Some script doctors are amazing at what they do, possessing an almost uncanny ability to cut to the chase and highlight what works and doesn’t in a story. An old friend of mine has this ability, though she is not in the industry, rather working as an attorney these days (but with a solid theater background). She’s fond of saying, “I can’t write to save my life, but I can dissect a story like nobody’s business.”
Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach, but our industry may be one of the more notable exceptions to that rule.
I’ve read a lot of aspiring writers rant about having a script doctor review their work only to discover that person has not produced or optioned work of their own. While in many industries you need to have that sort of accolade in your CV to be considered an expert, in the writing game the amount of people with that type of success is miniscule given the quantity of writers out there. Literally thousands upon thousands of scripts are written in L.A. alone every year, but how many do you ever hear about? And of those, only a handful will ever be optioned or win the Nicholl or Page, but that doesn’t mean the other submitting writers lack talent. Some are exceptional, their work just may not have been to that particular reader’s taste on that particular day. In the non-contest world I think it translates to sending out a great script that unfortunately just doesn’t make it to the right desk. It’s a daunting task no doubt, and as we know this business is certainly as much about connections and relationships as the quality of your work.
Is it worth paying for a bit of outside critique?
At a certain point most people of the creative sort wish for some external feedback on the work we’ve poured hours, weeks, or months of effort into. However good or bad the reception is by our friends and family, an objective outside opinion can be quite beneficial, especially if you are open to critique and can read negative points with an open mind. Even coverage that you don’t agree with will most likely hit on a point or two that have validity. The hard part is putting ego aside and being willing to consider that your baby you’ve been tirelessly working on for months on end may not be the perfect and unique snowflake that you believe it to be. That’s why you pay for that outside opinion. Friends may be reluctant to be totally blunt, but a stranger has no such problem.
That said, I feel writers should have faith in their work and not take a set of script notes as a simple checklist of what to fix or change to make your story great. Guess what, your script may be amazing as-is and changing things per those notes might work great for that one particular reader but may also diminish the work for the larger audience. This is where we need to take a step back and digest the critique, then revisit our work with fresh eyes at a later date to better see if the points have merit. It’s like that trick when writing an angry email, you know the one where you draft it but don’t send it until later. It feels great to get it out of your system, but if you come back to it the next day you’ll almost certainly be glad you didn’t send it and will have a plethora of ideas (no, not piñatas) to make it better.
Now some writers want to keep their Precious safe from outside eyes, choosing rather to hold it close and tight. As for me, I personally like to get as many eyes as possible on my work. Sure, some critiques are great, some not so much, but every single reader, even those I disagree with, has given me something to think about as I walk the road to bettering my writing.
Not too long ago, my pilot Blowback was a semi-finalist in the Industry Insider Television Writing Contest. I was elated. Even if I didn’t make it further in the rankings (no, I didn’t make the finals), it was still good to feel my concept was perceived as a viable television show (a very Burn Notice-esque show with a “Blue Skies” type appeal). Anyway, since then I’ve been looking into other contests and competitions to see which, if any, might be beneficial to enter my feature and pilot scripts.
We all know by now that there are a bevy of contests to enter, but so far as I can tell, only a handful appear to have a sound enough reputation to bolster your script by your doing well in them alone. Nicholl, Page, Trackingb, Austin, Blue Cat, those are among the handful that seem to have the clout to make that kind of a splash, but I think a common question we all have is is it worth submitting to others, especially the lesser known ones?
My personal opinion is unless you’ve got a track record, it can really be worth while to have your work judged completely objectively against your peers. More than just getting an idea if a particular coverage reader likes your work or not, a contest can give you something a Pass/Recommend doesn’t; namely an idea where your work stands when directly compared to others. If you make quarter or semi-finals, you know you’re on the right track. Make it to the finals or even place? That’s great validation of your work.
Another benefit is the ability to give someone a reason to go into your script hoping for or expecting a good read, not fearful of stumbling into a bad one. Which would you be more likely to assume will be at least a decent read, a Scriptapalooza semi-finalist or an unknown writer’s cold submission? Of course contests can be expensive, so we all have to decide if the benefit is worth the cost.
Now some people enter every contest under the sun, which is fine, but seems a tad excessive in my opinion. Personally, when I see a list of a dozen contests for one script I can’t help but feel the writer would be better served by listing the key wins or rankings, then offering further accolades upon request. Maybe it’s just me, but too many contests listed looks cluttered and just reminds me of resumé padding. Again, that could just be my skewed perception.
Ultimately there is no right or wrong answer. Contests are great for some and not for others, but I do believe there is something to be said for a competitive environment where you don’t just get notes, but also get to see where you stand in the pack.