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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Periodically people I know, or people who know people I know, give me stuff to read. And sometimes it's just not good. If it's flawed but there's a good idea in there, then I usually say what I think could fix it. That doesn't always win me points but I do it anyway because I assume that's the point of the exercise. But sometimes it's just Not Good. As in, I don't think you're in the right business not good. I never know what to tell people? It seems sort of rude to call someone to say "Hey, your stuff sucks." It seems only a tad less rude to fail to respond. It puts me in an awkward spot because I find it extremely hard to lie about writing. I can stress the good points. I can phrase the bad points diplomatically. But when a writer Just Doesn't Have It, what are you supposed to do?


I know that if it were me, I would want you to be as honest as possible. To protect yourself, you could always say at the beginning that you are honest no matter what.

But the only thing that can help young writers is honesty and clarity.

Nothing else matters

By Blogger Patrick, at 4:32 PM  

I would rather someone be completely honest with me about my work. I am circulating a screenplay I just finished editing and would rather the readers tell me the truth.

You should present what you think and why you think it - even if it si that the person is traveling the wrong path. However, must people want to only hear the good things and won't believe the bad. It depends on the person.

I say be honest and state your feelings.


By Blogger John Donald Carlucci, at 4:34 PM  

I say lie like a rug.
Seriously, what if you tell the truth, and they, like, cry?
Or punch you or something?
It's way easier.

By Blogger DMc, at 6:34 PM  

I agree, I would want to know if I would be better off making sure my day job was safe, rather than having any delusions of grandeur(or even mediocricy ;-) )

It would hurt the person, but whatever does not kill you makes you stronger! To use the old cliche. It might encourage /humiliate them enough to take courses, or write more prior to submitting to anyone.

I have read a few of those Query Letters on that blog..and it seems that there are people out there, that believe in their idea for a movie, just as much as some of those people who audition for Idol think they have talent. (I don't know if I am one of them! ;-) )

By Blogger Grubber, at 7:00 PM  

I also would want to know. I have had friends, aquaintances, and strangers ask me to read their fiction/poetry & I always say I'm going to be honest. When I know they are not writers, I say, "I'm sorry. I just don't think you're a good writer." It hurts & they may hate me, but I'm not going to lie if I've already been asked to give my opinion. (&, incidentally, I've never lost a friendship over being honest- although, I have had quite a few writer friends never ask for an opinion)

By Blogger TN_Dreamer, at 7:24 PM  

I'd rather someone give it to me straight up. (Possibly with a shot of something, also straight up.) If I really and truly have no business writing and am deluding myself that I can write; I want, no, I NEED someone to call "Bullshit" just as loudly as they can. That way, I don't piddle away years of my life chasing a fool's dream.

I'm not in any way advocating brutality along with the honesty. Break it to me gently, but DO tell me honestly; "Sorry, you're just not a writer." After all, I can take it, I'm a big girl now.

By Blogger writergurl, at 7:27 PM  

Kick 'em in the balls real hard first. Everything after that will be a welcome relief...

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 8:45 PM  

Well, the old advice I heard was give an honest comment, and if they don't seem receptive, or try to vehemently defend their work, just tell them, "it's great," and let it go.

Although, in my book, a somewhat diplomatic way fo telling someone it sucks is, "I would never tell anyone that they can't write a screenplay [though of course that is exactly what I'm telling them], but to get yours into saleable shape will take a lot of work."

By Blogger Fun Joel, at 10:03 PM  

As a publicist and talent manager I receive scripts from writers (newbies to old pros) who want an honest critique of their work. Either because they respect my opinion, or because they're hoping I'll recognize their raw talent and represent them. My honesty has lost me a few friends and a few potential new clients.

Folks I've known for years will no longer speak to me because I, in a very gentle and diplomatic manner, told them that their script was weak and needed some serious tweaking.

Last summer, some guy I don't know asked me to read his script and represent him because he was deperately trying to get his work seen by Antonio Banderas. This guy was a totally clueless and arrogant jerk who proudly boasted that he both studied the European history his script was based on AND had learned how to write a script, all in a matter of three weeks. I knew right then and there we had a problem. The script was absolute drivel. Written using four different colours and six different fonts, it was peppered with pictures, history fact sidebars, maps and charts...and all the actors' dialogue was written in quotes, like a novel manuscript.

