Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Writing Week (Vol. 4) part 178 - First Draft Done! And Now to Scrap It

At long last, the first draft of my Medieval spec is done. It clocked in at just over 96 full pages. And I think it's one of the weakest first drafts I've written in a while. 

First drafts can be agony. They can also seem like a joy, until you reread or get notes on them. Then, they seem like agony. They're all about getting the foundation laid. Sometimes, that means writing through a scene you know isn't working or dialogue that isn't doing it's job, simply so you can get to the next beat and hash that out. Once everything is down on paper, it's time to come back with the proverbial red pen and revise the whole thing. That often means scrapping entire sections and starting anew.

As torturous as this might seem, there's some remedy to be had in anticipating all of this. If you put the draft down believing it all to be gold, it's that much more crushing when your nearest and dearest tell you that's not quite the case. On the other hand, trudging through, all the while aware that the pages are far from Oscar worthy, makes it that much easier to see the flaws and - perhaps more importantly - the trick to addressing them.

One of the frequent problems with a first draft - and the very issue that I find myself facing now - is that a writer will often figure important elements, beats, and motivations out while writing the pages. This is great. Except, of course, for the fact that it might mean your protagonist does a seeming about-face half way through the script, when you realize why she's really doing what she's doing. Or what her past is. Or what the secret tool she discovers is, and how it relates to her mission. These realizations are key to a successful story, and you might even think you've nailed them in the outline, but when they come out in the pages... Well, I'd wager it means you have some rewriting to do.

In the case of my Medieval spec, for example, I found myself hung up on a handful of key beats throughout the few weeks I was writing. I wasn't stuck so much because I didn't know what the beats entailed. Rather, the hold up came from the realization that these beats were perfect opportunities to answer or address some crucial character points. Only, though I knew I had to answer them, I didn't know what the answers would be. More than that, the direction I was heading in for each answer deviated from what had come before. To keep the story consistent, I would have to go back and rework earlier beats and dialogue. Not a problem. That's what the first draft is for. Similarly, certain characters were underdeveloped by the end, and other appeared in a way that was too coincidental, giving the script an episodic feel that I have to do away with.

The episodic issue - a common one in early drafts of many of my scripts - is one I still grapple with. A script should flow naturally, one beat coming from the one that preceded it and all tying together into a cohesive whole. Something like HANGOVER 2, which I just saw this weekend, is more episodic feeling. Now they're here. Now they're there. One scene "leads" into the next, but not too organically and is forgotten as soon as the next location is established. Less episodic scripts are more seamless; of course we're here now, because it was set up that this is where the characters had to go and it is only natural that they're there now. No big coincidence or slight of hand to get them there.

I'll wrestle with these key issues this week. Hopefully, they won't be as monumental as I make them out to be. Either way, I have a (barely) 97 page draft of a new script on my desk, and that feels pretty damn good.

Write on, my friends!

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Writing Week (Vol. 4) part 177 - How Closely do you have to Adhere to Three-Act Structure?

I nearly finished the first draft of Act Two last night. At this point, the script is 77 pages long. Technically, according to basic structure 101, I am 13 pages short of where I should be. 

If you look at introductory guides to screenwriting, the standard structure is as follows: Act One - 30 pages, Act Two - 60 pages (pages 30-90), Act Three - 30 pages (pages 90-120). Of course, this only follows if you're writing a 120 page script. Though 120 is "standard," the trend I've seen is to cut that down closer to 105. For action and horror, that's about what many writers target; anywhere from 90 to 105 is decent length for those genres. Romantic comedies and dramas can be a bit longer. It has been a long time since I've written a 120 page script, and even longer since I set out to do so.

