A Screenwriter’s Five Stages of Grief: Contest Edition

sad writer

Ah, the screenwriting contest. There are so many out there, and may be the key to breaking in and starting a career.

Once you decide to take the plunge and submit, your brain fills up with visions of your script claiming first prize and all the goodies that come with it – cash and prizes, prestige, connections.

But the sad truth really is that while many will enter, only a select few will advance and even fewer will win. The odds are already against you, so you do the best you can.

The latest rounds in several prestigious screenwriting contests were recently announced. A very high number of scripts will not be moving forward. Chances are if yours was among them, this could be what you’re currently experiencing.

1. DENIAL
This can’t be right. My script should be right there. Something must be wrong. Wait. Maybe I just didn’t see it. Let me look again. Are these listed by author’s first name, last name, or by title? Why am I not seeing it? Maybe they just forgot to include me. That happens, right?

2. ANGER
Aaugh! I can’t believe I didn’t make it! All that hard work shot straight to hell! How could they not like this? I’m never entering another contest again!

3. BARGAINING
Please let this be a mistake. I promise I’ll try harder and do better next time. I’ll write every day. Honest.

4. DEPRESSION
I’m the worst writer ever. I’ve got no talent. The judges probably read this and laughed their heads off at how bad it was. How could I even think I had a shot at this? Why did I even bother? I should just give up now.

5. ACCEPTANCE
It’s all subjective. You never know what someone going’s to like or not like. Somebody else’s script that advanced last year didn’t even make it past the first round this year. Maybe my script wasn’t as perfect as I thought. I should probably work on it some more, get some feedback on it from my more experienced writer friends, maybe even shell out the bucks for some professional notes. It’s not like this is the only contest out there, and there’s always next year.

So what now?

After a little self-comforting (and offering congratulations to any writers you know who did advance), you sit yourself down and keep writing.

You’ve got a contest deadline to prepare for.

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Why so hostile?

Angry voice!

Angry voice!

This is a repost of a post that originally appeared on June 27, 2014 on the Maximum Z blog.

I’ve been making an effort over the past few weeks to build my network of writing acquaintances, which has involved connecting on assorted social media networks.

Several of these include groups of like-minded people that offer up the opportunity to ask questions, get feedback, etc.

One of them was about loglines.

Feeling fairly confident but open to suggestions about the one for my western, I typed it in, hoping somebody might have some helpful comments.

Within minutes, the response came in: “…or? What’s at stake? What are the consequences?”

Hmm. Well, her train’s been stolen, which…puts her livelihood at stake?  And it’s going to be used in a major heist, so the consequences are…widespread? I’ve always hated this part. Maybe I’m not giving enough information?

I wrote back: “open to suggestions.”

Past experience with logline feedback via online forums, while occasionally frustrating, has sometimes yielded positive results.

Sometimes.

A few minutes later: “I’m a producer and script consultant, not a psychic. If I knew what the story was about, knew the protagonist’s motives, knew what the antagonist was doing and why, and knew what was at stake and the consequences of certain actions, I would make a suggestion. However, with so little on offer, there’s little I can do other repeat what I’ve already said.

I’m not arguing anything after the word ‘psychic’. It’s not easy to get all of that across in a logline. It’s much harder than most writers realize.

(Side note – I love it when somebody backs up their comments with the proclamation of their qualifications. As expected, a quick internet search of this person’s “producer and script consultant” credentials yielded both jack and squat. It took a lot of effort to not ask them for more details.)

Desperately seeking resolution, I offered: “Would you be willing to take a look at the 1-page synopsis to get a better understanding of the story?

Soon afterward: “based on your logline, no”

And that was that.

While I didn’t have a problem with the actual advice, there just seemed to be this overall tone of angry condescension in their text. “Grr! I know what I’m talking about! My advice is infallible and you’re an idiot if you don’t listen to me! Grr! Argh!” Maybe I was just reading too much into it?

