Monday, June 30, 2014

Getting and Processing Feedback

Guest Blogger: Levin Meneske
You've toiled on this pilot/screenplay for a long, long time and finally it's complete. You've created this document out of nothing, and you've bled in the process. Now what?

Well, this might be the appropriate time to show your work to a few people you trust and get their opinions. Why? Because chances are your brain has transformed itself into a chrysalis while working on this project, and you have serious tunnel vision.

I mean, just consider the process of writing a story: It's basically talking to yourself in different voices. So, just accept that you're not at the most mentally healthy and objective place right now. Give it a rest, let your brain transform back into its original form and speak with one voice for a while. Meanwhile, let people read your work. 

Who do I get Feedback from?

Good question. Yes, your Mom loves your new pilot and your Dad quite doesn't "get it" and talks about student loans a lot, but are they helpful? Anyone can "love" and "hate" things with passion and you know this acutely if you've ever sat in a focus group for a movie/TV show. Not that these observations are worthless -- if everyone in your audience thinks your protagonist is a pompous asshat whose grandeur ramblings and self-justifications are tiring, then you should probably think about that 1000+ page tome again, Mrs. Rand -- but what you are looking for is the kind of feedback that is a bit more trenchant.

This is not to say that your Mother or your favorite waitress at Corner Bakery Cafe are unable to comprehend "story" at a deep level, but, they probably lack the vocabulary. Words like "structure", "character voices" and "the third act twist" might feel innate to you right now, but most people outside of our little sphere has less of a command of these terms. If I asked my mom about "the third act twist", she would probably yell "I know that one! M. Night Shyamalan!" and she'd be right at some level, but, again, this is your baby and you need people who can transmit their opinions/views/thoughts/notes with clarity and know what they are saying not on "some level" but on all the levels.

So that narrows our net to other writers. But who out of the writers you know?

First of all, do not discriminate on the basis of genre. I honestly don't know why or how this works, but that friend you have who writes gross sex-comedies might have insightful things to say about the dark imagery in your horror-thriller. Similarly, that creepy dude who writes fucked-up horror movies and gives you nightmares might be the best person to pitch you jokes on your absurdist musical about irrational numbers. Again, this is a bit of a mystery to me but maybe it's because this industry tends to pigeon-hole everyone as the "X" guy/gal although we have many stories and tones inside of us and these parts of us tend to emerge during note sessions.

Second of all, it's probably a good idea to give your script to someone who "gets" your writing. Now, this doesn't mean they necessarily "like" your writing or they're your best friends, it means they understand what you're trying to accomplish with your story.

Say that you are David Foster Wallace and you write post-modern but sincere accounts of drug addiction, combining "low culture" with highfalutin language and almost all of your characters are unbearably sad. Some people will be immediately put-off by your subject matter and confused by your style. They will not be in the same frequency as you and you will feel it. This is somewhat ineffable and abstract, but you will know it when the time comes.

(Note: By the way, I'm in no way shaming people who don't "get" DFW. I, for example, watched Raging Bull twice and still don't "get" it, which, I'd argue, could be considered, a cinematic shame of a higher order.)

So, you have your people. Your tribe. You send your material to them, and then you meet up.

What if they hate it?

Look, hey, I know it's not easy when you present someone with a piece of your soul and they just shit on it. It's a similar feeling to asking someone out with great hopes after you've already imagined your beautiful, magical first date and... then receive a crushing "REJECTED!" stamp to your heart that reduces it to a pool of tears. So, hopefully, this doesn't happen, but, probably, it will.

Even if the reception is not as disastrous as I have alluded to, the chances are your first draft is messy and filled with clunky exposition and tangential subplots that are somehow both too long and too short. So, brace yourself and Keep Your Shit Together. Here are a few tips:

Silence is Golden:

Even if you're crumbling inside and you are in unbearable physic pain as you're re-thinking your life choices that led you to this moment... It is best to keep silent. This is for your and your note-giver's sanity, not to mention the quality of his/her thoughts on your script. See, other writers are familiar with the inner-workings of your mind and they know that they are practically criticizing your child. They realize this is a tough endeavor and they will take a step back as soon as they smell your pain. But you don't want them to take a step back, you want them to get to the heart of the matter.

Nothing will eradicate a productive, necessary note session than the writer piping up and filibustering it with excuses or reasons why the person X did not enjoy their work. Do not do this. Nobody likes this.

This is especially important in Writer's Group kind of situations where people are getting a discussion going, bouncing ideas off of one another. The single worst thing the Writer can do in these group discussions is to take the focus off of his/her work and bring it onto himself/herself. Way to cut the circulation and suffocate the discussion, Writer.

Speak softly: 

During an argument with your significant other, it will probably fare better if you said "I feel unappreciated when I see the dishes in the sink after I cook." as opposed to "Why don't YOU wash the dishes when I cooked for YOU all day, YOU LAZY PERSON!"

