August 3, 2012 / 2 Comments

Cut to the Quick

            Two cutting references in two weeks.  Hmmmm…

            Bonus points and a vocabulary star if any of you actually know what that title phrase refers to.  No, don’t cheat and look it up.  Be honest about what you know and what you don’t.
            So, since I was away editing for a bit I though this would be a good time to toss up some thoughts on editing.  I’ve been doing this professionally for almost a decade now–full time for close to six years–and I still need to do lots of editing.  It’s just one of those unavoidable truths–99.9999% of us don’t write usable first drafts.
            For the record, that .0001% is Paul Haggis, so don’t think you’re the exception.  He is.  And it took him thirty years to become the exception.
            Cutting is painful, though, because it means losing lots of stuff.  I poured my heart into the first draft of 14, but in the end I still needed to cut over 20,000 words from it.  That’s a hundred pages, gone.  And it’s a leaner, tighter, stronger book because of it.
            Well, because of most of it.
            Knowing that my writing needs work is a strength.  It’s not admitting failure.  It’s admitting I can improve, and if someone can’t admit that they’re never going to improve.
            The thing is, so many folks think making cuts means lopping off entire subplots or removing well-developed characters or cutting out that three page monologue from a random guy on the street explaining how tax cuts for the rich are really good for the middle class.  Editing doesn’t mean cutting all that (although you probably could lose that monologue and not a lot of folks will complain).  It can mean just a general tightening and trimming of all the little things. 
            Think of those Olympic swimmers, runners, and bicyclists.  They know that shaving their exposed hair and wearing tight clothes reduces drag.  Not by much, but the little things pile up and can make the difference between a gold medal and a silver one. 
            So here’s a couple very easy, straightforward ways you can make cuts and maybe trim a few thousand words from your writing…
            That— Whenever I start editing, I always start with a “that” pass.  It’s a word we all drop into our writing in an attempt to be grammatically perfect, but four out of five times the writing would be just as clear (and more concise) without it.
            Phoebe thought that Wakko would love her new dress.
            He chose the same weapon that his predecessor had used.
            Phoebe thought Wakko would love her new dress.
            He chose the same weapon his predecessor had used.
            On my first pass through 14 I removed over 600 uses of that.  That’s over two pages.  In Ex-Communication, I cut over 200 of them.  Use the Find feature in Word (it’s up there under Edit) and search for it in your writing.  See how often it shows up.  Check how many of them are necessary.  Odds are you’ll find at least half of them aren’t.
            Adverbs—  This is usually my second pass through the editing draft.  This time I use Find to locate all the places “ly” shows up.  I can admit it—as I get caught up in the flow of words a lot of adverbs sneak into my writing.  And they’re pretty useless…
          They all screamed loudly at the approaching psychopath.
          “Shut your damn mouth, bitch,” snapped Phoebe angrily.
          He eagerly grabbed the statue he’d spent weeks searching for.
            Do those adverbs add anything to their sentences?  Would a reader figure out that Phoebe was angry, or that the scream was loud?  I’d guess three out of five times I find an adverb in my writing I don’t need it.  The fourth time I’ve chosen the wrong verb, and once I’ve got the right one… well, I don’t need the adverb.  If I’m using my vocabulary well, there aren’t many times I’ll need one.  I cut over 500 adverbs and adverbial phrases out of 14 and 330 out ofEx-Communication.
            I heard a great rule of thumb from writer/ editor Pat LaBrutto that I’ve mentioned a few times.  One adverb per page, four adjectives per page.  It’s just a guideline, granted, but if you’re averaging six or seven adverbs per paragraph maybe you should give them all a second look.  And then a third look.
