Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Screenwriting – The Personality of a Writer and Peer Reviews.

A very good friend of mine, someone regarded as one of my country’s best casting agents, once told me the first thing she had to overcome was her own personal taste. If she didn’t do this every role would be played by hot young surfer dude with sun bleached blond hair and a muscular, sleek, swimmer’s body. 

Amen to that!

Another friend, who is working internationally as a hair and make-up artist on photo shoots and catwalk fashion shows casually remarked that many woman struggle as hair and make-up artists because they can’t break out of their own personal routines and processes. To make it as a really good hair and make-up artist a woman has the disadvantage of needing to unlearn their personal hair and make-up choices and make sure they find what is needed and works best for the individual model’s face.

The same principle is true with writing.

I’m talking about writing fiction, be it prose or scripted. The most important step for any writer is to know your own personal tastes. This is important for two reasons. Firstly our view of the world is skewed by our personality, outlook on life and how we analyse and decipher the world we’re part of. This is all done from our perspective and through whatever tunnel visions we have, from personality, background, education, role models, personal taste and many other idiosyncratic influences.

The key words for a writer are empathy and understanding. You have to be able to take yourself out of your reality and truly empathise and feel what it must be like to be someone else. To do this is hard because on some level you will fight against so many inbuilt preprogrammed tendencies and, sometimes, without knowing it, subtly editorialise an issue or, even worse, show bias that you consider to be a fair and unbiased portrayal of something or someone.

This has been well covered by many great writers and teachers and I think it’s fairly well established in creative circles that knowing yourself well is vital so I won’t bang on about it. In short, know your own demons – your strengths and weaknesses and in writing - love your characters. They’re the main phrases that cover this well trodden ground.

The aspects of knowing your own personality I have never heard talked about deals with personality types of story creators. This is a major part of the bag of tools you bring to the table to create, review, analyse and edit work. It’s who you are when you first sit down to draft the treatment for your story idea. It’s so engrained that every story you have ever told anyone; to family and friends, an account of an event being recalled, all will use the same personality traits that I’m talking of – the same ingrained styles of generating story - and we don’t all share these traits equally.

As a television writer I’ve been lucky enough to run the story table of five different shows over a fourteen year period. This has covered around 500 hours of produced drama. I usually had four to five writers around that table to bounce ideas off and generate weekly episodes. At first I would get rid of people who drove me crazy and keep the ones who thought the same as me. If I could have cloned myself I would have. I got by, but I quickly learnt this was hurting both me and the show.

Every bad idea I had, or the team had, was amplified and found out down the track. For the first few years I scrambled to rewrite and explain why I’d allowed such a monumental problem to slip through. I believe I was lucky to keep my job. Fortunately I had a couple of cast members who were coming of age, great actors with big fan followings. Two from separate shows have gone on to become very successful in US shows (House/True Blood) and they saved me by keeping ratings steady while I worked out a better way to make sure my team’s stories were not disenfranchising viewers.

This disenfranchising happens when a viewer screams at a logic or continuity flaw or any other of a thousand things that make people see red and stop them buying into and enjoying the story.

The breakthrough came when I realised people have a ‘storytelling type’. Some 'types' have more advantages than disadvantages and some generate consistently better stories than others, but to restrict a range of personality types in the story creation process and exclude others delivers stories that don’t resonate with the most viewers possible. It produces storylines that lie limp over time because they generate a level of familiarity or sameness. When that happens, regardless of how wonderful your stories may be, how well structured and plotted, you will lose ratings.

Having run shows for over a decade I got to look at what was happening with the ratings on a weekly basis over a long period of time. I personally knew what stories were strong and where I’d fudged logic or something else to make sure a story on the other side of that ‘fudge’ was reached and told – and the results were fascinating and clear.

Regardless of how good a story was, if people didn’t believe your path to get to it, they wouldn’t buy into that story.

The ratio was about 4:1. Four good shows gain a point in ratings - (0.1). One bad show loses a point in ratings. Just to stay even with where you are you need three good shows to one dodgy one, two and two and you’re not going to get another season – or at least not one you’ll be working on.

The answer was to stop trying to find people who thought like me and go out of my way to find people who thought differently. If I could convince them my stories were sound then I knew the audience would buy into them as well.

