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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Feedback… this time it’s personal.

Huey_Lewis_Cameo_2

I was going to blog about a recent experience with feedback when this timely article by Bob Saenz popped up in my Twitter feed. It’s an insightful look at how to receive feedback with grace and aplomb… and also robs me of an opportunity to express a semi-original thought. It’s now been covered.

My post had to do with the giving part of the equation, but since there was entirely too much intersection between the two to justify adding my publication to the vast sea of blogdom, I’ll focus on another aspect of feedback: the value of a reliable peer group willing to give it fairly. I’d love to call this a companion piece to Bob Saenz’s post, but since I’m pretty much a nobody I’ll just call it piggybacking.

I recently got painful feedback from someone in my screenwriters group whom we’ll call Mr. T (because who wouldn’t want that moniker?). It was painful not because of my superfluous supporting character or my overdescribing an action or the extreme tonal shift in my second act. In fact it didn’t even pertain to my script at all. It was feedback on my feedback.

Mr. T had shared his first pass at a comedy piece. The first thing I said was that it was too long and the humor felt forced.

Then I basically repeated that, adding that it was too long and forced even for a first draft.

What was that all about? After all, that’s what first drafts are for: expunging the dreck from our heads. Usually my initial feedback notes vacillate from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. I then refine the notes so they’re more constructive than damaging, more encouraging than cheerleading. Leave unhelpful comments to the YouTube trolls. So I never share the first draft of my feedback. Except this time I did.

Okay before I go on I want to be clear:  I’m talking about feedback that’s fair and helpful, not nice. I’m not from the EGAT (Everyone Gets A Trophy) Generation so I’d never argue that feedback has to be all smiles and sunshine. If our stuff isn’t that good we need to hear it. Therefore notes require a combination of honesty and tact for them to be truly effective. It doesn’t help to hear how awesome your stuff is – unless it’s accompanied by a check. At the same time, we don’t need another writer utterly crushing us like a giant Monty Python cartoon foot.

Whatever it was that moved me to spew that useless first draft comment – perhaps my own self-induced writing funk or my expectation that Mr. T could do better – I not only undermined his confidence in his script, but I threatened the uber-valuable peer relationship that I’d cultivated with him, as well as the others in the writers group.

I did note that the core part of the idea was super funny and it could be a hilarious piece. But that didn’t matter because he thought that rusty fork of a comment that I twisted inside of his gut summarized how I felt about the whole thing. Rather than go all Clubber Lang on me – which probably would’ve been justified – Mr. T simply took umbrage and told me as much when we spoke later. Much later.

Fortunately this writer and I are friends (um, right T?) and we’ve helped each other out many times, so we know there’s no ill will between us (right T?). But it never does any good to tear down another writer without offering to help build them back up.

And now to hope that nobody comments on how they feel about this article cuz I’m not sure I’m ready for that kind of feedback…

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?