browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.

From Dreaming to Writing

Posted by on September 15, 2010

I’ve always had big dreams for my writing. As a kid, I probably started at least a dozen novels, imagining the artwork on the front cover and practicing the pose for my picture on the back. In high school, I decided I was going to be a great filmmaker, and I wrote and directed numerous short films, all the while preparing for my Oscar-winning speech. After I entered college, however, I realized that the road between starting an original screenplay and giving that Oscar-winning speech was far longer than I’d imagined; in fact, I wasn’t even sure what the road looked like.

For a while I became depressed and disheartened. Just completing a rough draft of my first full-length script had been a grueling process, and the end result was bad enough to bring tears to my eyes. I had started with what I thought was a fresh, hip, cutting edge idea about celebrity and paparazzi, only to discover that what ended up on the page was lame, cliché, and boring. For some reason I was under the impression that great writers, those that make acceptance speeches for little golden statues, just spewed forth beautiful words and characters and incredible twists directly onto the paper. I obviously was not one of those. What I failed to realize, and what took me several years past college to learn, was that writing was a craft, like any other thing that is shaped with the hands and the mind.

The problem for me was that I always had an easy time writing. I could crank out an A paper with little to no revision. My prewriting consisted mostly of idea generation in my head; revision was more on the editing level, rather than the actual manipulation of ideas and structure. I skated through high school with ease, and even college-level papers presented no major stress. Because I could write essays and papers in a single draft, I assumed my creative writing would be the same.

After I graduated college, I found myself with three different screenplays, all of which were first drafts…and poor first drafts at that. I didn’t know where to go from there. Oh, I knew about the writing process; I understood that I should go back and revise these drafts, but in truth I didn’t know how to actually do this. These weren’t ten to fifteen page papers, or even the twenty page short scripts and stories I was used to. These were pieces of writing one hundred and twenty pages in length, with far more scenes and complicated narratives than I was used to dealing with. I couldn’t grasp the big picture, couldn’t see the scripts as a whole, nor as a combination of their parts or scenes.

I was faced with the dire reality of my situation: I was a screenwriter without a screenplay. I still had those fantasies I’d harbored from childhood, but I realized that at that moment, I was not a writer—I was merely a dreamer. If I wanted to turn those dreams into a reality, I had to discover and perfect my craft.

So I went back to the very beginning. I remembered that old cliché, “write what you know.” I’d always thought, “Write what I know? But what I know isn’t exciting.”  I was writing script coverage at the time, reading four or five scripts a week, and I realized that the reason most of them were bad (terrible, really) was that there was no feeling of reality to them. So that’s where I started. Authenticity. I wrote what I knew, which was Onalaska, the small, rural logging town where I grew up in southwest Washington State. I peopled my story with characters based off of the different personalities of this small town. Excited, I began to do something I’d never done before: prewriting. I made notes, did freewrites, brainstorming lists, outline after outline. I wrote the opening scene, then a scene at the end, and then the middle, not worrying about narrative order, just working on anything that came to mind. Over the next six months a story emerged.

I wrote every possible chance I had: nights, weekends, early mornings before work. I began to discover techniques that worked for me, such as using Excel to maintain a running outline of my story, allowing me to get a quick overview of plot points and scene location. It became apparent to me that the writing process was not a linear series of steps, but a fluid one. I drafted, and then I brainstormed and outlined, then I revised, then I outlined some more, then I spent a week writing background information and character studies, and then I drafted some more. I completed a full draft and hated the story; it was too “after-school special”, not real enough, not authentic. I threw it out. I changed my characters and my plot and started over, writing a new first draft. This happened several times as I discarded scene after scene, idea after idea, sometimes poaching scenes or dialogue from a previous draft, sometimes cutting major characters. I learned to step outside my writing, to let go of beloved scenes, to be ruthlessly critical of and tragically in love with my story all at the same time.

Most importantly, I discovered my own personal process of writing. I developed my craft.

It took a year to finally finish my first real screenplay, but it was the most educational year of my life. I’d finally learned how to write. I remember the day when I wrote the final scene. I knew what was coming, I’d written versions of it already, but suddenly I found tears in my eyes. I was locked in, and I was pouring everything onto the page. I wrote the final two words, “The End,” and I knew I’d struck gold.

It didn’t pay off immediately. Writers always talk about how revision is an unending process, and that no piece of writing is ever finished, it’s just that time has run out. I learned this lesson well. My goal for this script was to enter it into the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, and I made the top one hundred. I received a few calls and got a couple of meetings with producers, but nothing panned out. It was validation, however, and that gave me confidence. When the contest deadline rolled around the next year, I went back to my script and entered the revision process again. Having taken some time off, I was able to look at it with fresh eyes, and I immediately saw why it hadn’t moved beyond the semi-finals. I eagerly went to work, adding new scenes, cutting others, rearranging some, and working on character arcs. Again, when I read the finished draft I felt my emotions choke me. I didn’t want to jinx myself, but I knew this was my best work yet.

I had to wait for four months before I received a notification from the Nicholl committee: I’d made the finals, the top ten. It was now a fifty-fifty chance for the Fellowship, thirty thousand dollars, and a chance at that dream. The call came right before I was about to go to class. I sat in my truck and listened in disbelief when the committee chairman told me I was a Nichol fellow. My process worked. I’d moved one step closer to my dream. I was now a writer.

Leave a Reply