Seeing some shine on that diamond in the rough

Even as I was getting the latest book ready over the past few weeks, I still made an effort to split time among a few other ongoing projects.

On that list: a severe edit of the animated fantasy-comedy spec.

The previous draft had clocked in at 120 pages, which admittedly is kind of long, especially for an animated story.

So it had to not only be tightened up in regards to what’s on the page, but also the actual number of pages. Fifteen to twenty, while seemingly excessive, felt appropriate.

Armed with some exceptional notes and a strong idea of all the issues that needed addressing, I set to it.

The phrase “kill your darlings” played a significant role during this process. Several scenes I loved were, as pointed out by an extremely savvy reader, more of a distraction from the main storyline and were actually slowing down the read.

Highlight, delete, mourn their demise, move on.

A good number of scenes underwent a major overhaul, including severe tightening up, rephrasing of dialogue, and a whole lot of moving stuff around. Sometimes a change would be made that I didn’t realize needed to be made. That’s always a surprise.

All of this combined ended up cutting 14 pages, bringing the grand total down to 106. Not too bad.

From my perspective, what ended up being the biggest accomplishment was that the whole thing seemed stronger than before; more put-together. It’s been a while since I’ve felt this positive about a draft.

It’s been sent to the latest batch of readers, and I’ve no doubt they’ll do a bang-up job in finding faults and spotlighting what needs work. As they should, and that’s fine with me.

It’ll help the next draft be even better.

What’s new, missing, or different?

It happens to every writer. You start the rewrite of your latest draft, and you need to figure out what needs to be cut or changed. Sometimes it ain’t that easy, and sometimes you hack and slash with wild abandon.

Part of my recent focus has been rewriting the fantasy-comedy spec, which has involved a little bit of both.

It already needed some trimming – at least 5-10 pages’ worth, so that’s just one of the many things taken into consideration as I work my way through it.

I’ve been told my writing is pretty sparse to begin with, so finding material to tighten, let alone cut, has been somewhat tough.

Tough, but not impossible.

There’s the small stuff. A widow/orphan word here, a snippet of dialogue there. Finding some way to get those three action lines down to two, or one if you can swing it.

Then there’s the big stuff. One noteworthy item was a particular story detail that had been around almost since the story’s inception that wasn’t syncing as well with the story as it was now, so that had to be changed. This caused a domino effect on all the things it impacted, which meant making sure all those connections had to be adjusted so everything still meshed in a smooth and organized manner. It was a bit of a pain to deal with, but it had to be done.

The big stuff also has its fair share of little stuff. A scene or sequence that needs a major overhaul – already dealt with a few of those, as well as a few half-page scenes that I hated to cut. Then there was a character I initially loved that proved to be ultimately unnecessary, so out they went.

If I maintain this amount of cutting, there’s no reason the finished draft couldn’t fall within the target range of the aforementioned 5-10 pages. If it ends being more than that, great (but at this point seems highly unlikely). If it’s just a few pages shorter, that’s still okay, and I’ve no doubt my beta readers will have plenty of suggestions that I probably never even considered.

No matter what gets cut or changed, it’s all for the benefit of the story. As long as the script is a tight, succinct and solid read, that’s a win.

(Turns out I’ve written about this before, waaaay back in 2013. A lot of it is still applicable, except for the part about my time in the half-marathon. Those days are long past.)

Friendly reminder: my book Go Ahead And Ask! Interviews About Screenwriting (And Pie) Volume 3 officially comes out on October 7th (two weeks from today), and the final setup of the links on Amazon and Smashwords is just about done, in case you’d like to purchase it slightly ahead of schedule. Signed copies will be available. Just let me know.

Rewriting: more than just moving words around

I came up with the idea/concept for my fantasy-comedy more than a few years ago. Up until last year, putting it together consisted mostly of the occasional jotting-down of ideas for scenes and sequences. Figuring I had enough to work with, I worked my way through writing a first draft.

That was the end of last year.

