Friday, August 17, 2007


Dealing with rejection is never easy. Especially when starting out. Barry Diller (the Dali Lama of sharks, pictured right) has the philosophy that when a deal falls through or is rejected, his automatic response is: “Next?!”

Writers need a thick skin, belief in themselves, and five times a week therapy (prom rebuffs linger large). The good news is if you’ve written a spec, all you need is one person to say yes. (I know, you could say that about the prom, too. Get over it already!)

I’ve saved all my rejection letters and wouldn’t you know, a number of the writers who initially said I sucked eventually submitted scripts to me looking for a job years later. (No, I didn’t just send back their rejection letters and flip flop the names…but I wanted to.)

Keep striving to improve, maybe find some constructive use in the rejection (if it’s offered and useful), but never let your worth be decided by someone else. Supposedly, Richard Wagner once wrote back to a critic who panned one of his works by saying (and I’m paraphrasing), “I am currently sitting on the toilet. At the moment your critique is in front of me. In a moment it will be behind me.”
I’ve written spec screenplays that have sold and others that haven’t. I used to ask my agent if they gave any reason for passing. I would hear such explanations as: too broad, not broad enough; too edgy, too soft; too familiar, too out there. And all these regarding the same script. My favorite rejection of all-time was from an idiot studio executive who said this about one of my screenplays:

“The writing was so good it almost fooled me into liking this script.”

How do you react to that other than laugh and drop him a note congratulating him on the success of FROM JUSTIN TO KELLY? I no longer ask for explanations. I no longer even wait to hear the reaction on one project before launching into another. I don’t consider any of my screenplays rejected, just “not having sold yet”.



Anonymous said...

Ken, I have a very wise writer friend whose rejection philosophy is ... "There are no good scripts or bad scripts. There are merely scripts that sell or scripts that don't sell."
Enough said.

Zwalshon said...

Ken, thanks for the encouragement. It means a lot to a new writer like myself. I'd love to hear some more about your efforts at the start of your career and when things turned around for you.

Anonymous said...

Well there ARE good scripts and bad scripts, but their quality is unrelated to whether it sells or not, as all the horribly-written produced films and TV shows demonstrate.

Ah Richard Wagner. What did that critic know? Hitler loved his music; that's all that matters.

Re Wagner's comment: Some years ago I was buying a book at a mall book store. A woman came up to the counter next to me, carrying a copy of Rush Limbaugh's THE WAY THINGS OUGHT TO BE (Does it begin "First off, this book shouldn't exist"?) I said to her, "There's a VON'S across the street; you can get toilet paper there that is MUCH cheaper and considerably more absorbant."

She wasn't amused, but the clerk busted up.

Unknown said...

Ah don't I love those Hitler "jokes".

If Richard Wagner hadn't died six years before Hitler was even born, this might even have been somewhat funny but... let's just say you are a special person d.mcewan. Really really special.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

After a number of years of spec writing and near misses, I finally started seeing a psychologist to help me deal better with rejection. The thickness of my skin has been growing as my wallet shrinks.

Dana King said...

Fledgling novelists also get head-scratching rejections. The best(?) one I've received is, "Too good for paperback, not original enough for a series. Pass."

Anonymous said...

Here's my question: How does dreck like "According to Jim" and "Two and a Half Men" EVER get produced?!?!?!
How does that happen?

Anonymous said...

Here's my question: How does dreck like "According to Jim" and "Two and a Half Men" EVER get produced?!?!?!
How does that happen?

And those shows are good enough to have survived. Think of the ones that are introduced each fall and are so bad they never establish an audience at all.

A lot of the problem just seems to be the amount of money involved. A network exec wants to risk as little as possible, so something blah but with well-known yet not expensive names (Jon Cryer, Charlie Sheen, Jim Belushi) will always get a chance. Note that whenever something really innovative comes along (MASH, the Simpsons) it's almost always done on the cheap (at least until it becomes a hit). When Fox started out twenty years ago they had all sorts of interesting comedies, some of which worked and most of which did not. None had big stars or the best known writers. But Fox was just starting up and willing to take risks. The fewer risks you're willing to take, the more blah material you put on the air. And I'd say the shows you name are best described by an old literary criticism line: they're worse than bad--they're mediocre.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken:

"Never let you worth be decided by someone else."

This is great advice to keep this whole business of writing in a sane context. Especially since you never know if your rejection is just off the corner or in the dirt.

There are some people out there who thrive on dictating other people's worth without any objective measure.

There are some people who are genuinely thoughtful and constructive.

The trick is being able to recognize the difference.

Isaac Ho

Anonymous said...

Personally, I enjoy Wagner. I've actually sat through all 20 hours of the Ring Cycle, but my best friend, a Jewish musician, won't listen to him. He told me that when he was being raised, his mother told him, "We're Jews. We do NOT listen to that man's music." and Wagner's music was not allowed in the house. Although Bryan knows better now, he still can't bring himself to listen to Wagner. I'm sure Mother Miller was a very special woman also.

And if you look at my comment closely, you'll note I do not accuse Wagner of being a Nazi. I am well aware that he died before Hitler was born. I merely stated Hitler loved his music. He did.

But it's lovely for you to be offended on his behalf. But let me tell you; around hour 17 of the Ring Cycle, I was ready to kill the man, or at least get him an editor.

blogward said...

Is Barry any relation to Phyllis? I do hope so.

Dwacon said...

I can relate. One screenplay that is currently making the rounds has gotten similar contradictory notes.

Funny -- when the script was in draft and I was taking notes from fellow writers, they commented on everything from the plot pacing, foreshadowing and turning points, and dialogue. Even on the darkness of the Courier font I used But the comments from those who possess the green light button were more like:

"Not for me."

Hmm... does it have to be for you? Can't it just be for making money for your studio?

But considering the eleven years that Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker schlepped Airplane! around before it sold... and now those guys could prolly sit on the toilet and wipe their bum with a sheet of three-hole paper and sell it.

Even if it had three and not just two brads...


John Eje Thelin said...

*Dali* Lama? The famed surrealist spiritual guru, I presume.

"My religion is very simple. My religion is weirdness."

Mitch Klein said...

I bookmarked this post. Thanks for the sage advice, Ken.