Recently I was listening to a fellow writer talk about writing that is a bit foreign to me: academic papers. Foreign? No. It's actually more of a horrendous memory. What a nightmare college writing was for me. Outlining for essays was stressful and dry. I always felt like I didn't know what I was doing; as if there was a method but no one taught it to me and it made me CRAZY.
What I think never occurred to me then and is a no-brainer now is a truth test this writer reminded me of: Would anyone care about the paper you're writing? Would anyone care about the thesis, the idea?
DING DING DING DING
Had I for a minute thought about that back in 1918 when I was in college, I bet the whole experience would have relaxed me more. It would have appealed to the writer I really am. Not necessarily a people pleaser but certainly someone who wants to think what I've put on paper has captured the attention of my reader.
The "who cares" of it goes for ALL writing: Scripts, novels, poems, songs, personal essays, articles, you name it. You have to believe someone other than you would be interested. Yet if you're only asking yourself and you're the one who came up with the idea, you're not necessarily the best arbiter of the truth. Therefore...
Bounce. Blake Snyder, The Save The Cat writer who's guruism is respected by serious TV and film writers worldwide used to suggest basically pitching your idea to people on line at Starbucks. Your screenplay idea -- the secret idea that you protected within an inch of your life lest someone else got to the wizard behind the curtain before you - was about to be blurted out to a guy staring at his phone with the attention span of a hungover gnat. If you can't while in line get someone interested in your idea, if their eyes glaze over while you tell them the hook that made you take a cold shower when you thought of it, you gotta ask yourself, am I trying too hard? Is this a good egg? Maybe no one will care. And if that's the conclusion, don't panic. Realize that's valuable information.
Full disclosure, I don't think I ever pitched a screenplay or pilot idea to anyone in line anywhere. But I did go to my tough friends - the honest people who had no interest in anything but my success with all my best concepts. I'd bounce my idea(s) and receive their input and then decide how to move forward. If someone said something that really upset me, honestly, that usually meant either the idea sucked or they were onto something. Either which way it always got me thinking...
So Lincoln, bounce. Tell people your stuff. Get feedback.
DON'T BE PRECIOUS.
Finishing that first draft is a big deal. It is a piece of writing. Something that is now a whole, even if the parts don't necessarily run smoothly. And because it's not perfect it's so easy to get down on yourself when you start looking at it. Therefore, when rewriting, it's good to follow a few simple rules that will help you structure your rewrite and stave off self-loathing:
After printing out your project, take some time to celebrate your first draft. You finished! Hey! Hot Damn! Not everyone can say they have a first draft of ANYTHING. For me, when I used to finish something, I'd celebrate by drinking and eating cheese. Now? I still eat the cheese but I lost the drinking portion so I've folded in shoes. Once that celebration is over, take a couple of days off if possible. But not much more than that. A couple = 2 from what I recall from elementary school.
2. GET YOUR PEN OUT
After you've taken your teensy break, have a pen ready and read one way through off of the hard copy. Don't start rewriting as you're reading. Go to sleep.
On the second pass, start categorizing your rewrite. Sample categories could be: Plot Issues, Character Issues, Scenes to Delete, Structural, Formatting...
Come up with a strategy. Though that sounds simple that may mean rebreaking an entire story or A Plot. You may rebreak many threads and that could have domino effects. That's okay. Take the time to thoroughly decide on the approach of rewriting and thoroughly examine if you change x how will y be effected? Will it be better? As long as you think through the approach both within the document and what your approach as the writer will be (ie.: I'll work for 7 days on this part and then see where we're at and maybe switch gears) then you will have a strategy. (By the way, I've had to rebreak outlines more times than I can count. There's no shame in that. It though might not be necessary. Take it all one problem at a time and you may find big sweeping approaches aren't what's best. This whole section could be called DON'T PANIC).
5. PICK YOUR POISON
A little adjunct to Number 4: While you're thinking of your rewrite, you may want to think about what to attack first. There's a saying which is "Go in the order that is killing you." I recommend rewriting the most challenging area(s) of your project first then go towards the easiest.
6. TIME MANAGE
Time and schedule your sessions so when you're rewriting, if you say work at 90 minute timed sessions, your chances of ending on a high note are greater than if you work for hours on end with no real cut off point. Danger there is basically getting sunk into the depths of despair.
THE DEPTHS OF DESPAIR by Cynthia Greenburg Dunlop
online shop, look at a scene, read about politics, look at a scene, call an institution I have a long-standing gripe with, glance at manuscript sitting by coffee maker, lie in bed and think about what I didn't accomplish today, look at phone, remember before bed looking at my phone is supposed to be bad for me, go to sleep.
