Thursday, September 10, 2009

I Will Not Read Your F'ing Script

This piece in The Village Voice by A History of Violence screenwriter Josh Olson is priceless.

I am so grateful that he spelled out a few things. He starts off with a many paragraph refusal--"I will not read your fucking script"--and then goes on to say, "At this point, you should walk away, firm in your conviction that I'm a dick. But if you're interested in growing as a human being and recognizing that it is, in fact, you who is the dick in this situation, please read on."

The full article is very well worth reading, but this point especially I'm glad he made:

"This needs to be clear--when you ask a professional for their take on your material, you're not just asking them to take an hour or two out of their life, you're asking them to give you--gratis--the acquired knowledge, insight, and skill of years of work. It is no different than asking your friend the house painter to paint your living room during his off hours."

I think I'm going to bookmark this article.

30 comments:

Christian Berntsen said...

I haven't read the article yet, but just in response to this post I don't think I could ever ask somebody in a professional capacity to read my script without compensation of some kind. Even then I would imagine the service should be offered by the professional, not solicited by the would be writer. It smacks of amatuerism (and also a bit lacking in good taste).

The same hold true from a writer's perspective for those people who--when they find out you are a writer--say "I've got a great idea for a story!" I've got plenty of my own ideas, thanks.

Lou Anders said...

Yes, that's even worse. It indicates they think the actual work of writing is the *easy* part and you should be grateful to take their idea and "split it." I didn't want to quote too much in one place, but Olson says:

Which brings us to an ugly truth about many aspiring screenwriters: They think that screenwriting doesn't actually require the ability to write, just the ability to come up with a cool story that would make a cool movie. Screenwriting is widely regarded as the easiest way to break into the movie business, because it doesn't require any kind of training, skill or equipment. Everybody can write, right? And because they believe that, they don't regard working screenwriters with any kind of real respect. They will hand you a piece of inept writing without a second thought, because you do not have to be a writer to be a screenwriter.

King Rat said...

People ask professional friends to do crap all the time. I get asked to fix someone's computer or show them how to do something on it two or three hundred times a year. Unless you are a former professional techie (which you may be, I don't know your pre-editorial life), I'm willing to bet you've asked someone for free computer help before.

Christian Berntsen said...

I just finished the article, and the situation he described frustrated me and I wasn't even the one it happened to! I understand that the guy who solicited him wanted real criticism, but know that most people are too thin skinned to take it and just want the reassurance he talks about.
I want that, too, but not at the cost of knowing whether or not I'm wasting my time.

I recently received notes back from the editor we hired to work on the Apes novel, and it was a sea of red. Every page looked like a blood bath. And I smiled, because though he nitpicked, he was still very much excited about the project, and I knew then it would only get better from there. This is actually my first experience with an editor who went that far, and I understand that he cares and wants it to succeed, not cut us down.

I'll take the blood bath any day over a few pricks...

Lou Anders said...

As long as its constructive. It's your book at the end of the day, not the editors.

Christian Berntsen said...

We don't agree on everything, of course, but for the most part it's good stuff. But thank you for the reminder, it's always good to keep that in mind.

Lou Anders said...

That's what I tell my authors. I may make strong suggestions, but it is there book. (That way, when they don't listen and I am proved right, I can gloat.)

davidf said...

Does this mean writers should not query you at PYR? Or just that you too (rightly) hate getting cornered by anglers using the old pitch-disguised-as-a-request-for-feedback?

Lou Anders said...

Well, Pyr does not officially accept unagented submissions. Period. Inside that period is the fact that sometimes people you know guilt you into looking anyway. I love Josh's comment that, "Every time I pick up a friend's script, I feel guilty that I'm ignoring work." I am going to sight that in future. It either cuts into work time or my family's time.

Quite different from this are those occasions where *I* am curious about someone's work and solicit samples from them.

davidf said...

Thanks for clarifying PYR's query guidelines. I'm guessing turning down friends' requests to consider their work makes for particularly uncomfortable moments--I don't envy you! Your notion to adopt and wield Josh's work/family/guilt equation will probably work about as well as anything. If you want to beef it up some more, you could always throw religion into the mix. Heh.

Lou Anders said...

Well, if you are a writer, you get the "I'll tell you my idea and we split it" and I used to respond with, "And you can tell my doctor where it hurts and when he operates he can split the $$ with you too."

KevinD said...