After working on several projects since then, including some still in progress, I’ve decided to make things just a bit more complex for myself and start on the next draft.

The core concept and execution are still pretty solid, but after a lot of help and suggestions from some trusted colleagues, I’ve got a better grasp of which parts need some major work. It’s not as long a list as I expected, but there’s still a good deal for me to work on – especially from the perspective of character development; namely – my protagonist.

There are still some aspects to his internal and external goals that need tweaking, so a lot of my time lately has been all about that. And I was already racking my brains trying to figure out what would work best not just for that character, but also how all of it relates to the antagonist as well as the supporting characters.

Initially a daunting prospect, I am finding the more I work my way through this, the stronger the story seems to become.

I’m also working on fleshing out the storylines for some of the supporting characters, making sure to incorporate the theme into each of those. It’s also been a pleasant surprise to realize/uncover previously hidden connections between some of them and work those into the story.

As is my usual M.O., I’m taking my time in figuring all of this out and doing what I can to make sure everything is as solid as I can make it (for this draft, anyway) before starting on pages.

And what might be the most important angle to all of this – I’m enjoying it. This is just a fun story to work on. It is definitely the kind of thing I would write, and I hope that vibe really comes through in the finished product.

Until then, and as it always does, the work continues…

A few takeaways from 40 scripts

Well, that was an experience.

As 2020 wound down, I’d already made the decision to devote 2021 to focus on improving as a writer.

In addition to writing more, that also meant reading scripts more.

I wanted to really work on developing my analytical skills, so on the last day of the year, I put the word out on social media. Want notes on your script? For free? Let me know.

And let me know the screenwriting community did. And then some.

Out of the 75 or so people who responded “Yes, please!”, 40 actually followed through and sent their scripts.

(Apologies to those who missed out. That window is now closed)

It was a fair mix of shorts, pilots, and features.

Since I also wanted to still work on my own material a bit, it all came down to time management. How much time could I dedicate to each script? It worked out to one a day, and about three to four a week.

Granted, these were not the most extensive of notes. Some general observations, questions and comments about the story and the characters, and an insanely large amount of inadvertent proofreading.

I also made sure to preface my notes saying that these were just my thoughts and opinions, so the writer was more then welcome to use or ignore them as they saw fit.

For the most part, the reactions were positive.

“Thank you so much! These are incredibly helpful! This will really help my next draft get to the next level!”

No comments wishing me bodily harm or proclaiming I was an idiot who simply couldn’t grasp their genius, so going with the theory that they approved of what I had to say and just never got around to saying thanks. I’ll ignore this horrific breach of etiquette and still count it as a win.

There was a wide variety of genres and story ideas to be found. Some truly unique and original stuff, as well as more than a few “familiar, but different” approaches to some classic concepts.

What was probably the most surprising result was that the same comments applied to a majority of the scripts, including:

WHAT’S THE STORY?

Since there are no definitive “rules”, I do like to adhere to some strong guidelines regarding structure and plot points.

If I get to around page 25 or 30 and still don’t know what the main story or the protagonist’s goal are supposed to be, there’s a problem.

The writer was too focused on minor issues and details that the main storyline got lost in the shuffle.

SHOW, DON’T TELL, or HOW DO WE KNOW THAT?

A lot of writers would explain what something meant, or what somebody was thinking, or why they were doing it, rather than portraying it visually.

For example, a scene might say something like “Bob stands at the sink, washing dishes. He thinks about the girl he took to the senior prom and how she dumped him to run off with a plumber and now they live in Dayton with four kids and a cranky Pomeranian.”

You know what we’d see on the screen?

Bob washing the dishes.

Or “Jim was lonely.” How would that look?

There was a lot of reminding the writers that film is primarily a visual medium. Describe what we’re seeing and hearing, and let the characters’ actions and words do the heavy lifting.

A subcategory of this is TRUST YOUR READER/AUDIENCE TO FOLLOW ALONG AND FIGURE THINGS OUT

By explaining what we’re seeing or what’s going on, you’re denying the reader/audience the pleasure of figuring things out to help move the story forward.

