Thursday, August 12, 2010

I will not read your damn screenplay, newbie.

I got some more notes this morning from a couple of people. One set of notes was just pull-no-punches soul crushing stuff, enough that at first I honestly had no idea what to do with them because they were so negative it just made me ponder whether or not I should go kill myself.

But while I tried to pick through the notes to figure how to fix the fact that I suck, I took the time to thank the note giver for the notes and assure her that though they are tough to take, I appreciate the criticism. No matter how cruel they seem, this person still took time to read a script they didn't like very much and tell me why they didn't like it. They could have stopped reading at page two and told me to suck it in general. Instead they stopped at page 45, but along the way explained just what was pissing them off about my work, which is incredibly useful once you dig through it.

A few years ago I gave notes on a girl's first screenplay right before she planned to enter it into the Nicholl. I read the whole thing, gave lengthy notes about why the script did not work complete with suggestions for ways to improve it and compliments about the things that did work (I believe all notes should include not just the bad, but also the good, and most importantly, advice on how to make it better), and ended by telling the person to save her money and enter with a better script next year.

Her script seemed like it was written by a person who was trying to figure out how to write a script. Interesting scenes, but not much story. The protagonist had no motivation for anything - she just floated through a couple of possibly humorous scenarios behaving exactly as you would expect her to.

This was the response I got, in full: "I think the script is pretty good, so I'm going to enter it. I'll fix those apostrophe errors."

Some time later, I read a first screenplay which read like it was written by someone who was trying to figure out how to write a screenplay. The protagonist flitted from situation to situation without any real logic. I read the whole thing and gave pages of specific notes on what worked, what didn't, and how I thought the writer could fix it.

This was the response I got, in full: "Thanks."

So I guess I should at least be glad he mustered a sarcastic thank you.

A few months ago a guy was bragging about having the best script in the world, so I offered to give him a read. It was not the best script in the world. It was a mashup of genres that spent too much time on boring stuff and not enough time on interesting stuff. I gave him suggestions on how he could turn it into a great script, because unlike the other first time scripts, this had an idea to work with.

This was his response in full:

Last night I stayed up until 1 am to give notes to a first-time screenwriter. His script needed a tremendous amount of work. It has a plot but no originality. I gave him suggestions and compliments as usual, but also suggested that he put it aside and come back after he gets more practice.

This was his response in full:

And that is why, from this day forth, if you are a first-time screenwriter, don't you dare ask me to read your fucking script. I'll be hanging out with Josh Olson from now on.


  1. Anonymous10:36 PM

    Oh wow, I totally understand where you're coming from (except in my case these are novels, not screenplays).

    I can go one step further though: I once read a crappy manuscript in its entirety and responded with detailed pros and cons, and suggestions from a publishing perspective (we had to reject it), all to receive an abusive reply from a "real writer" telling me that I obviously have no idea what I was talking about. It was very personal attack on me as opposed to my company and left me completely baffled (albeit a little more thick-skinned).

  2. Good grief.

    Some people.

  3. The reasons outlined in this post are most of the reasons why I too have a "no-newbie" reading policy (save for my writers' group.) Life's too short to waste my time reading a bad script and then be told that clearly I have no idea what I'm talking about.

    And I'm on record as agreeing with Josh Olson's rant - more or less. Welcome to the club.

  4. For real. I was so anti-Olson rant, but time has given me a new perspective. I see the light now.

  5. Start charging. They'll listen.

    It worked for me.

  6. When Barton Fink made his sojourn west, he feared being cut off from the "common man." His fears, of course, were based in an elitism which, in the end, cost him his sanity. (It also brought him a cardboard box containing a disembodied head but lets not get into that now...)

    Emily I absolutely understand where you're coming from but I fear you may be letting the lame-o reactions of a few assholes shape your perceptions and that would be unfortunate.

    The writer you present in your post is most assuredly, first and foremost, an asshole. This is the type of person who believes their own press, even though they have none. This is the type of person who berates Sky Blue flight attendants, driving them to grab a bottle of beer and leap out the emergency slide.

    These Asshole People are everywhere! The percentage of Asshole Person to Non-Asshole Person is tipping in their favor, I'm afraid.

    By proxy, this means that there are quite a few asshole screenwriters out there, both newbie and pro.

    In short, as a card carrying member of the Newbie Brigade, please don't let the actions of a few of our asshole brethren taint your view of us.

    Case in point: I moderate THE GITS CLUB, a quaint little discussion group that is an offshoot of Scott Myers' GO INTO THE STORY blog. We're 300+ members strong and we've been at it since January. I can honestly tell you that only once have we encountered any sort of inconsiderate, asshole-ish leanings. On the whole, nothing but truly constructive criticism and helpful notes from writers who wish nothing more than other writers to succeed and, even better, write that "great script." When I began the board, I feared the worst but have been proven wrong time after time.

    Of course, you are free to do what you want, I just figured someone should be the voice of the lowly, stinkin' Newbie in the dirty T-shirt here. I'm such an obnoxious Socialist! ;)

  7. Well, Emily gave me fantastic notes. So there. So good in fact, they not only helped my little script, but showed me the importance of showing and not telling.

    I guess it's too bad for you inconsiderate ingrates. You've just closed the door to some awesome advice. What a bunch of holes.

    I did thank you, didn't I?

  8. stupid newbie8:22 AM

    This "guy who was bragging about having written the greatest script in the world" wouldn't happen to be a certain Done Deal poster who got high marks from a coverage service, then posted 5 pages of the spec and threw a snit when no one bowed down at his brilliance, would, it?

