When I send out a query letter, I do so with equal parts of hope and optimism, as well as healthy doses of realism and some kind of fatalism.
I totally realize that the odds are against me and that the response will most likely be some variation of “no”. But I send it anyway, because…you never know.
I used to put way too much pressure on myself about this sort of thing, but a steady stream of “thanks, but no thanks” has really built up my resilience. If it reaches the next step, great. If they pass, that’s the end of that and I move on to the next thing.
And there’s always a next thing.
I’ve been very fortunate to have built up a network of supportive creative folks. Many pass on words of encouragement, usually along the lines of “Love how you bounce back!” and “I really admire your work ethic!”
Honestly, I don’t really have a choice. The simple truth is that if I want to make it, I’ve got to keep trying. The failures and disappointments will always greatly outnumber the accomplishments and successess, and the only way to get to the latter is to keep pushing through the former.
There might be a moment of feeling bad about getting told “no” for the umpteenth time, but you have to get over it and move on.
Frustrating as it can sometimes be, I’d rather keep trying and failing than stop altogether. I may not be the most fantastic writer in the world, but I like to think I’ve got some decent talent, and I’ll keep at it. The optimist in me leans towards things eventually going my way – preferably sooner than later.
Settle yourself into a comfy chair with your refreshing beverage of choice at the ready, because have I got quite a story for you. Hopefully one from which everybody can benefit.
I belong to a few screenwriting-oriented networking sites, and do what I can to engage with other members. I do what I can to be friendly, outgoing, and supportive with each connection.
Back in mid-July, I got an email from one such person. Their bio lists them as a “producer, screenwriter, and script consultant”. Would I be interested in a script swap? Despite having a few other reads already lined up, I’m always up for such a thing and agreed, telling them I’d try to get to it soon. Turns out they were in a similar situation.
They sent their script, and I sent mine. After a few days, I’d worked my way through the other projects and started in on their script.
I won’t say it was awful, but I’d have to say in all honesty it simply wasn’t good. I’d also add that it made me seriously question their credentials.
Among the details:
-a passive protagonist I really didn’t care for, and who didn’t give me any reason to want to see them achieve their goal.
-a weak antagonist with a cartoonish goal
-underdeveloped story/bad structure, including several unresolved subplots and a big letdown of an ending
-flat supporting characters
I pointed out what didn’t work for me and why, and offered suggestions of potential fixes. (I always make a point of never ever saying “this is how I’d do it”.) I’d estimate it was around 2 pages worth of notes, and they were free to use or ignore whatever they wanted.
I sent it out Friday afternoon.
Saturday morning, this was the email I got.
Seriously. That was it.
I came to two potential conclusions:
-I was an ignorant know-nothing boob to the nth degree with zero appreciation for their extraordinary skills (“How dare you not recognize my genius!”), and they were just saying “thanks” to be polite
-My notes were so cruel and inhuman, and if that was how we were going to play that game, then they’d be just as ruthless and grind my script into a bloody mess
Hyperbole on my part? Maybe, but check out their response again and think about what your reaction would be.
I figured it was one or the other, but all I could do now was wait (while working on other scripts, naturally).
Quick reminder – this was the end of July.
August passes. No response.
September. Still nothing. (but I did finish the outline of another script, so…yay)
Hmm. Several possibilities now.
-they still haven’t read it
-they read it, but haven’t gotten around to sending the notes
-they forgot. It happens.
-because of what I said about their script, they were deliberately not reading it OR sending the notes. To punish me, I guess?
September came to a close, and I figured I’d been patient enough.
I sent an email – “Know it’s been a while, and I’m sure you’ve been busy, but wanted to check in and see if you’ve had a chance to take a look at my script. Thanks.”
Five days later…
“Best script I ever read.”
Again, that was it.
I asked if they could elaborate. (note – this is my comedy)
Were there any parts you felt could use more work? “Nope. Perfect.”
What did you think of the characters?
Your thoughts on the jokes?
“I was rolling on the floor laughing.”
Anybody else find this just a tad suspicious, and, oh, total and utter bullshit?
No apology. No remorse. No attempt to make amends. Just a handful of “ain’t I hilarious?” bare minimum answers.
I really wanted to say something in response. Call them out for it. Tell them what an incredibly brazen dick move that was. I even came up with several scenarios to trap them in their sinister web of lies and deceit.
