November 5, 2009


A long time (okay, yesterday), I suggested a way to evaluate screenwriting competitions from a more mathematical and logical perspective. If that was a little too Mr. Spock for you, there is another way to look at the equation. From Bones’ perspective. Take logic out of it.

It wasn’t just an arbitrary comparison or Freudian slip when I likened a contest to a poker hand. There is definitely an element of chance and excitement in contests. When I wrote the unused foreword to Erik Joseph’s book on screenwriting contests years ago (Curse thee, unknown writer of said foreword!), I talked about gamblng addiction. It’s never about winning or losing the coin toss; it’s about the moment when the coin is in the air and the butterflies in the stomach and the anticipation and excitement just knowing that you COULD win.

Contests are the same way. If they can help you enjoy this sometimes lonely and always rejection-filled process of writing screenplays by giving you something to look forward to, then figure out your, as they call it in poker, bankroll: What you are willing to risk on contests.  Even losing poker players can have an appropriate bankroll: The amount of money they are willing to lose in spending X hours of their life doing something they enjoy.

But Yikes, Jim, how do I know whether I should be signing up for WAB or GA? Hmm, well, if you’re an aspiring writer and spent $2000 on contest entry fees last year and advanced in none of them, listen to me. It’s intervention time:

Step away from the Internet Explorer Window that is open to Withoutabox, put down the mouse. I repeat, put down the mouse.
If you are having less than a 10% advance rate in contests, put your money and time into books, classes, consultants, coverage or notes. Here are some free resources from me:, my newsletter. You can find all other sorts of help on the web. And if you are going to take a big step into an expensive class or program or a high-end consultant, make sure you do some due diligence. Get a sample, look for testimonials, talk to former students/clients/graduates, read articles or watch their DVDS.  (What?  I didn't plug anything.)

But if you are having some moderate success even without winning, embrace the fact that it should be fun. Check out boards like Moviebytes (ignore some of the crazies) and the Done Deal forums and use them as a way to connect with other writers who have advanced or entered the same contests as you. As an extrovert who writes, I know it’s sometimes HARD to block out the impulse to be talking and hanging out with other people when you’re supposed to be, ah, interacting with your keyboard. Use the social aspects of contests as a reward for your time spent immersed in the interior fantasyland of your story and the writing thereof.

And if a deadline, a $50 entry fee and the hope of praise, promotion and money that you will get from a decent placement or win motivates you to write (or rewrite) a script, then we’re back to no-brainer territory: enter some contests. Of course, there might be a diminishing marginal utility in entering several, but the intangible (or arguably tangible) value in motivating you to write is worth much more than a few entry fees. If you find yourself in this scenario, you (cue: new age music) have already won.

As a storyteller, I am supposed to pay off the Kirk/Bones/Spock thing, right? Well, try to be like Captain Kirk. Use a little logic and a little emotion to come up with a sensible strategy. Remember the coin flip thing. Until the coin lands and the contest decides, there is excitement. So when you are a quarterfinalist, use that energy to query people and create momentum. Or if you meet some cool people who are also quarterfinalists for scripts of similar tone or genre, swap notes. Or use the deadlines to force yourself to finish a rewrite.

Contests are a game where there is a lot of luck involved. Unlike chess, it’s a game of imperfect information and chance. I could teach a 7 year old kid how to beat the best Monopoly player in the world 20 percent of the time. But I can't teach an Oscar winner how to advance in every contest.  You will always have to deal with some readers who don’t “get” your script. So don’t get down when a contest doesn’t go your way. Try to think of it like any other game. The goal is to have fun. Everything else is a bonus.

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