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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Things they don't tell you in the screenwriting books, number 812:

What to wear at script read-throughs.

You don't want to look like you're keeping an eye on people, so don't dress too smart. But then you also don't want to look like a tramp, so don't dress too casual.

It's usually your first time meeting the actors, and you want to make a good first impression, but everyone else will be there too, and they *know* how you normally dress, so anything too different and you'll get comments. You don't want comments. Comments make you stand out and people will Look At You.

I usually pick the most presentable version of what I normally wear, which is jeans and a t-shirt, with a shirt on top that can be removed if it's too warm in the room. And then I change it 3 times, at the last minute.

Hey, we're writers, we obsess over pointless, tiny details. This is just one of many, many things we worry about that we don't really need to.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tower Block announced

The secret is out: I've written another movie. Well, I've written several, but this one is getting made next week. It's called Tower Block, it's a dark, gritty action thriller about a sniper attacking the residents of a tower block (hence the name), and it starts filming this Monday, 18th July.

Okay, it wasn't *really* a secret, we just didn't want to announce it before we had everything in place. Also, I get paranoid that I'll jinx things by mentioning them too early, so I've kept quiet about it until now. Don't get me wrong, I'm not superstitious - it's just that if I don't follow my own irrational routines, then the WORLD WILL END.

Tower Block stars Sheridan Smith, Jack O'Connell, Russell Tovey, and Ralph Brown, and is being co-directed by Ronnie Thompson and James Nunn. There are more cast to announce, but I'll wait until the publicity people reveal them. I'm so excited that it's getting made, with such a fantastic cast and an amazing directing duo, and I'm dying to see what madness and mayhem they achieve on screen. I can't wait to sit at the back of the cinema and watch the audiences when it's out, too - this one's going to be a nail biter, it's relentless.

You can see more details at various sites which are picking up on the news, starting with the sterling folk at Den of Geek, who have more plot details. It's also featured on Screen Daily, who for some strange reason *don't* have a photo of me. Stick with Den of Geek, they know what the public want - pics of me. I'll update more when I can. In the meantime, I look forward to scaring your socks off when it comes out...

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

General meetings for writers

When you start out as a writer, after you get an agent, you'll get sent on lots of general meetings. I regularly get emails from people about to go on their first meeting, and they have no idea what to expect.

The meetings I'm talking about are the general "meet and greet" type - they've probably read your scripts and want to get to know you. They like to put a face to a name, so that at some point in the future, they might be able to match you up to a project, or decide whether or not to buy your latest script.

But, I hear you shriek, doesn't my writing speak for itself? Who cares what I'm like in person?? I'm a writer, not an actor! Well, it makes a bigger difference than you might think. Basically, they want to see if you are (a) mad, or (b) an idiot, or (c) an obnoxious wanker. If they hire you to write something, they'll have to spend several months in a room with you, working, collaborating. They need to know if those months will be creative and fun, or a complete nightmare. At the same time, you want to find out what they're like, if you share similar tastes. It's a bit like a job interview, except there isn't an actual job yet. But then one day, *years* later, you might get called back. And they'll always go by that first impression. They want to know that you're a professional, that they can hire you and be sure you'll get the job done.

Always over-prepare. When you're just starting out, most of your meetings will just involve getting to know people. But sometimes they'll be considering you to write their new project, based on their one page pitch. Even if they've been *very* clear that they'll be explaining the concept, and all you have to do is sit there and nod, you must still over-prepare. Because you'll walk in, ready to hear them pitch it to you, and they'll say "So, what do you make of it? Where do you see it going? How would you approach it?" And you'll look like an idiot. Sure, they should have told you that's what the meeting was. But you should have over-prepared. Read it several times, make lots of notes. If it's a TV show, think about what would you do with it, how you see the overall series, the finale, and three good, solid episode ideas. If it's a movie, work out what sort of feel you want it to have, how it starts, the rough storyline, and at least three big scenes. That way you will always have more material than they'll ask for - you'll feel confident, prepared, and there's nothing they can ask that you won't have an answer for. And look at it from their point of view - they only have an idea, but now a confident, keen writer has just walked in, overflowing with ideas, knows the material inside out, and will be able to generate a series/movie out of their one page concept. But unless you're told otherwise, you're just there to make friends and get to know each other. Double and triple check first, though. Just in case.

Research the company or person before you go there. They won't test you, but it helps to know something about them. They may say "do you have anything you'd like to ask us?" - I never do, my mind always goes blank, but it never hurts to have an intelligent question or two. And research your journey, too. Work out the minimum travel time, then add 30 minutes. Then add another 30 minutes. You can never be too early. Except the time I was a week early for my first Severance meeting. True story. I got the date wrong, because I'm an idiot. You MUST NEVER be late. EVER. Production companies like to live inside buildings with no bloody name or number on the front, so you'll still have to allow 10 minutes to find the place once you're at the actual address. If you get there *way* too early, wait around the corner, go to a cafe. You CANNOT be late. I can't stress this enough. Of course, they will probably be late themselves. Doesn't matter. Don't give them any shit about it, just smile and say "that's okay!" if/when they apologise for being late.

Wear casual clothes, but not too casual, i.e. jeans are fine, but no big shorts or flipflops. Don't wear a suit. That'd be weird. Dress as if you're going to a friend's barbecue, and their parents are going to be there.

