Monday 14 October 2013

Ask Aunt Ellen! Screenwriting Advice Column

This post has taken me a little longer than I had intended to put together - my apologies!
A while ago, I tweeted to ask for your screenwriting questions. Now that I work in the media department of a literary agency, and as I have a background in film production and development, I thought it would be fun to see what I could come up with in response to your queries.

You didn't disappoint me (thank you, Twitterers!), but because I'm rather slammed at the moment, I'm going to answer the questions one at a time over the next couple of weeks.

So here's the first one:

What comes first, the writer, the talent, the script, or the agent?

Personally, I don't think you can separate the writer from the talent. Unfortunately, without that spark of creative brilliance, one is an enthusiastic hobbyist rather than what I would define as a 'writer' - ie someone who can make writing into a solid career path rather than something one does for fun alone. 

That may be the agent in me talking - of course I don't mean that one must make all of one's income from writing in order to be deemed a 'writer'. It's more about PROMISE than achievement, to my mind. If I read a truly excellent script by someone who hasn't had their 'big break' yet, to me they are just as much a writer as a seasoned veteran of the industry.

So, you're a writer with talent, who has written a script. Great! Now write another one. And another one. And a few more. Now redraft the best ones a few times until they're honestly as good as they can be. Get feedback from other writers, from people you know who you can trust to be brutally honest. Writing is not the solitary vocation many take it for - if other people don't like your work, it doesn't really matter how much you like it - it won't get made, and thus you won't get paid - unless others like it too. 

You need several scripts in your 'arsenal', as an agent will want to feel that you're interested in a career, not just 'selling a script' as a one-off. The number of submissions I see that begin with 'I need your help to sell my script...' or 'I'm looking for an agent to represent my script...' - that's a red flag to agents. Since we're going to be building a professional relationship with YOU, not your script, we want to feel that you take your writing career seriously and want to do more in the future than just one project - we want to feel that you've got a career in mind rather than 15 minutes of fame.

So now you've got a few scripts you think are, as they say, 'da bomb'. You're ready to try sending them to agents, to see if they're interested in taking you on as a client.

And here's an important part. Probably THE MOST important part:


It makes sense, when you think about it - for example, if you write comedy, you'll want to have an agent who has lots of great contacts in the comedy production world. If you send it to an agent who mostly represents historical drama writers, they are far less likely to be interested in representing you, no matter how good your comedy script is. It's simply not their area of expertise, or enthusiasm. So do your homework, and submit to agencies that like your sort of work.

Another tip there - try to find out who the newest agent is at each agency. If your research suggests they seem to like your genre of work, submit to them as they're most likely to be taking on clients (much more so than the more established agents who already have lots of clients - there are only so many hours in a day and so there is a limit to the number of clients a single agent can realistically have on their books). 

The newbie agent gets the benefit of working alongside the heavy-hitters, and also has the clout of their agency's name behind them, so you get the best of both worlds - someone who'll have the time and enthusiasm to champion your work thoroughly, as well as some kudos to back it up.

So there's your answer - writer and talent come joint first, then script (and script, and script, etc) - then agent. 

If you try getting an agent with anything less than the best work you're capable of, you're selling yourself short and will either end up with a sub-par agent or a huge pile of rejections. So write your arse off first!

Thank you for your question! The next question I will answer (in a couple of days) is:

What's the best way to get a script sold/made? Agents or going straight to producers/companies?

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