Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Responding to Notes like a Pro

A little while back, I thought about notes on this blog. And I've been thinking about them again. In particular, I have been thinking about how writers respond to them. And how they should respond to them.

It is fashionable to laugh at people who give you notes, ignore or challenge them. Especially when there are stupid or come from a talentless exec or chinless script editor. And it's funny when Rob Long talks about it. But he's sucked up his fair amount of notes in his time, and written episodes of Cheers. So he gets to talk like that.

So how does the young writer respond to notes? Learn the mechanics of writing is one thing. But what's etiquette. How does it work?

I've been a script editor on a several series of radio and a few series of children's TV - and given a fair amount of notes, as well as being on the receiving end of them. Before a few specifics, here are a few general points.

Bear in mind this. The script writer wants the same thing as you: a funny show. He (or she) doesn't want to make the show worse. And he (or she - you get the idea) doesn't want you to remove good jokes. He wants you to remove bad jokes, or cut things that get in the way of the jokes. Or streamline things that are confusing. Or ensure that everyone's motivation is clear and defined. He may be wrong about some of these things, but not all of them. So assume he's write about some of them. Maybe even most of them.

The script editor doesn't just want the show do be funny. He wants the script to be ready as fast as possible, so we all get to go home early. When I'm reading sketches or episodes of things, I want to be able to say 'Yup. All good.', and close the file, go home and watch the Test Match, just as much as you do. If the script isn't right, it's more work for me. I'm only going to give a note on something if it needs fixing.

The script editor is busy. He may be editing multiple episodes. CBeebies do runs of 26. (Hey, it's like working on an American show!) I may make a mistake in your notes. I may remember something incorrectly. This may be the ninth script I've fed back on today. So if the notes are little non-sensical, or contain errors or contradictions, try cutting them some slack.

If they don't find a joke funny, they can't help that.

And if you're going to be a writer of any kind, be it for TV, radio, film or books, you'll get notes. Get used to it - and remember that most notes make things better.

So here are a few of specifics:
Don't give notes on the notes. You don't need to go through them all on the email and say whether you agree or disagree with them - or give the lines a backstory. I'll go further. Don't do that. It's really annoying. Don't defend lines or bits with non-specific lines like 'You told me to cut that bit but I really like it. I don't know why. Just feels right.' Just read the notes and act on them.

Ignore some of the notes, if you know what you're doing. But think twice before ignoring a note completely, because there's probably something in it. Even the silliest most deranged note (like 'Hey, could the hero die on page 1?') is worth considering. A script is a moving, mushy thing. Nothing is set in stone until it's actually broadcast and out there. At least try it their way, even if you end up switching it back.

Don't crow. It's quite likely that a script editor will suggest something after draft 1, and then suggest removing after draft 3. He's forgotten that it was his idea. But then, he's read 2 drafts of 25 scripts since he gave that note, so maybe he's forgotten? Cut him some slack and don't make him feel like an idiot. When he's dishing out extra commissions, he might remember your notes on his notes and decide to go with someone else.

Do question notes, politely. Do say 'I'm confused by this note, because...' or 'I'm struggling with which way to go on this. We've talked about two ways and I'm still not clear why you favour the second option... etc.' A dialogue for clarification is fine.

There's lots more than can be said constructively in this area. I'd love to hear your experience of giving and receiving of notes. If you keep it good-natured, polite and professional, there aren't usually any problems. But you may prove me wrong...

Thursday, 19 May 2011

John Sullivan - Some Perspective

John Sullivan is a titanic figure in comedy writing - and his death is tragic. There is no 'but' to this. No caveats or clever angles. The man was a superb writer. This is a man who wrote four extremely memorable and diverse sitcoms, namely.

Citizen Smith (1977-1980) - 4 series; Only Fools and Horses (1981-1991) 64 episodes, plus numerous specials; Just Good Friends (1983-6) 22 episodes; Dear John (1986-7) 14 glorious painful episodes.

