My Writing Process Part IX: The Re-Write ('Cause First Drafts are Sh*t)

Back again. Imagine, for a moment, that I've finished the first draft of a script. I've already nurtured my Great Idea by doing Research and formed a Killer Pitch. I've developed Characters You'll Give a Damn About, sketched the beginning, middle and end so that it is Structurally Sound, and then plotted it out Beat by Beat. I took time to write Memorable Scenes and obeyed the rules for writing Sharp Dialogue. At this point, much of the work is done. I've got a script that tells a story from beginning to end. That is an awesome feeling.

Now, the real writing begins.

IX. The Re-Write ('Cause First Drafts Are Sh*t)

Whenever you finish a first draft of pretty much anything you write more substantial than a Twitter post (follow me!) or a birthday card, you should do two things:

1. Acknowledge the accomplishment of finishing that first draft. Go ahead, pat yourself on the back. Kudos! Remember 95% of people out there with ideas for stories never make it this far.

2. And after your done applauding yourself, recognize that regardless of how you feel about your writing, it still needs work.

Ernest Hemingway once famously quipped, "The first draft of anything is shit." Now, if Hemingway recognized this in HIS writing, perhaps we too should not be so hasty to call a piece of work done as soon as we type "The End."

McKee elaborates on a characteristic of a quality writer, saying "He wants to destroy his work. Taste and experience tell him that 90 percent of everything he writes, regardless of his genius, is mediocre at best. In his patient search for quality, he must create far more material than he can use, then destroy it." Sounds harsh. Sounds like a lot of work. Well, yeah, it kind of is. But you've made it this far. Often times the difference between a mediocre piece of writing and something great is simply more time and effort. But where do you start?

First, you need some distance.
If you've just finished a work of any reasonable length, you're too close to it to view it objectively. So back off for a bit. You need to separate yourself from your writing in order to come back at it with fresh eyes. The length of the work and the amount of time you've put into it should determine how long you stay away. A 10-22 page comic script? Put it down for a day or two and try not to think about it. A longer work like a screenplay, graphic novel script, or a novel. You need to put that puppy down for at least a week. When I was writing my screenplay, I was getting up a 5:30-6 am every morning and writing for a few hours and then again at night. I cranked out the first 93 page draft in about two weeks of writing fury. By the time I finished and proofread, I was way to close to the script to view it objectively. So, I let it be for two weeks.

Distance does not equal downtime. Okay, you're away from your script. Party time? Nope, sorry. You're a writer now. Writer's write. Sure, crack a beer or take a night off to celebrate, but needing distance is not an excuse to stop writing or working on your craft. Here are three suggestions for things you can do to be productive in your time away from your first draft.
  • Work on the next project. That first draft you just finished isn't your only story idea, is it? For most creative people, I assume the answer is no. This is one of the benefits of having multiple projects in various stages of development going at once. When you need time away from one, you have something else to work on. As soon as I finished my screenplay, I took a "break" by plotting out the full story for "Tears of the Dragon." I think it helped that Tears and my screenplay were entirely different genres. It really felt like a vacation to write. I was also able to give more energy and effort to some of my other comic projects that had taken a back seat while I poured everything I had into my screenplay.
  • Read a book on craft. If you've just written a novel, screenplay, or comic script, now is the best time to pick up and read a book on the craft of writing and storytelling. After you've written something is much better than before. You know, about six years ago, I picked up a copy of The Screenwriter's Bible by David Trottier. This is a great reference. Read it cover to cover as soon as I got it. And immediately after...I wrote nothing. Nope, despite being a great reference and have mostly everything I'd ever need to know to write a screenplay, it did not inspire me to write one. In fact, it probably intimidated me. This likely would have been the case had I picked up McKee's Story prior to writing my screenplay. I either wouldn't have gotten through it (boring, inaccessible) or it would have depressed me (how am I ever going to write something that satisfies all of his criteria for a good story?) However, I came to McKee immediately AFTER writing the first draft of my screenplay. Because of this, I was viewing everything he had to say through the prism of my screenplay. As a result, I read it cover to cover in a few days and was fired up for my rewrite afterward.
  • Provide feedback for other writers. This is one of the best ways to develop your critical eye. After finishing a work, you'll gain a lot by providing feedback to other writers. In fact, this is the whole concept behind the exceptional site TriggerStreet (highly recommended site for giving and getting feedback on your creative works.) When you read other's work, you'll have no attachment to the material, which allows total objectivity. But as you're offering critique, you may find that some of the mistakes that author has made are similar to your mistakes. By seeing the flaws in another's writing or seeing what they do that works, it can help illuminate a direction forward for your re-write that you might not have seen otherwise. Since finishing the first draft of my screenplay, I've read and critiqued 14 feature-length screenplays from other aspiring writers. I'm definitely honing my editorial chops, and it's making me a better writer.
Get some feedback. One of the best ways to improve your early drafts of a story is to get some feedback from others. While getting feedback is something you should certainly do, first a warning. You cannot rely on others to make you the writer you want to be. YOU have to develop your own internal editor. YOU have to learn to objectively evaluate your own work with the same critical eye you apply to others. Getting feedback from others does not free you from the responsibility of learning to edit.

