Pearls of Wisdom from Working Screenwriters: MY FIRST BIG WIN

I am a sucker for information. Learning from other people’s experiences, listening to others’ opinions. That was the idea that drove the creation of my second book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, the idea that drove me to write my EXPERTS WEIGH IN series, and the idea that now brings me to a whole new series of blog posts:

Pearls of Wisdom from Working Screenwriters

For this series, I turned to a number of working writers in my world, some of them clients, some of them friends, to get their insights on their journeys to breaking in and becoming working writers in the industry.

This series will cover everything from securing and working with representation to writerly advice and writing process, but to get this series started I wanted to focus on the first wins these screenwriters experienced at the early stages of their careers.

Many writers on their screenwriting journeys look for signs, wins, small or big, that would indicate that they are indeed on the right path, that their craft is getting stronger, that their writing is starting to rise to the top, to gain meaningful traction. While not all wins immediately translate to results, for many they come to confirm: Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re on the right track.

With that in mind, I turned to a number of the working writers in my orbit and asked them:

What was your first meaningful screenwriting “win”? How did it impact your screenwriting career? 

Greta Heinemann, currently a producer on NCIS NEW ORLEANS, was named winner of 2017’s Final Draft Big Break Contest with her feature ANATOMY OF A BREAKDOWN, and previously CBS and HUMANITAS fellow told me: “I’d say winning the UCLA Extensions Writing Competition was my first meaningful win and it got my sample in front of manager #2.”

Note that Greta’s MANAGER #2 was her first serious industry manager.

Savy Einstein recently had her feature, SUPERFECUNDATION, picked up by ScreenGems over at Sony. She was named to The Young & Hungry List in 2017. I came out to LA having basically zero connections.” Savy remembered, “So, when my first screenplay won the BlueCat Joplin award and got me into The Black List annual feature lab, it provided me with those first meaningful connections that helped jump-start my career.”

1/2-hour comedy writer Nora Nolan, who recently wrapped up a season of TRIAL & ERROR, participated in the Warner Bros. Writing Workshop and is currently working on a writing assignment, shared: “The first spec script I ever wrote (for The Office) was a quarterfinalist in the Scriptapalooza competition. As it turns out, not the most highly regarded competition, and quarterfinalist doesn’t mean you won, but it gave me the confidence to keep going and ultimately to move to LA.”

CHICAGO MED’S Paul Puri had this to offer: I won scriptapalooza. It only impacted my career by validating that I could be good at this. It led to zero leads from reps or otherwise. Not even an email.” 

Melissa London Hilfers, who sold a number of specs, including 2017’s UNFIT and 2015’s UNDONE, and is currently working on the JAGGED EDGE remake as part of a writing assignment, offered: The first few dry years the wins were small (advancing in the Nicholl, etc.), but each one kept me going. The first real win I guess was selling a spec feature to a television network. It didn’t ultimately get made (at least it hasn’t yet! never say never!) but it was incredibly validating after years of working without a sale. It was also the first time I got studio/network notes and a taste of the collaboration that goes into a script before it’s ever produced.”

Josh Renfree, currently on a horror feature writing assignment said that his first meaningful win was being named “Semifinalist in the BlueCat Screenplay Competition, because it was my first screenplay, and it gave me the confidence to keep going and enter it into the Nicholl Fellowship.”

iZOMBIE’S Bob Dearden had this to offer, reflecting on his first meaningful win during his assistant days: “I got to pitch a few elements of a movie, very early in my assistant-ing career – just a line or two here or there, or a piece of a story idea. When the first draft of the script was finished, my boss sent it to the lead actress, and I’m a longtime fan of hers. She wrote back to my boss that she loved the script, etc., and then quoted her favorite line, which was one I had written. I knew it was a bit of a fluke, but it still gave me a new level of confidence that maybe I could actually make a screenwriting career for myself.”

Sarah Acosta, who has worked on both SHOOTER and SULTANA shared that her first big win was Placing in the Tracking Board Pilot Competition after parting ways with my agency over the script that I entered into the contest.”

Author and TV writer Hollie Overton, whose TV credits include THE CLIENT LIST and SHADOWHUNTERS and whose novels THE WALLS and BABY DOLL have been published by Redhook, offered this: I’ve had two wins that are significant in my writing career. One was winning a screenwriting contest sponsored by Stephen Susco (writer of the Grudge, High School, etc.) The prize was a year-long mentorship with Stephen. His experience was invaluable. He read scripts and offered me advice about the business. He encouraged me to write and produce my own short film and he was the one who suggested I consider writing for TV, advice I’m very glad I took.  This led me to write my first TV spec which landed me my next big win–the WB Writers Workshop. That experience changed my life. I landed reps and staffed on my first show. It was truly life changing.”

Jimmy Mosqueda, writer on SCHOOLED and participant in the ABC/Disney Writers Program told me: “My first “win” was actually a second-place finish in the Austin Film Festival’s Comedy Screenplay competition. That got me a lot of buzz, and a lot of meetings. I got a manager through Austin. They had actually read me during the semifinalist round and reached out to set a meeting weeks before the festival, so by the time I showed up I was repped. I did end up dumping them a year later, but still!”

Finally, Moises Zamora of STAR shared the ultimate career win: “Getting hired to write for AMERICAN CRIME. It set the stage for the rest of my career. I signed with CAA and the expectations were high.”

While not everyone’s first big win will be a staffing assignment, it’s important to keep your eyes open for those meaningful wins that can serve as important signs and confirm that you are on the right path. Not everyone’s first contest placement will be with The Nicholl, Austin Film Festival or Tracking Board’s Launch Pad contest. Whether its mentorship, acceptance to a lab or the grand prize in a mid-level contest, all of those serve as important reminders that if you keep at it, that if you continue to challenge yourself to keep writing, push your writing to the next level and step outside of your comfort zone when it comes to networking, you will give yourself a strong, fighting chance at making it.

Look for more Pearls of Wisdom from Working Screenwriters in future blog posts!