According to Plan — Going Through the Rewrite

WRITER’S NOTE: Rick and I are are struggling with the outline we started with on “Lake Regret”, and while we try to come up with another project, we are providing you with insight on our script “According to Plan” and how we went from concept to getting the project optioned, and the craziness that ensued afterwards.

My apologies for not posting here recently.  It’s been a crazy last couple of weeks where I’ve been approached about my pilot script “Bounty” — we’ll see where it goes but the conversations have definitely been interesting.

In our last post, we talked about how it took us 78 days to finish the 98 page script, but that couldn’t be the end of it.  We had to go back and edit the first draft, which is never going to be your best work, if you’re being honest about it (some of you even refer to that first draft as a “vomit draft”).  Now, you may remember that I said I would write a couple of pages and then Rick would edit and and send me back additional pages, and we went back and forth that way until we finished that first draft.  Now while we were editing along the way, it wasn’t the full-blown editing you’re probably used to.   We were just looking for misspellings, continuation issues, and so on.  The full re-write was still in front of us.

In addition to taking a critical eye to the writing, we were taking a look at some of the actual setup for the script.  Here’s an example:  This is a script that deals with early onset dementia and having a grandfather convince his grandson and one of his friends to drive him from St. Louis to New Orleans to recover a treasure he claims to have left there.  Now I originally imagined the family as being African-American.  This was an indie film and the black community is pretty underserved when it comes to that film segment.  Rick was against that idea, for a couple of reasons.  First, neither of us have the world view of what it is like to be African-American and we didn’t feel like we could adequately portray dialogue, lifestyles, customs, etc.  Second, if we made the characters non-race specific, it would open it up to more producers, who could choose how they wanted to approach it.

Another thing that we had to do was a make a change to a significant plot point.  The grandfather was originally going to be in an assisted living facility and the grandson and his friend were going to break him out of the facility and drive him to New Orleans.  The problems with that, we decided, were two-fold.  Breaking him out would immediately have legal authorities looking out for them, which might make it a bit interesting, but not make it very realistic.  Second, the grandfather only has early onset dementia, not full-scale Alzheimer’s (which would render him incapable of making any sort of coherent communication), and because of that he would likely not be in an assisted living facility.

So what to do in that case?  We reworked the plot so that the grandfather was at home, but there were instances that made it clear that he had some problems, such as wandering away from home, talking about a treasure that may or may not exist, and so on.  For a screenwriter, this is, I think, the most important job the writer has, which is finding the little inconsistencies and problems that your script has.   When you’re writing on your own I think finding those little problem areas are very difficult at times because a lot of writers have tunnel vision or they block out what might be a bad plot point or just plain bad writing because they are determined to wedge a plot point into their script.  If you’re not writing with someone, then at least find people to read your script after it’s done and give you an honest assessment of the writing.  And here’s something I’ve always done — I’ve always asked writers that are better than me to review my scripts and give me honest feedback.  SimplyScripts is one of those places where you can post your script and get those types of reviews.

So the second rewrite took us another three weeks, and when that rewrite was done, I still don’t think we were satisfied.  We took another swipe at it and finished that editing process in a couple of weeks.  Again, why would we do this?  Why wouldn’t we?  We wanted our script to be at its absolute best, and just taking the first draft was never going to cut it.

We’d finished the draft.  What now?  We’ll get into what we did with the script after we finished it in our next post.

According to Plan – The Script Starts

WRITER’S NOTE: Rick and I are are struggling with the outline we started with on “Lake Regret”, and while we try to come up with another project, we are providing you with insight on our script “According to Plan” and how we went from concept to getting the project optioned, and the craziness that ensued afterwards.

In our last post,  I discussed how Rick and I came up with the outline for “According to Plan.”  With the rough draft outline in place, we set out to begin the writing phase.

Writing a script, even when writing with a partner, is really a very solitary endeavor. Rick and I knew that going into the writing, it would never work if we micromanaged each other’s writing.  Instead, we agreed that we would alternate writing pages and edit each other’s work as we went.  So, for example, I would write two to four pages, send them to Rick, and he would edit my pages, then write some of his own and send to me.  I would then edit his pages, write some of my own, rinse, scrub, repeat.

