Turn No, No, No Notes to Yes, Yes, Yes!

Throughout your career as a writer, you will get notes. Hopefully you will receive some excellent notes that help elevate your material by offering news eyes and a fresh perspective. But I guarantee that you will get notes that you do not agree with. You will get notes that you do not understand. You will get notes that don’t make any sense. Of this, I am certain.

Everyone in the industry you come in contact with will have an opinion on your work — and they will be eager to voice it.  

Notes From Different Perspectives

Agents look first to marketability. Their main job is to sell. Packaging opportunities also count. If your project is a great match for a major actor or director that the agency represents, it may be all the more appealing. 

Managers focus on career building and are more open to development. It’s great to have a manager in your corner and looking at the big picture of your career. However, we now have an increasingly large cadre of manager/producers, which puts them in the potentially conflicting position of wanting to advance both your career and theirs. 

Studio Executives focus on audience and their slate. And must have the Marketing People back up their decision to move forward on a project. In terms of the slate, they are attempting to look a minimum of two years into the future. Difficult under any circumstances, and likely more so in the Covid Era. In terms of what they bring to the table, the route to Studio Executive varies significantly, as does their experience with development. For instance, an agent crossing over to Studio Exec may have only ever read their own clients prior to this move.

Producers – I like to think – focus on falling in love. To see all of the possibilities above and feel passionate enough to want to push the boulder uphill for as long as it takes. Producers need to focus on both the market and the material if they’re doing their job well. It takes passion and persistence to get a project from script to screen.

For producers, this means committing to years of being a hardworking champion of the project, while strategically navigating it toward production and maintaining the original vision of the story. Not anywhere near as simple as that might sound. Even when your project moves into production, the producer is there helping steer the ship. Everyone who comes on board a project needs to “get it” or they won’t be rowing in the same direction. Shared vision is important from the director down to the set decorator. Again, the film industry is a collaborative medium. 

Be aware that not everyone is articulate about how to “fix” an issue. But if they are pointing out a problem, as the writer, it is your job to address it. 

When it comes to notes, savvy writers “Scratch the itch.” 

This is the single best piece of advice about notes I ever received. It is from the writers who gave me my first executive job, Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon, (Stand By MeStarmanMr. Brooks). I was very fortunate to have then as mentors. I gained a wealth of knowledge – as well as some awesome industry anecdotes – from their perspective as working writers. They had received a great volume of studio and producers’ notes over the course of their careers. 

“Scratch the itch,” means try to figure out what’s really bothering the Note Giver. That means your job as the writer is to do what they mean, not what they say.

Find some specific tips on how to handle and interpret conflicting notes here.

From the Perils of Notes to the Positives 

I love working with writers and discussing story. I’m happiest when there is a creative back and forth. I have my own way of thinking about this from years of working with top-notch pro writers: I suggest “ABC.” The writer replies, “DEF.” A talented writer puts the two ideas together and comes up with something new and even better — “XYZ!”

Yes, yes, YES! It’s the spark of coming up with a better idea than either of us might have individually that is both satisfying and electrifying. 

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

Honestly I, don’t know if that makes sense to anyone but me and the high level writers I have experienced it with while working together, but it has happened twice in the last week, once with a professional writer and the other with a “newby.” 

The professional writer said on our notes call, “Does X bother you?” A minor point, but at the moment, I said, “Not particularly.” 

Later, when I had let it percolate — thinking about it while not actively thinking about it — I emailed him and said, “Yes.” It had been on his mind as well. “What do you think of X solution?” he suggested. “Cool idea. If you establish the character as more clearly X when introduced, hit it again in the middle to underscore it. Then, in the end, it’s the true, resonant payoff you envision.” Ah, The Rule of Threes! Ultimately, this character’s point-of-view now falls on the spectrum of the argument that the story is making – the thematic journey of the hero. (Read the best discussion of the thematic spectrum of a story with writers David Diamond and David Weisman, scripters of The Family Man here.) The writer replied “Brilliant. I can use Z to do it!” 

Boom! Electrifying!

Just like that, we solved a story problem and added depth and resonance to the message of the movie! 

With the new writer, I asked a question about his intention with a minor recurring character. Rather than saying that it “didn’t work,” or didn’t support the main story, asking a question lead to a discussion. The response shed light on the writer’s initial motivation. Describing his thought process to me, helped him clarify his own goals. This gave me insights I could offer. We bandied ideas back and forth. Together, we came up with ways to tweak the character, making it a more effective and impactful element of the story.

Pretty exciting for a first conversation with a new writer. However, he has an interesting sensibility and an emerging voice. His grasp on storytelling, and the types of stories he is drawn to, made this writer up to the challenge. I’m eager to see the next draft!

Collaboration is Key to a Career

I’m a firm believer that constructive collaboration often yields the best work. This is why you see top creatives work with the same team again and again — it continually yields fruitful results. I always think of Thelma Schoonmaker, the editor started working with director Martin Scorsese on his debut feature.  She went on to edit all of his films since Raging Bull, a collaboration that has endured over fifty years.

Whenever I have been fortunate enough to find a writer I loved collaborating with, I’ve been eager to continue the working relationship. I track their next spec, find a passion project of theirs, or match them with an open writing assignment.

The chemistry of a great collaboration is exhilarating. It can produce outstanding work and it makes the process fun!

How to Unlock the Door

No matter what industry desk someone is seated behind, there is one thing that excites us all — discovering a writer with a voice. It’s the most prized and praised writing characteristic.

That is is why I teach a monthly online seminar for advanced writers, Screenwriting Elevated. It focuses on the developing the qualities and skills necessary to become “a writer with a voice.” The course includes private mentorship sessions and professional writers as guest speakers. In addition, there are scripts to match each topic and expand your film vocabulary, writing exercises, and handouts. These are designed work in concert to expand and strengthen the high-level skills that ensure your writing makes the cut and your scripts stand out. It has been a delight to teach and is getting great response. I’m enjoying it so much, I’m accepting applications for a second session to begin in the New Year, Fourth Saturdays starting February 27th. More information here. Reach out if you’re interested to barri <at> bigbigideas <dot> com.

Be A Writer We Want to Work With

Showing you are collaborative in a first discussion might not be the same experience as between a writer and producer who’ve worked together at length. But it may very well prove you are a smart, savvy and skilled writer — a writer are eager to work with.

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