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Frenzied creativity can keep you from getting all of your thoughts down

One challenge of being creative is that our minds often work much faster than the rest of our bodies can. Ideas can come at such a rate, our enthusiasm for a topic or story can be so intense, that we can find ourselves tripping over our words or leaving out things like nouns and verbs.

When I was much younger, I would see this challenge play out on my typewriter.

My thoughts were so frenzied and my fingers so quick that I would physically overwhelm the ability of the typewriter hammers to rise at the key stroke, strike the ribbon against the paper, and fall back into place before the next key stroke catapulted the next letter. Time and again, I would sigh in frustration as I would stop to manually separate the two letter arms that had become entangled.

But even in the absence of mechanical typing, such enthusiasm can result in conceptual clogging, where thoughts that cross your mind fail to find a home on the page.

Although this happens more in fiction than nonfiction writing, I have read examples in both situations where a writer has failed to include important information about their characters, the plot or even the settings of events. Because we see everything in our heads, because our thoughts move so quickly, we may not realize that we have failed to put this on the page.

When I write a line of dialogue for a character, for example, I hear the character’s voice in my head and I know his or her emotional state, so I hear the intonation that reflects that state.

On a good day, the same information is relayed in the words the character speaks and/or in the actions the character performs while saying those words. (On a really good day, the words spoken and the actions taken don’t exactly align, revealing subtext.)

As often as not, however, I threw down the first dialogue that came into my head or described a relatively generic action to get to the really cool moment a couple of pages from now.

Again, I heard the intonation. I know how the character is feeling. So, in my head, nothing is missing. Everything a reader needs to understand what is happening is found in the black letters that stripe the white screen or page.

 

Am I reading what you’re writing?

Your reader is not in your head, however. She doesn’t necessarily know how the character feels or where the story is going.

She will likely fill in those blanks with her best guess based on what she’s already read, and she might be right.

But if she’s not, if her assumptions are wrong, the moment of realization might be quite jarring, and she may have to drop back to re-read one or more passages to catch up to you.

NOTE: These moments are particularly noticeable if you have someone or a group do a cold-read of your work. The minute a reader starts the line “wrong”, you see (or hear) the potential train wreck ahead.

Any success you had in engrossing your reader and revealing your creative genius dissipates, and has to be newly won in the subsequent pages.

As the reader, if I need – or even just want – to know something to help me understand a character, relationship or scene, make sure I do. Make sure the idea or concept is on the page.

You ultimately cannot control what goes on inside the head of any reader, whether their personal perspectives or attitudes or what kind of day they’re having, but you can do as much as you can to get your idea, your story across with as few filters as possible.

You don’t necessarily have to do this with Draft One – anything you can do to ride the wave of enthusiasm and get Draft One completed takes priority.

But as you transition to Draft Two, Four or Eleven, look for opportunities to be clearer in your intent for your characters and your story.

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Aiming for clarity

How many ways could a given line or sentence be read?

Unless you’re purposefully pulling for subtext Nirvana, try to reduce that number, if for no other reason than the number in your head is probably three to five times lower than what it actually is.

Sometimes, clarity comes in the perfectly chosen word.

“Cameron put his glass down.”

“Cameron slammed his glass down.”

“Cameron let his glass drop.”

“The glass slipped from Cameron’s hand.”

Sometimes, clarity comes with more information/words.

“Cameron put his glass down.”

“Cameron gingerly nestled the glass into its condensation ring.”

“Avoiding a fist of broken glass, Cameron lowered his drink to the table.”

Yes, you run the risk of over-writing, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of writing travelogues rather than setting descriptions in early drafts.

I would argue, however, that it is better to cut back something over-written than omit vital information.

And yes, for genres such as thriller or horror, you may want to avoid providing too much information for fear of ruining the suspense.

I’ll talk more about genre another time, but in the interim will suggest that while you may wish to mislead your reader, you never want to lie to them, even by omission.

Once the final reveal is made, the reader should be able to go back and see all the connecting dots. Simply leaving out an important point is a cheat, from my perspective, especially if it prevents someone from making connections.

Misdirect, fine. Leave things open to interpretation, certainly. But never lie.

 

Seeing what’s not there

So, how do you know what you’ve inadvertently left off the page?

Time away helps.

Once that initial energy has dissipated, put the work away for a while. Clear your head by working on something else, and only then come back to it and see if it reads like you wrote it.

Alternatively, as suggested above, have someone (or some-many) read it aloud to you while you sit completely silent – not easy. You will hear every clunk and every reinterpretation of your intent.

And sometimes, you simply cannot see it, which is where people like me come in: experienced story analysts who know the standard or common issues that arise and can not only identify where they occur in your work, but also offer insights or possible fixes.

This is feedback at a higher level than editing – although many of us instinctively edit – and the best story analysts help you find your way of telling your story, not theirs.

