BALLS OF STEEL: When to Cry Uncle

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After posting, “Rewriting From the Gut,” a recent article about my latest rewrite of Slavery by Another Name, I received the following comment:

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.”

This commenter’s intentions weren’t to insult, but rather to give a gentle shove into the reality all writers face – when is it time to cry, “Uncle” and toss that sucker in a drawer?

For the record, Slavery by Another Name is not my only project, it just happens to be the one I launched this column with and whose journey Script is following.

Whether you have one project or a dozen, the question always looms, when is it time for a writer to admit defeat?

We all have our own individual limits to the amount of sweat and tears we are willing to pour into a project. I would also argue each project has to be evaluated not on time spent, but perhaps on its potential.

“Potential” is a big word that implies more than just the potential of a script to succeed, but the potential of the writer to execute an idea to its fullest.

Does that take one rewrite, three rewrites, or 10? Can you even put a number on it?

I don’t.

How many times I rewrite a script has no bearing on whether I toss it or not. When I’m deciding on walking away from a project, I always ask myself these questions:

  • Am I willing to invest more time writing this?
  • Is the idea marketable?
  • Does the execution match the pitch?
  • Is another similar script or concept already circulating?
  • Is the feedback mostly positive or negative?
  • Am I being stubborn?
  • Does my skin crawl when I open up the file?
  • Is the quality of this script better than my last?
  • Am I the only one in love with this idea?
  • Will I regret walking away?

Sometimes it’s not a matter of the material, but the person you’re writing it with. Writing partnerships go bad, just like marriages. No matter what each person’s intentions are, sometimes you simply can’t agree on the vision for the work. Divorce happens, even in writing. Move on. Another love is waiting, and every script we write is another chance to fall in love.

I recently tossed a script I spent years on, but never did find a burning love in. Instead of being angry or resentful, I feel blessed for what I learned. In every script I write, I learn something. I become a better writer, more knowledgeable about my strengths and weaknesses.

Walking away isn’t a sign of weakness. It takes courage to admit you were wrong about a script. Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing. You have a great idea, go out to pitch, and learn three other projects are floating around just like yours.

It happens. It’s happened to me on more than one occasion.

Sometimes we cling to a project because we don’t want to admit we were wrong, or the idea isn’t good enough. We try to force that square peg into a round hole. No matter how much we shove, it’ll never fit.

Maybe the answer is to switch formats. I have friends who are adapting their feature scripts into TV shows, realizing these characters and circumstances are better suited for a hundred one-hour episodes than a single two-hour film. Or maybe your idea is best suited as a novel, one to be adapted after its Amazon or e-book success.

Think about your overall career goals and how to use those scripts in more original ways than only a theatrical release. Story is story, and many venues need great storytellers – short stories, novels, anthologies, web series, short films, cable TV, etc.  Your idea might fit better in one of those formats, and lead to a different career direction you hadn’t even thought of. Even Paul Haggis started in TV. My bet is he never expected writing for Tootie on Facts of Life would lead him to an Oscar®-winning writing career.

There’s more than one path to success. Don’t be afraid to carve your own.

So take off those rose-colored glasses and look at your work honestly. Is it a passion project leading to a dead end, or have you just not written it to his full potential? Only you know the answer to that; don’t let anyone else try to sway you one way or the other.

Some of the most popular films took a decade to get made. Maybe one of those scripts in your drawer will be the next Inception or Avatar. If you’re honest about its potential and your passion for it, you know the answer already.

As for Slavery by Another Name, I’m not crying “Uncle” anytime soon. The worst that can happen is it never sells, and I have one hell of a writing sample.

How do you determine when to hold ’em or when to fold ’em? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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10 thoughts on “BALLS OF STEEL: When to Cry Uncle

  1. Brainyreviewer

    Lovely post Jeanne. To be honest I had the same thought about your script, simply because you are such an obviously dedicated writer that I thought “wow, if she is still rewriting her script and she was a finalist where does that leave the rest of us?”

    Being between scripts (a completed tv episode, a full length feature I’ve started, and several concepts for short films) I had no idea whether to continue revising the episode or work on the other projects. Your list was very helpful (I especially liked the “does my skin crawl when I open the file”.
    I’m at the point where I can’t even bear to open the file on the first, I think it’s time to gracefully move on. Thanks for the help.