So how do you readjust? An easy way is simply to do it proportionately. For example, if you know you're going to write roughly a 100 pages script, or are targeting that as a final page count, just reduce everything page-wise, keeping the ratio the same. Acts one and three are 25% of the script; act two is 50%. Therefore, you wind up with 25 page acts one and three and a 50 page act two. By this math, assuming I'm targeting 100 pages, I am two pages over where I should be. In the grand scheme of things, that's not bad, especially for a first draft. In reality, I'm actually aiming for a 95 page script - maybe even 90. So, the other solution to maintaining act structure for a shorter script is one I employ a lot: use the structure, until it begins to use you. 

Structure should be malleable. Yes, there is a definite, agreed upon industry standard format out there. Know it. Even if you don't use it. But that format is more a guideline and an unbreakable set of rules. If your second act is five pages short, so be it. Any reader, producer, or agent worth their salt will be able to tell when something is stretched or gratuitous. And you know what? That will be the first thing to wind up on the cutting room floor. So screw it. You don't need it, and it doesn't need you. 

I also don't follow the structure exactly. I'll aim for the "appropriate" 25 or 30 page first act depending on the final page count, but my third act rarely tops 20 pages these days. It's often closer to 15. I believe that if the first two acts have been successfully written, the ending will come quickly and practically write itself in the process. By the time I'm hitting the climactic final sequences, everything is coming to a head and simply can't sustain much more. There's no room for extra dialogue or exposition or action at that point - it's all been set up, and the proverbial volcano is erupting. No keeping it from overflowing any more.

Granted, I am focusing on action movies now. If you watch some, you'll probably notice that the last 15 or 20 minutes comprise the final showdown. Everything else has been taken care of or lost by then. That's how I like to structure my scripts, too. Dramas and comedies might be slightly different. 

The bottom line: act structure is a great guide, but it's one that is best tailored to the needs of your script.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) Hollywood Writers Report

Deadline today featured a release from the Writers Guild of America West (WGAW) - a report on the earning levels of disparate groups of Hollywood television and film writers. The study, which you can download here, analyzes the earnings, ages, genders, and races of writers over a span of five years (2005-2009). I won't bother you with my own in-depth analysis, but it's worth checking out. As with many statistics (such as, most likely to be serial killers) white men came out on top. 

Supposedly, the earning gap between genders shrunk, but women remain statistically paid less then men according to the study. Similarly disheartening is the fact that the work share done by minority writers fell compared to years past. I work in New York Theatre as my day-job, and that industry, too, is trying to grapple with the limited and historically lower number of opportunities for and work by both female and minority writers. It is prevalent across the board -film, television, and the stage - and studies like this can be valuable in drawing attention to the issue. 

A longer version of the study's findings is apparently available, but I have not read it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Writing Week (Vol. 4) part 176 - Half Way Done

I hit page 50 yesterday. That felt nice. Actually, it felt pretty great. Of course, it means the second-half of act two slump is coming up, but I'll try not to dwell on that now.

Onyx took a look at my first act while I was on vacation last week. He gave me some good feedback on it. Nothing too critical at this juncture, but all good food for thought. Still, I've decided to push forward with the draft and implement the changes later. Unless anything directly affects the structure of the pages yet to be written, I'll save myself the hassle and work of sorting out the details now, in favor of getting the full story on the page.

One thing that happened, though, was that I found myself getting slowed by a particular seven page sequence that took me two days to write. Specifically, a supporting character I had budgeted for in my outline wound up having a greater role - in terms of importance and exposition relating to the protagonist, not in terms of page count - than I intended. He demonstrated himself to be an excellent opportunity to answer some vital questions. However, I was unprepared for the dialogue that unfolded on the page, and it took me longer to sort out the needs of the scene than I planned. Perhaps it means I hadn't done sufficient character work before writing. Actually, that's exactly what it means. Lesson learned.

Anyway, I plow ahead now, 50 pages down and ideally another 45 or 50 to go. I like the pacing so far, but I'm very much in the moment and will have to take a step back to look at the piece in its entirety when it's done. Hopefully, that will be in a couple weeks.

