Here’s an uncomfortable admission: I’m a bit of a packrat. I try not to be. I really do. When I moved to L.A. two years ago, I shed a lot of stuff: books, clothes, furniture, assorted knick-knacks. That was a very nice feeling. It was. I like being the kind of person who can dash off someplace with just a couple of suitcases. It makes me feel like a secret agent.
But that’s not really my nature. My nature is more, shall we say, Gollum-ish. A bit more covet-y. A bit more clingy. I’m a completist, too. Once I have one of a thing, I want all of that thing: a full, matching set. MUST. HAVE. IT.
You can’t really change your nature.
What does this have to do with writing, you ask? (You did ask, right? Of course you did.)
Drafts. It has to do with drafts.
My computer’s hard drive, my Google Drive, my Dropbox are loaded up with drafts upon drafts upon drafts. I’m nothing if not a cautious re-writer. I have .5 drafts, .5.1.2 drafts, dated drafts, sometimes several from the same day.
I’m a little crazy for drafts.
This happens because of the way I rewrite (which is the point of this blog; I’m mired in a rewrite). Really, there are two kinds of rewrite for me: refining and revision.* Refining is generally tweaking what’s there, little shifts in language and tone, small cuts. Revision is the big stuff: cutting characters or scene, re-working the structure, making large changes. In my own weird formatting, a refining is, like, a sub draft, like Draft 1.5. A revision gets a whole new draft.
So…why am I telling you this, you ask. (You’re chock full of questions.)
I have to keep myself from doing a revision when I’m refining. I just wrote this thing. No one has read it. I’ve received no feedback on it. (Which is maybe starting to be a problem, but I’ll deal with that later.) I have a fairly solid sense of what’s working in my first draft and what I want to work on, in terms of big things. Right now, though, the main thing is smoothing it out, much like you smooth out a piece of fabric. Start at the top, clean up little language problems and issues, clarify actions and tone, look for stray typos and whatnot. Go over a chunk of text, then go back and go over it again. Then again. Then move on to the next chunk. Then back to the beginning and go over it all.
This is the slow and thirsty work I mentioned before. And this is just refining.
My goal here is to get a really solid first draft, a draft that says “This is what I intend this story to be, this is what I’m trying to say.” Then I figure out what’s *really* not working.
I’ve still got a couple of weeks on this whole Six Week thing. It’s do-able. I just start at the top and push on as far as I can. Then I start at the top again. Like a slightly happier Sisyphus.
*Funny story: I wrote that line and felt it was fairly insightful. Then I was interrupted, went off, did some other stuff and coming back to it…eh, it feels pretty reductive. I’m gonna let it stand, but maybe I’ll rewrite it later.
I’m not dead. Really, I’m not. I’m just…rewriting.
The upside to pushing through my vomit draft quickly was I got it done. YAY!
The downside is now I start rewriting. Remember, I said that’s the real work? Well. It is.
I find the first rewrite, in particular, to be tough. I *just* wrote this. I was just here! I know what the problems are! If I had better ideas, I would have written them when I was just here! ARGH!
For me, I never know what I have until I finish the first draft. I have no solid idea of what the story is about. I did an outline, I broke down the scenes and everything. But I didn’t know what I was actually writing about until I finished the first draft. I never know what I’m writing about until I write the very last scene, the very last image. That’s the piece that puts it all together.
Usually, that’s something of a reveal to me. Even if I have a sense of where the story is going, or what issues or ideas I’m wrangling with, when those last words slide into place, it’s like Indy in the Map Room with the Staff of Ra. A beam of light shoots out, there’s a big old lens flare and suddenly, the path is illuminated. Awesome!
But then there’s the walking the path. Which is littered with crap I just left lying around because I was trying to get to the end. Here’s an example:
My script starts all in medias res, at sunrise and then flashes back. In my outline, it flashed back three days. When I put in the flashback on the first pass, I put in a title: THREE DAYS AGO. Then I wrote actually wrote the thing and it didn’t seem to take three days. In fact, the whole thing wound up happening in one day. So when I caught up to my opening, which is supposed to be at sunrise, it’s now at sunset. Which, while very similar, is a very different thing. Like, a totally opposite thing.
