05 Apr 2018
dave's picture

Writing is re-writing, according to Ernest Hemingway, or Dorothy Parker, depending on which internet search engine you’re looking at. They probably both said it, and maybe Shakespeare said it before them, although he may well have nicked it from Aristophanes. ‘There is nothing new under the sun’, according to… oh I don’t know, google it, probably Plutarch or Donald Trump.
It’s another of those phrases that we say over and over, because there is a truth hidden within, without always understanding what it means. And I must admit, I don’t always understand myself.
We all accept that the first draft of any script is the start and not the end, and we acknowledge there is bound to be more work to be done on this at a later stage. Yet in the moment of its completion, providing this isn’t something that’s literally taken out of our hands the minute it’s finished and sent off to an actor or producer, we step back, look on the finished work with pride and say to ourselves ‘I really can’t make this any better than it is now.’
I think rewriting is the hardest part of writing, and most of us aren’t good enough at it. If we were, the mediocre shows we see a lot of on TV would be much better. In the perfect world, our first draft is brilliant and the second draft takes the script beyond the usual level, so much so that producers, directors and performers can’t wait to get their hands on it and make the bloody thing.
The best most of us can hope for is that the first draft will be the solid foundation on which our palace will be built.
I read a lot of scripts, make suggestions for changes, and would say in nine cases out of ten (at least), the rewrite is not quite as good as the original. Now you, the writer, may say to me with some justification: “But I read your notes! I did exactly what you asked me to do. Well, not everything, but most of it. You’re the experienced one here, you’re the one being paid to tell me how to make my script better. And now it’s worse!”
Which is why I always add these caveats. The key word there is ‘suggestions’. I am not forcing you to make that change. Mine is one opinion, I say. Someone else might suggest different changes, someone else may love a part that I hated. I can’t guarantee that my improvements will fix your script, all I’m doing is coming up with ideas to fix what seems wrong to me, and hoping they will take you in the direction your writing needs for the script to improve.
I understand these all sound like platitudes, and honestly, there is never a definitive answer. But there are certain issues that come up repeatedly with new scripts, and if we can at least identify them beforehand it may help us approach those rewrites with a little less fear.
ALL writing is rewriting
It struck me in the process of writing this piece, that as soon as an idea pops into your head, the first words you sit down to type are a rewrite of the jumbled thoughts that assembled for that magical moment in your brain which made you go ‘yes!’
In other words, rewriting begins as soon as writing. Knowing that, helps re-frame writing not as a straightforward journey from idea to execution, but a great messy jumble of ideas, sweat, inspiration, light bulb moments, heartbreak, terror, agony and occasionally, triumph.
Once we accept that at any point along the way, it’s possible for your big idea to be re-formulated and improved, it acknowledges what an important part chaos can play in the creation of our greatest works. Certainly before the real costs have been committed to, actors and directors hired, crew, equipment and locations booked, the fact that you can change anything can be seen as an advantage.
Be decisive
I really impressed myself with that above thought, so much so that I tried to make it the central part of this piece. Instead it remains buried halfway through. I went quite far in my attempt to turn it into the big opening gambit of this blog, but after a few minutes figured it would make more sense to leave it where it is, crack on and write the rest of the piece. I may have made the wrong decision, but at least I tested the idea hard before making it.
Prepare beforehand
This really can’t be stated often enough – you need to know your characters extremely well before you can start writing scripts with them. By which I don’t mean you know what she eats for breakfast or you know his views on creationism, but you understand the flaw in each character that makes them act in a way that will make your audience laugh.
Frequently, problems arise in the first draft of your script because you came across a problem when you were writing, decided you had run out of time to work on it, and promised yourself that you would come back to it later. Only you didn’t.
And there are other times when you know, deep down, that something’s not quite right. You spent some time looking at the problem, but however hard you tried you were still unable to fix it. So you did the equivalent of place a piece of sticking plaster over it, hoping no one would notice. I know this problem with my own scripts, and it’s invariably the first problem the script reader picks out. I can’t promise there won’t be painful changes along the way, but the more effort you put in before you write a word of the script, the more rewriting you end up doing on your terms.
Rewriting doesn’t always make it better
My great get-out clause. Sadly, though, it’s true. Most scripts are never quite as good as we want them to be. Or maybe we’re not yet good enough writers to get this particular script working. Maybe it’s a turd, and for all the polishing we achieve it remains stubbornly turd-like.
I always look for reasons why I don’t think something you’ve written is working but realistically, I’ve usually made up my mind about a script after reading ten pages. By then, I will have instinctively decided whether or not I like it. Because I’m being asked to do a professional job, I will examine what I think are the problems, and come up with suggestions for ways to fix them, but I am already fighting my own prejudices against this script and in my heart I think it should be abandoned.
I may be wrong, and you may turn it around into something special, but history, experience and probability are all on my side. Then again I had Ed Miliband, Remain, Hillary Clinton and Theresa May down as the sure-fire winners, so what do I know?
Never Say Never
A few minutes ago I was listening to a show on the radio about how there’s not enough decent teenage fiction for boys. I thought about my 2012 idea for a novel (failed), that I tried to turn into a sitcom (2014, failed), that I ended up turning into a one-man show (2016, good but seen by hardly anyone) and thought – you know what Dave, the part of the idea that you wanted to turn into a sitcom about teenage boys was great. I may revisit that when I get a moment.
Especially as the rewrite of the rewrite of the rewrite that I rewrote as two half-hour radio episodes just got turned down by Radio 4. Back to the drawing board.
(Note to self: find something better than that awful cliché sentence about the drawing board to end this piece.)

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