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

Tank’s – a screenplay (cont’d)

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Our continuing saga (see part one here) of impetuous young Tony and his pursuit of individuality at the possible expense of his life.

When last we left Tony, he had led a nasty caiman on a merry chase, faking it out at the last second.

Tony takes off, leaving the caiman to spit out stones.

The guys catch up to Tony, applauding. Tony bows.

JUAN

That was totally awesome!

CARLOS

I thought you were a goner.

RICKY

That was–

OLD FIN (O.S.)

Foolhardy.

Tony turns to see OLD FIN.

TONY

Grandfather.

OLD FIN

And dangerous. You must think you’re pretty hot stuff.

TONY

Escaped the jaws of death.

OLD FIN

You escaped an eating machine, son; an unthinking garbage disposal. And you risked everyone’s lives in the process.

TONY

It was just me and the caiman.

OLD FIN

You need to learn about taking responsibility for your actions; caring for the fish around you. Your father—

TONY

What about my father?

RICKY

Tony!

TONY

My father took responsibility for his community, and he got snatched by the Net. Maybe if he’d spent more time with his son and less on everyone else’s problems…

CARLOS

Easy, Tony.

Old Fin waves the boys off.

TONY

He was all about sacrifice, when it meant taking care of others, but when I needed him… You can keep your responsibility.

Old Fin reaches for Tony’s shoulder.

OLD FIN

I miss him, too. He had to be the fish he was destined to be. Just as you have to be the fish you will become.

TONY

That’s… C’mon guys.

The boys swim off.

OLD FIN

Destiny won’t wait, son. It happens whether you’re ready or not.

EXT. FURTHER ALONG THE RIVER – DUSK

Amongst the plants and rocks, four long pink legs extend to the surface. The boys take a wide berth, Tony lagging behind, kicking pebbles.

JUAN

Watch out. Danger from above.

Tony darts around the legs, but then he turns with a grin.

RICKEY

What’re you doing?

TONY

Nothing. Just stretching my fins.

Yawning, he tickles one of the feet.

EXT. ABOVE THE SURFACE – SAME TIME

The legs are attached to two cranes. SIDNEY screams and jumps into SEYMOUR’s wings.

SIDNEY

Something touched my leg!

Seymour angrily drops Sidney into the water.

SEYMOUR

You idiot. Those are just fish.

SIDNEY

Well, they’re cold and wet. It’s nasty.

SEYMOUR

Nasty? Sid, what are we?

Sidney thinks long and hard.

SIDNEY

Cousins?

SEYMOUR

Cranes, Sid.

SIDNEY

We’re not cousins?

SEYMOUR

Focus! What do cranes eat?

Sidney screws up his face, like his head’s about to explode.

SIDNEY

Hamburgers!

SEYMOUR

Fish! We eat fish!

Sidney whips out chopsticks.

SIDNEY

Sushi!

Seymour slaps the chopsticks away and then pushes Sid’s head into the water. Sid steps back, spluttering.

SEYMOUR

And this time, Sid, hold your breath.

Seymour plunges his head into the water, pulling up a fish, which he quickly swallows. The two start looking for dinner.

EXT. BELOW THE SURFACE – SAME TIME

Fish scatter in pandemonium. Clouds of silt explode from the riverbed as enormous bills dart from the surface and stab into the ground, slicing side to side to catch fish.

Plants are uprooted, stones flung in all directions, fish cower in crevices and under large rocks as the river fills with a cacophany of SCREAMS and thrashing EXPLOSIONS of air and water.

Tony and his friends flee, pursued by Seymour.

JUAN

You had to do it, didn’t you?

TONY

They’re gaining on us.

They careen around rocks and weeds as the cranes inch closer.

JUAN

Over there!

INT. OLD BUCKET – CONTINUOUS

Juan, Tony and Ricky dart to the back, breathing heavily.

RICKY

They got Carlos!

Juan dashes for the opening and is bowled over by Carlos.

CARLOS

Aaaaaaaah!

TONY (laughing)

Carlos, the bullet.

The THRASHING outside subsides. The guys float quietly.

