Writing is Hard; Rewriting is Easy

December 12, 2008

I had a breakthrough the other day.  I was on the phone with my Dad, harping at him about how much he needs to change this or that about some play he’s written, and silently cursing him for resisting completely rewriting every play he’s ever written.  And then it came to me.

You see, the reason why I think I’ll make a good professional screenwriter is because I’m really good at completely rewriting other people’s stuff.  If you know anything about the industry, it’s an incredibly nasty field to be in (read William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell? if you don’t believe me).  On the one hand, it makes sense – everyone has an opinion about how a story should go, and writers, actors, and directors, all being creative people, think that they have the right to express that and make it so.

Unfortunately, the invetiable result is the complete destruction of the original screenplay, which, often enough, was in very good shape to begin with.  <a href=”http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp06.Crap-plus-One.html>Rossio and Elliott</a> talk about this and it makes you want to cry.  The number of times a screenwriter has heard, “This is so good, it’s almost perfect … we just need to bring in one more writer to do a clean-up …” Someone I saw at AFF said “It’s a reality of Hollywood that a studio isn’t going to make a hundred million dollar film on a script they paid a hundred fifty thousand dollars for.”  And on it goes.

The point is, many times have I pissed off a writer by interjecting my opinion about particular dialogue elements of scenes.  But in Hollywood, pissing off screenwriters and rewriting their work is fair game, which can only mean it’s a job I was destined for.

The thing is, I’ve never actually finished a full screenplay.  At least not one that I’m willing to show anyone.  I’ve got lots of ideas, I know story structure inside and out, I’m a whizz with dialogue and voice, and I’ve started about twenty of them, but I’ve found, as everyone does, that it’s easier to criticize someone else’s work than it is to write – and finish – your own.  Maybe it’s because second acts are hard.  Who knows.  But until you finish your own work, you’re not a writer, you’re just a critic.

And then it came to me.

Since I’m so good at rewriting, rather than writing it to make it perfect, I’ll just vomit it on screen and then rewrite it later.  Someone famous once said, “Scripts are  not written; they are rewritten.”  Just so!

Today I vomited about four pages of Charisma in about an hour.  I need to go to jail to do some research to up the level of realism in that scene, but who cares?  At least it’s no longer blocking me from writing the next scene.  And as long as I go into the rewrite process not attached to anything; knowing that it will take quite a bit to get it right, then I can avoid the nasty fear of being attached to my work.

He shoots … he scores!  And that’s the game!


Editing Nonfiction

October 25, 2008

I’m a contract writer/editor/proofreader.  It’s the day job that pays the bills (I’m not a famous screenwriter … yet), and at the moment the day job is editing a nonfiction book targeted toward teachers.

The thing is, writing in the nonfiction/business realm is really not all that different from any form of creative writing.  The first two rules are basically the same:

  1. Honor thy character
  2. Honor thy story & structure

1. Honor thy character: Show me a movie with a weak, boring protagonist, and I’ll show you a movie that didn’t sell.  Similarly, show me a book that doesn’t know it’s target audience, and I’ll show you a book that doesn’t sell. In a movie, character is king.  Rossio, in his essay The One Hundred Million Dollar Mistake, identifies this as one of the most important battles when protecting your screenplay’s vision, and the same thing is true of nonfiction.  Know who your audience is.  Know what it is they’re relating to.  Know who they’re supposed to care about and why, and make sure the entire book is set up to drive them toward that interest.

The book I’m editing is clear who its target audience is – teachers.  And it’s clear who the beneficiaries of the information are – teachers and students alike.  As a result, this book, in its first edition has sold quite well for a self-published title, even though it has a number of problems in the next area of concern:

2. Honor thy story & structure: How many times have we heard this story: a film has a great premise, and it sounds good from the outset, but word of mouth spreads about how bad the film is, and the result is a financial disaster.  The reason, more often than not, is that the film doesn’t know where it’s going, why, or how. I’ve already talked about structure quite a bit in this blog, and how important I’m realizing it is to the overall success of screenplay.  And it goes without saying that the same thing is true of nonfiction.

