I think one of the most important tools a scriptwriter should have in their arsenal is a good peer group.
If you don’t know any scriptwriters, you really need to rectify that situation. I kind of lucked into a whole bunch of peers thanks mostly to the efforts of the esteemed Piers Beckley who used to run a writers drink/meet up in London and very kindly invited me along.
I politely declined a few times before finally overcoming my inherent shyness and joining in.
Best thing I ever did.
Firstly, being exposed to a roomful of other writers is good for you. Having someone who understands how difficult it is to plot out a film or create interesting characters or the ins and outs of film structure is invaluable. Friends and loved ones are all very well and will often listen and make encouraging noises (or, you know, glaze over and go ‘huh?’ every now and then) but you can’t beat talking to someone who actually knows what all the drivel you’re spouting means.
Secondly, you need them for the bitching. Scriptwriting is already hard enough without having to go through the actual process of getting something made. Having a group you can go to to complain about the stupid notes you’ve received allows you to vent without actually swearing at the person who gave you the note. This in turn gives you the space you need to realise the note isn’t actually as stupid as you first thought.
If you’ve had the kind of career I’ve had, it also gives you the opportunity to moan about all the stupid decisions made during or after the shoot which completely and utterly undermined the hard work of everyone else involved.
This kind of bitching helps us all build up a list of those who should never be worked with or at the very least allows us to lower our expectations going in.
The third advantage is the sharing of opportunities and contacts. I try to pass on opportunities whenever I find them because although I’m possibly in direct competition with some of my peer group, I’m not really. Either the person concerned likes my script/idea or they don’t. If someone I know can profit off a bit of info then I’m all for that. Personal successes are few and far between, filling up the gaps with the success of people I care about helps keep my enthusiasm high.
Every now and then I hear of someone who refused to introduce a writer to a producer they know who’d be a perfect match for their script and I find it a bit weird. I love matching people up. I love it even more when someone I know gets a commission out of an introduction, I find it very satisfying and can’t really fathom what it must be like to live in fear of someone else getting one up on you.
But hey, each to their own.
The most important use for a peer group (in my opinion*) is having a small army of script readers ready and willing to aggressively rip your work to shreds. This is, without a doubt, the most useful thing one writer can do for another … so long as they’re being honest.
Friends and family who read stuff tend to just go “Yeah, it’s good” which is in no way helpful. Especially when you know it probably isn’t.
Having a peer point out every deficiency and flaw is so, so useful. Honesty is the only way to really grow as a writer.
So with all that in mind, I have some loose rules about asking people to read my stuff. Just a few guidelines to (hopefully) avoid pissing people off.
1) I never ask anyone to read my work for free if they offer a paid script reading service.
I extend this rule to all walks of life – I wouldn’t ask a plumber to fit a bathroom for me for free, or a childminder to babysit my daughter without pay so why would I ask a professional script reader to do their job for free?
I may ask them for advice if I know them well, discussing an idea or issue in a conversation … but I’d never ask them to read a script for free.
I would, however, read a script for them quite happily. I don’t charge to read friends’ scripts. Or even enemies. I’m not a script reader and my opinion is suspect at best and should be treated with caution.
2) I don’t expect people to read my work without offering to read theirs.
In fact, I offer to read other writers’ work without any thought of asking them to read mine. I like being helpful, I like being useful. I read scripts for friends who I know would never, ever read one of mine in return. Some will, some won’t … it doesn’t matter. I like being nice to people and don’t expect anything for it.
Hmm … which I guess means I don’t expect anyone else to hold to the same rules I set for myself.
Some people may think that makes me a sucker.
Those people can fuck off.
3) I don’t ask people to read anything if they seem stressed or too busy.
Which is a shame, some of the people I respect the most are in near constant demand as a writer (or certainly seem to be) churning out episodes of Doctors or Casualty or their next novel or a mindbendingly impossible number of other projects a year. They have enough on their plate, I don’t want to add to it.
Which is a shame, because some of these people have opinions I really, really value.
I would, however, happily read anything they wanted me too, up to and including a novel. Again, I want to help.
4) I never ask anyone to read more than one draft of the same project.
This is something that really galls me. Every now and then I get contacted by a new writer looking for an opinion. I’m quite happy to read their stuff, so long as they’re prepared to accept the criticism. And by ‘accept’ I don’t mean take everything I say as gospel, but rather ‘not get upset because I didn’t tell them their first draft was a flawless work of art’.
The problem comes when that person, someone I don’t know who’s contacted me through this blog (which is fine, please do. Why not #PhonePhill?} then sends me a second draft. And a third. And a fourth, all the while refusing to take on board any of the points I raised with the first draft.
I don’t really get this. Either you value my opinion or you don’t, either is fine, but if you don’t value my opinion why are you still seeking it out?
One free read per project. That’s fair. I don’t want to put people through the same misery time and time again!
5) I don’t hassle people who don’t read things in a timely manner.
Or don’t get round to reading it at all.
We’re all busy, people are being kind. If they don’t have time, they don’t have time. It’s just one of those things, not something worth getting upset about. No one owes me a read, even if they said they would.
There are probably more ‘rules’ I set myself … but to be honest I’ve got some work to do …
… and I think this has gone on long enough, don’t you?
If you haven’t got any scriptwriting buddies, get some. There must be some somewhere nearby. Writers are lovely people (sometimes) and creating your own peer group really pays off. Why not organise your own monthly or quarterly meet-ups?
You could even invite me, if you like.
I won’t come because I’m shy and don’t like to leave my office very often, but it never hurts to ask.
*As if none of the rest of this were my opinion.