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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Receiving Feedback

Yesterday I trotted out an oldie but a goodie - how to give a friend or peer notes in a way that is constructive. Today's oldie but goodie is about something ultimately far more important - receiving notes. Because if you're lucky enough to have an agent, manager or production company exec like your script enough to want to meet you, believe me, they'll have notes for you. I've taken notes many, many times and in fact I have a very cool meeting tomorrow morning on one of the thrillers my writing partner and I wrote. Are we ready to take notes? Of course we are. We're professionals and we've done this many times. We only want one thing: a better script and a sale. So bring it. We're ready. We listen to it all and we make the changes required to get buyers interested. It's not about us - it's about the material.

So without further ado - here's a post from January, 2007:


You just didn’t get it! That’s what a fair percentage of writers say when they don’t like the notes they receive. Yeah, they didn’t get your subtextual meaning, sheer brilliance or thematic meaning.

This to a consultant, exec or agent who has read upwards of a thousand plus scripts.

Well try this on for size: That’s right. They didn’t get it. Because it wasn’t on the page.

I have noticed a trend: the more experienced the writer is, the easier notes go down. Because experienced writers know how to handle receiving notes. It is the inexperienced writers who shriek like the Wicked Witch of the West after the bucket of water has been thrown on her. Or you sometimes get the quiet, disgruntled writer. Oh. I see. Well. I worked really hard on that. I guess you just - wait for it – didn’t get it.

Handling notes is easy when you can remember one simple thing. It’s not about you. It’s about the story. If you don’t have to kill some darlings then you may not be getting totally honest notes. Want to know how to handle notes better? Here’s how: Just write all the notes down. Don’t judge them, don’t get your hackles up, just nod and scribble. If you are in a meeting situation you may need to dialogue about the notes right there in the moment. But you may also receive notes from a consultant or a friend who was nice enough to read your script.

There are different kinds of notes. Notes about set up (I didn’t buy that the character was really all that desperate). Notes about logic (how could the murderer have been in all those places at once?). Notes about tone or genre (I know it was supposed to be a comedy but I didn’t laugh.) Notes about execution (I got confused. Was the murder in space or on earth?). Notes about the premise itself (I feel like the story was very familiar to me).

Notes are not personal attacks. Notes are opportunities for you, the writer, to improve your story. Set your ego aside and get selfish. Yes, selfish. Do you want the best script ever? Grab those notes, wring them out and see what you can use to improve your script. Check your ego, kill your darlings and don’t get defensive.

Some of the hardest notes to handle are the outright suggestions: Why don’t you make the husband a cross-dresser? What if the killer is from Poughkeepsie? Oh! I know! If you make the lion a hippo, it would be *way* scarier! The way to handle notes like this is exactly the same. Nod and write them down…

Because what you are going to do later (and it’s not only permissible it’s wise not to have answers right there in the moment) is look at your notes and separate them by element. This note is a character issue. This note is a tone issue. This note is a premise or logic issue. This note is structural in nature. Take an inventory – do your notes all have something in common? Maybe your structure is not working. Maybe your characters need a lot more development. Some of the notes will feel vague and you won’t be sure how to interpret them. But here’s how you can try. If the note is something like – it would be really cool if the killer attacked the police woman in this scene! This note probably translates to there’s not enough exciting action in this segment of the script. If the note is – I didn’t buy that the character really *had* to find the treasure. This note is about character motivation and set up.

Make sure you do some quality control when seeking notes. Get notes from experienced writers and get notes from some regular folks – who are smart and like movies. Don’t get notes from your cousin Jimmy or your mom. They won’t be helpful. Absolutely, no matter what, you will get some notes that are ridiculous. That’s okay. Write them down, categorize and evaluate them – and toss them out. This is your story after all. If you use a consultant, you shouldn’t really get any completely ridiculous notes. If the consultant is any good, the notes will be fairly organized and generally spot-on. Yes, personality comes into it. Some people just won’t like your script. Full stop. They don’t like the genre, the type of humor or a particular character. A professional won’t have those personal issues; they will remain objective and judge the script in a mechanical way.

An interesting litmus test is this: if the note really upsets you? Take a hard look at that note. Sleep on it. What is pinging for you? Why are you feeling defensive? Nine times out of ten it’s because the note is spot on but the issue at hand is a darling and you’ll be damned if you’ll kill it. These are the most valuable notes of all. The ones that really get to you.

So here’s the primer on receiving notes:

• Breathe it out – don’t take it personally. That’s rule one.
• Nod and scribble. Write it all down.
• Sort out the notes, look for a pattern.
• Interpret notes that weren’t clear to you. Look for the underlying note.
• Thank the note giver and buy them a drink. They deserve it. If you react with graciousness and sincerity – they might just read for you again.
*If you're receiving notes from an agent, manager or exec, discuss them calmly, sort out the most important ones, dialogue about them and go home and make it happen tout suite.

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E.C. Henry said...

Hope your meeting goes well, and that you and your partner land a script sale.

After reading this post I'm convinced the best way I can survive taking notes is to have my very own Julie Grey close at hand, ready to serve at my beaconned call. So do you know of any retailer in the greater metro Seattle area that sell pocket sized Julie Grays?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Third World Girl said...

I think the ability to handle notes is a huge part of being a professional screenwriter and the inability to handle them, to huff and puff and get defensive, is a dead giveaway that a writer's not cut out for a career.

That's unless you're M. Night Shyamalan and can say screw you Disney for not getting my work of art and go make your "Lady in the Water" masterpiece with Warner Bros.

(Hey, wait a minute, that movie flopped...for some of the same reasons Disney thought it might after reading the script.)

Hope you had a good meeting Julie. Good luck on the project.

Anonymous said...

Hi E.C.

I know exactly what you mean.

But, if I may add just a brief note, the phrase I think you're looking for is 'beck and call'. (Beck being a shortened, poetic form of the word 'beckon'.)

But I quite like the idea of a beacon call - that's what Batman has, right? ;-)


Christian M. Howell said...

I'd say that every writer should burn the words, "Well, what I was trying to do was.... What do you think I could do to get closer to that goal?" into their heads.

The whole point of writing movies is to get feedback from everyone from the young college reader with Hollywood aspirations to the people who ultimately pay $10 to see your soul poured out.