Archive for August 2012

Paying For It – Part 1

August 8, 2012

Whether you’ve been writing a long time, or are relatively new to the craft, most of us will hit the wall at some point with a project that isn’t getting traction with agents or managers, and you’re confronted with the question: to pay or not to pay for feedback? Is it worth forking over money to a consultant for a couple of pages of notes or more detailed critiques?

My answer is yes, with caveats and buyer bewares. But first, let’s look at your options. (My comments are directed at screenwriters primarily, because the movie biz is collaborative by nature, calling for more consensus than book writing, I think.) Ideally, we should be able to get honest feedback for free from peers and mentors — preferably, professionals with credits that validate their informed opinions. That is quite possible, provided you have made contacts through networking or referrals.

But how do you get those referrals? There’s a myriad of resources online — screenwriting and book writing forums, message boards, swap read groups, and so on. Some have working screenwriters or professional agents and managers who drop in to offer advice (Done Deal for screenwriting, Absolute Write Water Cooler for book scribes). Check out those sites and lurk around for awhile to see if you can find like-minded souls who share your tastes and interests.

The downside to that kind of online community is the same as with any real life writers group: sometimes it feels a bit like the blind leading the blind. I often get asked to read stuff, and I’m the first to say that my feedback is just one person’s subjective opinion and shouldn’t be given any more weight than other aspiring writers’ critiques because none of my scripts have sold for big bucks or have been produced yet. But I believe that I usually offer valid observations about what is working or not working in early drafts, and try to give suggestions that might help the writer improve the story. Sometimes though, I muddy the waters for them or they take it personally. It’s hard to detach ourselves from what we write.

This brings me to the trickiest part of getting “free” feedback from peers. The truth is it’s much easier to tell a writer that you like their script, and hold back on what you actually think about the writing or story itself. Throwing out a couple of vague comments that this or that was a tad confusing or could be punched up is much less time consuming than getting into a detailed critique of plot and character arcs.  Or you can just fall back on the standard “pass” line given by agents/managers/producers:”The writing is good, but it’s not for me.” Professionals rarely will tell you why they rejected your work, because they simply don’t have the time to break it down for you — and also, because I think from past experience they have learned that most aspiring writers aren’t really going to heed their words, anyway. If you do get decent notes and try to make changes, sometimes the end result is worse than your original draft. Rewriting sucks.

Note that there is a big difference between “rewriting” and editing. I find that many writers who ask for feedback are actually just looking for editing suggestions that aren’t very painful or difficult to make. However, when I talk about the need to rewrite a story, what I mean is you may have to rethink the concept and plot from page one. Heck, I’ve had to do that with scripts of my own that were finalists in major contests such as the Austin Film Festival, or quarter-finalists in the Nicholl Fellowships, based on what the pros thought and said after they read my prize-winning work. Trust me, contest judges and agents or producers do not necessarily see the same thing in the pages you’ve written. The latter is seeing dollar signs — how much will it cost, and how much could it (or the writer) make?

No one wants to hear that they should throw out a completed draft and start over, or make significant revisions to the story they envisioned. Personally, I hate rewriting. Especially since I put a lot of time and effort into thinking through my premise and outlining my plot. I test the basic concept by telling friends and family about ideas I’m working on, then listen to their reactions. I’ll even mention new projects to agents, managers and pro writers in my network of contacts, while pitching a script that is already done (most scripts are never really “done” though until it’s been sold and put into production). You can usually tell if the new concept has potential by the kind of response you get from professionals. They won’t be shy about asking to see the new script when it’s ready if your casual “BTW” elevator pitch piques their interest.

Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself again. How did I make those contacts? Contests. Screenwriting conferences. Mass email query services. Script doctors and professional analysts. I’ve covered much of this territory in older blog entries here, but have some fresh stuff to add in my next post — including updates on my latest competition experiences. And I’ll tell you about an affordable script coverage guy, who I highly recommend in Part 2!