Now that I've gotten the disclaimer out of the way, let's talk about the value of feedback. Well, it's valuable. Unless you're writing solely for yourself (which, if you're writing for comics you are most likely not) you need to be sure you're writing to entertain an audience. Getting an outside perspective on this is often necessary. It's much better to get feedback at the draft stage prior to publishing, filming or having pages drawn. After working with an editor on the initial pages of ICE: Interrogation Control Element, I realized that I needed to insert two additional pages to establish the antagonist to really grab the audience. This cost me money, and would have been cheaper had I figured this out PRIOR to having pages drawn.

There are two types of feedback I want to discuss. I feel both have their place, but you should know their strengths and limitations.

Feedback from Family and Friends - When you're just starting out, it's hard to find people excited about reading a first draft of your scripts. So, what do we do? We turn to the people in our lives who love us and can't say no. I've heard some writers advise completely against this. I say, go ahead. Just recognize what this feedback is and isn't.

Getting feedback from mom or your buddy Chuck is good for the old ego. And you know what, you just finished a first draft and you deserve a "thattaboy." Hell, you've created something. You've put something new into the world that didn't exist before, and there's no reason you shouldn't have people that care about you have the chance to read it and acknowledge it. So get your slap on the back.

This kind of feedback is also good for getting the everyman's reaction. Human beings are hardwired to recognize a good story when they read or hear one. If something is supposed to be funny and they laugh, you've probably done your job. Likewise, if something is confusing to them, you probably were not clear enough. Sometimes it helps to watch them as they're reading. If they're turning pages and engaged in the script, that's a good sign.

However, what feedback from friends and family can't provide is honesty. If a reader cares about you and has a stake in your emotional well-being, you can't expect total honesty from their critique. Most often, rather than getting what they truly think, you'll get what they think you want to hear. And that won't help you a bit. Also, most of your friends and family aren't writers in the genre or format that you are writing in. Just because someone has seen a few movies or read a few comic books doesn't mean they can ably critique a script for either. Family and friend critiques thus are a poor means to get serious, actionable suggestions and solutions for improving your script.

Feedback from Objective Professionals - I use both the terms objective and professionals loosely here. To a certain extent, we all have subjective biases that color our opinions. And by professionals, I simply mean someone who has done what you're trying to do. Want feedback on a comic script? Find someone who's actually written a couple of them. If you're just starting out, you're probably not going to get Brian Michael Bendis to critique it. In fact, I know you won't. But try to find someone who is both more accomplished that you and has no reason not to give you honest feedback

Now, there is a drawback to this kind of feedback. Strangers have zero stake in your emotional well being. A lot of time this feedback will come from someone you'll never meet, and the removal of distance and personal interaction made possible by the internet brings out many people's inner Simon Cowell. So, if you know you can't handle someone tearing your work to shreds in a not very nice way, don't try to get this kind of feedback. However, if you're not ready for this sort of grilling, you're not ready to have anything published either. Again, better to be eviscerated in the draft stage when you can still make changes, than publish and have the world take a collective dump on it.

What feedback from objective professionals can provide is a strong road map for an improved rewrite. People who know the medium can point out specific suggestions about what works and what doesn't and often can propose solutions to the problem areas. For this reason, this kind of feedback should be sought out.