This process worked for us, because we each got to understand the characters in our own way, and neither of us dominated the writing for long periods of time, putting our own spin on the story or going to far off the reservation.  It was a true writing partnership.

Because this was our first time writing together, it was a feeling out process.  We had read each other’s previous scripts, so we knew what our styles were like, but we had to work to make our styles mesh.  At first, it required a bit of editing on both of our parts to make the script flow, but once we got a bit into the script, things just started to click.

I went back and reviewed the first few pages and noticed that my first draft was three pages.  Three! I probably was exhausted mentally after writing those as well! But I was probably pretty proud of myself.  I’m not exactly the fastest writer in the world.  But after sending to Rick, I was relieved to get them off my computer and on to Rick for his input.  I was also anxious to see what he would do with my pages.

This would be the process over the next couple of months.  I noticed that our first draft was started on March 6, 2014, and we finished the first draft on May 24, 2014, a total of 78 days and 98 pages.  That works out to an average of 1.25 pages a day.  Man, that doesn’t sound like a lot, does it?  One of the writers I know from Simply Scripts can easily finish a complete 100 page script in about a week.  But everyone writes at their own pace, and you should never write at a speed you’re not comfortable with, especially if you’re writing with a partner.  You need to make clear from the onset to your partner what your normal writing pace is, so expectations are set from the beginning.  Fortunately, Rick and I were comfortable with how quickly it was going to take us to finish the first draft.

Next time, we’ll talk about changes we made through the writing process, the disagreements we had over plot points and devices, and how long it took us to get to the FINAL final draft.

Happy writing!

According to Plan – The Beginning

WRITER’S NOTE: Rick and I are are struggling with the outline we started with on “Lake Regret”, and while we try to come up with another project, we are providing you with insight on our script “According to Plan” and how we went from concept to getting the project optioned, and the craziness that ensued afterwards.

“According to Plan” (or “ATP”) had its start from a short story my daughter, Erin, wrote back in late 2013.  The short story revolved around a grandfather with dementia who wound up taking a raft down the Mississippi River to avoid being put in a nursing home.  It was a great story, but i found it wouldn’t work as a feature film.  But I liked the idea of someone with dementia trying to run away from his issue, only to realize that he could never run from the actual problem.

So we set out trying to come up with a script that would incorporate both the element of dementia and the road trip. In this case we didn’t think it plausible for the protagonist, Nate, driving with dementia, so we brought in his grandson, Dante, and a neighbor, Carly, to drive him from St. Louis to New Orleans to find a treasure that Nate claims to have left there at his old home. We created some obstacles, like Dante’s father, Ken, telling Dante that there is no treasure and for Dante to stop encouraging his grandfather about it. Dante sneaks his grandfather away with Carly’s help when Ken is away on an overnight trip, and all sorts of problems develop during the trip that Dante and Carly aren’t prepared for.

The thought was to create a low-budget, family film that would appeal to numerous producers, and so that led us as we produced the original outline for the film. As I’ve stated before, Rick and I only use the outline as a guide and we change the beats constantly as we write depending on which way the story is going.

With that in mind, here is what we came up with in our original outline:

ACCORDING TO PLAN – BEATS

DANTE COVINGTON is a creative and quiet 12-year-old who lives with his uncle and grandfather in St. Louis. Recently, his grandfather NATE, who is 83, has been acting strangely as well as forgetting things.  Dante’s uncle, KEN, takes Nate to see a doctor, who believes that Nate has the beginning signs of dementia, and recommends that Nate be placed in an assisted living facility due to his failing mental health.

Ken makes the difficult decision to put Nate in a nursing home against Nate’s wishes. None of Nate’s children across the country are willing or able to look after him and have Nate come live with them. Nate, however, tells Ken and Dante that he cannot stay in a nursing home; instead, he needs to go down to New Orleans to retrieve some treasure he buried many years ago. While Ken believes that Nate is losing his mind, Dante promises Nate he will help him find his treasure.

Ken places Nate in a nursing home, which is filled with older adults and staff who are odd and eccentric. One day in July, Dante goes to visit his grandfather, and is deeply saddened and overwhelmed by Nate’s living situation. Dante and Nate have a serious conversation about Nate’s desire to escape and travel to New Orleans.  After Dante leaves, he realizes that he must break his grandfather out of the home, so that Nate can have his opportunity to find his treasure.

