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…

Words that need to be heard

It takes a lot of determination and persistence to make it as a screenwriter.

A LOT.

And since so many other people are trying to accomplish the same things (more or less) as you and I, the difference between good days and bad days is a vast one indeed.

We learn to take the hits and the disappointments to the point that we chalk it up to “them’s the breaks”, and move on to the next thing. It is vital that we toughen up our skin to help us survive the journey.

But let’s go back to the good days thing.

When something positive happens for us, we do not hesitate to trumpet it from the rooftops – a rooftop in the form of some kind of social media platform.

And when that happens, our network of peers and associates is just as quick to join in the celebrating. We’re practically deluged with “congrats!”, “that’s awesome!”, “well deserved!”, and the like. Speaking for myself, I really appreciate it, and make a point of returning the sentiment when appropriate.

As writers, we live and breathe using words as our craft. We write something and hope it has the desired effect. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it makes a much bigger impact than you could have ever expected. (Those are particularly pleasing.)

Don’t underestimate the power of what you write. Not just for your latest script, but also when it comes to how you present yourself to the rest of the writing community.

Are you always there with a positive message? Do you think “telling ’em like it is” is the way it should be?

Sure, somebody who does well in the Nicholl or Austin is going to get all sorts of congratulatory messages, but what about somebody who came in second or made the quarterfinals in that small contest you’ve never heard of? Are you just as enthusiastic for them? Do you let them know that?

When I was just starting out, I naturally had the novice’s daydreams of “they’re going to love it!”, which of course didn’t happen. Just about every response from my queries would be along the lines of “thanks, but no thanks” (if there was a response at all), and the contest updates that most of the time start with “Unfortunately…” It’s just the way the business is. You take your lumps, move on, and try to be a better writer so you do better next time.

Anybody who’s reading this knows exactly what I’m talking about. We’ve ALL been there.

I’ve recently read the lamentations of a novice writer who hasn’t had much luck in their efforts. They’re convinced that this can only mean that they’re a terrible writer, their family isn’t supportive of them even trying, and are thereby doomed to fail no matter what, so why even try? With as much sympathy and understanding I can put into text on a screen, I (and others) have tried to explain to them that everything they mentioned, from not placing in a contest to getting a pass from a query to them feeling completely alone in this, is not unique to them. Making any kind of progress on any of those fronts won’t happen overnight.

If ever there was a time that words could make a difference for the better, this was one of them. Hopefully my comments had at least the start of the desired effect.

We’re all busting our asses trying to make it however we can in this crazy business, and any outside offering of hope or encouragement is always welcome.

So as you skim your way across the turbulent waves in the vast ocean of social media and see someone’s comment, good or bad, about how they or their writing are doing, take a second to respond.

Let them know you’re rooting for them and hoping for continued success.

You’ve been where they are and hope things get better.

You’re thrilled for them.

You’re sorry.

You’d be amazed at how effective words, especially yours, can be.

Batteries recharged, and ready to go

Bit of a short post today.

Due to some personal stuff the past few weeks (nothing serious), I haven’t been as productive as I would have liked, writing-wise.

There are still a few things to take care of, including progress on a big personal project, but once all of that’s done, I’m looking forward to getting back into it.

This isn’t to say I haven’t been thinking about my scripts. Plots, storylines, character development, and so forth. There’s been a lot of the occasional jotting stuff down, and every little bit helps.

I’ll also admit there’ve been times when motivation and confidence levels were on the decline, but once again I reminded myself that the only way any of this is going to get done is for me to do it. It may take longer than I’d like, but I’d rather take my time and produce something of quality than rush through it and have something shoddy.

It’s also been a huge help to have such a strong support network. When I’d express my concerns to other writers, the responses were all “I know exactly what you’re going through”, “you’ve got what it takes”, and “you’ve totally got this.”

Sometimes it’s nice to get a little support from others when you’re having trouble doing it for yourself.

It’ll be interesting to see how the next few weeks play out. I’ve got a lot of plans in mind, and hope to act on as many as possible.

Q & A with Richard Walter

Richard Walter is a novelist and author of best-selling fiction and nonfiction, celebrated storytelling educator, screenwriter, script consultant, lecturer and recently retired Professor and Associate and Interim Dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television where, for more than forty years, he chaired the graduate program in screenwriting. He has written scripts for the major studios and television networks, including the earliest drafts of AMERICAN GRAFFITI; lectured on screenwriting and storytelling and conducted master classes throughout North America as well as London, Paris, Jerusalem, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney and Hong Kong.

He is also a pop culture commentator, blogger and media pundit who has made numerous appearances on The Today Show, The O’Reilly Factor, Hardball with Chris Matthews, ABC Primetime, Scarborough Country and CBS News Nightwatch, among many other high-profile national television programs. More than a hundred newspaper and magazine articles have been published about him and the program he directed at UCLA.

What was the last thing you read or watched you considered exceptionally well-written?

The new bio MIKE NICHOLS, A LIFE by Mark Harris.

How’d you get your start in the industry, and was that connected to you instructing at UCLA?

I came to California over fifty years ago for, I thought, three weeks, but fell into USC film school at the last minute, and never looked back. It was through faculty and classmates there that I learned screenwriting and made the earliest connections that led to professional assignments.

