Hollywood on the Couch

The inside scoop on Tinseltown, USA.

Getting Notes on Your Script: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

How to navigate getting notes on your writing

When I was a screenwriter in Hollywood, I hated getting notes from producers, directors or studio execs---even if they were good, cogent and likely to improve the script. No, especially if they were good, cogent and likely to improve the script.

Now, after 25 years working as a therapist with writers, I’ve learned that this seemingly contradictory attitude is not unique. For many of my patients, receiving “good” notes on a piece of writing---whether from an agent, editor, producer or studio---doesn’t necessarily elicit better feelings than getting insipid, beside-the-point notes. Which doesn’t, on the surface, seem to make sense.

Or does it? Let’s back up. For most professional writers, a good script or novel or play is the result of total immersion in the “world” of the story: the narrative, characters and thematic aspects seem all of a piece. At some point in the writing, these elements begin to have a kind of inevitability, an internal logic and trajectory beyond the control of the writer.

As with the fabled “runner’s high,” this is a situation familiar to most writers and a welcome indication that the writing is coming together well. The downside of this is that, when finished, the draft has a sense of completeness. It’s not just what it is; it seems to be exactly what it should be.

The isn’t mere hubris on the writer’s part: she legitimately feels she’s been on a journey, that she’s gone somewhere and back. And that this piece of work is the result.

Then the project gets handed in. After which, as every writer knows, things can get strange. (I’m reminded of a comment by noted screenwriter Fredrick Raphael: “You’d better have a good time writing the first draft. That’s the last moment of pleasure you’ll have on the project.”)

Anyway, the point is, now the writer has to get notes on the script. Which means, now the real work begins.

Let’s say the notes from the producer or studio head (or, God help us, the star) are bad: i.e., totally trashing the material, and/or coming up with alternative ideas that take the story far afield from anything halfway coherent or interesting. We’ve all been there. And as bad as this feels, as frustrating and disheartening as the experience can be, at least there’s the sense that you’re fighting the good fight. You’re trying to write well, but unfortunately you’re surrounded by idiots.

On the other hand, let’s say the notes are good: i.e., the producer or agent responds positively to the material, truly understands the narrative and theme, and seems to be a genuine fan of the writing. But here, to your utter dismay, comes a list of suggestions that actually, if followed, would make the story better! And your heart sinks.

Why? Because, if you’re a good writer, you have to acknowledge the wisdom of these suggestions. They do, in fact, clarify the conflict, or deepen the characters, or improve the pacing. The professional part of you can’t ignore the aesthetic or pragmatic logic of these notes.

Which means you have to take a deep breath, squint hard at what you believed was the “finished” project, and figure out a way to once again enter its internal world. If the story and characters felt at all organic and inevitable as you were writing them, nothing is harder than deconstructing them and turning them into something else.

First of all, what Faulkner called a writer’s “precious darlings”---those cherished lines of dialogue, or scene descriptions, or surprise twists---often have to go. Plus, the moment you start exploding, reshaping or eliminating one segment of the script or novel, this automatically affects all the other elements of the material, often necessitating losing really good stuff in the process.

Finally, you have to muster the will and emotional involvement to put yourself in the open, creative space to inhabit the story’s world again. In other words, you have to take another journey there and back, while suppressing the feeling that you’re invalidating the initial journey you took. Your brain says these new ideas will make the project better. Your heart says, “Been there, done that.”

That said, how does a writer deal with this dilemma? One way to look at it is to remember that creativity happens in the here and now. That the experience you had writing the earlier draft, regardless of your belief in the finished product, took place in the past. This new draft is a totally different experience. You aren’t, in fact, making the same journey, but rather embarking on a new one. One that includes, inevitably, your feelings about and loyalty to the first journey, but that now has the potential to strike new creative chords in you.

Because, in the final analysis, creative work is never “done.” As more than one artist has pointed out, projects are never finished---they’re abandoned. They’re taken to a particular end-stage. Then, if revisited by the artist, taken to a new stage. The artist, too, has changed in the interim and can possibly bring this newness to the next step in the process.

From my perspective, this is the best way to accept and appreciate the “good” in good notes. Hell, it might be the only way!

 

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For more info about Dennis Palumbo, psychotherapist and mystery author, please visit www.dennispalumbo.com

 

 

 

 

Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter) turned licensed psychotherapist and mystery author.

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