Cyberspace Open: What they Really Want

The Cyberspace Open is a pretty cool contest, but there seems to be a gap between what they say they want, and what they actually want. The rules are evolving as the organizers have been moving from rewarding high-speed output to giving writers the time they need to create something more memorable (and marketable).

I’ve done the contest a couple of times now, and I’ve seen what wins and where I consistently fall short.

Four categories of scoring? Not… so much.
One of the things emphasized is that you are scored in four different categories. “Originality is 25% of your score,” they say. When you get your scene back, you get a breakdown of how many points you get in each category. Last time, out of hundreds of scores I checked, NONE had a difference of more than two points between categories. You would expect some entries to be wildly creative but very poorly executed, and for the scores to reflect that. Instead, it seems the judges arrive at a gut-feeling score and then divvy up the points fairly evenly between categories.

Don’t worry so much about the one-scene rule.
According to the rules, you’re supposed to submit a single scene. Part of the difficulty with this edict is that a “scene” is a technical movie-making unit, not a storytelling unit. They soften the rule to say that if your “scene” continues between rooms of a house during the course of a conversation, that’s ok. (Technically, every time the scenery changes, it’s a new scene. Changing rooms is a new scene.)

I’m all for this relaxed interpretation. How I would write the rule is, ‘continuous action that cannot be interrupted by cutting to another scene with different characters’. That lets you move your action, but keeps the “scene” as a fundamental storytelling unit.

However, even by that definition, two of the three top finalists last time had multiple scenes. One of the finalists used a brief scene at the start to establish the story, while another jumped scenes (and skipped ahead a couple of hours) halfway through the action. So it would seem the one-scene rule is not enforced at all.

Tell the Whole Story
The contest clearly states that they want a single scene that is part of a larger story. They don’t want a short film. The prompt they give is for a key moment in the arc of a story already under way. The thing is, judges can appreciate the scene more if they have an understanding of the context. Last year’s winner had an extra, short scene at the start with no other purpose than to supply context. One of the first-round winners last year included an extra little scene at the end that provided closure. In both cases the judges rewarded writers for breaking the letter of the law. Both of the other finalists last year had as-you-know-Bob-style dialog to provide context. fuego was specifically chided for not including more backstory in his scene.

You know? That’s OK with me. I think of my first (losing) entry and the really cool car stunt that happened immediately after the scene I submitted. I should have included it, even though it was technically another scene. My most recent (losing) entry could have benefitted from more context as well, but it also needed…

Action!
This is my mantra this time: make every moment crackle. I honestly thought I had that last time, but it was a verbal confrontation (they said they wanted dialog) and without a better understanding of the characters it failed to sparkle. If my dialog had been combined with bloodshed, things might have been much different.

Make every phrase one that could go into the movie trailer, every motion filled with peril. All the other rules and guidelines above take a backseat to this simple axiom. Whatever they say they want, whatever restrictions they impose, all will be forgiven if you write a taut scene with intensity – and it has to stand on its own. Of course the judges couldn’t see the tension between my characters since much of it was based on things that had come before.

Three to Five Pages
While the text on the Web site sounds flexible, they’re really hardcore about this now. Five pages and one line was not acceptable last time around.

Don’t lose on a technicality
As much as it sucks to get a low score, it would suck even more to get zero points because you didn’t submit your work correctly. There are things you can do before the contest that will allow you to save time and worry when submission time comes around.

You must submit your entry in a document named in a particular way, with specific formatting and a cover page with the proper information. Why wait until the last minute, when you’re tweaking the last few words as the clock ticks down? Go ahead and make the document now. Set up the formatting. Name it according to the submission rules. Write the cover page. Check it all twice. Now you’ve got all the ticky-tack stuff out of the way and when minutes count you can focus on the work, not the submission.

Have Fun!
I don’t participate in this contest with dreams of megabucks movie producers knocking on my door, I do it because it’s a challenge that appeals to me on a fundamental level and I’ve learned a lot from my previous failures. I like sharing my output here and getting feedback.

