Friday, July 22, 2011

Dealing with rejection

People often ask me how to deal with rejection, and I'm never quite sure how to respond. I don't have some magic formula to minimise the pain. It still bothers me, it still hurts. I don't think you ever really become immune. But there are things you can do that might take your mind off it.

First, and most obvious, is to get drunk. Properly, seriously drunk, the kind of drunk that destroys families and starts wars. It'll work perfectly until you sober up, but then things will be even worse - your work will still be rejected, but now you'll also be hungover, broke, hated by your family, and possibly facing a war crimes tribunal. Nobody wants that. So by all means, drown your sorrows for a night, but don't expect it to help in the long term.

Second, and just as obvious, is to write a big blog post ranting about the stupidity of the people who rejected you.

Do NOT do this. Trust me.

It's embarrassing and awkward for everyone, and the people you're ranting about will probably find it and never speak to you again. Also, it's very unprofessional. If you're so good, why are you wasting time ranting on a blog when you could be writing works of genius and selling them? Nobody wants to read a load of bitter ranting about how everyone else sucks, it's just boring and pointless. And nobody wants to *hire* someone who constantly whinges, either. Making movies and TV shows takes a lot of hard work, the last thing they need is a miserable bastard dragging the mood down.

Third, and almost as obvious, is to contact the people who rejected you, and demand to know why.

Again, don't do this.

*Maybe* a polite follow up requesting feedback is appropriate, if they seem approachable, but usually not. Just back out gracefully. They're not going to change their mind if you shout at them, and if you do, they'll probably put you on a special list of Mad People To Avoid Like The Plague.

So what can you do? Well, not a lot. Did they give you feedback? If so, listen to it. Maybe they're right, maybe they're wrong. But listen anyway. If several people say the same thing, maybe it's an area to address in a rewrite. Lots of rejections could help you become a better writer, if you're getting insights into where you can improve. If so, then you'll end up with a better script - hey, they're not rejections at all, they're free notes! High five!

Rejection feels very personal, even though it never is. You put your heart and soul into creating something, so when people reject it, you feel like they're rejecting a part of you. I could tell you not to take it personally, but we both know I'd be wasting my time. And it never goes away, no matter how much stuff you get made, it always feels like a kick in the teeth. Sorry about that. But it's normal. Writers, by our very nature, are insecure creatures, desperate to be loved and/or to take revenge on anyone who ever crossed us. Hey, at least you're not an actor, they get it even worse - nobody will ever say "hmm, I like the script, but his nose is too big and we're looking for writers with darker hair." They'll only ever be cruel about your work, not your appearance.

The best thing you can do is have a lot of projects on the go. If you're working on five things at once, then it won't hurt as much when one comes back - you're busy anyway on all this other cool stuff, so you can just send it somewhere else and keep working. The other things haven't been rejected yet, that means you're ahead of the game. But if you want to break in, you'll have to start piling up rejections to get to the prize.

It's a bit like asking people out. If you don't ask anyone out, nobody will ever turn you down. But you might have to ask ten people out to get to the one that says "yes". Does that mean you're ugly/stupid/smelly? No. Those people could be attached, or busy, or not in the mood, or not into your type, or have just broken up with someone, or whatever. But if you want someone to go out with you, you have to try several people first. If you get turned down, that's cool, move on, try someone else.

You can't think of a rejection as the end of a script, either. So it got rejected at one company, so what? Nobody likes everything, just look at the IMDB message boards for proof of that. Some people hate The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Star Wars, Alien - and they don't just hate them, they *despise* them, the very existence of those movies makes them shake with fury. Such anger! Such bile! Does it mean those movies are shitty, and terribly written? No, of course not.

Not everything is for everybody, it's all subjective. If one person hates your script, maybe someone else will think it's the best thing they've ever read in their life. I'm not saying a rejection means you've just written something as good as The Godfather, but it doesn't automatically mean it's bad. Back when I had Cheap Rate Gravity made, an agent offered to read The School. I sent it, and got a standard two-line rejection back from them. I stopped sending it to anyone. Three years later, when I was determined to break in, the exact same script got me snapped up by my agent, and then got me ALL of my meetings for a year. I still sometimes get meetings based on it, and every now and then, someone tries to get it made. It just wasn't right for that agency at that time.

Or maybe your script just isn't ready yet, maybe it needs another rewrite, or some freshening up. Obviously, yes, it *might* be shit, but you can't automatically assume that. Send it somewhere else. And keep going. And write lots of other stuff. Don't pin all your hopes on one thing. The path to success is paved with a lot of rejections. A lot. Collect them. And if you ever manage to break in, make sure you regularly look at all your old rejections and laugh at them. I do.

Before I sold Severance, probably around draft 10 (of about 20), an opening came up on the Basil Brush show. I needed work, and was willing to try everything, so I sent in my sample script and outline, but got rejected. There was no feedback, but when I think back, maybe doing an extended spoof of Casablanca wasn't the best idea for a kids' show about a talking fox. Lesson learned there: you're not too clever for the show, *any* show, and don't ever think that you are.

When I finally finished writing Severance and the script was sent out for sale, to several production companies, one of them left a copy on a bus. On a bus! Someone found it and called the agency number on the front to tell us. And whoever lost it never contacted us to request a replacement, they must have hated it that much. One company told us they wouldn't even read it, unless it was by a "big name". That is some serious rejection right there - they rejected my *name*. And I'm not even including the standard rejections - of which there were many - from the people who read it and then turned it down.

