Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Notes From Wilderness: Getting Notes

I'll skip right past the whole, writing the screenplay business because that's such an insignificant part of the process...

After you've got the draft to the point where you can't see what's wrong with it anymore, it's time to send it out for notes. This is not an optional part of the process.

Feedback Exchanges: I've gotten fairly solid notes from Helium Feedback's service. I recommend actually shelling out some bucks for the service -- since people are more professional when there's money at stake and they're held accountable for their performance. Also, since the prices are typically much cheaper than other places, you might want to dive straight in and get two sets of notes. These are, by and large, schlubs just like us, but by getting feedback from multiple people you can see if there's a trend.

Another important note: check to see what genres the various readers work in and, all else bein' equal, choose the ones that have done some writing in your genre. This is, I think, a great failing of writer's groups, many reading services, and even production companies.

For instance, with horror everyone thinks they know good horror even if what they really go out of their way to watch is nihilistic documentaries but they happened to like Alien. Everyone liked Alien -- but only after Aliens came along and made Ripley cool. I liked When Harry Met Sally but you sure as hell don't want me giving you advice on romantic comedies. My tastes in comedy are neither commercial, nor critically refined. So unless you think Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle was the best comedic film of the past 2-3 years don't ask me for advice on your comedy script.

Online Services: I've used ScriptPIMP multiple times and gotten generally good advice. Often the notes will point you toward some key weaknesses -- but you don't have any control over the reader and so, depending on the genre of your work, you might get advice that pushes away from what would actually be best for your kind of film. If you're still learning the format and structure this won't matter much, but it can undermine the value if you're looking for broader notes on how well the story works.

I imagine other online services will offer similar experiences.

Your own producer contacts, people who've responded with a nice, albeit brief, personal note to your previous submissions can be the best source of advice. Ask for their quick take on your project -- even a few sentences can point you at the big problems in the script and these are really the key things to worry about: is the second act bogging, are they getting a feel for the core characters, and so on. In fact, the one paragraph response where I have to figure out all the particular details has typically been the most beneficial for me.

The downside to this is that you can't get their notes before you show them the script--so the one you'll have after their e-mail will always be the one you'd rather you sent to them. Damn that arrow of time! That said, I suspect that if your screenplay didn't score an option without the notes, then even the improved version wouldn't have scored an option (at least with that reader) -- because concept is king.

BTW -- one way to help cultivate these contacts is to follow-up after you get a read. Just drop quick notes 4-8 weeks after sending the actual script checking in and asking if they have any thoughts. Some of the readers will pass but indicate they thought the writing had potential, and they're the ones who can often give you the handful of thoughts that can lead to you ripping out pages 25-80 and making the movie much better.

Again -- these people come last, since you ideally want to sell the thing to them. Also, do like the managers do and send your script out in waves, one or two producers at first, then get the notes and send to a couple others, and so on. If you have several scripts you're developing this way you also get this nice little feeling of constant activity -- the new one going out small, an older one going out wide, and you working on something else entirely. That helps you avoid the waiting psychosis.

Posting The First 5-10 Pages for Feedback
How does that painting up at the top look? Man, I'd spend hundreds of millions of dollars on that... The first 5-10 pages are sufficient to tell you if the writer stinks, but without the context of the story as a whole they don't do much and any feedback you'll get will be mostly worthless.

Those are the only methods I've used. Here are some I've heard about:

Reading groups are available in most places of decent size or remotely near a university but I'm always wary of getting in there with a bunch of people wanting to talk about the spiritual awakening they experience through the act of writing. If I had a spiritual awakening writing the kind of stuff I do, then someone better call the police...

Trading with other writers over the internet -- I haven't had a chance to do this, but it strikes me as possibly being the best option. Again though, I think it'd be best to make sure you're working with people who have real and extensive experience in your chosen genre.


Anonymous said...

that Helium place looks pretty good, is there anyone there you recommend for screenplays? (do you want to plug the person who gave you your notes?)

Steve Peterson said...

Shaun Baines did a good job I thought, here's a link to his page: