Did Shakespeare say that? I doubt he would admit he’d ever been given a note, much less taken one, but while musing over the idea of constructive criticism I couldn’t help but feel that the gravity of the concept carried a Shakespearean tone. “To Be Or Not To Be.” “To Ask for and Listen to Notes.” Same thing.
As a writer, it’s very easy to get caught up in the world you’ve created and internalize your character thoughts, actions and motivations. We can feel the dramatic pause that means a character is lying, we can read between the pleasantries our antagonist is spouting and know he/she intends on killing our protagonist by the end of the fourth act. However, does any of it make sense to the reader? All the wonderful backstory, the delicate exposition, the painstakingly crafted flashbacks – does it add up to clear storytelling.
To quote another historically relevant artist, Erykah Badu: “I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my shit.” It’s taken me a long time to develop the ability to stomach someone picking over my work. It’s taken even longer to admit that I needed someone to do it. I used to feel that, as an artist, my work was good enough as it is. To review it, analyze it and rewrite it somehow removed the organic artistry and left work that felt manufactured and tampered with. I was also scared… and lazy. There are a lot of poems in a box under my childhood bed that are poorly constructed masterpieces.
It wasn’t until I started working with my writing partner, Chris Maddox, that I began to understand the value of notes and how to receive them. When we met, Chris belonged to a writing group that shared it’s work to be critiqued by other members. We turned in a draft of our first pilot that we really liked and were proud of. I was nervous about the idea of nine strangers tearing apart our baby, but he was used to the process. The notes came back. Some good, some not so good, but their value was evident immediately. Instead of closing my mind off in defense of my work, surprisingly each note opened up ideas about the story, and gave me the opportunity to ask more questions about who these characters were and what they truly wanted. We didn’t take every note literally, but we did search for what each note meant and tried to attack the heart of the note, versus the flesh and bones of it.
When seeking notes, it’s important to know where you are in the process and to be cognizant of whom you’re giving your work to. No matter how talented you may be, your first draft is going to be rough. In the early stages of a script, it’s nice just to have fresh eyes on your pages, to make sure you’re going in the direction you’re intending. After you’ve cleaned it up a bit, give it to someone who you respect and understands the craft of writing…and doesn’t care as much about your feelings. Once you’ve sculpted your work into what you feel is a modern masterpiece, then hand it over to the folks that can impact your future. Trust me, they don’t want to see your 100 page hour long drama, with a poorly constructed teaser and half-cocked fifth act. They won’t care that you’re waiting for the inspiration to finish it, but they will have a poor first impression of you.
Now, I can’t wait to get notes. I love the stories that I’m telling and want to infuse them with as much detail and intrigue as I can. I want the reader to feel for my characters, and want more of their witty dialogue. I’m happy to know what people are responding to in the story, as well as what’s not clear and the elements that are not working. You don’t have to take every note, but take the opportunity to revisit your work and look deeper.