If triple digits is how many it takes…

math lesson
“So you see, Billy, if you edited out 5 pages from the previous draft, that would put your new midpoint around page 54.”

I recently read in an interview with screenwriter Eric Heisserer that included him being asked how many drafts he wrote for ARRIVAL.

“Over one hundred.”

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Keep in mind that this was also spread out over time, not all concentrated in one specific period. And that a new draft doesn’t necessarily mean a complete rewrite. It could be anything from that to a few words changed on pages 33, 52, and 88 through 89.

And ARRIVAL was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards, so looks like all those drafts Eric went through were worth it.

About two years ago, I had lunch with a writer friend. He was familiar with my western, and liked it very much. When I mentioned I was considering returning to it to work on it some more, he said “I think it’s fine how it is. If you keep messing with it, you run the risk of making it worse.”

At the time, I really took that to heart. I didn’t want to mess up the script, but deep down I also knew it could still be better.

As you probably already guessed, I eventually ignored his advice and dove back in. I got a few more rounds of feedback from trusted colleagues and professional consultants, always tweaking and fine-tuning with every draft.

There’s no way I could say exactly how many drafts I went through to get to where it is now, but it’s probably safe to say it’s at least over one hundred. That is definitely a lot, but reading the script now, the results of all that work are evident on the page.

Plus, all the notes and all the rewriting have combined to make a really positive impact on my writing. While the overall challenge of putting a script together is still pretty daunting, the whole process seems to move forward in a much smoother manner. And, to be honest, maybe a little faster too.

Even though someone may tell you your script is “good enough as it is”, the final product is all on you. Keep working on it as long as you think you need to, with as many drafts as it takes.

You might not get an Oscar nomination, but getting your script to where you want it to be will definitely make you feel like a winner. Yes, that’s a sappy and corny thing to say, but it’s still true.

The drive. The motivation.

feather quill
This would probably be easier with a typewriter or a computer

I’ve been on quite a bit of a tear the past few weeks, with a lot of rewriting, revising and polishing going on for a few scripts. Definitely couldn’t have gotten to this point without some extremely helpful and insightful notes for each one.

Since a few of them involve working with other people, I like to do the polite thing and keep each person updated regarding the progress on the respective script. Where I am in the story, how it went with scenes or sequences that needed work, that sort of thing.

I tend to include my enthusiasm for latest developments and optimism for continuing success in those updates, which seems to garner responses along the lines of:

“I can see it in your energy.”

“I love your work ethic!”

Making headway on a script, no matter how big or small, is addicting. You’re able to make something better, and you want to keep doing it.

To me, it’s really just loving doing this. And the more I do it, I like to think I get a little bit better each time. Probably also safe to say that seeing as how this is what I want to do for a living, enjoying it is a bit of necessity.

It’s always great to see or hear another writer really get into talking about their script because you can see their excitement about it shine through. It’s infectious. But there are also those, myself included, who get frustrated or depressed about their lack of progress. That’s understandable. We’ve all been there. Even the most successful pros.

But at the heart of it all we keep pushing forward, doing our best to not only make the material better, but to also improve how we go about making it better. It’s a challenge, to be certain. One that requires constant effort. Even when you don’t want to, or think it’s all for nothing.

Nobody ever achieved success by giving up.

And I’ve no intention of giving up.

I see what you did there, Mr. Kasdan

Marion Ravenwood
A handful of lines + a solid right hook = insight into 2 key characters

Of all the notes I’ve received about my western, the ones that really stood out the most were about developing the characters a little more – especially the titular protagonist.

I’ve also been spending some time reading, watching and analyzing the scripts and films that influenced it. Namely, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (along with its sequels) and a few others involving female leads who kick ass.

It’s a great opportunity to explore what makes a character tick. A lot’s been written about the “exposition without being blatantly expository” scene in RAIDERS with Indy and the government men, but I’ve been paying more attention to other scenes; the ones that offer up a bit more about what kind of person Dr Jones is as seen through his interactions with other characters.

-Indy discussing with Marcus the implications of finding the Ark.

-The reunion with Marion (see photo above)

-The encounter with Belloq in the cafe in Cairo.

All of these (and a few more) present an aspect of Indy’s character WHILE ALSO advancing the plot. It takes a lot of effort to do that and do it well.

I’ve also been working my way through the infamous story conference transcript, where Spielberg, Lucas, and Kasdan work out the story based on Lucas’ idea of a “swashbuckling archaeologist”. While you can easily find the memo itself, check out this phenomenal post that also analyzes some key points of what’s being discussed.

A lot of this is what I’ve been focusing on during this rewrite. More than a few of my notes highlight certain scenes and say something like “This would be a great place to show us more about her.” So that’s part of what I’ve been trying to do.