The one other thing I began this past week was some necessary reading to help me inform my creation of the world for the horror idea I was working on a while ago. I was hitting a few big walls with that, due largely to the fact that I had not drawn enough details from the marginal research I did. I needed to know more about the time and world. I still do. The book has been a great influence so far (I've barley crested the 20 page mark - time has been short these past few days), and I know it will prove itself integral to any future progress I make on that project. First I do the draft of the medieval spec; then I'll jump back into horror land with the knowledge I'll gain from my new reading material. Busy times, but it's nice to have two projects going at once. I recommend it, if you have the time.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Writing Week (Vol. 4) part 175 - A Taste of the Writing Life

I was a Southern house wife this week. One of my friends from high school is an IT consultant, and his job takes him all over the east coast, with an emphasis on the South. He'll be in Charleston, SC until July. Originally, I thought I was going to have to fly out to LA this week for meetings. When it became obvious that wouldn't happen, because we don't have enough meetings lined up for me yet, I decided to leave the time off that I'd already put in for at work and go out of town anyway.

The result was a small taste of what it would be like to be a professional writer. (Mind you, I make the comparison here in the loosest way.) I had to wake up early to drive my friend to work so that I could have the rental car during the day. Dropped him off at the office, "Good bye, honey - have a nice day!" Then back to the hotel, most likely to take a nap; 7:30am is just not a good writing hour for me. Frankly, it's not a good anything hour for me. Except sleeping.

Nap time ended around 9 or 10, at which point I'd stimulate the creative parts of my brain with a little Netflix instawatching. I've always found that watching a movie - or, actually, and awards show, like the Oscars - can be one of the best ways to spark a desire to write. Seeing what others have done makes me want to be a part of the scene, and I try my hardest to accomplish my own work so that I might join them one day. Once the movie was done, it was time to write.

Onyx took a look at my first act. These were the first pages I'd written in about six months, so even though I was rusty, it was nice to have them out there. I'll admit I'm trying to do a lot within the first act, and Onyx pointed out a few beats that could be stronger or that might be necessary to help achieve my goals. Despite the great feedback, I decided to keep on pushing ahead. Right now, I'd like to just get the whole draft out there, and then I can see what needs to be set up either earlier or more completely. I didn't get as many new pages done over the break as I would have liked, but I cranked out over 10, which is still nothing to scoff at.

Once I was done writing each day, I'd work out a bit, then maybe throw on another movie. By the time all that was said and done, it was time to pick my buddy up from the office - "How was your day? Were the other employees nice to you?" It was a little different from being a full-time writer from home, primarily because I stuck around the hotel for the most part. At home, I'd be able to venture out and get a lot of other errands done. Still, it was a nice taste of what might be one day.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Writing Week (Vol. 4) part 174 - Act One Done

One of my favorite things about this time of year is that I can begin writing outside in my back yard again. Here in NYC, it's still a bit too chilly to spend time immobile outside some of the time, but we're getting close to consistently warm days. When it's actually nice - and not just deceptively so - I take my laptop outside and write in the sun. And yes, that's how I managed to burn my shoulders before May.

I spent most of the past week at the picnic table behind my house, ticking away, tracks from LAST OF THE MOHICANS and BRAVEHEART and GLORY and SUNSHINE seeping from my computer's speakers. The first few days were a little rocky, but I decided to push forward, eventually arriving at a first act that was just over 26 full pages long. I took the weekend off to read the results, and spent the past two days tweaking the pages, coming out with another page. 

Being so close to the material - I know what will come next and what the scenes are supposed to have accomplished (which means that I can easily assume they do that, when they in fact don't) - I know that I need a few sets of outside eyes on it now. Thankfully, that's what the League is for. We have a meeting next week, which I will be out of town for. My target is the June meeting - one full script, coming up!

In the meantime, it's on me to keep rolling with the draft; the worst thing I could do is lose the momentum I've built over the past week and a half. I have 27 and change pages in what I'm hoping will be about a 100 page script. I can't afford to take time off to "celebrate" act one; to do so would be foolhardy. As we say in theater, the show must go on. Only, without me, there's no show.