An overabundance of words

word pile
First on the agenda – get them in order. Second – get rid of the ones that don’t belong.

April has been a most productive month for working on the new draft of the pulpy sci-fi adventure spec. This week saw me reaching the midpoint – page 73, which is about 18 pages more than it should be. (Not to mention that a spec script of approximately 150 pages is just ludicrous to begin with.)

Part of me wants to put the writing on hold and go back to page 1 to start editing and clearing away the excess, but I sort of like the idea of just pushing forward, finishing it. and THEN going back armed with the Red Pen of Doom.

When it comes to a first draft, I always tend to put in too much. More “kitchen sink draft” than “vomit draft”. Even taking a look at some previous pages, it’s easy to see where I’ve written more than what’s needed – of practically everything.

The silver lining here is that when it comes to rewriting and editing, there’s a lot to work with. Stuff thought necessary during that initial phase might prove otherwise, and out it goes.

My storylines can be a bit complicated – too many moving parts, so to speak. A combination of “I really want to wow you with this” and “there needs to be more here”. While the first definitely rings true, the second runs the risk of overdoing it and bogging things down – something I don’t want.

It used to be a lot tougher for me to kill my darlings, but time and experience have shown me it’s all about doing what you need to to achieve the end result. As much as I might like a particular something, if it can be cut (or at least drastically shortened) without any significant impact to the rest of the story, that’s fine by me.

If I can maintain my current pace of page output, there’s no reason to think I couldn’t be done with this draft by the end of the month, or maybe the first week of May. While I usually take a little break after completing a latest draft, the always-developing ideas for potential fixes and such may cause me to forego that and just jump right back in.

In the meantime, I’m just having a good time spinning what I can only hope will be an entertainingly ripping yarn.

More work now, better results later

lalanne

It can be safely said the extensive overhaul of the outline for my pulpy sci-fi adventure story is just about wrapped up. Still have a lingering handful of small details in need of fleshing out, but I’m eagerly anticipating jumping into cranking out pages in the very near future.

Figuring all of this out – including several attempts on the beginning, and then working out the development of events over the course of the first act and the first half of the second act- took a lot longer than I expected, and definitely longer than I wanted. There were many times all I could think was “am I EVER going to figure this out?”.

A lot of writers feel that way while working on a project. We’re an impatient lot, and the ongoing struggle to find solutions doesn’t help. We want it already written. But learning how to do so effectively is necessary. How else will we improve?

It’s probably a safe bet to say that my development skills are stronger than they were – even compared to a couple of years ago, or else this overhaul wouldn’t be where it is now. Every story problem would require a lot of thought and mulling-over, and maybe I’d come up with a slapdash, roughshod placeholder of a solution – just to be able to move on.

A bad and counterproductive idea.

I like to put together stories with a lot of moving parts, and each one requires the same amount of attention in order to make the whole thing a smooth-running machine. If that means taking a little more time to do so, then so be it. I’d much rather make sure as I go along that everything works and connects the way it’s supposed to than have it come to a screeching halt because of something I overlooked or forgot about, or even worse, felt was “good enough for now”.

An added bonus to all the work on developing this story in the outlining phase is that since I’ve already written down what’s supposed to transpire in each scene, including the purpose and the conflict, it’ll make it easier (and in theory, a faster process) to transfer all of that to the actual pages.

Once I do start on pages, I can only hope to see a slight increase in my daily output. After having gone through the outline a few times, editing and tweaking as I go, I’m getting a stronger feel of flow for the story, seeing ways to incorporate more development for the characters, and just an overall sense of “I like the previous draft, but this one feels so much closer to what I set out to do”.

And I most definitely would not have gotten to this point if I hadn’t put in the time and effort to make sure every single part of it did exactly what I needed it to.

Perplexing puzzle pieces properly placed

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Hope you enjoyed the recent interviews (this one and this one). While I truly enjoy being able to promote another writer’s work, I admit to having somewhat selfish motives – progress on this outline overhaul had slowed, and I was feeling frustrated about it. Anything to get my mind off it was welcome, and those interviews fit the bill.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely happy to have done them and am glad the interviews got the responses they did, but now it was time to turn my focus back onto myself.

