Thursday, February 3, 2011

Take criticism

My wife and I have been watching American Idol as it enters this season (sidebar: Steven Tyler is damn entertaining when they can play with his footage in the editing room... but I cannot WAIT to see what happens when you put this duck on live TV with an open mic. Unfortunately anything REALLY good will probably be chopped out by the time the West Coast broadcast begins) and I always empathize with the Idol judges. When you consider the relative quality of what I read, and the relative quality of what the judges contend with, our jobs are very similar.

It also makes me very glad that my coverage is often anonymous, and that I don't have to deliver it face-to-face to the writers in question. There have been situations where I have dealt with the writers through an intermediary, and often, it reinforces my decision not to make myself available to writers.

You know those moments on Idol where someone comes into the audition room talking up their own talents? Then they proceed to butcher a classic song, perhaps rendering it unrecognizable... and yet they're shocked - SHOCKED - when the judges tell them it's not up to snuff. In fact, I've seen it start with the judges trying to let them down easy, let them go with some dignity and the clueless auditioner becomes combative, insults the judges personally and either stomps out or demands a second chance.

And I always wonder "What the FUCK did you think was going to happen?" First, let's leave aside the delusion of being the next Freddy Mercury, because that's a whole 'nother ball of neurosis. On what planet does insulting the people deciding to advance your career sound like a good idea?

More to the point, if someone gives you a bad review, does telling them to go fuck themselves really help you in the long run? In the case of a writer with a script, suppose I send you coverage that says, "Look, this needs some work... the concept is a bit derivative, I didn't feel like your character's motivation was very clear, and it was perhaps a little too slow."

Is your response:

1) Thanks for your time. I'll take your notes under advisement.

2) Well, I'm disappointed, but if it's not your thing, I can't really change that.

3) Fuck you! You clearly didn't read it! The character is scared of water - that's his motivation! Didn't you notice he turned down water in every scene, declined the invitation to go to the pool and was shown to prefer sponge baths! Do you know anything? I'm an AWESOME writer! You're just stuck in the Hollywood mold and you're just trying to keep writers like me out because you know we'll take all your jobs! Well if you knew anything about writing, you wouldn't be reading scripts for a living, asshole! Who are you to tell me what's good writing when you haven't sold anything either? Anyway, I've already deleted your coverage from my computer and shredded the hard copy (after I used it to wipe my ass) so you can suck my dick, you no-talent asshole!

Now, there's a subtle difference among those three, but two of those replies might keep the door open for future submissions, while one of them only ensures that I will never, ever read anything from you again.

Here's the thing, manners aside, you can't argue people out of an opinion. This isn't like debating science or history, where there's an objective truth. If I say, "I didn't like it," you'll never convince me "Yes you did!" You're certainly welcome to ask questions, perhaps find out why my opinion doesn't match up with your perception. But if someone's taken the time to read your work, and you don't get the review you wanted, don't waste your breath fighting them. And if you ever degenerate into personal insults, don't expect them to ever call you back.

(Seriously, do you think that Brenda Hampton or the people at 90210 would ever hire me after the way I've slammed them... and compared to reactions I've seen first-time writers have to a bad review, I've been downright polite.)

So the first thing you should learn as a writer (yes, even before formatting) is how to be respectful when someone says, "I don't think it works."


  1. History? Objective truth? :-)

    There is an objective truth in History, of course, but no one knows what it is.

    (Also pushing it with Science - there's nothing more cut-throat than a Scientist with a Theory.)

    But I understand the point :-)

    I almost told a literary agency that they should change their website since it says they are accepting applications in 2011 but I received an email saying "we're not accepting applications".

    I even wrote the email, but in the end I just acknowledged their reply pleasantly. No point annoying them.

  2. So read something that challenges you. Ten pages. Then tell me what you think. Or read the whole thing and tell me what you really think.

    Only thing is, it's at that terrible website. Alright for me, since I have thirty or so screenplays just as good waiting in the wings. Not so good for you, if you think downloading from there "encourages the bastards."

    And yes, you can consider this a shameless act of self-promotion. Or you can consider it an heroic assertion of belief-in-my-work, like when Kerouac practically kidnapped a publisher to get them to read ON THE ROAD.

    The choice is yours.

  3. I feel sorry for whoever responds with option #3. Their paper shredder must smell awful.

  4. So true! I think too many baby writers think “notes” means being told they need no notes, and their work is genius. I used to get annoyed with people getting overly defensive about the notes I gave, so I started telling people upfront that they SHOULDN’T take my notes and instead get several additional opinions to see what their common notes are. I think the whole reverse psychology of it works great. Instead of arguing WITH me they end up arguing FOR me to other people, trying to get them to see the problems I saw.

