My two cents on giving my two cents

nickel
Plus an extra cent to cover expenses

After a brief hiatus, I’ve started giving notes again. It’s always helpful to step away from your own material and dive into somebody else’s. More often than not, it’s a win-win situation.

Sometimes there are exceptions to that rule, but more on that in a minute.

The quality of the writing has ranged from just-starting-out to seasoned professional, so my notes and comments are provided with the level of feedback most suitable to the writer’s level of expertise. One writer might still be learning about proper formatting, while another might want to consider strengthening up that second subplot.

One of my cardinal rules of giving notes is to not be mean about it. I never talk down to the writer, because I’ve been in their shoes. I do what I can to be supportive and offer some possible solutions, or at least hopefully guide them towards coming up with a new approach to what they’ve already got.

One writer responded by saying they were really upset about what I’d said, but then they went and re-read my notes, and couldn’t argue or disagree with any of them.

I’ve always been fascinated by the expression “This is a reflection on the script, not you (the writer).” In some ways, the script IS a reflection of the writer; it’s their skill, their storytelling, their grasp of what should and shouldn’t be on the page, that are all being analyzed. After spending so much time and effort on a script, of course a writer wants to hear “it’s great!”, but as we all know, that doesn’t always happen.

Sometimes I worry my comments are too harsh, but just about every writer has responded with “These are SO helpful!”

About a year ago, a writer I was connected to via social media asked to do a script swap. Some quick research showed they seemed to be experienced with writing and filmmaking, so it seemed like a good idea.

I read their script, and didn’t like it. I said so in my notes, and offered up what I considered valid reasons why, along with questions raised over the course of the story, along with some suggestions for potential fixes.

What I was most surprised about was that this person presented themselves as a professional, and maybe I was naive in taking all of that at face value and believing the quality of their writing would reflect that and meet my expectations.

It didn’t.

It also didn’t help that they opted to not give me any notes on my script. At all. Just some snarky retorts. Guess my lack of effusive gushing hurt their feelings, and this was their method of retribution.

Oh well.

Interesting follow-up to that: I later saw them refer to my notes in a quite negative way, along with “this script has even gotten a few RECOMMENDS”, which is always a great defense.

Follow-up #2: we’re no longer connected on social media.

Could I have phrased my comments in a more supportive way? I suppose, but I figured this person wanted honesty, not praise. And like I said, I assumed they had a thick skin from having done this for a while.

Guess I was mistaken.

And I’ve been on the receiving end of it as well. A filmmaker friend read one of my scripts and started with “Sorry, but I just didn’t like it,” and explained why. Did I pound my fists in rage and curse them for all eternity? Of course not. Their reasons were perfectly valid.

Or the time a writing colleague could barely muster some tepid words of support for one of my comedies. I was a little disappointed, but after having read some of their scripts,  realized that our senses of humor (sense of humors?) were very different, so something I considered funny they probably wouldn’t, and vice versa.

I’ve no intention of changing how I give notes. If I like something, I’ll say so. If I don’t, I’ll say so. You may not like what I have to say, but please understand that it’s all done with the best of intentions. My notes are there for the sole purpose of helping you make your script better.

Isn’t that why we seek out notes in the first place?

The gears, they’re a-turnin’ again

chaplin 2
Sometimes you have to really throw yourself into your work

During a break from working on the comedy spec rewrite, I was digging through some files on some of my other scripts and found a friend’s notes on the pulp sci-fi spec.

I hadn’t read them in months, and vaguely remembered there were some quality comments, so since this is one of the scripts I’m considering working on next, I gave them a quick skimming.

(This is also a good time to remind you that unless you honestly and truly feel that a script is finished, never throw away any of the documents associated with it. You’d be surprised how invaluable those can end up being.)

Yep, definitely some good stuff in here, along with some very valid points about the story and the characters. One of the comments that really struck home for me was that while they liked the story and the ideas behind it, a lot of it still felt too familiar. There were a few moments of uniqueness, but they wanted more. Something slightly different from what they’d read.

