Story Talk: Pity the Poor Script Consultant

Maxwell Perkins

Ala Rodney Dangerfield, “I don’t get no respect.”  Actually, I do, I get lots of it, but at the moment of this writing I have been eviscerated and disemboweled by a fellow writer who hates story consultants and story gurus.  I enjoy sharing my little humiliating conversations with you, so here’s how it kind of went:

Him (oozing revulsion): So, you’re a story consultant.
Me (bracing for what’s to come): Uh, yeah.
Him: So, you ever get produced?
Me: I’m negotiating a deal now.
Him: So, the answer is no …  ever been published … by a real publishing company, not some self-publishing mill?
Me (groaning): My agent is talking to publishers right now about two book deals.
Him (not missing a beat): So, the answer is no.
(Long awkward pause; crickets chirp; tumbleweeds roll by.)
Me: And your point is?
Him: I don’t know, I guess if you’re going to tell other people how to write I just think you should be a real writer yourself, especially if you’re charging money.
Me: And by “real writer” you mean someone that is produced or traditionally published.
Him: Yeah. Those who can—do; those who can’t— (smiles nastily) consult.

No, I did not punch him in the nose, though it took every fiber of my being to hold my clenched fist at my side. We parted amicably enough, agreeing to disagree. But, I started to think about this issue and realized it is a thorny one for a lot of people. On the surface the argument seems logical, reasonable and just plain good ol’ common sense: If you are going to charge money for a service, shouldn’t you have a proven, professional track record doing the service you are selling?  Even the late, great Blake Snyder, author of the famous screenwriting how-to series Save the Cat lamented,

” … I think it would be nice if the guy writing the book on how to write a screenplay had actually sold something! Don’t you think? [his emphasis] (Blake Snyder. Save the Cat, Michael Wiese Productions 2005, pg xii)”

Common sense.  Like “eat your peas,” or “wait a half an hour before going into the water after eating the peas.”  Here’s the problem, the advice and the argument are wrong.  Allow me to explain.

Becoming produced or published indicates you have written something someone else wants to buy. They see commercial potential. They see profit. They see a way to advance their personal agenda through your good works as a writer. Not bad, not wrong—just the business of writing. Does it necessarily follow from a sale that you are a good writer? Does it necessarily follow that you are an expert in story structure or storytelling? Does selling your book or screenplay mean you know more about writing than someone who hasn’t sold something, but who has been writing for 30 years? The answer to all these questions is a loud and in-your-face no.

Lots of bad writers sell things, lots of writers who sell things know little or nothing about storytelling (they may be good writers, but lousy storytellers—writing and storytelling are two different things) and lots of writers who have sold something can’t teach their way out of a paper bag. Selling does not equate to competent or qualified. Selling only means you write well enough to attract buyers (hey, no small thing!).

There is no question that writers who have sold their work know more about the experience and business of being a working writer than writers who have not gone through that experience. They also may have some deeper appreciation of the writing process and some original ideas about how to write. But, selling isn’t the key. Experience is the key. Writers who have been through the publishing and movie production mills have a rich experience they should share with anyone who will listen. There is real value there. But, if they haven’t sold anything, that doesn’t mean they have less experience or insight. That doesn’t disqualify them from being wise teachers with something important to say (if they have anything to say).  That doesn’t relegate them to some lesser status. It only means they haven’t hit the lottery.  Because that’s what selling a script or book is more akin to than anything else. It’s consistency, persistence, and a refusal to take “no” for an answer that gets you produced or published.  It will happen eventually.

But, even if it takes decades, that is not a statement that your qualifications are lacking; it is a statement about the business problem of selling your widget. Being produced or published is a business problem, not a writing problem, because it isn’t enough to have a good story. Lots of “good stories” end up in the round file and will never get seen or read. I repeat with emphasis: getting produced or published is a business problem, not a writing problem.

But, I suspect that what I’m saying will not convince many people. Let me tell you a little story … the story of Maxwell Perkins.

From 1910 until the early 1950s, Max was a developmental editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, one of the top publishing companies in the world. He is regarded as the greatest editor of all time. His authors included: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolf, Ring Lardner, Marjorie Rawlings, Alan Paton—you get the idea. Perkins was single handedly responsible for saving the careers of Ring Lardner and Thomas Wolf and for getting two Nobel Prizes in Literature for two of his other authors, Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  Perkins was a master storyteller, not a writer.  He knew story better than anyone in his generation. The results of his author’s proved his skill and talent. Do you think Hemingway asked him, “Hey Max, before I let you work on The Sun also Rises, tell me how many novels have you written … hummm?  I don’t think you should be giving me advice unless you’ve been published yourself.”

Uh … no.  Hemingway never asked that. Nor did Fitzgerald, nor Wolf, nor the other dozen famous writers who begged Perkins for his help. Maxwell Perkins never published so much as a recipe his entire professional career. According to the wisdom of our current crop of story consultant naysayers, Perkins would be considered a snake oil salesman, a guy who consults rather than does, a wannabe, etc.