Ken’s next door neighbors, CARL and JENNA CEROTA, have a sixteen year old daughter, CARLY, who has been watching Dante during the day while Ken is at work.  Dante convinces Carly to help him drive Nate to New Orleans when her parents go to Paris for their anniversary.   Carly is hesitant, but he offers to pay her $100 from his savings, and she agrees.

Dante goes in the nursing home early one morning while Carly waits in the car. Dante helps Nate pack, and then Dante pulls the fire alarm. In the confusion Nate and Dante escape outside. Their plan is successful, and they quickly escape with Carly’s help.

While on the road, Dante has the opportunity to learn more about his grandfather’s past: his life during the war, his marriage to his late and beloved wife, his ungrateful children, the passing of his parents (Dante’s mother). Dante adores his grandfather, and he listens to his grandfather’s ideas on what makes one human throughout generations and changing societies: passion and identity and love against all odds. Carly and Nate argue over what true love really means.

At one point, Dante asks Nate what treasure is buried in New Orleans. Nate is coy and does not reveal his secret, but gives Dante a detailed description of where it is buried. Dante is unsure whether to believe his grandfather, or if his dementia is causing him to

As they stop to eat at a diner, Carly is approached by a teenage boy. Carly tells him to get lost. The boy bullies Dante and disses Nate. Nate starts to use this as a teachable moment, but goes into an incoherent ramble.  It doesn’t matter, as Carly winds up punching the boy in the nose and they all get the hell out of Dodge.

By now, the authorities have been notified that Nate is missing. Ken discovers that Dante and Carly are not at his house like they’re supposed to be. He calls them on Carly’s cell phone, and confirms they’re okay before yelling at them to come home immediately.

Dante ignores the demand. As they near Jackson, Mississippi, Nate begins acting a bit stranger: he realizes he can’t feel one of his arms and becomes confused by Dante’s questions. He then is unable to see very well. Carly realizes that Nate is having a mild stroke. Dante tends to him, but Carly tells Nate he must go to the hospital. Nate, however, is adamant about making it to New Orleans, and orders Carly to keep driving. Dante must then choose between stopping their adventure in order to call an ambulance or allow his grandfather to continue the journey to find his treasure.  It doesn’t matter, because while they are debating it, a state highway patrol pulls Carly over.  The officer realizes that Nate is having a serious medical condition, puts him in his car and drives him to the hospital.

By the time they cop arrives at the hospital, Nate has passed out. It is unclear whether Nate will survive the stroke, and when Dante and Carly arrive, Dante is distraught at the thought of losing his grandfather. Dante calls Ken, who immediately heads for Jackson.  Nate passes away just as Ken arrives. Dante and Ken reconnect, and after much persuasion from Dante, Ken decides to take he and Carly on to New Orleans.

Ken takes Dante to the spot just outside New Orleans that Nate described to him on their trip. Thirty paces from an oak tree near the home where Nate grew up and where he first kissed his late wife. They begin to dig, but after a lot of hard work, nothing is found. Dante is despondent. They decide to head back to Memphis, but just before they leave, Carly rereads the instructions he had written down, and realizes he was looking at it the wrong way. They go back, find the new location, and Dante, digging furiously, finally hits a chest, and opens it with uncertainty.

The chest contains pictures, objects such as his war medals, and letters from Nate from the past 10 years. Letters to and from his wife, letters he wrote for Dante. The last note Dante reads is: YOUR JOY IS WHERE YOUR TREASURE LIES. THANK YOU FOR BEING MINE. Elated at finding the treasure, Dante, Carly and Ken get in the car, and head for home.

 

With the next post, we’ll get into the writing of the script, and with succeeding posts, we’ll see how we made changes to the outline on the fly, disagreed with each other on the direction, finished the script, the ways we tried to market it, and how we finally got it optioned (twice!).

 

And then…

If you’ve ever seen the movie “Stripes” (one of my all-time favorites), you’ll remember this scene when Bill Murray has reached rock bottom:

bill murray

Stripes – And then depression set in

Anyone worth their salt as a writer has had those moments when nothing seemed to work and they’re ready to ditch it all.  You wonder if you’re good enough, whether it’s worth all the time and energy you’re putting into it, will anything ever become of what you’re putting on the page.  The statistics are certainly not in your favor.  Fewer than 1% of all feature spec scripts out there ever get made.

