Usually when I write, it’s a disciplined process, taking a few hours a day, fit evenly into the schedule along with other activities. But once in awhile the “Muse” comes on me, and when that happens, I have no choice but to hide away in my office, shut off the phone, disconnect from social media and basically disappear.
How It Began
This happened back in February 2015 when I was on a 1-month writing sabbatical from my pastoring responsibilities in my church. During those four weeks, I wrote from scratch a 120-page, two-hour movie script called Deep Freeze based on an adventure story I wrote back in the 7th grade (a 200 page novel handwritten in several spiral notebooks.)
That screenplay went on to be a finalist in one of the top five international screenplay contests that Hollywood puts on each year. (It also was the “fleece” that I laid out before God when I was considering whether or not to take this crazy step of leaving ministry for a season, selling the house, and moving to Hollywood to write.)
Stephen Spielberg always said he needed to make “Jaws” first, because that allowed him to go on to make his more serious films. I always joked with my wife and daughter that this goofy adventure story (about a 30-foot snowstorm that wipes out the upper third of the country) would end up being my ticket into Hollywood, and allow my Ben-Hur sequel and other “normal” projects to get made.
Well, it’s not just a pipedream.
So Close, And Yet…
Last spring an HBO producer read my “treatment” for Deep Freeze (a treatment is basically a 2-3 page short story version of the movie) and was enthusiastic about it. He agreed to read the script, but was considerably less impressed with it. He returned to me a page of “notes”.
Notes are detailed comments from a producer. Which might not sound like much, but it’s not a given that a screenwriter would be given notes. Producers are working on umpteen projects at once, and if they thought a project stunk to high heaven, 1) they wouldn’t read the entire script, and 2) they wouldn’t provide notes.
This producer did not ask for my screenplay back, but in giving me notes, he wasn’t saying “no” either. Receiving notes can be interpreted as a rough sort of compliment.
Now, no writer particularly cares to receive notes. What they want to receive is an email saying, “This is amazing!”, and a 6-figure check. Notes, at first, kinda suck. Foot…meet groin. Cup of cold water…meet face.
But the wise writer will not do anything for the first 72 hours. They won’t grab a knife and hold their wrists over the sink. They won’t whip out an email reply to the producer, insulting their mother, and telling them they’re obviously clueless for not recognizing the unparalleled writing talent right there in front of them.
No writer particularly cares to receive notes. What they want to receive is an email saying, “This is amazing!”, and a 6-figure check.
As I carefully read through the notes I was given (not doctored up, by the way, with comforting language or nuanced niceness, but rather, blunt black & white professional terseness, that would send anyone under 30 running for their colorbooks and safespaces), I realized that I had been given a gift.
I always knew the story as I wrote it had its strengths and weaknesses. Everything can be rewritten and spruced up (even the Bible – “Hey Mark. This chapter one of your gospel really stinks. Your beginning is abrupt, your character development is lousy, and take out about a half-dozen ‘immediately’s.”)
Areas To Look For Weaknesses In Your Script
The Beginning Of Your Story Must Sizzle
In my first draft, I begin the story at the beginning of the snowstorm, so we spend the first hour of the movie with six friends as they get trapped in a country farmhouse, and gradually realize that they’re in serious do-do as the blizzard ramps up and the snow piles up. The tension also ratchets up, but gradually over time, and then all hell breaks loose in the second and third act. It’s what I call the “slow burn” approach, which is maybe fine for a mini-series, but for a movie seldom works.
Screenwriters are taught ad naseum to make the first ten pages of their script to crackle. One producer I heard recently as a workshop said, “I can usually tell by page three if it’s any good. I’ll only read to page ten because I’m obligated.” Yikes! And you’ll notice that about movies these days – if something doesn’t die, or explode, or burn up, or turn into a zombie in the first five minutes, people will start tuning out.
The producer said in his notes to Deep Freeze, “Nothing happens till page 52!” And when I looked at the story honestly, he was right. My strategy in taking my characters slowly into a frozen hell, taking a leisurely amount of time to learn about these characters, so that we would care about these characters, so that when I kill them off later, it would hurt, well that strategy was misguided.
The Conflict Of Your Story Must Lend To The Heroic
And speaking of killing them off, the producer called me out on another problem, which I intuitively knew was a problem. The Christian writer in me who is so fed up with the mamby-pamby way most Christian writers present conflict or trouble (i.e. setting up strawmen villains who are easily overcome) that I way overcompensated in Deep Freeze. (By the way, DF is not meant to be a faith-based story, though I do insert a pastor in the story whom I present as “normal” and “heroic” – opposed to the way Hollywood usually presents people of faith.)
I kill off two of my original six characters and have two of the women kidnapped and brutalized by the bad guys. I thought for sure an HBO dude wouldn’t mind it, but he called me out on it. And you know what? I’m glad he did. In opting for “realism”, I diminished the heroic potential in my story, which was meant to show how ordinary people face extraordinary danger.
People go to a movie 1) to get away from “realism” if they can, and 2) to feel something, hopefully positive, that can make them laugh, think, feel and most importantly – be entertained. “It is, after all, show business,” I’ve heard said many times. Give people a reason to fork over $15 for two hours and come away feeling good about it.
