INSIDE THE ART, CRAFT AND BUSINESS OF WRITING for Film, TV, Books, Stage, Print or Digital Media (with Particular Attention to Comedy)
Ask ten writers for their opinion and you’ll get at least a dozen different opinions – and yet…
After you’ve written a draft of your book or script (much less multiple drafts) you will almost necessarily have lost perspective on the project and you have to rely on others to help you see what you’ve done – and what you haven’t done.
This has been on my mind a lot lately because I’ve been working on a script (the first episode of an original miniseries). I wrote three drafts and got feedback on each draft along the way. As I write this, I am waiting for notes on my latest (4th) draft, hoping (and praying) hard that the feedback will be good and my readers will encourage me to ‘go out’ with the script to agents, managers, producers and executives.
Here’s how it went.
1) Make an outline. If you’re lucky enough to have access to someone who knows how to read an outline, have them read it and talk it through with them. I had someone, but didn’t run the outline by them for drafts 1-3. That was a mistake I corrected in draft 4.
2) Turn the outline into a treatment. If you’re lucky enough to have access to someone who knows how to read a treatment, have them read it and give you feedback on the treatment. I didn’t do that for drafts 1-3 but should have. I did it for draft 4 and I think (hope! pray!) it made a difference.
3) Start drafting. If you get stuck – or confused, or lose confidence – in the material before you have a full draft, have at least 2 other people read the material. I didn’t on this project but certainly have in the past and, as it turned out, should have this time around too for drafts 1-3.
4) If you can write a full draft, write a full draft. I did that. 4 times.
5) Get feedback on every draft. Show each draft to at least 2, but no more than 5 people. Make sure these first responders include as many as possible of the following categories. You can’t always find a reader to cover every base on every draft, but that’s the goal. And any one reader might cover more than one category:
For my current project, which is historical non-fiction set in the American Revolution, I used a substantial pool of readers – using different readers for each draft, or at least not using the same reader for two successive drafts. So far I’ve gotten feedback from four different screenwriters (one whom also writes for tv), a novelist/writing teacher, a playright/drama teacher, an actor/playright, a movie trailer producer, an antique dealer/amateur historian and my girlfriend, who is a scientist/teacher.
6) Debrief your readers throroughly. Make a list of your own questions before you get any feedback. This will probably include all the basics (What did you like? What didn’t you like? Is the story clear and compelling? Do you buy the main character? Do you buy their relationships with other characters? Are there too many characters? Does it open strong enough? Does the story pay off hard enough?) plus other questions specific to the project (Is the historical context clear? Are the geopolitics clear? Are there too many battles? Does it feel relevant?). Then ask those questions of every reader.
Every time I got notes from a reader, I started a new sheet of paper on which I wrote down anything they liked (*),
didn’t like or questioned (?). When I had input from 2-3 readers I reviewed their notes and decided which ones to incorporate into my next draft. I did not take every note, but when 2 or more readers have similar feedback, it’s foolish to ignore them, no matter how married you think you are to the material.
7) Don’t waste readers. When I got feedback from 2-3 readers and was pretty clear about the direction of my next draft, I contacted other readers who had the draft but hadn’t read it yet and told them to wait for the next draft.
8) Re-Outline. I alternated between, and sometimes simultaneously used, more than one outline system, because it helps you look at the material with fresher eyes. I used index cards, paper outline and digital beat outlines.
9) Re-Treatment. Between drafts 3 and 4, one reader (a screenwriter) insisted that I not only re-outline but go ahead and write a 5-10 page treatment of the 60-minute episode. This was very helpful and illuminated some essential flow problems. He also stressed that, especially for TV, the act breaks had to be super strong.
10) Write another draft. Did I get enough feedback – and did I take it seriously enough – to write a script that was ready to ‘go out’? Stay tuned.