Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 250 - Flash Back to First Draft

The big news for my own writing this week is that I finished the first draft of my sci-fi spec! After about nine months of collaborating on this project with a writer/director/actor (whom I have dubbed W.A. here), we finally have a full draft to dig into. It's a bit of a doozie at 130 pages, but that's perfectly okay as far as first drafts go. And, W.A. is looking at it with the notion of potentially directing, so that gives us even less cause to worry about a long script at this point. We're going to go over the material page by page during what will probably be an epic meeting after Thanksgiving, but we have plans to touch base about the major elements next week before the holiday. Until then, both of us are giving ourselves some time apart from the script to let it simmer and enable us to come at it with fresher eyes when we do finally meet up.

However, I don't really want to focus on my own writing this week. Rather, I want to share with you something that happened, that reminded me of a lot of fundamentals - and my first days as a nascent writer. A friend of mine, someone I actually met abroad, wrote a script and asked me to give it a read. I was happy to. This is the first draft of a piece he's working on on spec - oddly, it has some startling thematic and circumstantial similarities to my project with W.A., but that's beside the point (for now). He asked me to weigh in with any thoughts I had, knowing that this is his first script.

What struck me first is how this script was so similar in myriad ways to many of my earliest efforts. Disclaimer before I say anything else, this is in no way meant to be a criticism of his work; these are purely observations. For one, a lot of first drafts are written in the passive voice. "Gunfire is seen coming from the house" and "he is sitting." It took me a long time to break the habit, and sometimes it's easiest to use the passive voice, but if you can find a more active way to say something, please do. "Gunfire erupts from the house" or "he straddles the chair" - not only are these more active sentences, but they paint a more exciting and vibrant picture of what's happening. They also enable you as a writer to expand the vocabulary of your script and engage the reader on a deeper level.

When I first began writing, I relied heavily on the use of "we" in my descriptive passages. "We hear glass crunching" or "we see them run through the park." As with passive, this is a method of writing that, if possible, you'll want to transition out of. "Glass CRUNCHES" or "they run through the park" are more exciting and more concise. Both of those are good things. 

Action is also tough to write. I used to be guilty of describing every punch. A five second fight would take up a half page or more, because I choreographed it down to the inch. "He takes one step and punches twice. Bill punches back - uppercut. Jim shoves him with both hands and trips him with his right leg. Bill gets back up and..." on it goes. It's fun and cool, but unless there's something pivotal about that right leg, it doesn't matter. "Bill and Jim wail on one another. It's a brutal, animalistic fight. Jim ultimately gets the upper hand, sending Bill to the ground with a kick and keeping him down with a solid punch." You get it, the reader gets it, and the fight choreographer has enough information to do his or her job freely. The same goes with rooms and sets. Unless it's vital that we see four chairs at the kitchen table in a house for five, we don't need to know how many the dining set can accommodate. Just say, "an elegant dining room" or something of the kind. 

All of the above tips and more go to the fact that, as a writer, you are that - a writer. As readers, we should have an idea of what you want us to see. If it's something routine, you don't need to go into every detail for us (most kitchen tables have four or six chairs, unless it's essential, don't tell us which). If something is atypical - your protag lives in a rondavel - describe it in a bit more detail. But don't get lost in telling us what color of blue the wall in the foyer is if your character runs through there in two steps and we never see it again. Your production team will involve designers and a director who will take care of that. Your focus, is the story, and that can get mired in the details if you're not careful. 

Jumping back to the similarities between that script and mine, I only want to say one thing. Reading other people's material is a great thing to do, provided they actually want your feedback, and not just your praise. However, it can also be risky. Especially the more established you get and more likely you are to have a sale, keep in mind that you never know how someone will react if they feel you're using their material or otherwise stealing from them. Granted, I first saw this script about a week ago, and I trust that the writer will understand that my project was in no way influenced by his, but you never know. The similarities are such that, if two years from now he went to the theater and saw my movie, he could cause quite the commotion by saying, "Zach stole my ideas, and I have the evidence of sending him a script to prove it." Sure, I have an email trail with W.A. that predates this writer's interaction with me by nine months, as well as daily email backups of the script and outlines I sent myself, but you can never be 100% certain who will do what. As they said at my high school, "verbum sap sat."