Writing is Rewriting: You Have To Do the Work

For me as a reader, I can tell you that most scripts I read are a sparkling, resounding, operatic voice calling out from the heavens, “PASS!” There’s just nothing in them. Sometimes I wonder why that writer actually wanted to invest the time. What they thought was so interesting in their little project as to motivate the hours they spent on it. For me, the process of giving notes on that kind of project can be excruciating. Especially if the notes have to be passed along to the writer – because then I have to find an upswing. I have to try to find something workable within the coal, even when there’s no diamond. It’s pulling teeth. I have to channel my inner creative genius.

Then there are those projects that are interesting. Good. Could actually be a movie. When I get one of those scripts, it’s really exciting because it usually involves a rather unusual confluence of events: a fantastic cinematic premise, a smart world, smarter characters, emotional involvement, laughter, tears, pacing, tone, theme, etc. It’s rare and makes me hopeful. It reminds me of what we’re trying to do here.

I gave notes on one of those projects the other day. One of the good ones. I was trying to take a moderately well written screenplay with a very good concept and help bump the writing to be very good. If, in general, you have a great concept that is competently written, this combination is enough to stand out from the crowd. You can have a mediocre concept that is very well written and this can also stand out, but if you start with a great concept and write it well, your script will get noticed. It will likely be in the top 10%.

Rewriting usually entails re-beating the story. There is no way to get around that. When you start to look at a draft and see what’s missing, or even simply what needs polishing, you need to rebeat the story and really carefully hone the beats. That is the best, fastest and easiest way to fix what isn’t working. Line editing is irrelevant if you’re missing a character arc or a significant B story. You must have every single major story element in place and working before you go on to polish.

When I started talking about beats and re-beating, the writer became extremely emotionally reactive and thought I was telling her to throw away her script and “start over.” That’s not at all what I was telling her, but she got reactive and then couldn’t actually hear what I was saying. To my mind, I was actually taking her exact story and not really changing anything fundamental, but she went to the “precious” zone, got completely emotionally derailed, and wasn’t able to recover. Then, taking precious a step further, she started to lecture me that she had already rewritten this project so many times and she didn’t want to do any more work on it.

If I were to put on my psychologist’s hat, I would call this self sabotage. Real work is very hard and most people aren’t up to the task, even though this is how the cream rises to the top. My roommate from film school used to get all bent out of shape by the fact that “everyone in LA has a screenplay.” That’s about right. Many people in LA do have scripts in their back pocket, ready to pass out to anyone and everyone who’ll read them. He was really almost paranoid about it and I think used it as an excuse as to why his writing would never compete in a huge market. I’m unfazed. Because I’ve read a lot of those scripts – and the average script, written by the average person, is a first screenplay first draft. There’s nothing there. I read many of these types of projects at the competition level. That individual isn’t savvy enough to know how bad their project is, nor that they shouldn’t show that draft to anyone, not even their mother. That is about 80% of those “LA scripts.” That is not the competition.

The competition rewrites. They learn their craft, hone it, and then, somewhere in the rewriting, the script really starts to take form. People who don’t rewrite aren’t really writers. Their scripts usually don’t amount to anything. But, by the time you’re on your fifth, sixth, seventh screenplay and rewriting, you start to really know what you’re doing. That is competition.

It takes intelligence, time, effort and plain old hard work to write anything good. That’s just the facts. Anyone trying to sell you anything different is selling snake oil. Most people don’t want to work that hard. If you are willing to do the work, feel encouraged. Your writing is probably in the top 10%.

I have come to better understand that writing really is rewriting, because anyone can sit down and write a terribly crappy first draft of a screenplay. I could do it in about ten days. But, to write something that surpasses mediocrity and rises above the rest – that takes work. It takes hours of blood, sweat, and tears, and having people read it, putting yourself out there, revising. Revising again. And again. And again. Revising until it’s good at the professional level.

To my mind, there, in a nutshell, is the difference between someone I would consider a “writer” and someone who’s a hobbyist. The hobbyist dreams about how wonderful it would be to sell a screenplay, get an option, get money for working as a writer. It’s 10% work and 90% dream. The writer, however, slaves day after day, week after week, for years, likely without any pats on the back or monetary rewards, working on his or her craft until it is better than average. For the writer, it’s 90% work and 10% dream. It doesn’t have to be perfect – it just has to be better than what’s out there.

The writer will do whatever it takes to get that script to the place it needs to be in order to be good, better than good, great, a standout. If that means a complete and total slash and burn – but it serves the piece – then that’s what it means. If it means a shifting of the premise, or a more developed character arc, or a revamped B story, that’s what that means. We write until it’s good. Because, with a screenplay, mediocrity really doesn’t get you a whole lot. There are hundreds of thousands of mediocre scripts floating around. As they say, you can’t copyright an idea. Sure, you can come up with an amazing idea – but so what? If it’s not on the page and well crafted, it doesn’t mean squat.

So, do the work. The work will pay off. Keep rewriting until it’s great. Go the distance. Your reader will thank you. But, more importantly, you’ll thank yourself.

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