Someone asked me to say something about writing for free and if it’s beneficial for the beginning writer. I could go into many of the pat answers here. Most of which you’ve heard before. For instance:
“You have to put pen to paper to have something to show people.” Even though they now have an international air guitar competition, there is no similar air manuscript, screenplay, or poetry competition.
Now if you’re J.K. Rowling, you can wave your hand in the air at a publisher and they’ll be at your feet foaming at the mouth. Remember where she came from though: a single mom who wrote, for free, whenever she could. She had no idea where things would go. I doubt if she ever thought she’d be a multimillionaire while she tried to find elbow room on the train as she tried to get in some writing time on her way to work.
Another pat answer is “We all write for free as beginners.” If you don’t put that practice in now, nobody will want to pay you later anyway because your work stinks up the place.
A third one, and one of my favourites (seriously), “You need to make connections.” Maybe someone asks for help with a no-budget project. Now it’s a given that this project will probably be a bust. But a few years down the line this same person may make it big or even mediocre, and then they remember that you were willing to wholeheartedly pitch in and help. They may just call you and ask for help again but with real money this time. One thing I’ll keep repeating over and over and over is that knowing people is a key ingredient to becoming successful.
That’s a few I could think of off hand. But I think, sometimes, giving a personal experience is just as important. And so, here I offer you mine.
So far, everything I’ve written has been for free, and still is. But a project has come up recently that, although I’m doing the freebie again, hopefully will make it all worthwhile. A local low-budget filmmaker has decided to let a group of us help him with his next project.
As the writer in the group, I get the honour of turning a short story into a script. I have to say, and he admits it, that there is no character development in the book. The story is a cross between Deliverance and The River on a budget that Hollywood uses up in five minutes, (insert seconds here). And, by the way, all the other projects this guy has done have been complete bombs. Lucky me.
Now, on the positive side he’s managed to actually complete two films, which is huge in itself. And then he got distribution for them. If you don’t get distribution, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the film is; nobody will ever see it. He was also able to get Gary Busey, Wilfred Brimley, Leon Spinks, and Tonya Harding into his films. And he’s got Tommy Morrison, the boxer, and Tony Orlando lined up for this one.
Besides being pretty well assured that the project will get past the first day of shooting – most don’t even get that far – we'll learn a whole lot from him about the filmmaking process. And when it does hit the shelf, whether or not it sells a single copy, we’ll have a credit to our names.
One thing about having something you've completed that you can show people is it demonstrates that you can get things done. For that reason, it may be worthwhile for them to take a chance on you. It could also help you get one of your projects into the right hands. You have to be prudent, though, about who you do the work for. You only have so much time to spread around.
And I know that it’s different for other literary pursuits, but in the end it’s not really free. Just like Ms. Rowling, you’re paying yourself from the future dividends that working hard now will deliver.
So Write On!
Ken Robinson, IN's Write On! columnist, winner of Bare Bones Int'l Film Festival Best Screenplay Award, has written over 10 screenplays, 3 episodes of TV series West Law, is executive producer for the feature Sacred Bloods, board member of the Oklahoma Film Society, founding member of Oklahoma Movie Makers. His email address is: Krobinson104@hotmail.com