Because the story analyst didn’t write your story, they’ll see the gaps or holes much faster and more clearly than you will, and will help you fill those gaps, ensuring that you have left it all on the page.

 

So, What’s Your Story is a story analysis service designed to help anyone tell their story better, whether fiction or nonfiction, long or short, written or verbal. Even if you’re just looking for a quick sense of how well you’ve told your story, we should talk.

Feedback, not criticism (or worse)

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A friend of mine recently wrote a screenplay for a sitcom. Not a spec of an existing show, mind you, but rather an entirely new idea she developed.

In accomplishing this feat, she joined rarified company. For every person who has written a television pilot, there may be a thousand people who have written a spec script and millions who have never put pen to paper (finger to keyboard).

And like any good writer, she wanted her work to be as good as it could be, so she asked a handful of people she knew—including me—to read it and give her feedback.

Unfortunately, as I later learned on sending her my feedback, she was ready to chuck in the writing game because of scathing criticism from another reviewer, who essentially told her that her pilot was complete crap (or worse).

My friend is talented and is in the process of maturing her style. And the feedback I gave her was honest and critical, but it was also designed to help her improve, not make her quit. The pilot was still raw, but there was merit in many aspects of it, and the rest could be easily improved.

Sadly, it seems her other reviewer was less interested in helping her find the gems in her work.

To the writers out there, I say, pick your reviewers wisely, and before you take any of the feedback to heart, consider the source and get input from more than one person.

Feedback that is overly critical or overly praising is largely useless…and potentially lethal.

To the reviewers out there, I say, be honest but be constructive. It does no one any good to rip a work to shreds and leave it in tatters. It doesn’t make you more powerful. This isn’t even about you but about the work.

At the end of this post, I have links to pieces I have written previously on receiving and giving feedback. And below, without giving away my friend’s identity or her concept, I offer the opening of my notes to her.

Good luck and good writing to everyone!

 

My favourite insight of all time on writing for television is that pilots suck. Let me repeat that:

PILOTS SUCK!

The challenge with a pilot is you have to do soooo much structural heavy-lifting and still try to tell a coherent story.

  1. You need to establish the premise.
  2. You need to establish the perspective of your protagonist and therefore your concept.
  3. You need to not only introduce all of the regular characters and their relationships to each other, but also make them engaging.
  4. You need to give the audience a sense of what a typical episode might look like so they know when they can go pee.
  5. And did I mention that you also need to tell a coherent story?
  6. Oh, and one last thing for the sitcom writers…you have to be funny.

 

So, massive kudos to you for writing a sitcom pilot and doing a decent job of it. You’ve covered all of the points above, but you haven’t really nailed them yet. And for me, nailing them hinges on your decisions about point #2…

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See also:

Giving Feedback – The Reviewer Strikes Back

Receiving Feedback – Part One

Receiving Feedback – Part Two

…but I know what I like

Congratulations! You’ve landed a paid writing gig. Finally, all of that hard work and practice is going to pay off.

Mind you, unless the person paying you to develop a screenplay, marketing campaign, novel, whatever, is simply giving away his or her money out of some form of altruistic zealotry gone mad, the benefactor is likely to want to participate in the project, to take some degree of ownership, and therefore to weigh in…with notes.

So, you’ve just received your first batch of notes.

And amazingly, they are relatively minor and/or completely in sync with concerns you had about the work and so give you further impetus to make the changes you kind of knew needed to be made.

But seriously, folks. These notes don’t make any sense. The note-giver clearly didn’t understand the nature of the project he or she assigned you. To make most or any of these changes would be to seriously weaken or outright destroy the project.

Now, what the hell do you do?

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Step 1: Curse.

Yes, feel free to curse the gods for this tedious torture of your creative soul. How dare these mere mortals give you notes? The audacity to think they could contribute to this work of Art, when the very notes they provide merely highlight their ignorance.

I don’t have a problem with hosting a pity party of one (or a few close friends). The key is keeping the party short, particularly when working to deadline.

You are an Artist, and Art requires Ego and a degree of Hubris. Without hubris, how would any of us ever have the cahones to show our work to others?

The reality, however, is that we have chosen to work for others, so…

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Step 2: Set aside your ego and re-read.

Put a tea-cosy on your vision for a moment and really try to understand the notes you have been given. I’ve heard it said often: What is the note within the notes?

I have found that people often can’t identify or vocalize what they specifically find troubling in a piece of Art. But rather than simply give you no notes, they try to identify things that may have some bearing on their issues…the operative word there being “may”.

If you stand back a little further and ignore the specific requests, can you see something in common between the notes, a greater theme or need from the note-givers?

Do your best to step out of your shoes and into his or hers. A change in perspective may give you a greater insight as to the real challenge the note-giver is facing with your work. You’re the writer; you have one need. A director or a marketing manager will have different needs and perspectives. Respect that.

