Thursday, March 29, 2018

You get what you pay for


Feedback is vital to every writer. We can cut and embellish and move words around all we want, but until we learn what others think of our stuff, we're just scribbling away in an isolation chamber.

So where do you find that feedback? A writer's group can be a big help when you're starting out. But if you want to take your writing to a professional level, then you need to hire a professional reader.

Eleven years ago, when I first started writing screenplays, I hired several professional reading services to give me feedback. As I discovered, almost all of these places are based in Los Angeles and are staffed by people who read full-time for the studios and earn extra cash by freelancing on the side.

The notes weren't cheap. Two to three pages on a feature-length script set me back $150, although some top-notch reviewers can charge upwards of $1000.

But they were well worth the money. The readers zeroed in on exactly what was wrong with my screenplays. I tried to use the feedback to make my screenplays better, but I never got them to the point where I felt comfortable submitting them to managers and production companies.

Well, not anymore. I just received my first set of professional notes for The Enchanted Bookshop and they were much more positive. In fact, the reader suggested only three minor tweaks to the script:

1) Change Lady in Red's tactics

As anyone who has seen the play knows, Lady in Red tries to sell Margie, the lonely bookshop owner, a cookbook with a lock on it. Why a lock? Because that's where the stolen necklace is hidden. Her intention is to leave the book at the bookshop so that the smugglers can pick it up later.

Well, the reader found it completely implausible that Lady in Red (Mystery Woman in the screenplay) would expect anyone to buy such a book. Also, Margie  would be instantly tipped off when the smugglers showed up the next day looking for "a book that don't open". Instead, the reader suggested that Lady in Red pretend to be interested in buying a book, then sneak the book onto a back shelf when Margie isn't looking (which she ends up doing anyway).

It's a great suggestion. Unfortunately, making this change means I'll have to dump some of my favorite gags in the play, but as Faulkner said, we have to kill our darlings. So out they go.

2) Focus the book characters' goals

The reader thought that the book characters bounce back and forth too much between two unrelated goals: saving the bookshop and stopping the jewel thieves. I wanted the book characters to start out being concerned about the shop to get the story moving, then switch to pursuing the other, more urgent goal when they discover the stolen necklace. The reader, however, thought it would be a stronger choice if I tied those goals together somehow.

I'm not sure this is a valid concern, but I'll think about it.

3) Dump the Book Fairy

The reader thought she simply wasn't needed. To her, the world-weary sprite seemed a little juvenile for the audience I'm targeting and had no real purpose in the story other to explain some things that would be better explained by the book characters themselves.

I have to smile at this one because my original draft of the play didn't include Book Fairy as a character at all. It only mentioned her in passing. But then, my publisher suggested I pull her in to provide a juicy role for some young actress. I played around with the idea a while, wrote a few test pages. And when I found that she made the story much stronger, I decided to keep her.

Still, the reader has a point. Something that works on the stage may not work on a screen. I'll have to weigh this one carefully.

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So there you have it, a glimpse into the kinds of things that Hollywood thinks are important.

If you're part of a writing group that challenges you, inspires you, makes you better, then I say more power to you. But I still recommend that writers of all levels look into hiring a professional reader, especially if you want to submit to your work to a major contest or publishing house.

Sometimes you really do get what you pay for.

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