when the feedback you’re hoping for isn’t the feedback you get

No, no clever title this time, though I admit this may still confuse some people.

When I went to film school, I had a lot of big story ideas I couldn’t wait to translate to the screen. I’d been writing for so many years, fantasizing about my stories appearing on TV or film. I’d spent days, then weeks and months developing characters and story arcs… maybe I was a little light on theme, but the hope of further developing my ideas pushed me to step way outside my comfort zone twice and move across the country to attend film school.

If you ever hear someone say that filmmaking is a collaborative art, it’s completely true. And in some ways it isn’t. Unless you’re gifted with superhuman speed, stamina, and masochistic tendencies, you need other people to work alongside you–a cast and crew. When we’re talking professional (Hollywood or “indie”) productions, there’s really no way around that. You just can’t make a film by yourself. But when I say that filmmaking isn’t collaborative, I mean that as the designated “filmmaker,” the person with the vision and the need to make this film (whether that makes you the director or the producer), it’s really all on you to push and make sure you succeed. Like with writing in general, it can be kind of a lonely road. Your vision guides the shape the story takes. Your perseverance steers the project through the inevitable tough times. (Yes, I know all about the studio system. Let’s not pop open that particular can of worms.) It may be that you’ll invite others to participate in your storytelling process, of course, but the product should reflect what you want. Don’t look to someone else to make those final creative decisions, because you’re the filmmaker. (There’s a really great text called The Independent Filmmaker’s Law and Business Guide: Financing, Shooting and Distributing Independent and Digital Films
by Jon M. Garon
that describes this concept of a “filmmaker” in its opening chapters.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t take this lesson to heart while I was at film school. Despite all my hard work, I never fully “owned” my productions, and the quality suffered for it. And for as long as I was in school, I never really understood why. I never even noticed the problems on set, or during post-production, not until it was too late.

My classmates saw it but if they knew the real reason why, they didn’t say. Despite that, they still saw more clearly than I did. They pointed out the obvious, of course. (Obvious in hindsight.) Visually, a lot of my work was a mess. I couldn’t argue with it. But I was sure the story, the script, was solid at least. Feedback on that part was minimal. Neutral. Needless to say, I was crushed. It wasn’t until I switched from a Directing concentration to Screenwriting that I finally started to received the kind of feedback I was looking for.

Except it wasn’t the feedback I was hoping for.

My professors–and especially my thesis committee–and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on my scripts. Technically and lyrically, they had nothing but high praise. Thematically and otherwise, well, I can only hope that they just didn’t get what I was trying to do. Whether they did or not, though, the feedback was discouraging. In the words of one professor (whose opinion means a lot to me), “It’s beautifully written, but I just don’t see why I should give a shit about these characters.”

Those words, even now several years later, have never left me.

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when characters attack… and one other thing

You’ve written the bios. You’ve completed an outline for your story. All the pieces are in place. Then your characters turn against you.

It happens sometimes, and it’s a good thing. It means you’re in the zone. It feels that way, anyway, like the scene is writing itself. And in a way, the characters are also writing themselves. You’ve created something good, something real. The characters feel authentic and living, and they begin to behave that way, whether you want them to or not.

I am pretty good at creating an outline. I sort of excelled at making them. Then came a period when I stopped doing outlines and just wrote on the fly. Most of my scripts during film school were produced without any kind of outline beforehand. Since I’ve been working on a manuscript, though, I’ve depended heavily on an outline. It’s reassuring.

I had never written a character sketch before film school. Those classes taught me how important it was to know your (main) characters’ ins-and-outs. What they want, what they like, what they look like, where they come from, everything. After I started getting into that habit, writing my characters became much easier. They really did seem to start writing themselves, and for the most part, I was okay with that.

Sometimes, though, your character goes off on a tangent you didn’t expect and you’re not really sure you like. It’s happened to me a couple times. A few of the characters in my book have taken unexpected turns. Maybe it’s best for the story. It definitely seems like the most organic result. I’m working with a writing buddy on a script, and we’ve been surprised a couple times by our characters. It’s not a terrible thing. But it may require some adjustments to the story elsewhere.

On another topic.

Unfortunately, time got away from me, and I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted to get done with my search for an agent. I did lock in two choices, but as I reviewed my query letter again, I somehow turned it into a mess. Not sure how. But I did. It’s a mess. So I’m definitely going to spend the next few days trying to work that out. One of the agents I’m going to query also requires a synopsis. I have one, but it’s not very good. It meets the basic requirements. It synopsizes the story by scenes, but it’s not really a compelling read, and I think a good synopsis needs to also communicate my writing style. So… that’s gonna take a little work, too.

So new goal for the end of this week! Finish my new query letter. Send it out to at least one agent–the one that doesn’t require the synopsis.