One Year Down: What I’ve Accomplished So Far as an Aspiring Screenwriter

I don’t think anyone would be surprised to hear that spring 2020 was not a great time for me because it wasn’t a great time for pretty much anyone. I’d started my fourth novel in January, but by March I had completely lost interest in it. I wasn’t writing anything, just editing and continuing with the anthology project I had already planned. Then one, fateful day, a post showed up in my Facebook feed that changed everything.

Imagine Impact was looking for features to pitch to Netflix, and I realized one of their prompts fit one of my novels. There was about a month between the prompt and the deadline, so I threw myself into learning to adapt my novel for the screen. And I discovered how much I LOVED screenwriting. Was that first feature bloated and over-written? Hell yes. (Though I was told by a former Hollywood scriptreader that even though it was too long, on a technical level it was the best first screenplay he’d read, so that was cool.)

Have I gotten a lot better since then? Hell yes, too!

So, I decided to write this post in the hopes that it would help other aspiring writers figure out their own journeys, and to give me something to look back on at the end of year 2. One important thing to note is that during this year I did not have a job. So I have an opportunity to do a LOT more of this kind of thing than people with jobs and kids.

How Did I Learn?

Books

I love learning new things, so I was energized by diving in and soaking up everything I could about this new medium. I’d actually read Save the Cat! a few years earlier to help me with novel writing, but there are a ton of books out there for the curious. I’m going to do a post at some point with more details about the books, but in the mean time, these are the additional titles I either read or got the audiobook for in roughly the order I consumed them (some were simultaneous or I put them down for a while and came back):

Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno

Story by Robert McKee

The Nutshell Technique by Jill Chamberlain

The Definitive Guide to Screenwriting by Syd Field

That’s Not the Way It Works by Bob Saenz

The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier (I don’t know if I’ll read this one cover to cover, but the formatting reference section is FANTASTIC and super well done.)

On my To Be Read pile:

Story Maps for TV Drama by David P. Calvisi (will be delivered this week!)

Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger

Save the Cat Writes for TV by Jamie Nash

Men, Women, and Chainsaws by Carol J. Clover

Anatomy of Story by John Truby

Articles

There are so many great articles out there that I can’t possibly list them all. But I thought I’d let you know about some websites that had good reference materials.

Screencraft.com

IndustrialScripts.com

JohnAugust.com, and even more important than the articles is the podcast, Script Notes. It’s really fun and so informative! I’m a premium member so I can listen to all the back episodes and I’ve been working my way backwards. I think I’ve listened to at least 75 over the last year…?

MasterClass Courses

I love, love, love this platform. I was gifted a yearlong membership as an early Xmas gift in Nov 2020, and I’ve done almost a dozen courses already. I’ve got to quick get in some more before the subscription expires in a couple months! I’ve already gone into detail in other posts, so here are the links.

MasterClass part 1 (on Phoebedarqueling.com)

MasterClass part 2

My hope is to complete at least one more class per month before my subscription runs out.

Deep Dives into Genres

Books, articles, and online classes are great, but there really is no replacement for reading scripts and watching movies with a critical eye. While writing my first two pilots, I read several pilot scripts and watched those episodes. While writing my thriller feature, I did the same. I’ve been researching action-comedies in the same way off and on in anticipation of another feature I plan to write.

For the most part, this kind of research has been most effective using TV and movies I had already seen. That way I knew if it was a good pilot or example of what I wanted to do with a feature. Though sometimes, I asked for recommendations and watched completely new things or watched the comp titles in the Impact prompts for reference. And then of course I was watching movies and TV for my own enjoyment, but I can’t help but approach them now as a writer rather than just a viewer. (To be fair, this has been more or less true ever since I started writing novels seven years ago, but it has been kicked into high gear now.)

What Did I Write?

