There used to be a day when most screenwriters dreamed of seeing their name on a theatre screen. But times have changed, and writing for television has become just as exciting as getting a theatrical release, maybe more.
With hundreds of channels and live streaming sources, television content is in high demand. There's no better time to explore creating new content for TV as well as opportunities to get discovered via a screenplay contest.
Meet Christina Burlison, recent Grand Prize Winner of Industry Insider Television Writing Contest. The Writers Store created this unique contest to help writers not only get discovered, but also learn more about the craft, as all finalists take their TV show idea and turn it into a pilot script with the help of the ScriptXperts in a 12-week mentorship program. Christina was the overall winner with her script, Aftermath, Inc.
Tell us a little about yourself and what made you want to be a writer?
I'm originally from Northern California. Becoming a writer wasn't a conscious decision, and I still sometimes consider going to law school, but I keep coming back to writing even when it's frustrating. I started writing short stories and poetry when I was about thirteen-years-old, and transitioned to writing scripts as an undergrad. I couldn't tell you exactly how many scripts I've written but it's somewhere in the 15-20 range.
How have you grown as a writer since your first script?
Honestly, my prose has gotten a bit worse since I started focusing solely on screenwriting, but my ability to craft characters and my dialogue is much improved.
Did you study writing in school or are you self taught?
My undergraduate degree is in English & Creative Writing, I attended UCLA's professional screenwriting program, and received my MFA from UT Austin, all of which have been invaluable, particularly the time each program gave me to focus solely on my writing.
Do you have any advice for those who are setting out to learn screenwriting?
My advice would be 1.) Find a job that isn't too mentally taxing so if you have to write before or after work you have the energy to write, and 2.) Read and write often.
How do you typically choose which contest you want to enter?
I've entered the Nicholl, AFF, PAGE International, CBS, NBC, WB & Disney/ABC fellowships, and The Writer's Store contest. I choose the contests that have proven to launch writers' careers, rather than the ones who offer monetary awards.
How long did you work on this script before you submitted? What do you think made it stand out?
I wrote a version of this script in grad school, put it away, and then rewrote it for the contest. I really don't know what made it stand out because before I was accepted into this program, everyone hated that script. I do believe the reason it won, however, is solely down to Kay Tuxford's feedback. I learned more from her about crafting a pilot in those twelve weeks than I did in my grad program. (Editor's Note: Kay was Christina's assigned ScriptXpert mentor from The Writers Store.)
Entering the Industry Insider TV Contest is a different process than entering other TV contests, in that you don’t have a completed pilot, but rather a TV show idea. What was the benefit of that? Or the downside?
It's the only way to create a TV series in my opinion. You cannot write a pilot if you don't have a handle on the concept and the characters. You need to know if the show has legs before you begin to write.
What was it like working with a ScriptXpert mentor? Any surprises? What was the most valuable part?
I need constant feedback while I'm writing because I'm often so deep into the pages that I'm unable to see the bigger picture, so to have someone walk me through the rewrite process is crucial. Kay gave me a step-by-step guide to rewriting, which was the most valuable part of this program because I can use that guide for all of my future scripts.
Tell us about your meeting with AMC? Did it provide a clearer perspective on the next steps to take in your career?
It provided me a clearer perspective on how AMC develops shows, which is different than other networks, and gave me a contact at AMC who is willing to help me further my career.
How have you worked on creating your own unique writer’s voice?
I've tried to get away from writing strictly for an audience; choosing what I think people would like instead of what inspires me. The scripts that have gotten me in the door are the ones where I kind of go crazy and entertain myself instead of worrying what people might think.
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?
So many contests out there are mostly a waste of time and money. If you want to further your career, only submit to the well-known ones that offer industry contacts or, at the very least, notes on your draft. And don't worry if your script doesn't do well -- I do believe success at a contest relies heavily on the reader. I only know of one writer who swept multiple contests with the same script. I've personally had the same script win at PAGE, but not even make it to the second round at AFF.
As you move forward in the industry, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned that will change your strategy?
I definitely need to do more drafts of scripts before I submit them. I got into a really bad habit there for a while where I was submitting polished first drafts because they kept placing at AFF. But being a second rounder never got me anywhere. The scripts that have done well and have gotten me meetings are the ones that go through multiple drafts.
What’s next for you?
I'm currently working on a feature version of a short that was produced last year, and in my free time I'm finishing a spec I started before this mentorship.
Christina can be reached via email.
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