“I would like to thank the Academy…” Part Two

You have an idea and you’ve started writing. You’ve followed my advice and not talked about your story with friends or family. But at some point you will need feedback on what you’ve written, to find out if you’re on the right track, to get inspired to move forward with fresh ideas or to rewrite and make your work better. Who do you show your work to?

Your instinct may be to show your work–finally!– to your friends and family, but if they love you (as they should) you might hear only words of praise, which is lovely and ego-boosting after slaving away for weeks and months on creating your “baby,” but not particularly helpful.

Or, if they have an ax to grind, they might instead be unusually harsh. My dad, after reading my “Hill Street Blues” spec said to me, “It’s like a regular ‘Hill Street Blues’ episode, but it’s nothing special.” Thanks, Dad. That was 30 years of therapy.

(On the other hand, it was Dad who encouraged me to be the focused, disciplined writer I am today, and who also helped me find my voice when I was in college and struggling to be a writer. But more on that in another post.)

My recommendation is you take a writing class. As someone who has taken classes herself as well as taught classes (twelve years at UCLA Writers’ Extension and now starting my second semester at USC School of Cinematic Arts), I find that a classroom situation helps you get the best feedback from students and teacher. A class also provides discipline and deadlines, both necessary when writing on spec.

Now, most of us enroll in class thinking Steven Spielberg will pop out behind the door to hand us our writing Oscar while at the same time refunding our tuition as he tells us the class is not necessary for us, he wants to hire us immediately. Unfortunately, he disappears in a puff of smoke the second after you have read the first several pages of your work, and your teacher and fellow students start heaping your baby with criticism. I took a novel writing class at UCLA many years ago (to get feedback on “Killer Ratings”) and one student was so affronted by our feedback that she argued about everything and eventually stopped coming to class. As my teacher eventually told me, “That student just wanted to hear how great her writing was.”

It’s important that you attend class with an open mind, understanding that your work needs to be improved and rewritten. For instance, in that same class, on the advice of the teacher and students, I changed the name of the book from “Forty Share” to “A Killing in the Ratings” (a writer friend later recommended I shorten it to “Killer Ratings”) and I introduced the plot point of Rebecca, Susan Kaplan’s boss, receiving death threats in order to introduce tension to the story early on, since Rebecca’s death doesn’t occur until several chapters later.

Now, not every student’s critique is going to be helpful. Like you, these students have a learning curve (which is why they, too, are taking the class). While you shouldn’t reject everything your classmates have to say about your writing, you don’t necessarily have to accept everything they’re saying either. (And, yes, sometimes even your teacher isn’t 100% correct although I always give a teacher’s critique more weight–and I am saying that because I’m a teacher!)

When I was writing my first soap opera in Russia (“Bednaya Nastya” aka “Poor Anastasia”) my Sony executive, Jeff Lerner, would give me notes, and my reaction was always to say no, or to argue with him. He told me to change my default “no” to “That’s interesting, I’ll think about it,” and to not tackle any changes based on his notes until I had a day to digest them. I urge you to do the same. There were plenty of times when Jeff would give me a note and I’d think, “No way am I going to do that!” Or, I’d hang up the phone, go back to my hotel room, his notes whirling around in my head and be depressed, not knowing how to give him (really, the story) what he was asking for.

But, by waiting a day, by letting the notes sink in, I’d more often than not feel energized by them and would had figured out how to make the changes.  (One night, Jeff and I fought over a change he wanted me to make that I declared was impossible!  We hung up, tense with one another, but when I went to bed shortly afterward, I actually dreamed the solution [I told you I have vivid dreams], e-mailed it to Jeff the next morning and he loved it.)

So, if you take a class, enter it with an open mind, a desire to improve your work and to collaborate. You’ll find that the feedback you receive is ultimately more rewarding than if friends and family did nothing but strew flowers in your path.

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