You win some, you lose (or don’t place in) some

Another screenwriting contest season come and gone, at least for yours truly.

My western’s record with PAGE extended to 0-6, and didn’t make it to the quarterfinals in the Nicholl. After last year’s debacle with Austin, I opted to skip it this year.

(Side note 1 – I don’t pay to get the reader/judge notes, so don’t know why the script fared how it did for either contest. The Nicholl used to offer notes after the top 5 were announced, but not sure if they’re doing that this year or you had to pay upon registering.)

(Side note 2 – A very hearty congrats and good luck to the 359 writers who made it to the Nicholl QFs. I wholeheartedly applaud the Academy’s decision to limit submissions to one script per person. Other contests should follow their lead.)

My initial reaction to the news from both competitions was “I must be a really shitty writer to keep failing like this.”

But as my ever-supportive wife, a few friends who are also consultants, and several other trusted colleagues in my writers’ network reminded me:

It’s a really good script.

You’re not a bad writer.

IT’S ALL SUBJECTIVE.

This script has also done moderately well in some smaller contests, so it can’t be that bad.

I know a writer whose script advanced in the Nicholl after several years of bupkis. I also know another writer who made it to the top 50 one year, then the same script didn’t even make the quarterfinals the following year.

And as a few others pointed out about the prestigious contests and the scripts that do well in them: it may be a good script, but would it be a good movie? I’ve read some contest winners (and some top vote-getters on The Black List); some were very well-written, and some just didn’t do anything for me. One or two even made me question why they did as well in the contest as they did.

Furthermore – did any make me eager to shell out the cost of a ticket if it were available on the big screen?

Not really.

But again, that’s just my take – i.e. SUBJECTIVE.

At the very least, reading these scripts could be helpful in a “developing your craft” kind of way.

So where do I go from here? I’m rewriting a pair of newer scripts, and haven’t decided if either will go the contest route. Possibly, but right now I couldn’t say.

I’d rather focus on getting them in decent shape. If that means skipping contests next year, that’s fine by me.

The writer’s GPS: always recalculating

The road to screenwriting success is a long and hazardous one, filled with constant obstacles that make you constantly second-guess yourself, doubt your judgment, and even make you wonder if you’re even headed in the right direction.

Trust me, we’ve all been there.

And the longer the journey takes, the longer it seems like anything good is going to happen – if it happens at all.

Who doesn’t know a writer who’s made some progress, only to have things stall out, making them question if it’s worth continuing on, or are just so fed up that they throw up their hands up and say “That’s it. I’m done.”?

As someone who’s been at this for a good number of years, again – totally been there.

There’s a part of me that always feels bad when I hear somebody say this sort of thing. Thanks to social media, I’ve been able to follow many a journey, offering congratulations on successes, and encouragement for the bad times.

So when I’m engaged in an online conversation with someone, and they talk about being so frustrated that they’re ready to chuck it all, I go into pep talk mode with the hope it helps replenish their reserve of strength to keep going.

No idea how effective these are, but I keep trying.

And just like these writers, I feel that way sometimes too. I accept there’s a chance it might not happen, but the optimistic cheerleader in me is quite stubborn and keeps pushing me to stay at it. That, and I like writing too much to stop anyway.

There’s also the realization that my road to success may not be what I initially set out on, and is totally what I make it.

If things don’t seem to be going my way, and often times they’re not, I’ll take a step back and explore what my other options are.

Queries not getting any responses? Read requests fizzling out? Contest results not attracting any attention? The industry constantly saying “Thanks, but no thanks”?

Frustrating, so I’ll try something else.

I’ve got a phone with a movie camera in it, and my computer has basic film editing software, so I can take a stab at making a short film. It might not look great, but it’s something.

Bonus – the $ I’d normally spend on contests can now be put towards a film budget.

I’m fortunate to be connected to some local filmmakers. I can ask if they need any help with their projects. No qualms about being part of the crew, and it’s a great education in filmmaking.

(If the filmmaking opportunities are somewhat limited where you are, maybe see this an opportunity to start laying the foundation to create them.)

I’m extremely fortunate to be connected to writers literally from all over the world. I can ask for feedback on my scripts, and offer to reciprocate.

Since a lot of my scripts are of a visual nature, there’s the possibility of turning some of them into graphic novels. I know a few writers who’ve done this, so I could talk to them about their experience and get their advice and suggestions.

The dream to see the stories we create on the big screen is powerful, and what drives a lot of us to do this. The sad truth is it most likely won’t happen for a large percentage of us.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, or that it’s the only way it can happen.

You’re going to keep getting knocked down. It’s up to you how many times you’re willing to get back up and try again.

Just missing one component

Over the past few years, as my network of writing associates and contacts has grown, along with my interaction with a lot of these people, more than a few have commented that they consider me a professional screenwriter.