Time Management is something every creative person must incorporate into their process so the slog-feeling of rewriting doesn't thwart effort and self-esteem.
Bounce ideas. Don't be afraid to call fellow scribes feedback. You can easily ask a trusted soul to read a scene, a chapter, or the whole thing. Be ready for feedback you hadn't anticipated and come prepared with specific questions like "Is this part working?" "Did you get that so-in-so was trying to do this or that?' "Did these lines land for you or feel funny?" Caution though - if you want compliments ask buddies, if you want truth, ask peers.
Good luck and when you sell it, buy me the pair of shoes that are in my cart on Amazon with the other things in my cart that I never bought.
Yes, I feel like crying. But really, that's not indicative of all that much because crying comes you know, too easily to me. I'm a sensitive soul. Still...
I'M SO FUCKING HAPPY!
How did we do it? You didn't ask that. Who would ask that? But I want to say PERSISTENCE and DILIGENCE gets her done! Those are the two biggest keys to getting a workable piece of material. Yes, of course, it meant the world to have a kick-ass partner who makes me laugh every single writing session, and moves heaven and earth to make sure she can show up for our writing. But breaking it down it's all the little things: scheduling, calendars, clearing away your thoughts before you write, having a definite start time and end time, setting goals, taking the time to work on the hard scenes, saying the hard stuff to one another, admitting when something's not working and truly enjoying when something is.
Persistence and Diligence, make that your mantra.
And so, we celebrate. We brag a little. We smile when smiling can be so tough (the world, the news, the people who annoy us who are in the news of the world...).
Fuck them WE HAVE A FIRST DRAFT!
One thing I do believe (and am now experiencing myself) is in our desire to get to the finish line we might start underwriting.
It's natural. It's exciting. You're going to have a finished screenplay/novel/pilot. Yay! But man, you're fucking tired. It's been a long haul. Can't you just work a little less hard now?
Consistency IS the key. With consistency, you can get your work done without underwriting any one section. For me, oddly, it's the end. I see the finish line and I'm like We're done! I don't have to care as much anymore!
Every single part of your work has to be valued. You need to stand behind all of it. So don't rush.
Slow and steady wins the race. Unless you're in a marathon but let's be honest, you're not. You hate exercise.
When you get feedback and it hurts try to remember: What did you like about the idea in the first place? Why did you like your story, your characters? We often try to determine the drive of our characters or the engine of the show or our story. And yet often we forget the importance of our own drive. We forget why we fell in love with the piece in the first place. Mmm hmm. That's the heartbeat that keeps the writer moving forward.
Your ego can and will get bruised - if you're doing your job right. And because your job is to create work you can stand behind and hopefully bring to the world and get an audience, getting feedback is the part you need to incorporate into your process as leading to the next logical step: Imperfect perfection. Imperfect perfection cannot be obtained without some pain, acceptance and the belief that whatever you have heard you can use to make your work better.
So steel yourself when you get feedback. Remember it does have utility. Some who give you notes may genuinely have your best interests at heart, or better yet, the best interest of your project. Then afterward, get quiet. Soak it in. Allow your defensive stance to melt into a a major cry.
Then take a breath, a beat, and get to work.
When they say writing is rewriting they're not fucking around. It's when you graduate from being romantic about your stuff to being a tough motherfucker. And those people don't just call themselves writers, they are writers.
When we fall in love with our prose sometimes we don't think about why the sentence, paragraph or scene is actually there. And that can really fuck up what would otherwise be a good piece of writing.
Before I worked on shows and before I taught writing classes, I took a bunch of writing classes. I learned a lot. And from the many classes I took I can boil something down for you so you don't have to take the same amount of classes. Put your work to an Intention Test and see what stays and let go of what some of us might refer to as "the fat."
For the Intention Test, ask yourself these five questions:
-What is my intention for this Scene/Page/Chapter?
-Why is this Scene/Page/Chapter here? What is the point of it?
-Does this Scene/Page/Chapter move the story forward?
-Does this Scene/Page/Chapter offer any new information/characters?
-If this Scene/Page/Chapter wasn't here, would anyone miss it (other than me?)
I think this could be helpful and help pry your addiction to Sentimentality away from its grasp. We get sentimental about our writing. We fall in love with our lines. As many writers complain about writing, often, I think secretly many of us kinda fall in love with our writing. I can't tell you the amount of times I've heard a writer say, But I really liked this. There are so many things I really liked too. But streamlining, getting to the point, etc., makes pieces flow and readers love you for it. There is no excuse for dense, bogged down writing that has no real point and gives the reader the excuse to walk away.
