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.

From the archives: My two cents on giving my two cents

Plus an extra cent to cover expenses

After the whirlwind of the last few weeks organizing the Maximum Z Summer ’22 Script Showcase, putting together Volume 2 of my book series Go Ahead and Ask! (officially published on July 21, and Volume 1 still available here and here), reading for a contest, and working on my own stuff, I think I’ve earned a brief respite.

But never fear. I wouldn’t want you to go without a post for this week.

During the occasional break between all that stuff I just mentioned, I’ve also been able to do enjoy some just-for-the-hell-of-it reading of friends’ scripts. Each one has been a great read, and even better – no notes necessary.

That, of course, reminded me of a post from Jul 26, 2019 that was all about giving and receiving notes.

Enjoy (and happy 4th of July weekend to my American chums).

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?