My initial reaction – that’s flattering, and very kind of them to say, but I don’t necessarily consider it true. Like a lot of you, I write scripts, but I don’t get paid to do it. The ongoing plan is to keep at it until that last part changes.

But I was intrigued. What would make somebody say such a thing?

Is it how I present myself? I try to be professional, which includes being polite, respectful, and patient, whether it’s in person or online. But that’s just common sense and good manners.

Side note – do those two things diminish the more a writer works? Most of the pros I’ve met and know have been quite decent folks, but I’ve also heard more than a few anecdotes about a pro writer being a total jerk, but they could also be the exceptions. 

Is it about the scripts? How they’re written and how they look on the page? I’ll be the first to say my writing’s not the shining example everybody else should follow, but I try to present a well-crafted story that paints a picture in your head while also being easy on the eyes while you read it.

But that’s what we’re all striving for, right?

Is it because I keep trying? I love putting my stories together, and want to do it for a living. Why wouldn’t I or anybody else constantly work on anything and everything to help improve the chances of making that happen?

There’s no definitive path. Each writer finds success their own way. For me, it involves entering contests (temporarily on hiatus), sending out queries, networking online (and returning to it in person when that comes back), and what have you. Maybe somebody else films their own script and enters it into a few festivals, or decides to turn it into a book, or a webseries, or serialized chapters on a blog, or a graphic novel. So many options!

Trust me, there are days where I’ll see something great happen for another writer (who’s probably also been working at this just as much as me), and while I’m happy for them, it still feels like fate is twisting the knife in my gut just a little bit more, as if to say “Not a chance, sucker.”

My confidence plummets below sea level and all I can think is “That it. I’m done. D-U-N-N. Done.” It’s SO tempting to give up and walk away, but any and all chances of success immediately drop to zero if I do, and then I get angry at myself for even considering such a thing, so I get back to work.

The only way to make this happen is to keep trying, so no matter what kind of day it’s been, or whatever kind of new obstacle’s been thrown into my path, that’s what I do.

I keep pushing forward.

A really interesting thing I’ve been told is that “I deserve” success. I don’t necessarily agree with that one. Would it be nice to see the results I seek for all the work I’ve done? Of course, but I prefer the idea that I’ve earned it, rather than “I put in all this work, so the universe owes me.” I’ve seen/read a few writers state words very similar to that effect. It’s not attractive – on several levels.

Kids, the universe doesn’t owe me, you, or anybody, shit. This is all on us making that one connection where the other person says “Yes,”, which gets the ball rolling.

Naturally, there’s no guarantee it’ll ever happen for me, but I remain confident and hopeful.  Every day is a new opportunity to try. According to my trusted readers, my skills and my scripts have improved over time, so hopefully something positive will happen, preferably sooner rather than later.

Many years ago, I saw Shane Black on a panel at a writing conference. He told the crowd “Don’t call yourself an aspiring screenwriter. That just means you want to be a screenwriter. You write a script, no matter how it turns out, good or bad, you are a screenwriter.”

I really took that to heart. When I tell people I’m a screenwriter, most of the time the first follow-up question is “Have I seen something you’ve written?” To which I say “Not yet, but I’m working on it.”

-Want to have your TV or feature spec script included in the Maximum Z Script Showcase on 4 June? Click here for all the details.

Knew this wasn’t going to be easy

wile e coyote

Many, many years ago, while attending the Screenwriting Expo in the City of Angels, one of the seminars I went to featured an “industry professional” as a speaker. I put that term in quotes because I couldn’t tell you who it was or what they did. Maybe a writer-producer or something like that. It was good enough for the folks running the Expo.

There were probably 20 or 25 of us in the audience. This guy walked to the front of the room, and the first thing he said was, if you’ll pardon my paraphrasing:

“I don’t know who any of you are, how experienced you are, or how may scripts you’ve written, but I can guarantee that just about all of you will fail at this.”

Well, ain’t that an encouraging lead-in. Everything he said after that is pretty much a blur, because I found it to be…

Shocking? Most definitely.

Disheartening? Pretty much.

Accurate? Maybe. But he was speaking from his experience. No doubt he’d seen an endless stream of writers come through, give it their all, and despite their efforts, subsequently crash and burn.

It’s easy to overlook the fact that this was well before you could make a movie with your phone and a laptop. Resources and DIY filmmaking opportunities were much more limited than they are now.

His comments really struck a nerve. Is this what I, along with everybody else in the room, should think? Were we just wasting our time? Were our chances THAT small? Should we just give up and go home?

I couldn’t speak for anybody else, but I had a little more faith in myself than he did.

Like I said, I forgot everything after his opening – the sooner I got him out of my head the better – and gradually replaced it with a few thoughts of my own:

-Yes, this is a HUGE mountain to climb, let alone get to the top. Is that intimidating? Hell yes. Is it going to stop me from trying? Hell no. Much as it sucks, it’s better to try and fail than to give up entirely, so I’ll keep trying. As long as it takes.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to do so: I really like doing this, and even though I’ve endured my fair share of disappointments, I keep going – because I like the process of writing.

