Peer Review: The Quest For Notes

New writers often complain about how hard it is to break into Hollywood. There's no denying that it's hard. Competent just won't cut it. There's no way around having to write phenomenal scripts that not only get you past the gatekeepers, but also blows their entrails to smithereens in the process. But how do you go from competent, to leaving a trail of viscera in the wake of your mad skills?

Sure, some of those complaining the loudest are whiners looking to circumvent hard work. But more often, they're legitimate, hard working writers frustrated by their lack of forward career momentum, and more than ready to blow their brains out the next time someone tells them to just write a better script.

What the hell do these morons think you've been trying to do?

This brings us to the single biggest barrier facing undiscovered writers. Getting laid. Finding decent feedback before sending the script out for industry reads.

Getting feedback on your work is easy. At any given time, there are more people on the net willing to give you notes on your script than the total number of writers ever to walk the planet combined. Everyone has an opinion.

Most of them are wrong.

So how do you go about getting decent notes on your script, so you can actually improve the sucker and not look like an idiot when you send it out to reps and prodcos?

First, let's look at the different types of notes people can expect to get on their script.

1. The Gut Punch

Gut Punch notes could be ten pages or two lines. But no matter what the beast looks like, the message is the same: You suck, your script sucks, you can't write worth shit, and you have no business being in this industry.

Gut Punch notes come from anywhere; newbies, industry insiders, your mom. They are not meant to help the writer. These note-givers are bitter sadistic people who see it as their personal mission to teach you just how hard the industry can be regardless of the merits of your work.

2. The Suck Up

These notes make you feel like you're the second coming of Christ. The script is perfect, the best thing they have ever read - ever - it gave them a religious experience in their pants. Yeah, these notes are nice to hear, but they don't help you. No script is perfect. And notes like these usually come from someone trying to get in your pants an insecure writer who wants you to read their script in return, and hopes you'll go easy on them if they butter you up.

3. The Masturbator

These notes come from someone who, on the surface, appears to really appreciate your script, except... They provide pages and pages of notes on how THEY would do things differently, basically rewriting your entire script and taking the concept or story in a totally new direction. These notes are not there to help you or your script. They are there solely for the pleasure of the note giver.

4. Actual Notes

Notes of this kind are rare. They point out what really works in your script, and focus on the specific problem areas. They are clear, concise, and don't need to build you up or break you down to make their point. They often offer suggestions on alternate directions to explore, ways to approach fixes, or ideas to elevate the marketability of the material, but they stop there. They don't make it personal.

That's not to say that actual decent notes can't be harsh. Stuff like, "this character is not nearly developed enough to get an emotional response from the audience," or, "Act one is way too long. You gotta cut at least ten pages of exposition or you're going to lose your audience." These are harsh notes for a writer to hear. It means a three night drinking binge lot more work. The script isn't ready. But they are valid notes.

These are the kind of notes you want. These are the notes you can work with and learn from. But often times, it's hard to tell the difference. Gut punchers and masturbators are often skilled at disguising their notes to look like actual notes. So how do you tell the difference?

Get lots of notes. Like ten or twelve sets. If you get twelve sets of notes, ignore the ones that do nothing but sing your praises, make fun of the ones that tell you to add an alien invasion to your period drama about circus midgets at the turn of the century, and burn the ones that make you want to slit your wrists, and voila! You'll be left with half a dozen decent notes.

Of those remaining, you may not agree with all of the notes. You may passionately disagree with some of them. But they are all valid. Doesn't mean they're right though. They're just opinions.

What you need to do is look for similarities. If three people thought your setup was weak, it's a good bet that your setup needs some work. And in your gut, you probably already know that.

If, however, only one person mentioned a weak setup, it doesn't mean they're wrong. They might just be really good at spotting script problems. If the note in question rings true, it's worth exploring. Hell, if it doesn't ring true, it's worth exploring, if for no other reason, it forces you to look at whatever they've noted in a new way... and that is never bad.


Where To Find Good Notes

Steer clear of public forums and message boards. They are overly populated with narcissistic masturbators and gut punchers angry at the world for not recognizing their brilliance. If you're asking for notes there, you might as well pull down your pants and tattoo a bullseye on your ass.

