Constructive criticism – a force for good

August 22, 2014
If I can't hear you, then it's not true

If I can’t hear you, then it must not be true

If you met someone who does the same thing you do, but has been doing it longer and with more success, wouldn’t you ask them for advice on how you could get to their level, and more importantly, heed that advice?

While I’m not a professional writer (yet), others, mostly on the newer side, will ask me for feedback on their script.  If I have the time, I’ll do it, and offer up what guidance and suggestions I can.

My notes are sent with the reminder that these are just my opinions to do with as they see fit. Fortunately, most of the responses have been positive and appreciative.

But once in a while, somebody will disagree with what I’ve said or totally ignore it. That’s their choice. They came to me seeking help, and I guess didn’t like what I had to say.

I once asked somebody what kind of material it was, and the answer was long-winded and very academic. While they were droning on, I couldn’t help but think “If they tried to pitch this to a producer, that meeting would probably be over right about now.”

Asking another writer for their logline, I got what sounded more like the short paragraph you’d see on the back of a novel. I tried a few different approaches, each time hoping to point them in the right direction as well as coax out some of the creativity they claimed to have. No such luck. After offering up what you do and don’t want to have in a logline, the response was a curt “Got it. Thanks.”  Can’t say I didn’t try.

Part of me wonders if my advice would be taken more seriously if I charged for it.

You came to me for help, remember? Just because you don’t like the answer doesn’t mean it’s not true.

I’m not trying to be mean. Quite the opposite. There are hard truths about this business that some people just refuse to acknowledge. All of us who came before you learned them the hard way, and if you want to make it, then you’re going to have to do the same.


Is it really too much to just ask?

August 19, 2014
Show of hands for who'd want to read this based on the logline

Show of hands for those who’d want to read this based on the logline

While some people don’t have an issue posting their entire script online, I’ve always opted to offer up just a logline. If the script has had any kind of success in a contest, I mention that as well. That’s how it is on my Scripts page here, and on a few online community sites. Nothing against those who offer up the whole thing. It’s just a personal preference.

My hope is that this sample (for lack of a better word) piques somebody’s interest, which then would prompt them to contact me, saying “Hey, this sounds pretty cool. Could I read it?” In which case, I’m more than happy to send it along. This has happened a few times.

But last week, I got this response from a recent connection:

“…I read the synopsis on your four, all very interesting, but without a script to peruse, quite meaningless – let me know should you decide to upload any.”

Okay…

Like I said, I was hoping the small write-up would motivate you to get in touch with me asking for more, but I guess not. And responded with words to that effect (in the most polite way possible, of course.)

The response:  ” I don’t like to criticise (sic – international spelling) and how you conduct your scripts is your business, but so many writers here claim award winning scripts, wonderful reviews and the sun shines out off a certain orifice – I’m a great believer in put up, or shut up – yes, of course I can ask the writer to send a copy, then there is the pressure, real or otherwise, of a review and feedback – I like to read screenplays unannounced, if I like it I will say so, no hard feelings, no pressure – all of yours have a nice synopsis, I’m sure your scripts stack up.”

I honestly didn’t know what to say, so I never responded. The person seems set in their beliefs that the finished product won’t live up to the hype created by the author. Although I have to disagree with the part about “award winning scripts”, since most contest results are available online, therefore easily verifiable.

And maybe it’s me, but both responses seem to come across as just a little bit on the snarky side.

But back to the matter at hand.

No idea where the parts about “wonderful reviews” and “the sun shines out of a certain orifice” come from. I never post anything like that about my material, nor should anyone. It reeks of amateurishness.

If I want notes, I will come to you because I seek your opinion. If I don’t know how much experience you have as a writer, let alone who you are to begin with, what’s make you think I’m going to ask you for notes?

