So glad I didn’t listen to myself

How I originally intended to start this writing session
How I originally intended to approach this rewrite

Since it really has been years since I last looked at my mystery-comedy spec, and not wanting to be too heavily influenced by what I’d written before, I figured this rewrite would be completely fresh. A clean slate. Blank page from the get-go. A whole new ball of wax.

I sit at my desk, all set to open those floodgates. My notebook’s open to this new set of plot points, ready to be fleshed out. Pandora cranks out the sounds of the Rat Pack and the 50s jazz club scene (appropriate mood music for the story’s setting). A hot cup of joe within reach. Overall, a perfect writing scenario.

So what thought immediately pops into my head?

Yep. I’m gonna check out what I wrote before. But just out of curiosity. It’s not like I’m going to keep the whole story. Besides, it’ll be interesting to see how far my writing’s come since then.

This is also why you should never, ever throw away old material. You never know when you might come back to it.

I open the 1-pager. Okay, I remember this part. Wait. I don’t remember that. Whoa, where did that come from? Wow, this is a lot more detailed than I remember.

Finishing that, I automatically wonder how the script reads. A few scenes stick out in my memory, but most of it is long forgotten.

I’ll just take a look at the first few pages. Promise.

Hmm. Not as bad as I thought. Some of the dialogue is a little too on-the-nose. Too many adverbs. Character descriptions could be better. Some good set-ups I instantly recall how they pay off. This subplot’s a little weak.

A quick glance to the upper right corner to see what page I’m on. 26 already? Hokey smokes, this thing is flying by.

By now I feel almost obligated to finish reading it. 35 minutes later, I did.

The overall consensus: still needs a lot of work, but a much more solid foundation to start with and there are some ideas I’d like to incorporate. It’s kind of reassuring to know I’ve already taken care of a lot of the heavy lifting.

A few days ago, I was concerned this was going to be a real slog, but now – not so much.

Hardhats required beyond this point

Safety goggles are optional, but typing in work gloves is darned near impossible
Safety goggles are optional, but typing in work gloves is darned near impossible

This is a time of overlap, chums.

The final wrap-up of the western spec draws closer, despite realizing a new wrinkle – I need to show what happens to one of my supporting characters, rather than tossing that info out via a line of dialogue. This will also require a little set-up somewhere in the latter half of Act Two, but I think I’ve found a good spot for it.  Then off it goes into the digital waiting room that is my hard drive.

As that door closes, the one into the rewrite of the mystery-comedy spec reopens. As much as I’d like to really jump into it, this is definitely going to require baby steps and lots and lots of planning. Since it’s been a very long time since I read it, I opted to start completely fresh, which meant figuring out my plot points.

I can’t recommend this enough. It doesn’t matter if you’re starting a new story or rewriting an old one: KNOW YOUR PLOT POINTS!

You know that expression about how a screenplay is like a blueprint for a building? Think of the plot points as the load-bearing support beams that hold everything up. Without them, everything will come crashing down.

So get yourself a blank page and, based on how well you know your story, jot down the following:

page 3 – statement of theme. You may not know it when you start, but having a general idea about it can help shape the story AND influence each scene
page 10 – inciting incident. Serves multiple purposes – gets your main story started, shakes up your protagonist’s world, raises the main question of the story
page 17 – a little twist in the action that continues to push your protagonist out of their comfort zone
Act 1 turning point – your protagonist enters a totally new environment; the main story question is once again raised
page 45 – another twist for your protagonist
Midpoint/Point of No Return – your protagonist becomes fully committed to achieving their goal
page 75 – another twist (yes, seems redundant, but each one of these has to make things harder for your protagonist)
Act 2 turning point – ALL IS LOST. Looks like your protagonist has no chance whatsoever of reaching their goal
Climax – your protagonist starts to turn things around, leading to a final showdown with the antagonist
Resolution – main story and assorted subplots are tied up
Denouement – how the protagonist’s life is different now

(For some great examples of these from well-known films, check out Dave Trottier’s THE SCREENWRITER’S BIBLE.)

Something else to keep in mind – MAKE SURE YOUR PROTAGONIST IS THE ONE DRIVING THE ACTION! Why would we be interested in a passive main character who just reacts to things, or even worse, does nothing at all?  Your protagonist should always have to go with the harder of two choices – don’t look for the easy way out.

Don’t get frustrated if you can’t figure it all out right away. You’re creating an original story, which isn’t easy to begin with. Take your time and think your way through it at your own pace.  Ask yourself “What’s the best way to get from HERE to HERE?”

Once you know your plot points, then it’s on to the fun stuff: filling in the spaces between them.

Simple now, fancy-schmancy later

What? This isn't what you wear when you're writing?
What? This isn’t what you wear when you’re writing?

Right now, it’s all about finishing the first draft of this spec. Just get it done. Hopefully this momentous event will occur sometime in the next couple of days.

