You will hear again and again that it’s not about the writing — it’s about the re-writing. And that is an endless process. It is never done. Ever. Because, even after you have received the feedback and returned the revision, you will still want to add to it, tweak it, make one more change. Or another person will come on board and will want changes. Or something will happen in the real world that requires a change in your fabricated realm. And so on. That is the nature of the beast known as the screenplay. And, as screenwriters, we have no choice but to embrace that…or hang up abruptly on this particular calling.
I’m a little strange in that I actually like getting notes. I like the long meetings of nit-picking scenes and structure, character quirks and dialogue. I like rearranging pieces of the puzzle and debating the logic of the universe created in that story. I like watching people vehemently argue over an imaginary world I created, defending their favorite bits with passion. It is, in a word, awesome.
However, there is an art to giving good notes. And I don’t mean that in a feather-soothing, ego-fluffing kind of way. If one is going to be a writer of any sort, a thick skin is a requirement…or you should invest in a season pass to the booby hatch. The criticism isn’t personal, even if it sounds like it is. And, after enough drafts, notes and discussions, you should be pretty much over it. Which is kind of a good place to be, because you will no longer be putting forth energy to save a scene or quirk you’ve fallen in love with. You’ll just want to move the story, and progress of the project, forward.
The problem with not-so-great notes-giving is that one note will complete contradict another. The How and Who and Where and When and Why in one scene affects every scene before and after it. Screenwriting is like knitting in that way. If you want to fix something in the middle, you typically have to unravel the beginning or end to do it. But some see it as quilting: Take out one swatch of cloth and replace it with another. A good story doesn’t work that way, though. And that’s not always easy to explain. No, I take that back. It is easy to explain, it’s just that sometimes other people don’t see it that way. Which is okay. Some people still think this whole internet thing will eventually pass. What can you do? Notes — good, bad or indifferent — are at the heart of screenwriting and, eventually, filmmaking. Which is why I have such affection for them.
Truth be told, I still like the feel of pen to paper, ink on pulp. My first screenplay was written longhand on legal pads during breaks on a low-budget film. It was part of my graduation project at CalArts. At night and Sundays (the one day off from the movie), I would type out the scenes, action and dialogue. I will admit, I sort of liked that process. I realized it wasn’t exactly efficient, but it was somewhat romantic. And I sort of miss that.
To keep some of that romance alive, when I come upon an idea for a screenplay that I have to write, I take a steno pad (made from recycled paper, of course) down from the shelf. On the cover of the pad, in black Sharpie, I write the title of the screenplay and the day’s date. I use this notebook to jot down ideas about the characters and plot points, sometimes scenes and action and dialogue when I’m out and about — and, later, notes from meetings. Needless to say, I have assembled quite a collection. I like having one place to keep all of my random thoughts that may or may not work for the script, the suggestions of others involved in the project, and the ability to go through it and see the history and evolution of the work. These notebooks help me to sustain more than one project in my mind, each getting the attention they need without taking away the time from the one that must get done.
I’m about to pull one down from the shelf and reach for a Sharpie. This one will be for my first television series. I’m kind of excited about it. But, there are still people to kill in the thriller that we are nearly done with. With a desired start date fast approaching, that script will be the priority. And my series’ notebook will be close at hand for when the Muse speaks for it.