It’s a writer's natural instinct to defend their work—to explain to the people who don’t get it and want to change your story in order to express a thought they might have.
However, as most writers know, it’s not as easy as it may seem to take notes when you put your heart and soul into something. Especially, when some notes just aren’t very good.
Writing for TV or film is a collaborative profession, much more than any other form of writing. It’s also a type of business where if you do not compromise and make changes for the studio executive, or people paying for your film or TV show, they'll fire you and hire another writer. That writer will gladly change things exactly how the executives see fit, and you won’t be able to do a thing about it. So it behooves you to shut up and listen to their notes before you start fighting against what they're telling you.
I’ve learned sometimes executives will have a note—and it might be a bad note—but you, as the writer, have to figure out what it is about your story you failed to convey that made them feel the need to give the bad note in the first place. I hear them out and digest it throughout the day to see if I can actually use their note to make the script even better. That’s me now, as a seasoned professional, saying this, but the neophyte writer in me was not that smart coming out of the gates in Hollywood.
The first time I got some serious attention in L.A., I was working as an intern at one of the hottest management / production companies in the industry. Reading scripts was not a bad place for a budding screenwriter. However, I learned one of the biggest lessons while I was there—sometimes you can be right and be wrong at the same time.
I was being the best intern I could be, copying scripts for managers, reading scripts for producers, and giving them coverage. I learned so much about story and the craft of writing. I was so excited about being a writer that I would not only read people's scripts and do great coverage on them, but also read scripts from their library, which included all the classics: Jaws, Chinatown, The Godfather, and so many others. I’d study them and analyze why they worked, as opposed to some of the bad scripts I would do coverage on.
They came in by the dozens, all of them with hopes of being the company’s next big hit. I learned how subjective coverage is and that what you may think sucks, someone else may think is brilliant. I learned firsthand when I saw a script in the pass pile. Unbeknownst to anyone there, the script had been purchased for more than a million dollars by a different company. I just so happen to know because that writer had gone to my old film school and had spoken to my class when I was a student.
So, here I am writing everyday and letting my coworkers know I didn’t have executive aspirations and just wanted to be a writer. Eventually, a manager said she would read one of my scripts if I wanted her to. Of course, I said sure. I gave her my script God’s Child and in a week she called to say she had been crying all weekend and loved it. She wanted to work with me and had told the owner of the company that I was a great writer and he needed to read me. A week later, he read the script and loved it as well, wanting me to work with one of their managers and develop a TV show. I was ecstatic and couldn't wait to get started. After all, this was a company that made careers for writers.
Here I am sitting across from the manager who was about to give me notes on my script. The script I wrote and dedicated to my grandmother who had recently passed away from a tragic car accident. It was a drama about love, life, and family. And I wrote the script with all of my heart. Now, this manager had my script filled with notes in red ink. So ... I waited to hear her thoughts.
She told me what was wrong with my script and all of the changes that needed to be made. She talked about plot points and things that could be omitted. She explained how I should add this and take out that, throughout my script.
Keep in mind, this was a personal story—one inspired by my grandmother’s death. During this time, I was still grieving, and the story meant so much to me. When I wrote this script, I was laughing and crying. It was almost like an out-of-body experience. An experience that made me love the art of screenwriting even more, and I couldn’t wait for it to be a film.
I started to question her notes. I told her I couldn’t get rid of this because that pays off later, and I couldn't get rid of that because it's why the ending makes sense. As time went on and I defended myself, she got frustrated and told me she was trying to make me a paid writer, and that she worked on a black movie that had come out and had some success. She was white, by the way. I told her that I didn’t really like that movie, and my movie was something totally different than that film.
The next day, they let me go, and that was the end of that. I laugh every time I tell that story to young people who want to be writers so they don’t make the same mistake I did.
The funny thing about it is, I took that same script as is and won the Nickelodeon Fellowship award the next year. I felt vindicated. I was right when it came to the story I was trying to tell. However, as time went on, I realized what an asshole I was, and how I should have just listened to her notes. After all, I could have saved the original draft and explored her notes, and if I didn’t like them afterwards, I could have gone back to my original script. I’m also pretty sure if I only applied the notes that worked, she wouldn't have even remembered the ones that didn’t.
The lesson being:
There are times to push back and there are times to shut up and listen because professionals know when to pick their battles. I always tell writers, unless you are a huge writer in the business or an auteur filmmaker who has complete control, you have to be able to compromise.
If compromising is not an option for you … then write a novel. Which is exactly what I did with my story, God’s Child.
*Feature photo by Jeffrey Czum (Pexels)