Monday, May 5, 2008

Second Draft

For the first time ever, I'm doing a real second draft of a screenplay.

It feels pretty weird. This is seriously uncharted territory. I used to have a system, and I stuck to that system. It consisted of:
  1. Come up with idea for movie. Start writing script before really finishing an outline.
  2. Write first draft of script. Take forever. End around page 80 due to insufficient idea generation.
  3. Later on, take a look at 80-page script.
  4. Decide script cannot be salvaged, except for maybe the dialogue (which is, of course, completely useless out of context).
  5. Go back to step 1. This time it'll be good, though!
This time, I did things differently. Well, step #1 was sort of the same -- though, to my credit (or discredit), I did spend several months non-completing the outline. Then, with step #2, I really took a detour. I finished the first draft in under two months -- not ultraspeedy, I'll grant, but way faster than I've ever written a screenplay before.

(Digression? Here's one trick that really helped me. Often, and I don't think I'm alone here, I'll hit a literary brick wall wherein I have absolutely no idea either how to get through a scene, or how to start the next one, or both. And I'll sit there staring at the screen, and a few thoughts will go through my head. The first one is that there's nothing to do; I'm just fucked, unless I throw out the last several pages, which is the last thing you want to do in an early draft. Eventually that thought disappears, replaced by the notion that I just need more time to figure out what to do -- like, if I sit around and think for a few hours/days/years, I'll really come up with something good. Let me tell you, that's one hell of a tempting idea, since it excuses me from actually writing for some indefinite period of time. But in practice, it's usually a fallacy; chances are, a bunch of "thinking" time will go by with no good ideas to show for it, and I'll give up and just write down the first shitty thing that comes to mind. And that right there is the trick. Rather than waste all that time, I just write that shitty thing now! Why not? It's going to be the same amount shitty either way. Might as well get it over with and move on. Sure, it hurts a little to knowingly write something bad, but you get used to it, like getting pricked with a needle at the doctor's office. The worst part is the anticipation. Digression over.)

On to step #3. Truth be told, I don't think I actually read the entire thing cover to cover before I started the rewrite. I also don't think I really needed to. In fact, it might even be better that I didn't. Because my goal wasn't simply to rewrite the pages I had; my goal was to come up with a better version of the story. And there's the rub. That's where all these years of struggling with the basics of screenwriting finally (partially) paid off -- in the discovery of what that very important, italicized-and-bolded phrase means. I guess it means taking what I like about the story and the characters and keeping it in my brain while writing an essentially brand-new script. As tempting as it might be to work directly off the original draft (look, a few backspaces and word changes and I'm done!), I'm pretty sure that's a losing proposition. Here's why. → Read a scene, decide it doesn't work, come up with a better one and... oops, now the next scene doesn't make sense. Or the scene before it, come to think of it. Do I really have to change both those scenes now? Is the new scene really that great? Eh, maybe it's just better to keep things the way they are. ← Death of the creative process, right there between the arrows.

Starting over is just the opposite; I'm heavily motivated to write as many new scenes as possible. Why? Because I really don't want to retype the same crap I've already written. If it looked crappy the first time, it's going to look twice as crappy the second time. Unless it was good, of course; and in those rare cases I can cut and paste it into the new draft. So far, 72 pages into said draft, I've only done that with a total of about three pages. Some of the new stuff is infinitely better. Some is slightly better. Some is probably the same. I don't think any of it is actually worse. (But I'm not done yet, so there's still plenty of opportunity for that.)

Anyway, going back to that list up there, the hardest thing right now is staying away from step #5. Because I do have an idea for my next script. It's just a nugget, but, in my humble opinion, a pretty good nugget. And I have grand visions of expanding that nugget into a real plot and characters, and writing (maybe even selling) the script. But I dare not do any of that until I'm really done with this one, because I don't want to risk wasting all the time and sweat I've invested in the current script; or, even worse, ending up with two completely unfinished projects that have no end in sight. That kind of approach might get me elected president, but it won't sell screenplays.

Not that I completely know whereof I speak at this stage in my career, but I think this situation neatly encapsulates the life of a writer: Put off the exciting, interesting task in favor of focusing on the unpleasant drudgery. Isn't screenwriting fun?