Why is it that so few people appreciative of how much work we put into writing? Especially here in Los Angeles, every other person is either an actor waiting to be discovered or a writer with a “fantastic, unique” script just waiting for Steven Spielberg to discover and pay them billions of dollars. Most of them are looking for the fame and (hah) fortune of being a writer. Very few of them really want to do the work required to succeed. They want us to write it for them. They become insistent and upset that we do not see the excellence in their stories and do not want to volunteer our own precious time to make their fortunes.
I reached for the glass of wine from the passing waiter as someone tugged at my sleeve. The tall young man stared down at me. “You…you’re Serita Stevens, the writer?”
“I just love your work, especially your two new books – Logan’s Land, the female-driven western, and your historical novel about Boadicea’s revolt – Heathen Heart. “
I smiled. “Thanks.” I started to move off. He blocked my way.
“Listen, I have this great idea about some kids being killed on a bus and I thought if –“
I frowned, knowing where this was going already. “How far have you gotten?”
“Well, that’s just it. I wondered if you could help me write it. I mean it’s such a great story. It’ll make a ton of money. And the movie… I mean Brad Pitt could be the teacher and –“
“I really don’t…” His face dropped. “Have you outlined it?”
He flushed. “Oh, no. I thought you would do that. I mean you’re such a great writer. Can’t you just see the story?” He waved his arms wildly as if picturing a big screen.
“Everything depends on how it’s executed. Have you done character bios?”
“Well, no.” He gulped down one of the appetizers and grabbed another from the waiter trying to escape before he devoured them all, not leaving anything for the other guests.
“It’s just me and my friends.”
“So it’s a true story?”
“Well, no. It’s kind of based on…”
“I see. Inspired by true events.”
The young man practically jumped into my arms. “I knew you’d see it. I knew you would. You understand the potential, don’t you?”
“Well…”I hesitated. “True stories are popular if done right. But no, I really don’t see the story. Do you have a theme?”
His blond hair fell forward as he shook his head. “You’re the writer. I thought you would…”
“This is your story.”
“But if you help me…”
“It sounds as if you want more than help. It sounds as if you want me to write the whole thing for you.” I looked around at the crowd, hoping to see someone I knew so I could escape this without being rude.
“You got it. So since it’s my story, we’ll split it 50/50. I expect at least a $25,000 advance. And then there’s the royalties. It’s really going to be a bestseller. Once the book is done, then the movie…”
I almost choked on the wine. “Were you thinking of a work for hire or what?”
“No, I said sharing the profits.”
I shook my head and took the poor novice down to earth as I explained to him that very few publishers paid advances anymore and those that did were very small. Originally, I told him, the advances were to help the writer live while they wrote their book. Now, advances barely touched the surface. “Did you have a budget in mind? I mean to pay the writer?”
He shook his head. “This is going to be a bestseller,” he repeated. “It shouldn’t take long to write.”
Acid churned in my stomach. Did this guy know nothing of first drafts, rewrites, etc.? Apparently not. Stories of successful first drafts abounded, but they were mostly myths. Just like the successful “newly discovered” writer hitting the bestseller list, who actually had written eight or nine books before, which had never seen the light of day.
“First of all, publishers these days want a full manuscript – even if you’ve already had several published. Do you know how long it takes to write a novel or script?”
He shrugged. “A few weeks?”
He saw the look on my face. “Okay, a few months.”
“Maybe a few months – like five or six – and that’s only if you are working full time at the writing of it. Those that have to work other jobs often take much longer to complete their stories. And then the book or script has to be rewritten depending on notes from your agent, editor, producer, actor, director, and public relations. So what were you planning on paying someone to help you write it?”
He shook his head. “It’s going to be a huge seller. Really it is. Brad Pitt… I mean I can see the poster for the movie now.”
“Uh, huh.” I again looked around hoping to find someone I could use as an excuse to break away. “Writing is my livelihood. Living in Los Angeles is expensive.”
“Well, yeah, but –“
I wanted to be gentle and not discourage even such a raw novice. “You only have a one sentence idea, which cannot be copyrighted. You have no theme, no real character bios with goals, desires, flaws or obstacles. And you intend for the writer to do it all with only a promise of 50%. That’s only if the story sells and there is no guarantee of that. What were you thinking of paying ahead? Anything?”
I shook my head.
“Okay, $200? It’s such a super story. Brad –“
Oh boy. “Look, I write my material on speculation. And between assignments from my agent, I scarcely have time for that. I don’t write others material on spec. Have you tried writing an outline of your story?”
He looked askance. “Outline? No, I never…I mean I write from my soul. It’s what’s in my heart.”
