A subject worth discussing

soapbox
Listen up, and listen good

Stepping onto my proverbial soapbox to utter a few thoughts on something that needs to be said.

If you’re part of an online forum, and you post your material in that forum seeking feedback from other members, you will get all kinds of responses. Some will be positive, and some will be negative – maybe to point of being outright condescending.

How do you respond to the positive ones?

“Thanks. I appreciate it.” Maybe elaborate a little, or a follow-up question or two. Possibly even ask to communicate with the person in private.

The negative and/or condescending ones?

“Thanks.”

That’s it. No matter how much you feel the urge to respond with a stinging retort written in ALL CAPS and a lot of exclamation points, just don’t. You asked for comments and you got ’em.

A thick skin is a necessity in this business. Arguing or getting angry because you don’t like what somebody said won’t help you or your writing, and it makes you look petty and unprofessional.

Now let’s address the other side.

Somebody asks you for notes, and based on the quality of the material, you do the best you can, trying to be as helpful as possible. Be honest with your suggestions of what needs to be fixed.

Does it have potential? Mention that. Are there problems? Identify them and how they could be fixed.

If the writing reflects an amateur, or a poorly constructed idea, point out how and why in a constructive manner. There’s no need to be insulting or talk down to them. Chances are they’re still learning, so they don’t know as much as you do.

They may not like what you have to say, maybe even going so far as to insult you and your experience, or deride your comments. But that’s on them. You’ve done your part.

So let’s review.

You want help? Take what you get, even if you don’t like it. After your temper cools down, take a serious look at what was said. There may be something in there worth using.

Somebody asks you for help? Be professional and as helpful as you can. Don’t hold their lack of experience against them.

No matter whether you’re giving or receiving, be patient, tolerant, and open-minded.

Keep that in mind, okay?

Thanks. The soapbox is now available.

One opinion is not general consensus

sidewalk
Everybody’s got something to say

Feedback on a script. You know you need it.

But here’s the thing: everybody will give you their thoughts on your script. They’ll tell you what works for them and what doesn’t. However, it’s more than likely their view is going to be different than yours.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right and you’re wrong. It’s what they think, and you can take it or leave it.

When I was starting out, I figured the person giving me notes was more experienced than I was (why else would I ask them for notes?), so they must have known better, so I’d implement their suggestions without hesitation.

The result – my scripts were getting away from what I wanted them to be and becoming more of the other person’s.

Which is the total opposite result I wanted.

Only after constantly working and studying and rewriting did I get to the point where I’ll now get notes and have no qualms thinking “You make a good point, but I don’t agree with that.”

Sometimes a note will be the total opposite of what others say, which makes me take a closer look at it. I may still disagree with it, but it’ll make me think.

I’ve been on the giving end of that too; I give somebody notes, and am occasionally told “You’re the only one who said that.”

You can get notes until it seems like you’re heard from every single writer on your list of contacts, and no matter what any of them say you should or shouldn’t do, you’re the one driving this bus.

You are the one – the ONLY one – who knows what’s best for your script.

You can count ’em on one hand (plus an extra finger)

six fingers
This many

In years gone by, when I was seeking feedback on a script, I would ask just about any writer I knew if they’d be interested (along with an offer to reciprocate, of course).

At first that number was in single-digit territory, but eventually crossed into low double-digits.

Definitely way too many. But I was still learning and trying to get as much feedback as I could.

That in itself soon became a double-edged sword. As much as I appreciated everybody’s notes, the amount of conflicting opinions (Person A: Do this! Person B: Don’t do this!) kept getting bigger and bigger.

It got to the point where I couldn’t stop second-guessing myself, which was definitely not helping.

So after the last set of notes came in on the latest draft, I decided on taking a different approach next time. For my own sake.

Taking a look at my list of names, I evaluated each person on it. How were their notes? Insightful? Just okay? Even if I didn’t agree with everything they said, did their notes have merit?

Doing all those reciprocal reads also played a big factor. Does their writing indicate they have a solid grasp on the craft? Simply put – do they know what they’re talking about?

The number of names was soon whittled down to a respectable half-dozen; six writers I think are very talented and who have each made good headway developing their own careers. The notes each one has provided me have been extremely helpful in improving both my writing skills and my material.

It’s also gotten to the point where it’s not an uncommon thing for one of them to ask me for notes on their latest project before they send it out.

When I wrapped up the first draft of the pulp spec this past weekend, my first instinct was to immediately contact the group. But time and experience has taught me that patience pays off. I opted to go through it again, editing and making appropriate fixes. This way, I’m sending them a better draft, which means less work for them. Their time is valuable, and I want to respect that.