“Familiar, but different.” I’ve heard that before.

And it really got me thinking. Even more so this time around.

As it reads now, it’s a good, fun story, but I know it can be better. And different. All while still maintaining the qualities and elements you’d expect for this kind of story, which is what made the idea of developing it so appealing to me in the first place.

Working in my favor is that this was an early draft, so some significant changes were already inevitable, and I at least have a pretty solid foundation from which to start the rebuilding process.

Another bonus is that this is the kind of story where the more new and original ideas I can come up with will only help make the end result stand out that much more.

As I mentioned, this script is a potential “next up”, but not a priority. If an idea or concept for it suddenly pops up, I can easily open up the script’s notes file and jot it down. That way I’ll have it right there and ready to go when that rewrite gets underway.

But for now, back to the comedy.

-A few items for the bulletin board:

-Filmmaker friend of the blog Hudson Phillips is running a crowdfunding project for his post-apocalyptic tale of female empowerment This World Alone. As of this writing, they’re just over 2/3 of the way there, so donate if you can!

-If you’re a screenwriter looking for something a little different in terms of a writing retreat, take a gander at what the Aegean Film Lab has to offer: an international screenwriting workshop in July on the Greek island of Patmos. It’s part of the Aegean Film Festival and a partner of the Sundance Film Festival. I won’t be able to make it, but maybe you will.

What you want VS what the story needs

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Sometimes it takes a little more evaluation

Over the course of several drafts, the core elements of my scripts remain more or less the same. There might be a few changes here and there, but to me, the end result is pretty darn close to what I originally intended.

As part of the development of those drafts, I get notes from trusted colleagues and professional analysts. Everybody has their opinions, of which there were many, and I can pick and choose which ones to use.

I was still presenting my stories the way I wanted to tell them, but is that the way they should be told? Was I falling into the trap of “I’m the writer, so what I say goes! End of discussion!”?

I recently got notes on one of my scripts that offered up some keen insight regarding the antagonist’s storyline. This included the reader’s frustration about what they perceived as a lack of knowing the character’s goal and the reasoning behind it.

At first, that was pretty surprising to hear. But as is usually the case, I took a step back and looked at the big picture, trying to be as objective as possible. Was it really not as apparent as I thought?

And as is also usually the case, their comments were spot-on. I had never made any big changes to how that storyline was written because I saw it as being “just fine the way it is”, which also happened to be the way I wanted it to be.

Which was counterproductive to how the story needed it to be. It wasn’t working within the context of the story itself.

Was it my writer’s ego that prevented me from seeing this through all the previous drafts? Maybe a little. I’ve seen this kind of thing before in other scripts, but just couldn’t see it within my own material.

I knew the script wasn’t perfect, but there’d always been this nagging thought in the back of my mind that it still needed work. Something had to be changed, but I couldn’t identify what. This could also explain why I always felt compelled to keep working on it.

But with those notes, I now had a much firmer grasp of what the reader was talking about, and could begin to rectify the situation.

It took a little time to work through it, including some significant edits and rewrites. It  also entailed cutting some scenes that absolutely broke my heart to see them go, but were totally necessary. All part of the process.

I know I’ve said all of this before, but looking through the latest draft, the script really does seem different now – in a better and much stronger sense. The characters, especially the protagonist and antagonist, feel more developed. The story reads as more concrete. I’m very happy with how it turned out.

Once I was able to put what I wanted aside and focus on what was best for the story, it all came together a lot better than I expected. My hope is that this kind of self-analysis will be a bit easier for me to figure out for future drafts of other scripts.

Can’t wait to give it a try.

Change is inevitable. Embrace it.

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All that red is a really good thing

A few more sets of script notes have come in. Comments in general are favorable (Thanks, everybody!), along with lots of suggestions about potential fixes. Nothing too drastic, but just enough to slightly alter things and still achieve the same results. Nevertheless, it’ll require a fair amount of rewriting.

Which is totally fine by me.