Hey Lou, I was at Dragon*Con but didn't meet you there (I go to a lot of the writing panels but it's a big con). Anyway, part of the reason I go to D*C is it's a great way to network, meet some people and hopefully make a good impression. I have an editor who will look at my novel and an actress who will look at my script when I get either text to submittable form. I saw a guy blow it with Stacy Hague-Hill at the end of a panel, describing his entire book when she had politely handed him (and anyone who asked) her card and said what she was looking for in an initial submission. As far as getting a full script read gratis -- that's a big deal and you had better be best friends to even think it's reasonable to ask of a working professional who is not a producer seeking new material. There are plenty of professional readers who will gladly read your script and give you feedback for a few hundred dollars, and some of them know people and can make recommendations for particularly hot reads. All that said, I'm not seeing the big deal about reading a 2-page synopsis for some friend of a friend. Surely that can be done quickly, with a minimum of comments ("This is poorly written with a muddled premise and..."). Hand the synopsis back to the guy, recommend a book or course, and tell him you'll gladly look at another synopsis a year from now. If he's serious, he'll show up a year later with a much better synopsis.

Paolo Bacigalupi said...

love it. just love it.

Christian Berntsen said...

By the way, Lou. I have this book I'd like you to read, it's about a cable car full of french clowns, a magical pewter harp, President Obama--oh, wait, I've used that joke on you twice already on Facebook. Damn!

Lou Anders said...

Hey KevinD,

Sorry we didn't meet. I hope you had a good con though.
And you know, the thing is what Josh Olson describes is from the perspective of a screenwriter, which is different from that of an editor, since part of an editor's job is reading.

For my part, I can't do unagented submissions because I don't employ first readers, and even agented, I get multiple queries a day now. It's not uncommon for me to be working till I go to sleep, and I've taken to working weekends too, and even a two-page synopsis is two pages out of my submission pile I'm not reading, and multiple two-page synopsis add up! Plus, if reading were all that were required.... but reading and evaluation is what is needed.

For my part, I ask agents to send me one to three paragraph descriptions of a manuscript as a query, before sending the manuscript. I can tell from that if it's even in the ballpark of what I'm looking to buy.

And yes, you should definitely do Dragon*Con for networking. Do you attend World Fantasy as well?

KevinD said...

Lou,

I hear what you're saying and I certainly don't envy you your workload. To some degree, your job is a labor of love. I don't have a background in editing, but I do have a background as a college instructor who's graded many an essay in his time. And while it can be tedious in the extreme, especially if you have to make sure that you are using the exact same point scale for everyone, once you get in "the mode" you can go swiftly. This "mode" requires a free block of time with no interruptions and distractions, and I recognize that that can be difficult for slush-pile / "favors" material that you hit when you have a spare moment. But, back in the day, I could copyedit and block-synopsis/grade a 5-page essay in 10-15 minutes.

I guess what's raising my hackles slightly about Josh's article is that he sounds a bit like a foulmouthed ingrate. Sure, he gets pestered by never-gonna-bes who want to be the Big Movie Writer like he is now. But, almost certainly, somebody cut him a little break at some point in the past, took a free look at his amateurish first efforts and gave him firm but thoughtful feedback. I'm not saying that being successful should automatically make you a charity. But paying it forward occasionally without whining or salf-aggrandizing is part of being a well-rounded human being :->. And it's coin-of-the-realm in Hollywood, where an unknown one week can be on the front cover of Premiere or Script the next.

I'll close by saying that I do appreciate your points and the fact that you evaluate people's writing for a living. You just can't do it for free for anyone who asks -- you already have a filter process in place that keeps many competent, established, original writers off your desk. But I would hope that you occasionally look outside the agented pile, if only to get a truer sense of "what's out there" and the kinds of things that people are trying to write -- if only because it's probably what they want to read, too, and that can give you a better sense of the current market. (Though you probably have people for that :->.)

Cheers,
Kevin D.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Kevin,
I take all your points, and again, my situation and Josh's is very different. But no, I don't have any people. Just me reading. I don't think I can get someone else in my headspace enough to know what it is I'm looking for (that Picasso point he mentions - I've been reading for over 30 years). Yes, I do make a point of challenging myself to stretch further afield, but I also have very specific things I am reading for, which relate to balancing my whole list (a bit like making a mix tape used to be before iTunes). I've also bought several new writers recently. And I tend to be the kind of editor who also suggests to writers what I'd like to see. I seek a lot of stuff out, rather than waiting for it to come to me.

KevinD said...

Lou,

I appreciate your time (with all the other reading you have to do :->) and your viewpoints. I'll look for you next year at D*C and say hello. (To answer an earlier question, I've never attended World Fantasy Con -- wow does THAT move around! -- I hit Orlando-area cons and good old D*C, which I've been attending since the early '90s and which has positively mushroomed in the last 5 years.)

Best,
Kevin D.

Lou Anders said...

I highly recommend World Fantasy for networking. Highly. It's the "business con" of the year. And yes, please do say hi next year at Dragon*Con.

Arctic Goddess said...