There’s another reason to have fun: It shows in the work. If you’re smiling while you’re typing, chances are the judge will be smiling while reading. Give it your best go, but have a good time and let your own quirks show through.

Just so long as you don’t push me out of the second round!

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Cyberspace Winter 2011 Early Registration Deadline Tonight

This is just a reminder to those out there who enjoy the Cyberspace Open that registration closes tonight. It’s a fun contest, and a good way to spend a weekend. In a nutshell, you are given a prompt and you have a weekend to write a scene that would fit in a a feature-length screenplay that fits the prompt.

CORRECTION: Originally in this episode I said tonight was the deadline for entering. It turns out tonight is the deadline for early entry, which is cheaper. You can still register after today.

Even if you don’t pay to participate officially, I encourage the writerly types out there to play along. Just because you won’t be judged doesn’t mean you can’t have fun writing to the prompt.

As usual, I’ll be posting my round-one entry here. Even if I don’t make it to round two, I’ll write to that prompt as well, and post that here for the amusement of all.

See you in the winners’ circle!

Return of the Cyberspace Open

Time keeps passing, turning on mighty gears toward the future, and like clockwork with a tired mainspring the Cyberspace open has returned once again. The “fall” iteration of the contest has become the “fall/winter 2010-2011” version, with “fall” and “2010” being more of a marketing thing, since the contest is actually in January and February, with the final round running through late April.

I’ll be participating again as well; I haven’t done that well in my previous attempts, but I still have fun and I still learn a lot. Not a bad deal for eleven bucks. One of my favorite parts about the Cyberspace Open is hearing from other participants here on the pages of Muddled Ramblings. I’m looking forward to hearing back from a few of the folks who graced these pages last time around.

The format for the contest will be similar to last time: Participants are given a weekend to write a scene. The top 100 scorers from that round move on to round two, roughly six weeks later. (The delay is because the judges have to read and score a lot of entries, and provide meaningful feedback for each. Not a small job.)

Round two is different than in previous incarnations, and reflects a shifting emphasis for the competition as a whole. In the past, writers only had twelve hours to complete their second scene. (In the distant past, when there was a third round of writing, it was ninety minutes!) The competition has moved from being a test of writing under pressure to writing the best possible scene, and this year round two is an entire weekend, just like round one. I don’t think that works in my favor – more on that later.

Round three, like last “spring” (um… summer), is a competition between the top three scripts of round two. The scripts are read on video by aspiring actors, and folks are then able to vote on them. I’m not sold on this part of the competition, as the performance of the actors can make a big difference when people are supposed to be judging the script. I think it worked out pretty well last time, though, so I’m probably worrying too much. It’s what I do.

My own participation in the contest is a little different, as I have never made it out of round one. (You can see my earlier entries elsewhere in this blog.) Getting knocked out early hasn’t stopped me from participating in round two as a shadow contestant, however, and posting my work here as well. Interestingly, I think the scenes I’ve written with less time available have been better. We’ll see if I can break out of that this year.

I’ve made a few observations about what the organizers say they want, and what actually wins. As we get closer to the actual contest I’ll post some musings on that subject here.

For me, my mantra this time around will be ‘montageable’ (a tip given by a reader when critiquing one of my previous entries). Does the scene contain those moments that would go into the preview trailer and make people want to see the whole movie? That’s what I’ll be shooting for this time.

This really is a fun contest, one that is different than most of what you find out there. It costs a bit of money to enter (less if you act soon), but if you need something to kick your butt and get you writing this winter, you could do a lot worse. Check it out!

Winners Announced

Congratulations to Dries Coomans for taking top honors in this spring’s Cyberspace Open. His piece bent the rules a smidge, but was a powerful bit of writing. Personally I preferred the second-place entry by Lisa Scott, but it was a tough call.

With luck maybe we’ll be seeing those names again, on the big screen!

Cyberspace Open Finalists

I was wondering whatever happened in the Cyberspace Open – the organizers seemed happy to find any excuse to email contestants earlier but I hadn’t heard anything in a while. I went over to check things out and found that the finalists have been selected, but so far no mention of the YouTube voting for the big winner.

