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Rapping On Writing: Responding to Negative Critical Feedback, Rule Number One

It’s been awhile since I did some Rapping On Writing … time and projects got in the way, and I’m always a little reluctant to act like Yoda when it comes to the writing biz … there are a lot of more worthy pros out there with great blogs.

But I thought I’d pass on a little bit of wisdom I learned the hard way when I was a youngster playwright with peach fuzz on my chin and holes in my jeans. And that’s responding to feedback … specifically, negative feedback.

It’s that hard place that all who strive to scribble words for a living inevitably find themselves.

Oftentimes as a writer, you’ll be in a situation whereas you’ll find yourself receiving critical feedback on a script or work that you will not be able to ignore (such as, you’re in a meeting and you cannot just blow the person off, for example) and must acknowledge in some form.

Now let me stipulate that, if you receive a negative response to your script, it doesn’t necessarily mean the person giving it to you is WRONG. They may be right, your work may indeed suck. You could, in fact, be a terrible writer. It’s not only possible, if it’s your first script, it’s entirely probable … the first step is always the toughest.

However, this post isn’t about judging the WORTH of feedback (that’s a subject for another day) or if feedback is necessary (I’ll save you some time … it is) but about dealing with person (face to face or online) giving you the negative critical feedback.

The critical feedback often comes in different forms … let’s break it down into three:

1) Just Plain Nasty - some folks, even if they do know what they’re talking about (but especially if they don’t) take GREAT DELIGHT in being as mean and nasty as possible … they revel in their superiority over this insignificant material you’ve just handed to them, and let you know in no uncertain terms how badly you’ve failed.

This is especially common (but not limited to) among young screenwriters and directors, eager to prove how much they know, or old school directors / producers who just don’t have time / energy to be patient.

And sometimes people just like being assholes, especially when they’re right. None of us are immune to this (I mean, let’s face it, we all trashed BATMAN & ROBIN when we saw it in theaters) and I have my own sins to atone for in that regard, back in the day.

2) The cool professional - Now among pro readers and development folk, they have their own language which will tell you how much you have failed … they do it nicely, but the result is the same. Julie has a nice list here of The Coverage Language … A small sample:

Here is a key to what a reader says and what a reader really means in a “pass” coverage.

Unfortunately…
You’re sunk.

However…
You’re flailing.

Soft premise
Boring script.

Two-dimensional characters
The characters sucked.

There’s a lot more, I highly recommend you read it all … because if you take meetings with people who develop movies for a living, they’ll use the same language. It’s polite and professional … still hurts if you’re on the receiving end, of course, but that’s the life of a writer.

3) Loves your writing but “doesn’t get it” … this last one is trickier, because oftentimes you’ll get feedback from someone who LOVES the idea or LOVES your writing but just doesn’t get what you’re doing, doesn’t see the same movie you do … this is a good problem to have, but also one of the trickiest …

Those are three forms of critical feedback you may receive and have to deal with.

Now, to again stipulate, dealing with feedback is a part of the job … if someone’s paying you to write, you have to handle their notes, both the positive and negative ones. That’s the job.

However, if it’s a spec script you’re talking about … and you’re simply getting feedback on it, either for free or from a paid reader … here’s RULE NUMBER ONE.

BE NICE.

Let me repeat that.

BE NICE.

It should go without saying that BEING NICE applies to professional situations (someone pays you to write a script) but what sometimes is forgotten is that it also applies to the spec world.

So you meet a young director, hand them a screenplay, and they trash it (or more likely, the first ten pages). They trash it mercilessly.

Be nice, thank them for their time. Yes, you heard me. Be nice.

Even when they crap on your script.

It’s like the classic Dalton Road House quote

Dalton: If somebody gets in your face and calls you a cocksucker, I want you to be nice. Ask him to walk. Be nice. If he won’t walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can’t walk him, one of the others will help you, and you’ll both be nice. I want you to remember that it’s a job. It’s nothing personal. I want you to be nice until it’s time to not be nice.*

Steve: Being called a cocksucker isn’t personal?

Dalton: No. It’s two nouns combined to elicit a prescribed response.

Steve: What if somebody calls my mama a whore?

Dalton: Is she?

Obviously, you can and SHOULD feel free to ignore nasty, shitty feedback, whether it’s on a forum or at a bar … if you’re getting free feedback (like on Trigger Street) you are under no obligation to respond. And sometimes walking away from someone who just doesn’t get you is the best answer.

