You’ve spent six months to a year breaking your story, outlining it, then sitting down to write the screenplay. You’ve finished your first draft. It’s far from perfect. Some people call the first draft “the vomit draft.” The important thing is – you finished it.
You might have been working a day job, writing when you could. You might have had to support a family, and had to make difficult sacrifices. It can be emotionally exhausting. Take time to reflect on what you’ve accomplished. Celebrate with someone close to you who understands how important this event is. Reward yourself.
Now I’d recommend taking a short break from this story and these characters. Put the script away and come up with some other ideas for screenplays. Having lots of ideas in various stages of development sort of bulletproofs you from rejection. If they don’t like the script you submit, you have many others.
What do you do next?
1. You might want to copyright your first draft.
You’ve got to be careful who you tell about the project. You don’t want to get ripped off. You can register your script with the Writers Guild of America for between $10 and $20. This can be a short term solution.
However, copyrighting is far superior. The WGA registration only lasts for five years. Copyrights last for the life of he writer plus 70 years.
How do you copyright your script?
It’s best to do it on-line. You go to the Copyright Office Electronic System on-line, where you’ll be asked to complete an application. You pay the $35-$55 fee. You submit your work, then wait for your script to be copyrighted. The process will take several months. You can use the mail, but it’s more expensive and takes longer.
Your script is going to change after this first draft, as you incorporate feedback. You’ll also want to copyright the final polished draft.
Keep in mind, you have to kind of trust people in this business. In order to sell a project you have to pitch it, or give it to people to read. You do have to get used to talking about your project when selling it.
Ideas do get stolen. It just doesn’t happen all the time. You have to be able to live with risks. There may be hundreds of readers, and producers reading your script before someone decides to buy it.
2.Move on to the second and third drafts, then prepare for feedback.
Take your time with the next draft and the subsequent drafts. Whereas you could write almost stream-of-consciousness in your first draft you need to be more focused and deliberate.
Get your script to the point where you can’t think of ways to improve it. Now other people have to read it. You’ve got to prepare for feedback. Put yourself in a frame of mind to accept constructive criticism. Nobody likes this part.
If your self-esteem is at an all time low, you’ might want to put this off. People will be judging your script. Just remember, it’s the script. They’re critiquing the script. It’s not you. Plus, you have plenty of other ideas. And remember, you can get 1,000 “no’s” but it only takes one “yes.”
3. Ask trusted friend who is also a writer to read your work.
Your friends will generally say good things. This is a safe way to start showing your work. Next, if you’ve cultivated connections who write professionally, give it to them for a critique. Two is better than one, if possible. Listen to their critiques.
Your friends and other writers at about your level will often be good at finding problems with your script. More often than not, they’re right. However, at this level they’re rarely right about how to fix the problem.
4. Some people do table reads, using actors to read the parts out loud.
This can be helpful, too. If it’s a comedy you can tell which jokes work. The table read can tell you if scenes fall flat, if you need some cuts, and where clarification might be necessary. The people reading the roles may have valuable input, too. There are writing groups in LA that hold table reads for their members. They may charge $30 a month, but it’s worth it.
There’s a website called Deadline Junkies Screenwriter’s Lab that also offers table reads for writers. Their membership fees are reasonable. They not only have professional actors read your script, they have professional writers come and give you feedback.
5. Compare the various critiques and decide what needs to be fixed.
Be tough with yourself. The marketplace will be unforgiving. Try to remain objective, and remember, your career is about writing many screenplays on spec. If this one doesn’t sell, it may be the one that gets you a pitch session.
Figure out what the most important fixes are, then incorporate them into your next draft.
6. If you can afford it, this is a good time to send this more polished script to a professional story analyst.
Make sure the reader is someone you trust. I’ve sent scripts to an individual which screens screenplays for Sundance Labs.
I recall paying him $250 to evaluate and more to hear an hour or two of feedback. He’s always allowed me to tape record our sessions together, which helped with the next rewrite. I know, you’re saying “Ack. More rewrites!!?, but this is what writers are doing today.
Really, even professional writers, these days, who’ve had screenplays produced, don’t want to turn a script in to their agents, without getting professional-level feedback.
7. Incorporate the new changes into your screenplay.
You don’t have to change everything everyone says, but if there’s a trend, you’d be wise to follow it. This is your final draft. It’ll be your calling card screenplay. This (hopefully) will be the script that kicks off your career.
Remember, however, it’s just one of many great scripts you’ll be writing. Consider all your other ideas and projects. If this one doesn’t hit, maybe the next one will.