But in the end, I was getting all worked up for nothing. And this person is most definitely NOT worth it. All I’d lost was two hours of reading and writing notes, as well as severing our connection on that networking site. No skin off my nose.
I can only surmise they didn’t like what I had to say, so for whatever reason, decided to not read my script, and after being asked (reminded?) to uphold their end of the deal, took it one step further and opted to not even bother.
I don’t really mind that they didn’t read the script – especially after seeing their writing “skills” in action – but if you’re going to claim you’re a “professional”, then you damned well better act like it. No matter what.
Bet they wouldn’t have done this if I’d been a paying client. Thank goodness it never came to that.
Present yourself as someone who supposedly knows what they’re doing, but then show that’s not the case, and you’re just screwing yourself. Sometimes all you’ve got going for you is your reputation, and once that’s tarnished, you might never be able to restore it.
And let me also add that YOU CAME TO ME. You wanted MY help. And this is how you react because I didn’t like your script? Too fucking bad. Is this how you’re going to treat others who make similar comments? I may not be the most talented or analytical of writers, but at least I treat everybody with respect, even when they don’t deserve it.
When we read another writer’s script, we don’t want it to just be good. We want it to be so phenomenal we can’t believe we had the privilege of being able to read it.
Notes are about the script, not the writer. Of course you’re going to take criticism personally. But you can’t. I have no idea how much work you put into it, but are you more interested in making your script better, or getting a pat on the head and told “Good job”?
I hope this little incident doesn’t deter other writers from taking part in a script swap, including with me. Schedule permitting, I’m always happy to do so. Fortunately, most of my other script-swapping experiences have been of a significantly more positive nature. This was just one of those rare negative exceptions.
Hopefully you have a strong sense of what kind of writer/note-giver the other person is, and once those scripts are swapped, definitely make sure both of you hold up your respective ends of the bargain.
Because the last thing you want is to get on a writer’s bad side.
Thanks to my ever-expanding network of savvy creative types, I get lots of chances to be on both the giving and receiving ends when it comes to reading scripts.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to get exceptionally helpful notes from a lot of really talented folks. All this feedback has somehow managed to influence my writing for the better, and for that I am overflowing with gratitude.
So the least I can do when somebody asks me “Will you read my script?” or “Can I pick your brain about this idea?” is to say “Of course.”* Maybe I can offer up a few scraps of advice that might somehow work to their advantage. If anything, I can at least point out where a fix in spelling or punctuation is needed. For a script, anyway. That counts, right?
*caveat – it’s taken a lot of work spread over a long time for me to build up my network and establish connections, so I don’t mind if somebody I actually know drops me a note with such a request. If our only connection is being connected on social media and we’ve never interacted – at all, you’re little more than a total stranger to me. So heed that one word and be social. It makes a difference.
I had the pleasure of such an experience this week. I’d connected with another Bay Area creative, and we’d been trying for a while to arrange a face-to-face meeting. After much scheduling, cancelling and rescheduling, we finally made it happen.
This person had an idea for a project, wanted to talk about it, and see if I was interested in being involved. I stated at the outset that I had enough work on my own for now, but would be open to giving notes – time permitting.
After the initial introductions and our thumbnail backstories, we focused on their project. I won’t go into specifics or details about it, because those aren’t the important parts.
What was important was:
-this was a story they’d had inside them for a while, and even though they knew it needed A LOT of work, they were still happy with simply having written it all out
-they were totally open and willing to listen to my suggestions. Some they liked, some they didn’t. Totally fine.
But the more we talked, the more the seeds of ideas were planted in their head. Even though a lot of the details we came up with, including possible paths the story could take, ended up being totally different from their original incarnation, it was easy to see that spark of excitement reignite inside them.
Seeing that happen with somebody you’re trying to help is more satisfying than you can possibly imagine.
We parted ways, with them really rarin’ to go and start developing the latest draft. They added that they really appreciated me being so willing to help out.
I just like doing that sort of thing. I never had that kind of person-to-person help when I was starting out, so why not do what I can for others? Granted, the internet and social media didn’t even exist then, so it’s a lot easier now.
I got a few emails from them the next day showing me what they’d come up with since our meeting. Same concept, but a totally new approach (and, in my opinion, provided the opportunity for a lot of new possibilities). This also included a more thorough write-up of “what happened before the story starts”.
Even though it can be tough to read emotion in text, it was easy to see the spark was still burning strong within them. The way they talked about their plans for what comes next, I could tell they were actually looking forward to working on this.
