Should I write for free?


4/22/20065 min read

There was a good debate over on Twitter yesterday about writing for free, trying to get credits and all that with various points being made by the excellent people thereon.

I came to it rather late (by which I mean an hour on two) so I thought I would take ten minutes to write to the notion of writing for free and how to get credits. Herein lies an attractive jumble of ideas and approaches...

Writing your own stuff

I have always written for free - that is I have invested large amounts of time and aspiration into plays and screenplays that have no money attached to them. In the screen world this is called writing on spec and in the theatre world it's how almost everything gets done. I have yet to gain a commission or a grant to write something (obviously I don't have a screen agent!). And I'm talking for fifteen years or so here.

Consequently I have written EXACTLY what I wanted to write at any one time, and consequently the only income I have received from writing is 10% of the box office receipts and a fee for two radio plays. I think over 15 years I have earned somewhere in the region of NZ15,000 (about £5000). Yes folks, that's somewhere in the £350 per year bracket.

After a play I poured five years of soul into earned me about NZ900 (but cost me about £6000 in airfares and lost income) I got very very cross with the playwrights lot in NZ and realised that there was no money at all in NZ theatre for the writer. Actually there's no money in it for anyone. So I started called myself an amateur - by which I mean someone who did something purely for personal interest. I just removed the need to be 'successful' and just went back to writing for pure joy. I accepted that there may be no financial reward ever again for my stage work, and I embraced the fact that this means I can write what I like (FOR FREE) and work with the people I enjoy working with and have an absolute BLAST. Luckily most people don't know how much serious fun good theatre is, otherwise ever f*cker would be doing it.

At that point I also realised I wanted to write screenplays, so it was a happy accident - I felt no need at all to earn any money from my writing, so worked in the Public Sector and wrote for an hour and half more or less every morning for about four years in which time I wrote three movies and three more plays. I wrote the plays for relaxation after finishing a movie. Two of these are pretty good and have been moving along quite nicely.

So it looks like I may get some money upfront to redraft the movie (nope, never happened). This will be my first upfront payment since I started out in 1994 or thereabouts.

I think I have made my point about writing for free. Of course you should be prepared to write your own spec and 'passion projects' for free.

Free commissions

Now the waters start to get murky. This is the situation where a producer wants you to write for free or deferred payment. In principle this is fine - plenty of projects are made on deferred payment and everyone understands the payback - the payback is credit and opportunity.

But what if it's a piece of shit that you end up making? Do you want your first credit to be laughable? How do you avoid that? Probably the best way is to get to know that producer very well - both professionally (track record, reputation) and socially (see what they're like drunk). This is a human business, it's all about trust and respect - do they earn yours?

I think a lot of writers operate a two-tier internal system 'my work, their work', but I think this is a grave error - it's just too much bother as a psychological conceit and makes people cynical and bitter. I operate on an 'our work' system (this is a collaborative medium folks, for all that writing you do alone...). So if you can get to the point where you are talking to a producer or director and you start thinking of 'our' project then you are probably in a good place and it may well be worth taking that risk.

The search for credit

I know the mighty Adrian Mead method emphasises credit as a way of getting an agent interested, but I think there is a counter balance to that and it's the very simple fundamental law of of making it as a screenwriter: FIRST WRITE A GREAT SCREENPLAY. In fact somewhere in his eBook he writes '[your screenplay] must be a diamond'. Someone writing for the first time might not want to hear that it can take years to get to the end of that sentence, but it's mostly true - unless you are the Mozart of movies of course.

I suspect that my playwriting/radio credits probably last in a potential agent or producers mind for about 3 seconds (they put a tick in the 'persistent' box) but if the first ten pages of that screenplay are shit then it's all over no matter how many shorts and unpaid credits you have.

So I don't look for 'credit' ever, I look for opportunities to share my work with an audience and make it as good as possible, isn't that what this is all about?

Real world opportunities

So now how to I get work out and about?

Agent - I do have an agent for my plays in NZ (they are a state-funded development agency too, sort of like Writer Net) and they are very good at circulating work and have given me money for flights and workshops over the years (thanks PlayMarketNZ!). And I will get a UK based agent when I deserve one, probably not just yet?!

Friends - I have friends in the theatre and film world, mainly because I lived there as an actor for a while, so I send work to friends or friends of friends as appropriate. By 'as appropriate' I mean almost never. Only when it is ready, only if I think they might like the idea and I always ask them first.

Online - Blogs, twitter and facebook are all good fun but you can also circulate your work through them. I recently found a director in NZ by putting a draft of a play on facebook.

Competitions - Adrian Mead is very right about this: If you plan your writing around comps and don't leave things until a month before it can work. Danny Stack pretty much kicked off his career with a competition win.)If you have no industry connections and are really starting cold then competitions are essential to you.

DIY - This starts with the very easy (reading at your house with friends) and goes right up to the intimidating (make a feature). I always have at least one reading and probably two before a play goes live, but I don't have the talent to make a feature. Whatever works, but there is always something you can do here.

Networking - yes, you have to and not just online. Trust me, this gets very hard indeed when you have a family so you unencumbered singletons and youth - GET OUT THERE RIGHT NOW!

Holidays - Don't have any this year. Go to a film festival, Sundance, Cheltenham, whatever - just go!

And finally….

This has turned into a bit of a rant, however there is one more thing to bear in mind - bravery. You do need to stick your neck on the line. If you can break convention and the rules brilliantly go ahead and do it. Of course you won't know if it's brilliant or not before you do it so... jump...My post content