Patricia Tabb: “Be prepared to re-read and re-write innumerable times until you’re almost bored with it”

Be prepared to re-read and re-write innumerable times until you’re almost bored with it. I promise that each time, when you return later — a few minutes, hours, even the next day — you’ll see something missed on the earlier draft. As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, […]

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Be prepared to re-read and re-write innumerable times until you’re almost bored with it. I promise that each time, when you return later — a few minutes, hours, even the next day — you’ll see something missed on the earlier draft.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Patricia Tabb.

Patricia Tabb often is drawn to the vintage world of the 1950s and 60s when writing scripts, stories, and memoir pieces. Mix in an appreciation of British Literature, and you will see the main grist for whatever evolves on the pages of her scripts. Her professional years were devoted to education, serving as a school psychologist as well as a teacher of literature and writing classes, before discovering the joy of script writing. During the past several years one of her feature scripts and some short scripts, two for live action and several for animated films, have placed in various competitions. Her new short script, “Help Wanted,” she developed in collaboration with her two teen grandsons, Jack Boyles and Hayden Boyles. She is grateful and excited to be a nominee in the New Media Film Festival and looks forward to the June event.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

Years ago, I was consulting an agent about the first ten pages of my middle grade fantasy book, and she responded that she just couldn’t grasp a vision for these characters and their story. She couldn’t “see” the story taking place on the page.

I walked away, devastated and disillusioned. What could she mean? I could “see” the story events play out in my mind. Then it came to me. Of course, she couldn’t see it. I was visualizing the story as moving pictures — an animated film, a visual story, and not a written narrative. But I’d never considered writing a script.

I enrolled in a screenwriting class for beginners, a noncredit class with an excellent instructor, and began adapting the story into a script. It was the beginning of my training and an introduction into a new way of writing. Anyone who has tried to fit novel writing techniques into script writing knows what I mean. After all, prose generally flows, but, as I mentioned to a friend, writing a script was more like devising an intricate puzzle. Change any piece in the puzzle and you’re changing scenes, details, and sometimes even the outcome.

Scripts must be focused and intricate with all pieces fitting securely together to create a picture on the surface that’s clear and pleasing.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Probably the third screenwriting class I took. The semester listed only one course, a graduate level class, and it was closed. I said to the clerk, “Well, I only want to audit. I don’t need a degree or a grade. But I must have this class to learn more about screenwriting.” The kind clerk leaned into his keyboard and clicked away and said, “Well, I managed to get you in.”

Off I trotted with my schedule in hand and then later showed up for class. The professor took one look at me and asked that I meet him outside. Every young student’s eyes followed that mature woman, who didn’t belong there, to the door.

Outside, the professor, in a miffed tone, said, “You’re not supposed to be in here.” (See what I mean?) “This is a graduate level class and you’re not enrolled in the program.”

I suppressed a gulp and kept my cool while he expressed his dissatisfaction with admissions for allowing an audit, which, from his experience, meant signing up just to sit in and do nothing. I reassured him that my enrollment meant commitment. He considered, then said, “If you promise to attend every class and do ALL the work, just as the other students, I’ll let you have a go at it.”

I thanked him, a tad intimidated and, I might add, a bit amused. Of course, I never mentioned that, as a retired teacher with three degrees, one accustomed to carrying on with my classroom instruction while enrolled in all kinds of studies on the side, I expected to attend all classes. Surely, I would finish my work, just as I expected my students to finish theirs. But even I knew I shouldn’t be there. A graduate class outside my field of study?

But I couldn’t back down now. I walked in, avoided the astonished stares (the students had heard every word), and stayed with it to the end. And grateful that I did.

That is still one of the best classes of my life. I enjoyed his clever observations and on-the-spot analysis of our scripts. His comments, always sharp and incisive, sometimes gruff, stirred my growth in understanding how story is supposed to work. He also taught me to write through until I had something on the page to actually look at: Get it done. Then consider every word and plot element and all that goes with the development of story. The instruction was fierce.