You can read the top three here, if you want to see what a winning entry looks like. The prompt for this round was to write a scene in which one character has been betrayed by a confidant, and confronts the betrayer.

A hearty congratulations is in order for all three. They made something that sparkled and shone in the eyes of their peers. Not bad for a day’s work.

I considered whether to put my own thoughts on the top three here, but the contest is still going, and I don’t want to come off as a sour-grapes kind of guy, picking at the flaws of writers who scored better than I did in the previous round. I’ll just say that I think one of these scripts is substantially better than the other two, while another had nice moments but seemed fundamentally flawed.

It was a good exercise for me to read them, because there were several places where I could tell that the writer was not getting everything out of their head and onto the page (writing time was very limited, after all). In the future I will try to identify those places in my own writing, before I leave my audience flat.

Edited to add:
If this page is any indication, they have decided to go back to the old format (a ninety-minute period for the finalists to craft a third scene) for the next iteration of the contest. (In fact, that is the same page as last year, just with the dates changed.) This is either to make the contest work better in conjunction with the Screenwriting Expo or it’s an indication that the current format isn’t working out. Or maybe both.

I hope they get the kinks worked out — it’s a cool contest (despite my frustrations). As you will see in the comments, I wasn’t the only one wondering what was going on over there.

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Round Two: My Fake Entry

As I thought about this prompt, I thought of the scene in the the classic movie Get Crazy, when Reggie Wanker emerges from a dressing room filled with naked women only to discover that the girlfriend he’s been ignoring (and who saw him in the room filled with naked women) is now with another guy. Said Reggie: “Betrayed! Turn your back for half a second and they stick a knife in it right up t’hilt.” As he goes back on stage (this has all occurred during a drum solo) he says. “I’ve finally found the meaning of the bleedin’ blues. Ol’ Reggie can take the pain… but can they?

Classic stuff. Malcolm McDowell makes a great Mick Jagger.

Anyway, I pondered for a while about what to do for my scene, but because I didn’t want to work too hard at it, I borrowed characters from a story I’ve already been fiddling with, called The Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy. Tatra is a new addition, and hey, what high fantasy story can’t be improved with a smart-mouth goth chick? Once again I’m heavy on dialog without much physical action.

