This week a guest blog from writer and former script editor MERCY HOOPER. Mercy responded to my newsletters of the last two weeks with these really interesting thoughts about a very good alternative to formal uni screenwriting courses.
Over to you Mercy…
‘I live in Peckham, SE London and have 3 primary school-aged children. I have written a screenplay, an original first ep for a comedy drama series, several series ideas and am also working on two novels. I do not yet have representation. As a script editor I have worked with Abi Morgan and Heidi Thomas; for the BBC, The Bill, Ecosse Films, Tiger Aspect, World Productions, The Film Council, Kudos.
Please say hi to your colleague Phil Gladwin, who I worked with briefly at The Bill. Oh and if you do know any industry professionals, including yourself, who would like to come and meet us in the pub we would also be delighted! Guest speakers, pitching opportunities, all things are possible. I’m not sure that’s the normal route, but then we do not live in normal times I think. And if the mountain won’t come to Mohammed…!
I enjoyed the feedback I read on screenwriting courses and thought I’d plug the idea of the writers’ group. It wasn’t something I’d ever really heard of until I was introduced to a very talented writer locally, who happened to be looking for other like-minded, garret-dwelling souls. She suggested we recruit some other local screenwriters/ aspiring kinds and so we did, and soon had a monthly (or so) group who’d meet in the pub and circulate our work and give really excellent feedback. It has been my way into writing (from script editing) and provided the all-important impetus to hit deadlines, find confidence, laugh, talk and ultimately produce work, which thanks to everyone’s highly expert and constructive feedback, is constantly improving. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I was lucky that I happened to know a couple of people nearby who fitted the bill, but I bet there are writers in your area, or on a forum somewhere, who you don’t yet know about. You may never want to know them. They may be axe-wielding maniacs (as well as writers), but I urge anyone who hasn’t got the where-withal to go on a course or finish a script, to search them out. We’re considering asking some industry decision makers to come down and meet our group in the local so we can scare them and pitch them some ideas, but perhaps South East London is a little too far to come..!
I’d never really heard of a screenwriters’ group but when introduced co-incidentally to another writer, she convinced me it was the way forward. I hate to evangelize, but I can honestly say it is the way forward. Some writers hate talking to other writers. Keep as far away as they possibly can. But I think screenwriting is inevitably a collaborative process, so as an ex-script editor, it didn’t seem strange at all to me to want to show my work to others, and as importantly, be given a deadline.
So, after some funny exploratory threads on the local online SE London community forum (as a resident, I name no names), we added to our group of two with two friends and neighbours and a very nice forum-dweller. And three years on we are nine. I’ve completed screenplays and first episodes. I’ve also finished half a novel, which my group were generous enough to indulge me in, and had tons of fantastic feedback. Several others in the group have produced incredible, original work, and now have a couple of scripts in development with leading indies, have plays produced and commissioned… and we’ve even tried ‘group writing’. That may have to be another story…
Essentially what the group is, is a bunch of trusted colleagues and friends, a brilliant multi-personality sounding board, a platform for information-sharing, ideas and debate, and really great fun. If you organise yourselves, you can automatically rely on someone else to crack the whip in terms of deadlines. And give generous notes, and all for FREE. I’ve also got to realise that there are many ways to skin a cat, and that no-one knows anything, but that sharing your work and seeing that other writers go through the same trials and tribulations as you can be incredibly comforting!
Lots of people who’ve been writing a while have a trusted colleague, editor, friend, partner or fellow writer who serves the same function. But the great thing about the writers’ group is that it formalises the meeting/organising process and gives a variety of opinions, as well as work. So for anyone interested in setting up, here’s a few tips on how we did it:
Find friendly writer/s in your area. This may involve scouring friends, address books, the pub, library, cafe….or checking out your local on-line community forum and, if no-one recommends a group already, post an ‘ad’. We found there were a couple of writers groups already existing but for Fiction, not screen. In the end we only happened to recruit one person this way, but if on-line forums sound scary, and let’s face it, there are a lot of people with too much time on their hands, then hassle your friends for other names. And on your first date, I mean ‘meet’, please take a friend with you – or a good book, maybe even a loaded weapon. A bit like on-line dating. Or ask in your local bookshop if he/she knows of anyone. And ask to stick up an ad.
Fix a meeting. Have a note-book and diaries so that you can decide who’s ‘chairing’ the next meeting, etc, and fix a date. Agree before you get too drunk on who’s ‘sharing’ their stuff at the next meeting, what the deadline is, and the date of next meeting. We found that this structure, and even a little red book, really helped. If you establish rules, everyone respects them, and of course, can break them.
Agree in what form you are going to respond to each others’ work. We all produce written notes for the meeting, having email circulated work the week beforehand. This way the victim I mean writer had something to take home again afterwards, and ruminate on. It’s amazing how dense, but also inspiring, a set of notes can be. You don’t always get it down on the night, and nuggets can be found in the written notes later, once the hard work of the re-write begins again. In terms of styles of feedback, I found you tend to get used to individuals’ personalities, and you tend to get to know how to take them. Different styles of feedback and tastes also helped develop not just confidence but also a tougher hide. If you’re not sure of the acumen of some of the people attending, you may want to draw up a few guidelines for people about basically being constructive, as well as delivering criticism. Many of us had some experience of writing or delivering notes, so some of it sounds obvious, but amazingly not everyone seems to know that telling you what IS working is as useful as telling you what isn’t.
Ultimately though, the process of sharing work with others, and reading others’ work, is almost always instructive. And a bit of peer pressure, even competition, with other good writers goes a long way.
Anyway, I will be crediting them on the red carpet…when I make my speech…
I’d love to hear about others’ experiences…
Thank you so much to Mercy for that really fascinating and inspiring championing of WRITERS GROUPS.
And here are some very useful thoughts from screenwriting guru PHIL PARKER about university screenwriting courses –
‘It is worth checking out the Skillset accreditation system – this checks UK MA level courses in Screenwriting and has been reviewing courses in the UK for six years, and involves professionals including agents, writers,distributors and screenplay consultants in its team. They provide the Skilset approval for courses which meet strict industry criteria drawn up by course directors and industry professionals.’
Thank you very much Phil.
A couple of things to close…
I’ve had my website tarted up a little (let me know what you think!) – hopefully my now extensive library of blogs – interviews, articles, polls etc about screenwriting – is more accessible. I’d particularly recommend some of the interviews I’ve done in the past with inspirational writers like ASHLEY PHAROAH and TERRY CAFOLLA and script editor ESTHER SPRINGER.
FINALLY this week just room to let you know that I’m delighted to say I will be accepting applications for the CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE 2013 from early next week.
Details will be on my website and the Channel 4 \ 4talent website.
AND, as MERCY says, we’d love to hear about your experiences (and tips) about writing groups,
Until next week
All the best
Oct 12th 2012