The hazardous journey down Contest Road

Flat tire in formal attire
A savvy driver is prepared, no matter what they encounter

I’ve lost count of how many screenwriting contests there are. A whole lot, I believe. But out of all of them, only a handful actually mean anything in terms of helping build one’s career.

The Nicholl. Austin. PAGE. There are others of high prominence, but these three are the ones that really matter.

This isn’t to slight the smaller or lesser-known contests, but someone who’s a finalist in the Nicholl probably has a better shot at being able to use that to their advantage than, say, the Greater Cedar Rapids Screenplay Contest (not that such a thing actually exists, but you get the idea).

As evidenced on my My Scripts page, I’ve done moderately well in some of the bigs, but have also totally fizzled out. I’ve also been fortunate to have done well in some of the second-tier competitions. Every year yields different results.

Sometimes the first thoughts that race through your head when you read that email from the contest organizer that includes the word “Regretfully” somewhere near the beginning makes you think “Does this mean my writing is lousy?”

No. It means it didn’t click/connect with the reader or readers from that contest. A lot of the contests give you at least two reads. Sometimes I’ll receive praise from the first reader, only to have the second one not like it, thereby stopping it in its tracks. Or both readers like it, but not enough to advance it to the next round. Nothing I can do about it. C’est la vie, and better luck next year.

And even if you win, or at least place highly, in a high-profile contest, that’s no guarantee to getting work. I know a Nicholl finalist who had zero traction with their script, as opposed to the PAGE winner who is now super-busy with assigments.

I know writers who’ve never won a contest, and they got work. I know writers who’ve never entered a contest at all, and they’ve gotten work. How? Because the writing wasn’t just good; it was really, really good. That’s what it comes down to. That and somebody liked it enough to want to do something with it or with the writer.

A few years ago, I was a lot more likely to enter almost any contest. And there weren’t even as many then as there are now. Time and experience has shown me that, yes, it’s a nice validation to get that certificate from that small contest you’d never heard of before you entered, but how much did it actually do to help you get your career going?

A lot of contests offer “industry exposure” to the winners, and you do get that – to a point, and it’s probably a safe bet not to the extent you imagine. Your script might get checked out by maybe a handful of reps and production companies, and even then there’s still no guarantee anybody will be interested. I’m speaking from experience on this one.

Contests are just one of the ways in. As someone who’s in it for the long haul, I’ll continue to try my luck with the big ones while also exploring other avenues. Whatever it takes.

And no matter what contest you may have entered this year, I wish you the best of luck. Except for the ones I did. Then all bets are off and it’s every person for themselves.

Fine-tuning in progress

lady-scientists
Aha! Almost missed that extra “the” in that sentence!

As of this writing, the early bird deadline for the Nicholl is about a week away. After some back-and-forth, I decided that, yes, I’ll take the plunge and once again submit my western.

Last year it made it to the top 15 percent, which isn’t bad, but I know it can do better.

And that’s what the next couple of days are all about: taking what I consider to be a pretty solid script and doing a little more editing/tweaking/polishing to make it even stronger.

For a long time I was convinced there was nothing else to be done on this script. Now I’m thrilled to have been so completely wrong. It doesn’t need a lot, but probably just enough to make a significant difference.

Earlier this year, I got some really good professional notes on it that raised some questions I hadn’t considered before. Implementing the suggested fixes really would make a difference.

So that’s what I’m currently in the process of doing. Nothing major, but some little tweaks, modifications, and minor rewriting here and there. And as is usually the case for me, these aren’t as insurmountable as I’d expected.

Part of this also involves going through the entire thing line by line, red pen in hand, just in case anything catches my eye as if to say “CHANGE ME!” Surprisingly, there have been quite a few of those.

I couldn’t say the last time I actually read through the script, but it’s definitely been a while. And it’s probably safe to say that this long stretch of not looking at it has definitely helped in enabling me to identify what needs editing/fixing.

And not to toot my own horn, but gosh this is a fun read.

In retrospect, I probably should have done this before submitting the script to PAGE, but if all this helps it do better with the Nicholl, who am I to complain?

Looking back, planning ahead

champagne-toast
Auld Lang Syne and all that

Well, 2016 is pretty much in the books. I hope it was a good year for you, writing-wise.

Mine was okay.

Among the more noteworthy events:

-I completed the first draft for 3 separate scripts. 2 comedies, 1 sci-fi.

-One of those comedies was written, edited and rewritten/revised over 10 days.

-My western made it to the top 15 percent in the Nicholl and was one of the top 100 in the Emerging Screenwriters competition, but did not advance with PAGE or Austin.

-Several read requests from managers and production companies. Unfortunately, everybody passed with the commonly-used “Just not what I’m looking for.”

