Putting the pro in procrastination



Deadlines are a fact of the writer’s life.  If you have no deadline, for sanity’s sake, create one.  It is impossible to get anything done without a deadline.  Why?  Because there’s always something else to do.  Another project, TV, last night’s leftovers, life in general.  Make yourself a deadline and make that deadline two weeks before the actual deadline

Here’s some anecdotes from my life. I have someone waiting for part of a novel that isn’t finished.  Because I don’t have a hard and fast deadline, it’s been four months and I haven’t finished. You have to prioritize your projects. I used to think it was a good idea to have several projects going at once so if I hit a block on one, I could just switch to something else. But nothing gets done that way. It’s writer ADD.  And it’s not good.

Recently, I had to write a full script from an outline in 6 weeks.  This is perfectly reasonable. (Gasps from everyone out there taking 3 years to write their first script.)  So what do I do?  Write 15 pages, wait three weeks, freak out, write 50 pages, wait another week, freak out, finish revisions at 11:47pm on deadline day. Though it works, it’s stressful, depressing, and let’s face it, the script would have been better had I not procrastinated.

Currently my writing partner and I have two months to do the same thing, take a script from outline to polished.  Will I be procrastinating.  Probably.  It’ll be a week before we even have a conference call about the outline.  But hey, we’ve got TWO WHOLE MONTHS.  Famous last words.

Some would-be writers have a case of the procrastinators so bad that they never even start writing.  I recently had a student who asked me how I find the time to write. Of course I told him I simply make the time. If something is important, you carve out a space for it in your life. He proceeded to tell me that he doesn’t know how he’ll do that because he spends most of his free time playing online RPG games. When I asked how much time he spends online his response truly shocked me. Ten hours, he said. Ten hours. Even if he played for eight hours and wrote for two, that would be something. Ten hours! I’m all for the RPGs, but wow.

So here’s my advice: make deadlines. Use excel sheets, post-its, your iPhone’s calendar, an annoying friend, anything to keep you on track.  Enter contests and use those deadlines to polish your work. Slay that procrastination dragon. It’ll be a lifelong battle, but one worth fighting! Your writing will thank you.

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How NOT to introduce a character

“In closing, […] screenwriters — you need to chiggity check yo’selves before you wreck yourselves.” “#betheFUCKINGChange”
―@mysteryexec (Twitter)

**Oh ye of sensitive dispositions: I apologize in advance for the all swearing in this post. It is necessary.**

A while back (almost a year ago) the sage @mysteryexec of Twitter fame went on a bit of a rant:

“pretty without pretense or solicitation” “pretty without trying” — If you have this as character description you are a BAD, LAZY WRITER.







So sayeth the Lord of the Mystery Twitter Accounts.  Amen.

However, again almost a year later, I am still seeing this crap in the scripts I read.  “The only thing prettier than her face is her ass.” “Her eyes were clear blue gems in a porcelain face.” (also – present tense people, please.)  “Girl-next-door looks with a not so sweet mind.”  Yes these are real.  But you see the problem.  Besides being pretty awful, they also tell me NOTHING about the character.

Now I admit, I was guilty of this until the amazing ladies at Script Chix (http://scriptchix.com/ shout out to Miranda Sajdak) hit me over the head and pointed out that I wasn’t any better.  I take solace in the fact I was doing it to both male and female characters, though that doesn’t make me a better writer, only a less misogynistic one.  But it is totally and completely lazy.  Here’s a piece of advice from the Script Chix: Hollywood does not hire actors who are not good-looking.  Therefore it is entirely redundant to specify in the script that they are good looking.  It’s a given.  It doesn’t tell us WHO the character is.  And on a smaller soapbox, it limits casting.  Is it important that your heroine is blonde?  Is it important that your hero has green eyes?  Of course not.  I tried to argue once that it was, actually, important to my character that she was pretty and that it influenced who she was as a person.  But the way to go about that was not to talk about how beautiful she was.  It was to show how she acted in the scene.  I’m sure “show don’t tell” has been beaten into your brain enough by now, but it’s as true for character descriptions as it is for anything else.