Most of my writing session yesterday was devoted to deciding if I want this script to end at sunrise or sunset. I am not kidding. And I’m still not totally settled on the matter.
First draft writing is all about page counts and hitting your beats and throwing crap at walls. Rewriting, for me, is all about weighing your options, making little decisions with ripple effects and sometimes staying in the same place for a long time to make sure you get it right.
I’m suddenly in the middle of a Jenga game.
All of this to say: the posting will likely be lighter the next few days. If you see me in person, I’ll probably be a bit distant and distracted. Don’t mind me. I’m just rewriting.
Start time: 6:40am
End time: 7:47am
In 2005, I was working at a summer theatre. Summer theatre is very much summer camp for grown-ups. Bonds are formed quickly and intensely, new hobbies are discovered, unexpected common ground is found. Part of that common ground was the NBA Finals. A crowd of us jammed into the tiny bar near the theatre to watch the Spurs play the Pistons that year.
(Okay, most people were there because it was the only decent food walking distance from the dorms, but that’s beside the point.)
We were crammed in there, watching a pretty incredible game. That was when Robert Horry, “Big Shot Bob”, got a hold of the ball, faked an outside and then took the ball to the rim. Horry was a veteran, 35 years old, shoulda been way past his prime. Not the “throw down a dunk” kind of guy. But he did. He got the ball, gave it a look that said, “Okay. You don’t wanna do this. I don’t know that I can. But we gotta. So here we goes.” And, seemingly by sheer force of will, launched himself at the hoop, fully extended his body and threw it down.
(You can watch it here, starting at 0:51.)
All of us watching, Spurs fans or not, basketball fans or not, the whole bar erupted in a spontaneous cry of joy.
That was how I felt this morning. Not the spontaneous cry of joy. Like Robert Horry.
I looked at my script and said, “Okay. You’re not ready for this. I’m not, either. But it’s going to happen.”
And I pushed through. I finished the damn thing.
Now, by “finished,” I mean I wrote “Fade Out.” I completed the story. It’s all there. It’s not “finished.” Not polished. It’s WAY too short, my timeline is a mess, I’m sure I have a shit-ton of structure issues, format problems, plot holes. Important things are rushed, minor things are dragged out, most of the dialogue sucks.
But it’s in the hole. The shape is there. Some of the jokes land. Some sequences I’m already proud of. And I reached the end. For right now, that’s the important part. I reached the end.
So I can start at the beginning.
I’m gonna chill on this for a couple of days. Take a breather. Then the work begins again.
Page count: 5 pages.
Total: 90 pages.
Start time: 6:36am
End time: 7:47am
And then there are days when writing just plain sucks. Everything about it is the worst, most importantly and specifically, all of the things you’re doing.
This is when the anxiety comes to sit at the table. It brings its knife and fork and chows down on your entrails.
Pulling your own teeth with a rusty set of pliers is more fun than this. By, like, a lot. Like an order of magnitude a lot.
At this point in nearly every script, I’m fully and completely convinced that this script is the absolute worst thing I’ve ever written, the worst thing that’s ever been written and clear proof that I’m a talentless, useless hack who is obviously wasting his entire life by even considering this as a secret hobby, much less a career.
Actually, this kind of anxiety is worse that that. It’s the special kind of anxiety that says “This started off so well! It’s such a great idea! But now you have screwed it up, completely, irretrievably, irrevocably. You have fucked it up. Feel good about yourself now?”
No. No, I do not.
I’m aware that this is 40% in my head. This is a vomit draft, a quick, fast-and-dirty first draft. It’s not finessed, it’s not rewritten. Hell, it hasn’t even been done. It’s not my finest writing, that’s for sure. But it’s also not as bad as I think it is right now. (Okay, there’s a moderate chance that this writing is as bad as I think it is. That may be so.)
One of my favorite lyrics goes something like this: Depression is an ocean/It’s prone to tides and swells/Anxiety’s persistent/An ambitious politician/It keeps knocking on the door/Until you let it in.
My anxiety’s kicked in my door today and made itself at home.