And I fell into that mindset recently.  Even though I’ve had a script produced, even though we had other scripts optioned, I still found myself at that crossroads where self-doubt and self-motivation meet.  The thing about reaching bottom, though, is that I’ve found there’s nowhere to go but up from that point (unless you decide to keep digging in that hole of self-despair).

So, what to do?  Rick and I have a lot of projects going on, and so rather than try to torture you through how we find our way out of the current situation, we decided that it would be just as instructive for you new writers out there (or experienced writers who still are looking to break through), to take one of our projects that we wrote together, and how we took it from conception to completion and what happened after we optioned it.  So beginning with our next post, we start looking at “According to Plan” and how we made it happen.

And It’s Back to the Drawing Board

Well, after some time off, Rick and I took a really critical look at the outline, and we realized something.  Something big.  Like, it’s not anything what we really imagined it might be when we first started out.

We envisioned a dramedy in the veins of “Juno” or “Little Miss Sunshine,” and it turned into this sort of dark drama that was 180 degrees from the original mission.  The protagonist lacked a character arc and the plotline was sort of flat.  I was of the mind to just trash the whole thing and start on an entirely new project.

I’m sure most of you who have written features have found yourselves in this exact same spot.  You thought you had a great idea or concept, but you found out that you couldn’t really build a story around it.  So you have to make a gutsy call:  Do you drop the project entirely and start on a new idea that has more legs, or do you try to perform emergency triage on the existing project and bring it back to life (realizing that you might be halfway through the triage and still need to declare the patient dead).

I was in the camp of throwing a grenade into the script and just putting it out of its misery.  Rick, to his credit, tried to disarm me and help me see my way back from the abyss.  We decided we would take the weekend to see where our thoughts might lead us.

Here was where I landed:  The original idea was to have a script set essentially in one location, first, for budgeting reasons, and two, to allow the film to be shot quickly (also factoring in to budgeting).  I wanted to go Richard Linklater “Slacker” and just get a minimalist movie made.

Why would we want to do that?  Well, unless you’re a big-time scriptwriter, you’re not going to get a big budget film made.  Your script’s not even going to be looked at by a production company.  Even small to mid-level budget films are getting harder to make unless you already have a foot in the door.  Indie films are typically the best option for an up and coming writer, but you have to be realistic in your expectations.  It has to have a compelling story (to attract talent and financing), it has to be easy to make, and it needs to be right financially.

So, that’s a long way of saying, we have to go back to the drawing board on the outline.  I think the original idea and setting was a good one, but we need to find the heart and humor in this storyline.  Tomorrow, we’ll bring in the demolition experts in to blow everything up and start again.

Hang in there with us!

We’ve Finished the Outline!

Thank God! We finally got around the cranking out the last few beats of the outline.  It’s changed a half-dozen times since we last reported on it and it runs on for a bit. It’s still not as long as some outlines are, as we don’t beat out every single scene of the script.  We figure we can fill in the gaps as needed as we write around the highlights of what is in the outline.  And as I’ve mentioned, Rick and I are never bound to the outline we start with.  One thing we don’t want to do is write ourselves into a corner.  Flexibility is key when it comes to writing that first draft of your script (and second and third drafts as well).

So what’s next?  Well, first of all, a couple of days off!  No thinking about writing for a day.  Just enjoy some time catching up on binge-worthy TV shows, spending time with family, or whatever else might arise.

Then we begin the process of writing.  As we write, we’re going to post the script, as rough as it might be, here.  We’ll post the differing versions on a regular basis (so you might see version 1.1, 1.2, etc.) so you can see where changes might have been made as we go back and edit the script.  It’ll give you a good idea of what our writing process is, and how we go back and edit as we write.