There were four writer’s personality types I was able to identify fairly readily once I started looking for them. There are certainly subsets within each group, crossovers and often dual personalities where a few lucky people have more than one trait – but almost everyone will have a primary group they fit into if you know what it is you’re looking for.

Of course an incredibly rare few, the geniuses – and they do exist, have all the traits equally. I’ve met a few and I happily wave to them as they whiz on by me up the career ladder. I don’t know how they manage to reconcile the various traits because they seem to naturally rip and tear and work against each other. But maybe that’s why geniuses are geniuses at work and famously impossible to date.

Personality Alpha – The Leader. A decision maker. A person with a strong sense of story who is able to understand and see others points of view and make the best decision for the story. Never dismisses a good story for any reason other than a fatal flaw in that story. (Flaw can be – production issues, entertainment, character, logic, premis, social issue, censorship, theme, mirror of a story done before, as well as a thousand other more subtle issues.)

A lot of the ‘Leader’s’ character is naturally imbued, but regardless of what comes naturally, everyone can get there over time and can come from any group, gaining experience and understanding of the storytelling process along the way. The key to making this group is to continually learn, develop and improve. A leader is able to make decisions above their own ego. (Ego being the most fatal flaw and the undoing of most who get to this position. This manifests as a need to show how great they are at the expense of others – everyone else’s ideas stink; says no to a good ideas from others quickly and with little thought. They may even have the exact same ‘original’ idea themselves later. A problem ego will end up being unsupported by the team and will justify their failure as a conspiracy against them from within the ranks. (Often being promoted too soon leads to this scenario, some learn, some don’t))

In short, a successful leader is the mayor of story town – able, without bias, to make consistently good/right decisions about story and structure, from all suggestions on offer, regardless of where or who they come from and willing to share or even forgo credit in favour of another.

Personality Beta – The Story Generator. The story generator is a creative whirlwind. Never upset that a good idea is denied, because they have five more waiting. They can re-imagine and adapt any idea to any situation; molding, finessing, reversing and distorting their original idea to fit any new circumstance. They are often so adept at doing this they can dress the same idea up in different clothes and sneak it through on a second, third or fourth attempt.

Any character, any situation, any curve ball that comes up in plotting will lead to new ideas that are sound and range on the most part from useable to very good. They are often loud, funny, fast, disruptive, often undisciplined in areas that don’t matter to the story telling process. They may zone out if discussion bogs down. Not highly strung, appears not to care, a good case study for ADHD.

Personality Gamma – The Logic Police. Uggghhhhh! I hate them! They drive me crazy. They generate very little useable story and when they do it needs to be stripped back of distracting and confusing detail. They are especially annoying when the story idea is in an area of their expertise and they can’t re-imagine anything. “A lawyer’s office would not have a legal secretary at the receptionist’s desk by the main door.” Ughhh! Shut up already!

By far THE MOST IMPORTANT/VALUABLE member of any story team.

This is the person who will talk most often when an idea is tabled and they will bring up multiple reasons to derail the idea. They will keep continuity and logic straight and they usually have a rigidly, but encyclopedic mind. If they have a problem then you can bet 25% of the population will have that same problem, another 25% will notice it but let it slide.

This is the first person you will promote to be an editor. They will also be the person who gets most upset because their ideas will be dismissed more than any other person on the story team. They often get dropped off the back of a story and can’t understand what the story is, because they can’t get passed the fact the legal secretary is still at the reception desk in the lawyer’s office.

The logic police member needs to be protected and their worth, which can’t be overstated, needs to be constantly reinforced. This person makes a fantastic editor, but often gets frustrated at not advancing further. They will only break out of being an editor when they come to terms with, own up to and understand what it means to be a member of their anal retentive gang.
Personality Delta – The Nutter. Outwardly we could be looking at anything from burning chakra sticks and nursing crystals to a person obsessed with gaining insight into a world that has lost its moral compass; a vegan, hemp wearing tree hugger; or a tightly buttoned up conservative that goes home to a concrete bunker with provisions to outlast the apocalypse. (Maybe I’m exaggerating – but they are generally considered to be a little odd)

Inwardly this person will sit and distract themselves by any means, hardly paying attention and contributing maybe 10% as much as the next lowest contributor. And most of their suggestions will be met with an awkward silence, where others try desperately not to be rude by stating the obvious – that the idea is bizarrely inept.

