How not to take notes on your book or screenplay OR Why I didn’t write for two years
Writing is hard. We wake, we think we have to do some writing. But we find something else to do. A little voice reminds us ,“Hey, you should be writing!” And so you start to make your way to your computer. But on the way there, you realize that the books on your shelf haven’t been organized in alphabetical order. Better do that quick.
‘Hey. You should be writing.”
So you pull yourself away and open the laptop. But first Twitter. Then Facebook. Then back to Twitter once more to see if that tweet got any likes.
“Hey. You should be—-“
Yes, yes, okay. So you open up your document and stare at the cursor. It blinks, daring you to put something of yourself down into words. And it dribbles out. Then it begins to flow. Then gush.
And after 6 months of this, after all the pain, all the procrastination, all the reorganizing of book shelves (but hey, at least now they're organized by colour AND genre), all off the little “This isn’t going to be any good, why bother?” voices in your head, you stand atop the mountain of your work and look down upon it. It's done. You did it. Hurrah! You’re proud of yourself. And you should be. Completing a screenplay or a novel is a BIG deal. Well done you. You pat yourself on the back.
But then comes the next part.
The part where you show it to someone else.
And so you tentatively reach out to some people, asking them kindly if they will read your work. And they say “Of course, send it over.” And you do. And sometime later, they tell you what they thought about it.
And the notes come back.
And the nice ones are nice. They make you feel all warm and fuzzy. You can do this! Yes!
But then the notes come that you really need. The notes about how to make this thing better. But by making it better you are forced to confront the truth. If it can be better, it means it’s not there yet.
And those hurt.
They shouldn’t, but they do.
And you scream. And you hate the person who gave you the notes. You hate the notes. You hate yourself. You hate everything. And why did you even write this in the first place? You’re no good, and you throw your laptop out the window, and accidentally kill a granny walking on the street below.
And this is the pain of the writer. The pain of taking notes.
Because they're not notes on a book or screenplay. They're notes on you…
At least that’s what it feels like.
All those hours you spent, dragging yourself to your computer when you didn’t want to, were all wasted. It’s no good. YOU’RE no good.
Now as a screenwriter, I take notes ALL. THE. TIME.
Notes upon notes upon notes upon notes. It’s mainly notes. I feel like Ben and I have gotten to a good place with taking notes. We get the notes and then (mostly) do the notes.
But every single time there is the initial feeling of “WAAAAAHHH”. Oftentimes, we want to throw our laptops out the window and kill a granny walking on the street below. But we take a deep breath, come back, and look at the notes again. Then we talk through them and get them done.
Because I feel like we have gotten to a place where the screenplay we’re taking notes on IS NOT US. It is a document. It is separate from us.
And so herein lies the lesson: You are not your screenplay. You are not your book.
You are writing a document that may one day become a movie. It may one day become a published book. But it is not you.
The screenwriter, Craig Mazin, whose show The Last of Us (based on the video game and now has its first teaser here) comes out soon, runs a workshop for Writers Guild of America members about studio development. He really stresses this point. He says the biggest enemy in film development is not the production executive. It’s not the director. It’s not actors giving bad notes.
The chief thing standing in the way of a screenwriter during development is the EMOTIONAL PAIN OF TAKING NOTES.
The great thing about this is that YOU ARE IN CHARGE OF THAT PAIN. You can manage it. You can deal with it. Because it comes from you. When you learn to separate yourself from your work, you can hear the note. And when you hear the note, you can take the note. And you can make that thing better. But only when you get out of your way.
It is, however, always hard. And requires you to exercise self-mastery over this aspect of your craft and your life.
Here’s a story where I did the opposite of what I’m talking about.
Three years ago, in 2019, I was just about to finish the first draft of my first novel. I was very proud of it. It’s a prequel to A Christmas Carol, and explores the lore and mythology of the spirits of Christmas from the Dickens classic, and is about a young girl who becomes one of them in order to save the life of her best friend.
The Sci-fi author, John Scalzi, whom Ben and I had the great pleasure to get to know when we adapted his novel, Old Man’s War , for SyFy in 2014, has always been a great cheerleader of ours, and very kindly offered to refer me to his agent when I said that I was looking for one.
I sent his agent my manuscript, and much to my delight, he signed me. Hurrah! Amazing! What?! That’s incredible. (THANKS JOHN!)
But… the agent had notes on the book. He felt that, while the book was a good start, it needed significant work.
And I clammed up. These weren’t notes on a manuscript. These were notes on me.
There’s a lot of me in this book. A lot of pain. A lot of my family history, wrapped up in a Christmas tale about love and forgiveness. And it was hard to write. But I’d done it.
But it needed “significant work.”
I took it personally. And didn’t do the rewrite. I came up with a LOT of excuses. The pandemic. Me and my family were moving. We were adjusting to our new lives. Blah blah blah. All excuses. The real reason was that I had a voice inside me that said “It’s not good enough. You’re not good enough. Why bother?”
And I listened to that voice.
I didn’t listen to the voice that said “Hey! You wrote a book. And it was good enough to get you signed by an agent! Now make it even better!”
And that’s why I didn’t write on it for two years.
However, at the start of this year, I did begin to listen to that better inner voice. I did pull myself away from the notion of the notes being personal. I began to see the truth of what I practice in my screenwriting career.
I am not my novel. I am not my screenplay.
And nor are you.
Now stop browsing the internet, and got and finish that thing you’ve been putting off because you think you're not good enough.
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