Questions? I got lots of ’em.

Steadily working my way through an always-growing queue of scripts in the “to read” pile. Most are for pleasure, while the remainder are for notes.

A majority of my notes usually tend to involve asking questions because something might not be clear to me. This is all part of my effort to try to understand what’s going on with what I’m reading, as I try to figure things out and get a better grasp of what information the writer is trying to convey.

If I don’t understand something, I’ll just come out and ask.

It can range from “I’m not sure why this character was doing that. What was their reasoning behind it?” to “What’s this character’s arc? How do they change over the course of the story?”

Having the writer provide the answer helps them figure out the solution, or at least opens the door for them. More so than I ever could, at least. I don’t want to be the type of note-giver who’s all about “This doesn’t work. I think this would work better.”

(I have seen more than my fair share of notes that include that sort of comment, and I don’t particularly care for them.)

The questions usually come about because something wasn’t clear enough to me. And if I don’t pick up on it, chances are the audience won’t either. Everything we need to know should be there on the page, whether written out or as subtext.

If more than a few of your readers ask the same questions or make the comments about something in particular, that’s an issue you’ll definitely need to address.

A reader wants to like the script they’re reading. They make comments and ask questions in order TO HELP MAKE YOUR SCRIPT BETTER. As the writer, it’s up to you how to interpret them. Sure, you don’t have to incorporate everything, but ask yourself “why did they say/ask this?”

It can be tough to read your own script and see what works and/or doesn’t. You’re too familiar with the material. This is why getting notes can be so invaluable. The reader hasn’t seen this AT ALL, so it’s all entirely new. If they come upon something in your script that stops the read because it makes them think “Wait a second. What does that mean?” or “Why did that happen?”, then you’ll need to fix that so it addresses the issue and makes sure it doesn’t happen for whoever reads it next.

Sometimes a writer will respond to my questions saying nobody had mentioned or asked about that before, but they could totally see why I was asking. This in turn helped them figure out a way to make the changes they felt would eliminate the reason for the questions in the first place.

Which is why I asked them.

You win some, you lose (or don’t place in) some

Another screenwriting contest season come and gone, at least for yours truly.

My western’s record with PAGE extended to 0-6, and didn’t make it to the quarterfinals in the Nicholl. After last year’s debacle with Austin, I opted to skip it this year.

(Side note 1 – I don’t pay to get the reader/judge notes, so don’t know why the script fared how it did for either contest. The Nicholl used to offer notes after the top 5 were announced, but not sure if they’re doing that this year or you had to pay upon registering.)

(Side note 2 – A very hearty congrats and good luck to the 359 writers who made it to the Nicholl QFs. I wholeheartedly applaud the Academy’s decision to limit submissions to one script per person. Other contests should follow their lead.)

My initial reaction to the news from both competitions was “I must be a really shitty writer to keep failing like this.”

But as my ever-supportive wife, a few friends who are also consultants, and several other trusted colleagues in my writers’ network reminded me:

It’s a really good script.

You’re not a bad writer.

IT’S ALL SUBJECTIVE.

This script has also done moderately well in some smaller contests, so it can’t be that bad.

I know a writer whose script advanced in the Nicholl after several years of bupkis. I also know another writer who made it to the top 50 one year, then the same script didn’t even make the quarterfinals the following year.

And as a few others pointed out about the prestigious contests and the scripts that do well in them: it may be a good script, but would it be a good movie? I’ve read some contest winners (and some top vote-getters on The Black List); some were very well-written, and some just didn’t do anything for me. One or two even made me question why they did as well in the contest as they did.

Furthermore – did any make me eager to shell out the cost of a ticket if it were available on the big screen?

Not really.

But again, that’s just my take – i.e. SUBJECTIVE.

At the very least, reading these scripts could be helpful in a “developing your craft” kind of way.

So where do I go from here? I’m rewriting a pair of newer scripts, and haven’t decided if either will go the contest route. Possibly, but right now I couldn’t say.

I’d rather focus on getting them in decent shape. If that means skipping contests next year, that’s fine by me.

From the archives: My brain’s helping hands are ready to go

No job too small! (schedule permitting)

There’s been a slight uptick in my recent coffee chats with connections new and not-so-new. A majority of them have been of a more “just catching up”-type nature, but a few have included the exchanging of script notes and related items. That prompted the re-posting of this gem from July 2018. Enjoy.

Thanks to my ever-expanding network of savvy creative types, I get lots of chances to be on both the giving and receiving ends when it comes to reading scripts.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to get exceptionally helpful notes from a lot of really talented folks. All this feedback has somehow managed to influence my writing for the better, and for that I am overflowing with gratitude.

So the least I can do when somebody asks me “Will you read my script?” or “Can I pick your brain about this idea?” is to say “Of course.”* Maybe I can offer up a few scraps of advice that might somehow work to their advantage. If anything, I can at least point out where a fix in spelling or punctuation is needed. For a script, anyway. That counts, right?

*caveat – it’s taken a lot of work spread over a long time for me to build up my network and establish connections, so I don’t mind if somebody I actually know drops me a note with such a request. If our only connection is being connected on social media and we’ve never interacted – at all, you’re little more than a total stranger to me. So heed that one word and be social. It makes a difference.

I had the pleasure of such an experience this week. I’d connected with another Bay Area creative, and we’d been trying for a while to arrange a face-to-face meeting. After much scheduling, cancelling and rescheduling, we finally made it happen.

This person had an idea for a project, wanted to talk about it, and see if I was interested in being involved. I stated at the outset that I had enough work on my own for now, but would be open to giving notes – time permitting.

