I have a policy. It pretty much goes as follows: Thank you for asking but I can’t read your script. Such is the nature of having a public profile and the danger of receiving unsolicited material not vetted via my reps. Liability law makes it so. I recall once attending a baseball game with my ace attorney. I argued with him that I shouldn’t have to worry about accepting a screenplay or book or manuscript written by a neighbor or some Little League dad who might have turned into an every-weekend bleacher pal.

“You’re gonna get sued,” he warned.

“Maybe,” I said. “But that’s what I have you for.”

“I’m not a litigator.”

“I know that.”

“I can recommend one of two if you continue your plan to get sued.

“I don’t plan on getting sued.”

“No? Then keep reading scripts every Tom, Dick, or Harry shoves in your mailbox.”

In the interest of accuracy, I’m not entirely certain my ace attorney, The Werth, ever said “Tom, Dick, or Harry.” He probably said something far more witty and crude. And I want you to like him. On with the story.

Days later, my fax line rings and the machine spit forth a single piece of paper. There was a note attached from The Werth. It read, “Make copies of the attached release form. Anybody who wants to you to read their script must sign this first.”

Cool, I thought. The Werth was on the job! Then I read the form. It was short and closely resembled a release form models are often asked to sign before they shed their clothes for the camera. Essentially, it indemnified me, the reader of said document, from any and all liability should I consciously or unconsciously chose to plagiarize any or all of the aforementioned script, story, character, manuscript, etc…

Yup, I said to myself. That oughta do the trick. A blanket get out of jail card signed by the victim himself. If I recall, I used it once. I even had to re-explain that what the poor sod was signing was a permission slip for me to commit theft. Not that I would ever think of such a crime. It was just for liability’s sake. That’s all. No worries whatsoever.

I felt sleazy. Filed the form deep in a bottom drawer and haven’t used it since. It did, though, cure me of saying yes as often as I used to. But it hasn’t cured me from being worn to a nub by some who can’t take no for an answer.

“Would you please read my latest?” asked WW (Writer Wannabe,) not quite a friend but a common enough acquaintance that proximity would eventually demand such an obvious ask.

“Sorry,” I said, adding the usual excuse. Liability. Time. Etc.

“I getcha,” said WW, who proceeded to kindly pepper me for advice over our next few encounters. But there came the inevitable second bite at the apple.

“I know I asked before,” said WW. “But I’ve just finished a TV pilot. It’s only sixty-two pages…”

“I’d like to,” I answered politely. “But if I read everything I’m asked I’d never get around to the stuff I have to read.”

We left it there. The subject of writing and the like remained unmentioned for months. Then came this conversation.

“Whatcha workin’ on?” asked WW.

“This and that,” I said, instantly feeling like a douche. I was already defending myself against another ask. WW was in the midst of the hardest struggle a writer can endeavor. Getting somebody that mattered to pay attention.

“I get that you don’t have time to read everybody else’s stuff,” WW began. “But I’m getting nothin’ but slammed doors out there.”

“I hear ya,” I said. “But you don’t need me to read your stuff. You need the right agent or manager or producer. I’m just another guy trying to get stuff made.”

“I understand,” said WW. “But I’ve been doin’ this for awhile. And I’m just at the point where I want to know if I’m wasting my time. Am I any good at this thing or not?”

“Hard question to answer.”

“Getting harder with every script.”

“You wanna know if you have what it takes?”

“Exactly.”

“It’s not just about writing skill,” I said. “A lotta people can write well. It’s whether they can tell a story. Make it compelling. And keep at it.

“Know I got the work ethic,” said WW. “Just want to know if I’m any good.”

“That’s all you want?”

“Just one read.”

“I don’t candy-coat stuff.”

“I don’t want smoke blown up my butt.”

“One script,” I confirmed. “Unvarnished response. I’m not your mom. I’m not here to tell you you’re awesome.”

“Just need somebody to be honest,” WW confessed.

“Alright,” I said, half-biting my lip. “I’m breaking my rule. And I’m not gonna make you sign a release. One script. Don’t bug me. I’ll read it when I get to it. And I’ll tell you what I think.”