Look at some screenplays from writers you admire (I’m not going to compile a list for you, that’s what research is for) and pay attention to the descriptions.  As John August says, “Look for details that have an iceberg quality: only a little bit sticks above the surface, but it represents a huge mass of character information the reader can fill in.”  Think simple, think memorable, think beyond hair color and ass shape.

First impressions are forever, make sure yours don’t suck.

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Friends on TV

“In a very real way, television is the new mythos. It defines the world, reinterprets it. The seasons do not change because Persephone goes underground. They change because new episodes air, because sweeps week demands conflagrations and ritual deaths. The television series rises slowly, arcs, descends into hiatus, and rises again with the bright, burning autumn.”
―Catherynne Valente


The Social Surrogacy Hypothesis sounds like an episode of The Big Bang Theory (actually it IS the name of my BBT spec, so don’t steal it), but in reality this is a very real phenomenon of psychology which says that people can form social attachments to their favorite television characters.  This research is supposedly proves why Friends really feel like your friends.  Or why someone (don’t know who, just someone, no one in particular, stop looking at me) would vow to never watch Lost again week after week as their favorite characters are methodically killed off, only to return like a moth to a bright screen.  And then repeat that with Grey’s Anatomy and then again with Game of Thrones even though I had already read the books and totally knew those people were about to die horribly.  But this isn’t about me.  I think.

This parasocial element of television has helped “Who shot JR?” and “Joanie loves Chachi” and “Yadda yadda yadda” become an ingrained part of our culture.  Studies have shown that people feel less lonely, less sad, less afraid, when their television is on.  And this is a GOOD thing.  Of course shunning the outside world to watch reruns of Gillian’s Island is probably going too far.  But, though it seems crazy, it is perfectly normal to get caught up in the imaginary lives of the Gallaghers of South Side Chicago or the Starks of Winterfell.

However, the sense of belonging, which can buffer a negative mood and even increase self-esteem, is part of the reason we love television so much.  It’s why we keep returning even though they killed off Charlie, why we cheer for Alicia even when she does something a little scummy, why we may or may not have cried just a little bit when Cam and Mitchell got married, and why if Daryl dies we riot.

So what does this mean for us as writers? (after all this is a writing blog)  It means television is all about the characters.  We start watching because of the hook, but we return because of the characters.  So when you’re working on that new pilot and thinking about your story engine and all the little plot points that will allow the series to get to episode 100, remember, it all starts and ends with the characters.  I’ll be posting a little more on television in the weeks to come, so tune in (har har.) to get some tips and trick on starting that pilot or spec.

Because admit it, you totally squealed like an eighth-grade girl when Sheldon kissed Amy.

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The yeah buts

“The world is round people!”
―Cate Blanchett

People are saying 2013 is the year of women in the box office.  As recent as 2008, major studio head were still making ridiculous statements about never funding another film with a female protagonist. (Click here for a great article from 2008 about this, courtesy of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at SDSU, who by the way, puts out the Celluloid Ceiling Report every year.)  But after Bridesmaids grossed $170 million and everyone picked their jaws up off the floor, perhaps a few people actually paid attention to the fact that the film starred an ensemble of women and yet both men and women bought tickets to see it.

You see, the idea before was that men and women would both see films with male protagonists, but only women would go to the theater for a female protagonist.  Also, it was common knowledge that if women were on screen talking, men would just tune out.  This was the justification when it was pointed out again and again that though women make up over 50% of the box office, they make up less than 30% of SPEAKING characters. WTF.

Enter Frozen and Catching Fire.

In December 2013, Catching Fire had beat out Man of Steel as the third highest grossing film of the year.  Gravity beat out both World War Z and Star Trek Into DarknessFrozen is the 5th highest grossing film OF ALL TIME at $1.2 billion worldwide. If anyone knows the power of Frozen, it’s the mother of a four-year-old girl. Everything in our house is Elsa.

And then came the “Yeah, but…”s

Catching Fire was already a major bestseller with a multi-million fan base…”

The Heat stared Melissa McCarthy and Sandy Bullock. They’re both very hot right now…”

Frozen is Disney at it’s best…”

Anything to downplay the important fact that all of these films were amazing vehicles for complex female protagonists.  And they made money.  Lots and lots of money.  It’s time for the “yeah, buts” to end. It’s time to start spending more money on women, both on screen and behind it.  It’s time to stop pretending that this discrimination is for profit.  The world is round people.

