun them early. Consider the remainder of the book backstage. Backstage is still important to the functioning of a Broadway show: The sets must be properly constructed, the props laid out where they belong, the cables taped down to avoid trips and falls. But backstage is practical, utilitarian, designed for function over form. Savvy entertainers save the sparkle for the stage itself.
In a book proposal, you might even consider everything past the overview backstage. (You’d be wrong to do that, it’s actually everything past the pitch letter, but I don’t want to give the literary agents reading this a heart attack.) In a blog post, backstage might be everything past the opening paragraph or, in some cases, everything past the link.
In the documentary I Need You To Kill, comedian Pete Lee calls the opening moments of a stand-up act the “flash.” Your flash can be as simple as the particular way you walk on stage and pick up the mic, or it can extend into the opening joke. In a way, the audience makes its decision about you in that moment. Get it right and they’ll relax and give you the benefit of the doubt. Flub it and you’ll have a hell of a time winning their confidence back. Certain comedians get this right. They start things off in a way that not only elicits a laugh but reassures the audience that they’re in capable hands.
It’s painful but necessary to grapple with the ugly truth of reading behavior. But as a writer, you can’t sweat every detail. You simply can’t. There are always more details! What you can do is figure out where to sprinkle your limited supply of pixie dust.
p.s. You might think I ignore this advice when writing the Maven Game, but that’s because it’s all pixie dust.