Josh and I have been writing screenplays since I started taking film classes in 1999 – we’d work on my homework together. Before this time, the short films we would do were always on the fly. “Now say – ‘You will die like dogs.’” Basically just kids recording their play time on video.
We starting writing features when I graduated in 2004. Over the last 7 years, we’ve learned a lot about screenwriting and have picked up many tips and tricks. But one of the best things we ever did to improve our craft and our output was to join a Writers Group.
At first we weren’t too keen on the idea of paying to be in a group of people who we didn’t know and weren’t too sure of their “ability.” What if we were the smartest people in the room? (We screenwriters can be so naively arrogant.)
But after our first meeting, we were hooked.
The way our group works is this: every week one member of the group brings in a project they are working on. It can be a full screenplay or only a partial. It can be a treatment, an outline, a TV pilot, a pitch, etc… We assign characters to the room and then read the script aloud. Afterwards, we spend about an hour giving feedback and spit-balling ideas on where to go.
And I’m not talking about the “that was good” or “I didn’t like it” kind of feedback but really helpful and constructive tips on how to improve your writing. These people speak the language of cinema.
We’ve brought in our script 4 times over the last 7 months. The first time was the first act, then the first half, then the first two acts, and just recently we brought in a complete draft. (To call it a first draft is inaccurate since we’ve rewritten 50% of the script about 30 times.)
The benefits of joining a group are huge.
1. Honest feedback
Your Mom and your spouse love you too much to tell you that your work is anything but brilliant. If we listened to them, our latest script would have been sent out to the town with only the first ten pages written because it was SO brilliant that no one needs to read more than that. They’d pay us to finish it. Uh huh. Moms and Spouses can be naive too. But we love them for it. We need someone in our lives who makes us feel like we are brilliant.
Your friends have too much at stake to tell you the honest truth. I try to give honest feedback when a friend passes me his screenplay but it is really hard. I don’t want to hurt their feelings.
A writers group provides you with a room full of strangers to tell you the truth. They have nothing to lose by telling you how terrible your script is. (Though our group is very nice about it.)
Every 10 weeks, we have to schedule when our next reading will be. Because we don’t want to waste the time of these people we’re in the room with or waste our own money, we want to bring in something drastically improved. Having a deadline and incentive to improve does wonders to keep us writing.
I couldn’t imagine trying to get something “industry ready” without honest feedback from people who know what industry ready IS. We’re usually way to close to a project to look at it objectively. A writers group full of professional writers (or hopeful writers who have been doing it for years and years) is a sure way of double checking your work. They make you ask the hard questions. Is this the best that it could be? Because if it is not, no one will notice you or your script. The odds of selling a spec are tremendously against us. I don’t want make it harder by sending out a mediocre screenplay.
4. Overall improvement
Every week, we hear screenplays and then listen as 10-15 writers give their thoughts on what worked and what didn’t. THIS IS SO VALUABLE! I can’t stress enough how much we learn by listening to these writers talk about how to fix a problem with the structure, characters, dialogue, etc… It is so true what they say about who you surround yourself with. It rubs off.
It is also incredibly valuable to share our own ideas in the group. This can be incredibly intimidating. What if it’s a crappy idea? So what. We hope to write for TV one day. We’ll have to get used to quickly throwing ideas into the pot. Bad ideas can lead to good ideas.
Looking at someone else’s script that has problems and trying to solve those problems helps us to improve our own problem solving skills and use that in our own scripts.
I highly recommend joining a Writers Group. It will cost you money. But it is incredibly worth it. Make sure it has a mentor leading the group – you don’t want the loudest person in the room to dominate. Having a mentor/leader keeps everything on the right track. Our mentor has been in the business for over 30 years and is incredibly smart and talented. Make sure to sit in on a group before you pay the money so you know what you are getting. If you ARE the smartest person in the room, find another group.
Join a group!
And – Put your BUTT in the SEAT and start writing. EVERY DAY. Check out the post I wrote on this subject last year around this time. It sure paid off. We’re nearing a completed script that is almost “industry ready.”