The Feedback

I had a different post planned for this morning, but a comment on a Facebook post reminded me of something else I wanted to talk about: feedback.

While this is mostly about feedback or notes on stories, I think the general principle can be applied to any advice, criticism or performance reviews.

Namely, that it's just one person's opinion.

That's not to say it's not worth anything nor that you should necessarily ignore it. But I spent much of the early years of my career betraying story after story to rewrite from scratch the minute anyone looked at it funny. And the same went for myself to be honest -- the merest whiff of advice or criticism and I was tailspinning in a panic into a New Me.

Over the years, as I grew in confidence and experience, I started to see things differently.

There was the series I sold to a production company a couple of years ago. The story I pitched was about a journalist convinced that she had identified a serial killer. We don't know whether she is right, or if she's targeting an innocent man. It was meant to be an exploration of obsession -- why is she so sure, why does she need it to be him, what will happen to her psyche or even sanity if it turns out not to be him.

Over the development period, the producer kept pushing for changes that turned it into a bog-standard detective drama. In his version, she was investigating the guy, gathering and evaluating evidence. Obsessed with the case, sure, but not obsessed with him being a serial killer.

I did argue along the way, but he always shut me down by assuring me that selling drama series was what he did, and these changes would make it sell.

Well, spoiler alert, it didn't sell.

Of course I have no way of knowing if my version would have, but what bothered me was that I let myself be pushed into destroying the spirit of my story because someone else kept telling me that he was "the expert."

Over the years, I've had Feedback that Helped, Feedback that Didn't Help and Feedback that Just Made it Different.

There are no experts in story. Story is subjective and (broadly speaking) zero people can accurately predict what will capture the public's imagination or won't. Even experienced producers, agents and editors are swayed by their own tastes and biases.

Right now, I'm dealing with a guy adapting one of my books for TV who has made random wee changes -- characters' names, the type of apartment building where they live. Despite irritating me intensely, few of his changes make any real difference to the story one way or another. A few years ago I would have deferred to him, vaguely assuming he knew "better." But it's not better -- it's just his taste.

The key to dealing with feedback is keeping in context and perspective.

The context is: who is it coming from and why are they giving you feedback?

Are they an expert with a track record to prove it? Do they have improving your story at heart? Or are they just imposing how they would have written it on you?

That last one is a big one. I was a reader for many production companies and funds, and it took me a long time to learn the difference between changes that brought a story more in line with my taste, and notes that developed the story that the writer wanted to write.

Context can also be: make these changes and I'll be willing to take you on as a client. That's perfectly reasonable. The agent needs to feel passionate about the story in order to sell it, and if you don't connect with the changes, you are free to find another agent. (Same goes for a producer or publisher buying it).

However, make these changes and your story will be better is the red flag for me. It might be better; but equally it might just be different. Anyone claiming their opinion makes your story objectively better is just flinging their ego about.

Perspective is simply that it's one person's opinion.

No matter who they are. If their notes don't resonate for you, their opinion does not outweigh yours. Consider their ideas, maybe try one or two out, but if they don't work, if they change the story in a way that makes no longer what you set out to write -- that is perfectly fine.

You know when feedback is right for you.

It hits. You recognise it. You instantly kick yourself that you didn't write it that way in the first place.

And if you don't, thank the person and go about your day.

This summer I'm running Letters from Callie on Substack. It's a series of fictional letters from an aspiring screenwriter in Hollywood in 1922: Downton Abbey meets Entourage if you will!

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