But sometimes you cannot, and the best way is to be as self-deprecating and appreciative as possible.

You say, “Wow. Okay, I’ll think about it.” And mean it.

That’s the thing … DO THINK ABOUT IT.

Remove the personal aspect and see if perhaps they’re right. Maybe they’re not.

You’re not going to find out if all that’s going through your head is “Sheesh, what an asshole!”.

It doesn’t mean you don’t have your own creative point of view or anything … it simply means you be nice about it.

You’re free to say, “You know, I see where you’re coming from … I think I have a different movie in my head, but I appreciate your feedback” and move on.

It’s hard, sometimes. Hell, most of the time. Even after you “make” it, you’re still going to have to deal with differing visions in the creative process and interact with people who don’t get what you’re doing … Scott just shared an interview with Joss Whedon who detailed some of the frustrations of his Alien IV script … That hit me like a hammer when I first read it, I was like, “Damn, even Joss has these issues, albeit on a much larger scale, but DAMN!”

It’s clear … it’s something one is always going to have to deal with, no matter how big you get.

My advice is, as long as it’s possible, be nice.

Because it’s not only your work you’re putting out there, it’s you. You have to be professional … if you’re not, that will be remembered much more readily than a script you wrote …

And actually, people appreciate it when you’re nice. Who doesn’t?

So someone who rejected your script soundly at one point may remember how funny and easy-going you were in the meeting and, as a result, refer you for a different gig … based SOLELY on HOW YOU TOOK THEIR CRITICAL FEEDBACK.

It happens.

I myself, back when I was directing a lot of plays, I once didn’t cast an actor in a play of mine, it was down to two guys, both equally talented, and I went with the other one.

The guy who didn’t get the part was gracious about it, even came to see the play and was such a nice guy that I ended up casting him in three or four other plays of mine. Based on his talent and also based on how he dealt with me. He never had to audition for me, I called him up and said, “hey, I’m doing a play, wanna be in it?”

The guy who got the first part, originally, proved to be a bit difficult and I never worked with him again.

Another time, awhile ago, someone I know was casting a large project and considering this actor (not the one mentioned above) I had once worked with … said Casting Person called me to find out how the actor was to deal with. Said actor, while talented, was a difficult asshole. I didn’t say “asshole” but just the word “difficult”, which translates to “difficult asshole.”

And I’m sure I’m not the only person called … Casting Person probably went right down the resume’, calling people.

Actor didn’t get the part, if I recall.

That works for writers, too. Hey, you could be the greatest writer in the world, you could be a genius.

And I guarantee you someone out there isn’t going to get it. It happens. Sometimes it’ll be you, and sometimes it won’t be. But it will happen.

And when it does, be nice. They’re remember that. And maybe next time, who knows? They may get it.

If you’re not nice, I guarantee they won’t.**

A famous TV producer once gave me, when I asked her, two great pieces of advice for a beginning writer.

Number One, she said, is don’t tell people you hate TV (or movies). If you want to write TV (or movies) then you should love it, otherwise you have no business trying to get work in the industry if you don’t like what they do. You’d be surprised how many people come to meetings and the first thing out of their mouths is how crappy TV (or movies) is.

Number Two, and the most important, she said DON’T BE AN ASSHOLE.

No one wants to work with assholes, she said.

Important advice, that. I’ve always remembered it.

So remember what she (and Dalton) says.

BE NICE.

FOOTIES:

*There is and probably always will be a time to NOT BE NICE, but that’s generally when the agents or lawyers are called in. If you find yourself in one of those situations, let your agent or lawyer play Dalton’s role of cooler and deal with it in a not-so-nice way … and also …

**That being said, as a director I’ve found that sometimes a well timed tantrum can work wonders … as a playwright, too … once in a rare while you have to let people that know you are not a doormat and let ‘em know in no uncertain terms … I’ve done it, it’s not something I’m proud of, to be honest, but then again, there were a couple times I did a Bale and was (like Bale was, according to inside reports) entirely justified. Sometimes you have to shout.

It’s a judgment call and always, if possible, err on the side of NICENESS, but …

If that has happened and you’ve unleashed your inner Bale once or twice, don’t be too hard on yourself … then again, if you’re doing it a couple times a week or even a day, congratulations, you’re a rage-aholic and you should probably get help.