I’d pay extra to do it all over again.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

If there’s one huge hurdle, it’s perception of my age as a big disqualifier.

With each conference, and each class, there’s this obvious reluctance from the instructor or leader in charge to take me seriously. Early on, I heard comments during classes or sessions that Hollywood doesn’t bother with anyone over the age of forty. Fortunately, I ignored the warning and continued to write, study my scripts, rewrite, and read scripts that fit the genre of my project. It took much longer to learn than I had expected. As I stated earlier, it’s a different process and craft from writing regular prose. On the other hand, it also offers a rewarding experience when completed well. I’m learning more, too, about the satisfaction of my own touches in a script. I think every script writer begins to see personal fingerprints on the work.

And I think, too, that all script writers can appreciate the wide range of topics and POVs offered in the market. The kind of material I’m interested in will not be the same as that of those in their 20s and 30s, but there’s a large audience out there, many who want the kinds of stories I write.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Yes, I do think that the eager bunny within me overwrote during early efforts. One instructor said, “you really don’t need so much description and direction, Pat. You’re not the director. You’re the writer. In fact, it will annoy them, and they’ll toss it.”

Okay, I was listening.

I now see I’m to work more as the artist of impressionistic paintings. I must work in broad strokes that suggest, lay down, the story without excess of details, only the essentials to suggest. Most details are up to the next artist in the creative process — the director.

But I confess I’m still learning how to rein in and drop much of the prose style of writing. It still reasserts itself now and then.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

One short script that brought much joy and great fun is “Help Wanted,” which is a New Media selection. The germ of the idea began with a scene — an older man and his dog in a mom-and-pop shop. I didn’t know what kind of shop at first.

Then the conflict came to mind with opposite characters — two teen skateboarders who wreak havoc in his sleepy little store. But that built too much action and not real meaningfulness to the story. So, I narrowed it to one teen, but then had to give some background and motivation for his outlandish behavior. What a challenge to provide the right snippet of his life to explain so much.

Then the characters took on more interesting interactions — the older man, the blue-haired teen, and the mutt. What a combo. Not one I would have planned, but with time, assistance from my teen grandsons, Jack and Hay — good voices and great POVs — it finally came together.

Another project is a short script about a flower in a market. I’m just thinking about that one; only a single scene has spoken to me. And I’m not sure what the theme is yet, but it’s generally rewarding when I allow this kind of patience, and often a bit of quirkiness, to play out in simple stories that carry more meaning and punch than I had envisioned earlier.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

If the question refers to this script entry for animation, “Help Wanted,” I’d point out the obvious. In my attempts to craft the storyline about the older fellow whose ordinary day is interrupted by a rowdy teen skateboarder, I failed to connect the teen’s silly effort that broke the shop window and the necessary follow-up scene. The teen should help clean up. It took Jack to identify this gap. It was so obvious that I had missed it, but it also brought an extra punch and irony to the theme. In addition, it became clear that the skateboarder wouldn’t do a good job of it. So, the older fellow must give him a helpful lesson without making a big deal. (Two people needed help.) The irony played in very nicely and embraced the title. This doesn’t always happen for me, so I felt exhilarated for this twist.

And then Hayden quickly added that I must include goofy dog behaviors for Mutt, the peppy dog, and their effect on the sour teen. What a difference those changes made. With comedic relief, the script took on more balance and played out better around the core idea.

They both walked with me through more readings and additional suggestions.

These suggestions reminded me of the juxtaposition of the serious tone and the comedic effects for a more satisfying screen time experience. And the script took on more subtext. That surprised me, too.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Listen to the story.

Of course, most writers know powerful productivity pouring forth now and then, perhaps often. (Bravo!) But no matter how wonderful that exhilarating high, do take a pause to listen to the story, where it’s trying to go and especially what it’s trying to say to you as the writer and to that eventual audience. Without this reflective pause, a story can say little, despite a lot of words on the page.

