Writers’ Groups and Community

Between 1998 and 2006, I joined and left or got dis-invited from five writer’s groups. This is not counting participation and reviewing scripts on zoetrope.com and triggerstreet.com.  Typically these groups are started by people who want feedback for their own output and in some cases there is a bit of a control issue.  The last group I was involved in during those years had evolved through LIFT the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto.  Here is a group that rents equipment and facilities to non-commercial, personal films. But the screenwriting circle was run by a guy who wanted only writers trying to write for sale to the industry.  This meant a lot of reiteration of the Robert McKee and Syd Field kind of plot paradigm and nothing from the inside out or with insight into the writers.  There is the tired old chestnut distinguishing between a rule and a principle.  Today, there is increased talk about how the classic commercial paradigm is too confining.  I once used the word “dogmatic” and he asked me to define it.  I did, but couldn’t get over the air that he believed he was setting me up for embarrassment in case I failed to define it.

I happened to leave that group after my father passed away, when I wasn’t focusing on writing and had some personal issues to work through.  I had no real deadline and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t writing for the sake of writing.  I was then told it was supposed to be my turn to submit, so I did send the current draft of a feature script without combing through it for a final proof read.  This became an issue.  Again, this might have been another set up, this time seeing if I was truly leaving the group over grief.  Suffice to say, the tone of a meeting was set by this insufferable jackass. I had a run of dialogue between deliberately named characters Mack and Beth, and one might reasonably assume people would understand this is not an oversight, but the quality of laughter when it was brought up suggested the handiwork of the moderator.  His friend and second-in-charge of the group has gone on to make a handful of features.  But the head moderator of the group seems to have gone on to post some seemingly fake credits on imdb.  Ultimately, after each meeting the group would go for a beer nearby and I attended a couple of times but I had a night shift to attend in those days and so I couldn’t fully make the commitment to join and socialize, so that made me a bit of the odd man out and opened the possibility of letting my image be created for me.  I do remember a short being presented for discussion and I praised it for being satirical.  The woman who had written it flatly told me, “I didn’t intend it as hilarious”  so a few years later when she won the Toronto Urban Film Festival with it pretty much as written and Atom Egoyan was quoted as calling it great satire I was happy without being able to say I told you so.

Many of these little groups – some of which involved cold live readings, but mostly discussion of drafts or sections of drafts – seemed ineffective.  If I am given half an hour of a feature (25-30 pages) for comment I am unable to thoughtfully factor in the context. If we are asking each other to read a full draft, and the discussion is less about the specific dialogue and more about the broad strokes, then it may be more practical to show each other four page outlines that clearly show how the real estate of story and plot are to be spent over the first act, the two halves of the second act, and then the third act, what the turning points are and how key problems are solved.  The trouble is that most studios or filmmakers would love to get their hands on a true story outline that solves the broad strokes, just so they can have someone expand on it and steamroll the original writer into oblivion.  Most movies are professionally produced and often directed with style and the screenplay or plot is the weakest link.  The full drafts often submitted for the group to read and give notes on (including many of my own) are typically not ready to be seen by anyone.  They are too frequently knocked off because there is a sudden opening in the queue and something is due.

I also found that it is best to invite specific writers you respect if you build a group. Especially now, there is more division over how to approach humor and sensitive subject matter that it can detract from getting a useful tracking of how people follow a script and where interest levels peak or drop and what is muddled.  One group I had been invited to because I had filmed at one of the members’ houses and I had sat in during a reading and apparently my acting was well received.  This lasted until I had submitted something and a couple of members were concerned that I had not taken the same screenwriting course they had – one that apparently cautioned writers to banish anything “problematic” from a story or description, or anything that was not flaming progressive.  The friend who had brought me in was delicate when telling me this. Sometimes this kind of turn of events doesn’t come with a satisfying explanation.  I had to connect my own dots.  I looked back at my last draft where I was describing – for example – a cleaning lady who hated dirt.  I had drawn blank on the word “pristine” so I wrote in a place-holder “perfectly white” referring to her hands, but forgetting to put an asterisk on either side of the place-holder for later editing. Even something like that could have someone to get the wrong idea.

My take on writers in general is that many are gold rush seekers, and some just want to have the identity of writer, but most of us are interested in ourselves and the bubble around us.  They say you know someone by the company he or she keeps.  I was in that last screenwriting group for three years, and I am somewhat on speaking terms with one of the members but couldn’t confidently say many of the names even if I remember drafts of their scripts I’ve read.  I’m not even sure I like many of the writers I know.  I am certain that taking random opinions to heart has caused me to waste time exploring drafts of my work that were dead ends.  Meanwhile there are times I have written coverage on someone’s script and they appreciate that it is getting into how the themes are used and what personal issues the writer brought into it.  A story or script might be a message or clue from the unconscious, just as the initial spark of an idea and its euphoria is the tip of that iceberg hinting that the rest might be stored in the writer’s mind and that he or she is the person to develop it.

