It’s That Time Again. Nicholl Time.

I have written over forty screenplays. Not all of them good – some should never be read again – but all feature-length and complete. Right now, in my “movies working on” folder, I have nearly thirty screenplays in the works and another thirty-nine tucked into an “ideas” folder in case the inspiration ever strikes. I also have a “books working on” folder – nearly thirty novels in different stages of completion – and a “plays working on” folder – nearly thirty partially-finished plays.

I have been asked in the past how I come up with so many writing ideas. But, the thing is, I don’t come up with the ideas. They always come to me. Sure, I have to work through them, I have to flesh them out, I have to cut my wrists at times and drip a blood sacrifice onto the page, but that first idea is almost always just a flash of inspiration.

Sometimes I think I have an overactive muse. Sometimes I think it’s more creative compulsion than gift. Whatever it is, I am grateful that I never want for a story to tell. Sometimes, though, I do wish that I could quiet the constant whispers of a million characters so that I could focus on one thing at a time.

Because no matter how many things I write, I never feel like I’m writing enough. And I have a hard time stopping the writing process to take care of the things that should come between projects, like sending queries to agents and production companies and publishers. I can’t take care of the business for the writing, and that can be problematic.

Anyway, the point of all this unnecessary backstory is that it’s time to buckle down yet again into screenwriting. For the past four months, I have worked on only one screenplay, and I haven’t finished it, because I have been hard at work on several other, more essential, writing projects.

But now the Nicholl entry period – along with several other screenwriting competition deadlines – is nigh, so I must submerse myself into the screenplay process.

The Nicholl accepts up to three screenplays per writer. This year, I started narrowing down from ten scripts. I’ve gotten to seven, and now I’m stuck in quicksand, trying to decide which three to which to tether my hopes.

People who are already in the industry repeatedly say to “write and keep writing,” to “write a great screenplay” first, and, eventually, you will break in.

They state it as if it’s inevitable.

Will you though?

You can submit your best script, but the outcome depends on so much more than a great screenplay. It depends on the proclivities of the readers, the trends of the market, the humidity in the reading room, if someone’s lunch agreed with him or her, whether your protagonist shares a name with the reader’s cheating ex, if the grocery store was out of his or her favorite Kool-Aid flavor, so on and etc.

Take last year’s Nicholl for example.

Last year, I submitted two dramas to the Nicholl – one holiday-themed, one that ripped my heart to shreds as I was writing it, and both movies that I would love to see on screen – and then I looked at the fellowship-rewarded screenplays, noted the similar action themes throughout the selections, and realized that, in the year 2011, my emotionally-charged character dramas didn’t stand a chance.

That’s not to say that my scripts were absolutely good enough to beat out all of the other emotionally-charged character dramas submitted. It’s only to say that none of us who submitted screenplays with nary an action element were going to get a fellowship. The reading audience skewed toward action movies in 2011.

So, what do I do now? Submit three action movies? I do have three I could ready up for this year’s competition.

But what happens if the 2012 readers like romantic comedies?

And so goes the dilemma of trying to get a screenwriting fellowship. Attempting to read your viewing audience before your audience has even been cast.

Every year at this time, I sit with my dozen or ten screenplays, narrowed to seven or to five, and I try to narrow to one or two or three to submit to the Nicholl. And I feel terrified of my decision before I even make it.

Shawna says just pick three that are different, and maybe it is that simple. But it never feels that simple. Every time I decide what screenplays to submit to the Nicholl, it feels like a life-altering decision. And it could be. It’s a decision that, at its most desired outcome, could literally change my life forever.

You don’t have to write a bad screenplay to spend another year of your life waiting for your big break. You just have to make the wrong decision when it comes time to submit. Even if you sit with a masterpiece in your hands, it remains a gamble.

And when you submit what you feel are two very powerful, well-written, emotionally-charged character dramas to a competition that ends up with all action-charged winners, you feel as if you bought a lottery ticket in Georgia with all the winning numbers for Tennessee.

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