I refused to send it to Banderas' agent with my name attached until he took the time to truly study the craft and business of screenwriting by taking courses, reading books, etc. and then rewrote the script from scratch.

He muttered a few unintelligible words to me over the phone, then hung up on me while I was speaking. I never heard from him again.

By Blogger Kelly J. Compeau, at 10:03 PM  

Be cruel if you must ... or give me a job if you can.


By Blogger James, at 11:26 PM  

Alex, seriously - the kicking in the balls first idea. Totally the way to go. Plus, if there's anyone else around you when you do it, they'll be on your side when you tell them how bad the script is, because let's face it, kicking someone in the balls is just that hilarious. Always.

By Blogger DMc, at 11:27 PM  

I'm all about the funny.

Life's tough. Wear a cup.

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 12:58 AM  

I know I prefer the kicking. If nobody ever tells you why your crap stinks (this applies to everything, not just writing) in an honest and intelligent way, you'll never improve.

If a person cannot take criticism constructively from a knowledgeable source then they're doomed to failure, regardless of whether it's you that kicks them or somebody else.

By Blogger Bryan N., at 1:47 AM  

Umm, fellas... what if there's no testicular matter to play dodgeball with? What then? Hmmm? tell her she does look fat in that dress?

By Blogger writergurl, at 3:04 AM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Blogger writergurl, at 3:05 AM  

Not just in THAT dress, but in every dress...

(now you know why I'm single)

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 8:48 AM  

I find that most writers never encourage newbies, it is almost always negative criticism. It is so easy to pick apart a person instead of seeing where he really does show talent. So why not start with the areas he has done right and then slide into some of the rougher edges? I don't know if some writers think us newbies are going to surpass them and steal their employment opportunities or what, but I find it pretty cuthroat out there...

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:59 AM  

Kelly --

I truly feel for you. I've had to deal with guys like this. I'll give them feedback about all the problems in their script, and they come back with, "well I already have some serious interest from some very successful big name producers." Or something like that.

To which I respond, "Awesome! Maybe I'm wrong. Best of luck with that!"

None of those scripts, to my knowledge, have ever been made or bought. But I'm not gloating. :-)

By Blogger Fun Joel, at 9:52 AM  

The real problem is that every writer, no matter how good, totally sucked at first. I remember people in college who couldn't write a single page that you could read without wanting to gag. Now I see them publishing books, and somehow, amazingly, the got really good. How did that happen? And how do you know if that will happen to the author of the awful drivel you're now being asked to critique?

Every good writer, except maybe Rimbaud, wrote total crap for years.

Maybe the best thing to say is something like, "This is good for a beginner, but you're competing against people with more experienced, so this doesn't stack up professionally. Keep working and studying and maybe you'll get there." That's honest, and not crushing.

By Blogger lisa e, at 10:16 AM  

Oh my God! It's me isn't it. Wht, oh why, did I think I could write?! I , I, oh wait, nevermind.

By Blogger Scott, at 11:25 AM  

Seriously, there's no surprise here that everyone says "I want you to be honest." Because everyone says that.

And contrary to what someone else wrote, I think most writers are VERY encouraging of new writers starting out -- because we remember exactly what it was like and how hard it was to get people to read you.

The problem is that most of the time, when people say, "be honest" they're not being honest. You have to suss out the person first and find out if they really have the professional's desire to improve craft, or if they're writing totally from ego and want to be told that they are a unique and beautiful snowflake and their story is grand.

On "Why Television Sucks" there's a great post on etiquette when you ask someone to read your script and give notes. I'd link to it, but I'm a moron and can't do that.

I always give a writer, even paid ones, a wide ranging conversation off the top when I'm being considered or trying to edit their story -- I ask how they feel about certain weak elements in their scripts. If (as often happens) that's what they're most enthusiastic about, I downshift into really general comments and I don't work with them anymore. Because I know what comes next.

Now, in the example Alex cited, the person who just is never ever going to get it (or at least you can't see how they ever will.) If you can't hoof them in the balls, or tell them their ass is huge in that dress, you should say the "it would take a LOT Of work to get this to a point where you could show somebody." Then, you're focusing on the script. You're actually neatly sidestepping the issue of "you'll never make it as a writer."

