How A Hard Drinking Mentor Improved My Writing
TO BE OR NOT TO BE, A WRITER. THAT IS THE QUESTION
When you’re starting out as a writer, finishing a draft is cause for celebration. A time to uncork that champagne bottle. But days later, when you return and read the script again with fresh eyes, you feel a slow dread creeping up on you. Your script reads terrible. You wonder if you were delusional to think you could ever write anything. If you’ve that worry, you’re not alone. You probably need a writing mentor.
WORKING WITH A HARD DRINKING WRITING MENTOR
I was lucky to be given the chance, as a new writer, to pen the first episode of the iconic local drama series, Growing Up. I was assigned a mentor; a headwriter whom I shall call James. James was much older than me at that time. He smoked incessantly. Had a gruff voice that always sounded like he had sand in his throat, which he was constantly trying to unclog with cigarettes and a Johnny Walker.
I was tasked to write the pilot script under James’s supervision. A rough outline had already been plotted out. So now it was time to turn it into an actual script. James suggested that I go to his flat to write. Looking back, I think he wanted to work on the script at his flat so that there would be easy access to his bar counter.
I was very much influenced by an iconic American series at that time, called The Wonder Years. I wanted very much to use the narrator device. It’s my favourite writer’s tool. I love it because having a narrator to tell a story allows me to be flexible with structure. Because the audience puts its trust in you, the narrator, you can confidently take them to a flashback, or a flashback within a flashback, tell stories within stories, and still return to the main narrative without losing the audience.
I went to James’s flat, somewhere in Jurong, armed with laptop, stacks of note books, and pens and pencils. He offered me a choice of beer or whiskey. I went with a can of coke. Our process was basically me writing a scene, and then he would look over and offer feedback.
What I remember most about those nights of writing, was not the grey haze of Marlboro cigarette smoke, and the sour-bitter breath of whiskey tainted with smoke, but the way James would critique every word I wrote. Every word. Be it a sentence describing a character or a place, every word would be assailed by James’s critical eye. James would be smoking a cigarette, sipping on a shot glass of whiskey, and he would ask, what does this mean? What am I trying to say? Am I writing too much? Is the sound of the word pleasing?
I have to confess. For a young writer, it was gruelling. At the end of each writing session, my brain felt like a dish rag squeezed dry. I did not complain though. I think, as writers, we’re obsessed with language. For me, I could tinker with a paragraph all day long the way a mechanic will worry over the engine of a car. Adjusting a word, taking out an excess of a comma, silently reading the phrase, the sentence, the paragraph, the scene, trying to make the sound of it as perfect as possible in your head.
James, however, had a philosophy behind this obsession, especially in the context of screenwriting. He told me that a screenwriter, had the obligation to make his script not just a hundred percent perfect.
But two hundred per cent.
MAKING YOUR SCRIPT DIRECTOR AND ACTOR PROOF
Let’s say you deliver a script that’s a hundred per cent good. Most times, you’re lucky if you get phenomenal acting talent. Most likely, you won’t. Most likely, you’d get a good-looking model with raw acting talent. Expect a ten percent reduction in quality. And then, let’s say you get a director who missed some coverage of your scene for a variety of reasons, time being the most common. That means another twenty percent quality is subtracted. And what if because of budget, you can only shoot in studio sets, which looked artificial then. And what about bad hair and makeup. Or boring wardrobe. A thousand things in production could chip away at quality until in the end, your show is only fifty percent good.
Writing a script that’s two hundred per cent good, means you attempt to make your screenplay actor and director proof. That was James’s philosophy. That means a writer must ensure that his premise is strong, his structure rock solid, with every line of description compelling, and every line of dialogue easily spoken, and clearly understood. So that in spite of mediocre acting, and a director who missed a few coverage shots, the story can still stand on its feet, and deliver entertainment to an audience.
In other words, a script that’s two hundred percent solid, will be able to withstand any unexpected surprises during production and deliver a one hundred percent quality episode.
Over the years, I’ve taken James’s philosophy to heart. Each time I finish a script, I would run through every word in every sentence. Mull over its cadence. Like Flaubert, I strive to find the le mot juste, the perfect words to convey emotion and meaning with precision. I hear that familiar growl of James in my head. What are you trying to say? Is that clear? Is that cliché?
I’ve sat in on many production meetings. I’ve noticed how department heads will take the script and highlight portions of it that were relevant to their discipline. During table reads, actors would always highlight just their lines. Knowing what they do, I’ve incorporated some habits in my rewrites. After I finish a draft, I would look through the entire script again, through the eyes of each department. I try and make the description of character and setting vivid, so the actor and the production designer have a clear vision in their heads. I aim to rewrite the dialogue until it rolls off the tongue smoothly. I write with active voice. I ensure that every structural element in the screenplay is well and accounted for, that every scene has a turning point that leads to the next scene. So directors are not lost in the story when they read through your script.
These are all things you can do to make sure your writing exceeds a hundred percent good.
I’ve carried this discipline over to my teaching as well. I’ve pointed out errors in student scripts, challenged them again and again to be as sharp and inventive as possible in their descriptive writing. I’ve seen too many times how a screenplay can go through the wheels of production and come out a broken, mangled version of its original beauty. Aiming to take your script beyond a hundred percent good, simply means that you strive to make it as good as you possible can.
Hemingway talked about how every writer needed to have within himself an efficient “bullshit detector”. This should be turned on every time you finish a script. It is used to detect a lack of honesty, a neglect of grammar, and a general laziness in the writing.
So the next time you write a script, make sure it is actor and director proof.
Make sure it’s two hundred per cent good, by keeping your bullshit detector on.