Screenwriters face all sorts of challenges when writing a screenplay. But talk to any screenwriter who has had even the slightest degree of success and they'll tell you their biggest fear doesn't involve the blank page, structure, or act breaks. It's releasing 110 filled, seemingly perfectly crafted pages into the wild. That's when control transfers from the writer to the reader. When subjectivity enters the picture and doubt looms in the shadows.
I've always believed that this period is the most important for any screenwriter. Who they count on, how they handle the response, whether they trust the feedback or their own instincts - these decisions will make all the difference in whether their screenplay has a improved chance for success or is doomed for failure.
Today, screenwriter and Stage 32 member Stacey Chehardy shares her journey from getting notes from her mom to landing an agent. It's a cool tale. One that will be relatable to any creative who has ever shared their work with the hope of receiving positive feedback.
When the first draft of my first screenplay was complete, I contacted a screenwriting teacher to read it and give me notes (let's call him "Joe"). At our first meeting, he gave me some advice..."Don't give it to family or friends to read." Oh crap! I had already sent it to my mom, aunt, cousin, and every friend who agreed to read it. I smiled politely at Joe; I sure as hell wasn't going to tell him I already screwed up on the first rule. Apparently my smile wasn't hiding the puzzled look in my eyes, so Joe explained his rationale. "People who know you and are close to you will rarely give you positive feedback, so don't believe them." He was right! The comments that came from those I hold near and dear were quite hurtful. The worst was from my dear mom. She told me I didn't know what I was doing, and that I need to go take a class somewhere. My vision of winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay burst, and I quietly put the script in a drawer, accepting defeat.
The script, however, would not be silenced. It demanded attention and insisted I finish what I started. Over the course of the next couple of years I would work on polishing it, meet with Joe for notes and then stash it away for months at a time (dear Mom's words would still echo in my head, oh why didn't Joe warn me before I made that mistake?). It reminded me of the story in the Bible where Jesus went to His hometown and could do no mighty works there because of the people's unbelief. They knew He was the carpenter's son, so they couldn't believe He could be a miracle worker. Now I'm not comparing myself to Jesus or saying I'm a miracle worker, only that those closest to you can't see your potential because they know your flaws. I am grateful that Joe really liked the screenplay; he said it will be "a big budget movie, not an indie." Those encouraging words were what gave me the courage to keep going.
Summer 2012, I determined that I would get serious and finish the polishing. I met with Joe several times over the course of the next few months (in secret, of course) and even attended a pitch fest in Hollywood in October. Three hundred query letters were mailed, no response. I entered a contest that provided scorecards. That was how I found out I had too much 'on the nose dialogue and no subtext". Joe, Joe, Joe, Joe why didn't you teach me that? Re-write and re-enter the contest; next score card - "can't use what people think or feel." Another re-write...done.
About a month ago, I stumbled upon Stage 32 and joined. I made as many connections as possible, commented on posts and then came across an agent just 30 miles from me. Per their guidelines, I sent a query letter and the first fifteen pages of my screenplay. I was signed two weeks later. (And yes, my mom now knows about my 'success' and still insists I need to take a class in screenwriting. She likes my story but doesn't understand the format; she'd rather read a novel).
I've shared all of this to tell you, if you have a story inside of you screaming to get out, don't let what others say about you stop you. Find at least one person in your life who will give you encouragement. Write your story but then spend the time to polish it, make it shine, and then don't stop until someone else sees the sparkle too. When you have someone wanting to help you achieve your dream, be willing to take constructive criticism without being defensive. I've heard that when your screenplay sells, that's when the re-writes really begin... but it also means they believe in it enough to have bought it.
See you at the Oscars!
Stacey is available for questions and remarks in the Comments section below.
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