Writer’s Blogck 2: Let It Out

September 13, 2007

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.

Hey Ric,
Glad you liked the Rule. The only rule for you using it is a. that you follow it, and b. you mention where you got it from.
Hi Tom,
I (like everyone else here) loved your Rule on criticism.
I thought your words just said it all. I loved it so much so that I have quoted it online in my profile somewhere. I hope you don’t mind?
Much thanks!
“Still lonely and catching up on your blog”
Dear Harald,
Thanks for this information. When you say “no ads” do you mean literally no ads anywhere? If so then all I can say is WHAT THE FUCK!!! They must have gotten their instruction manual from Gestation.
dear tom,
totally agree with your edit of my last reply (concerning the revealing of the end).
so far the movie is out in zurich and did in english (most films over here are dubbed)650 viewers in the 1. week. no ads of course. i hope hbo and dvds will make the well deserved beef.
best wishes
Hola Victor M!
Thank you for your comment. I appreciate very much your very good efforts at asking your question in English. I hope you don’t mind if I repeat your comment here with a few minor corrections so people will know more clearly what you are referring to:
“I remember when you came to the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain where Delirious won The Silver Shell for Best Director and the prize for Best Screenplay. I want to speak about a great phrase that that appears in Delirious: “A friend is just someone sitting around waiting for the chance to start talking about himself.” Steve Buscemi’s character says this in the movie and I think that he has good reason to. What do you think?”
I really like this question, Victor. In the movie Buscemi’s character, Les Galantine, is what you might call a “small” man. He is kind of a nobody but he has huge dreams. I felt it would be good for his character to be constantly giving his Philosophy on Life to people. But the fact is he has NO friends and the only person who he can give his philosophy to is Toby, his captive audience. Also, while Les’ philosophies are a little stupid sometimes I wanted them to have an element of truth in them. Particularly this one about friends.
I certainly have felt that way about some people. They don’t listen. While you are telling them something deeply meaningful and personal they just wait until you stop for one second and then instantly start talking about their own problems without even responding to you. I like that Les says this to Toby though because at this moment in the film Toby is trying to tell Les something personal about himself. And our great philosopher Les just stampedes over him without even listening.
The point in writing it this way was to add a level of complexity and humor to Les’ character.
I hope this answers your question. And once again I sincerely thank you for writing.
Hasta la vista,
Hey Rick,
Thanks for writing. Yes, people’s reactions to your scripts can be very complicated. Ulterior motives abound. I’m glad you were able to see the difference. I do have sympathy for actors though, who come to do a staged reading for you. Their desperation to find some way, any way, in is understandable in this biz. I try to reward them in someway, by either giving them a small part or $3.25 for a cup of coffee.
But again, you are right in emphasizing the need to be able to glean for yourself what is objective criticism and what is not.
Great site you’ve got going at Filmlinker. And good luck with your project.
How are you Tom? I’m Victor and I am from Spain(Excuse me if I don’t speak well English because I’m learning the laguage). Still I have a good recollection of your step along the festival of San Sebastian’s cinema where certainly I remember that you obtained the shell to the best director and the prize to the best script. I want to speak about a great phrase that I believe that appears in Delirious and more or less says this way: “A friend is someone who marauds waiting for the opportunity to speak about himself” I think that Steve Buscemi said this in the movie and I think that he has reason great, or at least I think it, does not it seem to you?
Many regards, Víctor.M
Great advice Tom. I’ve learned “Rule # 7” with the project that I am currently developing. My producing partner and I set up a table read with some trusted friends and received some good feedback (positive and negative) on our script and applied it to our next draft. We then decided we needed to hear the characters voiced by professional actors to get a better feel of the dialogue and get an actor’s perspective on the characters. We set up another read with some talented but unknown NYC actors. As you know, living in New York gives us access to a pool of talent not readily available in most cities (who will also work for free/food). They’re all also looking for their next gig. It was great to hear the dialogue out loud, but the feedback was disingenuous. They all said the script was great and that they would love to be cast for the parts they read.
Hello Harald,
Thanks so much for your very kind words. I’m glad you got a chance to see the film and I’m extremely flattered that you enjoyed it.
Once again it is only thanks to adventurous and courageous filmmgoers like yourself that I am even aware Delirious is playing in Switzerland. If you hadn’t told me I wouldn’t have known.
Thanks again “Gestation.”
I would be more than happy to discuss the ending with you in a month or so. We have to be a bit careful (I learned by accident) because there may be a few people who have not seen the film yet and we don’t want to spoil the ending for them.
Again, my sincere thanks for going to see the film. Let me know how it does there.
Dear tom,