-Built up my network of talented writers located all over the world, along with numerous getting-to-know-you in-person chats with those in the immediate geographic vicinity.

-Organized and hosted a very successful and enjoyable networking event for screenwriters. In a deli. A block from the Pacific Ocean.

-Took part in script swaps for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 scripts.

Not a bad compilation.

As for 2017, the usual objectives:

-Along with the aforementioned rewrites, complete the first draft for at least 2 or 3 new scripts.

-Continue the quest for representation. Already a few potentials on the horizon.

-Based on how my western did in the Big 3 contests, I’m torn between seeking professional feedback for one more polish, or just leaving it as is and trying again next year.

-Continue providing notes and doing script swaps.

-Look into hosting another networking event, probably at a bigger venue.

-More networking and establishing connections with more talented writers.

-More getting-to-know-you in-person chats.

-Watch more movies.

-Read more scripts

-Stay confident. Be patient. Not lose hope, even on the shittiest of days.

-Keep trying to make this work. Eyes on the prize.

And a final note to all you loyal readers – thanks for coming along on this rollercoaster ride of a journey. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing about it.

All the best from me to you for a very happy and successful 2017. Fingers remain, as always, firmly crossed that this is The Year It Happens.

Disappointed, yet still driven & determined

uphill
One step at a time

The results are in for my western’s involvement with the major screenwriting contests for this year:

PAGE – nope. Didn’t get notes.

Austin – nope. Notes expected later in the year. (They got over 9100 entries for shorts and features this year. That’s A LOT.)

Nicholl – top 15%, which isn’t bad. Two sets of notes; the first reader really liked it, whereas the second’s comments make me highly suspicious about their qualifications.

On a positive note, the script placed in the top 100 of the ISA’s Emerging Screenwriters contest, which is nice. Fingers crossed it advances to the finals.

But back to the big three. It’s a little frustrating that things didn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean the script’s bad. A lot of my readers, many of whom have done well in these contests, all had very positive things to say about it and thought it was a solid and entertaining piece of work.

Two things to keep in mind about these contests:

It’s all subjective.

Sometimes you just get a shitty reader.

These also happen to be things we have no control over. Yes, it’s disappointing to get that email that includes the phrase “Unfortunately…”, but just because you didn’t do well this year doesn’t mean you won’t do better next year. This is the mantra I’m going with for now.

I’m also taking a little time off from the western to focus on the comedy and at least one or two other scripts. It helps.

Something else for you to ponder: contests aren’t the only way in. More and more I’m hearing/reading from writers who do well in contests, but nothing comes of it. They might get a read, but that’s it. You gotta keep trying from every approach you can think of.

That’s my plan.

Will I enter the contests next year? Possibly. But they’re not a priority.

Making inroads into a getting a career going is.

A little post-comp analysis

scientists
Studying the script data at Maximum Z Labs

The results are in for my standing in two highly-ranked screenwriting contests, and at best could probably be considered partially encouraging.

As mentioned previously in this space, my western did not advance to the quarterfinals of the PAGE International competition. That was somewhat disappointing.

Earlier this week, I’d been informed that it made the top 15 percent for the Nicholl, and was also not advancing to the quarterfinals. This ranking ties a previous personal best. Not bad, but again, slightly disappointing.

As it would probably be for most, my initial reaction to both of these announcements, especially the former, was “Well, I’m just a shitty writer, aren’t I?”

Apparently, not necessarily.

After I’d announced my contest results, I heard from a lot of fellow writers, including comments about the quality (or lack thereof) of the scripts that advance, the quality (or lack thereof) of the readers, but the most-repeated one was:

“It’s all subjective.”

Very true. We produce what we believe to be the absolute best script we can, and either someone’s going to like it, or they’re not. And there’s nothing we can do about it.

If you were also among those of us whose scripts didn’t advance, take heart. It ain’t the end of the world (although it may feel that way). Use this as a learning experience and work on improving your script so it’s ready for next year. Get notes on it. Rewrite. Polish. Whatever you think is necessary.

It’s also important to keep in mind that these contests are not the be-all and end-all. Winning them or placing high doesn’t guarantee a career. Sure, a handful of past finalists are working writers or consultants, but they appear to be the exceptions.

Just to put things in perspective, a friend of mine was a recent Nicholl finalist and says it had zero impact on their career, and still struggle to get their material read.

In all honesty, the sheen of contests is starting to wear a bit thin for me. I’ll probably still enter the western again next year, along with two other scripts I’m hoping to complete, but I’d rather focus on getting my material sold or produced, or at least using my scripts as strong calling cards and writing samples to get assignment work. I’m not picky. Whatever it takes.

There are a lot of ways to break in and become a working writer. Contests are one, but definitely not the only one.