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Monday, December 21, 2009

Notes from the Underbelly

I’ve just received a set of notes on one of my scripts and it made me think. How is screenwriting like quantum physics? I’ll answer that question in a little bit but first I’m going to go over notes, coverage and feedback.

If you’re a writer you should plenty of notes and feedback on every one of your projects. At least the ones you’re serious about. You should be handing your stuff off to friends, family members, Twitter buddies, anyone you trust to get a first impression of the story, the characters, even to catch typos. Chances are, unless your friends and family are uncommonly brutal they’ll give you a slightly inflated assessment. If it’s just okay, they’ll call it good. If it’s merely good they’ll call it great. If it has just a trace element of excellence they’ll declare it revolutionary. So don’t get too excited just yet

But keep your ears peeled for anything they didn’t like or had trouble with. There was an episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares where Gordon Ramsay said he didn’t want to hear about the compliments customers where giving them, he wanted to hear the negatives because that’s what he had to work on. The same thing goes for writing. You want to know where you came up short so you can work on those areas.

But friends and family only take you so far (unless those friends and family actually work in the industry.) You have to venture out into the scary, scary world of assistants and readers (or editors and slush piles if you’re writing a novel or short story.) At this point you need to get a professional perspective on your story. And I’m just saying that for my own benefit. If I’m going to send something to a professional, I want a professional opinion. I know what I think of my story, but will it stand out to somebody who sees a hundred similar scripts every month? This is why you should consider hiring a reader. (Or moving out to LA or NYC where you can make contact with readers and executives and hopefully get that feedback for free! Or get representation in which case they also give you your feedback for free!)

When you receive your coverage (or its nicer cousin feedback) you’ll probably be in for a shock. Unless you managed to just knock one out of the park, there will be copious notes on what you did wrong. Worse yet, this obvious philistine will suggest changes to your masterpiece. You need to stop and take a breath. Here’s where the quantum physics come in. In quantum physics there is something called the uncertainty principle. Simply put particles are in a flux state until they are actually observed. An electron can have an upwards spin or a downwards spin, but until you actually look at the particular electron it is 50% up and 50% down. (I went to a school specializing in engineering. I had to learn that as part of Philosophy requirement believe it or not.) So your story at this point is in a state of flux whether you want to admit it or note. Until it actually gets produced or published it’s just a mass of possibilities, some of them you might not have considered yet. I had a revelation while reading the synopsis of my screenplay (not all coverage includes a synopsis.) The reader had inferred something I had not intended in the story. I’m now working on integrating that element into the screenplay.

You have to develop a very open mind when dealing with notes, because eventually you’ll be dealing with gatekeeper notes. Gatekeepers are readers who work for either agencies or production companies. You want to take their notes very seriously. You want to read everything very carefully, the pros, the cons, even the synopsis. Take the suggestions seriously. You want to put pressure on these people to give you an unconditional RECOMMEND so you get fast tracked to the top of the heap. Will the final product be what you originally intended? Hell no. But just remember that’s a good thing. George Lucas, famously had to make a million changes to Star Wars and it turned out to be a classic. Years later, when no one could possibly tell him “no”, he produced The Phantom Menace.

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