Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, instructor, and professional script coverage consultant whose publishing credits include 21 books, 112 plays and musicals, 3 optioned films, and columns that appear throughout the world. Her latest book, COULD IT BE A MOVIE, will be available in bookstores in January 2005. For more information, visit her website.
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This month: THE REALITIES OF REVISIONFour years ago, I a friend of mine started writing her first novel. She’s still writing it. She also has yet to complete the first chapter. It’s not that she’s lacking in inspiration or free time, however. It’s that she’s spending all of her energy on rewrites that no one has even requested.
Obviously she’s not alone in the mindset that every word and thought has to be perfect before it can be sent out. While it goes without saying that presentation, spelling and punctuation should always adhere to that rule, writers do themselves a huge disservice by trying to second-guess what someone else is going to want changed. Time and again, I’ve labored over eloquent narratives, only to have an editor “X”-out the entire passage. On the flip side, I’ve penned throwaway lines just to put down something and received back-slapping “Bravo’s.” Go figure.
Bottom line: Always write your first draft from the heart and show it to someone whose opinion counts before you even start the deconstruction process.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT NEEDS ‘FIXING’?
The year after I graduated from high school, my very first play — a western melodrama entitled WEST — was produced. I share the following anecdote as a dose of reality for starry-eyed screenwriters who believe that everything they have put into their script will translate, line for line, to the finished product. It doesn’t.
My initial euphoria as the lights went down in the theater quickly segued to one big “Arghgh” as the curtains parted and the first two actors walked out on stage. “How could they have gotten the town setting so blatantly wrong?” I thought. “And who are these two actors supposed to be playing?” Certainly they couldn’t be the sheriff and his long-suffering deputy, two personas who were so meticulously described in the cast list.
The moment they opened their mouths, even further discrepancies revealed themselves. A part of me wanted to jump out my seat and start explaining to the audience that this wasn’t the way I had written it at all. Another part of me wanted to just slump further into the cushions and pray that no one dared introduce me as the author at the end of it.
During intermission, I sought out the director and, in as calm a voice as I could muster, remarked that the play looked a smidge different from what I remembered writing.
“Oh that,” she nonchalantly replied. “I always wanted to try my hand at fixing a script. I didn’t think you’d mind…”
Such is the fate awaiting you once you’ve typed THE END and sent your creation out into the world to be discovered. On the one hand, you can’t wait for someone to fall in love with it and want to publish it. On the other hand, a part of you is dreading how much they’re going to screw it up and turn it into something you no longer even recognize.
In the case of book manuscripts, editors prefer that the writers make the revisions themselves based on margin notes and discussion. Not only does this allow the doctored text to remain in the same voice as the rest of the story but frees the editors up to go read more submissions. Screenplays operate differently. Depending on the terms of your option agreement with a producer, you may or may not be brought in to do the rewrites for it. While extra work usually doesn’t equate to any extra money — especially with smaller studios — nor does it mean that any money or recognition will be taken away from you if a second or third screenwriter takes the helm. Whatever happens from this point forward has still flowed forth from your original concept, a condition which, accordingly, will still be acknowledged when they roll the credits.
Obviously if the rewrite responsibilities are taken out of your control, there’s really nothing you can do about it. Instead of venting or vexing, take that energy and go apply it to your next script. Easier said than done, yes. Having brought this baby into the world, you might like nothing better than to hold its hand for as long as possible. Suffice it to say, however, this insular approach cuts off the chance of it being groomed by others who are perhaps more worldly and better traveled in this journey than you are.
On the flip-side, you may be asked to participate, incorporating those changes that the power-brokers think would make for a better story. How you respond to that invitation (or directive, as it were) depends on the following perceptions of what the rewrite process means to you on a personal level.
GROUSING ALL THE WAY
We all have a possessive streak when it comes to our own work. Woe to the critic who dares to suggest we’ve got a comma out of place or that we used an incorrect word. Or what of the reader who shows undisguised ignorance of Marjorie’s motivation to get back together with Chad or completely overlooks what you thought was a darned clever allegory to the curse of Jonah?