One of my psychology professors warned us that all research projects should ask the question, “So what?” As script writers we want to ask the same of each developing story once it’s gathered some text on the page. What important theme, message, idea, image, thought, or suggestion is speaking forth there, especially in the subtext?

I ask myself if there’s enough heft here to warrant the kind of attention and time it needs. Each script, even a short script, is an intensive experience and costs me something in terms of time — with family and friends and with other interests and needs. Is it important enough? It seems a tough approach, but I want to work on scripts that give back to me as well as offer a meaningful experience to others. Invest well.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Begin.

At least jot down an idea, a line or thought about your writing project, even if the purpose is to warm up. Get started on something.

Too much thinking and planning without writing can delay a story idea beyond the critical moment. Then, sometimes it’s too late.

Inspiration is a gift, but it’s a flighty bird. Delay capture and it slips away.

2. Keep notes.

Some of my scripts gather material and momentum over time, even years, but I still scribble my thoughts down immediately (see above) — lines of dialogue, scene snippets, plot steps, and development. If I don’t, it’s generally lost.

At this point, I’m finally working out a script treatment for a feature that grew out of a short script that two judges suggested I develop.

What an undertaking it was to rethink the character’s development from childlike perspective to that of a young woman, a process that cast the original into a different story and another genre.

At last, as the story takes shape, I realize it needed time for the character to grow up in my mind. Currently, a stack of messy papers, scraps, even handy notepaper provide clues and details that would be lost. It looks bizarre on my desk, but it’s there for me.

3. Honor your work.

This is hard for me during discouraging moments, but experience has taught me to avoid denigrating the writing. Instead, leave the work for a while and come back. Strange how later we find those words not too bad and perhaps rather satisfying. Refraining from negative remarks saves my confidence.

4. Don’t talk too much.

Consider this a gentle warning from one who has learned — painfully. I’ve noticed talking too much about my project leaves me less inclined to get back to the writing. For me (and this may be different for other writers), sharing too much too early leads to trouble — either I hear discouraging remarks I don’t need during the creative stage or I’ve lost interest in settling down to write. I’ve already spent my zeal for the story’s development.

Of course, there’s a time for sharing and seeking ideas or plain feedback. Later, once I have the basic story mapped out or have completed the first draft, I’m ready for another voice and other ideas to step in.

5. Read it one more time.

Be prepared to re-read and re-write innumerable times until you’re almost bored with it. I promise that each time, when you return later — a few minutes, hours, even the next day — you’ll see something missed on the earlier draft. Sometimes the original — the one you thought rather good, actually — changes into a far better work by the end, one that shares a resemblance to its earlier sister, may be a new work.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

Of course, the regular writing schedule is ideal for anyone, but I’ve had to snatch most of my writing time and opportunities when and wherever I can find them. How easily I could have pushed it aside as an interest that just didn’t pan out or an impossible quest. Despite many distractions and lapses in the effort, I continued. And here I am — three completed feature scripts (one a quarterfinalist in a contest)

And six shorts (placement in nine contests). It’s not the output of many other writers, but I’m staying the path. You can, too.

In fact, I urge anyone convinced of this track, to “be strong, and let your heart take courage.” Many obstacles lie ahead, but as Churchill said, Never, never, never give up. (There may be another “never.”)

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I draw much from the classics — The Bible, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Lucy Maude Montgomery, for example.

In most cases my strong interest in COA — coming of age novels (middle grade and YA) plays into my reading selections. My feature scripts would be classified in that genre.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

A move back to relational emphasis in family, friendships, and culture plays a key part in my script writing.

One goal is to provide faith-encouraging and character-building stories for the four-quadrant audience, what one would call family entertainment. There’s a satisfaction in crafting a film that allows a shared experience, both in viewing and discussing the story. There’s great value in providing opportunities to come together in this distracted culture and build relationships. I find that good films can do that, especially when allowing time for interaction.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

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