This series, for whatever reason, is not in the sidebar, so I completely forgot it existed until I had to link to it yesterday. It’s full of good stuff! I laid the groundwork here for my current sideline giving notes professionally.
So we’ve reached the end, but all we’ve talked about is how to give notes, and not how to receive them. One reason for this, of course, is that you don’t have much choice about the latter: you just say thanks, read them, and weep.
The real question is, how do you handle notes that don’t have the level of sensitivity and specificity that we’ve discussed here?
The answer is simple: you just reverse-engineer this process. The notes you get might not follow those steps, but treat them as if they did:
Happily forgive and filter out note-giver’s emotion.
Happily forgive and filter out any less-than-charitable assumptions the note-giver made.
Ignore any references to gurus or rules or the market, just treat these notes as one person’s individual opinion, which is what they are.
On your first read-through, skim over everything but the praise and assure yourself that the note-giver isn’t rejecting you or your project outright. Once you accept that, then go back, read the whole thing and take their criticism seriously.
Categorize the criticisms and evaluate what this critique has to say about each of your separate skills.
Whatever you do, even if you found the notes infuriating, thank the note-giver profusely and ask for the chance to offer up your own good, strong, sensitive notes for the note-giver’s current project. Remember: any set of unpaid notes is a huge favor, and you now owe one in return. (If you don’t like the way they gave the notes, the only good way to let them know is to set a better example in the notes you write for them!)
So what do you do now? Divide the notes into those that ring true to you and those that don’t, then go out and get a few more sets of notes on this draft. Any note that you don’t like, if you only got it once, you can safely put it aside for now. But no matter how much you disagree, if you get the same unwelcome note from more than one person, the Back to the Future rule kicks in, and you have to assume that millions will feel that way. Call those note-givers back and ask them to explain in more detail what you’re doing wrong.
So now we’re actually going to tell our poor writer where he went wrong, but first one last caveat: we’re not going to tell him where it all went wrong. Inevitably, there will be one huge problem, and every other problem will pale in comparison, but don’t let that one problem overwhelm your other notes.
Whether or not you use The Ultimate Story Checklist as part of your notes, I highly recommend that you break your notes down and evaluate each major writing skill separately. Don’t roll your eyes and say that good scenework doesn’t matter if the characters are utterly passive. Even if one aspect is bad enough to sink the whole project, you still need to mention it once (emphatically) and then move on to other strengths and flaws.
If you keep harping on it, one of two things will happen: either they’ll instantly concede that point and want you to move on, or they’ll stubbornly dig in. And guess what, once they’ve fixed everything else, maybe that thing won’t look so bad. “Speech therapist has to help a figurehead stop stuttering” is a terrible concept for a movie, but if everything else about the movie is well done, then it can still be a success. Sometimes stubbornness pays off.
So how do you give notes about each skill?
Concept: In this case, give notes like an audience member, not like a fellow writer. Do you “get it”? Is this a cool idea? Would you pay for it? Would you be glad that you did? If not, why not? (Should you pitch ways to re-conceive it? Some writers want to hear that and some don’t. Ask in advance, or offer those ideas with a heavy pinch of salt.)
Character: Now you can think like a writer—don’t just focus on likability, zero in on specific “motivation holes” and “empathy holes”. “I became exasperated with the character on page 45,” “I didn’t buy that he would do that on page 67,” etc.
Structure: Identify the plot holes and the dead spots (every time you stop reading, note the page number). Suggest repeated beats to eliminate. Point out where it’s too much plot and not enough emotion. Point out places where the structure beats are too obvious.
Scenework: Identify your favorite and least favorite scenes, and give reasons why. Talk about the overall quickness or slowness of the read (which usually comes down to scenework).
Dialogue: Focus on this least because it’ll get rewritten over and over as everything else changes. Just give your overall impression. (Whatever you do, don’t just quote your least-favorite lines back at them and simply assume that they will cringe. They wrote those lines! They have them memorized! They like them! If you think those are cringe-worthy lines, you have to gingerly tell them why!)
Tone: Say how long it took you to figure out what kind of a story it was, what genre it was, what the mood was supposed to be, etc. Talk about what you expected to happen that didn’t happen, and try to figure out at which point you got the wrong expectation.
Theme: Most writers haven’t given this much thought yet, so usually you can just ask “What does it all mean?” and freak them out. Ask what the big thematic dilemma is. Suggest ways to make that dilemma more awkward or painful. Suggest ways to make everything more ironic.