EXT. FOREST - NIGHT
Tatra (17, Goth - black hair and nails, black dress with metallic accessories) is staring into the campfire flames. She has a blanket wrapped over her shoulders. Nearby she can hear Bixby snoring gently. The rest of the party are arrayed on the ground, all asleep.
Kitty jumps up into Tatra's lap, purring softly.
TATRA
Hello, Kitty.
Kitty settles into her lap, and Tatra strokes her fur gently. Kitty's purring intensifies.
TATRA (CONT'D)
So pretty...
Tatra's fingers stop at the base of Kitty's skull.
TATRA (CONT'D)
I could snap your neck in half a heartbeat.
The purring stops. Kitty looks up at Tatra in surprise.
TATRA (CONT'D)
Can you talk like that?
Kitty shakes her head but doesn't try to escape.
TATRA (CONT'D)
I should probably just kill you.
Kitty tenses, and Tatra tightens her grip. They freeze that way for a few heartbeats, then Tatra relaxes slightly.
TATRA (CONT'D)
If I let you go, will you kill me?
Kitty shakes her head no.
TATRA (CONT'D)
Can I trust you?
Kitty shakes her head no again. Tatra smiles. She releases Kitty's neck. Kitty jumps down from her lap. Space distorts and standing before Tatra is a woman, slender and lithe, with long black hair poorly protecting her modesty.
They both look around nervously to make sure the others are sleeping.
KITTY
Crap it's cold.
TATRA
Where the hell are your clothes?
KITTY
Which do you think looks better on a cat, an evening gown or a tutu? Of course I'm naked.
Tatra tosses her the blanket.
TATRA
Put this on. You're grossing me out.
Kitty takes the blanket but hesitates before putting it on, posing, smiling at Tatra's jealousy-fueled discomfort.
KITTY
There's still time for you. You might still develop a body like this one.
TATRA
Oh, goody. Then I can be a slut, too.
Kitty wraps the blanket around herself and stares down at Tatra.
KITTY
Be careful, Tatra.
TATRA
If I was careful I would have killed you already.
Kitty hesitates, then sits on the log next to Tatra.
KITTY
I guess I deserved that. So, what is it you want?
TATRA
What's your real name?
KITTY
Dacia.
TATRA
Who do you work for?
KITTY
What do you mean?
TATRA
What the hell do you think I mean? Who do you work for?
KITTY
I work... for The Master.
Tatra stifles a laugh.
TATRA
Who?
KITTY
The Master. Surely you've heard...
Tatra's face is blank.
KITTY (CONT'D)
How can you be here, now, with us, and never have heard of The Master?
TATRA
The Master? That's the best he could come up with? Oooo... The Maaaaaaster! Scary!
Kitty looks around in alarm.
KITTY
Quiet! You'll wake someone up.
TATRA
Or what? You'll tell the master on me? Oh, no!
She makes her eyes round with mock alarm and puts her hands to her cheeks, then starts to laugh - but quietly.
TATRA (CONT'D)
What are you doing here?
KITTY
The Master—
Tatra snorts.
KITTY (CONT'D)
My people have a great interest in the outcome of your quest. There are prophecies.
That gets Tatra's interest.
TATRA
No kidding? Like what?
KITTY
For instance, in the great tome "Insane Ravings of Hu'upman and other Vague Pronouncements", it says that if the elf marries John the Smith, then The — my master's designs will be thwarted.
Tatra looks stricken. She speaks past a lump in her throat.
TATRA
Lada and John...?
KITTY
IF, my dear. I would prefer that not to happen.
Tatra stares at the ground.
TATRA
I would prefer that not to happen, too.
Kitty sighs and pats Tatra's knee.
KITTY
You like him.
TATRA
He doesn't even know I exist.
Kitty begins to say one thing, stops, then says another.
KITTY
No, I don't think he's capable of seeing anyone not of royal birth.
TATRA
Like Princess big-boobie bitch-face? Ugh! I just want to strangle her sometimes.
Tatra looks around now, alarmed by her own outburst. Kitty smiles and moves closer to Tatra on the log. She puts her arm around the girl.
KITTY
I agree. What would you say if Princess Skoda ended up with your friend Bixby instead?
Tatra puts her hands around her throat and makes a gagging noise.
KITTY (CONT'D)
He might become prince...
TATRA
He'd be better off with Elf-Lady.
Kitty smiles. Her teeth are white and even, her eyes gleam in the firelight.
KITTY
Then we are in complete agreement. Lada must not mate with John the Smith.
TATRA
Ewww. Thanks for that image.
KITTY
Tell me, why did you not kill me?
TATRA
Because... because I think you want Bixby to live. And I thought maybe you could help me. You know, with magic.
KITTY
Help you what?
Tatra turns away, suddenly shy.
TATRA
You know.
KITTY
Will you help me in return? When we find the Important Thing?
TATRA
Sure.
KITTY
"Sure?" That's all? You're OK with allowing The Master to plunge the world into darkness and despair?
TATRA
Pf. Welcome to my world, cat-lady.

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Round Two Begins!

I was eliminated in round one of the Cyberspace Open (not even a near miss, I’m afraid), but that’s not going to stop me from cranking out a scene for round two! It will just stop me from working very hard on it.

Your PROTAGONIST has been betrayed by his CONFIDANT — someone deep within his (or her) inner circle. This betrayal threatens to destroy everything the protagonist has been working towards. The protagonist’s only ace in the hole: the confidant is not yet aware he’s been found out. Write a crackling scene in which the protagonist confronts the confidant.

I had a thought this morning that might help the one hundred talented folks who are moving on. The top three entries will be produced on video to determine the grand champion. If you think you have a shot, you might consider the produceability of your scene – will it shine in a low-budget video enactment? Zero gravity explosions being an integral part of the action might cost you in the long run.

I wish all of the contestants good luck, but especially the ones who have stopped by here to share advice. You guys rock!