Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Fat Bottomed Peer Reviews

Just because Queen sings that Fat Bottomed Girls Make the Rockin' World Go ‘Round doesn't make it so. If it was true, all those perilously anorexic women with bulging pelvic bones wouldn't grace our magazine covers. Likewise, observations made by amateur screenwriters in online review groups aren't necessarily fact either.

Personally, I object to the "feedback" and "reviews" on Zoetrope, Triggerstreet and even in The Writer's Building where I am an active member. Most of these writers are not only unproduced screenwriters, but they aren't even experienced readers. I'm not suggesting that there is no value at all in seeking input. In fact, just like the fat-bottomed-girl scenario, there are always exceptions. Yeah, you know who I'm talking about. What I am saying is that (1) we wannabes need to know WHO we are getting input from before we get it and (2) we need to be familiar with Terry Rossio's "You're the Expert" column before we read story notes from amateurs. (See Wordplay link on the right)

Some of the most common observations by readers in online groups are not even reasonable but because they've learned the screenwriting lingo and know how to sell their opinions (they are writers, after all), they are convincing and persuasive. Many fellow aspiring screenwriters write something that may be good or even great the way it is but make changes based on notes from somebody who has never sold any of their own work. These "peers" are trying to be helpful and genuinely believe they are giving sound advice. But, let's face it, some of what they are saying is more about making themselves sound knowledgeable or earning a review credit than about improving a screenplay.

I have multitudes of concerns about inexperienced readers sharing their perspectives but what I'll mention here are my top complaints as "reviewers" evaluate character development. These are the three statements I see in "reviews" that bug me the most:

Who would do that? - Okay, this is a common statement in a peer review. Who would do that? Have they never heard of sexual harassment in that office? Why did they take a ship and not a plane? Why didn't he email his wife before he left? Because something doesn't work in his own world, an inexperienced reader may think it can''t work in the reality that the writer has created either. This is utter nonsense. Maybe the writer didn't set up his reality well enough to make it work and needs to improve it. But maybe the reader is basing his opinion on what works in his own environment. Ahem, it's a story! Not too many men could keep fighting with an arrow sticking out of one testicle. But if I write a man who is strung out on PCP or make him a Hun equivalent to Superman then he can endure anything I say he can. It's reality as I've written it, not reality as the reader knows it.. As long as my reality doesn't contradict itself, anything goes.

Characters are not complex enough - Well, if your primary characters aren't well drawn than, yeah, this a valid complaint. But I don't need to write the backstory on every single character in a script. If a character is only in one scene and it doesn't matter to the outcome or progression of the story, then I don't care why he became a killer. All I need to know is that he is one. I read a screenplay once where the elevator operator tells the protagonist a lot personal information. It wasn't for humor, it didn't aide the protag on his quest, and it felt like pure exposition. I kept reading wondering where the payoff for the exposition was. It never came. The writer said later that in one of his "reviews" somebody had said that the elevator operator needed more depth. Why? He was only there because it was a swanky hotel in the 1940's that required an elevator operator!

That goes against his character - Okay, maybe it does, but what did the reader base that on? Who drew the character? If I want a cop who faints at the sight of blood, then that's the way I'm going to write him. It only goes against his character if it contradicts the character and/or reality as I've already established it. Personally, I think it would be funny to have a guy who just performed an autopsy get squeamish at lunch because his steak is too rare. But "peer" reviewers may peg that kind of thing as "going against character".

The important thing is that the writer understands why he wrote a character a certain way. If I wrote it, can explain it, and can defend it, chances are it needs to be the way it is written. If the reader can't understand it, then either I didn't do my job well enough or the reader is singing about fat bottomed girls.

I've gotten a lot of grief for not posting my work on boards for reviews. I'm no insecure wallflower but I don't want to post my months of hard work out there for just anyone to read, dissect, or even mimic. We amateur screenwriters are all building ships. Why would I seek help with the rigging on my ship from somebody who has never sailed their own?

I have let a few people read my work when I am confident that I have something to gain by doing so. I've even submitted my favorite screenplay to Scott the Reader and eagerly anticipate his notes which will, in all certainty, tear my baby apart. So to all of you who think I never let people read my work, I bite my thumb at you! Ha! I just want to make sure the input I receive has merit.

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