Paying for It: Story II

Okay, let’s get the rant out of the way so we can move on to practical applications.

Like applying due diligence, perhaps?

It’s embarrassing because my second attempt to purchase good feedback was as much of a foreordained conclusion as the first.

I found this fellow in my search for likely looking conferences and workshops. I don’t actually remember his name. I do have the material he finally sent me (see below), but it supplies only a first name. Perhaps that’s just as well.

The workshop was small, private, held on a major university campus, where I was able to acquire a dorm room. The apparent imprimatur of the university disarmed me. And the workshop itself, me and a couple of other people, working with this genial individual with a bucketful of droppable names, was stimulating, full of good exercises, with some useful discussion of our projects. I was beguiled.

I had two efforts underway. I had decided to rewrite my failed novel. And I had a terrific premise that I had turned into a very rough draft of a screenplay. For $450, this person was to advise me on the screenplay. Then he would partner with me to edit my novel, parts of which I had shared at the workshop. (He did not warn me, as a conference panelist was to do soon thereafter, that revising that novel in hopes some editor would take on a chance on republishing a better version of it was pointless: “If it didn’t sell the first time, why would they think it might sell now?”).

In any case, off he went with my $450.

I waited six months.

I emailed him a couple of times, only to be assured my critique was on the way.

We’re used to this from agents. But I had paid.

I finally wrote and asked that he either send my critique or give my money back.

Bad move? I honestly don’t know. It triggered two things. I got my critique. I also got an email, since lost (as an act of psychological self-defense?), that I remember as a bruising, sarcastic excoriation that I would dare to make such an unprofessional, harassing request.

I’ve fished out the critique. Nine pages. Up to about the midpoint of the script, very detailed discussion of problems interspersed with often-specific praise, focusing largely on the nuances of scriptwriting versus writing prose, help I desperately needed as I was a complete beginner at scripts. Rich as well with the kinds of global comments I also desperately needed to hear: What is the story question? It’s hard to know what this character needs or wants. Too many characters playing redundant roles. Some logical missteps, obvious when pointed out. But at midpoint, I’m told, the story veers so far off course that it doesn’t warrant further comment (“organizing deck chairs on the Titanic”). But then: “Tremendous potential. The ending is emotionally arresting and disturbing, the eoncept is unique.” And finally, a cryptic “Well done.”

Of course, now I couldn’t do what I most wanted: arrange a (paid) follow up meeting to nail down my understanding of the technical advice and to talk through how to make the shift of direction in Act II organic and supportive of my larger hope for the story.

I see now that I could have learned from this man. But, struggling under the devastating collapse of relations (by my doing? by his?), I did a further unprofessional thing. I simply set it all aside. I could persuade myself not to trust it. Did his anger at me color his response to the story? Did he really read past page 55? In the end I gave up on the screenplay, turning the premise into a novel. (And rereading that long-ago critique, I am glad for the reminder to ask that crucial question that I’ve heard myself ask others in our writing group: Do we know what this character wants and needs? Now that I’m back to writing, time to double-check, make sure.)

But the more immediate question is whether I could have prevented these two disasters (begging the question, of course, as to whether they really were disasters). The first one, possibly, by not wanting so badly to be misled. The second one, surely. Preditors and Editors existed then; a quick trip to would have given me the basic advice I should have followed, to wit: a) get a written contract specifying what was to be done and when; b) start small and see how it works out.

In short, good advice is worth paying for, but with much greater caution than I exercised.



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Filed under Learning to write, Money issues for writers, Writers' conferences, Writers' groups, Writing and teaching writing

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