saw your film last week in zurich, switzerland, after a positive review in a local newspaper. i was stunned how brilliant this film was written, performed, directed. really one of the best films of the year – at least. . soon afterwards i saw “knocked up” and was really disappointed, way beyond your masterpiece.
i just want to thank you for wonderful 100 minutes.
Hey Sarah,
That is a good question and I will use it to shape the next post.
Hmm, as far as your 2nd draft post goes… I think it would be cool to read how much you ended up changing. Like is your first draft typically messy and rough, so that you end up editing a lot in the 2nd draft? Or is the first draft pretty damn good so that you only end up polishing and changing little things?
Hey Chris W,
I was just funnin’ with ya. I’m enjoying writing the blogs and I’ll have some more time now that Delirious is officially leaving NYC this week. It played for a month. Hard to comprehend. Also hard to comprehend life without Delirious. It has so consumed me for 6 years.
Oh, Jessica. Poor Britney. I used to laugh at her and her ilk. Now, for some reason I find myself feeling real pity for her. What a stupid place the world is in. If anybody should be trashed and ridiculed and laughed at it the entire Bush Administration.
Hello Sarah,
I’m glad you liked the post. Your comment is very helpful to me. Let’s see if I can even remember now what I did after my 1st draft. Hopefully it will be something that interests you.
But, someone really should do a psychiatric study of human behavior and criticism. I for one would be truly interested in learning where the instinctive joy of trashing comes from.
My best to you,
I really like this post. When I took a creative writing class, we had write out criticism for each classmate’s story. Our teacher made a rule we had to list at least two things they did well, and then give them at least two suggestions. I think because of that we all usually ended up with some pretty well rounded reviews on our work. It was a lot more challenging though, and like you said, you had to engage yourself into the draft a lot more than you would have if you were just pointing out negative things. I’m looking forward to more of this. It really is insightful and interesting.
Chris W
No, no–no pressure about the months, I was just referring to your reply to Upper in which you said “I realize I could go on for months,” (which I should have said, doh). It’s fun to read about the creative process and all its ups and downs however long you keep it up.
Britney’s underwear, or lack thereof. Chrissie said (sang?) it best, “they just don’t make ’em like they used to.”
Hey Jessica. Glad. You. Think. Me. Not. Robot.
If I can keep my sense o’humor I’ll keep on writing.
I agree Chrissie has mucho talent. She’s a strong, talented, intelligent female performer in a world that is 100% focused on Britney Spears’ underwear.
I saw her play last month and needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed. Talented as all hell, that woman.
And now that I’ve had the time to read these fully, I can actually make a comment. I have the attention span of a goldfish on most days, but these were both really interesting to read and if you really are going to be writing more like this, I’ll be sure to keep reading. I like the “According to Tom” look into this sort of thing, because you don’t come off sounding like a robot, like a lot of “how to” writers generally tend to do.
Thanks Chris,
Months?! What have I got myself into?!
I do enjoy it though. It will be interesting to see how long I can keep focused on it as other things come up.
I suppose there will come a time when I have to let the movie go…
As far as the Rule goes, don’t get me wrong–there are times when you read something for someone, or see their film and your only truthful response is, “What a piece of crap.” I’ve had it happen many times. Then you’re faced with the excruciating dilemma of either telling the truth or lying your ass off.
Good to hear from you.
Chris W
Your golden rule of criticism echoes what I was told by the 7th grade English teacher with whom I did student teaching. When grading papers, she said, I should always make at least one positive comment, even if it was only that the spelling was good…heh, sometimes that’s all there was. It’s a good rule for life, too.
Another great post. If you really are going to go on for months you should totally package it as a book–most of the writing will already be done. Real experience is so much more helpful to struggling writers than “How To Write A Damn Good Novel” and all the other Writer’s Digest books I have cleared off my shelves and donated to the library.
Hey Jessica,
I met Chrissie once in London. All I can say is I was very impressed.
I’ll be back to read this all the way through later on when I’m not being rushed out the door, but I wanted to comment and say you rock for the Chrissie Hynde mention. I’m so lame, but whatever, I love that woman like no other and her name caught my eye. Anyway, yeah, I’ll be back to read this and the one before it in a little bit; I’m looking forward to reading them both. 🙂
Hey Upper,
It works, my brotha–it works. Good to hear from you again. I know a lot of people appreciated Olive’s suggestion about the Buscemi screensaver.
There is something immensely cathartic about writing this stuff down, especially at this frustrating time. I realize I could go on for months. It helps me too. I’m going to try now and get into more of the details how some big changes happened to the script.
My best to you both.
Great stuff, Tom. It’s a gift, you’re taking the time to do this. I practice most of these rules, but DiCillo’s Rule of Criticism: “Put as much energy into describing the things you like…etc.” Well, that was a new one and I’m incorporating into my process immediately.
Keep up the good work. My wife Olive and I are big fans.

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