I used to coach my daughter Danielle in acting. She’d get a casting call for a movie or television role, and we’d look at the script and try to figure out what it was that the director would want. If it was a Disney movie, they might want one style of acting, while a dramatic television would want another.
Then as we drove the 40 miles to the audition, I’d have her go through each line. Usually when she started, she sounded like an actor, and you could hear the pretense in her voice. But as we got her to look deeper into herself, perhaps drawing emotion from something that happened earlier in her life, she’d hit a point where her lines came out sounding authentic.
She usually got the role. If you can deliver the lines and you look the part, that’s really all that the directors need.
But this last week, I went through a similar audition. A movie producer was having me work on a film script, and he was hoping to break the stigma that novelists have in Hollywood. You see, producers and directors and studio heads tend to have a prejudice and believe that novelists can’t write screenplays.
This prejudice comes from the fact that most novelists aren’t trained to write screenplays. They don’t put stories into pure visual and audio beats. Instead they tend to be a bit wordy and overwrought in their plotting structure. They also tend to editorialize and explain too much in their scene descriptions—as if they’re writing novels.
So I was trying to clean up all of my perfectly worthwhile novel-writing habits so that I could write a good screenplay. This meant that I examined each and every line of the screenplay over and over more than a dozen times. Each time that I finished it, the producer would say, “Okay, go through it again.” Each pass took at least a dozen hours.
As I went through, I asked myself questions like:
- Is this the fewest number of words that I can use to express this thought?
- Can I cut this line out completely?
- Is this the way to say it most powerfully?
- Is this the right emotional beat? (For example, do I want comedy here, or would it be better with adventure or drama or wonder or horror?)
- Is this the best line to end a scene on?
- In my description, will the director be able to see a setting or character without feeling that I’ve over-directed?
- As a new character is introduced, do I let the reader “discover” the character rather than try to describe the character?
- Can I have an actor give a visual response here rather than a verbal one?
- Is the story deepening and broadening at a good pace?
- Am I managing production costs on this story—and is that my job?
- Am I writing using a novelist’s style for punctuation, or am I following screenwriter guidelines?
- Do I see a good opportunity to add a surprise or a reveal in the story?
And the list goes on. As I went through the story over and over I found myself editing at a level I haven’t had to use for 20 years. I felt like a dance instructor who immediately ends a near-flawless performance by telling the student, “Once more, this time with passion.”
And you know what? Each time that I did it, the piece got better and better.
As a novelist, I usually edit a book about six times—not twelve or twenty. But if you have been paying attention, you may have heard me say that “Writing is easy, but writing beautifully is incredibly hard.”
It takes work and repetition, a constant push for perfection.
Writing is a performance art, and as with music and dance, you want a flawless performance. With a novel, you need to nail your performance, get it perfect. The great thing about a novel is that once you get to that last draft and you feel that your performance is breathtaking, you don’t have to get up and recite the whole novel the next morning. Unlike what Homer did three thousand years ago. It’s written on the page, ready for everyone to enjoy.
You want to know the secret to writing success? Write harder!
Writer’s Peak Announcement
It has been brought to my attention that for some people, travel can be expensive for a one day workshop. I completely agree. That’s why we are opening up the live Writer’s Peak workshop to the world by allowing folks to view it live on Zoom. We will also have it broken into tapes for you so that you can re-watch it. We can’t do more than about 25 live-feeds, but I hope this opens up the opportunity to those who live farther away.
You can learn more about the workshop itself on my website, MyStoryDoctor.com