As much as I like what I’ve written, as do a lot of my readers, both sides know it can always be improved – especially my side. As the writer, it’s not as easy for me to recognize what those improvements could be and where they should go, which is why I ask for feedback. The readers start with only what’s on the page and use their knowledge and experience to deduce what works and what doesn’t, and then pass it all back to me for analysis and selective implementation.

A less experienced writer might be hesitant or even reluctant to do anything drastic that could change anything about their script.

Me, not so much. I know what the story is, and if somebody points out something that doesn’t work or suggests a different way to present it, I’m not going to say no. In fact, I’d probably be grateful for it. I might not always agree with what somebody says or suggests, but I still appreciate it and can totally see why they said it. Sometimes it might even inspire a totally new approach. Whatever works.

Used to be I would dread having to rewrite, but due to an effort of trying to write on as regular a basis as I can, which also involves rewriting, I’ve gotten to the point where I now actually look forward to it. (Helpful tip – the more you write, the easier it gets – albeit to a certain degree. Overall, it’s still tough.)

Will later drafts of my scripts be exactly the same as the first? Of course not. That’s the whole point of rewriting: to make it better than it was before. And that requires making whatever changes are necessary.

I recently got to sit in on a friend’s script review group where a new writer received some pretty brutal notes about their script (which I believe was also the first draft). If they wanted it to be better, they had a lot of work to do. They had this somewhat annoyed look and said “Guess that means I’ll have to rewrite most of the script.”

Well, yeah. This is no “one-and-done” kind of operation.

If you think the first or second draft of your script is perfect as is and doesn’t need any more work, then good for you, but I sincerely hope you never, ever show it to a writer with more experience because you will be severely disappointed with what they have to say.

As for me, I’ll be keeping busy with the usual hacking, slashing, and overall rehashing of my scripts. And enjoying every second of it.

-If you’re a fan of sci-fi adventure, then please consider contributing to writer/producer Marc Zicree’s crowdfunding project Space Command: Redemption. Among the cast of sci-fi luminaries are Doug Jones (HELLBOY), Robert Picardo (STAR TREK: VOYAGER), Bruce Boxleitner (TRON, BABYLON 5) and Bill Mumy (LOST IN SPACE), Space Command: Redemption is “a bold, new sci-fi adventure with a retro feel and an optimistic view of the future.” Donate if you can!

You make it sound like a bad thing

good deed
That’s the gist of it

In a few conversations with writers and industry-connected folk, I’ve mentioned how I occasionally do script notes for friends and read for contests.

Sometimes I’d get a “That’s really nice of you.”

And once in a while, the person would look puzzled, and ask, with what I presume was in all sincerity, “Why?”

The way they utter that monosyllable carries a strong tone of “Well, that sounds like a genuine waste of time.”

To which I say, “Why not?” I consider myself a nice person, and try to help other writers out when I can.

Too simplistic? Let me elaborate.

I like reading other people’s stuff. In the case of doing notes, I’m either asked, or it’s reciprocal for them having given me notes on my scripts. That’s the least I can do.

(It should also be pointed out that a few cookies-for-notes transactions have taken place, with both parties being quite satisfied with the results.)

With a lot of the material I read being from experienced writers who know what they’re doing, the scripts are often quite solid from both craft and storytelling perspectives. This in turn helps me hone my analytical skills, which I can then apply to my scripts. Or at least attempt to.

Plus, screenwriters should always be reading scripts.

Regarding the contests, I’ve entered enough of them over the years with the hope I get a quality reader or readers, so I see this as a kind of giving back. It’s very time and labor-intensive, and I’ve had to endure more than my fair share of poor-to-horribly-written scripts. On the other hand, every once in a while you find a true rose among thorns.

I’m just trying to offer up the kind of help I could have benefitted from when I was still learning the basics. And even today, having made some progress on all fronts, I still seek out, as well as offer up when asked, advice and guidance. So far, no complaints.

I’ve never claimed to be an expert, but I do what I can. If that means setting aside some time to read something and offer up my two cents, so be it.

And I don’t see anything wrong with that.