Sunday, September 09, 2007

[Process] - Redrafting

For the last two and a half years, I've kept notes about what I learned while writing the Limit. Now I'm creating posts that will cover each phase of my script-writing process. They'll be added to as I trawl through the blog (and linked to on the sidebar).

This one's about how I redraft scripts. What you're about to read are snippets I've cut-n-pasted from previous posts.

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Anyway, my goal from here is to simplify. In this last read-through, I saw that in spite of all the padding I’ve put into the script to get it up to time, a clear and powerful throughline is beginning to emerge.

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I’m at that neat point in the polish where I start intuiting how to make the treatment more readable. I take huge paragraphs in which every sentence has the form “Forster does this,” or “Trace says that,” and simplify them into something cleaner, more like poetry.

For instance, this:

Peter turns and bolts, throwing looks back.
And his path takes him through the black valleys of the dunes where the moonlight doesn’t reach.

Through twists and turns.
Peter loses himself.

Settling deep into the shadows of a dune,
He hides.

Comes from this:

Peter realises he has been betrayed. He scuttles backwards, escapes. Settling deep into the shadows of a dune, Peter again tries to process what he just saw. He's in tears.

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Some new thoughts on how I could edit a script:

Read through the script.
Mark off how ‘engaged’ I am with it, on a scale of 1-10.
That’s in order to create a Whammo Chart. A graph of the script’s highs and lows.
Read through with a blue pen and circle any bits where the story seems to be off.
Then go through each character’s journey. Use a red pen to mark any points where they don’t seem to be acting true to themselves.
If they go significantly off-beam, go back to the start and red-pen every other character’s journey up to that point. Try to understand at the level of Motivation what’s going on.
If that doesn’t clear things up, look at the conflict in the scene. Is it being expressed clearly.
What about sub-text? Is the scene about more than it appears to be about? Does it have layers to it?

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Trying to cut 10% of the script (down to about 90 pages) is fun.

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The script analysis is completed. Halving my time estimates really has resulted in me doing the work faster. So much so that my Safety Buffer is back up to 20 days. Conclusion: if I want to get work done fast I should focus on it until it’s freakin’ done.

Now I’m going to start on the edit. 4 days seems even more ridiculous now I’ve seen what needs to be done on the script. I’m going to take it as a challenge … to see if I can get back up to ‘TV writing’ speed.

For future business reference: That was a full script analysis in 2.5 days.

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My goal’s to have a second draft of The Limit on the market by August 7. Doing that requires a massive amount of focus and time-management. Since applying the concepts from Critical Chain (a book on project management) worked for finishing off Draft 1, I’m going to use them again.

Some of the relevant ideas are:

  1. Assume all work gets done at the last minute.
  2. With that in mind, halve my time estimates for how long it’ll take to do things.
  3. Put the 50% of time I’ve saved into a safety buffer at the end of the project. That time can get fed into the project if any particular step starts running behind.

Here’s my plan.

A. Edit Draft 1 [finished by 3 July]
B. Send script out to readers. [12 July]
C. Polish Draft 2 [17 July]
D. Send script out to producers. [18 July]

A. Edit Draft 1

26 July
Read it. [0.25 days]
Emotional Engagement Chart. [0.25 days]
6 Hat review. [1.5 days]

28 July
Boil 6 Hat notes down to 1 page. [0.25]
Write up a ‘Gut’ report of what I feel about the script. [0.25]
Compare 1 page note and Gut report. [0.25]

29 July
Consult with Andrew (depending on his availability). [0.5]
Distill core problems. [0.25]

30 July
Re-edit. [4 days]

So, assuming everything goes according to plan … which it won’t … there will be a leaner draft to send out to a select few readers on July 3. It’s a totally insane schedule and I’m feeling slightly stressed even writing about writing it … but I have a couple of aces up my sleeve.

First, I’ve done this sort of thing, under these constraints, many times before – on the TV series and on at least a couple of feature films. Second, I have that safety buffer. Say the re-edit gets bogged down. I have days I can draw out of the buffer and spend on the rewrite.

Third, once I’ve finished that rewrite and handed it off to our readers, I can relax again for at least a couple of days. So it’s not like this is persistent pressure through to the first week of August. There actually will be ebbs and flows. It’ll be tough, but I think it’ll be achievable.

