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How To Lose A Screenwriting Competition: A Personal Tale

How To Lose A Screenwriting Competition: A Personal Tale

I’ve been writing about screenwriting and collecting screenwriting resources for a long time.  Long before I established The Screenwriting Spark as a central hub for my obsession.  Honestly, I’ve been addicted to the idea of writing screenplays since high school.  In the beginning, it was my super hobby.  I asked for screenwriting books for Christmas and birthdays.  I crept out of bed in the middle of the night to write on my Dad’s computer using a rough Microsoft word template for formatting.  That was only the beginning…

I didn’t realize just how much it meant to me until a few years ago.  A massive rift split my extended family apart.  (Long story) It was the angriest I’ve ever been.  Angry enough that I talked to a professional about how to handle it.  During those talks I learned that I needed something to occupy my mind in order to deal with stress and anxiety.  It started during college.  I became a workaholic (and a hobby-holic) around the same time my anxiety issues began.  Instead of lying in bed thinking about everything that could go wrong in my life, I thought about writing movies.

Screenwriting became my sanctuary.

As a result, I was never really interested in sending my work out into the world.  We produced some short films back in the day but I kept most of my work to myself.  Especially my feature length scripts.

I’m 33 years old now.  I’m married and we have a beautiful daughter who turns three next year.  When my daughter was born, I set screenwriting aside for obvious reasons and it took a while to get back to it.  It wasn’t until late 2015 that I began a new project.  It was a drama about people with powers called: Hero Down.

I was obsessed all over again.  Only this time, I challenged myself to write something worth sending out into the world.  For years, I avoided professional criticism because I wrote for myself.  You could make the argument that I simply didn’t want the bubble to burst.  Screenwriters all share an infectious enthusiasm for their scripts.  We all think we are writing something worthy of the big screen.  It’s the day dream that fuels us all.  I’ve felt that way my whole life.  I love talking about my scripts until someone asks to read them of course.  Then I get anxious.  I’m terrified.  I tell people I write for myself and my scripts collect dust in the dark depths of my hard drive.  The truth is, I’m afraid to put my words in the hands of others.

However, becoming a father taught me about REAL fear.  Fear of not doing the right thing for my little girl.  Fear of not being a good father… It opened my eyes about life and how short it is.  So why not give screenwriting a real shot?

I wrote and rewrote Hero Down for months and for the first time in history, I entered a screenwriting competition.  The 2016 Nicholl Fellowship.

I had different day dreams after that.  What if my screenplay made it through the first round?  What if it won the whole thing?  What if the bubble bursts and I really am writing only for myself?  Could I still put my heart and soul into a story knowing I would be the only one to see it?  I’ve learned enough about screenwriting over the last few years to call myself an expert.

Full disclosure: I consider an ‘expert’ someone who knows enough about a particular topic to teach someone who knows absolutely nothing.  Maybe expert is a stretch.  Maybe I’m just extremely knowledgeable?  Either way, I can teach screenwriting theory, structure, formatting and more.  But that doesn’t mean I know how to write a screenplay that sells for millions of dollars in Hollywood.  It certainly doesn’t mean I’m destined to become a working screenwriter in Hollywood.  It’s not impossible but… You get the idea…

I waited months, daydreaming about winning and pondering my aspirations if I failed.  My anxiety was so bad in the past I used to sweat through my sheets and grind my teeth when I slept.  I truly believe my wife and daughter cured me because my mind rarely wanders to dark places anymore.  I have way too much to be thankful for. So where does that put screenwriting if my work isn’t good enough to be noticed in a major competition?

I’ve worked so hard on The Screenwriting Spark, selling myself as an aspiring screenwriter who is addicted to the craft.  Yet regular visitors will notice I haven’t created a lot of new content in the last year.  Honestly, once I hit submit and sent Hero Down into the world, I stopped thinking about writing new screenplays all together.  What does that say about my ‘addiction’?  What does it say about my super hobby?  What does it say about me?

I started doubting myself and my ability to write entertaining screenplays.  What would I write next if I won a screenwriting competition?  Am I an aspiring screenwriter or am I someone who simply loves to write screenplays?  All of these questions piled up in my mind.  What does screenwriting mean to me in 2016?

Finally, the Nicholl Fellowship results arrived…

I didn’t make it past the first round…

I won’t lie to you, it hurt…  A lot…

I received a letter that explained my scores were split.  One reviewer gave me a positive score the other did not.  My total score wasn’t enough to merit a third reader and move on in the competition.  Now what?  I actually agreed with the majority of the reader’s comments and I understand my mistakes.  I’m actually okay with losing.  I would be delusional to think I could write one script, enter it and live out my Hollywood dreams.  It would have been nice but I’m a realistic person.  My goal was to get through the first round and I truly believed Hero Down was my best work.

That’s what I’m struggling with now.  It’s not the loss.  It’s my own brain.  If I believe something is good enough and it’s not, how can I trust my judgement moving forward?  You have to be honest with yourself.  Losing that screenwriting competition was a huge let down considering the literal decades of build-up.  One of the reader’s pointed out a few typos.  I can admit to it.  There are probably typos in this very article.  The other had issues with my villain.  I thought I found all the typos.  I STILL love my villain.

I thought I would be writing a new screenplay by now but I’m not.  I’ll be honest…  I don’t want to write a new screenplay right now.  I don’t mean that as a negative comment either.  I’m okay with it.  It’s been a nice break.

It’s been a little over a month since the results were released.  And I’m happy to report I’ve moved on and answered all the questions that dominated my brain.  I see the loss as a tremendous positive now.  Why?  Because I did it!  I wrote a screenplay and got over my fear of sending it out.  I let people read my work for the first time and it feels great to get that weight off my shoulders.  You could say that getting one positive review is a good start but that’s irrelevant.  I just did something I should have done in college or even high school.  I should have collected negative reviews like trophies.  That’s how you learn.  I haven’t written a single word in months yet I believe, I’m a better screenwriter now than I’ve ever been.

When I lost, I thought my confidence would fade away and I would give up the craft.  It was unlikely but the option was definitely on the table.  That’s honestly how it felt at first.  But, like any relationship, if you love something, you can never give up.  Screenwriting is a part of me forever even though I don’t know when I’ll write again.

I actually know the story I want to tell next.  I’ve been developing it for a little over a year here and there.  I have notes, character breakdowns and an extremely rough outline.  But I don’t want to write it right now.  I’m taking a break to gather my thoughts and apply what I’ve learned in the last few weeks.  More importantly, I want to apply what I’ve learned about myself.

It’s okay to lose a screenwriting competition.  It’s okay to take a break as well.  If I rushed into another screenplay it would become work.  I write screenplays because it’s fun. I’ll get back to it.  Months from now, when I finish another screenplay, I’ll be that much better.  It’s one loss!  I’m also obsessed with sports and I know you can’t quit after a loss.  You get your ass back on the field.  So let’s call this my official unofficial screenwriting off season.  I’m making some roster changes and crafting new strategies for what lies ahead.

When I’m ready, I’ll write something better than Hero Down and I WILL send it out into the world again.  Just to see what happens.  Losing a screenwriting competition helped me get over my own self-doubt.  It’s in the past now just like this loss.

My next screenplay is going to be great and if I don’t win a competition next year I’ll just write a better one.

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