Friday, April 22, 2011

Dealing with notes: good, bad and the contradictory

Using feedback to improve your next draft is the mark of a good writer, in my humble opinion. Few of us are so talented, so blessed with genius that we can't benefit from an objective reader or three looking over our latest draft. Self-editing is among the hardest skills for a writer to master, along with critical self-reflection.

Most writers worth the name can tell if something isn't quite working in a draft, often while still writing it. But they push forwards and finish that draft - because it's what writers do [indeed, what they must do]. Assuming the problem doesn't completely derail your story, you can come back and fix the problem later. It's why we rewrite.

As writers we have the ability to fool ourselves. Maybe nobody else will notice that this character's voice isn't consistent, or that it doesn't fit their circumstances or their age. Maybe that piece of on-the-nose dialogue will scream LAME when read by other eyes. Maybe that plot contrivance won't seem quite so shit in a broader context.

But, of course, they do. That's why feedback is crucial, why notes forces us to face up to the things that aren't working in our writing. How you deal with notes is crucial to the development of your project, and to your progress as a writer. But not all feedback is good, not all notes are helpful. Some are downright contradictory.

This week I've been gathering feedback on The Specials, a new spec script. I did a lot of the development work on it last summer, but didn't get to write a first draft until the last few weeks. But the project benefited from being left alone seven months, that definitely gave me fresh perspective on it, what the script was for.

Having written the first draft, I enlisted the aid of various readers whose judgement I trust. I've just printed out all the feedback and it makes for interesting reading. the good news is everyone likes the core concept, the central characters and the execution. There are several common notes that definitely need addressing.

There are some notes with which I fundamentally diagree, because adopting them would fundamentally change the nature of this script - the format of the show [it's a returning TV drama series], and the writing style. I might consider that in future, but right now I want to enhance and polish what I've got.

[Among other destinations, I'll be using the script as my sample for the BBC Writers' Academy. Deadline for submissions is May 5th, so there isn't time for a fundamental re-envisaging of the project. It'll also be the new calling card for my agent to fire at various production companies, so I'll see what feedback the industry offers.]

Even the notes I fundamentally disagree with are useful, just as bad notes are useful. For me, a bad note is a suggestion that makes the project worse, or merely different. Different may be required, but a good note challenges the writer to make their project better, pushes them to go the extra distance to better execute their story.

But such notes will usefully point to an underlying weakness. If the reader felt obliged to suggest a solution, you can often ignore the suggestion - but you should take the underlying problem seriously. You have to look beyond the note and find the think that isn't working, the unmotivated plot point or unconvincing character.

Contradictory notes can be a real challenge. One of my readers hated a particular sequence near the end of the script, dismissing it as a gag-inducing cliche. Another reader praised the same scene, thought it was lovely. When notes directly contradict, it's a coin toss decision which to implement - or you can call it a no-score draw.

In fact, the same sequence brought another note that identified a fundamental problem. The sequence features something that breaks the format of the show, undermining my choice of narrative position. [More and more, I'm coming to believe narrative position and tone are the two more important choices a writer makes on any project.]

So I will be revisiting that sequence, with some hard choices to make. But that's what notes and feedback are for: to make you dig that bit deeper into your story, identify the weak points and make them stronger. All the feedback in the world won't make your story any better - it's what you do with the notes that counts. Onwards!


Sarah Olley said...

Nice post! All the best with the next draft.

The Kid In The Front Row said...

Aghhhh. The dreaded notes.