Friday, May 18, 2007

What's in a Feedback Session?

Tomorrow was supposed to be the League's first "real" meeting. (I say "real" because, though the members have all met as the League before, two of us just finished school -five of us actually just graduated- and some of us have been out of the city off and on since December.) So maybe I should clarify: tomorrow was to be our first feedback session. But it's been pushed back to the first weekend in June. That's my bad. Still employment-challenged, I had to jump on an opportunity to make a lot of cash this weekend, which sort of popped up last minute.

But it's actually for the best, because two of our ranks are not in the city now, and only one of us was going to be bringing work. The quality of the feedback session would have been severely hindered by those factors.

So what, in lieu of that, makes a good session?

The first thing I can say is PEOPLE. Not only numbers, but the specific ones there. In terms of numbers, groups, I've found, are generally best capping off at about eleven or twelve people, maximum. Beyond that, you're bound to get people who: didn't read the material because they figured everyone else would or didn't have the time since so many people wrote, don't comment because they want to be done or have somewhere else they'd rather be, just want to be argumentative for the fun of it, or repeat notes that someone else has already given simply so they have something to say. Or, frankly, the meeting can go on too long, and while the first person to have material is read gets good help, the last person might feel as though his/her time was rushed and feels cheated as a result of that. Big groups are much less effective for all of the above reasons and more. And, logistically, they're much harder to organize.

However, as we saw with the League, smaller groups can also have their drawbacks. The League is currently made up of six members, which is a very manageable number. But, in order for it to function effectively, we pretty much need everyone there, or at least five people. Part of having between eight and ten members of a regularly meeting writers group is that not only do you wind up getting enough feedback from enough points of view that you, as a writer, can sense what is generally working in your script and what isn't, but you also have enough people so that one person's absence is not drastically missed. It is important to make sure you're getting enough feedback, which means that everyone ought to participate (remember that problem with a group being too large?) If a writers group is six people, then each person is receiving feedback from five people. That's pretty damn good. That's enough of a range of opinions that you're exposed to problems in your script, which you wouldn't see if only one or two people who thought alike read your material.

Which brings me to choosing people for a writers group. Besides ensuring the "correct" number of members (correct, really, being relative), it's important to get the right ones. This mostly means, as best I can tell, six things: 1) people who do not all think alike, but can offer many varied opinions 2) people who can constructively give criticism without making you want to jump off of a bridge 3) people who can take criticism without wanting to jump off of a bridge 4) people who don't take things personally 5) people who know you as a writer and 6) most importantly, people who generally want to be there, to help and be helped.

I already addressed the first point when talking about how many people tend to make up a solid, smoothly functioning group. In terms of the second point, some people are just mean. I've been in classes before with writers who would talk endlessly about why they "hated" this play or that script, how horrible it was, how awful a writer the person who wrote it is. That's not helpful. At all. Not only does it belittle the efforts of the writer, but it offers neither insight into the problems with the material nor suggestions for how to go about fixing the work. It might be the case that a script is seemingly beyond repair. But it is up to everyone giving feedback to try and find, if not the silver lining, at least some way of more gently explaining why things don't work. Bad writing is out there. We're probably all guilty of it at some point or other. But no good comes of making a fool of the person who wrote it.

***When giving feedback, put yourself in the other person's shoes. Try to recognize what he or she is doing or trying to do. Don't tell them that it's great, but try to refrain from using words like "hated" or "horrible." A) hate is a powerful emotion, how can you really hate ten pieces of paper with some poor dialogue on them? B) You can be more helpful. Say what you thought was not working, but also suggest improvements. Remember, people might not take your suggestions, so don't try to tell them how to write their script. It is theirs, after all. But it is important to show them that there are in fact ways to improve their piece. It often can help to suggest films for the writer to watch as good examples of the genre/type of film he or she is writing in. I was working on a Sin City type script, but it had a lot of elements of old Western movies to it, so a lot of people suggested I watch those. If something is totally not working, say that. A character might be extraneous. A scene might be useless. Help the writer to see this. A strong writer will accept what he or she probably knows deep down is not working when others say this. Don't be afraid to give negative feedback. Just do not give your feedback negatively!***