If somebody asks to read my script, I’ll send it along with this note: “Here’s the script. Thanks for asking. Hope you like it.” I might come back to them in a month or so to ask if they’ve had a chance to read it. A majority of the time, the response is “Oops. I kind of forgot about it/got sidetracked, but I’ll get to it soon,” which is totally understandable. It’s a real commitment to read a script, and it’s not always easy to find the time to just sit down and read it. Happens to me all the time.

Everybody has their own way of how they do things. You do what works best for you, which may be totally different from somebody else’s. That doesn’t mean either person is wrong.

But imply that your way is better than mine, and any credibility you may have had to begin with is now gone.


What comes after you ride into the sunset?

August 15, 2014
And the journey continues...

And the journey continues…

At long last, the latest rewrite/polish of my western has reached a satisfying conclusion.

For now.

Several drafts later, it’s 6 pages shorter than the original, and packed with more character development and tighter scenes. That’s how I see it, anyway. Looking forward, as always, to the helpful feedback from trusted friends and colleagues.

This happened just in time, too. I was feeling pretty close to total burnout, so now I can rest and recharge, let alone even contemplate the idea of taking on another inevitable rewrite.

It’s an odd experience when you finish a project to which you’ve dedicated so much time and effort. You work, toil and slave away at it almost to the point of obsession, and then all of a sudden, poof! It’s done. You might not even know what to do with yourself.

“What now?” you might wonder. Treat yourself to a little reward? (Pie, as always, a great option) Take a break? Start something new? Maybe just kick back, relax and watch something (Netflix sent us THE MONUMENTS MEN, so maybe that) There is no wrong choice, so enjoy it. Bask in that glow of self-accomplishment. You’ve earned it.

I haven’t decided what to do yet, but knowing me, it’ll probably involve a day of not actually writing combined with thinking about the next big project, followed the next day with actual writing.

Not sure yet about the pie, though.


Find what works for you

August 12, 2014
I offer information. What you do with it is up to you.

I offer information. What you do with it is up to you

Way back when I was working behind the scenes at various radio stations, trying to break in on the air as  DJ, I would approach the on-air personalities and ask for their thoughts on my aircheck tape.

Did I sound okay, or at least have potential? What needed work? How could I improve?

A lot of them had very insightful comments and helpful suggestions.

Except one guy. What he had to say wasn’t negative, but it wasn’t necessarily helpful either.

After listening to my tape, he started with “Here’s how I would do it.” Everything after that I totally ignored.

I don’t care how you would do it, because that’s you. My way is not your way. Everybody has a different approach.

I only bring this up because I’ve recently been reading the work of some writers who’ve asked for notes and feedback.

I’ll make suggestions about how a script could look better (less text, more white space) or ask questions only they can answer (what’s a different way this could happen? how do we know this? does this play a key part in the story?), but I will never, ever tell them how I would do it or how they should do it.

It takes a while for a writer to find their individual voice. Don’t let somebody else tell you what it should be.


Random thoughts, general musings, that sort of thing

August 8, 2014
Nothing to do with today's post. I just love their chemistry.

Nothing to do with today’s post. I just love their chemistry.

-My western failed to make it through the first round of Scriptapalooza, which makes me 0 for 4 so far this year. I’m not counting the top 20 percent ranking for the Nicholl; that’s like getting Honorable Mention. At this point, I’ve pretty much written off its chances for Austin.

My problem was overconfidence in the script. I thought it was solid enough, but apparently not. It’s not the first time this has happened to me, but I’ll be more careful about it in the future.

I still believe in this script, which is why I’ve been so gung-ho about rewriting it. The past two weeks have been all about making it better. After completing the latest round of edits, it’s now 8 pages shorter, and still some further fine-tuning to do, which hopefully won’t add more than 2-3.

-Never realized how much my characters repeat things in dialogue. “I need you go to the store.” “The store? Why?” Must be the influence of listening to so much old-time radio. Cutting all of those probably amounted to at least half a page.

-I cut at least 5(!) separate situations where the Wilhelm Scream could be used.

-Had a great lunch-chat with one of my working writer pals yesterday. While he was very supportive and encouraging, he also reminded me of the almost insurmountable task of a new, unproven writer breaking in with a high-budget script.