It was nice knowing I had a little something to do with it.
We exchanged a few more emails (mostly me asking questions about story and characters and them providing sufficient answers), and I wrapped up with “Keep me posted.”
Their response: “Definitely. Thanks again. You’re a good dude.”
When I’ve done script notes for writing colleagues, no matter what the genre is, I can usually tell who wrote it – because of the way it reads. Each writer has their own particular style, so each of their scripts has its own corresponding “sound”. Or I’ll get notes back on my material which often includes a comment along the lines of “this sounds like something you’d write”.
This isn’t just about dialogue. It’s about a writer’s overall style, or how they tell the story of their script. You don’t just want the reader to read your story; you want them to experience it. Which can be accomplished by adding that extra layer.
Everybody develops their own individual style, and it takes time to find it. The more you write, the more you’ll be able to hone your writing to reflect your own individuality.
Just a few things to think about:
-How does your script read? Is the writing crisp and efficient, or are you wasting valuable page real estate with too many lines of your loquacious verbosity? Taking it one step further, do you use the same words over and over, or do you relish any opportunity to give your thesaurus a solid workout?
-How is your story set up and how does it play out? Is it simple and straightforward, or complex and full of deliciously tantalizing twists and turns? Are you working that creativeness to show us things we haven’t seen before, or is just page after page of the same ol’, same ol’?
-Is it a story somebody besides you would want to see? Just because you find the subject matter interesting doesn’t mean it has universal appeal. However, there is the counter-argument to that in which you could attempt to have your story include elements that would satisfy fans of the genre while also appealing to newcomers.
-Can’t ignore the population within the pages. Are your characters well-developed and complex, or do they come up lacking? Do we care about them, or what happens to them? Can we relate to them?
-What are your characters saying, or not saying (subtext!)? How are they saying it? Do they sound interesting or dull as dishwater? Very important – do they sound like actual people, or like “characters in a movie”?
Remember – the script is a reflection of you. A solid piece of writing shows you know what you’re doing. Offering up something sloppy is simply just sabotaging yourself.
Who hasn’t heard a variation on the line about a script being a cheap knockoff of a more established writer? While I can understand admiring a pro writer’s style, why would you attempt to copy it? It probably took them a long time to find their own voice, and by trying to write like they do, you’re denying yourself the opportunity to do the same thing for yourself.
Or to put it another way: they didn’t take any shortcuts to become the writer they are today, so why should you?
Screenwriters enter contests for a variety of reasons: industry connections, cash, software, notes on their script. And there are a lot of contests to choose from. How your script places can make a significant impact on helping you establish a screenwriting career.
And now there’s a new contest that wants to help you do just that.
Write/LA launches today (with early bird pricing in effect until April 30th), and is the brainchild of Angela Bourassa and Tim Schildberger. I had the opportunity to speak to them about it.
But first, a little background info…
Angela Bourassa is the founder and editor in chief of LA Screenwriter, a leading online resource for working and aspiring screenwriters around the world. Angela graduated from UCLA back in 2008 and has been writing feature screenplays — mostly comedy — ever since. In addition to writing, she spends much of her time wrangling her 18-month-old son, watching Survivor (#DropYourBuffs), and trying to keep track of which jail her public defender husband is visiting today.
Tim Schildberger is the founder of LiveRead/LA as well as a script consultant, writer with thirty years’ experience, an expat Australian, creator/writer of a Travel Channel comedy/reality series no one saw, and the man who led the team who found all the people for the feature film Borat. He’s a big fan of Aussie rules football (which isn’t anything like football or soccer or any other known sport) and baking treats with his twin girls for LiveRead/LA’s events.
Both of you have extensive experience providing information & resources to screenwriters. Tell us about your respective paths to get there.
Tim: I started writing for an Australian soap opera called Neighbourswhen I was 21. For the last twenty years I’ve been in the USA, and I’ve been a member of a writing group that holds weekly live reads. Not only has working with actors helped me enormously as a writer, but so has hearing all the feedback from my peers. That experience helped me overcome my hatred of re-writes (does anyone like re-writing?) and showed me the only path to becoming a better writer is writing more, sharing your stories, and being open to feedback. It also showed me I have an aptitude for identifying strengths and weaknesses in other people’s work, offering suggestions while maintaining the writer’s self respect.
