Scribosphere Carnival #3 – Criticism

Michael Patrick Sullivan at Red Right Hand is in charge this week, and he’s come up with a very intriguing topic.  In his words:

This week’s Scribosphere topic is how we each take criticism, or how we don’t, who do we seek out to provide it, and what do we do with it once we have it, how we give it, or, you know…whatever.

Let me start with this very important admission: As a kid, I was terrible at taking criticism.  My dad would constantly tell me that I needed to grow a tougher skin because I would inevitably burst into tears at even the smallest bit of criticism, constructive as it might be.  Of course as an adult, I realize that back then I might have also been uncontrollably bursting into tears due to my undiagnosed chemical imbalances, but that’s beside the point.  No, the point is, that over the decades, I have definitely gotten a thicker skin, and now I actually look forward to receiving notes and criticism of my writing.

I think I finally learned how to accept criticism when I realized that I wouldn’t become a better writer without it.  I believe too, that when you begin to critique the work of others, you gain a new appreciation for how difficult it is to be the bearer of criticism.  If you understand the difficulty in taking notes, it makes you more mindful on how to give them.  But, some people do not know how to give a note.

Let’s talk about that…

How To Give Good Notes

It may seem corny or even kabuki, but it does honestly help to soften your criticism with compliments.  Often in my writers groups now, I or others in the group will say ‘skip the compliments’ because we are there to work and we don’t need the platitudes to ease the pain of getting the tough love.  But when you give notes to someone you don’t know as well, and don’t know their level of pain tolerance, it’s a good idea to err on the side of “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”  Start with pointing out something good, and make it more than just a surface level platitude — were the characters really interesting? Was the plot intriguing? Did you like the writer’s voice? Was it a quick read? Funny? Exciting? Do more than just say you ‘liked it’ – writers tend to equate that with ‘it sucked’ — specificity of positive attributes will endear the writer to hearing what you have to say, particularly if you can be observant and astute about it.  The less specific you are, the less it feels like you actually read the damn thing.  Note good dialog or a great scene description — give them the page number! Let them know that you read it, you have real notes and you aren’t just placating them with positivity (like, say, your mom or your significant other).

Once you’ve got the sugar down their gullet, it’s time for the medicine.  There’s a way to administer this that causes less pain.  “I hated x” tends to be a bad way to give a note (unless you know the person really, REALLY well). I mean, that’s like stabbing someone in the neck!  Look, you are trying to make this as painless as possible.  We all know there’s some kabuki going on, that we are following a little bit of a script in giving notes, but that’s okay.  It’s what makes it possible for us to really hear the note and digest it.

I tend to start with big, general notes first — structure issues, for example.  Plot. Characters.  Start with the big notes first.  As an inverse to the positive, what gave you trouble? (what did you “bump on” — a common term for something in the script that jolts you out of the reading, making you aware of the mechanics beyond the story; a question, point of confusion, a contradiction)  Once you have your big overall note stated, you can get to specifics — where do the bumps occur?

Now, you may want to give the writer suggestions.  There’s a way to do this, and I’ll address ‘suggestions as notes’ in a few paragraphs.

Sometimes a script is just a train wreck.  It’s not small things, minor fixes — it’s just a hot mess.  Usually the hotter the mess, the nicer you have to be in dishing out the notes.  Because not everyone knows…

How To Take a Note

It’s inevitable.  You’ve read this script for this person, taken the time to read it, digest it, dissect it, figure out what works, what doesn’t, and when you go to tell them the news — they just seem defensive. Oblivious. Angry. In denial.  Any or all of these.