It is possible, however, that you will still be uncertain (or clueless) as to what to do next. In that case…

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Step 3: Ask questions/seek clarity.

Acknowledging the note-giver’s concerns or comments is not the same as accepting them. It does, however, give him or her a sense that you respect them and are trying to maintain a collaborative relationship. I cannot begin tell you how much this means to people and pays off in the long run.

Offer your interpretation of the issues to confirm you see things the same way as the note-giver. If you do, brilliant. You can now offer alternatives to the less palatable requests that may satisfy the note-giver’s misgivings.

If you don’t, brilliant. Now, you have the opportunity to gain insights into the note-giver’s perspectives. This will allow you to brainstorm new approaches that will satisfy both parties.

You may also find that many of the requested changes are not a high priority for the note-giver or were merely suggestions of things you could do. For all the opinions people offer throughout their lives, most individuals are incapable of giving effective notes and thus, demands, suggestions and brain farts all look alike to the person receiving them. This holds for the Artist, as well. Don’t allow your and their ignorance to drive you crazy.

So, now that you either have an understanding with the note-giver or realize you are working with a control-obsessed ego-maniacal asshole (it happens)…

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Step 4: Make your changes or rollover.

What you now do with these notes hinges on a cost-benefit analysis.

Are there ways you can bring greater clarity to the story you have written that will address the needs without either incorporating the specific requests or significantly altering your vision of the story?

If yes, then you have not only improved the work, but you’ve established a wonderful rapport with the note-giver that will likely lead to future opportunities for collaboration.

If not, you need to ask what your goal is for this particular project.

If it is your magnum opus, then feel free to stick your heels in and refuse to make the requested changes, but in the knowledge that you may very well be fired and find it difficult to get work in the future. The note-giver and community may respect your stance and in the final analysis, acknowledge you were correct in your refusal, but it doesn’t happen a lot.

If, however, this project is the first step toward a longer term relationship with the note-giver and/or the hiring community, then go back to Step 2 and think harder as to how to make this work to everyone’s advantage. The onus is on you to do your best work within the framework you are given.

In this latter situation, of course, another alternative is simply to rollover and acquiesce to the requested changes. It is completely possible that the note-giver is right and you simply could not see the problems because your ego was in the way (aka you were too close to the project).

On the flipside, of course, if the note-giver was wrong, you may carry the burden of his or her errors and so find future work with that individual unlikely but then why would you want to work with that asshole again. Or, he or she could step up and take ownership of the error, in which case, you may have found a partner who will trust your instincts more the next time.

Getting notes is never easy, but it’s going to happen whenever you leave your Artistic cave. How you deal with them will have a significant impact on how often you get paid to do your thing.

Music to my ego

Like fish

When you first start exploring any art form, you are typically rapt in the joy of expression, but you are also at your most ego-vulnerable. Thus, it is nice every now and again to receive some positive feedback and it is even better when that feedback comes from someone who represents your art’s industry (rather than your mom).

As many of you know, one of my screenplays was a Second Rounder in the 2013 Austin Film Festival screenplay competition. Part of achieving that status is receiving readers’ notes that explain why you moved forward in the competition and why you stopped. A couple of days ago, I received the notes for my feature Tank’s.

Wow.

Below, I offer some of the positive feedback (I received negative too).

An exhilarating, imaginatively conceived, meticulously crafted, professionally polished animation intended fairy tale, a love story set in the cosmos of fish.”

Obviously the work of a talented, experienced writer who knows animated light comedy, how it works, and how to do it.”

The linear narrative is redeemed, however, by the enthralling depiction of fish as people, their humanly drawn nautical universe, and a buoyant, lighthearted mood pervading the narrative.”

Is the writer competitive here with, say, the creative minds at Pixar? Without question, yes.”

“The storytelling is befitting of the silly/adult humor of Dreamworks while still maintaining the light family-friendly air of a Disney cartoon musical.”

Kind of makes me want to keep writing, you know?

JB

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission because I am that good)

 

Finding the Critical Sweet Spot – Part Two

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In the last post, we talked about the challenge of finding someone to critique your work in a way that was actionable; someone who was neither too hard nor too soft on you. Below, we continue the conversation by address the need for that person to be available for ongoing discussion and the limitations of options like coverage services.

Availability: A lot of screenwriters rely on coverage services to get feedback on their screenplays and there are a number of reputable organizations and readers out there.

The challenge, I find, with these services is that they tend to be unidirectional and/or very brief. You send your work, you receive a written report, you may receive an oral report—which allows you to ask questions—but ultimately, it’s “here you go”.

You can get more, you can have follow-up, but it’ll cost more.

As well, I think you really miss out on improving your own skills, knowledge and understanding of story through the critiquing of the work of others.