Every women in Hollywood and probably the publishing world has encountered some form of misogyny, whether purposeful or not.  In my own experience, I applied to a well known film school in LA for my MFA.  They asked me to pick a secondary field besides Screenwriting and I choose Cinematography, because that is what interests me.  When I was accepted I was surprised to find that my secondary field had been changed to… Production Design.  Now, I don’t mean to demean production design, because in reality it is a fascinating, difficult and highly creative field, but at the time it felt like they were shunting me away from the camera towards more “feminine” pursuits.  I was and still am probably reading way too much into it, but when I discovered the change I was pretty upset, especially when you consider that huge dearth of women DPs in Hollywood at present.  In fact, when watching the Oscars this year, one couldn’t help but notice that the only categories which consistently recognized women are Production Design and Costume Design.  I didn’t end up going to that school.

Later, as a screenwriter I was contacted several times to polish or rewrite or punch up dialogue, because I “write women so well.”  That’s not a bad thing, but for crying out loud, can’t a girl write a good car chase or epic war battle every now and then?

To better illustrate my point, here’s a great infographic from the New York Film Academy:


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Why I hate “strong women”

“Naturally my stories are about women — I’m a woman. I don’t know what the term is for men who write mostly about men.”
―Alice Munro

Recently there’s been a firestorm about “strong women characters.”  We need more of them, everyone shouts.  But I disagree.

Wait, don’t leave yet.  I believe we need more female characters, and definitely more female protagonists.  People may decry the Bechdel Test, but wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world where we didn’t need it?  The Bechdel Test is flawed, but it proves a point.  Women are more than just the damsel-in-distress.  But we’re also more than the warrior princess.

And this is why we don’t need more “strong women.” Because inevitably someone takes this to mean we need more female characters who can shoot big guns, who know karate, who work for the FBI, or who are obsessed with their jobs.  These women are strong, but they’re not always compelling.  What we need are more COMPLEX female characters.  We need more women characters that are defined not by how well they keep up with the guys, but how well they are characterized.  Though this is not what is meant when we say “strong women,” but somehow it’s what it turned into.

I love a female protagonist who can kick ass.  I’ve written several of them.  But soon this character becomes another cliché in a long line of female character clichés somewhere between Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Adorkable Smart Girl.

Let’s strive for complex.  Let’s strive for compelling.  Let’s strive for surprise.  Let’s strive for a character that isn’t defined by the fact she’s a woman.  F-k it, let’s just write good characters.

I recently had a writer (full disclosure, he was male) who had written a sexy physicist character who did nothing except have sex with the protagonist and get captured by the bad guy.  I told him she needed more characterization, perhaps she could even use her knowledge of physics at some point?  But he felt that it would take up too much space in the script to flesh her out more.  My response?  Would A-list actresses be chomping at the bit to play this character?  No way.  Not even remotely close.  She was a plot device, nothing more, and who wants to play a plot device?  Ultimately, that convinced him to change her into something more.  Thank goodness.

Remember, no A-list actress when asked to look back on her career and pick a favorite character ever said, “The one with the great ass.”

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Dickens around

“There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”
―Charles Dickens

Writers are sometimes not the most motivated bunch.  A while back, I formed an online writers’ group with some fellow Northwestern MFA grads, to give feedback and keep ourselves on some kind of deadline.  I love them all dearly, they are fantastic writers and give excellent notes, however getting people to submit for our bi-monthly meetings is like pulling teeth from an elephant with tweezers.  Granted, I have three chapters of my novel which I’m dying to get notes on, and chances are I’ll end up being the same way when I don’t have anything on deck.

Novel writing is hard.  Like really hard.  Especially for a screenwriter.  Do I consider myself a screenwriter?  I suppose I prefer screenwriting, because novel writing is hard.  But I do love my novel.  Right now it’s more of a novella as Part 2 is not entirely finished.  And I would really like to convert my pilot and one of my screenplays into novels eventually but it takes so much damn time!  I’m much faster in Final Draft than I am in Scrivener.  A big reason for this is, though screenplays are highly creative works that only very talented people are truly successful at, they are more like blueprints for the final product that will eventually be consumed by the audience.  Novels, on the other hand, are the final product.  This is a really big difference.

