Today I’m going to respond to a reader question about rewriting, feedback and drafts. Joel Myers asks:
I was wondering what your revision process was once you got to where you had a presentable script but no one else has read it. Do you usually present it to a few friend readers for feedback before sending it in to producers/more "official" send-outs? How many rounds do you do of that back and forth? Etc. I think a sort of general overview of the whole draft cycle from start to finish might be interesting.
Good question – or rather several questions. Let me start with how many drafts I might do overall on a spec. The answer depends a lot on the project. I’ve done as few as three and as many as forty-seven before showing a script to potential buyers. As I’ve gained experience, the average number of drafts I need has come down. These days eight to ten drafts is pretty common. Also, I’ve learned not to start draft one without a fairly extensive outline. That probably cuts the total drafts in half.
The corollary question here could be: what counts as a draft? I’m a little obsessive about saving all my work. I also tend to keep moving forward on a draft rather than going back and rewriting scenes. If I realize on page 60 that I want to make a change in Act One, I’ll make a note for myself to do that next draft rather than going backwards. Some drafts are obviously bigger changes than others, but most contain some changes throughout the script.
Doing it this way makes it easier to keep track of what I’ve done – and I maintain a document listing the drafts, the major changes or purpose of the draft (“character dialogue pass” for example, or “moved third act setting to the winery”), and anyone who read it and gave notes.
I definitely show scripts to trusted friends for feedback before presenting it to buyers or even my representation. I want to hear of any problems from my friends, rather than from the potential buyers when my career is on the line.
Agents also don't usually have time to give a client extensive notes – though that depends on the agent’s personality. Most split into two camps: Those that don’t want to give notes (this is known as the “sell it don’t smell it” approach) and those that will give a single set of notes. A very few enjoy developing material with their clients and might go through two or three drafts with you, especially when you’re starting out.
Managers tend to be more into helping develop material (my current manager is an exception in this regard, though). Still, you don’t want to waste your manager’s time giving you notes you could have gotten from your friends. And I don’t even ask my friends to give me their time until I feel like the script is in pretty good shape.
Picking who gives you feedback is important. Here are my guidelines:
1. They have to be intelligent and have good taste. Well, duh.
2. They have to like the genre. If you give a horror script to someone who hates scary movies, chances are they will give you notes to turn it into something less scary. But the people who might buy the script will be looking for the horror, so that’s not good. On the other hand, someone who knows the genre will be better equipped to flag clichés and offer useful suggestions. Personal taste does matter in this business.
3. They have to be willing to be honest and brutal. The point is not to get pats on the back, though those are nice. I want the readers to tell me honestly what sucks so I can fix it before sending it out. Most people don’t like to do this. This is one reason showing it to other writers can be helpful. They understand what you need, and that being brutal is actually doing you a favor. Be sure to thank them for their brutality, and never get upset about it!
4. At least some of the readers should understand story and writing. It can also be helpful to get feedback from “civilians” – they can give you the audience perspective, a more gut reaction, that sometimes writers and producers don’t see as clearly. But you will get much better notes from fellow writers. They will be better able to understand why something isn’t working and make useful suggestions. Producers and directors are sometimes also good at getting at the “why” but usually less able to give good suggestions to fix it.
I will solicit reads from friends as many times as I feel I need to. If I make major structural or character changes, I will probably want another set of feedback. On a typical spec this means two or three waves of feedback (maybe 3-4 people per wave, mostly different people each time so they have a fresh perspective).
I also really like to have a live reading in my living room at some point. I’ll invite people to read each part. Just hearing the dialogue out loud will tell you a lot. You’ll also quickly sense where the pace lags, or when people get confused. If you’re doing comedy, you’ll see which jokes land and which don’t (I make a check or an X next to the line accordingly).
I try to mix up the readers – some writers, some actors, maybe a director or two – in order to get a variety of perspectives. (The actors are invariably shocked at how harsh the writer criticism is, which amuses me.) Pizza and beer are a big part of this process.
As I mentioned above, your last set of notes may come from your agent and/or manager. But this should probably be the last set, and will depend on their style and your relationship with them.
How you process all this feedback is another issue. Sometimes people prefer to give feedback by email; others I will take to lunch and get it in person (and of course in the live reading it’s all in person). I write down everything they say and I’m careful not to defend or explain. You won’t be able to go around to the screenings of the movie and explain what you meant afterwards. But I do ask questions if I don’t understand a note, or if there’s something specific I want feedback on.
You should not necessarily do every note or suggestion you get, of course. You know the story better than anyone, and people have personal taste things that not everyone shares. However, you need to be open to change. If more than one person trips on something, you better figure out a way to fix it.
Finally, all of the above assumed we were talking about a spec script. A screenplay written or revised under contract is a different animal. I will still solicit responses from friends if it is first draft of an adaptation or an original idea before turning it in, but probably only one round and seldom will I ask my representatives to read it.
The friend feedback process for a paid gig is mostly to catch any egregious problems or tiny logic/grammar/dialogue flaws. The people whose creative notes you most need to be concerned with are the producer(s) and executive(s) who hired you. How to take notes from these people is a whole other blog post!
Thanks for the question, Joel. For all my readers, if there’s something you would like me to write about, please feel free to ask. I don’t promise to do every request, but I’m always looking for ideas for posts.
In other news: Hollywood Journal has published the first in a series of articles about The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Check it out!