Balls of Steel: Rewrite from the Gut

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You’d think after becoming a Creative Screenwriting Expo finalist, we’d stop rewriting Slavery by Another Name (SBAN) and consider it “done.” Well, you don’t know me then.

I’m a competitive freak, and the fact is, being a finalist is an honor, but it’s not winning. A panel of judges considered another script better than ours. When any competition bitchslaps me, I come back the only way I know how … with a rewrite.

The benefit of being a finalist is we know the script is good. But now we need to make it great. I immediately went back through all the notes I’ve received over the past year and asked, “Jeanne, what’s your gut instinct?”

Change from co-protagonist to single protagonist.

Oh yeah, baby, this is no minor rewrite. I don’t do anything half-ass.

When I looked at my own notes scribbled in earlier versions, I saw penciled in the margin, “Is he really our guy?” Every time I wrote for him, I struggled. I knew something was off before I finished draft one, but I didn’t trust my instincts. Instead I let myself be swayed by what I thought Hollywood would want.

That is lesson number one. Yes, you need to write a marketable script you can sell, but once you have that high-concept hook, you need to make this story your own. Give it your perspective and your voice. Tell it in a way only you can tell it. That’s what this rewrite is – authenticity of our writing voice and pushing this story to the next level.

To really push this sucker up the hill, we needed a stronger lead. So today, I sat down with colored index cards – blue for the old protagonist, green for the new – and spread them around my gigantic dining room table. No one is allowed to eat until I’m done.

Social services will be here any minute, I’m sure.

Someone tweeted the other day stating they do three or four rewrites and wanted to know how many I had done of SBAN. I truthfully have no idea. And I don’t care. I’ll rewrite this a hundred more times if that’s what it takes.

I want it done right. Period.

Listen to your gut. Always. But the bigger lesson is, it’s never too late to fix it. That is what a rewrite is for. Don’t be afraid to hack your script to pieces. What’s the worst that can happen? If it doesn’t work, just go back to the last solid version you had.

Most importantly, trust you gut. When you read notes, don’t change things unless you believe they should be changed. This is the only time you will have full control of your work. Don’t take the chance of submitting it before it’s ready and then having to make changes based on the execs wishes. The reality is, the closer to a shooting script you can give them, the less fearful they’ll be of being stuck in development hell.

So rip that sucker apart and see what diamonds are hiding within. And don’t be afraid to step outside of the box.

Outside the boundaries is where great scripts hide.

For more detailed and unique tweaking tips, click on Balls of Steel: Editing is Murder. If you need more advice, check out the transcript from last week’s Scriptchat on rewrites.

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9 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: Rewrite from the Gut

  1. Gino

    Good article. I will like to add that the concept of the rewrite is undefined and as such can be confusing. For instance, anytime I change anything in my script I save a new copy. So when I look on my computer I can have easily 60 different versions of my script. To me a “rewrite” is when you make fundamental changes to your story. I’m sure everyone has different definitions and that causes confusion. I believe the most important point to take from your article is that a story needs to evolve until it can stand on its own.

  2. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Tina, Jamie, Judy and Keith, sorry for the delay. I’ve been…well… rewriting.

    Yes, the artist always sees the flaws. In fact, this post has inspired me to write another one on how to know if it’s time to just walk away from a project. I’ll have that one out in a couple of weeks.

    The true reason I don’t know the exact number of rewrites we’ve done on SBAN is because I have never counted because how many times we’ve revistited the script is irrelevant. All that matters is it eventually is done well enough to get produced. Is that three times, four times, 62 times? Hell if I know.

    No writer can set a number to stop at and expect it to miraculously be polished enough. I can’t predict when the “ah ha” moment will arrive… though I think this one is the one (she says expecting to eat crow later).

  3. Keith

    “Jeanne, what’s your gut instinct?” And: Push it to the next level.

    As one who’s revised a different kind of work for years, I say trust that revision instinct. And, with your proven Pulitzer winner, fear of rejection isn’t even in the cards.

    I’ve missed your column, but figured you were busy busy busy, resolved resolved resolved, and sure enough …

    And by the way, Schindler’s List must have been a great draw for young people, including teens. I have only to remember my own teen hunger for good films: how glad I was to attend some film that stirred my deepest longings, how glad to discuss it with classmates. You are beyond doubt tapping into the same need, the same grand themes, the same audience longing.

  4. Judy

    “Don’t be afraid to hack your script to pieces. What’s the worst that can happen?”

    Great advice. A truly passionate writer is never completely satisfied, even when it’s deemed perfect by others. Just like a painter whose painting is never really done, or a gardener who’s constantly changing things up – color combinations, depth, movement, timing, focal points. The artist always sees the flaws even when others can’t.

  5. Tina

    Hi Jeanne, I always enjoy your column. Rewrite turns out to be my worst nightmare. But of course you are right, writing from the gut is the only way to do this and to keep the energy up. thanks

  6. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Erica, I’m deeply touched you’re enjoying my words. I’ll keep the bar high for you!

    Deke, I absolutely do not take your comments the wrong way and appreciate the honesty. I understand what you’re saying, but what you don’t know is I have many other scripts and projects I’m working on, and have been pitching scripts for years, most recently pitching TV shows to the biggest production company out there. This is but one project of mine, and is indeed my passion project… and the project Script Mag wanted to follow for this column. As for producers reactions, I can count on one hand the number of production companies that have read it. That is simply because I refuse to paper the town with a script that isn’t stellar. This is an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Therefore, the bar for our work is even higher than the average spec script. As for it’s marketability, both Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt are doing films based in this same world, neither of which are teen subjects. Remember, Schindler’s List isn’t exactly a teen movie, now is it? Intelligent viewers are out there. Doug’s book is now required reading in universities across our country. I will never get bored with this project. Hell, it took Christopher Nolan ten years to make Inception. Should he have quit? I think not. Bottom-line, we all have our own threshold for rejection. I haven’t even come close to reaching mine.

  7. Deke

    Please don’t take this wrong, but could the problem be that this subject is just not right for the current big Hollywood studio market? As a man in his fifties, I find the subject interesting and compelling, but it doesn’t sound like it would resonate with the teen market or date night crowd. It proabably would play as an independent film to a smaller audience. Maybe this is what’s keeping producers away. I wish you the best of luck and know you’ve poured your heart and soul into this, but maybe it’s time to start another project. You can always come back to it after having future success. I rewrite about seven times and then move on to my next project. I get bored and have too many other stories to tell to spend time kicking a dead horse.

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