Honestly, it kind of nagged at me for the rest of the day. I always thought the point of these groups was to help each other. Sure, sometimes people just don’t get it, but I’m more likely to appreciate your comments if you seem willing/interested in actually helping me.

Later in the day, somebody with no connection to me whatsoever called this person out for being unnecessarily cruel (a bit harsh, but I understood where they were coming from). I made a point of staying totally out of what soon became a snippy back-and-forth of “I’m right, you’re wrong”.

So much for taking part in that group again.

Still seeking some kind of help, I tried again on a different forum, but approached it from a different angle.

I listed the logline plus some key story details that might help, adding how I was seeking some bolstering in terms of including stakes and consequences. (The original responder may have come across as an asshole, but I didn’t think their advice was wrong.)

There was a significant difference in the responses. A lot were not only helpful, but practical and encouraging, including this gem – “I love this logline. If I were a producer I’d want to read it. Hell, I still want to read it, just because it sounds like fun.”

I felt a little better, had what I felt was a stronger logline, and a few requests to read the script. Nice.

As part of that aforementioned back-and-forth, my original responder said they were just preparing new writers for the kinds of responses they should expect from the industry if they submit “subpar material”.

While I can understand that kind of thinking, it seems that people are more likely to heed your advice or suggestions if you actually come across as helpful, rather than sound like we’re wasting your time and the last thing you want to deal with right now.

But then again, I’m just a nice guy to begin with, so what do I know?

Thank you. I’ll take that under consideration.

I’m afraid I find your suggestion to be most illogical (RIP Mr Nimoy)

This post originally appeared on the Maximum Z blog on Feb 27, 2015 

I had a great coffee-chat conversation with another writer earlier this week. Among the many topics we discussed was the fine art of giving and receiving notes.

When you give notes, you want to be equally helpful and critical (without being mean or condescending about it). A lot of the time, the person seeking notes is a peer or someone with pretty much a level of experience more or less equal to yours, so they know how to interpret the notes, and don’t take anything personally.

They also realize the only way to improve is to learn what mistakes they made, make the proper adjustments, and make a mental note to not do it again from here on in. This is an essential skill that takes time to get the hang of.

But what about the writer who asks you to read their just-finished first script? “Don’t worry. Be as brutally honest as you need to be. I can take it.”

Are you sure about that?

If you’ve been doing this for a while, you’re quick to recognize what works and what doesn’t in their script, and you make the appropriate notes and suggestions.

I’ve encountered almost the entire spectrum of reactions from newer writers, ranging from “These notes are fantastic! Thank you so much!” to “Hmph. You obviously don’t recognize my genius” (I’m paraphrasing that one). You’ve probably heard similar things, but hey, at least you tried to help.

Then there’s being on the receiving end. It’s not easy to hand your baby over to somebody so they can find fault with it, but again, it’s a necessary part of the process. Many’s the time I have felt my pulse quicken in the moments just before the comments were unleashed.

As stated above, if the notes are from someone on an equal level to me, I appreciate the positive things they have to say, but am more interested in their critical comments (which doesn’t automatically mean they’re negative). I may be having trouble with how to fix a particular problem, so outside suggestions are definitely appreciated. Sometimes it’s an “Of course!” moment, sometimes it’s a “Huh?” I may not always agree with what they say, but it may spark the thought of a new approach. Anything helps.

On the other side of the coin is getting comments from writers with less experience than you. You’ve written ten scripts, and they’ve written one, maybe two. How much value can you place on what they have to say? They don’t have the benefit of experience, so their comments may come across as uninformed or focusing on the wrong things. The best you can do is take what you think might be useful and discard/ignore the rest, reminding yourself that they’ll learn over time.

The whole point of notes is to help make the script better, and both note-giver and receiver need to approach this from that viewpoint. It’s not the time for the note-giver to say “This is how I would do it,” and the receiver can’t get ultra-defensive and overly possessive of their work.

Once the notes are given, the responsibility falls on the writer to interpret and use them as they see fit.