I got my Bluecat feedback yesterday; since not one of the three scripts I submitted even made it within sniffing distance of the top ten per cent, I expected it to be lukewarm at best. I was pretty surprised then to discover that not only did all three lots of feedback offer up some interesting points in its "What Needs Work" sections, all three attracted praise. Which was nice. This is what I like about Bluecat: you don't end up feeling like a loser, even if you lose. In this game of constant rejection, that's something definitely not to be underrated!
I entered an old draft of ECLIPSE (I've since rewritten it at least three times), so never expected that one to get anywhere, yet of course that one was clearly the Reader(s?) favourite. Not really suprising when I think of it; it's classic big-budget fare with explosions, gore and big monsters: I was more surprised to see that HUSBAND AND FATHER, my super-low-budget, very British drama came in a very definite second place of these three. The Reader in question appeared to like its theme, but more the simple story behind it - a complete contrast to ECLIPSE and also, my expectations.
Then there was THY WILL BE DONE. This is definitely my most controversial script: I've had such radically disaparate readings of it, it's unreal. You may recall this is the script that made the Quarter Finals of The American Zoetrope Screenwriting Contest this year, yet failed to make any dent at any other contest - ever. In addition, one Reader called it "utterly incomprehensible", while another called it "horribly predictable". Most interesting of all, there seems to be a cultural difference to its appreciation too; British people seem to really get into it - The BBC Writers' Room had this to say about it, whilst BBC Wales picked it up for consideration last year (though eventually passed, much wailing and gnashing of teeth by me!). In contrast then, an American producer told me I should "For love of God, go back to page one" and another told me I had coherency issues with general storytelling. I've sent this script to probably hundreds of people - yet that divide is quite astonishing.
And it continues. Here is what the Bluecat Reader said - bear in mind that this is in the WHAT THEY LIKE about the script section:
Your story has a lot of symbolism and thematic elements. You have a strong overarching theme involving gains and losses in life combined with doing God's will and the consequences for ignoring it. There is also reference to many different aspects of Christian tradition, like Ruth, and the story of Isaac. You create a depressing bleak landscape filled with people devoid of a conscience where kids
and prostitutes go missing without notice. The hero, Keen, kills himself because he refuses to accept the rules being forced upon him. This coincides with his earlier refusal at the diner to become more religious per the request of Jones.
What I find really interesting is whilst this Reader is clearly the "type" of person I'm targetting with a script like this - hence their reading of the symbolic stuff and the Biblical allusions - crucially, those last two sentences about Keen are what I, as the author of this script, would deem "incorrect". This is not what I intended at all in the story, not even a little bit.
Yet is it "incorrect"? This is the interesting part. I could of course tell you the ending and what I intended - but does that mean you would see it my way? Maybe... As long as you don't read the script. Perhaps, if you were to pick up the script and I have already told you what its ending symbolises, you would then see it - but wouldn't I have put that notion for your "understanding", there? And what use is that, at the end of the day? I could also say "Well, others have got it" - but don't I actually mean, "Got it... the way I intended it"?
So the Bluecat Reader got that idea from the script, even if I think I didn't put it there. And s/he justifies it well: by referencing the earlier scene and making the link with the greasy spoon scene, I can see clearly why they might think it.
And this is what makes feedback interesting.
The French Philosopher Roland Barthes exponed the idea that "The Author Is Dead": in other words, you can write something fictional, yet it's what the people who read/watch/etc get from it that's important. So, if you write a horror, yet everyone on the planet who reads it thinks it's a comedy, then it's a bloody comedy mate. The Author is dead. What you intend and what comes out of a communication like a script and its subsequent success depends wholly on that bigger "half" - and that's not you, the writer. In essence, how people see your work is what defines your work.
Of course, the problem with this theory is it suggests the author does not really know exactly what they're doing (and don't we all beg to differ on that?!); it also leaves out room for the fact that no one in the world sees the world the same way - ergo there will always be multiple interpretations of your work, some complete opposites, like I have with THY.