Unless they ask, "so will I ever make it as a writer?"

Then, I'm afraid, you've got no choice.

Go right for the balls. Drop'em. Hard.

By Blogger DMc, at 12:28 PM  

I think you have to be honest. If they react negatively to honesty, then all they wanted was ego-stroking and are going to have a short career. I have taken numerous script beatings, many from friends, and always been the better for it when the advice was valuable. The thin-skinned might as well not apply.


By Blogger John Oak Dalton, at 12:45 PM  

Ball kicking or ovary punching aside, I think the bigger issue is the perception that everyone or anyone can do our job. You just write it and it gets produced - end of simple story. No one sees the countless rewrites before a script gets released. No one sees the notes, the multiple drafts in pre-production, the table reads, and then the "fly by the seat of your pants" rewrites during production.

When I was beginning, I was absolutely terrified of the prospect of someone reading my stuff. I wrote, and rewrote, and read pro scripts and realized my stuff was still crappy (And I still think that way today - it was a traumatic effort on my part to post even one page of a script on my site). Even though I've been paid to write by several companies now, the fear haunts me that someone is going to leap out and yell, "Charlatan!"

Beginning writers have an ungodly need to send stuff out too early - needing validation for all their hard work. The problem is that they don't understand that the hard work they've already done isn't enough. I said this the other day, and it applies here:

Everyone has one good script in them. Unfortunately it's blocked by about fifteen crappy scripts. The point is to write those fifteen crappy scripts as quickly as possible, learn from them and get them out of your system.

Beginning writers want to write one script, and then retire. That's not a writer - that's a Lotto player. They don't want to build a skillset. The don't want to master the craft. They don't want to read other screenwriters' better scripts. They don't want to build a library of work. They only want the validation from it - a "hit and run" attitude.

If anything I do convinces them to give up, or they don't see the "wisdom" of what I'm giving them when I say their work needs rewriting, then that says to me, "This person is not a writer."

The negative attitude approach has to be taken to suss out whether this person wants it bad enough. Most don't.

If however, when someone asks me to read their stuff and I rip it apart; and then they ask the question, "How can I make this better?", that's when I know I'm dealing with a writer. Someone who deserves a few moments of my time instead of a kick to the balls.

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 1:30 PM  

Well said, Bill. Top drawer.

Real writers doubt, and ask "how do I make this better?"

If they aint askin, or listenin' they aint writers.

By Blogger DMc, at 2:15 PM  

On the flip-side of my earlier post as a reader/critiquer of scripts, I've gone to pros and asked for honest opinions about my work. And, boy, did I get it.

I spent eight years researching and writing what I thought was a masterpiece of storytelling. My first script for a TV series pilot. I really thought I'd nailed it, and so I went to one of my clients, an Emmy nominated writer/producer for his opinion.

He absolutely hated it. By page three he was groaning and rolling his eyes in dismay. It took him an hour to explain all that was wrong with it to me, and at the end of our conversation I was so depressed, so furious, I chucked the script in the garbage, put all of my files/background research on the proposed series in a drawer and decided I'd best just stick to repping the writers rather than trying to be one of them.

But after a few months -- well, actually, it was closer to two years (he really hurt my feelings dammit!) -- I popped the CD containing the script and proposal into my computer and reread what I'd written back in 2002. Holy shit, he was right. This really is a boring, overly complicated, extraordinarily expensive, unproduceable piece of crap!

So, I put my nose to the grind stone and made some massive changes. Now, it's a nice piece of work. Something to truly be proud of. But as much as I like it, what really matters is what mega-producer Jay Firestone is gonna think of it during our luncheon/pitch meeting in a few weeks.

May the Force be with me.

By Blogger Kelly J. Compeau, at 12:24 AM  

As an amateur writer who runs a forum dedicated to publishing virtual series, and also training up a wave of newbie writers so I can try to stem the tide of talentless egomaniacs stalking the Internet, I've obviously had a lot of experience with this kind of situation.

I once restarted one of my series after 19 episodes and almost a year of work. I wanted to make it something fresh and original, so I threw it at one of my writers and asked her what to do.

She tore it to bits, bless her, and was brutally uncompromising about it.