Some writers like to do a “garbage draft”, where they just write without really thinking about what’s on the page. The idea is just to get through the entire draft, and then come back later and clean it all up, make corrections, and so on.  Rick and I operate a little differently.  What typically happens is that I might write a page or two, then I’ll send it to Rick, and he’ll review it, edit it with his changes, and then he’ll write another couple of pages, and send it back to me.  I’ll do the same to his portion, edit, then write some more. Wash, rinse, repeat.  We’ll keep up that process, and usually, if we stay on that pattern, we’ll have the finished script done sometime between 45 to 60 days, sometimes longer if we run into situations where we have to take some time off.  For example, we’re starting this script just as end of the year holidays are approaching, so we might take a whole week off from working on the script to enjoy Thanksgiving or Christmas.  I think our goal is to finish by the end of the year, but if we don’t, it’s not the end of the world.

I’ll try to update the outline on this site, but I’ll need to break it down into two or three posts because of the length.  Anyway, time to celebrate!

Part Two – The Unending Question: Which Screenwriting Software to Use?

In an earlier post, we talked about outlining software you can (or not) use. As I mentioned, I stick with the old tried and true method of Microsoft Word, mainly because it’s easy to use, easy to edit, and no one is going to see it really except for you.

When it comes to writing your actual script, however, that’s a much different story. There’s a lot of alternatives out there, some free, some fairly pricey. And the software you use may or may not leave a lasting impression on a potential producer or reader of your script.

First of all, let’s start with what you should not use, and that’s Microsoft Word.  While it’s fine for outlining, you should not use it for writing your script.  Why?  Because if you somehow got someone to read it, you’ll never get a producer to utilize a Word version for a feature (you might get lucky on a short).  Producers, directors are going to want to work with the writer on the script, adding in their own notes, action lines, and dialogue, and they won’t be able to do it if you’re working strictly out of Word.  And the one thing you don’t want to do as a writer is to make the job more difficult for the producer and director.  If the paginations and the margins aren’t standard, it doesn’t put you in a good light.

Using a software program designed specifically for screenwriting is obviously your best option, both stylistically and professionally.  I have used Final Draft (I’m now at Version 10) for about seven years, and before that, Movie Magic Screenwriter (currently version 6).  I have still have both programs, but tend to write strictly in Final Draft (as does my writing partner Rick).

Final Draft is the gold standard for film producers and directors. It’s used by a great majority of the top screenwriters in Hollywood (and the rest of the US, for that matter).Final Draft image Overseas, the standards tend to more varied as to the acceptance of screenplays, so it’s market share is much less in the European market, for example, and so you see differing options (some of them free), like Celtx being used.

For some screenwriters, the cost is a non-starter.  For example, at The Writer’s Store,  Final Draft 11 (the most current version) is $169.99, OR, if you’re still a student, you can get it for $99.99.  My opinion is that you’re making an investment in your career is this is something you really want to do, and do it well.  On the other hand, if you’re without a job, or you’re making minimum wage, this is a significant amount of money to be putting up for something you may never make a dime off of.  You’ll need to weigh your choices and determine whether this works for your budget, and in another post we’ll look at free software you can use as well.

Final Draft is available on both the Mac and Windows platform, and if you’re like me, who has both a Windows desktop and a Mac laptop, the good news is that you can download the program on both with the purchase of just one license.  Final Draft 10 is compatible with Mac OS X 10.9 or later and Windows 7 or later.

What I like most about Final Draft is that I really don’t have to think much about the process.  Everything is pre-formatted to industry standards, and you’re given various templates to work off of (screenplay, TV three-camera comedy, TV drama, etc.).  You also have a beat board for knocking out your story and a timeline for how your beats are working in terms of minutes consumed.  If you work closely with another writer, you can actually work (in Final Draft 10 or 11) in the script at the same time with the other writer in Collaboration mode.  You might find that there’s a little bit of lag time depending on your network speed, which can be a little frustrating at times.

You also have a great Title Sheet page to create title pages, and it converts your script easily into PDF or, if you want to convert to another program like Movie Magic Screenwriter, you can export to an RTF file and then import in to the new program (not a perfect option, and you’ll have to do some cleanup, but it’s better than most alternatives).

If you want to get more information on all the features of Final Draft, you can go to this review to get a more in-depth look at what you can (and can’t) do with Final Draft.  The bottom line for me is that I feel like if I’m going to make it as a professional screenwriter, then I need to have a professional screenwriting program to assist me in that endeavor, and for me, Final Draft checks all the boxes.

We’ll look at other screenwriting programs in a later post, and coming soon, we should have our outline completed (finally!) and we’ll be ready to move into the writing stage.