The biggest problem book I’m editing is that it doesn’t really know where it’s going.  The premise is outstanding: it’s original, clear, and identifiable as an ironic problem in the education industry (forgive me for being so general – I’m trying to maintain some discretion with the client).  But after a fabulous set-up, the second act is a weak rehash of things we already know, and we’re left with the experience of a formulaic, unsatisfying lack of original information, where so much potential formerly was.

The solution is simple: identify where the book is headed, why, and how it’s going to get there.  What exactly are we trying to accomplish?  What’s the best way to communicate that?  After establishing that, the rest will fall into place, and with a little work we should have a powerful and effective asset to build the future of education in this country.


October 21, 2008

I’ve been reading a lot about loglines recently. For those of you not in the biz, this is the one-sentence answer to the question “what is your story about?”

According to Terry Rossio on wordplayer.com, it’s the “strange attractor” – that unique and compelling aspect of your concept that will have the studio executive know immediately what your story is about and immediately makes them want to get it.

Blake Snyder, in Save the Cat! describes it in even better detail. There should be four elements: (1) it is ironic, (2) it offers a compelling mental picture, (3) it has a built-in sense of audience and cost, and (4) it works alongside an original, clear, effective, title.

As an example, from wordplayer.com: “A teenager is mistakenly sent into the past, where he must make sure his mother and father meet and fall in love; he then has to get back to the future.” Alongside the title, “Back to the Future,” we immediately see all four of those elements present.

I’m working on a screenplay right now. It’s a concept that I’d originally conceived as a comic book first, and then a movie, but as John Turman pointed out at AFF this weekend, the best comic book movies are the ones that aren’t based on comic books – Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Matrix – because they don’t have any source material holding them back.

The other factor is that I realized at Comic-Con earlier this summer that, as conceived, this piece is too ambitious for a first-time comic book project – the irony being that this one is ready now, but the other project I have in mind for comic book publication would require about a year’s worth of research before I could start writing it.

So I’m working on my high concept $5 million comic book movie. I won’t share the logline on the Internet, though I will start pitching it to random people on the street, in an attempt to see if I can keep the attention of people who are in a hurry to be somewhere else. Have a good night.

Highlights from the Austin Film Festival

October 19, 2008

Things I learned at this year’s Austin Film Festival:

  1. Read Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot’s website, Wordplay, cover-to-cover, as it were.
  2. Just like a film has a three-act-structure, so too does every act and every scene.  Setup, turn, and completion that drives the action forward.
  3. What makes the chase scene interesting is how the hero overcomes the obstacle in his path – what changes along the way?
  4. Get a manager.
  5. Always be working.  Don’t ever stop writing.  If you’re the guy that churns out three or four screenplays a year, your agent loves you.
  6. Screenplays are really boring when read out loud.
  7. I came to this year’s AFF knowing a small handful of people.  Through each of those people, I met two or three more.  The lesson: keep coming, and you’ll double your circle every year.
  8. Danny Boyle is frickin’ amazing.  If you haven’t seen Shallow Grave, go watch it.
  9. Make your movie cool.  Always look for what can be done differently.  How can we write this chase scene in a way that no one’s ever done a chase scene before?
  10. If you want to do a screen adaptation for a project that’s been “in development” forever, find the themes and the genre elements that turn you on in the source material, and write a different script with those in mind.
  11. A screenwriter’s job is to keep rewriting his (or someone else’s) script until everyone involved is okay with it.  If you don’t look at your job from this perspective, you’ll only get pissed off because you keep having to change something that you already knew was really good to begin with.
  12. Don’t be creepy, annoying, or overeager.
  13. They’ll read the first five pages.  If you haven’t captured them by then, they won’t keep reading.
  14. Apparently, Robert McKee sucks.  This was news to me – I love his book.  But a lot of people don’t, and they say it results in formulaic films.

I’m sure there’s more.  Check back for more details.

%d bloggers like this: