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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Anger Management

When was the last time you got really angry? You know what I mean, that white-hot lightning bolt that runs up your spine and explodes in your head? That star-spangled-symphony of what-the-HELLness that feels so very goooood until the aftermath?

It is rare - quite rare - maybe one out of 100, that I get complaints about notes received by one of my clients. Questions, yes, dialogue of course, brainstorming, conversation - all of the above. But once in a blue moon we get someone so irate that the notes are called "a joke" and then the complainer lustily declares he/she will be notifying their lawyer. One of the benefits of getting older is that, especially when I hear the lawyer thing, I feel a sense of absolute calm, and usually I smile sympathetically. Aw. You're upset. I understand. I really do. But if you want to work in Hollywood - dude, get a grip.

I had two totally different experiences this week. One angry email as vaguely described above, and another client who had a phone consultation with yours truly who was the most amazingly receptive, creative and on-the-ball writer. One writer thought the notes and suggestions were "a joke" - the other took the notes and suggestions and ran down the field like a star quarterback with all sorts of interesting solutions. Which writer do you think has a better shot at a career in Hollywood?

Now mind you, both writers paid for their notes. Natch. This is my business. So taking notes in a meeting with an executive is not identical to taking notes you paid to receive. However, I think the ability to handle notes is a skill set that is crucial in either situation. The first thing I do when I get a complaint is to reread the notes - I do only a small percentage of the reading at The Script Department. So I revisit what my reader said and I look carefully to be sure I find a positive lead-in, specific notes and suggestions (where possible; sometimes the problems are so generalized that the notes may include a general overview of executing a specific story element or three), an organized and thorough approach and a positive summary comment.

I am famously picky about my readers. Ask them. I never hire anyone without a lot of experience and a real gift for giving notes. I have yet had to slap the hand of one of my readers. Wait - that's not true, I have had to hand-slap ONCE for a coverage that was too generous on a script that I later read and was full of problems. I will reprimand a reader for being too encouraging when the script is undeserving. Why? Because now the writer got notes that are not genuinely reflective of the condition of the script and the writer will be set up for walloping disappointment when nobody else (i.e., someone in the industry) responds as positively. Being too sweet is ripping someone off, in my view.

But there are some who can't handle the truth. So much so that angry emails to me result. I don't mind, it doesn't upset me - but I do feel bad for the writer. Because I understand, intimately so, how it feels to receive notes that are less positive than the writer had hoped. Boy do I know that feeling. I'm not the type, personally, who hits the ANGER button reflexively when I do not like something - I tend toward more passive dismay and depression.

It is a profound bummer, to understate it wildly, when something you have worked so hard on apparently isn't working according to some jackass. But that's the thing - I (and by proxy, my readers) am not some jackass. And I have no personal investment in making a writer feel bad.

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said - no one can make you feel anything. Okay I've butchered that, I'm sure she said something much more elegant but you get the gist. If you feel upset about something, the tripwire may have been external, but the anger is generated by your own insecurity, fear and disappointment.

Anger is generally born of fear. Where WERE you!! (my god, you could have been hurt!) How could you CHEAT on me! (oh my god, you're leaving me! I'll be alone!) You CUT ME OFF in traffic! (christ, I could have had an accident and been hurt) He's SUCH a jerk! (he told one of my secrets to someone else - I'm humiliated!) Your notes are a JOKE! (oh shit, my writing/script isn't as good as I thought. I suck. I'll never make's NOT MY FAULT, it's YOUR FAULT) See that progression from depression and self-blame to the externalization and transmogrification of the same feeling into outward blame? It can't be that my script is troubled - it MUST then be that YOU are a jerk and have ripped me off!!

Ahhhh. Nope. The truth hurts. But it doesn't have to. The ironic thing is that in the case of this particularly inflamed writer, the script really isn't in that bad a shape. And the notes reflect that. So this is a writer with a particularly sensitive tripwire. Nothing I can do about that.

Two things: the next time you get angry about something - anything - stop and notice, if you can (and it's hard) the way your feelings pinball around inside of you searching to externalize what is essentially internal. My job, my money, my girlfriend, my script - my loss, my hurt, my humiliation, my threat - YOUR FAULT. Because sometimes, even briefly, it's just easier to imagine that the problem lies outside of oneself. Right? I think we've all been there. Some of us are just more stuck there than others.

It's not often, as you age, when you begin to holds books further away in order to see clearly, when something in your knee is clicking, when 50 suddenly doesn't seem like an unlikely age to hit, that you are thankful for your age and experience. But on this topic particularly, I'm glad I'm where I'm at. Very little upsets me anymore. I guess I've been through too much for that. Don't get me wrong - I'm not above negative feelings. If you know me well, you know I've had my challenges. I'm just wired to go to the depression place rather than externalize. I once read somewhere that depression is rage directed inward. Huh. Maybe. But more than that, I understand on a deep level that we are here on this earth to play and to experience. And I'd rather feel good. I'd rather find forgiveness, understanding, grace and healing than to scream and shout and feel horrible.

But I do feel bad and sympathetic, when that rare writer goes ballistic rather than calmly accepting notes - tossing the ones that just don't feel right and embracing the ones that really click with something. In a very difficult business which feels so very personal - what do you mean they don't want MY SCRIPT? - it is a gift and a blessing to be able to be circumspect.

Breathe it out, learn to collaborate, cooperate and not take things personally. The number one entity here is THE STORY. Not you, not your ego, not your insecurities - but the script.

That is all. If you live in LA, enjoy this blessed peppering of much needed rain and to Wavers all over the world - and you are legion - have a cupcake and get back to work.

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Margaux said...

So true, Julie. The art of gracefully taking notes actually got me hired on one job, and I've seen many bridges burned by stick-in-the-mud, resistant-to-notes writers.
I'm currently in the middle of my first script that will actually be produced on television. However, I am getting rewritten left and right by my boss. Do I get stubborn and throw the baby out with the bathwater and pout that she doesn't like my writing enough.
NO. I realize that she is actually making my script into a better episode, and learn the lessons where my work needed editing. And any of my work that she is keeping feels like a great victory. But, guaranteed, if I was a brat during this process, there wouldn't be another script in my future, FOR SURE!

Anonymous said...

Hey Julie and Margaux,

Did the writer/creator of "the Sapranos" allow himself to be re-written?

I don't think so.

The Boss must respect the writers' anger if that writer is really talented.

It's not just about the money.

Some of the best writers enjoy getting angry and getting into a good fight.

If you control you're anger you are contolling your creativity.


DougJ said...

Perhaps you should offer a new service: 100% guaranteed positive notes. We promise. No negative feedback, or your money back. $5000.00.

E.C. Henry said...

Thanks for the perspective, Julie. I've gotten lots of coverages, and MOST times I'm very disappointed by them. Certain things are undefendable: misspellings, formatting issues. Those things disappoint me, like I've shortchanged myself. But what gets me angry is when I feel the reader PURPOSELY doesn't get the story I've told, or is PURPOSELY vague in their comments, which happens quite often.

Sorry to hear you've had to endure insults. As a writer, I've actually wanted to verbally assualt the reader who provided coverage on my stuff, BUT I realize that doesn't accomplish much. One of the keys as a writer once you've gotten a coverage is to give it a couple days. Re-read the coverage a couple times. Settle down, then re-evaluate.

My motto: if you can't change the system, just play along, and hopefully at some point someone will throw ya a bone...

If from my previous comments it sounds like I'm down on the guy I get coverage from, I'm really not. I'd be the first to say he's an ace when it comes to finding misspells and typos; a gigercounter of sorts. And I love the guy. If his and myown sexual preference wasn't inclined towards the ladies, he's the kind of guy I could see myself with. And with the laws the way they are these days, who knows maybe we'd even get married!

- (a very playfull) E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Julie Gray said...

@Doug - I have OFTEN thought of doing just that. The slam dunk notes package. You are amazing! Your script is amazing! You will be a huge success! You are brilliant and original and every story element is perfection! I'm so tempted some days but I know that would just reflect my frustration at the occasional angry client.

@Anonymous - uh, it's SOPRANOS. Further, until you have paid your dues and made it to the point where you are the writer/creator of a major hit like that - you do have to suck it up. No, your boss will not see any merit in a temper tantrum or respect you more for it. You have to BE solidly on top before you can pull that kind of bullshit and even then - it's bullshit. On the way to the top, you better check your temper or you'll never make it there. Writing for entertainment - especially television writing - is collaborative, babe. Know that now. Being determined, fiery and standing up for your work is one thing, but even then, ya got to know when to be respectful of the years of experience your boss has. Using the passionate/angry genius ploy is a bad idea starting out.

Anonymous said...

