Tag Archives: Rewriting

Tea for three, with viagra

TEA FOR TWO Doris Day and Gordon MacRea in the 1950 film.
TEA FOR TWO Doris Day and Gordon MacRea in the 1950 film.

A Writer’s saviours.

IT TAKES a very bleak outlook for me to feel like giving up writing, but once I very nearly did.

Living by myself in a friend’s granny flat, my partner having died, my best friend having dropped me, my car having burst an engine gasket and been sold at bottom dollar for scrap, I was at a low ebb.

The idea of writing anything was the last thing on my mind.

Enter two dear friends – Yvonne and D’arcy – with a plan. Yvonne is a writer, having taken it up relatively late in life, and D’arcy knows the English language backwards, a natural editor like no other.

They wanted to enter a national TV screenwriting competition with an adaptation of one of Yvonne’s short stories. They knew I had experience in screenwriting. They were also wise enough to realise I needed something to keep my mind off the dreadful turn of events my life had produced.

I was a little dubious about how effective I’d be collaborating on a storyline, but after reading Yvonne’s story, Tea for Two, I could see immediately how this tale of revenge and bad behaviour amongst older people could be made into a riveting 30-minute drama.

So I said I was interested, as long as Yvonne and D’arcy agreed to tell me honestly if they thought it was no good. We’d only enter the competition, as a team, if we were all happy with the result.

Over cake and tea, we shook hands on it.

The competition had strict production criteria that submitted scripts needed to adhere to or get knocked out – limited numbers of characters, no scenes set at night (meaning no expensive night shoots), and a strong dramatic twist in the plot.

Yvonne’s story needed some adjustments to make it work as a screenplay – one location, and stronger character motivations to allow the story to take place in the 30-minute format – but it was fundamentally a brilliant tale about passion, poison, and older people, with a great ring of truth, because both Yvonne and D’arcy were well into their seventies when they wrote it.

I came up with a first draft in a few days and sent it off to them. This began a series of phone conversations and notes sessions, the likes of which I had not before (and have never since) been part of even with the most experienced collaborators.

All delivered, I hasten to add, with the kind of honesty, good manners and intelligence that all writers crave.

But these two went the extra mile. During one phone call, Yvonne’s voice sounded a little odd, like she’d been out jogging. When I suggested she sit down and let me call her back, she explained that she and D’arcy were entangled on their sofa reenacting the dramatic cliffhanging denouement of our script, with her dangling by a thread over the edge of the furniture, and D’arcy holding her.

CLIFFHANGER Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.
CLIFFHANGER Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

“It won’t work, luvvie,” Yvonne said, sure and to-the-point. “We’ve tried it and there’s no way that character could see anyone up above the cliff while they’re holding on by their fingertips. Can we change it?”

There was no refusing such commitment . I duly rewrote with her notes in mind.

The poisoning element of Yvonne’s storyline was pivotal, and I was keen on having an overdose of viagra as the means by which the murder was executed, something I assumed would be in good supply in an independent living nursing home, where we’d set our screenplay.

But I needed some facts on it, and thought to ask Yvonne.

“We don’t know luvvie, D’arcy doesn’t need it,” she said, completely without guile. “I could ask down at the Chemist’s, shall I do that?”

Priceless, unquestioning support.

Within a fortnight we’d researched all the facts we needed and collaborated on a series of drafts, and after a month had our script on the page in a state we were all very happy with.

Tea for Two was a very Australian, very timely exploration of older characters who were three-dimensional and hungry for their last-ditch, last-chance grabs at life.

We were extremely proud when we got through the first round, mainly because we knew we’d artfully worked within the production parameters requested; but ultimately our collaboration got rejected. The TV series was made that year, replete with stories focussed on younger people dealing with perhaps less realistic issues.

I’d dared D’arcy to place one single hair inside the 3rd page of the screenplay – an old writers’ technique for finding out if your screenplay had even been read before rejection. When it came back to us, yes, the strand of hair was still there.

But Tea for Two made one bereaved writer and two older collaborators feel very relevant for one Autumn. We still laugh about it. I will never forget Yvonne and D’arcy for the gift of their collaboration, and because they kept me writing despite the odds.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Short Cuts

ShortstoryEVERY writer I know has written at least one short story in their time.

As I writer, I don’t think there’s any mystery as to why: the short story medium provides an accessible, immediate writing experience.

And so it was for me. After fifteen years’ ‘writing’ myself off for having any fiction writing abilities, I eventually found my voice and pumped out ten rather long short stories in late 2009.

I’ve been editing them ever since, primarily by reading them and researching what makes a great plot structure. As a result, I’ve observed a few interesting things about how to effectively edit short stories.

Read it

Sure, there are editors in the world (I am one by trade), many of them highly skilled and ready to edit any writer’s material. Take it from me, every editor will know when you haven’t read your own work. They’ll accept your money (they’ll deserve it, as your first audience), but things could get very sticky between you, and it won’t be all the editor’s fault. Print out your story, sit with it as you would a published title, and read it from beginning to end. Your gut will tell you where to start reshaping your story into what you envisaged when you first began to write it.

