Lately, I’ve been asked getting a lot of questions about seemingly basic screenwriting issues, and they seem to be coming from writers who are a bit more frazzled and confused or frustrated than usual. When I ask about the source of their frustration, it seems to lead back to their writers group.
Ah, yes- the screenwriters group!
Some find these groups helpful, educational and supportive. Others have walked away, kicking themselves for wasting their time, and shaking their heads at the nonsense that is being spread within these groups.
So, who’s right? Are the groups full of “pros” or are they full of…cons?
Let’s define the groups we’re talking about. I am including online groups, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Simply Script, Meet-Up and dozens of other writing and social media sites that provide group settings; as well as local community groups where people actually meet in church boardrooms, basements, bars, pizza restaurants, college classrooms (not affiliated with the school), or member’s homes.
Another quantifier is the individual member and how they respond to this kind of “learning” environment. The few groups that I have been a part of (live meetings) varied as far as someone leading the group, so it was often confusing and poorly run. This detracted from the overall experience. Personally, I normally excel in this kind of environment, so it was rather disappointing.
Of the screenwriting groups that I am personally aware of, I believe the large majority are guilty of “the blind leading the blind”. They have been organized by alphas who are very organized and structured people, with a strong leadership mentality, but they generally lack any real substantive working subject knowledge or record of success in the (screenwriting) industry. When you dig into their actual experience, they’ve attended a three-day seminar of one of the more well-known screenwriting “gurus”, read a handful of books, watched a number of videos, read blogs daily, have written or co-written two or three screenplays, but have achieved no real screenwriting success to speak of. They feel they can justify charging money to attend a seminar given by them, where they provide regurgitated information and, often, reprinted hand-outs from that guru workshop they attended three years earlier. They can’t tell you WHY you do this or that, or the significant differences in genres, or marketing strategies or even how to compose a proper logline, but they can cash your check, and that’s what’s really important.
Online groups are more about sharing information, self-marketing, and asking questions and getting answers, or so has been my experience. By being online, geography doesn’t come into play, and you’ll get input from all over the world. There usually is no “leader”, although there is generally someone responsible for the group (a founder or manager that maintains decorum and enforces group or site rules). In these groups, it’s best to ask questions that generate opinion responses, something besides “What’s your favorite Tom Cruise movie?” If it’s a question about Master Scene Headings, for example, you can ask what your problem is, and what you’ve been doing that now you’ve learned was incorrect. You should get quite a few responses to a broad question like that.
Here, in my opinion, are some keys to having an effective screenwriting group. Feel free to add some of your own ideas to the list as well:
1) STRONG LEADERSHIP: Strong doesn’t necessarily mean “tough”, “rude”, “or “harsh”. It just means someone who will stand by the rules, goals and principles of the group and continually move the group in a positive and forward direction.
1A) SKILLED LEADERSHIP: Not all strong leaders are skilled leaders, and not all skilled leaders are strong leaders. If you have a screenwriter in the group that has written several screenplays, or has been optioned, or sold, or has been paid for their screenwriting, or has been produced or has won screenwriting contests or has somehow in some way been recognized for their writing, you need to have them as one of your group leaders. If not an actual leader, than at least use their name. It will add credibility to the group and help membership, if you want to grow.
2) GOOD COMMUNICATION: Both in getting the meeting information out to the members in a timely manner, meeting minutes, and speakers at the time of the meeting. Know your speakers, and know they can do the job. Being nervous does not mean they’ll be bad. Some of the worse speakers I’ve heard were overly confident professionals who did it for a living.
3) RELEVANT TOPICS: If the group is a screenwriting group, the main discussion topic should be about screenwriting. Sounds easy, right? Then why do you waste forty-five minutes of the group’s time discussing the new “Star Wars” trailer?
4) DO SHORT, MULTIPLE TOPICS: Instead of a 30 or 60 minute discussion on “dialogue”, why not do fifteen minutes on dialogue, fifteen minutes on action sequences, and fifteen minutes on character names? This helps keep the meeting alive and the members awake.
5) FEEDBACK/CRITIQUE: Many groups feel an important aspect of screenwriting groups is the group “feedback and critique”. However, most of the complaints and arguments from members of screenwriting groups originate from something that happened during a feedback and critique session. IF the group is harmonious in every other way, I would STRONGLY SUGGEST TO FOREGO any feedback and critique sessions in your group. There’s too much of a chance of hurt feelings. Most, if not all, of the people within the group, are going to be at pretty much the same level, experience-wise, so all they can really render is a personal opinion based on taste, not a professional opinion based on quality. The difference between a professional critique and a non-professional is that a professional has to read something they really, really hate and give it an honest critique based on the writing- NOT the genre, subject matter, writing style or the personal feelings of the writer themselves- and that is as hard as hell to do!