But every now and again one of the Nutter’s suggestions will shake the room and reshape the show. An idea will be dropped that is so monumentally left of field, so breathtaking in its audacity that it will be talked of in years to come as a defining moment of the show. The ‘Nutter’ won’t have much idea how to make it work, nor do they really care if it does – their job’s done – having that insanely brilliant original idea.
I’ve tried to make these descriptions as entertaining as possible, but all of us essentially fit into one of the three types; Generator, Logic Police, or Nutter, at least when we begin our writer’s journey and as I said above, many people overlap – perhaps you could look at it as having a primary and a secondary category, but only a very lucky few don’t fit primarily into a single group.

One of the most important steps to growing as a writer is to own up to and admit which of these prime personalities we are and which of the advantages associated with the other personalities we lack.

Everyone wants to be a story generator because it seems the most positive. But in my experience, on its own, it is the least likely of any group to succeed. Usually it leads to frustration because everyone sees the potential, but the execution stops any firm offer coming. The ideas are great but unruly and the temptation is to bounce from great idea to great idea without ever truly mastering and polishing one. The story generator loves the creation, but isn’t as keen on the hard work needed to take that great idea to a level where it can be produced or published.

The Nutter has the same problem, although their great ideas can occasionally be so great they’ll find a friend in a producer/agent/manager who is so taken by the concept they’ll take them on and either mentor or partner them up to get that astonishing idea to a state where it can be shopped around.

The best category to be is my nemesis. Yes – I’m looking at you vile Logic police. My writing didn’t go anywhere until I recognised that and like the relative who annoys you in so many ways, the reason I hated the logic police was because they were usually right and I was wrong.

Their eagerness to sacrifice a great idea at the very start of the process simply because their logic sensor told them it didn’t work was so frustrating to me. I would set out to prove them wrong and spend huge amounts of time writing and rewriting the idea until I proved it did work. This happened about one in ten times. The other nine times I wasted countless hours, even days on ideas I couldn’t get to work for the very reason the logic police warned me of way back when the idea was first tabled.

Logic Police are not just the protectors of logic by the way. They are grammar Nazis, formatting storm troopers, punctuation para military and the syntax SS. Oh – and that font isn’t standard, nor is the binding, so you should go and re-do it please, or I won’t read it!

The reason journalists make successful fiction writers is because for two to ten years, every day, they write 1500 words on a topic usually handed to them and then corrected by an editor with no time or patience for any of the thousand misuses of English the common writer uses daily. Spelling, facts, expressions, punctuation, syntax crimes and storytelling structure bear traps all need to be mastered by any successful working journalist and the same is true for any working writer.

Now the ‘logic police’ personality finds learning these things easy and they heap scorn on anyone who ‘boldly goes’ to the land of the split infinitive. Many, like myself, take years to learn half of what a competent journalist has had pounded into them during their cadetship and in my case, I am still learning and teaching myself to be a better practitioner.

I began as a playwright dealing in dialogue and story structure. I am a story generator personality and not proud of it. If I could choose I would be a member of the logic police. Maybe it’s a case of distant fields – who knows? But I’ve wasted many years on projects that people ‘loved’ in concept, but not in execution. I am sure there are just as many logic cops out there who are desperate for the ideas they need to make use of perfect grammar and syntax.

As I said at the beginning – most of us have aspects of more than one of these groups in us naturally, but the way to get ahead is to learn the aspects we don’t have and then do whatever you need to do to make them part of your personality and part of your work.

In order to lead a story team I was forced to not only recognise these personality types but embrace them. I had a huge amount to learn and learn quickly because it’s an extraordinary moment when you realise the other personality types are not in the wrong and spoiling your ideas, but coming from a totally different mindset and one that’s equally valid to your own and often more so.

That’s the moment when my career turned a corner and I started to look at every idea differently. It makes a difference what genre a story is in. What medium you choose. How you express action and subtext and whether or not in a big law firm you choose to have a receptionist and not a legal secretary by the main door. Once you’ve learnt why it’s important you can make a judgement call about what small flaws in logic you can allow for the sake of a great story and  get rid of the clangers that cause really big problems. That’s when you’ll start to get some sort of consensus in the reviews of your work.