A little more than ten years later, at a glitzy showbiz party in Malibu, I was invited to join the faculty at UCLA. I was busy adapting my first book, the novel BARRY AND THE PERSUASIONS, for Warner Brothers, who had bought the film rights and hired me to write the screenplay. I was not seeking work. Still, as I would advise my children, you don’t have to eat the whole thing, but at least taste it. I tasted teaching and found that it was the perfect complement to writing.

As someone who actually teaches screenwriting, is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Yes and no. No one needs education to decide what scripts or movies they like. That said, there’s good evidence that studying the art and craft in a worthy program goes a long way toward launching and maintaining a career.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

First of all, story; that is, what the characters do and say. What they do and say also establishes who they are. Regarding the latter, that is, what the characters say, dialogue needs to be worth listening to all for itself, but it can’t be all for itself. It needs at the same time also to advance the story and advance the audience’s appreciation of the characters. Conflict, controversy, and confrontation are required throughout the narrative, and those are just the ‘cons.’

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

Overwriting. Too many pages. Too much dialogue. Too much description, especially regarding instructions to the actors regarding pauses and gestures and such. 

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m weary of superheroes and comic-book adaptations.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

Less is more.

Successful writing is not about adding paraphernalia to a narrative but taking it away, revealing a story that’s somehow already there.

Don’t have one character tell another what you’ve already told the audience.

Movies must appear real, but in fact they are fake. Writers should be wary, therefore, of writing ‘the way it really happened’ and creating dialogue that captures the way people ‘really speak.’

What ‘really happens’ in life is, for the most part, boring. The way people ‘really speak’ is available in the streets for free, you don’t need to go to the movies for that. Also, and again, the way people ‘really speak’ is, for the most part, tedious. Know what I mean? Get what I’m saying? Understand my point?

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer really gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

Sure. The give-away is economy: few words that reveal a lot, instead of the other way around. Nothing is present for its own sake but exclusively for the advancement of the narrative. Fancy language that might be appropriate in literature will swamp a screenplay.

**AUTHOR’S NOTE – I’ve often said one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever heard was “Write as if ink costs $1000 an ounce”. Richard said that at a seminar of his I attended very early in my career. It really stuck with me, and I’ve used that as a guideline in my writing ever since.

How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

There are some that are absolutely worthy.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

Visit www.richardwalter.com. There’s info regarding my books, limited-enrollment online screenwriting webinars, whose enrollees’ scripts I’m willing to read, script consultation services, and more.

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Pecan. And I don’t mind a scoop of vanilla ice cream on it.

Comfortable shoes will also help

One of the most common analogies regarding screenwriting is “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”.

Speaking from experience, it most certainly is.

For long-time followers of this blog, one of the things I enjoy doing when I’m not working on scripts is to go for a run. It’s good exercise, lets me catch up on my podcasts, and offers plenty of time to think about my writing projects.

After years of half-marathons, I decided it was time to take on the next challenge – a full marathon. A whole 26.2 miles.

Despite all the training I did, of which there was A LOT, when I set out that morning, I was still nervous. Could I actually do this?

That’s when I reminded myself, and did so repeatedly over the next few hours:

It’s the distance, not the time.

Much as I wanted to finish with a respectable time and pace, I’d decided it was more important just to finish.

Long story short – I got to mile 20 and a twinge developed in my heels and ankles, which then turned into out-and-out pain, so I ended up walking the rest of the way. It took me longer to get there, and definitely wasn’t the way I’d hoped things would play out, but I kept going and crossed that finish line. All the hard work and effort had paid off.

What does this have to do with screenwriting? It’s the perfect metaphor!

Earlier this week on social media, I posted my standard question to the screenwriting community – how’s your latest project coming along?

Answers covered just about the entire spectrum. From “great!” to “almost done with it” to “working out a problem in the second act” to “slowly” to “not at all”.

I can certainly sympathize with those last two. Frustration about a lack of progress is common. Our creativeness just isn’t cooperating, which doesn’t help either.

It usually boils down to two choices: accept the frustration, dig in a little deeper and keep pushing forward, or give up.

For me, giving up just ain’t an option. I love the writing too much to even consider it. But like with the running, I may not get the results I want when I want them, but I’ll keep trying until I do. It might take longer than I want, which honestly would kind of suck, but if that’s what it takes, then so be it.

As writers, we put way too much pressure on ourselves to succeed, sometimes within a somewhat unrealistic timeframe. “If I don’t get the results I want, I’m a failure.”

NO.

This is NOT an easy thing we’re trying to do. At least give yourself credit for being willing to do the work. Some people don’t even get that far.

Everybody’s path to success is different, as are our individual finish lines. You know the route you need to take, and how challenging it’s going to be, so it’s up to you to decide how you want to take it on.

So to all the writers feeling disappointed or frustrated about how things are (or aren’t) going, remember that the road ahead may seem treacherous and insurmountable, but if you keep pushing forward and do your best to enjoy the journey, you’ll be that much closer to crossing that finish line.

Hang in there, chums. I may be running my own race, but I’m still on the sidelines, cheering you on.