Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Handling Notes

Getting notes on your work is a big part of the job of a screenwriter. You'll be collaborating (you hope!) with producers, directors, and actors in the future. How you handle notes as an amateur, reflects the professionalism and devotion to the craft you have at this level. If you can't handle them now, you won't handle them later and you'll blow opportunities or have a short lived career.

Amazon Studios and other peer review sites provide the opportunity to get feedback from fellow aspiring writers. The are several pro writers on the boards as well making themselves available for notes. So what do you do with the notes once received? After having spent the last couple of years on peer review sites and working with professional readers I can give you what I do:

1. Have the right attitude reading the notes. Don't be super defensive. Don't argue with the note giver on every point, especially if it's a freebie. Read the notes and set them aside.

2. Get several viewpoints on your script from trusted sources. There are some people who "get it" when it comes to your writing. You want those that appreciate what you do well (yes, some encouragement is good for us all) but also are able to pinpoint weaknesses. Usually this takes getting multiple takes. This will also let you know if a problem area consistently raises red flags for readers. If 4/4 readers have the same reaction, rethink your position.

3. Do the 'Quick fixes' first -- typos. Easy to repair errors or dialogue issues (joke that falls flat or on the nose.

4. On the bigger notes (reworking a character, major plot revision, tone, etc.) make sure the notes is helping you do a better version of YOUR script. Many writers giving notes will pull you in a direction, "Well this is how I'd write the script." These notes can have you heading in directions that are inconsistent with the story you wanted to tell and your voice as a writer.

5. Don't get discouraged. There are many, many drafts on the road. The script is never done until the film is shot. Even then there are reshoots and the editor will shape the final product. You can write a draft trying a different approach and jettison it. You can ignore notes if you feel they detract from your story.

6. Often a note about something not working in act 3 is due to a problem in act 1 -- wasn't set up properly. Be careful of following "effect" notes and look for the root cause. Could be your protagonist or story setup is off early making the later payoff fall flat or off key.

7. Cut, cut, cut. Early drafts are overwritten. Cut scenes down to the essentials. Many writers say cutting the first and last lines in a scene is their first rewrite. Cut out opening chit chat and long dialogue down to size. Show, don't tell, if possible.

8. A table read with actors is a good way to check dialogue and see how your script goes over. Take copious notes.

9. Remember one reader's opinion is just one take on your script. Half the movies on RottenTomatoes are under 50% from critics and those are finished films. Not everyone is going to love your work.

10. Don't ignore format, typos, and other essentials. Sweat the small stuff. It's a sign of a professional.

Finally, rewriting is essential. Many writers avoid the rewriting process thinking, "They'll buy it and fix it" or "I'll fix it when they pay me" or "I'm off on the next script." The real magic happens during the rewrite.

Hemingway once said, "The first draft of anything is shit." True! Now, if you're 16th draft is shit... you might have problems.

Good luck! Keep at it! Feel free to add your thoughts on rewriting and your approach to the process.

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