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Read … Take the whole day to do it.
Should I take notes on that first pass through?
Build a Whammo Chart.
6 Hat the script on six passes.
Polish with Andrew.
Send to Sean and Ainsley.
ID main problems.
Correct.
Send out 2nd Draft.
Sell.
Celebrate.

There’s also Directors’ Notes, the Pitch and Marketing to start thinking about.

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There’s more work beyond the end of this draft. Like taking my new understanding of the characters and the plot - and feeding it back into the start of the script, refining the story. All I’m hoping is that the amount of intense thought I’ve been putting into the writing this time round is going to remove my standard errors from the script. Of course there will be mistakes – that’s what a first draft is :) - but I’d like to be dealing with a higher level of mistakes.

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Read and analyze, collect the feedback and solve the biggest problems.
Then a really deep re-edit of the script and, while it's away at the proof readers, finish up my submission letters and send them off.
Then I reread the new draft, hoped that it's finished, do the final proof and send it off.
Followed by which I celebrate, fall on the floor and sleep for four days.

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Let's leave aside that I still re-edit hopeless and episodes of lovebites in my head 5+ years later. Eventually you have to send something you've written out into the wild. I guess I have three measures that let me know the time is right:

1) I can visualise how a scene needs to be shot.
2) I really want to film it.

And most importantly

3) When I read it from start to finish, I'm absorbed - taking hardly any notes.

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I mentioned the "doing it right vs. getting it done fast" dilemma a few days ago. When I was first writing this draft, I laboured over each sequence until I felt it was working as good as I could get it. At the moment, my writing is nowhere that intensive.

However, I think it's like sculpting*. My first draft was like taking a lot of care to get the general shape correct. Now I've stepped back, assessed what it looks like and am making some of the quick, obvious hacks and cuts to get everything in proportion. It means my concern is I'll cut too much or that I'll stray from the heart of the piece, but - unlike sculpting - I can put material back into the script. I guess it's like sculpting with play-doh ... and I think I'll end the metaphor there cos I can sense it starting to collapse.

*I've never sculpted anything, so this is what I imagine it's like.

Anyway, enough writing about writing. Back to it. The update boils down to this: 1) the work's going slower than I thought, and 2) regardless of the final quality of this draft, I won't put it on the market till I'm happy with it. (This may lead to another post about why 'happy' and 'finished' are two completely different - and achievable - measures from 'good enough' and 'perfect'; the benchmarks I used to aim for.)

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When your busy friends agree to do you a favour and read your script for free, you should add a week to the schedule for each friend. Because they have lives.

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The purpose of all this reading and thinking is to ID problems. Then choose which ones have to be solved. Some problems aren’t worth it; that temptation to make the script ‘perfect’ – that’s just be a way to avoid finishing. Next, each problem gets a page and I have to come up with 20 solutions for each one.

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Yesterday I quoted Joss Whedon saying, "... as a script doctor, the issue is always the same: “We want you to make the third act more exciting and cheaper.” And my response inevitably is, “The problem with the third act is the first two acts.” This response is never listened to."

Damn.

Basic problem-solving theory: deal with the most important problem first (and in the process you’ll solve smaller related problems). Well, one problem stands out as a deal-breaker for 80% of my readers: “The Plan” that sets the events of the script in motion.

All The Limit’s gimmicks and cleverness don’t matter because the villains are coming across as implausible (in terms of what they do and how others react to them).

So, simultaneously brainstorming solutions to all the problems – like I was describing a couple of days ago, and which was beginning to feel overwhelming – isn’t the best approach. I need to focus. The Limit is a thriller, meaning ‘what’s going on’ has to be crystal clear by the end. Everything else gets subordinated to that; and the main way to achieve that clarity is by understanding and caring about every character.

But this feedback process has worked. Reading through other people's eyes has revealed the problems that were invisible to me.

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I think I've finished with The Plan and its ramifications. Now to write the one-page summary for Andrew, so he can bounce ideas off it.

And then it's time to sort out the rest of the problems. First I should see how dealing with this fundamental one has altered the script - and whether dealing with it has eliminated any other outstanding issues. After that, I should choose the next most fundamental issue and analyse it.

