August 16, 2011

My Writing Life: Wisdom From an Animated Tortoise

I knew it two days before I got the email.  I was tidying up when the thought crept in.  “You won’t make it this year.”  It wasn’t born of anxiety or insecurity, two of my closest companions.  It wasn’t even a last ditch “think the worst and you won’t be disappointed” effort.  It came from outside of me and I immediately knew it was true.

When I got the email, so sadly almost word for word from the rejection letter I received in 2009 (you would think a writing competition would warrant a revision of a rejection letter), I wasn’t surprised.  I was just sad.

I’ve wanted to be a screenwriter for about 12 years now.  I’ve written hundreds of drafts, read dozens of screenwriting books (most of them awful) and dreamt about “making it” someday.  At a screenwriters’ conference in 2008, I met Scott Frank and he told me the surest way to “make it” was to enter the Nicholl Fellowship Competition run by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscar people).  I had, of course, heard of the competition but I was intimidated.  He said, “If you don’t make it in the top ten, then your script isn’t good enough.”  I told him that was kind of harsh and he answered, “Think about it.  If you’re sending your script out to different agencies, you’re up against tens of thousands of other scripts.  You have to stand out.”

I labored for the next few months to finish two scripts--not the easiest task when you have a baby (an actual human baby, that is!).  I was especially proud of one of the scripts, a film noir thriller.  I had always thought I’d be a comedy writer but this thriller was, well, good.  I entered both scripts into the 2009 Nicholl Competition.

A few months later, I got a rejection email for one of them.  I remember thinking, “Really?  Did I think I would do well my first time out?”  The rejected script was a rom-com anyway, so it didn’t hurt too badly.  I knew it wasn’t that great.  Even though I hadn’t heard back about my film noir, I had lost hope.  I was kind of down and decided to watch some TV with my hubby.  As we flipped through the channels, I saw a special about the Black Dahlia murder--the infamous crime that figures largely in my screenplay.  Jokingly, I turned to the Hub and said, “It’s a sign!  My screenplay made it!”  As I laughed about it, I became curious.  I decided to check my email.  Sure enough, there was an email there.  Only this time, it said my script had made it to the quarterfinals.  I didn’t even finish reading the email and I screamed as loud as I could.  I flew down the stairs where I met a wild-eyed Hub, bewildered at my outburst.  I told him I made it and he answered back in a bellow of primitive joy.  We jumped up and down, holding each other like two Neanderthals discovering fire for the first time.  And why not?  My script was in the top 5% of over 6,000 entries.

I didn’t make the semifinals, which was disappointing.  In the end, however, no one can take away the fact that I was in the top 5%!  I thought back to Scott Frank’s suggestion and thought, “The top 5% is pretty dang good.  I won’t change a thing.”  I didn’t enter the next year because I became extremely sick (that’s a different blog post).  So, I tried my luck again this year and sent my film noir screenplay into the Nicholl Competition again (I didn’t even bother with the rom-com).  I was hoping I would make it to the semis this year.  I was actually very optimistic which doesn’t come naturally to me.  I figured if I made the quarterfinals in 2009, I was guaranteed a spot this year.  Then came that thought, that feeling.  I wouldn’t and didn’t make it.

Despite the premonition, I didn’t have time to digest the news.  I was, of course, disappointed and sad.  But at the bottom of the email, there was a “P.S.” informing me my script was in the top 15%.  After reading that, I felt better, elated even.  “No need to revise it,” I thought.  “It’s all subjective in the end.”

The Nicholl Competition then posted a guide on its Facebook page to decode the various “P.S.s” people received.  I found that 15% wasn’t as great as I thought.  My script was somewhere among places 685-1021.  Not too shabby when considering over 6,000 scripts were submitted.  Still, that nagging voice in the back of my head reminded me of Scott Frank’s words . . . 685th just ain’t good enough.

I was at first terrified to admit it but I realized my script needed polishing.  Part of me is scared I’ll “ruin” it, but I have to try to make it better.  I believe it’s “almost” there but I know already of many things that can be improved.

At the moment, I’m writing a much more ambitious screenplay that I’m hoping will be finished for next year.  Once I’m finished with the first draft of that one, I’m going to visit my old friend, my film noir script.  I think it’ll be a great learning experience for me.  If I had the choice I would clearly choose to move on in the competition.  In the end, however, I wouldn’t learn anything.  This is an amazing opportunity to grow in my writing and I wouldn’t have it if I had made the quarterfinals.  Maybe what I do with this script (or the new one) will be what helps me “make it.”

While “Kung Fu Panda” isn’t exactly the most expected source for screenwriter wisdom, you can’t deny is a dang good movie.  I’ll end with a quote from it:

“Yesterday is history.  Tomorrow is a mystery.  Today is a gift . . . that is why it’s called the present.”


Mediocre Renaissance Man said...

You'll make it someday. Whether through that contest or by some other avenue, you'll make it.

Lindsey said...

I'm happy to see you have not been discouraged. You are outstanding in my book.

Tina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tina said...

Wow! That is so cool. I think it will be pretty surreal when I'm sitting in the theater watching one of your movies one day!

Anonymous said...

Your script is obviously very good, but competitions are really subjective, depending on which reader you get. I think to win something as big as the Nicholl, the stars have to align - for the good scripts, luck plays a giant role in the process. WRITE ON!