Jim Jarmush has said he will write a first draft in longhand and hand this to a typist and shoot that.  Woody Allen claims to use an old typewriter, then maybe circles a few things on it with pen for corrections and lets someone else retype it.  Meanwhile some of us are puttering away at multiple drafts instead of getting on with it.  One script I had been paid for each time I did a rewrite (for which I’m grateful) had been set aside by the producer and needed my encouragement.  It had table readings and yet no urgency of production until world events made the core premise dated.     I think initially a previous writer would not provide an electronic version because he wanted control.  So I retyped that draft and made some adjustments along the way and gave both a pdf and editable office document to the producer.  I had recommended printing it out and writing in concerns or edit notes onto that so that I could see the changes at a glance and go through it in the file to apply changes without unnecessary time-consuming re-reading.  But a poor typist was brought in to use different software and generate a new draft I had trouble wading through and could not embrace as a potential director.  I really needed to be able to track at a glance what had been dropped or changed and I was angry with the unseen typist who had made so many mistakes that this draft could not be presented to anyone.  To this day, I offer ideas on fixes but I know if I do it there is a psychological commitment. Not having the last word is one thing, and wanting to make a different movie is another. Even though I certainly want to see my friend have something to show for all the time and money that has already gone into generating the material.

During all that same time, over ten years, my clown epic had been refined to a point where I was livid when I discovered some key people wanted to do improvisation instead of the dialogue I had crafted.  That would have been too unwieldy and rob me of true closure that vindicated my writing.  But other filmmakers have their premise and draw in their collaborators and jump into pre-production without a finished script and have a leap of faith about improvisation.  I know myself enough to know that would not be my cup of tea. I like to have a common point of reference, a final script. I wonder if skipping those screenwriting support circles might have allowed me to just blunder ahead with whatever crazy drafts I had and make features fifteen years earlier.  I do know that if you are in a group just because you answered an open call or you belong to a co-up that entitles you to participate it won’t be as useful as notes from someone whose work you respect and who cares enough about the craft to ask what you mean if something is unclear and who may even care if you exist.  If you love the craft of screenwriting and some of its architectural demands then it won’t be so personal that it is uncomfortable – it is just about how information is set up and how prepared the reader/audience will be for what happens next.

In your twenties and thirties, a screenwriting group might be a way to network. It might also be a way to push people away with failing to be progressive enough or passionate enough with political opinions.  It is a double-edged sword.  Identity politics can wear you out.  And if you have notes on a script and by the time a circle comes around to you others have already said what you had prepared it will seem like a waste of time.  The funny thing is that a playwright I respect had once stated in a blog that, “You should not respond to feedback on a script right away.  Just take the notes and think on them and decide what is useful and what is not.” Something like that.  And yet how many times after a table read or screenwriting discussion do we expect writers to answer questions or justify something in the script? Maybe at the outset, the writer should ask what kind of feedback is helpful (tracking one’s interest in the scenes, characters, content) and that you have no intention of asking questions, only noting them to look over later.

Sometimes doing several stabs at a outline is more useful than any feedback.  Really kicking the tires of the story without generating a huge word count and getting lost in the weeds.  I encourage people to write but the concept of peers and peer review isn’t something to take as having blanket value.  Some say even random feedback is akin to what you get from the general audience anyway, but there is a skill to reading and evaluating just as there is a talent and craft needed for the writing itself.  Some people are armchair studio executives and others will putter with writing, off and on, like playing the lottery.

For years I could spend time reading scripts and noting my observations and generating substantial reviews on-line and in return getting reviews for my own scripts that were minimum word count b.s. proof that the person just skimmed the script. I know if I have spent a couple of hours reading a script or anything else (especially with an open word file for my notes and first impressions as I go) I will have something to say.  Making room for a lot of writers in a group to present their work for feedback requires commitment.  I might prefer to e-mail my notes if I can’t attend a meeting and be denied the e-mail address of the writer of the month because the moderator wants all discussion verbal and oral face to face.  (Really to make sure his/her role and authority as moderator is not rendered irrelevant.)  Even though that is not practical. Ultimately, some people might feel they need a sense of community and people to have a beer with or vent with but in practical terms a screenwriter circle is not practical.  Maybe one great script with a circle of producers and financers would be ideal.