Taking Notes — Revisions, Feedback, and Editing

Recently, I was asked to watch and give feedback on a cut of a short film called LOVE SONG by its co-creators Michael Sanders (director, photographer, kingpin of Electric Monk Media) and GMB Chomichuk (writer/illustrator, graphic novelist). We were joined by composer Jesse Hamel, who created the soundtrack for the film.

Michael also owed me feedback on my short film script MASK, which I had written for him to direct, since we keep looking for a film project to do together. I decided to include Gregory and Jesse in giving notes and to record the feedback session because it seemed like a good opportunity to peel back the curtain and let you in on how an actual session of getting feedback from professionals goes.

You can read the draft of MASK that we are discussing here, and listen to the podcast below. Further down, you can read my reflections on the whole discussion and the core lessons that I have learned about how to “take notes” from other professionals.

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It Has to Be What It Is

Something we discussed later, after the microphone was off, is how an artist determines how to respond to feedback. The essential issue is always what notes do you take and what notes do you not take — in other words, how do you filter feedback?

My rule, which Gregory agreed with, is that your job as an artist is to get the work to the point where it will be what it is. It has to be what it is.

After that point, after you get your draft to the point where you know what the thing IS, in its essential being, then you can and often should accept any feedback that does not change its essential nature.

In my MASK script, the essential element is that the main character has to find the mask underneath his skin, that he has become the mask, or perhaps always was this mask. Everything else is negotiable. That’s the core, the thing that cannot change.

Once you know what the thing IS, then you need to protect it.

Writers sometimes make a mistake here. They think you need to protect every part of the work. On the contrary, you don’t need to protect any of it — except the core.

When you don’t know what the thing IS, then it is difficult to take feedback. You feel like you have to protect every part of the work, because you don’t know which parts of it matter. You get defensive and overprotective.

When you DO know what the thing is, then it is easy to take feedback. You can try things out, add things, delete things, and so on. You have a vision — you have a guideline — you make changes to support it being what it is.

You carve away things it is not. You streamline what is left to lead the audience toward the realization of what they are seeing. You add or subtract or change to bring everything in line with the essential core.

You don’t have to be so defensive and protective, because all that matters is that it remains what it is. Everything can change except what it is.

Gather Reactions, Not Opinions

Michael Sanders also made a really outstanding comment, to the effect that he is not fundamentally interested in the opinions of others. You might find this odd given that he had literally gathered us in order to get our opinions on his work.

But what he means is that he is concerned primarily with reactions to the work. Not what people say, which is often either inaccurate or inarticulate, but what their visceral response to the work might be.

Michael relayed how when he shows people a cut of a film he’s been working on, he sits behind them and watches their bodily reactions. When do they check their phone? When do they glance across the room. When do they sit up straight, tense all of a sudden?

It reminded me of a story I heard about Stephen King — the story goes that he will print out a manuscript for his wife to read and leave it on their kitchen table for her. He will check back and notice, if she’s started reading, where she stopped. He will pick up the manuscript page on the top of the pile and rewrite it.

If she was reading but then got up from the table, and started doing the dishes, where did she do that? What page allowed her to get up and do the dishes? He will rewrite that page. He wants her to keep turning pages. If you’ve ever read a Stephen King novel, whatever its strengths or weaknesses, you will realize that this is one of the main attractions of King: you just want to keep turning pages, like it or not.

Reactions tell more than opinions. What people say is less significant than what they do. People will often lie to you when they don’t even mean to do so. They think they are telling you the truth, but they are not.

If someone says they loved your story, ask them when they started reading it and when they finished reading it. Guess what? If they started it on Monday and didn’t finish until Friday, then it was not that interesting to them, no matter what they said.

One thing I will do is notice first, before I look closely at notes, WHICH things people are responding to, outside of what they say about those things. In my experience, often people are correct that a problem exists but incorrect about what the problem is or how to fix it.

I like to assume that people are wrong, and also I am wrong. If I get a strong reaction to something, I will first investigate that meta-level reaction. Maybe somebody is responding negatively to a character. They don't understand why the character is doing the things they do.

Maybe that reaction means the character needs to be rewritten in some way. Maybe that reaction means the character needs to do different things. Maybe that reaction means the character could be deleted. Maybe that reaction means that a different character could be doing these things instead.

But maybe the reaction simply means that the character is interesting. Maybe the fix is not to make the character's motivations more clear, and her actions more consistent, but to mine the reaction. Maybe I want the character's motivations to be less clear. Maybe her actions should be less consistent.

Maybe I am just in a middle position between a comprehensible character and an incomprehensible character. And I need to move more toward one of those poles, but not necessarily where the reader wants me to go.

You will get feedback of this nature a lot in specific genres. If you ask a reader of romances what they want for the characters in a story, the reader might say they want the two characters to solve the problems in the relationship. But they don't. The reader loves those problems. The problems are why the reader is reading. What they really want is for it to seem like the characters could solve their problems, but for their problems to intensify and get worse.

Ironically, when they say they just wish these two characters would get together faster, what they might mean is that they actually don't feel the problems are significant enough. Actually, what they might want is a bigger problem, which will keep the characters apart for longer. Exactly the opposite of what they say they want, but a solution that addresses the real, meta-level issue with the story.

If you gather reactions, you can see where people's reactions overlap and connect, and what patterns exist in the reactions. What people say, especially what professionals say, can be useful. But most of all you need to listen to what they do not say, and focus on the meta-level of how they are saying anything at all, and what saying anything, what their reaction of having something to say, might have to tell you.

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Jonathan Ball is a writer, filmmaker, and scholar living at www.jonathanball.com.

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