So my latest stageplay, my first musical in the works, is completed in its first draft. A lot of aspiring writers I’ve either counseled from writing groups or with whom I’ve taken classes have struggled with the next steps after their initial story gets down on paper.
I’ve had the same struggle several times in my years of play craft and I’ve narrowed down the main cause of this demon. I’ve always wrote. Even before I was a preteen I’ve attempted to put down stories for stage or screen. But it wasn’t until I wrote a short script called The Running, which I later produced on consumer quality VHS video, that I ever wrote something I felt strongly people would enjoy.
After a while, a few scripts later, I thought hard about what made the difference between my crap stinkers and the point I started writing what I deemed readable.
Here’s the answer. Objectivity.
Objectivity is the hardest thing for a writer working on a new project to maintain. When I’m working on a new script, obviously I’m going to be in love with it. If I wasn’t in love with it, I wouldn’t keep working on it. I would put it away until I came up with better ideas for it. So I’m in love with whatever I’m working on, which is the way it should be, until I can call it done.
So my first draft is complete. And that’s when the objectivity has to kick in. Some writers that I’ve worked with have been so in love with their first drafts, they throw it out to producers trying to hook them for a production without ever really stepping back and seeing what they’ve truly put together. And then there are some riders who will actually take the disinterest in their work personally, maybe even forcing them to quit altogether.
Objectivity can save a writer from all of that. So this is what I do to make sure I give myself a chance to give the work it’s best chance. It’s actually a fairly simple process.
1) Finish the first draft. Print the manuscript out, bind it. Write “First Draft” on the cover.
2) (and this is the most important step) LET IT SIT! Let the manuscript sit in a drawer, on a shelf, on the counter next to the coffee maker; I don’t care. Just let it sit. And let it sit for TWO WEEKS AT LEAST. Why? That is the key to objectivity. Forget about what’s in that script. Start developing a new one. If you can start writing vivid scenes of a new project, start to find yourself falling in love with THAT one. Once you’ve gained distance from your first draft, then come back it like an editor not as a writer. There’s a reason why publishing companies, newspapers and whatnot have editors. They are not emotionally attached to your work. They are there to make the work the best it can for the reader. It’s also why big movie production studios hire secondary screenwriters or script doctors.
So give your first draft enough time for you to fall out of love with it. Then go back to it. Find some place that suits you, sit down in disturbed for a while, bring a pen and read your script from start to finish; maybe not in one sitting. For me, I prefer to go somewhere public when I do this for a couple reasons. I make myself focus on the pages. I don’t do this at home so I can stay away from playing the XBox or even working on the project I’ve newly fallen for. The other reason I take this task publicly is when I’m around people, I tend to think about THEM seeing my play or movie and what THEY would need to enjoy it and “get it.”
From there, mark the living crap out of it. Scrutinize like an accountant looking for missing money. Every description, line of dialogue, stage direction. Look for everything and anything that could be deemed confusing; voice, consistent character responses, word choice, angles, everything. For me it’s tenses. I always find mistakes where my stage directions switch from present to past tense and back.
Mark it up and be proud of it. Ask yourself with every scene, “What purpose is this serving the story or character(s) as a whole.” If you can’t find a reason, cut the whole damn scene and don’t look back. Put one big line through those pages and move on.
3) Revisions for the second draft. So now you go back to your laptop or whatever device and edit the manuscript to reflect the changes in your marked up first draft. Maybe you’ll even find new changes in the process. After you’ve plugged in all the changes and cleaned up your formatting accordingly, print it out, write “Second Draft” on the couple and yes, you guessed it, let it sit. Maybe not as long as first draft sat, but some amount of time to regain objectivity yet again.
4) Invite friends over for a reading. After you’ve gained objectivity for the second draft, it’s time to invite a handful of friends to your home, make some food or snacks, offer booze if you can and have them all sit around a table or around the living room to read your second draft out loud. Assign roles to your participants, including someone to read all the stage directions and/or exhibitions. YOU however read NOTHING if you can avoid it. What you do is sit there with a copy of the second draft, with your pen yet again, and make notes. The reason for this step in the process is so you can HEAR you work. Sometimes, especially with dialogue, lines which originally sound good in your head don’t actually sound the same when you hear them out loud. This gives you the chance to hear them and know when lines have to be changed or cut altogether. Same with stage directions. If someone is reading them out loud, and they stumble or get confused on what you’re trying to convey, you’ll know it needs to change maybe to something simpler.
After the reading, ask your readers for feedback. What did they find confusing? What would they like more of? Take their input seriously. This is the first set of people to read and hear your work with the utmost objectivity. They are not emotionally attached to your work. They were there to have a good time and be supportive. If your script sucks by that point, no one would have fun and you’ll know your script’s issue real quick.
5) Plug in your changes from the reading. Take all your notes back to the laptop, make your changes accordingly and when you are done, you’ll have a far more polished script and one that is more ready for the eyes of the general public. This is your third draft if you follow these steps. It may end up being your fourth or fifth draft if you feel you need to repeat steps two and three. You’ll feel it if that’s necessary. Sometimes the steps to my second draft are so extensive, I won’t trust myself that I caught everything. So I’ll go through that part of the process again before feeling it’s time to be read. By the time you schedule your reading, you should feel the script is as objectively edited to the best it can be. After that, at your reading, your simply looking for logistics. You’re looking for the bow on the gift wrapping paper.
Objectivity is key and without it, you can’t guarantee the work is the best you can make it before putting it in front of a producer. The production process will find new ways to change it as well, because staging your script may be a whole different animal than sitting down to read it out loud. But at least you will know you have done your best unemotional job to have your manuscript ready for that next level.
Once I have gone through the steps, I know I’m ready to start drafting my query letter.