News room: Script evaluation services - are they worth it?

Script evaluation services - are they worth it? by Alan Baker

Script evaluation services – are they worth it?

Yes. And here’s why.

I’m sure that many of the people on CompletelyNovel will be familiar with that wonderful sensation of typing the final full stop of a novel or short story, and thinking: ‘Yes! I’ve done it! I’ve finished it!’ I think the same thing myself on such occasions, as I sit back and breathe an immense sigh of relief before scrolling through the three hundred-or-so pages I’ve just written, while congratulating myself on my tenacity, ability, virtuosity, perspicacity, and however many other self-aggrandising nouns I (or the synonym function on Microsoft Word) can come up with.

Unfortunately, that feeling only lasts about five seconds before reality reasserts itself, and I remember that what I’ve written isn’t really finished ’ it’s merely the first draft. Of course, no one who uses a word processor actually writes a first draft anymore, so the phrase is something of a misnomer. I for one am always tinkering with material when I read through what I’ve written the day before, to the extent that, when I’ve typed that final full stop, the text as a whole has gone through hundreds or even thousands of both major and minor changes.

Don’t send your ‘First Draft’

A word to the wise: when you submit something to a publisher or agent, never describe it as the ‘first draft’. The recipient is more than likely to think: ‘I don’t want to see a first draft. I want to see a fourth or fifth draft.’ Personally, I suspect that the days when an editor was prepared to work with an unpublished but promising writer to knock a manuscript into shape are long gone. It seems to me that overworked publishers wallowing in manuscripts from unpublished writers are now only interested in material that’s ready to go. There’s evidence for this on HarperCollins’s Authonomy website, for instance, where the most popular uploaded manuscripts are passed to an HC editor for evaluation each month. One can read many reports in which the editor praises the quality of a writer’s work, but passes on it because of one or two very minor and easily correctable flaws. (Agents. on the other hand, may well be inclined to work with a writer whom they consider to be promising – another reason why it’s better to try to get an agent before submitting to a publisher.)

That said, however, what you have when you type that final full stop (or ellipsis, if you’re so inclined) should still be considered you first draft. In other words, although you’ve told the story you want to tell, you still don’t know if it’s any good. I agree, that sounds a bit weird: after all, it’s your story, you’re the one who wrote it. If anyone knows whether it’s good or not, it’s you! Right?

Wrong. In fact, counterintuitive as this sounds, you’re the person least likely to be able to consider and evaluate your work with cold objectivity. You need to get other people to read it, and to give you their honest opinion of it. With friends and family, this can be rather difficult: no matter how many times you ask for their honest opinion, they may experience a natural and quite laudable reluctance to hurt your feelings by attacking (however politely) your precious literary offspring.

Someone who can help point out the crap

This is where script evaluation services come in. You need someone who doesn’t know you, and doesn’t care if they offend you; someone who is being paid to do a job for you – that job being to examine minutely, dispassionately and mercilessly the work you have produced, and to point up the errors, flaws, inadequacies of plot and style, infelicities of dialogue, and general crapness of your little opus. (If that sounds harsh, it’s meant to, and believe me, I’m thinking very much of my own work when I say this.)

I can mention my own book, The Lighthouse Keeper, as a case in point. When I finished it, I thought: ‘Yeah, this is pretty good, even if I do say so myself.’ I sent it to a professional script reader, who wrote a detailed report which said things like this:

“This manuscript is an interesting read, when you persevere. During the first ten pages, I found my heart sinking. The narrative was wordy and over explanatory. Too much exposition in the first few pages seemed to give potential tension away. But this steadily improved as your pace (and clearly your enjoyment of writing) quickened and from one quarter of the way through I was carried along easily by your imaginative story line.”

This one paragraph really encapsulates what you need to hear from a script evaluation service: you need to know what’s wrong with your work and (just as importantly) what’s right with it. And you need to hear it from a professional: someone who is capable both of a close analysis of your text as a whole, and also of dismantling the text and examining each of its components in turn, running diagnostics on content, style, pace, structure, characters, dialogue – what you’re trying to say and how you’re trying to say it.

Useful for generating ideas

The report on The Lighthouse Keeper concluded:

“You might not agree with some of my notes. My opinions are simply suggestions and are intended to generate ideas.”

And generate ideas they certainly did. Far from being offended by the criticism with which I was provided, I immediately saw that the script reader was bang on with virtually all of her comments. I immediately set to work on the book, adding material here, deleting or changing it there, writing new scenes where necessary, and so on. The result, I feel, was a better book, and the £200 I paid for the report was worth every single penny.

Your work is going to be rigorously evaluated by the agents or publishers to whom you send it – that much is a given. At best, they’re going to identify minor flaws and problems with structure and style (and perhaps suggest improvements); at worst, they’re going to chew it up and spit out the bits they don’t like. You need to minimise the chances of that happening, and I believe that the best way to do that is to engage the services of a professional script evaluation service. It’s far better to lay out some cash for a script reader to identify problems with your manuscript, than wait for an agent or publisher to do it.

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Written by
Alan Baker
Published on
14/10/2009
Tags
Evaluation, Publishing, Agent, Publisher, and Novel

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