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.”
Stepping onto my proverbial soapbox to utter a few thoughts on something that needs to be said.
If you’re part of an online forum, and you post your material in that forum seeking feedback from other members, you will get all kinds of responses. Some will be positive, and some will be negative – maybe to point of being outright condescending.
How do you respond to the positive ones?
“Thanks. I appreciate it.” Maybe elaborate a little, or a follow-up question or two. Possibly even ask to communicate with the person in private.
The negative and/or condescending ones?
That’s it. No matter how much you feel the urge to respond with a stinging retort written in ALL CAPS and a lot of exclamation points, just don’t. You asked for comments and you got ’em.
A thick skin is a necessity in this business. Arguing or getting angry because you don’t like what somebody said won’t help you or your writing, and it makes you look petty and unprofessional.
Now let’s address the other side.
Somebody asks you for notes, and based on the quality of the material, you do the best you can, trying to be as helpful as possible. Be honest with your suggestions of what needs to be fixed.
Does it have potential? Mention that. Are there problems? Identify them and how they could be fixed.
If the writing reflects an amateur, or a poorly constructed idea, point out how and why in a constructive manner. There’s no need to be insulting or talk down to them. Chances are they’re still learning, so they don’t know as much as you do.
They may not like what you have to say, maybe even going so far as to insult you and your experience, or deride your comments. But that’s on them. You’ve done your part.
So let’s review.
You want help? Take what you get, even if you don’t like it. After your temper cools down, take a serious look at what was said. There may be something in there worth using.
Somebody asks you for help? Be professional and as helpful as you can. Don’t hold their lack of experience against them.
No matter whether you’re giving or receiving, be patient, tolerant, and open-minded.
As my network of fellow screenwriters has expanded over the past few years, I’ve become more active with exchanging script notes with some of them. It’s a pretty even split between me approaching them first, and vice versa.
From my perspective, the whole thing has been quite helpful and I think my scripts are definitely better for it. And as far as I know, none of the other writers have any complaints about my notes. If they do, they’re not saying anything.
It’s gotten to the point where every once in a while, an email will pop up from one of these folks asking if I could look over their latest draft and offer up my two cents. I’m fairly certain I’ve never said no.
Full confession: it usually takes me a little longer than I expect to get it done, but I do make a point of getting it done. I try to extend the same courtesy to them that they would to me.
I bring all of this up because I had a great catching-up coffee chat with a writer yesterday; somebody I haven’t seen since last summer. We shared what’s been going on with our respective projects, and I mentioned finishing/sending off some notes.
“Do you charge for that?” they asked.
No. It’s just an exchange, and I like helping out when I can.
“That’s really generous of you to give up your time like that. Have you thought of charging for notes?”
Of course, but I don’t consider myself qualified to. If I was a working writer and had a couple of produced features under my belt? Maybe.
I’ve always found the bios of professional consultants and readers to be pleasantly diverse and equally fascinating. Almost all of them have spent time working in the industry, many having read or given coverage on thousands of scripts.
Me? I can’t make the same claims. I’ve read a lot of scripts, but nowhere near those numbers, and a large percentage of my time has been (and continues to be) focused on honing my writing skills.
They have a fairly solid grasp of what works and what doesn’t, and provide much more insightful comments than I believe I could.
All things being equal, I’d say my analytical skills have definitely improved over time. I don’t know what kind of pro reader/consultant I’d be, but for the time being, I’ll stick to the friendly no-cost, between-writers exchange.
As mentioned earlier, I like helping when I can, and will continue to appreciate any opportunity to read an associate’s script in order to give them notes that will in theory help them make it better.
*personal note – this is my 800th post. Thanks for being part of the journey, and hope you’ve enjoyed it. I certainly have.