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Part of the Process: The Writer’s Group

June 10, 2007

Back in December, I wrote a piece on working within a screenwriter’s for my blog @ Zaadz. So for the first time, I am sharing that piece here as I continue to unveil additional layers of my previous writings and finally starting to reveal a bit more of myself.

Hope this is a valuable resource!

–D.

Last night was yet another night of meetings with the screenwriting group that I belong to. The group was formed by myself and a couple of my friend/partners who work in the industry. At the time, I was pulling down time in a local coffee house to help pay the bills. The coffee house had a conference room which provided a safe haven (not to mention coffee, the elixir of the screenwriter), the material, and most importantly, the desire to create an environment where we could support each other in our endeavors.

I’ve been asked many times by other writers of just how we go about our work within the group. It’s really quite simple, but there are elements of the way things are done, that are just so essential to get right.

1)Assembling The Group. First of all, I realize this is easier said than done for many of you. In L.A., you can walk down the street and trip over a screenwriter who is shaking a manila envelope in front of you with a “Hey buddy, can I interest you in a script?!” If you can’t put together a group of like minded friends and acquaintances, then find a group somewhere, and make sure you are comfortable and protected as a writer.

In our case, we have been lucky to keep the group small, and for the most part friends and acquaintances. And whether you are amongst a group of friends or strangers, make sure you are protected by a confidentiality agreement, and a set of clear guidelines as to how the group will run.

This is one of those essential ingredients for the group, because if you don’t feel safe in the group either as a creative individual or as the person responsible for your own intellectual property, MOVE ON.

2)Bringing Your Work to The Group. Every group will have its own guidelines as to the amount of pages, a rough time limit, or the particular type of work you are allowed to bring. With our group, we focus strictly on screenplays, and the writings that will often accompany the work: Beats, treatments, synopses, etc. Our group (which has 5 individuals currently) limits the work to an hard 15 pages.

We will bring a copy for each member, and divide parts (including the body copy) amongst the members, save for the author, who should only need to listen. As a writer, often when you hear someone else read your work, and you’ll begin to know where you need to start to make your changes.

The group will read the author’s materials all the way through, and at the end comes the comment period. During the read, you will begin to see who your strongest readers and actors are, and you’ll come to find that you know who to give your meatiest parts and who should be reading body copy.

It’s actually a great if you have a writer in the group who is an actor. Since they are one of the key individuals who will be translating your work, they will help you iron the kinks out of the language, and call your eye to the false types of behavior that all of us can fall into writing from time to time.

Having a director in the group is also great to have because they represent the person who will translate story and structure to drama and visuals. Having at least one in the group is really helpful as they will help clue you in on what’s possible in the translation of your work, and the problems encountered in that process.

3)Working Within The Group. This is another of those critical elements to the success of a group. It’s the difference between a healthy thriving group or a negative trap and respect is key to the group’s health and success.

For one, attendance is crucial. Even when you don’t have pages, you are there to support the rest of the writers, so if you are not committed and showing up at least 90% of the meetings, you aren’t doing anyone any good.

Respect means listening. It’s the biggest thing that you are there to do. Period. I’ve been in groups where people blow up because ”You’re not getting it.” That sort of person is poison to a healthy environment. If your fellow writers aren’t getting it, neither will your audience, and either way, you are doing something wrong. Then after you’ve listened, you are there to ask questions, not explain. If you doubt that, think about the last joke that bombed and think for a second about how explaining it made it funny. Right.

Respect also comes in the form of how you deal with giving your commentary. Remember the opinion that you give should always be constructive, and you should always to strive to open up with what’s right with the work, or the writer. Shine light first on their strengths.

Then when it comes time to get out the criticism remember, it isn’t about whether you like the script, it’s about whether it works or not. Knowing how a piece works comes through time spent both as an observer of other people’s work and a writer of your own. I’m not even going to begin to talk about the differences between screenplays that work, and ones that don’t, let alone the whys.

Remember that as you take criticism, what you choose to do with it has direct impact on how you grow as a writer. You have the right to consider everything or nothing that has been offered to you and do with it what you will. But remember you also owe it to yourself and the group-mates to hear and consider all that they have said.

And finally, it’s so incredibly important NOT to censor yourself. Always seek to deal with issues in a positive way, but when you start blowing sunshine up someone’s skirt, you are locking them into a space where no growth can occur. You are there to tell people when pages, words or ideas just don’t work, and even if you are the only one that has that opinion, it informs the writer that there is still work to be done.

4)Getting The Most Out of The Process. The only way to get what you want out of the group is to fully participate. That means fully listening, fully sharing and taking it upon yourself to learn from everything you hear. Even the most quiet individuals should share their voice, and most importantly, contribute through the gift of their ear.

The great thing about most groups, no matter what format of writing you are talking about, is that you will always have people with varying levels of expertise, acuity, and perspective. Stay in a group long enough, and eventually, you’ll be the one who is pointing out the basic errors to the new guy.

A good writing group is a lot like a good family. Communication, listening and respect are essential, and tough love is always the way to deal with your fellow writers. If you aren’t telling them what they need to hear, they are not growing. If you aren’t tearing your own work down, you’ll never be able to rebuild it.

And check your ego at the door. Even a room filled with the likes of William Goldman, Paddy Chayefsky, Jane Campion and Dalton Trumbo could all learn something from each other in a successful writer’s group. We all start at the bottom and work our way up in the process to making more interesting mistakes and becoming better writers.

I know that I am becoming a more successful writer not simply when someone tells me something is great, but when I start to spot the problems myself, and that my mistakes are leading me to better work.

I’ll probably come back to the specific subject of screenwriting at another point, but I wanted to share one thought that I have learned to take to heart not only as a writer but as a filmmaker.

Victor Salva once said something along the lines of “Scripts are like children, and if you never let go of them, they’ll never grow.” And neither will you for that matter. Scripts are templates, not the gospel. Film is a collaborative art which brings many eyes, many hands and many talents that you may not have. Let them contribute their talents and watch your child grow. And if the script fails and you did the best that you could it’s time to write a better one.

Now all of you writers out there, sit down and write those pages!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2007 10:04 am

    Wonderful! Thank you for sharing!

    Collaboration and cross inspiration are such valuable tools for artists these days. I firmly believe that as artists of all disciplines we owe it to each other to support one another through the sharing of ideas, methods and concepts.

    I’ll have more on this in the coming days.

    Thanks again for stopping by!

    –D.

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