An old friend of mine once told me something. I don’t know where he heard it, but it’s very true. “If one man says I’m a horse, I’ll ignore him. If a second man says I’m a horse, I’ll slug him. If a third man says I’m a horse, I’ll buy a saddle.” Critique groups like the GLAWS critique group I go to, are a great way to get feedback. But they only work if you are willing to listen.
This is how our critiques group works. We meet every other week. At each meeting, two people present fifteen pages of their screenplay. They assign parts to the other members of the group and we do a read through. Afterwards, each person gives a two minute critique, uninterrupted by the author. Then, it’s an open discussion.
The first time I had my first fifteen pages read, I was in for quite a surprise. My steampunk story starts sixteen years before the body of the story – sort of a prequel. It starts when a meteor hits London the same night my protagonist is born. The head of my family of adventurers sees the meteor hit as an indication of how unprepared England is for disasters, manmade or natural, so he establishes his scientific institute. So the point of the meteor is that history started becoming steampunk on the same night my heroine was born. That’s it. Nothing more.
But the group saw the meteor as meaning a whole lot more. Three quarters of them attributed some kind of supernatural element to the meteor. Many thought it affected my heroine is some supernatural way, giving her unearthly powers. This was a surprise to me. While there is a large section of steampunk that includes the supernatural, most of the group wasn’t even familiar with the genera. A few others thought it was the cause of a plague that occurs in the body of the story. Considering that the body of the story happens sixteen years after the opening, it never occurred to me that anyone would connect the meteor to the plague.
In retrospect, I can’t blame them. I started off the screenplay literally with a bang. So, of course, they expected it to be meaningful. It overshadowed what I intended to be meaningful – my heroine’s mother’s reaction to the events the meteor caused, her husband, a physician, being dragged away while she’s giving birth. This is also why it’s important to have an impartial critique group. The friends and relatives I told my story to knew what to expect. So when they read the screenplay, they weren’t thrown off.
With this feedback, I had a lot of rewrites to do. I liked my birth scene. It was humorous and introduced most of my main characters. The meteor crash was dramatic, but it was taking readers off in the wrong direction. I cut the meteor crash, birth scene and other parts of the first fifteen pages. With the second read through only two people thought my story would have supernatural elements. Two out of about twenty was not bad. Only two people called me a horse. The rest were where pretty much where I wanted them to be. There are still a few questions about the direction of my story, but the next fifteen pages, which will be read the next time my turn comes up, should answer those.
But I have seen some people, in this GLAWS group and at USC Cinema/Television, that argue the feedback they get. Instead of hearing a problem everyone is repeating, they argue why they wrote it that way. In their minds, they know what they are trying to accomplish. They argue their point. But they don’t get what they intended is not coming off the page. When they submit their script to be read, they won’t be there to explain what they are trying to accomplish. What’s in the page has to stand on its own. Writing is a learning process. You join critique groups like this to learn what you are doing right and what you are doing wrong. You have to be willing to listen in order to improve you story and improve your chances of selling your work.
It’s not easy to listen to criticism. People can spend hundreds of hours on their screenplay. It’s their baby, it’s precious to them, it speaks of something from their heart. The natural reaction to criticism is that the reader didn’t get it. It’s their fault, not your work’s. Sometimes that’s true. But if a lot of people tell you the same thing, you better listen. Especially if those people are at the same writing level you are or higher.
I wrote earlier that to be a writer, you have to be an egotist. You have to be excited about your story to get others interested in your story. But that’s at the selling phase. There is no room for ego at the writing phase. You have to be willing to admit that you don’t know everything. That what’s clear in your head may not be coming off the page. And that you may be blind to some problems that are clear to everyone else.