Forgive me, everyone I know, if I spend the next couple of days in a funk. Hi ho, the glamorous writing life.
Page count: 2 pages
This is going to be a pretty obvious metaphor. It will refer to a sports competition. You’re probably going to see where I’m going. But bear with me.
Let’s say you decide to do American Ninja Warrior. You’re that kind of person: you’ve done some rock climbing, you’ve done some parkour, you’ve done some gymnastics. Or you’ve done none of that and just like climbing on shit. Whatever. You decide this is what you want to do.
First you’re confronted with the fact that NO ONE has won American Ninja Warrior*. NO ONE. Only a select few have even come close. But there burns in your heart a passion to do this. So you train, you run, you climb on shit, you work at it.
Someone comes along and says, “You know what? You should go train with Sam Sann in Houston. He’s got the full course all laid out. The only way you’re going to make it is if you train with him.”
You want to win, so you go off and you train with Sam Sann. You climb on shit. You perfect your technique. You CRUSH Sam’s course. You are ready for American Ninja Warrior.
Then someone comes along. Maybe the same someone, maybe some other someone. They come along and they say, “Nah nah nah. Sam Sann? That ain’t gonna get you to American Ninja Warrior. You gotta go to the Movement Lab in Jersey. Those guys have the REALLY good course. You gotta do that.”
So, okay. You go to Jersey. You do the Movement Lab training. You do the Movement Lab course. AND YOU CRUSH IT. Just demolish it. You are fierce, you are tough, you are a monster.
Then that fucker comes along. “Nope, nope, nope. Movement Lab? Nah, that ain’t gonna do it. You gotta climb Mt. Hood. That’s the real training. Being out on a mountain range. That’s how the best do it.”
Jesus shit. Well, you really want this. You have staked a lot on it already, you are committed. This is what you want. So, off to Mt. Hood.
(I warned you at the beginning. I did. Long, labored metaphor. You see where it’s going. You can skip down, if you want.)
You train on Mt. Hood. You climb all 20,000 feet by hand. You are a dominant monster. You are a demon.
But…wait. Nope, you’re not ready, that rat bastard tells you. “To really train, you have to build your own course, with your own money, your own two hands. That’s the way you really become an American Ninja Warrior.”
Now you’re in it. You’re all sunk costs. You have come this far. You gotta know what’s it like to be American Ninja Warrior. You quit your job. You work on your own course. You build the fucking thing with your own two hands.
While you do, you read about the ANW greats, the guys who come close. You hear about a woman, a little slip of a thing, who demolishes the course**. You think, “Yeah, that’s hard. But I can do that. I know I can.”
You haunt message boards for tips and tricks. You practice your technique. You do the work. You really do.
You hear about American Ninja Warrior auditions. You sleep outside for five days. You spend your last savings to get in the door. You show up.
And you ROCK. FUCK YEAH.
YOU ARE IN.
By “in” here, we mean, you get to actually compete for American Ninja Warrior. You are pumped. You are psyched. You are stoked. You take your shot.
Have you seen this thing? Seriously. It’s crazy-sauce. It’s crazier than you can imagine. But you have put the work in. You ATTACK the course. You have paid your dues. This is what it’s all about.
You make it past the first stage. Past the second stage. The crowd loves you. There’s fucking fire and lights and Vegas.
In the back of your mind, there’s the thought: “Well, even if I don’t finish, even if I don’t win, someone will notice me. Someone will say, ‘That kid’s got gumption. Let’s put him our sports team.’” That would be all right.
You get to the final stage. And you fail. You hit the water. As you come up, you think, “Well. I had a good run. I learned a lot. I have some things to work on. But I did okay. I feel good about it. And, hey, these ANW people, they said they’d hook me up. It’s okay.”
You come up out of the water, and you hear cheering. Crazy cheering. You realize that the stadium you’re in is empty. Ghost town. But there are these lights over the way. A whole other stadium. You walk over there, ask someone what’s going on.
"It’s American Ninja Warrior. Those folks just won." They point at a little huddle of people at the top of Mt. Midoriyama. They are beat to shit, they have worked hard, they’re the winners. You weren’t even in the same race.
(If you skipped ahead, start reading here.)
