Sunday, March 31, 2013

Staying the Course

Showing your work to other people and asking for their opinion of its quality can easily throw you off course.

Feedback, no matter how positive, can make you feel like you’re being buffeted by waves. One moment you can rise to the peak of a wave, elated and thrilled with a reader’s praise, the next moment you can sink to the bottom, distraught and discouraged by a reader’s criticism.

It’s especially challenging to know where you stand and what you’ve accomplished when the person evaluating your story is an editor or producer with the power to reject your work or cancel the show.

In Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, you can see just what a writer has to face at times when proposing a new work, whether it’s a novel or script for a movie or TV drama.

And you can begin to understand why a writer, hoping to stay the course of a project, needs such large amounts of determination and faith in her own skills as a writer.

It’s an issue of trust: when do you trust another reader and when do you withhold your trust?

The following excerpts from Rin Tin Tin (pp 187-188) may help you view your own work and your relationship with certain readers in a new light: 
The executives at Screen Gems, the television arm of Columbia Pictures, loved the proposal and told Bert they wanted twenty-six episodes as soon as possible. They expected to syndicate the show—that is, to sell it to individual stations rather than to a national network… 
Bert and screenwriter Douglas Heyes wrote four scripts and sent them to Screen Gems. The executives were not pleased. “They said, we’ve read your scripts and we, collectively, think they stink,” Bert recalled. “And I said, Yeah? Obviously I don’t agree. And they said, What are these, morality plays? And I said, I don’t know what you’re planning on making, but that’s what I’m making. They said I was wrong, and I said, I don’t think I’m wrong—it’s got action, it’s got people, it’s got the dog, and that’s what it should be. And they said, You’re going to go against our seven combined years of experience? And I said, Yeah, if I listen to you and I fail I’ve learned nothing. If I go my way, I learn something. I’m the best fucking production manager in the business—you think I need you guys? Forget the contract—I’m out the door. 
The executives called his uncle, Nate Spingold, the head of Columbia Pictures, to tell him they thought Bert was crazy and that Spingold needed to straighten him out. “Nate said, Send me the scripts, let me have a look,” Bert recalled. “Nate reads them and says, These are brilliant, you Screen Gems guys are crazy. And that was the end of the discussion. That was the last bullshit I ever heard, but from that point on those Screen Gems guys hated me. 
So, how do you know if your work is worthwhile? Who do you turn to for an evaluation? Do you turn to anyone or do you trust your own heart to tell you when you should stay the course?

For more info on staying the course, check out:

And if you want to learn more about Susan Orlean's work, visit:


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this moment from Rin Tin Tin! I hadn't heard this story before, though there are many variations from all sorts of talented people who pushed the boundaries of their forms.

I think the gist of Bert's reaction hits on how I receive critiques, too--it FEELS right or it doesn't. It can take a while to learn to trust that feeling, and also to know that having something criticized doesn't necessarily mean it has to come out but that I have to work harder to make it work.

I'm revising a MS now so appreciate the timeliness of this post!

Bruce Black said...

Rebecca, you're so right about learning to trust that feeling. That can take a while, just as it can take a while to learn how to ignore praise as much as critiques in order to trust our inner voice and follow wherever it might lead us. Good luck with your revisions!!

Dianne Ochiltree said...

What a great post, Bruce. Getting and giving feedback is valuable , but your point about trusting your gut in the end is crucial. My rule of thumb is: if more qualified readers (other writers) make an observation or suggestion than not about a passage in a is worth very serious consideration. But if my gut reaction is that to make the alteration in the narrative is 'wrong', I go with my gut. Because I believe it's trying to tell me the resultant prose wouldn't ring true. It would not be my voice coming through on the page. Thanks for examining this creative conundrum!

Bruce Black said...

And the feedback--even if it doesn't feel "right" in your gut--might prove helpful to explore. One of the advantages of getting words down in a draft is that they are on the page, so you can play with them and can always return to the original with new insights from the exploration.