Don't let them go! You do have power over your reader and you do have power over your weaker inclinations! The solution is to use The Intention Test, grow a pair and make some fans!
Mindless activities, doncha just love em? I putter mainly in my kitchen. But really, the whole house is game when I'm in that frame of mind. And the reason I'm not going to list the many many ways one can putter is because it's so BORING POINTLESS AND USELESS! Which is actually the definition of puttering.
Here's why I am writing about puttering on a blog dedicated to writing: it's because I recently “diagnosed” a fellow writer as being a putterer in his writing process. Puttering easily can be done while toiling away on your script or novel. This guy desperately wants to be done with his book so he can show it to an editor for feedback but he just keeps going over little chapters, moments and areas because a few months ago he came up with a newly realized emotional thru-line. He just wants to make sure all the tracks are laid down nicely.
a few months ago…
Classic Putterer. His precious writing sessions are stagnating because while he's ensuring this one thing is covered in each and every nook and cranny, he’s getting lost. He’s doing word counts, changing buts to howevers, wrestling with where to put new and exciting commas. He’s wasting precious time!
I'm not judging him. I do it with scripts. I'm like "Oh wait a minute, so and so is gonna have to say this thing and have this attitude in that old scene so this new scene makes sense." CUT TO: An hour later. Yeah, I addressed that, I also wrote a bunch of new material (most of which won't stay) and I looked at the jeans on sale at Madewell, put items in my cart and then didn't buy anything (a whole other level of puttering).
Art is war, remember? And to get past enemy lines and reap the spoils of the war you have to strategically move forward, neutralize the bad men and get a bunch of accolades, saving lives along the way (including your own).
But what about that niggling thing that happens when you do have a great new emotional thru-line that was only realized while you were halfway through your piece? That feeling of "I just have to make sure it’ll make sense! Let me do that, for the love of God!"
HERE IS THE SECRET TO FIGHTING THE PUTTER NUDGE:
Create a document called "MUST MAKE SURE." Your "Must Make Sure" Document reminds you of all the things you must make sure are in your work before you present it to anyone. That way nothing falls through the cracks and you have no excuse but to keep moving forward. When you're done with your current draft, you'll do a pass for each item listed in your "Must Make Sure" document, spot checking that the thing that has to be there, is.
It's not easy. Because of course a part of you will fight this every time a new idea emerges. You'll think I just have to do this one thing. Honey, that's putter talk and you’re above that. Now.
Of course you might be the rare putterer who has found puttering is a part of your process. In fact you do get a lot of shit done despite of or even because of your puttering... Okay. That's fair. But if you're like me, puttering serves little to no purpose and you don't need another unfinished piece of writing in your drawer to prove it.
Like Boston says,
The sun is shinin'
The clouds are breakin'
Cause I can't lose now, there's no game to play
And if you can't trust Boston, who can you trust? They finished songs and they even wrote a song about it. They were like the first anti-putterers.
I think I've cleaned the house 20,000 times and in doing so I must have concluded in some manner - conscious or otherwise - that that was a better use of my time than writing one good sentence, one great joke, one good scene. It was also a better use of my time than attempting to write one good anything and not succeeding.
I'm here to say, none of it was a better use of my time despite what the outcome might have been. Being a writer means accepting you're not always going to be in the sweet spot. Some sessions might just be shit. That's the truth. They might just be shit and the truth is THEY'RE STILL WORTH IT. They're certainly more worthy than cleaning the stove. (really, who cares about the stove? And whoever that is, do you really want to be friends with them?).
The secret to writing is... finish that sentence. Did you say rewriting? Yes! Of course it is! But there are many secrets to writing and one of them that kinda shines above all others is showing up for it. The secret to writing might just be writing.
Each time you show up, the chances of it being shit or not run about 50/50. When you don't show up, having anything good in your quiver has about a 0% chance.
I have a lot of resolutions. Some have nothing to do with writing. And I can hear some irritating person say, "Doesn't everything have to do with writing?" Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, irritating person you shush up. But I will tell you, one real resolution that I do have and am putting down here to be super clear about it and risk vulnerability, is this year I am committing to finishing our screenplay and getting it read for feedback and for selling.
The important part of the equation in my resolution is when I say "finishing" it means I'm going to have to show up for it, no matter what. Nobody's gonna read half an anything.
Which means I'll have to move my schedule around, bargain with my husband, hire a sitter when necessary - basically it means doing whatever it takes to meet my goal. And that, In actuality, takes so little. When I was in writer’s rooms on shows we had a saying when we felt fried, “We’re not digging ditches.” Writing might be “hard” but come on, it’s not that hard.