  9. Yes, Millar, you thanked me. You're a good dude, and I'm really glad that helped.

    Stupid Newbie, that just goes to show you that somebody on Done Deal brags about having the best script in the world like every few weeks.

  10. I agree with your post in general -- many young/first time screenwriters (filmmakers, artists, etc.) are really looking for affirmation of their work and of themselves and it can be difficult for them to separate out a critique of their work from feeling critiqued themselves. Also, because of their limited experience, they don't even have the tools to absorb and implement much of the feedback given to them.

    But that can also be true for people giving feedback, especially when they put a lot of effort into the feedback and then it's ignored. For instance, I think you're a little harsh with the girl who submitted her script to the Nicholl's despite your advice. With that example, it feels like it's less about her not showing the proper gratitude towards your effort, and more that she ignored your advice and submitted her screenplay anyway.

    A major component of the feedback process is the relationship between the person who gives the feedback and the person who receives it. Key is how the person seeking feedback perceives the person giving it. it can be a blow to the ego if one's feedback isn't viewed as highly as we ourselves think it deserves.

    With the Olson rant, iirc, it really came about because he's a working pro, known to the people who he tried to help, and their attitude was very dismissive towards him because he didn't say how wonderful their work was. Subjectively to Olson, and objectively to the casual observer, he deserved to be viewed as a knowledgeable expert by the writer he was critiquing, and at the minimum, accorded a certain amount of respect which wasn't forthcoming. (and really, anyone who does their best to do you a favor, regardless of their experience level, should be thanked, not criticized or dismissed)

    In your situation, I'd be curious how you came about reading some of these folks' screenplays. I'd imagine that the more recent ones viewed you as a knowledgeable screenwriter and thus their responses (or lack of response) when you critiqued their work, shows a real serious lack of grace (probably off pouting somewhere). Whereas with the Nicholl's girl, from a few years ago, she may have viewed you more as a peer or fellow writer, whose feedback was no more or less important than her own opinion.

    And as Karel Segers said "start charing, they'll listen."

  11. The reason for including the notes from the girl who submitted to Nichols was to show the first time I gave notes and received not one word of thanks. I didn't care if she submitted it or not, but she did, and when it didn't do gangbusters she quit screenwriting.

    Maybe it was the best thing for her, in the end.

  12. Most times your notes will never be used or integrated. That's how life is. Everybody is smarter.

    I sometimes like to read newbie scripts or just some mediocre stuff. That way I train my brain of what not to do. Often it is painful to read.

    And I never give very lengthy explanations or notes. I only chose a few big ones that are obvious and let the newbie writer fix them first.

    That way at least they are not overwhelmed and think they suck too much.

    It it obvious to you they are going to rewrite 10 times at least. But you don't have to tell them up front, right?

  13. I certainly understand your desire to stop giving notes. Its just as hard to expose yourself in giving a critique of someone's writing as it is to write and allow someone to critique it.

    It's a shame that people can't be more respectful and appreciative of the perspective of people they supposedly trust and respect. They came to you because they believe you have knowledge about writing, but they clearly only were looking for a pat on the back and to be told how fantastic they are.

    In reading this blog for a while now it is clear that you don't pull punches. You say what you mean, are clear and articulate, and your words are well thought out. If I ever get over my personal fears and hurdles and actually finish one of my scripts I'd relish the hard, well thought out, clear critique. It's a shame these others have ruined it for the rest of us hopefuls.

    Perhaps instead of stopping altogether you could start charging. That will make people think twice about submitting for your review, and if they still submit, still suck and still neglect to say "thanks" ... at least you'll have been paid for your time.

  14. Anonymous12:34 PM

    Since we've likely moved beyond this topic by now, I'll save my opinions and reactions for another time...

    I know writer's can be difficult people, but appreciation for our peers spending time to assist us shouldn't be this horrible.

    Definitely limit your reads.

  15. carcar11:06 AM

    I think we both gave notes to a certain fanatic recently. It's the first time I've ever given notes to a total stranger (new poster) via DD. I had read a few pages when he posted them publicly and knew it was going to be a slog, so I made it clear I was only going to read 10 pages, after expressing my hesitation to do even that based on a defensiveness I garnered from his posts. Nevertheless, I followed through, read those first ten, taking a few hours out of my life and away from my own writing and family, and did five pages of detailed and not unkind notes, even though he asked for absolute brutal honesty. I haven't even done that recently for the students at the film school where I teach.

    Not only dead silence, but he gets on the message board, after clearly reading those notes, fishing for validation that the notes I've given him are somehow wrong, etc.

    I will be unlikely to do the same again. But he should be given a lesson in the etiquette of notes.

  16. Oh wow I thought that post was about me. Clearly we both gave him the same notes. But what do we know? His mom says he's a genius.

  17. Oh I see. I just saw the new thread. I thought you were talking about his last thread.

    So he gets reads and demands the reader be completely honest, then when he gets notes he doesn't like he turns to the group to tell him he doesn't have to follow the notes.

    Oh wow. What a douche.

  18. carcar8:46 AM

    The same guy who said this?:
    "Arrggghhhh Emily, why they not say thank you. That is unfair. But, I would really love for myou to read it. Obviosuly you don't know me, but I certainly wouldn't forget to thank you if you were to read it.

    In fact, IF you wanted to, I would love to have an open discussion with you, about whatever it is you think should be changed, modified and improve, after you have read it.

    But only if you want to. Basically do as much or as little as you would like. Read 1 page or all 110 pages. "

    I would be very apppreciative.


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