Not finished – just abandoned

I’m in a celebratory mood this week, as I just completed drafting a new screenplay.  It’s not “finished” to the degree of finality you you’d expect for, in the words of Leonardo da Vinci, “Art is never finished; merely abandoned.”  So with that in mind, I am ready to abandon this one for the time being and see where it takes me, but it does lead me to want to answer a question I’m asked with alarming frequency; “how long does it take you to write a screenplay?”

In the case of the one just completed, the answer is easy – one year; twelve months, 365 days and so forth.  That’s one year, from sitting at this very desk and outlining the story, to typing Fade To Black and The End.  That’s been the average in my experience.

Now, that’s not to say the entire year was spend writing; in this case, I spent a month writing the detailed treatment and character bios, let six months pass before tackling the first rough draft, then another six passed before tackling the second pass, the result being the First Draft.   Bearing that in mind, it was actually twelve weeks of work; three months of actual physical put-your-ass-in-your-chair-and-write work.  And those twelve weeks of actual work came only after seven years of the idea sitting in the back of my brain, gathering dust and waiting for me to nut up and get to it.

[Lest I blow any chance of working for anyone ever again, I wrote all eight hours of RoboCop Prime Directives between January and August of 1999.  That’s four movies in eight months – you do the math.  If I’m doing nothing but solid writing I can bang out a solid 6 pages a day and be done a draft in four weeks.  The fastest I’ve ever drafted a movie was three weeks, and that was because a frankly ridiculous deadline had been imposed on me that I met if only to prove I could meet it (I did meet it too, so there).  But generally, when hired to write a screenplay the entire process, from contracting to meetings and treatments to drafts and rewrites and more meetings all the way to the final draft in my contract winds up being one year anyway.  I’ve never missed a deadline.

Anyway, a year seems to be the norm to get something into good enough shape to be seen.  That’s because it’s the “down period” between drafts that the real work is done.  I fill this time by working on other projects; magazine work, comic books, my long in gestation novel, and other work-for-hire assignments.  I’m never *not* working – even when I’m away from my desk. The time away from my own work serves as a palate cleanser so, when I finally decide to open the old file and read what I wrote I can look at it with a fresh perspective.

Writing is an art form, and there are two classical schools of art that apply to writing; painting, and sculpture.  I fit into the latter category – I’ll spill everything I have onto the page to get it out of my head and onto paper, before I can begin work in earnest.  I’ll start to cut, to chisel away at words and sentences and paragraphs, polish and chisel and chip away at the raw material until the shape of the story emerges from the page, like a statue emerges from marble.   For example, if you click on this:

Assuming you can decipher my scrawl, you’ll see a lot of notes scribbled in the margin, a lot of stuff crossed out and replace, or omitted entirely.  That’s how I work; by taking that great big slab of raw material and whacking it with a hammer until I find what I’m looking for in it.  That process of refinement is the end and the beginning of the process; it all starts with the idea.

In the case of the recently completed project, it began life as a pitch for a job penning a remake of an old suspense thriller.  I never got the job – actually I never got the chance to pitch it, as the company in question ended up axing pretty much their entire development staff right before Christmas and let the remake rights lapse in the process. So while I never got the chance to pitch the remake, the approach I had to it was unique enough that it could stand on its own as an original piece of work.  All I needed to do was sit down and write the thing.

This was 2003.

Cut to 2009 and found myself at that point between one job and the next, where I ask myself (or more apropos, my wife asks me) what I plan to work on next.  I had a couple ideas, none of which were really exciting me at the time, when she asked about that project – the suspense thriller remake.  I hadn’t forgotten it by any means, but it had been relegated to the dust heap.  I wanted to go onto something new and fresh, but found myself coming back to the old concept. I had been itching to draft a high-concept thriller for a while, something stripped down and minimalist compared to the previous few projects I worked on.  I rummaged through the files and found some early draft outlines – a page here, a scene there, and decided to expand on them, string together the various bits, and see if there was a story in all that mess.  A month later, I had a 30 page treatment that was pretty good, I thought, and decided to put it away for a bit.

That bit became March 2010, when I pulled the treatment out, gave it a read, and felt ready to tackle a draft of it, which I did over the next four weeks.  Upon completion, I shoved it in the drawer and forgot about it until late September, when I pulled it out and read it over, pen in hand, marking the pages up as you have already seen.  Once I got through the edit pass, I got back to work on it and spent the following two weeks inputting the revisions and then rewriting the entire thing all over again, right up until 12:30 pm on Friday October 15th when I finished it; “Finished” in the “ready for some constructive and brutal feedback by my usual stable of readers” sense, not the “stick a fork in it” sense.

Anytime I actually reach The End of a project, I’m only reminded of how much further its journey has to go.  There will be rewrites, there will be changes, and at some point I’ll send it out into the world and hope it becomes one of the lucky few to land a home someplace.  But for now, I’m just pleased that the characters, scenarios and story that’s been rattling around my skull for seven years finally has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Now all it needs is a title.

This may take a while …