CARLOS

Whaddya think?

A beam of light penetrates the darkening water outside of the bucket, which shakes and the floor tilts.

CARLOS (CONT’D)

Earthquake!

They swim for the mouth, which rises, the spotlight getting brighter. Seeing Carlos struggle, Juan and Ricky swim back to help him. Tony waits anxiously.

TONY

Harder!

CARLOS

I’m trying!

Tony swims to help, just as they push Carlos out. Before Tony can escape, however, the bucket breaks the water’s surface.

TONY

Nuts.

Tony races for the bottom and turns to make a break for the surface. As he makes his run, a net appears.

EXT. FLAT-BOTTOMED METAL BOAT – SAME TIME

A hand reaches into the bucket and fishes for Tony, who scurries around trying not to get caught.

TONY

Hey! Watch the scales. Let go!

The hand throws Tony into a clear bag of water.

TONY (CONT’D)

Okay. Now you’ve made me mad!

The hand tosses the bag into a cardboard box.

INSERT: BOX LABEL THAT READS “ECUADOR PET SUPPLIES”.

The lid of the box closes. Everything GOES DARK.

OPENING CREDITS

(to be continued)

Brothers by birth

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When we were young, my brothers and I were very close. The house was so small, we had little choice.

We moved a lot when we were kids, so we tended to see each other as playmates as much as anything, even though we were 5 and 5 years apart, me being the eldest. My brothers were constants in a sea of change.

At our youngest, spending time together was easy. Scott and I would use Shawn as cannon-fodder for any number of experiments, and he would respond as though it was great fun. The fact that Shawn did not die in childhood or does not suffer the after-effects of brain damage today is a testament to the strength and resiliency of the human skull.

As we got older, though, the strengths and directions of our individual personalities began to interfere with our genetic and social bond. I was the studious, overly verbose nerd. Scott was the quiet and reserved one; the observer. Shawn was the independent freedom fighter.

What were once common goals became more fractious, and as Shawn became older, he began to realize that his lot in life didn’t have to be guinea pig, and with his fiery temper, he in fact became a weapon of filial destruction. Only my decadal seniority kept him from killing Scott, who wasn’t always in my good books.

The genetic link continued to sever as we continued to age and each of us found less reason to spend time with the others. Our interests were different. Our needs were different. And our attitudes about the other two changed.

Around the time that I buggered off to college, Shawn’s rebellious streak took solid hold and he headed across the country to do his own thing. And Scott folded more into his own world.

In one way or another, we had effectively abandoned the family unit, and more important to my mother, the family unity. I can appreciate now how hard this must have been on her, but at the time, it all sounded like mom whining.

Over the next bunch of years, I think I saw Shawn twice…both weddings, one his. I saw Scott more regularly, but a lot of it felt forced as we would often meet at my mother’s place. I can only speak for me, but it felt like we were trying to maintain an illusion of what was.

There were good interactions between us. And I like to think there was still love. But there was no friendship. Genetics just wasn’t enough.

We parted company and lives. If asked, I am confident that any two thought the third was a complete asshole.

Time passes. We evolved and continue to become the men we need to be for ourselves. And from my perspective, something great has come out of that. We have been given a second chance at friendship.

As full-grown men with our own lives, interests and goals, we have chosen to welcome each other into our lives in one way or another. It is not the bond we shared in our youth, but I don’t know that any of us are too worried about that. (Shawn’s still too big and strong to let Scott and I pile drive him into the basement floor.)

The friendship I have with Shawn is different than the one I have with Scott, but both friendships are meetings of equals. One of the only bonds we seem to share as a trio, other than our familial link to our mother, is a neurological link to alcohol (damn, that’s one hell of a pub tab).

Shawn is the successful restaurateur, who is still the independent freedom fighter.

Scott is the dedicated family man, who is still the observer.

I am the raconteur, wit and writer, who is still the sexiest man in town (okay fine, the studious, overly verbose nerd).

But none of these descriptions is sufficient. We are simply the men that we are.

Shawn, Scott and I are brothers by birth, but we’re friends by choice. And that’s the way it should be.