I’ve seen writers on forum groups asking the community if anybody would be interested in reading their latest draft. That’s fine, but I think it’s a little too risky. Without knowing how much experience the other person has, you might end up hindering your progress, rather than advancing it.

I can’t stress it enough: take the time to build up you network. Establish your own core group of writers you think are exceptionally good. Be more than willing to read their stuff. Take their notes to heart. In turn, both of you will be better writers for it, each creating better material.

Advice, suggestions, and everything in between

neil-gaiman
“When someone tells you it isn’t working – they’re almost always right. When they tell you how to fix it – they’re almost always wrong.” – Neil Gaiman

Many, many years ago, when I was just starting out in radio, I’d put together a demo tape of some of my on-air material and asked some of the veteran DJs at the station if they’d give it a listen.

One guy had several positive things to say, but also pointed out ways of how I was demonstrating my still-green abilities. He made some suggestions about how to fix that, which would, in theory, help me get better. They did.

The second guy started with “It’s good, but here’s how I would do it.” I honestly don’t remember anything he said after that because I simply didn’t care how he would do it.

There’s a very similar approach to how one gives notes on a screenplay.

When I give notes, I read what’s on the page and offer up my opinions of how it could be potentially be improved (from my perspective). A lot of the time it involves questions like “Why is this happening?” or “How do we know that?”

Or if something doesn’t work, but I understand what the writer’s trying to do, I’ll ask “What if you tried THIS (different approach) that yields the same results?” They may not take that suggestion, but it might trigger something new and unexpected.

I totally get that this is their story, and my only interest is in helping them make it better. By asking questions that only the writer can answer, the responsibility of coming up with and applying any fixes falls squarely on their shoulders.

I also make a point of trying to be objective. I may not be a fan of your story’s genre, but that doesn’t mean I’ll automatically be negative in my notes. What I will do is approach it from a “does it tell a good story populated with interesting characters and situations?” perspective.

And then there are the notes that want to take your story in an entirely new direction. The ones that take it upon themselves to change your story because “that’s not how they would do it.” I’ve gotten quite a few of those.

But what if how you would do it is different than how I would?

Sometimes it’s a suggestion that runs counter to the story you’re trying to tell, or it might have absolutely nothing do with the story at all. I’ve even received the always-appealing “This was great, except for this one small thing I disagree with/don’t like, which ruined the rest of it for me.”

Everybody’s going to have their own opinion, but the one that counts the most is yours. Even if it doesn’t feel that way now, only you know what the script really needs, and you’re going to get all kinds of responses when you seek out feedback.

Some of it will be very helpful and insightful, some definitely won’t be, and in the end it’s really up to you to decide which notes you think provide the most guidance to helping make your script better, which will in turn help you become a better writer.

 

Try the direct approach

handshake
Nice to see you again. Mind if I ask you something?

Sometime last week, I received a very nice compliment via on online forum regarding the quality of the script notes I give. A mutual associate of ours chimed in with the grumbly “Well, he never does it for me.”

To which I responded “Because you never ask.”

I don’t know what this writer’s standard M.O. is for getting notes, but from what I can gather, usually involves them posting “Anybody want to read my stuff?”

There’s nothing wrong with that, but the drawback is you run the risk of getting feedback from somebody with less experience than you, or worse, has no idea what they’re talking about.

This is why networking and establishing relationships with other writers is so important. If someone posted a generic request for a read, I’d be less inclined to respond. Even if I knew the person. I figure they’ll probably get a few other responses, so why bother?

But if someone came to me specifically and said “If you have the time, would you be able to read this?”, I wouldn’t hesitate to say yes. This shows me that they value my experience and opinions, along with respecting that I can’t simply drop everything to accommodate them. They’ll also include an offer to read something of mine, if I’m interested.

Sometimes I’ll get an email asking me for a read, and it might be because of any number of reasons. They’ve read my stuff before and think this new script is similar. They know I have an eye for fill-in-the-blank. All of this could only have come from myself and this other writer having already established a good professional relationship.

While I always encourage writers to get out there and network, it’s also important to build on those connections once you’ve got them. You don’t have to become somebody’s best friend, but being supportive or offering the occasional words of encouragement really go a long way. Plus, people are much more likely to remember that sort of thing, adding to the likelihood they’d be willing to help you out.

More than often I’ve read about another writer’s projects and introduce myself, tell them how I found them (usually via the forums) and of my interest in the script in question, then ask if they’re cool with me taking a look at it. It’s a rare occurrence when someone says no.

Both of you are writers constantly striving to improve, and some good, solid feedback can play a big part in that. And that can be best achieved by getting to know other writers and treating with the same respect you’d expect to be treated with yourself.