The Characters Of Your Story Must Have Depth
And speaking of my bad guys, I don’t show them at all in the first act. They explode on the scene in the second half, and we never learn their names, their backstory, their motives. Just pure, relentless evil – which always arises in times of crisis or survival. There is actually an artistic reason for taking the approach that I did. It wasn’t “wrong”. But for the purposes of movie-making, my approach didn’t sit well with this producer. He wanted names, motives, and reasons to fear them, and cheer their inevitable defeat.
How To Approach A Rewrite
I can’t speak for any other writer, but based on my experience rewriting Deep Freeze, here are some of the lessons I learned.
Take Some Time Away From The Story
There are two temptations I felt in the first week or so, both of them wrong. The first is to say, “Screw it!” and walk away from the project. There are times with an idea or a project when yes, you count your losses and move on. But not with one rejection letter from your query, or one producer who says, “Not for me.” Especially when you get some serious nibbles with a project – as with mine – you continue to peck away at it.
Give people a reason to fork over $15 for two hours and come away feeling good about it.
But not right away. The second temptation is to dive right in to the rewrite, with an, “I’ll show them!” kind of spite. But I doubt this seriously moves the needle forward to where you want to be. Any rewriting you do will likely be only window-dressing, and not repair the main potholes in the story.
So just walk away, simmer down, go play a week of golf, or do what I did, and take six weeks and start a new ministry. (Seriously – go to trainyourselfministry.com. This was launched in the aftermath of receiving my notes.)
When you spend so much time with a particular story, you get locked in to seeing it only a certain way. Time is needed to dislodge yourself from that track you’ve been on.
Slowly Invite The Story Back Into Your Life
Every writer has a different approach to writing. Some discover their story in the process of writing. Others cover their desk, walls, and pets with index cards, creating and arranging scenes on an elaborate storyboard. I like to walk with a story for quite awhile, sometimes days, before I sit down to write.
I envision scenes and structure and dialogue while I’m out jogging or having my afternoon coffee. This was how I wrote sermons. After reading and studying my passage or topic, I spent the rest of the day doodling, boogie-boarding, cutting the lawn, and then the following day I could literally sit down and write a twelve page sermon without stopping in three or four hours.
That’s what happened with this rewrite. (And granted, we’re talking about a major rewrite, which is what this needed to be. If we’re talking about sprucing up some dialogue or adding a scene, disregard everything I’ve said.)
I knew the movie had to begin at the end of the storm – when all the action kicks into high gear – and not the beginning. But for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to do it. How do you just pass over the genesis of a 30-40 foot snowstorm?
But after walking with the story for a few days, sometimes bribing it with cookies, and sometimes holding it at gunpoint and demanding that it spill its precious secrets, one early morning (4 or 5am), it suddenly played out in my mind, just like a movie. The first two scenes in their entirety were just there. I got up and wrote the first three pages in ten minutes. And they remain largely untouched in the final revision.
Find Your Motivation And Write
If you don’t know my story, I’m a 25-year pastor who is taking a bold, arguably stupid, year off from ministry (i.e. earning a paycheck), living off of retirement savings (something in your early 50s you’re not supposed to do), so that I can get on paper as many writing projects as I can that have been piling up in my heart for years.
The clock is ticking and so my project list is very tight right now, with not a lot of time to squeeze things in. But a few weeks ago, I came across a screenplay contest that caught my eye, and suddenly the thought was there: Let’s get Deep Freeze done for that.
Turns out the best I could do was not the best I could do. There was more inside me, but it took someone outside of me to bring it to the surface.
With that tiny, little push, I cleared my slate and calendar, and a few days ago, after about ten days of constant coffee, no social media, and tethering myself to the computer, wrote “The End” on a bright, new, lean, mean (103 pages opposed to 118, another “note” from the producer – “It’s TOO LONG!”) Deep Freeze.
It feels good to shave, and walk outside again (Hey, how come it’s getting dark so early now? When’d that happen?!) I feel invigorated, and hopeful. (Though give it a day, and for no reason at all, other than that I’m a writer, I’ll feel dejected and filled with self-loathing.)
I honestly think the story is far better than what it was. Come to find out, I wasn’t writing to please a particular producer, I was writing to please me.
My first ten pages are better. You better not be getting popcorn when the credits roll, or you’ll miss an amazing beginning. All the major players and stakes are introduced in Act One. You’re ready to fasten your seat belts and hang on for the ride. You’ll laugh, you’ll cheer, you’ll hide your eyes, you’ll get faked out by a brand new James Cameron double-ending that I’ve added (a great dramatic, happy ending where you think everyone’s safe, until NOT SO FAST, here comes twice as much trouble.)
Whether my HBO contact grants this a second look-over is out of my control. But none of this satisfaction I’m feeling right now would be there if I had just said to myself, “That’s good enough. That’s the best I could do.”
Turns out the best I could do was not the best I could do. There was more inside me, but it took someone outside of me to bring it to the surface. And for that I’m grateful.