• T Boland

If you're trying to break in and feeling like you're getting nowhere, you're probably suffering from writer depression. It's real and it's a mother. It can cause writer's block but it's much more dangerous. Because it can steal your passion. If you had listened to William Goldman in the last decades of his life, you would have thought this guy was a bitter writer who never achieved any degree of success. Hollywood managed to break the spirit of a two time Oscar winner. So you're not alone.

Years ago, I got a call from a boutique agency after making the finals of a top contest. The agent started reading my script at midnight expecting to cast it aside after ten pages. But he had the kind of experience I talk about in a previous post. He watched my movie. And he loved it. He needed to run it by his senior partner before he could officially sign me as his client.

Three days later I spoke with that agent and his partner. The senior agent convinced his junior that my story didn't have any set pieces. That usually means trailer moments or big scenes that can sell a movie. He used the monkey dance from Can't Buy Me Love as an example. For those of you who never saw the film, Patrick Dempsey is a geek trying to be cool so he makes up a dance at the prom. And all the popular kids end up dancing along. This agent began rattling off more changes my script needed. When he came up for air, he said, “Let me be clear. If you do this rewrite I'm not saying we will represent you. But we'll take another look at it.” In just seventy-two hours, that agent went from enjoying my movie to believing something was wrong with it. And I went from the highest high to the lowest low.

I questioned if I was meant for this business. Sure, you can easily give up at a time like this. But it's these moments that teach you that no one will ever have the passion for your work that you do. No one. So if you're going to make it, you have to get your passion back.

The negativity that flows through this business will knock on your door at some point. When you're down, do whatever it takes to recharge your batteries. Maybe that's writing a short and shooting it. Or starting a new script. For a lot of writers, there was one movie that inspired them to do this. Watch that movie again. Personally, I read my old scripts because you can feel passion on the page. It's like a jolt of adrenaline. It reminds me why I'm doing this and gives me the strength to move forward.

It takes so long to get anything made in this business that only real passion can push a project to the finish line. I have witnessed writers sell their work with little more than passion. It's not that those projects were future Oscar winners or blockbusters. Enthusiasm is contagious. Most of the people in this industry are just as weary as you are. So when they come across a writer full of passion, they want a little of what he's got. It's a powerful tool. Learn to use it to your advantage.

  • T Boland

If you have never received script feedback, you don't know what you're missing. The chance to be criticized, to have your dreams crushed is an invaluable experience. Really. No matter how positive someone is, if they recommend changes, it's going to sting. You'll need a thick skin in this industry. In the beginning, feedback would put me into a deep depression for weeks. Now I'm down to a solid three or four days.

Remember that feedback is just a perspective. Most people will not watch your movie. Instead, they will read your script and analyze the hell out of it. Don't blame them. You're the fool who asked for their opinion. Of course, they want to show that they know more than you.

Take a deep breath. And listen to them. If they only tell you something isn't working, that's when you need to speak up. You need to know why and what changes they recommend. This lets you know if they put in the work. Let's face it, some readers give you ten pages before they just skim the dialogue. Getting CliffNotes feedback is not worth any sleepless nights.

Receiving comments from several people at the same time can feel like you're being bullied in the school yard. Let it all sit until you're no longer numbing the pain. Then dig in and start making choices. People who have never written a script fail to realize that one minor change can force a major change in other parts of the story. You get to decide if all those opinions matter and if the consequences of a rewrite are worth it.

One time I had what I thought was a really great opening in my comedy. It was a life altering experience for my character. Every member of my screenwriting group told me that it failed to set up his flaw. I had no problem rewriting other parts but I kept trying to sneak the opening by them. For three drafts, they called me on it. Finally, I had to kill my baby. The scene was hilarious but I was forcing it into this story.

If you get a consensus does that mean they are right and you are wrong? Not at all. In another script, the same group objected to one of my characters. Someone brought it up during our meeting and one by one, the other writers started to agree. He changed their minds when it wasn't part of their notes. This can be the danger of group feedback. Be careful you don't let them convince you there's something wrong with your script.

There was one person in my group who always read my work on the train to our meeting. At first I was pissed that he wasn't willing to give me the same effort that I gave him. But I grew to prize his comments. He was the freshest read. He didn't have days to think it over. In this industry time is a screenwriter's enemy. Once the critical mind enters the picture, even the greatest scripts can be picked apart. The best feedback is the initial gut reaction. The same goes for the writing and rewriting process. Don't make changes just because they say you need them. Make them because it feels right.

I'll talk more about that next time...

  • T Boland

So you read that script and now you need to provide feedback. Wait a second. I told you to relax and just be entertained. Don't worry, our analytical mind is never far away. Even if you watched the movie, I'm sure you have a few comments for the writer.

First, you need to know that feedback is just a perspective. An opinion. It's not to be taken as the law of the land. Are you a master of story? I know there are plenty of self-proclaimed gurus who think they are. But William Goldman was right. Nobody knows anything.

So here is what feedback should never be. Insulting. Arrogant. Dream crushing. That is why the best people for feedback are writers who know what it's like from both sides. You should always, always be constructive. I look back at some of my feedback from early writing groups and I'm embarrassed that I treated a fellow artist that way. In one example I started out with a compliment and then proceeded to list everything in detail that I thought was wrong with his script. Then I ended with a useless pat on the back - “keep working at it”. What an ass that guy was.

There are three parts to constructive feedback. Identify something that isn't working for you, then explain why, and then provide a fix. This lets the writer know how well you understood their script and gives them a path to follow with any rewrite. If you can only offer the first step, then you're either not good enough to provide feedback or not willing to do the work.

I once had a connection to one of the channels that produces a ton of Christmas movies. So I created a lengthy treatment and a shorter one page summary. If all went well, I could have a solid draft in less than a month because I worked so hard on that treatment. Instead, I got three sentences in an email. It wasn't Christmas enough. It didn't have enough heart. And the main character wasn't likable.

The reader didn't watch my movie. She was lazy and there's nothing worse than a lazy reader. She didn't give me anywhere to go with her feedback. Every scene had something to do with Christmas so I have no idea what she meant. As far as the heart, without an explanation or suggestions, I'm in the dark. And whenever they tell you a character isn't likable, there's usually one or two scenes that cause that reaction. If she gave me just that much information, I could go back and see if it was really a problem. So should you take that opinion and throw your story in the garbage? That's for our next talk on receiving feedback.

Just remember, giving notes means you're “giving” something more than a confidence problem. Don't ever get so cocky that you can't put yourself in their shoes. You entered this industry because you love movies. Take that love and put it into your feedback.

Next time I'll talk about getting notes...

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