Rejection – It’s Not Always (Or Often) You

Posted by on Mar 13, 2014 in Creative Writing | 1 comment

Rejection – It’s Not Always (Or Often) You

I fully admit that many of the following words are simply a substitute for the cantankerous and somewhat bewildered letter I’d LIKE to pen to the people in charge of a certain local screenwriting contest here in Pittsburgh. The whole thing seems like an amazing idea. Due to a fantastic tax break offered by the state of Pennsylvania, our local film industry has absolutely taken off over the last decade. Movies are filming here all the time. Hell, they shot Batman all over my neighborhood. For a while there were a bunch of Gotham City police cars randomly parked in a lot between my house and downtown. Because of all that’s happening, a grant was established to help local writers and filmmakers bring their ideas to life. Thousands of dollars were set aside to help kick start these projects.

So how would the people with the money actually go about discovering those new and undiscovered writers and filmmakers? They’d have a contest. Anyone could write an 8-12 page script and send it in. Presumably, at that point, subjective but fair judging would occur until the best five scripts from the pile of submissions would be chosen as finalists while fifteen others were selected as honorable mention. Those scripts would be promoted throughout the city as well. I have to admit, when I first heard about it, the whole thing seemed pretty amazing. What a great idea.

Well…

Part of the contest involves a “community review.” So if you submitted a script, the people in charge of the contest would then send you three of the other submissions to cover and respond to, telling the judges what you liked or didn’t like about the script. Being that I submitted two scripts myself, I got the opportunity to review six others. I was excited because I really love reading other people’s work. It’s what I do for a living. And I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it.

Of the six scripts I reviewed, one was pretty good but randomly (and unintentionally) switched the protagonist halfway through, another was passable and would’ve been better had anything actually happened in the final five pages, and the remaining four were god-awful. Imagine sticking your tongue inside a dirty plastic bag you just fished out from inside a wet dumpster. These were worse.

One in particular stuck out to me. And it stuck out in a positive way at first. Upon reading the logline, I was really excited for what awaited.

When an old daredevil passes away of old age, he gets to heaven and meets the guardian angel who protected him on Earth.

Oooh! Now here’s a concept! Because that my friends is an amazing idea for a short script. Before I read it, I had images dancing around in my head….

Is the angel going to be absolutely exhausted from all she’s had to do for seventy years just trying to keep this whack job alive? Is she going to give serious thought to retiring from the guardian angel guild? Is he going to suffer a punch to his pride as he realizes that maybe it wasn’t solely his talent that got him through all along? Is he going to have to convince the angel that everything she did was worth it? Are they going to be able to reach some sort of mutual understanding?

All of it was right there for the writer to play with. So much potential conflict and nuanced bits of character to explore. Please writer, please use what you’ve set up to send the reader on a wonderful journey through the minds of these incredible…

Wait, what? What? The angel simply gives him a twelve-page tour of heaven?

That’s it? That can’t be it.

The daredevil is casually guided through the afterlife where he randomly meets Roberto Clemente and Noah and two sick children and then finds out God is real – THE END.

Scroll, scroll, scroll. Obviously I missed something…

Daredevil dies… goes to heaven… meets the angel… there’s Clemente… yup, there’s Noah… and the sick kids… and cue God… and the guardian angel shows up at the Regatta for no particular reason. THE END.

Sigh.

What’s more, the dialogue felt like it was written by someone who just learned their multiplication tables earlier in the day.

(The following isn’t actual dialogue from the script but it’s pretty close.)

Daredevil: “Wow, is that really Jimmy? The sick kid from way back when?”
Angel: “Yes it is. Why don’t we go over and say hi.”
Daredevil: “Hi Jimmy.”
Jimmy: “Wow, it’s the daredevil. Do you remember how you raised all those funds to help me back when I was sick?”
Daredevil: “I sure do, Jimmy.”
Angel: “See, look how many people you’ve helped over the years.”
Daredevil: “Wow, heaven sure is great!”

WET. DUMPSTER. BAG.

If you’ll notice, instead of even the tiniest bit of conflict, the angel and the daredevil are like bestie best friends just sort of taking a nice stroll on the clouds remembering what a great guy the daredevil was on Earth. And HEY LOOK, a dead Hall of Famer and some biblical characters! And a whole lot of inane sappiness! YAAAAAY!

