Lessons Learned from Winning a Screenwriting Competition

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Winning Screenwriting Competitions: Lessons Learned

Years ago when I received word that my screenplay, Control; Alt; Delete, had won not one but two screenwriting competitions, I believed that all the hard work, years of struggle, self-doubt, and rejection had culminated to a glowing achievement that would forever wash away the specter of failure: I had climbed the mountain to see my shining new horizon as a working screenwriter.

And it was marvelous.

Things just seemed to be going my way: I got an agent, a manager, and a well-known producer was going to make my script into a feature. I had meetings with big production companies with studio deals, pitched projects to major producers, was courted with screenwriting assignments – it was my time to shine.

And then it unraveled.

Not suddenly… no. It was more like an incremental closing of a window that you thought was wedged open by accolades of your winning script. One thing happens, and then another, and another.

In and of itself, not one was a devastating setback, but collectively they amounted to an avalanche of overwhelming loss. My agent left the industry, my manager ceased being a manager, and the producer moved on… so did those screenwriting assignments.

At the end, I was back to where I started from, a scribe in name only with little to show for but the glimpse at what could have been.

Was I crushed? You bet. I questioned every thing I did; every decision made. What could I have done better? Was I too cavalier? Was I too dedicated? Did I try too hard; could I have tried harder? Was this window of opportunity squandered forever?

Well, was it?

It’s not an easy question to answer. I do believe that those chances have come and gone like that girl you didn’t kiss when you should have: that magic moment will never be replicated.

However, I did learn a lot from the experience – the stuff you don’t learn in film school – call it the film school of hard knocks. And with that I would like to share some of those lessons learned.


Related: The Million Dollar Business of Screenwriting


DECIDE WHAT KIND OF WRITER YOU ARE AND WRITE IT

The script that got me notice was a dark comedy about a high school student whose life is turned upside down when he fails a psychological test with the ability to predict future criminals. Am I a comedy writer?

Well, not really. Don’t get me wrong, I like comedy, but most of the stuff I write is thrillers, science fiction and action-adventures because those are the genres I LOVE. My script that won the awards was a comedy, so I was seen as a comedy writer.

I tried to fit in that mold instead of creating my own mold by defining who I was and sticking with it. Established working writers are successful because they found their niche, and they stay consistent with it.

That’s not to say you can’t change and meld genres, but once you get recognized for a style, be that horror, drama, thriller, or comedy, you will be known as that kind of writer. Figure out who you want to be known as, staying true to your interest, and write that script.

GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT… TO A POINT

Sure as a writer you have a creative voice you want to share with the world, but remember that this is a collaborative industry – you’re not screenwriting in a vacuum where all your ideas and sparks of creativity are pure genius. Be open to hearing alternate points of view, i.e. NOTES, especially if you’re working with a producer on a project.

You’d be surprise how little you know about your own story even when you thought you knew it all. But on the flip side, not all notes are valuable – in fact they can down right suck and send you down a path laden with pot holes the size of the Grand Canyon.

The best policy is to listen, consider, and if it damages the essence of what your story and voice is saying, then politely ignore those suggestions.

NEVER STOP STUDYING THE CRAFT

Just because you won a screenwriting competition it doesn’t make you a master storyteller. Craftsman continue studying and honing their skill.

I’m a big advocate of reading scripts – tons of them – and following the trade secrets of screenwriting gurus like Robert McKee, Syd Field, Linda Seger, Christopher Vogler, and Michael Hauge (“The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri is another must have).

I would also suggest joining a screenwriting group – what I learned in the group I belonged to was immeasurably helpful.

         Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting robert mckee          Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting Syd Field          The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition Christopher Vogler     

BE PREPARED

When I won those screenwriting contests I didn’t have another comedy script under my belt. In most of the meetings I had with execs or producers they would invariably ask if I had something else that they could look at.

All I had were ideas – nothing fully realized beyond loglines or a basic synopsis. Even if they like your idea, they want a script. Without a script it’s just a meet and greet, which essentially amounts to nil.

LEARN HOW TO PITCH

The pitch is selling in its purest sense. You’re selling your idea to a room of people who can quickly lose interest. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. Know your story inside out and be sure to entertain. If it doesn’t entertain, it won’t get made.

Shonda Rhimes Masterclass, Shonda Rhimes, Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Private Practice, How to Get Away with Murder, The Catch, Television Writing, TV Writing,

CONCEPT IS EVERYTHING

If you’ve got a story about a little old lady who mourns the loss of her cat, Morris, then hopefully you’ve got someone with money looking to invest in that kind of movie, otherwise you’ve got an up hill battle.

Concept is key – it’s that little light bulb that comes to life in someone’s mind when you say it in one sentence. Yes, just one sentence. If you can’t say it in one or two sentences at the most then it may well be an existential art house movie that’s possibly brilliant but also very difficult to sell.

AND IF ALL FAILS, DON’T GIVE UP

Success isn’t measured by how well you do so much as how you deal with failure. For a while I felt like I failed myself for not getting that script produced or getting it sold. So what was this comedy screenwriter to do?

Well, I reinvented myself by dropping the comedy moniker and writing in the aforementioned genres I love. Instead of searching for someone to buy my scripts, I now turn them into my own comic books, which are now published.

The point is, always move forward no matter what mistakes you make or rejections you encounter. This is your story – how you end it is up to you just as long as you keep writing it.

Now that you are a screenwriter, that a look at my:
TOP TEN Screenwriting Books You Need to Read!
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David R. Flores is a writer and artist (aka Sic Monkie) based in Los Angeles. He is the creator of the comic book series Dead Future King published by Alterna Comics and Golden Apple Books.

Website: www.davidrflores.comwww.deadfutureking.com
Twitter: @drodflo @deadfutureking @sicmonkie
Tumblr: davidrflores.tumblr.com & deadfutureking.tumblr.com
Facebook: Dead Future King
Instagram: @drodflo

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The Million Dollar Business of Screenwriting

  • Great job on this post David! Some really great advice.

  • Ben

    Well said, man. I’ve had a similar experience. Prior to moving to LA, I always thought there was some mythical line you cross — a moment where you “make it” and then you’re “in the club” forever. But most working screenwriters still don’t feel like they’ve “made it” — or if they do, they know they have to keep hustling for it to stay that way. This truly is a profession where you must forge your own path. No one else will do that for you. That lack of structure makes some people crazy. But it’s the way it is, folks.

    • Couldn’t agree more! Thx for sharing your thoughts Ben!

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