When writing a novel you need to describe everything.  EVERYTHING.  Some things are left to the reader’s imagination, but you need to paint a pretty complete picture.  When writing a screenplay, much of the final detail is left up to someone else.  They don’t want you to tell them what color the heroine’s eyes are (it limits casting), they don’t want you to show them a room in minutia (that’s up to the production designer and set dresser), they don’t want you to starting flinging adverbs into parentheticals before dialogue (actors hate that), and so forth, etc.

Now, lots of people write both novels and screenplays.  William.Goldman.  But they call for different voices and skill set and it’s rough switching back and forth between the two.  But like many a writer before me, I have severe project ADD and have found it impossible (unless motivated by a deadline) to only work on one project at a time.

What am I saying about all this?  I’m trying to work on my novel, and it’s hard.

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The cutting room

“I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”
―Truman Capote

I’m doing it.  I’m going to tear apart my favorite script to date.  Don’t be fooled by my bravado, I created a separate file to do all this tearing and cutting because I’m a giant scaredy-cat and have the same inner fear of every writer about to revise that I’m changing my baby for the worse.  Which it totally possible.

However, one thing is for sure: if I don’t tear this thing apart, it WILL NOT get better.

I hate revision.  I’m set in my ways and have a hard time seeing around what I’ve already accomplished.  But as Capote would agree, the scissors are just as important as the pencil.  Here are my tips for revision:

1) Give it away

Send you work out for someone else to read.  They will see things you did not and not see things you intended them to.  Either way, it will tell you something about your work.  Feel free to discard the suggestions you don’t think fit, but be open.  If you only believe the good and throw away the bad, your writing WILL NOT get better.

2) Walk away

Unless you have immediate ideas about how to fix things, put the project in a drawer for a while.  Come back to it after a healthy amount of time has passed and try to read it as if it were not your own.  Get some distance to get some perspective.

3) Create a new file

If you save the original work and use a new file to revise, some of the fear of “messing up” will be taken away.  In this new file you can hack, tear, and stitch with abandon.  Plus it’s much easier to move things around if you can just copy and paste from the original.

4) Walk away again

Let it sit for a week or so and then read it again.

5) Give it away again

If your readers will agree to it, have them read the revision.  By the way, when say readers I don’t mean your mother or husband.  Get some writer friends!  They’ll have more knowledge and will hopefully be honest with you.  You know you’ve found good ones when they give you excellent advice but don’t get butt-hurt if you don’t take it.

6) Take all the advice

Just for an exercise, create a new file and revise using every piece of feedback you have even if you don’t agree with it.  See what happens.  It might just open up something for you.  You can throw it away later if not.

7) Know when to stop

I could read everything I’ve written every day until the end of the world and still find something to change each time.  Know when to put your tools down and say done.

8) Proofread!

For the love of god, proofread.  Please.  Use find & replace to fix common mistakes like their/there/they’re and it’s/its, etc.  Nothing screams amateur more than spelling and grammar mistakes.  Proofread.  Seriously.  Proofread.  I’m going to say it one more time, proofread.


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All the single ladies

“Women want love to be a novel. Men, a short story.”
―Daphne du Maurier

Celebrated author of The Fault in Our Stars, John Green (@realjohngreen), set off a twitter firestorm yesterday when he suggested that people were unnecessarily harsh on Stephanie Meyer and that much of the vitriol surrounding the Twilight Saga was because misogynists dislike and dismiss things simply because teen girls like them.  I’m paraphrasing his words here, and probably getting his point wrong, but to be fair it wasn’t entirely clear.  He later somewhat clarified by saying that what he meant to say was that women writers tend to get treated more harshly in the media and that we give male writers a pass when it comes to misogyny.  But that’s not what he actually said.


Being a woman writer, I felt a little compelled to weigh in.  Firstly, I have read the Twilight Saga and the writing isn’t good.  It’s pretty terrible actually.  One particular simile will haunt me (“the tires screeched like a person screaming”) because after I read it I felt compelled to start marking all over the book with a red pen.  What Meyer does expertly is create characters that are 1) blank enough yet still a Mary Sue, so that readers can insert themselves easily into the role (The Oatmeal called her “Pants” for this reason in a humorous opinion article), and 2) an exaggerated versions of absolute perfection, but you know, still real and stuff.