Riftmaker Pilot

In order to get Riftmaker short enough to be acceptable as a feature, I had to completely gut one of the characters and do away with her subplot. I hated it. And as I had originally envisioned that novel as part of a trilogy anyway, I knew there was a lot of potential material for long-form storytelling. So I changed gears and decided to write it for TV instead. But rather than just cutting the feature in half and calling it a pilot, I backed up 24 hours on the timeline and started from scratch. Because with a book, you can tell a whole bunch of backstory both through the narration and the thoughts of the characters. Bt with only sight and sound to work with on the screen, I knew I needed to convey a lot of the important information in a more visual way. In the end, I think I only used maybe 10 pages of the original screenplay for my pilot version, and I’m really happy with the result.

No Rest for the Wicked Pilot

Between the Riftmaker feature and the pilot version, I wrote my first pilot based on another one of my books. Once again, it was part of a series, so I thought TV made more sense. When setting out on my first feature, I had assumed that I would want to write movies, but once I got a taste of the freedom when it came to TV writing, I started thinking in those terms instead.

Unlike the Riftmaker pilot, No Rest is a more or less straight adaptation of the first 50 pages of the existing book. The book itself is already divided into three distinct chunks in three locations, so it already lent itself to episodic treatment anyway. I finished it, got a little feedback, revised, then on a whim I entered it into a competition. I figured that’s something people do, right? And then I totally forgot about it.

Until one day I got the notification that it had moved onto the quarterfinals, then the semis, then the finals… I didn’t win, but I did receive special mention when the winners were announced. A requirement for all the finalists was to write a bible for their show, so I got to work.

No Rest for the Wicked Bible

Just when I felt like I was getting the hang of screenwriting, I had to figure out another type of writing that goes along with it. I never even knew these existed until I was asked to write one. Thankfully, Screencraft did send their finalists a nice little ebook with advice, so between that and reading some bibles that are loose in the wild, I was able to put one together. If you want to read more about that process, I did a blog post on my author blog before I switched over to this one for my screenwriting stuff.

Grimmer Feature

I’d had the idea for Grimmer kicking around in my brain as a novel I wanted to write ever since I moved to Germany in 2017. I had done a ton of research on fairy tales and German folklore in 2018, but those notes had been sitting idle while I worked on other books. Once I discovered screenwriting, it was the first thing I wrote totally from scratch.

Because I had the research already under my belt, I did about a week of prewriting followed by 10 solid days of writing to get my first draft. I went through the feedback/revisions cycle with a few readers and submitted it to some competitions. The results were… not stellar. So I revised and revised again (now with the help of a critique group I was asked to join through Facebook). The best I’ve done so far is semifinalist in the Filmmatic Horror competition, but hoping to reach the finals for something with the latest version later this year. Fingers crossed!

Curio Pilot

This was another story that I’d been sitting on for a while and had originally envisioned as a novel or series. I signed up for the first ever “Writer’s Surgery” workshop through the Global Film Industry Cafe Facebook group in Feb 2021 and pitched four different series ideas. This one was the clear favorite, so I ran with it.

The Writer’s Surgery met once a month Feb-June. We were divided into feature and TV writers, and from there into critique groups of 4-5. Each month had a different focus and we turned things in to the group a week before each meeting. After the first “getting to know you” meeting in Feb, it went beat sheets, first half, second half, revised full screenplay. The beat sheet step was more for the series as a whole for the TV writers because TV has its own act structure that’s different than features and some people were doing half hour comedies instead of one hour dramas.

For me, it was a little annoying to have to feel like I had to wait between sessions to move on to the next step, and I did my first half revisions long before we technically had the revisions stage. So it is actually the pilot I took the longest to write, but I could have easily done the whole thing faster. However, having the built-in feedback sessions was incredibly valuable and I absolutely loved my workshop group. Even though our final official session happened last week, we plan to continue meeting on a regular basis going forward. My next step with them and Curio is to write the bible for our meeting in August. I’m also submitting Curio to a couple competitions after my final rewrite, so once more into the breach!

Sacrifice – a false start

Somewhere in there I also started adapting one of my short stories to a screenplay. I published a multi-author anthology of retold fairy tales that I thought could make a great TV anthology concept. So I started with this unpublished novelette I wrote in 2020 for a competition as part of my proof of concept. I got a little stuck because so much of it happens in the the main character’s head, so I set it aside. I still think it’s a solid idea for an anthology series, but I think one of my other stories would serve as a better pilot.