When I took on this project just after the beginning of the calendar year, I figured this part of the process would be smooth sailing, and there was no reason I wouldn’t have been able to crank out a new draft by about this time.

Ha, ha! Silly writer.

When one sets out to completely redo a project, there’s a teensy-weensy chance it could take SIGNIFICANTLY LONGER than expected?

Shocking, but true. Exhibit A – yours truly.

The past few weeks involved deconstructing the story and attempting to put a new one together. Some similar elements, but many new ones. Every time I’d come up with an idea, I’d go about trying to incorporate it into what I had. End result – a lot more misses than hits.

This is where things started to get interesting.

I realized I was still clinging to too many components of the previous draft; the screenwriting equivalent of a new coat of paint on a house in need of major repairs. So I brought in the wrecking ball and tore that thing right down to the foundation. I knew which details I wanted to keep, but now just about EVERYTHING needed to be drastically changed. Somehow.

To avoid falling into the trap of lingering previous draft details, I’d constantly ask myself that magical question of “How can this be totally different from what it was before?”.

I interpret the idea of “totally different” as “total opposite”. Any time things seemed too familiar, my internal editor would shout out “NO! Turn it around!”, and I’d go back and do a 180.

The story was THIS before? Well, now it’s more like THAT. That initial portrayal of the protagonist? You wouldn’t recognize them now.

The building blocks were being formed. Slowly, but steadily.

With the story gaining and building muscle, the same couldn’t be said for the characters. They didn’t feel developed enough. Why do they do the things they do, and how does it impact the story? Doesn’t matter who. From the protagonist and the antagonist to somebody who’s only in one scene, everybody’s a cog in this machine.

Just as an example, I already knew how the antagonist’s story ended, but still saw their “why they do this” and “how did they get to this point” as somewhat lacking, which created more obstacles.

Using those questions and this “total opposite” approach, I decided to do just that and work my way backwards. Start at the end and figure out what would have gotten us there, and what would have gotten to that, and so on and so on. For never having tried reverse-engineering a story before, the results were pleasantly surprising.

Then there was the protagonist. I knew what their external goal was, but the internal goal was a tougher nut to crack. I took a closer look at the emotional aspects of the story. How would this character react to what’s going on? Is it what I would do? Is it what somebody like them would do? Do their reactions and responses seem realistic (in the context of the story)?

I went through what I had of the story so far, and slowly began to see that I’d already set up important moments along their emotional journey, and what could potentially be part of it. A little fine-tuning and things really began to gel.

Tinkering. Rearranging of scenes. Gaps getting filled in. Long-discarded material finding reborn relevance. Unanswered questions (for both myself and the story) being answered. Ooh, I could spin this around, and the new version works even better than before!

A totally new draft of this script is taking shape right before my eyes, and on so many levels. I couldn’t be more psyched about it.

It’s been a while since I’ve felt that electric excitement of putting a story together. Didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.

Sure, it took me a lot longer than I wanted to get to this point (emphasis on A LOT), and I won’t even speculate as to how long until the outline’s done, but I’ve definitely made some solid progress over the past few weeks, and the momentum continues to build.

Full speed ahead, chums.

Making it not what it was before

spiderverse
Well-known material, executed in an entirely new and original way

The key word for this overhaul of the pulpy sci-fi spec is exactly that: an overhaul.

And a really big one at that.

One of the notes I got on the previous draft was “It’s a fun story, but there’s still a feeling of ‘we’ve seen this before'”.

What a powerful motivator to really shake things up. The last thing a writer wants to hear is that their work is predictable or just filling in the blanks for a template with this kind of story. Readers and audiences want originality, so that’s what we need to give them.

Regarding this story, while the overall concept and primary plotline are still the same, a good majority of the rest of the details have changed in some way or another, with no doubt more to come.

Even though I’ll jot down ideas for particular moments, scenes or sequences occurring throughout the story, I gather them up and then write/develop them in a linear manner – working my way through the story from start to finish. A leads to B, which leads to C, and so on and so on. Not everybody’s style, but it work for me.

It’s probably safe to say I worked my way through at least four or five versions of Act One before arriving at its current version – the one I felt was the strongest. And even that’s been tweaked here and there since then.

