“You mind if I ask you something?” asked the middle-aged man. Uninvited, he had already lowered himself into the seat across from me. Before I could come up with an answer, his follow-up question emerged, tripping over his gums like an echo I’d heard a thousand times over. “Can you let me in on the best way to find an agent?”
“I dunno,” I said after contemplating whether or not to even answer. “I assume you have something an agent wants to read.”
“Course I do,” said the stranger. “I have a screenplay and a book.”
“Pick one,” I said.
“And is your script awesome?” I asked.
“It’s okay,” he answered. “Good enough, I guess.”
“It’s okay, I think.”
“But not awesome.”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Well,” I answered. “When you can say with relative certainty that your work is awesome, then maybe you should think about an agent.”
“Well, what if it already is awesome?” asked the stranger.
“Has anyone told you it’s awesome?”
“Well here comes the hard part,” I said.
“The hard part?”
The man’s leathered face screwed into a question mark. He was wearing a worn denim vest and equally faded jeans. The creases in his face revealed more than a few miles of hard living. Perhaps it showed the relief of a man with a story worth telling. My initial reaction had been to politely remind the stranger that I was eating my lunch and that the workshop I was conducting later that afternoon had a few openings. If he wanted to sign up and wait for the question and answer session, I’d be more than happy to answer his question.
But I hadn’t shooed him away. I’d allowed him to engage.
“The hard part,” I repeated, “is getting your screenplay read by a circle of trusted friends.”
“That’s not hard,” he said.
“Lemme finish,” I urged. “Your circle of trusted friends is going to lie to you.”
“They won’t lie. They’re my friends. Why else would I trust ’em?”
“Believe me,” I said. “They’ve lied to you before. And they’re going to lie to you again. At least when it comes to what you’ve written. Doesn’t mean they’re bad people. Doesn’t mean they’re not your friends, either. They’re grownups and they’re your friends which is exactly why they’re going to lie.”
“Cuz they don’t want to hurt my feelings,” understood the stranger.
“So how do I know?”
“That’s why it’s the hard part,” I said.
In fact, the answer is almost like a riddle inside a conundrum. If my closest friends are going to lie to me to preserve my precious feelings, how on God’s green earth am I going to get them to give me their honest, unvarnished opinion when it comes to my work?
The answer exists, in fact, not within them. But within me. I need to give those close and trusted friends permission to pound me. Well, not me. But my screenplay or book or short story or whatever I’m trying to pass off as readable. I need to show them that it’s okay to whack on my work with a sledgehammer to see if something breaks. And to accomplish such a feat I need to be my own harshest critic. Instead of teeing up my test readers with all my hopes and concerns that they may or may not love my stuff, I sharply point out areas where I’m worried that I might be falling short. A sequence I keep rewriting because it feels balky. Or a character that perhaps feels too thin or one-dimensional. Or even my use of description or possibly a run of tin-ear dialogue. In those areas, I ask for more than help. I ask for a lashing.
Yet despite giving my trusted cohorts the green light to be brutal, I fully expect their critiques to come sugarcoated. It’s not that they want to soft sell their punch. It’s more about a long-ingrained social habit of sparing a dagger strike to an artist’s psyche. They know—or assume—that writing is a lonely, ulcer-inducing, applause-free grind. That I’ve spent hours, weeks, days, even months or years, producing the document I’ve asked them to critique. Instinct informs and prohibits them from being the horrible pal to inflict the ugly truth upon me.
So what I must do is question their critique and implore them with this simple yet salient fact. If my work is anything less than awesome, I’m going to fall on my fat, feckless face. Unless my trusted few jettison their fears of pummeling me, then by their timid inaction they are all but dooming me to fail.
Yeah. You see what I did there?
I’ve just yoked my trusted reader to my potential fall. I’ve shackled them to the impossibly heavy burden that is me. Picture Wile E. Coyote holding that famous anvil after discovering the Road Runner had chained it to his ankle. If I crap out, so do they. This is the critical moment. Getting here is the hard part—but for somebody who wants to improve, so very much worth the effort.
“That’s hard,” surmised the uninvited stranger.
“Indeed,” I answered. “But when you get there it’s like a breakthrough.”
And I mean that the breakthrough is not just for my reader and her/his newfound honesty. But it’s a perspective-changer for me. Notes on my work become crystalized. My view and understanding of what I’m doing and where I want it to go instantly improve.
“Once you train your circle of readers to be totally unfiltered,” I told the stranger, “then, a draft or two or ten down the road—when you get the call and they can’t wait to tell you that your stuff is awesome—maybe you can actually believe that it’s true. Maybe then you’ll have something to show an agent or manager.”
The stranger thanked me, shook my hand and left me to my lunch. In the end, I’m appreciative of his untimely interruption. From it I’ve written this blog and when asked that question again and again and again, I can merely direct the curious here.
Want to join my circle of trust? Read 99 PERCENT KILL and post your unvarnished review on Amazon. Or shoot me an email with your thoughts. Seriously. No lie.
Good reminder. 🙂
I had a long time friend look over a treatment and told him to rip it up, spare nothing. He sent it back, after some prodding, with a note. “Hope we are still friends.”
My original story was destroyed, but a new and improved story rose from the ashes.
I brought him lunch as a thank you.
Good man, Jim. And good on your friend.
I am finishing up the first draft of my newest screenplay and I am going to include this post when I send it to my friends. Thanks Doug!
Chris. Let me know how that goes over.
Have had this dilemma my entire life, and you’ve provided a great tool to both get the feedback you need, without making a friend feel like they’ll lose your friendship for giving it to you.
But the ask is the hard part. Am I ready to hear that much truth? That it might suck? That I might suck? That it’s unsalvageable?
You are ready, Jorge. And no matter what you discover, it will be illuminating.
Having people who will call you out on things that aren’t working in your writing is *invaluable,* and I make a point of sending very fast and genuine thank-you emails whenever someone does this– and making a note to myself to keep this person on my ‘to-read’ list.
WRNG in Studio City, the comedy web series I co-created, would never have gotten to the level it was if I hadn’t had my two director friends tell me there were basic stakes problems and confusion in the first four scripts. Likewise the comedy pilot I’m co-writing now; some earlier feedback from a friend was “I can’t finish this.” We took that seriously and course-corrected.
You spelled “balky” wrong. heheh
Doug, you don’t know how timely this is for me and my group of film makers. We are at the point where honesty needs to be had, yet it’s hard because everyone so desperately wants “to be good, to be a real film maker…”
I’m sending this to them in an email with the comments – the truth hurts, but it will set you free and make us better film makers.
And since you said you wanted real feedback on your “99 Percent Kill” I’m going to go and get it, read it and send back some feedback. Great sales tactic!
My frustration comes when someone from my past takes cheap shots at my work in the form of reviews of my books on Amazon… and that they do so under the name “Anonymous.”
It affects people’s perception of my work and their willingness to take a chance by buying a book from a relatively unknown author.
I know that even the best artists get terrible reviews, but when (I know) it’s a personal attack, it’s tough to turn the other cheek and remind myself that even bad press is better than no press.
Any advice Doug?