In 2016, I decided that rather than continue assisting others with their scripts as a favor – which was becoming a little time consuming – I would put my own spin on the live read concept and build a new collaborative community, so I launched LiveRead/LA – and it’s already helped many writers. But I wanted to do more – to help more writers, to reach more people. I couldn’t make it happen alone, though, so it wasn’t until I met Angela and we discovered we had a similar sensibility about helping and giving back that Write/LA was born.
Angela: I started LA Screenwriter in 2011, and at first it was just a small blog where I would bring together produced scripts that I wanted to read and screenwriting articles that I found helpful as I worked toward my own dream of becoming a working screenwriter. But over the years, it’s really taken off, and now thousands of people a day come to the site for advice and resources, and that’s a responsibility I take very seriously.
I’ve thought about launching an annual competition before, but I honestly think that a lot of the screenwriting competitions out there – maybe even most of them – are ripoffs that don’t have the writer’s best interests at heart, and I didn’t want to be part of that cycle. I only wanted to start a competition if I had the ability to offer great prizes and great judging that could actually help writers in their careers, and that ability showed up in the form of Tim.
What prompted you to create Write/LA?
Tim: I was prompted to create Write/LA because I wanted to share what I’ve learned about writing, about the power of hearing your work read by actors, and about giving and receiving feedback. And the importance of interacting with working industry folk. Los Angeles is the global epicenter of writing for TV and film, so it seemed obvious to try to find a way to bring people to LA to learn, connect, and be celebrated for what they’ve achieved so far.
Angela: And I really wanted to be a part of Tim’s vision, because his idea for this competition and the prizes got me excited. Both of us are writers, so we know what it feels like to do well in a competition and then end up with no real benefit. We’re trying to change that by creating a competition that we both would want to enter.
What makes Write/LA different from other screenwriting competitions?
Tim: Write/LA is a competition aimed at the process of writing at a professional level. Most other competitions offer prizes in the hopes of discovering a script that can sell or a writer who can get representation. We’re focused on building command of the craft. Let’s be clear – our three grand prize winners will be writing while they’re in town. They’ll also be mingling with working writers and Industry people and gathering knowledge and experience that’s vital for lasting success. We aim to help our writers become professionals, not just one-hit wonders. It’s that combination of experience, education, and celebration that sets us apart.
What sort of criteria are you looking for in scripts that are entered?
Tim: We’re looking for evidence of command of the craft. That means we want original stories, compelling characters, an understanding of format and genre, and way above all else – an emotional connection with the material. There has been so much written about the structure of writing for TV and film: act breaks, inciting incidents, midpoint turns, and the rest. As a result, many writers are good at moving characters from point A to B to C. But very, very few are good at letting us know what this particular story is doing to the emotional well being of the characters. An audience needs to feel something, or the script is flat.
As I like to say, no teenage girl saw Titanicten times because it was a cool special effects movie about a boat sinking. They felt for Jack and Rose. We want to find scripts that make us feel, show us the writer knows how to tell a story, and will really benefit from the grand prize we’re offering.
Angela: That’s why we’re not judging film and television scripts separately. We’re accepting both, and we might end up with completely different genres and formats for the three grand prize winners, which I’m personally really excited about. We’re interested in emotional, engaging storytelling above all else.
Seeing as how this is Write/LA’s inaugural year, what are you hoping to establish with it in terms of opportunities for screenwriters?
Angela: We want to establish ourselves as a different kind of screenwriting competition. Our prizes stand out from the crowd, and we’re hoping a lot of writers out there understand the undeniable value of a private, intensive writing lab, an inside look at the industry, and the value of having their words read in front of an invite-only LA crowd.
Tim: Our winners will have a rare gift for any writer – a moment to be celebrated. Obviously, we hope their time with us will be a springboard to a writing career, or perhaps the final step toward breaking through, but what we’ll be focused on is helping them make connections and bring their writing up to a professional level so that – when they’re ready – they can begin long and successful writing careers.
We will also give everyone who makes the quarterfinals and above something of value. Being named a quarterfinalist feels good, but usually means little else. We want to change that.
Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
Tim: Gosh. I love pie. But if you’re forcing me to choose, I think I lean toward the more pudding/custard pies. In Australia we have custard pies, which are my absolute favorite. But here in the US, I love a good banana cream pie. No disrespect to the fruit pies – as I said, I wouldn’t say no to any of them!
Angela: For me it has to be blackberry. Blackberry pies remind me of my childhood. But I’m a sucker for basically any sweets that don’t have nuts. (Apologies to the pecan pie fans out there.)