It’s taken me a long time to develop my skills just to get to this level, and I know there’s  room to keep improving. The challenge to myself and my writing abilities is one most welcome.

-Do I have a chance of eventually being able to call myself a professional writer? Hard to say. Some might say I already am, but that might be an individual matter of perspective. For me, until I see my name onscreen accompanied by “Story By…” or “Screenplay By…”, it doesn’t apply. my efforts will continue undaunted, unabated and undeterred.

Count me among the writers who are content to just be working. Sure, a huge paycheck would be great, but I’m also cool with writing a low-budget horror, or taking on an assignment, or doing an uncredited rewrite. IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WORK. The more I get to do it, the more I’ll enjoy it.

-For a long time, it was always “I need to find that somebody who says ‘yes’; somebody to open that door for me”, and to a certain extent, that still rings true. Getting representation, meeting with REAL industry people, and so forth.

But in the meantime, there’s absolutely nothing stopping me from making my own stuff. For the past few months, I’ve been dabbling with writing short scripts. Five to 10 pages, a handful of characters, one to two locations. Something that presents not only my writing skills, but also that I know how to tell a story in the most visual way possible.

Added bonus – a ridiculously short production time. It could be made over a few days (or a long weekend) with a minimal crew.

Feedback and notes from writing colleagues who’ve also made their own short films have been helpful and encouraging.

All of this, of course, will be a little more feasible once society slowly returns to “normal”. Until then, I’ve got plenty of time to prepare. Why not start creating our own opportunities?

-As much as I dream about all of these great things happening, I’m also a realist. I know that the journey to achieve this kind of success is a very, very long and tortuous one. Disappointment abounds.

I’ve no intention of giving up, no matter how frustrating things get. And there will be A LOT of frustration.

This is what I want to do, and despite all the negatives, I still enjoy doing it.

Thus the soldiering forward continues. Shoulder to the grindstone and all that…

I tried. I really did.

bulldog flop

To say the past few weeks have been interesting is putting it mildly. Like pretty much everybody else on the planet, many parts of my life are a lot different now. Adjustments are being made. I sincerely hope you’re doing everything you can to stay safe and healthy.

One of my constants during this time has been to write. Unfortunately, with everything going on, I haven’t been able to be as productive as I’d hoped.

Remember way back to around the beginning of this month when I said I was going to really push myself to have a completed new draft of the horror-comedy by the end of the month?

Side note – that was just a few weeks ago. Feels MUCH longer than that. Oy.

Full disclosure: ain’t gonna happen. Not even close.

A LOT of time was spent revising the outline. Copious amounts of cutting, editing, and idea-developing took place. Since a big part of this was to reduce the potential budget to make it more financially appealing to anybody interested in actually producing it, large swaths of scenes and sequences were ceremoniously shown the door.

The number of characters and locations were drastically reduced to as few as the story would allow. Emphasis on drastically.

Keep in mind that all of this was going on as the tendrils of COVID-19 continued to spread across the globe at a rapid pace. My sweetie’s office shut down until further notice. Ms. V’s school closed, first for two weeks, then another two. (Fortunately, all of her classes are continuing online.)

I’d even been sent home from work for a non-corona condition, and was then told to stay home for the next week and a half. I was back in the office this week, but management opted to keep everybody safe and set us all up to work from home. You’d think this would be a golden opportunity to see some major productivity, writing-wise.

Wrong again.

Still had to work the day job, but just from home. The rest of the day involved dealing with a lot of the everyday routine, albeit very, very modified. Writing time had become very limited, sometimes practically non-existent.

But I did what I could. Even just writing a little is better than not writing at all.

As the days went on, my output had seen a significant decrease. I had to face the sad truth: this script was not going to be ready when I hoped it would.

Disappointing, but you gotta admit we’re all operating under some totally new circumstances. I don’t think anybody had “productivity down due to self-isolating during a global pandemic” on their list.

Even with a few minor details in the outline still in need of figuring out, I wanted to feel like I was moving things forward.

So I started on pages, knowing I’d be going back and rewriting them anyway – which has already happened with some minor edits and tweaks within the first 10.

I admit I would have absolutely loved to announce on March 31st that I had a completed draft, but that won’t be happening. Instead, I’ll say there’s no need to rush and that this thing will be done when it’s done.

In the coming weeks, as I settle into my new routine, I’ll do what I can to ramp up my output. This thing WILL get written.

It’ll just take a little longer than I’d hoped. Normally I’d say “last day of April”, but it’s probably better to not stress myself out over the idea of NOT hitting another deadline.

Before I forget – an added bonus of all this – once again reveling in the sheer joy of writing something new.

Well, almost new. But you get the point.

Can’t stress this enough. Stay safe and healthy, chums.

Now go wash your hands.