Thursday, January 16, 2014

How to Give and Receive Notes, Part 1: Be Calm

Beginning: A six-part series...
As vampires need blood, writers need an endless, steady stream of notes in order to survive. It’s impossible to know for certain what others will think of your work until you finally, tenderly send it out to be judged.  Inevitably, you will discover that nothing has gotten the reaction you intended, but that’s good, because now you know what you actually have, if anything, and you can begin to make something real out of it.

But to do that, you need good notes. And you’re not going to get good notes from your loved ones (who like you too much), or from your professors (who are paid to like you). You need notes from your peers, preferably from peers who are just peers, not close friends.

So what’s the best way to get good notes? If you develop a reputation as someone who gives good notes, then your peers will be happy to return the favor, so let’s figure out how to do that, starting  with…

Part 1: Deal With Your Emotional Reaction First

This is a what most note-givers fail to do.  We inject too much emotion into our notes because we’re unwilling to admit to those emotions, so the first step is to be very aware that all manuscripts cause emotional reactions in their early readers, for a variety of reasons. When you read a manuscript…
  • You will feel insulted if it’s bad. “Why are you wasting my time with this half-ass crap??”
  • You will feel frustrated if it’s so-so. “This is like reading the phone book!”
  • You will feel manipulated if it’s blatantly emotional. “Stop telling me how to feel!”
  • You will feel vulnerable if it’s subtly emotional. “This makes me really uncomfortable…”
  • You will feel threatened if it’s too good. “Holy crap, who does this asshole think he is?”
Allow yourself to have these emotional reactions: get frustrated, get pissed, get upset…but don’t take it out on the writer. Don’t say, “How dare you!” Always remember our big secret: Storytelling is an inherently manipulative thing to do. Readers (hopefully) don’t realize this, but we are in the emotional manipulation business...and it takes a lot of practice.

Writers want to shock us, upset us, sadden us, anger us, goose us, derange us, etc. It’s disturbing enough when they succeed, but it can be excruciating when they fail. It’s as if the writer is poking you in the ribs over and over again saying, “Isn’t this awesome?” You just want to slap them down to make them stop.

But you don’t. You control yourself. You allow yourself to feel those feelings and then you keep them out of your notes.  You remind yourself that, by reading their work, you invited them to poke you. Now you have to say, “Actually, there are better ways to poke me, and here’s how...”

Which brings us to step two…


j.s. said...

Was listening a "Long Form" podcast with George Saunders today and he talked about something he learned about taking criticism while writing a profile of the Clintons. Bill actually attributed the lesson in part to Hillary. And it echoes exactly what you say. Here's a paraphrase: "When you're criticized, your natural first instinct is to defend yourself or to attack the people criticizing you. But it's much more useful in the long run if you can step back from yourself, live with what they've said awhile and see what sticks."

I've been told that I'm pretty good at giving notes. I think that's because I always strive to see what the thing is trying to be and envision the best version of that. I'm always ecstatic when the thing is better than I thought it would be. I don't ever feel threatened by someone else's success. To me that's a silly as envying work done by a talented stranger. (Nobody ever gained anything resenting Tolstoy's genius.) I suppose I'm fairly insulated from feeling insulted by the badness of things too, maybe because, outside of mandatory classwork, I've never opted to read (or been asked to read) work by someone I didn't already respect. And, really, unless it was your job, why would anyone? If you respect the writer, it's much much easier to power through a messed up draft. Because you know that they have run into legitimate trouble, that they aren't just being lazy and stupid and wasting your time. If you surround yourself with reciprocating friendly readers whose intelligence and talents you can sincerely say you respect, then you'll drastically reduce your chances of reading something you start to loathe.

Matt Bird said...

The worst feeling is when you read something by someone you barely know, and it unexpectedly blows you away, and you're so happy, and then you eagerly offer to read their next one a year later, and it suuuuucks. Those are painful notes to write.

So I find it's sometimes self-defeating to agree to read something because I respect the writer and I'm sure it's going to be good. I'm far more likely to enjoy the read if my expectations are low.

Paul Clarke said...

Wise words. I think I'm lucky in that I've been accused of being an emotionless robot at times. Sure helps when taking notes. It's not that I can't be moved. It just takes a lot. And it allows for a clearer view of what's working and what's not.

As a beginner coverage reader I'm finding the experience of reading something from someone who I know nothing about, and a script I know nothing about, quite interesting. There's nothing to sway my impressions other than the words on the page.