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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Bad Dog, Bad!

By PJ McIlvaine

Writing a script is hard enough. You scrape your soul, you struggle, each day you wrestle with yourself (not to mention your family who nicely, and not so nicely, continually remind you of all the things you should be doing, and could be doing, if your fat ass wasn’t permanently attached to the chair), but you persist. After a week, a month, three months, a year, you’ve given birth to your new baby. It’s a wonderful feeling, and you revel in it for as long as you possibly can, because you know damn well that before long, you have to send your baby crawling into the big, bad cruel world. With a diaper. And that means notes.

Good notes inspire you. Bad notes depress you. Good notes take you to the next level. Bad notes take you to another level. Good notes should be like the love of a good man (or woman, as the case may be): hard to get, you got to work your tail off to get it, but once it’s yours, it brings out the best in you. Good love, I mean, good notes, is encouraging, nurturing, and supportive.

On the other hand, bad notes are like bad boys/girls: they rip your heart to shreds without a second thought, they shatter your confidence, they make you doubt your creativity and question your ability, they stomp on you mercilessly, they kick you to the curb and…well, and I think you get the picture.

Since I began my screenwriting journey (oh God, does that sound Oprah-ish or what), I’ve read hundreds of scripts from all sorts of people and places: screenwriting groups, friends, colleagues, produced scripts, unproduced scripts, agencies, producers, and a slew of workshop sites (you know which ones I mean). The art of reading a script is just that, an art, and it’s an expertise that develops only with time and maturity and by reading, yep, you guessed it, tons of good and bad scripts.

But when you’re first starting out, when you’re green around the gills and still trying to find your footing…let’s be perfectly honest. The vast majority of the scripts you’re going to read, that you’re going to have access to initially, like at writers groups and workshop sites, well, they’re not going to set the world on fire. It’s not the stuff of Oscar speeches. Brad Pitt or Hugh Jackman isn’t going to fight mano a mano over who’s going to star in it. Not the time to put money down on a Bentley (not unless you’re a genius, an idiot savant, and in that case I want to talk to you ASAP). I don’t say this to be discouraging in any way, because that’s the way it should be, it’s a process, you learn from your mistakes, you absorb, you grow, it’s a discipline. The more you do it, the better you are, like some other things I could mention but won’t. Bodice ripping indeed!

Now depending on who your reader is and who he/she is reading for, there may be a great temptation to rip this poor, struggling screenwriter a new one. This is especially true when the writer isn’t going to read the notes, when it’s for executive eyes only. You might want to show the boss just how witty you are, you want to impress the higher ups on how easily you can toss those ten dollar words around with the best of them. That’s an altogether different sort of note (and a different set of criteria) because it’s not meant, nor is it designed, to help the screenwriter in any way to improve or shape the material. That reader might be reading the script to assess its marketability, is this a role for Angelina, hey guy we have a slot open, can we slide this in, and will the investors pony up the dough, and/or a thousand other reasons. And in the interest of transparency, I’m not talking about notes/coverage that you pay for. Again, it’s another kind of cat.

So for what’s it worth, this is what I’ve learned about “taking notes” in general. Cultivate a set of writers who are near, at, or even better, on a higher scale/level/ability than you. Yeah, you can post your baby on any number of free sites, but after trial and error, I long ago decided that I don’t want my baby hacked to pieces by a sixteen year old from Paducah who wouldn’t know what a brad if it stuck him in the eye. The last “free” coverage I got was so horrendous, I wouldn’t use it as toilet paper. It’s an insult to toilets.

Get more than one set of eyes to read it. For one script, I got more than fifteen pals to read it. They pretty much thought it was a winner (hah, what do those idiots know, I’m still trying to sell it), but a few had the same niggling comments. When that happens, you make like a turtle, you mull it over, internalize it, re-read the script a thousand time, then you stick your head out of your shell, you go with the flow and/or your instinct. If I had listened to the nay-sayers, the doomsday people, I would’ve never sold MY HORRIBLE YEAR. It was just too weird, too different! Sometimes, you just have to be still and listen to the little voices in your head, even if it means diving into the ocean without an oxygen tank.

Good notes make you want to fly. Bad notes make you want to die. I’ve gotten both kinds, I’ve survived (barely), you learn which ones to take, and which ones to discard. And you will too. It will hurt. It will sting. You will bleed. Stock up on bandages. And cupcakes. Oh, yes.

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Anonymous said...

This article flew, I mean it was a sooth read. But most agents in the trenches said that they wonder why readers do what they do? Being a reader is painful. Agents have the greatest respect for you guys. I think the reader suffer more than the writer. But you ever tried being a Nurse in a busy Hospital?

I would never do it (Reader and Nurse), unless I have to. Ha, welcome to life, I think.

PJ McIlvaine said...

I look at it this way: reading those hundreds of scripts, coupled with writing my own stuff, was an education. You read as many scripts as I have and you can't but learn and grow.