Thursday, June 11, 2009

Writing groups - part 2

I had plans to follow up my earlier on post with a supplement this week, and as fate would have it, the one comment on the earlier entry is a perfect introduction to it:

I remember when I lived in Des Moines, I was in a group of mostly journalists who wanted an outlet for creative writing. It was fantastic.

Then when I moved to LA, I dropped in my friend's writing group a couple times. It was filled with people who were dedicated to becoming professional film or televisions writers. I eventually stopped because the quality of writing was so bad, I didn't want the feedback of the group.

I guess it's all about the people.

I couldn't have said it better myself. One of the most important things about taking any kind of feedback is knowing who's giving you notes. Every reader will bring their own biases and perspectives to their critiques. Maybe the guy who tells you to cut your romantic subplot doesn't just think the plot is weak - maybe he hates romantic subplots in any form! Or perhaps one member of your group hates your edgy, sexy thriller because he's a prude when it comes to sex and nudity.

The quality of the other members' individual writing could be taken as a warning sign. However, I'd argue that bad writers can still give good notes. Being able to pick out and critique weaknesses is a completely different skill set from inventing something whole cloth.

It's always useful and informative to see what kind of reaction your work gets, but if you're going to rely on that reaction to guide you in making changes, it helps to understand what provoked that reaction in your reader.

Of the seven other people in my writing group, I went to school with two of them, and have known three others for at least three years. Only one member of the group was a complete unknown to me, so by and large, I know these people. I know the movies they like, the movies they dislike and their personal opinions on a wide range of topics.

So if you have a member who's high-minded and prefers the comedies of Wilder to gross-out antics of Rob Schneider, then you might not need to heed his warning about your hilarious joke involving an outhouse, a snorkel, and a near-drowning. However, if the guy who swears by American Pie and Dumb and Dumber has an equally venomous reaction... maybe Mr. High Brow has a point.

Ideally, your writing group will give you an idea of how your movie will play to a wide audience. Hopefully there are a few people in there representative of the perfect target audience for your film, along with a few other people who could be won over with the right execution.

Or to put it in political terms - if you're lucky, there'll be people who represent your base and your swing votes.

This isn't to say that those who say your script "just isn't my kind of movie" should be completely ignored. They might very well give you some good insights. I just wouldn't waste all my energy on rewriting the script just to please that person.

The bottom line is, I trust the people in my writing group. It's rare that the group is in total 100% agreement about a particular script. However, on numerous occasions, MOST of the members have arrived with very similar issues to discuss in a particular script, targeting similar weaknesses.

As disheartening as it is to sit through some of those sessions when your script is on the block, it's much preferable to getting two people who love it all, two people who hate everything about it, one person who thinks the first act is brilliant and the climax is crap, and one person who hates the opening, but loves the ending. If you get a scattered reaction like this, and it's not something that can be explained by the viewing preferences of the individual members, then you might have to consider that the script's identity is so fluid that everyone read it expecting a different kind of film.

The bottom line is: when seeking feedback, know whom you're getting feedback from. If you're going to do a big rewrite to please one person, make sure that person is the kind of viewer you'd want to please in the first place.

Next time: the perils of a writing group.

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