Taming the beast we all must face

lion 2
Intimidating at first, but eventually, just a big ol’ pussycat

When I was part of a writing group last year, each week we would read and critique a few members’ sets of pages. Some were just starting out, some had a few scripts under their belt, and some had been doing this a while. You can probably figure out which category I fell into.

Simply put, some of the writing just sucked. Really sucked. Like painful-to-listen-to sucked. To my credit, tempted as I was, I never actually expressed my thoughts that way.

I fully understood that not everybody had a firm grasp on the basics, and I, along with a few others, made a sincere effort to explain what would help improve their work. While a majority were appreciative of our comments, a select handful got defensive, some even to the point of flat-out dismissive, of any kind of comment that didn’t reinforce their belief that their writing was fine just the way it was.

This was one of the things that helped me decide to leave the group.

One of the universal truths about being a writer is that not everybody’s going to like what you’ve written, and just about everybody will have a suggestion as to how it could be better.

While there’s nothing you can do about the first part, the great thing about the second is that it gives you options. A lot of them. You like what this person said? Use it. Don’t like what that other person said? Ignore it.

Some people will make suggestions based on how they would do it, which is all well and good, but what’s more important is how you would do it. Do you agree or disagree with what they’re saying?

You’ll be bombarded with a wide variety of opinions, but don’t feel like you have to incorporate every single one. And while you may be the final word on what works and what doesn’t for your story, you shouldn’t dismiss every suggestion either. Some of them may be more helpful than you realize. There are a lot of  writers out there with more experience than you, so their opinions should be at least taken into consideration. But it’s okay to disagree with them, too.

Speaking from experience, it takes time to learn not to take criticism of your material personally. The comments you receive may sting at first, but you have to remember they’re about the material, not you. Read them with a “How can I use these to get better?” frame of mind. That’s the only way you’re going to improve.

One last thing – make sure to thank the person for giving you notes, even if you totally disagree with everything they’ve said. Doesn’t matter if you asked them to do it or they offered. They took the time to help you out, and the least you can do is acknowledge that and express your appreciation for it. And it’s the polite thing to do. Manners still count.

The benefit of connecting with people in person

Availability of coffee is always a pleasant option
Face-to-face. Classic. Effective.

I had the good fortune earlier this week to attend the meeting of a new writing group. It’s been a while since I’ve been part of one, and it was nice being able to once again interact with other writers and engage in casual discussions about our respective projects before moving on to the focus of the evening. Since it was my first time attending, I’d opted to stay in the role of observer/commenter, rather be than one of the four-to-five who brings pages for review.

Following a brief table read, the group then offers up its collective comments. This week’s selections weren’t bad, but each set had room for improvement. Some maybe a little more than others.

When I got the opportunity to toss in my two cents, I talked about what stood out for me and what I thought needed work, making a point of being nice about it.

Others chimed in with their opinions and suggestions, not all of which I agreed with. While I may have been thinking “That’s not right,”or “That doesn’t make any sense,” my lips remained sealed. I didn’t want to come across as the pompous know-it-all. It’s important to make a good first impression, no matter who you’re meeting.

When the meeting was over, I talked to the guy who organizes it (we were in a different writing group years ago), saying I’d hoped I wasn’t too obnoxious with my comments. “Not at all,” he said. “A lot of these folks are newer writers, and you told them some things they needed to hear. It’s the only way they’re going to get better.”

Whew.

It’s been my experience, and hopefully yours, that getting feedback from an actual person is beneficial on several levels. Chances are you’ll know something about that person’s background and experience, so you can put the appropriate level of merit into what they have to say. And unless they’re a jerk to begin with, they might be a little less harsh with their comments than if it was an online forum, where for some reason people have no problem letting loose with vitriolic criticism and put-downs.

If you asked somebody for feedback, wouldn’t you rather the notes were helpful in a supportive way, rather than “This sucks! What makes you think you can write?” That would be pretty devastating, right?

Now imagine that situation reversed. A newer writes comes to you, asking for notes. Do you think “They don’t realize how fortunate they are to have the wonderfulness of my vast superior knowledge bestowed upon them!” or “I used to be where they are. How can I help?”

My advice: opt for the latter. Both of you will be better off for it.

Isn’t a rock a hard place to begin with?

Gotta pick one, but which one?
Gotta pick one, but which one?

Hard choices. That’s what it comes down to for your protagonist.

Someone in my old writing group put it very succinctly: each scene should force the protagonist so they have no choice but to go with the option that makes things harder for them.

If things were easy for your protagonist and everything went right for them, it wouldn’t be much of a story, would it?  We’d be bored silly.

It all stems from the necessary key word: conflict. Something must be opposing them reaching their goal.

This doesn’t mean it’s someone or something physically blocking them, although that is one option. It could be something out of nature, like a great white shark, a hurricane or a killer virus, or something from the grand scheme of the universe, like time, fear or silence.

One of the great things about conflict is there are countless ways to present it. It comes in all forms, but it really boils down to something in the scene (as well as the overall story) preventing your protagonist from moving things forward.

Taking it one step further, not only do you have to make sure they do, but they have to be the one doing it. Anything else is a cheat, and totally negates their development as a character.  Imagine if Dumbledore said, “Here’s a step-by-step list of what you have to do, Harry.” The mentor figure is there to guide the protagonist down the right path, not take the path for them.

The protagonist has to endure all of these conflicts in order to not only accomplish their goal, but grow or change from what they were when we first met them.

So go ahead and put ’em through the ringer. It’s the way it must be.

-I had the pleasure of doing an interview with Henry Sheppard, aka Adelaide Screenwriter. Check it out here.

A new beginning?

Well, I finally got to take part in a new writing group last night. It was great. There were 5 other people, and then me.

It’s even semi-organized, which was pretty impressive. They start with the check-in, where everybody gives a little status report of what they’ve been up since the last meeting, writing-wise. Two of the women are working on shorts, one guy is sidetracking and working on a novel, and another woman is working with a producer. Cool.

I gave them a thumbnail sketch about myself. I think it helped.

After the check-in, two people offer their materials up for review. They arrange this at the end of the previous session, then email said materials to everybody a few days before the upcoming session to give them time to look it over and evaluate them.

First we started with one woman’s script for a short. It was okay, but my ruthless proofreader’s pen couldn’t stop noticing the problems with spelling, grammar and format/structure.

Once I got past those, we talked about the characters and story. There was definitely some good material in there, but some things needed to be changed to make it more effective.

I did my best to NOT come across as a know-it-all, tempted as I was at times. There were some things I had to mention, but I tried hard to make it sound friendly and encouraging.

I think I scored points with my suggestion of changing one of the characters from an aunt to a daughter, mostly because the author said she already had an actress cast for that part. Everybody seemed to think it was a really effective change and could greatly benefit the story, as well as changing it’s overall dynamic. I felt so vindicated.

Then we read the first 15 pages of the script being done with a producer. I liked it, but as with all early drafts, there were lots of questions from all of us.

We wrapped up a little later than I thought we would, but it was still okay. I talked with the second writer on the way out. Her ‘manager’ is more of a teacher, but it sounds like he also has lots o connections. Nice. She also mentioned an agent she knows in Sacramento(?!), who’s looking for clients. That could be something worth pursuing.

I volunteered to both host and offer my materials for next time, which means I have to get my ass in gear and cranknout at least the first 10-15 pages of Baby Likes Jazz. AND since I’m also working the midday shift all this coming week, there will no doubt be lots time split between those pages, the rest of the outline and those time-consuming traffic reports every 10 minutes. At least I’ll be getting paid for the latter while dealing with the first two.

Someday that will be revised.