No, Perkins was an editor, a developmental editor, in the most complex meaning of the term.  He had a skill that most writers don’t have: the ability to structure and develop a narrative so that it leverages the writing talents of the author to the best advantage of the story. Few writers are good at both writing and storytelling (remember, writing and storytelling are two different skills), and fewer still are natural-born editors. Being a good editor is a talent, just like writing, and nowhere in that talent is the requirement to have been produced or published.

If you are going to measure the worth of any consultant, the measure should not be in the man or woman’s sales record, but in the success and/or failures of their client list. How many books or screenplays have their client’s sold? How many bestsellers, writing competition wins, or awards have their writers won? When you hire a consultant the only track records that matters are the track records of all the other writers who have come before you that have hired and relied on that consultant’s advice. Client successes are the only metric that counts.

I can hear the cynics and consultant-haters now: you’re just self-serving writing this article, you’re luring unsuspecting innocents to their doom, this is just bottom feeding at its worst, etc. Fine, rail against the wind if you must. This consultant will politely agree to disagree and move on. But, whenever you find yourself seduced by the big lie that being produced or published somehow equates to qualified, just remember Max Perkins. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t honor his memory and thank the writing gods for his example.

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10 thoughts on “Story Talk: Pity the Poor Script Consultant

  1. Josh Merrill

    I have to say this article makes some good points. Feedback and story improvement are essential if the goal is to make a great movie. Personally I have learned more from reading scripts that have been produced and made into movies than I have ever learned from any how to book or writers group. So in many ways I have a “naysayers” attitude (about all critics in general), but you don’t have to be a star athlete in order to be a world class coach who leads a team to victory. If you can make a career out of consulting then more power to you.

  2. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons

    Caroline: As always, thank you for your support and your insightful comments. You’ve been in the trenches a long time, so your input is always essential. Not surprisingly, I agree with you too. 🙂

  3. Jeff LyonsJeff Lyons

    Paul: thanx for your well-thought-out comments. 🙂 I totally agree with you. Screenwriting is a whole other animal when it comes to writer expectations. I did a whole article on just how weird this animal is (see “Story Talk: Playwrights Have It Better Than Screenwriters—or Do They? http://bit.ly/QVbv6L). I may do a whole article on this issue, asking the question, “why are you writing a screenplay?” There is no point really for most writers to do it. It will never sell. Especially TV scripts. You will almost never sell a TV pilot without a showrunner attached to the show. Most writers (and consultants, as you point out) don’t know this. And consultants are shooting themselves in the foot if they tell clients, “You’ll never get this sold.” So, I may be ending my career at Script Magazine by writing an article about this hard reality, but I think I’m going to write it anyway. Not exactly an uplifting and encouraging article for the leading publication in the screen-trade industry. 🙂 Wish me luck.

  4. Caroline Leavitt

    I totally agree with Jeff. I am a NYT bestselling author of literary fiction–and I could not have gotten there without my genius editor at Algonquin (who does not write and has no interest in writing) and with Jeff’s help, too.

    To the comment above, yup, there are consultants who do not know anything, which is a buyer beware type of deal. You shop around, you talk to people, you see what they know and if they can help you–some can’t. The fit just isn’t right. But without story structure people to help me–I’d be lost.

  5. Paul Undari

    Great article. I interpret this in two ways. (Yes, there are many more interpretations, but I choose to highlight two.) First, most consultants are hacks. That is a fact. They are self-proclaimed experts without the credentials or the talent to charge money. Two, you have helped me see a new side to the dilemma of consulting. If the consultant has not sold or gotten a produced credit, then I would certainly consider her client list for credentials. To this extent, my estimation of consultants in general has been improved by your article.

    Screenwriting, however, is different from all other types of writing in that there is a business and marketing feature that is absent or not as prominent in the other writing disciplines. Furthermore, the sole purpose of writing a script is to see your work on screen. One writes a novel so it can be read. One writes a play as an art in itself. One writes scripts, however, solely for the visual medium. Without an understanding or real-world experience of the dynamics of selling and marketing a script, the consultant is useless. Without an understanding of the market demands, the consultant could easily concentrate on the aesthetics of the writing and not on the business demands of screenwriting. Though a sad and realistic ending may be infinitely more satisfying to a given story, one cannot ignore the pragmatic side of selling movie tickets — the audience’s love of happy endings, hence high-concept.

    I’m sure you are aware of this paramount feature of the business, but I am not confident that the vast majority of so-called script consultants know anymore than the aspiring screenwriter. I believe, therefore, you speak to the exception and not to the norm. The screenwriters’ disgust of consultants is well-earned. You, my friend, are the exception and, therefore, do very little in dispelling the pejorative stereotype.

  6. Bo Page

    Excellent point Jeff. Some people’s talents are in the development or production, usually because they see the “bigger” picture. A film producer doesn’t need to be an actor; nor does a musical composer have to learn on to play every instrument. Just think how wonderful movies are because of great vision musical composition.

    I agree Jeff, being published or sold doesn’t mean you are successful. There are a lot of useless books out there–just look at the bargain bin of any book store.

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