Monday, February 11, 2013

Trial by Writer

"My writing and my coffee could be stronger."
I've run and been a member of a few screenwriting workshop groups, the sole intent of each has been to meet, commiserate over the craft, and most importantly, to read and review our own work. Ideally, we'd point out the strengths of each piece as well as heap upon it as much constructive criticism as possible, with the intent to improve a work.

I'm a firm believer that if you workshop your work with more writers, your work will become better. You'll hear what's working and what isn't. You'll come across new ideas that you can make your own. There's really no downside. However, the double-edged sword inherent regards knowing which advice is good advice, and, perhaps more importantly, knowing that constructive criticism is not an attack.

A first draft will never be perfect. Period. I don't care if you're a Nobel Prize, Man Booker, Newbery, Academy Award, or Pulitzer winner. Your favorite author or screenwriter, I promise you, takes dozens, sometimes scores, sometimes more, drafts to turn what he/she is trying to say into what he/she says.

We are writers. We dare to take emotions and describe them with mere words. It takes more than a first draft to effectively accomplish that.

I ran a group screenwriting meeting about a year ago, during which a young woman brought in a dozen pages of her own script. The content doesn't really matter for this story. After reading her pages in-group, the dozen of us around the table discussed what we liked about her characterizations, her story, and the conflict. She thanked us for our input.

Then, different writers suggested that she remove a scene, cut down a long stretch of dialogue, and end another scene differently. There was general agreement among those assembled that this might help the work and focus it stronger onto her main story.

She defended each critique, point by point, as if to the death. "But she tells us in that scene how she's been hurt in the past!" "But that dialogue sets up another conversation for later on!" "But she has to say how angry she is, otherwise how will we know?"

To sum up the criticism, we were challenging her to make the same points more effectively and concisely. Avoid redundancy. Show, don't tell. Granted, not all advice is good advice, but to assume that all advice misses the mark, misses the point.

Being a good writer means more than simply completing draft after draft. Unless you're writing only for yourself, it means writing for an audience, which means that your work will be evaluated. If not by other writers, then by agents, managers, editors, producers, actors, investors, directors, and the public. You might write alone, but your work, by design, is hopefully destined for anything but obscurity. Making it onto the bestseller list or the screen means exposing it to other people along the way: other creatives, marketers, and potential buyers. A reputation as a writer is hard enough to establish: a reputation as a writer who doesn't take constructive criticism can kill a career.

I can't tell you that all advice is good, but I extol as wise whoever takes criticism and makes it his or her own. And it's not enough to expect that your work will be torn up a bit. Desire it. Your favorite writers often work with editors to make their work even better. You've written for so long about characters who undergo a trial by fire and emerge stronger. Why should your own experience be any different?

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