Authors Barbara Nicolosi and Vicki Peterson help writers and readers work together to make stories better
Those all-important comments, scrawled in the margins of our stories or typed neatly on a separate sheet, could bolster our confidence to finish the project—or bring it crashing down around us. In the back of our minds, we all know that notes are intended to make the project better. But anyone who’s worked with notes or note-giving in the creative fields knows that an opinion stated does not necessarily improve the project.
In fact, it sometimes has just the opposite effect.
Enter my friends Vicki Peterson and Barbara Nicolosi, two California-based storytellers with a wealth of experience in giving and receiving story notes. Their new book Notes to Screenwriters is one of the few, maybe the only, guide you’ll find that helps both readers and writers leverage the notes-giving process to make stories as good as they can possibly be.
I recently had a chance to read the book before chatting with Vicki and Barbara. My overall assessment: Notes to Screenwriters is a beautiful, compact tool for every writers’ toolbox. If nothing else, it captures two seasoned writers’ experience navigating the intricacies of Hollywood, an environment where great stories compete for financial attention. Many sales are made or broken on how well a writer can both interpret and implement notes from a slew of other gatekeepers.
Perhaps what makes Notes so useful is its dual-sided perspective. Vicki and Barbara have sat on both sides of the table around Tinseltown, so they know what it is like to be the giver and the receiver of story notes. “We’ve both been producers and development executives,” explains Barbara. “We’ve both been writers, too . . . We know what both sides need . . . We want to be a bridge.”
And that, to me, is really what this dense little book is all about: bridging the worlds of writer and reader, so that comments given on any draft can actually contribute the development of a more compelling story.
Which means that, despite its title, the book isn’t just for screenwriters. Vicki is quick to make that point, adding, “Notes is for everyone who could give or receive notes on a project. Artists, novelists, anyone in a creative medium who handles feedback on their work.”
When I think of Vicki and Barbara, handling feedback well is one of the first things that comes to mind. I met them both in 2010 through Act One, a unique training program for entertainment professionals. Vicki in particular was one of my personal mentors. Not surprisingly, interpreting notes emerged as a major theme of our efforts. Like many writers, I took notes too far, ripping apart the entire story or scratching my head for hours over cryptic statements, instead of focusing on the intent behind them. Vicki helped me see interpretation as an all-important first step to implementation.
Now, she and Barbara have taken that message to the larger writing community. Says Vicki, “The book has been really well received [throughout Hollywood]. What surprised me about the feedback, though, is that there’s a really wide range of writers who respond to it.”
She goes on to list seasoned writers with multiple film credits who say they’ve gained a lot of wisdom from the book. Likewise, letters also come in from 18-year-old film school freshmen who’ve read it as a class assignment and found it helpful.
Appealing to writers of such divergent ages and skill levels is no mean feat. But perhaps the real genius of Notes to Screenwriters not so much its versatility as its unusual focus on writers themselves. Both Vicki and Barbara are passionate that writers should study their own giftings and strengths just as they study the craft. Over time, they contend, writers can narrow their focus to the types of stories that truly suit them.
As Barbara notes, “Each writer is going to have certain gifts and strengths. Not every story can be told by every writer. Don’t set yourself up for failure.”
Vicki adds that while most books focus on selling ideas or developing voice, very few “marry those two ideas.” Notes to Screenwriters aims to help writers preserve their voice while also developing it—something that great note-giving and receiving are designed to facilitate.
As a reader, I loved how Notes to Screenwriters is organized around different categories (notes on plot, notes on character, notes on theme, etc.). To kick off each chapter, a helpful list outlines the most common (yet cryptic) comments writers receive in that particular category before exploring the rationale behind them. Nuggets of wisdom on craft, style, and tone also ensue.
I also appreciated the unique section at the front of the book which speaks directly to readers based on what notes role—receiver or giver—they may currently inhabit. Based on each reader’s identity, Vicki and Barbara recommend different paths through the book for the most useful experience.
Notes to Screenwriters may be a book about notes, but in talking about notes, Barbara and Vicki offer a very timely lens into an entire perspective on storytelling.
And that perspective bears out in the fruits of their personal efforts. Now joint owners of Catharsis, Vicki and Barbara offer up their expertise in meaningful storytelling for everything from original writing projects to story development to draft critique and speaking engagements.
They also enjoy watching their latest personal projects take shape. Barbara has two funded screenplays on the docket to be shot this year overseas. One of Vicki’s recent screenplays snapped up awards at major festivals all over the circuit last year and is now in search of a producer. All of which is proof that the way both writers give and receive notes must, well . . . actually work.
And on that note, I’ll hand in my last recommendation that’s hopefully not too cryptic: get your copy of this handy little gem of a book before they’re gone!
Notes to Screenwriters, as well as more information on Catharsis,
is available on Vicki and Barbara’s website, storycatharsis.com.
Be sure to indicated on your purchase if you would like a signed copy!
The book is also available on Amazon and Nook.