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Now I’ve brainstormed options for all the problems that were raised … man, that was kinda exhausting and fun.

Maybe I *should* re-read it next but I feel like continuing to work with the ideal, abstracted script in my head rather than the real thing. So I might do something different.

Take a couple of big bits of paper – maybe one to draw a mind-map on & two or three for notes about each Act. Work my way from the start of the movie towards the finish, taking notes for the restructure – and as I run into a problem for the first time, look at my brainstormed options and choose the one that feels best right at that moment.

(And if I’m not satisfied, then it’s time for more brainstorming …)

Also, I should cross-reference this Scribbled Chart of Restructuring with my brainstorming notes – to refer to them during the slog of the rewrite

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I’ve finished brainstorming solutions for A3 & gotten answers from Ray Van Beynen about specific AOS issues, like their procedures and language. Now I’m finally sitting down to rewrite the script – and for a while I was in a whole new realm of procrastination

Reluctant to finish the script – possibly daunted at the amount of work in front of me. Uncertain about whether I should only be roughing out solutions to all the scenes or fixing everything as I go.

The most important thing was to make a decision – maybe not to finish the whole thing (that seems too remote at the moment) but at least to complete work on this first act. So I went through the whole script & ABC’d the scenes - to see what required totally new scenes (A) , significant edits (B) or minor rewrites (C).

There are 90 sequences to edit. 42% of them are totally new A-scenes. Almost half of them are in Act 1 (80% of them are in either A1 or A3).

… Enough numbers. While knowing what’s going on hasn’t totally eliminated my fear, it’s given me a way forward. I just going to read the C-scenes. For B-scenes, I’ll brainstorm 20 ideas for each problem they present (to give me some options when I go through the full rewrite). A-scenes, though, need a full Stakes & Conflicts workup and then have to be Beat-by-Beaten out.

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[Note to self: when making a Whammo Chart, either use a hard copy or a .doc I don’t make notes on. At the moment my chart doesn’t correlate to the script’s page numbers.]


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So, I’ll be even more focused on the script over the next week or so. I’ve scheduled 20 days to finish this section; hopefully I can finish much quicker. After that, organise all my brainstorming and then finalise it. And then the final ‘tighten up & proofread’ draft.

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"Draft D done"

Reduced from 115 pages of puffiness to a lean 93 pages of action, the script's ready for Andrew to read through it. Then we'll decide whether it needs any more radical rewrites. I'm hoping not.

Couple of things I learned during this redraft:

1. There's always more stuff you can take out.

I adhere to Stephen King's rule, that the 2nd Draft = the 1st Draft - 10% (except in my blog posts). This time round, I discovered moments within a single scene that duplicated each other, moments that didn't make any sense because they referred to previous versions, simple spelling mistakes ('streaks' became 'steaks').

In fixing all this, I took out beats I was fond of but thought distracted from getting to the story. Mostly those were slightly jokey moments or actions I wasn't 100% convinced by.

2. I always have a warm-up period where the writing doesn't come easily.

It'd be great to figure out a way around this - where it comes from and how to deal with it. That would increase my productivity.

3. I'll feel whatever I'm writing about.

That's the only way it seems to work for me. And, with this script, a lot of good's come out of it. I used to be afraid of feeling angry. Now I understand it more: the way it's powerful and it feels good - but how I nearly make bad decisions under its influence.

4. I have a new benchmark to aim for.

Earlier this year, I locked on to something new to explore in my writing - being aware of a script's central conflict and making sure every scene hooked into that. I'm still learning how to do that but now I have an even more demanding goal to reach for.

You see, I read a script and rate how engaged I am with it (out of 10) on every page. Next script, I want to aim for 10 out of 10 for all of it. I don't even know if that's achievable but there is definitely no harm in trying.


That's the great thing about writing: the process is still fun (even when it's frustrating and heart-breaking), but the benchmark for my satisfaction keeps moving.


