Monday, October 17, 2005

First Draft Syndrome

There is a real feeling of emotional satisfaction and accomplishment whenever a first draft script is completed. Even if it’s bashed out over a few days, and there are those who can, the author can regard it with a sense of achievement and skill despite its rough edges. However, as the writer, we are too close to the material to make a sound and valid judgement on the material. It takes detached and objective assessment to indicate whether what we’ve done is any good or not, and if it’s ready to be sent out to prospective agents and/or producers.

Try as we might to muster up the kind of zen detachment to suitably appraise our work, we never quite master the confidence to say: “no, it’s not right, I need to work on it a bit more”. Instead, we turn to family and friends, and ask them to be honest and constructive. They’re usually positive and encouraging, and we accept this constructive criticism as validation that our first draft is a fairly good attempt at the story. We further delude ourselves with the thought that surely a development exec will see the potential with the script, and our writing, to want to take it further. We’ve read the books, attended the seminars, read a few scripts: we know our script is good for craft and has bags of potential with its story.

And lo, the rejections come hard and fast. Too many scripts get submitted to the spec pile in an undernourished first draft state. They all suffer from ‘first draft syndrome’ where, if it has come from an agent, they just want to peddle their client’s latest work and illustrate their ‘original and edgy’ voice (i.e erratic first draft). If it has come from a humble writer trying to break into the biz, they usually haven’t given enough thought about what their script is actually like, and have submitted it in the blind hope that it’s better than most. Last week, I read four scripts from one agency and they were all rough first drafts. Two were awful. The others showed signs of promise but nothing that would merit a proper consideration. If these two had gone to a couple more drafts, then they may have had a sale, or at the very least, a meeting with the execs to discuss their work and career.

Most gurus, books and seminars will tell you to make sure that your script is the best it can be before you send it out. This advice always seemed a bit vague and convenient to me. Of course, it’s a sound suggestion but what they leave out is that in screenwriting, a reader’s response to the material is as subjective and varied from one person to the next. There is absolutely no guarantee that you will get a meeting, an option or a prize for sending your script out ‘in the best possible condition’. The only person who can tell you that your script is ready to be assessed by the biz is yourself. It’s where you must bite the bullet and stand your ground: “this is a solid representation of me and my work.”

“This is a solid representation of me and my work” will be the best your script can be before you send it out. Everything else is down to reaction and objective opinion. Here’s the maddening thing though. A script will never be ready. A script will need work no matter how advanced it is in the development process. A tenth draft to the producer and writer (who are close to the material) may read like a flaky first draft to fresh eyes or a merciless reader.

I’ve written two scripts where I got so excited by their potential, I sent them immediately out to the industry. I deluded myself into thinking that my particular style of writing and ease of story would be enough to win execs over the length and breath of Soho. One was a genre piece, a horror, which I was full sure was my ticket to success. The other script was a low concept character drama which I wrote as a sample script to demonstrate that I could come up with an original story & characters, and develop them with care and craft to a satisfying and emotional resolution.

It was a “nice” first draft but nothing that a prospective producer would realistically want to take on board. And most of the execs who read it were people I knew through script reading so they were kind and encouraging in their rejection. However, it did win the BBC Tony Doyle Bursary for New Writing, and Irish actor Liam Cunningham (one of the jurors) loved it so much, he took it to Parallel Films where it is now in development. I’ve just finished a rewrite for them, a significant and substantial improvement on the first draft, if I say so myself, and I eagerly await their response.

The genre piece? Rejected everywhere. No-one went for it. I did get a meeting with Hammer Horror who were partially interested, whatever that means, and I had to repitch it to them with their story amendments but I never really understood what they were getting at, and it didn’t go any further. Looking back at it now, I can see that the script is in need of some character work and more original elements so it is something that I still believe has the potential to develop into a winner at the box office. But I went down with a bad case of first draft syndrome. Look out for the symptoms. Instead of getting carried away by the excitement of what you’ve done, try and be objective enough to get to the stage where you can confidently say: ““this is a solid representation of me and my work”.


Paul said...

He was discussing novels and short stories, but Steven King in "On Writing" suggested you lock your first draft away in a drawer for up to 3 months before looking at it again in order to "forget" it as far as possible.

Then he suggested having the 2nd draft written as collaboratively as possible (with those whose opinion you trust). "First draft study door closed, second draft study door open."

Do you recommend this sort of approach to scripts?

Danny Stack said...

If you're in the position to get feedback from those you trust, as opposed to family & friends, then go for it; all comments welcome. Family & friends may have useful things to say of course but you may be more inclined not to listen ("what do they know?").

It's a tough one. You've got to leave your ego & sensitivity at the door, especially when you get into rewriting with a producer/exec, and try to see what's best for the story & characters. Sometimes the comment that you think least useful is the one that's most important. Filter all the good/bad comments and see what nags at you in the end.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that our material has to be the 'best it can be' when I have read a lot of what I call Grabage scripts that actually became movies. Maybe I am being too overly critical of my own work, but that can only be a good thing right? Love the entry on this topic BTW. As a sidenote, I never let my first draft be read by anyone because usually I go in and start hacking out a lot of stuff. I made the mistake of sharing one I did a hatchet job on and to the person reading they swore it was an entirely new story, when to me it was the same

Danny Stack said...

Movie Q, I think you've hit on a topic worthy of a whole new post regarding who & where you are in the industry. It seems that until you become respectable, or of interest in some way, the industry can dole out the usual platitudes and rejections of your work but ironically will accept a substandard script from someone who's got a credit, or whatever.

Paul said...

The name sells I guess and it's about a saleable commodity ultimately.

I have great respect for writers who make a name and then go on to write something even better, even though they could have sold a weaker effort.

Anonymous said...

If you don't mind my asking, how have you supported yourself, since giving up the dayjob? Is there that much money in script reading and editing? I'd love to give my job up, but would find it a huge risk.

Danny Stack said...

For the first 4 years, I was reliant on script reading & anything else I could get (part-time teaching, lectures etc)but the last couple of years have seen my writing actually paying some bills, which has been great but it's still very much an on-going process...

Dr Ian Hocking said...

Good post. I have the same problem with my current novel. I've said, "Phew, it's finished" about ten times now, and each time I've gone back to it and changed it, and been slightly embarrassed about the version before.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget that the script is only one piece of the film. A hugely important piece for sure, but attaching talent, the right producer etc; are also vastly important. There's an old music biz addage: 'A great song doesn't always make a great record' The opposite is also true.
I think this applies to scripts and films. Execution at various points in the process (good and bad) can effect the outcome.