Monday, August 5, 2013

My process for reacting to feedback

You might have noticed my posts were slightly scarcer over the last couple of weeks.  That's because I've been involved in a rewrite on my latest thriller spec.  Since that has sapped a lot of my creative energy, I thought I'd use the post today to talk a little about my rewriting process.

I have about ten trusted readers.  When I finish a first draft, that screenplay goes out to five of them.  These people are members of my writing group.  Most of them are aspiring writers at various levels of their craft, with a few aspiring producers among them and one director with a feature to his name.  We're all used to eviscerating each other and more importantly - we're prompt about it.  Usually I can count on a group meeting within a week of sending out pages.  It's pretty common to walk out of one of those meetings having gotten a barrage of notes and a sense that you'll never be able to please anyone.  (No meeting is complete until one of our members says dryly, "Is there anything else we can help you with?")

So after that, I retreat to work on my rewrite and then I send it to my second wave of readers.  This group includes a few young pros, many of whom are repped and some who have previously worked as readers.  Their occupations include a VP of development and a director's assistant.  A curious trend emerged with this most recent draft.  The young pros - who have written excellent scripts but haven't read professionally - RAVED about the script and had few major nitpicks.  They saw the script exactly as I did and went on at length about some of the things they loved about it.  Those were the kinds of emails you cherish as a writer because you come away feeling, "Wow! They get it EXACTLY as I intended it."

But from the development VP and the pro reader there was an interesting trend in their notes.  They kept finding things wrong that the pro writers didn't.  Interestingly, they agreed with each other on most of these points (despite the fact these two have never met or communicated.)  Their list of "fixes" was longer, though while they both felt it needed work, their reaction trended positive enough that I knew I was on the right track.  (And in fairness, VP said that this was looking like it could be "your best script yet.")

So what I took from that is that in a lot of ways the script works on its own terms so long as its read by people who totally give themselves over to it.  That's no mean feat, so I was pleased to accomplish that.  However, I cannot ignore that a more "hostile read" would probably uncover more issues.  (There's also the fact that Reader and Dev VP have a better understanding of where the bar is set as they interface with scripts more regularly than the pros.)

Basically, I have to write a script good enough to be loved by people who aren't prepared to love it.  That seems pretty basic, but it's a hard note to follow with wild praise ringing in your ears from people who get it.

So after I finish this rewrite, it'll go back to the first group and I'll use those reactions to gauge if it should be passed on to Group 2 again, or if the script is ready for my "big ticket contacts" - the people I only get one read from.

I like to alternate reads between the two groups because it ensures that at least two drafts will be reacted to with fresh eyes and then on rewrites, there will be more substantive changes for each group to react to since they're alternating drafts.

As I wrap this up, I'll also be starting on a new TV pilot project and also outlining a new horror thriller.  My current script is a low budget thriller that I have designed to be something I could possibly shoot myself, while the horror/thriller is another low budget idea in the vein of what Jason Blum produces. 

After writing a couple "big" scripts, I was ready for a change and I just happened onto two ideas that aimed more for the microbudget side.  I didn't specifically set out to "write to the market," but when an idea comes to you in a genre that happens to be hot, you'd be a fool not to pursue it.


  1. Must be fantastic to have such depth of readers available to you, always interests me that however 'ready' a writer feels the work is. There is always another spin to be had.

    Thanks for the insight Zuul.

  2. Excellent post, thanks. Also interesting to see how you, the reader, react to other people reading your scripts.

  3. Another great column, especially the sound advice of "I have to write a script good enough to be loved by people who aren't prepared to love it."

    As much as I enjoy getting positive feedback, I've gotten into the habit of skimming over it and focusing on the negative/constructive criticism.

    I don't necessarily disagree with what the person is saying, but rather try to read it from their point of view. Do their suggestions have merit?

    I can pick and choose what I use, but it all comes down to wanting to make the script as solid as possible.

  4. Cool post. Didn't realize you were so active as a writer. Really like your approach of using two groups. You're truely blessed, as I don't have anything like that up here in Bonney Lake, Washington. Just a guy in LA I pay to read my stuff. Haven't found a circle of friends -- let alone two to read my stuff and give me good notes. I just have to "wing it" and go with my guts.

    Sounds like you're close on this one, Bitter. Hopefully someone will like your latest script and you'll get some screenwriting credits to your name. Then maybe you can lose the prefacing adjective, "bitter", and replace it with something more of sunny day feel to it, like say now addressing yourself as, "The Happy Script Reader." Amazing what one key breakthrough can do to get you to see yourself in a different light. Hope you get that breakthrough ;)

    1. Hey Henry hope I'm not out of line posting this here but I have a free online writing group if you'd like to check it out. You can contact me at Twitter@rdlln

  5. i've enjoyed reading your blog, you're just a level headed guy, who at times raises the axe, but mostly you like a duck, you let the water roll off your back, only way to be in your position.

    Now to the article, we have a kind of quebert system, since i read so many scripts from people i have dozens of readers, those readers get different drafts, and they all help. while the notes may not be specific exactly, things they didn't like, or believe or care about they tell you and as the writer you can back track and figure out how to make them feel for a character, so the payoffs don't fall flat. or add more information to the popcorn trail that leads to the reveal, so they can get invested more with it so when you do reveal it, it has the intended effect the writer wanted to solicit.

    With me, i've always said less, always, my early drafts are cryptic, while i think the audience knows what's happening, they really don't, and there are so many questions -- so i re-engineer the script and i find which scenes need to be clarified, etc... then like you do, i send it to the second tier of readers, which, oddly enough changes, sometimes i switch it up, but at the end i send it to the scriptmechanic, and for 100 bucks i know where i stand. then i send it to some high-end people and they break my heart.

    other than that, for people who want to get feedback, READ OTHER PEOPLES scripts, figure out who is smart, who isn't, email the smart ones.

    Great blog.

    1. Great, thoughtful post. Staging out the reads (having a tiered process for reads, to maximize the benefits of feedback) is a great strategy -- much stronger than just getting everyone to read at the same time.

      I was listening to an interview with a very established (non-fiction) author who offered this nugget on how to digest feedback from reads: "if someone loves it, then I leave it in. But I need multiple people to hate it in order to take it out."

      I don't think this applies with scripts, but it's an interesting idea, the ratio between "delight" and "hate."