Whether you are a screenwriter, novelist, or creative nonfiction author, at one point in every writer's experience there comes a day when you decide you need help. Maybe the narrative wheels came off the cart, maybe you wrote yourself into a dead end, maybe you found yourself drowning in the story flood plains with no land in sight, or maybe you just want to get an opinion on your work that is not your mother's? Whatever the reason, you determine that hiring a third-party expert might be a smart move, and so you bite the bullet and hire a story consultant or an editor.
For most writers this decision is fraught with confusion and uncertainty, "What do these 'consultants' do anyway? How do I know they are actually know what they're doing? What's the difference between a story consultant, line editor, and developmental editor?" Quickly you discover the editorial zoo is crowded, expensive, and intimidating. But, it doesn't have to be. The consultancy relationship is a two-way street, both parties have responsibilities, but for any relationship to work the partners need to be actively engaged, have trust, and hold one another in mutual respect. If these three things are not present, then you run the risk of either being run over by the consultant, or becoming a traffic hazard stopping the consultant from delivering what's promised.
It all begins with engagement, and you the writer are the initiator. Without you setting the right tone, expectation, and objective the trust and respect will not be there, and the experience will probably be unpleasant (and costly). If you own your own business or a home, then you already have some practical experience hiring vendors. When you hire a plumber to fix your pipes, you do your due diligence, right? You call around, get referrals, check reviews online, ask hard questions to make sure they're bonded and have been in business a while. You set the tone (I'm the boss), have clear expectations (scope of work), and have a clear objective (deliverables). It should be no different with a script consultant or book editor.
Here are the first five questions you can ask that will help your set the tone, expectations, and results of the consulting engagement so that everyone's needs are met satisfactorily, or at least so that you don't get screwed. These are the questions you should ask your consultant BEFORE you hire him/her. In Part 2 I'll look at the five questions you should be ready to ask yourself BEFORE you hire any third party.
Most consultants have their 'history' on their websites under a clients tab or as testimonials, but you want to know more than just their client list (we'll talk more about this later). What did they do before they were consulting? Did they work in the field? What production companies, studios, or publishing houses did they work for? How long? What writers or projects of note did they work on when they were working in the field? You might ask for a resume or curriculum vitae, but these are not typically used by script consultants. If they don't have any prior industry experience (entertainment or publishing), then that is a red flag that they may not have the depth and/or experience you need.
In addition to the generic resume-like questions, there is value in finding out the following:
What formats do they favor? For script consultants that means hour drama, sitcom, feature film, animation, etc.; for book editors that means short fiction, long fiction, series, comics, graphic novels, etc. Do they have genre expertise? If so, which ones. For book editors, how knowledgeable are they with the Chicago Manual of Style. any real editor will know this style guide well. There is no style guide for script consultants, not like in the book business, so it is hard to pre-test their skill in this area. Ask editors if they present at writer conferences, festivals, and book fairs, if so, which ones? This is important to gauge if they are well established and respected in the literary community. The same question should be put to script consultants. It's not necessary they do these kinds of events, but it is a good sign if they do, it usually means they are well established.
If an editor or script consultant just gives you generic or spin-doctored answers to this, then you know they don't have a clue what their value is. By generic, I mean answers like: "My clients get a solid script at the end of the day", or "My clients end up with a good story they can sell and market", or "My clients end up happy and positioned for success". These are all useless. You want to hear things like: "My clients walk away with a process they can use on their own that will help them succeed on their own", or "My clients are given specific marketing strategies they can use going forward for any book or script they write", or "My clients walk away with a professional level of understanding about story development and story structure". These can be spin doctoring too, and sales talk, but at least they show the editor or consultant has clear deliverables and a process (more on this later).
Then ask to talk to former clients. They may just have a few friends lined up to spin for them, you can't ever really know, but hopefully not. Regardless, ask to talk to former clients. If the editor or consultant balks because of confidentiality issues, this might be valid if they have a confidentiality agreement in place, but ask anyway. How they react to this question can tell you a lot about their integrity and their willingness to be transparent. It's a red flag if they get defensive or deflect with legalities and other nonsense.
So many writers hire an editor or consultant and then hand over their book or script and walk away waiting for the final results to be handed to them. Big mistake. You have to find out how the editor or consultant works. What is their workflow? How do they handle their financial flow; do they have a refund polity, for example? How will they deliver feedback? Does the editor or consultant have sample manuscripts, notes, or coverage they can give you so you can see their approach? Does the book editor use Microsoft Word 'track changes' to document all edits and comments inline in the manuscript (this is essential), or do they just wing it in a text file with a bunch of colored test inserts (crazy making)? Professionals, regardless of their industry, have established process procedures and deliverables for every client. You have a right to know those process procedures and the nature of the final produce BEFORE they start work. This is critical, because the way the editor or consultant answers this question tells you boat loads about their professionalism, experience, and attitude toward you, the client. Ignoring this question can set you up for scope creep, battles over poor work and redoes, and a host of other consulting nightmares.
