Writers put up with a lot of rejection. And with rejection come a host of bothersome platitudes or conflicting positives: “The writing is good but it’s not for us.” “We really liked your script but we’re going to pass.” “We have something similar in development”. Equally, the typical announcement from screenplay competitions usually chimes in with: “the standard of entries was extremely high and it was very difficult to choose a shortlist/winner”.
These remarks, and the latter in particular, are widely regarded as sugar-coated euphemisms that are really saying: “your scripts sucked and you suck, too, loser.” At least, that’s what they feel like. However, in the wake of the Red Planet second round shortlist, this is not the case at all. A large proportion of the 2000 + entries were of an impressive standard which made it difficult to whittle it down into a viable shortlist (just how many got through? guess a maximum and minimum number, split the difference, and you’re probably around the right ball park).
On average, the entries displayed a solid sense of style, presentation and format. People aren’t stupid. They’re doing (or have completed) their MAs in screenwriting. Attended the seminars. Read the books and blogged themselves to death. The result: better writing all round. And because the competition was open to just about everyone who could spell their name, regardless of age or experience, the submissions varied from the ‘poor’, the ‘polished’ and the ‘professional’. I don’t mean professional writers here; entries with a little more edge and interest.
The ‘poor’ submissions usually wrestled with the old chestnuts of dodgy format or erratic/confusing storytelling. The ‘polished’ shone through with the right kind of style and presentation while the ‘professional’ displayed a more discerning touch of storytelling skill that stood apart from the rest. Then there’s that grey area of subjectivity between all of the above, but particularly the polished and professional entries, which made it so difficult to choose which scripts went through, and which ones had to be put aside.
Some may argue that you can’t accurately judge a script, or a writer, from the first ten pages of a script but, in truth, you can tell a lot about the writer’s talent, and the script’s potential, much earlier than that, probably from the first two pages alone. And then there’s that ‘samey’ quality that a lot of scripts share. Not a very original premise, confusing set-ups, poor dialogue, badly used techniques like voice-over and flashback, or the trickiest of them all, voice-over flashback. Sometimes, you’d read the first ten pages, thinking it was a drama, and then the synopsis would tell you it’s a supernatural comedy, but you saw no signs of anything supernatural or comic in the first ten pages. The style, presentation and format might have been dandy but the tone, characters or world of the story just weren’t coming through.
So, a lot of the entries walked a fine line between the ‘slightly dodgy’, the ‘perfectly acceptable’ and the ‘now that’s interesting, let’s see more of that’. A good number of the ‘perfectly acceptable’ entries would no doubt have made the shortlist if the competition was just about the kudos of winning but the contest is much more than that. It’s about securing a guaranteed TV commission and helping the career of a writer who’s already got the goods with his/her professional style and approach (note: not a whiny internet geek, or people being rude about the contest’s organisers. We had lots of them, thanks very much, and some who had actually entered: way to make a good impression).
A few people have contacted me to bemoan the lack of bloggers that didn’t get through. Come on. Although the prize was partially inspired by the good folk who share their writing wares online, having a blog was by no means a guaranteed passage into the second round. Nevertheless, as far I’m aware, three people from the scribosphere made the second round, which is a fairly good representation, so well done them. Certainly, the standard of scripts from the blogging community was mainly in the ‘polished’ section of submissions, which is a heartening sight. Just because a script was rejected doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad script, or that the writer can’t write, or that the story doesn’t have merit. We had to take a hard line on what got through; much tougher, I suspect, than most competitions.
Whatever the decisions and outcome, the contest has been an exciting and worthwhile venture, and all signs indicate that it’s going to be an annual fixture on the screenwriting calendar. That’s got to be a good thing. I've got a few new observations about some of the regular stuff that crops up at the beginning of scripts so I need to update the top 10 clichés (link from August 2005), so I’ll address that in my next post.