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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Sideways Rewrite

I love my job. I love reading, I love writing, I love writers. There are upsides and downsides but mostly I can't believe I get paid to read stories all day. But there's one task I really hate and that's telling a writer, the second time I see their script, that their rewrite was no improvement. In fact, now the script just has a whole new set of similar problems. I call this the Sideways rewrite.

Here's what usually happens. The writer gets notes from me - and my notes are usually over-arching in nature - I don't micromanage and I don't try to take over your creative process. But for some writers, these over-arching notes are their darlings. They listen to me, they nod earnestly and I think they may even take notes. But they don't want to really take a hard look at the main character's passive flaw. Or the crux of the conflict in the premise. No - they want to write the same script they just wrote. So they do. They simply rewrite it and come up with a whole new set of problems because they didn't address the larger issues.

How can you make sure, as you approach a rewrite, that you are really going to be effective? You don't want to do as above and rearrange the script so that you have the same script with new problems, nor do you want to absolutely eviscerate the script so that you have the same problems with a different story or worse - wind up with Frankenscript; born of desperation, stitched together clumsily and chased out of town by torch-bearing villagers.

When you get notes, write them down and group them by element. Then make a rewrite plan. And each time you open your script to work on it, work only on that particular element. Keep focused, in other words, on the element at hand: main character, ticking clock, structure, dialogue - whatever it happens to be. Do not wander off into making a scene funnier or scarier - stay on task.

I know the temptation to make changes but not improvements. My writing partner and I recently got a note on our latest psychological thriller that irritated and confounded us. So we had a meeting to talk it through. We each came up with some excellent, scary moments that would be just GREAT for the first act. But we stopped and realized that was not the problem. Our note was not add more scary moments. It was activate the story earlier. Big difference. But we love writing scary moments - we have more ways to kill a character than you'd ever want to know. But the meat-and-potatoes of the note was actually structural in nature. We had to stop funning around with scary moments and do the harder work of reviewing the structure and making creative choices that were not so easy to toss out on the spur of the moment.

How do you know you're doing a Sideways rewrite? Well - you'll feel vaguely as if you're going around in circles. You'll make a change on page 12, then go to page 37, then page 101 and back again. You'll tweak, in other words. And there will be a slight feeling of defiance within you as you rewrite. Defiance mixed with dread. You know in your gut the script is not really improving.

The most heartbreaking thing I have to tell a writer is that he or she just wasted an entire rewrite and two to three months of their time because they did a Sideways rewrite. It happens to the best of us - I've been guilty of it myself. But as with so many things, awareness is the first step to breaking the pattern. If your rewrite feels too easy - it probably is. Slow down, make a rewrite plan and stay focused. Have specific rewrite goals in mind. Articulate them. And make sure you don't wind up with another version of what wasn't working the first time.

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shecanfilmit said...

"How do you know you're doing a Sideways rewrite?"

You should add: the script gets worse.

I hate to admit this, but the only type of rewriting I've done is the Sideways type. If I could just master the art of rewriting, I'd be on my way...

Julie Gray said...

They say that writing IS rewriting meaning that it's not just that first gush of ideas and characters onto the page, it's shaping and controlling those ideas into something recognizable and effective. Interestingly, and I don't note this as a plug but as the absolute truth, what cured me of Sideways rewriting was The Writer's Boot Camp. They really stress maintaining an organized approach and by the time I graduated, I understood the importance of that.

shecanfilmit said...

Ironically, I'm trying to finish a workable rewrite of my latest rom com to submit to the Expo contest with the hope of winning the Boot Camp prize. I'm also not allowing myself to write new stuff for the rest of the year - my goal is to rewrite the 4 (of 8) scripts that I think are worth a good rewrite. I have a print out of your rewrite post, but have not attempted to apply it yet.

I know learning how to effectively rewrite is the key to success.