Defensiveness is the worst.  If someone gives you a note, you must fight the instinct to argue it.  Don’t tell your note giver that they are wrong! Wrong! WRONG!! This person has taken precious time to devote to your baby.  You asked them for their feedback.  The proper thing to do is keep your mouth shut, unless the person asks you a question for clarification.  That doesn’t mean you just nod and smile — that’s a sure sign you aren’t listening, another way of being defensive.  It is possible for the note to be wrong.  Very often you’ll get contradicting notes.  The important thing here is to take your emotion out of the process.  Before I go into a meeting or a setting where I am about to receive notes, whether in a professional capacity or in a group of peers, I mentally divorce myself from my project.  I try to imagine that this is someone else’s script, and I am hearing the notes as an impartial bystander.  Sometimes this doesn’t always work (I mean, I’m not made of stone after all!) but it does help.  If the note giver is doing all of the things I suggested above, the process is almost pleasant.  You want to know where the problems are — knowing where you aren’t being clear with story, character, intent will help you make a better script.  Isn’t that what you want? You want these notes! “Give them to me!!”

Okay, sometimes the person giving the notes isn’t very good at expressing themselves.  They say “I hated X.” (and they really don’t know you well enough to get away with that).  They stab you in the jugular.  It’s hard — you weren’t expecting that pain and wow, someone just called your baby ugly.  Take a moment.  Count to three.  Do NOT rebut, argue, cry, laugh or scoff.  Just write the note down.  Here’s the thing — they may not have given you a good note, in fact, it could be really crappy — but generally if someone gives you a note on something, even if the note itself doesn’t make sense, it’s indicative of something.  If you get the note more than once, obviously you need to look at it.

Some people want to give you suggestions.  We can’t help it — we’re writers, we see a problem, we want to help fix it.  Executives love to give you suggestions.  The problem is, their suggestions are usually wrong.  They tend to suggest things that fix the symptom, not the underlying problem.  You have to learn to see the note within the note (yeah, this process gets very Inception-like).  I take all the notes — those I agree with, those I don’t, because hours, days, weeks later, I may read that dumb note and realize it isn’t so dumb.

There’s a way, as the note giver, to provide suggestions, but you can’t just say “you should do Y instead of X.”  That is a sure-fire way to get the receiver of notes to completely shut down and ignore everything you have to say.  You may have the brilliant fix for them, but you know what? It’s their script.  They need to decide what to do.

Instead of “you should have a car chase here” the better way to make a suggestion is “I think your script loses momentum here– perhaps you need some kind of action sequence – maybe a car chase? I don’t know, you decide what it is, but it just feels like nothing is happening.”  Another favorite device is to talk about the “bad version,” a) because it most likely is the ‘bad version’ of something and b) it allows the note receiver to understand you aren’t necessarily prescribing that a solution, just using it as an example to illustrate their point.  There is a rare chance that the “bad version” is actually the right answer, but let the note receiver figure that out.

Wow, I had a lot more to say about criticism than I realized.  I suppose the TL;DR version (too long, didn’t read, for you not into the whole brevity thing) is: Don’t Be Mean. Don’t Be Defensive. Everybody be cool and respect the other party.  It isn’t easy to be on the giving end or the receiving end of notes, but these little tips can help make it just a bit easier for everyone involved.

 

Posted under writing

This post was written by Shawna on October 7, 2013

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Scribosphere Carnival #2 – Workflow

Jonathan was tagged with starting us off this week, and he’s provided a great topic to explore:

WORKFLOW – Everybody has one, and none are the same. Inspired by a post from John August (referencing THIS SITE), you should explain where and when you write, what hardware you use, what software you use, and what you would change about how you write. Have at it!

Where and when do you write?

I wish I could say that I have a really regimented routine, but honestly, most of the time, I write where and when I can.  I do have a desk which I bought thinking it would really increase my productivity, but in actuality, it more or less has become storage space.  Most of my writing happens exactly where I am now – sitting on my bed (I know, the worst) with or without the breakfast tray I use as a “desk” (right now it’s ‘with’)  I goodly percentage of my writing happens while I am at work and I have some time between projects for said boss — that writing happens in their former nursing chair w/ ottoman which rocks – literally.  That little corner has become my daily workspace.  Finally, I also make a dent in my writing at a little place called Solar de Cahuenga. I used to go here almost daily when I was unemployed for awhile, but I’m back to weekend visits and the occasional late night visit, since they’re usually open until 1 AM.  I love the vibe of the place, and now that I have a laptop with decent battery life again, I am no longer limited to one of the five or six tables which have outlet access (it’s the one thing I’d improve about the place, but then, maybe it would only cause me more headaches finding a table).  There’s outdoor seating, free wi-fi, and a decent menu of food besides the usual coffee bar fare.  I do try not to be a bad patron and I always buy at least a large iced tea (which is strangely addicting) when I am there for an hour or two.  For longer marathon sessions, I’ll buy lunch or dinner.  Back in the day, I’d hike to Solar, but now that employed and likely on a schedule, I drive and park nearby or splurge the $3 for the onsite valet parking.

