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.

Do you know what you don’t know?

scarecrow
I’m no ThD (Doctor of Thinkology), but I try

Throughout the online writing community, among the many forums and networking groups, there will always be someone, most likely just starting out, who asks a question along the lines of:

“How do I go about accomplishing THIS?”

The variations on this are endless (as are the number of possible answers, but that’s another subject for another time).

A lot of the time, the question stems from a simple lack of knowledge; they just don’t know. Most likely, it’s about a subject which the more seasoned of us have an answer, probably having lived through it ourselves. Hoping to pass on the benefit of your experience, you provide an answer.

Is it what they were expecting to hear? Maybe. Maybe not. But you are giving them THE TRUTH.

With any luck, the question-asker is grateful and appreciative. A win for both sides. They learn something, and you fulfill the mentor role. Even if you just told them “For God’s sake, DON’T DO THAT!!”

And sometimes they don’t like the answer, possibly even getting angry and resenting you for telling them what is, in essence, THE WAY THINGS ARE. How dare you shatter their illusion in which they can do no wrong? They probably don’t realize how petty and thin-skinned they’re acting; two traits which will doom their potential writing career before it  even gets started. Hey, at least you tried to help.

(Side note – this process is a two-way street. If somebody asks you a question straight out of the first day of Screenwriting 101, don’t insult or belittle them for asking it. You were in that exact same situation once too. Plus, it makes you come across as a total dick.)

If you’re among those just starting out, remember that nobody’s first script is at 100 percent. Mistakes will be made. Don’t be afraid of making them. It’s the only way you’re going to learn.

If you’re among those who’ve been down this road many times, be willing to take on the role of patient educator and help when you can.

Even though writing is for the most part a solitary activity, we’re still part of this community, and all in this together.

Beware the monsters with green eyes!

green eyes
And done without the benefit of contact lenses

Not one, but two, count ’em – TWO, fantastic get-to-know-you chats with some fellow local writers over the past week. (Eight days if you want to get technical about it)

As part of one of these discussions, the topic of dealing with criticism came up. In particular, criticism that seems to come from a harsh, angry place. They go way beyond “This needs work”, and potentially surpass the purpose of notes to the point of simply being downright cruel.

“This is shit. Whoever told you you could write?”

“Any attempt to fix this would be a waste of time. Just give up now.”

Chances are you’ve been on the receiving end of these kinds of notes. I certainly have.

When we’re first starting out, we don’t realize how much we don’t know, and that’s reflected on the page. There’s not one experienced writer who thinks their first script or two was perfect.

So you work at it. You toil away, constantly putting in the effort to improve. And over time, you do. You know you’ve gotten better, and that also comes through on the page. Maybe you’ve even gotten compliments or (gasp!) praise about your work.

But despite your progress, you might still get a note like those above that totally trashes what you’ve written. This has also happened to me. Fairly recently, I might add.

What myself and the other writer discussed was “Where does this anger come from?” We’ve both been doing this for a while, so neither of us is a total noob. We each had more than a few scripts under our respective belts, so what could possibly be the basis for such a mean-spirited rant?

I casually threw out something I’d only read about and heard in the occasional mention: Could the person giving the notes be jealous of the material, and they were venting their anger and frustration about it via their notes?

Let me set one thing straight. I think I’m a good writer, but I will never claim to be the be-all and end-all. In fact, I’d be amazed if somebody was jealous of my work.

When I read somebody else’s script and find it totally amazing, I’ll tell them so. Do I wish I could write something that good? Sure, but it makes me want to work harder so I can. I don’t think “I’ll never be as good as them, so I’ll shit all over their material in order to make myself feel better.”

Taking this kind of negative approach can only result in a lose-lose scenario for you. You make yourself look bad and the other person will most likely not want anything to do with you anymore. And don’t think they’re going to forget you. To them, you’ll always be that angry asshole.

Something else to keep in mind – you never know who’s going to succeed, so the person whose script you just trashed could potentially be the next big thing. Wouldn’t you rather be on their good side, and not their shit list?