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I've restarted work on (hopefully) the final draft of The Limit. So far, there are 3 main problems: that the setup's too long - it feels puffy, repetitive, boring; there's also a subplot that I've recently introduced that's destroying the script's momentum; and last, the ending has too much exposition in it & not quite enough emotion. Overall, the script's a little too long - 115 pages where I think it should be 90-100 at most.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed reading it. The story has a dread & tension to it that I found riviting, and finally the third act is starting to play the way I've always wanted it to. So, there's a bit of work ahead of me if I'm going to finish this before New Years, but I do think it's possible. This thing could have stopped dominating my life within the next 10 days.

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Now, some formatting, printing out and feedback from Andrew. Then the final tighten and polish (and rigorous proof-reading - my favourite part!). I suspect after that, I'll be asking 5 people if they want to read it, just to get a final idiot-check on the whole thing. 'Idiot' in the sense of 'did I write anything totally stupid (continuity errors & such).


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After this, a short break to organise stuff for my sister’s wedding and the flat, then a sweep through the script to tidy up descriptions and format dialogue.

One mechanical thing I found useful on this draft was to put the script feedback into ‘endnote’ format, so that all the potential edits are together on one page. I put each Endnote under the Scene Heading, so it’s very clear what needs to be worked on.

Contacted readers yesterday. Good response so far. Also started working on letters to producers. Very excited.

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I've thought a lot about whether I should post this, but given that I'm trying to keep a full record of my writing process I think I have to go through the last fortnight.

Two Fridays ago - DBS gave me feedback on the script. Much of it was good, some of it was really challenging. I enjoyed the session a lot.

Two Saturdays ago - I finally read through the script myself. My emotions went through two phases:

  • 1) the actual reading, where I thought that the script was terrible. Unrealistic, badly motivated, lame writing. It totally didn't live up to the ideal in my head and I was pretty much devastated by the end;
  • 2) drawing the whammo chart - my graph of how interested I was in the script. This revealed that many of my problems lay in the first act but that the middle of the script still wasn't as strong as I hoped. Two reasons for that were that it was unclear what Peter wanted to achieve in his first intense conversation with Forster, and that Tracy's midpoint is misplaced. So, I was slightly lifted by that. Slightly.

Two Sundays ago - acted in the Wasps. My character was supposed to receive utterly devastating news to his ego. I drew on the memory of just having read the script.

I took a week off, where I couldn't face reading or thinking about the thing. I drew some solace from a book on script-editing where another writer was described as adopting the fetal position for two days, curled up in bed with a hot water bottle. I was not that bad.

Last Saturday - Morgue and Pearce described how Clive Barker reads his books aloud when he finishes writing them. I resolved to do that with this script.

Last Sunday and Monday - I forced myself to read through the script, taking notes. While most of them were pretty specific, what I was really trying to do was get an understanding of the big picture.

Today - just read it aloud, and it really gave me a clear idea of why certain scenes (like Peter deciding to take revenge) weren't working. I'm feeling better about the script.

So the big picture changes are:
Act 1 - tighten up the family stuff
Act 2i - clarify Peter's motivations and restructure the mid-points.
Act 2ii - make sure the action scenes relate to characters. Possibly put Tracy into a much darker place, emotionally.
Act 3 - focus on the three main characters, plus handle the exposition 2000% better.

Now to look at everyone else's feedback and see where they and I agree.

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At the moment, I actually feel pretty confident about the script. Everyone's feedback works together & ... more importantly to me ... I feel like the script is now 'telling' me what it wants to be. Adjusting scenes feels like a natural process now, one that doesn't require that much thinking about it. It's like there's an ideal version of this draft that I'm chiselling the unnecessary material away from.

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The Midpoint of the script consists of an argument plus a new threat for one of the lead characters. Now, the threat's always worked fine but the argument has always seemed to slow things down. I've tried a lot of fixes on it over the last five drafts and nothing's worked.

So what did I realise during this edit? That none of these quick fixes had addressed the main problem. That the midpoints for the two leads were separated by about 10 pages ... and that that distance was killing momentum the script's momentum.

So, lessons to apply in future:
1) Coming up with a quick fix is fine, if I'm utterly convinced by it.
2) If I'm not convinced, then analyse the problem thoroughly. I've been finding that Deviation Analysis works well as a tool.
3) Analyse anything that looks like a massive drop in engagement when I draft my Whammo Chart.
4) If, after coming up with a quick fix, a problem still remains in the next draft, analyse it.

