Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A writer's torture

For a writer it never gets easier.


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.


VincentS said...


Bob Waldman said...

Thank you Ken. I’m going to read and reread this post to keep calm and comforted every time I wait…and wait…wait.

And wait some more.

Bob Waldman

mcdufferton said...

It's encouraging (and such a relief!) to know that someone with all your talent, experience, awards, work on pivotal shows in television history that will continue to be watched and beloved long after all of us are gone, and did I mention talent, still feels this way, like us newbies and/or lowlies. Thank you for sharing this, Ken. Truly.

Ere I Saw Elba said...

Rejection and waiting is hard to take, whether it comes from a professional relationship or a personal one. I don't know if I have the thick skin for either.

Buttermilk Sky said...

The jack story echoes the "Upstart!" episode from DUCK SOUP (1933). It's probably even older than that.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I guess that contradicts the old saying, "No news is good news."
I'm curious. Do you still experience the same problems with your plays? Or is this just a TV thing?


GeeRab said...

Nothing like the excitement when you do a follow-up call after a few months to "officially" get a pass and you find out that they haven't even read it yet. Only business where finding out that people haven't done their job is great news.

Big Murr said...

I know that waiting and agonizing all too well. It happens almost every time I submit a first draft of project, going slowly nuts as feedback fails to come.

And almost every time I receive a very Zen (?) lesson in "Everyone has their own life." The project might be filling my world just now, but it's only one of a half-dozen on the client's desk. Or the client broke a tooth at lunch and has been out of commission for a couple of days. Or once the client knew I had all pertinent info, they took a few days to go fishing, confident I'd deliver the goods.

And all the angst transforms to mild embarrassment when an email finally arrives, beginning with "OMG!! We love it!"

mike schlesinger said...

I was at work one day when I got a call from Dick Wolf's office. I was told he had heard about a script I'd written and had to read it RIGHTTHISMINUTE. I told the lady I'd be happy to pop it in the mail, but she said no, he had to have it RIGHTTHISMINUTE and they were going to send a messenger over to get it. I gave them the address; fortunately, I had a copy in my office and was able to quickly xerox a copy, stuff it in an envelope and leave it at the front desk. It was picked up about 45 minutes later.

Two or three days later, I'd heard nothing back, so I called the office. One of Mr. Wolf's assistants assured me that the script had indeed arrived. About a week later, I again called and was again told that he indeed had the script. I professed my puzzlement as to why this was taking so long when he had to have it RIGHTTHISMINUTE. She reassured me that I would be contacted soon.

Another week went by and I called a third time. I said that if he didn't like it, that's fine, but I'd appreciate some kind of response regardless of what it was. And again I was reassured that I would be hearing back very soon.

That was 1988--thirty-three years ago. I'm still waiting.

Necco said...

@ Mike

1988? I guess that would have been "Miami Vice"? Have you ever sold a script? I couldn't find your name on IMDb...

mike schlesinger said...

I'm under Michael: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1106318/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1