“Thank you so much.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” I said. “I can be brutal.”

“So which script should I give you?”

“Your call. Just make it your best.”

“Movie or pilot?”

“I don’t care. Just make sure it’s your best stuff.”

The look on WW’s face was easy to read. I could practically hear the spindles whirring as the dogged wannabe tried to weigh which writing sample to hand me at our next meeting.

I didn’t have to wait that long. I found it stuffed in my mailbox the following afternoon.

Now, I have a bad habit of blaming my housekeeper on my forgetting stuff. Items I leave on my desk or nightstand (especially missives from the DMV) somehow get shuffled to the bottom of piles as she dutifully cleans up and somehow forgotten by yours truly. I didn’t want that to happen to WW. That and knowing how much I hate waiting on my work getting eyeballed, I decided not to dally. I got to WW’s script in a matter of days.

And it stunk

Buy hey. I’m just one opinion. Still, I warned WW that I would be blunt and to the point.

“So I read your screenplay,” I said over the phone after a moment or two of verbal dancing.

“And?” asked WW.

“It wasn’t for me,” I said. “I had a rather hard time following it.”

“The writing?”

“The story,” I said more acutely. “But that’s a function of the writing, too.”

“Oh…”

I went on to explain some of the fatal flaws in the script, keeping it pretty general and rather bloodless. WW had wanted to know if writing movies or television was real or just a pipe dream. I didn’t think it was my job to out and out say it. Just to give WW the tools to come to hos own logical conclusion.

“Really sorry to have wasted your time,” said WW, slightly bitter, yet also buoyed by some face-saving hope.

“You didn’t waste my time,” I conceded. “You asked. I agreed to read it. No harm.”

“Is there anything you liked about it?”

Though I’d already passed that information along, I repeated the few moments I could appreciate, underlining what few strengths there were in order to salve the gaping wound I’d eventually get blamed for inflicting.

“You know what,” said WW. “My fault. Really. I see what you liked about the script and clearly I gave you the wrong sample. I have something else that that you woulda appreciated so much more.”

“You have another script?” I asked, more rhetorically than WW could get the gist.

“Something a lot better,” said WW. “Just finished it.”

“I told you I’d read one script. And to make it your best,” I reminded. “Was the script you gave me your best?”

“Well…” thought WW. “I guess not.”

“You guess not.”

“Well not now that I know what you like-”

“It’s not about what I like. It’s about if it’s readable or not. Yours was barely that.”

“Because it wasn’t the right script. Now I know -”

“So this is not your best? Yes or no?”

“No. Not my best.”

“So when I asked you to give your best, you chose to give me something that was less than your best?

“Not exactly.”

“Which was it?”

“Okay. The script you read wasn’t my best. I just thought it’d be the one you like. My best is the one I just finished.”

“Well, good luck with that one.”

“So you’re not gonna read it?”

“Can’t. Sorry.”

“Okay. I get it.”

I don’t think WW did get it. But at least that was the end of the conversation.

Because it was unavoidable, I continued to bump in to WW. Though as our kids moved on to different schools and sporting interests, the encounters were less frequent. And now it’s been years. Mind you, since then there’ve been plenty other WW’s to come along. Some with talent. Others, not so much. Some are neighbors and Facebook friends. Others are frequent readers of this weekly blog. And to one and all, I truly have wished them the best of luck.

As for if I’ll read your screenplay? Thanks very much for asking. But I really can’t.

Like the blog? Then please read my latest thriller, BLOOD MONEY. Available in ebook and trade paperback and half the cost of a stadium beer. Buy it now.

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Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • James Hornsby

    I have a friend like that, I’ve read his good stuff, and his not-so. I do know that anything that my eyeballs can be glued to while sitting on the toilet, and my legs fall asleep easily, has gotta have something that makes it sparkle; content, character, imagery, dialog? Some of them have it. Many of them however really don’t get noticed. Nice blog. Thanks.