On my way to a meeting, if I'm feeling a bit nervous or wobbly, I have a quick blast of some music on my headphones. Something fast, heavy, and uplifting, just to help get me going and give me a boost of energy. If the meeting is about a specific project, I'll put on music that matches it to get me in the right mood - if it's one of my projects, I'll use the custom playlist I made before I started writing (I always do this, sometimes I'll spend days on it).

When you arrive - and I really shouldn't have to say this, he said, looking sternly over the top of his glasses - BE NICE AND POLITE TO EVERYONE. Mainly because there are enough douchebags in the world without you adding to their number. But also, partly because that "unimportant" assistant you just curtly dismissed?? Might be the boss in 6 months. Yeah. And they remember the douchebags.

You'll be offered a drink (downside of several meetings in one day: a very, very full bladder). Have a still water. Tea/coffee might be too hot to drink at first, and there won't be much of it. Fizzy drinks can make your throat sticky, and give you hiccups or burps. With still water, you can keep sipping if your mouth/throat go dry. This sounds like a silly thing to make a point about. But you want to be confident and relaxed in the meeting, and not worrying about your mouth sticking closed or doing a big Coke burp. You'll be asked to take a seat until someone comes to get you. Calm down. Read a magazine, clear your mind.

So what happens in the meeting itself? The first minute or so will be full of general banter like "have you travelled far" and "did you find us okay" or "blimey, how about that weather, eh?" Then it'll settle down into the actual meeting. They'll probably ask you about yourself, how you got into writing, how you got started, how you got your agent if you have one, what kind of things you like to write, what kind of things you like to watch, and so on. They'll talk about your script, praise it a bit (hopefully), then tell you a bit about themselves, projects they might have, things that you might be suited for - if one of their projects sounds good, tell them, and maybe they'll offer to send it over, to see if you like it.

They'll usually ask if you've got any other stuff they might be interested in. *DO NOT* pitch something there and then, unless you've specifically gone in to pitch for something and have rehearsed it beforehand - even if they mention their giant robot project, and you've got the *perfect* giant robot idea or script at home, don't pitch it. You won't be ready, you'll forget something, stumble over it, and look like a mumbling idiot. Mention that you have something along those lines, and can come back to pitch it or (preferably) send them the outline/script. Then go home and work it out properly. There are always exceptions, of course - one time I had an instant idea based on something they wanted, and just went for it. They loved the idea, and asked for the outline (they later passed on it, but still, it was a good experience). But this was after several years of similar meetings, so I was used to the whole thing. Don't risk it!

You probably won't get any offers in that first meeting, so don't expect anything. Just be yourself, be enthusiastic, but professional. You don't have to be a sycophant or a performing seal, there's no trick to it, no catch, just try to come across like a nice person (which, hopefully, you already are). They want to like you! They're normal people too, just trying to meet new writers to make sure they don't miss out on the next big thing.

*DO NOT* slag off any movies or TV shows, because they'll have probably worked on them, or know someone who did (I speak from experience) - if they specifically ask, you can say what you thought didn't work about something, as long as you mention what you liked about it first. You don't want to sound like a bitter, negative downer. Similarly, don't say things like "I don't really watch TV" or "I'm not really into recent movies" - you should be keeping up with what's out there, and if you really don't like any TV shows or movies, how will you know that your idea hasn't already been done a million times?

Sometimes the person you meet will be an idiot, or a douchebag, or just plain wrong about everything. Pretend they're your partner's mum or dad. Smile politely, don't rise to their douchbaggery, be the better person. Later, you might learn that they're actually really nice, but just seem weird in meetings, or their cat just died, or they're not good with people. They're probably just a douchebag, but you don't know that. Remember, you're a professional.

Towards the end, they'll ask you to think of them next time you've got a brilliant script to send out, and you will graciously agree and say they'll be one of the first to read it. And then there comes the point when it's time to leave. You'll know it. Usually they'll say something like "okay, then" or "well, thanks for coming in" or "okay, well it was great to meet you". Don't start up a new line of conversation! When the meeting feels over and they've given you an "out", thank them for seeing you, finish up the banter, shake their hands, say goodbye, then leave gracefully - even if you've forgotten to mention something. You can always follow up in an email. Speaking of which, you don't have to email to thank them, unless you're supposed to send them an outline/script or something, in which case, you can thank them for the meeting while sending it. If they send *you* a thank you email, reply to it (and say thank you, obviously).

Once you get home, think back over the meeting. If you promised to send them something, do it now. If you did something stupid or embarrassing, and the very thought of it makes you cringe, don't beat yourself up. Remember, they want to like you, and will understand if you're a bit awkward when starting out. Work out what you did wrong, figure out how to do it better, and don't do it next time. Learn from it. Then forgive yourself, and move on.

Don't get your hopes up that something will come of it, you're just laying the foundations for later. Even if they said you're *perfect* for their current project and will *definitely* send you the details and want to get started *immediately* - it means nothing, and you might never hear from them again. Happens all the time. Maybe it fell apart, the financing fell through, they got fired, their boss got fired, the company got bought out, they started a brand new project that occupies all of their time, someone better than you got hired, their heads exploded, etc etc. If so, their priority is their current workload, not you. Harsh, but true. Nobody owes you a job, and everyone looks out for themselves. Leave it a month, then get your agent to follow up, or send a polite email yourself asking how they are and if they're still interested in Project X. It's always worth checking, just in case - you're cheap, and eager, and they'll be very aware of that.

That's it. The next meeting you have, you'll be much more prepared, and will do it better. And so on. And so on. Just like writing and re-writing, the more you do it, the better you get.