Road to Commissioning... Building a Writers’ Room
Over the past decade I have learned one important thing - writing is a team sport.
I know, I’ve just shattered your illusions of the tortured, alcoholic Hemingway locked in a dark room and toiling away at his masterpiece by romantic flickering candlelight. Sorry to burst your (and my own) bubble, but it is absolutely not something you can do alone.
Now, I’m not talking about those lonely hours you sit tapping away at your keyboard all by your merry lonesome. That part is, by and large, much better kept to a solitary activity. However, that aspect of the writing process is only the tippy-top of the iceberg.
Before you get to that point you will no doubt have spent hours planning and developing your ideas. I know we all love the idea of sitting down at the typewriter with no prep and just letting our genius pour out of us, but I promise you that is the exception, not the rule. An unprepared writer is the one who spends five years writing a novel that should have taken two. If you want to make writing your full time gig, you need to be a little more proactive than that.
This is where the team aspect comes into this. Who knows, you very well might be that magic unicorn who has an amazing idea that is fully thought out with every beat, plot line, and character fully realised. You know the story inside and out - and therein lies the problem…
Have you ever tried to explain a subject you know like the back of your hand to someone who knows nothing about it? How many stupid questions do they ask you. You can’t understand why they can’t connect the dots, because this subject is so second nature that you can’t help but gloss over bits.
That’s kind of like your screenplay. The audience has no idea what your story is about and it’s your job to tell them. If you already know your story through and through, that super clever instance of foreshadowing you thought would be so obvious is actually lost because you haven’t given us enough information to pick up the clue. It’s almost impossible to catch these things yourself and requires fresh eyes on the problem.
This is where a writers’ room can help. A writers’ room doesn’t need to be limited to a TV Production, you can create your very own with your peers.
In TV, a writers’ room serves a few different functions. It acts as a sounding board for ideas to help work out any kinks in the plot, you have a dearth of different experiences that can influence storylines and character expression, plus you can share the burden with other people. I know I keep harping on about this, but it bears reminding that screenwriting is HARD WORK. If writing one screenplay is difficult, writing an entire season of television alone is like climbing Everest without a survival pack.
On the small scale, most writers, at any stage in their career, will need beta readers to give feedback on their work. Unfortunately, most of us, particularly early in our careers, will only have access to immediate family, friends or feedback services you pay for - none of whom, I’m sorry to say, really give a crap about your screenplay.
If this fails, you may also have access to peer review sites, but I have had mixed experiences with these. It can take a very long time to get anyone to read your work and very often the feedback is half-arsed, nonsensical, or just too limited to really give you any insight into how you can improve.
Unfortunately, inability to get decent feedback is what holds a lot of writers back from improving, and can cause them to quit altogether. However, you will find there are a lot of writers in the same position as you, who would probably jump at the chance to join a feedback group - you just need to look for them.
My very own writing group came about by chance after an absolute gem of a man posted on Facebook seeking people for a weekly feedback group. Despite all the responses, only 4 people ever turned up to the first meeting and by week 2 it was down to three. A few weeks after that, our third ghosted too and it was down to just me and the original poster.
As you will discover, this process can be a bit hit and miss and you’ll have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your tribe. Unfortunately, a lot of people like the idea of being a writer, but aren’t actually very serious about it, and many will feel no qualms about wasting your time. You will have people who use you for feedback and give you some of the most pointless, boilerplate feedback that they didn’t even need to read your script for in return. This is just a fact of life and should not be something to deter you.
Despite the shaky start to our group, we were unperturbed and quickly invited a few additional people to join. While only one person ever turned up, the three of us have now been web-chatting every week for the better part of a year. It was a painful process, but I’m glad I stuck it out, as it was definitely worth it. So don’t give up. You will eventually find your writing support network.
Being part of a writing group has, by far, been the best thing for my writing in terms of motivation, output and my understanding of the craft. It is so helpful not only having invested people reading your work, but having people to bounce ideas off before you even write your first draft. People who have different strengths and weaknesses to myself, who we can both teach and learn from.
Writing can be mentally and emotionally taxing, and that’s before you try to put your work out into the world and are met with that 98% rejection rate (yeah, it’s bleak). Having a crew of writers going through the same thing, and who can bolster you up, is an absolute gift. We motivate each other, console each other, share opportunities and news, and try to help each other succeed.
I encourage you to find your team, and don’t give up until you find people as invested in this as you are - who commiserate your losses and celebrate your victories.
Writing can be incredibly lonely, but having the right support system waiting in the wings, makes it a whole lot easier.