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On Feedback (Or Not)

August 11, 2015

In preparation for the 2014 Nicholl Fellowship competition, I shut off all the external screenwriting voices.  Blogs, forums, articles, my screenwriting group and feedback.  Yes, feedback.  What was I doing?  I was encapsulating myself in my own little screenwriting bubble.  Why?  Because I was unhappy with where I was on my quest to become a professional screenwriter.  Not only that, it seemed I’d gone backwards.  It felt that way.  And with regard to the Nicholl, I had.  I’d previously placed in the Top 20% of the competition.  But, not in 2013.

Prior to entering the 2013 Nicholl, the feedback I’d received for one of my entries was glowing.  Stellar.  They loved it.  That was more of an indictment on my screenwriting group than anything else.  I don’t live in L.A.  And if you don’t live in L.A. (or some other hub of serious aspiring screenwriters) beware of your screenwriting group.  It may merely contain hobbyists or dreamers.  It may be completely bereft of people who are actually willing to sacrifice to become a professional screenwriter.  Okay, that tangent’s over; back to my story.

It was 2013 and I decided to encapsulate myself in my own personal screenwriting bubble.  I thought.  I wrote.  I combined some seemingly disparate ideas.  I laughed.  I cried.  I wrote it all down.  I questioned my choices.  I questioned my screenwriting choices.  Structure, character, tone.  Can I open my screenplay this way?  What about my tonal shifts?  Question, question, question.  But, all within.  I couldn’t rely on some self-professed guru, some screenwriting dreamer who’s unwilling to sacrifice, or anyone else.  I need all the voices out.  This was about me and what I could do.  After all, if I ever became a professional screenwriter I would need to properly assess my own work with a precise, critical eye.

I flogged my screenplay into shape.  I was inspired.  At times, the process felt magical.  Emotions soared.  Up and down.  But, in the down times, I’d come to learn that it was darkest before the dawn.  I tried to remind myself of that, when it was dark.

I wrote the final 20 pages before the 20 or 30 pages that directly preceded it.  Because I knew the ending would be a whirlwind and I didn’t really know how many pages it would end up being.  That approach worked.  Of course, I didn’t endeavor to write those final 20 until I already had the first 60-80 on paper.  My instinct told me I needed to jump forward at that point in the process.  My instinct.  It’s not something you can explain to someone; you can only earn it.  Through experience.

Anyway, I loved what I had.  Put it aside for a week, maybe two.  Returned to it.  Brushed it up.  Polished and tweaked it.  All the feedback was my won.  No one else even read any of it.  It all resided in the vault of my mind.  And I was growing happier and happier about it.

And then one day, I submitted it to the 2014 Nicholl Fellowship competition.  I knew it was great.  It wasn’t perfect.  I attained what I strived to attain.

And, then I was scared.  How do I top this?  I knew this was the best screenplay I’d ever written.  I loved it and not in a naive, ‘this is my 1st or 2nd screenplay’ kind of way.  This was something special.  It felt magical.  Mystical.

When I say it felt magical, I’m not being hyperbolic.  So, the question becomes, “how do you get the magic to return?”  How can I possibly top this?

I seriously thought it could make waves in the Nicholl.

It placed in the Top 15%.  I placed higher than I ever placed, and I was devastated.

I already thought it was a magical piece, nearing perfection.  I knew now I needed feedback, because I didn’t know what else to do with it.

I acquired a few sets of feedback from various places.  One being that year’s Nicholl – the first and only year you could earn feedback (by being one of the screenplays garnering a 3rd read).

I need to backtrack.  I didn’t just set out to acquire feedback.  I put the screenplay on the blacklist with the intention of it scoring well enough to garner exposure.  I was underwhelmed.  But, it came with feedback.

As I accumulated feedback, I created a new version of the screenplay.  One day, after writing a totally new opening, I stopped.  It sucked.  Not the writing.  What I was doing.  I wasn’t passionate about it.  Everything I initially intended was falling out the window.

I stopped.  Dead in my tracks.

It was a couple months before I returned to it.  I guess I tried to convince myself to make certain changes.  Some bastardized, Frankenstein version of what I’d intended and what feedback told me.  There were some tweaks I liked.  But, I totally abandoned some of my philosophies for the screenplay.  But, it seemed to work.  Or maybe I was trying to convince myself it worked.  I don’t know.

I entered it into the 2015 Nicholl.

Not in the Top 20%.

So, you ask me what I think about feedback?

Feedback matters from people who are paying you and/or making your movie.  Otherwise… well…

My next version of that screenplay will be closer to my 2014 version than my 2015 version.

And I will believe in it more.

I will have more passion for it.

I will (and this is highly necessary) be able to live with it.  Through development.  Through the long process of it becoming a movie.

Now, I just need to figure out who’s gonna make it.

That’s all.

P.S. It still stands that the best I’ve ever finished in the Nicholl is with a screenplay that no one else ever gave me feedback on.

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