Good writing, they say, is re-writing. I re-wrote The Rosie Project, beginning to end, at least seventy times.
It began as a screenplay. In 2007, I enrolled in the professional screenwriting program at RMIT, a radical change in life direction prompted by a one-off experiment with filmmaking a few years earlier. The resulting ‘no budget’ feature film was for family and friends’ eyes only, but kindled an interest in screenwriting and storytelling in general.
I wanted a project to give context to the classes I would be taking – somewhere to apply the lessons. So, as my partner, son and I walked the Queen Charlotte Track in New Zealand, I developed a story, inspired by a friend’s struggle to find a partner. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee says you should work a story out verbally before writing it down, and my two walking companions were treated to the evolving narrative every night over dinner. I haven’t counted these ‘re-writes’ in my seventy.
It was a drama with the occasional splash of light relief. My first degree was in physics, and I drew on my knowledge of the field – and my teachers – to invent a physicist with Asperger’s Syndrome. The title, I’m embarrassed to recall, was The Face of God and I had ambitions that the reader would receive a gentle lesson in the wonders of the cosmos.
Over two and a half years, I wrote draft after draft of the screenplay, now called The Klara Project, as I learned the craft of screenwriting. I came to realise that the best parts were the comedic moments, and re-worked it as a romantic comedy. Twelve months into the process, the script was nominated for an Australian Writers’ Guild Award but my feature-film teachers, seasoned producers David Rapsey and Ian Pringle, were adamant that it still had a long way to go. Quite a few more drafts.
Finally, in something approaching a fit of pique, I threw the whole thing away and started again with a new plot and a new love interest – hence Rosie. I kept only Don, the protagonist, now re-imagined as a geneticist, his buddy Gene, and a few scenes. After working hard on the outline, I drafted a new screenplay in four days. After a bit more re-writing it won the AWG/Inscription Award for best romantic comedy script in 2010, and attracted the interest of producers. Their input, and that of Hollywood script doctors Steve Kaplan and Michael Hauge prompted, further re-writes.
Meanwhile, I was finally finishing the screenwriting program and, having found the learning environment invaluable, enrolled in a novel-writing class. I decided to adapt the Rosie screenplay. I had characters and story, so could concentrate on techniques specific to the novel. I completed a draft in four weeks. The version that won the Premier’s Award and a publishing contract was the result of three further weeks of redrafting – but the hard work had been done over the preceding five years. I had to add Don’s inner world, and a little more complexity to the plot, but I knew him so well that it was not difficult. The book changed again, always for the better, during the editing (or from my perspective, re-writing) process. But I did two full passes, including a read-aloud to my long-suffering partner, on the weekend after my editor had declared her work done and I had incorporated all of her changes.
And on the day that I collected my first copy of the final book, I opened it at a random page, and realised that I could have swapped two paragraphs for better effect. Just one more draft would have done it.