Rather than go through these in order, I start with the skill I have the most praise for and then count down to the skill I have the least praise for, in order to create buy-in.
So that’s it! …But wait, you say, this was all about how to give notes, I never talked about how to receive notes. Okay, okay, come back tomorrow for that coda…
So we established yesterday that there’s no point in giving notes if those notes aren’t persuasive, and that’s a tall order, because it takes a lot to overcome a writer’s natural resistance. This turns you into a salesman, whether you like it or not, and in order to close any sale, you need to create “Buy-In”.
You should start each set of notes with a lot of general and specific praise, not just because that’s nicer, or because you’re trying to soften the blow, but because you need to establish common cause. You need to make it clear that you “get it”, that you see what the writer is trying to do and you agree it’s worth doing, that you see where it is working and how it’s working.
Otherwise, the writer will likely say, “Oh well, this person just doesn’t get me”, or “doesn’t like this kind of story” or “didn’t read my work closely enough to figure it out”, and they’ll have every reason to feel that way. It’s up to you to prove to them that none of these things are true.
Of course, once you’ve gotten them to accept your praise, then you’ve got them on the hook. Now you can hit them with both barrels and they’ll still say, “Uh oh, I can’t reject this criticism without also rejecting that praise, so I have to accept them both.”
Okay, that’s four days of mollycoddling out of the way, so now can we finally get to some criticism?? Yes, tomorrow, we’ll finally begin to pick away at our poor writer.
But Wait, Before We Move On, Let Me Tack On One Last “Do” and “Don’t”:
You can mention classic universally-beloved works to emulate, but DO NOT EVER MENTION SIMILAR PROJECTS IN DEVELOPMENT (or ones that are about to come out, or recent superficially-similar flops, or cult classics they’ve never heard of!) My old Film School chums are probably sputtering with rage right now because I was the asshole who always did this, and it took me years to stop, even after several people told me how inappropriate it was.
Believe me: Nobody wants to hear this. It’s just dampens their enthusiasm and bums them out. And there’s no reason to tell them:
That competing project will probably never come out, or be totally transformed by the time it does.
If that competing project gets made, and it’s a hit, then that might actually help this project get made.
If that project does come out (or already came out) and it’s a flop, then there will still be a market for a better version.
Yes, you’re very smart, and very savvy, and you know all the angles and all the inside dope. Good for you. But keep it to yourself. You’re their peer, not their agent. Your job is to make it better, not to worry about if it’ll sell. So clam up.
Even if you’re just reading something for free for an acquaintance in a writing group, you need to remember that you’re not just giving these notes, you’re selling these notes, and you’re selling to a tough audience. On one level, of course, this is ridiculous: what do you care if they accept what you say or not? But there are good reasons:
Because you’ve put a lot of time and effort into reading this thing and writing up these notes, and you don’t want that work to go to waste.
Because the number one reason to give notes is to get notes back, and if they reject those notes, then they might not feel the need to return the favor.
Your notes need to be persuasive. You have to give them notes that they will accept, however reluctantly. These are the kinds of notes that writers reject:
Notes based on rules that the writer hasn’t accepted: If you say, “According to Syd Field, this plot point should happen on page 15, not on page 45!” they’ll respond, “I prefer the sequence approach,” or, “You’ve misidentified which plot point is which,” or, “Don’t be a page-nazi!”
Notes are based on marketability: If you say, “Nobody will ever buy a story like this!” they’ll respond, “I don’t write for the market! Nobody knows anything! Genius is never appreciated in its own time.”
Notes based on assumptions about the writer’s intentions: If you say, “You’re trying to write a horror movie but this feels like a spoof,” they’ll say, “Good, that means it’s subversive!”
Notes focused on a hypothetical audience: If you say “Fans of broad comedy won’t like these kind of scenes,” they’ll say, “They don’t know what they want until I show it to them.”
Don’t focus on your pre-established expectations of what a writer should do or what a story should be, and don’t focus on how you think other people will react. Instead, focus on what this writer is trying to do in this work and the effect it had on you the reader, and you alone...
“As I was reading, I felt frustrated that not enough had happened by page 45.”
“This is the sort of concept I would be interested in, but I would feel very let down by what you have so far. Here’s the sort of stuff I would want to see based on this concept...”
“I couldn’t figure what sort of story it was supposed to be, so I didn’t know how to react.”
