Why didn’t you tell me?

Finishing that first feature script is a great feeling. Finally, you’ve accomplished something; you’ve taken your first step on the road to becoming a professional writer. There’s just one problem:

It’s rubbish.

I mean that in the nicest way, of course. I know you tried your hardest, you’ve poured the entire sum of your talent and knowledge into this pile of paper before you; but, honestly, it is rubbish.

And why shouldn’t it be? This is your first attempt; it’s bound to have a few flaws. Okay, so maybe they are a few genii out there who can produce a masterpiece right out of the box; but for the rest of us average guys and gals, perfection is something we need to work on.

So, you’ve had some opinions on your script from other people. Hopefully not just from your friends and family, maybe from a professional script reader, maybe from other amateurs on sites like Trigger Street; whatever. The point is, people have told you it’s rubbish and you’re getting set to do the second draft.

And here it is, the best piece of advice for a first time writer.

Don’t bother.

Seriously, just don’t even try. You wrote that script last week/month, you’re no more experienced now than you were then; trying to re-write now is just turd polishing. I really wish someone had told me this before I spent the best part of a year fiddling (not even re-writing, I didn’t know how to do that then) with a crappy script.

Of course, this all depends on your long term objectives. If you want to be a professional writer, you’re going to need to write other scripts. Having one good one you’ve spent your entire life polishing will not make you a professional writer. It’ll make you a one trick pony.

If, on the other hand, all you want to do is tell that one story; by all means, polish away.

Me, I wanted a career (still do, really) so the best thing for me was to move onto the next script. Unfortunately, like I said, I kept whittling away at the first script for a year until I became so frustrated I felt like giving up.

The catalyst for me to move on was a producer friend who wanted to take a pile of scripts to Cannes. I volunteered to write five scripts for him. Rash words since Cannes was only five months away and the only script I had was truly, truly dreadful.

I did manage it, and although the next five weren’t much better, they were slightly better. I’d even go so far as to say the fifth one was reasonable.

From there I got involved with a host of other projects which kept me occupied for a couple of years. When I went back to the original script, my very first, I could now see how crap it was. More importantly, I could see how to fix it. I could happily dump over fifty percent of the characters and nearly all of the scenes. I could, and did, make it work.

From there I went back over the other five and applied my new knowledge to them. Nearly all of those scripts are now in production. I honestly believe I wouldn’t have got anywhere if I’d kept on fiddling with that first one. I may have got that one script into reasonable shape eventually, but what happens next?

There are other factors involved in this apart from your new found experience. It’s always easier to start something from scratch than it is to try and patch up the holes in an old plot. Also, coming back to something you wrote a year or so ago means you have distance, you’re not so personally involved and I find I can’t remember why I’d managed to convince myself the crap bits were necessary in the first place.

So there you have it, my favourite piece of advice for first time writers. The one piece of advice I wish I’d had at the beginning. The funny thing is, I’ve given this piece of advice to a lot of first time writers recently and they’ve all ignored it. Only one person seems to appreciate it, whether she follows it or not remains to be seen.

So, in a way, maybe it’s better I didn’t have this advice in the first place? Maybe I too would have believed so blindly in my talent I would have ignored all advice as unnecessary and something lesser writers have to do?

Maybe, who knows? I had to learn the hard way; at least you now have the choice.

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Categories: Industry Musings | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Why didn’t you tell me?

  1. I’ve heard tell that, on average, you need to write eight screenplays before you sell one.

    And I think a lot of that is just so that you can learn the form. What works and what doesn’t.

    And my experience has been that the more different work you do, the faster you learn. So you’ll be a better writer at the end of the day if you’ve worked on eight different screenplays rather than polishing one screenplay eight times.

  2. Makes sense to me, Piers; it’s certainly been true in my case.

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