First d(r)aft

Three days. I have three days to come up with another 10 pages from my latest screenplay for a reading and critique in my screenwriting class. And I have nothing.

Well, that’s not technically true. I have something. I have the architecture of my screenplay written out…I know where I want to go and what steps I need to take, broadly speaking, to get there.

But those are just a series of incomplete sentences that barely fill a page. I need 10 pages of a screenplay. I need narrative (not too much, as is my wont) and dialogue, and yet everything I write right now reads like crap. Absolute, utter drivel.

Welcome to the first draft.

I love to brainstorm and come up with new ideas. Ideas for new screenplays. Ideas for scenes within those screenplays.

Brainstorming is exciting. Everything is possible, so I am at my most creative. Nothing comes off the table, and every idea leads to several others.

I love to plan. I like to arrange those ideas into a semblance of order…it is quite literally the assembly of a puzzle. What if I moved this scene from the first part of Act II to just before the climax? How does that change the story?

But at some point, I have to stop brainstorming and planning. I have to start writing. I have to take those incomplete sentences and turn them into coherent scenes of people interacting with people—directly and indirectly—to accomplish goals and thwart those of others.

And even that description of the process sounds interesting. But then I begin typing and my words take on the feel and smell of two-week old cod.

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If the mom character was any stiffer, you could iron shirts on her. Why not just have the son respond “Oh yeah!” and euthanize all of your creative ambitions?

You want the boat captain to do what? Even the most psychotic of fishermen wouldn’t contemplate that idiotic move! What was your research: old Popeye cartoons?

You suck! You suck! You suck!

Okay. Feel better now? Had your little tantrum. Your little pity party. Ready to move forward? Take a deep breath.

This is your first draft, and it’s gonna suck. That’s what first drafts do. But it’s the first draft that sucks, not you.

The idea is still sound. Story improvements you can’t see right now will arise in the workshopping process. The dialogue can be massaged and the narrative edited…in your second draft. You can move some of the scenes around to enhance the conflict…in your third draft.

The only thing about what you are doing today that is anywhere near a final draft is the name of the screenwriting software. [NOTE TO FINAL DRAFT: Give some thought to changing the name of your software. Too much pressure for some of us to handle.]

You’ll be fine. Your story will be fine.

Just start typing…

Glen Mazzara at Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2013

The Odyssey of Writing

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In his opening presentation to the TSC, Mazzara recounted the story of The Odyssey and used it as a metaphor for his own journey as a writer, comparing the setbacks and challenges experienced by Odysseus to his own.

As Mazzara explains, the story of Odysseus’s return home after the Trojan War is a story of changing winds. Such is the case with writers. When we decide to become writers, we have a lot of anxiety blowing in our heads. They can drive you insane. And bad news; those winds don’t go away, no matter how successful you become as a writer.

That anxiety permeates every scene you write. And once you start working with others, those people add to the confusion in your head.

Writers constantly look for validation, he says, they look for love. In this way, actors and writers have much in common as both groups are looking to receive love and adoration. The big difference is that writers know they’ll never get it, whereas actors maintain the delusion.

The chaos in writers’ heads also sets them at odds with the rest of the film and television industry, which is designed to run under more control. Thus a snarky relationship develops, with people in the industry constantly putting down or belittling writers and diminishing their works. The example he cites is the discussion of whether Shakespeare wrote his plays or it was a British lord with absolutely no record of having written a single literary word.

Mazzara says you simply have to get into a space where you are purely working on the work for the sake of the work. You have to learn to live with the anxiety.

 

He then looked at the concept of hubris and ego. In recounting the story of Odysseus blinding the Cyclops, he noted that as long as Odysseus remained “Nobody”, he was safe and managed to escape the island. It wasn’t until he stood on the prow of his escaping ship and proclaimed that it was Odysseus who blinded the Cyclops that things really went to hell.

When we write, Mazzara says, we have to remove our ego. We are only the steward of the story. The story wants to be told and we are merely the instrument by which this happens. And when working in groups, we have to be generous with each other and avoid taking credit.

He suggests that there is a tendency to try to manage our anxiety by taking the credit for work we have done or to which we have contributed, but we have to avoid this at all costs.

 

Mazzara then gets to the part of The Odyssey where Odysseus reaches Ithaca but finds his home invaded by suitors for his wife. Disguised as a beggar, he sets up a challenge that whomever can string Odysseus’s bow and fire an arrow through a series of axe heads will win the hand of Penelope. After all others have failed, the ridiculed beggar is given the opportunity and despite not being known for his strength, Odysseus strings the bow, makes the shot and then slaughters his disrespectful competitors.

All this to say that writing is about sticking to your strengths and doing it your own way. Mazzara showed loose sheets of foolscap on which he hand wrote his presentation because that’s the way he writes, by hand, on paper. When he tries to write on the computer, he finds himself editing his material and reworking lines as he writes them. On paper though, he can let the writing flow and works his way through the material in his head. However it works for you, he says, be sure you stay in the moment, stay in the story.

We all feel anxiety about conforming to how others do things. He is adamant that we have to fight this urge. As he describes it, it was a lonely journey for him to see that his method of writing works despite being antithetical to the way Hollywood works. Writing, he says, needs to be effortless.

As far as writing as part of a group in a writers’ room, he makes the comparison to a musical group heading into a recording studio, where everyone makes a contribution to the final product. Change one of the players or eliminate one component and the final product is different.

 

And finally, he says, there is a moment when you get your shit together and you know you can make it work. That is the moment you’ve come home.

 

In the Q&A, when asked about the bloody slaughter and carnage phase of The Odyssey, Mazzara said that was the editing phase of screenwriting, when the sheets are covered with red ink and look like they’ve been dipped in blood. In fact, he said, to lighten the blow on other writers, he refuses to use a red pen.