Last night I met up with friends I made at college during my MA. I'm still in touch with various people but nine of us in particular have made a point of forming a writers group, where we workshop each others' projects every six weeks or so. And I can't stress how invaluable this is. It's so important to get honest, constructive feedback on your work. In an interview with Richard Curtis he describes his partner as his biggest critic, scribbling things like CDB (could do better) and NBG (no bloody good) all over his scripts, whilst Tim Bevan would just say "not funny enough" after reading an early draft of Notting Hill. My wife, bless her, falls under the other category, lovingly believing that everything I write is the best thing since a young Will Shakespeare dreamt of star crossed lovers. And whilst I have had the pleasure of meeting Mr Bevan, he certainly hasn't read any of my scripts... yet!
So I workshop with my group, and they are a decent bunch! During the MA we workshopped all the time, and through Phil Parker's guidance, developed a common screenwriting language and method, so we would all know what we were talking about, when discussing things like, plot, story, genre and tone etc. And when you think how loosely these terms can be used, and how many different definitions they can elicit, it's very useful when you have a group of people all on the same page.
And since graduating two years ago, we have, between us, two agented writers, two Red Planet Prize finalists, an experienced children's tv writer and now BBC Comedy College participant, a Taps participant, a Doctors episode, a big budget Rom Com commission, and various other bits and pieces. The important point is that my work has benefited enormously from surrounding myself with good people who provide excellent notes.
Having been thrown together by the MA, we were colleagues before becoming friends, and I think this has helped in being able to give honest, but hard criticism, when necessary. It's never rude, or spiteful. There's never any jealousy involved, but it would also be no good if it was just a screenwriting love-in where we all told each other how great we were when there are clearly script problems. But you need to be gracious and accepting when receiving feedback. An intractable, precious writer will simply not improve their work. Having said that, you don't need to agree with everything, all the time. My very general rule of thumb is that if three or more people are saying the same thing, you may have a problem. But a member of the group also told me that BBC Head of Comedy, Michael Jacob, said that even if one other person 'gets' what you are writing, you're okay. So sometimes you're caught between a rock and a hard place! For example last night, I workshopped my comedy script for the upcoming Rise Summer Challenge. And there is something in that script, which I and my friend Toby, who I have known forever and whose opinion I really value, find very funny. But NO ONE in the group thinks works. So I would be foolish not to take that on board, but I still haven't decided what to do about it.
And of course all this feedback and constructive criticism is gained free of charge. But I realise many writers, especially newer ones, don't have this support network, and before I did, I searched out the usual script reading services. I don't want to get into a generalised debate about the quality of these services, because I think the standard varies between different organisations, companies and individuals. But what is fairly common are the exorbitant prices. With the honourable exception of Lucy Vee's Bang2Write service, you often find yourself paying three figure sums, or close enough, for a script report/development notes. And this is just completely ridiculous and impossibly expensive for the vast majority of writers to afford, certainly with any regularity!
Let me just say that anyone has the right to charge whatever they like, that's their prerogative... but it doesn't mean people should have to pay it! I regularly script read for companies like CinemaNX, Marchmont Films, Shoestring Productions and Tiger Aspect etc. And the going rate is around £50 per script. And when you think about it, when done properly, it's about 4 hours work; two to read, two to write the report. What's wrong with that? That's what big companies pay their readers. So why should individual writers have to pay two, three, four times that!
With this in mind, I plan on launching my own script reading service very soon. I have no desire to step on Lucy's Bang2Write toes so my service will be slightly different, cheap and cheerful, but of a high quality. To be perfectly frank, I would still recommend it preferable to find yourself a writers group (as long as that is also made up of good quality people) as this is the ideal situation. But if you can't do that, for whatever reason, feedback is crucial. So stay tuned, there are more details to come...