Saturday, January 3, 2015

Notes or Not?

Doubt?  We all have it. Even those of us who are successful or moderately successful have doubts about our writing abilities.  Is it good enough? Does it meet up to the standards out there?  Is my work as good as the last thing I published or produced?
We are often judged by our last success.

So we ask people - friends, family, those in the industry, strangers - to read our work and give us comments. Who we ask for those notes often has a vital impact on our psyche.

Your mother, sibling or friend can read your work and say how marvelous it is because a) they love you and want you to be happy, b) they think you can do no wrong or c) because they have no real idea of story, character and structure. They can also be negative because they want you to a) grow up and get a real job, forgetting about your "stupid" dream to publish or produce or b) because maybe they are jealous that you have a modicum of talent that they don't.

So we join a writing group.  They're supposed to be our peers and at least understand story, structure and character.  Some of the writers in the group are good, some may even be excellent and some are just not there yet.  They might give you notes on your story that are well-meaning and meant to guide you, but they are guiding you, often, in the direction of the story that they would have written with those characters.  Did they really understand where you were going with that story or with that character?  Maybe you weren't clear enough on the character's inner motivations?  Maybe your perception of the story is totally different from what they are seeing.

You ask professionals for their opinion.  (Some you might even have to pay for.) Evaluate who they are - what experience do they have?  Do they like historicals and you gave them a thriller? Do they like science fiction and you gave them a comedy?  Match your story to their professional qualities.

You don't, however, want to burn your bridges by asking them to read your material before you are sure it is ready because you might, especially if you have a relationship with them, be burning your bridges.  However, just because they are professionals does not mean that they will always be right. Not even agents are infallible.   Maybe they, too, have not understood your vision of the story or have their own take on where they think they story should go.  Their notes might be cryptic, as well.  They can say things like the story is flat.  Does that mean it doesn't have enough action?  Or that the character's arc is not developed well.  (That could be because you didn't do a complete character biography before you started and really didn't know your character inside and out - internal and external goals along with flaws and wounds - before you began writing.  Or if you did this, it's not coming across on the page.)
They could suggest "What happens if you change this character to a male?  Or a monkey?  Not matter what they -or you- think they are saying - the bottom line is that they are not getting the story that you set out to write.

Without being defensive, and sometimes the comments can hurt since after all these stories are our "babies," you have to ask for specifics. What about the character didn't you like? What about this section didn't you understand?   And even once they have given you that, ask again, what else didn't you like?

You don't have to listen to everything people say, but you do have to pay attention.

When I was first writing, my ex-husband who thought I was wasting my time, gave one of my manuscripts to a college professor of his.  The woman read my book about Deborah, the Prophetess, (which later was published as Lightning and Fire) and told me in no uncertain terms to forget about writing and go back to my housework!!  I took the train home and cried that night and then, clenching my fists, told my ex that I was not giving up.  I put that book aside for a bit and later, after I had honed my craft a bit more, was able later to revise it to the successful book it later became. Some of the comments the woman had given me, I later realized had some value to them and I was able, when I calmed down, to incorporate them into the final version.

 However, the rule of them is that if more than one person has a problem with a particular issue in your story, than you should consider what they are saying. Maybe not to take their change literally, maybe you want to keep the character a female and not a male, but to certainly be aware that something different needs to be done here.

The bottom line is that these our our stories and we are the creators. So what we do with the notes is totally up to ourselves. We can take them or leave them.  How badly do you want to see your material published or produced is the other question?  What does this story really mean to you?

In one particular case of mine, transforming my award winning short story "The Unborn" into a feature script, where the origin of the story was about domestic violence and the murderous after math, I found that my writing group didn't comprehend where the story was headed. They wanted me to make it more of a thriller, to take out the supernatural elements within the story and create a straight mystery.  More than one professional liked it (not loved it) the way it was once I made it into the thriller that the group through it should be.

The fact is, I was not happy.  My soul cried out because the original story, as I said, had been about domestic violence and the whole theme had gotten lost in the various versions  - nearly 18 rewrites - of the script.  The bottom line for me came when I realized that I had to for my own sanity return to the original story premise.  After consulting with my agent, she agreed that I had to revert to the logline that I had started out with.  While my theme is based in scientific facts, I would add some of the supernatural elements that she liked, keep some of the mystery elements that my writing group liked, but the new story, while a product of team work, was still going to be my creation.

Playing around with the plot and characters, I found that rewriting the story as a book (which is where I first started my writing talent) helped me to see where I had gone wrong and explore the characters more in depth. That process is proving to be fruitful in the adaptation back to script.

Remember to be true to yourself, to your passion and your story, but pay heed to what others are saying.  If your story is not clear, than see what lines are needed to clarify it; if the structure needs work than dabble with it, and go back to who your characters are and what they - not you the writer - want. Sometimes the story has to rest and percolate in your brain for a while before it can be perfected, but you will eventually succeed.

Look for "The Unborn Witness" to appear sometime soon both in book and script form.

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