Saturday, February 14, 2015

Burn Ratio: Number of Drafts Burned before Story Comes Forth

When the technology for capturing visual images for story and documentary presentations changed from film to digital, a notable metric was lost in the transition.  Good riddance, in a way, but not so fast for relevance to writers, actors, or, for that matter, any performance artist.

Some film directors were notorious for running over budget, to the immense displeasure of the producers and backers.  The cost of film was as much a factor for film makers as the cost of paper for publishers.  

True, the director of a well-reviewed and well-attended film could get away with budgetary overrun.  Of equal truth, when a five- or six-hundred-page book earned back its start-up costs in the first twelve or eighteen months of its life, the acquisitions editor could expect a bonus.

When film was the medium for capturing the story or documentary, the basic dramatic unit was the scene.  Sound equipment recorded scenes on a frame-by-frame basis, the most common frame size at thirty-five millimeters. In the rare possibility of an entire film being completed in first takes, the cost of raw film and its ultimate processing would be significantly less that a film where some scenes required upward of twenty takes in order to merit the director's and actors' satisfaction.  

Producers began using the term "burn ratio" to categorize a director's performance on a financial basis.  A director who needed a number of shots for a scene was thought to have a high or unhealthy burn ratio.  Such a director had better produce a final product that earned out if said director expected to be assigned more work.  

A director with a high burn ration, good reviews, and a healthy audience balance sheet was seldom seen in the unemployment lines.  As a general rule, a director with a low burn rate was in a stronger position for new assignments and pay scales.

Back in the days where manuscripts were handwritten and often filled line-outs and flurries of corrections, little thought was given to presentation; the standard relied on legibility. The shift in technology to the typewritten manuscript (first typewritten manuscript was Huckleberry Finn) focused considerable attention on manuscript preparation. 

You, being an innovative rather than speedy typist and, in the bargain, a poor speller, developed the plan of at least one more-or-less spontaneous draft, which you would then correct by hand for content, consistency of use, and spelling.  Then onto a slow, deliberate draft, which was as close to accurate as you could manage.  

Under those circumstances, the floor near your desk was often a sea of balled-up pages, torn from the typewriter in some fit of dudgeon over one or more aspects leading to the way the story was working, responses to your inner editor (You call that a story?), or the arrival of some new insight, transforming the work at hand to a new, conceptual landscape.

There was something of immense satisfaction and fun to be had in ripping a sheet of paper from a typewriter, balling it into a wad, then dispatching it toward the waste basket, already filled to the brim with previous missiles.  This physical activity and the clutter added to the romance of writing.  

Never mind the waste of paper.  If you did mind the waste, you could try your hand at doing at least the first draft with a fountain pen, then typing out a later draft on yellow foolscap, then moving on to the manuscript paper you knew your stories deserved, Eaton's "Corrasible" bond, a rag-content paper that made erasures of typing error close to easy.

The switch in technology from typewriter to computer has removed some of the physicality of writing.  Entire pages and drafts may now be dispatched with the tap of a delete key.   Although many of the composition frustrations remain the same as those back in the days of paper, you feel distanced from your personal burn ratio, which is in fact the number of drafts necessary to get a story or essay or review to your liking.   

Watching a friend act tonight in a play, you were made aware of the efforts of preparation for any significant performance, and how easy it is to forget about the practice, hard work, mountain goat leaps of improvisation, and the energy of blind luck necessary to mount a specific work.  Even with all the preparation, the performance might not resonate with that tingle of excitement and emotional resonance we expect from art.

How easy it has become to think all successful art was an act of immediate spontaneity, lacking in plan, countless effort, countless wadded-up balls of paper adjacent the wastebasket.

How easy it is to think of all the works that turn you on, regardless of their genre, being spun off in a matter of moments or, worst case, a day or two.  And as a consequence of such thoughts, we see the gap between those with talent and those more like--ourself.

Somewhere, you read the statement, "Only work removes the traces of work."  Those words are a considerable relief to you.  They make it possible for you to press on in the spirit of enjoyment rather than the constraining squeeze of desperation.  A basic formula for story is, an interesting character struggles against great odds to achieve a goal she or he thinks worthwhile.  Those words remind you the project is nothing without two factors, the immediate potential of failure and the even more immediate potential for discovering the fun in what you're doing.

Your burn ratio is high, your chances for failure extreme.  Each time you see a volunteer flower, clinging to life with a bright smile in some interstice of sidewalk slab, you stop for a moment, to salute it and.or take its picture.

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