The Rocliffe New Writing Forums started with a posting on Shooting People. I was searching for work and material to perform and finding it a very solitary task. I wanted to meet other writers and actors. My goal was to bring people together to read, discuss scripts and work collectively. Nine people turned up to the first meeting (mostly friends of mine) but I kept going. Three weeks later 30 people turned up and then 40. Directors joined in. I found the networking after, just as enlightening as the read-through. It opened doors to an underground network of filmmakers and opportunities that I didn't know existed. Everyone was hungry for information, fresh material, a network and a safe haven for feedback. We grew to 100 people - all squished together above a pub in Islington so I started a booking system. We kept it casual but structured and it grew with feedback. In 2001, I asked amazing execs to come along and share their thoughts on the scripts. Our first guest was Ollie Madden followed by Ed King, Nik Powell and Michael Kuhn. Their insight and understanding of how the industry worked was so useful - this was new to us. Suddenly this world seemed accessible.
In 2007, I moved the event to BAFTA and it became BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum. These days the Forum is a very polished event but its heart and soul still retain the spirit of that pub in Islington. The Forums have a wonderful energy to them - they validate your opinion, open your mind to how the industry thinks and are a shared common experience. It is encouraging to hear other people’s work and give them feedback. For us all, it’s an opportunity to get away from the solitude of working alone – which is exactly writing can be. 14 years later the fundamental structure remains the same - a ten page extract is performed by actors who have had only a few hours to read and rehearse the script with a seasoned director. An industry guest gives feedback about the projects to each writers. The evening is rounded off with networking and mingling in the bar.
As writers it is hard not be a hermit, working on your own for hours but our work is meant to be read and needs feedback. Talking with other writers, sharing opportunities and interacting is essential. So is the feedback you give and receive. I can think of no better way, than to set up your own script reading group by distributing scripts, reading them and giving fellow writers feedback. I had no idea what a commitment Rocliffe would become (it’s probably been my longest relationship) but it’s a great buzz getting people together and seeing them make connections.
- Set realistic goals of meeting once a month on a particular night. Be consistent. Weekday nights suit most people ie Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Lots of people ask about running them weekly or every two weeks. From first hand experience, enthusiasm will burn out and people will drop out. It is a huge undertaking and commitment.
- Invite a specific number of people. You don't want it to be too big, I suggest 6-10 people. This allows for dropouts (life happens) but also that everyone gets a fair crack at receiving feedback. You don’t have to take the lead every meeting, appoint a different leader who are responsible for organising their allotted meeting.
- Ask writers you know but also widen the net to meet other writers. Put a posting on Shooting People, tweet using the hashtag scriptchat, ask the Writers Guild, BBCWritersroom to RT to their mailing lists. Ask people to send you an email if they are interested in joining. Use facebook and other social media outlets to attract other writers.
- Let the group decide the group etiquette and goals. Be clear about this from day one. Group dynamics can be extremely powerful. Everyone should know how to give and receive feedback and what is acceptable and not – the last thing you want is to kill someone’s confidence! For example, start with what you like about a script before highlighting what isn't working for you. Rocliffe has a feedback template sheet and some useful guidelines for writing groups. It lists simple questions and a few suggestions that you can adapt for your reading group. Email here now for the pdf.
- Will everyone read the script in advance or on the night? Will you focus on one or two scripts each meeting? Rotate when and who gets their material read. There has be to give and take. Different people should get turns at getting feedback and giving feedback. Mistaking mistakes is a great way to grow as a writer. Everyone should have an opportunity for feedback. Create a timetable.
- Reading scripts on the night will restrict your time. Decide on the structure of the evening how much time is given to each script and how much time each person should spend giving feedback. I would recommend you limit the time given to each script. If individuals give feedback - no more than 4 minutes of feedback per person or if a general discussion keep it to 30-40 minutes per script per evening. If you do two scripts then this may take 90 minutes which is quite a long time. Do you also want to include writing exercises or just give straight feedback?
- You can also use the writers group to create work. Setting goals such as you all write a 5 minute short film – circulate in advance or read on the night and give feedback or a one page treatment for a film or tv idea. Then graduate to feature films.
- Set deadlines so everyone knows when they have to circulate a script and when they need to have read it. Use this meeting to share knowledge about competitions and schemes.
- Picking a venue is crucial. Many pubs and coffee shops will be up for the business you will bring them. They have upstairs or back rooms you can use. Try a local museum cafe. In London I recommend The British Library or The British Museum cafes. Keep it centrally located with access where possible and not just central to you. Avoid using people’s houses better to be on neutral territory.
- After the meeting whoever is the leader should send out an email to everyone who attended so they can keep in touch too. You shouldn’t be afraid to go out once in a while and a writer’s group is a great focus point for a writer.