Good grief! Are these people stupid or what?
While you can certainly content yourself with the secret opinion that, yes, they do have the functional IQ of paste, it wouldn’t do to voice that out loud to those who hold the key to your cinematic future. Nor would it behoove you to say “yes” if it’s with the intention of protesting throughout the entire exercise.
A hard lesson for writers of any medium to accept is that editors, agents and producers really aren’t out to make you look like a rube. They want the project to be just as successful as you want it to be. As such, the changes they recommend are to maximize the story’s good points, minimize or eliminate its flaws, and to flesh out those areas that aren’t as well developed as they should be.
CHOOSING YOUR BATTLES
Provided you don’t turn obsessive about it, you can sometimes negotiate compromise on a revision. If there is something that you really feel needs to stay in for the sake of integrity, you can certainly broach the subject with the powers that be. That said, of course, you need to be amenable when he/she comes back and says “no” on something else. If you are going to go to battle for a particular issue, make sure that you can back it up with a more substantive argument than “just because.”
In my Scottish time travel, THE SPELLBOX, there is a magnificent deerhound named Citi. One of my trademarks, in fact, is to always write dogs into my various plots and assign them names of actual dogs I have known and loved. Furthermore, nothing terrible ever happens to any of the beasts in my books or scripts, a welcome change, I think, from authors who introduce gratuitous violence against animals, children and women just to get a rise out of the audience.
When I went into negotiations with the film’s producers, I made I clear that not only was the dog to be spared any harm during potential rewrites but that they couldn’t change her name, either. To my delight, I learned that both partners were dog lovers just like myself. “In other words,” they said, “all the humans in this are expendable, but the dog —“
“Right,” I replied. “The dog stays in the picture.”
I like to think that, somewhere over the Rainbow Bridge, the real Citi is wagging her tail at having her own clause in a film contract.
SOMETHING TO BE LEARNED
When someone asks you to do rewrites, think of it as a living classroom in which to hone your craft. It’s also a stellar chance to demonstrate how cooperative and flexible you are, a bonus when it comes to future submissions and/or assignments on collaborative projects with other professionals.
Between the structured direction (i.e., “Shorten Lucy’s speech at the top of page 19”) and the collective brainstorming (i.e., “Here are some ideas we’ve been tossing around for the kidnapping chapter”), you’ll be picking up invaluable tips on how to look at your story through a different set of eyes.
And remember this: whatever characters, lines, jokes, or nuances end up on the cutting room floor can always be swept up and resurrected to fit your next manuscript.
THE CARE AND FEEDING OF CRITIQUE GROUPS
Are there fellow writers in your community who get together on a regular basis to share their work? If there is, find out how to join it. If there isn’t, there’s no reason you couldn’t start one yourself. Getting together with like-minded individuals not only keeps you encouraged and on track with deadlines but provides a built-in “cast” to read each other’s scenes or chapters and offer comment.
Depending on the work habits and availability of your peers, your meetings will probably be scheduled once a month or once every two months. It’s also important that you keep the size of your critique group fairly small so as to allow equal participation in readings and discussions. When I mentored a women’s writing group in Northern California, the membership was limited to six, rotating at each writer’s house for either a potluck, a weekend breakfast, or an evening of wine and cheese while we read each other’s new works.
The only cautionary note you may want to take heed of is not to let everyone else in the group rewrite your material to the point you no longer recognize it. Because they are writers themselves, there will be a natural tendency for them — and you — to want to rip out the seams, break out the dye, shorten the hem, embroider the sleeves, add a ruffle, and replace all the buttons on a creation that the author believed looked pretty nice to begin with. Accept any criticism with a grain of salt, incorporating those that you feel comfortable with and ignoring those that aren’t a good fit.
Most of all, be supportive of each other…and have fun!
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Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author and professional script coverage consultant whose credits include 21 books, 112 plays and musicals, 3 optioned films and columns that appear throughout the world.