Despite having a hard copy of the previous draft readily available – more as reference material than anything, a key part of this process has been for me to NOT look at it – especially when I was feeling stuck. My objective is to keep trying something really different, and sneaking a peek at what I’m trying to avoid won’t help. If anything, it would probably point me in a wrong direction.

I’ve written before about a writer should do what they can to avoid having the reader/audience know what’s going to come next. Such is the case for this rewrite.

As I work my way through, it’s with a mindset that looks at a scene or sequence as a whole, along with “what’s the most likely thing to happen here?”

That’s followed immediately by “what would be the total opposite of that?” or “what would be completely and totally unexpected here, but still works within the context of the story?” Really striving towards taking a new approach is yielding some positive results. It’s quite a thrill when an idea pops out of nowhere, and it works even better than expected.

Added bonus – by forcing myself to come up with new ideas, there’s less need for me to keep the hard copy of the previous draft nearby. The more I avoid looking at it along with figuring things out for this draft, the more changes it produces. All that being said, I’ll still hold onto it, since there’s always a chance I might need something in there, but with the story constantly changing, even that’s becoming less likely.

The whole point of overhauling this story is to take what I had before and put an entirely new spin on the initial concept. I have a pretty good idea of what needs to happen, what I’d like to happen, and that big nebulous category of what could potentially happen (still working out the kinks on that one).

The road between what I started with and what the end result will be is without a doubt one that’s going to be very long, very twisted, fraught with hazards of numerous kinds, and might, at times, seem to go on forever.

Sounds like quite a hellish journey. And I’m loving every step of the way.

Q & A with Jim Mercurio

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Jim Mercurio is a writer, author, screenwriter, and filmmaker. His book The Craft of Scene Writing is the first-ever screenwriting book that focuses solely on scenes. He has directed and produced five feature films, and helped countless writers as a teacher, story analyst, and script doctor. He directed more than 40 DVDs on screenwriting, including his own 6-disc set, Complete Screenwriting. One of the country’s top story consultants, Jim works with Oscar-nominated and A-List writers as well as beginners.

Editor’s note 1 – a q&a with Jim was featured in a series of interviews with script consultants that ran on this blog between 2014 and 2015.

Editor’s note 2 – full disclosure: Jim played the role of adviser/sounding board for the rewrite of my dramedy spec.

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

I was prepping my webinar on February 7th for The Writers Store on Personal Voice, (FYI – Feb 1 is the last day to save $20 on registering) and I stumbled upon the idea that a writer must figure out what is special about what he does and then focus on that. I feel like it is the same way with me and the book.

I have always focused on the nitty-gritty of craft. Probably because I worked so hard trying to figure it out for myself as a writer. When I directed the 40ish DVDs in the Expo Series, I did my own class concentrating only on theme.

Years ago, I happened to be prepping for a feature I was directing. In a week, I saw the same scene performed more than 200 times by a hundred different actresses. I was trying to figure out what I could do that hadn’t been done before as far as a screenwriting book. My experience as a filmmaker has always informed my approach to understanding and teaching screenwriting. I’m not sure why it didn’t come to me sooner. I had an “A-ha!” or better yet a “Duh!” moment — SCENE WRITING!

There are a lot of screenwriting books out there. What makes this one unique?

The obvious distinction is that it focuses solely on scene writing… the first screenwriting book to do so.

I was fortunate enough to have story gurus Richard Walter and Michael Hauge review the book. Something Michael said really touched me. He said that there were a lot of ideas in the book he hadn’t even thought of. I wanted to cover new ideas or at least some seldom taught concepts in a novel way.

Having been in the screenwriting education niche writing for Creative Screenwriting, directing, creating 50 hours of educational DVDs and working as a consultant, I know what’s out there. I believe this book will carry the torch and be among the next go-to books for all screenwriters entering the field.

As I mentioned, my filmmaking experience and the fact that I am actively writing screenplays and making projects impacts my perspective. I try to be very specific in my examples. For a given topic, I may start with theory but I always try to end with concrete principles and tools that you can apply to your writing on the spot.

Some books are geared more towards covering the screenwriting basics, while others “go beyond (or way beyond) the basics”. Is this a book that both new and experienced writers could use?

I feel very strongly that this book will appeal to writers across a wide spectrum of skill levels. A friend of mine said I teach the last hundred pages of “the screenwriting book” more than I do the first hundred. So, if anything, I would be more concerned about whether this would serve beginners.