Sorry, that turned into a bit of a commercial for Solar. But still. Good place.  Good coffee. A lot of regulars.

As for the hours I write, erratic.  If I’m at home, anytime in the evening. If I have insomnia, I might be up writing.  If I’m at work, middle of the day.  If I’m at Solar on the weekend it could be any time or evening on a weeknight.  As I said, no set schedule.  I’d like to say I write every day, but somedays, my brain needs a break.  Still, I’m far more prolific now than at any time in the recent past, so there’s that.

 

What hardware do you use?

Dell laptop.  I’m on my third one since 2005(ish).  I have my iPad which gets used a lot for note-taking and updating Google Docs and some for Final Draft, but I’m getting ahead of myself…

 

What software do you use?

Final Draft for all scripting.  Google Docs for breaking story with my sister and creating treatments/outlines.  Sometimes we transfer to a Word Doc or PDF for distribution, if we are presenting any of those documents to our writers group.  That’s about it.  I’ve never been keen to try any of the fancy pants outlining docs, and I’m not really a notecard person.  We just build outline bit by bit, starting with the structure and filling it in as we go along.  Pretty simple, I guess.

 

What would you change about how you write?

I admire my boss’s workflow.  Of course, writing is his full-time job, so he really treats it that way.  He gets up very early, like 4 AM and he writes for about 4 or 5 hours.  Then he takes a break to actually get ready for the day, particularly any meetings he might have, and depending on if he has deadlines, he’ll be back at it in the afternoon.  I think it’s really key that he does this every day — he writes every day, for several hours before the main day even starts, so if his day is filled with meetings or appointments, he’s already gotten work done for the day.

I, on the other hand, am not a morning person.  I have the tendency to write late rather than early.  It’s too easy for me to make excuses for not having written that day (my day job, other activities which filled the time) and then declare myself “too tired” to stay up and write.  Lately though, I’ve been on a bit of a tear, with real dedication to getting the script written and passed off to my sister for her round.  This has given me more discipline, but it isn’t consistent.  Might be that I get a lot done at work, or I get it done when I get home.  Solar gets used for marathon sessions of several hours when I have work to do.

On a more crafty than logisitics note, my sister and I are ramping up to dual processing -working on two different projects simultaneously, handing each one off to the other when our work is complete.  Ideally we’d be getting twice as many scripts completed in a year, simply because we are each always working on a different project.  We were able to test this out a bit earlier in the year, when we were revising one script while drafting a second.  As I’d finish acts, I’d give it to her for her pass and she’d hand me the revisions she’d been doing, so I can take a look at them and do a pass.  The other advantage this gives us is not getting burned out on a single script quite so fast, since we are always directing ourselves to something else in short order.  What we don’t know if this method will ultimately speed up our processes or slow us down.  Time will tell, but I suspect it will make us faster and give us more routine.  As soon as we “finish” one project (it goes out for reads, etc) we cycle in a new one.  The old one my come back around for rewrites, but it will be done in tandem with something else.  Feels efficient.

 

On an unrelated note, I’m really enjoying Scribosphere Carnival so far.  I’d really like to see other screenwriting bloggers get involved, so if you are one of those bloggers, why not jump in? I promise, the water’s fine.  Don’t make me come over there.

 

 

 

Posted under blogs, writing

This post was written by Shawna on October 5, 2013

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