Alright. So now you’ve got your 1st Draft. Give yourself some credit. In fact, give yourself a lot of credit. I may have been exaggerating about the 42 million other screenwriters out there but I’ll tell you this much, at least 41 million have never finished a script and never will. Take yourself out to dinner. And if you’re feeling really good about yourself get someone else to pay for it.
Now, print the script out. Get it in your hands. Sit down with a pencil and simply proofread it. Most people reading a script will already make a decision about one infested with typos. They’ll say, “If this writer didn’t care enough to clean up their script then why should I care enough to read it?” And you’ve lost them.
While you’re checking for typos if something stands out that can be changed simply and easily, do it. Then print the draft out again and make copies of it. Join the pages together. Never give a wad of loose pages to somebody. It’s a pain in the ass for the reader and it makes you and the script look unfocused.
Now you’re ready for that delightfully horrific experience of having people read what you wrote.
RULE # 7: Choose your first readers carefully.
Chrissie Hynde said it first; “It’s a thin line between love and hate.” Actually, Somerset Maugham said it first in his 1941 novel The Razor’s Edge (thanks to Roy Bodner for this correction). Chrissie may be the better singer though.
This is why I tend to avoid family members when sending out my 1st Drafts. Maybe you have a wonderful, sharing relationship with your brother, sister, father or mother. Me, I don’t trust it. I find it much more beneficial to solicit feedback from people who have nothing at stake with me and aren’t still blaming me for setting fire to the living room couch.
Here’s why; the first impressions and reactions you get to your newborn and fragile creation carry tremendous power. If they’re coming from people who are jealous, resentful or in some tangled knot of competition with you they can be very destructive. Sometimes these people are knowingly destructive; sometimes they do it unconsciously. Either way, their interest is not in helping you.
Be self-assertive in seeking the best advisors. Give the script to people who really know you; who really value you. This is important. So much of what we allow ourselves to experience is based on guilt, obligation and fear of rejection. So frequently we keep returning to the same dried up well with some people, hoping against hope that maybe this time we’ll get that one little drop of water that will finally quench our thirst.
Well, fuck it. Go where the lights are green. I gave the 1st draft of Delirious to Steve Buscemi, my wife Jane, Marshall Brickman (screenwriter Annie Hall, Manhattan), Michael Caton-Jones (director This Boy’s Life, Rob Roy, Scandal), my producer and my manager. Some of them knew me well; some of them were only acquaintances. But I knew they would only be coming from one place–what they truly felt about the script.
Getting this objectivity from people is crucial because listening to criticism requires laying yourself open to new thoughts and ideas. Despite your initial expectation that the 1st Draft will be utterly perfect you’ll quickly see what it is–a 1st Draft. As such it needs, and is expected to get, an infusion of new ideas to move it further into clarity. If you feel people’s suggestions, for whatever reason, are accompanied by a desire to hurt you or see you fail then you can never fully be open to them. You will always be protective and wary.
Not good–for you or the script.
Even in the best circumstances your response to the initial wave of criticism requires an almost impossible balancing act. You need to be open. But you also need to be alert. You need to know very, very clearly what YOU think about what you’ve written. You need to know very clearly what you’re trying to do. Because sometimes, while you’re being open, someone will drive an opinion right into your face. They might even get angry with you for not agreeing with them. If you’re unsure about what you’re doing you might even be tempted to accept this person’s opinion simply because they’re so emphatic about it.
Don’t. Accept it only if you feel that it is true. So what’s the difference between being alert and simply being defensive? It all comes down to how you hear what is being said to you.
RULE # 8: The Golden Rule of Criticism.
People take an perverse delight in tearing things to pieces. We all know how good it feels to say, “What a fuckin’ piece of shit!” We know how easy and pleasurable it is to sneer, “I didn’t like it. This was stupid. That didn’t work. What the fuck were you thinking? Why don’t you get a real job?”
Most people think this is how you criticize. Rarely do we take the same pleasure in saying what we do like. Try it; you’ll see how hard it is. Here’s something harder; try talking about the things you like FIRST. It’s crazy how we just want to rush in and stomp on the things that we feel were less than successful. But just imagine if someone gave you criticism that paid equal attention to what worked as to what didn’t. Wouldn’t that make you listen a little more closely? Wouldn’t it make you a little more open? Wouldn’t it give you a little more respect for the words being spoken?
My Rule of Criticism is this: Put as much thought and energy into describing the things you like as you do the things you don’t like.
This method is infinitely more effective. It requires real engagement from the critic; they can’t just stand half in the doorway and flick razor blades at you. This is the best kind of criticism you can get. Once you understand this you can start giving it yourself. And if you come across someone who doesn’t understand this you can calmly explain it to them. See that? You can use this Rule even in the way you criticize someone’s ability to criticize. And if they still act like jerks then go ahead and slap the shit out of them.
I’m not talking about feeding someone dainty bowls of phony sugarsap just so they won’t get their feelings hurt. I’m talking about identifying what works and appreciating it. That’s all.
Use this rule. Teach and encourage others to use it. It works; I’ve seen it a million times. It is a way of working. It is a way of life. Why am I wasting so much time on this? Because:
RULE # 9: Your growth as a writer mirrors your growth as a human being.
This may seem like, surreally true to you. Or it may seem like ethereal cereal to you. But I know this; Life throws everybody curveballs.
I don’t care if your parents were June and Ward Cleaver, every one of us has dense, deep knots of fear, anger, resentment and disappointment inside that clog us up and affect everything we do. Those knots need to be looked at and carefully untangled.
RULE # 10: Your neuroses don’t make you interesting.
They make you boring. The clearer you are; the more unfettered, then the freer you will be. You want nothing holding you back.
I actually had someone come up to me once and ask, “A lot of my favorite writers were junkies or alcoholics. I’m thinking I should start shooting up because maybe it’ll like make me a better writer. What do you recommend?”
What do I recommend? I recommend you start a dog walking service, fuckwad.
If your overwhelming need is to be liked you will face great difficulties as a writer. If your writing is driven ONLY by your anger or your desire to prove something to someone–a parent, a brother, a sister, an ex-lover–you will face great difficulties. In either case you won’t be able to listen to yourself or to other people. Your work will remain one-dimensional. The greatest art springs from the joy of creation. I’m not saying it is all pink snowflakes and golden dewdrops. Pain and sorrow are crucial inspirations. Look at Van Gogh. But it is the level you allow yourself to feel these things, coupled with your genuine joy of creating that will lead you to the richest expression. This, and this alone, will make you interesting.
I was incredibly fortunate with my first group of readers. I didn’t take all their ideas but everyone gave me something I could use. Jane’s suggestions were in amazingly clear broad strokes. Marshall Brickman gave me some great details about sharpening Toby’s character and making him more active. Michael Caton-Jones turned me on to the idea of finding places to abruptly change the film’s style and rhythm.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog Buscemi did not respond right away. Despite my confidence in the script this greatly alarmed me. I’d written it for him. I thought he’d go crazy for it. After several weeks I called him and indeed he was not entirely taken in by the script. In my effort to make Les as realistic as possible I’d left out some of his humanity.
This was a great note from Steve. While he didn’t agree to play the part, he didn’t pull out either. In fact, his note showed me his toe was still in the water. And better, it inspired me to plunge back into the screenplay, eager to plant this seed.
Next: the 2nd Draft and beyond.