            Useless Modifiers — I’ve also called this Somewhat Syndrome a few times.  This is one I struggle with a lot, but I’m getting much more aware of it.  It’s when I pepper my sentences with  somewhat, almost, a bit, slightly, and other such modifiers.  They show up in dialogue a lot, and sometimes in prose when I’m trying not to sound awkward with a bunch of specifics.
            Nine times out of ten they’re not doing anything, though, except adding to my word count and slowing my story down.  Use the Find feature again, see how many of them are doing anything, and look how much tighter and stronger your writing is without them.  I cut almost 450 of these out of 14and over 200 from Ex-Communication.
            …Of…–The word of can be a flag that something could be cut.  A fair amount of the time, of is being used to tack on an extra bit of description.  More often than not that description’s unnecessary and something the reader already knows.  Which means it’s dragging my prose down and slowing the pace.  There’s a reason we all tend to say United States far more often than United States of America.
            Check out these examples…
Captain Lancaster of the Defiant is here to see you, sir.
The razor-sharp edge of the sword flew through the beast’s neck without hesitation.
Captain Lancaster is here to see you, sir.
The razor sharp edge flew through the beast’s neck without hesitation.
            It’s not a sure-fire thing, but once I went looking I found three or four of these in Ex-Communicationthat could go away.
            Appeared to be…   –This is one of those phrases some people latch onto and use all the time.  It slips into my writing, too.  It tends to be used as an introduction of sorts, leading the reader into some purple-prose description.  This phrase sometimes disguises itself as looked like or seemed to be or some variation thereof.
            The thing is, though, appeared to be doesn’t get used alone.  It’s part of a literary construction where the second half of that structure is either an implied or actual contradiction to the appearance.  So when you’re saying…
            –Phoebe appeared to stand six feet tall.
            …what you’re really saying is…
            –Phoebe appeared to stand six feet tall, but she was actually closer to five foot five without her stiletto heels.
            And what you meant to be saying all along was just…
            –Phoebe stood six feet tall.
            If you aren’t trying to establish a contradiction, using appeared to be and its bastard stepchildren isn’t just wasted words– it’s wrong.  I cut thirteen of these that had slipped into Ex-Communication at one point or another.
            “As you know…” –I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  If you take nothing else from this little rant, take this one lesson.
            “As you know…” is probably the clumsiest form of exposition there is.  Really.  Think about it.  Just by saying “as you know,” I’m stating that you–the person I’m speaking to–already know the facts I’m about to share.  As a writer, why would I have two characters engage in such a useless bit of dialogue?
            When a writer uses “as you know” or one of its half-breed cousins (“you may recall” or “if you remember” or many others), it’s a weak attempt to put out some exposition through dialogue.  My lovely lady pointed out that a lot of these sentences tend to start with “Look…”.  If I’m using any of them, almost across the board there’s either (A) a better way to get the information to the reader or (B) no need for this information because it ‘s already covered somewhere else. 
            If I’ve got a really solid manuscript–I mean rock-solid– I might be able to get away with doing this once.  Just once.  As long as I don’t do it your first ten pages.
            In Ex-Heroesit’s on page 98.
            Anyway, there’s half a dozen quick, easy, and relatively painless cuts.  Try them out and see if you can drop a thousand words or more.
            Next time, I think we’re long overdue for a talk about spelling.  And I’ve got a great list for you this time.
            Until then, go write.
February 27, 2009 / 2 Comments

