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Sunday, August 17, 2008

From the Mailbag

Dear Wave-inatrix:

Do you find being a writer yourself difficult when being a reader? I know it would seem to make it easier, but it's always worried me even applying to jobs with "coverage" as one of your duties because I always think I would sit there reading scripts and if I came across one similar to mine not be fair to the script, because I'm writing one similar....and that's not fair to the writer. I wouldn't purposely try to do this, but it seems really hard to not become biased. So I guess my question is how do you separate you the writer from you the reader to give people fair coverage?

-Curious in Culver City

Dear Curious. Dear, dear Curious. Interesting question. In the years I have been a reader, at competitions, production companies, script service providers and my own company, I have never, ever run across a script anything like what I am personally writing at the moment. Same genre? Sure. But nothing close enough where I thought oh damn, I'm going to PASS this script because it's too much like what I'm working on. Is that what you're asking? I can't imagine that happening, personally. In my business, in fact, I am actively looking for a GREAT script and a GREAT writer because of my previously noted unicorn philosophy but also because a great writer is someone I can try to help break into the industry and that is only good for my business. But. Again. There are different types of situations in which you might be reading and providing coverage.

Let's just take your average reader working for me. Someone not invested in much more than doing a good job and receiving a paycheck to support his or her own writing.

Providing coverage is something that is a bit mathematical at the end of the day. The script is analyzed by certain standards. And because in this instance, I am the boss, my readers are held to certain standards as well. I read and review every coverage that comes through my company before sending it to the writer. I have never, ever, ever had to call a reader on the carpet for anything other than perhaps being too nice, ironically. See my post the other day about being honest in coverage - even if it stings some. It's about ethics for me. Readers are intrinsically fair and unbiased when doing coverage because of the mathematical nature of the evaluation. When you put your reader hat on you slip into a different mode, sort of like putting a stethoscope around your neck. It's not about you, it's about this script, right now. If I were to find a reader working for me who had clear bias in a coverage, that reader would be fired. But I employ only experienced readers, so for me, it's never been a problem. Worst case, once or twice, I have had a reader be slightly too nice to the script. That can be a problem because the writer gets an over-inflated sense of where the script really is, they return it for another coverage with another reader and get worse notes after a rewrite and then all hell breaks loose. What?? The OTHER reader loved it! So I try to maintain a rather neutral standard. Just tell it like it is. But be nice doing it. No slamming. No bullshit.

I have been reading for years and I have never, ever read something and thought, oh, I'm going to rip that off! Or oh, that's too much like my script, I'm going to slam this person! That would be foolish in the extreme.

A reader working at a production company has his or her job to take into consideration. Bias will show up in the work and reader jobs are coveted. It would be a stupid thing to do. But again - having worked for many production companies, I've never known a reader as unprofessional as to let personal bias into the notes. A side benefit of being a reader is that when you have a great script you'd like considered at that company, your reputation as a reliable, professional reader will pave the way for a read that goes something like this:

Reader: Mr. Big Executive that I've worked for two years for? Would you be interested in reading my script?

Big Executive: You know, Sally, you're a great reader. I can count on you. You have good instincts. Sure. I'll take it home this weekend.

Reader: I know this is not a guarantee but it's pretty cool.

Big Executive: It sure is and don't you forget it. But yeah, I'll take a few minutes with this. You've done good work for me.

Then there are intern readers and super under-paid, over-worked assistants. I don't think you'll find professional jealousy bias there either. Maybe a little more cranky in the coverage by dint of the over-worked, under-paid thing but that's about it.

I think bias can show up when the reader is reading something that they personally find really, really offensive - I personally do not read wannabe SAW or HOSTEL type scripts because I not only don't have the stomach for the genre, I really don't have the stomach for the genre written poorly. I pass those on to readers that I know do not care one way or the other. I don't read scripts that contain over-the-top, shocking violence and especially violence toward women. I get very, very few scripts like that but when the SAW/HOSTEL genre was big, we did see an influx. My bias is simply revulsion and so I won't go there. Ironically, I love reading a good horror script Love, love, love, love. It's a matter of degree. When someone scrapes out the inside of a child's skull and fills it with sorbet and eats it - I can't read that without feeling personally violated.

Wow, that took a turn for the yuck. Anywho. Do readers have bias toward your scripts? Not a professional reader, they aren't that invested. They just do their job quickly and efficiently. I think this is a fear that writers have, or some kind of rationale to make up for getting bad coverage - the reader wasn't fair!!