So what did I do? I sat down, went through all of her points, followed her advice, and the rewritten pilot got universal approval. I know 'approval' for a web-only writer isn't the same as a big fat Hollywood $$ paycheque, but you know what I mean.

Now, said writer has done the same to another writer's work recently, but all he did was shoot her down for every comment (the old 'plaster for every cut' adage sprang to mind reading his comments) and basically act like 'okay, yeah, thanks for your comments. but i'm going to ignore every one of them.'

He's a great candidate for a kick in the balls. People who have absolute faith in the utter sh*te that they're peddling infuriate me more than I have the vocabulary to describe - I bust my ass writing and still think I have a long way to improve. These guys churn out a script in an evening and think it's pure script dynamite, that Joss Whedon would cut off one of his own hands just to lick its title page. Or, er, words to that effect.

So I'm with the 'be honest' crowd. If the writer can't take the criticism on board then they have no business writing in the first place. Because the real world is going to be WAY less polite than we ever would be.

By Blogger Monster Zero, at 6:38 AM  

There's your mistake, Kelly: doing research. Just make it up. As we know from the President's comment about Intelligent Design, almost no one can tell the difference between science and balderdash.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 9:33 AM  

But here's the flipside of the "be honest" thing. It's unpleasant when somenoe gets angry at you when you give notes. I will do whatever I can to avoid that. I don't need my daily dose of confrontation that way.

Giving notes takes a long time. It's hard. And sadly, most of the time, "good notes," notes that aren't, "different, no better" notes or "you could change that line to this notes" HURT.

They're supposed to hurt; they're poking at a hole, somwhere where you went wrong

I remember a good writer friend of mine read a spec of mine, A West Wing that was already getting me work. It was good, my agent sent it out, it got me read and got me jobs -- but when my friend read it, he poked a big ol hole in it. And I was crestfallen. And I immediately went and fixed it.

If you're for real, you're going to get notes you disagree with. There's going to be different tastes. I have a show in development right now that a couple of writer friends said they could never see being a show. But the key is a few more could. When you're starting out, thinking, "which notes do I take and where do I take them?" can be very, very difficult. The good news is when you've been doing it a while you build up a trusted stable of readers -- people whose notes are always good, whom you trust. Now you'll still have to deal with left field or idiot notes from Producers, broadcasters, etc...but even the worst note giver is going to give you something useful. People are really good at reacting when something strikes them wrong -- they may not know why it's wrong. Maybe it isn't your first ten pages -- maybe it's that choice the character makes on page 34 that's making them bump. That's up to you to figure.

But...when lots of people give you the same notes, and you want to brush them all off, it's time to look in the mirror. First, because you're wasting their time. Second, because no working writer ever gets to "brush off all notes." That's how you become fired writer. And fired writer never ever buys a round of drinks. Which is how you get people to love you. The world is sad. Deal with it.

So back to the original mess here, I think any pro, rather than doing the "be honest" thing- which exposes you to uncomfortableness, should do what you do when you're testing medicines: put a little on the affected area and see if it irritates. Make a few comments about the script and critiques -- and if they're slapped down, you have absolutely no reason or moral imperative to continue.

That person will find out the hard way that they're out of order, through the crushing, cricket-charged silence of the marketplace.

Never forget that this business does attract borderline personalities. It's a fine line between the talented and the crazy.

There's just no margin in pisssing off the crazy.
But if you do, the balls thing DOES give you time to get away.

By Blogger DMc, at 10:15 AM  

I am receiving critique from the masses now on a spec page one I posted on my blog. I'm using it as an example of how simple a D2DVD script has to be to meet the expectations of the budget and the schedule. An anonymous WGA writer emailed me and critiqued my style and the content, and I felt myself getting a little defensive(How ironic, right?).

I had to remind myself of where this person was coming from, and that I have been in the same position. Long story short, I thanked him for his notes, his COMPLETE REWRITE of my page one in HIS style, and promised to look over both for a comparison. I don't know if he's "right" or not. If I decide he is (meaning if I get more similar notes), I'll incorporate his notes into my next draft...

But I really just wanted to kick him in the balls.

Notes are a tricky thing. Future generations of writers sperm may suffer because of them.

End of PSA...

By Blogger Bill Cunningham, at 1:49 PM  

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