Now I’m not going to argue that we don’t give men a pass on misogyny (i.e. Hemingway, Steinbeck, etc., which children are still supposed to swallow in secondary school without ever criticizing), however this is not a reason to give women a pass on bad writing just cause they’re ladies who write lady things.

Which brings me to another Twitter firestorm as of late.  Potato Salad Gate.  Some idiot reader/writer (I can’t remember who because he was just an idiot who isn’t worth mentioning by name) decided that all women have the same POV, write essentially the same story, with little or no creativity, and all those stories somehow include making potato salad.  Huh?  Yeah, I was confused too.  But lots of people chimed in with the same tired old line of “good scripts will rise to the top of the pile” regardless of the writer.  Looking at what is put onto screens big and small, we all know that isn’t true.  (update: this same idiot recently fully completed his career-suicide-by-twitter by reiterating that all women have the same POV and that this is why they aren’t writing groundbreaking scripts. Oh, and he said “girls.”  “Girls” all have the same POV.  Which to me just says he’s still a boy.)


I want to see groundbreaking scripts regardless of your gender.  But if you wanted to throw a couple more complex female protagonists into the mix, I wouldn’t cry about it.  Regardless of YOUR gender.


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Writing with children

“Writing is the only way to talk without being interrupted.”
―Jules Renard

Lies Jules, all lies.

When I found out I was pregnant with my daughter I was partway through my MFA at Northwestern.  For some odd reason I never once worried about how I was going to keep writing when I became a mother.  Frankly I looked forward to it.  And for the first several months it was easy, because my husband was home working as a contract attorney and we switched off baby duty.  But then we moved and I started my thesis and everything started moving a lot slower.

I had idealized being a writing mom.  I thought it would look something like this:


Which in all fairness, is pretty much what it looks like (though I can only dream about being Tina Fey, which I do, often).  However, I never connected this picture with an actual inability to write.  Or more accurately, with a lack of time or attention for writing.  And if I thought it was difficult with one, I really learned my lesson when number two came along last spring.

This post, like almost all my posts, is coming out after the kids are finally in bed for the evening.  Usually after 9pm is safe, though there’s the occasional 10:30/11pm wake up.  This is the only uninterrupted writing time that exists in a house with young children.  I tried to write during nap time, but as I have previously discussed, babies and toddlers have a sixth sense about work attempting to be done nearby.  I think they grow out of this after five years when naps are replaced by kindergarten and the real work can officially resume.

This isn’t to say I get nothing done.  On the contrary, the majority of my writing has been completed after I became a mom.  But it hasn’t been easy.  The hardest thing is having to quit mid-stride because I’m needed elsewhere.  But that’s just life.  We can’t all be Salinger (who by the way, didn’t produce much once he went recluse).  Frankly, having to constantly divide my attention has made me a better writer.  I’m now able to turn off my writing brain at will* and actually go to sleep.  No more jumping up and down all night long to scrawl random thoughts on sticky-notes that make no sense in the morning.  Once the computer goes to sleep, so do I.  Work/life balance.  Because, lord knows someone will be awake and needing something from me exactly 30 minutes after I fall asleep.

I’ve been lucky with my son, though he’s only ten months old at the time of this writing, he is relatively independent.  I can sometimes write a couple paragraphs or do a little editing while he plays by himself.  My daughter would have none of that.  She was on me like a spider monkey 24/7.  But one day I blinked and now she’s in preschool.  Though I struggle to get more than an hour or two in every couple days right now, it will be all too soon when my second baby is walking out the door in the mornings, his lunchbox clutched in his soft, stubby hand.  And I’ll have a very empty house for a few hours with no one but my characters to keep me company.

So a lot of people ask me how I’m able to work with two small kids at home.  The answer is sometimes I’m not.  But I carve out little pockets of time and I have a supportive partner who believes in my writing and picks up the slack when I really need it.  And I break out the computer after 9pm.


*This is a boldface lie.