Now in the end I’m not all that ticked off that neither of my scripts made the top twenty. That happens all the time and I’m used to it. You submit and hope for the best. But what I am rather peeved about is that neither of my well-crafted scripts were picked and the ridiculous piece of awful that I just mentioned WAS. (Along with the one where nothing happened in the last five pages) And that opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms. I can only come up with three possible explanations for what transpired.

A) No one with any authority or say in the judging process had the slightest understanding of what actually constitutes a good script. (And more alarmingly, had zero idea how to identify a BAD script)
B) The people running the contest simply rewarded the scripts of friends, family, and other people they know regardless of the quality.
C) Some combination of the two reasons I just mentioned.

Which is all a shame because I love my city and I’m very disappointed that what could really be a huge opportunity for burgeoning local writers seems to be an amateurish nepotistic joke.

Now obviously this can all be construed as sour grapes. Or sweet lemons, which I assume are still pretty damn sour. You can take it that way if you wish. Truth be told, there are probably some very good scripts by some fantastic writers that made the cut. I just wasn’t blessed with the opportunity to read them.

And to be perfectly honest, I do feel kind of bad publicly slamming that script because in the end, I’m a teacher and I’d never want to discourage anyone who feels the need to share a story with others. On the positive side, the concept is fantastic. I’d really encourage the writer to look at the incredible situation they’ve set up and not be afraid of it. It can still be a happy script, but only if the characters reach that blissful ending after a bit of turbulence. Because otherwise there’s no ride to share with them. There’s no joy at the fact that these characters have come together to find some common ground. There can’t be because they haven’t OVERCOME anything. I truly believe (with a sizable overhaul) that this daredevil script could be an excellent little film.

That said, the script in its current form didn’t deserve what it got. And what’s worse is now the writer is going to be under the false assumption that what they’ve done is somehow not only passable, but worthy of celebration. They won’t learn anything. They won’t have any reason to revisit and revise that script into the gem that the idea desperately wants it to be.

I guess my real point here is that as writers, we have no idea who is actually judging our work when we send it off to strangers. So don’t assume just because that agency, journal, theatre, or festival passed on your submission that the work itself isn’t worthy. Most times they’re just looking for something different than what you’ve provided. And on some occasions, they simply have no idea what they’re doing.

As writers, we have this perception that everyone we send our work to is some sort of omnipotent story expert and their opinion always MEANS something. Many times that assumption isn’t far off. But more times than we care to admit they’re just someone who’s been given a job by their brother-in-law.

Case in point. I was an RA for a year back in college. Because of my (chuckle) “authority” position, I was once asked to referee a night of intramural volleyball games. If I’m lucky I know half the rules of volleyball.

“Wait, if it hits the line is that in or out?”

But suddenly there I was making crucial decisions about which teams advanced to the next round – all because I was willing to carry around a walkie talkie three days a week in exchange for free room and board.

I know there’s a guy out there somewhere still seething after all these years muttering to himself, “If it wasn’t for that damned RA, I could be relaxing in my old 1998 Flagler College Intramural Volleyball Champions T-Shirt right at this very minute!” And to you, I’m truly sorry buddy. I now share your pain.

So that’s basically it. What it comes down to is that it’s pretty useless to weep or seethe or even spend time writing a sarcastic blog post when you get rejected. Just analyze your work, make it better, and keep on plowing ahead.

But in the end my best piece of advice here is…

Wait… wait. I’m having an inner vision.

OH MY GOD ARE THOSE THE GHOSTS OF WILLIE STARGELL AND JOHN THE BAPTIST BUILDING A HOMELESS SHELTER TOGETHER?

Sorry, I have to go. I have a bangin’ script idea.

I’m going to win for sure next year.

photo credit: Renato Ganoza via photopin cc

One Comment

  1. This is really interesting to read from a writer’s point of view! Me, I dread turbulence and conflict in tv/movies… and in real life. Well…. if I’m watching The Sopranos or an action movie, okay. But if it’s a feel good movie or comedy, I always sort of hated the idea that there *has* to be some conflict. When I was a kid, I loved it when there was no drama and everything went well and everyone got along and lived happily ever after. I was relieved that nothing bad happened. To this day, I am still like that a lot of the time.

    Reading your article here was my very first realization that the majority of people DON’T want that, and that’s why it’s so so so rare to find that in movies or tv, ever.

    So… Hello, wake up call. *blink blink*

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