After the initial introductions and our thumbnail backstories, we focused on their project. I won’t go into specifics or details about it, because those aren’t the important parts.

What was important was:

-this was a story they’d had inside them for a while, and even though they knew it needed A LOT of work, they were still happy with simply having written it all out

-they were totally open and willing to listen to my suggestions. Some they liked, some they didn’t. Totally fine.

But the more we talked, the more the seeds of ideas were planted in their head. Even though a lot of the details we came up with, including possible paths the story could take, ended up being totally different from their original incarnation, it was easy to see that spark of excitement reignite inside them.

Seeing that happen with somebody you’re trying to help is more satisfying than you can possibly imagine.

We parted ways, with them really rarin’ to go and start developing the latest draft. They added that they really appreciated me being so willing to help out.

I just like doing that sort of thing. I never had that kind of person-to-person help when I was starting out, so why not do what I can for others? Granted, the internet and social media didn’t even exist then, so it’s a lot easier now.

I got a few emails from them the next day showing me what they’d come up with since our meeting. Same concept, but a totally new approach (and, in my opinion, provided the opportunity for a lot of new possibilities). This also included a more thorough write-up of “what happened before the story starts”.

Even though it can be tough to read emotion in text, it was easy to see the spark was still burning strong within them. The way they talked about their plans for what comes next, I could tell they were actually looking forward to working on this.

It was nice knowing I had a little something to do with it.

We exchanged a few more emails (mostly me asking questions about story and characters and them providing sufficient answers), and I wrapped up with “Keep me posted.”

Their response: “Definitely. Thanks again. You’re a good dude.”

That was nice too.

Thank you for the positive reinforcement

Got some notes back on the animated fantasy-comedy spec.

I’ll be the first to say it still needs work on a few fronts, but the overall consensus is “I really enjoyed it”, which means a lot. On several levels.

Added bonus: they liked the jokes. Always great.

Despite all this, for as long as I’ve been at this, I still feel a twinge of anxiety as I open the email to see what the reader thought.

Impostor Syndrome? Possibly.

I know I can do the work, but there’s always that hidden fear that somebody’s going to say “wow, does this suck”. I suppose it stems from that initial sense of just hoping the reader likes it.

While it’s great to get notes of a positive nature, I tend to focus more on the sections that deal with what didn’t work or needs work. Every writer wants their script to be the best it can be, and notes of a critical nature can be invaluable in helping you get there.

And a lot of the time I find myself agreeing with what the notes have to say. Sometimes they even help me navigate my way out of a problem I already knew was there, but was having trouble finding a solution. Those are fantastic to get.

Even as I wait to hear from a few more readers, I’ve already started jotting down ideas to incorporate the strongest suggestions from this batch into the next draft.

Which I will then send out, once again thinking “I hope they like it.”

-Just a friendly reminder that my two books – GO AHEAD AND ASK! INTERVIEWS ABOUT SCREENWRITING (AND PIE) VOL 1 & 2 are available on Amazon and Smashwords.

Notes: givin’ ’em and gettin’ ’em

Simply put: notes can help make a script better. This also heavily relies on several factors, including the experience level of the person giving the notes, the notes being of high quality, and the relevancy of the notes in relation to the script.

I’ve had the recent experience of being on both sides, and both proved to be extremely helpful on several levels.

First: the giving.

I’d been invited to take part in a group Zoom call giving notes on a new script from an established writer-producer.

I thought the writing was okay. Nothing stellar.

As the call progressed, the comments seemed to go back and forth between honest, critical feedback and flat-out gushing. Were those doing the latter doing that in order to get in the writer’s good graces? I hope not.

When it was my turn, I started with what I liked about it (the characters and the strong establishment of tone, in particular) and then segued into what I thought could use some work, which was mostly tightening up the writing, and trimming scenes or sequences.

Just to clarify – I wasn’t trying to tear anything down; just offering some suggestions of what I thought could help make the script better.

The writer appreciated my positive comments, but the other ones were met with a lot of “well, these other people I work with in the industry LOVED that” or “Nobody else mentioned that. This doesn’t mean you’re wrong; just in the minority.”

I’m not really the biggest fan of a writer who gets defensive when they get notes. It’s what they asked for. I don’t have a problem if you disagree with what I’ve got to say. Just say thanks and move on. Don’t try to make me feel small or wrong. If you wanted praise for your script, you should have started with that.

I had to hop off the call soon after that for work-related business, so don’t know how the rest of it went. While I’m slightly curious if any of the other participants had a similar experience, I’ve no pressing desire to find out.

Despite this bump in the road, I still enjoy giving notes and will continue to do so; maybe just a little more selectively.

Second: the getting.

A few weeks ago, I wrapped up the latest rewrite on the animated fantasy-comedy spec. My usual m.o. is to contact a few colleagues to ask their availability to give notes. This time, I opted to keep the number even lower and asked two.

Still waiting to hear back from one, but the other sent back a thorough set of notes. They explain what worked for them, what didn’t, and ask a lot of questions centered around the story and the characters.

It was my intent to get notes that would help make the script better, and that’s exactly what these are – and what I need. Yes, it would be great for someone to say what a fantastic script it is, and how much they loved it, but that’s not going to help improve the script, or why I asked them to read it.

An outside pair of eyes is more likely to see things that I, as the writer, might not. How could I argue with that? Maybe there’s something in there I don’t initially agree with, but would still want to know why they said it – the “note within the note”.

Getting solid notes from those within your network of writers can be a priceless resource, and hopefully you’ll be able to reciprocate with the same level of quality.