I mention this because I was sad that there was only a half-hour documentary knocked together in his honour. In one sense, it was great that it was on prime time BBC1 - which he ruled. Many experienced, senior, cherished actors were highly complimentary of Sullivan's scripts, authenticity, attention to detail and perfectionism. But the brief running time did not even begin to do justice to the Herculean achievements of this writer.

Sullivan gives us perspective. The greats of today have a long long way to go. Ricky Gervais is today's much-lauded saviour of narrative comedy. The Office was wonderful, brilliant and important. Extras, frankly, I wasn't that excited by but did well. But in total, that's about 27 episodes of telly. So far, Gervais & Merchant are about 100 episodes behind Sullivan - and that's not including Sitting Pretty (1992-3); Over Here (1996); Roger Roger (1996-2003);
Micawber (2001, comedy-drama); The Green Green Grass (2005-9); Rock & Chips
. (Most of us mortal writers would be very happy with one or two of these 'also-ran' hits or spin-offs as their greatest achievements.)

John Sullivan was a truly great writer. There are plenty of good writers around today. Most of us are hoping to be in that pantheon one day. But until we are in our sixties and looking back on significant body of work (rather than 'getting out at the top') we won't be able to tell. In the meantime, let's enjoy greatness for what it is.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Take the Rest of the Day Off

A few weeks ago, I watched the Hallowe'en episode of Modern Family - in which Mitchell ends up hiding in a toilet cubicle dressed as spiderman. And acting like spiderman. For good, story-based, character-fulfilling reasons. It's utterly, wonderfully hilarious - the kind of scene which, if I'd come up with it, I'd have thought to myself 'Well done. Take the rest of the day off.'

'Take the rest of the day off' seems to be a fairly standard expression among the comedy writing community, at least. It denotes an over-whelming feeling of pride and satisfaction at a comic masterstroke that it merits time off. It's a joke, or scene, or line, that is the perfect blend of character and story.

The Perfect Line
What I mean by that is this: A sitcom is only half an hour - 21 minutes if you're American. You don't have long. And it needs to be tight because the audience is expecting jokes. Therefore, as many lines as possible should be jokes. Or set-up to jokes. Those that are neither should be expositional - and all of the above should be done in character.

So, as a rule of thumb, if a line of dialogue isn't a joke, or a set up to a joke, or a bit of exposition, or character development, it should be cut without question. It's a waste of words and breath. The best lines are mega-jokes that move along the plot in character. Or they're just show-stopping, scene-topping jokes (eg. 'I'll have what she's having' see here)

The Awful Truth
But what is the implication in 'take the rest of the day off'? The subtext is 'Wow. That is the kind of joke that would normally take several painful, frustrating hours to come up with, but you came up with it just before lunch - so, hey, take the rest of the day off!'

And there's the rub. Those flashes are rare. And they don't just happen. They come through hard work. It would be easy to think that the writer of that Modern Family spiderman scene is just amazingly, effortlessly funny, oozing natural talent. That way, I could always assume that I would never come up with anything so good, because I'm not a genius, and so why try? Just do your best, and leave it at that.

And yet every so-called genius says the same thing: it's just hard work. Talent, yes, but mostly hard work. Thomas Jefferson apparently said, "I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have." These are surely sage words. It's about putting in the hours. The fact is, that the Spiderman scene probably turned up in Draft 4, or didn't quite get the zing 'til then. Stuff that is that neat and clever normally leaves a trail of destruction and devastation in its wake. There's a hard-drive strewn with old drafts and a whole batman/catwoman sequence that should have been hilarious but just wasn't for some reason. Then the flash of genius comes.

There is no substitute for hard work. Redrafting, rethinking and rewriting. Identifying problems and fixing them. And the more we do those things, the more ideas we turn over, the more combinations of words, plots and characters we put together for a brief moment, the 'luckier' we'll be. And we'll say to ourselves, 'Take the rest of the day off', grab a coffee, and then get back to our desks to work hard enough to get lucky again.