BALLS OF STEEL™: When to Cry Uncle

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.
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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?

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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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