This might also count as a subcategory, but there were quite a few times a line would say something like “Bob looks to Mary. He apologizes.”, followed by Bob’s dialogue of “I’m sorry.”

I can’t help but think this is because the writer wants to make absolutely sure that you understand what’s happening, so they tell you, and then show you.

Something else a lot of writers fell into the trap of was OVERWRITING (aka BIG BLOCKS OF TEXT)

There would be 4 or 5 lines at a time to describe what was happening in a scene, which for me, really slowed down the read. I want to be zip-zip-zipping along, not taking my foot off the gas to make sure I don’t lose my place.

“The more white space on the page, the better.” Can that paragraph of 4-5 lines be done in 3? 2?

There was also frequent use of “one the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE” (shoutout to Richard Walter at UCLA) Try to say the most on the page with the least amount of words.

A lot of writers would go into exquisite detail about things not relevant to the plot, such as the decor of an apartment that’s in one scene, or what the extras in the background are wearing, or what happens to a random character in a fight scene. These sorts of things would distract me from following the flow of the primary storyline. I’d read it and wonder “what does this have to do with ____’s story? Would it make a difference if it wasn’t there?”

This one can’t be stressed enough – SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND!

I get that not everybody has amazing spelling skills, and your eyes might be kind of tired of seeing the same text over and over again. But any writer should really know the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re, ‘there’, ‘their’, and “they’re”, and so on.

But when I read that a character “sets down a bag of frozen pees on the kitchen counter”, it makes it kind of tough for me to concentrate on the rest of the story. How can I think about anything else for the next 60-70 pages?

Not sure about spelling or punctuation? A lot of writers make for good proofreaders, so don’t hesitate to ask around for some help.

Friendly reminder – there is no apostrophe in “sees”. It’s “Bob sees Mary,”, not “Bob see’s Mary.” That popped up more than a few times.

Question for anybody who’s ever written a screenplay: do you ever read it out loud? Especially the dialogue. This really helps you get a grasp of how it should sound.

DOES THIS SOUND LIKE SOMETHING SOMEBODY WOULD ACTUALLY SAY?

You don’t want to run the risk of your characters sounding flat or dull, or too “movie-like”, which can include pure exposition (“As you know, I’m the wealthiest man in town who moved here sixteen years ago after striking oil in the Yucca Salt Flats, and now my twin daughters are running against each other for mayor.”) Let your ears be the judge.

Read it out loud. Host a table read (via zoom or eventually in person)

And speaking of dialogue-related items, I try to limit my use of parentheticals as few per script as possible. A lot of the time, they’re either not needed, or can be replaced with an action line (Bob points.) preceding the dialogue (BOB – “Look over there!”).

The context of what the character is saying should convey the appropriate emotion or interpretation. If I had a dollar for every time I saw the use of (sarcastic), I’d have…a lot of dollars.

As has been stated many times on this blog and throughout the screenwriting community, it takes a long time to learn how to write a screenplay, let alone a really good one. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I believe I have a pretty firm grasp of what it involves, and am glad to have been able to offer my two cents to help other writers improve both their skills and their scripts.

Since this was a pretty significant undertaking, it was also a bit exhausting, so I don’t think I’ll be making the blanket offer again. I’m still open to reading scripts, but am taking a little time off to recuperate and recharge, so drop me a line after 1 April. Schedule permitting, we can work something out.

And a HUGE thanks to everybody who offered to read one of my scripts, which I might take some of you up on as the year progresses.

Okay. Back to work.

From out of the archives

speedreading

The latest draft of the horror-comedy is complete – clocking in at a respectable 102 pages. It’s out to my savvy readers, so now the focus shifts to some semi-overdue reads for a couple of colleagues.

So while I dive into those, here are a few classic posts from days gone by…

Enjoy.

May I be of some assistance?

More work now, better results later

I know the rules, and do not hesitate to break them

Same destination, different route

Send it. Forget it.