I'm a self-delusional writer. I put on my cape and convince myself that while other mere mortal writers may be required to revise endlessly, I'm that rare breed of super-writer who can leap tall tales in a single bound and produce a draft so sterling that it will need not a single revision.
After I type The End, I put my draft aside for a couple of days to revel in my brilliance.
My first re-read of said manuscript is a gentle skimming; I stroke my originality, my inventiveness. I adjust, massage, cut and paste. Basically, I'm just rearranging the furniture. But it's all there. It's all good. I'm wise, profound, and prolific. Touched by the divine spark of God.
Definitely ready for the next step which means providing my good friend and “trusted advisor” – whose name happens to be Luna – with what I am now officially calling my “first draft.”
Luna says she'll read it that afternoon and call me that same night. In the meantime, I take myself out to lunch on a pure writerly high, so sure of my accomplishment that I bring a pad along to start brainstorming toward my next project. No dallying idle hand for this auteur.
The phone rings. It’s Luna.
ME: So... what'd you think?
LUNA: Well... there's a lot of good stuff here, but—
FREEZE FRAME. This isn't going well. First of all she buried the lead: “Congratulations!” And worse –
LUNA: I know this isn't what you wanted to hear, but it's rough. Very rough. It still needs a lot of work. A lot. Hello? Still there?
- Simultaneously, my mind is a jumble of thoughts:
- I hate her. She's wrong. She's cheap, stupid, and has no life.
- She hates me. Her harsh critique is her way of punishing me.
- She's consumed by envy for my God-given brilliance.
- I should quit writing. I hate myself. I'm an impostor.
- Shut up and listen. She's a fresh, objective opinion. You can trust her. She only has your best interests in mind.
- And, most prominently, as she reels off her litany of my manuscript's many defects, which she categorizes as “larger concerns,” I know in my bones that she's right: my script sucks. No, that's not true. It doesn't just suck. It super sucks.
Luna is honest. Direct. Brutal. But extremely nurturing. She reminds me that I go through the same process of self-delusion every single time. And the subsequent lengthy revision process.
ME: Should I be embarrassed?
LUNA: Are you insane? Of course not. The only reason I'm able to be so wise here is because it's not my own manuscript. If it were mine, I'd feel as lost at sea and fucked as you feel.
Luna has the next several hours free. Would I like to meet her for coffee and go through her notes, page by page?
I tell her I'll call her back and do what any neurotic, self-deluded, and now constipated writer would do in this situation: I go for a second opinion. And a third. Sure enough, there's a consensus.
I seep out of body and look down at myself and say those six dreaded words:
And you call yourself a writer?
I compile their myriad notes. Most are consistent. Some are contradictory. All are smart, thoughtful, well intentioned, and encouraging.
I'm daunted. Overwhelmed. Not sure if I'm up to the task.
I devolve into Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of Death and Dying:
- ANGER. Fuck! Shit! Damnit to hell! Why did I want to write this stupid, contrived, motherfucking story anyway? What a monumental waste of time.
- DENIAL. They're all smart and talented writers, but they're all off base on this one. I'm a misunderstood genius who will only be appreciated a hundred years from now when I'm defrosted.
- BARGAINING. I'll call each of my sage trusted advisors and try to finagle them to let me off the hook. Maybe the ending really does work? Or else I'd bargain with them to agree with me that the story should be put to rest because clearly it's not viable. Best to cut my losses now instead of wasting more time. All of them vehemently disagree and demand that I suck it up, lick my wounds, and get back to work. (Although Luna, being from the Bronx, tells me that I should do whatever the fuck I want because, let's face it, no one's gonna give two shits about this script anyway because no one gave a rat's ass about her last script and everyone in this business is an asshole).
- DEPRESSION. I take a pad and pen to bed and nap for several days, waking intermittently to take a bong hit. In this dream state, it is my secret hope that little writer elves will enter by office and magically transform my leaden script into gold. I wake up clutching a soggy copy of Rilke's Letters To a Young Poet, and my mouth Velcroed shut with cottonmouth.
- ACCEPTANCE. I copy the file. Paste it into a new template, and label it Draft 2. Clean slate. Time to start anew.
By draft 3 or 4, I'm ready for Luna's discerning eyes again. I tell her it's a page one rewrite. I tell her this is technically my first draft because all the other ones were merely exploratory rough drafts. She says: Whatever, dude.
I ask her when she became so wise. She tells me she learned it from me. She quotes a line I've often used when commenting on what she refers to as her requisite Shitty First Drafts.
ME: It's fiction, Luna. It's always fixable.
She's right. She did learn it from me. The irony is, my most valuable trusted advisor of all used to be one of my students.
Here's what I'm left with: Writing involves a fair amount of S&M. The whips and chains are pens and toner cartridges. The blood is red ink. The wounds are revisions. The work-in-progress manuscript is a living organism, capable of feeling pain, but also capable of healing and growing stronger and breaking free.
So while my script may currently be in a state of flux that resembles a giant turd, inertia isn't an option. I'll steel myself, regroup, banish my ego from the room, and I'll get the work done.
Okay, hold it. Backspace. A few words about ego. It sounds good to say I “banish my ego from the room.” But that's bullshit. I'm competitive as hell, and my ego is probably what will see me through the rewrite. The truth is, I still crave that “Congratulations!” from Luna. I'm not writing it for myself. I'm writing for approval, love, adulation, money, and fame.
Oh God, I'm spiritually inept. Morally bankrupt. There are too many voices in my head. Who do I listen to? If “they” say it's good, does that mean it really is good? Why do I care so much? And if I didn't care so much, would I persevere as a professional writer?
I don’t know anything anymore. And yet… it’s the not knowing that humbles me and helps me be courageous. The irrepressible imagination, the Muse, I don't know how it works or where it comes from – as long as it comes. I'll leave out a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a pot of coffee, a line of cocaine. Whatever it wants.
Because my trusted advisors can only advise.
It's up to me to sift through their multiple points of view and make sense of the chaos all the while retaining my own voice.
That's the tricky part. Too much feedback -- no matter how well-intentioned and constructive -- can become destructive to authorship.
We have to stay open to new ideas and suggestions. At the same time, we must remain protective of our own ideas and inspirations.
And once the beast is tamed, my ego tends to simmer down, and I can focus again and reclaim my estranged work with renewed vigor and dedication.
So by the time Luna finally grants me kudos, it’s practically irrelevant.
And I'm left with the fruits of my labor: my official ready-to-send-out-into-the-marketplace “first” draft.
Okay, I’m not totally delusional. If I’m lucky, I know there will still be many more drafts to come: studio notes, network notes, producer notes, director notes, actor notes, production notes.
Writers always want to be finished. Every writer I know has abandonment issues, and yet, ironically, at some point in the process, we’re all required to abandon our work and move on to the next project. But we don’t ever really finish. At some point we just need to let go.
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Neil Landau is co-author of 101 Things I Learned in Film School. His numerous film and television credits include "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead," and the new 3D animated feature "Tad, The Lost Explorer" (Paramount, 2012); "Melrose Place," "The Magnificent Seven," "Doogie Howser, M.D.," "The Secret World of Alex Mack," "Twice in a Lifetime," MTV's "Undressed," plus one-hour drama TV pilots for CBS, ABC, Warner Bros., Disney, and Lifetime. He currently teaches in the MFA in Screenwriting and Producing Programs at both UCLA School of Film & Television (his alma mater), and USC School of Cinematic Arts. His latest book is The Screenwriters Roadmap: 21 Ways to Jumpstart Your Story.
- Ask the Expert: The Birth of Your First Draft
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- Balls of Steel: Stick a Fork in It
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