This weekend, I got a letter from Austin Film Festival. I’d submitted a script to their Screenplay Contest. Everyone I’ve talked to, everything I’ve read as I’ve figured my way through this field, they’ve said this is one of the best screenplay contests.
I made the Second Round. Top 15% of scripts. Out of 6,764 entries. Not too shabby. I’m in the midst of a new spec and, while, yeah, I didn’t make the semis or the finals, but still…feeling pretty good.
Then I read this tweet:
Which, I gotta say, was kind of a kick in the nuts. (Lee Stobby is a highly regarded manager.)
And then I found this thread on Done Deal Pro. (The DDP forum is a pretty well-regarded clearinghouse for screenwriters.) Which mostly confirms what Lee is talking about.
For those outside of the industry, The Tracking Board is a clearinghouse for hot scripts and deals, one that largely caters to Hollywood insiders. The ever-awesome Black List is both a script hosting/professional feedback resource as well as a yearly list of the most popular unproduced scripts floating around Hollywood. (Argo, American Hustle and lots of other scripts have shown up on it.)
Look. This is a hard business, a tough business that a lot of people want to get into. It’s not Lee Stobby’s job to make me feel good about my script or my work. It’s not anyone’s. That’s on me. It’s on me to write, to write as best as I can, to write better every day.
But sometimes it feels like there’s some other race being run and I don’t even know how to get into it.
Twitter has, for me, been an incredible resource for working, active, intelligent professional screenwriters: Craig Mazin, Geoff LaTulippe, John August and, of course, the godfather Brian Koppelman. And so many more than I can list in this already epically long post. They’re all great, smart, incredibly giving and generous. (Don’t even get me started on Mystery Exec.) You should follow all of them.
Sometimes, they go off on the Hope Machine. The cottage industry of screenwriting gurus and hucksters, who sell programs and notes and promise all kind of insider access to jump start your screenwriting career. Mostly, they have nothing. But they offer hope.
When you’re soaking wet, your muscles are exhausted, your spirit is flagging, hope can be a great thing. As long as it sends you back to your script. This business can be short on hope. (Hell, all businesses can be short on hope.)
And it can feel hopeless. So hopeless. Especially when you’re not plugged in to the “real” world.
So…sometimes, just sometimes, hope is all you have. Every script is an act of hope. Not just hope that someone will notice, but hope that it will be better than the last. Hope that you’ve learned something.
Have I learned some things? I think so. I have A LONG WAY TO GO. I know that. I think I’ve said this before, but I’m barely a zygote writer.
I’m hoping that a great script will really be enough.
That’s where I am tonight. Tomorrow morning…I write.
*As of this writing. You never know.
**If you haven’t watched that video, do yourself a favor. It’s impressive as fuck.
Start time: 6:47am
End time: 7:36am
I am not done. I kinda wish I was. But I am not.
The time off yesterday was good. Especially good since I crushed my first fantasy football match-up. (Thank you, JJ Watt and the Houston D.) But it was good recharging time.
I kind of expected to attack today’s writing with vim and vigor, rip through my last chunk of writing and be all done and sitting in the catbird seat for five weeks.
But, lo and behold, all the situation is the same as it was: I’m in the middle of the final act of the screenplay, the choices now are life or death, for me (and for the characters) and the words come out a bit harder. It’s not a “slog,” but it’s a deliberate pace. Like I’m looking for something valuable that slipped out of my pocket, re-tracing my steps, focused on the ground. Each step is careful, each moment considered.
To be honest, I miss the adrenaline rush of those first few pages, the flying feeling of getting it all down. This part matters more, definitely, but it lacks some zing. I like zing.
Which is probably why, in my head, I’m starting to write another script already. I’m not a skydiver or a snowboarder or any kind of extreme anything. But I’m an adrenaline junkie in my own way. The thrill of creation, that’s my jam, y’all. And once you get hooked, it is hard to kick that habit.
Page count: 2 pages
God worked until the 7th day. I’m knocking off a day early.
