Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Writers' torture: waiting for your script to be read

For a writer it never gets easier.

Waiting.

You’ve turned in your script to the producer/network/studio/agent/manager/professor/best friend.

And now you wait for the response.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

You’d think in time it gets easier. It never does.

You generally calculate in some reasonable reading time period. They’ll read it over the weekend. But you still think, if they were really interested they’d read it tonight. Why aren’t they reading it tonight?

The longer you receive no answer the more you think they hated your script. He just can’t bring himself to tell me how much it SUCKED! You start doubting the script, yourself, your religion, everything. You begin going through the script, re-examining every line. Jokes that just last week you thought were bulletproof now seem really lame.

Then you reach the point where you wonder, should you remind them? And if so, how? This depends on the relationship.

I would say this, try to find out what the reader’s behavior pattern is beforehand. It might save you a lot of time and anxiety. There are some producers who just don’t give you feedback. On a show we once worked on, we turned in our first draft and heard nothing. Weeks went by. The producers put our script into mimeo for the beginning of production and still said nothing. I was walking to the parking lot that night with one of the producers, and neurotic insecure writer that I am, I asked him what he thought of our script? He looked at me like I was crazy. His answer was “Well, we kept most of it, didn’t we?” From that day on I never expected feedback from any script we turned into him (which is good because we never received any). But we knew he was pleased so that was good enough.

I’ve known writers who thought they were getting fired at the end of the year only to get promoted. They had no idea where they stood. For some producers, that's their style.

On the other hand, there was Larry Gelbart. Here’s one of the many reasons I loved that man: You’d turn in a draft to Larry at the end of the day. Two hours later he would call you at home to tell you how much he liked the script. He understood the butterflies all writers experience waiting and went out of his way to be sensitive to that. When David Isaacs and I were running our own shows years later we adopted that same practice. If a writer turned in a draft we made the time to read it and respond right away. It’s how we liked being treated; it’s how we felt we should treat others.

All I could say is hang in there. And don’t build a “Jack story”.

What’s a “Jack story”? Well, it’s often attributed to comedian Danny Thomas and I’m paraphrasing but it goes something like this:

A guy’s driving down a country road late at night and gets a flat tire. He opens his trunk to discover he has a spare but not a jack. Up ahead he sees a light. There’s a house about a half-mile up the road. He decides to hike there and see if he can borrow a jack. He figures the owner of the house will gladly let him use it for a few minutes. Why wouldn’t he?

But as the guy trudges on he wonders -- maybe the homeowner won’t be so neighborly. After all, he is a stranger. Maybe he’ll be suspicious. Maybe he’s the kind who doesn’t like anyone touching his tools. He lives way out here in the middle of nowhere – he’s probably anti-social, probably a real asshole. The more the guy considers these options the angrier he gets until finally he reaches the house, rings the bell, the owner answers, and the guy says, “Screw you! I don’t need your fucking jack!” turns on his heel and marches off.

Your script is just as good if it’s read the first night or second week. So relax and have faith in yourself. Now, if I could just learn to believe that myself.

23 comments:

Richard Leslie Lewis... said...

I'm a Brit writer, just turned in some rewrites on a script having waited five weeks to hear thoughts about my first draft. Even though the rewrites were minimal and the headline was 'loved the scipt' it all starts again....

Tyler said...

Wannabe writer here so all I'm offering is what I've read. Bill Goldman mentioned in one of his books that the only way to cure the worry is to keep writing. Have faith in what you've done and move on to the next story. I'm sure it's different between TV and movies, but it helped me when I send things off to competitions.

Mary Stella said...

It's the same in book publishing. Prior to selling my first book, I submitted to a few different publishers. One house took a year to get back to me on a manuscript the editor had requested during a pitch meeting at a conference. So, allegedly, I wasn't even in the mountainous slush pile.

If a writer's lucky, the editor's rejection letter will explain why the story didn't work for the house's needs. The worst is the multi-copied, generic form letter.

The Curmudgeon said...

This was a downer only because I thought... maybe... one might grow out of it.

But this feedback anxiety is not the exclusive property of scriptwriters and other creative types. I'm a practicing lawyer. Every time I write an appellate brief (for example) and send it off to the client or to the attorney who hired me, I go through a phase where I can do no other productive work, waiting for that happy phone call when someone tells me what a good job I've done. Sadly, since a bill often is enclosed with the final product, these calls are all too rare.

It has happened that I'll get a congratulatory phone call or email enthusing over the brief from a client who subsequently neglects to mail the fee check.

Of course, if the praise is sufficiently effusive, it almost makes up for the failure to follow through with the money.

Almost.

OK, not at all.

Anonymous said...

Great piece. Writing is hard - waiting to hear about your writing is even harder.

bArg said...

I <3 everything about this blog (besides baseball).

Mac said...

"You begin going through the script, re-examining every line. Jokes that just last week you thought were bulletproof now seem really lame."