Hi Lou:

I agree with many points that Kevin D. pointed out. An aspiring writeer is much like an apprentice to a Journeyman trades person. Where I am from, you can go to school and leran the bookwork part of the trade, but then you also have to find a Journeyman who will supervise your work and take you on at his/her employer. This grand idea falls apart when, you can't find a Journeyman to supervise you because they are too busy, so you can't find a job in the field you've been studying for. In oil rich Alberta, this happens all the time. So, the individual does the leg work of networking to attempt to find a 'master" in their field only to be told, "sorry, I already have enough apprentices". Perhaps if each "Journeyman" Screenwriter or Novel writer or Editor were willing to take on one "Apprentice" a year, a diamon in the rough, a new writer might be able to get a start in the business. I understand that reading takes your very valuable time. But, as the quoted article mentions, you can usually tell within the first few lines if the writer has what it takes to be a good writer.
I've spent many years building up a career in another field, knowing that I really had a writer's heart and wanted to write (I had no choice at the time due to having 3 small children). So, although I have put in the work and am currently paying my dues, I don't have 40 years left to make it to the top. Even so, I write because it's what I love to do. I'm not in it for the money. I do it because it's who I am. Naturally, if it pays off, yay for me. If it doesn't, I've enjoyed the process.

Patricia

P.S. I will look for you next year at Dragon Con as well.

Lou Anders said...

Hey, Patricia:

I just wrote this on Mark Newton's blog and I think it's worth reposting here:

There is a difference I think in screenwriting and in other forms. Just as there is a difference between being an editor and being a writer. When I wrote screenplays professionally, you got an endless series of people asking if they could tell you their brilliant idea, which you could then write and then split the money with them. You also had people who felt that they could tell you their idea, and then, in five minutes, you could tell them how to turn it into a million dollars, as if writing were something that could be taught in five minutes. That's what I related to so much in this piece.

In editing, it *is* different, although simple time constraints and needle-to-haystack ratios prevent me from looking at unagented material. And you get a LOT of people who get very offended when you explain you can't look at unagented material, who are convinced that you are simply an impediment to their million dollar book deal, if only you get out of the way. A lot of "Fantasy is popular. I've written a fantasy. Ergo, you are a fool if you don't publish it." I think it is fine to ask authors with whom you have formed relationships to look at your material. But I would hesitate from approaching someone cold with a request that they do so. Also, there are plenty of avenues - writing workshops and seminars - where you *can* get feedback from professionals on your work. And I do know of plenty of cases where those professionals have gone on to champion and mentor specific students. The difference is that they met them in a professional setting, and then the professionals volunteered this support.

Yes, it's hard to get an agent, just as its hard to sell a book. Yes, the odds are stacked against you. But ultimately, I think if your work is exceptional, then you are the exception!

Believe me, there is nothing I want more than to find a complete unknown who writes like George RR Martin. But there is that needle-haystack ratio, and thus there are processes, so that, you know, I don't have to find myself in front of my computer doing work on a Sunday morning. Oh wait...

End crosspost. Now - I'll also repeat something I said at Dragon*Con, which I'm only realizing, and that is that having an agent as intermediary also serves as some emotionally protection for the editor. It's very hard to tell someone no when they've put their heart and soul into something. You don't want to just say "no" sans explanation, and often, it's hard to find an explanation that sounds truthful/helpful/sufficient without simply saying, "because this is crap." It's hard to say no to someone with whom you have a relationship, offline or online.I don't enjoy it, and working through agents keeps everything on a professional level.

Lou Anders said...

Also, something else that needs to be said, not being harsh, just straight, and which goes back to that attitude of entitlement that I mentioned above ("Fantasy is popular. I've written a fantasy...").

My primary responsibility is to my publisher, to find the most commercial books I can in order to make them money, because publishing is a business. Beyond that, my responsibility is to those authors that I have already taken into our line, and to our readers, who rely on my judgment to provide them with worthwhile books now and in future. That's it. There is no responsibility to make anyone into an author, and nothing is owed to anyone who does not fit into one of the three categories above.

Now, again, nothing makes me happier than seeing a debut author take off, and calling up someone to offer them their first sale is a singular joy of this field. But the above is the beginning and end of the responsibility, and every editor and house has their own process as to how to go about this.

For my part, I comb short fiction venues for new voices, and I tell beginning writers that it is still possible and desirable to find success at short form length as a way to break into novel sales. And I believe this.

And again, yes, it's hard, yes the odds are stacked against you, and yes there is the catch-22 that agents don't like looking at new authors unless they already have an offer, etc... but as another panelist said at Dragon*Con, "and yet it happens all the time."

KevinD said...

Lou,

You've gone above and beyond on this thread and I thank you for (re-)expressing thoughts that you shared at Dragon*Con. I have to confess that many of the writing panels at D*C are similar from year-to-year and I've fallen off attending some of the more basic ones because nothing new has been said in them the last few years. It appears that you brought some fresh air to yours so now I'm regretting it :->.