Similarly, during a discussion about your work, you might realize that people have got something completely wrong. Or they completely did not get the identity of the murderer even though you felt you telegraphed it thirteen different times in the third act. You might felt be compelled to say something like: "It's in there! How could YOU not get that?!" or even a passive-aggressive dig such as: "Did YOU read page 83?"

Doing this will not only antagonize others, it also obfuscates the problems apparent in your writing. If 3 out of 10 people didn't get a major plot point, well, maybe it's because you write huge action paragraphs and you buried your plot point. Maybe it's because your character motivations aren't clear enough, so when Elizabeth turned into a dragon and stabbed Michael, it was utterly confusing because we missed that pivotal "sidelong glance" Elizabeth gave to the mysterious man carrying the Stabby Dragon Statue on page 7.

The onus is on you, friend. So if you spot the conversation is being totally derailed and you want to jump in to course-correct, you can say something like "Oh, I was trying to do X in that scene." If the conversation has ended and you want to gather more information about a specific problem, ask: "I'm wondering, how do you think I can make X clearer?"

All the rules that apply to relationship arguments, apply to these conversations.

Embrace Bad/Outlandish Ideas: 

People will be using "bad" or "outlandish" pitches to illustrate what they mean and point out what they would have liked to see in your story. Even if all your body screams with disbelief and the conviction that your version of the story is far superior to what is being proposed, just... listen. Most of the time people pitching those ideas know their examples are bad (One of my USC professors used to begin his bad pitches with "This is the Belgian TV version of what I mean...") and even if they are sincerely pitching an outlandish idea, look at the "note-behind-the-note". This means that while, yes, you will not probably change your period piece about Dracula into an intergalactic adventure, think about which problems in your story this suggestion addresses. In this case, perhaps your story feels too small and not cinematic enough, so the person thought bringing it into the Space could be the solution. Or, perhaps, it's simply not Fresh enough, God knows we've seen enough Vampire movies to last sixteen generations, so s/he thought that maybe a Science Fiction angle could freshen up your premise.

(S/He would be, unfortunately, wrong due to the existence of this awesome Casper Van Dien vehicle:

Ultimately, good ideas spring from bad ones. Coherent thoughts are results of long ramblings. It's a process similar to how some people have to write 200 page first drafts in order to get to that 100 page final draft. Don't ridicule these suggestions, try to learn from them.

Alright, so, you've successfully Kept Your Shit Together. But now...

How do I process my feedback?

The overwhelming majority opinion: 

You should probably listen if 8 out of 10 people say that your second act lacks a main tension. If the majority were confused on a plot point, it's probably wise to clear that up or if they were rooting for two characters to end up together, that is probably something to listen to.

By the way, that is not to say that you have to abide by their opinions. I'm pretty sure many people would have loved it if all their favorite Game of Thrones characters survived and the plot of the Twin Peaks was explained in a straight-forward procedural scene, but, boy, I'm glad those didn't happen. However, you should keep these elements in mind and see if they align with your aims. If you were aiming for CSI:Alaska and people keep calling your pilot "surreal", then you should probably take a step back and see why.

The Polarizing Point: 

Sometimes 5/10 people will absolutely love your character Winter, the quirky blonde love interest and your protagonist's childhood sweetheart who shows up at mid-point carrying a snowball she brought from East Coast in an ice-cooler, whereas 5/10 people will absolutely hate her because your screenplay already has two love interests for your main character and Winter's quirkiness is bringing your screenplay into a whimsical territory that is simply out of tone with the rest of your script.

First of all, give yourself a pat on the back. Such passionate disagreement means that people have engaged with your screenplay and there is something there.

Secondly, this stuff is always the trickiest because you will feel torn between the two paths that lie ahead of you. It will be wise to take into account why people are feeling the way they are. Chances are you haven't made a clear choice on what your story is, how everything fits together and which elements are absolutely essential to your story. Try to think back to your initial inspiration, the reason why you want to write this story, and try to figure out which path is best for you.

In my case -- yes, Winter, the quirky snowball carrier is a real example from my work -- I ended up cutting Winter with a heavy heart because I did find that two love interests worked better than three in that particular screenplay.

Ultimately though, you will not be able to please everyone with your changes. Many people who loved Winter found that the new draft was more "dour" without her presence. Well, friends, this is how Real Life differs from being a Pokemon Trainer. You can catch'em all, but you can never please'em all.

Going Forward

It's recommended that you take some time off before returning to your story again. Concentrate on something else, take long walks, clean your mind off of the residue of this particular story so that you can return to it with fresh eyes once again. Try to ingest your story as an audience member and not as The Writer. Once you feel like you can sincerely do this...

Your Journey Begins Anew. Godspeed.

- Levin Menekse

For more on the feedback/rewrite loop read This Is What a Rewrite Looks Like.

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