It is not at all uncommon for book editors to give a free editing sample of your manuscript (usually no more than a few pages), so that you can see their process. Script consultants typically do not do this, which I think is a bad policy. Sometimes script consultants will give a free mini-consult over the phone and talk about your script and give some feedback, and perhaps this can suffice as a 'sample', but most script consultants won't work on the actual script without being hired first. In this case, it is reasonable for you as the client to ask for a mini-evaluation, or consult, to get some sense of the consultant's ability to quickly assess your story or writing. If they refuse, this is not a sign (necessarily) that they are jerks, but it is reasonable to ask them why they won't do it? Maybe they have a good answer, maybe not. Just asking can tell you a lot about how they are approaching the relationship. Book editors will usually not hesitate to give a free sample edit, but some may. Use your judgment and always ask 'why not?' if for no other reason than to get a sense of how they'll respond, and then make your decisions accordingly.
Contracts exist for one reason: the two parties hate each other, won't talk things through, and refuse to compromise. Thank goodness for contracts. Even so, this is problematic for a lot of people, because they don't want the hassle of doing contracts, negotiating, etc. And for small, one-off projects, contracts can feel like overkill (and they are). But, there is a tangible and intangible reason for asking the question. The intangible reason is that you want to see how they'll react. If they are firm and tell you they never do contracts (script consultants almost never do), and they feel solid and clean (no agendas) about it, then you'll probably be okay, but you should still insist on putting something short and specific in writing. If they say "no, I don't do those" and it feels avoidant and defensive, then you're probably on shaky ground. And if they say, "no, I don't do those, but what would work for you?" Then you are definitely okay. Working without some form of an agreement opens you to misery if there is a dispute.
The tangible reason for a contract is when you have a long or complicated project with due dates, deliverables, and many moving parts. Like I said, script consultants almost never do contracts and will surely push back, so it's just a psychological game you're playing when you ask the question. But book editors are more accustomed to contracts. Most professional editors operate under the best practices set up by the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), and use contract templates and pricing schedules based on the EFA's recommendations. Long or involved projects need contracts, especially those stretching into the thousands of dollars in consulting fees. Contracts are too complicated to discuss here, but they are not rocket science, and there are good samples online you can use to guide you. Once you create one, you just clone it from future jobs. I cannot stress enough the importance of having your professional working relationship spelled out with third-party vendors BEFORE you engage them to work. It's your time and money, so gamble accordingly.
Are there more than five questions you should ask any third party consultant before you hire them: of course. There are lots of questions, but these five are the essential ones that will give you the strongest foundation for building a professional and productive working relationship. But, as I suggested in the opening remarks of this post, this is only half of the equation. To balance the calculus you must also be willing to ask yourself some hard questions regarding you ability and willingness to really do this third-party-thing. In Part 2 we will look at those questions and arm you will all the tools you will need to enter into a third-party relationship with confidence and poise.
About Jeff Lyons
Jeff Lyons is a published author, screenwriter, editor, and story development consultant with more than 25 years' experience in the film, television, and publishing industries. He has worked with literally thousands of novelists, nonfiction authors, and screenwriters helping them build and tell better stories.
Jeff is an instructor through Stanford University's Online Writer's Studio, University of California at Riverside's Extension Program, and is a regular guest lecturer through the UCLA Extension Writers Program. He is a regular presenter at leading writing and entertainment industry trade conferences, as well as a contributor and advisor to leading entertainment industry screenwriting and producing fellowship programs, such as the Producers Guild of American's "Power of Diversity Producing Workshop," and the Film Independent Screenwriting Lab. Jeff is also a regular guest blogger on major writing industry blog sites like Script Magazine and Stage32.com. Over the years, he has been a trusted story development consultant to many indie producers, produced screenwriters, production companies, and VR and new media content developers.
Jeff has written on the craft of storytelling for Writer's Digest Magazine, Script Magazine, The Writer Magazine, and Writing Magazine (UK). His book, Anatomy of a Premise Line: How to Master Premise and Story Development for Writing Success, is the only book available devoted solely to the topic of story and premise development for novelists, screenwriters, and creative nonfiction authors. His other book, Rapid Story Development: How to Use the Enneagram-Story Connection to Become a Master Storyteller, will be published by Focal Press in late 2017.
In addition to his nonfiction work, Jeff is co-authoring (with Stephen David Brooks) the Jack Be Dead Series, the first volume of which was published on Amazon in March 2016, Jack Be Dead: Revelation. This, and his other genre fiction work, is published through Storygeeks Press. Jeff's author site can be found at: www.jefflyonsbooks.com Jack Be Dead can be found at: www.jackbedead.com. Author: Anatomy of a Premise Line (Available Now)
Like this blog post? Please share it on social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, email etc) by using social media buttons at the top of the blog. Or post to your personal blog and anywhere else you feel appropriate. Thank you.
As always, we welcome thoughts and remarks on ANY of the content above in the Comments section below...
|The 10 Questions Every Writer Needs to Ask Before They Hire an Editor or Script Consultant - Part 2|
|Wishing You The Happiest of Holiday Seasons|