Your Baby is Ugly
Welcome to the Hammer Party Issue #5
Welcome to the Hammer Party.
First thing first: I’m happy to announce that my novel EVERYBODY KNOWS (which I’ve mentioned under its working title of HOLLYWOOD SICKOS) will be published by Mulholland Books in early 2023. It’s an epic LA crime novel set among the folks who do the dirty work for the rich and powerful, the black-bag PR flacks and ex-cop muscle who are the arms and eyes and teeth of the Beast. I’m extremely proud of it and can’t wait for folk to read it, and I’m already researching and taking notes on the follow-up.
Excited to work with Josh Kendall to bring this thing to the world. Big thanks to the man and legend Nat Sobel.
It will be my next book available in America, although my next novel THE LAST KING OF CALIFORNIA will be available in the UK sometime in 2022.
In other news, the crime drama Hightown is back for season two on Starz. I worked on season one, and while scheduling prevented me for coming back for season two, Rebecca Cutter and the other writers bring the heat once more, so go and check it out.
Your Baby is Ugly - Thoughts on the Art of Taking Notes
There is a paradox in the heart of storytelling. If you are doing your job correctly, you are creating something that springs from a deep and personal place, shaped into a unique thing by your conscious and subconscious mind. It is in a very real way a part of you. But the act of creation is shared between you and your audience - half of it takes place in your skull, the other half in theirs. Even the most control-freak, precise artist who thinks about every element with intention and purpose can only ever supply half the brain-matter needed for the artistic experience to occur. Your job is to create a dream, the audience’s job is to dream it. Because you posses all the unwritten and unconscious ideas and intentions that helped shape the work but do not appear in it, it is impossible for you to perceive it the way someone who is not you will perceive it. You need someone else to look at your work and tell you what worked for them and what didn’t. You also need someone to see all the million little flaws that your tired eyes gloss over.
There is a contradiction at the heart of all this. You are to pour yourself into your art, rip yourself open and yank stuff out and shape something beautiful out of the mess. And then you’re supposed to hold it up to other people to be criticized, and when they’re done telling you what they thought you did wrong, you’re supposed to smile and say thanks. Even the most well-intentioned notes can sound, to a creator’s ears, like someone saying “Your baby is ugly. Here’s a hammer, go and fix it.”
Professional writers are supposed to nod, agree that their baby sucks, and then crack their knuckles and grab the hammer. This is what I do, on the surface, when I recieve notes. But it’s sure as hell not how I feel.
I am a professional writer with several novels, lots of short stories, a couple of pilots, a movie script, and somewhere around twenty episodes of scripted television notched on my belt. I’ve given notes to other people one literally hundreds of occasions. And I still hate getting notes. It hurts. Being given notes verbally is okay, but I loathe written notes. I hate the red ink listing out my crimes. It’s a childish thing to feel, I know that. I feel it anyway. And then I swallow and get back to work.
There are those of you who can pour your heart out into a work, toil over it for weeks or months or years, and then be able to listen to someone point out its flaws without feeling any shame or remorse. But I’m not sure you love your baby enough. And there are those who might think of listening to any kind of outside commentary as a sell-out or betrayal. But maybe you’re just trying to shelter your baby (which is of course yourself), and we all know what kind of kid that creates. A self-centered one.
(Ok, enough of that metaphor).
If getting feedback from other people is a little painful for you, it’s okay. What you can do about this is first, feel your feelings - if schedule allows I never start work on notes on the same day they are given - and then take a look at the notes. Because now the hard part starts.
Because the emotional side of notes isn’t the tricky part. Now you’ve got to take a look at the notes and figure out what they really are saying. The thing that a person flags isn’t always the thing that is actually bugging them. You have to find the note behind the note - oftentimes the problem someone flags in the last part of a work isn’t caused by that scene - it’s because you haven’t set it up properly a hundred pages earlier. My experience is, the closer someone is to the creative process, the more likely it is that the thing they note is the actual problem, but in the end it is always up to the creator to know for sure.
The other thing you have to know is whether or not to take a note at all. The act of giving notes is as much an art form as receiving them, and you are going to encounter note-givers both good and bad. Choosing who to get feedback from for which projects is a delicate thing. The talent or power of said person is not the only consideration. Are they thoughtful? Are they kind, but not the type of kind who will just rubber-stamp what you’ve given them? (There are those people who you just want a thumbs-up from - hi, mom! - and you should not ask for notes from those people).
Stephen King says in On Writing that he tends to let the tie go to the runner - in other words, if only one person gives a note, he feels it’s probably safe to ignore it. That’s a valid heuristic. My own opinion is that almost every note is worth considering, but that the solution is almost never what the reader thinks that it is.
There’s a million ways to give bad notes, but here’s what I want to focus on. There are only two kinds of notes that someone can give you:
1). Here’s a way to make your thing better.
2). Here’s a way to make your thing my thing.
That second kind of note is always wrong, no matter who it comes from. (This assumes that you are the sole creator of the story, of course. For instance, if you are a writer on a TV staff, your job is to make the showrunner’s thing, not yours, so the same lesson doesn’t hold).
A kind and thoughtful note-giver will understand this and try not to offer up notes that fundamentally change the project unless they feel the situation is dire - and even then, it’s often better to simply diagnose the problem than offer solutions. But more importantly, it’s up to you as the creator to know the difference, to just know in your bones whether or not taking this note will break the dream, alter the vital DNA of a thing, make it some hybrid creature that can’t survive.
How do you know which notes to take and which to ignore? That’s why they call it art, friendo. You have to know what you intend the thing to be - and that’s the best version of you, not the fearful you, not the greedy you who would sell your grandma’s pain meds for a shot at the next level, but the you who matters, the one who does all the real work. That deep part of you knows which changes will irrevocably transform the story into something that will not work, a dream you cannot transmit. Listen to it.
Now, sometimes there’s a power differential between you and the note-giver, oftentimes in the form of somebody’s fucking nephew who doesn’t understand storytelling or anything other than money and the taste of their own fear. You will be put to a choice: make your thing my thing or make nothing at all. That’s a choice you will have to make yourself. Sometimes it is worth it. I’ve cashed my share of paychecks. But, and this is really important, sometimes it is not worth it at all. Because you are the only one who can create what you create. If you let it get taken from you, you are letting something go that can never come back. If you must sell that, at least know what you are selling.
Refilling the Tank: Cure
Hey, you know what? Don’t watch that trailer. Just go watch Cure, one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. Just do it. You’ve trusted me this far, haven’t you?
Murder Ballad of the Month
“Goodbye Earl” by The Chicks
The estwhile Dixie Chicks use their pop country to great effect in “Goodbye Earl,” as gleeful a murder ballad as you’ll ever find. It’s jarring, exactly the way casting comedic actress Jane Krakowski, and then giving her a blood-clotted black eye is shocking. The Chicks think Earl deserves to die and they aren’t going to shed any tears about it.
Writing Music of the Month
William Basinski, Cascade
A single distorted tape loop of a piano plays in an endless loop, repeating itself for the entirety of the entire album. It is eerie and melancholy and full of decay - listening to it here in Los Angeles it all but conjures raindrops against the window. Hypnotic, music for doing your deepest work. Powerful stuff.
Okay, party’s over.