Question from 14Shari:
In one of your posts you advice to have at least three scripts in your portfolio. how do you decide which ones are good examples? Are there any measurements or standards one can use?
This is a great question, Shari. At a basic level, you’d like to have a strong belief in the material yourself. In December 1986, I mailed a letter along with the final draft of the spec script K-9 I had just edited. In that letter, I wrote to my writing partner something to the effect that if somebody didn’t buy the script, everyone in Hollywood was crazy. I said that based on two things. First, an utter lack of understanding about how unfathomably hard it is to sell a spec script in Hollywood (in that respect, I was the one who was crazy). Second, my absolute belief in the story.
But I would not recommend putting material out to Hollywood reps and buyers based solely on one’s belief. All writers can be blind to a story’s quality – or lack thereof – getting swept up by the material and the writing process.
[Piece of advice: After you finish a draft, set it aside for at least 2 weeks. You may think you've written the Great American Screenplay, perfect in every way. When you read it again after a break with a 'fresh' set of eyes, you'll likely be amazed at how imperfect the script is.]
As a matter of course, I would recommend you have any script you write evaluated by professional readers. In point of fact, one of the reasons I believed so fully in K-9 was because the previous draft had been reviewed by two studio executives, who provided some extremely helpful feedback which ended up being incorporated into that final draft.
So who constitutes “professional readers”? Not your spouse. Your parents. Your children. Your siblings. Your next-door neighbor. If they are friends or family, especially if they don’t know much about what constitutes a solid script, their opinions don’t really matter all that much, and in fact their praise for your material can lead you to a cloudy assessment of your story.
Fortunately there are professional script readers, many of them available online. A relatively cost-effective way just to get a sense if your script is in the ballpark or not are the Black List readers. [NOTE: I do not make any money from my association with the Black List.] I know many people who have used this service and praise it. Indeed, I’ve tried it on a script project to get impartial feedback. I found the comments on-point and helpful.
Another route to determining if a script is good is the big screenwriting contests, the Nicholl Fellowship and the Austin Screenwriting Competition probably the most prestigious of the bunch. If you do well in either or both, you not only know your script is a strong one, you’re likely to be contacted by Hollywood reps.
The thing is no two readers are alike. You may pay to have several pro readers provide feedback on your script and each may have a differing take on it. This could end up confusing you, providing no clear path through the rewrite. So there are dangers in getting too many assessments.
Frankly, some stories are just going to create widely divergent views. I co-wrote a script featuring a hard-to-like protagonist. My agents at CAA had it covered by two in-house script readers. One thought it was really good. The other utterly loathed it.
So we circle back to your belief. Before you send out a script or query a rep, you should be able to give an honest appraisal of it, and truly believe that you have written a good story. But in my opinion, you should only get to that point after you’ve had the script reviewed by pro readers, and you’ve rewritten the script to address the issues that you feel are worth fixing.
Hey, just as I was wrapping up this response, I remembered an interview I did with writer-director Declan O’Dwyer who sold his spec script “Broken Cove” to Hollywood while living over in the U.K. by submitting it on the Black List website He had this to say on the subject:
That was one of the best things about putting it on the Black List. It’s one of the first times that I’d ever exposed myself to such criticism. I don’t agree with paying £500, $600 and often more, whatever, to one of those industry script reading services to get a generic script editor, ONE script editor, to go through my script and tell me what was wrong with it structurally and thematically and dialogue‑wise? I don’t agree with that – smacks to me as a fucking rip-off – preying on peoples hopes and aspirations. Many (not all) are just looking to tick certain boxes, to hand it to certain people who would like certain things. That’s not what I want.
The Black List is different. I put it up there and I paid for a couple ‘reads’. It’s a very small fee – especially when you think you’re getting people that do this for a living, reading your script, breaking it down, analyzing it, and putting up a review. Whether you like the feedback or not, that’s irrelevant – you learn much more from criticism that you do from praise.
I had some great, great reads for “Broken Cove.” First, a couple of 8’s and then I had a couple 9’s for dialogue n’stuff. Then I had a 4, man, from the dialogue. I was just like, “What? What kinda drugs are you on?”
Yeah man, I used the Black List as my script editor. I found when I got bad feedback and things, I was really honest with myself, really brutally honest, after having that initial, “What the fuck are they talking about?” moment. It was the, “Oh right, yeah, that’s what they’re talking about.” If I agree, I change it. If I didn’t, I didn’t. You’ve got to have faith in your story. I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t have faith in it because my attention spans’ too short.
Declan used the Black List as his “script editor.” Whether it’s the Black List or some other readers, this is my point: You can use pro readers to give you feedback, consider the critiques honestly, make the changes you think are necessary, and see where that takes you with the next draft. You may need to go through the process several times, like Declan did. But look where it got him!
You can read my interview with Declan here.
But wait! There’s more! Just as I was about to schedule this sucker, a Twitter conversation broke out about script readers. To provide a counter position, here is what Craig Mazin (The Hangover II, Identity Thief) tweeted:
— Craig Mazin (@clmazin) August 27, 2014
— Craig Mazin (@clmazin) August 27, 2014
So like everything else with regard to this crazy craft, each writer has to figure out their own process. Some, like Declan, will benefit from getting pro reads. Others may not. At the very least, however, using readers like the Black List is a cost efficient way to determine if your script is on the right track and identify potential areas to work on.
Readers, what are your thoughts? How do you determine if your script is ready to submit somewhere or not? Please head to comments and share your thoughts.