Now that it’s had some time to marinate, I think I have a better idea how to work with it and I’m going to come back to it as a feature at some point. It isn’t the kind of thing Hollywood would be clambering to make because of it’s dark tone and unequivocally unhappy ending, but could serve as a good sample nonetheless.

Web – pitch only

Things came full circle a couple weeks ago when I spied another Impact prompt that got me excited. For 2021, they’ve teamed up with Skydance TV and in June they asked applicants to pitch “elevated, contemporary horror” shows. Back when I started the GFI workshop, I had a show idea that fit the bill, so I spent a couple weeks developing it enough to pitch it. The Impact application is long and the questions were really helpful for guiding me as I worked it out. Probably the scariest part of the whole application is making a 30-second video. Eek!

One nice thing this time around is that when they asked for a writing sample, I already had something ready to go, unlike my mad scramble to submit that first Riftmaker feature because I had nothing in a screenplay format yet. The application was due July 4, so I’ll find out by Aug 20 if I was selected to interview. From there, Impact picks the shows they want to pitch to Skydance, and if selected by them, the show gets optioned. They shop it around, and if it is sold to a network or streamer, the original writer may or may not be hired to write the pilot. So obviously very very far away from a sure thing, but I believe that this idea fits their brief better than anything else I submitted to an Impact prompt.

So, What’s Next?

My overarching goal for my first year as an aspiring screenwriter was to get better at the craft and have at least three things in my portfolio before I began querying. I ended up with four that I believe are quite solid and ready to start showing to people. “Staffing season” for TV writing rooms is more of a springtime thing, but that’s totally fine with me because it gives me a lot of time to get those queries out and maybe find an agent or manager before the 2022 season begins. As a novelist, I am no stranger to querying nor the inevitable string of rejection letters, so I’m somewhat prepared. At the same time, I’m feeling scared to put myself out there like that again. It’s natural, and I’ll get over it, but still worth noting the feelings all the same.

There are more books and articles to read, videos to watch, scripts to dissect, and MasterClass courses to complete. I’ve got a schedule somewhat worked out, but I won’t bore you with that level of detail. I also decided to sign up for the Coverfly Lab 2.0, which is a six-session workshop covering more of the business side of things. The time zone thing is a bit of a beast, but there are experts to meet and other writers to get to know, so it should be a good experience. Plus, cheaper than entering a competition and I’m pretty much guaranteed to get something out of it.

And of course, more writing! I’ve got at least two more solid pilot ideas and the action-comedy feature I’m excited to write. There’s another handful of ideas I haven’t decided on the best form for them to take. And though Curio is a complete pilot, the series is basically a supernatural procedural with fairly self-contained episodes, so I’ve also toyed with doing a feature version of the pilot story with more obstacles and action than fits in an hour. Riftmaker and Curio also both probably need bibles.

A couple months ago, I joined the team at Quivalon to work on the HOOD project, so that’ll keep me busy over the next year as well. I started off as a production assistant, but I’m already doing a lot more than your average PA, including working on rewriting the pilot. I also helped put together a pitch deck, which was an amazing learning experience. If everything goes according to the pie in the sky version of the plan, this’ll keep me quite busy! And if not, still a great way to learn 🙂

Parting Thoughts

So, there you have it, year one in the life of this aspiring screenwriter. I am going to continue submitting here and there to the bigger competitions because as someone living so far away from the the decision-makers, it seems like a good avenue for me for now. I’m not going broke doing it, and there are some benefits even if you don’t win. For instance, some competitions offer mentorship opportunities, and Screencraft is now offering all of their finalists help on things like writing query letters and setting up events for us to network. Hopefully, I’ve have good news to report on the competition front soon!

How about you? Do you have resources to recommend? Accomplished your goals? Setting new ones for the second half of 2021? Share in the comments 🙂

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