I sat down to power through the last 25-30 pages of the script, but found my mind wandering, the writing coming in fits and starts. The fits and starts are normal. I’m in the home stretch, but this is the key stretch. Everything I’ve written so far is building up to this: this is when points are made, promises are fulfilled, payoffs are paid. Sometimes I get to this point and a light bulb goes off. I think, “OH! That’s what this story has been about the whole time! Now I gotta go make sure that I put that in the front.” Starting over from the start might seem like delaying tactic, but it’s an important stage. Now that you know where the chips fall, you have to make sure you threw them right.
And then there are days when the muse crosses her arms and says, “Not tonight, dude. Ain’t gonna happen.” Hangs a “Gone Fishin’” sign up and splits on ya. That was this morning. I got up, nicely rested. It’s a gorgeous day out. My girlfriend comes back tonight and I haven’t totally wrecked our apartment. Football starts in a couple of hours. Just the kind of writing morning you want. Except I couldn’t really get any traction.
I fought for a bit, but then I remembered: I have six weeks for this. I can take a brief breather. Let the muscles recover. Refill the tank.
And thus…Rest Day. Today’s as good as any. Back to the fray tomorrow.
Page count: 3 pages
Start time - 7:58am
End time - 11:56am
Start time - 3:07pm
End time - 6:15pm
I seriously contemplated just finishing the whole damn thing today. It’s called a “vomit” draft for a reason. Yeah, yeah, yeah, “six week spec.” Earlier today, I was thinking, I can push through fifty pages today. I got that.
I did not. Which is a good thing, I think.
I don’t really set a page goal for each day. I set a plot point goal. I want to write until my main character is at X point. Then I walk away. I have the whole thing outlined and I haven’t diverged far from it, but it’s still useful for me to stop and think about what’s going to happen next. Little variations happen (I actually wound up cutting a whole plot switchback), so it’s always a question of “does this next section make sense?” You have to keep checking in with what you’ve actually written, with the underlying emotional stuff and, yes, the plot stuff. It’s a lot of “Wait, wait, wait…in that last section, he said that he hated ice cream. Now they’re supposed to go to an ice cream store. Uh oh!” (Note: there is no ice cream in my script…yet.)
Here’s a little discourse on screenwriting theory, practice and education: I have very little of any of those things. I got my MFA from a program that did not emphasize screenwriting at all at a time (the long ago days of the early 2000s) when a career in screenwriting or TV was largely seen as something failed playwrights do. Nonetheless, I read Syd Field’s Screenplay, of course. Which is heavy on the 3 act structure. That was the world of screenwriting (at least to me): movies are written in three pretty clearly defined Acts with a nice, neat Rising Action-Climax-Falling Action structure. The word on the street (because that’s where writers hang out - on the street) was that if you were going to be a writer, you NEEDED to have your 3 Act Structure down.
I was mostly a playwright then, so I didn’t care. I was all about 2 Acts, baby! With an intermission! What what! I would dip in and out of screenwriting discussions here and there. Then I started hearing about Robert McKee’s Story (see Adaptation for details). Then Save The Cat. I have read none of those things. I come to screenwriting almost filled up almost solely with watching movies and then notes I’ve gotten on scripts. And, yeah, being a playwright. (There’s another part of this, my own artistic sensibilities, but that’s the subject of a whole other post.)
When I do outlines, I still use acts, mostly three. But when I write, I don’t think about page counts, really. It was good advice I got from Mario Moreno. I feel my way through. Does this scene feel too long? Have we been doing the same thing for a while? Is it time for a complication or problem? Let’s throw some shit at this lady! (Writing largely consists of making life very difficult for imaginary people you care about; it’s not too far from sociopathy.)
Right now, I’m coming around the bend into the last act of this thing, the final movement. I’m about to fully reveal the Big Bad and push my lead into her toughest decisions. Oh, and blow some shit up. There will be blowing shit up. Might as well take a pause, take a breath and get some rest before jumping into the deep end. I’ll call it a day.
Page count: 17 pages
Start time: ???
End time: ???
Yeah, this was a weird, weird one. I got up early, intending to write before my girlfriend left for the weekend and planning to write more when I got home. Both of those things…happened? But it was all wonky. My gf got up early to finish packing and hang a bit before she left. I expected her to already be in the air when I got home after work, but her flight was delayed. Rhythms all off.
