Writing Is Rewriting. Sort Of.

Hello dear reader,

Your friendly neighborhood Handsome Timmy D here. Who I am, what I’m doing and where that name came from will all become abundantly clear as my blogging adventures continue. As will other salient details such as my favorite color, TV shows, why people taller than me make me nervous and that I have no fear of needles. I used to have a blog on the old Myspace (dating myself here) that was pretty well received for the most part and am glad to finally bring it back.  If you’re nice (and lucky) I will repost a few of those as well. The point is, it’s a big old internet community and I’m glad to offer some thoughts here and there that I hope you find interesting.

I’ve been working as a reality TV producer for 10 years. I sometimes apologize for damaging society/pop-culture, but I mean that jokingly. The entertainment industry is a massive multi-faceted juggernaut and reality TV is just one arm. I’m damn proud of the shows I’ve worked on, even if some of them aren’t things I’d watch, myself. Every show has an audience and that audience deserves hard work from every member of the crew, myself especially included.

But my real passion is writing. I wrote scripts in high school, studied film & screenwriting in college (Emerson – I’ll let you figure out the year) but was side-tracked in those endeavors by a few other careers before settling here in LA to pursue the ever elusive dream of making a living stringing words together in the hope someone responses, “hey, that’s pretty neat.” Despite many years experience, writing is a craft that requires constant mastery, ever slippery as we try to dig our pens in.

It’s difficult for anyone who doesn’t write stories on a regular basis to understand the challenges associated with what Norman Mailer called the “spooky art.” I won’t try to tell you it’s harder than anything else, but it’s harder than many people think. A lot of people think it’s just a whirlwind of fun all the time, others think that we sit at the computer and the genius pours out like light from a refrigerator left open, and some others think it’s just silliness; an unrealistic way to make a living. Even here in Hollywood, writing is seen by many circles as an annoyance, an necessary obstacle in the way of the real fun – making movies.
It’s a tricky thing to figure out, and I daresay most of us writers grapple with just figuring it out, and not feel crazy as we string words together, act our parts out loud and even get too emotionally involved in our characters’ all-too-fictitious lives. Now, I’m all for demystifying writing to a pragmatic level so that aspiring writers continue (or start) to put pens to paper. BUT there are some little quips out there that make me cringe a little bit and I feel I’m experienced enough to say why. “Start late, leave early”, “write what you know” and “writing is rewriting” are among the main culprits offered as words of comfort by writers & non-writers alike as reminders of what to do or how to do it. But they make me bristle in a sense because, at the risk of sounding too literal, they’re not only a little too simple – but also can obscure the real work. Sitting, anguishing over specific words, descriptions or endlessly tearing apart dialogue and character motivations, I’ve never once stopped and thought,”writing is rewriting, that’s it!”

Let’s concentrate on that one this week. “Writing is rewriting.” Of all the above axioms, this is the one the drives me the most nuts. I’ve had many many people say this to me, usually like it’s ground-breaking wisdom, and I just nod and smile, not wanting to offend. But saying writing is rewriting is like saying football is tackling. Tackling is an essential part of football. Every player gets tackled and every player at some point in time in his career will tackle – even guys like the kicker. But if you walk into a coach’s office and say, “Hey coach, don’t worry, football is tackling” you’ll be thrown out faster than Donald Sterling at a Wu-Tang Clan record release party.

OF COURSE you’ll rewrite what you wrote. Sometimes endlessly. Sometimes (usually) the beginning of a script is rewritten dozens of times within a single draft. There are countless options to be explored when crafting a story and those options should be diligently explored. And within those rewrites, many an answer and solution to the story’s problems will be found.

Now of course I understand, some people get frozen, fearful that if the next page isn’t perfect, they can’t proceed. And some people get so intimidated by the idea of writing, that writing even the first pages are too terrifying for them to attempt. I totally get that “writing is rewriting” can be a useful reminder to not be so hard on themselves and just get on with it. I’m not unsympathetic. And if you’re a writer sitting at the laptop or typewriter mumbling “writing is rewriting” as you power through your very first draft, more power to you. This blog is not meant as a buzzkill, just an attempt to dig deeper at some of these offhand comments and why they should be taken with a grain of salt.

