One last ride

cowboys
Saddle up

Last week, work on the comedy outline wrapped up a bit earlier than expected, so while I wait for the notes on that, I’ve decided to venture back into some territory I’d considered over and done with.

My western.

Although it’s done alright in some contests (and I suppose top 15 percent in the Nicholl isn’t too shabby), I really think it can be better. Plus, more than a few opinions and comments from totally non-biased outside parties confirm this.

As one set of notes so succinctly put it, “Don’t get me wrong. The story’s a lot of fun and the structure is solid. It’s the characters that could use more development. Nothing too drastic, but just enough to flesh them out a little more.”

Makes sense to me.

On top of that, a recent conversation with another writer, who is starting on their new western script, included mention of how I should read the script for UNFORGIVEN – even though that and my script are worlds apart.

I downloaded it and started reading it. Just a few pages in, and it absolutely confirms I need to step up my game. There’s no reason I shouldn’t strive to present that kind of quality, even in a script that would most likely be labeled a “popcorn-tentpole” kind of story.

Luckily for me, I’ve always enjoyed working on this story and am actually kind of psyched about jumping back into it. I thought it was pretty good before, and now hope to make it even better.

Safe to say this should be pretty interesting.

A small matter of interpretation

princess bride
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Amidst all the hubbub currently surrounding my ongoing rewriting efforts, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have received some high-quality feedback on each of them.

(Incidentally, concurrently working on three scripts may be a good exercise in productivity, but it sure is an exhausting one.)

Among this trio of projects is a round of notes on the pulp sci-fi.

Some great stuff being provided by my legion of savvy readers, which includes a comment made by more than one person.

But first, a little background…

As I mentioned, I refer to this script as “pulp sci-fi”. To me, it’s reminiscent of old-timey adventure (Flash Gordon, Doc Savage, etc), which is the kind of story I enjoy reading. It’s also the filter through which I wrote it, and had a great time doing.

What’s been extremely interesting is how people interpret that phrase.

A few readers tended to share my same opinion/viewpoint, and felt the story and script reflected that. Others thought calling it a “pulp” story indicated it would be somewhat darker and grittier (which it really isn’t). And there’ve also been some who weren’t sure if what’s on the page was supposed to be taken at face value or if I was intentionally satirizing the genre.

Quite a wide variety of opinions and reactions, all of which are perfectly valid. But the responsibility falls squarely on my shoulders to provide the story with the tone I find the most applicable.

Don’t underestimate the importance of tone. This may not be the best explanation, but I see it as the story’s attitude; how it presents itself. The writing should reflect not only the components of the genre, but also the emotions the story seeks/needs to invoke in the reader.

So while I offered up what I considered to be a fun romp of a tale through the fantastic, maybe with tongue slightly pressed against cheek, that’s not what how others saw it.

Admittedly, I probably could have cleared up a lot of the confusion at the outset by adding something like “It’s pulpy sci-fi in the vein of MEN IN BLACK, HELLBOY, and THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI,” as opposed to leaving it open to interpretation. For all I know, someone saw “pulp sci-fi” and thought, “Oh, like BLADE RUNNER.” Which it most definitely is not.

Laying down that kind of foundation lets the reader know what to expect before they start, but then it’s up to the writer to consistently maintain that tone for the entirety of the script.

Keep your ego out of it

vintage lady writer
As much as she loved that scene, she eventually accepted the fact it would have to go.

I’ve received notes on three separate scripts in the past week or so, and each set is of  very high quality. Each does a very thorough and insightful job of spotlighting What Needs Work for each script.

Daunting and somewhat overwhelming at first, I’ve begun the slow and somewhat laborious process of analyzing and breaking down all the comments and suggestions. I won’t use everything, but there is definitely a lot of good material to work with.

I provided a total stranger with material, and they’re offering up their honest opinions about it. At first glance, some of the comments might be interpreted as negative, but they’re really not. This is what they saw/thought while reading my script.

No axes to grind. No vendettas. No hidden agendas. Just pure, honest opinions. I take what they said, figure out which parts I consider the most helpful, and proceed from there. Ten times out of ten, the result is a better script.

I was told once that getting critically constructive notes and being willing to accept them were signs of a quality writer. Honestly, that was a little surprising.

As much I’d like to think my stuff is great, the reality of the situation is that it’s more along the lines of “it’s okay/pretty solid, but could still use some work”, which is fine. That’s what rewrites are for. From my experience, the final draft is always different from the first. I wouldn’t have been able to produce that final draft without all those helpful notes.

Many times I’ll see a writer ask for feedback on their script, which they get, but might not be the high words of praise they were expecting. Are they ever? Then they respond with something along the lines of “You just don’t get my genius!”, and promptly reject any and all notes. The end result: a lousy script that’s not much better.

Helpful tip: don’t do that.

The whole reason you want notes is to find out how to make your script better. Hard as it is to believe, you can’t make it better if you’re not willing to accept criticism. You can be super-proud of the script you have, but don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s perfect just the way it is now.