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One step above blank

“You can fix anything but a blank page.”
―Nora Roberts

I never used to outline.  Meaning the first screenplay and handful of short stories I wrote weren’t written from an outline.  My limited experience as a newbie write told me to just put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and go go go.  But as my writing grew, where I had previously been happy to meander lost along the highway and hope to happen upon my story, I realized I needed a map if I was going to get from Fade In to Fade Out.  To continue with this overused metaphor, sometimes I find a couple hand-scrawled directions will get me there, other times I need fully loaded satellite GPS.

Outlining is a personal choice but before you decry it, I suggest you try it (poetry baby).  Cause there’s no one way to do it.  Personally I have used synopses, index cards, excel sheets, post-it notes, treatments, and that chart thing from Dramatica.  I recommend trying all of them.  They all work for different kinds of projects.  My second script grew out of a eight page synopsis, my novel from an excel sheet of chapter breakdowns, my dramedy from index cards, a historical script from post-it notes, a sci-fi script written with my partner from a treatment, etc. etc.  It is especially important to outline when working with a partner, otherwise the left hand won’t know what the right hand is doing.

I wrote my first outline without even realizing it.  You see, my daughter was a co-sleeper.  She slept in our bed and napped in our bed.  The crib was a dangerous pit of hot lava to her.  But as long as I sat on the bed next to her, she would take two 2 hour naps per day.  At first I just ate cereal and watched a lot of television, then after I exhausted all the good shows and found myself tuning in to a marathon of “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t be using this time to be productive.

Little known fact: the clicking of keyboard keys sets off an internal alarm clock in children under 5.

I couldn’t type on the laptop during naptime.  Inevitably, she would wake up less than a page into whatever I was working on.  Somehow, she could easily sleep through a boisterous round of Gypsy nuptials, but a few clackety key strokes and her little eyes would pop open and she would immediately start asking what was for lunch.  I had to figure something else out if I was to get any work done.

Before the advent of Final Draft Writer for iPad (Paleolithic, I know), I had to download My Writing Spot in order to be able to at least make notes when they occurred to me.  I could type using the on-screen keyboard without setting off the baby alarm.  Mostly I jotted down dialogue or worked on novel chapters.  Then one day I had an idea about a project I had been mulling over for years.  This is how most projects germinate for me.  I have a vague notion of something I would like to see or a character I think is interesting and then I chew on it for months and, yes, in some cases years, until a story emerges.  This day, by the light of morning television and the sound of a snoring infant, the idea for Etoile finally gelled.  I saw the entire story from start to finish and had to get it down before it was gone again and my attention turned back to mushed peas and tummy time.  Since I couldn’t just start writing it in Final Draft like I wanted to, I used my iPad to write a very short synopsis so I could get it out of my head.

Usually for me, my characters start to have conversations with each other before the whole plot reveals itself.  I only get snippets at a time and almost always I know the beginning and end and have no idea how to fill the black hole in the middle.  I just start writing and hope it’ll work itself out.  So that’s what I did.  I started writing from my short synopsis and immediately ran into problems.  I went back and fleshed out the synopsis into a real outline, adding plot points and characters.  When I headed back into the screenwriting software the script came very quickly.  And it wasn’t half bad.  I needed to cut about 15 pages as  I tend to write long anyway, and the great problem with following the outline was that I didn’t plan the length of scenes very well.  What looked short on the outline was very long in the script.  I sat on it and revised it for several months.  Finally I chucked it up on the Black List where it made the monthly Top Lists.  I was over the moon!  However, being a period film about ballerinas in the Paris Opera, it didn’t get a lot of downloads.  No biggie.

Currently, I’m revising it to put in a major competition and know it could stand to have at least ten more pages trimmed.  How long is this monster of a script, you ask?  Originally 132.  Then 128.  Now 124.  It really should be 115.  And that is only because it’s a period piece.  Page length will be a future post because there are interesting things going on with this subject lately.

I knew there were a couple scenes I could cut but it wasn’t tightening up the way I wanted so I enlisted outside help from my sometime writing partner.  He pointed out some issues that were totally on the money and I opened it back up thinking I was going to fix everything.  But I had no idea how to start rearranging the entire plot to accommodate the fixes.  Here’s the problem with outlining: you become so married to the outline that it becomes impossible to deviate.  Changing a scene here or there, tweaking a character, adding and subtracting dialogue — that’s all fine.  But majorly changing the bones of a script?  That’s real revision.  If I figure out how to do it, I’ll let you know.

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