  • Joshua James

    yikes! but yeah, I’ve been there, too… it’s hard as hell. One guy, a family friend, listened to me give him forty-five minutes of notes and things he’d have to do to get his script in decent shape and also admitted that a couple of other pro writers couldn’t get past 30 pages when they read it…

    But he didn’t want to change it, he wanted to sell it as is, ergo, he wasn’t really looking for feedback, he just wanted a referral, in the end. So it was a waste of my time after all…

    • First time scripts by first time writers are the hardest to let go of.

    • MaliboJackk

      Saw the same thing happen on another blog.
      Writer got a read and got GOOD notes from a DEVELOPMENT EXECUTIVE.
      The writer’s response — I’ve worked hard on this script. Every word has a purpose. I’m not changing a thing.

      Same guy — has another script, one that he’s so confident about, that he’s already run up a legal tab of $50,000. A sum he says he can ill afford.

      (FULL DISCLOSURE: I haven’t read that script. And I wish him well.).

  • david kessler

    You should hand every one who does that to do that article ‘I won’t read your fucking screenplay’ written by the History of Violence guy — just have a copy of it in your backpocket at all times.

  • fbluhm

    Asking your friends to read your script is one thing. Asking a veteran screenwriter to read it is entirely different – for obvious reasons you’ve explained in the blog. Just a thought, Doug: Obviously, because you’re a successful screenwriter, people are going to gravitate toward you for advice. Perhaps, though, if others really want to know what you would think of their script, it would be better for them to read one of (your) scripts that you have made available to your readers. In effect your script will be saying – “This script sold, and I feel it is an excellent example of how to tell a great story.” Compared to your script, how do they feel their’s measured up? I’ve always felt that reading great scripts is an excellent way for a new screenwriter to see if he or she is on the right track with their own. That said, while you can’t read our scripts, your blog is full of great advice, which, at times, can be just as valuable. Thanks, Doug, and keep `em coming.

  • Herschel Horton

    Doug, I don’t have a script for you to read!

    Me and three other guys I work with are aspiring and working on our dreams to make films. The problem I keep telling these guys is we need to have great stories to tell. We have good technical skills to make low/no budget shorts. But we don’t have very good stories.

    Do you have any cool seven to fifteen page stories that could be shot on a low budget? Would love to do just one!

    Do you have any suggestions where we could get our hands on a great short by an up-and-coming writer who is willing to take no pay to have their story told. Sorry, sounds like shit when written like that. But we are starting at the bottom and at least we are honest about it.

    • Thomas b

      Hey, Herschel, I have about a five page script based on an H.P. Lovecraft story if you want to take a look at it.

      • Herschel Horton

        I am interested. I’m just concerned that since it is based off someone else’s work that you need to have some type of agreement in place before I could actually use your script. Send it to me at lhhorton a t gmail.com

        Herschel

  • Phyllis K Twombly

    “your plan to get sued…” Gotta love the lawyer’s point of view.

    Interesting how the most recently finished screenplay suddenly became the writer’s best. Your firm ‘no more’ stance probably saved you from an avalanche of ever ‘improving’ scripts. When someone wonders if their work is good enough it’s still time for instruction, not feedback. Learning to self-critique is part of the process.

  • Carolyn

    I think sometimes people are looking for more “reassurance” than honest feedback. I have a friend who’s like that with their music. I see their face drop when I begin the:”I like it, but…”

    Two things I live by in my friendships:

    1) Never go into business together.
    2) Never let them be my doctor–especially, my gynecologist.

  • Hazel May Lebrun

    It’s not surprising that people want you to read their screenplays. Just like if you have a lawyer friend, you pick their brain for legal advice. With a doctor friend, you might tell them your symptoms. It’s because you have expertise. I want to read other people’s work. I really do. It’s time that constrains me. Still, maybe just be thankful that you are considered expert enough to warrant requests like that. Maybe the solution is what you are doing. Give out generic instructions, examples etc that anybody could read and implement. Maybe you can’t read individual work, but you can throw out some bones that the stray dogs who haven’t come indoors from the cold yet can gnaw on and who knows? Maybe one day, one of those former stray dogs will come up and thank you for the advice that helped them get through the door.

  • MaliboJackk

    Do people with amazing scripts really need to beg people to read them?
    Isn’t there some kind of reverse correlation between the more you beg and a great script?

    Love the blog.
    Thanks.

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