My first screenplay, “The Weather Report,” took three months to write and was 250+ pages. I knew it was too long even before I was told it was too long. I had so much material I couldn’t help myself. I let it all spill out. I would edit it down later. Easier to subtract than to add. Right?
When I worked in “Pubs” (an IBM technical writing department) we loved getting corporate memos. Those were the days before email and the internet. Hell, we were barely beyond punch cards. That’s how long ago this was. Important memos were printed on paper (gasp) and then passed around the department with a routing slip stapled to the front. You got the memo, read it, placed a check mark next to your name and passed it to the next person on the routing slip.
Pubs was where corporate memos went to be tortured. We didn’t just read them. We edited them. With ferocity and sarcasm. Each of us took his or her turn, trying to outdo the previous reader’s efforts. When a memo cleared this gauntlet, if it survived at all, it was corrected, condensed, stripped of verbiage and obfuscations and errors. Corrections of grammatical errors were especially fun as they were accompanied by sarcastic explanatory scribblings.
Memos that began as hundreds of words long and spanning multiple pages were reduced to a handful of simple sentences, sometimes to a single phrase, without loss of meaning. Such fun!
We were an arrogant bunch. We had our “Plato” who wrote deep philosophical phrases on bathroom walls and our published author who published mostly soft porn, populating his stories with thinly disguised co-workers. Talk about guaranteeing at least a few dozen book sales!
One of our technical writers dressed like a old-west sheriff and rode a horse to work. Rumor was that he slept with his horse, ignoring his wife. Another writer wore army fatigues and marched the halls singing anti-war songs. Our company did not let us out to interact with the public.
Thus (non sequitur) I believed I knew how to edit. But my screenplay was not 250 pages long due to rambling. It just had lots of really good scenes and characters. Editing it down to ninety some pages meant throwing out lots of “good” stuff. “Killing your babies” as it is sometimes described.
In addition to the problem of length, my first draft was horribly, stylistically wrong! I had no experience writing a screenplay but I assumed it would be similar to writing a stage play. I had some acting experience. Nothing important, but some. I felt that I knew my way around dialogue and blocking.
The first two readers of my screenplay (one friend, one family) generally liked it and found a few typos and spelling/grammar errors, but that was about it. Nothing to help in cutting a whale down to the size of a tuna. The friend reviewer urged me to join a local screenwriter’s forum. For only $50 (one year’s membership) I could meet with fellow screenwriters once a month and have access to some cool stuff such as the IMDbPro and TrackingB web sites and Variety and Academy Award nominated screenplays.
Best money ever spent! Each meeting featured a discussion about some aspect of writing or editing a screenplay: basic formatting, screenwriting software, scene descriptions, character development, plotting, heroes, villains and character arcs. There were many discussions about what NOT to put into a screenplay, such as all those editing and camera directions I had included in my first draft. After each monthly meeting I raced back to my screenplay and applied what I had just learned.
We studied screenplays that actually had been made into movies and screenplays written by members of our forum. We did screenplay readings and critiques.
Forum members recommended books on screenwriting. Many, many books written by Hollywood insiders, often successful (or semi-successful) screenwriters. I checked them out from the library, put them on my gift wish lists and bought the ones I was unable to acquire otherwise. I read them. All of them!
After about six months of editing and rewriting, My screenplay for “The Weather Report” had been trimmed to ninety-five pages. I had thrown out all those directions to actors, directors and editors and other such things that are NOT supposed to be in a screenplay. I killed off characters and scenes.
I removed the musical fantasy number. That one still hurts. When I am feeling sad I play it in my imagination and I laugh. People glance at me with concern.
So now what? How in the world was I going to get this incredibly funny, original screenplay made into a movie? I couldn’t just keep reading and reading it over and over, tweaking it a bit each time and sighing and imagining that it would someday would be a real movie.
Our screenwriter’s forum announced a series of monthly meetings about marketing one’s screenplay. Joy.
Next: The horrible truth of selling a on-spec screenplay.