“Your chances improve when you offer something that won’t cost a lot to make. A lot more people can get something made for under $5 million, rather than $50 million, let alone $100-200 million.”

As it should have, it got me thinking. Do I have any stories like that? It took the bike ride home and digging through some old flash drives to discover I did. Maybe about 5 or 6, all of them just a logline and not much else.

It’s a start.

-Movie of the Moment: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014). Loved it. Great story, great characters (and their development). Maybe my only complaint was the bombardment of exposition in the first 20 minutes. Other than that, a lot of fun.

Biggest pleasant surprise: Dave Bautista as Drax.

Biggest almost-catastrophe: Adam Sandler as a potential voice for Rocket. Somebody thought this was a good idea?

It’s really impressive how much of an effort Marvel puts into their stories and characters. I sincerely hope DC and Warner Brothers can take a lesson from this.


The fastest route out of Sore Loserville

August 5, 2014

Get out and get out fast

Get out and get out fast

There’s been a disturbing trend on some online forums regarding the results of some recent high-profile screenwriting competitions. While the writers who advance receive and exchange congratulatory messages, some of the ones who don’t seem to be looking for some kind of explanation as to why their script didn’t do better.

“They don’t like this genre.” “They’re only looking for stuff they can market.” “They just didn’t get it.”

Hate to break it to you, but that’s not it.

This is: you and a few thousand other people entered the same competition, so the odds were already against you. Chances are pretty good that some of those scripts are better than yours. It happens. Accept it.

And this may come as a shock, but maybe your script just isn’t as good, let alone as perfect, as you think.

So rather than gripe, complain and avow “Those rotten bastards are never getting my money again!”, use this as motivation to make your script better. Rewrite it. Get feedback from your inner circle of trusted colleagues. Pay for one or two sets of professional notes. Some contests offer feedback for an additional fee, so maybe that’s something you might want to consider.

I was disappointed my western didn’t do better in some of these competitions. Frustration and depression were the dominant moods for a couple of days. That’s when reality smacked me in the face and said “You want to do better? Then get to work.”

So that’s what I’m doing. I’ve completed the initial edit, so the script is now 6 pages shorter. There’s still some work to do, but it already feels better and tighter than it was before. I’ll be following my own advice (more rewrites, feedback from friends and pros, etc.), all while planning ahead for next year.

What about you?


Deliberately avoiding referencing that song

August 1, 2014

A great mantra, but a little tired of hearing it over and over

A great concept in terms of editing, but a little tired of hearing it over and over

As I work my way through the hack-n-slash editing phase of the western, it’s getting easier and easier to cut something and not worry about if I’ve made the right decision.

Whole scenes, parts of scenes and lines of dialogue are wiped from existence, all with a positive result. Tighter scene(s), better flow of story, all creating a stronger efficiency of words.

Added bonus – script is already 5 pages shorter, and still have Act 3 to go.

(Counter to all of this cutting, placeholders have been identified as potential chances to add in a few lines for some character development.)

Re-reading this script has also made me realize how much I overwrite, especially with dialogue. I try to avoid extra verbage, but don’t see that’s what’s happened until long afterward. By then, it seems more like padding, so out it goes.

A lot of writers are hesitant to cut material or make drastic edits. They just can’t bring themselves around to killing their darlings, because they figure everything is just right the way it is.

Nope.

As much as you like that scene or dialogue, you have to be as objective as possible about your own work. Is it absolutely vital to the story and advance it in the best way possible? If you took it out, would it make any difference whatsoever, or at least have some kind of impact on the story?

I’d venture probably not.

Don’t be afraid to put that red pen to work and cut away! The pain of having to do so is minimal at best and lasts all of a microsecond or two. It’s more than likely that the next time you read through what you’re working on now, you won’t even notice its absence, probably not remember it ever being there and hopefully think “Wow, this draft seems a lot better.”


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