  2. Carl Purdon

    I’ve never regretted time spent working on a writing project as time wasted, even if the project stunk. I suppose it’s because I’ve never put time into a project and not learned at least something that has made me a better writer (or at least made me think I am).

    I never ever throw anything away. Sometimes I like to drag out the old stuff and see how awful it is, then compare it to my new stuff. At least it makes me feel like I’m making progress. And, that “when I dream I dream big” part of me sees it as leaving something behind for someone to uncover long after I’m dead and gone (since I’ll be the most famous writer ever — notice this is a dream sequence so I can be that if I want).

  3. RB

    Another spectacular post, Jeanne. The truth is, no one can tell you when it’s time to give up on a particular project. As you illustrated very well, it comes from within. The script you didn’t have the fire for, the one that didn’t inspire further creativity, got tossed. The one that burns inside of you, the one that you love so much there is no number of rewrites constituting “too many”, lives on.

    As usual, you are an inspiration. Keep after it!


  4. David Proenza

    I have one script that I’ve rewritten three times, with each rewrite sending it further into contests and fests (even reaching the finals twice) but never past that. I finally put it aside after a heavy debate of whether I should toss it or not, but the truth was I still loved the story despite the fact I was starting to resent my characters.

    Since then I started another script and a side project with a friend, both of which are teaching me a lot, so when the time comes I can dig that old script out of the drawer (at least I think it’s in the drawer…) and look at it with fresh eyes.

    I don’t see it as crying “uncle” but rather going on vacation away from your family.

  5. Unknown ScreenwriterUnk

    I’d NEVER toss a script. They are simply TOO VALUABLE.

    You can learn from them.
    You can steal from them.
    You can rewrite them.

    I personally think that even if you never sell one, they just INCREASE IN VALUE.

    For all kinds of reasons.


  6. Sylvain Paquette

    There’s a rational mind clock ticking… start by setting a maximum limit of time, continue by keeping enthusiasm consistently and stop only when done within the initial restrictions.
    Everything else is a waste of energy, not even external factors or considerations.
    The decision and the process have simply been locked on the title page that imprints a motto to the brain at work; “You have 5 weeks and not a single hour more.”
    Some would insist it takes months or years. Squeeze these amounts if you want, i dare anyone to break it just to realize fast enough isn’t too slow.

  7. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Great thoughts Ian and Michael. I look at writing like I do cooking (I owned a restaurant for 15 years in my past professional life). You have to crack a lot of eggs and have hundreds of fallen souffles until you master the art and have one rise perfectly. Does it mean the fallen ones have no value? Hell, no. They are the ones you learn to be a master chef with. Plus they still taste good even if they don’t look pretty 🙂

    Keep on writing!

  8. Michael

    Good article. Sometimes it’s because I have no clue where the story goes after page 20, and have no real love to try and find it.

    Other times, my initial attraction to the idea will falter, and knowing how much time/energy it takes to make a script even halfway passable, I know this idea isn’t worth it. (Or I let my writing partner run with it, and I come back on the 2nd pass.) 🙂

    But if I finish the script, take a breather, and return, I will keeep rewriting it until I am personally satisified. Until I know ever transition is as fluid as I can write it; until I know every i is dotted, and every scene is as cinematic as my brain can muster.

    Once I come to that point — after a few peer reviews and further rewrites — where I feel like I’ve expressed my idea as best as I know how… then I’m done, with the writing anyway. If I still love it, then it’s off to the hazardous waters of marketing.

  9. Ian

    Hi Jeanne,

    I agree that you need to listen to your gut instincts. I recently wrote a short script that I’m pretty proud of and have seen a lot of improvement compared to my last one. I’m realizing now that I have much better ideas that I want to explore for feature films.

    After writing this recent script, I noticed my main character isn’t as compelling as I would like. Plus I learned some other things that maybe I shouldn’t have done because they might not be as cinematic on screen. I feel like each script is a learning experience. I really wrote this script just for practice anyway so I’m not expecting it to get made.

    If I really thought this was a great concept, I would probably turn this into a feature but, like I said before, there are other ideas that I am much more passionate about and are much better concepts so I’d rather focus my time on those.