On the other hand, point three: taking feedback. I've seen some writers so ashamed of their work that they have physically left the room before it was critiqued. No one can improve by not sitting through what might feel like torture, jotting down notes, and letting others' criticisms sink in. If we all allowed ourselves to remain delusional about the high quality of our work or refused to even allow for the idea that there were problems with it, we'd get nowhere. Part of being a writer is developing a truly thick skin. How do you think professional writers would ever get through bad reviews, never being nominated for writing awards, or having their names associated with one of the year's top ten worst films if they never toughened up? The answer is: they wouldn't. I'll be honest, the best writing teacher I had tore my work to pieces the first six times I brought it in to class. Thankfully, that was when I was a senior in the writing department, and not a freshman, or else I don't know that I would have stuck with it. But by that time, after three years of giving and getting feedback, I had learned to take it. And, not surprisingly, that was the class where I truly felt my writing improve the most. It may sound strange, but we should all be so fortunate to find someone who can (benevolently) rip our work to pieces and make us see it for the flawed piece it is.

Point four is pretty straightforward. Have you ever played Risk, the game of world conquer? If not, the premise behind it is that each person controls an army and tries to defeat everyone else in a quest for the entire world. I play it with my friends a lot. But getting defeated can suck. A lot. Especially when everyone gangs up on you. Being in the hot seat during feedback time is like that. People (hopefully) aren't picking at your pages because they don't like you, but because they see problems with your work. Know this. If you take every criticism personally, not only is your skin not yet tough enough, but you will most likely feel like you've lost your friends. Taking things as personal attacks, or making them attacks, gets everyone nowhere and does nothing.

All of the above points basically go to make this fifth: it is important to have people who know one another as writers. Since my fellow Leaguers know me as a writer, and a friend, they know that they can and are actually invited to tear my work apart, where it's due. (All "tearing of work" that I've mentioned ought only be where it's due. I hope that was obvious.) They know what to expect in my writing, so they know when I'm trying something new. And when that something new isn't working, they know how to help me fix it. They know how to give me feedback and know what kind of feedback I will give them. And, while I might not be the funniest guy on Earth, if they try their hand at a comedy, they'll know when to truly listen to my advice and when to simply appreciate me for giving it. Knowing your fellow group members for who they are as writers will make everything infinitely easier. It's hard to give someone you don't know, either as a friend or a writer (because those are often two different things when you're in the hot seat) helpful advice for fear of insulting them. Know your group members. You'll be that much closer to final drafts.

And, finally, invite people you know will want to be there. It's no fun when people keep checking their watches or making phone calls to plan their evenings while at a group meeting. Going to your group's meeting should never feel like a chore, so try never to make it feel that way. Serve drinks. Have a potluck. Hold an all naked meeting. Whatever will get people "excited" (I couldn't refrain) about showing up and participating. A writers group is also a support group, and it should feel that way. Surround yourself with people you'd want to spend your free time with, and who want to spend theirs with you. At the League, we sort of have an all-for-one, one-for-all mentality: if one of us makes it big, we'd like to think that he/she would stick around, continue to be a member, and try to do whatever possible to help the others break in to the industry, as well. You'll probably find that the people in your writers group are some of your closest friends, since writing is such a private and personal thing, and those are the few people who see you bare your soul on a regular basis. If you can't stand the idea of someone in your group reading something you've written, you've probably made a mistake being in the same writing group as him/her.

In short, your gut should tell you who ought to be in your group. It will probably even let you know when you've invited as many people as you should have, at least for budding groups. But your gut can't tell you how to take feedback. The only way to truly deal with feedback is if everyone is on the same page about it, how to give it, and how to get it. Don't be afraid of it. Embrace it. Without feedback, a writers group is just a group of people who call themselves writers.

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