Failing Forward

Failing Forward

In this season of major screenwriting contest results, many, many writers are not going to get the results they hoped for. Lots of reasons for this. Bad scripts (sorry, it’s true). The sheer amounts of scripts submitted (over 7,000 in the Nicholl alone). The random selection of readers. The subjectivity of readers. Heck, the mood of the reader the day they read yours. You just don’t know. What you do know is that they didn’t pick yours to advance. And if they did pick yours to advance, good for you. But don’t get too cocky, there are always more cuts to come.

For the finalists and winners out there, way to go. Hope it leads to something.

Then, there are the contest notes you paid for. Some of them are going to make you think. Some of them are going to make you think they didn’t even read your script. It’s a crapshoot for sure, and it’ll never be what you expected. You do need to look at the notes, not the ones for characters that weren’t even in your script, which I hear happens more than it should, but any that seem to understand what you were going for in your work.

No script is ever done. I’ve rewritten scripts on the day the scenes were filming for a lot of different reasons. I’ve added scenes during production. I’ve rewritten my own specs multiple times before I showed them to anyone, including my reps. I’ve rewritten them after I showed them to my reps. I ask people for notes all the time. I take those notes and improve my scripts with a lot of them. Criticism and hard opinions are not a bad thing. You need to realize your work always needs more work, especially when you’re starting out.

Point is, there’s an ebb and flow to screenwriting, and unfortunately, it’s mostly ebb the first few years as you’re trying to break in.

And I haven’t even talked about Rejection yet, which I reminded people in my book, where the official Webster’s definition includes the words: “To reject a manuscript.” Printed right on the page.

It’s funny and sad at the same time, but a fact of screenwriting life.

I talk to screenwriters all the time, good friends of mine who have solid careers, and most of the time their professional life is filled with rejection of some kind of another. Rejection of their specs. Not getting open writing assignments they were up for. Being replaced on a project. It’s endless. And constant. You hear "no" way more than "yes."

I hear "no" a lot more than "yes," and I’m pretty happy with my career.

But it also took me 12 years of No's, of Almosts, of Cancelations (some at the last minute), before I saw my first glimmer of real success. I got a lot of encouraging news with multiple options of my work and chances at rewrite and write-for-hire jobs over those years, but … none of them panned out.

I found out that options were great, but most all of them end up being unsuccessful. Producers just can’t get the film going for hundreds of reasons. When I first started doing this, I’d tell everyone when I got reads, until I found out 99% of those ended in a pass. So I stopped doing that. Then, I shouted to the high heavens when I got an option, because truthfully, it’s a big deal. It means someone really thinks you have a script worth making. That’s a genuine accomplishment …

Except when I told people about my options, and I had them on multiple scripts over those 12 years, I was forced to tell them when they asked about what was happening … that they lapsed and nothing happened except producers tried and failed to get them made. That got old really fast. Now when I have something optioned, I don’t tell anyone but my wife and a couple of good friends.

Why am I telling you all this bad news about how hard it is and how there’s a whole lot of rejections, close calls, and brick walls? Because there are. You need to know they’re there and that you can’t do anything to prevent them. They are in the lexicon of day-to-day living for screenwriters.

So, what’s my point?

You live with them. You get mad for a day over them, as each happens, then you learn from each one and keep plowing forward.

Yep. Failing Forward. Not giving up, because you’ll sure consider throwing in the towel when the worst of them happen. I know I did, but I also wanted to do this more than anything.

So, I made a deal with myself … I wasn’t going to give up no matter what happened.

I could get angry. I could get disappointed. I could go outside and scream (only did that once). I could sit and feel sorry for myself. But there was a time limit. A day, sometimes two if it was one that really hurt. I made up my mind to endure what I didn’t know was coming at first and now know is inevitable for every screenwriter trying to break in.

Over the last 25+ years, my failures and rejections now probably number in the hundreds, and yes, I still get them. They still hurt. They still bother me. Hey, I’m human. But because I kept going, writing, learning, working on my craft … I’m sitting on 18 credited produced films as a writer and maybe as many as four more in the coming couple of years—two for sure.

Over those first 12 years, I struggled with rejection and near misses. Many people told me to just give up (nobody from my family though, which was great). I didn’t listen because they didn’t know, couldn’t know, what was driving me. Making movies is all I ever wanted to do with my life from the time I was about 10 years old. Nothing was getting in my way. All I had to do was be smart, cooperative, understanding, educated, determined, and in some cases, a damn fool.

I reached for my goal and never lost sight of it.

I know there are a lot of new writers who feel exactly the way I do about screenwriting. They love it and want to make a living at it. Take it from me, it is possible.

It’s possible for YOU. It doesn’t happen when you want it to. It doesn’t happen fast.

Each time you face the dreaded rejection monster or worse, the close-but-no-cigar monster, remember you’re failing forward. It hurts, but it also helps. To know that each one says you’re still out there trying and learning and growing. Moving forward toward your goal.

*Feature photo by Yousaf Abbasi.

Bob Saenz is a produced screenwriter with a dozen plus films, author of a popular screenwriting book, producer, & actor with numerous credits. He speaks at film fests & writers conferences nationwide.
More posts by Bob Saenz.
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