Notes on Getting Notes

I recently finished a draft of a TV pilot for a one-hour drama. Woo Hoo! (Always remember to enjoy this accomplishment.)

And now, the script is up for review by the writing group I belong to. So I’ll be in the hot seat on Monday evening, getting notes — peoples’ feedback on what they liked, what they think needs clarification, and — everybody’s favorite — perceived issues with the script. This last bit will take up the vast majority of the meeting.

I belong to what I think is an atypical writers group because there are a lot of members. A core group tends to show up all the time, but a number of people show up — or don’t. So there might be anywhere from six to twenty-five people at the meeting. It can be intense — which is why we take the writer out for a drink afterwards. Woo Hoo! (Always remember to enjoy the free drink — you’ve earned it.)

So here are some thoughts on how to be a reviewee — or taker of notes.  I’m talking about getting notes in a writers group setting, but my guess, my hope, is that some of this will be applicable in other settings.

First, and foremost, be receptive. This is usually pretty easy for the positives, but when it comes to issues, things people don’t like about your script — i.e., “I hated … ” — it’s easy to tense up mentally and physically.  At times, in the past, I’ve felt my brain and body lock-up. Don’t do this. Or notice it, and relax. You might feel the strong urge to spit out words like “But …” And phrases like “The reason I did that was because … ” Do yourself a favor, shut up. At least if it’s a knee jerk reaction, instead of an answer to a specific question about why you did something on the page. Be receptive is another way of saying don’t be defensive.

Someone at the group once described his approach. He said, “you need to be really zen, and let all the comments flow over you.” Good advice.

One reason to do this is that the more time you’re talking, the less time you’re getting their feedback. Remember, you’re there to get a big dose objectivity.

Being defensive is also very unsatisfying for the group. They’ve taken valuable time to read your script, and come to the group to give you their valid feedback. And all well-intended feedback is valid. It’s their reaction to the script. Period. And if every time someone voices an opinion — the reviewee fires back a justification … well, in this context, it’s not polite, it’s no fun, and it’s unproductive. Worse still, someone in the group might decide it’s not worth it to offer their opinion about the protagonist’s husband that would’ve — oh my god — made the script a millions times better. And now — to quote Robert DeNiro’s character in Cop Land — “You blew it! … You blew it!”

So, don’t blow it. Listen. Take copious notes. Take it all in. Some people record their sessions. Pay special attention to remarks that a number of people in the group agree with. There’s a very good chance that there’s real validity to this remark — whatever it is.

You don’t have to decide, right then and there, which notes you’re going to adopt or discard. Nobody is going to hold you down and make you write something you don’t want to. Look at your copious notes later and digest. Look for the nuggets that work for the script that you want to write. Look for the notes behind the notes.

You listen to this criticism of your script to make it better. To become a better writer. Which hopefully leads to a different kind of notes meeting, namely, with a movie studio, a TV network, a steaming service, or HBO.

My guess is, that in these meetings — you also want to be receptive. My guess is, that the big difference is that there’s a stronger expectation that the notes given will be implemented, unless there’s a good story reason not to. My guess is that the people in these meetings want to work with writers and creators that aren’t putty in their hands, but also aren’t wildly defensive. I’ll be sure to let you know after I’ve had one  …

Siran, France. French Village.

Photograph: Night in Siran, Southern France

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