Notes are notes. Buyer beware. I'm sure most readers are skilled folks doing their darndest to help a writer out. That doesn't mean their notes are alway right. I know a few pros with stories about terrible notes on work that was later produced and successful at the box office -- the way they originally wanted it. Same goes for pro scripts that have been entered in prestigious contests that dink out in the first round.

If you don't like the notes you receive, move on and get your notes elsewhere. You should get notes from a variety of places anyhow and only pay attention to the notes in common. A reader could suck, could be why they're a reader and not a writer, but if that's the case word will get around soon enough.

Quit being a little b**** if you don't like the notes, get the flick made your way, and go in-your-face on the reader. I suspect by then, you won't give a f*** about the reader.

Kirkland said...

In TeeVee a first time writer (even if he/she created the show) will never have total control over the product that airs. There are exceptions,* of course, but they're rare-there's too much at stake.

In movies, this is still mostly true.

A quick story, my first feature I sold was to be re-written by a writer who'd won multiple awards (including the BIG one: The Oscar). The writer insisted (and this is rare as well--really rare) that they wouldn't take on the project without me being part of it. At the meeting this is what they said: "The story is his, without him you lose the voice, the whole reason you want to do make this film. I'll work with him, but I won't do it unless he stays on the project as a partner."

And that writer meant what they said. A gutsy thing to do on somebody they'd never met before. And I have no doubt that had that writer not stood up for me, I'd have been re-written with no credit what-so-ever...A lesser writer would've just done the re-write and collected the credit and the check and I'd be out in the cold.

But I'd have been happy, because it would've meant that MY movie was sold and produced and somewhere people would know it was my story AND, more importantly, I'd be a pro writer and not just somebody wanting to work in this business.

My point is simple: You're new. Everybody gets re-written, that's the way it is. It's called paying your dues. If you're lucky you'll write something else, it'll sell, get produced, and you'll get paid and get to call yourself a pro writer.

And this is what annoys with people like "anonymous" and others, you're nit in the business, yet you know everything and on top of it, you'll be the one who changes how this place works.

Ummm...that ain't gonna happen.

And that "anger" question? I'm angry all the time, it's my way of re-acting to the world I live in. It's why I write, so to let that anger out, otherwise I'd be on death row.

* I think the Simpson creators had total control from Fox, to name one set of writers, from the very beginning.

Christina said...

The Eleanor Roosevelt quote is:

No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.

It's a great quote.

I'm like you - when I get notes that indicate I have a lot of work to do, I tend towards dismay and depression, not anger. In general, when things go wrong in my life, I always blame myself, to a fault. I've had to learn to relax that tendency.

I think you've written a couple times about taking notes, about how it's not good to get angry at the person giving notes, about how important it is to take notes professionally, etc.

But how about the flip side of that? How about the note receiver who feels like they're a failure just because a draft didn't work. The note receiver who spends the next six months not writing and beating themselves up because they're not Hemingway.

Seems to me the place to be is neutral - in the middle place. Where you can take notes impersonally, like whether the script is good or bad is not a reflection of your value as a person. A writer who can do that I think makes the most progress.

Julie Gray said...

That is a GREAT comment, Christina, and thank you for correcting the Roosevelt quote. Yes, spiraling into dismay as just about as common and writerly as it gets. We've all done it. And not just writers - musicians, artists, dancers, directors, actors...

This urge we all have to write, it is a double-edged sword. The giver of joy and the taker of self-worth. We all want those GREAT notes, that validation, that being published or printed. And when it doesn't happen, it can feel like it's all been in vain. We have nothing else to rely on during those times but ourselves. Remember your passion. Remember that it can take a lot of years of marinating before your passion really shows up on paper the way you want it to. It happens to every writer at one point or another.

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,

When receiving notes on the same script from multiple readers. I am very interested in their opinion of the premise of the story. Is it entertaining, viable and commercial?

If they all give positive feedback on the story. Then I know, I am on the right track and not wasting my time. So I get back to work.

Hold on?(unless everybody gets positive notes on their story premise )

Anonymous said...

And also remember -- the note giver can be wrong. Don't get depressed and suicidal over one opinion. How many times have you heard a pro reader attack a produced, successful movie? There's a lesson there.

naomi said...

Julie, you're having a whole "Truth" theme this week! Funny how the zeitgeist works.

meg said...

>>If you control you're anger you are controlling your creativity>>

I've had people tell me they shouldn't have to control their anger because that's "who they are" or "how they express themselves".

I'm thankful my creativity is not at the mercy of my emotions. I do channel my emotions into my writing though.

