Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How to Give and Receive Notes, Part 5: Be Systematic

So now we’re actually going to tell our poor writer where he went wrong, but first one last caveat: we’re not going to tell him where it all went wrong. Inevitably, there will be one huge problem, and every other problem will pale in comparison, but don’t let that one problem overwhelm your other notes.

Whether or not you use The Ultimate Story Checklist as part of your notes, I highly recommend that you break your notes down and evaluate each major writing skill separately. Don’t roll your eyes and say that good scenework doesn’t matter if the characters are utterly passive. Even if one aspect is bad enough to sink the whole project, you still need to mention it once (emphatically) and then move on to other strengths and flaws.

If you keep harping on it, one of two things will happen: either they’ll instantly concede that point and want you to move on, or they’ll stubbornly dig in. And guess what, once they’ve fixed everything else, maybe that thing won’t look so bad. “Speech therapist has to help a figurehead stop stuttering” is a terrible concept for a movie, but if everything else about the movie is well done, then it can still be a success. Sometimes stubbornness pays off.

So how do you give notes about each skill?
  • Concept: In this case, give notes like an audience member, not like a fellow writer. Do you “get it”? Is this a cool idea? Would you pay for it? Would you be glad that you did? If not, why not? (Should you pitch ways to re-conceive it? Some writers want to hear that and some don’t. Ask in advance, or offer those ideas with a heavy pinch of salt.)
  • Character: Now you can think like a writer—don’t just focus on likability, zero in on specific “motivation holes” and “empathy holes”. “I became exasperated with the character on page 45,” “I didn’t buy that he would do that on page 67,” etc.
  • Structure: Identify the plot holes and the dead spots (every time you stop reading, note the page number). Suggest repeated beats to eliminate. Point out where it’s too much plot and not enough emotion. Point out places where the structure beats are too obvious.
  • Scenework: Identify your favorite and least favorite scenes, and give reasons why. Talk about the overall quickness or slowness of the read (which usually comes down to scenework).
  • Dialogue: Focus on this least because it’ll get rewritten over and over as everything else changes. Just give your overall impression. (Whatever you do, don’t just quote your least-favorite lines back at them and simply assume that they will cringe. They wrote those lines! They have them memorized! They like them! If you think those are cringe-worthy lines, you have to gingerly tell them why!)
  • Tone: Say how long it took you to figure out what kind of a story it was, what genre it was, what the mood was supposed to be, etc. Talk about what you expected to happen that didn’t happen, and try to figure out at which point you got the wrong expectation.
  • Theme: Most writers haven’t given this much thought yet, so usually you can just ask “What does it all mean?” and freak them out. Ask what the big thematic dilemma is. Suggest ways to make that dilemma more awkward or painful. Suggest ways to make everything more ironic.
Rather than go through these in order, I start with the skill I have the most praise for and then count down to the skill I have the least praise for, in order to create buy-in.

So that’s it! …But wait, you say, this was all about how to give notes, I never talked about how to receive notes. Okay, okay, come back tomorrow for that coda…

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