Monday night I was fortunate to sit with several of my Spalding MFA colleagues at Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena, to hear our esteemed program director Sena Jeter Naslund read from her new novel, Adam & Eve. In the Q&A following her reading, Sena was asked about her writing process, and in the midst of her response she said most eloquently something I’ve been trying to convey to my students for as long as I’ve been teaching: “I can make it better, but first I must make it exist.”
Preciousness can kill the inception, the momentum, and the completion of any writing project, no matter what the format. In screenwriting, however, it can also cause the death of a career. Yes, screenwriters must also make a script exist before we can make it better, just like poets, playwrights and fiction writers — but here’s the catch: we don’t own our material. If we’re hired on assignment or to rewrite an existing script, and even if we sell our own original, it does not belong to us anymore. It’s now the studio’s content to do with what they wish for now and forever, unless we buy it back.
Sure, we hope to protect the project and make the movie we envisioned as we toiled over it for countless hours in its creation. But, when you’re dealing with execs, producers, directors, actors, and even Key-Grips with an inflated sense of story acumen, you don’t need a contract in front of you to quickly realize this is not YOUR movie anymore. Being precious about it by obsessing over and defending every word, line and beat as if they were bestowed upon you by Homer and a host of angelic muses from heaven will not only get you fired from your own project, it may prevent you from being rehired in the future.
Thus — the screenwriter’s dilemma. How much too fight? When to settle? Usually, the question isn’t if you give in, but when and how. So, the screenwriter must strive to maintain her vision for the story while catering to the ideas of others in order to make everyone as happy as possible. The goal is to put a poster on the wall. To keep your name on the project, to get the movie made, and to do your damnedest to make it the best movie it can possibly be, given the innumerable variables at play throughout the production and post-production process. Realize this: no one wants the movie to suck.
Am I advocating for weak, submissive writers? No. I’m saying you must learn to compromise, check your ego, be an excellent problem solver, choose your battles then fight them smartly and with respect, and ultimately, lose the preciousness.
And, in the midst of writing your project, remember that we’re just making stuff up, putting words on a page – we’re not defusing a car bomb under fire from insurgents, or deciding how to put down a damaged airplane full of passengers. We get to try again. So just write the damn thing already. Screenwriting is a speed and volume business. You can make it better, but first you must make it exist.