I even asked my editor if it did and she gave me a great response. But then out of the blue, the universe gave me a better answer. My 23-year-old stepson who is a computer engineer texted me. He said he was halfway through the book and said “It’s very accessible… nothing’s confusing.”

The only research I did while writing this book was to watch movies and think about them. Each chapter is like a stand-alone piece on topics such as exposition, concept, theme, and rewriting. I tried to begin with my, at least somewhat, original and basic take on a topic to ease the reader in and to orient them. A new writer can jump right in.

More advanced writers might recognize my approach as somewhat novel. I then try to go as deep as I can with the material, so that even professional writers might benefit. A writer who read the book said that 70-80% of it was stuff he had never heard before. He might be overstating it, but I’m proud that the book feels that way. I wanted to offer new insight into the nitty-gritty challenge of craft.

Even though the book’s title is THE CRAFT OF SCENE WRITING, what else does it cover besides writing scenes?

At its essence, scene writing is storytelling and the same principles apply. You are poring over characters, characterization, idiosyncrasies of the world, setups – to create reversals. You’ve heard of turning points, right? Writers have to turn a story. They also have to learn how to turn a scene. Or a line of dialogue.

However, I wanted this to complement all of the other screenwriting books that cover story structure. I am looking at screenplays at the molecular level. In the final section of the book, I cover rewriting in a parallel way to how I discuss scene structure. And then I explore how to discover and use your personal voice in your screenplays.

One of the phrases you really emphasized during the process with my script was “write to concept.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Whew, no softballs here. Making me earn my pie.

There are 7500 words in my chapter on concept, which have been through the wringer with my 18 copyeditors, but I will try to summarize with insightful pithiness.

Like I mentioned, as a writer you should use what’s special about yourself and your writing. Writing to concept means that you are using what’s special about your story as the main inspiration for its surprises. For fun, consider a 3-D horror movie where an axe flies across the screen left to right. Do you see how on some level that’s just wrong? It should be flying toward the camera. Otherwise, it’s ignoring the most prominent element of its medium.

Of course, I’m not that rigid, but writers have to narrow down the handful of elements that are essential to their concept because not only do their surprises spin out of them, but, for the most part, they spin out only from them. I don’t know if I can teach that here. Hopefully, I can intrigue you to go to the source.

Writing to concept allows you to find a unique way to express what otherwise might be a familiar story beat. Based on their concept, the moments will look very different. In Memento, Natalie hurts Leonard by hiding pencils. In Her, Samantha, an operating system, hurts her lover by telling him she’s in love with 641 other people.

Another of your favorite phrases during the writing process was “go deeper.” What should that mean to a writer?

It refers to a missed opportunity to get at more emotion with a character or to complicate a relationship, which would hopefully do the same. While we were working on your script, there’s a scene I pointed out featuring a moment where you were on the verge of discovering a powerful and transcendent moment, but then it was all over too soon. Sometimes writers hit a beat (in the broader sense), and maybe they are worried about a looming expansive page count or don’t appreciate what they have stumbled upon, so they move on too quickly. They might be better off — pick your metaphor — milking or massaging a moment for a bit longer and letting it play out.

Take a look at the long and emotional monologue in Good Will Hunting where Will’s best friend Chuckie tells him that he should “cash the winning lottery ticket” and get out of town to find a better life. He even tells him that the best part of the day is in the morning when he comes to pick him up, he has a moment of hope that Will has left — without even leaving a note. Imagine, if we cut that down to a sentence: “I will miss you but you gotta get the hell out of here.” We lose Chuckie’s voice, the suspense of it, the emotional heft and importance. It goes from a set-piece scene to a bland, merely functional one.

In addition to the book, Jim also provides a script consulting service. How can people get in touch to find out more?

Easy. Go to my site at www.jamespmercurio.com. I discuss why coaching is my preferred mode of working with writers. You can check out my DVD set and sign up for my free e-newsletter Craft & Career, which will also let you stay informed about classes and workshops I’m offering later in the year.

Last time around, you said your favorite kind of pie was the metaphoric “gross points from my last film”. Still the same today, or something different?

A pie in the hand is worth two gross points in a bush. Or 20 for that matter. So, hand me some Dutch Apple, please.

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