TWIC: My Script-Reading, Note-Giving Confession
For the most part, I have the best job in the world. I get to work with people I love and admire, in an industry that fascinates me, while developing and elevating careers I am excited about. So for the most part, yes, #lovemyjob all the way.
But there is one part of the job that is a little less great.
This one element of my job has kept me up at night on more than one occasion… What is it that gets under my skin that way? I’ll come right out and say it: I dread giving writers harsh notes on their screenplays or pilots, no matter how warranted. Still. I don’t enjoy telling a writer that her screenplay or pilot is not quite there yet.
I know: Getting notes can be tough. Sometimes disappointing. Sometimes even heart-breaking. Just know that most people giving you notes do that in the hopes of helping you get better, in our attempt to help you push the work to the next level.
I’ve seen the work that it takes to write a great screenplay. I am awed by all the hours, all the drafts, all the different screenplays and pilots it sometimes takes. And so, every time I open my iPad and start reading the next project in my virtual pile, I really, REALLY want it to be great. I want to fall in love with it. I want to get inspired. I want to be giddy in anticipation of sitting down with the writer and telling her that I loved, loved, loved her pilot or screenplay.
But that doesn’t happen every time. A great screenplay or TV pilot doesn’t come along every day. I’ve had to explain to a writer eager to get a manager that his TV pilot was not yet fully baked, and detail to a long-time client that I did see her agent’s point when he said there were too many conceptual flaws in the material she turned in, so in its current state he won’t be getting it out there. But because I’m invested in my writer’s success, such conversations, no matter how well received on the writer’s side, are always hard to have.
And, for the record, throughout the years, my clients have been incredibly gracious while listening to what I had to say. More so than I would have been had the tables been turned. They’ve asked questions. Didn’t make it personal. They took the notes, internalized whatever worked for them, and used them to elevate their craft.
I am on the side of the writer, always. And sometimes, being on the side of the writer means being honest and direct, because better my writers hear it from me then get a rejection from a place where they only have one chance.
Because I am going to be here, rooting my writers on through good scripts and not so great ones, always.
If a writer is trying to do something as extremely difficult and as complex as writing a creative screenplay, they need honest feedback. I’ve found that in-depth feedback can be harder for a writer, when sometimes less extensive can simply hit on the point.
As a writer it’s as good to hear the positives as well as the negatives, both are necessary guides, and the positives also give a balance, lessening the emotional hit of criticism that needs to be addressed by the writer in a positive way.
To do that the writer needs to understand the gist of the criticism, what lies behind it, not avoid reading it. You can dismiss it if after evaluation and some thinking if you do not agree with it, but usually it represents ‘something’ you need to address. You may have to search for the ‘something’ as it may be associated with the criticism not exactly what’s stated. And that’s the reason you are creative. So firstly understand what it is, and work out the best most interesting way to rectify the problem. Once you work that out you experience joy, joy because your screenplay has become stronger and better.
When I started getting feedback on my most difficult complex screenplay it often included scores for different aspects of the story, and it’s suitability as the great epic cinema that it could be. Lots of 3s and 4s and I wondered was it 3 or 4 out of 5? Too silly to give up on the endeavor even after working out it was out of 10 I pressed on.
What I found was that almost all readers really want to help you, but to do that they have to tell what is and isn’t working, or what can be improved, because often we cannot see it. But it needs to be addressed. And criticism is actually a blessing.
In some screenplay comps this same much modified screenplay got to a point where some of the scores were 10 or 9.5, and it was a finalist in some comps.