On Writing: A cautionary tale…

INTEGRITY is a great word, isn’t it? A noble word, the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness. A quality integral to writing, creating and collaborating.

I recently came upon a set of notes sent to me by a director/producer a good while back. This person had written to me to request my work and was interested in a first-draft script that I subsequently sent him. So interested, that further to a telephone call, during which he told me how much he loved the story and main character, we discussed the script and he made some enthusiastic suggestions on how to strengthen it – and immediately sent me a contract to sign.

Scary phrases like ‘global rights’ and ‘in perpetuity’ made me put the contract aside. I’ve been a librarian for eighteen years, so yes, I read the small print. I’m also a VIRGO, so yes, I am pedantic. And the work is under my skin, so I make no apologies for standing up for it, and for myself. However, this person, being eager to hit a looming funding deadline, needed the signed document to proceed, so against my better judgement, I bit the proverbial bullet and scrawled my chicken scratching on the dotted line.

All rights going to this person’s company. Zero payment to me – subject to the funding application being successful.

Fair enough, you might say, as I did. It is not the way that all producers of integrity work with writers, but unfortunately, it is the way that most screenwriters in this country break through, right or wrong.

But onwards, it was a great opportunity, and as I work fulltime and was also working on two other feature projects at the time, I pulled a couple of all-nighters to get the script ready for his deadline. And I was happy with the result – and where the script development was heading, until the ‘notes’ arrived. And the person who had originally loved the script and the main character was now suggesting that I change every damn thing that made the script unique in the first place, right down to changing the name of the main character – a trifle element you might think – except for the fact that it is central to the character’s reveal and story arc! And remember, all for zero payment.

Rewind to my earlier references of integrity, moral uprightness, virgo traits and pedantry, while I was happy to keep working to improve the script, I of course challenged the notes, outlining my concerns, asking for his thoughts and assuming that we could open an honest dialogue on it. However, in his short, and judging from the oversized text that leapt shouting from the email, obviously angry response, I was accused of wasting HIS time and attacking HIS integrity! Now, if I had been a younger, greener, less confident writer, I might have crumbled or worried incessantly on this. But you see, you learn more about this ‘busyness of show’ from the less pleasant encounters, and so I tore up the contract and moved on; no bitter aftertaste, no grudge match; lesson learned.

And I wished him well with all his future projects.

And so to the moral of the story.

NEVER feel rushed into signing anything that you are not comfortable with. By all means, collaborate with decent, talented people as hungry as yourself to create good work. Barter, swap, share – payment doesn’t always mean money! And if everyone involved is working for free, and are happy to, go for it, learn from it and make magic.

NEVER cheapen your artistic merit though. Never compromise your vision for someone else’s. Stay strong, keep doing the good work, be true to yourself and eventually, the right people will find you as you find them.

And watch this Harlan Ellison video, from the 2008  documentary DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH:


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