But that's ok. That's for another time. What I think is useful about Barthes and his notion that The Author Is Dead, is it totally boots out Writer's Ego. When I talk about Writer's Ego, I mean something like this reply to the Bluecat Reader
had I viewed their comment outside of Barthes' notion:
WTF? Keen doesn't kill himself because of his refusal to accept the goddamn rules! That's not even VAGUELY close! You clearly don't get it at all... Were you asleep when you read this script? Eh? EH?
As you can see, totally ridiculous. No use to anyone. As a script reader, one of my absolute pet hates is writers emailing me and telling me I "don't get" their script, as outlined in the satirical Dear Writer post on this blog. People who employ script readers to read their work - whether privately like Bang2write or by sending to a contest, prodco or initiative - must expect that Reader is going to have an opinion of their work, else what is the point of sending it. In addition then, those writers (including me), must expect those readers' opinions to reflect their own worldview - and this worldview may well alter how your story may be viewed.
Yet instead of deeming it an "incorrect" view and junking your coverage if it doesn't turn out how you expected, what if you grouped all these differing views together? What if you looked at the success of your script, based on the views of multiple people, in multiple places, of multiple colours, creed, male and female? What would you get? A mess of opinions, or some important insights into your writing, style and voice?
It could go either way, of course. When I first started collecting opinions on THY, I thought I had written the best script in the world. No one wanted to make it, there were lots of "budget issues" it seemed, but as a writing sample it seemed to impress people and got me meetings. Cool! I was onto something, yeah! Then I listed it on Ink Tip. Its logline and synopsis got loads of hits from American prodcos in particular and the first month, I got loads of requests for scripts. I must have emailed 10 in the first few days alone. I was convinced - this is the one! I'm gonna get an option...
...Then the first lot of feedback rolled in. "Weird, with no substance". I was shocked, then put it to the back of my mind. This guy just didn't like it or understand it, fine. Then another came in: "Intriguing subject matter... Too weird." Okay, at least it had substance then, but there's that word again. Weird. And another: "Bit too out-there for us, good luck placing it elsewhere." Out-there? A synonym for WEIRD! ARGH! This went on for the whole six months THY was listed on Ink Tip. Got lots of hits, but for the most part, response was negative. This was apparently a script that made little sense and we could not have any empathy with a hero as twisted as Keen since he was so amoral. A couple even questioned my ability. Bugger.
Compare this with just one of my British responses:
This is a complex and involving thriller, skilfully written. I particularly appreciated the morality to the story and the well-observed arena.
Rather than be confused or try to change what I was intending and tie myself up in knots though, I knew what I had to do. This was a script that had gone through multiple drafts; rewrites were not the answer. The answer was:
Show it to more people.
Because the author is dead, because people will always see your work via THEIR worldview, you can begin to see patterns emerge if you show it to enough. It's this that can prevent you from going back to the drawing board on a perfectly good script. There are some markets that are not meant for some stories and some companies and even individuals who will never respond to a particular story, even if it's told well. And there will be cultural differences that mean some stories don't make it across the pond or back here. Sometimes it's because the story seems irrelevant because a certain event happened here and not there; other times it because, though the English Speaking world is drawn together by - you guessed it - our Mother Tongue, this does not mean we live similar lives. Australia, UK, Canada, US and English-speaking colonies everywhere do not see the world in the same way, we don't even live similar lives for the most part. An Australian relative of mine doesn't measure journeys by miles for instance; that would depress her, since she lives about a zillion miles from anywhere, she's in such a remote place. She measures journeys by hours: she thinks nothing of driving three hours to go out to dinner for a treat. Three hours to me not only would take me to The Midlands, it seems like a long time. Such little differences, yet so big a chasm.
So: this is why some Readers will not "get" your script and newsflash - they never will, even if you tell them. A story should stand on its own merits. However, don't disregard or dismiss all that "incorrect" feedback you get... It might actually tell you something, after all.
More On Roland Barthes, French Critic
Barthes and Structuralism
The Death of The Author As An Instance of Theory by John Lye
Hypertext: Dealing with Constructive Criticism