Because it’s not unusual for some things not to be rewritten. I recently read various drafts of the movie “Alien” (if you’ve never seen Alien, go watch it RIGHT NOW). Over the course of those drafts, across several different writers, some of the dialogue never changed. Like not even a little bit (for example; “Hell of a defense mechanism. You don’t dare kill it”). Sequences like the face-hugger and acid blood also remained unchanged, if not tweaked here and there for details. If something works, it works. If you’re writing something that REALLY embodies the vision of the script and the story you want to tell – you are in fact, allowed to keep it. I’ve had some other writers say to me, “I feel guilty because I feel like I HAVE to rewrite it.” Why? If it works, it works.

That said, of course, if it doesn’t work, then it is the writer’s job to leave no stone unturned and go to any lengths rewriting to find what does work, what does embody the story, what does bring the characters to life, what does embody the vision and make the reader/viewer go “WOW.”

(***Side-Note: “Man, that line of dialogue was so great, I bet it went through 30 rewrites,” said no viewer ever)

Writing requires honesty and truth. Truth to the characters (Don Draper is not just joining the circus one day). Truth to the subject matter (imagine if some space aliens landed in the middle of The Wire – YIKES). Truth to themselves. Sometimes the meaning of the story changes over the course of the work; one sets out to write a divorce drama and ends up telling a story about how we blame others instead of ourselves. But a writer can stray too far from their vision, overcorrect and rewrite to the point where what they end up with is not at all something they know, recognize or worse – something they no longer believe.

A writer has to believe in their words and the worlds they create. If they don’t, then there’s not a soul on the planet who will, except maybe long-suffering parents. We believe Don Draper, Walter White, Han Solo and even Roger Rabbit (who’s partnered with a man shattered by alcoholism, don’t forget) because within those worlds, those characters have to live, breath and function as well as anyone on this plane of reality. Sometimes that believability is found within rewrites, absolutely. Sometimes that believability is sweated out in months of treatments and outlines. I’ve had experience with both scenarios. I highly highly highly recommend finding (or getting as close as possible to) the voices of your characters long before your first draft because finding it during rewrites is a really harsh way to lose sleep and regular eating habits. (But Tim, that voice may change again over constant rewrites & during production. Yup. That’s the process)

Writing is a painful search for that truth. Creating fictional conflict usually means tapping into the fathomless reservoir of conflict and pain we all are carrying around in our souls. I have openly wept while writing stories that feature domestic violence. Sounds pretentious, yeah, but it’s worth it if I want that conflict and pain to resonate with you, dear reader. Even writing something melodramatic and banal requires soul-searching. And most comedies, you’ll notice these days, feature their characters hitting rock-bottom. As a writer this means we must venture forth into very dark aspects of our memories, experience and life itself. And because we rewrite extensively, we get to do it over and over and over again.

Rewriting is a part of the process, it’s just one spoke in the wheel. And writing is not just rewriting because it neglects the first and most fundamental part of the process: Writing. Many mentors, professional writers and producers with whom I’ve had the privilege of discussing this subject always extoll the importance of writing and getting it done – a lot more than the process of rewriting. For reals. (A former agent once told me he guessed about 70% of aspiring screenwriters don’t actually write.) Put the pen to the paper, put the idea down. Make the story as real and honest as possible. Do not be afraid to face those things you fear most. Once the story is there and done, yes, then the work of shaping, crafting and polishing happens. But that can’t happen unless it’s down there in the first place.

And write it well!! The first draft doesn’t have to be perfect (in fact, it won’t be, they never are) and it might have even have a lot more problems than you’ll care to admit. But that’s no excuse not to give your all to every scene, every line and most importantly – the voice of every single character. The better your first draft, the farther along the road you’ll be, the stronger your vision will be – and you’ll understand what changes need to be made.

So yes, writing is rewriting. And hell of a lot more.

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