But Uncle Jimbo, you shriek, surely someone like you who has had stuff made doesn't get rejected anymore? You've had a film made, and done telly, and stuff! Surely now you can simply write anything, and angels will descend to take your words directly to the screen? Once you're "in", isn't it all magic and fancy biscuits and fellatio??

Nope. Sorry. In fact - and here's the terrible truth - you get MORE rejections, because you have more opportunities to pitch for things!

Yep. When you get your career going, jobs and companies that you wouldn't previously be considered for are suddenly open to you. You need to have a lot of meetings, pitching your "take" on their projects, or trying to sell your own projects, and most of the time you won't get the job. There's a lot of competition out there.

And you have to do lots of work to earn each of those rejections, too. When you're pitching your take on an idea of theirs, you'll have to read their material first. Could be 2 pages, could be a full outline or script. Obviously you need to have something to discuss, so you prepare a lot of notes, what you liked, what you didn't like, and come up with at least three solid ideas for episodes or sequences. You work out what to say, then go in and pitch your arse off. If it goes well, they will probably ask you to "put something down on paper, just a page or so". You do this, usually giving them more than they asked for, because you want to get the job, sometimes two or three pages. If that goes well, you might get a call or email to talk it through, maybe do another version of the "just a page or so", then if THAT goes well, they say they'll show it to their bosses or financiers or whoever, and will let you know the decision as soon as possible, either that day or the day after.

9 times out of 10, you will never hear from them again.

Either you didn't convince them, or weren't good enough, or didn't have the right "take", or their bosses/financiers weren't keen, or you weren't "big" enough, or they decided to do something else, or it got shelved, or fell apart, or the finance vanished, or the company went bust, or the producer exploded, etc etc. And you will probably never know. It's a sort of slow rejection - as the weeks and months go by, you gradually realise that it's not going to happen.

Happens to me all the time. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to do the work to get the job, it's great experience, and they need to know what I plan to do, I know that they can't just hand over lots of cash without any kind of assurance that I can do the job. And I know I can't get every single job I go for. But when they don't even bother to let me know I didn't get it, it's infuriating. Most of the time, my agent has to pester them to get a response once they've gone quiet. It's not only a rejection, it's one that you have to *ask* for!

I understand it, of course. Nobody likes giving bad news, and they don't *need* to let you know because you can't do anything for them now, they gain nothing from it and are horribly busy on a million other projects that are actually happening. But it's very frustrating. Side note, to people who do this: If I've invested several days of work into trying to get the job, but haven't got it, do me the courtesy of taking 60 seconds to let me know. I'm a grown up, I can handle a no, I'm not going to burst into tears and leave you long, drunken voicemails. As my Girl Number 9 co-conspirator Dan Turner often says, the best response after a "yes" is a fast "no". At least a fast "no" lets me get on with other stuff. End of side note.

You can get rejected at any stage, too, even after spending several years working on a commissioned script. At any moment, they could just say "no thanks, don't like it", and that's the end. If it's their project, then you just have to walk away and start something new. If it's yours, at least you can try and set it up somewhere else, but then you begin a whole new cycle of possible rejections.

Sometimes you get pre-rejected. When I met one company for a writing job, they opened by saying "we're very much a director-led company." Wow, thanks - I haven't even said anything yet, and you've already let me know that essentially, I and my whole profession don't really matter to you! Again, I did a big pitch, sent them a typed up version, never heard back, not even a cursory no. Maybe if I'd been a director, they'd have taken the time to send me a one sentence email. Still haven't heard back, 4 years later. Hey, maybe I got the job! Should I start writing the script??

And the rejection doesn't necessarily stop for a script, even after it gets made. You'll get bad reviews, negative comments, people emailing you to tell you how bad your work is (I had one from a guy who listed his qualifications to "prove" that his opinion carried more weight than regular TV viewers), and how you should never work again. I've seen reviews picking up on my racist, right wing agenda, and others about my leftie, liberal handwringing - all referring to the same episode! If you try to explain that you can't possibly intend every single interpretation, you'll just be told that it doesn't matter what you intended, it only matters what *they* decide it meant. Don't get into that argument, because you can't win.

I even had a meeting about a project where the guy suddenly turned to me, told me he didn't like the script for Severance, and rejected it when it originally went out - and that when he saw the finished movie, he was *doubly* glad he'd rejected it. Double rejection! Thing is, most people in the business are aware that Severance did well, so he was essentially saying "I hated your movie so much, I'm glad I didn't make any money from it." I still don't know why he felt the need to tell me that, while meeting for a totally different project - which he also turned down. Triple rejection combo bonus!

See above, where I said not to rant on your blog about someone who rejected you? Yeah, that's why. Do as I say, not as I do. I'm not looking for sympathy, I love my job, I get paid to make up stories and mostly have a fantastic time doing it. These things are nothing compared to the troubles some people face. This is merely to illustrate that whatever the rejection, it could always be worse - and probably will be, one day. But the high points so, SO make up for it.

I realise none of this is really helpful, but I just wanted to show that rejection doesn't stop when you "break in", whatever that means. You are going to get rejected, many, many times, even after you start working professionally. But they can't hurt you, they won't kill your career, they're just part of the process, an essential part of being a writer. Yes, there's a reason I'm posting this now that I've got several movies and other things happening. Yes, it still hurts. But having lots of stuff in the pipeline soothes the pain. So, make sure you have plenty of projects on the go, don't give up just because of what one person says, and collect rejections like badges of honour. Each one is a vital step towards the next success. Wear them with pride.

And try not to take them personally. Even though we all do.