Duck Season! Wabbit Season! Contest Season!!!

This week’s really for the budding screenwriters who stop by here on a regular basis (all three of you). Writers of prose… next week I promise to have something for you, but feel free to read along. At the core of it, good writing is good writing, and while I’m discussing these things in terms of screenplays there may be a general tip or two to glean here. After all, we’re all just trying to connect with an audience beyond our mom, our significant other, or that weird guy with the beret down at the coffee shop.

Yeah, him. You know who I mean.

So, anyway, you smell that? That sharp tang in the air, like hot mint? That’s contest season, that is. And it’s in full swing. Time to clean off the desk, sharpen our quills, and win an award or three. Perhaps even some cash.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve watched the contest scene from both sides. I’ve placed in a bunch of competitions– and when I say placed I don’t mean I got the honorary quarter-finalist position everyone who entered got. I’ve also read for several contests and spent long weekends going through script after script, often seeing the same basic mistakes (and a few phenomenally original ones) again and again. So I know the kind of things that make a reader cringe and shake their head. In one or two cases, only the timely intervention of booze kept me from gouging my own eyes out..

A few months back I mentioned some of the basic mistakes which quickly add up to sink a script. In a few cases, they can sink it in one shot. If you’re getting ready to send a script out to Austin, AAA, or that great brass ring known as the Nicholl, you should probably check through those first and possibly save yourself thirty or forty bucks.

Once you’ve taken care of the basic stuff, here are a few more hints of things to watch for and avoid.

The Director’s Draft

Every now and then a script shows up littered with stage direction, camera angles, parentheticals, editing notes, and so on. I saw one fellow on a message board who was furious his feedback had told him to eliminate such things, and it had been counted against his screenplay. As he saw it, he was planning to shoot this film himself with his friends, so not only were these notes in his script acceptable– they were necessary!

Alas, they really aren’t, and as a screenwriter you have no business putting them there unless they are absolutely relevant to telling the story. There’s nothing wrong with writing a screenplay to direct yourself, but that’s a different type of script than what you send to a competition. It’s kind of like the difference between a spec draft and an actual shooting script.

When your script goes into a contest, it’s just a script. It isn’t the screenplay you’re going to make with your friends and it certainly isn’t the screenplay you’re going to direct. It’s just a screenplay, one standing up all on its own against all the others in the contest. And if yours is filled with a lot of camera angles and parentheticals that shouldn’t be there, well… that’s probably why it’s going into the large pile on the left.


I talked about this in a post a few weeks back, too, so you can look at that for more specifics. For now, just remember it’s always better to get one polished script submitted to a contest than half a dozen rough ones. No one’s going to win anything with the first draft of a script. Or even the second draft. Focus your efforts and don’t get distracted by every new idea that flutters across your mind’s eye.

Yes, Paul Haggis writes almost flawless first draft scripts. Crash was a first draft. So was Flags of Our Fathers. Paul Haggis has also been writing screenplays professionally for almost thirty years. He was a writer on Diff’rent Strokes, believe it or not. So when your writing resume is that long and you‘ve got so many Oscars you’re using them to prop up crooked tables in the kitchen, feel free to send a first draft off to a contest just for kicks.

Until then, go do another draft.

Therapy Scripts

There’s an interesting sub-group of screenplays that seem to have sprung out of some psychology movement or group coping session. Maybe a class exercise of some kind. Usually they involve someone telling off their mother. Or their father. Or their abusive boyfriend. Or their cheating husband. Many of these scripts involve female protagonists, but only enough so it’s worth mentioning. The overall feeling of them is you’re reading a story somebody wrote to help them work through some issues. The object wasn’t to tell a story, but to cleanse and purge or something like that.

The big problem with these scripts is there’s rarely anything to them beyond this big moment of therapeutic release. Everything leads up to that, and not much happens after it. That moment is all the character development and conflict in the script. So, in the end, it’s just a story about someone throwing out their abusive spouse or learning to trust again or yelling at their shrewish mom. And nobody wants to read that. Not even Oprah. Definitely not a contest reader.

Reality is not a Story Point

Closely related to the therapy script is the reality script. More often than not, the title page or closing cards reassure the reader this tale is, in fact, based on true accounts of me/ my parents/ my best friend/ someone I read about in a magazine article. These are tales of cancer survival (or not), orphans, Rwandan genocides, military struggles, and various other unsung heroes and villains of this world we live in. Alas, sometimes they’re also about struggling writers searching for someone to recognize their genius. Often, the fact this is a true story is stressed to give a certain validity and gravitas to what the reader is about to take in.

Thing is, no one cares if the story is true or not. Nobody. They just care if it’s a good story and it’s well-told. And in that respect, this tale of an orphaned cancer survivor in Rwanda needs to stand up against the story of a black-ops secret agent who teams up with aliens to save the world from prehistoric lizard men that’ve just reappeared with the no-longer-lost continent of Atlantis. Whether or not one is a true story is irrelevant. If one’s difficult to read and the other one isn’t, if one has flat characters and the other one doesn’t, if one’s boring and the other one isn’t– these are what decide if a script is any good or not. In the end, you are telling a story, and it’s either going to have its own validity or it isn’t. Reality just doesn’t enter into the equation for the reader, so it can’t for the writer.