There’s nothing worse than having one review declaring you’ve written a masterpiece and nine others that use your script to line a bird cage.
I was lucky enough to work for a long time without a break and got the chance to work with many remarkable and talented story tellers across the range of personality types. Even so, I recognise I have a lot left to learn. Both from those who see logic and continuity so clearly and are able to reproduce the technical aspects of writing so effortlessly and from those unhinged minds able to come up with stories, characters or structures that are outside the box and often change a genre or the way we look at storytelling.

It’s a fascinating journey. If I ever get to a point where I feel I am no longer getting better – then I will probably call it quits. Fortunately or unfortunately for me (I’m not sure which) I have a long, long way still to go.

A final thought, and probably the reason for this post in the first place. Being a writer of fiction; be it prose or scripts is a difficult career choice. Just completing a project is beyond most, but mastering all the elements; structure, character, subtext, turning points, theme, a driving entertaining story that suits and compliments the chosen genre and many other aspects, makes it near impossible.

My first agent, now sadly passed away, had a wonderful way of dealing with the many people who, discovering who he was and what he did, would tell him they had a great idea for a novel/film/play. He would react with great enthusiasm and say, “Then you should write it and the moment it’s finished send it to me and I’ll read it.” Over a forty year career he could recall five people out of hundreds who had actually followed through and sent him something.

The primary focus of the ‘personality groups’ I’ve defined are very different and each aportion different weight or importance in the success of a written story. They are all right, but certain components have greater weight at different times in the assessment process.

Publishers, agents, managers and producers receive thousands of submissions a year. Some get into the tens of thousands. You can tell a really good writer’s agent/producer/manager – because they have expensive looking websites with no possible way to contact anyone.

A second tier allows submissions only through referral. Then there are some that have general submission but only in narrow areas, genre, medium etc. Some have even started taking submissions on very strict and narrow time parameters – Monday 11am to 4pm.

At this stage an assigned reader or assistant is looking for any reason to dismiss a writer or story as not ready. This is where the perfect formatting, spelling, grammar, syntax and structure become literally a life and death component. Get it perfect, your baby lives; get it wrong it dies at page three – possibly sooner.

Once you get past the formatting stage, then the story, characters and themes must carry the day and stand out to such an extent that your submission is better than anything they have on offer from anyone else, including seasoned writers with established fan bases.

So what’s more important? I wouldn’t mind betting that many a story that proves itself at a later date to be a winner was binned due to presentation issues when it was first submitted. Equally, many fine writers who have perfectly presented stories stumble when the content fails to deliver intensity and emotion.

I have noticed recently, especially on peer review sites that have sprung up across the net, that the logic police have moved in and anyone not passing their exacting tests gets thrown to the bottom of the pile very quickly. That’s a good lesson. But these sites are incredibly useful for work in progress and often, as enthusiastic writers wanting our stories to be released and read by anyone, we rush a story out to get feedback, knowing there are flaws. This is where you can see the writers who have learnt who they are and taught themselves how to look beyond their own personal annoyances and see a piece as a whole.

I’m not saying the logic police shouldn’t be obeyed. They should. The criticism of the big five is equally valid and needs to be fixed – but be aware of a peer reviewer who dismisses an entire project because your technical presentation is off. Again, their comments on the subject of presentation are very valid, but a rigid logic cop will be unable to concentrate on any aspect of your project because they are being driven crazy by what they consider sinful ineptitude as a writer. They haven’t yet learnt to note these problems and then move on to review what else you have to offer.

I’m all for Peer Review sites for what they are: a place to workshop ideas, stories, characters and help a writer find and improve all aspects towards completing the story they are trying to tell. But everyone should remember that element of ego in all of us to ‘show our wares’ – to show what we know to those who know less. These sites often bring this out in spades in a very unhelpful, negative way.

Try asking a third year medical student about a malady you’re suffering from and they’ll have you lined up with three possible terminal causes before they even consider you may be suffering from a simple bruise. The same is true in a peer review. If they feel you’ve written a poor script because it’s poorly formatted, thank them for the lesson, make the appropriate corrections and move on. Someone will eventually review the story you’ve told and not the presentation of it.     

Sometimes at the end of a post I wonder whether to post or not. Just like some of the things I’ve listed – the whole idea of posting my own theories on any number of things seems very self indulgent. But then another part of me thinks if something I’ve said or experienced helps someone else and gets them to that next step as a writer then that’s a good thing. So many people have helped me along my way, so why not post and let the haters hate.

Good luck to the many others, thousands, tens of thousands, on the same journey as me! 

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