Here's how I look at all this and it works for me. Might not be for anyone else. I am the sum of all the things I do. My value as a unique person doesn't rest on one ability. Some people like me, some don't. Everyone has a different perspective from me why wouldn't I want to hear theirs? I'm always free to incorporate their experiences and views or not.

Sure I seek validation in the things I do. But I understand where I'm getting that from. If I want to hear how great I am from an adult I go to my best friend. If I need to feel important I ask my 7 year old. If I create something and need fresh eyes to catch what I've missed then I am seeking something else and don't expect to be fawned over.

Writing is joy to me. I like the process. One minute there's nothing and then there is. Magic. My soul sings. But I like editing too. It's like a puzzle then-- finding just the right word to make the sentence bloom. I love trying to remember all the writing suggestions I've heard and putting them into practice. Because of that I guess it doesn't bother me so much if I get negative feedback. I'm a perfectionist so feedback means I can make it even better. If I do find myself at odds with feedback then I look at it as perhaps it's a piece not meant to go beyond the pleasure I had in creating it.

NYCWriter said...

Unless you are writing screenplays that you will personally put the money up for, then direct, and maybe even edit, it's key to remember that you are part of a business. A business that is built upon the premise that what you write will be rewritten again, and again and again. And the way to insure that you might get asked to do the first rewrite, then the second rewrite is to learn how to digest and interpret notes.

This doesn't mean that a reader, whether it's your agent, your producer, or someone from The Script Department is right. But it can (if you know how to interpret) point to something that needs work in your script. The minute any reader puts down your script and thinks, hmm, it would work better if; or, I don't know why this is happening now; or why would this character do this?, your script has problems. And some readers may give you vague ideas, or vaguely point to the problem. They may give you really bad suggestions. They may stumble upon brilliance. But all of the notes do, usually, tell you something. This section, or this character, or my story needs work.

And since as an aspiring screenwriter, you are hoping to make a sale, or get hired to write someone else's ideas, you better know how to accept criticism even when it isn't smart. Work with it. Analyze it. Try to connect the dots and I guarantee you, you will make your script better.

I have hired terrible readers and fantastic readers. Terrible readers take my money, read my script and give me a check off list of things I did well, or did poorly, with little or no depth.

I have hired readers, one namely, who gave me much more than I anticipated. Who provided so many fresh ideas - most of which didn't work, but served to get ME to think about my idea more.

HOWEVER - BOTH readers helped me make my script better. Why?

I didn't get angry at them. I would have, had they told me my script was great. I knew my script needed more work, that's why I paid readers to read it.

Almost always, if you're lucky to get a producer interested in your script (because this happens way more often than just outright selling a spec), they will have ideas... notions about how to make your story better. Are you going to say no because you can't even believe they are saying this about your perfect creation? I suppose you can. But I wouldn't.

Yes there are always exceptions. But not very many. And to use the creator of the Sopranos as an example is just plain... ignorant. How many years do you think it took him to get to that point in his writing/creative career where he could be that way. If he had started that way with his first, second, or third script... the Sopranos would never have existed.

Luzid said...

Not only do I not dread notes from others, I welcome them - good or bad. We've all read comments by writers who think they know it all and want no dissenting voices.

They will never make it in this town.

I *want* to do the best job I can with a story and then find ways to make it even better through working with others. In fact, it's my goal - not to become an auteur, but to actually write for a living.

You have to be open to ideas that make the story better, even if they're not your own.

Christian M. Howell said...

Sometimes though you just gotta get it out. Hopefully for a writer it won't be when you receive notes.

Receiving bad notes is actually a good thing: well, not bad notes but notes that highlight problems.

For me it gives me a chance to review what my goals for the story were.

Did they say I missed the mark I was aiming for? Did they notice the contrast of these two characters?
Am I rambling and not moving the story?

Asking yourself these questions even when you get completely positive notes is the way to grow.

As a writer you have to imagine that your sensibilities are not everyone's so it will indeed not be personal. If you pay someone to critique you take their notes and review. Aks them what they meant if you aren't clear. Don't immediately assume that they wanted to crap on you. Perhaps they just missed something subtle. It happens.

But I think the key is to see if you got your point across. That will always make a good story.

Setup, buildup and payoff are necessities but not the whole. Every story should say something, even a silly comedy. Whether it's "be careful what you wish for," or "nobody's perfect," or "it takes a village to raise a rapist."

Say something people can visualize and you're halfway there.