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Further to my last post, about what to do at this stage of the script, I found going for a long walk and just jotting down thoughts about the script as they came to was a good way of organising my memories of what needed to be improved with the script.

I used a mind-map, and drew four spokes (one for each act) and then placed each memory on the appropriate spoke.

Then I fine-tuned the proper notes.

Today, I just had a long bath and a re-read of the script - where I found myself jotting down ideas and suggestions. The script was much more enjoyable this time round (perhaps I was less judgmental?) and the flaws seemed obvious - or at least the obvious flaws did.

Next step is to go through all the feedback and the marked up script and see if there are any global problems (affecting the whole story) that need to be resolved before I start rewriting. If not, I'll just go scene by scene - which has worked well for me in the last few drafts.

(Idea: I should set up another folder for each script, to store all of my Engagement Charts, so I can easily find them and compare between drafts.)

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So, I've just drawn up the chart for how engaged I was during this read.

Now I have to:

- write down (on one page) the fundamentals of what needs to be done with this draft, based solely my memories of reading it. I will not refer to either the script or my notes during this process.

- tidy up my more in-depth notes, which will involve comparing them to the .wav file that I dictated, and possibly simplifying or categorising my observations.

- re-read the script.

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Re-read the script after about a month off. There was a six page stretch (of restructured and new material) in the middle where I was just thinking "Oh my god" over and over again at how tense the writing was making me.

Wicked.

Now to chop a little bit out of the first act, rework Turning Point 2 a lot, and figure out the ending again (it's still not quite working).

I'm not sure what to do next - probably draw up my Engagement Chart, do the notes and then re-read it.

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Other script tip stuff, while I remember:

Have two folders - one for the current draft, and one for the next draft.

Jane Espenson pointed out that you can ask what's the script about, and then you can ask what it's really about. Both questions are useful for keeping your writing on track.

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Yesterday.

9.25 am: I'm about to read The Limit. I'm nervous. Fair enough; this draft is supposed to be the last one, and this read will determine whether I'm finished.

So, I want it to be good. But I know it can't match the ideal in my head, and it isn't perfect.

10.51 am: Finished the read.

Well, it's good. Not great. But I do think this is the final polish of the script.

Acts One and Two move pretty damn well (after a couple of year of rewriting). Act Three is puffy, and now it needs to be lifted. It's got a repetitive start; the logic behind what's happened to Peter isn't clear; the climax isn't sharp or moving enough.

Now to do up my notes, and hear back from Andrew.

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The final polish is going smoothly but slowly. I'm making longhand notes, and I'm up to page 70 (out of 98). Then typing in the corrections, making final editorial decisions, and the proof and spell.

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I've been:

1. making sure there's the same number of spaces after each full-stop
2. making all the '...' in the script consistently spaced
3. spell-checking stuff. Turns out that adding words to the dictionary makes the process go faster
4. formatting all the remaining dialogue. I used Page Preview for this. Next time, I really need to set up a script template with macros.

Gripping stuff, I know. But getting the presentation right is important at a "It's a good read" level.

As usual, I stalled on doing this, then found it was much quicker than I anticipated. (All hail the Auto-replace function.)

Next up, I'll be:

5. putting the (CONT.) into the script
6. making sure the scene headings are formatted consistently (in style and names of locations).

Then to print it out, and reverse-proof it - starting from the end of the script and going back a sentence at a time.

After that's all done, I've got to:

- enter the final changes
- paginate it all
- turn it into a PDF (which may be unnecessary)
- register it with the NZWG
- send it off to a producer.

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A couple of months back, Morgue described writing a second draft as

... like being inside a giant and massively complex sudoku puzzle, erasing and checking and erasing again as you try and get the damn thing to have the right balance of numbers. Equal parts fascinating and frustrating, but always compelling.


I'd add to that, that there's a constant deepening of your understanding of the characters. Every scene that's been problematic in this rewrite, I've had to say why is it in the script? That question has led to me amping up its structural importance (the sudoku aspect, above), but I've also had to 'get' previously minor characters. That deeper understanding feeds back into the start of the script and affects how other characters react to each other.

Anyway, like I said, typing, proofing, and sending out are next. I expect the secondary project I'll focus on now is to collect all of these script writing posts and start to refine and publish my process.


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