  5. Jack - Quite ironic you comment on this post, and not the Alanis kind of "ironic."

    Some context for my readers: about two or three weeks ago, Jack sent me a long email asking me to read his submission to Amazon and offering payment. As you all know, right above the link to my email, I have a disclaimer discouraging ANYONE from sending me requests to read the script. Well, Jack somehow didn't see this until a week later. As I had been busy with many other projects, I'd not yet had a chance to send Jack a polite decline of his offer.

    Upon seeing this disclaimer, it seems Jack assumed I'd put it up there specifically as a response to his email, as he sent me an email dripping with attitude over having not gotten a reply a mere week later regarding his "generous" offer. After quoting my policy back to me, he concluded with a pissy "Thanks for the personal touch. Be looking forward to meeting you too one of these days."

    Despite the bad attitude, I sent Jack a rather polite reply, explaining that I am not reading submissions for blog readers at this time. I didn't see anything to be gained by making an issue of his rudeness. But the fact that you, Jack, now have the GALL to leave a public comment on a post specifically dedicated to discussing how one shouldn't tick off someone you're asking a favor from really shows a lack of tact and awareness.

    So let me be clear about this, Jack. ANY desire or inclination I might have had about reading your screenplay went out the window the instant I got your rude and pissy email regarding your first query. You've demonstrated you can't handle a wait of a week without resorting to rudeness, so I now have the impression you'd be sensitive to any criticism. And now, after a polite personal email declining your request (which I often don't bother sending to those few who ignore my warning about not requesting reads), you again ask as if you hadn't insulted me.

    Readers, say it with me:

    I will NOT read your f***ing screenplay!

  6. I am Jack's off-putting aggressiveness.

  7. Fair enough.

    Thanks for not taking down my comment. (W/ its link to


  8. Ew. If ever I was thinking about reading Jack's script, I sure as hell won't now.

  9. All I do is write. For ten years. Eight novels, fifty or so short stories, thirty and more screenplays (in various states of rewrite and disrepair).

    This is my first serious attempt to push my material. Maybe it's the wrong venue, maybe I'm going about it the wrong way, but it's the way things have panned out.

    If you don't want to read it, by all means don't. No one's holding a gun to your head.

    But if I don't start trying to promote my stuff, then it's pretty obvious no one is going to read it. And you can say "Ew" to that, you prig, all the day long.

  10. What I said "ew" about was the way you failed to apologize for your behavior. Instead you posted another link to your script. It lacks class, as does your name calling.

    You had an opportunity here to adjust your reputation but you went the other way.

  11. Oh, just for fun I read the first ten pages of Jack Dawe's script. Maybe it was eight pages, I don't know. I read until I got bored. I got tired of the style pretty quickly and especially the confusing sluglines and descriptions. Example:


    Back on the Shangri-la Coast: sunny day trends toward night.
    An SUV full of Radical Islamic (“RAD-’SLAM”) MILITANTS parks at the corner of a sidestreet and main university avenue.

  12. Thanks for reading. It does sound a bit clunky, doesn't it? Have to work on that part of it.

  13. Lastly, they say don't complain, don't explain, and don't apologize.

    But since I've already made the mistake of complaining to bitter, and trying to explain to those who comment, I may as well go the full route and apologize to all the foregoing, including Emily Blake.

    Sorry. This may come at the end of a long, hard slog, but there really is no excuse for my show of arrogance in the above comments and elsewhere.

  14. Some advice, in terms of emailed notes and criticism, it works in real life and it's even more important online ... take a deep breath, step back and wait before you respond. At least and hour, if not more.

    A day, if need be. And really figure out where the person giving the notes is coming from and why.

    Lemme tell you, it's saved my butt more times than I can count ... and not just because I would have said something really snarky (and genuinely funny) in response to what I felt was unfair criticism that would have alienated those offering it ... but because I would have not been able to see, from where I was sitting at the time, that at least half the time, they were right and I was wrong.

    Yep. A lot of times it hurts because they're right. Not always, but enough of the time. At least half.

    For me, these days, it's about half the time ... if you're on Trigger Street or one of the other places, it's usually about ten or twenty percent of the time. It depends on who's offering the feedback, of course.

    I would have missed it, because I was caught up emotionally.

    There are those who don't know what they're talking about, sure, and those who do but just missed it that time, sure ... and, as Bitter says above, you thank them both equally.

    If they, in your opinion, don't know what they're talking about, don't ask them for feedback ever again. But be nice.

    If you do find someone who obviously knows what they're talking about, you listen and do what they advise, even if it goes against everything you believe to be right about writing, you at least TRY it and do your best.

    You might be surprised what happens.

    Scott Frank said that the best thing he did as a writer (this was in an online Q & A) what that he worked with people who where smarter than he was, and he listened to what they had to say.

    I always remembered that. So I pass that along.

    That's my advice, for what it's worth.

  15. :) interesting dialogue