Sunday, May 17, 2015

Six Steps to the Next Step

"Relax, guys. It's just my first draft."
I was recently asked a really good question by a member of my writing group: "Will my script be ready after a rewrite?"

That depends on your definitions of "ready" and "rewrite." David Koepp, writer of Jurassic Park and Spider-Man said that he's successful because he can tolerate 17 drafts. Scott Kosar, writer of The Machinist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, claims that he only wrote one and a half drafts of the former before it was green-lit. So what's the answer?

First off, a first draft is your plot draft. Your barf draft. Whatever colorful name you have for it, it's the draft that delivers the wood, cement, plaster, and bricks to the building site. But it is in no way a completed house. For all intents and purposes, a first draft is never, ever the final draft. Accepting this is a major hurdle in drawing the distinction between amateur and professional writers.

Assuming you're done after a first draft is assuming you can build a Frank Lloyd Wright house on the first try, and not even Frank Lloyd Wright himself did it right the first time. But whereas you can look at a house and discover reasonably quickly the parts that need more attention, a script's weaknesses can be more subtle.

There are several methods at your disposal to find out which rooms to improve and which to knock down:

1. Let it Sit

Take a week. Two weeks. A month. As much time as you can stand away from your baby. The more time, the better. Then return to it with a fresh eye. Does that dialogue still work? Is that scene still necessary? Is that character still required? Is that plot line a dead end?

2. Print it Out

I'm not really sure what the scientific explanation is for this but follow me, here. Back in college, despite the magic of spelling and grammar check, I discovered nearly twice as many mistakes upon proofreading a paper copy of an essay than I did rereading it on my computer screen. Print out your script. Keep a pen in your hand. Make lots of notes. Having a physical copy (as opposed to a virtual one) of your thought processes can be a major help in identifying the parts that work and the pieces that don't.

3. Join a Writers' Group

In graduate school at Hollins University, I took a course in which about a dozen fellow screenwriters would sit around a table to read and workshop each other's scripts. Led by an experienced professor, the sessions were invaluable in teaching me what worked and what didn't. When I brought in 10 pages to workshop that I thought were great, only to hear the group unanimously agree that they could be far stronger... well, those were the moments of my greatest education. Everyone's goal is the same, and that's to see you as the best writer you can be.

Since finishing at Hollins, I started Cambridge Screenwriters in Boston, which is now the largest established screenwriting group in New England. The modus operandi of Cambridge Screenwriters is precisely like the workshopping elements of my grad school: bring in your work for us to read and critique. However you do it, finding (or creating) a community of like-minded writers can be a tremendous asset to your development. Even Academy Award-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis has brought his work to such groups for constructive feedback. Their value can't be understated, and can give you that much-needed second look.

4. Let Mom Read It


4. Coverage

Full discosure: I offer coverage. Coverage is the act of a professional reader looking over your script and giving you a comprehensive breakdown of its strong points and weak elements. There are a lot of coverage services out there. Check their testimonials and their records. Never a bad idea to even try more than one. If a few professional readers all agree on a specific point, then that's likely well worth discovering. Coverage comes with a price, but in my experience, it has been a huge help to have an experienced set of eyes reading and rereading my work. I want it to be great, and I believe it worth the investment.

5. Competitions

A great way to spread the word about your work is by entering it into screenplay contests and festivals. There are hundreds of them, all of which have entry fees. Should you just pick some at random and hope for the best? No! Despite the number of opportunities, there are roughly 10 competitions that are absolutely worth the price, and these are the contests on which you should focus like a protagonist on a goal. Rather than mere cash prizes, these contests have proven track records of exposing their winners to representation, which is far and away more valuable. These are:

The Nicholl Fellowship, Bluecat, PAGE, TrackingB, Script Pipeline, Austin, Sundance Screenwriters Lab, CineStory, and Zoetrope. I might write a future post about the virtues of each of these in particular. Some of these competitions, including Bluecat, offer coverage as part of the evaluation process.

6. Read

Good readers make good writers. Reading expands your vocabulary and exposes you to characters and conflicts that can help you through your own creative roadblocks. With your script in hand, grab a screenwriting book by a writer you respect and determine if your own work fits the bill.

I recommend the following:

The Complete Screenwriters Manual
Stephen Bowles, Ronald Mangravite, Peter Zorn

Essentials of Screenwriting
Richard Walter

Writing Screenplays that Sell
Hal Ackerman

The Writer's Journey
Christopher Vogler

The Power of Film
Howard Suber

The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Joseph Campbell

The War of Art
Steven Pressfield
(at least the first two thirds)

The Screenwriter Within
D. B. Gilles

Paul Chitlik

Save the Cat (weird title, great book)
Blake Snyder

The Art of Dramatic Writing
Lajos Egri

Why Does the Screenwriter Cross the Road?
Joe Gilford

David Magee, screenwriter of Finding Neverland and Life of Pi said, "If you ask 100 writers how they made it, you'll receive 100 different answers." I absolutely agree, and any one of these methods (or perhaps none of them) will ease you closer to your goals. But I'm positive that none of them can hurt, and that's an encouraging thought.

Write on.

Jared teaches screenwriting at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at

1 comment:

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