14 May, 2007

Pre-writing and Re-writing

Tony’s comments in the previous post and the whole debate about talent over at Piers' Pad has led me to do some re-thinking on my beliefs.

I started off believing that anyone can do anything and there wasn’t some gifted elite better than anyone else. The fact that the vast majority of people who aspire to become screenwriters are unable to finish a script and the vast majority of those are unable to finish a good script did make me briefly go to the innate gift theory. However I am firmly back to my original view: there is no elite born with special powers to write well; god does not hand gifts out to new borns of plumbing ability, doctoring ability or writing ability. People decide what they want to do, learn how to do it, and then do it.

Piers’ point is a crucial one in that - even if the magic powers theory was true - by ignoring it and working hard you will achieve the same result. In essence, by pre-writing and re-writing.

“So sadly, re-writes are not an option for most of us out here. The writing has to be good enough in the first instance and mine, along with the majority is dreck.” Tony

OK, fair point. There’s no point in re-writing unsalvageable dreck. But dreck happens because there is no pre-writing or insubstantial pre-writing. By pre-writing I mean working on your idea, characters and story before you start writing dialogue.

1) Idea – Rather than rushing to do the first idea we think of, why not think about for a while and see if there are any pitfalls. Is it too derivative of something we’ve seen for instance? I once saw a movie at the picturehouse which I absolutely loved. But for a week every single idea I had was just re-writing that film I loved. Is the idea attractive enough? Will enough people, apart from your friends and family, want to see it?

2) Characters – People are interested in characters and watch things for characters not plot. Spending time, even a short time, being clear about who your characters are and what they want will avoid most dreck scripts.

3) Story – Having interesting characters the audience can get emotionally invested in is good but the story has to be satisfying as well. It’s fine having an idea but you need to maximise that idea's potential with the most effective story.

"But - I think saying writers can do better 'if they can be arsed' means little to those who already work hard with families and full-time jobs and don't have the luxury of running scripts past professional colleagues as some are able to do.” Tony

I honestly don’t think you need professional colleagues to help with re-writes. The idea of my TV Guide is to encourage critical viewing and reflection of films and shows. The more you do this the better you become at spotting what works and what doesn’t; what makes good writing and what makes bad writing. And that will help us do the same with our own scripts.

We need to become our own best script reader who is able to look at a first draft and see where it can be improved. With practice and experience that will solve most problems. And I have put script reader checklists on my website to help that process.

However, when you have re-written a few times and can’t see anything wrong with your script, then that’s a good time to get a second opinion. There are writing groups you can join both online and offline for free peer reviews.

Speaking of peer reviews, reading scripts from peers and reading professional screenplays is another good way to improve our critical faculties and improve our screenwriting.

Regarding coping with the full time job and the family, it's difficult but there's no rush. If you can find the time to write then you can find the time to pre-write and re-write. There's no point in bombarding the writersroom with first drafts because they will never ever be accepted. You're competing against people who take their scripts to two or more drafts.

“Mark Greig clearly believes there has to be a gift, or magic power as you might call it and he speaks with authority.” Tony

Mark Greig is entitled to his opinion but he’s not the only professional writer and there are others who believe it is all down to hard work. I really wouldn’t want anyone to give up on their dream because they don’t seem to have the 'gift' when all they have do is learn their craft and work a little harder.

“Rubbish writing on TV and film -I would question why the writing opportunity was ever granted.” Tony

A lot depends on scripts being written to a high enough standard on time, once you can prove you can do that then you’re in. Of course how much time those writers have to pre-write, write and re-write is also a factor in how rubbish it will be. Russell T Davies is an A-list quality writer but he’s showrunning three shows at the same time, how likely is it that he has the time to still produce scripts of the usual level of quality?

Although, having said that Paul Abbott said the problem with the state of TV writing was lazy writers.

“I believe quality and talent do not equate to the same thing but that's your opinion and you, like me, can only speak from personal experience.” Tony

That's true. But all I'm saying is that talent is irrelevant, whether it's innate or not. The objective is producing a quality script that will get produced or get us work on an existing show.

Harry Potter can come along and wave his magic wand and say, “excellentia scribo” and a quality script will suddenly appear because Harry was born with the talent to do so.

To my considerable disappointment I'm not a wizard and so I have to get that quality script the hard way by learning my craft and working hard on the pre-writing, writing and re-writing.

If at the end of the day both Harry and myself have quality scripts that can get us work, I don't see why it matters which method is used. But I'm going to guess that using my method is much more common than using a 'gift'.

To quote Steven King: “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”


mark g said...

The necessity for craft skills and the brain-bleedingly hard work that goes into the endless cycle of drafting and rewriting - and it really is endless; it only stops when it has to because it's first day of shooting, and even then sometimes go on beyond that - is a given. Well of course you need to that. You need that to learn any job well, don't you?

What is depressing is seeing people with no real aptitude sweating bullets and committing huge amounts of time and energy on striving for a goal they will never reach. And there's plenty of them out there, enough to feed the plethora of screenwriting courses of all kinds that have recently blossomed in an effort to extract hard money from those very people.

On the one hand you don't want to tread on peoples's dreams, but if those dreams are doom them to a life of frustration and bitterness, would that be a bad thing?

See my post on 'http://pavementandstars.blogspot.com/2007/05/why-talent-is-irrelevant.html#links'** for more by no means prescriptive thoughts.

*can you hear the hollow laughter...?

**I'd make it

mark g said...

oops. Bollocksed the end of it by getting over-ambitious with links. That'll teach me.

I was trying to provide a neat shortcut to a comment on Piers Beckley's 'Why talent is irrelevant' entry.

mark g said...

Apologies for the senseless grammar of the first post in this embarrassing sequence - in my efforts to impress with dazzling hyperlink footwork, I seem to erased chunks of text. Never mind. I'm sure you get the gist.

Ctrl+X, Ctrl+V - are demons that can lead you astray.

Robin Kelly said...

Thanks for your comments Mark, I do get the gist and I can't really disagree.

I wouldn't want my Pollyanna attitude to encourage those with no real aptitude to waste their time or their money on courses. (Actually, I'm not too chuffed about those with an aptitude wasting their money on courses.)