Meet Chelsea Watkins, winner of The Writers Store Spotlight Screenplay Competition for her feature teen comedy screenplay, Powderpuff.
We spoke with Chelsea about the contest, her writing career, and insights into how to win a screenplay contest. At Script, our community philosophy prevails, so anytime we can get advice to help all of us succeed as writers, we're all over it!
Tell us a little about yourself – What made you want to be a writer? How many years have you been writing? How many scripts?
I was inspired to write about fifteen years ago. I’ve written four screenplays, one TV show, two plays, a novel, and a L.A. Times newspaper article.
I am an L.A. native – born and raised in La Canada – near Pasadena. I grew up as a ballet dancer and started dancing professionally at age 16. I have a B.A. in International Relations and French from USC and spent my junior year living abroad in Paris. After college, I was working as a dancer when I booked a co-star on a TV show. I earned my SAG card and decided to give acting a try.
I joined a theatre company, and one year we were invited to create original work for a festival. I had an idea for a play and just wrote it. Well, that play was chosen to be produced, and I officially caught the writing bug. I applied to several film school writing programs and was accepted into USC’s School of Cinematic Arts MFA screenwriting program, despite at that time having never written a screenplay.
After graduation, I worked as a literary agent’s assistant and then in acquisitions, as well as still writing, dancing and acting. Now that I’m married with a five-year-old son, I’ve let go of the acting and dancing and am focused on writing, along with running my other company, a college consulting firm.
College consulting? Why didn't I know this when my kids were applying? Back to writing... How have you grown as a writer since your first script?
I think I’ve grown both in craft and in experience. What I love about writing is that whatever is going on in my life, I can put on the page. My first script was my thesis script for my MFA from USC, and it was based on an experience I had as an undergrad studying abroad in Paris. It was a sweet story, but limited. Now that I’ve had more life experience, positive and negative, I have more to draw from, and having more craft allows me to use those experiences to create stronger stories.
You got your MFA, can you talk about your thoughts on screenwriting education?
I was very fortunate in that I started out in the MFA program at USC, so I had great instruction from the very beginning. I am always looking to be learning, whether it’s reading a book, attending a class or a seminar, or being a part of a writers’ group. Currently, I am part of a writers’ group and I am working with two private coaches – one on the business side and one on the creative side.
For those who are setting out to learn screenwriting, I would say to write and learn about writing simultaneously. That way, everything you learn you can apply to your work. Also, don’t just write in a vacuum, get in a class or a group where you can present work and get feedback.
Have you entered many other screenwriting contests? How do you typically choose which contest you want to enter?
Every time I finish a draft of a script, I send it out for independent coverage and find a contest or two to enter – hopefully one that also gives feedback. I choose contests based on the script. For Powderpuff, since it’s a pretty commercial teen comedy, I looked for comedy contests or ones that might like more commercial material (i.e. – not Sundance).
How long did you work on this script before you submitted? What do you think made it stand out?
As I mentioned above, after I finish a draft, I send it out for independent coverage. I started submitting Powderpuff after I received my first “Consider.” That took about a year of working weekly with a coach. I think I had a few more “Considers” before I received a “Recommend,” that was about another year, and all the while I was selectively submitting. Prior to winning the Spotlight, the script won 5th Place in ISA’s Emerging Screenwriter’s Contest and was a Quarterfinalist in ScreenCraft Comedy Contest.
How have you worked on creating your own unique writer’s voice?
I think a writer’s voice comes out of his or her unique perspective on the world, along with life experience. For me, I discovered my writer’s voice when I was going through a horrible divorce, probably one of the worst experiences of my life. I was flat broke, crying myself to sleep every night, yet I still found ways to laugh and live life to the fullest. Maybe it was because I had nothing left to lose. When people read my novel that came out of that experience, The Girls’ Adventure Club, they always tell me how funny it is. Just when I thought my personal life couldn’t get any worse, my ex-husband decided to annul our marriage. I was explaining the process to an exec in a meeting, and her response was, “That would be the funniest movie!” That’s when I realized that my unique perspective is to find comedy in pretty much everything and I have focused on strengthening that voice ever since.
Do you have tips for writers submitting to contests? What do you know now that you wished you knew before you started submitting to contests?
One thing I would say is to not wait on a contest before getting other notes on your script and/or starting a rewrite. You can get independent coverage back in a few weeks, while a contest may take a few months. That’s a lot of time to lose just waiting. I also think selective submitting, based on your script, is a good idea. Genre contests are great as the applicant pool may be smaller. Same thing with some of the smaller contests. Winning is nice, but It’s more important that your work gets read and noticed. I’ve actually had producers reach out directly to me because they were the reader for Powderpuff and loved the story.
Finally, remember that contests are just one way to get your work out in the world. The key is that you keep honing your script so that it is the best it can be and if you do that, the results will take care of themselves, whether or not you win any contests.
Have any meetings come out of your contest win?
Not yet after this win – but that’s because I am currently working through another draft based on some feedback that I really loved.
Have you had meetings with execs in the past, and if so, was there anything surprising about the actual meeting process?
I have had meetings with execs in the past on other projects and what surprised me the most was that they are struggling as much as we are – to find a project that will succeed in the marketplace.
Did they provide a clearer perspective on the next steps to take in your career?
Most execs are looking for a project that they can sell, finance, make, etc. and that’s a good thing! Our job as writers is to provide the underlying creative material, as we are the only ones who can do that.
As you move forward in the industry, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned that will change your strategy?
To never give up on an idea or script that you believe has a potential audience. I wrote a script about a girl faking her own pregnancy. It got a lot of interest, but ultimately didn’t sell. I had a producer tell me that it would probably never sell, so I put it away. About a year later, Lindsay Lohan made a movie with the exact same premise. It turns out that the other script had been written before mine, had received horrible coverage, but that writer didn’t give up on the script. With Powderpuff, I will continue to improve the script until it gets sold, or I make it myself.
What’s next for you?
I want to get Powderpuff out in the world. If I don’t find I buyer, I will find a way to finance and make it myself. I also have two TV projects percolating and another feature.
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