Hello you! Here are a few tough-love pointers about approaching people in the scriptwriting, TV, film, prose and generally creative industries. Specifically, via e-mail. I'm sure this won't apply to you, because you're lovely and you know better. But it might. And that being the case, you may find this useful. Here then, are Eight Ways To Annoy People Whose Help You Want...
1) Appear in someone's inbox, out of the blue, and immediately ask if they'll read your project.
If you really must do this - although you shouldn't - at least put some effort into that e-mail and a little finesse. A pro script-friend of mine recently described receiving a really abrupt e-mail from a complete stranger, asking if he would read their script. The e-mail barely introduced the sender and didn't even end with a sign-off line. That's a great way to make a terrible first impression.
When you've written and finished a thing that you like, it's easy to build up a head of zealous steam, to the point where you assume the world is waiting to read it. Take a deep breath and calm yourself. Approach your contact-to-be politely, lightly and in a personalised way which doesn't make them think they're Number 227 in your Xeroxed Introductory E-Mail campaign. As I said, ideally don't ask them to read your project in this opening salvo. You wouldn't do this during an opening exchange at a party, so why do it in Cyberworld? And Good God...
2) Attach your project to your introductory e-mail
Don't do this, ever. It's rude, even though it might not seem that way to you. It's the equivalent of striding up to someone at a scriptwriters' festival, saying hello and shoving a hard-copy of your script into their bag. Bear in mind that most writers - me included, sadly - can't read other writers' scripts, for two reasons: lack of time to read anyone else's work and legality (if a writer reads your script, then has a similar idea down the line, or is already working on a similar idea, you might turn out to be paranoid and insane and all, like, "You stole my idea! I sue you! I appear in your garden at 3am, harming myself and shrieking!"). So when you send someone a script right off the bat, that seemingly innocuous PDF of yours could well be violating the recipient's personal, professional and legal boundaries. Once someone receives a PDF, I'm pretty sure it's impossible to prove they haven't read it, if things should turn all weird and litigious later on. So don't put them in that position.
3) Attach your project to your introductory e-mail, because the recipient's colleague/boss/whoever has suggested you send it
This is still rude. I know, because a good few years back, I did it myself. A TV show's producer suggested I send a script to his script editor. With a head full of zealous steam (beware, oh beware, the zealous steam), I rattled off an e-mail to the script editor and attached the script. Never heard back from that script editor, and quite rightly so. I still regularly wince at the very thought of it and groan at the fact that I'm possibly forever filed away in that guy's head under "Presumptuous Amateurs". Even if someone else has recommended you send a script, still take that deep breath and write that polite, to-the-point introductory e-mail, explaining that X suggested you send them your script. Do they have time to read? That's much nicer, isn't it?
4) Play down the size of the favour
This is admittedly a relatively small pet niggle, and may be exclusive to me and my brain, but I doubt it. Don't play down the size of the favour you're asking this stranger/new contact. I'm talking specifically about saying "I wonder if you could do me a small favour...". Oh, it's only small, is it? I'll be the judge of that. This is the kind of thing it's so very easy to write without thinking, but well worth a mention.
5) Chase them up on a read
If a relative stranger agrees to read your thing, for free, in their own time, don't chase them up on it within six months. Seriously. That's just wrong and will irritate the Christ out of them. You have to be prepared to play the long game here. I've waited literally a year for industry folk to read scripts, and personally wouldn't chase them before a year was up.
If that impatient demon in your brain - the one entirely composed of zealous steam - forces you to chase someone up, at least do it indirectly. Message them about something else - ideally something which isn't asking for another favour. Nine times out of 10, this will jog their memory and provide a subtle prompt. It still runs the risk of annoying them, but it's a lot better than a "Did you get my e-mail?" e-mail, a week after the first. While I'm at it, let's all agree never to write "Did you receive my e-mail?" e-mails any more. It's 2011. The vast majority of e-mails get through. We know this, and yet still we persist with this irritatingly transparent tactic.
6) React badly to notes
So this stranger has read your thing for free and given you some thoughts. You dislike and/or disagree with one or more these thoughts, so decide to fight your corner. You passive-aggressively - or downright aggressively - inform the helpful stranger why they're wrong and/or why they've misunderstood your grand masterplan. Congratulations! They didn't particularly want any response to their notes (all those questions they asked in the notes were rhetorical, by the way, for your project-analysing use only) and now you're synonymous with two Twitter hashtags in their brain: #DifficultToWorkWith and #OverlyDefensive. Tremendous.
7) Ask a huge question, the size of the MOON ITSELF
This one isn't exactly likely to enrage people, and is once again really easy to do without thinking, but it will assuredly make their life harder. And if you've made their life excessively harder, they won't thank you for that. I'm talking about big, wide-ranging questions like "How can I go about getting into scriptwriting?". That's big. Whole books are written on that subject. In fact, are you sure you shouldn't buy a tax-deductible General Script Advice book, rather than ask a pro to write several paragraphs of advice for free? Then, by all means, you can ask more targeted, specific questions of this person. This will serve a double-duty: it makes it a lot easier for them to answer the questions, and you seem more clued-up from the very beginning. Everybody wins, nobody loses, hooray.
8) 'Forget' to thank them
Never forget to thank someone who has given you advice, help and especially notes. This is possibly the most infuriating thing of all, and there seems to be an epidemic of this behaviour going around. Almost every industry pro I talk to, shares the annoyance at not being thanked for helping people. This now seems to be a 'thing'. Strangers appear in your life, out of the clear blue sky (© Larry David), ask for help/advice/a script read, are given that valuable stuff for free, then fail to even thank the helper. That's downright weird behaviour, which has certainly happened to me a few times now. Why would anyone do that? Besides being supremely irritating and ungracious, it pretty much guarantees that the person will get zero help or advice from me again. Don't burn bridges. Don't spread the epidemic which makes helping people literally a thankless task.
Writers, producers, script editors: anything to add to this list? Comment away! I want stories of people who have contacted you, out of the blue, and proceeded to screw up their chances of you ever helping them. I'd also like stories from people who have made mistakes while contacting new people. Let's stockpile this stuff and get a little closer to establishing Best Practice when progressing in this industry and forging new professional relationships.
I'm a writer of stuff, including Doctor Who, Friday The 13th and Beast In The Basement. My latest fiction release is the Orbit Books novel The Last Days Of Jack Sparks, now in movie development at Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment.
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