How I Won My Final Draft Category
I entered a half-dozen or so screenwriting competitions between my arrival in Los Angeles in 2011 and the time I won the family category in the 2016 Final Draft Big Break contest with my original feature, The Snow Fight.
In that time, I never advanced in any of the competitions I entered.
Not once. Not even to the quarterfinals.
So I know what it feels like to get that e-mail, the one announcing the first-round results, see dozens upon dozens of scripts that made it with intriguing titles from writers whose very names suggest literary eminence, and wonder why I have risked my financial future on a writing career when I can’t even advance to the quarterfinals of some writing competition.
“Get a clue and quit now,” is always the first thought. Then the readers are summarily excoriated whilst also imaginatively supplicated in a masochistic urge to please. Twenty minutes of mapping out a new future roadmap follows (law school? IT? accounting? education?), intermixed with self-consolation. “I can finally go back to being ‘just a fan,’” I think. “No more stressing during the latest Transformers film over the question, ‘Could I even write this … ?’”
At some point the depression lifts, psychological stability returns (or at least the variation on stability writers cling to), and I admit that I’ve invested too much of my self into this path to quit.
“You’re on the writer’s journey, silly! Remember! Just have to vanquish those nasty gatekeepers and you’ll be on your way!”
I try to recall the ideas I’ve yet to execute, the ones that make me feel inspired enough to snap out of my self-pitying funk and get back to writing.
The Snow Fight was one of those ideas. It was the thirteenth feature script I completed and the first time I stepped out of the horror genre.
To be clear, yes, that means that between 2011 and 2016 I completed 12 original screenplays and not one of them ever so much as advanced to the quarterfinals in a single competition.
Just so you don’t think I’m a complete hack, I only ever entered three of them in a competition and mostly viewed completing those scripts as training. I wanted to knock out the first 1,000 pages Stephen King says you must write and then hide in his book, On Writing. But, in the process, I inevitably compared myself to other writers, writers who sold their first script, or who sold mediocre scripts because they knew how to hustle. And so even knowing that the main purpose of writing those scripts was to develop my craft, self-doubt continued to nag me.
During that time, I completed UCLA’s professional program in screenwriting (which I highly recommend), attended dozens of Jeff Goldsmith Q&As (because all of his questions are awesome), completed a coverage writing internship, read scripts, read all the books by all the gurus, watched the De Luca interviews, listened to podcast upon podcast, read friends’ scripts, got their notes, had table reads, produced a play I wrote, got two shorts made, optioned a feature to an independent production company, and biannually blew my budget back to the Stone Age during the Barnes & Noble Criterion Collection sale.
For all that, I couldn’t quit my day job, garner the interest of a legitimate rep, make an actual living as a writer, or find any success in a writing competition.
Why did I keep writing?
When I arrived in L.A., I knew the journey wouldn’t be quick or easy, and almost every single professional writer has said the exact same thing: You have to write hundreds of pages before you’ll ever get to anything good.
Along the way, I kept a running log of concepts on my computer—everything from ideas for characters, shorts, scenes, musicals, features, to pilots. That list now runs to almost 300 ideas. Two years ago, one simple idea hit me and I added it to the list:
Epic neighborhood snowball fight.
I was in the middle of other projects, but it was an idea that quickly rose to the top of my priority list. It was an idea I actually felt confident judging other people by … If you didn’t get it, well, what could I say but …
About a year later, I finally had the chance to write the script. I entered it into two competitions. Soon I got word from the first that it hadn’t advanced.
A few weeks later, when I got the e-mail with the first round of results from Final Draft, I’d forgotten whether I had even submitted. The coping mechanisms began immediately, the voices in my head explaining why it was okay that I didn’t advance, why I should keep writing anyway. But to my surprise, there was my script in the list of quarterfinalists. I was thrilled just to make it that far and did not expect to advance any further.
Following Scott Meyers simple dictum to read scripts, write scripts, and watch movies made me a better writer over time. Identifying the concepts that dug most deeply into my core experiences and emotions helped me to create emotional resonance on the page. I refused to be discouraged by my circumstances or to blame others—readers, in particular, who, for better or worse, are only offering (hopefully) educated opinions.
I refused to believe that my abilities on the page were fixed for all time, but rather were something I could develop through sustained effort. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset was one book I read early in my career in L.A. that helped me to frame my mind for the long journey that most folks have to take to becoming a professional writer. Her simple point is that the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t is the willingness to believe that you can improve. For myself, that meant not letting my lack of present success define me.
They’re clichés, but in the actual struggle of life you can’t live without them: You have to dig deep, you have to have grit, you have to persevere despite setbacks …
Competitions are still a bit of a gamble and don’t guarantee anything like industry success, but simple dedication to the craft and consistency in executing the ideas you’re most passionate about will certainly help you create work that will connect with readers, and maybe even snag your first contest win.
Matt Katzenberger is an LA-based writer and a graduate of UCLA’s Professional Program in Screenwriting. He won the family category in the 2016 Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Contest with his original feature, The Snow Fight.