I was cleaning out my inbox the other day, a seemingly Sisyphean task, when I came across an advertisement from a local company, one of which has a variety of goods that they sell to writers, flaunting promises of a rapid career trajectory like some magnificent carrot dangled in front of a starving horse.
What caught my eye, what made me sit up and take notice, were the words “rewrite” and “class,” both prominently bolded in the article aka advertisement (this particular company has a semi-faux “newsletter” to lend an air of authenticity to the goods being pitched). “Rewrite” is, for me, one of the most beautiful words in the English language; while lacking the harmony of, say, “uvula,” rewrite is a rich and layered word, summoning forth visual vignettes of the artist at work, completely immersed within the creative process.
I scanned through the content, only to discover that the particular “class” that was being offered was one that promised a “shortcut to success” by teaching a method that promised to take the rewrite out of the process.
Lords and ladies of the court, here it is, the ugly truth:
- There are no shortcuts where writing is concerned.
- Writing is work.
- Rewriting is more work.
Creating a script that has even a shot of being optioned or sold (and by optioned, I mean a real option by an A-list or excellent boutique firm) is going to be one of the most difficult, exhaustive experiences of your life… and you will repeat this experience with each new project you begin. There are no shortcuts. Writing is work – hard work – and if you aren’t willing to put in the blood, sweat, tears, missed dates and chipped nails that your story deserves, you might consider a career move. (The above also applies to those prone to write “R U Ok?” when enquiring about one’s health and happiness. If I see one more person type “U R Gr8!” instead of taking the extra two point three seconds to type the compliment out, I am going to go medieval on them. WTF, indeed.)
Please do not blurt out your favorite screenwriter anecdote that touts the news that said screenwriter wrote his/her particular Oscar worthy masterpiece in 21 days.
- There are many of those aforementioned stories floating in the ethers and they are 100% b.s., deliberately crafted by a public relations team hired by studio execs who want such buzz attached to their projects.
- Most overnight successes take 7 – 10 years to achieve.
- You are not the exception, you are the rule.
Most important, it is within the rewriting process that your writing is transformed from “eh” to “ahhhhhhhhh”, that your story is truly served, and that you learn to elevate your voice to the heights of Mt. Olympus, regardless of the genre in which you are writing.
Within the rewrite process, you will discover one of the following things, if not all:
- You have misidentified your protagonist.
- Your story has competing story lines, aka “two films in one”.
- Your usage of profanity is excessive and/or not character appropriate.
- Your characters do not yet have their individual voices.
- You have darlings that must be killed – even if they are the ones that you originally thought that your story was all about.
- Your spelling/grammar sucks. This is not about intelligence. It is about neural-wiring, and we all need to use a proofreader.
How do I know the above? Because I ‘ve gone through it, again and again, am going through it now, and will, yet again. Writing is boundless. What I mean by that is that a true writer never ceases to learn, that with each new project you are again a babe, attempting those first tentative steps.
Time and again, I’m presented with a “script.” And yet, within the first few pages in, I’m left with the difficult task of talking to its creator, and delivering the hard news that their story is not a script – not yet.
I’ve also put my own work in front of others, only to discover that it is not a script – not yet.
How many times do I have to rewrite this? I’ve heard this question time and time again, usually delivered with a bit of a whine, like the child at Wal-Mart on the verge of going through a full-blown tantrum. My answer? I have absolutely no fucking idea. All I know is that there is work to be done, massive work. There are no shortcuts. Writing is hard.
Not to mention the fact that you owe your story the rewrites that it deserves. Yes. You read that right. Rewrites. Plural.
My approach is to look at a project from an architectural POV. The structure of your story, the laying down of the pipe of it is first executed on the board, and then realized in your first draft.
Your first draft is not a script – not yet. It is, however, the idea of one.
Then comes in the labor – framing the story out, adding electrical and plumbing. Making sure that foundation is without flaws. Building the walls, adding in the windows. Putting a roof on, adding ceilings, applying sheetrock and plaster.
Now, you step out onto the sidewalk and take a good long look at your creation. “That’s a pretty good looking building,” you think to yourself… and you raise your finger, tantalized by the urge to hit “Print”…
… only, guess what? It’s not a script. Not yet.
In these series of rewrites is where you allow the inner artist to take hold. You might have painted your walls, but now, let the finisher come in and elevate that base coat. This is the custom work, unique to your story, where you get to create your style. Your storytelling evolves and morphs into something so much more, something cinematic in nature. This is when your story sings. These are the finishing touches that you could not apply early on, because your building wasn’t ready.
“Writing is rewriting” is a quote most attributed to William Goldman (although Hemingway, E.B. White and Paul Abbot have also been credited for the phrase); therefore, if you want to play for the big leagues, you need to follow that example, and stop listening to every Tom, Dick and Harriet who promise you a shortcut to success.
How does one learn how to rewrite? There are literally hundreds of books on the subject. Titles that leap to mind include, first, “I Liked It, Didn’t Love It,” crafted by the experienced team of Rona Edwards and Monika Skerbelis. I Liked It is told from a development perspective, and gets into the nuts and bolts of why those who purchase scripts have not purchased yours. The next is “Your Screenplay Sucks,” an oh-so-awesome bundle of deliciousness and darn good advice by one of my favorite tall cool drinks, Will Akers, and wrapping it up is Jennifer Van Sijill’s magnificent “Cinematic Storytelling.”
Ultimately, I believe that you learn about the rewriting process by doing it. Rewrite. Again. Rinse. Repeat. Again. And again. And again…
If, however, you are in need of some personal guidance, two L.A. based screenwriters offer online and/or in-person counsel with an emphasis on the rewrite*:
- Max Adams, a former Nicholl and AFF fellow – and working screenwriter. She teaches online courses via her Academy of Film Writing.
- Pilar Alesandra, a former studio story analyst, who teaches her rewriting course at On the Page.
I’m certain that there are others (obviously, or I would not have begun this advertising induced rant) but these two are the real deal, and I highly recommend them.
I believe that’s it, ladies and gentlemen of the court. Thank you for allowing me to say more than a few words on a subject that I hold near and dear to my heart… and welcome to my new blogsite. I wish you all great rewriting!!!
What I’m reading: An advance copy of Adam Levenberg’s The Starter Screenplay. Levenberg brings his years of experience in literary representation and development, and delivers a solid gold one-two punch, not on “How” to write, but rather, WHAT to write. If you’ve never optioned nor sold, you need to know why – and Levenberg is going to tell you the truth. Along with Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!® series of books on screenwriting, The Starter Screenplay is an essential tool for writers of all genres. Once it is released, I’ll be posting a review.
What I’m watching: Currently catching up with HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Totally fucking brilliant.
* – if you currently teach a rewrite course and feel slighted for not being included, it is quite possible that I do not know you, and/or I do not know about your course. Please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can discuss an audit. WARNING – I will be fair in my blog review, but I will also be honest in my thoughts. ~ HRH