As an aside, I've been through the rollercoaster with one screenplay I've been writing. I've always wanted it to be a movie, but didn't realize at first that people could just write spec screenplays and try to sell them. I thought I had to write it as a novel and hope one of those special Hollywood people would take an interest and somehow turn it into a movie. Once I learned about spec screenplays, I immediately switched to writing up my movie idea as a screenplay. But now I find that I just can't get it down to 120 pages and get all the facets in that I want. So I'm strongly thinking of returning to the novel version -- which might be marginally easier to sell in today's markets, anyway :->.

Cheers,
Kevin D.

Lou Anders said...

More than marginally, and it's very hard to get Hollywood's attention when you don't live there. In fact, I lived in Venice Beach and was told I needed to move to West Hollywood, that that 20 minute drive would actually make a difference (and it did, in lots of subtle ways). But 120 isn't really the length of a screenplay these days. When I left it was about 113. And a novel, published and successful, is probably a better calling card when you are not in Hollywood, even if you have a screenplay based on it to. I thin it is very hard to get a spec script read unless you know people (same as anything). That being said, I love the format and the formula. Screenplays are a lot of fun. I would highly recommend Dan Decker's Anatomy of a Screenplay as a good book on the formula of it, if you are serious about it. Good luck!

Lou Anders said...

More than marginally, and it's very hard to get Hollywood's attention when you don't live there. In fact, I lived in Venice Beach and was told I needed to move to West Hollywood, that that 20 minute drive would actually make a difference (and it did, in lots of subtle ways). But 120 isn't really the length of a screenplay these days. When I left it was about 113. And a novel, published and successful, is probably a better calling card when you are not in Hollywood, even if you have a screenplay based on it to. I thin it is very hard to get a spec script read unless you know people (same as anything). That being said, I love the format and the formula. Screenplays are a lot of fun. I would highly recommend Dan Decker's Anatomy of a Screenplay as a good book on the formula of it, if you are serious about it. Good luck!

KevinD said...

I love the screenplay format -- I think I write better short stories now from following Goldman's dictum of "enter a scene as late as possible, leave it as soon as possible" -- but my current screen story is an ensemble piece with a lot of interweaving threads and it might be too big for a movie. (Miniseries or series? Hmmm.) If I ever get it in the shape I want, I have some "ins" (former agent, former reader, aforementioned actress) but it will be a hard slog even if I was Steven Spielberg's pool boy. Appreciate the Decker tip -- I think I've read ever other screenplay book except that one :->. Among the big names, don't like Syd Field's stuff too much. I thought Robert McKee's book would be laughable, given the treatment he gets in "Adaptation", but it is excellent. William Goldman's stuff is fun, as is Max Adams slim tome on the everyday life of a screenwriter.

I had a chance back in the spring to move to Redlands for a job and I wondered if that would be close enough to support a screenwriting job. Not remotely! Took me 1.5 hours in "light" Saturday traffic to get to the western side of L.A. (Writer's Store on Westwood Blvd. -- had to visit!).

KevinD

Lou Anders said...

I have to confess that I didn't read Dan's book. I studied under him for years and years, and so I got this direct, before the book was written. But I found him the best of many teachers, and read many other books that weren't as good as what he taught.

KevinD said...

Alex Epstein's "Crafty Screenwriting" and Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" both give down-in-the-trenches, what-really-works advice for getting your idea straight and peppering it with the right amount of interest, tension, conflict. Also, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio's site (http://www.wordplayer.com/) has great articles and posts.

Kevin D
P.S. If you haven't done it, maybe a blog entry relating screenwriting to novel writing -- perhaps adaptations? -- would be of interest

(a quick R.I.P. to Blake Snyder, whose YouTube videos show an engaging man taken much too soon)

Lou Anders said...

Thanks for these links. I had a fascinating conversation at Worldcon with Mary Robinette Kowal and Paolo Bacigalupi where I taught them the screenplay "formula" and then they tried to apply it to their novels and short stories (with surprising results).

KevinD said...

The screenplay "formula"? This isn't the Syd Field plot-point-on-page-such-and-such, is it? :->

There's a recent book, "Screenwriting: the Sequence Approach" (Paul Joseph Gulino) that I've found useful. He breaks up the screenplay into 3 acts (per Aristotle :->), and he puts 2 sequences in Act I, 4 sequences in Act II, and 2 sequences in Act III. He shows how a lot of well-known movies follow this approach and the strengths it has for the writer (more manageable chunks, much better hints at Act II structure) and for the movie-viewer (parsing the movie as it plays in front of him/her). It cleaned up a lot of structure haziness for me.

Kevin D