Ian Drury - Sheil Land Associates Ltd. - 52 Doughty Street - London WC1N 2LS

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Can I be paid by the word, please?

As a screenwriter I never paid much attention to the word count. It was pages you'd be keeping your eye on, not words. But I've done a few calculations, and it seems that the sample chapters I'm doing for each of my books are longer, in word terms, than a full-length screenplay.

No wonder I struggle sometimes. I mean, yes, a large canvas can be great fun, but when even your sample is longer than the longest script you ever expected to write, then you're into a new realm, really, where everything is bigger and more complicated.

This has just occurred to me again, because yesterday I read a screenplay. One of my sidelines is reading and reporting on scripts for film and TV. It's quite a responsibility (when you've received a few crits yourself you begin to realise just how much damage can be done by an inept or callous editor). And the one I read yesterday was actually the rewrite of one I read and reported on a few months ago.

And here's the good news. This revised draft is pretty darn good. It works. A lot of the stuff I didn't like in the earlier draft has either gone or been subsumed more successfully into the story. The characters are credible, the scenario believeable, and what has emerged is a really good domestic thriller with some great surprises - the last few pages were especially tense, and the whole thing built in pace and pressure brilliantly. Overall, a terrific result.

Now, all this was a thrill because I read a lot of scripts but I seldom if ever get to see the rewrites. Each script gets a detailed report, but I very rarely get to find out how the writer received the good/bad/indifferent news, and what they did with it. Part of me dreads bumping into a budding writer one day and finding out that they bear a grudge (I'm a nice guy, really, and I only ever completely rubbished one script - it had it coming, by the way). So to see a revised script and to find (with immense joy and relief) that it's really cooking is great.

But, of course, that's a screenplay. Not quite as many words are there are in just my three sample chapters (let alone the full manuscript, if and when I get to write it all). It costs enough to get a detailed report on a TV or movie screenplay. To get as detailed a report on a full-length book MS must cost a bomb. Maybe two bombs.

This is one of the things that makes writing (when you're exploring a new field) such a trying passtime. How do you know whether what you're doing is any good or not? How do you judge the quality of the feedback you're getting? Where is the detailed advice you sometimes need so badly?

It's London Book Fair this week. Over the past five or six years it's been the non-fiction deals done at the LBF that have turned out to be successes. So I'm typing this with fingers crossed, which is hard work, I can tell you. But not as hard, I'd say, as writing in the dark.

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