Don’t delete, adjust

It’s my assertion that editing is like a multiple choice examination: the answer is somewhere on the page. It’s tempting but dangerous to start ad-hoc cutting. After you’ve read, and reread your own work, decide on some method of ruminating on it – take a long walk, do your exercise session, use your commuting time. As you turn your characters and plot over, ideas will come to you. You may find yourself writing more instead of cutting. If you do cut (and there is nothing wrong with cutting), always keep what you cut somewhere where you can retrieve it if needed.

Size might matter

Everyone will tell you what the word length of a short story is. A rule of thumb suggests that if your reader can complete your story in one sitting, it’s a short story. If you’re entering a competition, stick to their guidelines, but if you have more to say than 1000-1500 words allow, you can generally call your story “short” if its upper word length is anywhere between 7500 and 20,000 words. Longer than that and you’ve written a novella or a long story. Flash Fiction is generally anything under 1000 words.

The dramatic arc still applies

The good news about short story plotting is that you can land your reader right in the climax of your storyline! However, plotting a short story does not mean dispensing with a dramatic arc, rather it’s about framing parts of your plot with windows that focus the reader on certain sections: the rest of the plot should still be there, it’s just not seen from your windows. Many short stories have gone on to become great novels, once the author expands on their existing storyline, but the short story version often remains the punchier experience of the writer’s inspiration.

Rule benders

I’ve already written about the five-act dramatic structure widely purported to be the benchmark for good writing, but in my short story editing process I’ve discovered the ways I’ve bent these rules for the sake of the short story medium. The antagonist of one story was born moments before its exposition ended, for example. The protagonist of another story did not ‘win’ the battle of the story’s climax, the antagonist conceded victory: turns out there’s a big difference. If, like me, you find a ‘rule’ missing, have fun working it back in. I added a three-line climax which made a problem story work in just five minutes, preceded by four years of rumination, of course, but who’s counting?

Keep it simple

WRITE REGARDLESSAlthough a dramatic arc is needed for a short story, it’s probably unwise to layer it too much. Subplots are not a common ingredient in short story plots – there’s often just no time. Short stories, by their succinct nature, generally limit character numbers, locations, time periods, and other ‘luxuries’ that longer formats allow, but don’t let that prevent you writing Gone With the Wind in 1500 words.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Rewriting rites

CRITICAL EYE Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) edited and published her novels independently (Photo: George Charels Beresford).
CRITICAL EYE Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) edited and published novels independently (Photo: George Charles Beresford).

ONCE I finish the first draft of a book, and I’ve left it alone for at least a month or two while spending time reminding myself what makes a great plot, there’s no more excuses: it’s time for me to read my own work for the first time.

I take great comfort and inspiration from writers like Virginia Woolf, who edited and published most of her idiosyncratic and enduring novels independently.

Embarking on the first edit of a manuscript could be seen as an insurmountable problem, or it could be seen as an inspiring fact-finding mission.

Read your manuscript like a reader would

I sit and read my work as though it was created by someone else. If I’m bored with the writing, I’ll acknowledge it, and find out why. This is crucial in the first twenty pages or so. If I’m engaged, I’ll analyse what sparked my interest.

Don’t over-read just yet

I’m going to be working on this manuscript for months to come, so I don’t want to get bored with it too soon. I’ll leave some of the alterations until another edit and just enjoy the fruits of my labour. I’ll also seek to understand the structure of my work before I decide anything needs fundamental alteration.

Keep tabs on your characters

Have I been consistent? Did I just use inserted names, like “A Policeman” when I didn’t want to upset my writing flow by looking-up the name I’d given this character earlier in the book? Have my characters evolved across my first draft so that certain things need to be altered? I jot these issues down in another place for addressing later, or adjust them as I read through.

How is the plotting?

This is the big one at this early stage. Usually, I’m afraid to embark on my first edit because I am worried I may have either stuck too closely to ‘the rules’ or lost touch with them altogether. What I am looking for is whether I’ve got a decent exposition that will benefit from some cutting down the track, several serviceable and intriguing rising actions, a great climax, and a battle between my protagonist and antagonist. I also looking to see if I’ve bent the plotting ‘rules’ in ways that stand to make my work different to others.

Rewrite when it’s easy to do so

I resist getting bogged down in major structural changes – I don’t know my work well enough yet to make those kinds of calls. However, when something quick and obvious comes up, such as a small set of paragraphs that can successfully bridge a missing plot point, I just write them in and will polish during another draft.

Check the blows are landing

When things happen to my characters, do they express the impact to other characters, or to me, the reader? This is a big one for scriptwriting especially. The blows must land, be felt, and registered, otherwise it’s like nothing’s really happening.

The final act is the hardest to get right

Just about every piece of writing advice I have come across maintains that most writers can write great set-ups and climaxes, but our plotting often falls over in the third act. I recognise this and will always read my dénouement anyway, right through, before I decide if I’ve got it wrong.

Practice good housekeeping

WRITE REGARDLESSI never delete original work, or rewrite over my original computer files. Sometimes things need only be moved, not cut. Design yourself a filing system for all your subsequent drafts, archive them, and back them up onto a memory stick. I’ve done this ever since I wrote an entire film script and accidentally deleted the only copy!

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.