Actually, being a reader, Curious, will do nothing but improve your own writing skills. Because you see it all and you see the patterns. Exercising the evaluative part of your brain over and over is like working out at the gym daily. You're gonna get some big guns. And it will help your own writing. One thing you learn to identify very quickly is what is original and what is not. Original compared to what, right? To all the other 9,000 scripts you read that year. So when you work on a new idea yourself, you have seen all the other stuff that's come in and you can be honest with yourself as to whether your idea and your writing is different from that of the hordes.

Reader bias is an urban myth, in my view. Yes, readers get tired, they might dislike the genre, they might really, really need a break or a coffee or a cocktail and don't want to be reading your script. Does that make them cranky? Yeah. But if your script is good - you just absolutely made their day. The mood is lifted. Why, just yesterday, the Wave-inatrix was feeling quite low about something in my personal life and I got a rush script. On a Saturday night. Great. I had been planning a nice, extended self-pity party. But no. Hadda read this script. Except - it ROCKED. It lifted my mood, it entertained me thoroughly and it reaffirmed my love of the movies.

Had the script been awful would my mood have descended while I was reading it? No. Because even at worst, it's a distraction. Sitting down to read is like doing a Sudoku or crossword puzzle. You became totally focused and immersed for that hour and a half. A good script might leave you feeling energized and cheered up afterward. A bad script leaves you drained and more cranky than you were before. But while you read, you slip into the Zen of reading and you just do your job.

The bottom line for writers is this: You cannot control who reads your script, their mood or their biases. You just have to trust the system and move on. No, not all readers are created equal. There are variances. But you can't drive yourself crazy worrying about it. Good or bad, cranky or too nice, huge production company or small script service, readers do have one thing in common - we love good scripts.

The bottom line for readers is this: Do no harm. Look for good stuff. Do your job and do it well if you want to reap the benefits personally or professionally.

If you have the opportunity to learn how to provide coverage, it will be nothing but a good thing for you and your writing.

I hope I answered your question.

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PJ McIlvaine said...

I concur with Miss Cupcake. I've read hundreds and hundreds of scripts, and the chances of finding something close to what you're writing is like winning the Lottery (practically zero). Having said that, I do admit that it happened to me once, but the other script had taken my basic concept in such a different direction, I could hardly call it competition.

What is more likely to happen with me is reading a script and mentally seeing how I would do it, but that certainly doesn't mean that I then haul ass and write it myself.

Julie Gray said...

Hey PJ! I have, upon occasion, read scripts and thought DAMN that was good idea! Maybe it's my unicorn philosophy but rather than feeling jealous, I feel just thrilled for the writer.

Dave Shepherd said...

I think the highest compliment you can give another writer is "I wish I'd written that" -- even if it's outside what you regularly do.

I'll never write anything like The Dark Knight -- just not my type of stuff, but damn...

I wish I'd written that.

I don't envy readers. Reading a good script is fun, but reading a bad script is damn near torturous.

Now I'm going to head over to a different website and force myself to do just that in the interests of learning.

Luzid said...


It's not the philosophy - it's that great writers don't need to feel jealous over others' ideas, because they have tons of their own!

E.C. Henry said...

I LOVE readers. I have a reader of my own, and I love as if he was my own puppy dog. I give him my scripts and well play tug-of-war with it, and have a grand old time. But when he rolls over, I make sure to scatch his belly. Puppies love that!

I think so much of the anxiety writers have with readers is they think their stuff is dynomite, but so many of the movies coming out are flawed, and we're left to wonder, "Hey, why aren't they buying my stuff? It's way-way better then what's coming out these day."

I think the issue comes down to: absolute v.s. subjective standard.

But the longer I'm in this spec script attempt to sell "thing" the more desire I have to just be liked, rather than be praised for having written something remarkable. Hey, maybe I got it all backwards. Maybe I'M THE PUPPY! Julie, do you know anyone willing to scratch my chest?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Anonymous said...

Come on Julie.

It's a dodgy world out there.
Readers -- men and women -- get jealous all the time. Jealously is a nautural weakness. Everyone is pushing their own style and genre unfairly. We all discriminate idirectly!!!!

The world is full of bad and unfair things happening. Why does screenwriting have to be nice, sweet and rosy and respectful?

Why are you looking for a simple clear vision to all of this?

Why don't you want to live your life, career and this new business of yours with a "soap opera" mentality.

Screenwriting is like living inside a destructive "soap opera". Get used to it.

Deal with the truth.

Why are you so anti-hollywood?

Julie Gray said...

Dear negative (sob) mean person (sob), lol, oh I just can't keep that up. You're entitled to your point of view and perspective as I am to mine. It is a mad, mad, mad, mad world, for sure. With a lot of dodgy stuff, professional jealousy and ugliness. Sure. I'm no babe in the woods; I choose to focus on the positive.