He reminded me of my students at USC Master’s Program who became angry when I tried teaching them how to write commercially and sell their material. They wanted to write what I called “belly button writing” from their “inner depths” and they became angry because I was teaching them to write commercially acceptable stories.
“Some people can do write without an outline, but then they get caught in the middle without knowing what to do or where to go. You travel down rabbit trails and lose your story. I outline because it helps me to see ahead and know where I am missing areas of my story and what needs to be developed. It also helps me write faster. Maybe you should try that first and attempt to write the story on your own since you seem to know it so well. Why don’t you pick an inciting incident, pick some plot points, twists, you know…things that develop the characters and move the story forward?”
He was irritated and frustrated with me. He shook his head. “You’re missing a big chance. This…this could really…skyrocket your career. I mean with…”
“I don’t care if Brad Pitt is attached or not, which he isn’t – I mean, it’s not a good idea to say someone’s attached when you don’t have it in writing. People think you’re lying then.”
“Well I sent a letter to his company.”
I gave a sad smile and shook my head knowing that his letter probably went into the trash since he did not go through proper channels.
“When I get the award for best screenplay…”
“Aren’t you a bit ahead of yourself? You don’t even plan on writing the story yourself and you want to take credit for the writing?”
“Well…well…it is my story. Hey! You’d better not steal my idea.”
Finally, I saw my producer friend across the room. “Ideas can’t be copyrighted. Only the execution of them can. Four people can write about kids on a bus and it will all be different depending on who the characters are, what they want, and what their obstacles are.“ I handed the glass back to the passing waiter. “Good luck with your story. The only way it will be what you really want is to write it the way you see it.”
With those last words, I moved away and grabbed another glass of wine. Goodness, I needed it.
The truth is, I am often approached by wanna-be writers who believe they have a great idea. They want the glory and the fame, but not only don’t they want to do the work, they don’t want to pay anyone what it is worth to help them.
Writing expertise is often undervalued and the effort to do the work is underestimated. The fact is many of us with published or produced work also, undervalue ourselves, and agree to work with someone because they are desperate for publication or seeing their writing – or any writing that they have done - on screen or in print.
I have friends who approach me, just as that young man did. They believe because it is their story or idea, they need to get 50% or more of the profits…if there are profits.
Another time early in my career someone made a suggestion for a book – she had done nothing on it and had no background medical knowledge, but because she had had the idea, I foolishly said “Why don’t we write it together?” (I did not realize at the time that ideas could not be copyrighted and I ended up doing most of the writing and had to rewrite her material because of inaccuracies. She still received 50% because we had not written a contract between us.)
Some people even offer us a minimal pay without even checking what the going rate might be.
Many producers, too, ask us to write for free and then they want to own the rights 100% or want to option our stories for a dollar. If you, the writer, feel passionate enough about the story and feel that it will really help your career than you might want to consider it, but understand the amount of work you put into it and get everything in writing of what you will benefit out of it.
(Memories can be fleeting, especially where money’s concerned. I did this with a friend at work who had an idea and because we were friends did not think a written contract was needed. Wrong move. I ended up doing all the work with a few suggestions from him – and yet he believed he deserved 50% of the profits when we sold the script. Because we still have not settled this percentage – the script cannot sell since no producer will buy anything where they believe there will be legal problems.)
If you agree to work with someone do these things.
1. Set boundaries. Have everything in writing. Who will do what and by when? Be sure you are passionate about the project since it might take years for something. Understand there will probably be rewrites. Know who does what.
2. Understand your partner’s strengths and weaknesses.
3. Know your time frame, what other projects you have and how much time you can devote to this on without overwhelming yourself or harming your other projects. Are you really ready to write and rewrite on this?
4. How well does your partner take notes and suggestions? Is he/she easy to get along with or are they firm on what “their” story is. Are they willing to give you proper credit?
5. Do research on your partner – if it’s a producer have they ever produced anything before? Do they really have the contacts they claim they do? Most – at least here in Hollywood – are more talk and less action. They will tell you they have major people interested when they might have a minimal conversation (if that) with the star, but no commitment. (If they had commitment, they would have it in writing and would probably have been paid something for it.)
6. Value yourself. Love yourself and your time. Be sure that you’re giving your own projects enough time. Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t be so desperate to get published/produced that you take on just anything. Understand what you get out of the partnership.
7. Again, I will say it again - GET EVERYTHING IN WRITING. If it is not in writing, it will be assumed by the courts that the division is 50-50. Register your writing - $35 online to list your copyright. WGA does not give you protection and neither does the poor man’s copyright of sending it back to yourself in a sealed envelope.
You can read more about my writing projects at my website.