The script as a whole will of course need a lot of tweaking and reworking – it’s foolish to think otherwise – but it’s also important to get the words on the page to paint a strong mental picture. The more picturesque your text, the more vivid it becomes inside the reader’s mind.

Despite using the “write it now, fix it later” approach, I try to work with a wide variety of words, descriptions and phrases throughout to keep things interesting.  Remember – the thesaurus is your friend. Use it wisely.

Changes will be made where necessary in forthcoming drafts. It’s more than likely a word or sentence will be modified several times, then changed back to what it originally was. This happens all the time.

As this draft was put together, the words that met my needs at the time were used. Are there ones that work better, or at least do a better job of conveying the intended mood?  Without a doubt, but rather than spend too much time now to come up with the perfect word or phrase, I’m more interested in maintaining that nice, steady momentum.  There’ll be time to spruce it up later.

You can have great language in your wide margins or dialogue, but it all boils down to this: if the story’s not rock-solid, the whole thing will fall apart.

I was especially reminded about this listening to a recent episode of Scriptnotes. One of the entries in the Three Page Challenge featured the colorful phrase describing a room:  “A dragon’s lair of treasures.” Nice, huh?

I don’t know if the writers had that in there from Day One, but it’s definitely not something I would have come up with the first time around. It’s not hard to imagine this is the result of a little brainstorming. It’s short, descriptive and effective.

Don’t worry about getting it all perfect when you start. That’s what rewrites are for.

Moving that inner strength outward

It may not be as heavy as you think
It may look heavy, but it might not feel that way

I hate hitting a lull. Even the sound of it is off-putting.

“Lull.” Yuck.

Which of course is exactly where I found myself over the past few days regarding the first draft. I thought I was making some good progress, but instead found myself staring at a screen that mockingly stared back.

“Come on, writer boy,” it seemed to say. “Show we what you can do.”

Putting more pressure on yourself combined with the anthropomorphization of electronics doesn’t usually end well. You’re already frustrated, and when the words won’t come, you just want to throw up your hands and do your best Bill Paxton impression.

I’ve been down this path before. I don’t like it, it ain’t pretty, but it’s gonna happen and I accept that.

This is one of those times when you have to remind yourself that you’ve got two options: quitting, which is the easy way out, and totally squashes all the hard work and effort you’ve already put in.

Or you dig deep and force yourself to keep going. Again.

I recently started re-reading my copy of THE FIRST TIME I GOT PAID FOR IT, which chronicles the tales of many successful and well-known writers and how they got started. Apart from some great stories, it’s a good reminder to us outsiders striving to be insiders that even the pros started in the exact same place we are now.

And if you’re like me and want to change your status in that scenario, there’s only one way – keep writing!

I don’t know what the exact trigger was, but the next time I faced off against that blinking cursor and half-empty page, something clicked.

Boy, did it.

The words didn’t just flow – they gushed. It was like a Niagara Falls of scenes and dialogue pouring onto the page. My fingers could hardly keep up with my brain.

Whoa. Three pages in thirty-five minutes? Inconceivable!

I definitely now feel back on track. A renewed sense of what drew me to the story in the first place. Being that much closer to being able to type FADE OUT. And a little more faith in my ability to be productive, even when I don’t think I can be.

Take that, lull.

Quel est le bon mot, baby?

Normally I'm a G&T kind of guy, but one these sounds pretty nice right now
Normally I’m a G&T kind of guy, but one of these sounds kind of nice right now

Opting for a random assortment of topics today. Enjoy.

-Ever get to the point where you just want to finish whatever is you’re working on and get it out of the way? That’s about where I am right now with this first draft. I wouldn’t call it a slog; more like resisting the urge to make a mad dash to the end.

On a positive note, the closer I get to finishing, the more I see how much has to be fixed.

Here’s a great guest column from Lee Jessup’s blog about how a writer should approach rewriting.

-Sometimes you come up with a story idea out of nowhere that makes you wonder: Even though this is a totally new genre for me, could I make it work?

I came up with a concept for a found footage story, including what may be a workable grasp on how to handle the ‘omnipresent camera’ part. It can be a little intimidating to try something new, but you won’t know until you try and possibly even discover a strength you never knew you had.

-I connected with this fine fellow the other day on Twitter. Do so if you haven’t already, and make sure to take the screenwriting survey. One of the questions is something along the lines of “what are some of your basic screenwriting rules?”

This is what I came up with:
1. Don’t be boring.
2. The audience is more intelligent than you think.
3. Write as if ink costs $1000 an ounce.

There are lots of others, but I think those are pretty important. Feel free to contribute yours in the comments section.

-This isn’t necessarily me hopping on the Kickstarter bandwagon, but check this out if you’d like to help preserve the small moviehouse experience. Give if you can, even if you don’t live in the Bay Area. It’s a great theatre.