Having observed that one key to Taking Notes Without Pain is to not take them personally, while determining their true purpose (principle #1: It's not about you, or Consider the source), we can move on to:
#2: Look beneath the note
I learned this all-important lesson many years ago in an interesting context. I was for nearly a decade a member of the still-ongoing BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop, which has produced such stalwart professionals as Alan Menken (Little Shop, Beauty & the Beast, et al) and the team of Ahrens & Flaherty (Ragtime). Every week, under the tutelage of erudite Maury Yeston (Nine), lyricists and/or composers working on musicals-in-progress presented material to be critiqued by a classroom full of same. It was almost always a learning experience for all, be it painful or wonderful or both.
One week I brought in a new song and premiered it to mixed response. Maury and the workshop members soon zeroed in on what was identified, by consensus, to be the primary problem with the song: its chorus didn't work. Various opinions were offered as to specifically what it was about this chorus (the title phrase, the rhymes, the musical setting, et cetera) that was falling short, during a debate that went on for a good ten to fifteen minutes. I dutifully jotted down notes and went back to the drawing board.
A funny thing happened on my way to the revised version of the song. Taking all this feedback into account but arriving at my own strategy for rewriting the material, I actually ended up leaving the chorus intact -- what I altered radically was the end of the verse that led into it. Each of these revised verses took a very different tack in setting up the chorus, which the workshop room had pronounced no good, or at least, ineffective. I didn't change a note or a word in that.
The following week I played the revised song in the workshop. When I was done, after appreciative applause some hands went up, and Maury picked on a colleague for comment. "Wow," said my fellow songwriter, "The new chorus is so much better!"
What was amusing in the moment was that a number of people agreed – they were all so pleased that I’d followed their advice, and thrown out that terrible chorus that didn’t work, and had come up with a new one that reflected their informed input!
I had an epiphany there and then, the thrust of which has stayed with me ever since, since I’ve seen the basic principle of the thing enacted in story meeting after story meeting. Quite often, the specifics of a note are ultimately irrelevant. What getting a note about a given issue tells the writer is often merely: there’s a problem here.
Thus, Joe may think you have to change the dialogue of this beat, and presents a smart, cogent argument for what lines would work better; Susan insists the dialogue might stand if the protagonist’s reaction were completely different; Bryce insists that if the dialogue in that spot were removed altogether, the scene would work a whole lot better.
Billy takes all these notes down, thinks about the beat, and ultimately realizes that Joe, Susan and Bryce are all right – and all wrong: the beat’s in the wrong place. The whole scene needs to be shifted to a more effective spot, some six pages earlier… in which case, most of the dialogue will work wonderfully well, the character’s reaction will make more sense, and (thanks, Bryce!) in the spot where the scene used to be, a quick simple wordless visual will provide just the right transition that’s needed.
A given note is essentially just a red flag, or like the orange cones set down around an open manhole. No matter how specific, how brilliantly argued, many notes are simply a means of telling the writer something’s hinky in this spot. This is why I say “look beneath the note,” meaning: lift it up and see what’s under it.
Don’t be distracted or misled by taking a given note too literally. If more than one person (or one trustworthy arbiter) has an issue with something in your (script, story, ms.), then yes – you need to take a look at that something. But surprisingly, the solution to that something’s problem often lies in another place altogether, in applying a revision that was never even alluded to in the note.
Can’t stress this enough: notes are largely indicators, not problem-solvers. You can drive yourself crazy trying to restructure and repaint the chair someone has spent pages criticizing, only to realize that the chair needs to be a table.
This principle dovetails with the first, in that both ultimately speak to the necessity of… call it note decoding. Detach yourself from the damning note in question (“that’s my favorite line they want cut!”), think about why they’re asking for what they’re asking for (“they’re worried about the PG-13 rating, those @#$%&! mercenaries, so of course they want me to cut the 4-letter words in it!”) and then address the possible subtext of the note, e.g. “My character does curse a lot, kind of stereotypically... so wouldn’t it be cool if he expresses his anger in a weirdly polite way, here – indicating that he’s really pissed? Hey, wait a second, maybe he never utters one curse word in the whole of the script, but always stops himself right on the verge – could be a great re-take on the character…!”
And you’re off and running. And you hand the script back to the note-giver, who no longer has any problem with that line of dialogue he hated so much (you’ve removed exactly one four-letter expletive from it, while retooling half the character’s lines throughout) and suddenly thinks this funnier character is more castable than ever.
You get the idea. Now I’d like to get to a third principle about notes, but a) this post is getting long and b) come to think of it, there’s something embedded in this principle that’s about more than just getting and giving notes, so I’m going to c) use it as the basis for a post about a bigger issue… a few days hence.
In the meantime, did I mention that I’m looking for a new title for my book?