That's a killer. The last time I did that I fixed it and emailed it again, saying "ignore earlier version." Then I did it again, and again, and. . . I think it was on version 4 the guy said "Just let me read it, if a couple of jokes stink they can be fixed, but if the whole thing stinks, fixing the odd joke won't help."
Fortunately (about a month later) he said he liked it, but I'd already chewed my own leg off by then.

Hollywoodaholic said...

This is definitely a barometer for whether you're a glass half full or half empty type. I got to the point where I used to relish the wait because it meant the script hadn't been trashed yet. Or I didn't have to go back to work yet following a lame bunch of notes destroying it. That grace time became quality time to perfect your body surfing techniques, play basketball, or get therapy.

Anonymous said...

What's worse is going to pitch stories on a sitcom, they'll let you know, you hear nothing and learn they're using one or two of your stories. You call and ask, they get defensive when you ask about your stories, then they tell you they were already in development when you pitched... no one in the room said they that when you pitched them. One show took 3 stories of ours until our agent finally squeezed an assignment out of them because we were going to report them to the WGA. Also had a friend as a show runner who asked us to e-mail him our stories... he used our stories, we got bubkas.

RockGolf said...

My dad told the "jack" story regularly almost 50 years ago. But the punchline was "Stick yer wheelbarrow up yer ass!"

Class act, my dad.

Mel Ryane said...

I always think I know better and repeatedly fall for, "Please,let me read it...some of it...please send it to me."

And I do. And I wait and wait and...
drink.

Carson said...

Ken,

Your advice about waiting couldn't be more timely. I'm waiting to hear back from the network as we speak, and I've done the jack story in my head (luckily not aloud) at least twice already.

And Tyler is right, immersing myself in two other projects is how I get my mind off of the waiting - and waiting - and waiting. Well, except for today. Today is free ice cream cone day at Ben & Jerry's and nothing stops me from agonizing like New York Super Fudge Chunk.

te said...

Having received no response to an article I'd turned in (freelance), I finally called my boss and asked how he liked it.
If I don't, he replied, I'll let you know.
I continued to work for him for a couple of years; pretty much our only contact being calls from him giving my next assignment.
Then, I stopped getting those calls. For quite a long time. Eventually, I phoned him and asked if he had anything.
That last piece you wrote, -- which he'd printed, without any discussion or changes -- I didn't like it.
I never dealt with him again.

mcp said...

Interesting that you should have referenced "The Jack." The story itself is pretty old. Max Miller told a version of it in England many years before Danny Thomas did. (By the way RockGolf, Miller's version used a wheelbarrow).

Thomas' major innovation was he didn't simply tell the story, he acted it out. Alan King described seeing Thomas perform the story in his book "Name-Dropping." He tells how Thomas turned his coat up and hunched over as he walked in the rain and let his anger build and build until when he says "You can take your jack and shove it," you can see why he said it.

King wrote that "The Jack" changed how he approached comedy. From then on, he didn't want to simply tell one line jokes. He turned his act into a series of small plays. This was the start of comedians being able to turn their acts into sitcoms.

WV: splolis - To the winner goes the spolis.

Larry said...

There's a Groucho Marx monologue in Duck Soup (1933) that's pretty much the "Jack" story.

David Schwartz said...

I once turned in a cartoon script I had already sold, and avoided the story editor for nine months on the fear that he would say that it sucked! When I finally ran into him, he told me how much he liked the story. Hell, if I'd called and found that out nine months earlier I may have gotten another assignment on the show!
Verification Word: Rejeck - Somehow a very appropriate word for this thread! :-)

Roger Owen Green said...

I think most of us do variations of the Jack story, in relationships, e.g. - "He/she is probably a schmuck; don't want to go out with that jerk anyway," when they've just been sick and hadn't had a chance to return your call.

Kim said...

Thanks for this - it's nice to know it's not just a newbie thing. I just submitted my very first manuscript two weeks ago, and even though the automated "Thank you for your submission" email said it would take 4-6 weeks, I've got ALL kinds of nervous going on!

cadavra said...

About 20 years ago, Dick Wolf (supposedly; more likely one of his minions) was so anxious to read a script I'd written that they literally sent a messenger crosstown to pick it up. Two months and nine phone calls later, I gave up. To this day, I still don't know if it was ever even taken out of the envelope.

Michael J. Farrand said...

Bill Goldman seems to have the cure--have so much going on that you're not thinking about the jerks not getting to your work. Great story about Larry Gelbart.

John said...

In the Cheers 200th anniversary special there was a scene showing Sam wearing a dust mask in bed with several women. I don't remember seeing that in any episode. What was that scene from? It can be seen in this YouTube clip at 3:34 into the video: Here

Drifter said...

Where can I find an example of a Character Profile?

I'm just starting out as a writer and love your blog. Many have suggested I first write a character profile, then everything else flows easier. Is there a place I can find examples?

PK said...

An agent once requested a movie script from me. He was as enthusiastic as could be.
The script came back exactly a year to the day I sent it.