9 Responses to “ Rapping On Writing: Responding to Negative Critical Feedback, Rule Number One”

  1. Luzid Says:

    Great advice. Sometimes they’re wrong, sometimes you’re wrong. Just roll with the punches and stay on your feet.

    On the hating-tv-and-movies thing, it’s as bewildering to me as people who want to be writers but hate writing (and can’t take the time to learn to spell and use proper grammar) — you’re going to be writing ALL THE TIME, why would you want a job you’d hate (and probably will suck at)?

    I think it’s the anyone-can-write get-rich-off-a-spec mentality.

  2. Joshua James Says:

    Yeah, King says the same thing in ON WRITING, which he tells people that if they don’t like to read books, they really don’t have any business trying to write them … a whole lotta people just wanna say they wrote a book, thinking it ain’t that hard … and they don’t even have time to read ‘em themselves.

    It’s mystifying why someone who doesn’t like to read would want to write a book, but it happens.

  3. Les Says:

    So, Joshua, if someone’s being unnecessarily nasty and demeaning about your work to your face are you saying you have (and others should) just smile and take it? I’m just trying to get specifics about “being nice” in that situation.

  4. Joshua James Says:

    Well, the key word is unnecessarily, right … unnecessarily nasty to your face?

    Do you mean, in person, face-to-face? Or online?

    I think that it will depend on the context of the situation, obviously, but if someone just says, I hate your work and you can smile and say, okay, sorry it wasn’t for you … and then forget about them … it’s better for you, in the long run, you know?

    Now if you’re in a debate with someone (say it’s in development) that’s a different situation entirely … are you being paid, are you not, etc … if you’re being paid, things change completely - I don’t know that I can go into that in detail here …

    But let’s say that it’s someone you know, and they’re sitting with you going over your script and they’re just dumping on it … tell them thanks, appreciate that they took the time to read it and respond, smile and go on your way …

    And never give them anything to read every again.

    (note, this assumes that they’re wrong about what ails your script, but if even they’re right, you can find someone more supportive and constructive to help you fix it) …

    Look, it’s not easy, but if you can thank them for reading it, move on with your life, you’ll feel better in the end … not everyone is going to get you, and not everyone wants to be construtive … work with those who will help.

    And try to avoid online flamewars (tho’ let’s face it, those can be fun) about your work, if you can.

    There is a time to defend your work, no doubt … but if you can, do it with a smile on your face.

  5. Les Says:

    Thanks. What if legendary bully producer Harvey Weinstock says to your face “I could have hired someone off the street to write this piece of crap you turned in.” Then how do you respond? Just end the meeting? I imagine if you’re the employee you can’t do that. Turn the conversation in the direction of specific things to be fixed?

  6. Joshua James Says:

    LOL!

    Well, that’s different, but yeah, if you’re hired, you do what you’re hired to do and with a smile, if you can, as specific as possible … and if not, if it’s only about a flood of abuse, you call in your manager or agent and let them deal with it … if you have reps worth their salt, they’ll defend you to the bone … that’s their job, after all.

    What I’m saying is, try not to let it ruin your life … it happens, you take it and move on … if you obsess over it, it gets in the way of your work … sort of like how ball players get into each other’s head by talking smack … the best ones smile and let their game do their talking.

    Now, don’t take this to mean that one shouldn’t defend themselves (or the work) … even Dalton says that there’s a time to not be nice … it’s just best to think long term and not to take shit people say personally … if you can. Take the work personally, not the shit monkeys throw at you from the sidelines …

  7. Les Says:

    Thanks. BTW, how do you adapt something like Down and Dirty Pictures? If you took it in a realistic direction wouldn’t you have to change all the names? I guess you could change all the names make it a total satire like MASH or push it toward genre like The Player. Course if you really changed it it wouldn’t be Down and Dirty Pictures anymore. Just wondering what your basic approach was to the material.

  8. Joshua James Says:

    Well, that’s a long, long conversation that, as that I’m working on another thing right now, I can’t really get into - lol! I’d lose a whole day and can’t do that.

    But to answer your question, no, we don’t change the names … why would we? It’s in the book, ergo it’ in the movie … if someone were to take issue with something depicted, they’d have to take issue with the book first … sort of like All The President’s Men, if you’ve read William Goldman’s first book on screenwriting …

  9. Les Says:

    Got it. Thanks.

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