Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Another Draft (Or Twelve)

Bridge over Twenty-Mile river

We held a reading last night of my Nicholl semi-finalist screenplay 'War During Lifetime'. It took place in Anchorage with a good mix of local actors

Reading was private so the screenwriter (in this case, me) could hear his work read aloud. It was also cold (no rehearsal). To my relief, it accomplished what I hoped it would and did not send me running for the hills.

Below are a few points about this reading and readings in general.

Script History

War During Lifetime placed as a semi-finalist during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Nicholl screenwriting competition. That's a mouthful, I know, but I mention the entire title for the benefit of other screenwriters.

As far as screenwriting competitions go, the Nicholl (pronounced 'nickle') is one of the best, if not the best.

The winners (up to ten each year) not only field multiple meetings with agents, managers, and production companies, they are also given $30,000 to complete another screenplay over the course of a year. But what I think is one of the best perks of entering this competition is that it is taken seriously by the film industry. Finalists, semi-finalists, and even quarter-finalists receive inquiries by established industry folks.

War During Lifetime was the first submission I've had reach the semi-finals (I've submitted eight times). It made the top 110 scripts out of over 6,000 entries, and I received a decent number of inquiries to read it based on its placement.

Did I sell it, or gain representation...?

No. Like I told the actors at the reading last night:

It might have made the semi-finals of one of the world's most esteemed screenwriting competitions, but it still didn't make the finals.

A diamond in the rough. Hence, more work, another draft (or twelve), and the reading...

Reading Notes

Best part of the night were the other participants. A solid group of local Alaskan actors showed up to participate and brought very good energy to the reading.

Because of their efforts I was able to close my eyes and listen to the script for everything from plot points to dialogue.

In our discussion afterward, the actors also all seemed to be in agreement over a few character moments and plot points, which meant something was working well enough that when something felt out of character it was obvious.

The re-writes were beginning to yield results.

How Many Drafts Does It Take?

Who knows... Forty?

That's the number a script reader once mentioned. I've heard of it done in as few as one draft with a polish, and as many as 'It never ends. This is the millionth draft and they want more!'

For myself I've had to learn patience. My first three or four drafts may yield a story and some characters, but in the mountainous slush-pile of scripts submitted to producers every year it needs to be perfect.

War During Lifetime has been written, passed to friends for notes, re-written, passed among different friends, re-written, forgotten about for a year, re-written, passed to new friends, re-written, and read aloud.

The first few readings by friends are usually disastrous. The notes are either so politely generic as to be useless, or so brutally honest (you asked for them to be honest, remember) that you wonder why the hell you ever tried to write in the first place.

But here's a secret -- You knew what the results were going to be all along.

How? Because if you spend enough time writing you will begin to develop a voice inside that tells you whether your work is ready to show or not. You just didn't pay the voice any heed because you need to get past the first rough hurdle of realizing (again) how difficult it is to write.

Both Good And Suck

Now is decision time: Do I move forward and really dive in, or do I let this one go? Do I love it enough to stick with it through both good and suck?

Ok, your heart is in the story and you've jumped back in.

Now you need to pay close attention to that voice inside. If it says 'Come on man, you know deep down it ain't ready' - listen to it.

Exercise some patience and settle in for the long haul, knowing that there will be light at the end of the tunnel.

Another draft has gone by and you're ready to send it out... Wait. Are you sure?

Just because you've locked yourself in a motel room for twenty straight days without sunlight, writing your ass off, doesn't mean it's ready. It just means you put a lot of work into it.

And so have the other 50,000 writers who have registered scripts with the Writer's Guild this year.

Walk away from it awhile. Quit. Start something new. Get a job in Antarctica (the route I took).

Then, if that story still needs to be told, sit down with it again and again until you can't hear that voice saying 'It ain't ready' anymore.

Show it to someone (not your mother). Hire a professional script-analyst to give you notes. Gather a bunch of actors, feed them pizza, and have a reading.

It won't be perfect, but it might be good enough to see the light at the end of the tunnel and realize you're on to something.

And having your work validated won't always fill the fridge, but it does feed the soul.

And the soul feeds the work.

Until maybe one day both soul and labor meet in a culmination of awesome perfection that no script-reader can ignore and your screenplay is stamped:



Mark said...

Hi Matt,

I really enjoyed your post and appreciate your perspective!

My younger brother is a working actor here in Chicago and we set up a table read of one of my scripts with a group of actors. Similar to your experience, even though I had done numerous rewrites after having received a CONSIDER rating from script analyst, it was sobering to see how obvious some of the script's shortcomings were when read aloud by professionals.

All the best to you with 'War During Lifetime' (love the title) and future projects!


Matt Shields said...

First, thanks for commenting. I've kept another blog for years, this one's brand new. With all the writing perspectives out there we shall see how far it goes.

Congrats on the elusive CONSIDER. I'm actually not sure what notes I received on 'War'. I got a couple positive responses and requests for additional material, but then the phone stopped.

As for 'sobering', yes, but it didn't hit as hard this time. I think because I went in already knowing what I did and didn't have.

Best of luck!