I’ve had to remind myself that this is #SixWeekSpec, not #SixDAYSpec. I got off to a good start and will still likely finish this bad boy well before the deadline. But I don’t have to rush it. I know that. But…damn, I’m eager. So eager.
Part of what happens for me is that I see the thing all finished. I try to see the movie in my head, in the theatre of the mind. I cast it (this one kinda came with a cast…but that’s a story for another day), I direct it in my head, I try to really *see* it. It helps with the writing, especially with descriptions. Seeing it in my head, I try to translate what I’m seeing as efficiently and cleanly as possible, to suggest what I’m seeing to the reader. I’m lucky enough to have a pretty good visual memory, so I’m used to replaying movies in my head. (Pretty useful for long trips when all of my electronics fail. I’m not Puddy or anything. But I can amuse myself.)
There is, of course, the downside. Is there a movie that you love, really love, a movie that you totally got into and watched and watched and watched? And then you were less in love, less surprised? It gets a little bit like that. I get so used to seeing the movie in my head, my mind…kinda wanders. I start feeling like, “Welp. I’m done with that. I already wrote it in my head. That’s the same as, you know, actually writing it, right?” But it’s not.
God, so much of writing is simply getting out of your way. Just getting out of your head, putting your fingers on the keyboard and actually writing. Not outlining, not treatment-ing, not thinking about how bad-ass this script is going to be, how awesome the responses are going to be, how much everyone is going to be all over your jock when they read it. You gotta see the ball into your hands, not try to turn the double play too quick (for the sports fans out there).
That thrill of creation I was talking about, that cuts both ways. Another script idea is knocking at the door, but I have to finish what’s on my plate first.
Tomorrow, the decks are clear. Let’s go get some.
Start time: 6:50 am
End time: 7:30 am
Welp. I forgot to set my alarm for 5:45, so that was the first thing. I’m still in the tricky middle section, so that’s the second thing. Fully out of sprint territory, smack dab in the mountain climbing section. That’s what this is like: You find a little bit of purchase, a good handhold. You pull yourself up, wedge yourself in. Start looking for the next handhold. You gotta make sure it’s sturdy, that you won’t slip because you’re up the mountain now. A finger slip means backsliding, falling down. One really bad move could mean the whole thing comes crashing down. Caution rules the day now.
And with caution, with consideration of the next beat or scene, with the briefest of pauses to think about what your characters are thinking or feeling, with that barest of openings come the doubts. All the doubts.
Is this good? Is any of this good? Is this totally cliched? Does any word of this make any sense at all? Holy crap, what if this whole thing really suck? Or worse, what if I just really suck and can’t finish it? I’m never going to make this work. Never. But now I’m committed. I’ve got a blog about it and everything. Crap. What if everyone realizes that I’m just a big phony? What if this whole screenwriting thing is a huge folly and I’m most certainly going to fail, die alone, penniless, in a studio apartment stuffed floor to ceiling with rotting script pages, used Kleenex and decaying dreams?
The panic creeps in under the door, a bag chock full of spiky, spiny anxieties slung over its back. It leaves them scattered across the floor, like evil dust bunnies or abandoned Lego bricks, just waiting for the fleshy part of my foot to find one.
This is where all bad ideas are born. “I know, I know, I’ll add a car chase! That’ll shake things up! No, wait, we need an extended comic scene here, really win over the audience. No, no, no, this is where my main character HAS to emote, lay bare her soul! Yes! If I do all of those things, a comic car chase with a strong emotional core, everyone will love my script!”
Bad script ideas are born from two places: bad notes and author anxieties. And let’s face it, author anxieties are pretty much responsible for most bad notes. If there’s anything that can kick a hole in this boat, it’s me, thrashing about trying to keep water from coming over the side. When there really isn’t any. We’re still in dry dock, for cripes’ sake.
In some ways, I know I’m treading water. The weekend is almost here, my girlfriend is almost winging her way to Austin, and I get two full days to just write. Maybe occasionally stuff my gob with frozen pizza, like I’m back in college (or grad school…or two years ago. Whatever.) That’s the big turn.
Page count: 2 pages