I also worry that the use of a professional service when your work and skill sets are at a nascent level is largely a waste of their time and your money. The feedback you receive will likely be so broad, so sweeping that it could easily overwhelm you. As well, any minor change you make at one stage is liable to make any of the remaining feedback moot.

Better, I think, that you find someone who is also trying to grow their skills, who understands and shares your needs and fragility. They want and need your help as much as you want and need theirs, and so you’ll be more apt to make time for each other.

Again, it is about building a relationship of trust.

Transient state: Unfortunately, no two people develop at the same rate, and even if you find yourself in a trusting artistic relationship, you will likely find that one of you is ready to move forward faster than the other. It happens in all facets of life.

As your Art develops, you will find that your needs change, and that the partner that got you to one stage of development cannot get you to the next one. It is time to bow to your partner and move on to the next one.

If you’re lucky, both of you recognize this and move on without acrimony. Not everyone is lucky. But for your Art to flourish, the move is necessary.

I wish I could tell you that there is an easy way to make the transition, but in my experience, it is like the end of a marriage and the need to start dating again. The footwork is shaky and the verbiage is awkward, but you won’t die of embarrassment.

The key is to remember why you’re doing this, why it is important to you, and then to simply move forward.

You’ll be okay.

 

Coverage services I have used or have had recommended to me:

Marsha Mason at Why The Face

Terry Zinner at A Film Writer

Scriptapalooza Coverage

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission because it was available now)

Finding the Critical Sweet Spot – Part One

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One of the biggest challenges I have faced in developing my writing was in finding the right people to critique my work. Classes have helped, as I’ve come across some wonderful instructors, but otherwise, finding people who (a) gave me actionable feedback and (b) were available for ongoing discussion has been tricky.

Actionable feedback: To really move your Art forward, you need outside opinions, but those opinions need to be of the variety that helps you see not only what works and what doesn’t, but also how to understand both and push the work further.

Although praise like “I loved it” is nice and criticism like “I just didn’t feel it” can be crushing, neither helps you develop your Art because neither offers you specifics. This is typically a sign of someone who is not near your skill level and cannot articulate their thoughts (not meant as a criticism of the person offering feedback).

Likewise, you don’t necessarily benefit from a critique of someone way above your skill level. Through no fault of their own, these individuals are likely to take certain information for granted and provide feedback you cannot work with because you don’t understand it and/or that overwhelms you in terms of sheer volume. This, I believe, is why so few experts in any discipline are good teachers of that discipline. We all simply forget what it’s like not to know or know how to apply “the basics”.

Instead, we need to find someone who is roughly at the same skill level as ourselves and ideally, who suffers different weaknesses or challenges than ourselves. In such a situation, a symbiotic relationship can form.

These are the people who will recognize and help you see what is working while at the same time, point out the problem areas and offer insights (or commiseration) on how to address the issues.

Such a meeting of equals will also help ensure that one of you doesn’t feel like you’re doing all the heavy lifting in the relationship and getting very little in return. This is critical in building a relationship of trust, particularly when both of you are making yourself vulnerable in exposing your Art, untested.

In the next post, we’ll look at the availability question and then wrap up with a brief discussion of the transience of it all.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission…how sweet)

Learning curve

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Before I start, let me state unequivocally that if you are writing or thinking of writing, I congratulate you and hope it goes well.

Now, despite that enthusiasm, I have to express my dismay at the number of people who don’t seem to want to improve their writing.

Over the last two years, I have read thousands of pages—outlines, scenes, plays, chapters—and have been amazed to watch so many people get so much better at their craft. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen plenty for whom their only draft is their final draft.

Perhaps it is ego that suggests me and my fellow readers have nothing to contribute to their work. That all of our comments fall well short of their prodigious talents and would only weaken the work. But if that’s the case, why ask for our input in the first place? If the work is that good, why do you need our validation, our applause?

For most, if not all cases, I think it is more likely fear and laziness. The belief that if the piece isn’t perfect on the first pass, it never will be. What these people seem to fail to realize—or perhaps recognize all too well—is that a learning curve isn’t just some gentle bend in the road. Rather, it is a steep daunting hill, and to climb that hill, they must invest energy.

If you ask me for my input, my thoughts, my impressions, I will give them to you freely with the understanding that they are just my opinions. You don’t have to follow them. This is your work, to be executed your way. I am only offering alternative views.

At the same time, if you continually ask for my thoughts (or someone else’s) but make no effort to change—in any directions—then these efforts have been wasted.

Perhaps the writer was correct and the work was perfect out of the gate. Congratulations. It would be the first time I would ever have been witness to such an event.

I have no pretenses about my own work—or I don’t think I do. My work will never be perfect, but it can always be better than it was yesterday, and almost as good as it will be tomorrow. And the more and more varied input I get, the closer I get to the top of that learning curve.

At least until the next project begins.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission, because I never learn.)