You could always pay for notes from a professional. There are some good ones out there. But they're expensive. And you get one set of notes. If you go this route, do your research. Get recommendations from people you trust. Or better yet, save this option until you know your script is ready for the marketplace.

The best and sanest way to get decent notes on a regular basis (you are writing on a regular basis, no?) is to develop relationships with a close circle of writers committed to improving their own craft. If you respect their writing, you're more likely to put serious weight on their notes. Learn from them. Give them notes too. You all have the same goal, and you'll be making future industry connections and life-long drinking buddies and possibly a few one-night drunken hookups.


How To Give Good Notes

Your job is simply to identify the strengths and the weaknesses of the script so that the writer can improve the damn thing. It is not your job to boost the writer, nor is it your job to crush their dreams. This is a professional business. Be professional. Use examples from the script, and keep it about the script, not the writer.

I don't care how bad the script is, find something good about it and open with that. Then get into the problems. And for the love of God or whatever the hell floats your religious boat, be specific. 'The motivation of the main character is unclear,' does not help the writer one iota. Does he lack motivation throughout? Does he lose it along the way? And if so, where? Do there seem to be competing motivations? Does another character have stronger motivations that are overshadowing the lead? Specifics help, general statements don't.

But what do you do if the script is an absolute piece of garbage from page one?! Same rules apply; identify the strengths and weaknesses - and remember, you were there once too. Concentrate on a couple of big issues that, if fixed, would make the script readable, and save the rest for the writer to deal with in the next round of reads.

And the big rule - Don't be an ass.

Of course, this only applies to peer reads. If you're an agent or producer, you're not going to bother giving notes on a piece of crap, or even read past page ten. And if it's a good script, you'll have no problem tearing it apart with no mercy, 'cause that's why you get the big bucks -- And that is precisely why we all need peer review before this stage.


How To Take Notes

Check your ego at the door. If you've developed a trusted circle of readers then no matter how critical the notes are, they're meant to help you improve. Take a few minutes, or days, or years if needed, to get to a point where you can objectively ask yourself if the note has validity. Trust your gut, but don't mistake a bruised ego for instinct.

No matter what kind of notes you get, unless they threaten to blow up your house and defile your neighbor's wife, thank the note giver.

Don't argue with them. Don't give into the sometimes-psychotic need to defend your baby. Just thank them. Good, bad, or ugly, the note giver gave up some time to concentrate on your script.

It IS okay to ask questions on the notes, but again, before you do, take a breather to make sure that your question is valid, and not an attempt to argue the merits of your script. In other words, don't be an ass.




Notes are good. Give them. Get them. You'll be a better writer.




funky image by S1ON

4 comments:

  1. Lots of good advice here! I find it very hard to give good notes, even though I'm really invested in the process. If I really connect with a script, I usually feel confident about offering some suggestions for tightening "this" or strengthening "that". But every once in awhile I read something that I just don't click with on any level. Recently, I read half-way through a script and then "handed" it back to the writer: I recognized that other people would love the script and be much more helpful than I could be, and that, for whatever reasons, I just couldn't get into it (and I explained that to the writer: it's me, not you!). It's a difficult balance to strike between being honest and being an ass! I do think being honest is helpful, even if it initially stings. And I do think I've been an ass at times, though completely unintentionally. It's a learning process for all of us - writing, reading, giving notes. As the receiver of notes, the most important thing is to see where people's comments overlap -- and say "thank you". As the giver of notes, I think the most important thing is to endeavor to be supportive and helpful. But, as I've learned, writers (and readers) have different styles/interests - and it helps to find the people you easily connect with. :-)

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  2. Alice,

    Thanks for commenting. You're so right. Giving good notes is a hard skill to master. Honest, constructive, and well thought out are my personal rules, but it's always hard telling someone their work has issues.

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  3. As a freelance script reader/editor, I love your message, and agree on all counts. It's really frustrating to read useless notes my clients have been given. Especially from (to use your terminology) the many Gut Punchers out there. I don't see why you'd get into being a reader/editor if you're not invested in actually helping the authors you work with.

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  4. Whenever I'm asked to give notes, it never fails. I find myself wishing they had asked me to give birth instead.

    I have great respect for readers.

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