Our Media Department's Ellen Gallagher talks scripts, submissions & selling yourself short. The first of our weekly blog posts from authors, agents and assistants (serious alliteration skills here).
A wise woman once said “if I see another submission addressed to ‘Dear Sir’, I’ll scream”. That woman was me, and I’m using the word ‘wise’ with a healthy dose of poetic license.
My point here can be distilled into a fairly simple maxim – a writer ought to remember that their relationship with an agent will be a close working partnership; it’s business, yet not ‘one size fits all’.
So it does get a little exasperating to receive blanket query letters which have clearly been copied and sent to all the other agencies in town, especially when they’re not even addressed to an individual agent by name. If you don’t really care who at each agency sees your work, you’re sending the message that getting an agent (ANY agent) means more to you than approaching a long-term writing career in a smart and businesslike manner. Which immediately puts you at a disadvantage, as agents are looking for serious writers who have thought carefully about their future career.
As a writer, it should matter to you WHO represents your work. Hoping that a scatter approach to querying will cover more ground is understandable up to a point; but in the long-run, it’s a risky strategy. If your script ends up with an agent who recognizes that it’s well-written, and so takes you on as their client, but doesn't 100% know what to do with it, it could end up gathering dust in a drawer instead of gathering interest and advancing your career.
Does the agent have a vested interest in the area(s) of writing in which you want to work? Does their list of existing clients strike a chord with you, do you think they’ll ‘get’ your work and thus be great at ‘bigging it up’ in a room with producers? Will they have strong, established working relationships with those producers in your field and genre, with whom you want to work and who are likely to reciprocate that enthusiasm?
If you do your homework before approaching an agent, you can ultimately save yourself (and us) quite a bit of time. If you approach an agent whose stated areas of expertise are horror and crime with your family comedy, you might not get far and will seem somewhat ill-prepared and naive.
Truly great writing will out – if the agent you sent it to can’t take you on, but your script is awesome, it’s not the end of the road. At Blake Friedmann, we will pass scripts to one another if we feel the writer would be suited to another agent. You needn't send it ‘to whom it may concern’ in fear of choosing the wrong agent to directly address. But do be sure to send it to an agent whom your research suggests is likely to respond well to a script such as yours. Otherwise, it will possibly be rejected outright as unsuitable, or pushed into a towering general reading pile from which it will take some time to be read and noticed.
So let’s say you've got one really, really great script written. You've hammered out that first draft, redrafted it a few times and you feel it’s now the best it can be.
Chances are, this isn't enough - yet.
You probably need to write some more before you’re ready for an agent – if an agent or producer likes your work, one of the first things they’re likely to ask is ‘what else have you got?’ If the answer is ‘nothing’, you risk losing their interest. Give yourself the best chance of retaining their attention by having at least one more really polished project with which to dazzle them. You don’t want to seem like a potential ‘one hit wonder’.
So you've written a few things now, and are feeling confident in their quality. You've made the decision you’re ready to submit, and you have carefully chosen the agents whom you want to approach. There are still a couple of things to bear in mind…
With so many submissions coming in at each agency, it’s understandable that writers want to make themselves stand out from the crowd. This is good, as we’re looking for stand-out writers too. But it’s extremely important that you stand out as a talented and professional writer – ‘zany’ submissions aren't the way to go. Here are just a few examples of what not to do, gleaned across my career so far:
- Don’t start your query letter with DEAR MONEY-GRABBING B*STARDS. Yes, I did actually receive one like this. I think they were going for a memorable effect – they achieved that, but this submission didn't lend itself to being taken seriously.
- Don’t douse your submission with perfume or aftershave. This happened once and set off someone’s allergies, which was a bit annoying.
- Don’t pepper your submission with self-deprecation – I once received one which continually asserted that we ‘probably wouldn't be interested’ – don’t do that to yourself. Be sure that we will be interested, then be quietly confident – that’s the best way to appear professional.
Ways to make yourself stand out include having some credits or performances of your work which you can put on your writing CV. Perhaps you could stage your work somewhere and invite reviewers, pick a positive quote from one of the reviews to include in your query letter.
Maybe try entering some industry-linked competitions to see if you can make the shortlist or even win (such as the BBC Writers’ Room, the Red Planet Prize, the Ustinov Prize and others – a list is kept by ScriptAngel Hayley McKenzie here.
Why not arrange a rehearsed reading of your script – you can find out who the newer agents are at each agency, who might be looking to build their client lists, and invite the ones who might respond well to your work. They might not all be able to come, but it’s worth a try if you can make it happen – the added benefit for you is getting to see your work read aloud, which is hugely helpful in determining what does and doesn't ‘work’ in performance as well as on the page. Do some research – is there a fringe festival or theatre group in your local area through which you could get your work performed?
Anything you can do to get your work out there and generating some hype can only be beneficial, rather than leaving it to sit on your PC’s hard drive (or Mac, let’s face it, you write scripts – there’s a fair chance you’re a Mac person). This shows an agent that you’re proactive and motivated – remember, even when you do have an agent, the onus is still on you to make connections, be creative and excite people with your ideas. If you've got a writer’s CV with a few things on it (a play production, a competition shortlisting, a short film review perhaps), you’re immediately looking like a ‘new writer’ as opposed to an ‘aspiring writer’, which is a step up the ladder.
An agent can open some doors for you, but only if you’re driven enough to push yourself through them. So if you courteously get your work out there in front of audiences, readers and reviewers who can vouch for you, you make yourself seem like the sort of person who isn't going to sit back and wait for success to come to them. Then, you could be making a better impression than those of your peers who don’t make that effort. I’ll repeat that word though – courteously. Do always be polite, as you would in any professional situation. You might be surprised how many people forget that.
So in summary - give your submission the best shot at being appreciated. Draft it, redraft it, make it the best it can possibly be, get something to put on your writer’s CV – then don’t screw up your chances by making an overly hasty, ill-prepared impression upon submitting.
…and we've said it before, but it bears repeating – PLEASE READ AN AGENCY’S SUBMISSIONS GUIDELINES before submitting to them. Most agencies have these guidelines on their website - don’t submit if you don’t fit their criteria, or if they’re not accepting submissions. Your script won’t be read and you’ll seem strangely incapable of reading – a bit of a problem for someone wanting to make a good impression as a writer! For instance, Blake Friedmann are only able to consider submissions from screenwriters with produced screenwriting credits.
Similarly, please don’t telephone to ask how to submit if the guidelines are right there on the website. I’m sure you’ll understand how frustrating that can be for the person answering the phones if they have to repeat information, which is already publicly available, multiple times each day!
Of course, this is NOT a set of orders, instructions or a guarantee that following this advice will get you represented. Often, an agency is simply not taking on new clients at the time you submit, or isn't looking to expand their list in the genre in which you've written. If that’s the case and you do receive the odd rejection despite being super pro-active and talented, don’t despair – keep on searching for that perfect agent pairing. Remember, legend has it that William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES was rejected 20 times before it found its home. Rejections are part of the deal, accept them and look elsewhere.
The best of luck with it!