“I laughed really hard at that one scene, so I wanted more laughs like that, but I didn’t get any.”
Just speak for yourself. It’s impossible to reject these notes. They can’t tell you (or tell themselves) that you didn’t feel that way. Don’t try to convince them that everybody will feel this way, because you don’t know that…and besides, it will be heart-breaking enough for them to discover that one person feels this way.
Next, the final step of being persuasive: Create Buy-In…
This one is especially true in the screenwriting market in recent years, which has become especially outrageous. In order to be heard above the noise, writers tend to get signed as a result of a really shocking sample work (often with a profane, unreleasable title), which will never actually gets made, but will get the writer in the door for years of tame rewrite work.
As a result, writers are putting more and more audacity into their samples, and that audacity can easily put the note-giver in the wrong mood: because the writing lacks humility, it can be easy to assume that the writer lacks humility, and needs to be put in his or her place. Don’t fall into this trap. Remember, this person has done something profoundly humble by coming to you for notes.
You may strongly suspect that the writer just wants you to say it’s great (or, even worse, just wants you to show it to your agent), and that’s often the case, but you have to act on the assumption that this isn’t true.
A bold writing style is just that, a style, and the writer underneath might still be very sensitive. Showing someone your writing is like showing your diary: you have inevitably put a lot of your hidden emotional life onto the page, both intentionally and unintentionally, and it’s painful for anyone to have that judged. Even if it seems like they’ve puffed up their chest and dared you to take a swing, don’t go for the gutpunch.
Never be confrontational, or derisive, or flippant. Even if you’re used to kidding around with the writer, never use dismissive words like stupid, lame, lazy, shitty, terrible, or rotten. Most importantly, never imply that any choice was made out of laziness, no matter how much you suspect that to be the case. Remember how hard this is: nobody ever finished a manuscript by being lazy. It may be worthless, but that doesn’t mean it was effortless.
No matter how much it might seem to the contrary, you have to assume that this person did his or her best possible work and wrote it with the best possible motives. What you’re reading may seem quick, sloppy and insolent, but you have to assume that’s not true, and that you actually have the writer’s tender, beating heart in your hands, and only your meticulous scalpel and delicate stitches can repair its wounds.
So how to do you do that? You have to move on to Step 3: Be a Salesman…
As vampires need blood, writers need an endless, steady stream of notes in order to survive. It’s impossible to know for certain what others will think of your work until you finally, tenderly send it out to be judged. Inevitably, you will discover that nothing has gotten the reaction you intended, but that’s good, because now you know what you actually have, if anything, and you can begin to make something real out of it.
But to do that, you need good notes. And you’re not going to get good notes from your loved ones (who like you too much), or from your professors (who are paid to like you). You need notes from your peers, preferably from peers who are just peers, not close friends.
So what’s the best way to get good notes? If you develop a reputation as someone who gives good notes, then your peers will be happy to return the favor, so let’s figure out how to do that, starting with…
Part 1: Deal With Your Emotional Reaction First
This is a what most note-givers fail to do. We inject too much emotion into our notes because we’re unwilling to admit to those emotions, so the first step is to be very aware that all manuscripts cause emotional reactions in their early readers, for a variety of reasons. When you read a manuscript…
You will feel insulted if it’s bad. “Why are you wasting my time with this half-ass crap??”
You will feel frustrated if it’s so-so. “This is like reading the phone book!”
You will feel manipulated if it’s blatantly emotional. “Stop telling me how to feel!”
You will feel vulnerable if it’s subtly emotional. “This makes me really uncomfortable…”
You will feel threatened if it’s too good. “Holy crap, who does this asshole think he is?”
Allow yourself to have these emotional reactions: get frustrated, get pissed, get upset…but don’t take it out on the writer. Don’t say, “How dare you!” Always remember our big secret: Storytelling is an inherently manipulative thing to do. Readers (hopefully) don’t realize this, but we are in the emotional manipulation business...and it takes a lot of practice.
Writers want to shock us, upset us, sadden us, anger us, goose us, derange us, etc. It’s disturbing enough when they succeed, but it can be excruciating when they fail. It’s as if the writer is poking you in the ribs over and over again saying, “Isn’t this awesome?” You just want to slap them down to make them stop.
But you don’t. You control yourself. You allow yourself to feel those feelings and then you keep them out of your notes. You remind yourself that, by reading their work, you invited them to poke you. Now you have to say, “Actually, there are better ways to poke me, and here’s how...”