If you want a few more thoughts on this, I talked about this aspect of writing in general way back here.


Believe it or not, I’m a straight man with a long-time girlfriend who loves Broadway and even a number of musical films that have been made over the past decade or so (although she has made comments about some of the things in my iTunes library). Moulin Rouge was fantastic. Dreamgirls was fun. Across the Universe… not so much so.

The point being, though, musical screenplays are almost impossible to pull off as specs and they always make contest readers groan. Lyrics on the page are great, but you can’t assume the reader is going to be someone with a flawless sense of rhythm and pacing. Without the actual music setting the mood and the tone, lyrics are just poetry. Often very awkward and clumsy poetry. Which means they are awkward and clumsy lines of dialogue. And awkward, clumsy dialogue is the kind of thing that gets a script tossed into that left-hand pile.

It’s probably worth noting I’ve seen a few comedy scripts which tried to do parodies of other songs. However, unless you can absolutely guarantee your reader knows the song, this faces all the same issues as the original songs up above. Since most readers are also writers, that means they’re lonely, pathetic shut-ins… definitely not the type of folks you should gamble on knowing the latest Katy Perry, Audioslave, or Rhianna songs.

Fact Check Everything

Well, okay. Not everything. Any screenplay is going to have a degree of stretching the truth and perhaps even ignoring it once or twice.

However, in this wonderful information age we live in, you shouldn’t have any trouble discovering how tall the World Trade Center was ( Tower One stood at 1,368 feet (417 meters)/ 110 stories), if Karnak temple is north or south of the Sphinx (south, by several hundred miles), or when World War Two ended. And it’s important to know these things, because if you say the World Trade Center was twenty-three stories tall and WWII ended in 1951, people are going to call you on it. I know I did. A blatant error is going to stand out, and it’s going to be yet another thing that tells a reader this is not a professional, polished script.

I can admit I’m fairly well-read, and a little quirk in my brain lets me remember a lot more stuff than most people would believe possible. There are a lot of people out there with fields of expertise, though, and they’re going to spot stuff.

Consider this—who’s going to know how many rounds a standard M-16 magazine holds? Or how much it weighs? All sounds a bit obscure, right? Well, now consider in the United States alone there are over 2.28 million enlisted men and women in the armed forces (counting reserves). Let’s double that number to include retirees and folks who’ve been discharged for one reason or another. Now add in all the NRA folks and military enthusiasts who just like this sort of stuff. Suddenly there are a lot of people who are going to be shaking their heads at your “weapons expert” character.

If you can Google a fact, it should be correct. Unless you’ve got a truly spectacular reason why it should be wrong.

The Language Barrier

It’s been said England and the United States are two countries separated by a common language. Feel free to add in Australia and make that relationship a three-way. While we may all speak “English,” anyone who’s traveled (or watched BBC America) knows there are words and phrases that change from country to country.

At the end of the day, though, Hollywood is in America, which means a screenplay going there for a competition should be using American spelling, phrasings, and formatting. It may not be “proper” in your eyes, but it will to your reader. If not, your reader’s going to get distracted by words that look (to his or her eyes) like typos at first glance, and then really distracted when he or she hits an actual mistake.

This is one of the easiest things to fix, though. Through the wonders of the internet, most of us have a friend or three who live in other countries. Get in touch with one of yours and ask them to look through your screenplay. Just go over it and spot some of the odd little differences in spelling, wording, and phrasings that work differently here than they do there. If you don’t have any friends, well… I think the nice lady at A Buck A Page charges pretty reasonable rates.

Remember, two weeks after deadline is not when you want to find out “Tim was nibbling on one of Sophie’s pasties” means something very different in the U.S. than it does in the U.K.

So, polish up, revise, and rewrite. The Page contest isn’t going to win itself, after all.

Next week… I have no idea what we’ll talk about next week, past focusing it on the prose folks. I’ll just start writing next Thursday and we’ll all see what happens.