Chances are it’s not.

What’s more important to you: having what you think is a good script, or having somebody give you tips that would actually help make it better?

Would we love to see our scripts play out onscreen, just the way we wrote them? Of course. But what you see is up there is usually a lot different from what how it originally read on the page. Happens all the time. Getting upset about it and decrying the sacrilege committed by altering even one letter or syllable from your precious text is definitely the wrong way to go.

In the next couple of days, I’ll be having separate in-depth discussions about two of my scripts with some of the people who gave me notes on them. My emotional state could probably be summed up with “excitedly nervous”. It’s a combination of looking forward to and feeling a bit anxious about hearing what they have to say.

But in the end, it’s not about the writer. It’s about the script and doing what’s necessary to make it better.

I’m here, but need to be up there

mountain climber
Onward and upward! (snappy hat optional)

I’ve been writing screenplays for quite a number of years, but only in the past, say five to six have I shown some significant improvement.

More than a few readers who’ve read my last three scripts have commented that each one displays a step up in quality a compared to its predecessor. Which is very nice to hear.

Feeling pretty confident in my skills and material, I submitted some of them to a few of the high-profile contests (or at least the ones that really matter). The results were less than encouraging. Don’t get me wrong. Top 15 percent in the Nicholl is nice, but it’s still falling short of expectations.

You can have the most incredible script you’ve ever written, enter it in a contest, and chances are it might still go nowhere. Contests are just one way in.

But I digress.

I figured there was nothing more that could be done with the scripts, so I might as well file them away and move on, using them for occasional query letters.

However.

While my scripts may not be similar to those that win contests (can you imagine me writing a coming-of-age story set in 70s Reno?), they’re still fun, entertaining reads, and my passion and enthusiasm for them continue to burn strong and bright.

Like with my writing skills, they’re good, but can still be better.

That’s why I’ve decided to do what I can to make that actually happen. I’ve already gotten several sets of notes on some of my scripts, and most mention the same issues, along with some potential fixes.

As always, I have the luxury of picking and choosing which suggestions to implement, and I sincerely hope the end result is a collection of scripts of decidedly higher quality.

It’s been quite an effort for me to get my writing to get to the level it is now, and spending a little more time on trying to make it better will be definitely worth the effort.

Pause. Refresh.

vintage date
We’ll get back to working on the script as soon as we’re done. Promise.

After having taken a longer-than-expected break from working on the comedy spec, I’m back at it now.

There were the occasional glimpses and minor touch-ups here and there, but I’d estimate it’s been at least several weeks, if not a little more than a month since I was really able to fully focus on it.

During that time (while working on another script), I kept thinking “what if I can’t think of anything new for this?” I also made a point of not looking at the previous draft of the outline; I didn’t want to unintentionally influence the new one.

But the moment of truth had arrived. The other script was done, or at least as much as it was going to be for the time being, and there was no more delaying the inevitable. I had to confront this monster head-on.

Having avoided looking at the previous draft for a while, some of the details were still there, albeit a little fuzzy. Somehow this enabled me to not automatically revert to thinking they were my only option. Instead, I took those details with the thought of “this is what could happen, but what would be a new and really different way of doing it?”

Applying that thought process, along with not feeling tied down to what it was before has really allowed me to come up with some entirely new ideas and approaches, many of which I would have never even contemplated before. Like chunks of an iceberg, elements of the previous draft are breaking off and drifting away, never to be seen again.

The core concept of the story remains intact, but more and more of how that story takes place are experiencing major changes. As of this writing, it’s somewhere past the halfway mark. As is usually the case for me, some elements that still need work, but a new and pretty solid and foundation is being laid.

Would I have been able to come up with any of this if I had dove right back in after finishing the previous draft? Highly doubtful. The material was still fresh in my mind, so it would have been significantly less likely for me to be able to not automatically go to it.

Taking this break, along with focusing on another project, especially one entirely different in genre, provided me with the opportunity to jump back into this one with a strong sense of revived creativeness. Even though it was still a bit on the daunting side, I came into it with a “You got this” attitude.

It also helped that I wasn’t being so hard on myself for not having every line be pure gold the first time out. This is still a work in progress, so everything remains in an ongoing state of flux.

For now, it’s coming along nicely, and forward progress is holding steady. As much as I would love for that to continue all the way to the end, I’m also a realist, so enjoying every productive day as they come.

I’d always heard the recommendation that after you finish a script, you should put it away, or at least not look at it for at least two weeks. That’s not a bad start, but I’d say a month might be better. That way you can give yourself the choice of going back and looking at what you’ve already done (which can be quite eye-opening in both good and not-so-good ways), or starting anew.

Now that I’ve done both, I can honestly say that both have proven equally effective in their respective ways, and I strongly suspect I’ll continue to go back and forth for future drafts of this as well as future scripts.