This past weekend I spent an amazing two days as a mentor at the CineStory retreat. Down the 10 freeway, up the scariest-ass road I’ve ever driven (seriously, I was praying) is Idyllwild, California, a small mountain town with cool restaurants, lots of cabins, and some of the most beautiful vistas I’ve ever seen.
CineStory is a non profit devoted to nurturing writers through its screenplay competition, retreat, and fellowship. It’s a program aimed at writers with a high level of craft who are ready to enter the film industry, and offers them access to Hollywood decision makers. This is my third year as a mentor and I love it. Writers get one-on-one feedback on their scripts from producers, agents, managers and professional screenwriters, along with panel discussions that illuminate craft, creativity, and how to navigate the business.
It’s a truly magical experience. And it can also be overwhelming.
So many detailed notes came at the participants– not just about their story concepts, but about their characters, themes, scenes and overall plan for getting the script to buyers.
At the end of the retreat, as I drove back down that mountain road (still praying), I thought, “Wow, now those amazing writers have to go home and process all those notes.” Which to embrace? Which to set aside? How to identify the ideas that will truly strengthen the story, and those that won’t?
Discernment is something that comes from experience, but there are ways to process feedback such that you don’t just do what everyone tells you to do.
Here are some tips…
After getting a slew of notes, take a couple of days off. Let the notes settle, and give your brain a rest. Cry a little. A nice bottle of wine helps…
Go through the notes and write down the ones that were consistent. If more than one person mentioned the same problem, take note. There’s an issue.
Write down the notes that resonated with you immediately and that you know will make your story better.
For now, these are the notes you will tackle.
Brainstorm about how to implement these notes and solve the problems you know are there. If someone said they didn’t understand a character’s motivation, what was your intention for this character? How can you reveal this motivation more clearly through action in the story? If someone said they didn’t understand your theme, what IS your theme? Do you know? Again, nail it down, then figure out a way to reveal it through action. If one of your readers pointed out a logic problem, how can you fix it?
Make a new outline that shows any structural/scene/character changes you are making. Lay in all the new character set ups and pay offs. Can you track the theme through action? Does your main character’s arc make more sense? Make note of dialogue or action trims. Solve those logic issues through reworking the related story beats.
Analyze the new outline. Does it address all the problems that you wrote on your list?
Start rewriting. Make the notes your OWN in the rewrite. You’ve identified the problems. Now solve them in your way. If someone gave you a good idea and it feels true to your story and style, use it. If the feedback solution doesn’t work for you, find another way to address it.
One caveat. Sometimes it’s not the note that you get, but the thing UNDERNEATH the note you need to listen to. For example, did your feedback person say that a certain scene didn’t work or didn’t move the story forward and you should throw it out? Take a look at that scene. Why did you put it in? What was your intention? Is there a way to make this scene move the story forward? If the answer is no, is there a way to take the thing that’s important and move it to another scene that DOES move the story forward?
In my last feedback session yesterday, I gave a lot of notes to the writer. But we discussed them in a way that’s (hopefully) true to the script she’s writing. I’m hoping that when she gets back home, she can sleep for a couple of days, and then come back to her script with the feedback from all her mentors and use her own gut instincts and talent to take her project to the finish line (because it’s an amazing, gorgeous and beautiful script!)
Take Action! When you get feedback, be open. Listen for the note underneath the note. Identify which notes feel right for your project. Make a new outline that spells out, through action, the changes. Revise the outline. Rewrite. Repeat until you know the story works.
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