I work really hard to establish and maintain my network of connections, and value each one too much to do that. I want everybody to succeed and actually enjoy helping if and when I can.

But then again, I’m just a nice guy to begin with. Even if I do occasionally end sentences with a preposition.

But that’s nothing to be jealous about.

The unscientific term would be “gut reaction”

trust your feelings
Learn to trust your feelings. Even with the blast shield down.

I’ve had the experience of working with some writing, both my own and other people’s, that required a second opinion. For some of them, I was the second opinion, while the others involved my work being reviewed.

An experienced professional asked me to take a look at another writer’s script, accompanied with their excitement and enthusiasm about it. Upon reading it, I found it severely lacking in a lot of screenwriting fundamentals (bad structure, shoddy character development, etc.), and said so as part of my notes of what was needed to improve.

I like to read a script twice before giving notes on it, and it took a lot of effort to get through each one – especially the second time. That whole time I was wondering “Where is this enthusiasm coming from?” This person knows what a good script looks like, and this one, to me, didn’t meet any of the necessary criteria. And if they felt this way about this script, could I trust their judgment on others?

Last week I’d been given the offer to have my query letter reviewed. I put it together with the elements I considered vital: quick one-sentence pitch, logline, reputable contest results. As fast a read as possible.

The response read like something churned out by a machine. Their recommendation was to follow “their blueprint”, which involved a lot of fill-in-the-blanks, how it’s similar to successful films (the more recent, the better!), telling the story from only the main character’s point of view, and concluding with “why I think this will be a hit” OR the underlying theme. The end result is several big unappealing blocks of text.

All of this felt totally and absolutely wrong. If I were the intended recipient, I might start reading, but would most likely lost interest very quickly and be very hard-pressed to want to continue, let alone finish it.

(With no intention of ever actually using a letter written following their guidelines,  I put one together and submitted it for review, just to see what they would say. Their follow-up comments reinforced my doubts, but that is a topic for another day.)

As you probably guessed, I’ll be sticking with my original format.

The takeaway from both of these experiences is that a writer must not only develop their writing and storytelling skills, but also the ability to trust their instincts. Know what works, not only for you, but in an overall sense.

Don’t always assume the other person is in the right. Sometimes they’re not.

Everybody will have an opinion about something. You might agree wholeheartedly or think the other person has no idea what they’re talking about. It takes time to learn how to determine which is which. You will make mistakes and bad choices along the way, but make the effort to learn from them so you don’t do it again.

Like with writing itself, the more you work at it, the better at it you’ll become.

 

Still flying, still buttressing

buttresses2
Helping support writers since 2009!

The post from earlier this week was all about my excitement about my new story idea. Little did I realize what kind of effect that would have on some readers.

“The enthusiasm oozing from your blog post is contagious. I have a story line that is brewing, too! Thanks for the encouragement here!”

Shucks, folks. I’m speechless. (“Oozing”? “Contagious”? Makes me feel like I require medical attention.)

It kind of reminded me of this post from 2 1/2 years ago.

Those that have been following this blog for a while know what a big proponent I am about networking and supporting those within your network.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have not only established solid relationships with several writers of considerable talent, but been the fortunate recipient of their advice and guidance in helping me hone my writing skills. In turn, I don’t hesitate when one of them asks me for my two cents about their latest project.

Hard as this might be for some to believe, being nice to people actually has its benefits, and isn’t that difficult.

Or is it?

As has been well documented here, I’ve had several online encounters with those who make comments of an overly negative nature (which, a majority of the time, don’t include anything that actually helps).

It truly amazes me when somebody I’ve never met, and most likely never will meet, has no problem spitting out harsh and condescending answers to what are generally simple questions, or somebody just seeking some helpful insight or advice.

Whatever their reason, what exactly is the point of acting like this? If anything, it makes me want to avoid you at all costs. I’m already doing a bang-up job being full of self-doubt. I don’t need your help.

I strive to be the opposite of that, and help people out when I can. It’s in my nature.

And if you’re reading this, I sincerely hope it’s in yours as well.