Now, the best kind of reviewer is a combination of the two above types: a friend with professional expertise who isn't afraid to hurt your feelings and tell you the truth. These are hard to find, and if you find one, hang on to him or her and treat them well. Ideally, you'll have two of these sort of people. These are the people you want to show your very first draft. I'd caution putting a first draft out to strangers, simply because a complete and total slam critique at this stage could throw you off completely. So, find someone you trust who won't treat you with kiddie gloves.

After the feedback - LISTEN! Humans are defensive creatures by nature. Upon hearing criticism of your work, your baby, your instinct will be to come to it's defense. DON'T. Don't try to explain what you were trying to do. Don't make excuses. Just listen.

And when you listen, do so with the understanding that what you are hearing is one person's opinion. And that their opinion MAY be right. Not that it is right. But that it may be. And because it may be right, rather than defend, ask questions to clarify. Ask things like, what lines didn't work for you? Wouldn't it be funnier/scarier/better if I tried ____? Which character do you think needs the most work? Which scenes go on too long? Again, you need to recognize that your story needs work. Getting feedback is one of the best ways to assemble a game plan for a re-write.

You will need to kill your babies. Another famous writing cliche, but a truism that all writers know: In re-writing, you're going to have to destroy a lot of what you've created, even some stuff that you absolutely love. Maybe it's for reasons of pacing. Maybe it's because the scene stalls your story's momentum or doesn't quite work for the characters. This can be hard to do, but it's a necessary part of the writing process.

I'm going to share with you a baby I had to kill. This was a semi-important scene from the first draft of my screenplay. Given that my script is a romantic comedy, the beat is an important one- this is "the cute meet" scene. Read, then we'll discuss...


Felix confidently strolls to the bar and tries to flag the barkeep unsuccessfully. He glances around the bar, checking out the talent.

He sees Faith for the first time, talking to a guy looking like a circa-1980's DON JOHNSON.

Felix and Faith make eye contact. Felix looks away, and tries in vain to get the barkeeps

Felix looks back in the direction of Faith, and sees her leaving Don Johnson walking towards him.



I just told that guy over there that
you were my boyfriend and quite the
jealous type. Will you talk to me
for a minute until he finds someone
else to bother?

Felix smiles.

Not sure I can do that.

(looking around)
Oh. Do you have a girlfriend?

No girlfriend. It's just...I
believe that might technically
qualify as a cock block.

(enjoying the banter)

So that's a clear violation of guy
code. It's in the manual. And come
on, he seems like a perfectly nice
and harmless dude. No visible
deformities. And a nice bonus, he's
channeling Sonny Crockett, so-


Guess that reference is a little

Guess so. I'm young. But you don't
have to worry. It's not a cockblock
if he never had a chance.

Ouch. Not your type?

Not my type. And, I have a

(slightly disappointed)
(looks around)
Why isn't he saving you from Sonny's

He's not here. Long distance thing.

Got it.

An awkward pause, then Felix extends his hand.

Sorry, I never got your name. I'm

Faith slides in close, covering up the shake.

You're really bad at this fake
boyfriend thing.

Right. Sorry.

Felix tosses a hard glance over at Don Johnson, who has been watching them. Don catches the look, pretends not to notice, and walks away. Faith turns and sees him go.

My hero. Let me buy you a drink.

Why did I kill it? Was it the best scene ever? Certainly not. But it served the beat...the guy meets girl and they hit it off. It actually survived another draft largely in tact, with some of the dialogue cut to be less chit-chatty. But this entire scene was rewritten in the third draft. The reason, my third draft's focus was the elimination of cliche. Guy meets girl in a bar. Been done to death. Sure, I liked the banter about the cock-blocking, and sure guys and girls do meet in bars all the time, but this scene just didn't scream originality. Additionally, about twenty pages earlier in the script, there was a much funnier scene that also takes place in a bar. Mixing it up would make for a better story. And finally, Don Johnson...worked for some, not for others. While I love people still stuck in the 80's as much as the next guy, it too was cliched.

So, this scene had to go. The beat is the same. The guy and girl still meet and hit it off. But I changed the setting, some of the dialogue and some of the characters. The result is a more unique scene that better serves my script.

So, good luck with your rewrites. Hopefully some of these tips are helpful as you comb through your story and put some solid effort into making it the best it can be. Next week will be the concluding article of this ten-part series. We'll talk about getting your scripts ready for your artist.

NEXT: X. An Artist Ready Script

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