So yeah. That’s it. I’m committing to simply showing up. I don't have to write 8 hours in the day (never gonna happen) and I don't have to make every scene perfect, I just have to show up and work with my partner towards crossing the finish line. That is achievable and that will get done.
That's all I got for me and for you. Feel free to share your goals in the comments - might help you stick to them - and it might just be another day and another night and yes, time is bullshit and not real but for what it’s worth:
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Okay so just by writing that title it occurs to me not everyone does an outline. There are a lot of different ways to approach writing and some script writers just don't like or do outlines. And full disclosure, I have written successful scripts without them. But if you have a complex story, are juggling many plot lines, and let's face it, if it's a screenplay, when you skip the outline, you run the risk of writing a 250 page or a 30 page script. Or you quit. Which sucks. It just does -- you had that spark, that good idea, you were all excited, but then you just dove in without thinking. It's like jumping off a diving board into a pool that doesn't have enough water. Head first.
"BUT THE WATER WAS SO BLUE!"
Uh huh. Very smart, Maria, very smart.
Not only do I recommend writing an outline, but then when you're in script, I recommend doing everything you can to adhere to it. I love freedom in writing of course, and new ideas can and do arise as you're in script, but if you've really done your job in constructing a solid blueprint that means you have thought a lot about the different reasons to put this story point in this particular place, etc. You may not remember all the logic that went into your outline when you're in the script but your former self, while writing the outline, wasn't in the glamor-part of writing but was instead doing the heavy lifting; the heavy lifting of thinking.
Scriptwriting is usually the fun "glamor part." The outline is the blue collar job. It's the foundation. The hard stuff. The unromantic, thinky, logic part. It's also the shit that makes the script job run smoothly. Imagine building a building without a blueprint. Super obvi analogy but it works.
In my humble opinion, outlines are essential. It's the time you've dedicated to thinking through story, characters, tone, every possible turn and twist, while also, making sure you're pinpointing what needs to be there at that moment and why, so that the story moves forward and that people who are reading what you've written (and ultimately watching it) stay engaged.
My advice doesn't mean divine inspiration shouldn't be heard when in script. But think before you do. If I decide to put in new material, which of course happens and should and is welcome, it's with real acknowledgement of what happened before the sparkly new idea. How does the sparkly new idea affect my outline? Can I recall the reason the outline was as it was before adding the new element to the script? What are the future ramifications, ultimately meaning, if said new sparkly idea gets in is there a domino effect? Is it not only worth it, does it make it better?
Adhering to the outline means cooler heads prevail. It's your head and it's cool.
I used to teach a class in this stuff and lately I've realized oh my God, what I told those students wasn't just b.s. I'm sticking to my outline like glue and I'm having forward momentum. I want that for you, too.
So a client is a finalist in one of those contests that everyone wants to win - the type of thing that could really catapult a writing career. They have a process where she's asked to rewrite her submission via notes from a mentor. Well, she's working on a rewrite of her submission (which by the way is awesome) as well as another project for a writing class. All the deadlines are fast approaching...
TIME. Time is so annoying.
It sometimes seems close to impossible to get a writing session done. You can have a deadline which for many helps - but really - time is a bitch. If you have any life whatsoever - kids, big job, whatever - it can feel really frikken hard to, simply put, get your work done.
In life there are a lot of problems but even more solutions.
I remember hearing Jojo Moyes talk about how her husband at like 5am or some ungodly hour, would bring her coffee in bed and she'd start her sessions, barely awake. And recently I was reading in his final book to his Struggle series, how Karl Ove Knausgaard also starts ridiculously early before he deals with his kids. These are published people so it's good to pay attention to what works. What works is writing when you can and what also works is writing before you have awareness of the millions of other things you could be doing instead.
Early morning. The sun is not even out yet really. The brain is fresh from sleep the house is quiet the computer awaits...
I see mornings as the ultimate time to write anything. My partner and I can't always write, and when we do, it's on the phone and sharing our documents via Google docs. One other constant is this happens most mornings at 9:30 am and to me that's late!
Oddly, I believe, if you have somewhat of a healthy lifestyle, like you go to bed relatively early, don't screentime yourself into madness before bed, and wake up super early and cut off the wifi before you start your project, you can get your stuff done. Why is that odd? It seems counter to everything people really do lately with their day and their time. But taking care of yourself and being an early to rise type could mean getting your scriptnovelessay done.
End of story -- that's the goal.
Writer, Writing Coach, Writer Supporter.