Monday, 25 June 2012


A short post for a Monday morning, written in a style reflecting its content; which is to say, quickly.

It occurs to me that my preferred method of writing has shifted in the last twelve months.  There’s an old question, “how long does it take to write a screenplay?”, which has an old answer: “about six months, but only the last two weeks are actually spent writing”.  This has been very much my style, over the past ten years or so.  Research and plan and structure and character outline and procrastinate as much as you can, until there’s nothing left to do but write the damn thing.  Lock yourself away, cabin in Wales etc, eight to ten pages a day, two weeks later you’re done.

The new shift is an evolution of that process.  Almost a year ago, I was brought in on a rewrite job that had a very tight schedule.  I had two weeks to deliver a page one rewrite, after which there would be a go / no go decision on production.  So, in theory, this job would accord to the equation above, just without the first five and a half months of contemplative prep time.  As it turned out, I spent the first week finishing another job and still doing some rather compressed research / plan / structure / procrastination work.  Which left me a week to write a totally new script.  And so I did it.  Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm, one quasi-monastic lifestyle and twenty pages a day.

It wasn’t even that hard.  I’d won the job off the back of a pretty detailed beat sheet, so its back had been broken.  (Sidebar – why didn’t I get paid for that?  A gnarly old question...)  Then it was a case of getting into a routine.  Four hours in the morning, three or four pages an hour, the odd cup of coffee and invigorating stroll in between.  Then a bit of lunch, bit of an email, maybe look up some points that needed clarification.  Then the same again in the afternoon, two till six.  Home for tea, crumpets and bedtime stories.  There are worse ways to spend the day.  True, you’re knackered in the evening, and not great company, but it’s only for a few days.

And it wasn’t a bad draft.  It was a first draft, sure, but it would have been a first draft even if I’d taken two or three or four weeks to write it.  And in some respects, I think it was all the better for being written very quickly.  Primarily, I felt like it had momentum.

It was a thriller, so this element was particularly important.  But surely all good stories have momentum, a desire to see what comes next, a breathlessness, an excitement.  I became my own most demanding audience member.  I found myself writing in (roughly) ten page chunks, which in itself isn’t a bad way to think about your script.  I’d write ten pages in the morning.  Then I’d re-read them after lunch, wondering if I had crammed as much action, tension, complication and entertainment into those ten pages as I possibly could.  A bit of a review, a bit of a tweak.  Then I’d look ahead to the next ten pages.  Where were they taking my story?  Were they answering the questions I had set up, and posing new ones?  Would I end the next section in a dramatically different situation to how I had started it?  And then I’d go on and write it.  And in the next morning I’d review, tweak, look ahead, rinse, repeat.

Like I said, it worked pretty well.  It wasn’t perfect, but at the very least it was a coherent expression, in screenplay form, of the ten page beat sheet I had earlier.  And, at the very very least, people who read it could start to evaluate it as a potential movie, rather than as a prose document.  And that is the other great advantage of the First Draft Splurge Technique (as I’m about to patent it).  Good or bad, at least it’s a screenplay.  Good or bad, at least it’s a hundred pages, with scenes and characters and dialogue.  Then, as we all know, the real work begins, but at least now you have a starting point.

[The one danger of this approach, to my mind, is that it’s harder to change things once they have made it into a script, than when they are just a bullet point in a beat sheet.  Character traits, lines of dialogue, scene order all have a way of rooting themselves into the story – at least in the writer’s head – once they are chiselled into the first draft, and so subsequent changes are that much harder to make.  But this is a relatively minor disadvantage, and one which training and a sense of professionalism will allow you to overcome in time.  It’s massively outweighed by the energy and momentum that this process can generate and, of course, the fact that you now have a script.]

So, to summarise (these things are never as short as I intend them to be – a lesson on rewriting there), I’ve adopted this as my general approach to my first drafts.  I’ve written four new scripts in the last twelve months using it.  Two weeks is for pussies.  Prep and prep and prep and prep till you can’t prep any more.  Then twenty pages of first draft a day, for a week.  Screenplay, bang.  Easy.  Last week I beat my own personal record.  Day 1: to page 10.  Day 2: to page33.  Day 3: to page 58.  Day 4: to page 92, end.  I hardly stopped to blink.  Momentum in writing equals momentum in the script, or so I’m increasingly finding.

I’d welcome comments on this post from other writers with their own approaches to the first draft.  Hollywood rewriters will probably tell me one week is for pussies.  They do it OVERNIGHT.