I originally thought it would be really tough to implement those kinds of changes, but using RAIDERS et al as guidelines and knowing my objectives for each scene, it actually hasn’t been as challenging. Sometimes all it requires is a few extra lines of dialogue or a modified action line. It’s not always easy, but it definitely feels a little less daunting. Also helping – working on one scene at a time.

In the meantime, progress on the rewrite/polish continues at a healthy pace and I really like how this new draft is shaping up. I suspect the end result will be a little more than just slightly different from previous ones, and hopefully the changes will really take the script to the next level.

Change is inevitable. Embrace it.

edited page
All that red is a really good thing

A few more sets of script notes have come in. Comments in general are favorable (Thanks, everybody!), along with lots of suggestions about potential fixes. Nothing too drastic, but just enough to slightly alter things and still achieve the same results. Nevertheless, it’ll require a fair amount of rewriting.

Which is totally fine by me.

As much as I like what I’ve written, as do a lot of my readers, both sides know it can always be improved – especially my side. As the writer, it’s not as easy for me to recognize what those improvements could be and where they should go, which is why I ask for feedback. The readers start with only what’s on the page and use their knowledge and experience to deduce what works and what doesn’t, and then pass it all back to me for analysis and selective implementation.

A less experienced writer might be hesitant or even reluctant to do anything drastic that could change anything about their script.

Me, not so much. I know what the story is, and if somebody points out something that doesn’t work or suggests a different way to present it, I’m not going to say no. In fact, I’d probably be grateful for it. I might not always agree with what somebody says or suggests, but I still appreciate it and can totally see why they said it. Sometimes it might even inspire a totally new approach. Whatever works.

Used to be I would dread having to rewrite, but due to an effort of trying to write on as regular a basis as I can, which also involves rewriting, I’ve gotten to the point where I now actually look forward to it. (Helpful tip – the more you write, the easier it gets – albeit to a certain degree. Overall, it’s still tough.)

Will later drafts of my scripts be exactly the same as the first? Of course not. That’s the whole point of rewriting: to make it better than it was before. And that requires making whatever changes are necessary.

I recently got to sit in on a friend’s script review group where a new writer received some pretty brutal notes about their script (which I believe was also the first draft). If they wanted it to be better, they had a lot of work to do. They had this somewhat annoyed look and said “Guess that means I’ll have to rewrite most of the script.”

Well, yeah. This is no “one-and-done” kind of operation.

If you think the first or second draft of your script is perfect as is and doesn’t need any more work, then good for you, but I sincerely hope you never, ever show it to a writer with more experience because you will be severely disappointed with what they have to say.

As for me, I’ll be keeping busy with the usual hacking, slashing, and overall rehashing of my scripts. And enjoying every second of it.

-If you’re a fan of sci-fi adventure, then please consider contributing to writer/producer Marc Zicree’s crowdfunding project Space Command: Redemption. Among the cast of sci-fi luminaries are Doug Jones (HELLBOY), Robert Picardo (STAR TREK: VOYAGER), Bruce Boxleitner (TRON, BABYLON 5) and Bill Mumy (LOST IN SPACE), Space Command: Redemption is “a bold, new sci-fi adventure with a retro feel and an optimistic view of the future.” Donate if you can!

Guilty as charged

lardner mugshot
I did it. I’m glad I did it. And I’ll do it again. As many times as necessary.

The clock’s ticking down to the final deadline for an upcoming contest, so almost all of my energies are being directed at getting the pulp sci-fi in as tip-top shape as possible. Overall, I’d say it’s coming along nicely.

As you’d expect, there have already been some big changes made, with more than a few more on the way.

A major part of some of these changes has involved cutting material that I previously considered untouchable, or at least to do so would have constituted a crime against all that is good and wholesome.

Otherwise known as “killing one’s darlings”.

As you edit/polish/rewrite your scripts, changes will (and should) occur within the context of the story, so you have to deal with the consequences and ramifications of making those changes. And that means gettin’ rid of the stuff you love.

Did I really, really like this line of dialogue or that scene? Most definitely.

Did I cut it without a moment’s hesitation because it just didn’t work anymore? Yep.

Any regrets? Not really. Why should I? It’s all about making the script better, right?

A lot of writers won’t cut something because they hold it too close. To them, their ego takes precedence over the material. If a producer or director says something doesn’t work, and says it’ll have to be cut, what are they going to do? Say no?

It’s very rare that the final draft of a screenplay is exactly like the first draft. Changes will always be necessary, whether you want to make them or not. Much as you might hate it at the moment, make those changes. Chances are you’ll barely remember what was there before anyway.

A screenplay-in-progress is the raw material, and your job as the writer is to continuously work with it and shape it in order to get it to the final version – the one that tells your story in the best way possible.

If that means discarding something for something new, so be it. Even more so if the new something is even more effective.